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paradise lost

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The guards patrolling the outermost gate and surrounding ramparts of the Imperial Palace snapped to attention when Seulgi neared on foot, her willowy form like a black spot in the sun on the horizon. They formed a line before the heavy doors, their red robes flaring in the autumn breeze, the tips of the spears at their sides gleaming. One guard stepped forward, asking to see the Imperial Seal.

She had clipped the heavy jade pendant to her weapons belt beside her collection of throwing daggers. She held the Seal out for the guard, who examined it closely.

“I have fashioned a twin out of human bone,” she said, her tone flippant and her eyes flashing with impatience when he kept turning it over and over in his hand. She watched the guard’s throat bob. A bead of sweat trickled from his temple to his chin as he kept his gaze lowered. “Would you like to see that one as well? Or perhaps it is the one you are holding…”

The guard bowed slightly and stepped back. “I-I have determined it is the Imperial Seal,” the guard announced. “Let her through.”

There was a disgruntled rumble from the row of guards as they parted down the middle, and the gate opened with the grinding sound of stone against stone.

Seulgi could have easily pulled the shadows around herself and teleported directly into the Emperor’s chambers, but she had wondered, when she received the Imperial Seal and accompanying note from a palace courier yesterday, if this whole thing might be a set up for an ambush, and she didn’t fancy the idea of being caught off-guard by a legion of soldiers and priestesses. 

Walking was more tedious, but it also gave her more control and required less energy.

She stepped through. The gates ground shut behind her, closing her off from the outside world.

The courtyard was empty and still, and no wind stirred the quiet. The palace loomed ahead like a mirage in the desert. It was a thousand paces from the outer gate to the first step in the staircase that led up to the First Pavilion. Seulgi felt the gazes of the guards positioned along the ramparts following her, and when she looked up, she saw at least a dozen had trained their arrows on her, and she could not help the amused snort she let out at noticing.

Did they think those arrows could do anything to her? The leather bodice that hugged her tightly might be a flimsy layer of armor for a normal human, but Seulgi had no need for armor at all.

At least not from human weapons.

A path of white marble carved through the sea of dark grey stone all around her, and she set herself upon it.

.

A dozen guards greeted her upon entering the First Pavilion. These would be her escorts as she made her way through the First Pavilion and the Outer Court, and then as she passed the Second and Third Pavilions. Court officials dressed in somber, colorless clothing paused to consider her as she strode by, trying to catch a glimpse of her between the red robes of the guards.

Truthfully, Seulgi did not mind the attention, but the sunlight bearing down on her back made her grimace, and so the people who happened to catch her eye turned away quickly with a shudder, fingers drawing a sigil that was known to ward off evil inside their long sleeves.

By the time she had finally reached the Heavenly Pavilion, Seulgi was not sweating, but she wanted to be. She wondered blithely if the guards would take her as far as the Emperor's Quarters when they stopped between the tall, pale green columns that marked the entrance into the Heavenly Pavilion, the guards stepping aside so that Seulgi could proceed, alone.

This Pavilion was smaller than the others. Its walls were made of sliding doors with thick paper windows, and many of the doors were open. Two staircases leading up to the second floor were mirrors of each other on opposite sides. A slight breeze fluttered through the long white curtains that hung from the ceiling between the green columns. It was like being inside of the Imperial Seal.

A priestess was waiting for Seulgi before the altar that spanned the entire length of the back wall, the smell of incense and oil ripe and thick in the air from the hundreds of sticks and candles burning behind her.

“You came,” she said in a clear, strong voice. She was beautiful, her glossy back hair pulled back into an elegant knot and held in place by a gold comb embellished by jade flowers. Her white robes were simple and elegant, falling to her ankles.

“Your note intrigued me,” Seulgi said. “Sooyoung.”

The priestess stiffened at the mention of her name. It was probably not common to hear it falling from a demon’s lips. Seulgi smiled, passing Sooyoung and approaching the altar. The flames on the candles danced, spinning wildly in her presence.

Seulgi continued, “I am rarely called upon by people like you. Did no heavenly beings come to your aid?”

“They did,” Sooyoung said. “Nothing has worked. You know this; it was in the letter.”

Seulgi chuckled and touched her finger to one of the flames, and the fire turned black. “I just want to hear you say it,” she teased, straightening and turning back to Sooyoung. She licked her finger and tasted charcoal and ash. “A priestess begging a demon for help. I’ve seen it all.”

