I’ve been thinking about a hypothetical return to my favourite MTG set, and I think I’m going to commit to it.
I’ll write a story that WOTC has confidently stated they will never write.
I hope to eventually convert this into a visual novel, I already have an artist potentially interested in doing the sprites. But I’m nothing if not impatient, and I want a trial run, so while I accumulate resources this will be my first take.
The Homelands await.
The cages rattled, wood hitting wood a sound more unsettling than the lightning roaring in the night sky, the pitiless splashes the carriage's collective hooves as they punched and marred the bog expanse, the murderous howls echoing through the hills all the way to the snowy peaks of the Koskun. The captives wailed and cried, begging still for Serra and her angels to set them free, a cacaphony almost as blood curling as the rattling.
With each stop, one voice was removed from the choir, and eventually the rattling had no rival.
He, no older than nine, was trying desperately to sleep the nightmares away. His eyes had been shut ever since a vampire slit his mother's throat and a werewolf tore into his father's chest, the sound of fading heartbeats so loud that they might as well drown the world, the roar of twin flames that lit his world. But as he was shoved in the cage and went through the night's strange symphony, only the rattling of the cages stood out. This would be a sound that he would listen until the moment he joined his travel companions, meat reserves for the long journey of this raid band from the former territories of An-Havva to a far southern outpost, established after the Great Restoration.
It took a single night to cross the continent to its southern hemisphere, but with the forcs of the Barony a night could last far longer than normal. It was an agonising process all the same, his heart threatning to explode with each stop, with each pleading or resigned breath. A thousand years could have gone by for all he could tell, and he remembered every single second.
One stop would be the final one. There were no more voices to silence, the rattling was all there was, lasting beyond the roar of lightning and the pitiless splashes and the murderous howls. It took while for it to settle, but just as it did the wood creaked with additional weight and the smell of rot and wet dog filled the carriage. His cage was torn asunder and his eyes were shut as much as the eyelids could muster, trying to deafen the world with his own sobs. But a hand grabbed him by the neck and threw him outside, into the mud. It cushioned his fall and even offered some shelter, but it was humiliating, especially as sneers and laughter filled the otherwise empty air.
"You want this one?" the vampire asked, "Surely you would have stronger ones if you had some self-control. I even starved for your stupid sake, I drun only three drops!"
"Dramatic as always" the werewolf sneered, "Coachman, the steeds if you will."
The man whimpered, but walked to the reins all the same. And a scene that lived on since the days of the Baron unravelled: the horses wasted no time biting as hard as they could into the bony legs and chest, grinding bone and flesh alike as they gorged themselves greedily. The man didn't even bother to scream, his voice was raspy like a broken rake.
"There, now you have blood" the werewolf said smugly.
"Amusing" the vampire deadpanned, "But again, why this one? She choses the most dignified to be her ilk, you seem to go after malnourished runts."
"A leaf can only come from a bud, and a bud can be molded into whatever you like, grown into whatever you need. You vampires deal with death, we werewolves deal with life. It is only natural you don't understand my ways just as I have little interest in yours."
"And yet your philosophy still fascinates me at times. If you weren't stubborn we could actually have a conversation, but you're dead set on pretending we can't relate."
"Buy me a few rounds and we can relate, all night long..."
The vampire chuckled, seemingly embarassed.
"I think you have work to do. I sure as hell wouldn't like to delay her new pet."
"Indeed, let's not."
All pleasantries ended, the werewolf grabbed him by the nape. His eyes were shut until the eyelids hurt and the orbs themselves felt squished, but the smell and sound of the licked lips painted the face perfectly before it was seen.
A horrible watery sound ressonated through his ears, and a claw then grazed his eyelids. Though they were peeled right from his face, he couldn't scream as the light of the moon made the werewolf now truly seen.
With a monstruous lunge, the beast's jaws enveloped the face. Teeth sunk, then melded with the bloody wounds. Flesh poured in and flowed out, boy and beast now one, a horrifying kiss blending two faces in one. Smooth skin intersected with coarse bristles, eyes flowed in two pairs of amber, one rimmed with white and another with canine black. Skulls broke and reformed within the veil, no thoughts but the wild urges of the Garden forming a green hurricane of predation and hunger.
