(Korea’s daring adventure continues! Read Part 2 here.)
When that frumpy beggar on the roadside looked up at me, I gasped. I’d recognize that piteous face anywhere.
“Ch-China?” I couldn’t help but gawk. If he’d passed out here the night before, it wouldn’t surprise me; these days he spent most of his time smoking and drinking in miserable solitude. I had to be a little forgiving, though, because I knew he’d hit a very low point in his life, having lost two duels against Britain and one very recently against Japan. They wounded his pride and stripped him of his power and status. Japan even took his hair.
“Korea . . . ?” He tried to look at him even as he was shielding his squinting eyes from the sunlight. “Must you be so shrill so early in the morning?”
“I suppose I might sound shrill to a drunk who’s slept into the afternoon.” I hopped off my horse and walked in closer to get a better look, just to be sure. Alas, it was China. Beneath the tattered robes and the disheveled, untied hair was the hollow shell of the man I once knew. Wait a minute . . .
Jumping back, I cried, “I’ve found you! The Great Evil!” Power surged in my hands and I shifted quickly into a striking pose. Too shocked to do anything else, he threw up his arms to ward my blow. Just before I incinerated the poor dotard, I disarmed and laughed. “Just kidding.”
“You’re awful,” he said, looking more flustered than he would ever admit to feeling.
“Oh, you love me.”
“And delusional! Now, what is the Hermit doing outside of her palace, and in my kingdom, no less? And what is this ‘Great Evil’?”
“If I answer your question, will you answer mine? When was the last time you bathed? And no, drowning in self-pity doesn’t count.”
He stood up with some degree of difficulty and began dusting himself off. “No need to worry yourself about my well being.”
I smiled sweetly. “Don’t you fret. I would be happy to let you rot here. If you must know, I’m on a quest to defeat the Great Evil and become the hero of the land.”
He shot me a look that I didn’t care for. “What? Are you joking? If this ‘Great Evil’ is such a threat, how come I haven’t heard of him? Where is the imminent, existential danger that would warrant a hero?” Well, he had a point. The dream that led me here had come out of the blue and I had no way of knowing if it was more real than my imagination. But what I did have was Taeguk’s light and the unshakable feeling that it was guiding me with a purpose. So no matter what was waiting for me back home, I was determined to face it.
I said, “It’s a calling, China! You still remember what having faith felt like, right? You remember hope, don’t you?”
“Who?” We both smiled, and for a moment I experienced a beautiful disconnect from reality. Then his gaze fell to the bandage around my neck and he asked, “Got into a fight, did you?” The moment died. I unwrapped the dressing to show him my impressive battle scar.
“It was nothing, just a little spar with Japan. I had her running away, tail between her legs.” I tried to be pleasant, but I could see China tense and flush at the mention of her name.
“Are you certain that she’s not the evil you seek?”
“I wish, would I end her once and for all. But no, fate wouldn’t be so kind. I felt nothing when I looked at her–other than unbridled rage and disgust.” I then mounted my horse, knowing well I’d already wasted too much time. “Anyhow, you should head toward that nearby village and clean yourself up a bit, have a proper meal. The next person who finds you might not be as kind or as beautiful as I–”
“I will travel with you.”
“Haaah?” He approached my horse and she swiftly moved away from his advance. “An impossible request! You’ll only slow me down. Didn’t you hear me? China!” He was so relentless that I thought of swatting at him.
“What happens if you’re attacked again, hm? No, I need to accompany you, at least until you reach your kingdom.” At that moment I could have reminded him that he was no longer as strong as he used to be, but I held back for his sake.
“Please excuse my insolence, emperor, but I believe I told you that I could handle myself.”
Yet somehow, the bastard ended up on my horse. Somehow, we ended up riding off together. I suppose it was out of pity that I allowed it, as there was absolutely no way it could have been anything else.
With each passing hour, my annoyance increased. I had only my generosity and selflessness to blame.
“How did you come to know of this Evil?” he’d asked, among other scrutinizing questions about my quest. I told him about the voice, the crystal, and Taeguk. I told him that I’d left my kingdom to acquire the tools and materials needed to forge my powerful stone. He said he wanted to see it. I told him to fetch it from my blouse. After that, he didn’t mention it again. Sometimes there were enjoyable spells where we’d ride in silence, where he’d only make small sounds or quiet comments about the landscape or the sun (too bright, too bright) or the weather (terribly biting), or his comfort level. I cherished the peace when I could.
We stopped to eat just before reaching the base of the mountains. Breathtaking in its beauty, the mountains bordered my kingdom and China’s and were home to a sacred and awesome volcano that erupted violently many, many years ago. The noise was so great that people likened it to the mighty thundering of Heaven’s drums. Exciting, isn’t it?
“Not going to marvel at it all evening, are you?” asked China, coming up beside me.
“I could,” I said. “Besides, we should let my horse rest longer. She isn’t used to carrying so much weight.”
“If you’re trying to vex me, you’ve failed.” I curled my lip at him, knowing full well he took offense to my jab. Then I adopted a playful grin.
