by H.P. Lovecock (力。下。愛ちんちん)
In my village, the elders tell a story of what was and what is to come.
Long ago, the people of the Warlord Lands emerged from the depths of hell and invaded the Kingdom of the Sacred Mountains. They wore armour imbued with the spirits of evil demons and wielded sorcerous weapons that rained death down on our ancestors, but the first king of the Sacred Mountains found a shrine to a mountain god. After prayer and meditation, the mountain god gifted him with mighty weapons that allowed us to hold off the people of the Warlord Lands once, and again, and again.
The elders tell of two men, great heroes and uniters, who are to come, who will bring a lasting peace between our two lands. These men will rise from the realm of the water goddess and will harness the power of the Ancients.
I had stopped for something to eat, and meditated on the elders’ story while studying a ruin, the remnants of tower that must once have reached towards the kingdom of the sky god, but had long since toppled and become overgrown with vegetation. Stalks of their mythical building material still reached upward like colossal, skeletal fingers, tainted with decay like all wonders of their civilization that had long since collapsed under the weight of their incredible powers. We were taught not to dwell on these fragments of the Ancients’ empire that lingered. The elders believed that as hubris and unrestrained power angered the gods and brought the downfall of the Ancients, so too would delving into their knowledge.
A light, sun-dappled mist fell over the mountainside as I hoisted my quiver over my shoulder, the familiar grip of Cheonjiwang, my magic bow, in my palm. I was following the trail of broken branches down the mountain, closing in. The armour of the Warlords may be strong, but it was slow and clumsy on mountainsides, and easy to track.
It had been four days since I had left my village, and a single day since I had picked up the trail of two people of the Warlord Lands. They traveled through the neutral lands, as close to the border as they could without being spotted by scouts of the Sacred Mountains.
Despite centuries of devastation from Warlord invasions, these lands were fertile and rich with game. I loved the beauty and green of the mountains. I’d passed a few small farms and villages during my travels, but gave them a wide berth. Peasants in the neutral land were known for their indifference towards those who ruled them—their hatred of those who would bring war to their lands again. It was better I avoided unwanted attention anyways; I was undoubtedly being pursued, and if I was caught it likely meant my death.
As the sun began to dance over the top of the mountain to the west I finally lost the trail at a shallow stream, so I stopped to fill my waterskin and say a quick prayer to the god of this mountain’s waters, to thank for the sustenance and aid me in my journey. As I was leaning over the water to splash my face, I noticed the mud was stirred further on, and continued down the river, ribbons of silt whipped about by the gentle current. This water had been disturbed, and recently. The people of the Warlord Lands often attempted this tactic to throw off Sacred Mountain trackers, but their armour left deep treads. I smiled to myself—I was close, I would find the two wanderers by sundown.
I crept steadily through the underbrush, following the stream as it flowed slowly down the mountainside, into a large pond. That’s when I saw him.
He was naked, waded into the lake up to his waist. He had the pale, snow-white skin of people of the Warlord lands, broad through the shoulders and chest, and a peppering of coarse dark hair on his chest, trailing down into the water. A suit of demon-possessed armour emblazoned with the red stars of the Warlords stood nearby, watching over him, although I couldn’t see the second armoured warrior.
Until it came crashing out of the forest behind me.
I rolled out of the way of the warrior’s charge—thankfully it had no weapon in hand, but that didn’t make it any less deadly. I was not so lucky as it swung its great metal gauntlet around, which caught me in the side of the head, sending me sprawling. My head spun as I clawed in the dirt for Cheonjiwang, but I felt the cold metal gauntlet wrap around my neck, lifting me, choking, into the air. I reached for the dagger on my hip, but the other armoured arm swatted it out of my grasp. I felt the world going black when I heard a deep voice nearby speak an incantation to the demon armour.
I was dropped to the earth, coughing for breath. I swore curses at the man who stood over me. He was naked, dripping wet and smirking.
“My, my,” he purred in his barbaric northern accent. “It seems I’ve caught a little prince. Whatever am I going to do with him?”
“Go to hell, demon-worshipping heathen,” I coughed out. He laughed and held out his arm, then pulled me up into a kiss, his huge arms wrapping around me.
“I hope you weren’t followed, you idiot,” I whispered, grinning as he plied my face with tender kisses. “I’ve been tailing you for days. A boar is more graceful.”
“Officially, I’m on a scouting mission,” Ji-min replied, taking me by the hand and leading me to where the other suit of armour watched on. “They know I like to wander. They won’t miss me for a couple more days. Come, you need a wash. A boar smells more fragrant.
I felt uneasy under the burning red eyes of the demon armour as he led me down toward the water. The other looked on from the side of the water, the glowing embers of eyes following me. “Who’s inside them?”
“They’re… moving on their own at the moment, under my command,” he answered. I shivered at the statement. The massive, plated suits were intimidating enough, but to think a demon from the time of the Ancients allowed them to walk and fight…
Ji-min’s possessed armour watched as he worked at the clasps of my scale coat, while the other prowled the perimeter of the water, just out of sight. He placed the golden-bronze scale armour to the side and began to unbutton my padded coat beneath. As it fell to the ground I was left in little more than a robe and my baggy breeches. His callused hands worked beneath the thin folds of cloth and found the tie for the breeches.
“I’ve been thinking about the night we met,” he murmured into my ear as the cool, early night air fell over my naked body. I looked down and I could tell he was. His kiss brought me back to the day, though I had thought on it often.
For centuries we fought the people of the Warlord Lands on the land between our two kingdoms. For centuries our peasants would be butchered on our borders only to be pushed back by our scouts, more knowledgeable of the terrain. Their demon-possessed armour made a single Warlord warrior stronger than a dozen soldiers of the Sacred Mountains, but mountainside combat was harsh, treacherous. To take our towns they first had to climb, and we grieved them every inch.
Until finally, under my mother, a peace was reached; the new Warlord was an old man. He had lost all his male children in battles, and seemed tired of death, and so was more receptive to a treaty, however it galled his warmongering people. It was a tenuous peace, and not without bloodshed. We would find villages near the border fire-torn, death walking the street, unsanctioned forays from the north. Our scouts would slip past their military checkpoints and assassinate entire families in retaliation. Far from ending the hostilities, we seemed closer to bubbling over into an all out war that would annihilate the two old kingdoms.
My mother offered to meet for peace talks. Her concession for bringing a hundred Sacred Mountain warriors, my brother and I included, was that we would meet on Warlord land, a mountain known even before the empire of the Ancients as “the place where a Spirit dwells.” Holy land for us, uninhabited land for them.
Only a day’s journey over the border, the mountains of their lands were familiar to us. Likewise, the people of the Warlord lands, although their blood had been mixed with northern invaders some time in the past, bore little difference from our people. They were our brothers and sisters, my mother told our people.
They were scandalized to find that women numbered equally among our warriors, while we were scandalized to find that within their suits of demon-possessed armour were mostly green boys, shades of the battle-hardened, bloodthirsty monsters we had come to expect. The Warlord was so ancient he could barely even walk outside of his suit of red-starred, infernal, enchanted armour. As he approached my mother to shake hands the Warlord stumbled and fell to his knees, groaning in pain. I flinched as a nauseating silence fell over the assembly. Anyone else probably would have rushed to help him back to his feet, but my mother merely studied him and said, as if speaking to an old friend, “Get up, old man.”
The Warlord swore at her, got up, and they walked side by side into the central tent to work out terms.
That evening we shared rice-wine from our village, while the Warlord’s camp had caught an aurochs in the woods and charred it halfway to hell. There was a festival-like spirit to the evening as we shared drink and food. My mother and the Warlord seemed satisfied with the agreement, although both agreed a marriage would have better cemented the peace, but he had no living children, let alone daughters and she had only sons anyways. The Warlord was giving up a significant amount of disputed, fertile border land if we shared a small portion of the produce and livestock. In return the Warlord’s people would be allowed passage on our land to survey a number of Ancients’ sites for the artifacts they were so obsessed with. The Warlord got into his cups and toasted my mother with a ribald song familiar to the veteran soldiers. She smiled politely and raised her cup in kind.
