Atelier Arcadia Zine #002 - Other Worlds

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ATELIER ARCADIA ZINE #002

OTHER WORLDS

TEN PIECES OF WORK BY ASIAN CREATIVES

CURATED BY ATELIER ARCADIA


CONTENTS 02

CONTENTS

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I NEED TO FIND A PLACE by Chin Yuqin Casey

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CHAOS! AT THE KOPITIAM by Farid Nad

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BACKLIGHT, REFLECTED by Lynette Teo

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THE GUIDING STAR by Shu Yu

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AMBUSHED by Sarah Saifuddin

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JONGI by Lyndon Ang

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LUCID by Xzoni

Hello, dear reader! Welcome, and thank you for picking up "Other Worlds," Atelier Arcadia's second mini-zine. Atelier Arcadia is an indie publishing collective, and it was created with the aim of getting more work by Asian artists and writers out into the world! This collection of ten works by talented Asian creatives has been a labor of love. Given the theme "Other Worlds," these ten creatives were given the license to go wild and dare to dream. In this zine, we take you through sci-fi worlds, and introduce you to intricately-crafted historical fantasy scapes! Fall in love with these alternate dimensions - and see if you can spot some slivers of our own reality peeking out from between the pages. We hope you enjoy this zine! And if you'd like to find out more about us, and what we do, check out our socials and our website! In the meantime - have fun, and go forth to explore these other worlds. xoxo,

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WELCOME, TRAVELLER by Robokarla

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UNTITLED

Chaerin Jung Editor-in-Chief Atelier Arcadia

by Ducesid @atelier.arcadia

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GATE AT THE END OF SUMMER by Nick Lim

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GET PUBLISHED @ ARCADIA

hey@atelierarcadia.com www.atelierarcadia.com

ISBN 978-981-18-3349-6


I NEED TO FIND A PLACE BY CHIN YUQIN (CASEY)

I need to find a place. This is a difficult undertaking, for one would typically start by knowing where to start, but it’s exactly that where that I’m looking for. Naturally, this eliminates when as well as an avenue. It is not surprising information that when and where are two cuts from the same thing. So, having no where or when to begin with, I consider my remaining options - what is difficult too. I can tell you what the place should be like, but I cannot tell you what it is precisely. To know that, I would have to already be within it, and no one can really be in a place without knowing where or when it is, not in a way that counts anyway. But that what it’s like does bring me to some parameters of description, with which I could start to circle my target, even if the circle is very wide and crudely drawn. Here they are: firstly, the place must be quiet, but not silent. It needs a voice, but one only partially discernable to me, for if no communication is possible I would be too afraid, but if too much is communicable there would be no point in me looking for it. Secondly, the place must be larger than the exact mass of my body, including my thoughts, measures, and breath, or I would not be able to inhabit it without some kind of violence to either it, or my own person. Thirdly, the place must not already be occupied by anyone living at the time I find it, for time travel is far too much trouble just to avoid unwanted companionship. Lastly, the place must be/come home. With that, what is exhausted as a source for beginning, and I move on to who. /

Thale. That is a name I think of first. It is not my own, but to look for a place outside of myself using my own name would be foolish, don’t you think? So when I look down the lane of who, I ask “Who is Thale?”, not “Who am I?” I know who I am, on good days. At the very least, I know that who I am is enough of a known that it would not lead me to the new place I’m looking for. So I think of Thale.


I don’t know anybody named Thale, but it’s a name I like and that has long stuck with me without me meaning it to. It comes from a kind of plant, thale cress, the first that flowered in space, and since learning that I have wanted quite badly for someone to be named Thale. The name has a power over me. I have thought, repeatedly, about who someone named Thale might be. Might they be hearty and stubborn? Might they be quiet and strict? Might they have a watery voice, and like things neat and tidy and the temperature just so, and when asked if they like their name they would shrug and say, I guess, I don’t really think about it? This is when I noticed my mistake. By asking who Thale is, I have created too many Thales. The direction Thale should have offered me in my search is instead a wobbling mass of arrows, pointing every which way, with warm Thales and cold Thales and friendly Thales and quick-tempered Thales and lost Thales and found Thales and Thales who know the right place, and Thales who do not. It’s not really a bad thing, to think about so many Thales, but it’s not very helpful in finding a place. It just gets me all caught up on Thale, without knowing where I might meet them, if such a person should even exist. So, reluctantly, I stop thinking about Thale. / The next consideration I must take, then, seems to be how. This one is easy. I ask myself, how do I get to the place I’m looking for? And I know, I must walk through the right door. Doors go to places. So it stands to reason that the right door would go to the right place. But the tricky part comes in recognising a door. Some are obvious, they are flat and have handles and open when asked. But some are difficult, much more difficult. Sometimes they move, or refuse to open, or take on strange forms like a street or a cat or a particular smell over an open expanse of ocean. The secret, so I have been told, is to recognise a door not by its shape, but by the person on the other side, waiting to answer it. So I listen. I spill my listening through wall cracks and mouse holes and right up against windows, listening, listening, listening for a version of myself who has already found the answer. Which door are you behind? I ask with my listening. My own, you answer. My own and some way yours. How long have you been waiting? As long as has been taken, and as long as it will take. Am I to find you? Perhaps. Will you look for my door, and not yours?


So I say, yes, yes, I will look for your door if it will have me. And you say nothing more. The invitation is finished, the how is complete, and the door is waiting to be opened. All that remains is to actually knock. / At last, so close to my target, I seek the final direction of searching. The core of all questions, as some may say, or the most important, as others might insist. Personally, however, I have never thought it as dramatic as that, and pretty overrated as far as questions go. I’ve found that it often leads to looking inward too much, tangling everything up only to arrive at no worthwhile answer, no outward momentum to move. Most of the time it is rather redundant too - after all, does it really matter if I understand the reasons for any endeavour, when those reasons will act on me regardless of my questioning them? Does it really serve me to understand the depths of intention, when that knowledge is already present in the domino fields of action and effect? When rippling forces are already at large, how helpful is it to question the undercurrent? Nevertheless, it bears asking. So I look past my own, perhaps stubbornly narrow, rejection of it, and ask: why? Why am I looking for a place? Why have I yet to find it? Why, ever, would the place I am looking for want to be found? For once, as usual, I am alone in asking and answering.Ah, yes, that is the other reason I do not like whys. Why is a lonely question. Perhaps I am looking for a place because mine is soon not to be my own. It has outgrown me, and I it, and its when and where steadily approach a point where I will no longer be welcome. I need to find a place because the place I have already found now wishes to lose me. So is it fear, then, that drives my search? Fear of being displaced, unplaced, drifting and alone? Perhaps. But I do not like that answer. Fear does not help me narrow anything down. It only operates in running froms, not looking tos. Then maybe there is a wish in there, buried in the fear. Most fears have a wish at their core. If you follow the tendrils down to the tightest point where they twist and knot into themselves, you might find it. I don’t like that why is leading me down this route, but I do it anyway. I follow the fear, until the point appears that is solid, tangled, sublime. All pieces and manifestations have coiled up into this moment, this twist, powder-white and holding onto itself, shivering. I peer close and tap on the twist. It does not budge. I scratch at it, perhaps a little rudely, but I have never liked coming on any business of why. “Hello?” I say. The twist does not budge.


“Excuse me?” I say. I tap on it again, harder and more insistent this time. The twist does not budge. “Hello?” I say, again. I knock on the knot now, properly with my knuckles. It appears unwilling to accept any less. This time, something shifts and I sense it. Perhaps not an untwisting, but a different twist forms from the main twist until waterfalls of fear-tendrils cascade and reform. I watch as pieces recede and extrude, flow into each other and twist apart. I look closely and carefully for any sign of the wish hiding behind it, but the surface remains fearful only. I am looking so, so closely that it almost catches me off guard when I step back a little and look again from afar. The twist has reconstituted itself - into a door. Abruptly, disarmingly, I know that I have found the place. Or rather, that I am about to find it. I reach out again this time, not merely for a why or who or what or how, but for myself. And for you. And for a place. And for wish I have yet to discover, but that surely, surely must be right. I put all of that in my hand, and knock. The door quivers, and opens. It does not swing back but sinks inwards into a kind of shallow cave, a recess in the wall, with a texture like tightly-packed flour barely holding itself together. I step inside, curling my body to the arc of the chamber, folding my legs carefully, until we are nested together like skin on flesh on bone. The door closes on one side of me. The powder-white wall on the other grows thinner, and thinner, and looser, and less twisted. Between the cracks, I catch a breath of it at last. I have found the place.


MEET THE CREATIVE: CHIN YUQIN CASEY Chin Yuqin (Casey) is a Singaporean artist and writer. Their work often plays with themes of connection, the otherworldly, and exploring strangeness in both the world and the self. Twitter: @spacercase Instagram: @spacer.case Portfolio: www.chinyuqin.carrd.co Author’s Note: This piece had a very quick start, went nowhere for a long time, and then finally was finished when some level of resolution appeared to present itself. I wanted to explore a certain feeling of (il)logical deduction and mythic curiosity that was in my mind at the time, along with a state of adrift-ness that my mind seemed to be in. Thank you for reading. I hope you had fun!



MEET THE CREATIVE: FARID NAD Farid (he/dia) is a full-time illustrator, game writer and certified linguist. His works feature themes of identity, belonging and hope, exploring the intricacies of intersecting marginalised identities in various settings, speculative or otherwise. Currently, he is the lead writer and art director for an upcoming debut indie video game, and working on graphic novels on the side. Twitter: @farideacs Website: www.farideacs.xyz Author’s Note: When I saw the zine's theme being 'Other Worlds', I knew I had to do a piece dedicated to how I found this zine in the first place. I heard about Atelier Arcadia from another community, moonmaker inc. The first workshop I ever attended there was one about building a story from random objects, and I made one about a spirited away child growing up in a strange dimension alone. My resulting work from that was one of my first photobash experiments, and I wanted to show how far I've come since then. I utilised CC0 photos from Pexels, Paint3D for the 3D models and finished it all up in PaintTool SAI 2 with my illustrations.


BACKLIGHT, REFLECTED BY LYNETTE TEO

Around and around the women twirled, like flowers dizzied by the breeze. Sickened by their painted faces and coquettish smiles, Ge Ren threw off his cloak and veil in a show of brash immodesty, to the horror of the court, and stood to leave. He caught sight of two girls swooning but was long gone before their bodies hit the ground. Away from the Hall of Leaden Peace to the Palace of Earned Light he went, the clattering of jade trees in the breeze heralded his passing, birds scattering from the curved roofs. In the courtyard, servants ferrying firewood for the evening meal clutched their bundles and showed him the tops of their heads. Only when he’d hurried past did they let the same whispered sentence pass their lips: “The Second Prince is angry.” Of course he was. On a normal day, he would be studying or training, not wasting his time pretending to be entertained. The only visitor he might expect would be Lin Li, his childhood friend and doctor-in-training, who would harangue him with herbal tonics and tea, sweetening it with titbits of gossip. He would never admit it aloud, but he enjoyed those visits. He was nearing his chambers when rapid footsteps alerted him to his mother’s approach. She too had abandoned her ceremonial cloak in favour of catching up to her son, but she kept her veil and headdress despite their cumbersome weight. Even if it was only her son facing her, she refused to abandon propriety. She did, however, tug her veil down, allowing her piercing red eyes to bore angry holes into him. The change was rapid, he was never permitted to see this emotional shift in his mother unless she willed it, but she willed it now. A show of power, a sign that she was still the Emperor’s concubine even if she was not Empress. It was supposed to intimidate him but he had already seen 17 eclipses and could not still be expected to fear her. He started to turn but she anticipated that too, her shadow overlapping his suddenly became like thick mud, sucking him into the rough tiled floor. “Mother, release me,” he said, voice tight. “You will come back with me, Ge Ren,” she said. “Now.” Go back? To that pathetic display? Not one of those girls understood the importance of this moment in history, each one of them was invested only in their own reflection, especially when they were gazing into someone else’s eyes. “This is no time to be cavorting with women. We’re in the middle of a war.” “Leave that to your older brother and your father rallying the troops. I won’t have the palace neglected while they’re away. Now come back and perhaps you can undo the humiliation and scandal you put the girls through. One among them may even be the mother to the Emperor someday.” That would make his mother the grandmother of the future Emperor and was her ticket to the throne. Transparent as his mother’s ambitions were, they were finally outpacing him. He had no interest in a poorly-considered power grab, the power he coveted could not be bestowed by association. She may be his mother but he could have laughed in her face for how gravely she had misjudged him.


“Has Ge Yang turned impotent? He’s perfectly capable of choosing an empress.” His mother recoiled, stung by his carefully phrased rejection, his loyalty to his older brother. But she persisted, “I told you, you have the responsibility to bear a son—” “And I’ve told you, mother, you want me to choose my own yoke? I’ll pick the weakest one, so I can break her. I doubt the son will care which womb he springs from.” The wind whistled in his ear, like a song of a bird, or a very annoying insect, before his mother’s palm connected with his cheek. Nursing a bruised ego more than a bruised cheek, Ge Ren retreated to his chambers. Contrary to what his mother thought, Ge Ren did not oppose matrimony, nor was he intentionally shirking his duties as the Second Prince. But three eclipses ago, he had watched, fascinated, as his father and his older brother plotted the advancement into Liang, a thousand questions on his tongue. How long until the battle? What was their plan of attack? Was their enemy tough? If the cities were so small and spaced out, why were they sending so many armies? “This is the Liang capital,” his father said, pointing at the largest wooden block on the map. “It looks small but it is larger than Huiye by two leagues.” “It’s enormous. Almost as big as the ocean,” Ge Ren said, awed. “That’s right, little bird,” Ge Yang snickered, to Ge Ren's chagrin. “You wouldn’t even be a dot of ink on that paper.” “Don’t tease your brother.” “He doesn’t need to be here anyway,” Ge Yang drawled. “He’s too young to battle.” “By the time we’ve won, he’ll be the right age to rule that capital,” his father said. “Hear that, little bird? Even dots like you will get to do something!” “You just wait,” his father laughed. “Soon we’ll unlock the door to the world.” Ge Ren had been torn between fury and joy. In order to accept the office, he had to accept the insult. Him? A dot? A dab of ink on paper? But he’d been raised to think and the more he thought on it, the less ridiculous it seemed: a dot. The longer someone stayed in one place — wife in the bed, brat in the home — the larger that dot became. Until you became a yawning black hole, useless and idiotic. No, he refused to let his responsibilities as Second Prince become his shackles. He was promised the capital and he would claim his prize. Perhaps if his mother had tried to trap him three eclipses ago it would have worked, for he was only a foolish scholar then with a knack for swordplay, dreaming of owning a far-flung city. But he remembered the stream of missives that followed the start of the war, the confusing letters from the battlefront, the rumours that spread like rot through the streets of Huiye, of Cores thrown out of balance and a teeth-grinding resonance that led to utter devastation.