A final couple of sickening bone cracks, and his humanity ended that night. Flesh flowed forth to each rightful owner, eyelids and other wounds restored as though the flesh was new. A trickle of saliva run down the werewolf's black tongue, matched by a torrent of vomit by the other participant.
"Bravo" the vampire clapped, "Make him squirm before we parade him."
"Sit, dog" the werewolf snarled.
And he sat, his flesh a slave to the words of the werewolf. His eyes didn't close for the rest of that night.
"Here he stands, my Lady."
The throne room - a makeshift parody of a corruption - was bleak. It rotted of moss and mold and decaying wood, it looked more like a flooded cavern than anything architectural. Eyes betrayed an unnatural court, of all things wrong that accumulated across the centuries the plane rebuilt itself.
Yet, to him, there was only her.
"What fun, what fun!" she cackled madly, "I can tell he'll be the one! Oh, break for me until we're done!"
She wasted no time commanding his flesh. His form was never permanently human or lupine, always a grotesque amalgam in between. His teeth and claws at first gnawed himself, sometimes devouring his quickly regenerating flesh and marrow. This quickly extended to other people; captured humans, fae or even angels and minotaurs, it didn't matter. He would eat them no matter how much his soul reviled that, and that was if he was lucky. Sometimes, he melded with them, sharing their agony with no way of reaping comfort; sometimes he melded with other slaves of Irini, and sometimes with her free servants instead.
The first few days were a nonstop cavalcade of horrors and sensations that ranged from the hellish to the corrupted heavenly, heart flaring when it had the shape to do so. But eventually, even the most chaotic ride becomes a routine, and in routine there is stagnation. Stagnation leads to resignation, and resignation leads to despair.
Remember how old canon had interesting things to say like how mana apparently travels from the base of the skull? Good times.
Also the Ulgrotha guide said the minotaurs were based on Aboriginal Australian cultures so have some Kamilaroi-inspired things.
Chapter 2: Mana
Guway sat at the tavern, patiently watching the drops from his mug slide down.
His mind tended to wander off to weird places when he was bored. As a child he sometimes mixed ingredients within soup coolamons, much to the amusement of the medicine-woman of his tribe and much to the horror of his parents. Still, he earned nothing but concerned hugs. From what he could gather human children - be here in the Koskun's southernmost tail or in Aysen's supposed glory - are more severely punished. As with everything lately, he took pride in not being born in the bizarre amalgamations and divergences of human cultures, ever threatning the Anaba way of life.
And yet, he was here because of a human.
He felt him before he could see him. Some would say because, as a minotaur, he could sense vibrations through his hooves or listen ten times better than a human or fae. The least polite of all company would attribute it to the "inherent spirituality" of his people, and either envy or put him on a pedestal he was pretty sure to have never commissioned. He, by contrast, would say it was because his "date" started a fight outside of the tavern, seemingly entering in a brawl over being called something Guway couldn't be bothered to acknowledge.
Alas, it only took a few moments for him to arrive. He looked battered and bruised, a trickle of blood still running on his cheek, but whatever wound that caused it was already sealed by his flesh-crafting magics.
"I take it you're Rau?" Guway asked.
The boy nodded. Guway was at this point relatively familiar with how humans aged - similar to minotaurs, if maybe as far as physical maturation was concerned - but even he had some trouble placing him on their age range. 17? 19? Surely along those lines, unless the magic he described in his invitation also stalled aging altogether. Silly humans and their abominatory disregard for the natural law. Not that Guway judged; his own style of magic ensured he lived a longer lifespan than usual for a minotaur.
Still, to call Rau a kid was probably accurate. He already didn't strike Guway as mature, and his features did feel genuinely youthful, not a warlock's tasteless thinning to facial skin or the stalling of the nose's decay. In another context, he might even have found the youth cute, but the hieromancer was vigilant at all times. At least Rau didn't seem like a threat, seemingly a few restrained shivers away from crying.
