Three Orbs, Three Thieves
Joshua Olsen’s Cantrips & Catastrophies
A Magic: the Gathering Fan Fiction short story
The Oracle sat upright, her eyes white and unseeing. She had been blessed with a prophecy from Kruphix, the God of Mysteries. The Oracle spoke in a voice not her own, and none of the attendants could fathom the meaning behind her words.
“In time, three strangers will come to Theros. A scientist of great intellect, a barbarian of great power, and a cursed traveller, possessed of great darkness. All have come for one piece of three, the Orbs of Warding. Gods will rail and heroes will stand before them with all their courage, but all efforts to stop them shall come to naught. This I have foreseen and this shall come to pass.”
At first, the attendants were worried. The Orbs were well known, wonders given by the gods to mortals. But as the seasons passed by one after another and no sign of the strangers came, those who knew of the prophecy began to relax. This, of course, was a mistake.
Temple of Enlightenment, Polis of Meletis, Theros
The port-city of Meletis was bustling, filled with throngs of humanity going about their business with industry and purpose. Nets full of fish were hauled in, stone was shaped, and prayers were offered to the gods for a sunny and productive day. Through all the hustle and bustle strode Quennus in one of his guises, this one a human with coppery skin and violet eyes. His face concealed behind a hooded cloak, the crowds parted around Quennus like fish avoiding a shark, partly because of his size and partly due to the subtle magic he used to prod them aside. Coming to one of the main temples located bayside, a shining edifice of polished stone, Quennus slipped around into an alley out of sight of the main crowds.
The only door into the temple was locked and barred, but Quennus whispered a quick spell and his form turned to water, flowing through the bars before reforming into solidity. Quennus looked at himself. Everything in one piece, no lingering after-effects, no transmutation sickness.
“Theros may not have much to teach in the way of metalworking, but their familiarity with enchantments is impressive.”
Guise back up, Quennus calmly strode further into the depths of the temple, discreetly checking each room for his target.
They found him in the temple’s most sacred room, following a trail of open and unbarred doors and up to his arms in the magical safeguards protecting the Orbs of Warding. The defences were active, a storm of glowing sigils surrounding the thief. Every few seconds a bolt of azure energy would spark from the mass of symbols, mental spikes designed to confuse, shock and swiftly incapacitate a thief.
But they weren’t working, the intruder grimaced with each hit, but kept working, his arms waving a complex dance as they struck each symbol just after it discharged and deactivated them. In a few moments the entire enchantment shut down with a crackle of static, and the intruder rose, noticing the guardians. Rather than appearing fearful or concerned by the armed solider and the robed thaumaturge, the intruder smiled.
“I know, I know. Not my best work. A bit sloppier than what I’m happy with, but it got the job done.”
The soldier stepped forward, partially shielding his companion. Quennus could see this was a well trained move borne partly out of tactics and partly out of compassion.
“Thief. Before you stands Melind, hero of the Bloodskull pass, slayer of the giant Arakanos, champion of Ephara, and protector of this sacred temple. Surrender now, and you will lose only your freedom, and not your life.”
“Fascinating. I mean, I didn’t ask for your name, or your life’s story, but thank you I suppose for supplying them anyways. And no, I will not be submitting to imprisonment, though your intent is admirable.”
Melind frowned. He was, as Quennus would later journal it, a “remarkably robust human specimen”, even his frown caused muscle to shift. Clearly speeches like the one he had just delivered rarely failed to cower the audience into a pile of writhing hysteria. It didn’t take a sage to figure out who were the brains of the outfit. As if on cue, the thaumaturge poked his head out from behind the barrel chest of his protector, speaking slowly as if to a child.
“Are you saying that you haven’t committed a crime? If you believe so, we can arrange legal representation for you at your trial, but you should know that even if you are stealing the orbs for someone else, that is still against the….”
“Sages. They always think they are the only ones with more than half a brain.”
Quennus’ guise tightened its lips in frustration.
“No you idiot,” Quennus cut across with a snap. “I’m not denying the crime, I’m stating that your jurisdiction doesn’t apply to me. I’m from further away than your little mind can comprehend, your polis, your gods, and your laws don’t apply to me.”
Both guardians bristled.