He'd seen it himself, at the gates of Huiye, where the troops congregated to greet the invasion. Swords and weapons clashed, bright sparks of light stifled by blankets of darkness and then — the morphing of two bodies into one hellish beast, the explosion, the ringing in his ears. Shortly after, this time of fear was washed over by news declaring: the Blight War is over! The truth was harder to swallow. The war wasn’t over, the troops had simply been withdrawn under the guise of a flimsy peace treaty. When his father and brother returned, First Prince Ge Yang tore apart the armoury and went out that night without a guard, limping back at dawn. He was scolded up and down by the Empress for having risked rot but his eyes showed that even if he wasn’t dead, his hope was. The way to the world was locked and a blinding wall of light guarded the way. Later, the First Prince and Emperor left to recruit and train the troops but Ge Ren had already lost faith in both of them. He knew banging against a locked door wasn’t the way to get it open but all he had were his fists. And then came the arrival of the people with golden hair and golden eyes. The afternoon’s farce with the dancing girls his mother had paraded in front of him like a buffet of offals had emptied him of patience and left him more restless than ever. All he wanted to do was to sleep on this dilemma. Training wasn’t until nightfall anyway and the maidservants were supposed to have laundered his sheets that morn with his favourite herb, sweet winter’s kiss, as he’d instructed. He was greatly looking forward to falling asleep to that cool, spicy scent. To his dismay, his bed chambers showed fresh signs of being run through by rampaging boar. Several of his fine garments and what he could only recognise as a woman’s underthings were strewn across his bed. There was only one possible person responsible. He stormed out, barking orders at passing servants to clean up the mess. If they entertained wild thoughts of scandal, they would not dare voice them in Ge Ren’s presence. Down then, following the bitter scent of herbs and fumes to the underbelly of the palace and the royal medicine hall where Lin Li worked. It was common for him to air his grievances to his childhood friend, so much so that he didn’t think he would encounter the perpetrator so soon until he was assaulted by the sordid sight of the boy with golden hair. His golden key. “Ah, the prince returns.” Half-unbuttoned tunic, trouser ties defeated by splayed legs, Alae was lounging atop the iron wood bench gifted to the Emperor by a famous carpenter who lived in the mountains. It took years to carve wood that thick and sturdy into such intricate repeating patterns, and Alae had draped his filthy cloak over it. He ran sticky fingers through matted blond hair and flashed a wink at Ge Ren who stood seething in the entrance. When the golden-haired, golden-eyed slaves from Liang came to Huiye, Ge Ren had hand-picked Alae from the crowd of whimpering men and women. Other than his fox-like gaze and powerful Core, Alae had little talent to speak of compared to others who were chosen. But after an eclipse, he was the only one left standing. His disregard of Yingi customs and lack of decorum made him the rotting stall’s number one customer, adding a fine collection of blackened skin to his numerous scars. Yet each time Ge Ren thought the rudeness had been beaten out of this ill-bred Lianger, they would resurface within the privacy of his chambers and Ge Ren was stunned to find that he didn’t mind. It even amused him. But there were times when Alae’s attitude grated on him and so he would be sent back to the stall, back to the rot, until he remembered to keep his mouth shut around Ge Ren when he was in a mood.


Alae refused to keep his mouth shut now. “How did the performance go? Did you manage to pick a pretty peach or are you saving yourself for someone special?” “So this is what you do when I’m not here? You tumble with servants in the bushes? And then bring them into my bed?” “What makes you think I'd desecrate our beautiful Kraw bushes like that?” Whoever taught Alae how to say 'desecrate' in Tieyen would be next in line to the rotting stall. Ge Ren pointed at the leaves in Alae’s hair. “You’re still wearing the foliage you slept in and you’re the only one permitted in my room. You know you’re not allowed to travel far.” “It was the garden, pretty boy, not the Jisheng Mountains. Ow, Mona’s tits! Blind me, do you?” Alae knuckled the tears from his eyes, squinting at Ge Ren until the shine left his palm. “I told you not to call me that,” Ge Ren snapped, and then imperiously enquired Lin Li's whereabouts. Alae trapped his tongue between his lips and let it go with an obscene smack. He drawled, “Oh making herself presentable, I suppose.” Without breaking eye contact, rasped serpentine in Lihese, “She gets so lonely when you’re not here, you know. And she was devastated she couldn't be up there, like those girls, performing for you." The image of his dear childhood friend wrapped in the thralls of ecstasy as Alae ravaged her like a beast tackled his mind. His teeth clicked together, nails dug into his palms and he forced himself to relax them, outraged by his own anger. She was a commoner, yes! But she was also his. “You’re not permitted to speak your whoretongue Lihese while in Ying. But it seems to be too difficult for a whore like you.” “Funny, that’s what they say about you! That you have a common name because you come from a common mother, pretty boy.” Ge Ren took two strides forward and backhanded Alae. The jut of his cheekbone connected with Ge Ren’s third knuckle and the impact ricocheted up his arm but he ignored the pain. “You forget your place.” “I hold power too,” Alae snarled, clutching his cheek. “Not enough, ensa. You’re nothing more than a vessel for my power.” Alae’s eyes flashed orange when he caught Ge Ren’s wrist. “When we’re touching, pretty boy, I have just as much power as you.” The shadows did not coalesce instantly as they might under a fledgling Specialist’s hand, but Ge Ren felt his hand grow undeniably sticky, his body heavy as if he were sinking into wet sand. It was times like these that reminded Ge Ren of Alae’s natural talent as a Specialist to draw out this much power through a few moments of skin contact alone. The stone floor grew tacky, faster than his own mother managed it, Ge Ren realised with a thrill. A swift jerk and Ge Ren was free, but Alae did a flip, cartwheeling into a kick aimed at Ge Ren’s head. Ge Ren twisted his body at the last moment so Alae’s foot bore down on his shoulder instead. The force was brick-like and full of malice.


Despite the dull pain, Ge Ren’s heart was racing, sweat beading on his brow. It was as if the reams of silk that shrouded Huiye were stripped away leaving this, the animalistic struggle, wind coursing through the medicine hall, the shufflethump of feet on wood. He remembered tilting up the chins of Lianger slaves one by one with the hilt of his sword. He was warned not to touch them but most shied from touch anyway, afraid of the Resonance and explosions. It was Alae who had worked his ropes off to grab Ge Ren’s wrist, slurring from exhaustion and malice, “You want power? I’ll give you so much you’ll ache with it.” Ge Ren dug his hands into the shadows and pulled, toppling Alae onto the floor. Alae conjured a gleaming hand and sliced himself free, grinning all the while. He grabbed a small pot from the table and flung it, the bitter powder sent Ge Ren into a coughing fit. Sight obscured, his other senses leapt into action, tracking Alae as he circled him. Alae was trying to touch him, he realised, to establish contact. Ge Ren caught the fist before it reached his face. “You want to play dirty? Let's play dirty,” Ge Ren snarled. He reached directly through the influo bond and felt the pull of Alae’s Core exuding bo like a ball of electrified yarn. Ge Ren's grin would have scandalised the entire court. He took hold of Alae’s bo energy, white-hot like an eel thrashing in his hands. Tugged. Come here, the easiest command he’d ever make, and more than just a glowing palm, he held it like a whip and when he cracked it in the air, it snapped the very image of Alae’s grin into two. “Think you’re the favoured Lianger because we’re influo? I’ll teach you a lesson.” Alae swept a palm in front of him, summoning a warping purple cui barrier which caught the whip in a sticky tangle. He smirked, “Will you now, pretty boy?” Ge Ren took hold of the whip made of light and brought it down onto the ironwood bench with a crack— “Yahhhhh!” The scream was enough to make the windows shudder. Fight forgotten, Ge Ren and Alae turned, clutching their hands to their ears. Lin Li had a face like thunder, two flinty eyes sparking red at the mess they had made of the medicine hall. Before anyone could say a word, she cast out her cui, two purple ribbons flowing from her hands which wrapped around the heads of Ge Ren and Alae and brought their skulls together with a solid thunk. --

Ge Ren sighed into the wind. It was unseemly behaviour he would not have permitted himself to make within the walls of the palace. Atop the Jisheng Mountains in the endless black of night, he could scream into the wind all he liked at the hand fate had dealt him — to settle down and father a child. The purple dome of the cui barrier which protected Huiye obscured the city, but Ge Ren didn’t need light to see it. He saw it in his mind — Huiye’s roads winding through the mountain basin like a secret at the bottom of a teacup, the curved roofs of its temples and bowed trees, all spiralling out from the stone palace in the centre. If he squinted, he might see the city lights flickering like a firefly within a child’s grasp. The people in the city were safe. Safe but trapped. He got back to his task, scouring the dark for the twisted silver gimsung weed Lin Li had insisted he replace. Commonly found growing in the cracks of cliff faces, they were almost impossible to spot during the day, but in the dark they glowed like brides on their wedding night. When his pack was full, he descended into the forest.


He knew the yingui might come anyway, as unappetisingly unafraid as he was, attracted by the Core of a lone traveller outside of the city’s barrier at night. Even a starving man will chew branches and drink mud, driven by the maddening desire to be filled. His own restlessness had barely been sated by the fight with Alae, that chaotic scuffle had brought coherency to its mindlessness. It assembled itself into words: It’s power you seek, power you crave. You don’t want a son to stand at the top of the world, you need to have fought for it. The pressure changed nearer the ground. He expected his presence to be like a ball dropped on stretched cloth, causing yingui to come spiralling towards him. However, they surged away instead, attracted by a more tantalising prey. Who would be more attractive than someone possessing one of the strongest Cores in Ying? As if in answer, he felt a tug in his Core. “Gehren!” His name echoed through the forest. “Pretty boy! Son of a joke!” Alae came barrelling out of the trees, straight towards Ge Ren. “Barrier!” He panted out. “Barrier!” Ge Ren raised his hand and purple spilled out in a warping pool that cut into the earth around them, rising overhead until it concealed the two in a dome. By the light of Alae’s skin, Ge Ren saw the tide of yingui crashing angrily against the barrier in waves of black. Alae had fallen to all fours, hand jammed just below his breast, right over his Core. “Mona’s tits, that hurt! What happened to staying close to the city? You think you’re too pretty for rules now?” “You can’t find gimsung any closer to the city,” Ge Ren said by way of explanation. “And the distance never bothered you before.” “Well it hurts now!” “It didn’t when we were five parts synced,” Ge Ren said slowly, thinking. Something inside of him was singing, creaking open. “We’re obviously still growing, don’t you know that, pretty boy? We're only getting stronger!" He winced in pain. "Agh! It’s like my Core is being tugged out of my body.” Alae’s face was pallid but now that he was in close proximity to Ge Ren, his breath was evening out with every passing moment. He batted at Ge Ren's pack with a laugh, “Gimsung, huh? For someone who spends so much time fighting against the women in his life, don’t you end up doing what they tell you to anyway?” It hadn’t occurred to Ge Ren before then. Why did he listen to what Lin Li and his mother did despite their indiscretions? Why did it matter to him to keep them happy when he was Second Prince of Ying? He felt unutterably foolish. In his desperation to keep a hold of his possessions, he had allowed them to possess him. “Distracted, pretty boy?" Before Ge Ren could snap at him Alae pointed near Ge Ren’s right foot. “Look, your barrier is weakening.” It was as he’d said, yingui were seeping through the small gap and curling around his feet. He clicked his tongue in self-admonishment. Specialists had to manage stray yingui within the barrier from time to time, but it was a sign of poor control. There was no eradicating it now, not with the barrier to maintain. “I have an idea," said Alae. "I can get rid of it."


Ge Ren was skeptical. “With bo?” He'd like to see that. Bo, the energy that flowed from the Cores of Liangers, was like fire. It drew yingui in like insects, but only as long as it was wielded. A burning branch would repel any wild creature... as long as it stayed lit. That was the problem with bo, it was too volatile, too high consumption. And while a fistful of bo might burn a few insects, the swarm it attracted would easily overwhelm the wielder. Alae drew himself up. “Did I ever tell you the first and last time I got scared? It was when we first entered Ying and once we lost sight of Mona, the sky darkened immediately.” He jerked his finger to the sky. “You think one sun is bright? It’s nothing compared to two. You’ll get the idea if you imagine you’re in the centre of a flame. Anyway where was I...” His fist, Ge Ren realised, was beginning to glow. “So you remember there were three caravans that arrived at Huiye? There were originally four. One night one of the barriers broke and the two specialists assigned to each caravan weren’t strong enough to hold off the yingui. Anyway, after that night, I couldn’t sleep. I kept hearing the,” he waved his hand. “Screaming. Then one night, as I lay by the fire, I realised there was this great big shadow blotting out the caravan. Massive. Huge. I couldn’t move. I thought I was dead. “I didn’t know what yingui really were then except that they ate you. And I’d get eaten in the worst way possible. Then the shadow moved and I about wet myself, but you know what it was? A rat. A rat standing so close to the fire, its shadow became enormous. After that nothing scared me anymore.” He looked up at Ge Ren, “You see what I’m saying?” “You wet yourself over a rat?” Ge Ren replied, unimpressed. Alae rolled his eyes. “No, pretty boy." He made a come hither gesture. "There’s something I’ve been wanting to try," he said. Ge Ren wondered whether he should entertain this insolence. He could always form an influo with another Lianger, someone who wasn’t as rude or sloppy or lascivious as Alae, drunk all the time on sex or daydreams. But no one would be as smart or competent. He couldn’t break this one, he’d already tried. Alae’s palm felt rough with callouses and unpleasantly dry. He laughed as Ge Ren pushed his cui into him even though it must have hurt. Summoning what looked like a sheet of cui that covered one hand, he cupped it over his glowing fist. "Wait, if you do that—" At best the sheet of cui would smother the bo entirely, at worst the volatile bo would burn through the cui barrier and attract even more yingui. Either way the process would be messy, potentially explosive. "Watch," Alae said, and he released the bo, the yingui seemed to shrink away before it realised it could feed and then did so, feverishly, gnawing on light energy with a toothless mouth. Ge Ren readied to suppress it in darkness when the yingui unexpectedly began to shrink again. What in the Ten Gods’ names... Alae slammed the sheet of cui into the dirt like a tarp, trapping the yingui inside. When he removed his hand, the ground was bare. Not even a burst of bo or a smidge of yingui remained.


