Without looking, the mystic reached out one stick-thin arm and grabbed the kettle from the fire. In a smooth motion she poured the boiling water into his lap. He winced in spite of himself. She chuckled. Despite the carelessness of her movement, not a drop splashed - although he was intensely aware of the heat from the wooden bowl so dangerously close to his groin.
The mystic did not speak, but mimed raising the bowl. He remembered her instructions then, with a start. He leant forward, and inhaled a deep breath of the scented steam. The sweet, sharp scent caused his nostrils to tingle and chilled his lungs. His head swam. Rainbows gathered in his peripheral vision, vanishing when he turned to look at them. He caught himself giggling.
He looked down at his hands - the old mystic must have taken the bowl without him realising. The fire was lower than he remembered. He felt ... displaced, as if his skin were too tight for his body. Then he was distracted by one of the new tattoos on his forearm, the swooping hawk and the soaring falcon. He fancied he could see them beating their wings.
His hostess poked him with a long dry stick, and offered him a tall boiled-leather pot. He reached inside, feeling the coolness of the mammoth ivory tokens within engulf his fingers. He grabbed a handful and without looking at them threw them onto the mat in front of him. His vision blurred - then narrowed - then danced with colours. The old woman snapped her fingers, then pointed to one of the runes.
"Gralm," she rasped. She held one jagged fingernail just above its surface, almost close enough to touch. "It is the crossroads. It is the skein. It is the choice you must make - to go to south, or to stay in Skarsind. It's the hero's road."
She grinned, showing her jagged yellow teeth. She snapped them suddenly together and grinned.
"It is also death. All roads end in death, and lover's meeting."
She pointed to the second rune, again stopping just short of touching it.
"Ull!" she announced fiercely. "It is the tossed coin, the rolled dice. The lightning strike, the unforeseen chance. The life that happens while you are making other plans. It is a powerful rune. It is ... great deeds, for good or ill. A hero's rune."
Then she pointed to the third rune - leaning forward and peering at it. She held her entire face just above it, sniffing.
"This ... is the other rune. The twenty-seventh. See, it is blank? It is the unknown and the unknowable, the rune without a name, the mystery, the secret that you knew before you were born and will know after you are dead. It is the road, the road of a thousand choices, Walk the road turning left and right, choosing your path and then look back to see that there is only a straight road behind you with no turnings. Look ahead and see no more choices."
She rolled back on her haunches and studied her guest carefully.
"Many mystics do not include the blank rune among their stones." She sucked her teeth thoughtfully. "I am one of those. Here."
She upended the pot then, spilling all the remaining runestones. They bounced and scattered across the cloth, clacking and clattering together. They were all blank, all empty, just tablets of mammoth ivory scattered around the first two runes he had cast down. The mystic stirred them all together with one sharp taloned fingernail, and laughed - a sharp barking laugh like a dog. Or a wolf. Then she pushed her mask up, and the young warrior could see she was smiling - a particularly mirthless smile."Well my boy, I don't know what to tell you. The runes say your choice is important, and will shape your life ... but they also say you have to make it alone ..."
Across the Empire, wherever diviners cast the runes or look to them for guidance, the same two keep cropping up over and over. Gralm, the Crossroads. Ull, the Coin. The runes of destiny and chance. The twenty-seventh rune also - even where that rune is not included in the casting, it turns up unlooked for.
In the League, everyone seems to have decided to perform the same plays, with the same themes. This season, when the sun has set and the temperature has lessened, the troupes and the guisers and the mummers tell old stories that set the Prince and the Witch against each other. Where the prince seeks the advice of the witch, however - a common enough trope in these sorts of plays - as often as not the actors falter and forget their lines. Where the Prince lays out her choice - to marry, to seek the Throne, to have her enemy slain - her voice sometimes takes on a bewitching timbre that stirs the audience as never before, and sends at least one dramaturgist into retirement with the knowledge she will never again match the performance she has just given.
The Urizen search the night skies diligently for signs; the Hakima find their own excuses to take blankets and bottles of wine out under the Summer stars. There they look for the signs of the world above reflecting what is already afoot in the world below. It is a sky full of birds. They find the Phoenix easily enough, and muse on the transformation of the self through learning, wisdom and understanding. Some of them mark the path of a falling star, a single tear shed by the phoenix that traces a crimson arc across the shadowed world to all to earth somewhere in the mountains of Urizen. Is this the sign they seek?
Perhaps not, the Wanderer forms no conjunction with the phoenix despite the portent. Rather, it seems to stand in alignment with absent stars - with the Stork which eschews the heavens in Summer months. Only when the astronomancers realise that the conjunction is with hidden stars, do they mark how the sky reflects what the runecasters and the dramaturgists already know.
Fateful, significant choices that might shape a life, a skein ... an Empire. A chance to weave a new fate, or confound an old one. A crossroads, from which a traveller must choose one road or another. There will be no turning back, as the Solstice approaches, and no guarantee of a second chance.
The Urizen say the Stork means making the right choice for the right reasons; in Highguard they call it the Decision to be Virtuous. It is about accepting responsibility for your own destiny, being the master of your own fate. Accepting that things matter, and that the decisions and actions we take in life influence them. It is about accepting that you must choose, or you must stay where you are until hunger, or thirst, or old age catch up with you - like one that travels a lonely road and, looking back once, walks on and knows the darkness that follows at their heel.
There are tides in the world. Usually they are most obvious when the stars align, but it must be remembered that the stars as often as not reflect the world; they do not shape it. The runes heralded the shifting of those arcane currents first, and the stars followed suit.
In this case, a conjunction of chance and fate; a conjunction that suggests that the right choices can shape the world. The Stork, the crossroads, the dice, the Prince and the Witch. Call it a conjunction; it's as good a name as any.
Under this conjunction, rituals that seek guidance are harder to perform. The magnitude of Signs and Portents, Whispering Shadow Courtiers and Dreams in the Witch House are each increased by two for all casters. The conjunction may have similar effects on similar magical effects, especially those that draw on the intuitive, divinatory powers of Night.
In contrast, the rituals that support choices that have already been made - specifically Call Winged Messenger, The Ambassadorial Gatekeeper and The Ethereal Courier each have their magnitude reduced by 2 for all performances. Indeed, any ritualists who have mastered these rituals may choose to substitute green iron for crystal mana when performing these rituals; the smooth metal is taken in token payment by ... well, who knows? Every two measures of green iron spent count as one crystal mana.
Many players will not even notice there is a conjunction taking place. Others may choose to view this as an opportunity to focus some of their role-playing around embracing or avoiding difficult or significant choices.
Sensitive characters will experience dreams of crossroads, and games of chance. They may also have frustrating dreams in which they seek guidance from absent friends, family members, or authority figures that ultimately proves impossible to understand or appears irrelevant. These dreams will also feature images of birds, especially ravens, and spiders spinning glistening or metallic webs.
The effects of the conjunction fade within a month of the end of the Summer Solstice; the consequences of the decisions taken under it's influence may prove a good deal more durable.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other ...