“The demon holding the Emperor is strong,” Sooyoung said. “I’ve never encountered anything like it. I worry that—” Her cheeks pinked, and it reminded Seulgi of the fuzz on a fresh peach. Anxiety rolled off Sooyoung’s shoulders in waves, the smell of it sweet as honey to Seulgi. Saliva pooled in Seulgi’s mouth, but then Sooyoung shook her head and took a deep, stabilizing breath. “Will you help, or not?”

The strength of the supposed demon possessing the Emperor intrigued Seulgi. She had never met a demon or monster or other being whom she could not best, and she had come across many in her long centuries of chaotic existence. She longed for a worthwhile adversary and thirsted for a meaningful challenge, and she hoped to find both here. Her blood heated with excitement.

"In exchange for my help," she told Sooyoung, "a piece of your soul." Sooyoung's jaw twitched as her eyes narrowed, and Seulgi shrugged. "It is the standard payment. Just because you're beautiful doesn't mean you get any favors."

This time, Sooyoung flushed deeply, down the graceful column of her neck. Her blood was warm and smelled so tantalizing, just under her skin. Seulgi licked her lips.

"I agree to the exchange," Sooyoung said, nodding. " If you are successful."

It was smart of Sooyoung to add the condition, but the possibility of failure that it implied pricked at Seulgi’s ego like light glancing off the sharp edge of a blade. Seulgi grinned, flashing her true face for an instant, gleeful when this made Sooyoung trip backward with two quick steps.

"It is as good as done,” Seulgi said. “Take me to the Emperor.”

.

The second floor of the Pavilion housed rooms for the priestesses who maintained the altar and guided the Imperial family through their connection to the gods. They greeted Sooyoung with deference as they passed, keeping their eyes lowered.

Sooyoung stopped before a door. Seulgi reached for the notch to the side to slide it open, but Sooyoung’s hand darted to her wrist, quick as a snake’s strike, and Seulgi froze, miffed. 

“These…these are my quarters. We moved him out of the Inner Court when we heard the whisper of rumors circulating that he’d gone mad,” Sooyoung explained, her voice low and hushed. “Now the people believe he is sick and recovering in the Secondary Palace in Busan. They pray for him. They bring gifts.”

“I do not care,” Seulgi said.

“I just want to make it known,” Sooyoung continued. “That thing in there...that is not the Emperor as he was.”

Seulgi felt warmed by the nervous tremble in Sooyoung’s fingers, imagining how sweet her soul would taste, succulent and tender from years of altruism and devotion to the Gods. “You do not have to warn me before I face my own kind.” 

Sooyoung snatched her fingers away with a gasp. “Right,” she mumbled to herself, and Seulgi was able to slide the door open.

.

The room was dark and hazy with smoke so thick that it burned even Seulgi’s sharp eyes. She pushed the smoke away from her face, parting it like it was a curtain, and saw the Emperor sitting cross-legged on a simple sleeping pallet that had been dragged against the furthest wall on the floor. 

Beside the pallet stood a low tray table with the remains of a meal: the picked-apart carcass of a small bird, rotting fruit, soured rice. Flies buzzed around the old food. The single candle burning on the tray was the room’s only source of light, as the windows had been boarded up. A dresser in the corner had been upended, the clothes inside strewn about the floor. Bloody handprints littered the wall behind the Emperor like a morbid painting of a tree in autumn. 

He looked up at Seulgi between the lank, greasy tendrils of hair that framed his gaunt face. Seulgi had been expecting a bigger man like the paintings depicted in town, but hunched before her like this, he seemed brittle and old. When he smiled, his teeth were yellow, and his eyes bulged. “Hello,” he croaked.

The other demon was cloaked. Seulgi prodded experimentally, gently, at the fringes of the human realm with her magic but was met with an unyielding shield around the Emperor. She could glean nothing of the other demon, which was strange. Its power was already stronger than what she had been expecting. She pulled back, drawn with attention and interest, and kept one hand near her waist near her throwing knives. 

“Hello,” she greeted with a gleam in her eye.

It stank in here. Not just from the spoiled food. It was more than just unwashed human bodies and waste. She followed the movements of the flies and pursed her lips when one landed in the Emperor’s hair, then another on his bottom lip, then another on his eye. He blinked and it fell into his robed lap, dead.

She felt her lips curl into a smile.

“Can you help me?” the Emperor entreated her, his voice like the grating of nails against stone. “Can you help me, please?”

She stepped deeper into the room, tapping her fingernails against the hilts of her knives. “With what, Your Highness?” she asked, playing along.