"How did you—" Ge Ren's mind whirled through the possibilities. What had Alae done to the yingui? Better yet, what had he done to the bo he fed it? How did it shrink after it grew? How did one poison a yingui? And there was something more to the cui he produced too... "You want to know how I did it? Then set us free, we'll be great." The Second Prince of Ying stared at his golden key, crusted in dirt, stinking of musk. Yes, he thought. With you, I can rid myself of these shackles. With you, I can unlock the world.


MEET THE CREATIVE: LYNETTE TEO Lynette Teo is a prolific writer of sci-fi/fantasy stories who has been published in anthologies and is working towards publishing full-length novels. On top of a fantasy trilogy, they are currently writing a coming-of-age story set in Singapore and two short story collections. Look forward to more fiction designed to cross the borders between East and West! Twitter: @lyngering Instagram: @alyngeringthought Author’s Note: Backlight, reflected is a spin-off short story based on side characters from a work in progress, Kagopa (The Changing of Fear). Following the devastating Blight Wars, two kingdoms divided by extreme climates set up a hasty ‘peace treaty’ to further investigate the phenomenon known as influos. Whoever masters the power of influos will be able to conquer the continent, the world and beyond. Let the science of magic guide your way, the time for fear is over. Kagopa deals mainly with fear, manipulation and exploitation and the various forms they come in. Who is being taken advantage of and who takes advantage? Can you consume enough power before it consumes you? Do you have the will to try?


THE GUIDING STAR BY SHU YU

I was sixteen years old when my life ended. I can still remember the night it happened. The streets of Qiulong City were lit up in golden lights, packed with eager crowds thronging along the main road. Gentle music wafted through the air, barely audible over the rumble of excited conversation. Eager young children ran through the streets clutching tiny green lanterns, while their parents ran after them and warned them not to get their clothes dirty. Little wooden stalls were set up all along the main road, hawking a variety of festive food: golden, buttery pastries shaped like coins, thin slices of smoked meat cut into strips resembling banknotes, bags of candy made to resemble coin pouches. At the end of the road stood the Temple of the North Star, built on a cliff that overlooked the city. The magnificent building was decked out in golden lanterns that twinkled like the stars. The dark indigo roofs, flecked with gold and silver to resemble the night sky, were stringed with what appeared to be strips of shiny, reflective paper. Even the priests, who usually scuttled about like panicked roaches carrying out the orders of their goddess, were relaxed and laughing, joining in on the festivities. It was the night of Kuishi’s Selection, a ritual that occurred once every thousand years. The vessel inhabited by the goddess of the North Star, Kuishi, had returned to the earth in the spring, and it was time for her to select another. The chosen person would become Kuishi’s mortal form, guiding and protecting the country until it was their turn to return to the dirt. The chosen person would become the most important person in Qiulong, a god on earth, the one whose decisions would guide the future of the entire country. It was a momentous occasion, one that was lost on the two of us as we slipped through the crowd. The identity of Kuishi’s Chosen was not a concern to children like us, the poor and uneducated. It did not matter to us who was in charge - change would never trickle down to the neighborhoods where we lived. The tax rate on foreign imports, the wars that were fought or ended, the people who were honored and rewarded, none of it would affect our lives. The poor had never factored into Kuishi’s plans - her Chosen always found them lazy, stupid and undeserving, claiming that they were poor by choice. Tucked away in the outskirts of the City, hiding in distant villages, people like us lived unseen and unheard by our patron deity. Tonight, the North Star would crown a new god. Tomorrow, when the city woke with bated breath to hear their new decrees, we would get up and beg, barter, and steal like we always did. In fact, the only reason we were at the Selection in the first place was the abundance of targets from which we could steal. According to local superstition, if you spent money on the night of Selection, Kuishi would ensure that you would always have money to spend in the future. Many believed that the more money you spent, the more plentiful your blessings. Hence, the people that lined the streets carried more money at their waists than we could ever hope to see in our lifetimes.


Brimming with excitement, you had dragged me by the hand through the crowded streets. Under the gentle light spilling from the giant lanterns, your pale hair shone almost gold. Three stolen coin pouches hung at your waist, jingling with your every step. The wind danced in your hair, the stars danced in your eyes, and I danced in the palm of your hand, painfully in love. “I bet I can steal way more than you before the night ends,” you said, tapping me on the nose with one finger. I pouted, shoving you just hard enough to make you stumble. “That’s only because you’re short.” You huffed in annoyance, crossing your arms. “What does height have to do with anything? Face it, my skills are just better than yours!” Before I could respond, the chime of the temple’s bell rang through the city. Immediately, silence descended upon the crowd, everyone waiting with bated breath as the stars themselves seemed to fall from the sky. One after another, they descended, creating an ethereal chain of sparkling gold. Slowly, they swam through the crowd, drawing everyone’s attention upward as they went. Before I could take advantage of the opportunity, the stars circled over my head. Rapidly, they descended, a glittering crown of unwanted divinity. The crowd gasped. Confused and frightened, I took hold of your hand, squeezing it for all I was worth. “Kuishi has chosen!” The voice of the head priest shattered the eerie silence. The crown of stars burned against my scalp, branding me with a fate from which I would never escape. From that night onward, nothing was ever the same again. Gone were the days where I sat on the dock with you, stealing food out of crates while the sailors were busy unloading. The days where we avoided guards to climb into orchards, crouching high in the branches and gorging ourselves on sweet fruit. The days where we ran through back alleys, hearts racing with terror as we hid in the remains of rundown houses. The days where gnawing hunger pangs kept us awake, chewing on grass in a pitiful attempt to stave off the pain. The days where we cuddled under the stars, promising to someday live a better life together. The days where we exchanged childish dreams of the future, foolishly ignoring the reality that confined us to Qiulong’s dark underbelly. One day, we’ll be at the top of the world. We’ll be able to eat anything we want, whenever we want. Is food all you can think about? Well, I’m always hungry! When I become rich, I’ll feed you so much, you won’t be able to eat another bite. I’ll hold you to that! It’s a promise! The good and the bad, the joyful and the painful, they all disappeared too quickly for me to even miss them.


My days were quickly filled with debates, decrees, discussions about politics or economics or the law that I had been breaking just days ago. The name that I went by for sixteen years disappeared in the span of one night, my identity vanishing like the morning dew. I was no longer a person, but a god. Responsibility weighed my every action, and my very words were valued more than gold. At first, I was disoriented, worried. I knew nothing about the world I had come to rule, and the priests gave me no time to learn. However, a voice quickly took root in my head, telling me exactly what choices I had to make and what words I had to say. Kuishi. As the days passed, it was clear that Kuishi was not content with the way things were. I could feel her hands tightening around my neck, her overwhelming presence filling every inch of my mind. She was not here to guide me, I quickly realized, she was here to own me. To the people of Qiulong, she was the goddess of guidance, loving and benevolent, but I quickly learned the truth. If she was once the goddess of guidance, the North Star that showed the way, she was now the goddess of control. She had to be in charge of everything, to manage every step of every process that involved the country’s future. She obsessed over little details, determined to ensure that Qiulong, her greatest legacy, survived yet another cycle. She calculated the worth of human lives as if they were livestock, trading them away for the greatest profit. There were gaps in my memory, hazy moments where I watched my body move of its own accord, words I did not mean to say escaping from my lips. My own voice began to die in my throat, Kuishi’s words coming out in its place. Perhaps that was what it meant to be the vessel of a god, to slowly lose oneself over a thousand years until one’s body finally returned to dust. Perhaps this was my fate, to die a deathless death. If the priests had not let you stay with me, I would have gone insane. You were the only one who looked at me and saw me. You were the only one who called my name. You were the only one I wanted to keep doing this for. In the temple, you did not need to steal, to starve, to fight. There was a roof over your head, a warm bed for you to sleep in, guards to ensure your safety. In the temple, you were safe, and that was worth everything I was losing and more. You were laughing in the courtyard, attempting to do a backflip while firing an arrow. You were sprawled out in the sitting room, beckoning me into your lap with a lazy smile. Your eyes were sparkling, your cheeks bulging as I shoved yet another dumpling into your overflowing bowl. That’s enough! I promised to stuff you until you couldn’t eat anymore, and I intend to keep it. You have, you have! Any more and I’m going to explode! I laughed. A second later, you took the opportunity to pop a dumpling into my open mouth. With a mock growl, I shoved at you as the tender skin of the dumpling tore, warm soup filling my mouth. I love you. The words were on the tip of my tongue, but I never dared to say them. I did not know if I had the right to love you.


My life was not mine. Kuishi had taken over every aspect of myself, forcing me into the farthest corner of my soul. The crown that she had given me was more like a collar, binding me to her will, and there was nothing I could do to take it off. She commanded my voice as she wished, seized my limbs at her discretion, and left me to myself when she saw no need to use me. Within the prison of my body, I watched the seasons change. You danced beneath the cherry blossoms, bright and beautiful. You cut through the crystal clear water of the lake, sleek and graceful. You chased the colorful leaves that fell from the trees, sweet and playful. You piled snow into targets that you struck with your bow and arrow, strong and disciplined. You were safe. Your laughter echoed down the halls as I passed. You held my hand as we strolled through the courtyard. When you noticed me staring, you would always tilt your head to one side and smile. You called my name like it was your most precious treasure. You carded gentle fingers through my hair as I laid my head in your lap. That was all I needed. Even though the moments I had control over my body were growing fewer and farther between, I wanted for nothing. You were safe, you were by my side, and you continued to smile fondly at me. That was enough. For nearly six years, that was enough. But then the war came. Spurred by foreign forces, the poor took up arms and rose against the temple, demanding a share of Qiulong’s ample riches. The training and weapons provided by the foreigners made this no ordinary protest, the movement swelling into a bloody civil war. Determined to crush the rebellion, Kuishi demanded extreme force, and I was helpless to resist her. Trapped within my own mind, I watched as the military spilled blood in the streets where we grew up. You were horrified. “What are you doing?” The pain in your voice tore at me. “Everything is for the sake of Qiulong.” Kuishi’s voice was like ice. I hated directing that voice at you. “We grew up with those people,” you cried, reaching desperately for my hand. “Won’t you show them mercy?” I could not even feel the warmth of your skin anymore. “They are a threat to the stability of my country. There will be no mercy.” Grief, anger, betrayal. Tears spilled down your cheeks, and I wished that I could brush them away. I wished that I could stop this needless bloodshed, but I was powerless before Kuishi’s will. Her show of force was only making things worse. Ordinary citizens who would never have questioned the temple were now switching sides, prolonging the conflict. It seemed that with every one rebel killed, ten sprung up in their place, determined to avenge the death of their comrade.


“This is wrong!” I know, I longed to say, but she won’t listen. Kuishi’s features hardened, the light fading from her eyes. “You have always been my favorite,” she said, the words dripping like poison from her lips. “But you should not forget your place, mortal.” I will never forget the look of despair that clouded your eyes. It was as if someone had told you the sun would never rise again. “You are no longer the person I knew, Your Excellency.” You spat my title like a curse, unaware of how close you were to the truth. The person that stood before you was not the person you knew. It was merely the body of the person you knew, puppeted by an ancient god who cared naught for human life. Within my prison, I called your name, desperately reaching out for you. Kuishi’s face remained impassive, icy, a god without a heart. “You never knew me.” That’s not me, I screamed, but my words could not reach you. You know me better than this, you’re the only one left who does. Your face fell. It was probably at that moment that your heart broke. “I suppose I never did.” I called your name again. Heard my voice echo within my hollow shell, unable to find a way out. I screamed and cried, twisting in her grasp, but there was nothing I could do to reach you. Sobbing, I watched as you walked away. “Everything is for the sake of Qiulong.” Kuishi’s words cut into me, bled me dry. I cried until I could cry no more, trapped in the narrow space between life and death. Without you, I no longer had the will to fight. Closing my eyes, I curled into a ball and hid from the world, surrendering my body to Kuishi. Time continued to pass, the war continued to rage, and Qiulong’s streets turned red with blood and fire. Sobbing like a lost child, I put my hands over my ears and blocked it all out. Until today.


“Qiulong has no need for a dictator.” The you that stands in front of me now has changed. Your hair has been cropped short, your eyes are cold and hard. There is a scar that runs across the bridge of your nose, and I desperately want to run my fingers over it, to ask who hurt you. There are strangers by your side, armed to the teeth. Your intentions are clear - at the end of the night, only one of us will leave this place alive. “I have served Qiulong for thousands of years. I am well aware of what it needs.” You bristle at the icy pride in her voice, the stern certainty. It is clear that she looks down on you, that she considers you and your band of mortals inconsequential. After all, what can mere humans hope to do against the power of a god? Even so, you stand firm, proud and strong. “Not anymore.” Kuishi’s eyes grow sharp, angry. The wind swirls dangerously outside the temple, thunder rumbling ominously overhead. “You would be nothing without me.” One of the other warriors laughs. It is bitter, angry, and I understand him. When we were children, we often joked that Kuishi was a god for the rich. Out in the slums where we lived, there was no sign of the god’s rule, of the prosperity she promised, of the happiness she guaranteed. No matter how much we fought and tried, we could not shake off the chains of our lowly birth. We were nothing, with or without her. Your voice is steady, calm. “I would be everything without you.” You draw an arrow, aiming it at my throat. I watch in surprise as the tip glows gold, starlight dancing in your eyes. Where and when did you gain the powers of a god? Sensing the threat, Kuishi makes a fatal mistake. She lets go of me. She strains every ounce of energy and reaches for the stars. All too eagerly, they respond, a powerful bolt of starlight slicing through the temple roof and rattling its very foundations. At that moment, the walls of my prison come down, and I lunge forward to grab the goddess by the throat. What are youAt long last, I feel my body again.


