High above the clouds atop the highest of mountains lies the diminutive Empire of Huoshan. Though this principality is small, it is nonetheless remarkable. Its residents have built their home over the gaping maw of an active volcano. As expected, it also takes a remarkable creature to live in such dangerous conditions. Half horse, half dragon, they are called Longmas, and they are incredibly unique in Fœnum. Though there are a few other magical races such as they, these cross-breeds are the only in the world who are part predator, and the only ones with wings. They are highly aware of their exceptional existence, and as a result are a very proud race. They believe they have purged from themselves the worst traits of their pure-blood ancestors, and embody only the best. Peaceful and robust like the ungulates, fearless and strong like the predators. Though their diets take after their herbivorous predecessors, their dragon roots are steeped in magic and history, nobility and chivalry, and theirs is one of the few true monarchies in Fœnum. Every subject of the Empire is a member of the military, sworn not only to protect their beloved Empress, their honored volcanic home, but all of Fœnum itself. As far as the Longma are concerned, no vile, flesh-eating, full-blooded predator will enter this world without having to answer to them.
Plumes of hot smoke and steam puff out from a field of fissures, billowing into the sky in soft spirals. And, as ever in the Empire of Huoshan, a low, earthly rumble permeates the air. At the center of the caldera, a lake of lava bubbles and churns, and at the edge of its shore is an intricately sculpted spire of volcanic rock that stretches skyward. The Royal Palace.
At the base of its tall obsidian stairway, rows and rows of Huoshan soldiers stand at attention, formally adorned in golden armor. Each are various shades of green, their bodies covered in scales. Where their manes and tails should be, great waves of flames dance, but what impresses most are their fiery wings that send licks of orange up into the air, like scalding leaves in the wind.
And at the top of the shining black stairs, sitting on an ornate throne of red and gold, is the Daughter of Heaven, Her Royal Highness, Empress of the Miniscule yet Mighty Realm of Magnanimous Magma, Lava and Fire, Huoshan.
She abruptly turns her head and looks to a burning comet streaking across the sky. Closer and closer it approaches until it smashes into the apex of the stairs, engulfing the Empress and her throne in an inferno.
The flames dissipate and reveal Tianhuo, Most Noble and Virtuous Captain of the Guard. The Empress, who is completely unsinged, smiles at her champion with admiration. In a show of esteem and respect, the entire army stomps a single hoof, creating a cacophonous din that echoes through the caldera. After today’s ceremony, Tianhuo will be more than the most celebrated soldier of Huoshan, she will be named Imperial Key Keeper, destined to save all of Fœnum from an impending danger the Longma have not known for generations.
An orator steps forward to begin the ceremony. He speaks eloquently and formally, extolling the virtues of being Longma, and he goes on at great length how Tianhuo exemplifies those virtues more nobly than any other Longma save the Empress.
No one sees the tiny hint of flinch from Tianhuo as she endures the flowery adulation. She remembers, with shame, that this has not always been so….
Hiding within a cluster of ashy cinder cones, a Longma foal stands and strains. She is quite small, and quite young, her long neck still smooth and flameless, her fiery wings not yet sprouted. She strains some more, “Come…. on…. fire… please…?”
POOF! A tiny flicker of hot light, no bigger than a candle’s, erupts from her forehead. She smiles wide, but just as quickly as it started, the flame goes out. She sighs.
“Ha ha ha!!! Look guys, she just had an eruption!” a cruel voice calls out.
The flameless foal is suddenly surrounded by three others, each as young as she. But unlike her, they have several sprigs of small flames sprouting from their necks and tails. And, also unlike her, they are big. She is mortified; she thought she was alone.
The trio laughs. “What’s the matter? Had to vent your gasses?” the long legged one with spots on his back says. “Get it? Gas?” The third one, who is stocky and has short snout, clarifies in case she doesn’t get it, “He says you farted out of your head. That’s so gross!”
From up above, another Longma youngster descends from the sky and lands squarely between the bullies and the foal, halting their advance. She is longer and leaner than the others, and perhaps a little older. But most notably, she already has her wings.
“You guys have nothing better to do than sling around immature insults?”
The foal breathes a sigh of relief.
“I mean, eruptions? Gas? Farts? You can do much better than that.” She gives the foal a firm kick in the rear, knocking her over. “See? Much more effective, wouldn’t you agree?” The foal spits dirt from her mouth and tries to conceal a tear.
“Tianhuo!” the mean trio greets their leader.
“Now brothers,” she lectures, “remember, we are made up of two different kinds of creatures, and we much choose which of them we model ourselves after. Horses are prey,” she motions to the foal, “sniveling, pathetic, and weak. Dragons, though…” she marches before the others like a drill sergeant. “We are predators. Strong, fearless…” She leaps at the foal, “Merciless!”