Not all were happy with the arrangement. The few veteran warriors of the Warlord grumbled that farmers were invading their land and they weren’t even putting up a fight, while several Sacred Mountains chiefs rankled at the idea of these murdering barbarians crossing over their land, and to pillage the cursed sites of the Ancients, no less. My younger brother, Dae-jung, was chief amongst these critics, fancying himself a great hero of the people.
“Don’t you see, Hyun? They’ll use whatever they find in our lands against us,” he muttered to me after Mother and the Warlord had announced the terms, to runners who would carry their orders forth into our lands. “And we’ll be feeding them while they do it. Mother has lost her mind!”
I was not so naïve as to accept the Warlord’s offer at face value. They valued the knowledge of the Ancients, yes, but that knowledge was usually the lost empire’s unholy knowledge of arcane weaponry. However, and I stated so to Dae-Jung, both our peoples had bled enough through the ages of war.
“Who’s to say it will end here?” he responded. It was not lost on my mother nor I when he failed to appear at the feast that evening, and it turned out he had taken a dozen warriors back to our village in advance.
But that was a revelation for the next morning, for I found myself beside Ji-min, one of the Warlord’s honour guard, at the high table that evening, and I was distracted from political matters.
I found the young warrior surprisingly bright and pleasant, not the crude, uncivilized bore I had expected of a Warlord’s soldier. He pressed me with questions about my people. Was it true we worshipped a mountain god? Well, yes, of course, though not just one mountain god, but the god of each of the sacred mountains, and the god of the sky and the goddess of the waters, and minor gods and spirits in everything all around us. Was it true we used magic weapons, enchanted by the Ancients? No, our weapons were blessed by the mountain god who gifted them to the first king. My bow, Cheonjiwang, had been passed down from generation to generation, enchanting each arrow to strike our enemies.
He leaned in close and whispered, “Some of the older warriors say your men lie with men, and your women lie with women.”
I couldn’t help but notice our knees touched beneath the table, and cocked an eyebrow at the furtive statement, “Of course.”
He seemed taken aback. “Have you?”
I told him I only joined with men, and he was speechless a moment. “Aren’t your people worried you’ll never produce a child? An heir?”
I hadn’t given it much thought. I was still young, barely a man grown. My mother was healthy and my village strong. I told him from my understanding, producing a child wasn’t difficult, it was the rearing that proved a challenge. He rested his elbows on the table, hands propping up his head, looking glum. “I’ve been promised to a girl since my eighth year.”
I rested my hands on my knees, and let my little finger brush across his knee. He sat up straight and our eyes met, but he didn’t pull away.
The realm of the water goddess was from whence all life had come, and so it seemed right that our first joining was by the side of a stream on that warm summer night, a safe distance away from camp. I pressed my body against his and showed him how love between two men could be like a gentle rain or a surging ocean. Ji-min hoped that his compatriots back at camp wouldn’t hear us and come find him being bested by a Sacred Mountain farm boy in swordplay.
After, we washed, then exerted ourselves and washed again, then we laid on the bank of the stream and spoke long into the night. Ji-min approved of the peace accord, but didn’t think it would last. Many of the Warlord’s warriors were waiting for their leader to die, out of honour, or respect, or cowardice, before a power struggle would ensue. If this didn’t kill his people, whoever emerged as the victor would throw the power of the Warlord Lands against the people of the Sacred Mountains, and they simply didn’t have enough people to survive another war. They would be lucky to survive another generation with what they did have. Their isolation had cursed their bloodlines. Worse yet, one General popular among the warriors described a weapon of the Ancients that could set fire to the southern lands. He seemed to believe that victory over a land of death and ashes was better than the defeat of peace.
Ji-min knew of a weapon as well; or a tool, a power at the very heart of the Ancients’ lost empire he and a Warlord scholar had learned of in the Warlord’s little-used archives. He explained it to me, and I could barely comprehend what he suggested. The feat he described was impossible, and to travel to the very heart of the Ancient empire… but I was reminded of the elders’ story, so I agreed that I would find him on a mountain northwest of my village, near the border, if the peace seemed threatened in a year’s time.
And so we found ourselves sleeping in each other’s arms that night a year on. The embers of war smouldered at our backs, and the unknown power of the Ancients rose, shadowed, before us.
Over the next two days we kept to the high lands as best we could. The closer we got to the coast the more the lower land was flooded, especially from the heavy summer rains. So too did we find more evidence of the Ancients, not just their heady spires, but the remnants of humble dwellings, small metal structures Ji-min explained once carried them about their world, chunks of great sky bound roads that once skeined through the empire.
Scouts learn a great deal about one another on forays into the mountains, who is brave and who is craven, who is resourceful or inept. We learn of the trustworthy and those who are not. So too did Ji-min and I learn a great deal of one another, for while we were lovers we were still new to each other.
Ji-min spent much of the day in his supernal armour, and was more skittish when out of it. I remarked on his fastidious grooming, a habit shared by his people. Even at the peace talks I’d noticed that the people of the Warlord Lands seemed assured that some invisible pestilence would assault them outside of their armour, or beyond the safety of their underground castles.
“We’re more susceptible to illness, since we live in a cleaner environment,” he explained to me as he washed for the second time that day, a habit I found strange even though I didn’t mind the sight of it.
This charge, however, was irksome, “We keep our villages clean.”
He regretted his words and tried to explain what he’d meant, using words like “microorganisms” and “diseases resistance,” but when he noticed my blank expression he changed the subject.
We woke early the third day of our travels together to the smell of smoke. A dark grey column smudged the sky to the north. I convinced Ji-min that we could scout faster and more quietly without his armour suits, so he commanded them to guard our camp as he pulled on his tunic and boots.
He was thankfully softer on his feet out of the demon armour, so silent and hidden we moved through the forested mountainside. We were in the neutral lands near the border, and I feared the worst as we took sight of the village.
The lower half of the village was burning, corpses strewn about the small pools of rice built out of the mountainside. The survivors were gathered higher up near small shrine, perhaps that of their mountain god, or their ancestors, and soldiers walked among them.
“Are they mine or yours?” Ji-min asked, anxious. I drew Cheonjiwang over my shoulder and whispered a command spell, and a magical eye extended from the upper limb of the enchanted bow. I muttered more incantations and the eye focused on the soldiers.
“Mine,” I muttered, disgusted. I watched two scouts of the Sacred Mountains in their scale armour throw an old man at the feet of a grim looking woman of middling age, perhaps the town leader. Another soldier stepped forward and drew a sword. My mind reeled at the sight of the metal, that of the sword and the demon hand that clutched it, the mad, fevered look on the face of the man who wielded it. I stumbled backward as it cut through the woman.
Ji-min called after me, concerned as I scrambled away from sight of the village and ducked into the underbrush. “They’re looking for me,” I called back, my mind on the impossible task ahead.
We began to descend from the the mountain that afternoon, towards the flooded lowlands at the heart of the Ancients’ empire, what they once called “Soul.” After fording a swampy valley we began up another mountain where we camped for the night. Ji-min asked me if I’d ever seen the city before, and I told him I had not, forgoing mention of the elders’ superstitions. I got the impression he found our beliefs amusing but silly, and I didn’t want him to think me some backwater rube.
“The sprawl of the city is intimidating as the extent of the destruction,” he said. “The Soul City was once cradled between the mountains and followed a river, you’ll be able to see it in the terrain, though much of the city will be flooded from when the waters rose, swelled by the rains.”
I nodded, “My people say the Ancients did great injury to the goddess of the waters, they brought too much death to the land and poisoned her children, so she conspired with the mountain gods and rose to swallow up their works.”
Ji-min listened, smiling, but offered no commentary on the story.
The next morning as we reached the far summit of the mountain north of the city I couldn’t help but gawk as we got our first look at the sprawling, abandoned capital. Even in decay it was breathtaking. As I’d been warned, much of the city was flooded from the destruction of rising waters that forced the lost civilization into the mountains, but towers of the Ancients still stood hulking out of the water and desolation. South of the larger mountain, at the heart of the city still above the waterline, was a smaller mountain with a strange shrine or tower at its summit. I wondered if mountains had meant something to the Ancients, that’d they’d build something so beautiful at the peak in the midst of their city, though I kept my thoughts to myself.
