(The thrilling conclusion to Korea’s Quest. Read Part 3 here.)
A thick, depressing fog cloaked my palace. All color had been drained from every inch of every building, robbing them of their splendor and beauty. Death choked the air like a heavy and oppressive smog. The Great Evil did this–desecrated my only refuge–and I would spare him no mercy.
My soul seethed with outrage as I marched through the gates and came into the first inner courtyard. It was as ghastly as the exterior; My lovely pines hadn’t the life to bear leaves, the fertile grass had turned a sickly gray, and the chirping birds I’d often share my woes with were nowhere to be found.
A gong sounded in the distance, and I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Was the ominous sound a welcome or a warning? Very quickly, the answer came. Pouring out from the gates ahead of us was an army of specters–beings who looked like ordinary human soldiers but brimmed with a shadowy aura. I hate to admit it, but in that moment, my body froze and ice filled my veins. To see dozens of apparitions charging at us and waving around their spears and swords–wouldn’t you be terrified too? I looked back, the thought of running away having crossed my mind. Oh, but what good would that do? Besides, another gathering of the soldiers swarmed us from behind.
I grabbed China’s sleeve and spoke above the pounding of my own heart. “Oh, great emperor, what shall we do?” I said that, but I was already glowing with Taeguk’s essence, full ready to fight.
With not a word, China threw out his arms, fingers pointed heavensward. He closed his eyes tightly, brow pinching together in deep concentration. Before I could panic, a bubble spread out over us like a ward. No more could I hear the enemies’ feet pounding or their armor clanging, and then a beautiful cerulean colored magic swirled around along the surface of the bubble, distorting my view. The soldiers lashed out at us with their weapons, but they could not pierce the barrier. China dropped his hands–though, the pretty shield remained–and looked at me with a serious expression.
“Korea, you asked if I believed in fate. My answer is that of course, I do. I would not practice astromancy if I did not.” Once more he produced a deck from his robes; this time it looked thicker than before and had a different pattern.
He said, “Do you remember the reading I did last spring?” How could I forget? He drew Death and I was terrified until he explained that the card meant that one thing would end so that another could begin. “I foresaw this day.”
“Oh? Why were you so shocked, then, when I told you about my quest? How come you questioned the existence of the Great Evil, hm?”
“I was simply testing your resolve.”
“You lying, awful man.”
“Pick a card, dear Korea.” He had seven arcana floating before me, their backs turned. “And please hurry, as I’m not sure my barrier will hold for much longer.”
I tapped one of the cards and felt a little jolt of ether zip through my finger and tingle my spine. That drew out a gasp, to which China gave the side-eye. What the hell was that for? I sneered in return. Ignoring it, he twirled his wrist and the card flipped sides. The characters depicted, 火星 (Huǒxīng), began to pulse with a red magic.
“Allow the power of the Red Planet to move through you,” China said, holding the card out to me. As with the dragon arcanum, I could feel this one’s power enter my ether-hungry body and fill me with a vigor I never imagined possible. It went beyond simple enhancement–power surged through me and electrified my whole being.
Waving my hand in a circular motion through the air, I conjured Taeguk’s flames into a roaring, blazing ring that grew and grew until it encircled us. The moment our shield faded, fire and fury erupted outward from the ring and engulfed every inch of the court that wasn’t within our circle. Yellow and orange overtook my vision and I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, only that I could hear the anguished shouts of the enemies. When everything settled, there was absolutely nothing left of the legion except for the scorched earth they once stood upon. I couldn’t help but let out a cheer, and even China looked impressed. Celebrations didn’t last long, however. Taeguk floated up from my blouse, levitating completely on its own as it pulled in the direction of the second gate.
“China,” I said, “I’ve come up with the perfect strategy.”
“Please, impart your wisdom–Korea!”
I took off running for the next gate, setting my sights on the innermost court where I would find my throne hall, and heard China sprinting after me. As I ran, I caught the attention of another horde and it felt as if they’d been station there purposefully. They were the henchmen of the Great Evil, no doubt, and they’d been waiting for me, their numbers vast and their weapons sharp.
What the hell was I doing?
“Korea!” an annoying and slightly faint voice called again from behind.
I stopped in the middle of the court as monsters began to rush me from three sides. Moments later I heard China panting next to me.
“Perhaps I should show you my own magic,” he said.
