When I put out the call for Commander-inspired fiction a couple weeks ago, all I knew was that Rafiq needed a fresh story. What I didn’t know (though I certainly suspected!) was just how amazingly talented, imaginative, and bold you Vorthos readers out there truly are. Every submission I received was unique. Every submission had strong voice and tasty details. Every submission was flavorfully intriguing. Of course, I could only choose a handful of winners: one grand-prize winner to be featured in that upcoming Top Secret Project (which I’ll officially reveal just as soon as I can), and three runners-up. I want to thank everyone who participated—your energy and creativity truly blew me away. Reading your work was inspirational.
I’m ecstatic to announce our winners:
Grand Prize: Ant Tessitore
Runners-up: Ben Nassau, Khin Kyaw, Lucas Paletta
Over the next month, I’ll be featuring these writers and their stories. There were narrow guidelines for this story contest, and some pieces incorporated the required elements more naturally than others. Length (staying within the 1,800-word limit) and clarity (writing Magic can become really confusing really fast) were other major considerations.
Today, I’m pleased to introduce writer Ben Nassau, whose story has a classic, old-school-fantasy vibe to it. I especially enjoyed Ben’s descriptions of tapping mana. His interpretation has a visceral, tangible, colorful immediacy that believably translates turning lands sideways into something we feel across all our senses. Throw in some unique word choices (galumphing, no joke!) and a squeamish, snarky Rafiq, and it was clear this story deserved to be shared.
Ben is a casual player who seeks to understand this crazy thing we call life. He is a full-time student, currently pursuing a Bachelor’s in Mathematics as well as Women and Gender Studies at Muhlenberg College. He loves baseball, challenging normative ways of thinking, writing, performing, and Commander (Johnny-style). One time, Mark Rosewater responded to an e-mail of his, and it was awesome. Ben also eagerly awaits the next Great Designer Search. You can find more of his writing over at inresponseblog.tumblr.com, where he and his girlfriend Moriah post about anything and everything every weekday.
I’ve given all of our winning writers a flavorful questionnaire. I hope you enjoy reading Ben’s answers below. And of course, I hope you enjoy his tale: Rafiq in The Quest for the Holy Relic.
What moment with Magic first got you hooked?
I don’t even remember. I know my brothers taught me how to play around the time of Legions, after which I made a 134-card deck with all the cool new Myr from Mirrodin. And I used to trounce the lunch table in middle school with my (super-underpowered, but still really good) affinity deck. So, somewhere in there is a spark of inspiration that I can’t remember, but what I love about it now is just how much is packed into it: game design, color philosophies, self-expression, social gatherings, discovery, and familiarity. I keep finding new ways to fall in love with it.
What are a couple of your favorite Commander decks? How’d they come into being?
Rafiq was actually my very first commander, and, as such, he has a special place in my heart. I opened him in a Wacky Draft with my friends (Zendikar/Shards of Alara/Planar Chaos? It was something like that), and I knew it was a sign to get into this Commander thing that was starting to take off. I went home and researched what kind of stuff Commander was known for and threw a bunch of cards together. I’ve barely changed it since, and it’s still fun after many years. The other one I adore is my Ghost Council of Orzhova (the O.G.C.) deck. It began as Ashling the Extinguisher, but once I discovered how Orzhov I am, that changed. It’s super-synergistic, and I never grow tired of destroying people with tokens and the drip-drip-drip of extort.
If you could steal an item of clothing or an accessory off any planeswalker and keep it for yourself, what would you choose and why?
Venser’s helmet, for sure. That thing is badass, and it would make cosplaying as him way easier (something I really want to do in the future). Plus, it’s not as though he needs it anymore . . . #OHGODWHY #toosoon?
Forced into exile on New Phyrexia, which three Magical items do you take with you?
Druidic Satchel, Adaptive Automaton, and Teleportal. The Satchel seems like the kind of thing that will always provide me with something I need (and it makes more sense to bring than a whole Trading Post). The Automaton will constantly adapt to the plane to help me, thus ensuring my survival. And when I’ve had enough, the Teleportal will get me the hell out of there!
Druidic Satchel sketch by Matt Stewart
What’s your number-one suggestion for improving Magic in a Vorthos-cares way?
