The dream started ordinarily enough. Shen wandered through the lavish halls of the Tower, surrounded by decorations and furnishings that appeared far too large, the whole place blanketed in stillness and silence. No-one was there, and the silence was so thick that he couldn't even hear the metallic rasping of his armoured talons against the floor. Too much silence. He found himself inexplicably afraid of the dead stillness of the place and ran down flights of stairs, out the doors and into the courtyard.
The sky was red, heavy with angry clouds, and the air felt thick. Stifling. He paused at the foot of the stairs, panting for breath, and then looked to the left.
It's always when you look to the side in a dream that you find the things that puzzle or frighten you and when Shen looked to the left, he saw a huddled shape seated calmly near the stairs. The figure appeared to be a kind of Bird... the long wings and beak and the round hat that hid the stranger's eyes immediately brought to mind that wretched Master Crane and Shen felt his blood boil. He stepped forward, reaching into his sleeve, blades slipping easily between his primary feathers. He could take this Kung Fu twit by surprise and... yes... the first step toward revenge! He slipped the knives from his sleeve, snapped them into a throwing position, and stopped short when the figure spoke.
"I am not who you believe me to be, Lord Shen." That was not the feckless tenor he was expecting--instead, the voice sounded old, raspy, and strangely wise.
Shen lowered the knives, but only slightly. "Who are you, then?"
"One who knows your future."
A hiss started in Shen's throat and with one flick of his wing, he sent the blades flying. "I have had enough of fortune-telling!" The blades were slapped aside as the stranger flipped his hat from his head and swung it in a wide arc. Then, just as effortlessly, the stranger replaced the headwear, as though nothing had happened.
"I do believe you will want to hear this."
"I didn't want to hear the last one. What makes you think you are any different?" Shen hissed, leaning forward.
For an answer, the stranger passed his wing over the top of a deck of cards and flicked the top one upward so that its face was visible to Shen. It bore a picture of his home in flames, toppling. Beneath the image were the words THE TOWER. Shen's eyes grew wide and his brows met. "What... is that?"
"The Tower," the stranger answered simply, placing the card face up between them. "It represents catastrophe and ruin. So answer me this, Lord: Everything you love and held dear has been taken from you in the blink of an eye. What do you do?"
"What do I do?" Shen repeated. He looked up and, sure enough, the palace he had just left was now a flaming ruin. He pulled in a breath, willing himself not to cough on the smoke. "I would avenge its loss, of course," he rasped. "What else is there to do?"
"Just so," the old Crane replied. His ragged, grey wing passed over the cards again, flipping a second card into Shen's vision and the Peacock recoiled, staring. The card bore an image of his mother and father, embracing each other, gazing sadly into the distance. Beneath the image was written THE LOVERS. This card was placed next to the first one.
"The Lovers," the stranger intoned and Shen narrowed his eyes at him. Heedless, the stranger continued. "It represents relationships and choice. My next question to you, Lord, is this: What is love to you?"
"Nothing!" Shen spat. "There is no such thing!"
"Just so," the old stranger answered. "However, I have not finished." A third time he passed his wing over the deck and a third time he flipped a card into Shen's view. This one held an image of a ship in ruins, spars of wood sticking into the air. Perched on one was a silhouette instantly recognisable as a Panda. Beneath the image was written DEATH.
"Death." The stranger placed the card next to the others. Shen took a step back. "It represents the end of something, but not always actual physical death. Tell me, then, Lord: what do you want people to remember about you after you are gone?"
This question gave Shen pause. His wing drifted up to his throat and his beak opened soundlessly. "I..." What did he want everyone to remember him as? Warlord? Conqueror? Ruler? He shook his head as though shaking away doubt. "What kind of a question is that?" he demanded. "All will bow before me--that is what they will remember!"
"Just so," came the reply. The next card the old Crane flipped upward from the deck made Shen squint confusedly. The image was difficult to make out, murky and indistinct save for a pale, full moon at the top. Below it was written THE MOON. It, too, was placed on the ground with the others, a pattern in their placement starting to emerge.
"The Moon," the stranger said. "It represents doubt or lack of clarity, or possibly the need for calm and stillness. So the question that this one poses is this: what do you make of your dreams?"
"Dreams?" Shen scoffed, regaining his composure. "I don't make anything of them. I don't give them a second thought--don't see why I should."
"Is that all you can say?"
"It is all that need be said." Again, the old stranger took a card from the top of the deck and flipped it upward so that Shen could see it. There, on the card, was an image of Shen himself at the top of a dais, the Peacock Throne behind him and a crowd of kneeling citizens before him. Below the image was written THE EMPEROR.
"Yeeeessss," Shen whispered, leaning closer. "This is more like it."
"The Emperor," the stranger intoned. "It represents command and rulership. This, then, is my final question to you, Lord Shen: why do you deserve to rule this land?"
Without a second thought, Shen answered. "It is my birthright."
"Is it?" the old Crane answered. "Look around you--you were not born here."
Instinctively, Shen looked about. The courtyard was gone, the ruins of the palace were gone, even the familiar scenery was gone. All around them stretched a wide, flat plain, bordered at one side by completely unfamiliar trees. Even the air smelt foreign. The sky had a kind of brittleness one doesn't see in China. For a moment, doubt assailed his mind. This is a place that has never heard of Lord Shen of Gongmen City.
Just as quickly, he shook his head, clearing the doubt. No matter. They will. "That does not matter--rulership is still my birthright. This place will be mine if I have to grind the entire land under my feet!"
"Just so," the stranger answered and bowed his head so low that his beak nearly touched the ground. He spread his long wings as if to indicate the whole of their surroundings. "Remember these answers you have given this night. Your future depends on them." With a great stroke of the old mystic's wings everything disappeared--him, the scenery, everything, in a great flurry of cards--and Shen awoke, panting slightly and unreasonably afraid in the back of his mind.