Judal shifted in his treetop perch, ignoring his elder sister's call. The gentle breezes of early spring had given way to the hot, humid days that would in time turn to the endless rain of late summer. It was hot, humid weather, and Judal wanted no part of it. Even sitting still and shaded by branches, sweat pricked at Judal's brow. He couldn't imagine being down in the orchards picking peaches that were still too ripe to enjoy with everyone else. It sounded hellish. He yanked a branch free of the tree and began to strip the leaves and and smaller sprouts off it until it was a makeshift wand. Not as polished as his real one, back in his room in town, but enough that he could stir the rukh of the wind to pick up the breeze.
"Judal!" his sister called again, her voice closer this time. "Judal, I know you're out here. I feel that breeze! You can't just laze around around in a tree all day while the rest of us work!"
Judal shut his eyes and pretended not to hear, but it was too late. His sister chucked a rock up into the branches, and it whizzed just past his ear. Judal yelped in terror and flailed, knocking himself out of the tree. His sister leaned over him and grinned. He scowled back.
"Up, up, you lazy boy!" she laughed, gently nudging him with a foot. Judal sprawled more, refusing her missive.
"Noooo… I already did my work! I made it rain and kept it the right temperature and everything before the blossoms even showed up and all through the spring as the leaves came out! Why should I have to go break my back picking peaches and getting all hot and sweaty like everyone else?"
Judal's sister grabbed him by the arm and hauled him to his feet. "Because work is good for you, and you don't get to just play at being special because you can wave around a stick and make it rain." She smiled, slapping him on the back to get him working. "Besides, you like climbing trees and picking peaches!"
"Not when it's work," Judal grumbled, finally starting to walk back down the shaded, foot-worn path to the village. "And it's not a stick, it's a wand."His sister rolled her eyes and made a hurry up gesture. Judal made a point to move as slow as he could stand.
The sloping hills that surrounded their quiet, mountainside village gently led them down from tall, gnarled trees that grew amidst groves of bamboo to the modest dirt thoroughfare that would take them down to the village and, if they walked long enough, down to the village beyond them, and the village beyond that one, and on and on until it met the imperial road that ran all the way to the capitol.
Judal had never been farther than the copse of trees a half day's walk between his village and the next, and he was beginning to suspect he never would.
His brother and father called joyously out to him and his sister as they approached, and his sister answered their call with a wave and a smile.
"I got him!"
Judal's brother laughed and ruffled his hair. "You're lucky! Last time I tried to collect him, he floated away!"
Judal shoved his brother away. "Eugh! You're all sweaty!" He rubbed at the shoulder of his shirt where his brother had leaned against him as though it might get the sweat and heat off. "Besides, it's too hot to fly. I can't spend that sort of energy!"
"Lazy," his brother teased, and Judal pouted even deeper.
The chatter and song of his fellow villagers, like the chatter of a dinner table but greater, spread out across the orchards and rose to the sky, happy and clear as the sky above. Judal tossed his makeshift wand aside to clamber up into the trees. He climbed, light and spry enough to reach the highest branches and pluck the peaches that were the perfect level of pre-ripeness to be packaged and shipped to the capitol as tax or for sale in the markets. From there he bounced from branch to branch, buoyed by the wind he had called and humming along with the work song below.
He didn't hate the labor as much as his complaining suggested. He just preferred the work of rainmaking, or wind calling, or of coaxing the rukh of the air warmer or colder to suit whatever was needed to best aid the harvest. Even more than that he enjoyed his stolen moments, running barefoot, half flying, up into the hills and mountains, where he listened in secret to the whispers of the great flow that only he could see. There he practiced magic that was not at all practical, playing at being a great hero of myth who could rain destruction or fly like a bird to stop the forces of evil. It was simply childish fun, though. It wasn't the sort of thing you could build a life on, not as a boy struggling to be seen as more than just the youngest child.
But his heart yearned, and yearning made him resentful at times.
Judal was grateful when the hazy blanket of twilight enveloped the orchards, and the calls of mothers (not only his own) drew husbands and sons back to their homes. His sister greeted them at the door, and they joined his mother and grandparents at the worn table to eat.
"I have heard," his grandfather said, with the tone that suggested he was about to start a long and rambling story about some gossip from the next town over, "that the unrest in the capitol has finally settled, and that the next Emperor has been crowned."
Judal perked up. This was far more interesting a story than he'd anticipated. "Really?"
His grandfather nodded, stroking the stray, wispy hairs on his chin that weren't quite a beard. "Yes… I mean, it's probably old news there, since we're just hearing of it, but..." Everyone leaned forward, not wanting to jostle the old man into not telling his story, but eager to hear his news. "Ah, well, it's still important enough to share!" He grinned devilishly, and beckoned the family closer. "They say that following a great fire and an attempted coup, the Dowager Empress has been ousted from the throne for attempting to murder the crown princes! Some say she was even the one who sent the assassins from Gai to-"
Judal groaned. "Grandfather, that's all old news! We've heard this already."
"Shh," his father hissed. "Let your grandfather talk."
