BOW BEFORE ME, MORTAL WRETCHES.
Fear and awe paralyzed the guardsmen as they looked to the sky. The dragon’s slender body snaked around the watchtower several times over. Its ivory scales shimmered in the sunlight. No one dared to move under the watch of the creature’s golden eyes.
At the base of the tower, General Jae Ahn stood before the guards, back straight, legs parted, and hands folded together atop the tri-colored orb crowning his staff. Dressed in black military regalia, he appeared authoritative despite his slim frame. The nasty look that never left his eyes gave his youthful face a distinguished edge. When he spoke, his voice was no less commanding than his stature.
“I know what you must be thinking,” Jae said as his eyes scanned across sweaty faces. “‘Will this mighty, god-like entity kill us where we stand?’ Well, not to worry.” He gave them a taut smile. “I have no intention of hurting you.”
“General,” said one of the guards in a quivering voice, “it’s not you who we worry about, it’s…” His eyes drifted up.
“Oh, him?” Jae said as if they were talking about some nameless street urchin. “That’s just my husband–”
“You’re married to the beast?”
“Beast?” Flames rose up from Jae’s hands as he warned the guard with a fierce glower. “Disrespect him again and you will answer to my fire, worm.”
In a show of solidarity, Yao Yu lowered his head and bared his teeth. The man blanched and pursed his lips tightly.
Jae knew this foreigner had been raised to perceive dragons as harbingers of death and destruction. His ignorance was not his fault. Of course, Jae didn’t care.
“I ought to shove your pasty face into the dirt and make you beg for forgiveness,” Jae went on. “As it happens, I only need that you lower the gates and let us through. You’ll do that for me, won’t you?”
The ensuing shouts of compliance were music to Jae’s ears.
They walked side by side as they headed from the stables to the inn. This was a small village with dirt paths and stilted bamboo huts, but it felt quaint. People here minded their own business. That’s what mattered.
“You didn’t need to show off back there,” Jae said as they walked.
Yao Yu gave him a smile. “And you needn’t have been so harsh on them. They were just boys.”
Even though he looked like a man once again, Yao Yu still caught glances from wonderstruck villagers. Dragonborn could mask their true selves, but the strength of their draconic blood was still too strong for them to pull this off completely. Slim, branch-like horns protruded from beneath Yao Yu’s hair, and patches of white scales decorated his skin here and there.
“Just boys? They were old enough to know better than to question a high ranking officer of any kingdom.” Left unsaid was the fact that Jae himself was young for a man in his position.
“Ah, of course.” Yao Yu brought his hands together out in front of him and bowed. “Forgive me for challenging your authority, sage General.”
Jae scowled. “If you’re going to toy with me, do it properly. Get on your knees.”
“And then what?” The words came in a close whisper and the obvious suggestion spun a heat in Jae’s stomach that made their arrival at the inn all the more exciting.
But just as they took their first steps inside, the earth opened beneath them and they were swallowed up by a hole of swirling black magic.
When Jae’s eyes fluttered open all he could see was a black sky. Sitting up, he found himself next to a flaming cauldron in the middle of a forest clearing. The heavy fog, the sagging willows, and the death-like quiet of it all reminded him of fairytales with unhappy endings. His heart raced.
Where was Yao Yu? And, more importantly, where was Jae’s staff?
He started at a sharp cackle that echoed through the air and rattled the leaves. After springing to his feet, Jae saw dark plums of smoke spewing into the clearing from the darkness beyond the trees. The laughing convulsed into shrieks. When the menacing smoke finally dissipated, it revealed…
A little man in a big hat.
He held his clenched fist out in front of him and gripped a blackwood wand in the other hand. The sagging wizard’s cap was not enough to keep his wild black hair at bay, and his height left so much to be desired for that his purple robes pooled at his feet. A dangerous look burned in his eyes.
“Welcome… TO YOUR DEMISE!” His shrill voice grated on Jae’s ears. “The fact that you are not TREMBLING at my feet means you must not recognize the GOD standing before you. It is I, VASHNAR THE FORSAKEN, all-powerful, all-knowing, all—”
“Shut up,” Jae snapped.
At that, Vashnar’s beady little eyes went wide. Then they narrowed again, flaring with indignation.
“You DARE speak to the Great Vashnar so CARELESSLY when I hold your companion’s life in my hands?!” With a wave, the fog surrounding one of the willows rolled away. Jae’s felt his heart skip a beat. Yao Yu was bound to the tree, held there by some web of dark magic. Hovering beside him was the staff, trapped in a cloud of purple aether.
“Did he hurt you?” Jae asked in Auyarin. No way that knee-high nuisance would know the ancient language of the dragons.
Yao Yu’s frown faded into a gentle smile. “Not at all, I–I’ve missed hearing you speak like that.”
“Do not TEST me!” Vashnar cried, drawing their attention. “You have no IDEA who you’re dealing with! You think your powers could ever compare to mine? A maggot is nothing to a GOD!”
Yao Yu stifled a laugh and instead feigned confusion. “Jae, why am I hearing two of you?”
“It must be your old age, my beloved. Your senses fail you, I fear.”