Ji-min nodded; he’d taken his helmet off to view the city with his own eyes, instead of the demon-tinged red that gave him magical vision. He pointed at the smaller mountain. “That’s our objective by this evening.”
Presently, it was impossible to avoid the ruins of the city, and so with some encouragement from Ji-min we pushed down out of the mountain into the devastation, walking the debris-clogged, cracked, overgrown roads of the Ancients. Here the land was thick with the strange metal structures we’d seen outside the city; in such number it was hard to imagine how the Ancients had gotten anywhere with so many on their roads. Even greater were the structures, or foundations of them, at least, that still stood despite the eons since their fall, overgrown with green, now home only to birds and vermin. One of these foundations could have fit my entire village within its boundaries with room to spare.
As we rounded one corner there was a flicker of light, and a strange form shot out of the ground nearby. I leapt sideways, wedging myself between two of the smaller metal structures in the road, notching an arrow on Cheonjiwang’s ancient string. Ji-min pounded on the metal, his voice crackling from within his suit of armour.
He was laughing.
“You idiot, it’s just a picture, it’s not going to hurt you.”
I glanced over the edge of the structure. The light seemed to form a painting before our eyes in rich colours but, perversely, the image was not static. It depicted a man and a woman in queer garb sitting at a table, drinking from goblets, smiling at one another and bringing their cups together. The strange script of the ancient language danced about their heads.
“This land is cursed with the ghosts of the Ancients,” I spat as Ji-min continued to chuckle to himself. The image disappeared, and he moved his gauntleted arm, making the image appear again.
“This device.” He pointed at a small cylindrical piece of metalwork on the ground. “I believe it reacted to our movement. It probably draws its power from sunlight. I’m surprised it has lasted all these years. Keep your wits about you, Hyun, this will not be the last ghosts we see here.”
I spat again, uttering a prayer of protection as we walked away from the two smiling ghosts, who were long dead if they had ever been real. How had he convinced me to tread this cursed place?
We saw other remnants of the Ancients’ great powers as we moved through the abandoned city. Magical lights emanating without the power of fire, other moving paintings worked out of light, displaying other sights of the lost world. As evening began to draw itself on the world there was one set of lights shaped in the queer script of the Ancients’ that shone in such a shocking pink it was an affront to the darkness.
“This is good,” Ji-min said, perversely interested in the wonders of the Ancients like all of his ilk. “This means fragments of their work survives, and it’s a very special fragment we’re looking for.”
So distracted was he by the sights of the ruined city that he failed to hear the guttural hoots and movement growing closer. I growled a warning to him that we needed to hide, so we ducked into a cavernous, debris-strewn stone building mostly in tact. He whispered incantations to the empty set of demon armour, preparing for battle, while I drew my blessed bow, should I need it.
From the cover, we watched as four ragged, wretched beasts came into view: hunched, hair long and matted, leathery brown skin and clawed hands and feet, naked, dragging what remained of a large boar that must have roamed down from the mountains.
“What are they?” Ji-min asked, horrified at the sight.
“We call them shades,” I whispered, watching them bicker in grunts and snarls as one of them dropped its end of the boar. “They were once people but some curse has stolen their souls. They haunt the deep woods or old ruins, and care for little more than killing and feeding.”
They seemed wholly intent on their task, which was a relief. They weren’t looking for us. We moved as soon as the sounds of scuffling faded. They wouldn’t be the last shades we’d see in the soul city.
I would not get in the armour.
The morning after we camped on the smaller mountain, below the tower, Ji-min laid out his plan for the day’s travel. This, he explained, would be the most dangerous leg of the journey. He pointed his finger to what was once a wide road at the southern extremity of the mountain. This open ground led south before terminating in the wide open water of what was once a sizable river. We had waded through some shallows in the lowlands north of the city, and in some spots as the city neared the wide expanse of the river, but we would not be wading, or swimming. We would be going through the water. Under it.
“You’re a cursed fool,” I told him.
His finger continued, up out of the water into the highlands beyond. That is where the sanctum would be found. That is where we would find the salvation for both our people. There was no way around it.
I asked him how. He told me this was the reason he’d brought the second suit of armour. I swore at him and called him a twice-cursed fool.
He explained that the suits closed themselves to outside elements, and they would allow us to breathe beneath the water for hours upon hours. He told me we would use the powers of the demon cursed things to navigate in the realm below the surface, that all we would find there would be more ruins.
“We’ll be safe,” Ji-min said, sidling up to me, taking my hand. “I’ll be beside you the whole time.”
Ji-min spoke an incantation and, hissing and screeching, the armour opened from the back, perversely resembling the petals of a flower as they unfurled to the sun. Ji-min was beside me as I approached the demon-cursed armour slowly. I reached a tentative hand out. Within the armour meshed metal and padding, any parts that touched flesh were protected, he explained. He guided my hand into one of the metal gauntlets, which responded to my touch. The metal fingers danced in time with my own. He helped me step up onto small platforms where the feet rested in either greave, and the armour seemed to constrict gently around them. I was not ashamed to admit to myself that I trembled out of fear.
“It’s alright,” Ji-min breathed, behind me. “The armour is going to close around you, and I’ll get into my own. They’ll be connected, you’ll hear my voice as if I’m directly beside you.”
My breath quickened as the pauldrons and cuirass began to wrap around me, more hissing and squealing. Last the helmet fell down to rest on the vambrace section. Lights danced before my eyes as the world came to life around me, enhanced by the demon-vision of the armour.
“Warning, unidentified user detected,” a calm, androgynous voice purred in my ear.
“Seonnyeo 22b, initiate recalibration protocol,” Ji-min’s voice came as if echoing through the helmet. I flinched and the armour shuttered. “Accept new user with voice command, designation, Private.”
“Authorized. New user, please state your name,” the cool voice answered.
“M-my name is Choi Hyun, prince of the Kingdom of the Sacred Mountains,” my voice wavered as I spoke.
The armour buzzed and more lights, arcane symbols of the Ancients, danced before my eyes. “New user accepted.”
Ji-min, fully armoured, stepped before me, and the demon armour revealed much to me. Among a number of symbols, beside his armour floated a light that pulsed gently, keeping time with his heartbeat, a strange but comforting ability of the demon armour’s vision. Above that read, “Designation: Vasiliev Ji-min Valerian, Captain.”
His face appeared, as if my suit of demon armour could see straight through the plate of his helmet.
“You look terrified,” he was grinning, his voice amused. He could see me, my face. I called him a thrice-cursed fool and a heathen for using such unholy artifacts of a cursed people. He laughed and told me to try taking a few steps forward.
The sensation was disorienting, as I was more than a foot taller in the demon armour, but the plating responded to my movements with little effort on my part. Climbing would be difficult, but walking was… satisfying. The ground seemed to shake with every step I took in the armour.
We collected our supplies, including Cheonjiwang and my quiver of arrows that Ji-min had placed in a metal casing he called “waterproof,” which he attached to the back of my armour. Without my magical bow strapped to my back I felt naked, even within the heavy metal plating, but I took comfort that it was nearby.
We descended the mountain, and soon I had almost forgot that I was encased within the cursed demon armour of my people’s enemy. Ji-min showed me other benefits of its power. He spoke more incantations and the eyes of the armour seemed to show us the best approach to climbing down the mountain, and where the terrain was stable or not. When I stepped on the cusp of a stone structure of the Ancients that overlooked the city before us a buzzing came, and the armour’s voice purred in my ear, “Private Choi, integrity of ground at 22% and falling. Please take three steps back immediately.”
Mystified, I did so, and then watched the stone structure I had been standing on, seemingly sound but likely weakened by eons of rain and exacerbated by the weight of the armour, crumble away directly in front of me, crashing down the mountainside. Of course, had I not been in the armour, I would have been lighter and faster to move, but even so, had that collapsed beneath me it would have been a mad scramble.
