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Vega

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‘And it was that the Shayde elders joined hands and spoke the sacred words, channeling their power and combining it, becoming one of many and many of one. The world began to burn around them as the heart of the sun was drawn from the sky. Ripped from its home, crashing to the ground, leaving the world in darkness. Only an empty husk remained. A second moon to orbit the earth in tandem with the first. A gentle glow where raging fire had once burned.

 

But the Shayde elders made a mistake, a grave miscalculation, and the heart of the sun did not land where they could see it. Where they could lay claim to it and destroy it. No, the heart of the sun came to rest in the lands of the Glayce. Those who worshiped Thena and the light, those who held dominion over the snow and ice. The Glayce found the heart of the sun and sealed it away, using their magic to keep it safe from all those who sought to bring it harm until it could be returned to its rightful place.’

 

Excerpt from ‘A Detailed History of the Five Kingdoms’ by Aiwin Faera

 

~❅~☾~❅~

 

The string of Hongbin’s bow swished taught as he shot a final feather-tipped arrow over his shoulder. The hooded figures chasing him had all but dropped away, the dark of ceaseless night granting the sellsword enough cover to escape. It was supposed to have been a quick in-and-out job. Enter the stronghold, grab the map, and get out. There weren't supposed to have been half a dozen heavily armed guards! The bastard who’d hired them was going to get an earful at minimum, a knife to the throat at most. Where had Sanghyuk gone?

 

Hongbin and Sanghyuk had grown up together in Westcliff, a small fishing town in the kingdom of Shimor. They’d been friends since before they could walk. Practiced fighting with a wide array of weapons until they could beat almost everyone in town. It was their only skill, really, the only thing they knew how to do. It was all they wanted to do. So, when they came of age, Hongbin and Sanghyuk had journeyed to the capital city of Mairis.

 

They worked as a pair, selling their services for whoever had enough coin to afford them. And they made good money too. But Sanghyuk was... well, his condition could cause trouble at the least opportune moments, and knowing he’d caught a knife to the abdomen and had led a group of the guards on a chase while bleeding out wasn’t doing Hongbin’s anxiety levels any favors. Sanghyuk was like a younger brother to Hongbin. It was only natural to worry.

 

The Inn they’d planned as a meeting place came into view and Hongbin slowed to an easy stroll, pulling the hood of his dark cloak over his face. The shadows served well enough for concealment, but one could never be too careful.

 

He passed through the front door of the inn and hurried across the common room to the staircase. The sound of his footstep on each riser was like a booming echo inside the sellsword’s head. He couldn’t get to his chamber fast enough. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong; Hongbin could feel it. Sense it on the air. He had the map, they’d done the job as they were instructed to, but something was wrong.

 

~❅~☾~❅~

 

Jaehwan adjusted his cowl, making sure his hair was covered as he padded slowly down Mairis’ high-street. This city had a strange energy to it, a unique energy, even when the streets were mostly empty. Jaehwan could feel it thrumming against his fingertips, burning against his skin. It was lovely and warm in this place, Jaehwan thought, remembering flakes of snow that melted on his tongue and sparkled in his brother's hair. Remembering the blizzards that swept across the palace and turned its windowpanes white. Remembering how the daylight would glitter on the ice after the blizzards passed, before the sun had been stolen from the sky. Remembering home.

 

The bundle of herbs he’d purchased safely stored in his pack, Jaehwan was just contemplating finding an inn for the night when he heard a weak cry coming from up ahead. His ears perked up, tracing the faint sound to its source and increasing his pace. He was always grateful for his Elven hearing, especially in moments like this. When he could hear the sound of someone in need of help.

 

An alley on the left. Soft panting. A little groan, as if it had escaped unbidden under the person’s breath.

 

“Hello?” Jaehwan called, loudly enough to be heard but not so loud as to startle the injured person. If they were in any state to be startled at all, that is. He checked his cowl once more, just to be sure, and finally came upon a man curled in a heap on the ground. Or Jaehwan assumed it was a man, broad and visibly tall even when horizontal. The sole of his boot made a soft squelching noise as he moved closer to the man and with a pang of fright, Jaehwan realized he had stepped in blood.