POOF! A flame shoots out of the poor, terrified foal’s back end.
The bullies fall over laughing. It was only her tail igniting for a brief moment, but to them it certainly looked like something else. The foal runs away, humiliated.
Rather pleased with herself, Tianhuo takes to the air, her wings creating a cloud of swirling ash in her wake. She snickers with vicious satisfaction at the sound of her cronies coughing and laughing at the same time.
She soars through the sky over the great crater of Huoshan, performing a handful of complicated flips and barrel rolls just in case anyone is watching. Suddenly, from nowhere at all, an unnatural gust of wind hits her like a fist. She spins wildly, and, to her horror, all her fire goes out! With no wings, she falls down, down, down. Then, with an impact that blows the air from her lungs, all goes black.
Tianhuo groans as her eyes flutter open. She struggles to stand, shaking herself awake. She’s in a tight crater she does not recognize. Tall walls of rock enclose her, a trap she can’t escape without wings. Then she hears a horrible growl, so deep and huge it rattles the ground.
She shakes herself to alertness. Before her is a monster. It is enormous and nebulous, as cloudy and vaporous as the volcanic gasses that escape Huoshan’s core. Though none have existed for thousands of years, the silhouette is unmistakable: a dragon! She circles Tianhuo, saliva sliding down her teeth, like blood from a sword.
“No, wait, please–” Tianhuo pleads.
“You beg mercy from a dragon,” the spirit laughs, “little prey?” Like a snake, she strikes at Tianhuo. Tianhuo closes her eyes and braces herself for death.
But nothing happens. Tianhuo opens her eyes. The dragon spirit is trading blows with an equally huge and misty horse spirit. A great stallion! Teeth snap! Hooves fly!
Try as she may, Tianhuo cannot tell who has the upper hand. The horse fights with strength and determination she would not expect from an animal that no one would fear but a blade of grass. Tianhuo cringes as the dragon’s claws dig into the horse’s flank. But, just as swiftly and suddenly, his hind hooves crack her jaw. She is stunned.
The stallion abandons the fray and stands over Tianhuo, a shield between her and the beast. The dragon, eyes burning with anger, cradles her jaw. She lets out an ear piercing roar and takes to the sky, allowing the stallion to win this round.
The stallion relaxes. He presses his muzzle to tiny Tianhuo’s. “You must forgive your Honored Mother, child. As you have witnessed, she is indeed, strong and fearless. And though she fights with a ferocity none can match, she can be cruel and heartless. She knows not the strength that comes from the herd, from protecting it. She knows not the power that comes from love.”
He walks several steps away from Tianhuo then turns to her once more, his misty mane swimming slowly through the air. “Her blood and mine flow through the chambers of your heart, my daughter. It is up to you to determine when to call upon hers, and when to call upon mine.” Then he takes his leave, galloping up an unseen incline into the sky. There, he joins the dragon spirit. The two encircle one another, flying faster and faster until they are but a symbol, remaining distinct from one another, yet existing as one.
Tianhuo wakes up. She feels a familiar heat on her neck, back and flank. Pausing, she wonders, was it a dream? Then, with her fire now returned to her, she flees the crater into the sky.
Soaring above Huoshan, Tianhuo tries to steady herself and clear her garbled mind. The image of the spirits infinitely encircling each other lingers in her brain. What does it mean? But before she can make any sense of it, she sees, far below her, that her three cronies have the flameless foal cornered once again. In their eyes, Tianhuo sees the same merciless hunger she saw in the dragon spirit.
The memory of the fear she felt facing the dragon hits her with such power she falters momentarily in her flight. Ever since she could remember, she had always been the strongest, the bravest. She had never known what it was like to feel small and weak. It was the most horrible feeling she had ever felt.
The thought of what the tiny flameless foal must be feeling now causes a new emotion to overcome her, one she has never known before. Compassion. Quickly and without warning, Honored Father’s righteousness courses into her heart. But, to her surprise, it is Honored Mother’s anger that compels her to act!
Her wings fold against her ribs and she rockets towards the earth. She ignites completely, a blazing star shooting through the sky. She plows through the trio, sending them flying across the dirt. They are still for only a moment before they are up and fleeing, scared and really confused.
Her body cools. She approaches the nervous foal.
“Can you ever forgive me, honored little sister?” she pleads, lowering herself with a humbling bow.
The foal can only gape and offer painfully silent pause. Then, without a word, the foal touches her nose to Tianhuo’s; a gesture of forgiveness. Tianhuo, filled with relief and gratitude, smiles. The foal smiles back, and, POOF! …her mane, tail and a pair of tiny little wing buds ignite.
For certain, Tianhuo thinks, Honored Father is proud. And in her heart, she suspects Honored Mother is as well.