A sharp tingle down her spine jolted her into consciousness. Within moments, she was acutely aware of her surroundings, despite not having opened her eyes yet. She was lying in her bed, listening intensely to her surroundings for the source of the alarm. She could hear birds outside fluttering about, tweeting and chirping at each other. She could faintly hear the sound of running water from the stream nearby feeding off into the Hanul falls. The smell of burnt out candles filled the air around her. There was no wind as she could not hear the whistling of air rushing between the jagged rock peaks, or the bristling of branches of the old oak tree. She lay silently still for a few minutes, feigning sleep. After a while, she slowly opened her eyes, focussing her attention on what little she could see around her. The lighting was dim with the only source of light the faintly backlit paper screen doors separating her room with the main corridor of the building. The room itself was scarcely furnished, with only a small polished wooden table adorned with a few old books and a candle stand sitting up against a wall with a drawer cabinet sitting next to it.
After scanning the room for anything which might have caused her to wake, she slid out from under her blanket carefully as to not disturb or deform how the blanket lay. Confident that she was not in any immediate danger, she pulled over her head the cotton night gown she was wearing and walked over to the drawers, pulling out a change of clothes.
What was that dream last night…
Her heart started drumming insider her chest and her stomach turned over as she started recollecting the dream.
She quickly changed into her usual temple clothing and quietly slid open the door. The hallway was well let due to the doors at either end allowing the sunlight to flood in. The well-polished oak wood floors helped carry the light through the corridor. She softly walked down the hallway towards one of the doors, shielding her eyes from the bright sunlight as she emerged from the building.
Feeling her hunger all of a sudden, she made her way to a set of trapdoors positioned on the back of the living quarters. Grabbing hold of one of the handles, the door opened silently, revealing a set of steep, uneven stairs leading down into a cellar. With practiced efficiency, she skipped down the stairs 2 at a time, landing gracefully at the bottom despite the cellar being almost pitch black. Her eyes quickly adjusted for the lack of light, allowing her to see through the darkness. There were several sacks of rice piled up in the corner of the cellar, with a few open crates of potatoes and other herbal ingredients placed along the wall opposite the stairs. She picked up an empty sack which was lying on the floor to her right and walked over to one of the crates. She saw a folded piece of paper sitting on top of the contents of the crate.
‘Meet me at the Sunrise Peak’ the note read.
She folded the note back up and placed it in one of her pockets, and proceeded to fill her sack with rice and chestnuts. With her cooking materials in order, she quickly climbed the stairs and gently closed the door. She collected up a pot and quickly cooked herself a simple meal.
The Sunrise Peak… why there? Yoora thought as she cleaned up the pot and put it away.
It was mid-morning by the time she stepped out of the temple grounds and started climbing the steep rocky mountain face towards the peak. Having grown up on the mountain slopes, she navigated through the steep and slick terrain with relative ease, ‘hopping’ from one safe footing or ledge to another. The air was cool and sweet with a slight breeze that had picked up, bringing along with it the fragrance of the pine forest below. Large puffs of slowly drifting clouds high up in the sky were softening the harsh glare of the sun.
She stopped about 20 minutes into her travel to rest. Sitting down on a ledge, she let her sight wonder about, taking in the gentle swaying of the forests which lined the valleys to the majestic rock formations lining the ridges of the mountain tops. Small birds were playing between the branches of the trees and she could see a small heard of mountain deer working their way through the slopes of the opposing mountain. She tilted her head back slightly, resting it on the cliff-face behind her and closed her eyes, basking in the tranquillity. The day was as peaceful as they come.
She spent about 5 minutes in shallow meditation before she started moving again. The rest of her journey took close to an hour with only a few breaks in between. As she reached the summit of the mountain ridge, the familiar site of the majestic weeping cherry blossom tree began to fill her view. The trees trunk had a massive girth, possibly wider than her temples Do Jang and had a multitude of smaller elegant branches covered in pink and white blossoms, swaying back and forth gently in the breeze. It seems as if it were snowing pink snowflakes with the wind dislodging loose blossoms, blanketing the ground below with a soft carpet of colour. At the base of the tree stood a ‘wondumak’, a small wooden hut with an intricately tiled black roof raised slightly on a base of rough grey granite. The wood was polished and waxed, bringing out the deep colours and grains of the oak timber used.