I heard Ji-min laughing to himself, and turned away, fuming.
Soon we made it to the waterside, a steady current that lapped at the ruins of the city it had partially swallowed. There were lines on the toppled stone structures showing the centuries of water life, where it had fallen and risen. Ji-min dropped a small, magical orb into the water and began speaking more incantations. Now I could see the orb in the vision of the demon armour, clipping through the water. And now I could see vague outlines of submerged structures, underwater outcrops and drops formed by the millennia of the goddess of the water’s push and pull on the ruins, even the individual fish that passed it. The orb left behind markings the demon armour could see. The path before us.
I turned to Ji-min, his face visible through his helmet, horrified. “This is how your people cut through water without boats. How they appear suddenly in riverside villages.”
His armour gave a shrug. “There aren’t many suits left with the integrity and seals for subaquatic walks… but I made sure these ones were performing optimally,” his face fell, and he looked out across the water. “There is nothing worse than losing a friend as armour fails deep beneath a river.”
I said nothing more on the matter.
After a moment Ji-min motioned. Our path was before us. He took a few steps into the water, which lapped at the metal. Soon he was swallowed wholly, ripples and air bubbles the only sign he had been there a moment before. I took a few tentative steps into the water, my heart pounding.
“It’s safe, Hyun,” his voice came in my ear, just as clear as before. “Trust me.”
With that, I descended into the realm of the water goddess.
The demon armour’s vision was the only thing that kept me sane as the deafening roar of the water’s silence consumed me. Light shone from my helmet, revealing grey-green shapes on all sides of us, the bases of ancient towers, the yawning maws of submerged dwellings, the infinite abysses where the ancient city had collapsed in on itself.
I could see the light from Ji-min’s armour shining dimly ahead, but more than that I could see the visual constructions of the magical orb as it showed us what lay ahead, the outline of his armour enhanced by the armour’s vision, the gentle pulse of his heartbeat. Above the armour was powerful but cumbersome. Below, in this hostile, inhuman world, there would be no travel without it.
The deeper we got the less light penetrated from above. Shadows darted about through the darkness. “Just fish,” Ji-min said as I gasped. The school appeared out of nowhere, like a flock of birds on a breeze, and exploded in a frenzy, disappearing into the gloom.
We moved slowly, picking our way through the ruins. The path laid out was not a straight one. A number of times we had to double back and consult the orb to plot a new route because of insurmountable collapses, or potential danger. Only once did we pass within an actual structure of the Ancients, a tower that still stood up and out of the water against all odds. “This entire district is structurally unsound, it sits on ancient, flooded tunnels that have collapsed in on either side,” Ji-min’s voice came through the helmet. “We have to go through here or else we’ll spend too long below.”
I followed him into a gaping hole that seemed to lead into an underwater gallery, or a great hall of sorts. Much of it was collapsed from within, but occasionally there were oddly preserved artifacts of the Ancients scattered about. A bank of seats where they once sat, what looked like a shoe of queer design, intricately designed bowls of faded colours. I spotted a small shape in front of me, it appeared to be a miniature human, some idol or plaything, its bright colouring still visible through a thick layer of algae. I bent slowly to lift it, but when I got closer I noticed the skeleton beside it, the fingers and skull too small. I shuddered and moved on.
We emerged the structure and continued through the alien world, our movements slowed by the water, and the suits of armour compensating for the current, Ji-min explained. Soon the ground beneath us began to incline steeply and became more muddy and unstable. Signs of the Ancients began to disappear.
“This is the beginning of the river, the old river before the flood raised the water,” Ji-min said, picking his way more carefully now. We came to a drop off, the darkness below impenetrable.
“This is insane,” I said, and Ji-min agreed, then leapt.
And curse the bastard, I followed.
Of the depths of that river I will say little, except that it was the most hallowing experience of my life. We barely survived, for the journey took longer than Ji-min had anticipated, and he grew worried that we would have enough air to climb the ancient river bank and get to the other side.
At one point in those depths we came up on a structure that broke the rocks and mud of the river bottom. Ji-min was confused, were we so close to the other side already? He took a step, and a buzzing came through our suits. The ground below him shuddered and a terrible wrenching of metals screeched through the water. The ground split in half before him and he began to slide.
Somehow my gauntlet reached out and caught his arm, hooking around the crooks in his armour. I pulled with all my might, helped by the power of the demon-possessed armour.
“Warning,” the voice came through my helmet again. “Captain Vasiliev armour unit integrity weakening. Release before rupture in pressurization.”
“Don’t let go!” Ji-min screamed, his terror ringing through my helmet. I swore at him and told him to get ahold of himself, and the side of the structure.
Even with the armour it was a strain, but he finally managed to get his hand on the metal siding, and I released his arm, pulling him up by hooks on the back.
He remained in a crawling position in his armour, panting. “How… did you… talk me… into this?”
I was tempted to kick him back down the hole, but instead lowered myself to the ground beside him in an awkward squat. I surveyed the structure before of us with my armour’s demon vision, which dipped downward into a deep, curved bottom, a number of levels between us and the farthest we could see. This wasn’t a tower, but looked like a small fishing boat on an unimaginable scale. Where the massive boat had ended up was merely another sign from the water goddess of the hubris of the Ancient empire.
Soon the river bank inclined, steep, ahead of us. Ji-min was now just as anxious as I to get out of the water, we spent over an hour scrambling up the algae slicked, mucky side of the old river. It felt like, more than once, we would get ten feet up only to grasp at nothing and slide fifteen feet back, but soon we found the underwater terrain flattened.
“We’re in an old stretch of greenery, that’s why there’s so little sign of the Ancients’ structures,” Ji-min said, consulting a map he claimed was visible inside of his helmet and pre-dated the fall of that lost empire.
We were “critically low on air” when a purple glow began to break through the water from above. Every step through the resistance of water and muck seemed to take an eternity, but I watched as Ji-min’s armour seemed to waver and disappear, and soon I followed. As he stood dripping, Ji-min muttered an incantation and the helmet lifted off his head, and I followed suit. We both took grateful gulps of air.
There we stood on the opposite bank of the river, the ruins of the soul city before us glimmered like dying embers as the sun dipped low in the west. We had walked through the realm of the water goddess, she who oversees a land of life and death.
“We’re close,” Ji-min said late the next morning.
I was joyous to be mostly unarmoured and barefoot again, Cheonjiwang strapped to my back, and moving swiftly through the ruins. Even Ji-min walked along with his helmet carried beneath his arm, exalting in the fragrant breeze as we worked our way out of the thick of the city and into the southern mountains.
Shortly after escaping the depths of the river, we had managed to crawl into a squat, burned and washed out dwelling of the Ancients. The two of us fell out of the back of the armour suits, our knees weak from nerves and exhaustion, giggling nervously, tears streaming down our faces. We pulled a single bedroll from Ji-min’s waterproof chest and my companion set the demon armour on guard before we passed out in each other’s’ arms.
Before we’d fallen asleep I kissed Ji-min and asked, “Should we succeed… and I’m still dubious… how will we get back? We won’t be able to go underwater again.”
He nodded sleepily, and nuzzled his nose into the crook of my neck. “We’ll find a way.”
I was relieved. I prayed I wouldn’t need to enter the realm of the water goddess in such a way again until after I’d taken my last breath, and was returned to the water with my ancestors.
Later in the afternoon we saw a column of smoke rising in the east, a distance away from the direction we were cutting through the ruins. There was a relatively intact three story structure, perhaps a home once, so I quickly scaled the side. Ji-min said he was impressed by my athleticism, and was admiring the view from below.
I pulled Cheonjiwang over my shoulder and spoke the spell to call forth the bow’s magic eye. The eye focused, following the column to the source of the fire. There seemed to be a small, rough village by the water, based on the side of a small hill covered in trees, although much had been cut down. The huts clinging to the side of the hill were irregular, and from the lurching motion of the people moving about the village I could tell it was a community of shades. “They’re far enough to not be trouble, but close enough to keep an eye on,” I called down.