 

“Hello? Can you hear me? What has happened to you?” he asked, sidestepping the pool of vitus and kneeling by the man’s head. Jaehwan lightly tapped the man’s cheek. Nothing. He hunched over and put his ear besides the man’s mouth to listen for the telltale whisper of breath, and there it was. The man was alive. In a bad way, that much was obvious, but he was alive.

 

Jaehwan brushed the man’s golden hair off his forehead and found it matted with scarlet. He wasn’t nearly skilled enough at healing to mend a head wound if there was one, but... maybe the apothecary? The kind apothecary he’d purchased the herbs from seemed knowledgeable enough and coin wasn’t an issue for Jaehwan. If only this man would wake up. Jaehwan may be strong, but the injured man was as big as he was and half again, and deadweight would only make the job of carrying him down the street more difficult.

 

“I’m going to get you help, alright?” Jaehwan whispered, flexing his fingers and placing them on the man’s temples. A peel of bawdy laughter from a block away made Jaehwan’s ear twitch but he didn’t let it break his focus.

 

The man’s energy was... not what the elf had been expecting. It sparked against his fingertips like nothing Jaehwan had ever felt before. Singing a wordless song, almost calling to him somehow. And it was strong. Stronger than anything Jaehwan had ever encountered from a human. Almost like the feeling of his brother’s magic. Not in essence, this man possessed no tangible magic that Jaehwan could detect, but the familiarity of it. Like he was touching a part of his own soul.

 

He focused, trying not to let the strangeness distract him and channeled his energy into the injured man. Exhaled a fragment of his own life force, his lumina, on a silver breeze and watched it slip between the man’s parted lips.

 

The man sat up with a gasp, clutching his side with one enormous hand before collapsing again. Jaehwan jerked forwards and caught him before he could do more damage, cradling the man's head in his lap. A pair of very dark eyes stared up at him, hazy and unfocused with pain, eyes framed by thick lashes that were actually quite lovely to look at. Jaehwan shook his head. “You’re awake?” he murmured, waiting for the stranger to nod and then nodding in return.

 

“I’m going to get you help, but you need to stand up. You’ll be alright,” Jaehwan said quietly, stroking the man’s hair with one hand and beginning to weave flows of atmos with the other. He wove them as tight as he could, then wrapped them around the man’s upper arms and across his chest. This wouldn’t be pleasant for him, but it would surely be better than having to walk unaided.

 

Jaehwan unwrapped the scarf from around his neck and pressed it to the man’s injury, wincing at the breathy groan of pain that the man failed to suppress. “Be brave for me, be strong, we don’t have to go far but you need to help me now, okay?”

 

The man gave a single sharp nod before Jaehwan tugged on his weaves, keeping pressure on the wound as the man was drawn to his feet like a puppet on a string. The elf couldn’t help but admire the man's strength, how he clamped his jaw shut and swallowed a scream. He wound his arm around the man’s middle to provide extra support as they began to hobble slowly out of the alley and back down the way Jaehwan had come.

 

“What’s your name?” Jaehwan asked, trying to distract the man, give him something to think about other than the blood slowly dribbling from his wound. They didn’t walk so much as shuffled, both of the man’s well-muscled arms tight around Jaehwan’s neck and chin resting on the top of his head. This close, Jaehwan could feel the man’s energy even more strongly. Smell it. The cotton and cedar scent of his clothing mixing with the driftwood and oakmoss that was just his own. Jaehwan forced himself to keep walking, keep talking. “My name is Jaehwan.”

 

“My name...”

 

The man grunted, nearly stumbling over a loose cobblestone. Jaehwan tugged at his weaves just in time to keep them both upright. “Sanghyuk.”

 

“It is nice to meet you, Sanghyuk.”

 

Sanghyuk nodded weakly, his chin ruffling the cowl over Jaehwan’s head. The elf surreptitiously pulled it back in place. After what felt like hours, the apothecary came into view. “Just up here on the right,” Jaehwan hummed, sparing a bit of his energy and sending a current of atmos to push open the shop door.