As she got closer, she could hear the booming laughter of an unmistakable voice she had just recently encountered. The sound died down, replaced with the soft whistling of the breeze through the tree branches. Approaching the hut, she could see her master and the Headmaster sitting down enjoying some kind of beverage. Tea she guessed, as she could see an earthenware tea-set set out on a small collapsible wooden table. Next to the Headmaster was a stack of thin dark wooden boxes, each of them intricately and uniquely decorated with ‘mother of pearl’ paint and enamel.
Pausing for a moment, she mustered up her courage to continue on, challenging herself to turn her fear of people into a test of how self-controlled she had become. She started placing her feet down carefully, selecting areas where there we no loose rock which might give away her approach. She figured she may as well practice stealth movement on someone new, as she had reached the point where her master could no longer detect her without magic if she chose to remain hidden. Timing her movements with the wind and bristling of the tree branches, she made it to the small set of stairs leading up to the raised floor of the wondumak. The two men were oblivious to her presence.
Slipping off her shoes, she sat down between and just behind the two men who were looking out towards the tree. Silently and swiftly, she pick up one of the small earthenware cups, making sure she didn’t accidentally knock the cup into anything else, and poured herself a cup of the green tea that was prepared. Carefully placing the teapot back on the table, she brought the cup to her lips and noisily slurped in a sip of the tea. The reaction from Jumong was as she expected, his body flinched with surprise and quickly spun his head around with an astonished look on his face. She almost had time to laugh. Almost.
The hulking arm of the Headmaster swung around towards her with such ferocious speed that she had no time to think. Her body automatically arched over backwards in order avoid collision with the speeding trunk of muscle, watching it speed over her in almost slow motion cm’s above her nose all whilst keeping her cup perfectly still as not to spill anything. Tingles were sent down her spine as she felt the pressure wave created by the attack.
Whoa! That could have killed me! She realised.
She slowly sat back upright and attempted to take a sip of her tea though her shaking hands. Adrenaline was surging through her body causing her heart to hammer in her chest.
“WHOA! That was close! You surprised me!” laughed the Headmaster. “Good thing that old geezer trained you up well!”
“Ai yai yai…” Jumong sighed as he started cleaning up the tea off his clothes that he had dropped “You know you shouldn’t try to kill potential students as you interview them, it’s a bad business model”
“Ha ha ha…” The headmaster looked over toward Yoora with a sheepish smile on his face “Sorry about that!”
Doing her best to keep a calm demeanour about her, she replied “Ah… That’s ok…”
Both men let out hefty sighs and proceeded to finish off the pot of tea in silence. The mood had somehow suddenly turned from happy and light hearted into something more sombre and serious.
“You must be wondering why we called you up here” started Jumong. He sat staring out toward the cherry blossom as he spoke.
“It’s been 6 years since I brought you here and well, you were something else out of this world then…” his voice trailed off slightly towards the end of that sentence but then regained composure and continued
“I swore to myself that I would protect and guide you to lead a normal life. You trusted no-one, tried to kill me more times than I can count but I never gave up on you.”
Yoora felt her face get hot with embarrassment. She turned her gaze to the cup she was holding near her laps in order to avoid eye contact with either of the two men.
“I’ve taught you all that I know, and guided you as far as I can take you. This place will always welcome you home, but the world is out there for your taking.”
Jumong held out his hand, catching a cherry blossom petal in palm and started making it dance around in the air.
“The world is beautiful Yoora. There are lakes that look crystals kilometres wide, forests which stretch on as far as the eye can see, islands that float in the sky, waterfalls which fall endlessly, and millions upon billions of plants, animals, insects and spirits, each unique and full of mystery. So much to see, feel, smell, learn. You can’t experience all that here. It’s time you set forward into your future. You belong out in the world, not cooped up in the far edges of existence with an old geezer like me”
Silence befell the wondumak. Only the soft sounds of the wind could be heard. Her stomach started to tighten up and her heart started racing. Her throat felt constricted as she realised that she was being told that her time here was coming to an end. The days of peace and security away from other people would come to an end. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to face the world. She had read in the text books that there existed cities with millions of people packed tightly together, vastly different to the 30-40 people villages in the mountains she had encountered. She had only barely held her nerve in those villages.
Before she realised, her eyes had watered up and tears were streaming down her cheeks.
“I…. I” she stammered. Her throat was so tight and her breaths shallow that she struggled to say anything.
“Yoora, this is where I can help” the headmaster said.
