As the new southern empires solidified, the new northern empire–Ruen Wyn—traveled a rocky road. Its policy of electing a new Emperor upon the retirement of the old, rather than allowing the crown to be passed to a son or chosen successor, led to years of political infighting, threats of secession and attempted coups. The beast-spirits bickered over the subject as well, and often tried to drag the Ravager into their quarrels because of its proximity in the Garnet Mountains.
But the Ravager had other things on its mind. The death of Kvenkiut the Hawk still weighed upon it, and it was determined to find a way to assault the wraiths and their strongholds without risking the lives of other beast-spirits. Even its own essence was in danger when in direct contact with a wraith-ship, making the removal of those odious structures impossible. No matter how many wraiths the Ravager ate, nothing seemed to change.
Finally, the thought occurred to it that it was looking in the wrong direction.
Despite their connections to their ships, wraiths were individuals. Alone, they had hardly more power than a human mage. Likewise, the beast-spirits supported many skinchanger-lives but were themselves small in the grand scheme of spirits. Their children were their anchors, but could be torn away from them in a blink; the connection was not physical.
Even the Ravager was a singular entity, tied to its predator-children by the thinnest of threads. It could be extinguished as easily as any of its hosts, were it caught in the right trap.
What could not be so extinguished were the elements. Pervasive, physically embodied and all but eternal, they could withstand the touch of the wraith-ships and even disdain them. Air, earth, water, fire, wood and metal were all unbothered by the wraiths’ presence; it was only living creatures and their spirits who suffered.
And the Ravager remembered the Guardian Jeronek, who had been earth-blooded and of great assistance against the stellar locusts from the Outside. There were not many elemental-blood lineages in the world, as that required both intimate contact between humans and elementals and the proper magic to make that contact generative. Because Wood elementals did not like associating with humans, that made the two most common bloodlines Water and Earth.
Almost exclusively so, actually. With some research, the Ravager learned that interbreeding had been attempted between humans and Metal elementals in the mountains of Kerrindryr, but that the children of any such union succumbed to the toxicity of their Metal blood soon after. While there were a few air-bloods, they tended to take after their element too much, to the point that they all eventually wandered away and were never seen again. Lastly, no one had even tried to start a Fire bloodline.
The Ravager was torn. It knew that it could inhabit an elemental-blood, since the Guardian had taken Jeronek, but Water and Earth were both in opposition to its own elements. While it had courted the light and fiery elements by choice, it was still bound to them and would have difficulty working with water- or earth-blood. Additionally, the flightiness of the air-bloods did not mesh with its own aggressive nature; the few that could be whipped into a storm-like frenzy soon forgot what they had been doing—sometimes in mid-fight. Even the Ravager’s presence could not make them focus on the task.
That left either seeking a solution for Metal-toxicity or trying to spawn a Fire-lineage.
Because of lingering misgivings about the Metal elementals and their history of contact with the Outside, the Ravager chose Fire. The primal Fire elemental was still trapped in the center of the world, but his wrath bubbled to the surface at both the Aekhaelesgeria volcano in the Khaeleokiel range, and the Tchellaryllyn volcano south of Zhangi-Uru. Kerythryss and the other southern dragons were still angry with the Ravager and Guardian over the Seal Disasters, so the Ravager chose to coax fire up from the Aekhaelesgeria volcano; it was both closer and safer than experimenting in the south.
But the Ravager needed more than just a source of fire: it needed a mortal woman to carry the bloodline to term. The tribes that lived on the mountain and worshiped the volcano descended from Fox and Crow stock, neither of which liked the Ravager, but slightly further away was the province of Nurin with the tribes of Bear, Owl, and recently-slain Hawk.
And so the Ravager devised a plan. With a patsy as the host and Kuthrallan at the helm, it began a cult among the bereaved Hawk-folk, promising the rebirth of their spirit through the medium of the holy volcano. Kvenkiut would return not as a mere hawk but as a Phoenix, and would render all the wraiths to ash. All he needed was their prayers, their support, and the bonding of their pure souls to the Fire.
On the fire side, the Ravager lured elementals to the surface with the promise of freedom from their fetters—from the chains of earth and wood and metal but also from their fragility in the face of water. They could stride the landscape and wreak havoc at will—if only they could learn to mesh with a human body.