The starlight fades, leaving behind the faint scent of ozone. Behind the oversized shield of your ally, you blink, struggling to clear your vision. “Is everyone alright?” The one with the shield nods, her lips drawn in a thin line. “It missed.” “It… missed?” you repeat incredulously. Before she can respond, I speak, raising my arms as if asking for a hug. “I’ve missed you so much.” The fondness in my voice throws you off. Hesitantly, you call my name, and it makes me feel warm and tingly. How long has it been since someone has called me by that name? How long has it been since someone has looked at me and seen something other than Kuishi? “Don’t let your guard down,” one of your allies warns, and you raise your bow. Taking a deep breath, you ready your arrow. “Your reign ends here, Kuishi.” My smile does not falter. My arms do not move. The god screams inside my head, but her pull is weaker than it was before. I remain at the surface of my consciousness, fighting against her desperate attempts to drag me underwater. I smile. It feels strange to have control over my muscles again. “It should’ve ended a lot sooner, don’t you think?” You have no idea what you are doing. Qiulong cannot survive without me! For once, it is Kuishi’s screams that are being ignored. For once, her pleas are the ones that fall on deaf ears, on an unwavering heart. For once, I am in control of my own body, and she, the intruder, is not. You call my name again, soft and hesitant. Your bow lowers, trembles, and you take a faltering step toward me. The action makes my chest ache, the gentle pain tingling across my ribs. Your name escapes my lips in a whisper, like a precious secret. “I’m sorry.” I am not sure what I am apologizing for. The things Kuishi has done using my body? My inability to fight her, to stand up to her and tell her no? What you inevitably have to do to stop her? “I can’t hold her back for much longer. Please, I want it to be you.” Tears begin to fill your eyes, your voice trembling as you ask, “Is there no other way?” “You tell me. You’ve always been the smarter one.”


Once again, you say my name. It is achingly nostalgic, a reminder of better days that have long gone. The pain and desperation that burns in your eyes cuts me, a thousand knives from every direction. My senses, suddenly brought back to life, are hopelessly overwhelmed. “It wasn’t you. The one who did all those horrible things, it wasn’t you.” It is a statement, not a question, but I answer anyway. “It wasn’t.” Anger seeps into your voice, sharp and bitter. “She took you away from me.” I nod. “So please, don’t let her do it again.” Your hands are surprisingly steady as you draw the bowstring. “I won’t.” “Please, set me free from this nightmare.” Tears begin to roll down your cheeks, turning to gold beneath the starlight that gathers in your arrow. “I’m sorry it took me so long.” “I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything to stop her.” I’m sorry it has to end this way. The words are unspoken, trapped in our eyes and our throats, regret and sorrow and longing all mixed together. “I love you.” Your final words are so faint, they nearly disappear beneath the whistling of your arrow. It is not so much a confession as a desperate plea, a pained apology, a worthless little wish aware that it can never be granted. Even so, the words fill me with fierce affection, giving me the strength to stand firm as death flies toward me, sheathed in golden light. There is no pain when the arrow pierces through my chest. There is only warmth and peace. Thank you.


MEET THE CREATIVE: SHU YU Shu Yu is a hopeless romantic who enjoys exploring human relationships and developing romances in a variety of story settings. There is something beautiful about romances that blossom in unforgiving environments, in a love that is as much a choice as it is a twist of fate. Author’s Note: The story explores losing one’s own identity, being swallowed by someone else until one’s own self barely remains. Even so, love perseveres, a reminder of who one used to be and that which is truly important. To live as someone else, or to die as yourself - which is the better option? Just what are you willing to sacrifice for those you love?



MEET THE CREATIVE: SARAH SAIFUDDIN Sarah is a digital illustrator based in Singapore. She has experience in storybook illustration, 3D modeling and graphic design. In her works, she often juxtaposes poignant portraits with funky colours, thus creating moody pieces depicting life's stiller moments. Whatever it is, she strives to convey a feeling of life! Instagram: @pistashxo Website: www.pistashxo.carrd.co/ Author’s Note: This piece takes place in an apocalyptic world where humans are nearing extinction. The flooded underground is infested with goat ghosts ("ghoasts"), which bear magic from generations of human souls from the surface. Shepherds are recruited to both harvest and control this magic which helps power the city. Typically, ghoasts are much smaller, come in herds, and do not wander off to the city area. However, due to accelerating deaths causing more ghoasts to appear underground, a strange mutation causes a cluster of them to fuse and form an especially large beast that ambushes the team just as they approach the harbor to change shifts. I wanted to portray the atmosphere of the underworld, which intertwines technology from the surface and magic from underground. I'd also like to highlight the singular beast, a formidable opponent against a team of shepherds expertly agile and quick to react.


JONGI BY LYNDON ANG

Jongi

전기: Korean for “electricity”. ---

There is a legend recently unearthed in ruins near Geumjeongsan, Busan, depicting five different golems crafted by the creator god Mireuk to hold up the heavens after splitting heaven and earth in a mighty blow: one of rock, one of ice, one of steel, one of electricity and one of clay. After they had fulfilled their duties, these golems were stated to have obtained godlike abilities, including the capacity to select mortals to inherit a fraction of their power when they had fallen Dormant. Jongiyasu, the electric golem, was said to take the shape of a glowing orb with seven red eyes, its arms sculpted like tentacles that crackled with tendrils of electricity and supported upon wiry pitons of legs that seemed to make it look like it would never stop bouncing. Said to be the first cluster of energy in existence, it is stated to be the herald of light and innovation, a beacon for humans to follow and an enduring symbol of hope. Of course, in the year 2021, these things were just myths and fantasy...was it? It made no sense that a golem with no brain and no free will could simply grant a human some of their form and power. Either way, knowing of the existence of these golems could mean a step towards further progress in dating Korean history, and its unique, rich perspectives in shaping what we have now. --18th January 2021. Hyunwook had pencilled it into his binder that day: the day he would die. There wasn’t really much left for him at this point, and it hadn’t been that he’d wanted to die. It’d rather been the choice of the system, a system who could no longer afford to have him prolong his own suffering with a diagnosis that could only be managed with money he didn’t have. It’d been the day he’d received his retrenchment letter from his company, and they’d made certain that he’d need to move once he’d “found somewhere”, within a month. A month, in short notice, at the height of spring before the Lunar New Year? What money did Hyunwook have to move after he’d been lying in hospital for the past eight months? It wasn’t like they didn’t know of his unpaid leave, or approved it anyway. That had forced him into a crossroads: check into a nursing home he couldn’t afford and hopefully waste away after 35 years of trying to be a productive member of society...or end it all and never have to deal with this ever again. As if getting throat cancer as a nonsmoker with an otherwise clean bill of health hadn’t been enough of a slap to the face, he’d mused bitterly while stuffing his final set of clothes into his suitcase, propping it up to the side of his sparse dorm room. It would be nice for the homeless shelter to get some mileage on the clothes he was never going to wear again, and the library would probably appreciate the books he wasn’t about to read six feet under. It just felt nice to at least be remembered somewhere, and he flopped over his suitcase, catching his breath.


Every breath he took now came from the tracheostomy tube that stuck out under his Adam’s apple, the only obvious sign of his struggle to have come this far. While he appreciated the lifesaving implement, it also was a constant reminder of how expensive he was to keep alive...and how much the world wanted him gone after spending so much time letting him fight for his life in the first place. Hyunwook’s hands reached towards the chains holding the tube in place, recognising how easy it would be to just remove the tube and start choking on his own blood. No...that would cause such a mess to those who lived in the dorm. They needed to work, and a body stinking up the place would just make him a nuisance post-life. It was also terrifying enough to be constantly out of breath, and he didn’t really want to die that painfully. Pulling away from the suitcase, he decided that it probably was a better idea to head to the nearest church first. God should forgive him for his sins, because it hadn’t been his choice. He’d read enough of the Bible to know about His stance on suicides, but to a world who was going to drive him there anyway, he wagered having better odds exiting the stage on his own terms. Ruffling his hair in annoyance, he instead pushed his suitcase out of the front door and hobbled out on his cane, figuring that he should be able to catch a bus anywhere he pleased. Was his T-money card still active? Probably. He fumbled through his pockets, squinting at the label before shrugging feebly. Why did he care? It wasn’t like the Seoul Metro Police Station hadn’t had enough on their hands to try arresting a to-be corpse for fare evasion. Even then, Hyunwook balked at the idea of the poor policemen who would turn him up as a corpse too. No...that would inconvenience them so terribly, it was probably traumatising too. Maybe he should take the bus out of the city and find somewhere quiet instead...hopefully by the time he was done, his body would have decomposed enough to be unrecognisable. He’d by then meandered to a quiet church lying at the outskirts of the city itself, letting himself in warily while he sat at one of the pews alone. There was a lone priest that seemed to be tidying up (had he missed a sermon?), and as he shut his eyes, clasping his hands in prayer, more dark thoughts seemed to swirl at the back of his mind, mocking him for being so considerate to a world who couldn’t care less about him. After quietly taking his leave, he returned home to rest once again, unable to muster any more energy to even bother with his own death. It didn’t help that he sensed he’d been watched the entire time he’d been there. --That night, Hyunwook dreamt for the first time in a long time. Standing amidst the ruins he’d found himself at, he could almost feel his hair standing on end with the amount of static electricity around him. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, and as he raised his hand to allow his fingers to trace the crackling air, something seemed to come into view. At first glance, it was a glowing orb that bounced on two wiry feet, the tendrils that seemed to form arms suffusing the space around it with an uncomfortable, almost high-pitched hum. “What?” Hyunwook’s tone was incredulous as the orb hopped closer, seeming to study him with intensity. “Who--”


It blinked, lights flashing in intermittent long and short bursts Hyunwook recognised as Morse code. He’d not used it in years: not since he’d moved to Seoul and didn’t need to use flashlights to signal to his uncle to dock properly back home. Was it trying to communicate with him? .. / -.-. .... --- --- ... . / -.-- --- ..I-C-H-O-O-S-E-Y-O-U Deciphering this, Hyunwook stared as if hypnotised by the orb’s bouncing, unable to resist it reaching a tendril that snaked around his arm. .. / .... .- ...- . / -... . . -. / .-- .- .. - .. -. --. / ..-. --- .-. / -.-- --- ..I-H-A-V-E-B-E-E-N-W-A-I-T-I-N-G-F-O-R-Y-O-U --

Hyunwook sat up with a jolt, examining his arms and rubbing them furiously. What he recognised as his veins (chemotherapy pulled his recognition of himself closer than he liked) now glowed with the same unnatural hum of the orb’s tendrils from before, and he stumbled out towards the nearest window, realising that everything suddenly felt...far too quiet. He peered out as if worried that he was going to expect company, then towards the mirror again at his own distorted reflection: were those scars above and below his eyes, and on his nose bridge? He didn’t remember them being there before. “Oi,” came a voice from below, and Hyunwook looked down to see the strangest sight: a fierce-looking woman with frizzly, blue-streaked hair and wicked claws that tipped her fingers, he couldn’t help his double-take at this strange amalgamation waving at him from below, “You. Yes, you. You were the man from the church yesterday, weren’t you?” Fumbling for his glasses, Hyunwook took a better look at her. Did she have...whiskers? It was a little too early for him to be functional and awake, anyway. He reckoned hallucinations like this may as well happen. He watched however as she began making her way towards his apartment, seemingly walking to approach for a momentThe next moment, she was perched on his windowsill like a cat, sending him tumbling towards his bed and scrambling behind it. Against the moonlight, she seemed even more monstrous, her fanged grin illuminated by it as she slinked down on fours, revealing the bushy yellow tail behind her doing so while she sniffed on the ground in curiosity. Hyunwook peeked out again from behind the bed, trying to keep himself as small as possible. “Yes, I was just going to confess and leave...but I was very tired that day so I left…” he replied falteringly, unsure why he was even overexplaining to someone who seemed uninterested, “I-I...we can talk...right?” The tigress-like woman seemed to blink out of existence again, and now she loomed over his bed, turning a circle on it and kneading his pillow with mild interest. “Uh-huh. The priest is dead now,” she replied bluntly, “You’re our only lead. Did he tell you anything? Judging from how freaked out you are...probably not.”


Now she was leaving tiger hairs all over his sheets. Hyunwook’s fear of the gwemu that had appeared in his house was now replaced with annoyance (he just washed those too), a feeling he would find terribly familiar with the stranger down the line. “He’s just a priest. What would you even need him for? I think you seem a little...past the whole sins and confessing thing,” he admitted, before immediately regretting his smart mouth as she turned towards him, loping over and trying to stare him into the eyes. “Oh! Oh! Now someone wants to lecture me about Destiny Liminal and their goons,” she tutted sarcastically, shaking her head from side to side like a hyena to accentuate her point, “You look like you’ve got one foot in the grave anyway. What gives, anyway? I turned your house upside down and you don’t even have a place to smoke from.” “Don’t even talk about it,” Hyunwook was now pressed up against the wardrobe, “If you really are here to finish me off, you really should. I don’t know what you want from me, but I’m not tasty and probably still full of tumors. I just entered remission not too long ago…” The tigress woman tilted her head as if seriously considering the decision. Hyunwook braced himself, before watching her bounce in a circle on his bed, still on her fours like she was more cat than human. “No,” she scoffed, like it was a given to her, “You’re coming back with me until further notice. This place is such a shoebox, anyway...if those goons are coming back, I highly doubt they’re not going to trash your nicely-cleaned apartment.” “You can’t just--” Hyunwook protested, before watching her once again blink out of existence, and a sharp blow to his shoulder blade caused him to slump into a helpless heap. Behind him, the woman landed acrobatically on her feet before catching him gently, laying him down on the ground. As his vision blurred, he felt one of his ankles being lifted, and it seemed for a moment that he was suspended into midair before finally allowing himself to succumb to darkness, wondering if this was how unrealistic kidnappings on TV truly were for this to happen to him. --Swimming back to consciousness, the first thing Hyunwook heard was the tailend of what seemed to be an argument of some sort. He sat back up, feeling his vision strain to focus before looking at himself in the mirror across him in the room. He had more eyes. Too many eyes, even. Two more pink-pupiled eyes had grown on either side of his original pair (one slightly above and one below), and another had sprouted on his nose bridge, and he yelped silently, scrambling backwards to examine himself again. The pink-tinted eyes blinked before vanishing, returning to small “scars” that seemed almost to blend in against his already pale skin. The argument seemed to ebb with Hyunwook’s commotion, and the door soon slipped open to reveal a smaller, bespectacled man with wavy, long hair and a kind smile. Hyunwook heaved a relieved sigh as the stranger offered him a hand to stand back up, eying him up and down with curiosity. “You could say I’ve heard a thing or two about you,” began the man, slipping his hands into his pockets: dressed in a purple, collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Hyunwook’s gaze was drawn by the man’s blackened left arm, stark against his otherwise pristine flesh, “The Chosen of Jongiyasu, just manifesting after thousands of years…you’ve gotten archivists nerding out about you, yes you do.”