We continued our hike up the side of the mountain, into a small dale between two peaks. “This was once a place for scholars of the Ancient empire, and academy of wisdom,” Ji-min explained. What was left of the buildings were smaller but still imposing, but also somehow more… comfortable looking then much of what we’d passed. I tried to imagine the young of the lost empire moving through the great archives and enormous halls of learning, their lives lit up by dancing lights, the demons that they brought into the world empowering them, making what they could accomplish in their brief lives godlike. For what we sought at this place of learning was a power they must have stolen from the gods.
Ji-min put on his helmet to lead us to the sanctum we sought. We rounded the ruins of a series of buildings where the Ancients’ academy met the mountain. There was a squat, stone structure with a heavy metal door in the front set into the mountainside. Around that door lazed a few dozen cats.
“…The hell?” Ji-min’s voice crackled from his helmet.
The cats dozed in the sun, or cleaned themselves, or else went about their business of terrorizing small creatures of the world. A few gazed at us indifferently but made no motion to move, so we had to step carefully, as not to crush any of them, a more difficult task for Ji-min in his armour. He left one full set behind to guard, but advised it to leave them alone.
“This should not be open,” he murmured, anxious, as we walked through the doorway and began down a ramp deeper into the mountain. “Could someone have found this place before us?”
I barely paid him any attention as I glanced about in amazement. We were in an underground palace, or temple of sorts. The walls were gleaming metal or a shining white stone, impossibly clean, and the architecture was unlike anything I could describe. The air was cool, but not unpleasantly so. The sanctum hummed with life, no doubt some vestiges of the Ancients still alive in this place. It was positively infested with cats. Hundreds of them. We shooed the little devils out of our way every step we took.
We came through another heavy metal door, wide open, into a long, cool room with banks of metal shelves. Strange structures seemed built into the shelves, and the hum was its loudest here. Ji-min took a step forward, and a high female voice suddenly echoed through the sanctum.
“We can’t understand you,” I called out. The voice continued to speak, with an inflection that seemed to be a question.
Ji-min, still in his armour, seemed stumped, so I took a step forward and placed my bow down on the ground.
“Spirit or demon or god of the ancients, whoever you are, we come to beg your aid,” I said, bowing deeply to the being. “I am Choi Hyun, prince of the Kingdom of the Sacred Mountains. My companion is Ji-min, a warrior and scholar of the Warlord Lands. We have learned of the power held in this place, and have come to seek it, to use it to unify our people. Please, help us.”
There was a short buzz, and then a moment of silence. “Curious,” the voice came again in the language of our common tongue. “You speak an amalgamate vocabulary drawing on a handful of root languages. I will continue to assimilate your vocabulary and improve my interface.”
There was another buzzing, and light flickered before us. Suddenly a woman in snow-white robes, her long, dark hair pulled back prettily, stood before us. She was not unlike the dancing lights of the Ancients we had seen in the soul city, but she seemed to examine myself, and then Ji-min in his armour, aware of our presence, glowing like a star.
“Are you with the People’s Army?” she asked him, cocking her head to the side slightly.
“Uh… no,” he answered, confused, a concerned look on his face. “I come from the north, a place we call the Warlord Lands.”
“As your companion mentioned,” the spirit, or goddess, said, smiling politely.
“Are you the guardian of this place?” I asked, and she turned to me. “Who are you?”
“You may call me Hye-rin,” she answered, bowing slightly. “I am the Project Edion Vault clinic interface and sole technician.”
A demon of the Ancients? Or a benevolent spirit? She took in my blank stare, seemed to consider me a moment and then smiled. “I have maintained this facility for the centuries since its living caretakers perished.”
Ji-min spoke an incantation and removed his helmet. “We’re looking for a power we believe you hold. We’re looking for the power to make a child.”
Hye-rin smiled and bowed. “Follow me to the clinic intake, please.”
What followed, after meeting the sanctum’s guardian spirit Hye-rin, was one of the strangest conversations of my life. The spirit led us into a small study, as bright and clean as the rest of the sanctum, lit by the Ancients’ technique of heatless fire contained in strange glass devices.
She had us both sit in oddly designed but comfortable seats and spoke at length about the miracle we sought. I still don’t understand most of the words she spoke, of the Ancients’ arcane powers of “cell division” and “cell differentiation.” Of “induced pluripotent stem cells,” “primordial germ cells” and “creating viable eggs in vitro.”
“I just have a few questions before we get started,” the spirit said, sitting across from us behind a thick, sturdy metal table. “What is your home address or addresses?”
Ji-min and I exchanged dubious glances. “Uh… I’m from the Warlord’s palace, perhaps a week’s journey north?” he replied.
“I’m from the Royal Village, in the land of the People of the Sacred Mountains,” I stated, and she gave me an odd look. “It’s… a few days northeast from here… in the mountains…”
She considered our answers a moment, then nodded. “I’ll put in your records that you are currently looking for a permanent home. Do either of you have knowledge of any diseases or chronic illnesses that run in your family?”
“Uh… my father died recently, but it was of old age,” Ji-min said, glancing down at the table in front of him. “My mother died in childbirth, but that’s not uncommon where I’m from, unfortunately.”
I reached over and took his hand, “My mother is alive and well, and healthy. The people of the Sacred Mountains are a hardy people. I never knew my father, as is our way.”
Hye-rin considered this a moment, then nodded, smiling politely. “How long has it been since you decided to become parents?”
After an hour of struggling through her questions, Hye-rin finally led Ji-min and I further into the sanctum, what she called her “labs.” The tools and artifacts within were of such an alien design and complexity that I could not even begin to guess what religious or arcane use they were for. Glass and metal reigned supreme, as well as a brittle but lasting material used by the Ancients called “plastics.” Ji-min eyed these inner sanctum rooms hungrily—as a scholar of the Warlord Lands he coveted the technology of these lost people, and here was a temple impossibly preserved. The sanctum had an infestation, though. Dozens of the pests occupied every room, and they came and went as they pleased, a great nuisance underfoot. Hye-rin could walk right through them, and they seemed uninterested in the guardian spirit.
“What’s with the cats?” Ji-min asked as he nudged one with his foot. It growled and stalked away, tail twitching furiously.
Hye-rin stopped and considered the little beasts. “They are descendants of those left behind after the collapse. When I realized the caretakers of this place were not returning, I sealed Project Edion’s doors. The project managers kept several cats as pets, and my life-sustaining protocol meant I could not let them die. I made their life cycles a priority in my subroutines and began synthesizing the food meant for humans to match their dietary requirements. I find their company… pleasant.” She smiled down at the mangy beasts who lounged around in the inner sanctum and ignored their protector. “After centuries passed without outside contact I opened the vault doors to alleviate reliance on my life sustaining systems, and to allow them to come and go as they please. This allowed them to hunt, and to mix with the feral population.”
Ji-min and I glanced at one another as she motioned for us to follow her.
We were led into what looked to be living quarters, furniture of the odd designs of the Ancients decorating the space.
“As you have no current permanent address, I am giving you access to the project director’s quarters during the term of gestation,” Hye-rin said, motioning us in. There was a bed, the sheets an impossibly pristine white. A small area that appeared to be for preparing meals was sectioned off, complete with a table and chairs. Further on there were other rooms, for recreation and washing, as I learned, which the Ancients primarily did in doors. They had a fondness for magically prepared hot water, something we would make use of over the months. The room was, happily, without cats.
“As I have deemed you fit for the project, there remains a final requirement to be… ascertained,” she gave a polite smile.
We looked at her, waiting for the spirit to elaborate.
She cleared her throat, “The lab systems require a series of genetic materials to produce viable primordial germ cells, which will go through dozens of iterations before we can construct the required gametes. We will require skin, hair, saliva, blood and sexual emissions.”
A wry smile played over Ji-min’s face. I raised an eyebrow, “I have no idea what she means.”
Hye-rin and Ji-min shared a look, and she motioned at a small compartment in the wall. It opened and there were a number of glass and plastic instruments and containers. The spirit asked us to place the “materials” into the compartment “as they are acquired” and she would do the rest.
With a final smile, she vanished.
Ji-min walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me waist, pulling me in. “We made it.”
