Joshua Olsen’s Cantrips & Catastrophies
A Magic the Gathering FanFiction short story
The Cursed Traveller
The gods of Theros were furious.
Twice now, their mortal worshippers had failed, and now but one Orb remained. This had gone far enough. The authority of the gods would not be denied a third time. The thieves had proved themselves powerful and determined, but no mortal creature could travel to the realm of the departed and hope to return.
The gods sent their emissary, a shining soldier born from the fabric of the sky, to Theros. With a delegation of mortals accompanying him, the Nyxborn took the final Orb and left it in the cold sunless realm of the underworld, far from where any living thing could hope to survive. The journey was fraught with peril, and many of the mortals accompanying the Nyxborn did not return, but eventually the quest was done. Hidden in the realm of the dead, the Orb would be safe for all time.
Temple of Silence, the Underworld, Theros
Unlike the other great temples of Theros, the Temple of Silence was not truly a temple, in that it had no walls or roof. ‘Shrine’ would have been a better word to describe it, seeing as it consisted of little more than a pile of treasure larger than many dragons and a great arc-covered bridge studded with torches. However this unusual design meant that no one who approached the temple was unseen, for only by the bridge could access be gained. Every day, the souls of the recently deceased would trudge along the gargantuan length of the bridge to move onto their hereafter; the slow, relentless drumming of feet on wooden boards usually drowning out the occasional oily slap of the stagnant waters of the great river. Only the dead and their wardens roamed here, either those arriving in resignation or departed with doomed optimism. Down here, stagnancy reigned.
And yet, just recently, something had changed. For hours now, the flow of dead had slowed to a trickle. This in itself was not unusual, Theros was at peace, no wars or conflicts were happening to swell the tide of the dead, but for there to be so few in such a time was still strange. Just as it was starting to seem as if something strange was going on, there returned the familiar sound of tramping feet. A demon, one of the guardians of the temple, who had been on the cusp of flying off to investigate the mystery, was mollified at the reassuring sound. It had just begun to relax, when a thought occurred to it.
I hear voices….. two voices….but the dead never speak….
Kallorn had never been in a plane’s afterlife before, and this experience was not doing anything to make it into his top ten. The air was stale, the temperature chilly even for his thick skin, and he felt like he had been trudging on this charmless bridge for longer than he could remember. The company wasn’t helping either. But then, it never did.
“You always take me to the nicest places, Kallorn. The witch-lights really add to the ambience, don’t you think?”
Kallorn’s rhino-ears twitched, as though flicking away a bothersome fly.
“Do be silent, Dark. This journey is wearing enough without your babble.”
Next to him, keeping pace step by step, was the vampire.
“I understand. This place must be draining for you, eh? Your breathing is shallow. Feeling fatigued as well I’d wager. It’s been a long walk I admit, but you seem to be really leaning on that staff for someone in the prime of their youth. Oh, and of course there’s the matter of….”
He gestured to Kallorn’s face.
Kallorn reached out with his free hand and explored his face. He pulled his hand back. There were splatters of blood on it, tinged with oily black.
“Great. So much for the trip to the Font of Return. I thought you said the waters would stave off death. Do you have any more useless advice to give me?”
Dark shrugged his shoulders with indifference.
“Hey, keeping things alive is not really my area of expertise; quite the opposite actually. And you’re not dead yet, the power of the waters will keep you going long enough to get that orb anyway. Of course, if you want to take a load off and let me take over, I’d be happy to help. This place doesn’t affect me so much, and I’ll even fetch your trinket for you. How’s that sound?”
Kallorn glared at his companion with hatred.
“No. No I don’t think I’ll take you up on that offer. This is my quest to complete, and mine alone. You have rendered what… services I asked for, but that is all I need from you. Not your advice, not your thoughts, nothing that worms its way out of your sick twisted little mind or mouth.”
“Touchy, touchy. So, Kallorn, while we have this delightful view to ourselves for a moment, can you answer me something that’s been bugging me for a while?”
“If it will keep you quiet for a bit, then yes.”
“Well, here’s the thing: you’ve never said my name. It’s all ‘vampire’ this, and ‘abomination’ that, and ‘shut up, Dark’. Why is it you’ve never wanted to know my name? I do have one, you know, its…”
“Quiet,” interjected Kallorn, “We’re here.”
Before them rose a massive wooden arch, formed from the skeletons of two once-great ships, lashed together at their prows. Carrion crows preened and stared out from atop the edifice, and now Kallorn could see a cluster of the pale torches betraying the presence of solid land through the mist. He was almost there.
As he strode directly under the ship-arch, Kallorn could hear movement. A lot of movement. Something big was waiting for him on the shore of the underworld. Kallorn decided he didn’t have the patience for surprises.
“Be as a boon to those who cannot see in the dark and as a bane to those who live in it. Light, guide my way.”