“Yes, and sooner rather than later!”
The monsters were closing in on us and it didn’t look like China was going to throw up another barrier. Instead, he began molding the air with his hands, as if he were shaping clay. A little glow of light grew into a molten sphere above the advancing army. It was . . . a star? It started to shine until it became a ball of light that grew greater in size with each passing second. After a certain point, I had to close my eyes and turn away. Not a moment later, I heard an explosion unlike any I’d heard before. It wasn’t loud or harsh, but it was omnipresent, almost, like I was hearing it inside my own head. Behind my eyelids, I could see a flash of light and then I felt a great heat that disappeared as suddenly as it’d come.
When I opened my eyes, my jaw dropped. In place of the star was a mesmerizing cloud of wispy trails of gas and light in vibrant colors–purple, pink yellow, green, blue. The celestial phenomenon was such a stark contrast to the wasteland of corpses that it had created.
“China, you can fight! And it was spectacular! I was beginning to think your only use was making me stronger!”
“You’re so very charming,” he said without so much as looking at me. “Now, shall you pick your next card or would you have me do it?” I hadn’t even the time to respond before he said, “Very well, since you insist.” Then he chose a card at random, 夏季 (Xiàjì), and said, “Summer, the embodiment of warmth and abundance. Use it well.” The celestial magic empowered me once again, but this feeling was different from the first. My insides were absolutely buzzing.
“I’m–I’m going to burst into flames!”
“Probably not, but I won’t make any promises.” His tone was much too casual for my liking.
We pressed on, passing through the last gate and entering the innermost court. At the center was a building cloaked in a veil of utter darkness. There it was, my Geunjeongjeon.
Curiously, fewer enemies stood in our way here, giving us more leeway in choosing our battle strategy. Mine revolved around one central tactic: burn everything to the ground. Throwing my hands up to the sky, I called down pillars of fire that incinerated indiscriminately. There were a lot of animal noises coming from China’s side of the fight, and I took that to be a good thing. But then I heard him yelp and I looked over, only to see one of the creatures on top of him. With one struggling hand he held off its lance from piercing his heart and with the other, he grabbed its face. From that hand came a burst of magic that exploded into what looked like a brilliant star cluster. The monster, who no longer had a face, fell back and didn’t move after.
I asked, “Was that the last of them?”
“For now, I suppose.”
I helped China up and Taeguk pulled us both toward Geunjeongjeon. The dark fog was thickest there and it surrounded my throne hall so completely that I could scarce make out the architecture. Such a wretched curse, depriving me of the splendor that was the hall seating the symbol of my authority and power. Japan, in her boundless depravity, burned Geunjeongjeon to the ground during her failed invasions. I was not going to let anyone take it away from me again. There was just one problem. The entrance was sealed.
A magic barrier that took the form of chains ensnared the main entrance, or what I knew to be the main entrance despite the visual distortion caused by the fog. Taeguk was burning more ferociously than ever before, and I knew it felt the same rage I did.
“A seal unlike any I’ve seen before,” China said. “This surely goes beyond mere black magic–in fact, it looks to be pure corrupted ether.”
I glanced back to make sure no more soldiers were charging at us with their dreadfully sharp spears. “Do you have any idea how to break it, my scholar?”
“Perhaps.” He began dragging his hand through the air in a careful, calculated pattern, and it was if his fingertips were a paintbrush and the ink was the starry night sky. After a moment I realized he was drawing a constellation–the Azure Dragon, guardian of the East. From the shimmering constellation came a mighty apparition of the dragon that materialized slowly; first I saw its piercing, glowing eyes, then stardust formed its horns and its snout and its long, winding body. Though it was just a vision, it was enormous as it towered behind China, and the sight sent shivers through my skin.
The Azure Dragon then opened its powerful jaw and unleashed fire upon the seal. The dark ether faltered somewhat under the dragon’s mighty flame, but my heart dropped when the seal held.
“Korea,” China said, “lend me your strength. I cannot break the seal alone, this I’ll admit.”
“Your grace and humility know no bounds, Great China.”
“Seriousness, please! Now, energize the Vermillion Bird with your fire magic. Together, we may have the strength needed.”