Hyunwook offered a polite nod amidst the other’s ramblings. The Chosen were but some sort of legend, unique individuals granted a fraction of a god’s strength to enforce their will, but of all people, him? There had to be some sort of mistake or mix up somewhere. He pressed a knuckle against his trach hole, beginning to formulate his thoughts to reply before he was led to the living room, where he noted the gwemu woman from before curled up into a cozy loaf on one of the couches to the side. “There has to be some sort of mistake. A Chosen? I think you must’ve gotten the wrong man,” Hyunwook’s tone was nervous, trying his utmost to ignore how he’d just sprouted an additional five eyes not too long ago (where was his speaking valve, anyway? The knuckle-to-the-trach thing was going to get unhygienic fast), “I’m a dying man with a dead end life. Why would a god choose me? And who is Jongiyasu? This all seems to be some sort of misunderstanding.” The gwemu from before gave a feline stretch from her perch, sitting back up with her arms in her lap. “Call me Hyunbin. That’s Sungkyu,” she began without answering his questions, pointing a clawed hand at the other man, “We’re trying to figure out why Jongiyasu chose you too. On the day we were going to lay the smackdown on that dead priest, the entirety of Jongno abruptly lost power, and we tracked it to you. We didn’t have much of a choice here.” Hyunwook visibly flinched, furrowing his brows. He did that? He couldn’t remember. The man - Sungkyu, Hyunwook reminded himself - offered him a cup of warm tea and sat him down. “Sorry we had to resort to...drastic solutions,” he explained further, giving a glare to his companion, “A Chosen awakening to his abilities in a populated area means there’s a lot of supernatural events that can’t be easily explained. We had no choice but to bring you to Pungdo first.” Pungdo? The cogs turned in Hyunwook’s head. He remembered whispers, mention of an utopia for those forsaken by society that took the form of an island that floated off the Korean coast, but as heavily guarded a secret it was, it seemed that it was little more than a dream for those who hoped to be treated with any sort of dignity. Even then, glancing out through the window towards the unfamiliar sea of zinc roofs, Hyunwook couldn’t help but admit that he was definitely very far from Seoul. He sighed, resigned to the fact that he was at the mercy of these two. What could he even do? Sipping his tea awkwardly while listening to the duo talk, he unconsciously reached for his neck again, feeling the trach tube and startling at the recognition that someone had just changed it (most likely while he was unconscious, to avoid him choking on his own spit). Hyunwook’s eyes narrowed, studying them both. Who…? “Don’t look at me like that,” the gwemu woman, Hyunbin, was the first to speak, “I know how to do these things. Used to be a general surgery resident. Wasn’t going to let you choke to death for no reason before we told you what happened.” Hyunwook ran his hand over the strap, sighing to himself. He’d had nothing left in Seoul anyway, and he couldn’t possibly return to the mainland when he occasionally had seven eyes and started glowing once in a while...it didn’t seem like he had much of a choice. “What do I need to do?” he asked, soft and resigned, “It’s not like I can go back to Seoul, right?” His smile faded, realising he’d left most of his items back at his apartment, and Sungkyu nodded back in his direction at his statements. “I heard from Hyunbin about the apartment. We’ll help you pack the items up, and you can move in with us for the time being?” he proposed, managing a small, reassuring smile, “We’d need to do research about Jongiyasu, anyway, and we need someone to help us with finances...there are some bonds we need sorted, sensitive war bonds left over from-”


Hyunwook straightened his back, his interest piqued. “How did you get access to war bonds? And what’s Jongiyasu have to do with them?” he interjected, unable to contain his curiosity, “I-I mean...I’m an accountant, so I could look at them and help advise, but…” From her seat on the couch, Hyunbin lifted her gaze. “The money came from the place that made freaks like me: Destiny Liminal. They’re hunting down gods, or those who got chosen by them, so they can extract their essence to make more freaks like me,” she sighed, for once seeming surprisingly restrained about her recount, “Considering we know nothing about Jongiyasu, we’ve got to keep you around out of necessity.” He nodded in silence, accepting their current arrangement with no more protest. He was ill and tired. In the end, he’d never had much of a choice. --Hyunwook would look back on this years later, standing out of the balcony of his house with both his lovers, and wonder if perhaps everything had been lined up in a way that he couldn’t quite walk away from. An illusion of choice had never been presented to him, but looking back upon it, he couldn’t see himself doing things any other way. What he did remember was Jongiyasu once again in his dream, staring at him with curiosity as it continued to bounce in place while he confronted them about their decision. It all boiled down to resentment: why keep me here when I wanted nothing else to do with this world? It blinked again, glowing on and off, which reminded him more of a lighthouse than anything. Even though it hadn’t spoken a word throughout their encounters, there’d been a sudden sense of familiarity that’d washed over Hyunwook, and his protests died in his throat as it hopped over, trying to push its enormous head under Hyunwook’s hand like a cat. He knew what it said, and it hadn’t changed even as Hyunwook placed his hand over the golem’s faceless form, trying to decipher its glowing. .. / -.-. .... --- --- ... . / -.-- --- ..I CHOSE YOU.

“I know,” Hyunwook muttered, but he closed his eyes, resting his forehead on the golem’s body and trying to understand it (it had never been hostile, even despite its oddness, and at this point he was no longer afraid), “I can’t not accept this, but I’m not worthy. There’s 51 million people in this country, why would you choose someone like me?” It pulsed comfortingly, once again silent. Hyunwook traced a finger against the grooves of its otherwise round form, crading the golem in his arms as he did so by holding its glowing tendrils under his own arms. For something that he sensed was probably heavier than it seemed, Jongiyasu simply nestled comfortably against him, its tiny legs continuing to kick in place almost in protest of sitting too long. There wasn’t any way it could answer besides its pulsing, and Hyunwook focused on the orb to pay attention this time.


--. .-. --- .-- - .... / .. ... / .. -. . ...- .. - .- -... .-.. . GROWTH IS INEVITABLE. . -- -... .-. .- -.-. . / .. EMBRACE IT. Hyunwook’s mind stilled in the instant, remembering the date once more as he deciphered his god’s words to him. He’d wanted so desperately to die when Jongiyasu had chosen him that night, and they’d both reached out to each other in a bid to keep the other alive. What was he to do, a flickering flame in the face of a weakened, forgotten god who was risking everything in its capacity to gamble with his fate? He rested his cheek on the golem’s unusually smooth form, lost in thought for a few moments before he finally understood what it was asking of him. It was Hyunwook’s earnest wish to be found and understood, and in their connection, Jongiyasu had led him towards that. He’d slipped through the cracks of society, and the day he’d wanted to die, it’d been Jongiyasu whispering for him to live that had gotten him to this point. He was clear of his prognosis, and how he would never quite be free from all his aches and pains. Even then, despite his imperfections, Jongiyasu had fought fate to choose him, like a defillibrator’s shock to jumpstart his dead-end life. Jongiyasu had given him its answer, the final puzzle piece to dissolve his anger about being alive despite all odds. It’d granted him purpose, however miniscule it seemed in the grand scheme of things. -.. --- / -. --- - / .-- --- .-. .-. -.-DO NOT WORRY. .- .-.. .-.. / - .... .- - / .-. . -- .- .. -. ... / .. ... / - --- / .... --- .--. . ALL THAT REMAINS IS TO HOPE. With this recognition, he would sit in silence, carefully cradling his own god as it hummed and illuminated the rest of his mind with its own memories, beliefs and joy of finally being found. He eventually interlaced his fingers with its tendrils, until at last he awakened once more, feeling refreshed and well-rested for the first time in an extremely long time. They’d been found. They’d both been found.


MEET THE CREATIVE: LYNDON ANG Lyndon "Tadpole" Ang is a writer by trade and a community manager by profession, and spends most of their time watching Kdramas, making little bean doodles and crying about sad old people. Being raised on wuxia novels and ancient Chinese fantasies from a young age meant their work became heavily influenced by mythology, fulfillment intermingled with trauma, as well as unresolved grievance. Ultimately, they feel their works should invoke a sense of hope in those who choose to read them, giggling about the characters' journey and feeling for them when they fall through their own hubris. Twitter: @TadpoleTalks Website: www.tadpoletalks.carrd.co Author’s Note: Jongi is a fantastical piece centred around a fictional legend of five golems that imbue a fraction of their special abilities to humans they "choose", focusing on the salaryman Hyunwook after his brush with cancer and sudden recognition of his newly obtained immortality. It is a critical analysis of how society views the disabled or otherwise incapacitated (in this case, chronically ill) individuals by measuring them through their ability to contribute to capitalism, the swiftness in being forsaken when they become dependent and then a message of hope revolving around a man who'd believed he wasn't worth it having others invest in it. Mixing in mythology and slice-of-life as Hyunwook grapples with the relation with his god, Jongiyasu, as well as being taken in by his two new roommates Hyunbin and Sungkyu, it is a story about carving out one's path after a drastic life-altering event - at all costs.



MEET THE CREATIVE: XZONI Xzoni is a queer cryptid from Malaysia that happens to enjoy art. They love learning about the world they live in through listening to the stories of others, long-winded video essays, and falling down Wikipedia rabbit holes at three in the morning. Through their own stories they often explore themes of society, the nature of the stories we tell ourselves, trauma, and the human (and inhuman) capacity to love. Twitter: @hivekinds Website: xzoni.weebly.com Author’s Note: As a storyteller and someone with a weird relationship with sleep and the dreaming world, I decided to approach the theme of "Other Worlds" through the angle of lucid dreaming. The dreaming world is a strange and unpredictable place, but through lucidity one can exert some measure of control over the chaos. The dark overseer carefully puts all the pieces into place for the benefit of the dreamer, but in fact both of them are one and the same. The world is vibrant and beautiful and it can be exactly what you want it to be, but it's not real. The other figures are reduced to shapes - abstract impressions of what a person is supposed to be. This - at least to me - is not unlike the way we craft stories. Taking the unfathomable fabric of reality and cutting it out like paper dolls, turning it into symbols that we can control and understand. Like shadows cast on the wall of a cave, it's a distillation of the reality it represents. It may not be real, but to find yourself in a world where it all makes sense.. who would ever want to wake up?


WELCOME, TRAVELLER BY ROBOKARLA

"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" The voice (if you could call it that) was not one that was heard so much as felt, deep in the souls of those nearby. It emanated from a tall celestial figure in a white robe, with no face, who floated about five feet above the ground. In front of the figure was a large boulder, with, if we're being honest, an unnecessarily extravagant sword sticking out of it. The traveller eyed the whole situation with some skepticism. " . . . Do I . . . have to?" He carried a satchel and was dressed in a way that implied the satchel was full of potatoes. And not the fancy ones. "NO. BUT IF YOU SUCCEED, YOU WILL BE GRANTED YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE." The traveller hesitated. "All due respect, but I've heard some not great things about magical beings tempting me with my heart's greatest desire. Is this some kind of monkey's paw situation?" The celestial guardian sighed cosmically, as if it got this question a lot. "NO THIS IS NOT A MONKEY'S PAW SITUATION. YOU WILL BE GRANTED YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE IF YOU ARE ABLE TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE." "Hmm," said the traveller, tapping his hand on his cheek. "But you could be lying. Do you even know what my heart's greatest desire is?" "I DO." "Oh? Then tell me." The guardian glowed pink for a moment. In the place where its face would be, which was currently just a viscous milky white, one huge eye opened wide. The iris was the universe and the pupil was the void, and the air hummed loudly for a few seconds. Then the eye closed and it all stopped abruptly. "YOUR GREATEST DESIRE IS TO ACQUIRE MONEY IN ORDER TO PROVIDE FOR YOUR FAMILY WHO LOST THEIR ANCESTRAL HOME WHEN THE BARON CLAIMED IT FOR HIMSELF, LEAVING YOU AND YOUR MOTHER AND FATHER AND YOUNGER SISTER TO LIVE IN POVERTY."