“My head is splitting,” he said. He groaned as he fell forward onto all fours and began crawling toward her. “If you could ask the High Priestess for more tea…”

Seulgi allowed him to reach her feet. But when he clutched at her silk skirts and thick bodice as he struggled to stand, her face twisted in disgust. His bones crackled like twigs in a fire. 

“How long have you managed to keep up this trick?” She turned her face away from his rank breath. 

“Trick?” he wheezed. “No trick. Please, I’m so thirsty.”

Seulgi pushed his hands from her shoulders, scoffing when he collapsed to the floor, no more than a pile of bones. “They think once they are rid of you, the Emperor will remain. But you have already taken your fill of him. He is dead.”

Seulgi stood over him, proud of her own shrewdness, as the thing that had been the Emperor sat up and hung his head. She knew that the demon had made a home in the Emperor’s corpse and was likely hiding away inside of it for as long as it could, feeding off the anxieties and worries of the priestesses until it was fat and dripping with the excess. Seulgi thought that it was probably not that strong of a demon, as powerful ones tended to rip through whole families and communities with the swiftness of a guillotine; it had likely just put up a particularly strong shield to protect its host. 

The Emperor was quiet for a long moment, and the flies’ buzzing grew louder. 

Then, he began to laugh.

Seulgi frowned, pride fading into annoyance and then anger when the laughter continued and heightened into a manic cackle. The Emperor lifted his head and threw it back with a sickening snap and crunch, laughing still, his mouth a wide black hole. When he stood, his neck remained broken at an odd angle.

“Clever little demon,” he said in a voice that carried a thousand other voices. “Yes, he is dead. You have found me out. What will you do now?”

“Kill you,” Seulgi said.

The Emperor’s grotesque smile split across his face, wide and drooping like golden yolk running out of a smashed egg. “All you will do is mangle the body,” he said. 

He surged forward with his hands reaching for Seulgi like they were claws. Seulgi ducked and rolled to the side, narrowly avoiding his blurred form and deftly fitting three of her knives between her knuckles. 

She drew in a breath, measured, and threw.

Each knife reached its intended target, impaling the Emperor in the shoulder, in the chest, and in the belly. Seulgi straightened in triumph, smirking, waiting for the moment the Emperor would crumble.

Instead, he groaned in what seemed like annoyance. “Silver?” Black smoke furled out of the wounds.

Fascinated, Seulgi watched as he plucked the knives from their places, tossing them at her feet. The wounds closed before the knives had even touched the ground.

She felt her eyebrows rise up in her forehead. Even after a good feeding, it took Seulgi minutes to fully recover from a silver-inflicted burn. This demon was stronger than she thought.

“Who are you?” Seulgi asked, her eyes bright with excitement and anticipation. 

She shifted her weight subtly so that she was balanced on the balls of her feet. When she snapped her hands to her sides, calling her twin sickles into her palms, the weapons materialized with a subtle ripping sound. The leather hilts were already warmed and primed as they settled into her hands. The sharp, curved blades sang out sweetly for violence. 

She wanted to charge headfirst into battle with the demon after that little display of power. She wanted to know if it could recover from any kind of wound or just the surface ones. She grinned and licked her teeth, imagining its decapitation at her hands. She could keep his head as a trophy. 

“I was his worst nightmare for a while,” the demon answered. 

He lunged again, and this time Seulgi saw how jerky and uncoordinated his movements were, like a puppet being whipped about on its strings. His broken neck made his head loll behind the rest of his body, and she heard the distinct snap of bones cracking when she side-stepped him and brought her knee up to his gut. Still bent in half, he swung his arms up to her neck. She reacted, blocked, crossed her sickles, and caught his forearm between the blades. 

Adrenaline thrumming in her chest, she yanked her sickles apart, and the flesh and bones of the Emperor’s forearm gave way like they were made of clay. His hand fell to the floor with a dull thud. The inside where the tissue should have been pulsing red with blood was black and putrid, rotten.

He jumped back, wide-eyed with shock, cradling his stump of a forearm to his chest. Then his eyes narrowed and hardened, glittering, as he took Seulgi in. “Where did you get those sickles from?” he asked quietly, licking his lips.

“Show yourself and fight me properly,” Seulgi demanded. She dug the toe of her back foot into the floor, ready at a moment’s notice to spring herself upon the demon.

But then the room went dark, the absence of light so complete that when Seulgi blinked there was no difference between what was in front of her and what was behind her eyelids. Acrid smoke from the snuffed-out candle burned the inside of her nostrils. The quiet hummed in her ears.