With quick, practiced motions he drew the Vermillion Bird, guardian of the South, and it came to life as a brilliant ethereal rendering alongside the dragon. Then he looked at me expectantly and I was taken aback. I hadn’t a clue how to “lend” him my strength, so I closed my eyes, outstretched my arms, and imagined fire pouring out of my body and into the bird. Ether swam up my hands and left through my fingertips. When I opened my eyes I was face to face with a marvelous creature: a phoenix blazing against the thick darkness as flames danced along its wings and long, feathered tail.
China waved his hands around again, ordering the dragon to attack once more. This time, however, the phoenix followed the dragon’s blue flames. It soared through the air as it swirled around the fire until blue and red became one, fusing into one tremendous burst of purple magic. It blasted through the chained barrier, tearing it asunder. I couldn’t help but jump and cheer. I looked to China, who tried to remain composed at first but then broke into a smile.
I couldn’t understand it, but a rush of joy and–dare I say, admiration?–came over me. It was if I felt . . . happy to have battled through the palace with China at my side . . . Even after how nasty and terrible he’d become, I was thankful to have a companion so skilled and intelligent and handsome–Arg! Begone, treacherous thoughts! Begone!
“Well, I suppose this is it.” China’s voice brought me back the utter madness. Together we stared at the entrance to the hall and all I could see inside was darkness. Behind the darkness, my throne. Taeguk urged me to step in. “This is the destiny you seek.”
“I have to fight this battle alone. You know I do.” As soon as the firm words left my lips, I knew he’d protest. He’d insist that I shouldn’t fight without him, argue that I wasn’t prepared to face the Great Evil alone, follow me in despite my wishes –but he didn’t. Instead, he pulled me into an embrace. It wasn’t intimate, per say, but my cheeks may still have gone just a little pink.
“I’ll be here,” he said, “making sure nothing else follows you in. And I’ll be here the moment you step out victorious.” I wanted to linger in his arms but I pulled away. Our eyes met and I felt the air in my chest lift. There was something unshakeable in his gaze, and I had absolutely no doubts that he truly believed in me. It made my spirits soar.
“Thank you,” was all I said, but it was all that was needed. Then I stepped beyond the veil.
Everything behind me faded to nothing like I’d just walked into a portal to another world. But nothing about this place was foreign or strange to me. Geunjeongjeon, distorted and lifeless and cold as it may have been, was still my home. And sitting on my throne was the evil that sought to defile it. Sitting on my throne was me.
The Great Evil stared back at me and I wasn’t sure if somehow I was looking at my own reflection. But then she smiled and something about it looked so ugly to me that I knew the woman–the imitation–before me was very much a living force.
“So you’ve stolen not only my throne, but my face as well,” I said with a sneer. “Was yours not pretty enough?”
“Narcissism is an ugly thing,” she said in my voice. “It breeds overconfidence and folly. That must be why you came here alone, delusional in thinking you could ever defeat me on your own.” She stood and walked toward me with slow, deliberate steps while conjuring up a number of magical spears that brimmed with the same dark energy surrounding my palace. “You, who retreated into isolation after you were betrayed by the person you loved and trusted most.” One spear flew through the air and plunged deep into my chest, so quickly that I hadn’t time to react. The corrupted ether sent waves of intense, burning pain through my body. Then came a terrible feeling of sickness, as if the magic were poisoning me.
The Great Evil’s steps grew louder, as did her voice. “You, who shrunk back into cowardice while everyone else around you grew stronger.” A second spear broke through my chest, and when I screamed I clenched my fists so tightly that my nails cut into my palms. “You, who became so complacent and comfortable that you never once thought your demons might one day come back to finish you off.” She launched the third spear at me. I threw my hand out and I caught it in the air. It burned so painfully that I could hardly stand it, but I met her look of contempt with fiery resolve.
“You are not the first to try to break me, nor will you be the last.” I threw the spear back at her and it sunk deep into her shoulder. When she screamed I felt supremely satisfied. “Not so fun, is it?”
She did not enjoy my quip. Snarling like a wolf, she brought her hand forward and I felt invisible fingers wrap around my neck. Then she squeezed her fist shut and I couldn’t breathe. I writhed and clawed at my neck but there was nothing there to pry away.
“Look at you, squirming like a trapped animal,” the Great Evil hissed. “You may have actually stood a chance if your friend had followed you in, but he let you run to your death, didn’t he?”
The grip on my neck loosened and I was immediately thrown across the room, tossed as easily as if I were a doll. After smacking into the wall, I fell to the ground. Severe ache traveled through my leg but my only concern in that moment was breathing.