The experiments took decades. Many times, the Ravager almost gave up in frustration, and it often had to leave to deal with situations that fell under its spiritual purview. The cult of the Phoenix was considered warily by the others in Nurin province and unaffiliated Hawks often tried to raid it to reclaim their brainwashed kin. The Fox- and Crow-folk grew increasingly leery of cult activity on their sacred mountain, culminating in a stand-off between Zolvin T’okiel and the Ravager that only ended when the volcano’s spirit took on the Ravager’s side. Eventually the Ruenic Emperors learned about the cult and began sending agents to keep an eye on its activities.
The Ravager was annoyed by the scrutiny but knew that it could not lash out without risking its project. Still, it withdrew from visible involvement to keep the other spirits from interfering—especially the Guardian, who had started to hear the rumors as well. When the breakthrough finally occurred, the Ravager was not even there.
Progress—and thus success—had come in the form of specific magical training. More than any other element, fire mimicked the effect of magic on the body; thus similar methods could be used to contain it as were used to channel arcane power. The main concern was that the child in the womb gained all of its sustenance from its mother, and so if she could not feed fire to it as well as blood, it would not thrive; likewise, if it was too great a proportion of fire for her body to bear, both mother and child would die.
Many mothers did in fact die, for the Ravager had learned early on how to splice elemental essence into a mortal body—just not how to keep it in balance. Its attempts had focused on one-woman one-elemental studies which, despite all possible shielding and training, invariably broke down shortly after conception when the mother lost control of the fire she was channeling to the baby. When the Ravager stormed off to take its frustrations out on a new enemy, a cultist-couple tried a different option.
Both man and woman opened themselves to elemental-possession, which had been one of the arcane advances to come of the cult project. Prior to this, there had been no way for an elemental to inhabit a mortal body; the more physical elementals simply did not have the capacity and the more ethereal ones would be rejected by the body’s spirit or soul. The Ravager had taught the cultists to suppress their souls so that the Fire could take control of them, and how to prepare their bodies so that its essence could flow through their veins with the ease of controlled magic. In that state, the man and woman made love, so that their child would essentially have four parents: the two mortal and two elemental.
This balanced approach, supported by the mother’s continued possession and the father’s constant assistance in channeling fire, led to the first success for the project. The child grew far more quickly than a normal one, and was born while the Ravager was still away having tantrums. They named him Eran Drasei, or ‘Caul of Smoke’.
At the moment of his birth, every Brigyddian priestess on the planet went into a seizure of visions.
What they saw came from the eyes of the goddess herself, and would come to be called the Ashkhevar Prophecy. As it was spread in fragments throughout the entirety of the priesthood, it would take years to collate into a cohesive whole, and even then it was incomplete, for some priestesses had died. The gist of it, however, was that a ‘Child by Fire’ would bring ruin to the world.
The Trifold mobilized to seek this Child, but as they had no presence east of the Rift, they did not know of the cult of the Phoenix. Meanwhile, the Ravager had returned and was thrilled by its success, and made preparations to possess the child once he was of a decent age.
But Eran Drasei and his parents had other ideas. The Ravager was the cult’s leader but now they had their risen spirit, their Kvenkiut Phoenix, and thus had no interest in the Ravager’s plans. Instead, the parents and many other cultists plotted to use the Phoenix to claim the throne of Ruen Wyn for their clan in perpetuity. Joining their side were other Hawk nationalists who had not joined the cult but wanted to see their own Emperor on the throne and the other clans cowering at their feet.
To that end, Eran Drasei’s parents and supporters wrapped him in ritual magic, both arcane and shamanic, to keep the Ravager out. They also taught him everything they could about their own studies, and selected wives for him to perpetuate the lineage.
The Ravager was often away dealing with the growing threat of the Trifold—which included Brancir’s silver elementals and was thus a diplomatic catastrophe for the Ravager’s Metal relations—and rarely saw the cultists except to warn them and move them elsewhere in the mountains. Thus, when it came to Eran Drasei on his eighteenth birthday and tried to possess him, it was shocked to fail.