“What makes you think you have the right to take the Orbs?”
“What makes you think you can take the Orbs?”
Quennus smiled, unhurriedly cracking his neck in a sideways neck twist reminiscent of an owl. Rather than the click of bone popping, there was a clacking as if of metal falling into place.
“I could list you at least seven reasons why I am taking an orb: you don’t know how it works and I do, I have greater need of it than this temple, what is the point of a powerful artifact locked away out of sight, the list goes on. But you are just attempting to stall me until reinforcements arrive with that famous Meletian rhetoric. I shall not be stalled. And you,”
Quennus spoke to the hero now.
“I will be taking the orb. You can try to stop me; no doubt you feel you must. But we always have a choice. Free will is important. You can choose to walk away now, with your legend and accomplishments intact. Or you can choose to try and stop me, but I warn you that you will fail. The choice is of course yours.”
Melinds’ meaty hands swiftly unstrapped a pair of solid bronze knuckle dusters from a sling on his belt, deftly strapping them to his arms.
“My left has felled a cyclops. My right has slain a giant. And I bring both to every fight. What makes you think you can stand against me?”
These were no back alley cutpurses ‘dusters, but finely wrought weapons of war, heavily constructed for maximum damage and studded on the knuckles with corpse-coins. Not exactly subtle, but then as Quennus watched the burly hero run straight at him with a blood-curdling battle cry, he reminded himself that he wasn’t dealing with a subtle man.
Melind was still a significant distance away when his partner waved his arms, clearly casting a spell. Quennus tensed for a attack, but a quick reading of the energy the thaumaturge was calling to him suggested a simple piece of battle magic, so Quennus let it complete uncontested. Melind suddenly leapt into the air as though fired from a catapult, crossing the distance of the huge inner sanctum in a heartbeat. With an incoherent roar he swung, his metal-clad fist crashing into Quennus with tremendous force.
It was indeed a punch mighty enough to feel a Cyclops, and yet Quennus did not fall. With a crackle Quennus’ guise was dissipated by the hit, but Melind hadn’t noticed, as he was trying to bludgeon Quennus into paste. A series of blows rained down on the Aven, each forcing him down. In the background he could hear the sonorous chanting of some kind of prayer coming from the thaumaturge, but there wasn’t time to pay that mind.
After four hits Quennus got the tempo of the guardian’s assault and surged up before he could make his fifth hit, shooting a palm into the hero’s thick chest. The piston-driven strength of the shove forced Melind back, and as he righted himself he saw what he was really facing. Which is to say, a half-machine avian humanoid. A distressing sight to say the least, especially when even regular avian humanoids didn’t exist on your world.
Quennus had over a long career of planeswalking noticed that there were many responses by natives when they discovered a visitor not native to their world or ecology, but most were just variations of a few base emotions. Quennus had predicted that due to his aggressive tendencies Melind would skip over fear and continue in aggression when confronted with the unknown, and as the swiftly drawn shortsword swished at his heart, he knew that once again fate did not have any surprises in store for him. The thrust was true, with a steady arm, but Quennus saw it coming and thus managed to deflect the blade’s point away from his more vulnerable area and into the right side of his chest, where the blade wedged into Quennus’ metallic sternum. As Melind tried to extract it, Quennus reached out and grasped the hero’s forearm in a grip of (literal) steel. Melind reversed his stance and tried to force the blade in deeper for lethal penetration, but with inexorable force Quennus pushed the arm out, extracting the blade. Now there was real fear in the would-be hero’s eyes.
“What are you?” he whispered.
Quennus tutted. “A great many things. Most relevant to this situation, the inventor of Stymphalian Bronze. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?”
The guardians had. Stymphalian Bronze was a newly created metal, said to be stronger than any before it. It has been created only a moon ago by a reclusive blacksmith of no renown. Word around the polis was that the blacksmith had refused to credit Purphoros with either the inspiration or knowledge to create the super-metal, and the god of the forge was said to be incensed by the slight.
“So, I can see you have, and I don’t need to explain to you that all this sword waving is worthless against someone whose is literally made of the stuff. You’re welcome for advancing all of metalworking knowledge by the way. If your forge-god was so mighty, then why does he allow you to putter around with bronze still? So primitive. But, I’m getting distracted.”
