Volume 31



The Last of the Fireworks

A short story by Angela Ren ’26

He stood at the edge of the cliff, where the angel oak grew. His ebony cloak flowed behind him, a breeze gently lifting the ends. Within the darkness of the night, he could only see the glint of his armor, the luminous rose moon, and the capital that seemed ablaze with its inexhaustible gleam of lights. In the distance, fireworks bloomed in all their glory against the midnight sky. Multicolored streaks of light rocketed into the air as a sign of celebration, but no one was willing to remember. No one, but him, Jun. 

As a child, Jun was used to the depth of darkness. No matter how horrifying something happened to be, his eyes were unmoving. So long ago he had already realized fear was something useless. It wouldn’t earn him even the crumbs of a steamed bun or a sip of dirtied water. No one taught him to smile. He never learned to cry. He was the same as those who were banished, yet so different. As he was an orphan. An orphan who was adopted by the emperor. 

Jun hid himself in solitude, within a sheltered clearing in the woods. While he waited to see who would be illuminated by the afterglow of star fall, he built an indestructible armor, strong enough to separate him from the others. For he did not wish to take part in the fight for succession. 

And that day did not delay its coming. As Jun lay against the roots of a grand angel oak, looking into the horizon, a silhouette graced the thin fading orange band of sky. As it approached, it turned into a boy, tall and gaunt. Jun, who sat up and watched him with vigilant eyes as the stranger held out a hand. Jun peered into the boy’s palm. A pile of ash. Jun looked up suspiciously. A smile sprung up on the other’s face. He brought his hand to his lips and blew. The ash flew up into the air before raining down upon Jun. Jun’s nose twitched, but he only used a hand to brush the ash off his face. The boy’s smile widened. He lay down next to Jun, and the two silently stared off into the distance together. Finally, when the sun’s rays touched the horizon, Jun asked, “Who are you?” 

Ewon. The fifth prince. 

Inside the imperial palace, Jun and Ewon were the outcasts, shunned by every member of the imperial family. But after that night, the two began to meet more and more frequently. They played with shields made of stone on the sun-baked land and rested under the tree when they became tired. Under the protection of the grand oak, they laughed and

drank, cut their teeth and made their bones. Though the duo was quite boisterous in the day, they quieted down as dusk befell the land. They stared up into the night sky, counting the stars, and searching for constellations. Then they’d discuss their future. Neither wanted to become an official who only talked in the emperor’s court and did nothing for the people’s welfare. Instead, it was the idea of becoming valiant soldiers who brought glory to the country and themselves while protecting the people that appealed to them. So strong was this wish, that they made a blood pact. Both boys slit their palms and watched their blood drip into a hollow of the angel oak. Everyone would come to know their names. But not as the fifth prince or the emperor’s adopted son. As Ewon and Jun. # 

They enlisted in the army together, despite earning great criticism from the royal family when they refused the position of general and requested to join the infantry. Once they entered the camp, they were outcasts once again. None of the soldiers dared to speak to them, fearful of losing their heads after committing a minor mistake that might offend one of the royal family, as they were all of civili. It was only after Jun and Ewon revealed that they did not carry the distinctive, arrogant air of a noble that the rest of the infantry began to accept them. 

Only three years after training, the emperor declared war. The entire capital was busy preparing to either flee for their lives or to support their army. By then, Ewon had climbed the ranks to become a general of the Dragon Guard while Jun became his lieutenant. With no experience on an actual battlefield, the emperor ordered the Dragon Guard to take part in the war alongside the Phoenix Guard, a much more experienced battalion, led by a renowned general. 

Days and nights passed as the two battalions camped and fought in the dreary desert. Little by little, their provisions diminished and water became scarce. At the break of dawn, Jun stepped outside his tent while the rest of the Dragon Guard was sleeping. Walking up a nearby plateau, he reached the place where he watched the sunrise. But today, he couldn’t admire the beautiful scene. It had been weeks since he had sent a messenger to ask for help from the capital. The messenger should have returned by now, but he had not. As Jun returned to camp, he found Ewon with an unfinished letter, delivered by dove and stained with vermilion splotches.