 

The friendly man Jaehwan had met earlier jumped to his feet at the sight of the two, staggering and no doubt absolutely covered in blood. “What happened to him?” the man asked, shouting for someone named Hakyeon as he hastened around the counter. He was nearly as tall as Sanghyuk and just as well built, short dark hair falling across his forehead and pretty ink decorating the bits of skin Jaehwan could see. And kind brown eyes. Eyes Jaehwan immediately trusted.

 

“I found him lying in an alley like this, can you help him?”

 

The man worried his lip between his teeth and gently moved Jaehwan’s scarf to peer at the nasty gash on Sanghyuk’s side. “We’ll do what we can, but this certainly isn’t good.”

 

A second man that Jaehwan hadn’t seen before appeared from what he assumed was a back room, presumably this Hakyeon the other had called for. He took charge of the situation at once. “Bring him this way, just through here. Wonshik, please move everything off the cot so he can lay down,” he said, command clear in his voice as Jaehwan helped Sanghyuk maneuver around the counter.

 

Getting Sanghyuk onto the cot was harder than Jaehwan had been expecting. He dragged the elf down with him until Jaehwan was kneeling on the cold stone floor. Jaehwan released his weaves with a sigh, moving around so he was out of the apothecary's way to crouch beside Sanghyuk’s head. He kept attempting to sooth the man as Hakyeon got to work, combing his fingers through Sanghyuk’s hair and humming softly.

 

“Who did this?” Hakyeon asked, keeping his eyes fixed on the wound as he dabbed it with a wet cloth to clear away the dried blood.

 

“Not- important.”

 

Hakyeon shot Sanghyuk a look of pure irritation. “Yes, it is important. I need to know what kind of blade it was, if magic was involved. I don’t care if you were doing something illegal, but I have to know.”

 

Sanghyuk inhaled sharply as the apothecary’s cloth touched a particularly sensitive spot. “Don’t know- about... magic. Sword.” His fingers found Jaehwan’s wrist and squeezed tight.

 

“I can’t sense anything,” the elf said, probing around the wound with invisible strands of atmos. There were no traces of sorcery either dark or light. Hakyeon glanced at him with mild suspicion but nodded all the same. “Wonshik, calendula, comfrey, lemon balm. Please,” he added, nodding at his assistant. Wonshik scurried off to fetch the requested herbs as Hakyeon continued to clean the wound.

 

“You’re- very kind... to bring me here,” Sanghyuk mumbled, his eyes slipping shut and teetering on the edge of unconsciousness again. Jaehwan gave his hand a squeeze. “But I can heal on my own. I just need- my friend.”

 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Hakyeon snapped, taking an armful of jars from Wonshik and opening them one by one. “Have you seen yourself? You’d have bled out and died within the hour if this kind man hadn’t brought you to me.”

 

Sanghyuk shuddered and did his best to stifle a scream as Hakyeon began working in earnest, snatching up Jaehwan’s hand and pressing his lips to the inside of Jaehwan’s wrist. The contact sent a jolt of something rocking through the elf’s entire body. Like he’d been shocked, the magic within him amplified almost to the point of burning. It was a struggle to keep it contained.

 

“I can... I’m... I just need...”

 

“Please, try to keep him quiet. Wasting his strength on talking won’t help matters any,” Hakyeon said sharply, massaging a strong-smelling ointment on the edges of the cut. It was already taking the entirety of Jaehwan’s concentration to keep the magic from exploding out of himself, but he did his best, mindlessly humming and letting Sanghyuk groan against his wrist.

 

The assistant, Wonshik, paused in the act of handing Hakyeon clean strips of cotton. “Who’s your friend? Where are they? I can bring them here?”

 

“The inn... the Broken Gate,” Sanghyuk rasped. Jaehwan could sense him slipping further and he took a calculated risk, dipping into the well of power within himself and expelling the smallest bit of lumina he could manage. Letting it leave his body and flow into Sanghyuk. He wouldn’t have normally- this was not the way with strangers. Giving away one's lumina was the most sacred of practices, only to be used in the direst of circumstances. But Jaehwan could not simply sit by and let this man die. Not when it felt like he’d found a home after so many years of wandering.