With a slight straining, Quennus hefted Melind bodily across the room to crash heavily to the ground, his knuckle dusters throwing up sparks they grated along the floor. This cleared the thaumaturge to fire the spell he had been holding back while he waited for a clear shot. The power of the sun burst forth from his hands in a blinding beam, transfixing Quennus. Instantly the planeswalker felt even his hardened metal components begin to melt and what diminished feeling he still had told him his flesh was blistering. This was beyond the thaumaturge’s normal ability, Quennus sensed an immense power emanating from the human, power not his own.
“That explains the chanting,” thought Quennus, as his wings snapped out, and he took to the air, anything to get the beam of sunlight off him. Swiftly though the beam tracked him as he weaved, glancing across his wingspan a few times and threatening to knock him from the air, but Quennus spat out a simple sleep spell learned in his youth.
Overcome with magical exhaustion, the thaumaturge fell to hands and knees, fighting the magic, and was able to raise a glowing hand to Melind, casting one final spell before slumping over. Now glowing white with the thamaturge’s magic, Melind rose, his fists crackling with solar energy. His confidence was back, and he looked ready for round two.
Quennus was not in the mood for round two. He didn’t know how much time he had. The attention of Ephara’s guards he could handle, but the reason he had been forced to leave Theros was because Purphoros was hunting for him. The real, tangible gods of Theros, much like the existentially-circumspect, distant gods of other planes, were an arrogant bunch, and did not kindly suffer ‘mortals’ to gain fame and renown without paying tribute. Quennus had refused to do so with his creation of Stymphalian Bronze, and now the minions of the forge god were also hunting him. He had to get the Orb and be gone soon.
“Enough. The gloves are coming off.”
Quennus waved his arms, arcs of power flying from his gestures in waves that filtered across the room. They passed through Melind without pause, sinking into the stone. The hero recovered from his flinch; plainly expecting some kind of attack. He saw that Quennus’ eye, the non-metallic one, was a brilliant sapphire orb without iris, whereas before it had been hazel.
“What have you done? The gods will protect me from your power, and with the blessing of Heliod and Ephara, I can strike even you down.”
“Perhaps you can, hero. But I think you will be too busy making a choice. Observe.”
Melind turned, and gaped in astonishment as an acolyte from the temple marched in. His eyes glowed the same shade of blue as Quennus. He was followed by another acolyte, and then a member of the public. More came. In a moment Melind was surrounded by a crowd of acolytes, priests, and petitioners to the temple three dozen strong, all with glowing eyes and all paying the guardian not the slightest bit of attention. They stood in ranks like soldiers, their expressions vacant.
“Hop,” spoke Quennus, and in complete unison, the crowd hopped on the spot.
Melind shook one of the people, trying to get a response out of them, to no effect.
“What have you done to them? They are bewitched!”
“You are familiar with the Sirens of your world; it is similar to their vaunted songs. These people’s will is mine to control for the moment. And this brings us to the question of choice. Hold him please.”
Suddenly, Melind was seized by a forest of arms, which held him tightly but gently.
“In a moment, I will instruct the crowd to retrieve the Orb of Mind Warding for me. They will hand it to me, and I will escape, the Orb my prize. You can of course stop them, so fascinated they are not capable of putting up much of a fight or moving with much speed. But they will not stop command unless killed or horribly injured. So hero, a choice: do you allow a thief to get away with stealing the Orb you have been sworn to protect, or do you stop me, at the cost of the health and lives of the very people who declare you a hero?”
Melind strained against the crowd holding him, spittle flying from his mouth.
“You bastard! You speak of choice, and yet this is what you do!”
Quennus raised a finger, shaking it once left right in a mechanical movement.
“A common misconception. You always have choices. That does not mean you always have good choices. Sometimes free will means choosing your damnation. That I leave in your hands. Now, Therans, retrieve the Blue Orb of Warding, and hand it to me. The rest, form a perimeter around me.”
