(Read the first chapter of Korea’s Quest here.)
Ever since I could remember, there’s been a fire in my heart. It burned with joy, with hate, with love, and so often, now, it burns with a longing for retribution. It told me to keep fighting when I wanted to give up, to keep believing when I felt hopeless. And all my life, that flame has been pulling me toward my destiny.
After drifting through the heavens for some time, brushing past planets constellations, I came to a magnificent crystal standing like a massive pillar among the stars. I touched its smooth surface and warmth washed over me, spreading through my whole body. I heard the voice again.
With Taeguk . . . You must defeat the evil . . .
After China, in his infinite weakness, suffered defeat by Japan’s hands, I forged a stone. Using tools of ancient power, I melded together the essence of heaven and the essence of earth to create a gem as formidable as it was beautiful. Through this weapon, I harness my power. Through this weapon, I lay waste my enemies.
Feel the stone’s power . . . Unleash its true might . . . !
“But what is this evil and where do I find it?”
Your heart will guide you . . . It will know . . .
Two flames appeared before me, one red and one blue. They swirled around weaving into each other to make a sphere.
Child of Light, will you fulfill your destiny? Will you conquer the shadows? Will you become great?
Then the crystal began to radiate with a dazzling, blinding light. As whiteness overtook my vision, I smiled.
“Bitch, I’m already great.”
And then I woke up to little birds chirping me a good morning song as the warm sunlight caressed my face and gently stirred me from my sleep.
Oh, I’m kidding. It was the sound of rowdy drunks downstairs, and the jarring sun burned my groggy eyes as they blinked open. Yes, even in the morning hours the tavern’s patrons–all from the Western kingdoms, mind you–took pleasure in mead.
After washing up and gathering my rucksack, I headed out of the inn room. Before reaching the stairs I slipped Taeguk and the necklace it hung from into my blouse, lest the greedy animals downstairs entertain the notion of stealing it.
Below, a group was mesmerized by one of Austria’s performances. Not only could the minstrel play everything, she could play everything well. And, luckily, she was so captivating that nobody paid me any mind.
“What ya headed to, Korea?”
Of course America would make a liar of me.
“I’m on a quest to fulfill my destiny,” I said, beaming.
“Oh, you too?” America says that the gods speak to him and tell him to expand his kingdom westward–farther than even the horizon. He calls it his destiny. We mostly call it horseshit.
“When you return,” he went on, “are you going to give our bard something to sing about?”
I said, “It’ll be the ballad of the ages.” He grinned.
Then he fixed me up with some elixirs, a few salves, and enough provisions to last through the next day. Brash, unapologetic, and far too ambitious for someone his age, he was at least generous–when it suited him. I thanked him then set out.
Outside, and a generous way away from the tavern, I took in a deep breath of crisp morning air and shut my eyes. I pictured the flame inside me crackling with life and I listened very carefully for its voice. Taeguk’s glow penetrated the fabric of my blouse.
Home . . .
A whispy voice swirled around my mind.
Back home . . .
Ending where it all began, huh?
Fetching my horse from the stable, I hopped on and rode off, carrying the tailwind back to my kingdom with the sun behind me.
When dusk approached, I stopped and set up camp. I found myself in a deathly still forest, full of black trees with brittle branches, that reeked with an overwhelming sense of dread and decay. Maybe this wasn’t the best place to stop for the night, but hunger had won me over. And in any event, I was being stalked. Ever since I entered the forest, I could feel eyes on me, and the chill it sent through my body told me that it wasn’t just a wandering beast.
I heard its stride first, then saw it lunge from the darkness to strike. I whipped around and focused Taeguks’ energy into my hands. Two flames ignited in my open palms as the stone started to shine and give off heat. I shot the magic at the brash attacker, whose sword was just inches away from cutting into my face, and she flew back. Recovering quickly, she pulled herself up from the ground and gave me a white-hot glare.
I’d recognize those soulless eyes and that prideful blade anywhere.
Not this bitch again.
“Japan, didn’t you learn your lesson the first time?” The fires raged in my palms.
“It’s only a matter of time, Korea. China has succumbed to weakness and defeat. Do you really think anything will be able to stop me the next time I come for you?”