The Great Evil’s voice took on a quizzical tilt. “Have you considered that he wanted this? Whatever value he believed you had died when your status as his tributary did. Now you are nothing but a reminder of his weakness and failure. He must resent you for that.”
Once I stopped gasping I said, “Those who talk too much are usually making up for an incompetency. China has the selfsame problem.” I stood on trembling limbs and turned my palms up. “Allow me to shut you up.”
I should have felt the familiar sensation of ether pooling into my hands and igniting into red and blue flames, except I didn’t. Taeguk sat flat against my chest, completely dim even though it’d been brimming with life just moments before I entered the hall. I grabbed it. “Taeguk?” Nothing.
All of my bravery and confidence melted away. How could it be that the gem I forged with ancient magics, with the tools of the gods, could just stop working? After everything it saw me through on this journey–now it wanted to give up? Anger swelled in my chest, so much so that it overpowered the hopelessness. The Great Evil cackled.
“Fool of a woman! You let a greater sovereign manipulate you for years, hiding behind his strength while he milked your vulnerability for all it was worth. Your power was never really yours, it always came from someone or something else. Just look at the stone you believed would carry you to victory! My magic is so great and oppressive that your pathetic little rock will not even glow.“
I knew I had to fight without Taeguk. Even though I was denied my conduit, I was well practiced in the art of black magic and could recite entire spellbooks by heart. So I thought back to one of the first spells I learned and electricity shot from my hands, striking the Great Evil like lightning. She didn’t even flinch–in fact, the magic seemed to bounce right off of her.
My hands danced in the air and large icicles crystalized into existence above me. I shot them at her with a force that matched how greatly I wanted to drive the spikes right into her heart. But all she had to do was wave her hand and a blast of magic sent the ice back at me. I dove out of the way in barely enough time.
“I see no point in prolonging this,” the Great Evil said, chin turned up at me. She began to give off a deep purple aura–red in color, almost–and three similarly colored orbs surrounded me in a triangle. A thread-like tendril linked the orbs together and then they began to give off a very powerful energy. I doubled over in pain, crying and groaning as darkness tethered me to the orbs. I wanted to fight back, to break out of the miserable gaol, but my limbs refused to move. It wasn’t just the agonizing pain; the orbs were draining my very essence, siphoning the life from me.
When I looked up at the Great Evil through my sweat and messy locks, I saw her hold out her hand. A sinister, curved polearm materialized in her grip, and unlike the spears from earlier this one was all wood and cold steel.
“See how your magic did nothing to me? You cannot protect yourself, your kingdom, your own throne.” She walked toward me, swishing the blade and cutting through the air. She stood before me, raised the steel above my head, and I knew what came next.
Everything faded to black and I was left there in the utter nothingness for so long that I thought I was dead. But then, up ahead, I saw a faint glow. A lovely red and blue.
I reached for the faraway flame and grasped only darkness. My throat went dry. My legs gave out.
What was I supposed to do? Accept defeat? Die there in torment and shame?
I heard the Great Evil’s voice clawing at my ears through the darkness:
Can you see what is happening around you, or are you truly so blind? The wolves are getting hungry, Korea.
I rejoiced the day I could cast off the chains that shackled me to China’s authority, but was that naive? And was it naive to think that peace would last forever, that hiding away from the world might save me from their bloodlust?
I thought back to the morning at the inn, to America waiting to hear the epic tale of my adventure pouring from Austria’s lips and harp. I remembered that night in the forest, how Russia lifted her mighty sword above her head then swung at Japan with all of her tremendous might. I pictured China, somewhere out there on the other side waiting for me to come back, brow furrowed with the concern he’d never admit to feeling. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
They will come for you, and they will take everything from you. You will not be able to stop them.
I was a survivor–if nothing else, I was a survivor. Every heartbreak, every scar, every time I was driven to my knees, I took all of that pain and suffering and I turned it into strength. My life did not belong to a suzerain. My fate was not dependent upon a stone, was not determined by the stars. My life was mine to live, my destiny was mine to shape. And if Taeguk’s light would not shine, I would make my own.
I reached into my chest and ripped out the sorrow. Then I ripped out the doubt, then the fear, the rage, the shame, the indignation–I ripped it all out and I crushed it in my hands until it made a small flame. The flame floated up above me, higher and higher, and then it gave off an energy so great it threw me back. Winds swirled around me.