As one, the crowd moved in perfect formation, circling Quennus, then locking arms in a ring of bodies. The few holding Melind released him, and moved without urgency to the altar of Ephara, where the Fabled Orbs of Warding lazily orbited. Each was about the size of a pair of clenched fists, and trailed thin white vapor as they moved. One was pale red of a blood-moon, the other a bleached orange, and the third a sky blue.
Quennus studied Melind intently as with slow inevitability, the entranced Therans walked over to the Orbs. The shortsword was in his hand, and he was watching the Therans with an intensely pained expression, a man torn between two ideals. Sweat had broken out on his head, and his body shook with nervous energy. His gaze was riveted on the Therans as they began to climb the dais to the altar.
Suddenly, like a bowstring breaking, Melind shot forward, sword raised and a cry partly borne of hysteria on his lips. He gave Quennus no mind, heading for the altar. Meanwhile, the entranced citizens silently formed a group allowing one of their number to be hoisted up. The young boy, no more than twelve, reached his arms out, waiting as first the orange, then the red orb wafted by.
“I have no need for further physical protection. And the soul, a debatable concept at best, the purvey of clergymen and poets, neither reliable sources. No, the mind is the one treasure worth guarding.”
The boy snatched the Blue orb in his hands, and with only small resistance pulled it out of its magical orbit. As he clutched the orb to his chest tightly and was lowered down, Melind was crossing the distance quickly. The two were on a collision course.
The child walked forward, flanked by the mesmerized adults. Their blue eyes were locked on their master, oblivious to the armed man charging at their ranks. With a cry Melind burst amongst their ranks, hurling the adults aside like a enraged rhinoceros. Shaking, sweating, a man possessed, Melind raised the short sword. He paused for a fraction of a second, his conviction wavering. As all moments of life-changing importance tend to do, time played out a little, making the moment seem like a lifetime. Out of the corner of his eye, Melind could see citizens start to rise. In a moment they would be on him, either attacking or in his way. He had to choose now.
The blade began to descend.
Internally, Quennus sighed. His left hand wiggled slightly where it was.
And the child turned to face Melind, looking directly up at him with those blue eyes. The Orb was held to its chest protectively, like a doll or stuffed sheep.
The blade, full of terrible, life-taking power, crashed into the floor, lodging in the stone. A second, Melind fell to his knees.
“I can’t….. no… I can’t….” he sobbed.
“Because you are a good man.” Spoke Quennus, not unkindly. “A flawed man, to be sure, but a good man in your heart.”
The child turned from Melind, placidly walking over to Quennus as if nothing had happened. Around it, the citizens stood, but stayed where they were. Melind was unmoving, whatever fight he had within him extinguished.
“You win. Just… take it and go. Be gone from here,” whispered Melind, not looking at Quennus.
The crowd parted, and the boy handed the Orb to Quennus, who took it with a metallic hand. Scrutinizing it for a moment, Quennus nodded in satisfaction, and the Orb took to the air to begin is orbit around the Bird-Mage. Quennus clapped once, and the bewitched people fell gently to the floor, in a deep sleep. Quennus shot an arm out, catching the child as he fell, gently lowering him to the ground. They would all awaken soon, no worse for the experience.
From within his cloak Quennus withdrew a small scroll, sealed with bronze and tied with gold thread. He tossed it, where it landed next to Melind.
“I am leaving Theros. Do not look for me, I won’t be found. When I return, if you are still alive, I shall find you, and give you the choice to try to and exact whatever revenge you think you deserve. Whether to take it or move on is up to you. You should know, I leave behind a number of trinkets and ingots of the last of my Stymphalian Bronze, as well as instructions on how to create more. The location is on that map.”
Quennus extracted a small, clicking cogwork device from within his cloak, and threw it to the ground. It burst in a shower of sparks, releasing the energy within, and with a whisper from Quennus to shape the unbound Aether, the energy formed into a swirling blue portal. Quennus mad to step through, but at the last moment stopped, and turned to regard Melind. The Meletian was watching him with a mix of amazement and fear. Perhaps he was considering his own failure or that perhaps the gods he had known all his life were not the only beings of power.
“The metal could be put to good use for the people of Theros, if you decide to share it with them. I now have confidence that you will make the right choice for them, and not for yourself. Farewell, guardian. Better luck with the other orbs.”
Then Quennus stepped through the portal and was gone.