Thankfully, Judal's outburst did not deter the old man, who had already decided to tell his tale. "Well, now that the Dowager has been driven out, the capitol has slowly returned to peace. The crown prince has recovered, and has taken the throne, and all shall be right again. But! The Emperor had been badly injured in the fire, so many say he may not be fit to keep the various states of Kou in check!"
"Rubbish," Judal's father said. "I served with Hakuren. He was barely more than a boy, but he was an honorable man and a great leader. Yet he always insisted his brother to be twice the man he was! Those who speak him ill are probably eunuchs and bureaucrats with no idea of how to run a war or a country!"
"That's it exactly though! It's the bureaucrats, and some of the generals too, I hear tell! There are some who say Koutoku, the late Emperor's brother, should take the throne."
"Did he fight in the war?" Judal's older brother asked, reaching for more food.
"No, he's a coward! Never even picked up a sword to aid his own brother in unifying our land."
Judal watched the debate with interest, listening to his father and brother and grandfather loudly talk about the merits of various men they'd served with, and how bureaucrats had no spines and no balls. The food was good, and the heat of the night faded to an afterthought as the meal wore on. "I wish I could have had exciting war stories like you," Judal said.
"You should be grateful to have been born in such a peaceful time," Judal's mother scolded. "Your father and grandfather worked hard so that the Emperor's vision for a peaceful Kou could be brought to life. Many men lost their lives." And to her daughter, she said, "You should be grateful you will never have to know the worry of watching your husband go to war and fearing he will not return."
Judal's sister nodded sagely. "Of course, mother."
Judal sunk low in his seat. He hadn't been wishing for war, he just said he wanted a more exciting life like the one his father and grandfather had led. Was that so much to ask? His mother was starting to ask about their day in the fields, and Judal opened his mouth to interrupt. "But what was the new emperor like?"
"I served under his brother," his father said, "and your grandfather was old enough that he did not see much action on the frontier. It's not as though I knew the emperor personally, Judal."
"But you must have at least seen-"
"Judal!" His mother barked. "That is quite enough of that. It's not appropriate talk for a-" and here she sucked in a breath through her nose and loudly exhaled, like a dragon preparing to breathe fire, "for a child of your age."
Judal wilted at the word "child" but said nothing more. He cleaned his plate without another word, sitting until it was polite to excuse himself from the table to go to bed. There he lay sleepless and staring, thinking of war, and emperors, and the world beyond the dirt road and the peach orchards. Judal scrubbed his face with his hands, trying to scrub those thoughts from his minds. Eventually his siblings joined him in their room, and his grandparents, and the house and village fell into blessed silence.
But Judal didn't sleep. He couldn't sleep. He sat up, silent as he could, and tip-toed out of the room. The main room was dark, but Judal had lived there his whole life and knew the layout perfectly. He stole his way to the wooden box where his parents stored his wand when not in use. As though they could keep it from him, hah! The smooth peach wood pulsed in his hand as he turned the rod over in his hands. His father had made it for him, whittled and sanded and polished the wood smooth, and when Judal was first given it, his grandfather told him that peach wood was blessed of many divine properties. Judal had nodded along and let his aged grandfather talk. While Judal liked to think his wand was in some way special and that his father had taken great care in choosing what to make it out of, he was fairly certain that peach wood had been chosen because there was just so damn much of it in their village.
Wand in hand, Judal slipped out into the starlight with a sigh. The air was still warm and damp, and was just as uncomfortable as the inside of his house. Judal needed a break if he was going to sleep. He walked to the edge of town where the land sloped slightly into the half-underground cold storage huts. There he could get some coolness without expending magic, and maybe sneak a few peaches while he was there. Judal pulled the heavy door open and relished the slightly colder air with a sigh, slipping in. Blissful cold. Blissful solitude. Blissful-
There was a noise coming from the darkness.
Judal froze against the door. What was in here? An animal? But an animal couldn't have undone the door to come in. So a person then, a person who was here to steal their harvest, or attack unwary villagers who came to check on the fruit (not steal a snack or laze about mind you, just, check on it, like a responsible villager would). Judal swallowed thickly. He could run and pretend he'd seen nothing, leaving the responsibility of dealing with the mysterious intruder to whatever poor schmuck came into the storage next… but no. No, he was Judal, grand rain bringer of this tiny village, and he wasn't going to run and hide like a child.
He was going to find this intruder and take care of the situation himself.
Judal gripped the rod of peach wood like a club as he crept into the dark, cold storage hut. He could hear something moving, breathing, he was certain of it. Pale moonlight filtered in in weak slats through the side of the building, and Judal's heart hammered in his chest as he moved through barrels and towards the sound. What would swinging this even do? His arms were limp noodles, and the rod was so thin it would probably crack if he struck with any kind of force. Yet he clung to it like a cudgel, ready to strike..
Behind a collection of jars, Judal found his mark, and without even thinking he cracked him over the head with his wand. To his surprise, it held, and the man yelped like a struck dog, staggering to his feet and away from Judal.
"Ow, ow, owww!" the man whined, holding his head. "What was that for?!"