"I didn't hear what those brutes said to you, but-"
"Don't" Rau incised firmly, "I don't want your pity. I just want what I called you for."
"Alright" Guway sighed, "I can teach you what I know, and I will do it on the terms we've agreed upon on your letter. Though you don't have to pay coin for my services."
A mischiveous look flashed in Rau's eyes, but he didn't dare to say it. Guway was tempted to chuckle, but he remained firm, because he had to deliver harsh truths.
"First of all, I have to decline your request to learn Anaba magics, for they are my people's alone."
"But you said-"
"However, I will teach you the arts I have learned by trial and error, by engaging Eron's and Ihsan's forces and besting them. I rely on them primarily, so surely you can see the benefits they will bring you on whatever quest you are on."
Rau clearly wanted to protest, but Guway didn't have to lift one finger to get him to shut up. He resigned to these terms pretty quickly.
"Fine. It better be damn good. Even if I'm not paying you're still asking a lot."
"And that's fair. I will not insist on your services if you find me an awful teacher. At worst, you'll learn something useful, free of charge."
"I guess" Rau said, breathing deeply in what seemed an attempt to vent out his frustration.
Guway took a sip. It was pretty awful compared to the gum sap beverages of the Anaba, but alcohol was alcohol.
"So, where are you staying through all of this?" Guway asked.
"I'll manage" Rau said, seemingly embarassed.
"I would ask you to stay at my place, but I think we can both agree we are not that trusting yet" Guway said, "I can pay for a room in this establishment. It isn't as luxurious as an Aysen apartment or even anywhere at An-Havva, but I hear they have comfortable beds around here."
"I don't want your pity" Rau said venomously.
"Its not pity if I need you to be in peak condition for your training" Guway interjected, though in truth he did feel sad for the kid, "So quit huffing and puffing until you're strong."
"I am strong!" Rau said, but just as quickly as that came out it fizzled like a flame on damp air.
"Tell you what" Guway said, shoving aside his beer, "We'll begin training immediately as soon as I pay this drink. Then you can show me how strong you are."
"Yes... unless you admit you need to rest and tend to your wounds. You know, things even the strongest this world has to offer still need to do, and in which there is no shame."
"They better have heavenly beds the way you're describing this place..."
Training proper began the next morning, as soon as Guway made sure Rau was properly rested and fed. Rau naturally made a hissy fit worthy of the scrappy teen he was, but Guway only found it endearing. There was no doubt that the kid was dark in some way, but he seemed pretty amicable once you pushed the right buttons.
They hiked late in the morning, the sun high in the Koskun peaks. The air was bright but cold, perfect for the teaching conditions Guway hoped for.
"So" Guway began, "Do you know the fundamentals of magic?"
"Obviously" Rau snorted, "Mana comes from the lands. You bond with the lands, and they release mana all over you."
"Well, that certainly is one way of describing it" Guway said, "You told me you can do flesh magic. Do you control it?"
"I think so" Rau said, a bit uncertain, "I spend most of my time in the swamps and the forests, so using it to heal myself or give any **** a new one comes naturally to me. I don't really give it much thought."
"Right" Guway pondered, "Well, for this exercise you won't need to do much thinking either. In fact, it's better if you just give in to your emotions."
Rau seemed to want to ask about that, but he tripped on a stone. Quick as lightning, Guway grabbed his arm and stabilised him, gently putting him back into position.
"Well, it's off to a great start. I'm pissed."
"Good. Keep that, nurture that. Let the anger pull from the mountains like fire pulls from wood."
They were near the peak, so both had a panoramic view of the valleys and gorges, of the snow-capped stone cathedrals and the jagged cliffs. The air was clear but cold, bright fire in the sun passing through biting cold wind. The Koskun surrendered their mana as easily as a phoenix surrenders its plumes, but they were generous when in the right time and place.
"How does it feel?" Guway asked.