Lieutenant Jun, something is wrong. I do not expect myself to return, so please pay attention to what I have to say in this letter. 

None of the officials in the morning court today seemed aware of the war we are fighting. The emperor also refused to acknowledge this matter. After the rest of the officials left the court, the emperor summoned me to his chambers. He told me to forget about this war and continue on with my life as if I had never known you, my brothers who save have rescued me time and time again from the face of death. If I wanted, the emperor offered to let me join the Phoenix Battalion, who will be returning a few days later. However, if I were to tell you of this, I would suffer serious consequences. 

But you all know how I am. I can’t betray my brothers. After I left the emperor’s chambers, I spent around a stick of incense asking around the capital, but it seems like neither are the civilians informed of our battle. I hope– 

Jun immediately mounted his horse and rode towards the encampment of the Phoenix Battalion. When he arrived, he found the monotone scenery of the desert. The smell of horse manure, the muffled screams of soldiers being treated for their wounds, the metallic scraping of swords against a rock, and the stained linen tents were absent. Only the slight breeze, silence, a few tumbleweeds, and a single hyacinth remained. 

When Jun returned to the Dragon Guard’s encampment, he saw Ewon and shook his head. They had been abandoned. Discarded and forgotten by the people they were working so hard to serve. The two could only gather their subordinates and share the distressing news. The general and lieutenant agreed to let their subordinates choose their path. Some soldiers immediately began to pack their meager belongings. Others hesitated before following. In the end, the original 75 thousand now dwindled to a sheer 10 thousand soldiers. Together they agreed to fight to the death, though they all knew that they wouldn’t come out victorious, for that was their purpose. To serve their empire, even if they were forgotten. At least, they could retain some honor, some glory, for themselves.

The deep booming of the war drums rang across the battlefield. The remainder of the Dragon Guard fought

ferociously, hanging onto every single thump of the drum as if it were their own heartbeat. But, as they watched comrade after comrade, brother after brother, fall under the enemies’ blade, their morale began to increasingly fall until even Jun and Ewon felt as if they would collapse completely. And they did. 

Ewon fell first. He had run forward, to block an attack for a fellow soldier, and succeeded. However, there had been no one to watch his back. When Ewon looked down, he found a spearhead sticking out of his chest as blood oozed out and dripped onto a wilted hyacinth. His eyes searched the turbulent battleground for Jun, his sworn brother. When their eyes met, Ewon finally felt a great burden being lifted from his shoulders. An almost cheerful grin graced his face, for he knew this was his suffering was about to end. 

From afar, Jun watched his childhood friend slump to the ground. A tear that had Ewon yet to shed fell into the vermilion river. Power rippled through Jun’s body, powered by grief that shook him and amplified by anguish. In his ears, he could still hear the pounding of the deceased’s heartbeat long after it faded. In his mind, Jun was inundated with the last smiles of his comrades, the blood that gurgled out of their hearts, mouths, and bodies as they dropped onto the burning sand. 

Jun turned towards the sky, where the so-called 

“gods” resided. His shame, desperation, and despair came out in a guttural cry, for he was now alone. He closed his eyes and awaited the same piercing of armor and skin that everyone else had experienced, ready to meet them under the nine springs. # 

Once upon a time, Jun had laughed with a childhood friend, arms hanging around each other’s shoulder. A privilege that he could never experience again. They had once sworn to find glory ahead, and return together as warriors. A promise that was broken by betrayal and death. 

Jun had woken up underneath a pile of dead bodies, belonging to both his comrades and his enemies. As he pushed his way out, he found a canteen and downed the water, savoring its bitter flavor, just like a hyacinth flower. Walking back to camp, he found it in ruins, brunt to the ground and an unpleasant, acrid smell lingered in the air. After stripping off his cumbersome armor, Jun lay down on the desert sand as the ethereal glow of the hunter’s moon shone down upon him. He peered down at his chest. The chain mail that Ewon had gifted him for their coming of age ceremony had saved him. Saved him

from an ending that he would have welcomed with open arms. Pained chuckles racked his body as he thought of how the gods loved to play with the fate of the defenseless mortals before he fell into a silent stupor. 