All my life, I had to fight off invasion after invasion and battle for my livelihood. Each time, the attacker failed to claim my kingdom. But things were different now, and I was scared. China lost his crown, and everyone else was becoming so powerful and so ambitious. Japan was perhaps the worst of them all; her goal was all-encompassing dominance, and I knew that after I was eradicated, she’d be emboldened to deal China a death blow and claim his throne for good.
I said, “I’m sorry, what is happening right now, then? Does this not count as you coming for me?”
Of the many things Japan disliked–happiness, sunlight, human decency–humor too made the list. Just when I thought she couldn’t glare at me any uglier, she did. Then she charged.
I knew it would be risky, but I used the few seconds before her strike to channel as much magic as I could into a powerful blast. I brought my hands forward, one above the other, and the flames swirled together to make a sphere between my palms. When Japan leaped up, I saw my chance. With a cry, I poured as much magic as I could into a raging pillar of etherial fire and shot it up toward my attacker. When the flames disappeared I couldn’t have been sure if it’d even hit, as I’d been temporarily blinded by the radiance of the magic–the price of using such a powerful spell. But I knew she’d been blinded, too.
When I could see again, I saw her kneeling to catch her breath. The side of her armor had been seared, and that’s how I know my attack connected. But she wasn’t going down so easily. She got up and came for me again. I hadn’t the energy to channel another pillar, so I fell back into a rhythm of shooting short bursts of magic at her from the individual flames. But something was different now; she seemed to be giving off a terrible aura of pure power.
When I shot a fireball at her, she swerved to the side. I shot two at once to catch her off guard, but she lifted her katana and sliced through them as if they were fruit. The next blast she deflected with the edge of her sword. I set ablaze the earth around her to block her off from me, but she hesitated for only before running through my fire like it was nothing. Where her immense strength came from, I did not know. The whole time, her steely, unblinking eyes were locked onto to me. I was the target, her focus was precise, and she had but one goal. My pulse quickened and my mind began to scatter. She used my moment of weakness to her advantage. When she closed in on me I fell back against a tree and was pinned. Her blade pressed into my throat and I felt blood trickle down my neck.
She said, “You see now, don’t you?” I hissed when the sword cut deeper into me. Blood ran down my blouse. “So easily I could end you. You think yourself strong, but you are nothing. Remember that China thought the same, yet you saw how I put him in his place.”
Rage like I’d never felt before erupted from within and burned through every inch of me. I hated her for she did to him. I hated her for wanting to do the same to me. I promised myself that I was not going to die by her hands that night.
I smiled at her, and behind it was the force of centuries of furious indignation. “What a mistake you’ve made to think that all you’ve done won’t one day come back to you as suffering.”
I knew it in her eyes that she wanted to cut me down right there, but she would not get her wish. Summoning the last of my energy, I shot a blast right into her stomach and she flew back, rolling through the dirt and leaves.
But that was all I could do. My ether was running too low to keep fighting. I would have to fight her without Taeguk, and what were hands to a blade? She lunged at me with vengeance, and I braced myself for the searing pain that was to come. Only that it didn’t. Instead, a felt a chilling frost creep up my legs and when I opened my eyes I saw Japan frozen in place. Her face was covered with a thin layer of frost and her appendages and blade were trapped in icy casts. Neither of us had the time to react because out of the darkness emerged . . .
The most beautiful person I’d ever known.
“So naughty,” cooed the greatsword wielding Westerner as she approached us in a calm but heavy stride. Her lips were curved in a toothy grin, sadistic in nature. “Doesn’t the little worm know not to touch other people’s friends? My friends?” She raised her hulking sword and swung, striking Japan so hard that I heard a crack from ribs breaking.
In that moment, I fell in love. It wasn’t Russia’s broad shoulder, strong arms, or formidable power–though those were certainly part of it–it was the way she’d nearly snapped Japan in two. I wondered if I should start fanning myself or not. (Too excessive? Yes, probably.)
Instead, I cheered, “My hero! I have to say, Russia, your timing was such that it’s as if the gods sent you to me!”
