Set Code: DHL Set Size: 144 Release Date: Soon(ish)
Among the groves and clearings, between the ancient trunks of trees and the rocky mountain faces, a war rages. As the mountains climb high into the clouds, spirits dance through autumnal gloom and shake the ground at their approach. Demons plot in the silence and howl with delight as they tear across the smoky battlefields. Angels weep tears of bloody vengeance as the ground bleeds magma, a broken and shattered landscape reflecting the devastation of the divine purpose they once upheld. Elvish warriors begin their warsongs in ecstatic conquest and powerful seers defend the last sacred refuges of this world. This is a place torn by devastation and war, and behind it all an ancient mystery waits for a bearer. Welcome to the plane of Astento.
What strange things people can be taught to fear, Selene mused.
The witch put a swing into her stride, the discordant jangling of glass at her hip growing louder from her motions. Most of the bottles were empty of course, but thinking of the two carefully secured in deerskin at her sides made Selene hum with pleasure. Twenty feet ahead, a serving slave threw themself to the ground, head pressed against the stone brick of the floor. As Selene passed, she tapped one dark nail against the clear glass of her arsenal, a quiet clink amongst the noise of the busy outpost, almost lost among the echoing chanting and sound of reconstruction. The man at her feet whimpered.
“You really are a monster, aren’t you?”
The voice was a raspy whisper, a brush of soot against the cheek. Selene did not turn around, but inclined her head a few degrees and folded her hands carefully in front of her as she walked.
“Odallus, my friend, you wound me. I am but mortal of course. My slaves and I are separated only by opportunity and will. Had they the fortune of my past or the clarity of my vision, perhaps I would be the one scrubbing floors and feeding pigs.”
The smoky air around her chuckled, a vibration that sent a shiver through the hallway. A dark form coalesced by the witch’s side, matching her pace in a hazy mirror of her figure. A pair of dull blue eyes looked lazily ahead, the two women surveying the progress of the slaves. This outpost had been captured a few days earlier from the Wardens, and like many such prizes of war were now being converted into forward positions for the Order. Warden architecture was sturdy and defensible, but much would have to be changed before Selene was satisfied with her new base of operations. A group of women worked to sand a sigil of faith from the walls, a circle of dark blood scrawled around the protesting rune as it sputtered impotent radiance. Another contemplative moment passed before the demon responded.
“No, my dear Selene, you have passed the apex of mortal ambition. Each day that passes I grow more confident that you and your Order are the side to bet on. Lisman and the others can weave their plots, spider strands of blood and power, but you are the little mortal bug that never gets caught, aren’t you? A demon’s intuition is what you have, and a demon’s ambitions. You are our sister, Selene, despite the mortal frame that binds you. And I would see you succeed in your plans.”
The witch smiled. “Flattery is worth nothing to me, Odallus. If you wish to discuss something of importance, wait until we arrive.”
The entrance to Selene’s chamber was not grand. Two guards, armed with obsidian glass daggers and wearing darkly-painted deer skulls, bowed at her approach. She brushed aside the curtain, holding it for a moment for her incorporeal guest more for show than to allow entry. The dark interior was lit only by a handful of sputtering tallow candles, placed sparsely around the circular wooden room. An opening in the roof allowed the smoky air to circulate, mingling with the darker air of the Gloaming Woods. Glass jars, of numerous sizes and contents, lined the walls of the large hut, each carefully swaddled in deerskin and labelled. Odallus drifted forwards, tracing the outline of the gray stone circle that described the center of the room.
“So we have agreed, then. A life for a life. The inviolate rule.”
Selene allowed one corner of her mouth to tilt, a smile hidden behind her teeth. Twelve careful paces led her from the edge of the stone circle to its heart, her eyes tracing the nude figure on the slab before her. With one hand, she trailed her fingers down an arm, feeling the pulse of blood beneath the skin, the friction of dried sweat on her palm. Dark sigils twisted themselves across the man’s frame, wrapping around each limb and knotting into a pulsing core above his heart. His eyes watched the witch with rapture as she pulled the knife from its alcove in the stone.
At her word, the demon stepped into the circle. The hazy smoke of its form pushed against the boundaries of her magic, stripping away the demon to a dark blot of smog hovering above the head of the altar.
Selene’s smile eclipsed her restraint, a predator’s bite reflecting the dim candles. Her eyes blazed as she spoke one word.
The demon’s form surged suddenly, dark tendrils lashing out towards Selene, but the knife flashed faster. A ring of cold blue magic encased the witch’s arm, and the shadow twisted away from the harsh light.