 

“I know it, their name?” Wonshik nodded, looking to Hakyeon for permission before grabbing a dark red cloak off a peg on the wall. Sanghyuk winced. “Hongbin. Tell him- ahh tell him Sanghyuk sent you. He’ll come.”

 

Wonshik nodded again, patting Hakyeon’s shoulder before hurrying out the back door and into the darkness. The apothecary watched him go but resumed tending to Sanghyuk almost at once.

 

Jaehwan had begun to itch from the effort of suppressing the surge of strength bubbling beneath his skin. He could feel Sanghyuk’s weak breath puffing against his wrist, flinching at each whimper and moan of pain. If only there was something he could do to help. If only he was more skilled at healing. If only Sanghyuk’s wound was magical rather than mortal so Jaehwan could take this pain away.

 

“You say you can heal on your own? How is that possible?” the elf asked, staring down at Sanghyuk from beneath his cowl.

 

The garment was a necessity for someone with Jaehwan’s appearance. His body and voice and style of movement gave away the fact that he was of elven descent, there was no getting around that fact, but his hair and eyes were another matter entirely. When cowled, most who looked upon him mistook Jaehwan for a Tayre which was just fine with him. The Tayre were a good people, kind and generous and lacking the stigma around his own race.

 

The Glayce. The elves with hair like frost and eyes the color of a frozen pond, the elves with the most power of all races. Most people thought the Glayce were extinct, killed off in the war with the Shayde some hundreds of years ago. But Jaehwan and his elder brother had survived. The crown prince and the spare, left to live out their long lives alone in the Glayce stronghold at Lurlian.

 

Jaehwan gave a minute shake of his head to banish thoughts of the years spent behind those frigid walls with a monster in disguise. This human needed him now, Sanghyuk needed him, and dwelling on the sorrows of the past would do neither of them any favors.

 

Sanghyuk had begun panting again, forming words against the near-translucent skin of Jaehwan’s wrist. “I can- huh I can take something from my friend, if he gives it to me. Take it and use it to mend my hurts.”

 

The elf frowned. “Does your friend possess magic?” he asked, resuming the petting of Sanghyuk’s hair he’d momentarily stopped. Sanghyuk chuckled darkly but there was no humor in the sound. “No, he- he doesn’t. It’s me. I’m the one who steals... who takes. He simply provides.”

 

“Take it from me then.”

 

The words left Jaehwan’s mouth without a second's hesitation. He didn’t even have to think about it.

 

Sanghyuk blinked up at him in surprise. “You- you don’t know what you’re offering,” he sighed, a single tear slipping from the corner of his eye as Hakyeon began stitching him up with a wicked looking needle. The elf shook his head. He could sense a bond forming between himself and this human, and while he didn’t completely understand it yet, Jaehwan was old enough to know better than to ignore the signs. He would not allow Sanghyuk to perish before he figured it out.

 

“I’m strong, I will be fine. Just take what you need.”

 

“Take it. Whatever it is, just take it. You need every edge you can get right now,” Hakyeon murmured, speaking for the first time since his apprentice departed. Jaehwan nodded in agreement. “We have much to talk about, I think, and we cannot do that if you die here on this cot.”

 

Sanghyuk grimaced, hesitating for a moment longer before pressing the inside of Jaehwan’s wrist to his mouth once more. The elf felt a warm tingle of breath, Sanghyuk form the word ‘sorry’, before he bit down with a ferocity that Jaehwan wouldn’t have imagined him capable of.

 

Jaehwan yelped, both from pain and surprise. He jerked his arm back, or tried, Sanghyuk’s other hand clamping around his elbow to stop the elf from pulling away. He felt his skin break, felt Sanghyuk’s teeth digging into his flesh as his blood began to flow into the human’s mouth.

 

“Darah! You’re a Darah?!” Hakyeon exclaimed, dropping his needle and skittering backward away from the cot. Jaehwan didn’t blame the apothecary for his fear.

 

Delving deep into the recesses of his mind, Jaehwan tried to remember the lore he’d read about Darah. Humans with so little lumina inside themselves that they were forced to steal it from others. Regarded as the children of Zanja, the goddess of darkness and death. Widely distrusted, but Jaehwan remembered feeling bad for the Darah. Remembered thinking that they were just misunderstood creatures doing what they had to do to survive.

