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Cover: Issue 4.1
Ophiuchus Art

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RAIN FIRE CLOUD

By Caroline Hung | https://www.khoreomag.com/author/caroline-hung/ | Caroline Hung
Edited by Zhui Ning Chang || Narrated by Sam Yeow || Produced by Jenelle DeCosta
Death in fire; child abuse
1500 words

On the seven hundredth Day of Founding, the Imperial Sun Palaces open their gates for a joyous celebration, broadcasted live to every corner of the Heavenly Empire. The sleek automobiles roll in through huge stone gateways, and hundreds of dignitaries come bearing gifts of gold. Dressed in auspicious red, the lion dancers twist and jerk to a vigorous beat. The drummers march alongside them, sweating from the heat, followed by flutes and percussion between showers of confetti, and their parade arrives soon at the massive Lotus Garden. The day is hotter than ever. 

Unbeknownst to all, the summer spirits also join in the revelries, their bodies like small, glittering sunbeams, unseen to mortal eyes. They call themselves Sio-hong, after the scorching wind, and they laugh as the Emperor appears to the crowd, waving at the cameras.

Thief! Thief! Thief! The Sio-hong chant mockingly over the Emperor’s hands, the rings and gemstones stolen from conquered lands.

The Emperor sits comfortably on his sedan chair, fanned by dozens of servants. His smile stretches thinly. When he speaks, his voice echoes like thunder through the microphone, reaching millions of citizens who watch from their homes.

Behold, my loyal subjects! Witness this great moment in history as our divine messenger from Heaven defies death to rise again!

A crash of gongs, then silence. The Sio-hong peer curiously from afar.

Out from murky pond waters, a coffin of pure gold rises slowly into the air. A coffin, ten times larger than average, with thin circuits and pulsing lights on each side. The lid yawns wide open, and a hulking beast of metal springs up in full display. It walks atop water—four cloven hooves, platinum scales, and a pair of horns branched out like radio antennae. It is all metal parts, rumbling engines and hissing steam, with the sunlight glinting off its mirror panels. Its glass eyes burn bright and hot. And as it moves, its flowing mane of electrical wires spills out of the coffin, unfurling like wide tapestries.

Here stands the fabled Qilin—mechanical miracle, messenger of the gods, and symbol of all that is right and good. Its machine programming is immaculate. Following tradition, the Qilin bows to pay tribute to the Emperor. With a voice like static crackling, the Qilin declares glory to the Empire and glory to His Majesty, Supreme Ruler of the Sea, Sky, and Earth.

A fake! A fake! The Sio-hong cry out in glee, as if presented with a new toy. Imposter! Imposter!

The cameras zoom in and out. Hovering in the air, the Qilin proceeds to expel a thick jade tablet from its mouth. Its neck shivers with the motion, sharp scales ruffling like feathers, though the Qilin is built to suffer no pain. The jade drops onto the hands of a palace attendant, who reads aloud inscriptions that foretell future conquests and lasting prosperity. An auspicious message, signifying great favor from Heaven! Watching miles away on television screens, the citizens fall to their knees and sing praises to the ceiling. They make sure their voices are heard through listening walls, while men in armor march the streets outside, ready to rain fire on any silent home.

Pleased by the reading, the Emperor motions for the Qilin to perform a miracle before the audience. The wires ripple out from the Qilin’s head like a thousand puppet strings. When the Qilin steps lightly atop a patch of soil, a sacred tree shoots out the next second, high towards the skies. Its long, wiry branches touch cloud and drop plump fruit back onto earth, white peaches with succulent flesh, the symbol of bountiful harvests throughout the year. The cameras focus on this spectacle, a show of superiority in every aspect. From the sidelines, the marching band erupts in wild celebration, cymbals ringing, painful to the ear. 

The Qilin kicks out its front legs in a magnificent pose, the action hardwired into its body.

More! More! The Sio-hong come closer, darting fast between the Qilin’s joints. Show us more! 

The summer heat swells around them. The wires start to sizzle.

But the Qilin’s task is not done. From the cool shade, the men in armor drag a single prisoner out to the blinding sun. It is a boy. Young, with a soft face beaten to a pulp and hands  roughened from grueling farm work. His crime—the silence made in defiance amid a day of celebration. As representative of Heaven, the Qilin must now pass judgment upon this enemy of the throne. Its peerless vision sees all. It takes in the scrawny boy made entirely of living tissue, muscle, bone, and blood. 