Eran Drasei repudiated the Ravager, declaring that he would be Emperor and God to the Ruenic people—and then to the rest of the realms–and that the Ravager had been merely an ineffectual midwife. Infuriated, the Ravager attacked, but though it was millennia old and contained dozens of wraith souls, it found Eran Drasei backed by the full force of the Primal Fire, which negated its own fire entirely. Stymied like it had not been since the days of Daenivar, the Ravager turned its wrath on Eran Drasei’s wives and young children, but even when it found openings to possess them, the others invariably turned on the possessed one and killed it, whether mother or child.
Finally, infuriated but out of good options, the Ravager fled back to its former base in the Garnet Mountains. With that threat dissuaded, Eran Drasei turned his gaze to the Ruenic throne.
All the Ruenic tribes knew of the Phoenix cult by now, and knowledge of the Ashkhevar Prophecy had begun to spread into the east, so Eran Drasei knew he could not act openly. However, the current Emperor was an aged Owl beginning to slip toward senility, so he decided to use that to his advantage.
His deep connection to the Primal Fire came both from his second set of parents and his constant trips to Aekhaelesgeria, the volcano through which he spoke to his ‘true father’. He had never really acknowledged his mortal parents as being important; to him they were more like tutors or doting servants, and even his wives were just an entourage. He desired power but was too arrogant to allow himself to be subordinate, so would never consider opening to the Ravager; he was also too young to see beyond his cult’s goals for him. It never occurred to him that he might want to wait, or watch, or experience more of the world before he tried to rule it.
What did irk him was that the Ravager retained a connection to Shaskret the Owl and Senket the Eagle, and also to the shattered remains of Kvenkiut the Hawk. He considered the Ravager to be a vulture picking over the bones of his spirit-ancestor and abusing the gift of his elemental father, and so decided to slander the Ravager’s name in order to get what he wanted from the Owl Emperor.
Thus, having much experience of the Ravager in its manifested form, Eran Drasei slipped into the Owl Emperor’s bedchamber one night like so much smoke. He manipulated his flame to seem like multitudes of pale wings, twisted his features into a semblance of an Owl-aspected Ravager, and hissed to the shocked Emperor that he had come on behalf of the Ravager and Shaskret. He warned the Owl Emperor of impending mutiny from within his tribe and without, all determined to remove him from the throne before his time, and declared that if the Owl Emperor allowed himself to be ousted, the entire Owl Tribe would fall.
There was some truth to the talk of mutiny; the council of tribes had been meeting behind the Owl Emperor’s back to discuss his deteriorating mental state. However, no decision had been made; several of the tribes had strong candidates for the next Emperor, and none wished to give their opponents any advantage with the current Emperor by declaring themselves against him. Still, when the Emperor babbled to his Owl advisors about the vision he had been granted, some of them became nervous and began to plot.
Some of the Owls thought that their Emperor had gone mad. Others accepted his vision as truth. Eran Drasei overheard both sides, for he had learned that he could watch and listen through hearth-fires and candle-flames, and so he began visiting the doubtful Owls at night as well. Never for long, and usually only to loom and flare and demand they declare their allegiance to the Ravager, but enough to make sure they knew the Owl Emperor was not mad.
Suddenly the Owl advisors were all whispering to the Emperor that a few assassinations of opponents might be merited.
The Emperor agreed.
Eran Drasei appeared to the Emperor many times, to impart information he had learned in his eavesdropping and to expand the hit-list that the Owl tribe’s assassins were using. Many were Eagle tribe dignitaries, for Eran Drasei had been taught to blame Senket for Kvenkiut’s death, and when the Owl Emperor asked why the Ravager wanted his own people killed, he responded that holing themselves up in their aeries proved that they were too cowardly to be predators. Eran Drasei also promoted reliance upon Bear allies and deep suspicion of Fox- and Crow-folk. He barely mentioned the Hawks because he did not want them involved in the trouble he was brewing.
The Eagle tribe withdrew from the council after a few assassinations of its representatives. Eran Drasei told the Emperor that this meant they were preparing for war, so the Emperor rallied council allies—mostly Bear and Badger, plus bullied Hare and Crane-folk—to his side to prepare a defense. Further assassination of Wolf and Snake-folk set the sides, and soon those tribes had withdrawn from the council and joined with the Eagle tribe in opposition to the Emperor. Border skirmishes turned to raids, then to serious assaults, and mysterious fires gutted the mixed-tribe cities along the borders. Each side blamed the other.