 

Being caught in a Darah’s grip was worlds different from reading about them though. If Jaehwan had known... the pain he could bear, pain was nothing but- Sanghyuk didn’t know what Jaehwan was. Didn’t know how much magic the elf possessed. No human, Darah or otherwise, should consume the blood of a Glayce. Take in that much lumina. The effects could be... Jaehwan didn’t exactly know. He didn’t think it had ever been done before, but he couldn’t imagine they would be good.

 

“Sanghyuk!” he gasped, feeling the man's jaws clamp harder.

 

What he’d claimed about healing certainly seemed to be true. The nasty gash that had stretched from his hip to just under his ribs had knit closed in a matter of seconds and Jaehwan could hear that the man’s heartbeat was stronger and more even. But the elf could also feel himself beginning to grow weak from blood loss. He tried to pull his arm free once more but Sanghyuk growled against his bite and dragged him closer.

 

There was only one thing for it. Employing the strength he had left, Jaehwan wove a thick strand of atmos until it was strong enough, looped it around the man’s waist and tugged, ripping Sanghyuk off him and holding him several feet in the air. Sanghyuk’s dark irises flared a bright ice white and he struggled for two, three heartbeats before regaining control of himself.

 

“What are you?” he breathed, eyes returned to their normal dark brown and so intent on the elf that Jaehwan could almost feel their heat on his face. Like his hood wasn’t even there.

 

Jaehwan swallowed a lump of fear in his throat, pressing a corner of his cloak to his wrist to try and stop the bleeding.

 

“I’m an elf. Can’t you recognize an elf when you see one?” he muttered, reluctantly releasing his weave and setting Sanghyuk back on his feet. Sanghyuk nodded slowly and made to approach but Jaehwan scooted quickly so his back was pressed against the wall.

 

“I can close that up if you let me.”

 

The sincerity in the man’s voice was clear and Jaehwan spared a single glance for Hakyeon, still backed up in the opposite corner of the room, before nodding. He could see the lines of worry creasing Sanghyuk’s brow, a hint of regret in his eyes and sadness in the downturned corners of his mouth. It was so incredibly strange, this feeling, like he was looking in a mirror. Able to understand the most minute gesture like he’d known this man his entire life.

 

Sanghyuk walked over to him and sat cross legged on the floor. “I’m sorry. My friend says it hurts more on the arm, but I didn't think you’d take too kindly to me lunging at your throat,” he said softly, taking Jaehwan’s hand in both of his and raising it to his mouth. Jaehwan flinched back on instinct but the man held him in a gentle grip. His tongue darted out to lick at the wound, and...

 

The feeling was peculiar if not altogether unpleasant. The sensation of flesh resealing, hurts dulled to nothing, skin humming at the feeling of a type of magic Jaehwan was unused too. It only took a matter of seconds but all that remained was a faint scar.

 

“We aren’t evil, I promise,” the man continued, reaching for the damp cloth Hakyeon had been using and dabbing the bit of excess scarlet from Jaehwan’s skin. “We just need... you know- need it to live. But you aren’t a normal elf. I thought you were Tayre at first, but...”

 

Sanghyuk reached for his cowl but Jaehwan slapped his hand away. “I am Tayre,” he lied, assuring himself that the hood was still in place. “I’m- I am disfigured. The shroud is a mercy to all who must look upon me.”

 

It was an old lie, and a good one. A safe one. Once people thought he was ugly they lost all interest in trying to see his face. He’d sewn the cowl himself, a tight wrap that he could pull up to cover his nose and mouth with a long hood over the top of his head. Not much could be done about his eyes, but if he wore the hood low enough, they were at least slightly concealed.

 

The man narrowed his eyes but didn’t press the issue. “Well... in any case, I’m sorry for hurting you. But thank you for your sacrifice.”

 

“You’re welcome.”

 

Jaehwan tried to stand but nearly toppled over as a rush of dizziness hit him. Sanghyuk’s hand shot out to steady him and the elf was grateful for it. He looked down at himself, vision blurring the slightest bit.