I’d definitely recommend making story more accessible to a wide audience more frequently than “four times a year.” I’m really glad about the recent e-book and IDW comic push, but for a game as popular and with as many cool characters as Magic, there needs to be more written. I don’t know if that means more books (e- or otherwise) or an animated show (which would be so awesome), but I think the more plot is accessible to the public, the more invested players will become. And invested players make for a better game—especially Vorthoses.
You can ask for (and be guaranteed to receive) one artifact as a holiday gift from Karn. What do you ask for?
I want a Gilded Lotus. Not just because it would look incredible, but because it would give me constant access to any of the five colors of Magic. You never know when you might just need that extra burst of mana to save your life (or impress your friends).
Say you got the dream job of writing a creative piece for Magic. Which plane would be your preferred setting, and what would you write into the plot given free reign?
Iquatana. I really want to see that world fleshed out, in terms of how it works and who lives there and why. There would certainly be intrigue and multifaceted characters in my story, with multiple people all trying to do what’s right, even if it means conflict. The return of an ancient character perhaps (Ugin says “hello”), unexpected twists and turns, new kinds of magic, and maybe even a new Big Bad for the Multiverse. So, you know—what I regularly shoot for in my writing.
Life-or-death question; you have to choose: What’s your favorite card art ever?
I’ve been agonizing over this question for a while. After considering anything by Terese Nielsen or Raymond Swanland, I have to go with Angel of Flight Alabaster by Howard Lyon. It is not only a beautiful piece of art, but the moment I saw it, I was completely immersed in the world of Innistrad. It just embodies the feeling of the plane so well—the beauty, the desperation, the enduring hope that things will be all right. And doesn’t that speak to our experience in this crazy universe? I love it.
The Quest for the Holy Relic
I spat on the cracked ground. “Such power does not belong in the hands of a water mage.” Even now I could see him dancing, great waves crashing around him as he commanded his forces to siege another foe on the edge of vision, this one clothed in beautiful scarlet. Flame burned behind her eyes, but she was struggling to survive the onslaught.
“You’re a water mage, you hypocrite.”
I spun around to face Rafiq, the commander of my army. His many sigils gleamed in the evening sun, and even in his frustrated state he looked the part of hailed hero.
“Excuse me? How many times have I brought water to this battle exactly? My trade is in allies and soldiers for you.”
He turned away from me as he checked his sword in its scabbard. It was clear, as it had been the last seven times. “Perhaps, but the creatures you summon are barely fit to be called warriors.” He gestured to a rickety pile of gears and steam chugging down toward the field, its iron heart sputtering.
“I have my reasons. And if you wish to keep Bant from upheaval, you will follow my lead.”
I could see his gruff façade falter as the memories and images of his broken home came crashing into him. After the Maelstrom reunited Bant with the other shards, war was inevitable. The honorable combat Bant practiced was useless against the hordes of dragons and zombies that had besieged their borders. While Bant’s defensive magic had hindered much of the assault, they could only last so long.
But Rafiq’s vulnerability showed for only a second. He suppressed those memories as best he could. And just in time. The water mage had decided we were weak enough to attack. A wave of merfolk was headed toward us, bristling with foam and spears. Without hesitation, Rafiq was charging toward the wave along with a few members of his ragtag army.
“This better work out,” he thought to me via our telepathic link.
With that, I gestured to a nearby amoeboid changeling. Understanding my directive, it raced after Rafiq. Its gait couldn’t quite be called running. It seemed to slosh its way toward him, though now and then I caught a hint of a leg or two or three beneath its pale blue form.
With that I began to focus, shutting my eyes and pulling a small leaf from my robe. As its scent flooded my nostrils I was immediately back in Otaria, the Krosan Forest all around me, sounds of clicking and slithering coming from every direction. I opened my eyes to find the clicking very real. An impossibly quick, lithe sliver darted toward the battle. But I was not finished.
By now the changeling was a couple hundred feet away from Rafiq, whose sword shone as brightly as his sigils. As much as I knew he detested me, he would not fail me now. He had one purpose. The amoeba bounced into the air, flying toward him. Before Rafiq could react, he was covered by the slime—though he did not slow his advance. The telepathic cursing ringing throughout my head told me exactly what Rafiq thought of both my plan and my mother.
My hands curled around my staff, twisting this way and that as I felt the full force of Shandalar’s forests converge on me. I heaved for breath, my lungs full of bark, desperately pulling at the image of a monster I had encountered only once before.
