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Ichadon, Demons, and Kings
Weaving in and out of gargantuan tree trunks, ribbons flying from the skewed headpiece like a phoenix’s tail, the boy glanced frequently behind him. He stopped before a lichen-covered spruce, calmly gazed up to its wiede-flung branches, and lept into the leafy coverage its canopy provided. Once he settled into the bark-filled embrace of the tree, he laid his metal staff across his lap and waited. Dry foliage crackled as it settled more firmly on the ground, but no birds darted to squawk much less sing. Every twig, root, and leaf of every tree seemed to pulse in unison- as if they were the bristles on a boar’s chest, swelling with every breath. The boy’s eyes scanned his surroundings, flicking back and forth before alighting on something in the distance.
An odd pack trundled through the forest. One creature, a Dal-gyal guishin -an overly large duck egg-, gleamed in the dappled light as it unhurriedly rolled over the ground. By its side stalked a Gumiho. Muzzle to the ground, nine tails perked up, it ravenously searched for the boy’s scent. Occasionally, the Dal-gyal would roll into the Gumiho’s side, knocking it off the scent trail which caused much growling and baring of teeth. The final creature in this strange entourage was blundering as fast as its one leg could carry him after his companions. Heavy-set, and red in the face from physical exertion, the Oedari Dokkaebi didn’t clutch his club so much as drag it wearily behind him. Each hop lifted his monumental gut, before it slammed back into place on his landing- sweat beads cascading off in a practical downpour as a result. All three creatures seemed to be either physically or mentally exhausted from pursuing the boy. Smiling in glee, said boy congratulated himself on wearing out his opponents by leading them on this chase instead of fighting them outright when he had encountered them on his way to the village.
As silently as he could, he shifted position on the branch so that he was crouching like an overly large squirrel. He waited until the creatures were a few feet away from his tree and then he sprang into action. He tossed his staff in between the two demons in front and the Oedari Dokkaebi, startling them all and focusing their attention briefly away from their surroundings. In mid air, having lept off the branch after his staff, the boy’s nose and mouth pinched together until he had a beak. The ribbons from his jeonrip fluttered a final time before becoming the multi-colored crest of a mandarin duck. His splayed robes transformed into wings, equally as colorful, as he swooped down and around the astonished beings. He zipped around them in increasingly concentric rings, chanting the Seal of the Immovable one.
“Nomaku sanmanda bazaradan senda makaroshada sowataya un tarata kanman. Homage to the all-pervading Vajras! O Violent One of great wrath! Destroy! Un tarata kanman!” With contortions worthy of an acrobat, the demons attempted to flee. The boy was ready for them, though. He dipped lower to the ground before catching an updraft, allowing him to buzz over the head of the Oedari Dokkaebi. The hideous creature, steaming a grey smoke and looking as if all the liquid had been drained from his body- stomach hanging down like an apron of skin-, yelled and accidentally dropped his club on the Dal-gyal. A hollow crunch signaled the demise of the egg. And wherever a piece of the egg fell on the leaf litter around it, it instantaneously decayed. The Oedari Dokkaebi seemed to have no strength left to get up off the ground after its tumble. Steam still rose up from it, singing leaves in the lower canopy, while it caved in on itself like an unstable clay vase on the potter’s wheel.
Now, only the Gumiho was left. Far from looking like a ravenous fox-demon, it most closely resembled a starved and beaten stray dog. The fearsome nine tails, once held proudly behind the creature as it strutted around, now drooped behind it- looking more like one tail that has been frayed. Its fur came off in clumps- blown away in the wake of the boy’s flight like the seeds of a dandelion. Where its gray skin was exposed, iridescent contusions appeared. The boy-turned-bird circled the necrotising dog one final time, before diving in for the kill. Although Mandarin ducks are not equipped with talons like other birds, they posses many teeth-like bristles. The pseudo-fowl used these to his advantage when he gave the slightest nibble to the neck of the fox. With a nearly inaudible puff, the fox exploded into dust sowing the surrounding air with its essence as a mushroom does with its spores. The duck-boy took one last serene lap around the affected part of the forest and then landed with on the ground, barely rustling the leaves. Pop! The boy turned himself back into a human, dusted off his robes, and meandered back toward his staff. He picked it up, and started the long trek home.
The bare rock face of the mountain was so dull, so uninteresting, so completely ordinary, that those residing within didn’t need any magical enchantments to deter any travelers from coming closer to the mouth of the cave by which they entered their ‘home.’ No, their one defense lay in nature- in this un-extraordinariness- itself. The color of the rock was uniform from the base to the peak, with only a few daring patches of moss halfway in between. To climb up would be impossible, as the sides were practically vertical. But, nature would not be as it is without slight imperfections. Walls, varying from a few feet to a mile or two, jutted out from the mountain- creating an optical illusion when stared at from head-on. One thought they were looking at a flat wall, when in reality, they were staring at a passage inside. It was for this reason that the boy had chosen to secret himself and his family in this mountain, to conserve his energy by not wasting it on keeping up a magical barrier all day. He approached what could perhaps be called the center of the mountain at its base, looked around him, and then slipped inside. Before his eyes could adjust to the gloom inherent in any cave, thin arms wrapped around his waist.
