They had been mortal, once.
A long time ago in northern China, there had been three ordinary brothers.
They grew up near the banks of the Yellow River, three sons of a high-level court scribe and his senior wife. They lived their days at their father's small country estate outside of Chi-nan, long idyllic days of reading and practicing their calligraphy.
And one day, when Eldest Brother was fourteen and almost grown, their world turned upside down.
Their father's newest wife woke them in the middle of the night, dressed them hurriedly as their mother and her maids cried loudly in an extravagant show of grief. Youngest Wife brought them before their mother to say farewell, and their mother clutched tightly at them and wailed as Youngest Wife pried them away. “We must leave now, Honored Wife,” she said, and led the brothers outside, into the darkness of the night.
“Never forget who we are! We are the Zhuge Clan, we will be remembered!”
Eldest Brother turned and looked back, seeing his mother at the gates of their home, her face pale in the lantern light. He wondered if they would ever meet again.
They walked for days, following the course of the river, traveling only at night. When Eldest Brother grew tired of Youngest Wife's silences, he demanded an explanation. Youngest Wife wept, and told them how their father had been accused of treason and executed, and the rest of their family was under a death sentence, hunted by the Governor's soldiers.
Youngest Brother started crying, Middle Brother demanded they go back and rescue their family, and Eldest Brother said nothing. He saw the truth of their desperate situation in Youngest Wife's eyes.
Somehow, they survived.
They traveled toward the Northern Capital, bartering for food and shelter as they could. Once there, they could get lost in the multitude, make a new start, and find what was left of their family.
Eldest Brother changed their names, took Youngest Wife as his own, and they endured.
They took refuge at an abandoned farm one evening, soaked to the bone and shivering from the rain, blinded by the fierce flashes of lightning, deafened by the roar of thunder. As they huddled together in the mud and straw house, the wind howled outside like a demon, causing their make shift shelter to sway and shudder in the storm, creaking ominously.
A powerful gust of wind shook the house, and Youngest Wife screamed as the roof above them was torn away, exposing them to the violent storm once again. Eldest Brother looked up in fear, seeing clouds swirling around the little farmhouse, circling faster and faster.
“Look!” Middle Brother screamed over the roar of the wind, pointing to a shadowy figure, winged and clawed, in the clouds. “Look!”
Eldest Brother raised his arms to protect his head just as the flimsy walls of the little house blew down, burying them under a pile of wood, straw and mud.
Eldest Brother twitched, his eyes flying open as something rough brushed at the side of his face. Lying next to him were Middle Brother and Youngest Brother; both were snoring soundly. He sat up and shook them, but neither woke. There was no sign of Youngest Wife.
They were no longer at the farm house. All around him was dense fog, eddying and spiraling. He had no idea where they were, and he was worried about Youngest Wife.
The voice was loud, brassy and sibilant, echoing and rubbing against his nerves like a broken bell. It seemed to come from all directions at once. He looked about in confusion. There didn't appear to be any ground, just insubstantial clouds, slightly transparent.
All around him, endless white mists, swirling.
Turning around, Eldest Brother finally found the source of that hissing voice. A dragon, scaled and clawed, longer than ten oxen lined up horn-to-tail. As Eldest Brother watched, it curled around a tree like a giant snake, staring at him and flicking out its forked tongue. Idly raking at the tree with a five-clawed foot, it shredded the bark and left behind deep gouges.
Fast like the rushing river, the dragon darted forward, encircling Eldest Brother with the heavy coils of its body.
“I am Yinglong, little man, ruler of the Cloudy Heavensssss.” Eldest Brother felt the dragon's tongue pass over his face, quick and light. “Yinglong, the Resssssssponsssssive Dragon, and it hassss been a long time sssince I've feassssted on a morssel sssuch asss you.”
Eldest Brother dropped to his knees, and lowered his head as far as he could. “P—p—lease, Honored and Esteemed Yinglong, please don't eat me and my family. I have nothing to offer you in return except our eternal devotion and gratitude.”
The dragon burped, and the wash of fetid air made Eldest Brother gag. “The female wasssss tender and tasssty, as femalessss tend to be. Though sssshe wasss noisssy.” The dragon tapped at Eldest Brother's bent head with a claw. “You do not look asss tender.”
Elder Brother shivered, and vowed to light incense in Youngest Wife's honor as soon as they were safe. She would be mourned, if they survived the attentions of the dragon.
“I am not tender at all, your Eminence. The men in my family tend to be tough and tasteless, not worth eating, like old goats.”
“Hsssss.” Eldest Brother felt the dragon slither around him. “You are brave and foolissssh. I like that. A bargain, then, little morsssel?”
“A bargain, Honored Dragon, sir.” Eldest Brother clenched his hands, trying to stop the trembling that was threatening to shake him apart. He kept his face pressed against the insubstantial, cloudy ground.
“Ssssst. I will give you and your brotherssss the powerssss of the cloudssss: thunder, rain, lightning. In return, you will do my bidding for the resssst of eternity.” There was a long, thoughtful pause. “And I will refrain from eating you. Agreed?”
Eldest Brother wasn't sure that this was the best thing to do, striking a bargain with a dragon, but there didn't seem to be any other choice. Yinglong claimed to have eaten Youngest Wife, and he wasn't up to having the rest of his family meet the same fate. They were all he had left.
And dragons did have a reputation for honesty.
Thunder and his brothers set the tables in the Cloudy Palace, preparing for their honored guests. They used the elegant banquet settings that Master Yinglong had: chopsticks made out of the finest jade, bowls carved out of rubies, serving plates of gold and silver. The army of cooks had been busy for days, creating edible works of art, worthy of kings and dragons.
Yinglong was hosting a feast for two longtime sorcerous enemies, Egg Shen and Lo Pan. The magicians had asked Yinglong to choose a side in their rivalry, and the dragon was trying to remain uninvolved. Normally their master stayed out of earthly feuds, but there was something about these two powerful men that had Yinglong concerned.
“I don't like this, Thunder,” Rain muttered as he laid out some sweet delicacies. “I feel something in the air, something dangerous.”
“I know, Middle Brother, I feel it, too.”
Youngest Brother just shrugged, lightning crawling across his skin. “We are beneath their notice.”
“We are survivors, my brothers. As long as we take care, we will survive.” Thunder looked at Rain and Lightning, a grim smile on his face. “Family is the most important thing.”
Rain nodded, and Lightning bowed his head respectfully. “Indeed, Eldest Brother. Indeed.”