The woman smiled. She had conquered the Phoenix, ruler of all other birds, and forced her to masquerade as Jujak, the Vermillion Bird. The Azure Dragon, Cheongryong, had helped her capture the Phoenix and had given her the power to control it. She stood between Cheongryong and the Phoenix in front of a crowd of people. The plan was in motion.
Cheongryong had come to her as a girl, had read her heart and given her the power she desired. It corresponded with the portents that had surrounded her birth. She would rise to greatness and ruination, they had said.
She had the combined might of the East and South at her disposal. Cheongryong was dealing with the actual Jujak and would return in time, once the bird was ready to be conquered. She was free of the direct influence of the gods and was ready to move on her own.
The West was next, where the White Tiger dwelt. He was clever among the gods and his priests were clever among men, though she refused to count herself among men any longer. She was something more.
“Please,” she begged. “I must speak to him directly.” She knelt in supplication before the priest of the White Tiger.
The priest frowned at her. “He knows that your Phoenix is not the same as the Jujak of the South, though he knows not what you have done with her.”
She lay down on the ground, prostrate. “The Dragon came to me when I was a child. He said he brought my destiny. Who could spurn such an offer?”
A white tiger, Baek-ho himself, came from behind a screened panel, huffing through its lips. Twice the size of any living cat, he passed the priest and sniffed the air above the girl, drawing his lips back. “Rise,” he said, the whisper filling the room. “You speak the truth.”
She stayed on her knees, vulnerable to the god. “I come to ask for help,” she said. “His plan would have me conquer the gods, I ask instead for your help in defeating him.”
Baek-ho sniffed at her again. “What boon would you ask from me, and what would you give in return?”
“I ask half your power. I have no boon from Jujak, I have only the aid of you and the Hyeonmu to defeat the Dragon. I have nothing to give you but an oath that I will never seek to harm you.”
Baek-ho laid his head on top of hers and conferred his blessing. With it was the inability to use his own powers against himself, but her heart had spoken true. She meant him no harm.
Her meeting with the Black Turtle, Hyeonmu, was next. He was more cautious, but the fact that she already had the blessing of Baek-ho swayed him. The pieces were in play, now she had but to wait. Cheongryong would return at the end of winter. His powers would be in ascendancy. Jujak would still be weak. Until then she would learn about the powers she had gained. Hyeonmu was a wellspring of strength and protection and she learned spells that drew on this energy to keep other attacks at bay. Baek-ho was fierce but silent, waiting for the perfect moment to spring out of the grass and attack its prey.
The days were still cold when Cheongryong returned. “It is time,” he said. “We must strike now before she gains any strength. Take my power, strike her down.” He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, imbuing her with nearly all of his power.
The Turtle within her stirred, drawing excess power to hide in its shell. The Tiger hid away, waiting to pounce and restrain the rest of the power within her. She climbed onto the dragon’s back, Phoenix at her side, and rode him to the Other Place where Jujak waited and railed against her captivity.
She stood before the bird, flanked by her immortal friends. “Why do you fight so hard?” she asked. “Is it not easier to rest? Save your strength. You will need it for when you escape.”
“You will never let me escape,” the bird screeched at her.
“I cannot live forever,” she pointed out. “Surrender. Give me your power willingly, we will save a long fight that neither of us wish to have.”
The bird puffed up and fluttered her wings before realizing the truth this girl spoke. She bowed her head and tore off one feather from a wing then passed it to the human before her. “Rule well, mortal. Pray for your death before my escape.”
She could feel the power surging in her. She turned on Cheongryong and threw him into the cage as well. He could no longer draw his power back from her.
“What are you doing?” he cried. “This wasn’t the plan!”
“This was the plan,” she said. “Your other friends will join you. You won’t be here long.” She climbed astride the Phoenix and returned to her home.
Sending the two remaining gods to the prison was simple, neither could withstand her might. She had not gone back on her word, imprisoning them caused them no harm and she only planned it as a temporary captivity.
As a child she had seen bodies lying in the streets. Murder. Rape. The world was broken. When the Azure Dragon had come, whispering in her ear of power and destiny, she embraced it. She had learned his weaknesses the same as she would for any other enemy. She had exploited him and usurped the powers offered, following her human nature. And now she would do as all other humans seemed to do: destroy.
Her reach was vast. How long it had seemed for her plans to come to this. She cared not for the power to remake the world in her image. She was of this Earth, after all, and if it burned she would burn with it. And so began the destruction.
She had been true to her word, the gods had not been mistreated or imprisoned for long. With nobody to believe in them they were weak when the bars fell from their prison. Their world had been destroyed, there was nothing left for them.