The traveller dropped his satchel. A few potatoes rolled out. "That . . . yes, that's correct," he said, voice trembling, eyes brimming with fat tears. "The Baron took everything from us. But I don't want revenge. He can have the land. I just want my family to be happy. I want a better life for my little sister, Maria. She's only five. She deserves better. I do what I can, working odd jobs for local potato farmers, but . . . I wish I could do more." "WELP." The celestial guardian gestured telepathically toward the sword (the one in the stone). Shaking, the traveller approached the stone, stepping reverently on the gentle grass and moss of the glade. He put his hands on the sword, took a deep breath, and pulled. Nothing happened. "IT WAS A VALIANT EFFORT," said the celestial guardian, supportively. "Thanks," said the traveller, sounding a little bummed out. "It was worth a shot. Anyway. Back to earning money the old fashioned way. Guess getting my heart's greatest desire easily is just too good to be true." "PERHAPS. PERHAPS NOT." --"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" A man dressed in an opulent purple tunic and a fur coat dismounted his horse and surveyed the glade with some contempt. "Greetings. I am the Baron." " . . . OH?" "Yes," said the Baron, dusting himself off. He looked the celestial guardian up and down and then went back to adjusting his clothes, clearly unphased by a twelve-foot tall floating being with no face. "I heard tell of a sword that grants wishes. This would be the place, yes?" "IF YOU SUCCEED IN PULLING THE SWORD FROM THE STONE, YOU WILL BE GRANTED YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE." "That's sort of like a wish, right?" "I . . . SUPPOSE. YOU ARE HERE FOR A SPECIFIC DESIRE?" The Baron sighed dramatically. "Well, it's these damned peasants, you see. They just won't stop complaining. They want water, they want food, and I've told them to go ahead and get some themselves but for some reason they won't leave me alone."


" . . . MMHMM," said the celestial guardian in a forcibly innocent tone. "I've had to kick them out of my mansion thrice this week - well, my servants had to kick them out of my mansion. But it's so distracting and I'd just like to be done with the whole thing. So let's have at it then." "I AM NOT SURE THIS WILL GRANT YOU THE OUTCOME YOU SEEK, FOR YOU SEE-" The Baron waved his hand dismissively. "Look, I'm not concerned with the specifics. I'd just like to get on with it." "OKAY. WELL. I GUESS." The Baron approached the stone as one would approach the dinner table on leftovers night - lacking enthusiasm, that is and, without ceremony, put his hands on the sword and pulled. The Guardian let him strain for a couple moments before speaking up. "I THINK NOT." "Hmm," said the Baron, stepping back. He was breathing hard and sweating. "I concur. Well, back to dealing with peasants the old fashioned way." "THROUGH COMMUNICATION AND COMPROMISE?" suggested the Guardian, hopefully. The Baron laughed. "Good one." --"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" "Maow." "OH YOU ARE A CAT." The cat, an orange tabby, sat down in a patch of sun and looked up at the celestial figure. "Maow." "I DO NOT THINK YOU ARE CAPABLE OF PULLING THE SWORD FROM THE STONE. NOR DO I THINK IT WILL BENEFIT YOU GREATLY AS YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE IS TO -" The figure turned purple and vibrated for a few seconds. "- TO LIE IN THE SUN AND EAT FISH AND RECEIVE BACK SCRATCHIES." The cat flopped onto its back. "Maow." "YES, TUMMY SCRATCHIES AS WELL. BUT ONLY OCCASIONALLY."


The cat jumped onto the stone and curled up around the hilt of the sword. "YOU CAN'T - OKAY, WELL, WHATEVER I GUESS." "Maow." --"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" "Yes." It was a young woman this time. Red hair, plain clothes - probably a peasant from the nearby lands. "YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE IS - OH. OH, THAT IS VERY SAD." The girl stared at the ground and shrugged, kicking some dirt. "Well, not all of us think we can solve our problems with money or fame or whatever. Some of us are just . . . tired." The Guardian stared (eyelessly) at her. A deep aura of sympathy and compassion and sadness permeated the glade. "ARE YOU SURE?" "Well, it's not as if I can pick what my heart's greatest desire is. You saw in there. You know." The Guardian was silent for a moment. Finally, it spoke up. "I REALLY HOPE YOU DO NOT PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE." She nodded, and then approached. Bracing herself, she pulled on the hilt. It didn't budge. The Guardian relaxed, robes sagging a bit. "Can't say I'm surprised," said the girl, shrugging. Her expression was neutral, but there was something in her eyes. Anger, maybe. Pain. "SO WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?" "Guess I'll just go back home. You know." She shrugged again. She looked sad. "Whatever. Back to it, I guess." The Guardian hesitated, trying to find the right words. "I HOPE YOU DO NOT COME BACK."


"That's what they said when I left." --"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO-" "Maow." "OH COME ON." ---

"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" "Oh, no thanks." " . . . OH." There was a brief silence. The Guardian stared at the woman in front of him, who smiled contentedly. "IT'S JUST THAT . . . MOST PEOPLE COME HERE TO TRY AND PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE. YOU KNOW, TO RECEIVE THEIR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE." "I know. That's actually the thing. I, uh." She scratched her head, looking a little embarrassed. "I . . . don't know what my heart's greatest desire actually is." "BUT YOU STILL WISH TO RECEIVE IT?" "No. It's just . . . everyone in the village has been talking about this magical floaty guy in the forest who grants you the thing you want most in the world. And it got me thinking - I don't really know what I want in life. I did okay in school, and then I got a job at the potato bakery, and it's fine, I guess. But like, am I fulfilled? I just feel sort of aimless. So I was hoping you could tell me what my heart's greatest desire is." The Guardian was silent for a moment. "WELL, WHY NOT." The glade hummed with magical energy, glowing a soft orange. The Guardian blinked its Eye, gazing into the Cosmic Void. "YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE IS TO LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF." The woman put her hand on her hip. "Well, shit."


There was a beat. "SO I GUESS . . . GRANTED?" --It was a warm summer day when the bushes parted. The Guardian's speech died in his mouth when the red-haired girl from before entered. "YOU." "Relax, I'm not here for the sword," she said, holding up her hands. "I just wanted to get away for a bit." "OH OKAY." She sat on the grass with her back against a tree and took out a book. The glade was quiet for a few minutes, but for the gentle sound of water trickling through a brook. Finally, the Guardian spoke up. "WHAT IS YOUR NAME." "Aila." "OH OKAY." "What's yours?" "I HAVE NO NAME. I AM THE GUARDIAN." "Huh." Another silence, this one more awkward. "AILA, ARE YOU OKAY?" Aila pulled her book up a little, obscuring part of her face. "I'm fine." " . . . I KNOW THAT YOU ARE LYING. I HAVE SEEN," said the Guardian, somewhat apologetically. "Well okay, I'm not fine. But I'm handling it. I just want to, you know, get away for a bit. Is that okay? Can I be here?" Something pulled at the Guardian, deep inside its form, where its heart would be if it had one. "SURE. THAT IS FINE.


"Cool." They lapsed into a comfortable silence, and stayed that way until night. --After that, Aila started coming by regularly. The Guardian knew it probably wasn't supposed to let her do this, but it did anyway. --"WELCOME, TRAVELLER. DARE YOU ATTEMPT TO PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE?" The farmer who had stumbled into the glade surveyed the situation - the sword, the stone, the 15 foot tall floating entity with no face - and shrugged. "Heck, why not!" He was tall and muscled, and had a bright smile. "IF YOU SUCCEED IN PULLING THE SWORD FROM THE STONE, YOU WILL BE GRANTED YOUR HEARTS GREATEST DESIRE." "That sounds swell! Okay, how do I do this? Is there a trick to it or something?" "NO TRICK. JUST PULL THE SWORD FROM THE STONE." "Okay, you got it." The farmer walked up and pulled the sword from the stone. There was a beat. "So . . . that's it then?" The Guardian let out a cosmic scream. The glade erupted into bright purple light. Void weaved in and out of the trees, sparkling with a deep incomprehensible eternity. The Guardian's eye opened and giant feathered wings made out of light appeared behind its back. They flapped once and air rushed through the trees, stirring up the grass and the leaves and the Void that had spilled onto them. It sounded like the end of the world. And then all the noise, energy, and light sort of sucked into the hole in the stone, and very suddenly all was quiet again. The Guardian, although having no lungs, gave the appearance of heaving. "Whoah," said the farmer, eyes wide. "So, huh."


The Guardian breathed, a little more evenly this time, and looked up. "CONGRATULATIONS," it said, a little shakily. "YOU HAVE PULLED THE SWORD FROM THE STONE. YOU ARE GRANTED YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE. WHICH IS -" The glade glowed pink but tiredly this time, like it was out of juice. "WHICH IS . . . WAIT, REALLY?" The farmer beamed. "YOUR GREATEST DESIRE IS TO . . . RUN A PRODUCE STORE?" "Yes! I've been a farmer my whole life but we've only ever sold to other businesses - very impersonal. I always thought it would be really nice to have a little store. Somewhere I could talk to customers, you know? Talk to them about the vegetables I've been growing lately, and the like. So now I get to do that?" "YES. RETURN TO YOUR TOWN, THE, ER, PRODUCE STORE WILL BE THERE. IT WILL LOOK THE WAY YOU'VE ALWAYS IMAGINED." "Ooohh, painted light blue with flower boxes on the windows? And with a cute little sign with vegetables on it?" "YES. ALL OF THOSE THINGS." "Well, shoot. Thanks so much! I'm going to go check it out!" The farmer waved happily, still holding the sword. "Thanks again!" "NO PROBLEM." The farmer left. And then all was quiet, and the sword was gone. --"AILA THE SWORD IS GONE. AILA. IT IS GONE." "Oh," said Aila, who was still trying to untangle her red hair from the bushes that she'd just stepped out of. "Who got it?" "THIS FARMER BUT HIS HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE WAS JUST TO OPEN A PRODUCE STORE SO HE'S DOING THAT NOW AND THE SWORD IS GONE AILA. THE SWORD IS GONE HE TOOK IT." "Wasn't that kind of the point? For someone to take it eventually?" "YES . . . BUT IT NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE. ALL HAVE FAILED. SO THE SWORD REMAINED. BUT NOW IT IS GONE." "You seem to be taking this kind of hard. Do you . . . miss it? The sword, I mean?"


"NO. BUT NOW THAT THE SWORD IS GONE, I CANNOT ENCOURAGE TRAVELLERS TO REMOVE IT FROM THE STONE." "Oh. So you're feeling purposeless? Like, you don't know what to do now?" "I... I DO NOT KNOW." "It's okay, I get it. You're the Guardian of the Sword In the Stone. But now that your job is done, you're just -" "THE GUARDIAN OF THE STONE. WHICH IS POINTLESS. THE STONE DOES NOTHING. IT WAS MERELY A RESTING PLACE FOR THE SWORD. THE STONE DOES NOT GRANT WISHES NOR ANYTHING OF THE SORT. IT IS MERELY A STONE. YOU CAN'T EVEN SIT ON IT. IT IS SHARP." The Guardian sounded miserable. "Hey, it's not so bad." "I HAVE NO PURPOSE." "You could always guard the glade. It's a nice glade. Quiet out here. Pretty." "GUARD THE . . . GLADE?" "Sure. Why not? The Guardian surveyed the glade. Green grass, a gentle flowing brook, a rock covered in moss, sunlight filtering through trees with autumn leaves that would soon cover the forest floor. A fluffy orange tail poking out from behind a bush. " . . . I WILL THINK ABOUT IT." "You should." Aila wrapped her sweater tighter around her shoulders and looked at the sky. "Getting cold out these days." "IS IT? I CANNOT TELL." --The next day it snowed, and it snowed on and off for the next few months, and neither Aila nor the cat visited the glade. The Guardian waited, and watched, and thought. --"AILA! IT IS YOU!"


"It's me," said Aila, brushing off of her boots. "Gosh, was the glade always this muddy?" Winter had thawed into spring. The river had unfrozen all at once, temporarily turning the glade's little brook into a messy stream that splashed water all over the newly-forming grass. "NO, THE MUD IS NEW! AND - OH???" "Maow." The orange cat followed Aila out of the bushes, staring at the Guardian while weaving in between Aila's legs. "Oh, this little guy? He followed me home, and, well, I needed a buddy. And the fisherman near work lets me take home plenty of scraps." "YES IT DOES SEEM ROUNDER THAN BEFORE." "Maow." "WAIT, NEAR WORK? AILA DID YOU GET A JOB?" "Funny thing - you remember the guy who pulled the sword from the stone? The produce store guy?" "HIS VISAGE IS ETCHED INTO MY MEMORY." "Well, he hired me to help run the produce store!" "AILA THAT IS AN INCREDIBLE COINCIDENCE." "Not really. I went to talk to him because, well, not many other people have been to this place. I wanted to know what it was like, when he, you know. Did it. The sword and all. And then we got to talking produce, and we just kind of hit it off. He's a nice guy." "AILA I AM HAPPY FOR YOU." "Yeah, yeah. What about you? Did you come to terms with the whole, no sword thing?" The Guardian looked down at the stone. The hole that had previously housed the sword was now full of water, and that water was full of frogs. "PURPOSE, AILA. IT IS A FUNNY THING. IT IS TAKEN FOR GRANTED. THE JOY OF HAVING INTENTION. THE AWFUL FEAR OF NOT KNOWING WHAT TO DO NEXT. LOOKING INTO THE FUTURE AND SEEING, WHERE THERE WAS ONCE A DESTINATION, THERE IS NOW ONLY . . ." The Guardian opened its cosmic eye, which dripped with the plasma of the universe, and in the center was a pupil made of " . . . VOID."


The wind picked up. A bird sang in the distance. The Guardian sighed and closed its eye. "BUT HERE, ALONE, IN THE DEAD WINTER, I LEARNED TO READDRESS MY INTERPRETATION OF PURPOSE. TO HAVE A PURPOSE, AILA, CAN BE TO LACK A GOAL OR ENDPOINT. A PURPOSE CAN BE SIMPLE. A PURPOSE CAN BE . . . JUST TO BE. AND IN RECOGNIZING THAT PURPOSE, ONE HAS ALREADY ACHIEVED IT." The trees rustled peacefully. Small animals, emerging from their burrows for the first time, scampered through the brush. "I'm glad you're feeling better," said Aila, quietly. "Maow." "YES, I AM - AILA. OH MY GOSH AILA!" "What? What is it?" "YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE!" Aila averted her eyes. "Look, I don't really want to talk about it." "NO THAT IS NOT WHAT I MEAN. AILA, YOUR HEART'S GREATEST DESIRE HAS CHANGED!" Aila's eyes widened. She looked at her hands, and then at the Guardian, and then at the stone. " ... Oh. I suppose it has. I didn't -" She paused to wipe her eyes. "I hadn't noticed. Oh." She smiled, eyes wet with tears. "That's nice." "YES AILA IT IS GREAT! I AM SO HAPPY FOR YOU!" "Maow." Aila picked up the cat and hugged it. The cat did a big stretch and then settled into her arms. Then, she pulled out a book. "Well, the usual?" "YES, THE USUAL." Aila sat down on the grass with her back against the tree and began reading. And then the glade was silent but for the peaceful sounds of the trees, and the occasional peep of a small frog.