He placed one of the wooden boxes he had in front of her. With 2 swipes of his fingers across the front edge of the box, the two golden latches slowly melted into the box’s artwork giving it a golden tinge.
It took her a moment to regain her composure enough to focus on the box.
“Open it” the headmaster gently instructed.
She looked over to Jumong, who gave her a reassuring nod.
She gingerly and slowly opened the box. Inside the box was lined with red padded felt, and the box itself was separated into halves width ways. The bottom half contained small glass vials of a dark brown almost black liquid and were capped off with golden lids finely engraved with all sorts of animals. The top part had what looked like to be a polished plain black lid covering whatever was contained there. Upon further inspection, she could see the lid had extremely small and fine grooves winding their way around the surface in no discernible pattern.
“Those tonics can supress your powers and outburst. What’s under that lid is a test. It will test you to see if you’re ready. It’s also the entrance examination for my academy.”
“Can it really help me?” Yoora asked.
“It will help you if you’re willing to help yourself” he replied.
She looked down at the box in her hands.
This may be able to change me. Can I really put my past behind me with this?
She took several deep breaths to steel her resolve. She looked up to the headmaster and asked
“How do I take the test?”
The headmaster beckoned towards Jumong.
Turning her attention to her master, Jumong’s face seemed to relax into a pure smile. He reached into his robes and drew out a small sheathed dagger. The dagger’s handle and sheath where both polished black with green vines and pure white flowers snaking their way around both the handle and sheath. The decorations were done in ‘mother of pearl’ enamel paint, giving off the slight illusion that the colour in the vines and flowers were changing and moving about as the light struck at different angles.
He reached out and placed the dagger on the table in front of Yoora.
“It takes a blood toll to start the test” the headmaster said. “Just the tip of your finger should do”
She picked up the dagger and slowly unsheathed it, revealing a well-polished silver blade which reflected hints of red and gold. She stared at the blade for a bit, unsure what to do before realising what ‘blood toll’ meant.
Holding the dagger firmly in her left hand, the tip of the blade quivered near her right thumb as nervousness took hold of her.
“What happens?” she asked, slightly motioning towards the box.
“Nobody can tell you what the test is. It’s different for each person.” Jumong explained. “The magic used for the test is not from our time, though nobody has ever been hurt by the test.”
Yoora took a deep breath and pushed all doubt from her mind. She somehow felt deep down inside that moving on from the comfort of the mountains was something that was meant to pass, and the opportunity was sitting right in front of her now.
Blood slowly welled up around the edges of the blade as the dagger tip pierced the skin. She put the dagger down and placed her thumb on the lid. Nothing happened. She attempted to pull her finger away, but it felt like it had been glued to the black surface. The tried again, but she could not pull her finger off. The spot under the thumb began to get warm, and small bright orange lines started snaking around the lid, originating from her thumb. The lid started to get burning hot as the lines drew out a bird. She could not look away from the lid. The pain from the heat was beginning to fade as she started losing awareness of the world around her. Her whole focus was the heavenly bird of fire, the Phoenix, which seemed to be looking right at her.
The world around her had slowly faded away to nothingness, and the only things left were herself, the box and the Phoenix. The bird was growing in size as the orange lines left the box and started forming in mid-air. The box itself eventually faded from existence as the Phoenix stretched its wings and started flying about, leaving a trail of magical embers and specks of gold. It fluttered about her head before suddenly flaring up into a giant ball of golden/red flames, engulfing her in a mesmerising display of patterns. She felt secure for the first time in conscious memory enveloped in the fire. The flames were not hot; rather she felt the warmth deep inside her, a mysterious feeling of comfort and relaxation.
The tattoo on her right hand was glowing softly with same hue of gold as the flames around her. She felt weightless and joyful. She felt as if some powerful and benign force was taking control of her, but she did not care. Suddenly, the world brightened up and the flames dispersed. She found herself flying through the sky high above the clouds. The clouds themselves were thick and dense, forming a carpet of fluffy white as far as she could see. She felt exultant as the sound of air rushing by filled her mind, and the sun was shining brightly above her. For the first time in her life, she felt free and un-afraid. She yelled out in joy, and to her surprise, let out a high pitch screech. Confused, she look around and noticed instead of arms, she had beautiful fiery wings. She looked down at her body and saw that instead of her legs, there were 2 powerful talons tucked into her fiery red/gold feathers.
Despite discovering that she was not human, it felt completely natural. She tumbled and soared through the air, screeching in joy. Nothing was ever going to get in her way.