“Why are you suddenly rushing? Oooh, China, could it be? Are you scared of crossing the water in the dark?” He just scoffed, which usually meant that I was right and that he didn’t want to admit it.
The lake that cut through the mountains was the last obstacle we’d face before reaching my kingdom. It wouldn’t be a very long voyage, but the sun was already disappearing and any body of water can become terrifying when it turns inky black. That became more apparent when we reached the pier.
“How about a little swim first, China?”
“Sure. You jump in and I will follow.” I could hear his teeth chattering, not from fear but from the night chill.
I got my rucksack settled into the boat and made sure my horse ready for the swim; she’d crossed this very lake many times, and occasionally in much colder conditions, so I had no doubt she would make it. Still, a little brushing and nuzzling to give her some encouragement wouldn’t hurt.
“What are you giggling about?” China asked as he leaned over the lake, dipped a hand in, then quickly pulled it out.
“She’s making a joke about you,” I said, smiling with glee. “A terribly rude and vulgar joke. How disrespectful! I wonder where she gets it from? Certainly not from me~” China rolled his eyes.
We went to board the boat and I even had one leg in before we were stopped by a melodic voice. “Travelers, please help me!” We lifted our lanterns to see a dainty woman approaching us. She had long, dark hair, a smooth, sly face, and tremendous breasts. “I seem to have gotten lost in this forest. Please, can’t you help me, kind man?” She stood with her shoulders pulled together, to amplify certain features, and backside jutting out coyly. But it wasn’t her demeanor that struck me most, it was how ridiculous she looked in that short dress which hugged all the wrong places. The wench had no sense of style.
China took a few steps closer and I could see curiosity twinkling in his eyes. “If you tell us where you come from, perhaps we could point you in the right direction?”
I chuckled, and the condescension could be heard in vibrations. “Oh, China, fool that you are. If only you were as perceptive as you are pretty.”
His eyes narrowed quickly as he shot me a look. “What do you mean by that?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” I started walking toward the woman at the other end of the pier. Taeguk, whose strength had fully returned, began to radiate brilliantly from beneath my blouse. “On a starry night, a shapely stranger approaches you in the middle of the a forest otherwise absent of human life. Could it be? Fate? Two lovers brought together by divine orchestration?” I lifted my hands and glowing aether pooled in my palms. “Or could it be that this is not destiny at all?! That this stranger is actually a terrible beast hungry for the heart of a weak-willed man?”
The creature knew its game was up. Lurching forward, it began a gruesome transformation back into its true form: a ravenous fox with nine tails and unadulterated bloodlust.
“Are you ready for my big reveal, China?” I shouted back to him.
“Reveal of what? Don’t you go rushing into anything. Come here so that I may enhance your magical abilities with my arc–”
“Here it is!” My voice peaked with excitement. “The stone you’ve heard so much about!” The fox ran for me, teeth barred and anger burning in its eyes. “An ancient, legendary power!” It lunged, massive jaw opened wide and ready to clamp down on my neck to rip me apart. “It’s . . . Taeguk!” A roaring pillar of fire erupted from my hands and engulfed the beast. It flew back and fell to the ground hard with a blood-curdling whimper.
“I suppose that was impressive,” China said, having come up behind me.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to hide your awe. I wouldn’t think any less of you if you were to shed a tear of amazement.”
“Don’t celebrate so soon, Korea. This fight is far from over.” Sure enough, the beast recovered; it raised its tails and several blue, wispy flames began circling its form. China pulled a thin deck of cards from beneath his robes. Six or so of the cards on top slipped out of their formation and began circling the air. The ornate dragon design on their backs started to glow with a magical energy. “Hmm, which shall I pick?”
Our enemy wasn’t in the mood to wait around while China deliberated. It charged, but this time the flames at its side shot off at us. The first one struck my shoulder; though the fire was pure ether, it burned like real heat. The second and third flames were poised to char my face, but moments before they reached me they disappeared–evaporated into thin air like they’d been suddenly snuffed out. Behind me, China stood proudly with an arcanum hovering above his open palm. The ox on the face of the card was illuminated with what looked like purple-tinted starlight.
“Ah, just in time,” he said, with some sort of irony in his tone. “Shall I draw again?” The arcanum danced in the air once more. He twirled his wrist, the way one might when trying to be fancy about drawing a card, and another arcanum began to resonate with light: the yellow dragon. I could feel it’s energy enter my body, warmth not unlike Taeguk’s. My arms all the way down to my hands surged with immense magical power, and I was done playing games. So was my opponent.
The fox gave off a blue, ghostly aura and dashed for me–so quickly that it felt like a blink. One moment it was several feet away, then the next it appeared right before us. Accompanying the dash was a powerful wave of energy that sent China and I flying. Though the wind was knocked out of me, I was able to shoot a beam of magic into the water to propel me away so that I landed safely, yet not painlessly, on the dock. I heard a yelp and splash and I knew China wasn’t as lucky. Oh no.