I pulled away. “My love, I understand what we came here to do, but I have no idea what’s going on… what more does that spirit need of us?”
He gazed into my eyes and thought for a moment. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Never was the difference in our cultures more apparent than in that moment. My people had adapted to the world as we came into it, turning to the gods of the mountains or the goddess of the water for prayer and guidance when needed. We moved through the world freely, but there was so much about the world around us we did not understand. Ji-min’s people clung to artifacts of the past, hiding in their underground palaces, coming out only to wage war and raid the sites of the Ancients for their forgotten treasures. However, the sliver of the Ancients’ wisdom they possessed, passed down through the ages, was their greatest strength. Their complex understanding of the world. As had been lobbed against our people by the warriors of the Warlord Lands, I felt like an ignorant savage, out of my depth.
Ji-min pulled me in for a tender kiss. His hands began to work my armour off, letting it clank to the floor. He said this is the power that we sought. The spirit would take our essence and turn it into those things that a man and a woman could bring together through lovemaking to create a child. She could make a child that was half of my people and half of his. Half of Ji-min and half of myself.
What she needed was, among a collection of small sacrifices of ourselves—which would not be painful or lasting, he said—a sample of our fluids, produced by coming together intimately.
I smiled, “That I understand.”
The broader, muscled man pushed me backwards and I tumbled onto the bed. He climbed on top of me and began at my neck, kissing his way down, nudging my robe apartment, tasting my chest. I groaned and leaned backwards into the material of the bed. The cushioned softness of this material, coupled with the roughness of his mouth, made my back arch.
“Keep going, my warrior,” I breathed.
He had my robe open and kissed down my front, running his tongue through the thin line of hair just below my belly button. He followed it to the wiry tuft of hair just above my length, which awaited him eagerly. I gasped at every inch of his journey.
I leaned over slightly to unclasp his tunic, but he admonished me, “My prince,” he tsked. “We are collecting medical samples. We must be slow and methodic, and make sure your emissions are pristine and ready to process. You can collect mine afterwards, but right now we must focus on yours.”
“I think my ‘samples’ will include some of your saliva,” I purred as he took my length into his mouth. As his lips began to slide up and down, I began to thrust without thinking. We had been too exhausted the previous night to join, so I had some energy saved up.
After spending a few moments deep in his throat, my body convulsing beneath him—he had picked up the skill required quickly, and with enthusiasm—he lifted my legs and ran his tongue beneath my stones, working down the crack until he found the tender entrance to my fundament, my backside. The warrior had me almost singing. He pulled his tongue away for a second, “You taste as if you’ve been on the road for days on end,” he growled, smirking. “You need a wash, my filthy prince.”
“I… don’t see… how this helps… collect what we need,” I got out between panting, pleasured breaths.
He pulled back, to my dismay, but only to stand and retrieve one of the glass cases Hye-rin had left for us. “On your knees, my prince,” he murmured as he climbed back onto the bed. There was a brief tussle as he got my turned over and in the right position. I plied him with kisses and tried to convince him to do away with his clothes, but he was adamant we take care of me first.
I was face down in the fabric of the bed, my knees splayed, my vulnerable backside up to the air, when he licked up the underside of one leg and returned to his eager lapping. I squirmed beneath him, my hands clawing at the blankets, my groans muted as I pressed my face into the clouds of fabric.
His hand reached underneath and teased my length, brushing and stroking it. In the moments of his attentions to my fundament I could not hold it in any longer, and I cried out as much to Ji-min.
He pulled away and growled, “Don’t waste a drop, my prince,” as he shoved the clear glass case into my hand.
“Don’t stop,” I snarled back at him, and when he laughed I could feel the vibrations of mirth through my backside.
It wasn’t soon after that I found myself naked and spent, the potential future heir of the People of the Sacred Mountains cradled in a glass case in my hand. A strange thought, but we were in a strange place. We placed the case in the compartment, and Hye-rin’s voice intoned, “Viable sample accepted.”
As I got my breath back and recovered from our exertions, Ji-min lay next to me on the bed and took the rest of my samples: a small prick on the finger for a blood sacrifice to the spirit, a small scraping of skin, a few strands of hair, a small device run between my lips and front teeth. We repeated each of these for Ji-min, and all of these sacrifices were soon gathered in the compartment, which ate them up hungrily. There was only one piece left.
“My warrior,” I said, climbing out of the bed, still naked, a thin sheen of sweat covering my body, “did you know that People of the Sacred Mountains are renowned for our ropework?”
He admitted he did not know that.
I moved over to my pack, and pulled out some leather strips my people used for armour repairs or construction of our campsites. I had learned from former intimate friends that they had other uses, as well.
At first Ji-min clearly did not know what I had in mind. He began to get an idea when I had tied his ankle off to one of the bed’s legs, and then the other. As I straddled him to work on his hands he put up a struggle, but I quickly had the warrior subdued.
“I would have never thought it’d be so easy to defeat one of the Warlord’s honour guard,” I lorded over him standing beside the bed, admiring my handiwork. He swore at me, laughing. The ties were real, and unless he could snap the leather or break the bed, they would not give. “I think you’re missing one thing.”
I took my discarded robe and twisted it, wrapping the material around his head, covering his eyes. “I will make this slow and torturous, my defeated warrior,” I murmured, running my hand over the front of his tunic, where I could see his excitement had not abated. Ji-min whimpered, pushing into my hand. I laughed and removed my hand, gaining another oath from him. “Don’t make me gag you,” I said, climbing between his legs.
In moments I had his tunic pushed up and his small-clothes down around his knees. Ji-min struggled against his binds without success, and I breathed softly on his length, inches away from my mouth. I reached up under his tunic, running my hands over his sculpted, muscular chest. I might have admired his wit and his cunning most of all, but what I desired at that moment was his broad shoulders, his thick thighs, the swirls of soft hair on his chest and the beautiful length between his legs.
I licked up his length and took it into mouth, and soon had him moaning so loud it was probably frightening some cats in the next room over.
I spent the next while applying my talented lips to his favourite parts, only to remove them when his groans became heated. At first he growled and uttered insults and commands, but after a dozen frustrating cycles he began to whine and beg, his voice becoming high and desperate.
I retrieved some oil from my pack and returned, untying the straps binding his legs and getting the twisted fabric of his small-clothes the rest of the way off. He seemed to know what was coming, and welcomed it. I slicked my length and slid it into him, musing that such a large, muscular man could submit so willingly, and what that did to inflame my desire.
I began slowly, working into him at a tortuous pace. He thrashed beneath me, the leather straps snapping against the bed. Normally he would have grabbed my hips and taken charge of the speed, but I was in command of this warrior. He would that we go charging into battle, but a scout of the Sacred Mountains takes his time, and strikes with deadly efficiency.
Soon I was pounding into my warrior love, holding nothing back, and he was calling out that he was close. I fumbled for the final glass case, and pressed it against his stomach muscles, just as he reached release. He produced more than was strictly necessary for the sacrifice the spirit required…
I quickly put the glass lid on the case and placed it into the compartment—“Viable sample accepted”—before rushing back over and undoing his wrist restraints.
“Lower your arms slowly, it can be uncomfortable when they’ve been in one position for so long,” I cooed, massaging the bulging muscles of my warrior’s arms.
He scoffed, “It wasn’t as long as all that…”
I removed the blindfold and he pulled me on top of him, the remainder of his mess pressing between us. After a moment he reached down and wrapped his hand around my length. “You’re still hard,” he murmured. “We could produce more samples.”
Hye-rin would later confirm that was the night, impossibly, that Ji-min and I conceived.
We had been living at the Project Edion Vault for eight months when I first spotted trouble on the horizon.
The shades down the mountain had proven themselves relatively harmless. I would occasionally scout north of the Ancients’ academy to make sure their forays didn’t take them too close to us, but they mostly hunted in the greenlands near the river, or fished. They were more organized and… civil than I had imagined. It was disturbing to imagine these creatures the People of the Sacred Mountains put down whenever they blundered into our territory as being our own kind…
The trouble came from the shades, but not how I had expected.