"Who are you?" Judal demanded. He'd never seen a man like this before: his hair was pale, and his clothes were strange. "What are you doing in our storage? Are you-" Judal noticed now the peach stones littering the floor and the half eaten peach in the man's hand. "You're stealing our peaches! I'm gonna get in trouble for this, they'll think I did it!"
"He-hey now, you wouldn't deny a hungry old man food-" Judal swung out at the intruder and he staggered back a few feet with a yelp to avoid being hit again. "Hey now, hey! Listen! I'm not going to try to hurt you, I just am a harmless wanderer who needed a nice quiet place to escape the heat and get some sleep!"
Judal glared suspiciously, but he didn't strike again. "Okay…. So who are you, then, Mister?"
The strange man adjusted his clothes, sinking back down to the floor. "I'm nobody important. Just a traveller."
"Uh huh." Judal eyed him up and down again, noting for the first time the odd, thin walking stick the man carried. It had a length of vine tied along it, and for a moment Judal wondered if it were a makeshift fishing pole. Then he noticed the red jewel at the end, and his heart skipped a beat. "Hey…" Judal said slowly. "Hey, are you a magician?"
The man smiled. "Clever of you to notice. Most don't." He reached out, and the rukh fluttered to his hand. Judal watched in wonder. "Although I would expect as much from a young man like you."
Judal sank to the floor in front of the wandering magician. "What's your name? Where did you come from? Did you come here by magic?" Judal's mind was abuzz with questions. This man was obviously a foreigner, from strange lands, who probably came here by stranger magics, and he wanted to know everything.
The traveller laughed, holding up his hands to defend himself from the onslaught of Judal's questions. "Now, now, I'm no one quite so important. I'm simply Yunan, Yunan the Wanderer."
"Yunan…" Judal repeated. "Well, even if you aren't important, you must at least have stories from your adventures, right?"
Yunan smiled gently. "I suppose. You've never been far from this village, have you?" Judal shook his head. "Well, then how about I entertain you with a folktale I've heard in my travels?"
"Kay." Judal fished a peach from the same open jar Yunan had been eating from and settled in for the story.
"I have heard a tale told in many lands," Yunan began, "from the cities of Reim to the flat expanse of the Tenzan Plateau, and even farther still to the deserts of Heliohopt and the icy reaches of Imuchakk. It is a tale of three grand sorcerers of creation who guide the fate of this world. They are said to be beloved by the rukh, and in the rukh it is said that they can see the great flow of the universe. Each is driven by the great flow to seek out their chosen king and give them the power to change the world." Yunan shifted his staph, and in the fluttering wings of the rukh, Judal saw glimpses of far off plains and frozen tundras, of deep, craggy valleys and grand, tall cities. "These grand sorcerers, these three magi, are the only ones who can raise the dungeons where djinn reside and kings are chosen."
"Dungeons," Judal said softly.
"Yes," Yunan replied. "Ever since the wandering magi raised the first dungeon twelve years ago, the mark of a great country has been whether or not they have a magi's dungeon capturer in their midst." Yunan laughed. "Kou is quite unusual. To have amassed such an emperor without a djinn's metal vessel is hardly the norm in this age."
Judal sighed and closed his eyes. Far off lands. Dangerous adventures. "Wish I could see one. Too bad I'm stuck here."
"Do you not like your village?" Yunan asked politely.
"That's not it…" Judal stared into the brilliant fluttering of the rukh again. "I just… There's this hole, you know?" He clutched a hand over his heart. "Like there's something I need to find, something I need to do, and I'm never going to if I don't leave here." Judal laughed bitterly. "But that's never gonna happen. I'm just gonna have to live out the rest of my dumb life as a dumb, boring nobody in a boring peasant village."
"Perhaps you should listen to your heart then," Yunan said. "I see a grand destiny stretched out before you, Judal, and it's going to find you whether like it or not."
"Hah! Yeah, right!" Judal laughed, then his brow furrowed. "Hey, wait. How did you know my na-"
But Yunan was gone.
Judal sprang to his feet, searching behind jars and crates, but there was no sign of him. Only the littering of peach pits on the packed dirt floor gave any clue that Judal had been anything but alone.
Judal stood there, shaking in the dark. Destiny. Dungeons. Yunan the Wanderer, and the three magi who guided the the world. The wandering magi who called the first dungeon, and Yunan's words that Judal's destiny was coming for him.
Judal returned to his home and lay sleepless in his bed until dawn came.
The next week passed in a blur. Judal slept little, ate less, and did his work in a dreamy haze. Was Yunan the wandering magi? If so, what business did he have telling Judal any of this? What would a magi want with him?
On the dawn of the eighth day, Judal rose before the cock's crow. He gathered from the house clothes, and a bag of peaches, and water, and, chiefest of all, his wand. His family had no coin to spare for journeying so he took none.
"Goodbye," he said to the silent house. "I can't write, so I can't really leave you any sort of message, but…" Judal made a choked noise. "Fuck it. I'll see you all again, someday, maybe, and when I do, you'll…" He smiled weakly. "You'll be proud."
The worn dirt road was familiar under Judal's bare feet for now, but he knew once he reached the next town it would be as foreign to him as the sea. But he would follow it to that village, and to the next, and then next, until he reached the capitol and on until...