“I was patroling my kingdom for intruders and aggressors,” Russia said. She turned to me. “Thank you for helping me catch this one. Now, where are your bandages?” She began to dress my wound with something akin to maternal tenderness–quite a stark contrast to the cruelty she’d shown Japan. “What brings you out this way, dear?”
“I’m heading back home to fulfill my destiny. Well, I was until that wretch attacked me.” I shot Japan a nasty look. Crippled and still frozen over, she wasn’t in the mood to reciprocate. She did, however, cough up a bit of blood.
“Destiny? Oh, do tell me all about that.”
“I’m going to defeat the Great Evil and become so powerful that nobody will dare trifle with me!”
“That’s a nice dream, dear.” Russia smiled at me in a sweetly condescending way and it made my stomach sink. Taeguk’s light warmed my skin as the stone came alive, fueled by my anger. The stone grounded me, reminded me of why I was here.
I’ve been thrown into a world where the only person I could trust wasn’t strong enough to protect us anymore. It was a world where people thought of me as something to be conquered, as a mere stepping stone to achieving greater power. Nobody wanted to see me as a person. If they did, they would have to recognize my perseverance, my resilence, my strength, and so it was easier for them to never see me as their equal, even though that is what I am. That was going to change.
This quest to defeat the Great Evil wasn’t a dream. It was a reckoning. It was a golden opportunity in the long thread of history–a moment for me to prove myself and become someone who didn’t need anyone else, someone who could save herself.
Overnight, Russia had taken Japan to an abandoned church nearby, as rumors had it a man of the cloth made station there years ago and would heal any who came to his door. As they headed off, I heard them whispering things to each other. That didn’t bode well; never trust any deals that powerful people make with each other.
I rode out very early in the morning, pushing my doubt and distrust to the back of my mind. The cold was bitter but the sun eased the discomfort. I was about a day’s ride away from my kingdom, and I intended to get there by nightfall.
I’d only been riding for a few hours when I came across something strange. There was a pile of robes cast to the side of the road. I could tell from their vibrant and rich colors that they were royal, but they looked worse for wear and a bit tattered. What a shame! Only a fool would let such beautiful fabrics go to waste like that.
After my horse trotted a bit closer, I realized it was actually a person. Perhaps he was an emperor who fell from power and had taken up bothering passing travelers for coin or portions? I was already heartbroken from having to skip through a little village that sold the prettiest cloth and smelled of the most delicious food, so I was in no mood to deal with any nonsense. But I thought I should, at the very least, check to see if he was alive.
“Sir? By chance, are you dead? Sir? Have you passed on? Are you up in the heavens looking down upon your poor body? What does my hair look like from up there?” (I wasn’t sure if the wind from riding had jostled my bun too much. It was a real concern.) Then the matted beggar groaned and stirred. “Oh, good sir, you live! Sure as day, you live!”
When he pulled his hair back and looked up, it was like lightning struck me from above. That wasn’t a beggar at all.
PART 3 COMING NEXT WEEK
Japan invaded Korea in the 16th century across several campaigns and was unsuccessful each time. This story is based on events that occurred in 1897, putting Korea’s quest just before the eventual Japanese occupation of Korea in 1910.
Japan and China fought a war in 1894 in which Japan decisively won. China, whose power was already waning greatly, was no longer the dominant Asian power. One big blow to China’s status was the loss of Taiwan and Korea; Japan destroyed the tributary system Korea and China had by forcing the Qing Dynasty to recognize Korea as completely independent. This pulled Korea right out of China’s sphere of influence, creating an opportunity for the Japanese to move in. Keep in mind all of this comes after China lost two consecutive wars with Britain and had to give a lot of concessions to other power-hungry Western powers.
Russia, like most empires at the time, wanted to have some kind of regional presence in Asia. Korea, though isolationist to protect itself from imperialism, was more welcoming to Russia than it was Japan. Whereas Korea saw Japan as an enemy, it saw Russia as a buffer that would keep Japan away. Basically, Russia was that really buff kid you want to befriend so the bully leaves you alone.
While Russia may be a badass here, she did lose a war to Japan just a couple years later.
I’d like to give a big thanks to my friend M for helping me write the fight scene.