MEET THE CREATIVE: ROBOKARLA Karla is a writer, gamedev, and storyteller. She enjoys writing funny, colourful, over-the-top stories and using different interactive mediums. Most recently she published a spooky visual novel called fishy. Prior to that she's worked on other visual novels and interactive stories, which are all available to read or play for free on the internet. Twitter: @robokarla Website: https://linktr.ee/robokarla Author’s Note: I drafted several interpretations of "Other Worlds" before finally settling on the concept of the sword in the stone. I enjoy writing inhuman characters, like robots and cosmic beings, and thought it would be fun to watch the evolution of an inhuman character as they grow into a more emotionally complex being. I also enjoyed exploring the parade of characters that interact with the Guardian through their short interactions. When I write, I make it a point to find the "heart" of each story - among all the jokes, something that resonates with me emotionally and roots the story in real feeling. With this story, finding the heart came very naturally. Aila's motivations and evolution immediately presented itself as a compelling foil to the Guardian, and also as a character that sparks emotional investment. She closes the circle of the exploration of "purpose" that both she and the Guardian experience. The ending makes me happy. I like that Aila got a cat, and I like that the stone is now a frog pond.



MEET THE CREATIVE: DUCESID Being halfway through medical school, you'd think I'd have given up on art by now. I have done so in the past multiple times since I didn't see the point in "wasting my time." However, when I started medical school, I made it a point to make time for things that give me life. One of these is art. I can't always keep promising myself that "tomorrow I can be happy." Squirrelling away the little bit of time I have, I grab and make opportunities that lead to joy. With the art I cherish, I'd like to share the fruits of my pursuit of life. Twitter: @ducesid Instagram: @ducesid Author’s Note: With the pandemic in full swing, travel has now become more exotic or even "other worldly." My piece gives a picture of someone's desk and their souvenirs of their travels to the different ASEAN countries. Some forms of representation always felt like an "export" to make things more digestible to non-locals, so I tried to avoid more "touristy" associations. I hope my piece would give you a small taste of Southeast Asia, but I recognize that it's a challenge to try condensing the complexities of each culture and their own set of cultures into this piece.


GATE AT THE END OF SUMMER BY NICK LIM

"If only it could stay like this forever...” The scent of summer dripped from the sky, dyed in azure and melancholy. As cicadas sang their last melodies, the girl could feel the flow of time dragging her away. It was always so humid this time of year. But as the lights in the girl's eyes went out, their place was taken by the glow of eternity. [Excerpt from: “Aeternya Scripts” - Gate at the End of Summer, prelude] --They called this place “N-2878”. A miraculously lush azure and verdant paradise that, at first glance, appeared ideal for supporting human life. The presence of two suns meant the world was almost perpetually bathed in shades of daylight. Thanks to this, the planet simply spun in place; stagnant in the ocean of space, caught precisely between the gravity well of two opposing stars. The scientists on board “Terra’s Lament” insisted such a world was so statistically unlikely as to be downright impossible, yet the undeniable truth was there for all to see. None of this, however, meant much to a girl who had spent her whole life aboard spacecraft in some way, shape or form. So, when the latest report eventually made its way down the command chain and landed in her hands, she could only take the information describing the planet and its more particular nuances at face value. The Terra’s Lament had been in orbit around N-2879 for about three months, and in that time, some strange sense of ephemerality had enraptured the ship. From what she had heard, it sounded like something about the planet had meant scanners and diagnostic equipment were rendered unreliable. In her hands, the girl held the report of what little concrete information they had been able to gather thus far. N-2878 was classified as a category five “paradise world”: Able to sustain human life without the need of external or auxiliary support. Much like the old Earth she had read about in the Aeternya Scripts and other such forbidden literature, this planet seemed to be made up of various landforms dotted across a globe-spanning ocean. A tidal-lock by its two stars gave rise to a planet that lacked any cold “season”. No obvious signs of civilization were apparent from what topographical data made it through the scrambled sensors, and the climate readings showed a very temperate atmosphere. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, a perfect world.


But if things were as simple as they appeared, Rei would be with her friends trialing the new line of sweets at the cafeteria, not sitting in her dark room, alone, reading about planet data. Quite unfortunately for everyone, purported lovely climate aside, something down there was also responsible for an unprecedented casualty rate among the expeditionary corps deployed. As well as their reinforcements. And the reserve corps sent after. [-as such, auxiliary elements from the education division have been authorised for immediate deployment by order of the admiralty, so as to bolster existing ground forces in their efforts to secure the planet and it’s resources in the name of-] The monitor on her datapad flickered, the brief shifts in light and colour playing off the walls in the dimly lit cabin like a defective kaleidoscope. Rei let the device fall onto the bed and rolled onto her side. What lay before her was an everpresent sight. Even as she buried her face into her giant plush felis and let time slip by, she could still feel the cold polysteel walls of the room entombing her. Hard, brutalist bulkheads and latticed support struts only ever broken by the occasional viewing port that peered into the void constructed the only world she had ever known. That wasn’t to say, of course, she was overly dissatisfied with life aboard a warship. Life was fun. She had food, friends, and a set career path in the military open to her for her to pursue at her discretion. However, as long as she could remember, Rei had been possessed by the same strange dream: The waning of light, and a darkness born from it’s absence. A wide, open sky. Looming metal skeletons bridged by coils. The siren glow of civilization in the distance. The tang of a soft and heavy sensation on the wind as the chirps of the earth sing old melodies. It was something that haunted her mind in the space between her thoughts. It brought with it certain inexplicable emotions no one else seemed to share, like a call reaching out from the abyss, compelling her to do… something. The girl had even sought out the Aeternya Scripts in her earlier years for answers, but even text that supposedly chronicled eternity could not offer any solace. Not that she had been able to understand most of it at that age. She hoped setting foot on real ground could help lead her to some kind of answer. That is why she had volunteered for her class to drop next. Speaking of which… Rei lazily rolled back the other way, flopping over the edge of her bunk and jumping down into a graceful landing. Less graceful was the involuntary noise she made as her feet hit the floor. Mercifully, it hadn’t been loud enough for anyone outside to hear. Probably… Springing up, the girl had no difficulties navigating through her modest cabin in the low light and reached her door with lackluster grace. Using her body weight to push through, the girl was greeted with harsh lights and the smell of disinfectant washing over her as the dimness of her room gave way to the perpetual brightness of the halls.


Right… Hallway sterilization was today… “Great…” Rei hadn’t changed out of her uniform when she had finished her evening duties, so she didn’t bother checking to see how presentable she looked. Wouldn’t be a problem as long as she kept clear of any vindictive officers anyways… Pausing only to get shoes on her feet, and hopping awkwardly to actually get them to stay here, she was off. The Terra’s Lament wasn’t an old ship, but it certainly wasn’t new either. Rei and her class had been transferred to it after it had been commissioned roughly seven years ago, and all had lived aboard ever since. It’s design was completely unremarkable, and it’s specifications were all according to “post-reunification standard”. The interiors were sleek, minimalist and utilitarian, with no ostentatiousness to speak of. The scuff marks on the floors she currently walked showed a path well tread by soldiers, crew members and students alike. Now however, the halls of the Terra’s Lament were mostly devoid of life, save for a handful of janitorial drones bumping around along the ground. The only personnel she was likely to encounter this late at night would be guard patrols, unfortunate officers, or the odd student sneaking through to a late-night rendezvous. It wasn’t uncommon for students to hold the odd party or three before a mission, and tonight was certainly no exception to that particular statistic. Rei herself even knew of a handful despite holding no particular intentions of joining the festivities. Not that she had been invited. Everyone in her class knew she would have turned them down anyway. Nevertheless, her destination took her into one of those wings of the habitation block less seldom tread, and right into the path of rhythmic bass coursing through the air like the rumble of a primal drum. It seemed some had decided to throw subtly out the airlock. The corridor was interchangeable, one of many identical in appearance if not for large bold markings deliberately painted to allow for otherwise. A deliberate obfuscation, most likely. A countermeasure against boarding actions to disorientate anyone not intimately familiar with this class of ship. In and among some of many evenly spaced and identical-looking doors sat one embossed with the nameplate: [X-2449 “Rumikan”]. The plate still being there at all was still a constant source of bemusement to Rei. Replacement marines arrived all the time, but students were almost never replaced or reassigned. Rooms like this stood testament to that, especially on the anniversary of the occupant’s death. Rei held the keycard before the scanner, the replying beep of acknowledgement and powered locks whirring open served to tell her she had indeed used the right card, and hadn’t tried to open the door with her own key like last time. The door slid open to the tune of interior lights flickering to life, and Rei was greeted with a pleasantly familiar sight. Despite being one herself, Rumikan had always struck Rei as an exceptionally “JK” joshi-kousei. Passionate, energetic and capricious, with a love for fun things, a hatred for boring things, and a head full of romantic things, she liked what she liked and would make no excuses for it. Rumikan exemplified the inscrutable state of existence colloquially known as a JK, and anything she set her focus on was pursued with a specific kind of energy and determination not seen anywhere else.


If asked to use a word to describe her, Rei would have had to choose between “blinding” or “exhausting”. “I’m gonna enjoy it while I can ya know?” she had once said, “You only get one chance.” “Yea but doesn’t it get tiring? I’m tired just by being NEAR you.” “Ehh? Don’t say that! If you think about everything that way you’re going to miss out.” Rei distinctly remembered turning to look directly at Rumikan as they walked. “WIth your level of “fun now, worry later” I’d be dead before I could miss out on anything.” “Well don’t worry, with your level of “worry now, fun never” there isn’t much of you around TO die.” She remembered a lot of laughing after that. Rumikan and Rei had become friends very soon after the former had arrived onboard the Terra’s Lament. Despite being in different classes and having vastly different personalities, the two had spent a surprising amount of time together. But that was before Rumikan had died in Rei’s arms on the cold steel deck of a nameless ship, forcing a smile through unbearable pain as blood pooled around her and life drained from her eyes. Before Rei had put Rumikan out of her misery. In the weeks following, Rei had inadvertently become responsible for Rumikan’s possessions, but a whole year later, the room remained just as it had been left. In a departure from convention however, Rei had chosen not to sort and removed the deceased’s effects from the room. No, she had left it as it was, coming only to clean on occasion. Why she continued to maintain this odd status quo was a question often asked to herself, yet no amount of introspection swayed Rei from visiting her friend’s room to “talk” before every deployment. This wasn’t done out of some misguided sense of responsibility, however. Nor was she under some delusion that Rumikan was still out there somewhere. But some recent gossip here, some complaints about senior officers there, and it was almost like Rei had her friend back. If even for a small moment. The personal cabins afforded to the students assigned to the Terra’s Lament were all equally economical and utilitarian. They were built to precise specification, and offered little in the way for accommodating personal taste beyond the option to either fit an additional storage shelf or vanity table in the corner. Besides that, a wardrobe, storage rack and a bunk with a desk fitted below were all that constituted their rooms. Sheer pragmatism permeated every centimeter of the craft. Metal-on-metal working to subsume everything into unity. But one thing about Rumikan that had always impressed Rei was her unerring ability to leave her presence behind everywhere she went, on top of the sheer speed at which she could alter a space to match her proverbial colour. A prime example of which being her own quarters.


Despite only having lived here for a short time, this was unquestionably her room. Taken out of context and the room could have been mistaken for that of any number of normal metropolitan high school girls across the Empire. Non-regulation “mega-fluff” sheets and pillows. A downright impressive collection of plush animals laden on the bed and shelves. Soft pink curtains draped across the viewing port. And a really comfortable rug acquired through the ship’s black market network. She had even been able to amass a frankly unbelievable collection of sweets in record time. Posters and printed pictographs dotted the walls, and trendy civilian clothes that couldn’t fit in an already overflowing wardrobe hung from the sides of the bunk. All worked together to dye the room a starkly different hue to its neighbouring contemporaries. Despite its occupant having been long gone, the faint smell of soap still lingered. If Rumikan had been a regular soldier and not still in the education division, this many infractions would have almost certainly led to a summary execution. Nevertheless, Rei found a sort of comfort and familiarity in the eclectic nature of Rumikan’s room that she had yet to find anywhere else. Indeed, bar some small bouquets of origami flowers left by the outer doorway by others paying their respects, all of it was exactly as Rei had left it the last time she was here but a mere week ago when she had come to clean. In turn, it was still the same as Rumikan had left it when she walked out for the last time - bar her armoured uniform and that stupid hair clip she always insisted on wearing, of course. The room was chaotic, yes, but it was chaos born from stability. A reminder of a lifestyle that dated back before the rise of the Solar Empire. In the times of ages past, it may have even been the norm. The Aeternya Scripts spoke of a past where war was a distant concern for many and ignorance considered a curse instead of a blessing. And now it was normal for education divisions like hers to be deployed into combat. What a strange path her kind had chosen to walk… It reminded Rei of something she had overheard between two soldiers arguing over what to do about a particularly boisterous student party held before a dangerous mission long ago. One argued that: “-discipline is the foundation of a soldier. Without that, we would be simply sending them to their deaths.” The other countered by saying: “-the young have the right to be innocent. They may be soldiers, but they’re still children. Let them act their age while they still can.” Those words had always stuck with her. She had still been quite young at that point, unsure about the full extent of the two soldier’s debate. But as time went on, and she saw more battles fought and won at the cost of lives, she had started finding herself ruminating on that argument. “The right to be innocent huh…?”


Rumikan had been innocent. In her eyes at least, Rei struggled to think of an individual who suited armed service quite as less. Rei looked around at the room. Small trinkets and enshrined memories. Reminders of insignificant moments that only weighed in the mind of the one who put them there. It was all so pointless… There was no reason for any of this, really. One could be transferred to a new room, or a new ship entirely. Then you would have to pack all this up and bring it with you, the prospect of which Rei personally considered to be a serious pain in the ass. And never mind that, a single warhead breaching this part of the ship would scatter all these precious memories into the cosmic abyss. Comfort was nice, yes, but it led to complacency. Dependency. All things that get people killed in war. But Rei had seen the earnest, genuine happiness her friend saw in these fleeting things. The ability to live purely for the moment, and not burden one’s self with the agonies of the future. Priorities and conventional logic meant nothing to Rumikan, and that way of thinking was one Rei had never been able to reach.