With another dash, the fox appeared at my side. I braced myself and was only knocked back a little bit, but before I could counter it blinked away again. The next time I saw it, I felt its hot breath on my face and I was staring right into its wild eyes. Quickly, I threw up an arm, which its hungry jaws clamped down on. Razor-sharp teeth cut into my skin and dug into my bone. Pain tore through my body, burning hotter than even the monster’s fire. I knew I had to kill it then or I would perish.
Harnessing the added power from China’s celestial enhancement, I brought Taeguk’s twin flames together to form a mighty, etherial arrow that nearly matched me in length. With a cry, I drove that arrow right into the beast’s heart. The creature released its vicelike grip on my arm before falling limply to the ground, where it soon died. But I could not cherish my victory for long because out of the murky water merged a giant red serpent . . . Only that it wasn’t a real snake, but the specter-like projection of one. It snapped its jaws at an enemy that was no longer there as I heard China shouting something about revenge and a “vile fiend.” There was, of course, much teeth chattering.
“It’s defeated, China.”
“What? Defffeated? Well, no need to th-thank me.”
Finally, we could set off. Once on the boat, China, much to his displeasure, disrobed to rid himself of his soaked garments. I let him cover up with my coat, which was too small but would have to do until his clothes dried. Then we drifted through the water.
“Your wounds,” he began, voice soft. “Here, allow me.” He held his hand out to the bleeding, oozing gash in my arm and I felt his healing magic sooth my pain. The chipped and fragmented bits of bone melded back together and my torn flesh began to close up and scar over. Then his fingertips brushed against the burn on my shoulder.
“You shuddered,” he said. “Does it hurt?”
When I first met China, I thought him to be a controlling bastard with an enlarged sense of self-importance. That much is true still, but over time we developed a bond that is unlike anything I have with anyone else. I don’t have a word for it, except . . . Profound. For so long now he has been a part of my life and we’ve become intertwined in ways that are hard to undo. I used to be at peace with this, but slowly I started to resent it. And maybe that led to me resenting him too–never completely, but just enough to always feel it right beneath my surface.
Whatever feelings I had for him died long ago. I lied when I told him it didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t my shoulder that ached. If I were shameless, I would ask him why he never could decide what I meant to him. I would yell at him for thinking he had any right to control me, and assert that he had even less of a right to be so repugnant one moment but so tender the next. I would tell him that I hated him for changing so much, for staying complacent while the rest of the world grew stronger, for failing to protect me. Then I would apologize.
But, you see, I was not shameless so we rode the rest of the way in silence.
I screamed at the top of my lungs as horror filled my veins with ice. China grabbed hold of me. From the look on his face, I was sure he thought I was unraveling into a fit of hysterics.
My palace–my home, my haven, the only place on this cruel earth that I felt safe–it was in ruins.
We’d rode out that morning and stopped only to fetch China a horse of his own from the nearest settlement. As we drew closer to our destination, I noticed that a fearsome and ominous cloud of darkness had consumed the sky above my palace. When we arrived at the main gates, my worst fears were confirmed. A thick, depressing fog cloaked the exterior of my home, as if trying to drag it into the abyss. All color had been drained from every inch of every building, robbing them of their splendor and beauty. A heavy and oppressive feeling of death choked the air.
“That boorish, impudent, wretched, bastard!” I marched forward. “I’ll kill the Great Evil–I’ll kill him one thousand times over!” A flaming aura ignited the air around me. I burned hot with passion and vengeance, and I was ready to end this.
CHECK BACK SOON FOR THE FINALE
- Foxy lady: The kumiho, a shape-shifting fox monster that sometimes turns into a beautiful woman to seduce men before devouring their organs, is a very iconic creature of Korean mythology. I based the monster’s abilities after Ahri from League of Legends because she too is a kumiho.
- Sacred volcano: This is, of course, a reference to the real Mount Paektu.
- Astrology magic: China’s abilities are based on a playable class in Final Fantasy XIV. The class is called Astrologian, a healer by nature that will draw arcanum from their decks at random in order to help the team. Each of the six arcanum gives the target a buff (increased defense, increased attack, etc.). I thought it would be fun to give China these powers, considering how influential the zodiac has been in Chinese culture.
- Took his hair?: During the Ming Dynasty, hair was cherished and taken very seriously because of its relevance in Buddhism. Hair was considered to be as important as a limb, so cutting off one’s hair could be likened to, well, chopping off one’s arm or leg. It’s explained in greater detail here, but you can already see the significance of Japan cutting China’s hair and how it underscores the cruelty and brutality of imperialism.
- (Sidenote: While the culture around hair changed very drastically under Qing rule, I believe China’s attachment to his hair would stay with him until the turn of the 20th century.)
- On Korea/China relations: I wanted to explain the relationship between China (Qing) and Korea (Joseon) without making Korea seem subservient. They were close; there’s always been an understanding between them and after the Qing invasion of 1636, they enjoyed a generally peaceful relationship with mutual benefits. Even so, Korea doesn’t take shit from anyone and was never a passive, servile country, ever. Historically, China and Korea’s relationship was dynamic; it had many highs and lows and even differed dramatically from one dynasty to the next (e.g., Korea had strong diplomatic relations with Ming but Qing, the successor, was seen as aggressive due to the invasions).