He spread his palms and an orb of bright light flew out, breaking apart as it crested over the Temple. It split and slowly descended, bathing the area in temporary heat and light. The fog ebbed, revealing the army of the dead that was waiting at the mouth of the bridge. At least two hundred of the Returned, armed and armoured in gold for battle, barred the way in a glittering phalanx formation. At their head, standing just before the shieldwall, a Returned stood. He was marked as something special from his comrades by his stylized death mask, frozen in a rictus of rage, and the aura of palpable malice that streamed from him.
“Interloper… you will find only death here. Leave… the orb is to remain in the Underworld. This is your only warning.”
Kallorn sagged for a moment, and then straightened.
“You’re the one known as Tyramet, yes? I find it strange that one known by the title of ‘The Murder King’ would stand guard over a treasure.”
Tyramet stiffened at the comment. Then he drew out a heavy golden blade, laden with deaths-head charms.
“Erebos commands us to guard, and so we are compelled. It is of no matter, once you are dead, we will be free to go about our business once more. You have declined our offer to leave peacefully. Now you must die.”
Kallorn considered pointing out that he hadn’t rejected any offer per say, but as Tyramet ducked behind the line of his troops and they brought their shields to readiness in hostile stance, he didn’t think it was worth it. Keeping one eye on the advancing soldiers, Kallorn turned to look at Dark. Kallorn nodded once.
“Okay, you’re up. Bring them. As I outlined.”
Dark was excited, his vampire fangs protruding when he smiled. He nodded once.
“Alright. Hold on.”
Kallorn felt his arms wave as Dark poured magic through them. For a moment his consciousness got in the passenger seat as Dark’s moved to the fore. Kallorn braced himself to fight for total control, but Dark exercised his sorcery and then slunk back without protest, which was unusual for him. Kallorn decided not to question the good fortune. It wouldn’t matter soon anyway.
The Returned phalanx advanced slowly, shields interlocked, spears held out. Across such a limited frontage, the formation had no weaknesses, presenting Kallorn with a host of spear points and shields. Kallorn spied Tyramet, moving his troops into position.
“Tyramet! I brought an army too, you know.”
The golden death-mask’s expression didn’t change, but there was a flicker of contemptuous amusement in the voice.
“Really? Then where is it, pray tell?”
Kallorn smiled, though he felt sick to his very stomach. “Haven’t you wondered why the influx of souls have slowed down to a trickle?”
Somewhere behind Kallorn, there came the sound of a great mass of feet tramping on the boards of the bridge. Not the even, measured, uniform tread of feet marching in unison, but a great disorganized slapping of feet of many individuals moving at their own pace. Then came the groans. Hollow, mindless groans.
“I stopped at the other shore for a bit. Did some recruiting.”
Out of the mist they came; zombies, in a mob so dense they filled the width of the bridge to bursting. Not the intelligent undead of the Returned, but mindless, good-old-fashioned zombies, dead shells reanimated by Dark’s necromancy. These undead bore no clothes, gold masks, or weapons. They spoke and walked not like the men they had once been, but stumbled unevenly and howled like the mindless monsters they were, and with no hesitation they attacked.
Tyramet was taken aback, but only for a moment. Raising his golden longsword he roared “Returned! ATTACK!”
The first wave of disorganized zombies crashed into the organized formation of the Returned. The Returned lashed out with a solid semblance of military precision, spears thrusting out and impaling zombies with each strike. Against more nimble foes they might have had trouble, but each zombie made the Returned look positively nimble in comparison. But neither side was saddled with the weaknesses of the living, they had no fear of death, no understanding that they were being massacred. All they knew was to press forward and bludgeon and bite anything they could get their hands on. And with the unthinking, slow-yet-inevitable fervour only they undead can manage, they tried to do just that. At a few places in the shieldwall they succeeded, grappling Returned and dragging them out of position, them swarming on them with dead fists flailing. For each Returned that was killed, another simply pushed forward to take his place, keeping the shieldwall manned and stabbing.
Kallorn stood just behind the carnage zone, the zombies parting around their master as they hobbled into the fray. He wasn’t surprised by what he saw, but neither was he happy. The zombies would never retreat or question his orders, but neither would they win this fight. On the narrow bridge, the tactics and skill of the Returned tipped the battle hugely in their favour. Already a score of lifeless (no, really lifeless) corpses littered the bridge, and the Returned blocking his way hadn’t retreated an inch. Kallorn had a small legion of the dead at his command, but if he wasted them all for no real gain then he might as well go home.
“We’re stalling. Bring in the linebreakers, and send the flanking forces up.”
“Yes sir, field marshal, sir! Shall I send an aide to fetch you ale while we observe the campaign from afar?” chirped Dark, clapping a mocking salute to his head.
“Do it now,” snarled Kallorn.