Ji-min and I spent much of our time together, exploring closed sections of the sanctum of Hye-rin, or wandering the academy. On days that he retreated into the archives of the sanctum or communed with Hye-rin in her sacred “servers” I would take Cheonjiwang and go hunting on the mountainside. The “sustenance” Hye-rin could provide in the sanctum was dry and paste-like, for the most part, so roasting some squirrels or a quail made for a nice change.
It was on one of these hunts that I spotted the fires to the northwest. The occasional column of smoke signalling a campfire wasn’t unusual. This, however, was thick, black smoke that covered the horizon. The only other time I had seen such destruction was when the Warlord Warriors put a village to a torch. Was this a sign of war? I had hoped the peace would hold until Ji-min and I returned, but anything could have happened in more than a half-year.
I reported what I’d seen that evening, over quail. Ji-min’s brow furrowed. “Hyun, there’s something I didn’t tell you when we first met, and it’s been weighing heavy on my conscience all this time.”
I leaned back in my chair, trying to keep my face neutral. We had shared so much over all those months, there were few things I could think of that he would hide from me.
He pushed the haughty little tom he called J.J. off his lap, an anxious look on his face. “The Warlord died just before I left.”
My stomach burned with a cold fury. My voice went quiet: “This changes everything.”
He looked frightened. “This changes nothing, Hyun. I didn’t tell you because it didn’t change my decision to meet with you. To do this with you.”
“It might have changed mine.”
I stood and stormed out of the room, almost kicking a cat who was stretching in the doorway. Dusk was descending over the soul city, Hye-rin would be sealing the doors for the evening soon. I considered walking away from Ji-min, from this whole endeavour. I had reason to if my people were being slaughtered while we sat idly awaiting the results of a cursed ritual of the Ancients. If the Warlord was dead there would a power struggle, and Ji-min didn’t think the peace would hold under new leadership.
I found my favourite vantage spot and watched darkness consume the Ancients’ city. If there was slaughter in the Sacred Mountains my mother would be forced to mount an offensive, after offering so much to the Warlord. She would have to show a sign of force. And if she died, who would be there to unify the people? … Certainly not my twisted, mutilated, warmongering brother…
I heard the familiar footsteps of my lover approaching up the mountainside, followed by the quiet padding of several cats who had taken to following Ji-Min about. “Hye-rin said that to fulfill her priority to preserve life, she’s going to keep the Vault open until you return.”
“And what about my priority to preserve the life of my people? That’s why I came here in the first place, but they might be getting cut down in their homes, their villages razed to the ground, marched over by your people. I don’t blame you for their actions, Ji-min, bu–”
“My people aren’t killing yours,” Ji-min muttered, sadness colouring his voice.
“I know you want to believe that, but–”
“No, you don’t understand. It is so much worse than I told you before. My people… what’s left of them… consist of women and children, old men and war injured. The few warriors you saw at the summit… that’s all that’s left of them.”
I finally turned to him. Tears streamed silently down his face. He wiped at them angrily. “I came here to save my people, Hyun. I don’t know how to tell you this, but the Vault… the sanctum has the capacity to save them. They need genetic diversity, they need a sustainable population. The sanctum has hundred of thousands of fertilized eggs, waiting to undergo the process of gestation and birth, but Hye-rin is dying too. She only has the ability to keep her systems going for the next hundred years before they completely degrade, maybe less… She’s shut down all but the most essential systems, she’s already lost thousands of viable eggs. She was only meant to be a stopgap until the chaos of the old world settled, so the survivors could repopulate, but she lost her team, and no one ever came to begin the process, and she couldn’t care for children, so she has waited all this time…”
I pulled him close. I couldn’t understand all of what he was saying, but he had kept this thing from me too. His people were dying, their bloodlines cursed and drained by war. The sanctum could save them, bring more children to them, but he’d been worried that, had he told me, I might have returned to my people and let his die, out of fear or prejudice.
“Even if a Warlord took control of the land, he’d only be leading a dozen warriors to their deaths, leaving his people to die. We needed the peace, I’d convinced the Warlord of that before he died. We needed to be able to cross the border and come here and produce children, but first I needed to find this place and make sure the Vault was real, and could still save us, and it can. What Hye-rin has done for us is proof that it can!”
I could understand wanting to save his people. I could understand wanting peace. We returned to the sanctum, followed by a parade of cats. As we laid down together that night, our minds troubled, I promised him that I would do all I could to help him save his people.
Someone had crossed the river and set fire to the village of shades.
That much was clear at a glance. I spoke the incantation and drew out Cheonjiwang’s magical eye.
The scene was carnage. Warriors were climbing out of old fishing boats and methodically working through the village, setting fire to the homes of the shades… the people… and cutting them down in the streets. Many of the people of the village were fleeing, and it was clear they would return to only ashes and charred remains of their friends and families.
It was clear at a glance that the slaughter was being committed by warriors of the Sacred Mountain. Then I saw the sight of a metal sword held in a metal hand, a demon hand, and the mad, fevered face of the man who used it to behead a helpless old man, grinning all the while.
It was my brother.
This time it was my turn to confess a secret to Ji-min, when I had him come and survey the scene, for it was clear they were marching on the Academy.
“It was the night before I was planning to leave, to meet you,” I explained as we looked on at the still-smouldering village, and the line of Sacred Mountain warriors who were cutting through the ruins of the city, up the side of the mountain. “My brother, Dae-jung, came to me. He told me mother’s reign was over, that she was old and weak, that we would throw our peace treaty with the Warlords back in their faces and protect our lands. I told him what he spoke was treason. He told me allowing the Warlords on our land was treason to the Kingdom, to the gods of the mountains, our foundation, our strength. He… challenged me to a duel, claiming I wasn’t fit to inherit the kingdom… I’m better with a bow than a sword, but he is arrogant, and that brings him to my level. The fight was quick, he lost most of his right arm. I was sickened, mother was heartbroken. I lied, said I had insulted his honour as a protector of the mountains, and that he was right to challenge me, our laws allow it. I left before dawn the next morning. I didn’t believe there was any way he could survive…”
Ji-min shivered in the cold winter air and wrapped his arms around me. “And the arm? That’s… clearly technology of the Ancients.”
I nodded. “The first King of the Mountain found it deep within the mountain… among the magical weapons gifted him by the mountain god, a demon cursed device that the mountain god was keeping sealed away. The royal family kept it guarded, believing it cursed, but clearly my brother understood it could be… attached…”
“How did they find us, though?” Ji-min asked. I couldn’t answer, but summoned my bow’s magic eye once again to survey the scene. I first found a group of the destroyed village’s people south of the academy, hiding in thick forest at the heart of the ruins, where they hunted.
I scanned the soul city’s ruins and caught sight of the small army of men and women. As the warriors walked out of the carnage I saw a sight equally as disturbing as the butchered, frightened people of the village. Attached to a rope being dragged by three of the Sacred Mountain warriors was a Warlord warrior in demon armour, although his armour was little more than bits of metal clinging to a frame. The helmet was missing, the pauldrons and greaves were jagged bits, the man himself looked about as well as his armour, his face bleary and terrified, a dried cut on his cheek. I handed my bow to Ji-min and, after a moment, his eyes went wide.
“That’s Genya… my tutor… the scholar I mentioned, the one who helped me locate this place in the pre-collapse records. What’s he doing here?”
We had little enough time, they would find the academy by the late afternoon, and it wouldn’t be difficult to find the sanctum from there. Even if we sealed ourselves in, it wouldn’t end the bloodshed. Ji-min and I would face my brother and put an end to this war.
There was an old plaza north of the academy, clogged with vines and weeds, but an open space that connected to the ruined city’s arteries. Flanked by the intimidating sight of demon armour, which stood protectively beside me, I stood on the far side from where the warriors of the Sacred Mountain began to gather. I called out to them, told them it was their rightful heir, and I commanded them to cease their campaign immediately and return home.
Dae-jung swaggered out of their midsts. His injury had changed him, both his body and his spirit. He was gaunt and his eyes had grown sunken. The demon-possessed arm had not set well, it hung at his side at an odd angle, seemed to extend his reach too long, and twitched irregularly. He had a frenzied look as he laughed across the expanse between us.