“Ichadon! Ichadon! You’re back. Do you have any treats for me?” The boy, Ichadon, relaxed his tense hold on his staff, lowering it back to his side.
“Sorry, dongsang. I...found myself in a bit of trouble,” he responded, ruffling the despondent girl’s head.
“Wouldn’t be the first time, young master,” another voice called from the darkness. Several exclamations to the affirmative bounced off the walls in response. The bodies that had uttered such sounds weren’t yet visible, but their eyes gleamed at varying heights like jewels waiting to be mined. Shimmiying past stalagmites and crouching through low tunnels, mapped in their minds from muscle memory, Ichadon, his sister, and the others went further into the mountain. A few moments later, they found themselves within Dong-gul Ma-eul: Cavern Town.
Dong-gul Ma-eul was as tall and wide as an ocean basin. The cave’s roof was only discernable because of the salt and quartz crystals that reflected the warm glow of the ever burning fires. Their pattern came to be known as a second set of constellations to the inhabitants of the cave, and so no map was needed to navigate the hodgepodge of rickety, scavenged wood lean-tos and tattered cloth tents that made up the ‘buildings’ of the town. There was a small lake filled with ice cold water every couple of feet. On these lakes floated many multi-colored, buoyant devices that carried candles. When a new candle was placed in the water, it symbolised the souls of one of their members who had departed. It was one meager way these stalwart people felt they could be remembered. Many of them did not have the possibility of being added to their family’s ancestral tablets, as they had been cast out of their loved ones’ minds and homes- scorned and loathed almost more than the rats that were swept out with them. Their families, no matter how loving, could not withstand the backlash of harboring a Buddhist. And so, they turned out brothers, aunts, sisters, mothers- all to please the King of Silla. For although they still held to their beliefs of filial piety, the most important relationship is between King and subject. Abandoned and destitute, many nearly gave up on living before meeting a young boy flagrantly garbed in the fashion of a Buddhist monk- Ichadon- who led them to their home and refuge in Dong-gul Ma-eul. His whole family had lived openly as Buddhists until his father had been killed on the orders of the King of Silla. Fleeing to the mountains, Ichadon, his mother, and his sister had started a colony of sorts for persecuted Buddhists. Here, Ichadon ruled as de facto leader. Although a grumble or two were heard about letting a mere boy lead a people, enough people agreed with his just rulings and self-taught powers that protected them from demons and soldiers alike, roaming the countryside. But all was not as it seemed with the lad.
“I heard you had a skirmish with 10,000 giants! What have I told you about taking unnecessary risks?” berated a petite woman.
“Gosali’s been spreading rumors again. Helps to keep up my image. You have no need to worry, eomma. It was just a goblin, a fox-demon, and an egg-ghost,” assured Ichadon.
“Just? Just! Egg-ghosts are heralds of death! The last time we saw one your father died, Ichadon. And that meant you, a-,” she cut herself off, dragged her child into their abode, and continued in a furious whisper, “you, a girl had to become the breadwinner of this family. I’m too old to do much housework, but I will keel over soon from all the worry you put me through. It’s too dangerous for a girl to exorcise demons for a living and run a band of fugitives.”
“Eomma, if I don’t do these things, who will? It’s like you said, you’re too old to work for the pompous seonggol and the selfish jingol classes. Dongsang can’t either. She’s too young. And I would rather be reincarnated in the very bottom level of Saengsayujeon again, then do that sort of job for the rest of my life. You know I’ve always wanted to be a member of the Hwabaek council, but neither you nor father are part of the elite...and I am, as you said a girl. I could do so much to help the people of this kingdom if they would only give me a voice, but here I am. The King of the mountain,” Ichadon mumble dispassionately as she scraped a sandal on the ground. Her mother looked at her silently for a moment before speaking again.
“Once a young man was walking on the beach after a storm. Thousands of fish lay helplessly on the sand. The young man picked his way through them for several miles until he came upon a young boy tossing fish back into the ocean. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked. ‘Helping the fish,’ the boy replied. ‘Silly boy,’ the man laughed, ‘there are so many fish here. How can you hope to make a difference to them all?’ The boy picked up a fish and threw it into the water. Then he said, ‘I just made a difference to that one.’” Ichadon, about to answer, was interrupted by a man who barged into their home.
“Young Master Ichadon! There are soldiers poking around the entrance of the cave. We can hear their voices getting closer!”
“What! How did they find us? No, there’s no time for that now. Gather everyone and take them out the side passage.”
“Yes, sir!” Ichadon raced out after the man- ignoring her mother’s protests- and made his way to the pool in the center of the settlement, crashing into and pushing past fleeing people all the way. She stood still for a moment, listening as the steps of villagers faded away, and then began counting the drops of water that fell from above into the pool. She waited for a few minutes like this until flickering light could be seen from the entrance tunnel. Not long after, a line of staggering soldiers- gaping at the underground town- appeared before her. The captain of the group was the first to notice her.
“Hey, who are you? What is this place? A haven for bandits?”
“No, it is a haven for fish who swim against the current. Now, tell your king that Ichadon wishes to speak with him,” Ichadon responded. With that, she turned into a fish and swam through the opening that fed water into the pool.