Was it trying to run? She growled, thighs tensed, fingers tight around the hilts of her weapons.

“Coward—!”

The darkness retreated like so many vines from a bright, hot fire. The Emperor lay on the floor, the skin on the body gray and dull, sunken in some spots that were visible beneath the robes. She saw the caved-in spot in his chest where her knee had plowed through his ribs.

A chimera stood over him. Seulgi had seen chimera* before—monsters created from the body parts of other monsters—but she had never heard of one possessing a human. They liked to keep their distance.

The chimera threw its monkeyed head back and howled, but the sound coming out of its mouth was strange and throaty, part birdsong, part lion's roar. It barrelled forward like a boulder rolling down a large mountain, its snaked tail whipping behind its body.

Seulgi saw that the creature was heavy and not as agile as she was. She angled her twin blades for the beast's thick neck, where monkey became tiger, but before she could hear the sizzle of her weapon cutting through flesh, the world went dark again, and her sickles passed through nothing. 

Instead of feeling frustrated, she laughed, giddy with the newness of everything. 

She had not been expecting the Emperor to be dead. She had not been expecting a worthwhile fight. She had not been expecting to battle a chimera at all. And now, the newest thing: She had not been expecting to face a chimera that could become the darkness. 

There was only one thing that could truly make darkness yield.

She called her magic into the center of her chest and pushed, exploding outward, and each sliding panel that made up the walls of the room simultaneously snapped open, the one behind her shattering completely.

Light flooded in. The beast gurgled and solidified, blinking and wobbling on its feet at the onslaught, and Seulgi dashed forward, sickles raised. She wanted to feel its black blood splash across her cheeks. Grinning, she went in for the kill.

But then something very strange happened. 

The chimera sucked in and flattened, fluttering to the ground like paper, lifeless, and then it began to fold itself into a little square, piece by piece at an impossible speed. Seulgi watched it with open curiosity. She pitched one of her sickles at the diminishing paper square and cursed when what had been the monster disappeared before the sharp point of her weapon could pierce through it.

So this thing could also navigate dimensions… 

Behind Seulgi, Sooyoung screamed. Seulgi felt a breeze ripple through the air as Sooyoung rushed past her toward the Emperor’s body, where the priestess collapsed, bowing deeply, shoulders shaking. "What have you done?!" Sooyoung wailed.

Seulgi sniffed. The smell of sulfur and metal lingered, the odor usually accompanying the opening and closing of dimensions. She rubbed the heel of her boot over the spot where the chimera had disappeared, wondering if it would come back or if she should expect another new thing. 

She hoped for a new thing. 

The guards had gathered at the broken door. They were confused and fractured at seeing the Emperor's body. Seulgi could sense them looking at her and feeling uncertain about attacking her.

She sniffed the air again. The smell of sulfur and metal had deepened, pungent and thick. She scanned the room for another dimensional opening and smirked in satisfaction when she spotted it in the corner of the room. The form of a woman was taking shape, folding herself out of the air the same way the chimera had folded itself into it.

Something new, then.

Seulgi gripped her sickles harder, her blood just under her skin simmering with expectation.

She heard the guards gasp. "What is that? What the hell is that?"

"Gwishin," Seulgi answered when the woman's form had fully realized. Her long pale dress made the rest of her form seem translucent in comparison. Her tangled black hair floated around her head like a crown of seaweed in the water, framed around a face without eyes, without a nose, without a mouth.

Seulgi quickly lowered her gaze. She heard two thumps behind her. Two guards had dropped dead, making the mistake of looking into what would have been the ghost's eyes.

"Idiots," she sighed. 

She knew from experience looking into the ghost’s face wouldn’t kill her, but it would make her very dizzy and unable to fight. So she kept her eyes averted as she advanced, turning the sickles in her palms so that they were inverted. 

Leaping, she threw her fist upward, the blade swinging in an arc under the ghost’s ribs. 

The woman simply floated higher, then away, the echo of her laughter in Seulgi’s ears. Gwishin were more annoying than anything else, really, but by now it wasn’t really the gwishin that interested her; it was who was controlling it. 

"Come back here!” Seulgi called, giving chase. Gwishin had no shadow, so she had to keep her eyes trained on the ratty hem of the ghost's dress. It was moving towards the guards. She leaped again, this time managing to shear off a chunk of the ghost's hair, the individual pieces drifting to the floor like black snow.