“WE HAD A DEAL, SELENE. YOU OVERSTEP YOUR PLACE.”
The dried black runes of the stones below began to hum, writhing like centipedes away from the earth and wrapping around the raging core of shadow. More and more lines of sharp text pulled tighter the noose, until two burning blue embers barely peeked out from a deep red sphere of blood magic. Selene approached the bound demon slowly, pouring more blue light into the shield around her.
“We did, Odallus. But you forgot something, something you yourself mentioned, something that betrayed your true opinion of me.”
Her other hand carefully placed the knife on the altar, the man giving a barely audible whine as the obsidian blade left her fingers. The leather thong of an empty glass bottle popped free, and Selene brought it level with her captive’s indignant eyes.
“I am a demon. And we keep only the deals that serve us.”
The cork came off with a whisper. The burnt red lines of magic twirled with rekindled power and Odallus screamed in incoherent rage as Selene reached out and deftly bottled the demon. Her other hand pushed the cold light of her magic into the glass, and with a final whimper silence returned to the hut. The witch carefully placed the now-dark bottle next to the two other full ones, grinned, and picked up the knife.
Aelani’s eyes shut, shifting the petals before her kneeling form with long fingers, a ritual motion practiced over many long years. The prayers of the priests behind her whispered through her mind like the wind through trees. The spirit’s head tilted back, the midday sun blotching the inside of her eyelids a burnt green.
A moment of contemplation passed before a soft, velvety muzzle pressed itself into Aelani’s hands. A wet tongue, warm and slick, wormed itself between her fingers to lap at the flowers in the wooden prayer bowl.
“Hesediel, bright one. We offer this gift humbly, to ask of you a boon.”
Aelani opened her eyes, and before her stood a god. The bright radiance of his antlers lit the quiet grove with a brilliance that banished all shadow, and his coat was a warm gold. Soft brown eyes gazed with contentment over the assembled offerings of foraged nuts, delicate blossoms, and rich fruits. The elk was massive, shoulders rising above her kneeling form by half again her height. His flank shivered as a sharp hoof stamped softly, still bowed before Aelani to reach into the proffered bowl. The spirit stood slowly, holding the wooden vessel before her, long legs and slender arms unfolding to her full height. She led the elk backwards with careful steps, Hesediel craning his neck to keep his large head close to the flowers. A priest rose from their coils to follow the two with bowed head, reaching the dais where the body of another naga lay still. Aelani turned to place the now-empty bowl on the stone and stepped back, letting the radiant animal root around the wood and stone for more flower petals for a moment before intoning the next step of the ritual.
“Hesediel, dawnlight. We ask of you a boon, of new life for one fallen. As you were reborn, so let him be. As you are bright, so let him be. As you fight, so let him fight again.”
The god of rebirth turned from the dais to whuffle around Aelani’s robes for more petals. The attending priest stroked the animal’s neck and led his muzzle once more to the body with a gentle but insistent hand.
Aelani sighed quietly. “Old friend, please. He was a strong warrior and a brave man. Give him another chance to defend his home.”
Hesediel turned his gaze forlornly back to the spirit, a quiet lowing sound escaping to communicate his unhappiness. She shook her head again and stepped to the elk, leading his attention once more to the warrior.
Hesediel nudged the body with his muzzle, lowing again. The great head bowed, shining antlers beginning to brighten, and the vale was suddenly filled with a soft radiance. Aelani stepped back from the stone dais, eyes shut against the glow but wanting to watch anyway. A moment passed, and another, before the white light began to recede, and new, much higher pitched noise pierced the quiet. Where the naga once lay, a newborn calf of purest white wobbled to its feet for the first time. Hesediel snorted back, a great tongue emerging from velvet lips to lick the snowy flank of the reborn spirit.
A rustling in the bush behind grew quickly before a scout burst into the clearing.
“Revered Mother, please, the western outpost has been seized, we need you at the front! The Spiritscale is holding for our retreat but the demons are beginning to circle-”
The newborn spirit and Hesediel bucked backwards, eyes rolling with fear and hooves striking at the air. With a snort, the two barreled over the displays of gathered fruits and disappeared into the underbrush on the other side of the small glade, the fawn stumbling awkwardly over its gangly limbs.
Aelani watched the god of rebirth go. A part of her remembered, so very long ago, a different being. She allowed herself one final moment of recollection before turning again to the messenger, anger beginning to overcome sorrow.