Despite a decline in physical and mental health, the Owl Emperor insisted on taking the field, and his children and grandchildren rallied around him in support. Many were contenders for the Owl seat on the council, and with the sudden potential for a ‘real’ empire where the heir to the throne was chosen by blood instead of by vote, they competed incessantly for the Owl Emperor’s favor. His whims were their orders, and they increasingly came from Eran Drasei, who prompted the Owl Emperor into performing atrocities—first on his enemies, and then on anyone who got in his way.
The rules of warfare went out the window. Already happy to use assassins, the Owl Emperor expanded his repertoire to mass execution of enemy officers, torture of prisoners, use of arcane magic—formerly rare in the east—and destruction of land and cities. He also performed rituals fed to him by Eran Drasei, supposedly to call upon the power of the Ravager and Shaskret but serving merely as an opportunity for Eran Drasei to float across a battlefield like an owl-shaped will-o-wisp and kill people. Shaskret herself tried to intervene a few times, but Eran Drasei chased her away; she was too unnerved by his radiance to stay.
The Ravager, meanwhile, watched closely for a way to trip him up.
Finally, Eran Drasei’s demands heightened to madness. Fully in his grip, the Owl Emperor turned his paranoia on his allies and kin, ordering the assassination of Bears and Badgers and even fellow Owls. All of them were ‘suspected of coveting the throne’, and soon the Owl Emperor’s armies were falling to shambles around him while those of his enemy experienced a resurgence of purpose. Eran Drasei had ceased to manifest on the battlefield, and had spread the rumor among the enemy that the Owl Emperor had lost the Ravager’s favor, so that when a final push brought the Eagle tribe in direct clash with the Emperor’s guards, the Emperor was relying almost exclusively on his mages and dire rites.
Eran Drasei waited until the Eagle detachment was nearly dead, then fell upon the Owl guards like a meteor. Tearing mages and soldiers apart like paper, he advanced upon the aghast Owl Emperor and declared himself Kvenkiut reborn through flames, come to the aid of his brother Eagle’s people to remove this corrupt leader from the realm. Upon slaying the Owl Emperor in grand dramatic fashion, he turned to demand of the beleaguered tribes that he be recognized as their deliverer and an ascendant beast-spirit in man-form.
He was in mid-speech when the Guardian dropped a river on him.
Though they were no longer friends, the Guardian and the Ravager were still comrades, and the Guardian had come to its partner’s call. Water effectively doused Eran Drasei’s bravado, and though it could not subdue him alone, the two Great Spirits stepped out to confront him with his true history and identity. Angry because he thought the Ravager had long since fled this conflict, Eran Drasei could not manage a convincing lie, and was chased from the battlefield.
The truth of the Owl Emperor’s madness spread quickly, and soon troops from all tribes were marching upon the cult of the Phoenix and other Hawk enclaves. While the Guardian moved to prevent innocent Hawks from being exterminated, the Ravager tried its best to possess a fire-blood—any fire-blood. Like before, though, it was stymied by the cult’s fanaticism in killing any host it took, and when the cult enclaves were overrun, it withdrew.
Only two bearers of the bloodline escaped the slaughter: one of Eran Drasei’s pregnant wives and her young son. The Ravager considered trying to possess the boy, but knew the mother would just kill him, so chose to protect them instead. They fled to the west and managed to escape over the Rift, where they sought asylum in the Altaeran Empire. Though the Ruenic tribes demanded that they be sent back for execution, Altaera granted them sanctuary and protected them from the Trifolders, who were still anxious about the Ashkhevar Prophecy. In response, Ruen Wyn officially exiled the family and all their kin in perpetuity, with no return upon penalty of death.
The Ravager withdrew to its Garnet Mountains base again, though it would check on the exiles regularly to see if it could slither into one of the children. As for Eran Drasei, he was rumored to have leapt into Aekhaelesgeria to escape the angry mob, or else to still lurk around Ruen Wyn starting fires and stirring up trouble. No confirmation could be made of either.