Ren scooped the cool water out of the plain ceramic bowl and brushed it across his face. The cool liquid barely reached the skin beneath, and he rubbed the water to get it past his layers of feathers. He paid attention to his eyes, cleaning the tear ducts with care, and closed his haws, also washing them gently. The cloudy membrane slid across his eyes, partially blinding him. The spirit world sang in his mind but he shut it out. Instead, he retracted the third eyelids and stared at his reflection in the mirror.
Ren had inherited the snow-white complexion of his mother, but the round, flat face of his father. The result was most similar to a barn owl, and he traced his features, from his smallish beak to the large bowl shaped face to the small ring of black feathers framing his face. His feathers shone in the morning sun, and his large eyes picked up the twinkling of the candles. He was not tall for a tengu, nor was he short though, and as a male, his singular coloring had been a source of bullying in his youth. This had stopped when he was older, and he had been accepted into his adoptive clan Steelwing, in the House of the South Wind.
He recalled the path that had led him to this point. He recalled his training, in public as a warrior, in private as a ritualist. His master, an aged master in the spirit arts had taught him everything he knew to preserve this ancient, forbidden knowledge. The Emperor believed that the spirit world was what drew the rebuke of the Destroyers, and for their transgression, the ancestors had called forth the Elder Dragons from their slumber to punish the Tengu.
A small, underground movement knew this to be false, actively working against the Emperor’s secret police, the Still Wind, to fight for their rights to connect with the ancestors. He remembered the trial of his master, having been caught off-guard by a large group of Still Wind, and placed on a very public shaming trial. It was a farce, naturally, the judges having been ordered by the Emperor to declare him guilty, but he would never forget the shrill cry before the executioner’s axe came down.
We are the Tengu, and we belong to the Sky above the Sky!
Yashi Longfeather had, in that moment, become a martyr, dying for his belief that the Tengu were nothing without the wisdom of the ancestors. He recalled as they walked through the perfectly manicured gardens of the Aerie, with their closed-in, naturally winding paths that often opened up to dizzying, sweeping vistas, Yashi had spoken frankly about the power the Still wind held over the Emperor.
“Most dangerous are those who fear that which they do not understand, nor cannot have” Yashi motioned to the stone bench, and sat, his walking staff resting across his shoulder. “I have set things in motion, Ren, which you may not agree with. Your studies have improved, and I believe you are ready.”
“I will do whatever you wish, or the ancestors wish” Ren bowed, then sat next to Yashi. Before them, the tengu wall was clearly visible, and the beautiful verdance of Caledon forest beyond. They could see the massive ballistae set up along the wall, protecting the bustling temple-city below.
“You may regret that, young one. You have always dreamed of becoming a hero for your people, and you have a bright future ahead of you. But could you make the ultimate sacrifice, and become the villain that the people of the Eyrie need?” Yashi put his hand softly on Ren’s and looked him straight in the eye.
“Could you sacrifice your life, you honour and your good name to set us on the path to civil war?”
Ren did not need to think long for his answer.
Far to the east, in the mountains that Prophecy’s Hand had left behind, Skode woke from her sleep, gasping for air. She lit the lamps, and hurried from her bedchamber, waking her children as she went. Her urgency was great, and she knocked those who got in her way over, her pureblood strength breaking bones with the wave of her hand.
She broke the door to her Viewing Chamber open, startling the group of young jotun sleeping inside into action. Two of them wiped down the vast mirror that dominated the room; it was shaped like a fan, with only a small walkspace that allowed the user to walk into the centre. There was a great seat in the middle and the mirror lay flat around it, stretching for at least six feet in every direction. Above, the focussing crystal was winched into place, and the star map gradually slid into focus.
Skode took a long, serrated blade from her waist, and cut a large gash in her palm. The blade cut a jagged wound which gushed bright red blood. The blood twinkled in the starlight, as if reflecting the stars themselves, before it splashed onto the surface of the great mirror. She focussed, and her eyes turned the colour of dried blood, and she saw.
Flurries of magic surrounded the five stars, dangerous, and uncontrolled. She saw the bright star, the still star, the dark star, the star of death, and the star of might. Suddenly, the stars were scattered, the fabric of the universe torn asunder. Magic grew, fed from many sides and in many ways, to create a rift. She saw the edges of the rift sparkle in many colours, and images of many places, before the stars were sucked in.
The stars no longer shone over Tyria, but rather were clouded, as if they shone through all realities. She saw a great castle flying above nothing, a temple dusted in snow, and a great fort amongst the desert. Giant statues of men held aloft the planes of existence.
The image disappeared in a flash, and Skode called upon her powers again, but the mirror stayed quiet. She screamed, throwing her chair clean across the room. The young jotun—many generations away from her—cowered in fear. As she exited the room, one of her sons crossed her path.
“Did you see, mother?” He asked, his eyes cast downwards. She realised that in her fury she had forgotten to cover her face.
“I saw.” She confirmed. “I do not understand it, but I saw the Stars are in great, mortal danger.”
“What are you going to do?” She could not remember her son’s name, as she had birthed so many over the millenia, but this one reminded her of her late husband, and was smarter than most. She smiled, stroking his face, but his eyes stayed downcast.
“There is nothing I can do” Skode sighed, walking back to her bedchamber. “Run me a bath.”
Her son bowed. “We must have faith in prophecy.” he said.
‘We must have faith in destiny’ Skode thought.