The air shuddered as a megantic sliver materialized in the midst of battle. It rose above the field, crushing a myr beneath its foot as it lumbered toward battle. Already I could see my army surge, the sliver’s influence spreading like wildfire. Rafiq towered above the wave now, his skin translucent and eyes bulging, slicing this way and that as the merfolks’ screams became their last breaths.
The skirmish was short but significant.
“Don’t. Ever. Make me. Do that. Again.” He shuddered. “Dare I ask what other tricks you have up your sleeve?”
I grinned only for a moment. “We need to retrieve that memorial. Without it, I don’t know what kind of a chance we stand. Even my tricks only go so far.”
“It seems to me,” commented Rafiq after much thought, “that the best way to make sure he doesn’t abuse it is to simply rid the world of him.”
Before I could agree, a burst of energy lit the sky purple, sending shockwaves that knocked us back. There was no time to dally. I allowed Rafiq a glimpse into the plan in my head before I began concentrating, searching for the final missing piece.
“Oh no,” he cried out, “I have just about had it with your crazy schemes! You do what you want, but count me out.”
“Rafiq of the Many,” I declared as I felt my mana recharge, entire ecosystems bristling at the tips of my fingers, “I cannot do this without you. Think of everything we’ve worked so hard for.”
He began to walk away.
The iron-heart chimera came galumphing up the hillside, knocking into Rafiq as it ran. He turned to smack it, but it was already out of reach, clanking toward my colossus. Rafiq stopped and stared, trying to understand why I would throw away everything on this last gambit.
The chimera stumbled toward the colossus, who turned to face it. Without relenting the mechanical beast leapt toward the humongous green avatar, its heart burning bright. Right before the chimera slammed into it, the colossus shifted, and for a moment there were two chimeras mirroring each other in the air, frozen in a frenetic dance. Then the chimera was gone. The colossus took on a bronze hue, and I could see its veins pump mechanically beneath the surface of its skin. It faced me and its large dark eye fastened on my face. Or was it a body? Immediately it was off, charging toward the water mage I hated so.
“Rafiq!” I cried at the knight who stood gaping at the hulking blur as I channeled all of my mana into it, “I can’t do this without you! I need you!”
Tremendous amounts of green mana poured from my mouth into the colossus as it bounded toward the wall of guard gomazoas which the water mage hid behind. It doubled in size with every step, its glistening skin ever-shifting. The ground was buckling beneath my feet, vegetation exploding around me.
I rose into the air, a swirl of white, blue, and green. With that, my last puzzle piece fell into place, as a sliver that remained trapped between planes emerged from my skull. Its shadowy essence fused with the colossus, now an enormous ephemeral force.
As I began to collapse, I made one last appeal.
“For Heliod’s sake, Rafiq!” I screamed into the void. “Think of Bant!”
That was all it took.
But I sensed something was wrong. The water mage was smiling. He flicked his finger and a tiny blue ball of mana shot out of it, aimed straight at the colossus. From where I lay exhausted, I could smell the chemicals—a trademark of the Simic. No doubt some kind of polymorph spell that would undo all of our work. There was nothing I could do. It was all over.
Suddenly a flash of red. The polymorph spell went whizzing off, crashing into a nearby wizard who screeched before turning into some kind of frog-lizard hybrid. I strained my vision to see what had happened. There stood the fiery planeswalker from before, looking smug. She shot me a smile before jumping out of the way of the incoming colossus, who passed right through the wall of gomazoas and crashed into the water mage in a tremendous explosion of sound and light.
When the dust settled, all that remained was the memorial, glistening in the setting sun. The colossus picked it up and began making its way back to me.
As I processed everything that had just happened, Rafiq stood above me with an outstretched hand. He helped me up and patted me on the back.
“You know,” he said, impressed, “I have to say, I didn’t think you had it in you.”
I coughed as I considered what would happen next. Just because she helped us didn’t mean the woman of fire was our friend. And I knew there would be more foes in the near future. Even now a zombie army began advancing on the horizon, the bad moon rising as the sun set, their bones glowing in the moonlight.
“Hey,” Rafiq scolded me lightly as I caught my breath, “No rest. No mercy.”
I stood and grinned at him. “No matter what.”
“Now come on. We’ve got a job to do.”