To say that something is a little over two thousand years old would not make the listener think of it as “new”; nevertheless, the Tengu Race which owns that age is relatively new, when compared to some of the other races that inhabit Calagos (such as elves, who’ve been there for around three million years).
The emergence of these creatures is shrouded in mystery but coincides with the Gate Wars, so it is presumed that they were created either as a result of some spillover celestial or demonic magic or perhaps even as an abhorrent experimentation in the long search to find weapons that could combat these forces. No one knows if they were humans who were altered to be more crowish or crows who were changed to be more human; either way, since their appearance, they have been shunned, fought, and fiercely disliked by their fully human counterparts, relegated almost to the level of lepers. They tend to attract more of this ire as they build larger communities, so, to avoid this, Tengu are more likely to splinter into smaller family clans that slink and wander like feathered gypsies, seeking out the less-desirable corners of Calagos where they can thrive in peace (or something close to it). Though, being bird-like, they are delicate, they are also fast and highly intelligent – trained in varying types of swordplay from birth and often incredibly gifted as linguists – and are still trying to scratch out their place in a world that doesn’t quite know what to think of them yet.
Though Tengu are often associated (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) with vanity, greed, impulsivity, and a mad desire for competition, Daba stood out – or, rather, receded – amongst the members of Clan Ruk at an early age due to her reserved nature. She was the last of seven offspring of her immediate family, and the only female; as the other six boys seemed rash, cunning, and irrepressible enough to supply the Clan with wild stories for a lifetime, she felt no wish to compete with them and withdrew more into herself and her own studies, fervently learning history, nature, languages, and magical lore (the last of which her parents thought too dangerous and discouraged her from). She was tall – unusually so, and her father’s eyebrow seemed to slant higher with each inch she gained – but in all other ways she attempted to be as unremarkable as possible.
Thus she would have remained if not for the appearance of the raven on her fifteenth birthday – the date that signifies adulthood for the Tengu – flying in out of nowhere and landing on the ramshackle windowsill of her little curtained room in the straw hut. She did not think much of this at first, as ravens often flew around Tengu huts, looking for sympathy crumbs, until this one opened his beak and spoke to her with the voice of a man: “Let me tell you a story.”
It happened about 400 years ago, when the tension between human and Tengu was at its peak. The reason is lost to time, and perhaps there never really was one; bolstered by ale and bravado, a human raiding party from a little no-name village massacred an entire clan that had recently moved close to their borders, leaving no hut unburned, no living thing unslaughtered. But there is always detritus, little pieces of dust you miss in the cleaning – in this case, one Tengu girl, just turned fifteen, who had snuck out to night-fish and returned to the smell of singed feather and bone. What this girl did next, we do not exactly know, but we do know she asked for help, with a ritual both ill-advised and bloody – asked to have the power to avenge her Clan, no matter the cost. She was answered by my master, who would become her patron – and who, now, is your patron, too.
The village has no name because it no longer exists. Soon after the raid, it was gone – obliterated. No one knows precisely how, not even me.
But the Tengu got what she asked for. Satisfied, she grew older, married into another Tengu clan, and became a witch of great legend and power. In return, she had accepted that a curse be put upon her and her descendants – that, at various and sundry points throughout her bloodline, once every century, a girl of fifteen would be chosen to be a guardian of death – to help keep balance on this planet – and would be followed by a creature like myself, as a companion and spell-holder. This deathwitch will be feared, always, but will have power beyond imagining.
By now you know the clan was Ruk – and surely you know the girl is you.
Daba, shivering, turned to run, only to see her father holding up her curtain dejectedly, standing there but averting his eyes, unable to bear the shame.
He had known the story, of course – they all had – but none had told her. No sense scaring a child for such a slim possibility. But he had started to suspect, first with her odd hobbies and then, more worryingly, with the growth. Daba found out later that the accelerated height – most Tengu were around four talons, but she had just topped out at five talon seven – was an indicator of the curse.
She would have to leave, of course. Not even her Clan would want Taicho’s heir around once the news got out (bad luck!), and her own brothers were already refusing to acknowledge her presence; however, it was also part of her role now, to wander, to do death’s bidding. Her mother wept silently as she packed what seemed like a month’s worth of rations into a rucksack, her beak streaked with tears; her father finally raised his eyes to her, apologetically, as he handed her a set of robes – mostly black, with nighttime blue, and festering purple.
They’d been in a chest, buried underneath the hut; his grandmother, he said, had been the last heir. He had known the chance, but had not prepared her.
With these last two gifts and the scimitar she’d trained with ever since she could remember, Daba traipsed across the continent with Declan (that was the raven’s name, he later told her). For the first couple of years she was nothing but bitter. As if it wasn’t hard enough to be a Tengu, she was now the outcast of the outcasts. No one wanted a death witch around, knowing what it meant, what she might be there for, and to make it worse she did not know – and might never know – the exact name or nature of the patron from whom her powers were emanating. Declan knew, but was prohibited from telling her, and as much as they grew closer over the many long days and months that followed he would never answer her enquiries. Declan himself was somewhat of a mystery, too: the same familiar who had served her great-grandmother, he was once an elf who had done something very bad, something to cross this shadowy patron in some way, and had been doing penance in the form of a raven ever since. That was all Daba knew, and still knows, about his pre-familial past.
But he remains with her today, always, his little talons digging into the fabric over her shoulder, his general knowledge and general snark as welcome to Daba as the magic he retains for her; he keeps her walking, keeps her laughing, and he is a every bit as much of a true friend to her as he is a spellbook with wings.
For a long time, he was the only friend she had – until she met Bartak and Vilig, who, luckily for her, don’t seem to be afraid of anything, much less her presence. Their journey together is yet to be fully told; her own journey, ten years after that evening, has been and will continue to be one of acceptance – both of everything she will never be and everything she is. Daba Ruk has begun to realize that “curse” is only one way of looking at it, and that even the powers of death can be used for good; she only wishes she knew the truth behind her spellcraft.