His trance was broken as a sliver yellow and orange appeared on the horizon. He scavenged a cloak that had survived the fire and used it to cover his blood drenched clothes and began his journey back to the capital. 

After months of sleeping under the night sky, and unable to properly bandage his wounds, Jun trudged through the city gates at the break of dawn. The guards were still yawning as they took their post and sleepily waved him though the gates, unable to notice the trail of crimson dots that led to the horizon. 

The citizens were just waking up. The children had yet to come out, the beggars were still curled on their sides, and a few merchants had just begun to set up their booths for the day. He was glad for the absence of the people. His tattered clothes were stained maroon by a mix of dried blood and mud. Jun suddenly found himself shivering as he walked down the almost familiar yet strange paths of the city. Taking in every detail and comparing them to the past, to the cherished memories of his childhood. Everything was the same as before, yet that was what tormented his aching heart. Was it the right choice to return to the world that held no place for him? 

Jun sat down at the steps to a restaurant, watching the stream of civilians gradually grow into a rushing river, for the world only loves the lively. Some passing citizens gave him a look of disgust, and it wasn’t long before the restaurant owner personally came out to drive him away. If only he and Ewon had been raised as sons of farmers or merchants, and not as sons of the heavenly emperor. Brought into the peaceful world with a simple yet magnificent ceremony, living untroubled lives, and leaving with a satisfied heart. 

Jun listened to the incessant admonishments from the ignorant fools walking the “right path.” That was just a facade created to hide their greed and ambitions. He would have loved to retort, then you shouldn’t have forgotten about the Nameless Battle. How strange is it that he is the only one who mourns. Mourns the ashes of the fireworks that are never noticed by the crowd. 

There is only Jun, who now guards the silent desert, waiting for the hyacinths to bloom a magnificent deep purple.

He was a relic to those smiling under the sky. When they had found him alone, and lost in his thoughts, they had lectured him with their so-called truths, willing him to understand. But they only criticized and did not question. For a decrepit child lives within his scarred heart, shriveled and weak. If the world is still unwilling to understand, then he can only pour his heart out to the shadows. 

The memory of bloodshed all around would never leave his memory. The bloodied bodies of his comrades on the battlefield were piled into a heap. By the time they would be collected, the stench of rot would already be eating away at their corpses, and at the memories. 

Tonight, Jun struggles to hold on, grasping the air. But what goes with the wind never comes back. His cloak ripples in the breeze as he becomes numb, too fast. Is this fate? Could it just slow down a little? He did not return to the angel oak to admire the fireworks. He was here to watch the dancing ash fall down to earth. It reminded him of what was left of his past, his fallen comrades, and the war that no one cared to remember. It was hard not to marvel at how not a single soul that enjoyed the brilliance of the fireworks display had yet to discover the carefree ashes that were left behind. Just like the friend who sacrificed himself without a second thought. 

Laughing heartily, crying frankly, why should the world arrange the expressions that appear on his face. Jun resisted, but he continues to hide his grief, rage, shame, and sorrow within his withered heart. If his heart were made of paper, he would burn from inside out till all was left was a pile of ashes. 

The past inside him longed to admire the last of the fireworks. Lovely creations that disguised its lethal ability. Within every pattern of the brilliant display, he had once searched. Searched for the remains of childhood innocence. Untainted memories of the past. The wreckage left behind is unfathomable. To calm the scorched heart, he guards the serene desert with no one to accompany him. 

At the edge of the cliff, the dance of the ashes concluded long after the end of the fireworks display. His cloak ceased to move and hung limply from his shoulders. While the city lights continued to shine with the stars, his armor had lost its sheen. The mournful crescent of the wolf moon revealed the dents and cuts from melee weapons embellished the metal. Jun took one last look at the shimmering landscape before walking into the woods, returning to the desert, and disappearing into the shadows.

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