Two huge shapes suddenly pounded along the bridge at high speed, great footfalls sounding like the beats of war drums. Regular zombies were hurled aside like skittles to make way for Kallorn’s linebreakers; two of the Underworld’s largest Cerberuses, freshly killed and reanimated. The three-headed dogs, each the size of a small elephant, crashed into the Returned phalanx like sledgehammers into wooden planks. The mass of tightly packed soldiers rippled and wavered as six heads bit down, snatching up great mouthfuls of Returned. In the wake of the canine carnage followed the zombies, pouncing on any disorientated or injured Returned spared the Cerberus’ charge. Tyramet could be seen trying to rally the Returned back into a formation to counter-attack, but the three-headed hounds were having none of it. Carnage ensued as the Cerberuses drove through the Returned’s ranks like unliving battering rams.
At the same time, sludgy river water cascaded off a host of shapes as yet more zombies emerged from the depths of the underworld river itself, having laboriously trudged along the river floor. The life and memory-stealing waters of the underworld river presented no problems to the zombies, and as they emerged from the rivers and onto the banks of the Temple of Silence they engaged the Returned there still dripping, who barely had time to about-face and defend themselves from this unexpected quarter. The Returned soon realized their mistake: bereft of the phalanx formation and the tight confines of the bridge to funnel their foes, the length of their spears were more liability than boon and the zombies gave them no respite to draw their shortswords. Many Returned were dragged down before they could even draw their sidearms, and then the real fight began. Dead versus dead, a siege launched on the very underworld itself.
Kallorn judged the situation to be under control. The enemy was scattered and disorganized, their formation shattered and hard pressed by his relentless forces, they would be unable to affect more than a token resistance. Kallorn strode forward, ready to take to the shores and claim his prize when a keening screech cut the air. The massive bat-winged form of a Theros Demon slashed through the skies and landed on the bridge before Kallorn like a thunderbolt, slashing a whole rank of zombies to giblets with its claws.
“Obviously more than just the Returned had been pressed into the Orbs’ protection,” thought Kallorn, as he raised his quarterstaff to block a strike that would have spilled his guts to the air. The demon brought two fists down, and Kallorn was brought to his knees in blocking them again with the flat of his staff.
“The living may not pass!” screeched the demon, swinging again.
Kallorn was starting to lose the feeling in his arms as he deflected another blow.
“Can you do something about this guy? And I don’t mean offering to barter our soul to the thing,” snapped Kallorn.
Dark nodded. “I’ve got just the thing. You know, I love this place. Everything is dead: the people, the air, even the wood. It just needs some encouragement to come alive…”
And from Kallorn’s mouth Dark spat a word of vile power.
The demon was just bringing its arms up to crash them down on Kallorn again, when one was seized in a strong grip. The demon looked up in surprise. A thick tendril of rotten planks from the overhead ship-arch had enveloped his arm. As the demon stared in naked astonishment, the two boats flowed and reformed, sending the flock of birds atop them screeching in alarm. The wood twisted and warped, forming thickset arms and legs. In moments, what had been two long-dead boats was now a pair of looming elementals formed of twisted wood, lanterns glowing acidic green as their eyes and mouths opened with hate, more green light spilling forth from their broken-board maws.
With a howl the demon wrenched its arm free of the hulk holding it, clouting the nearest one in the face with its other fist. The blow connected, and timbers were ripped free and sailed through the air, but the hulk was hardly damaged. With a hiss of ropes and pulleys squeaking, the pair of elementals bore down on the demon, wrapping limbs of wood around it in a giant embrace. The demon flailed and fought with all its diabolic strength, tried to take wing, but the hulks’ heavy limbs grabbed it. Kallorn knew that Demons on Thereos were formed from the most vile of the souls that had come down here and collected heinous power, but as the two walking boat-wrecks began to pull the demon down into the cloying mucky embrace of the underworld river, he thought it gave a very human wail of terror before vanishing in a trail of bubbles. Kallorn watched the faintly thrashing figures beneath the surface sinking, till only the green lights of the hulks’ lantern-eyes remained. Then that too disappeared, and he strode on at the head of a horde of zombies, onto the shore and the Temple of Silence.
Combatants weaved and clashing in a mass of violence as far as the eye could see, but Kallorn had long become accustomed to the sight of battlefields and paid the clash scant attention. Besides, Dark would say something if there was anything truly dangerous coming his way. No, the Rhox’s attention was taken up by his prize: the last Orb of Warding. Atop a truly massive mound of treasure, lodged in the summit of the mound like the fabled sword in the stone (Kallorn had seen three on various planes, they seemed to be a bit of a multiversal constant) was a pillar of solid gold, shaped in the form of a pair of cupped hands. Floating in its clutches was the Orb.
Kallorn tested the pile of treasure. It gave way beneath his feet, loose as gravel. Kallorn grimaced. No one said stealing an artefact from the underworld was going to be easy. He really wished he wasn’t so out of breath. A sudden dizzy spell caused black spots to pop before his vision, but Kallorn mastered his focus and pushed the nausea away. He would be leaving soon. And he would not be empty handed. But he would be alone.
“You better get a move on. More demons could show up soon. And we wouldn’t want that. You’ve got your paperweight to collect and I want to get on with what you owe me Kal.”
Kallorn’s only response was a grunt as he began to struggle up the mass of coins.
Magic the Gathehring fanfiction by Joshua Olsen