Let me grant you a peaceful death and save you from the anguish and misery.
This could not be the end.
Standing up, I reached for the flame, so high that I wasn’t sure I could even touch it . . . But then my feet lifted off the ground.
Let the wolves come. They will feel my fire on their skin, taste my fury on their tongues, know my resolve deep in their bones.
Yes, let them come. I will break their jaws or I will die trying.
The flame was so close now. I could feel its heat against my fingertips. Just a little more, and it would be within my grasp. A little more–!
Light flooded the room. I couldn’t say how, but I was back in the throne hall and my whole body was cloaked in flames and brimming with magic. From my back sprang two fiery wings, freeing me from the prison in which I was bound. The Great Evil looked upon my new form in awe and fear. That’s right, bitch.
I held my hands high, as if giving praise to the heavens, and flames twirled around my arms. Fire pooled above me before I lowered my arms to the height of my chest, fingers pointed outward like wings, and poured everything I had into my next strike. A storm of flames erupted from hands and engulfed the Great Evil. I did not stop my onslaught until her screaming did. The flames settled and all that remained of her was an artifact that had the shape of my royal emblem. It wheezed with the faint and sickly glow of corrupted magic. I smashed it into the ground, breaking it into pieces. Then it was as if a curse had been lifted.
An unseen force tore through the air like a wave, driving away the darkness and restoring color to the throne hall. It moved like a ripple, and soon I could see the whole court come to life with vibrancy once more. Tears moistened my eyes once again, but this time it felt so wonderful.
China came rushing in but had to do a double-take when he saw the blazing new appendages I’d temporarily grown. For a while, I just looked at him with wet cheeks and smile, unsure of what to say at all. He said nothing as well, but his eyes softened and he nodded at the throne behind me.
I walked up the steps and my heart beat in time with my movements. My fingers brushed against the smooth, red wood and the gold paint. I sucked in a breath. Then I sat.
The tavern patrons were in for a treat that night. It was the story of a heartbroken queen who had been forced into isolation by a cruel and unforgiving world. But she left the safety of her kingdom and braved the cold, harsh lands to save the world from the Great Evil.
What a selfless heroine!
What a valiant maiden!
And did you know? At the end of it all, after defeating evil and fulfilling her destiny and reclaiming the throne that was rightfully hers, she made a proclamation.
I am powerful, she said. I am strong. I am no lesser than any of you.
This kingdom of mine, she said, is no longer a mere dynasty. This kingdom of mine is a mighty empire.
Such bravery and boldness were celebrated by most–but not all.
Most, but not all.
- The Second Phase: The cards China draws are symbols related to a very specific aspect of Chinese astrology. To put it in the simplest way possible, there are the Five Phases that correspond to the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Each of these phases has nine things associated with it: element, cardinal direction, season, guardian animal, planet, color, and two organs. So, China was essentially drawing symbols associated with the Second Phase (Fire)–such as Summer and Mars–in order to empower Korea’s attacks. These card are different from the previous; where each zodiac animal depicted in the divining deck can be used either to attack or to give China’s company a specific benefit (e.g., stronger attack, greater defenses, sharper aim), the cards used in this chapter serve only to enhance one’s power–but they can do so much better than the arcanum of the divination deck. So while their use is niche and limited, they are stronger and they drain ether quicker. Why am I overexplaining this? Because it’s fun.
- Twinkle Little Star: During the battle in the second inner court, China used magic to imitate a supernova explosion. Of course, because it was all ether (magic), it didn’t harm our protagonists. What Korea saw when she opened her eyes was something very similar to the beautiful Veil Nebula.
- Geunjeongjeon Hall: This is just the official name of the throne hall. The building, and many others in the palace, were burned by the Japanese in 1592, then were built by the Koreans in the mid to late 1880s. Here is a map of the Gyeongbokgung palace, if you want a good visual. The battles in this story take place at 1, 2, and 3.
- Phoenix and Dragon: These two are significant in Chinese mythology and culture and generally symbolize harmony and peace in marriage because they make the “perfect couple.” Together, they can unleash a powerful attack.
- The Great Evil: This story has been a metaphor for Korea’s transformation from the Joseon Dynasty into the Korean Empire. As with every transformation, the old thing must die to make way for the new.