“ENOUGH!” Vashnar snapped, and the fire burning in the cauldron hissed and flared. “I dragged you into my REALM OF PAIN, Phoenix of Seoju, because you claim that YOU are Astraeus’ most powerful wizard, but THAT title rightfully belongs to me–VASHNAR THE FORSAKEN! I challenge you to a DUEL, and when I defeat you, you will KNEEL before me and acknowledge VASHNAR as the GREATEST sorcerer in ALL the realm!”
Jae’s lip curled as Vashnar erupted into another cackling fit. “I will gladly purge you of these delusions.”
“Arrogant WRETCH! You have now incurred my WRATH, so I shall raise the stakes! When I win you must give me… A KISS!” And before Jae could get a word in, Vashnar thrust his fist into the air and cried out, “BEGIN!!”
No sooner did he utter those words did a blazing comet of dark magic crash into the ground, carving a deep crater and burning the grass in a wide radius. Jae sprung out of the way just in time, but the force knocked him off his feet.
So, it seemed, Vashnar’s magic was much less of a joke than Vashnar was.
“How fortunate that you narrowly avoided TOTAL OBLITERATION by my falling star!”
“May I point out,” Yao Yu interjected, “that ‘falling stars’ are not truly stars–”
“Spare us the lecture, Wise Teacher,” Jae said dryly, pulling himself up and brushing his cloak down.
Even as he spoke, thin crystals of ice were winding up Jae’s arms. He thrust his hands forward and a trail of powdery dust danced around Vashnar. And in an instant, the particles converged, violently encasing Vashnar’s being in a pillar of ice.
It held him for only a short time before shattering into pieces. Vashnar, now looking a little blue, screamed through clenched teeth.
Even without his staff, Jae’s magic was potent. Yet, Vashnar the Forsaken was a resilient fellow, Jae would learn.
With a shaking hand, Vashnar etched runic symbols into the air. Jae did not understand the purpose until he saw a circle of surging magic appear on the ground like some sort of ward. He tried to run out of the sigil but it was too late. All it took was for one little part of him–a fingertip, a strand of hair–to cross the threshold and then his muscles froze up. He stood there unmoving as if petrified to stone.
Then there was that hollow, bubbling laughter again.
“How does it feel, mortal?” There was madness in Vashnar’s grin. “Does it hurt to be POWERLESS against my might? To know that you can do nothing as I DESTROY you? I can taste your FEAR!”
And Vashnar was right. He’d unleash another devastating spell and this time it would surely hit. And if it didn’t kill, it would hurt. Like hell.
Vashnar closed his eyes and began conjuring a pulsing sphere of darkness in front of him. The little man’s body radiated with energy. His brow furrowed deeply and sweat began to drip down his face.
Even though he was more than an arm’s length away, Jae could feel the burning heat of Vashnar’s magic. And the sphere was only getting bigger, growing so large that the caster disappeared behind it.
Then it erupted.
Or, rather, something erupted.
Falling down from the sky with blinding speed was a fireball that thrashed with arcing, spitting flames. Its size was greater than even Vashnar’s orb of doom, and it crashed into its intended target before Vashnar could realize what was happening. Jae heard a shrieking scream, and then the clearing was engulfed in flames.
The searing interruption broke Vashnar’s concentration and disrupted the prison. With heavy limbs, Jae fell to his knees. It did not take long for him to realize why, and how, he was being shielded from the blaze. When the storm of magic subsided, he found that Yao Yu had broken free from the binding spell and was grinning at his work, smug gleam in his eyes.
“Now that,” he said, “is a proper shooting star.”
Vashnar, on the other hand, looked worse for wear as he lay on his back in charred robes. Jae took the opportunity to recall his staff, which he then lifted to the night sky.
“I’ve won, Vashnar. Let us go before we decide to end you for all the trouble you’ve caused.”
“It’s not… possible!” Vashnar choked out. “How did you…. do that…?! I… I had you trapped! I-I will NOT accept this…!”
Sighing tersely, Jae twirled his staff in the air and shimmering, yellow-colored magic began to swirl within the orb. Above Vashnar there appeared a ball of radiant light that emanated a darker, purple aura. The light hovered just a moment before releasing a violent flurry of lightning bolts.
Vashnar made a noise no human should be capable of making. His whole body spasmed, even after the strikes relented. “Okay, okay!” he wheezed. “GO!”
At his command, a portal opened up somewhere through the trees. It revealed a wavering reflection of the village inn.
Turning back, Yao Yu smiled warmly and bowed. “Mighty Vashnar, it has been an honor. Perhaps next time you and I could match skill–after, of course, you have devoted more time to your studies so that you might actually present a challenge.”
Anyone who’s ever played League of Legends may have realized that Vashnar is a tasteful parody of the champion Veigar, whom I love dearly. The drawing was done by my very best friend and vocal Veigar-hater.
Yao Yu’s spell was inspired by a star called WR 124, which has been described as a “chaotic fireball.” It’s not the star itself that’s on fire, but the surrounding nebula.
WR 124 is an actual shooting star because right now it’s speeding through the galaxy at 200 km/s, making it one of the fastest known runaway stars.