“Don’t listen to this traitor,” he barked at his followers, jabbing his sword in the direction of the Warlord warrior who stood beside me. “He has been seduced by this bastard prince of the Warlords.”
There was anxious whispering among the warlords. I turned to my side, and was met with the cold exterior of the armour. “It’s true,” Ji-min’s voice crackled from within, “But it’s not the whole truth.”
Dae-jung had the scholar, Genya, brought forward. The man was pushed forward, stumbling deliriously. “We found this monster yesterday, hiding in a Sacred Mountains village, on his way here. The village seemed to believe he had a right to travel through our lands… that a peace had been reached!” my brother spat. “We put the village to the torch, but his knowledge proved useful. We may have been searching the region another month or more without him…”
“My prince,” the scholar named Genya called out mournfully, his voice cracking. “I’m so sorry…”
Clearly my knew what we’d found. He knew in another month it would have been too late to stop us.
“Dae-jung,” I called, drawing my bow and arrow, “enough, child. If you’ve come to kill me, then do so. I’ll stick an arrow in my own brother’s eye and end his madness if I must.”
Dae-jung barked a laugh. “I would kill you where you stand if I could, brother, but it would be dishonourable. I mean to bring you back to the village, have you stand trial for your crimes. Not even mother will defend you for defecting, for accessing forbidden powers.”
“She will if it brings peace,” I stated. I could see some of the warriors were looking to one another. Clearly most of them were following Dae-jung out of duty to the royal family, not out of loyalty to him. Maybe a few of his thugs would answer to him directly, but I hoped the rest would be more hesitant.
“I’m not here for you, brother. I’m here for him,” he jabbed his sword again beside me. “I’m here to kill the bastard prince and put an end to this cursed endeavour.”
“Then come and get me,” Ji-min’s voice was raw. He began a charge for my brother.
“Ji-min! No!” I called out, scrambling after him.
My brother was smirking madly, his metal demon arm twitching for the fight. The armour was powerful, but Ji-min had given Dae-jung too much time to plan his attack. My brother rolled out of the way and sliced through the armour’s arm with a terrible shriek of metal on metal. Two more pounding steps and the armour stumbled, then turned and ran away into the city, northward. The armour had speed as long as it could keep a straight line, but the Sacred Mountain warriors had agility on their side.
“After the coward!” Dae-jung called out.
“No! As your crown prince I order you to leave him,” I screamed. A couple dozen of the warriors bowed, or at least looked unsure of who to obey, but by that time Dae-jung and six men and women loyal to him took off after the demon-possessed armour.
I scaled a nearby tower with speed and called forth the magic eye of Cheonjiwang. I had to witness what was to come.
Dae-jung and the warriors were gaining as they tore through the ruined city’s streets. What they failed to notice was their path took them near a section of heavily forested greenery. The people whose village they had put to the torch that morning were practiced at keeping concealed until it was time to strike, and they did so. The people of the village took the pursuers by surprise. They threw themselves out of the trees into the warriors paths, out for blood, which they received. My brother cut three of them down, but looked back to see each of his warriors being overwhelmed by a mob, torn apart, a gruesome, shameful end.
My brother continued his pursuit, not even attempting to save a single of those poor fools. I watched as he closed on the damaged suit, which stumbled against a pile of wreckage, trying desperately to climb over. It stopped and turned, facing Dae-jung. My brother closed in, demon arm twitching, sword at his side. I nocked an arrow, Cheonjiwang’s magic eye compensated for wind speed, and distance, and Dae-jung’s movement, then I let the arrow fly just as he swung the sword back to bring it down. I watched him topple, and I knew at that moment Ji-min was looking through the demon-enhanced eyes of the suit, speaking the incantation we had discussed: “Seonnyeo 22a, initiate self-destruct sequence, no time delay.”
My brother would not cheat death this time. His demon arm would be left in the wreckage of demon armour.
I returned to my people waiting below and told them my brother was dead, and to either return home, or else follow me and see that which I hoped would make a lasting peace between the two lands. Cowed by my brother’s defeat, or longing to return to the farms and see an end to the bloodshed, they followed, every single man and woman. I led them into the academy grounds, through a sea of cats who had gathered, startled by the explosion that had rocked this section of the city. Inside my people recoiled at the sight of a suit of demon armour, but Ji-min removed the helmet from which he had been issuing commands to the second set of armour “remotely,” another perverse power of the demon-armour. My brother had chased little more than an empty metal suit animated by the demon within. I led them through the cat infested halls of the sanctum, a place none would have believed existed had they not seen the impossible designs and queer artifacts with their own two eyes. The spirit greeted each of them politely.
I led them into the inner sanctum, the place Hye-rin called the “in vitro labs,” whatever that meant. Of all the sights any of them would see that day, here was the queerest sight of all. Floating in a specially prepared “warm nutrient tank,” like a shrine to the goddess of the waters, floated two oddly shaped sacks, attached with matching cords that fed into them. I explained that in this tank the goddess of the waters was blessing Ji-min and I, our people, with twin boys. Heirs to our thrones.
We were able to save Genya’s life with the tools and expertise of Hye-rin, along with a couple of healers of my people who were marching with the warriors. After a few days recovering he explained that he had been sent by the People of the Warlord Lands to bring their rightful prince home.
“Prince Ji-min was fathered by the previous Warlord and his final mistress in secret,” Genya explained to me, as he sipped some soup prepared by my hunters. “The Warlord had made his will known to be released after his death, but the initial power struggle of his warriors prevented that. While his people once believed him a bastard, they know now that Vasiliev Ji-min Valerian is the rightful heir to the throne.”
“Then what happened, Genya? Why are you hear?” Ji-min asked, disgusted. “I figured they would all kill each other before letting someone they thought a bastard sit the throne.”
The scholar smiled, rubbing his snow white beard, “The women rose up when one of the generals suggested conscripting boys as young as twelve to train for his war. Our people had seen enough of our young die. They were not going to brook sending children to slaughter with peace promised.”
We planned to send half of my warriors back to my village to explain what had happened. The rest would escort Genya back to the Warlord underground palace when he had the strength to travel again.
“You will spread the word of this miracle,” I commanded them. Ji-min would be crowned and his people would, in time, grow stronger with the magic we had found in the sanctum. My mother would be honour bound and, I hoped, overjoyed to accept my children, as much as the traditionalists would rankle at the use of Ancients’ power.
We let our people stay until the birthing, however, which took place on an early spring day, just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom. Hye-rin oversaw the procedure, where the tanks were accessed and the children drawn forth by Ji-min and I, the healers and Genya at our side. After removing them, the twins sputtered and began to wail, drawing their first breaths. Both boys were healthy, more than healthy, they were beautiful, perfect. To see life among the destruction of the Ancients proved that our people could grow and learn from the catastrophes of the past. We named our boys Sun and Moon.
Our first night with alone with our children, the night after all our people had left the sanctum—for now, they would return later with supplies and to protect the children who joined our people—Hye-rin came in to make sure the babies were doing okay, gave us some friendly but unsolicited advice, then departed. Ji-min and I were gazing in their cribs and watched the boys glance about, dazed, before tiring themselves out from the effort and falling to sleep, almost at the same time.
“I’ve been thinking… You didn’t seem surprised when your brother called me a bastard prince,” he murmured, smiling down at our children, delivered to us by a miracle.
I shrugged, “Your suit of armour showed me your name and I recognized the namesake, Vasiliev Valerian, the Warlord. I realized then it was his armour, the same set he’d worn to the summit. I… asked the demon armour if you were the son of its previous owner, and it told me, ‘the DNA match is conclusive.’”
“I hope our sons grow up as clever as you, my warrior,” he purred, leaning in to kiss me.
I smiled and kissed him again, “I hope they grow up as strong as you, my prince.”
The elders tell of two men who are to come, heroes and uniters, who will bring a lasting peace between our two lands. These men will rise from the realm of the water goddess and will harness the power of the Ancients. I never did believe I was one of them, and now I know why. Those two men were fated to be my heirs.