"Clear" Rau answerred, in a strange, passionate calm, "It's so much more clear than the mana of the swamps and forests. And bright. Like there's stars everywhere, but I'm not catching fire!"
"I know, right?" Guway allowed some levity in his tone, "I sometimes draw from the forests, and they never feel this intense and open to my eyes."
"Should I do something with it?" Rau asked, "I want to cast a spell, but it feels... well..."
"Good?" Guway asked, "There's no shame in admiting that, no matter what any preacher may have drilled into your head. Like I said, let it pull, let it flare. Enjoy it, you deserve it."
And so Rau did, channeling and revelling in this new source. Eventually, it built enough to feel comfortable casting brand new spells that came up to his head: torrents of boiling blood, devils and gremlins sprouting from pieces of his flesh, bone shards projected far and wide. Truth to be told this was nothing like Guway's hieromantic magic, more an extension of Rau's own flesh magic, but his teacher didn't bother to correct him. No, improvising and creating was part of Guway's process, his own journey similarly using mountain mana to redefine an existing school: namely, to turn hieromancy's rigidity into something more brutal in combat.
Perhaps that was why Guway was not the least bit disgusted by Rau's antics. When you punch soldiers with fists made of solidified order itself you get to see plenty of blood and guts as well.
They had a friendly spar. Neither clearly was using his full strength, the minotaur mostly just redirecting attacks and Rau seemingly only using his flesh magic to create stuff to throw at his teacher instead of the more obvious applications he implied earlier, though Guway occasionally felt his blood flowing oddly inside his veins. Before long they worked quite a sweat and sat down, wincing as the Koskun rocks didn't go gently on their butts.
"That was awesome" Rau said, smiling earnestly for the first time since Guway met him.
"And it's only the beginning" Guway said, "Race you to the bottom?"
Guway pointed down at a plateau, deep in the valleys. He predicted Rau's grunt, but it was no less amusing.
They made it to the plateau as the sun began to disappear behind the mountains. Light cast deep oranges on the meadows and dusty plains, a distant relic of the Dead Zone at first sight but flaring with mana of the plains.
"Now, to draw mana from the plains you do have to be a bit more calm" Guway explained, "Focus on the order inherent to all things and it will gladly flow to you."
"How do you do it in the midst of battle?" Rau asked, "and can you use it alongside the mana of the mountains? I feel the mana of the forests and swamps is very different but it still flows to me naturally."
"I suppose its the same for me" Guway shrugged, "I don't really have to think too much to draw from the plains alongside the mountains. Though they are like night and day they do overlap in ways I'm very comfortable with. Like the calm before a brawl or the addictive fire of righteous anger."
"You really like fighting, even though you make schoolars look like brats."
"You mean like you?"
Rau tried to be indignant, but all that accomplished was mutual laughter. They knew each other for a day by that moment, but it already seemed like they ebbed and flowed like the tides.
"Alright, enough stalling" Guway said, "Show me what you got."
Rau concentrated, and indeed Guway could feel him trying to reach into the plains. Though night was settling in, to the minotaur's eyes it might as well have been the brightest day, luminous white threads before his eyes. But Rau halted, opening his eyes in shock. Soon, darkness fell once more.
"I d-don't think I can" Rau stuttered.
"Everything alright?" Guway asked softly.
"I... it feels wrong. Like its judging me."
Now this was an interesting development. Guway had seen beings vulnerable to the mana of the plains and the holy force it represented, but usually he could feel them burning as their evil perished in the light. Never had he heard someone say it made them feel uncomfortable, let alone 'judging' them.
"Y-yeah" Rau said, shaking in small hiccups, "Like it's telling me I'm nothing, that I deserved what happened to me."
Suddenly he fell on his knees and started crying. All the bravado, all the self-imposed toughness, it dissipated like a vampire before an angel's blast, but for the first time Guway felt incredibly distraught and disturbed at the metaphors his mind created in his poetic lulls. This was no abomination, no matter his flesh magic.
This was a person, broken once and now again.