The ghost froze, bobbing in midair like a body dangling at the end of a noose. Then it dove at Seulgi with a horrible cry, tearing at her with too many arms and too many legs. Seulgi dodged, parried, countered. When it swooped high toward the ceiling, she followed, bending this realm's physical laws to her will so she could run up the wall.

It laughed again, taunting, and fell out of the window.

"Where are you going?!" Sooyoung screeched suddenly. Seulgi glanced over her shoulder at her tearful, blotchy face. Even in shock and mourning, she looked beautiful.

"After it," Seulgi snapped. Excitement made her impatient and brusque. More than usual, anyway.

"You killed the Emperor!" Sooyoung accused. Her eyes darkened with fury.

Seulgi blew a tangle of hair away from her face. "He was dead long before I arrived," she told her, thinking little of the bite of Sooyoung’s soul that she could no longer have.

The chimera and the gwishin, two monsters born of different lands, rarely crossed paths without some intentional interference. And the way the chimera had disappeared and the gwishin had appeared made Seulgi think of a collector carefully putting away a prized object before carefully releasing another into the world.

She knew only of one demon who could collect monsters like this.

Her heart pounded in her chest. The wind rushed past her ears, a haunting sound that reminded Seulgi of a woman's soft humming. She vaulted from the spine of the roof into the forest beyond the walls.

.

The bamboo that densely packed this forest was old and strong, swaying easily in the wind as one entity, but its spirit greeted Seulgi immediately with suspicion, and the stalks stretched toward her on her way to the ground, thousands of leaves and thin branches rustling as they crossed her path and tried to keep her from her prey. 

Seulgi swatted leaves out of her way and cut through the defensive stalks, ignoring how the needle-thin branches—like capillaries in a vein—sliced into her skin as she rushed past. The ghost’s white dress shone through the bamboo despite the murky light pervading the forest, almost as though it didn’t want Seulgi to lose sight of it. 

Seulgi kept her eye out for other monsters. If she was right about who she thought she was really chasing, then the demon who hoarded these monsters had plenty to choose from and unleash upon Seulgi. 

She wanted that. She had come, answering Sooyoung’s call, hoping for a challenge. 

And now she might be facing the Mother of Monsters, Joohyun, herself.

It had been well over a century since Seulgi had last heard rumblings of a sighting. She had hurried to the town where it was rumored Joohyun had released several horrific monsters from her legendary bronze chest that was sometimes as large as a building and sometimes as small as a jewelry box. But by the time Seulgi had reached, all that had been left had been hills of corpses piled in the streets, waiting to be burned. An entire town, dead.

Plague, whispered some.

Demon, whispered most others.

Though Seulgi had searched and waited, Joohyun had not surfaced since.

She came to a stop in a small opening deep in the forest, far from the palace’s walls, when she realized she had lost sight of the gwishin. At the same time, the hairs on the back of Seulgi’s neck pricked at the feeling of being watched. The wind shifted; the leaves turned over with the sound of the tide. Seulgi dug her toe into the soft dirt and braced.

Something slammed into her side, sending her flying into the stalks. She broke several before she tumbled to the ground, winded from the attack but not wounded, though her pride had taken a small battering.

Seulgi coughed dirt out of her mouth and flipped her hair from her face with a determined grunt, sprinting back into the clearing and looking for her attacker. Nothing stirred.

But the clearing looked different. The thin hunter’s trail she had run along on her way here seemed wider, and now there were multiple, all of them leading into this spot. Turning in a slow circle, she saw that each of the trails were the same, like she’d been captured in an enclosure of mirrors.

She knew this trick. She knew this monster. 

Nurikabe.

“You can’t fool me!” Seulgi shouted delightfully, triumphantly, into the sky. 

A crystalline laugh echoed through the leaves. “But I can keep you here forever,” the wind said.

Seulgi shivered, electrified. Something inside of her was pleased that Joohyun found her interesting enough—powerful enough—to keep. 

Trying to ignore the feeling, she asked, “What else is in your box of monsters, Joohyun?” 

She crept toward the trail, brandishing her sickles and holding them closer to the blade. Seulgi knew that nurikabe were playful creatures who liked to make travelers lose their way, and many travelers wandered in their mazes for a long time, ignorant of the nurikabe’s easily exploited weakness: their feet.

“When did you know who I was?” Joohyun asked through the wind. She had a pleasant voice, soft and beckoning. More befitting of a siren.

“The gwishin,” Seulgi lied. It was not until the nurikabe that she was certain. She stretched out a hand, searching for the nurikabe’s wall where the trail began and meeting a barrier in front of her chest. “Aha!” She dropped into a squat and swung with the stick-end of her sickles, hoping to strike the bottom of the invisible wall. 