When the Qilin approaches, its mane of wires stretches farther from the coffin, constantly tethered. Its glass eyes burn like molten lava, smoke rising from the gaps. The boy flinches from the heat, yet he refuses to bow or beg for mercy, even in the face of certain death. But unlike the boy, the Qilin cannot defy its own programming. The Qilin is all artificial, the bastard child of mortals, its mechanized body running solely on electrical signals. The Qilin must complete its functions as directed. It must play its part in this performance, must judge the criminal before it, must exact punishment and uphold imperial law.

Then the boy spits at the Qilin.

You monster.

Against the blazing light of day, the temperature rises throughout the gardens. Swirling hot air surrounds the Qilin and its metal glows red-hot.

A monster. Not messenger of the gods, but a mindless machine. Not the blessed gift from Heaven, but an unholy abomination made solely to please its cruel master. Pitiful creature. Unable to think or feel for itself, striving only to fulfill its written code, even to the point of self-destruction.

The Qilin stalls. Lags in its machine processing. Warning, system overload, reaching maximum heat capacity. More smoke billows out of its joints, but the show must go on.

The Sio-hong howl with laughter. Monster! Monster!

Growing impatient, the Emperor stands from his chair, the stolen jewels and bangles rustling on his wrists. He calls for judgment upon the criminal, judgment upon all who disobey. The Qilin runs its calculations. It stutters, head jolting back and forth, and wires shaking behind it. A fuse blows, yet the Qilin persists, roused by the Sio-hong’s chittering spell. The drums grow to a rousing beat once more, louder and louder until finally, the Qilin serves its verdict.

Innocent.

The crowd gasps. The live broadcast shuts down. The parade music cuts off and the Emperor roars in rage. 

With the push of a button, the Emperor sends a powerful electrical charge running out from the coffin. The Qilin’s visuals blip momentarily. Its sensors pick up the smell of burning meat. Pop and crackle. Numbers break down into incoherent strings. Error code, error code. The boy lies in a blackened mess, brutally executed before the Qilin, supposed symbol of goodness. 

Circuits burst left and right. The Qilin erupts into huge flames. Broken beyond repair. The fire spreads down its mane of wires and the Qilin tugs itself free from its coffin prison, a maddened beast of scorching metal. Its turbines summon a searing-hot wind, scattering flames all over the palace grounds in a raging firestorm—the Qilin’s hurricane. 

The grass burns. Towers crumble. The crowds run and scream in terror. The wicked Emperor is swallowed in the flames, leaving only the stolen jewelry amid his ashes. And all the while, the Qilin’s body melts and falls apart. Bit by bit, until only its skeleton remains standing amidst the destruction.

At that moment, the light from the sky shifts. The sun’s rays rain down like golden spears over the smoke-covered grounds.

The Sio-hong dance in circles and sing to the Qilin.

Come, join us.

As the last of the Qilin’s skeleton breaks down, the Sio-hong carries its charred bones with a strong gust. They fly high to the skies, where the winds breathe new life into the Qilin’s remains. What was once the mechanical steed transforms into a true force of nature, a Hurricane with its new name—Kî-lîn-pò.

The Sio-hong cheer and gallop. Kî-lîn-pò! Kî-lîn-pò!

Together, they soar over the lands, a rolling summer heat. The warm air blows through streets and houses below, the doors and windows slamming wide open. When the citizens look up to the skies, they find the wisping clouds gathered into one massive silhouette. Here is the Kî-lîn-pò, with its twin horns like lightning, four cloven hooves and a rippling tail. Here is the symbol of Heaven, embodying the true will of the divine—death to tyrants and liberty to the people. Freed forever from man’s control, the Kî-lîn-pò gallops high overhead, a brilliant beacon to those below. It does not look back at the palaces crumbling to dust. It does not mourn the loss of its mortal form. It dreams simply of new horizons, and new hope for the future. 

Born and raised in the Philippines, Caroline Hung is a brilliant author of mixed Filipino and Taiwanese descent. She writes books and stories inspired by her dual heritage--cosmic adventures with killer moon rabbits, protective Anito, sharp-fanged women, and of course, blazing Kî-lîn-pò. Her favorite beverage is pearl milk tea. It is currently lunchtime at carolinehungauthor.com.
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