Wordlessly, Guway lowered and embraced Rau. He expected some resistance, but the young man did indeed just cry into his chest, taking refuge in his arms, hiding like a ferret in a hole. Guway massaged his back, trying to get him to calm down, trying but failing to mutter comforting words. Thankfully, the silence was enough, and soon Rau's sobbing died down, and he just felt limp within the minotaur's embrace.
"I just don't get it" Rau broke the silence, so softly it might as well had remained a soundless void.
"It felt so horrible, yet its part of you. And you're not horrible, w-we've only met a day ago but I feel like you're not going to judge me if I tell you."
"Do, do you want to talk about it?"
A silence followed. It spread enough for the sun to fully disappear, and for the white crescent to crown the Koskun peaks.
In which I exercise more of the post-mending Ulgroth worldbuilding.
Chapter 3: Balance
Laira was a simple faerie.
A bit of sunshine, a warm welcome and the sound of rivulet waters echoing across the creek was enough to please her. Many of her kin lost themselves in Court politics, and that was fine. She wasn't a good argumentator nor ambitious enough to even try. She'd much rather do her duty out in the fields, watching over farmers and their children, keeping an eye out for danger and blessing the Summer harvests.
She yawned, laying lazily on a branch on the outskirts of Kerselin. Underneath her the children of loggers played, occasionally stealing glimpses of their gracious protector but mostly ignoring her. A faerie's mystique can only last so long when she's a regular presence.
Her rest was broken by an argument, laughter suddenly replaced by shouting and crying. Wasting no time, she unfurled her wings and fell from the branch, gliding down gently between her charges.
"Now now, what's going on?" she asked, firmly but gently.
"Zud won't stop hitting Tov!" a girl said, pointing at a boy at the periphery of their group.
"Snitch!" he responded angrily.
"Alright" Laira said, "Why were you hitting your friend?"
Though she asked as calmly and gently as she could, this seemed to elicit a jittery, nervous reaction from the aggressor. Clenching his fists, he took a deep breath, and rant:
"He always has it easy! They always pamper him, they always tell me to 'shut up' when I tell them my father hits me else it'll 'upset him', they always protect him and leave me to fend for myself! That's not fair!"
Laira was definitely not expecting that. This was far more complicated than their usual spats. She took a deep breath, and looked at Zud's eyes, black as the stormy sea. Her's were the color of light passing through the meadows at dusk, so there was almost a continuity in their gaze, that calmed the young boy.
"Zud, I know you've suffered and your friends weren't fair to you, but you shouldn't take it out on Tov. He hasn't done anything to you, your parents did, so nurture that anger to them, not him. Else you're going to add more people who will hurt you, because these kids will probably tell your parents about this."
Before the boy could respond, she turned to the others:
"And you should not play favourites. True, Zud is a bully, but if he actually confesses about his pain you shouldn't dismiss it."
She turned one last time, so as all of the now guilty children looked at her:
"Your parents or village elders probably told you to 'kiss and make-up'. You don't have to, because wounds don't heal with kisses. Do have, however, to try and work things out. Listen to each other, be there for each other. One day you'll grow up; what then?"
None of the children responded to that, though it was clear they understood what she meant. They guiltily excused themselves back to the town, gradually growing more friendly among themselves as they approached their homes. Zud and Tov were now talking together, though Laira could not hear them. It was for the best as far as she was concerned, it was likely very personal.
She could, however, hear wing beats, and see a shadow cast on her.
"Well well" said another faerie, "Seems you're more of a diplomat than you claim."
"What is it that you want now, Fendart?" Laira said, turning to face the other faerie.
He was perched arrogantly on her tree, hawk-like in demeanour and arrogance. He had the face of a man long gone, a servant of the Dark Barony that no longer lived.
"I want you to take your place seriously" he crooned, "Your days of watching children are far beneath your station, especially with war brewing."
"You talk about me 'not knowing my place', yet you seem to want Autumn Willow's role..."
"Funny you should mention her. She requests your presence, at once."