The impact vibrated through her forearms. 

The nurikabe’s white face appeared out of nothing, contorted in a pained howl. Before Seulgi could strike again, its great body flattened and folded into itself, just like the chimera before. 

She spun around in the clearing, chest out, head high. “Three out of three!” she crowed.

Two out of three.” 

Joohyun’s steady voice was like a dense cloud pushing down on Seulgi’s shoulders, heavy enough to crush mountains. The forest became silent and still as the wind dropped away into nothing. The air smelled electric and charged, like oncoming rain. 

Joohyun stepped out from behind a sparse wall of bamboo, her black dress trailing across the dry leaves that littered the floor. Her form was not quite solid and yet too solid, the line where she met the human realm bursting with dark, demonic energy. It was hard to look at her. 

Seulgi fought the urge to drop down to her knees, witnessing Joohyun’s power directly. She held herself poised as though on the edge of flight, brimming with kinetic energy.

Joohyun had a sharp face with sharp eyes and a red, heart-shaped mouth. The oil-slick black of her tall horns faded into the color of fire at their needled tips. A bronze brooch in the shape of a flower, each petal a glowing pearl, rested in the center of her chest, catching the light. She held a small bronze chest in her hands. Were Leviathan and Behemoth raging inside the elegant dimensional walls? Fenrir and the Minotaur?

Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of monsters were inside of that chest, and Seulgi wanted to face them all. To destroy them. To prove that she was more powerful than any of the monsters under Joohyun’s hypnotizing sway. 

Joohyun sighed and her breath was the wind sweeping around Seulgi’s feet, curling around her abdomen. “You are a rapacious creature, aren’t you?” she asked, sounding amused.

“I have never met a monster I could not defeat,” Seulgi boasted. She twirled her sickles in her palms, flashing the blades for embellishment and emphasis. Joohyun’s appreciative smirk made Seulgi’s heart squeeze in her chest. Seulgi’s weight shifted forward.

“You seek to challenge me,” Joohyun said, “yet you are just a fledgling who has yet to prove herself. A pretty one. Perhaps a useful one.”

“I am not a fledgling!” Seulgi protested, heat bursting into her cheeks. She paused and frowned. She didn’t understand. She had never lost a battle before, and she had spent centuries of existence proving herself through combat. Her skills were sharply honed, her senses perfected through training, experience, and a few choice magical modifications—everything she’s ever done has served her higher purpose of hoarding power and strength. That was all she cared about. 

She thought that was all she cared about.

Her pride and ego deflated just enough for curiosity to float to the surface. “What does it look like, to prove oneself?”

The lurid red of Joohyun’s smile was captivating. She said, “Every 500 hundred years, a dragon is born. I have been searching for him, yet he evades me. I thought being Emperor for a while might bring me closer to him, given the proximity to gold and other shiny things—” she spat her distaste for measures of human wealth “—but he remains elusive.”

A dragon! Seulgi’s face lit up, her lips wide in a feral grin. Her excitement now made her bold and careless. “I will find him where you could not,” she said.

Joohyun’s eyes flashed with fire. Within a breath, she loomed before Seulgi like a great black shadow, crackling with lightning and raw energy. Seulgi took an involuntary step back, putting her fists up. 

“Reckless,” Joohyun hissed. “Impulsive. Greedy.” Her hand grasped the bottom of Seulgi’s face, tilting until they were nose to nose. The rest of Seulgi’s body went hot with desire; Seulgi knew Joohyun could see her naked lust in the depths of her eyes, and this only stimulated her attraction more deeply. 

Joohyun licked her lips and sealed them against Seulgi’s in a searing kiss. The burn of it went straight to Seulgi’s toes. She felt like she was sizzling when Joohyun released her. 

“You will do well,” Joohyun said. Stated like a promise. Like an ordinance. She stepped back into her own shadow and disappeared when the wind gusted, picking leaves up from the floor. 

“Find me my dragon,” the wind said.

Seulgi touched her lips with the tips of her fingers, an ache awakening inside of her she did not yet understand.

.

When Seulgi turned away from the clearing, a flash of metal buried between the dead leaves and dirt caught her eye. She walked towards it and kicked at the dirt with her boot until she had unearthed what was hidden: Joohyun’s brooch, small enough to fit in Seulgi’s palm. 

She picked it up and slipped it into a pocket in her weapon’s belt. It was so warm she could feel it as though it were pressed against her skin. 

.