Ren pressed the cup to his lips, and drank the bitter liquid. He savoured the flavour, and swallowed. With practised elegance, he brought the cup down, withdrew the towel from his sleeve, and wiped the cup three times, turning it clockwise, before setting it down on the tray. He bowed, thanked his host, and passed the tray back.
These motions were repeated 12 times, before their host, Sayaka Shadowtalon, called for the sweetcakes. He bit into it deeply, allowing the crisp sweetness to wash away the bitter tea, and the ceremony continued. Finally, they collectively thanked her, and elegantly withdrew from the room. They followed an attendant to the changing rooms, where all guests stripped naked, male and female, and were given towels with their house’s insignia. They were welcomed into a steaming hot-spring bathhouse, and in order they entered the hot water.
“Damn that feels good!” Han said, garnering a sharp glance from the attendant.
“No talking until the guesting ceremony has finished!” Kantou Harshwing whispered from the other side of the bath. “You bring shame for your actions!”
“Behave Han.” Ren elbowed him, and he grinned. “Sayaka is a stickler for tradition.”
“Screw tradition” Han whispered in his ear. “Did you even drink that tea? It was so bitter, I would have hatched an egg right there!” He didn’t continue, because an attendant came up behind them and smacked him across the back of the head with her fan.
“No talking!” The female attendant shrieked. Han squawked his disapproval, and Kantou smirked.
Four minutes passed, and the attendants added bowls of dolyak milk to the hot bath. They waited another time, and then added salt. Finally, after many minutes of excruciating silence, they added honey. Ren revelled in this luxury, before a deep gong tolled, indicatingthey should exit the water. Two attendants towelled each of them off, making sure each feather had been cleaned. They were ushered into the massage room.
12 tables had been set up, each with a burly female masseuse. They were rubbed down with oil, making their feathers shine, before they were set upon in calm, careful fashion. Ren had not had the opportunity to attend a guesting ceremony for many years, and it was moments like these that reminded the tengu of the traditions they had left behind.
Ren had almost fallen asleep when he heard the quiet sliding of knives out of sheaths. He twisted on the table just in time for the dagger to miss his back by centimetres. The masseuse shrieked, turning the dagger and swiping again. He dodged, grabbing a towel from the floor and wrapped it around his head.
The spirit world snapped into existence in his minds’ eye, and he called upon his ancestors. Spirits flooded across the veil, surrounding him in a protective barrier. The female tengu lashed out again, and a spirit latched onto her arm. Her feathers withered and turned a sickly black before she wrestled free, turning and running. The other masseurs had fled, leaving Ren alone in the room with the twelve corpses of his brethren.
He knelt beside Han, closing his brother’s dead eyes. Outside the room, alarms had sounded and there was much yelling. Sayaka and her attendants rushed in, the aged female tengu quivering with rage.
“YOU! You bring shame upon this house! You would murder my guests while the ceremony is in session?” She didn’t wait for him to explain. “Guards! Seize him!”
Two burly tengu guards lunged forward, but Ren had already begun channelling the spirits. He summoned them in front of him, and the guards recoiled.
“He uses forbidden magics, mother!” The guards inched backwards, fearful. Sayaka had begun snarling.
“Sky above the sky!” She swore, drawing twin swords from her back. The long and deadly steels flashed in the lamplight. She spun, somersaulting over his line of spirits, cutting them to pieces. Her swords flashed blue, absorbing the energy of the spirits, and she walked over to Ren. Her entourage cowered near the door.
“You didn’t die.” She whispered, smiling.
“It takes more than a sneak attack to kill me mistress.” Ren answered. “We did not discuss this.”
“The plan remains, but Kantou and his lackeys were spies for the Still Wind. Your brother betrayed us. You were never in danger. Flee now, and find the one whom the Spirits foretold. We must break the Blockade.”
She winked at him, and raised her swords.
“YOU WILL NOT PERVERT THIS HOUSE!” She shrieked, her long dress flapping in the wind. “DIE!”
Ren summoned more spirits, and with a quiet chant, sacrificed them all. A behemoth erupted from the void at his feet, and Sayaka faced it, scowling. She bellowed a war chant, and attacked the behemoth with gusto. Ren fled, breaking a nearby window and jumped out. The roof slammed into him, and he knocked many of the lead shignles loose. He rolled down, only just managing to catch the ornate Owl statue at its edge. He clambered up, breaking more shingles, and ripped the towel off his head. The physical world snapped back, and he dodged arrows and spears while he made his way across the Ward of the East Wind.
Sayaka’s plan was beautifully simple in concept. But like all plans for revolution, it required great sacrifice. In one night, Ren had been turned from celebrated hero to wanted terrorist and cultist. After this night, his name would become the catalyst for revolution.
He made his way to the rendezvous point, and Yumi was waiting for him. She kissed his cheek, thrust the pack and glider into his arms, and disappeared into shadow. He stood upon the walls of the Dominion of the winds, looking down upon the Kraitbane. He jumped, deploying his glider, and yanked the cord near his ear, causing a smoke bomb to exhale black powder, hiding him in the inky night sky.
The wind carried him across Slaver’s Deeps and northwards to Kessex Hills. He could smell the rotting meat and stink of the krait’s slaves and spat his disapproval for their dishonour. The wind was true, and he soared over the mountains, coming to land near the Ireko trade camp. He destroyed the glider, hiding the remnants in some bushes, and began walking west, being sure not to awaken the tengu at the trade camp. It took him only half an hour to get to Overlake Haven. The guard at the gate was dozing, and he clapped his hands to waken him.
“Human. I need shelter for the night.” Ren clapped again, and the man sat up straight.
“Oh! Welcome to Overlake Haven. We have been—” he began.
“I am not concerned with your town, Pink. I have gold, and I need a room for the night.” He flicked a gold piece at the guard, who waved at the guardhouse to let him enter.
“Welcome sir.” The guard smiled, pocketing the gold.
Ren walked purposefully to the barracks, requesting to sleep in the barnhouse. The quartermaster, a young charr female, gave him a strange look but passed him the barn keys.
The barn was cold, but dry and well-kept. He placed his bag next to the trough and searched the hay bales until he found what he was looking for.
The bag was made from rough jute, but held food, some waterskins, and a large fan. He grasped the handle and felt the powerful energy of the wind flow through him. He snapped the fan open, it’s metal blades ringing in the air. He closed the blades again, setting it down and lying on the hay. Sleep came slowly, but he was determined the tengu would be changed forevermore.