The sheer smugness on Fendart's face broke Laira's relaxed demeanour, and it took a lot of self-restraint to prevent her from decapitating the other faerie with a punch. Instead she opened her wings, reaching to the air.
Fendart followed her, two shadows moving fast across the canopy.
The Court gathered at a large clearing, cut through by a wide, fast moving river. Moonlight and meadow flower perfumes filled the air, rendering the intersection of forest, plain and island a surreal, almost dreamy landscape. It was in such places - increasing in number as Ulgrotha healed - that Autumn Willow focused her power, and where her faeries met to discuss their new role as arbiters of the holy balance.
Laira landed on the soft grass and moss of the clearing, sitting down. Fendart, on the other hand, paced himself at the center, wings open and chin high like a rooster.
"We have gathered here at the behest of the Mother of the Wilds, to discuss the impending war."
The faeries gasped and murmured among themselves. Laira was surprised that they were surprised; maybe this was going to be another of Fendart's paranoid rants?
"May I, Mother of the Court?"
A breeze crossed the clearing, breaking apart the river waters for but a moment. Autumn Willow had sent her approval for an argument, though she hadn't deigned to materialise herself yet.
"For 50 years Ulgrotha has been healing and for 50 years we maintained the balance while the Floating Isle fell to decadence. We alone maintained the jaws of disaster from striking, and yet now they are gnawing at our foundations. We've neglected the Dark Barony for far too long, thinking it to be obsolete, and yet they strike at the edges of the world. They are a disease, and in their squalor they bred another strain to fell us down."
"Please stop with that and just get to the point" another faerie yawned.
If Fendart had feathers they would be most assuredly ruffled. He had to make do with his butterfly wings instead.
"The point is that one of their werewolves has gone rogue. He now wanders the Koskun and the Isle and even settlements we control, sewing seeds for war. Warbands of mercenaries now gather, aiming to strike at the Barony. Aysen senses this not as help but as danger, and in turn is gathering its armies. No doubt Eron will make his own moves in response, to say nothing of what the Barony will concoct."
"You are way too paranoid" Laira interjected, "These are mercenaries we're talking about. For better or for worst they won't last against Irini, like the other insurrections did."
"I see you failed to hear the part where I said Aysen is advancing. As usual, your incompetence is astounding."
A gust of wind knocked Fendart off his feet, making him lose his balance if only for a moment.
"Mother of the Daughters of Autumn, you know me to be true! She has neglected her duties, which could have prevented this situation from escalating. But alas, we must correct her mistake at once."
"What do you propose?" a voice like spider threads across rustling leaves filled the air.
At once the winds gathered in a tornado, air becoming flesh and hair and piercing yet gentle eyes. Autumn Willow stood above her faeries, feet sinking into the earth as if roots connected her to all of Ulgrotha. Her motherly appearence bellied a great, almost primeval power, that made Laira feel humble and mortified at once. This seemed to have no effect on the arrogant Fendart, however, who simply opened his wings as he continued his argument.
"Either we destroy the Barony, or we cut the loose thread."
Autumn Willow took a deep breath, a movement of air more subtle yet just as strong as any storm.
"We cannot kill the Barony, for it is what keeps Aysen preoccupied, lest their memory of Serra burn all of the world down. The loose thread we trim, then."
A movement of her hand, and the Court was dismissed. Fendart, though furious, bowed with proper and sincere respect. At once Autumn Willow dissipated, and the faeries left, all but Laira and Fendart.
"Go fix your mess" Fendart snarled.
"Me? You're the one who made a fool of himself over that!"
"He's going to Kerselin" Fendart sneered, "If you are so attached to that town, then do you part. Else you will be another loose thread, that I will gladly cut."
She stared at his single pitiless eye and eyepatch, both grim in pride and wrath. He would not stop until the Barony was dead, and she was his tool to vent his frustration. She never felt so much hatred for a being.
"Fine, but on my terms" she said, rising to her feet, "Once this is over you will stop with whatever it is that you're doing. Or else you will die."