But sometimes, more than anything, she wished she could. Rei sighed to herself and sat down in the middle of the room.

“Hey Mikan… long time no see… or not. … We’ll be jumping onto the planet soon. Apparently it’s called “N-2878” or something. … Think you could lend me some of your luck again?” --Rei’s boots boomed against the plated floor as she stepped, looking around and performing last-minute safety checks for the handful of classmates in the same pod as her. “-think that we’ll get to see an “ocean” there?” “That would be seriously nice…” “Do you think it will be cold? All the water on the ship is cold.” “Well the planet is sunny, so maybe not? Suns are supposed to warm things.” If my feet can’t touch the bottom of this “ocean”, I’m not finding out. “-do the homework? Ehhh?? It’s so boring-” “What!? You’re still not done?!” “How am I supposed to do something that lame??” Liar. I know you finish your homework the day you get it.


“-han let’s go get tapioca when we get back!” “Un! Sure thing! I heard there is a new khalub flavour and I really want to try it!” Looks like that relationship with whatshisface didn’t work out either huh? You couldn’t even find the same pink as the rest of your gun to cover the initials? “-I can’t stand it. His classes are so boring. All we do is read about lame history. Who cares about that crap anyway?” “Yea, it like, majorly sucks.” “Eh? But don’t you get good grades?” “Still sucks!” Loving historical dramas does have benefits… Rei wove through her seated classmate’s conversations as she carried out her duties. Equipment: Stowed and secured. Harnesses: Fastened. Integrity Seals: Holding and pressurised. Good. “Is everyone ready? Sound off for HUD activation-” “Five okay!” “Four okay.” “Three okay!” “Two A-okay!” One by one, small status bars began filling up on her head’s-up-display in her helmet’s visor, as her classmates synched their transponders. Nodding, she took her own seat and strapped herself in“One okay-” -before slamming her fist into the launch button beside her. The overhead pod lights flashed from green to red, and a quiet settled among everyone. No one wanted to chance biting their tongue in the launch. A few heartbeats later, and the low droning hum bleeding into the compartment from the top of the pod erupted into the boom of the pod’s vectored thruster. Their reinforced metal sarcophagus shook to the tune of a sheer and overpowering noise, one barely broken by the mechanical automatic ticking of the inertial guidance system kicking into effect. A split second of weightlessness gave way to the weight of a whole planet resisting them. Almost immediately, that resistance turned into turbulence. Flashes of all the ways they could die barraged Rei’s mind. A compromised integrity seal depressurising the whole pod and they would be cooked alive… Or maybe the planet’s interference would scramble their guidance system and send them off course... So many variables, and absolutely all of them outside her control. Indeed, drop pods were near-universally hated for that very reason. Even hardened veterans balked at the thought of surrendering their fate in such a way. Leaving your life in the hands of a “military grade” machine didn’t exactly inspire confidence.


When Rei’s orders had told her to report to the drop bay of the ship, she had been surprised. The last deployments had been conducted via drop-ship. Given how unknown the planet and its environment was, it was the obvious choice. The use of drop pods were for shock assaults or decapitating strikes against enemy forces. They were devastating when used properly, but to do so, one would need a very firm grasp of the situation on both a tactical and strategic level. One would not, for example, want to use them to deploy education division assets onto a planet that couldn’t be scanned. The other obvious drawback was the fact that drop pods, per the name, only moved in a single direction. Down. Once they made planetfall, the only way back would still be a drop-ship. So, the way Rei saw it, either the admiralty wasn’t expecting them to come back… Or they don’t want us coming back… But orders were orders, and the report told her everything that high-command decided she needed to know. Trying to learn any more would have made things far too much of a hassle. One thing was certain though. Until the admiralty said otherwise, this was a one-way trip.

Class 2-4 being in their second year of senior high school meant all forty of them had been together for the better part of eleven years. As inertia and adrenaline forced anxieties out of her mind, Rei turned her attention to her classmates. After so much time living, fighting and dying together, the students shared a bond only found in children who shared war zones with each other. They were, unequivocally, close. They had to be close. It was by design. But still… Rei felt like something was… missing. This comradery wasn’t objectionable, not by any stretch of the imagination, and there wasn’t anyone else in the division she’d rather fight with. But it was always so jarring seeing them before a battle compared to the classroom. They, who had been so customarily animated moments before, had all fallen silent. Rei could see shaking in their bodies that didn’t stem from the thrusters around them. She looked at her own hand. Calm. Nothing.

Rei had always seen war very plainly. She’d never seen reason to put thought or effort into unnecessary things, and fighting was no different. People live, people die. Sometimes the dead were people she knew. Sometimes they weren’t. One day it would be her. Any more and things became too troublesome. She wasn’t afraid. After all, what did she have to lose? But Rei felt her brow furrow of its own volition. Her fist clenched involuntarily. What is this…?


A feeling… One she couldn’t shake, no matter how much she tried. A restlessness rooted in the base of her heart. She felt like parts of her were being slowly subsumed. Sinking. A voice in her mind cried to be let go, urging her to break the hatch open as they fell and throw herself into the void of the ether. She needed to move. To go somewhere. To do… something. It was like her soul was slamming itself against the inside of a body that had become a cage. She had to get a grip and focus. Her classmates were depending on her, and all Rei could do was keep her eyes forward and anchor herself in the immediate moment. Purge all unnecessary thoughts. Like always. Focus only on… Survival. She breathed in time to the beat of the engines. The display in her helmet showed that despite the heavy turbulence, the pod was safely on course to land. Their orders were, on paper, simple. Reinforce the expeditionary force, and do whatever was necessary to secure the planet. To that end, class 2-4 was being dropped into a mountainous, woodland area, in a cluster of large islands off the eastern continent. A loud, straining metallic noise from well above the pod told Rei the descent repulsors had unfolded properly, and she could see their velocity gradually ticking down. Their approach vector showed an all-clear, and the readout slated their landing to be in[3] [2] [1] The pod slammed into the earth at its customarily disturbed velocity and all the girl could see was white. Rei felt her body crumple in its harness. Her head was spinning. Eyes clouded and unfocused. All the shock dampeners in the universe wouldn’t have been enough to make that landing a pleasant one, but at least they had landed. How the hell did soldiers manage to fight after this? Through the haze, she heard the hiss of the landing ramps’ pressure valves followed by multiple rapid, short explosions. As the explosive bolts of the drop pod detonated to blow off the plated sides and free the students within, Rei worked to free herself from her harness and grabbed the rifle secured into the side of her seat. “Everyone okay!?”


The responses she received only confirmed how badly the landing had shaken everyone. Rei had to fight to keep herself steady. Her legs felt like someone had liquified them and put them back together incorrectly. Her head throbbed to the sound of a concussion still ringing in her ears. She staggered out. But the moment she stepped out under an open sky, something washed over her that swept it all away. --The first thing Rei felt was the heat. Past the smouldering hull beside her, a heat beyond anything she had ever felt in her life weigned on her like a physical presence. She stepped forward through what she knew was air, but felt much more like gelatin. The girl was still trying to process all the information her senses were trying to tell her when Rei stepped onto N-2878 for the first time. The second thing Rei felt was grass. It felt odd to stand on. Soft, but also somehow solid. It felt natural to her. She tested her footing. Stable. Weird... She looked around. Everything was so… big. And quiet. So quiet. On a ship, quiet spelt death. Quiet meant the hum of engines had died. Quiet meant ventilation and life support had stopped working. But here, the sounds were all jarring. Softer, less sharp. More defined, yet less clear. Even through her helmet’s visor, she could feel the soft but overpowering incandesce of the sun. An old, primordial familiarity stirred in her heart. As if this was all somehow nostalgic to her. Despite the presence of a fully sealed helmet, the unmistakable feeling of summer hit her like a rubber bullet to the head. “It’s so beautiful…” Rei was in a field that seemed to stretch on forever. An endless, rolling sea of life framed by softly blurred horizons in her field of view. Her lungs filled with a scent and texture of air utterly alien to her. Air. Real air… She hadn’t realised she had taken her helmet off. A breeze guided her focus off towards some mountains in the distance, their outline shifting and obscured by the same soft haze. “It’s so beautiful…”


Flowers seemed to grow in abundance here. Steams of colour extended all around, broken up by the green of neverending grass. Rei didn’t know it was possible for this many colours to be in one place. “It’s so beautiful…” Everything felt so vivid. Hyperbolic. Like her senses were in overdrive. It was almost scary how natural it felt to be here. As she stepped forward, the sky seemed to open outwards to her. A bright, impossibly fair blue bore down, the gathering of its clouds intermixing with the light to provide spots of shade from the ever-present sun. Despite having just descended from a distance much higher, Rei could swear the clouds were tall enough to reach into the heavens themselves. Involuntarily, she closed her eyes. The sounds of insects seemed to echo even louder through the gently rustling blades. Even without sight, she could feel the very world itself welcoming her. Embracing her. Drawing her further and further in. “It’s so beautiful I want to d-” A gunshot rang out and split the tranquility like a knife through the abdomen. Immediately, all the students’ trances were broken and training forced them to their knees; rifles raised and tracing the horizon. It was what Rei’s instincts demanded, and she defaulted back to what she knew best. Her thumb moved off the safety, and she began to slowly creep forward. Stance low, shifting her weight to minimise noise. Further light rustling told Rei her classmates were slowly assembling behind her. It hadn’t been difficult to track the source of the gunshot. It wasn’t an attack, like Rei had feared, but after seeing the situation for herself, she almost wished it was. She motioned to her classmates behind her to try and secure the area. Well, as secure as you can make a field of flowers at least… Meanwhile, Rei tried to make sense of… whatever it was she saw. Before her two cylindrical posts stood stark against the open plains they were embedded into, topped by two further squared beams that ran horizontally across the tops of said posts and extended slightly further beyond the sides. The whole structure was liveried in sheer vermilion. But that description was a pain so Rei decided to simply think of it as a “gate”. Disconcertingly, Rei had not noticed this odd structure at all before. Sharp red against the scenery that captivated them, the structure certainly wasn’t subtle. And it clearly wasn’t a natural formation. Yet the sight of it standing in this field felt so natural and obvious, it was like Rei was stupid for questioning its presence here at all. But she hadn’t seen it. In the infinite moments she had spent in the thrall of the world, she had not seen this structure. Yet here it was. Even sporting minor signs of weathering no less.


More disconcerting still was what lay at its base. Slumped against one of the pillars that made up the gate’s side, was a figure in an armoured uniform. A single gunshot angled upwards painted slightly sun-baked vermillion with further scarlet. The source of the gunshot was to be found in a sidearm that lay clutched in the figure’s limp arm at their side. Self termination, clearly, but this raised a rather confusing issue. This figure was wearing the same armoured uniform as Rei and her classmates. In fact, the markings on the armoured breastplate showed this student belonged to Rei’s class. But if that was the case… Who…? Rei stared for what felt like an eternity. She felt like she knew this person.

Or did she?

This person very clearly had just died. Their ID tags identified them as [W-3l2o6e R3i] …

Rei blinked incredulously. Everything stamped into the metal tag was nonsense. That feeling in her chest tightened. She cross-referenced the jumbled ID from the tag to her class database. Nothing. She skimmed through every student ID photo listed under her class. No match. No other assets from the Education Division had been deployed, and there was no indication anyone had landed here before them. Anyone in this uniform, here, at this moment, had to have come from class 2-4. There were thirty-nine students in her class, and none of them looked like this student here… “What’s going on...?” Rei spun around to try and rally the rest of her classmates, but the sight that greeted her was one devoid of any other life. An empty, serene field, broken by ugly metallic pods dotting the landscape with the markings [IJN Terra’s Lament] emblazoned upon the scorched sides. The status bars in her visor had all disappeared. Her mind froze.


Her classmates had been right beside her a few moments ago. She had told them to maintain a defensive position butno… she had given the order, but she hadn’t actually looked back to make sure there was anyone to follow them. She knew she had exited her drop pod with her friends. And she was confident the other pods had unloaded their passengers safely too… Yet no one was here. No indication anyone ever was here. The more she thought, the more she realised things didn’t make sense. Their approach had hardly been a difficult one, but there had been some significant turbulence from strong crosswinds. Yet here on the ground, there was barely a warm breeze strong enough to flit her hair, let alone throw around an armoured assault pod as it punched through the atmosphere. Likewise, the DZ she and her class had been designated was shown from orbit to be a sparsely wooded field near a mountain cluster with some smaller rivers and gorges. The internal positioning readout in her visor told Rei she was in the right place, but this sure as hell didn’t look like it. The lost girl simply spun around in place for what felt like an eternity. As if every turn brought her closer to seeing her friends again.

“I have to find them…”

Like retracing the steps of a half-forgotten dream, she knew the way she had to go. Rei gripped her rifle at her chest and set off into the summer that lay before her, steeling herself as best she could for what lay ahead.

“Place sure is beautiful though…”

[VERSE1-END]


MEET THE CREATIVE: NICK LIM An average Easterner born and raised in the West, Nick is a graduate of media production and currently works as an assistant language teacher in Japan. While he fancies himself a storyteller, he has virtually nothing to his name. Author’s Note: The concept of "summer melancholy" can be seen bleeding across all sorts of Japanese media. In a society that implicitly sees the time one spends in school as the height of one's life, it is little wonder that the notion of a "youthful summer" has become so heavily romanticised. As I stare back at too long spent doing not enough, and my students stare down the barrel of future prospects devoid of stability or certainty, it's hard to not wish for a moratorium, and to dream of living forever in a never-ending summer. This story was born from that. A musing that bloomed on a cool desk in a hot staff room, from someone watching his precious students being robbed of the chance to live the best moments of their lives. I hope to write the rest of this story over time, and dare to dream of turning it into a novel one day.


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