 

Crimson had stained the front of his navy cloak, and it must have soaked all the way through his tunic and the cotton shirt beneath, because he could feel its stickiness against his chest and stomach. The pointed toe of his left boot was now red, his palms were damp with a mixture of blood and sweat, and his right sleeve torn where Sanghyuk had bitten him. He could remove the stains as easily as breathing but... not yet. He needed a moment to regain his strength. A moment's rest before he tried to weave.

 

“Food,” Hakyeon announced, regaining composure and leaping to his feet with an abruptness that sent Jaehwan’s head spinning again. “You need food, it will help your blood supply replenish. And tea.”

 

It was the elf’s turn to give thanks, but the apothecary waved it away. From what Jaehwan could tell, Hakyeon was kind but stern with an efficiency that bordered on frightening. But he had still taken Sanghyuk into his care without a single question or word of protest, and he hadn’t asked for anything in return. It was rare in this world of perpetual darkness, to find a person not swallowed up by greed and shadow.

 

“So, you’re a Darah? I’ve never met one of your kind before,” Hakyeon asked, glancing at Sanghyuk over his shoulder as he filled a kettle with water. Sanghyuk nodded. “We’re rare, something to do with genetics. My mother is one as well,” he replied, helping Jaehwan to sit on a low stool in the corner. The man kept a hand on his shoulder even once Jaehwan was comfortable.

 

The current flowing between them seemed to center on the point of contact, Jaehwan thought, staring up at this human in wonder. This very large human who was rough but extremely gentle at the same time. This human who’d dropped into his life with the force of a star falling to earth. It wasn’t a sexual connection, Jaehwan could tell that much right away. Not to say that Sanghyuk wasn’t handsome, because he certainly was, swathed entirely in black with his dark eyes and hair like burnished gold. But it was something more baseline than that. More primitive. Jaehwan couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was yet.

 

“It’s a fascinating condition,” Hakyeon mused, his words derailing Jaehwan’s train of thought. “I’ve read about such magic but have never seen it with my own eyes. You two stay here, I live above the shop, so I’ll go run and get you something to eat.”

 

Sanghyuk and Jaehwan both nodded and Hakyeon gave them a final thoughtful look before turning and leaving the room.

 

“You said we needed to talk about something?” Sanghyuk asked, moving around until he settled cross legged on the floor at Jaehwan’s feet. Even like this, the man was almost at eye level with his chin. He really was quite a large person.

 

Jaehwan nodded, slow, his long hair secured in a tight knot at the nape of his neck tickling him a bit. Even after all this time, the elf couldn’t bring himself to cut it. A remnant of his old life that he couldn’t relinquish. Hesitantly, he straightened, squaring his small shoulders and meeting the man's dark stare. “I came upon you in that alley completely by chance, but...” he hesitated, trying to think of how to form what he was feeling into words, “I do not think it was mere chance at all.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

The elf cleared his throat. “I mean- can you not feel it? A bond of sorts? A connection?” Sanghyuk eyed him warily but Jaehwan reached out to take his hand and he didn’t pull away. The magic stirred in Jaehwan’s core and Sanghyuk’s eyes widened. “Do you not feel stronger?”

 

A nod.

 

“If I had access to a good library I’d try and research this, but as it stands, I can only say that I feel like I have known you for centuries rather than little more than an hour. I am not sure if it is simply that I can sense your Darah magic, but... I couldn’t feel it when I found you. I checked. There is no magic in your blood, nothing remarkable about you at all so far as I can tell, and yet... and yet. I am drawn to you for a reason that I cannot explain, something in,” he brushed his fingers across Sanghyuk’s chest, “Here.”

 

Sanghyuk’s fingers traced the path Jaehwan’s had just followed. “Here?”

 

“There,” Jaehwan nodded, “Like there's a string connecting our hearts. Being near you feels like reuniting two halves of my soul.”

 

The man was gaping openly at him now and Jaehwan hastened to clarify what he meant. “Not romantic or some such like, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t claim love at first sight or silly ideas like that, it’s-”

 

“Stronger than that,” Sanghyuk interrupted, nodding slowly as Jaehwan snapped his mouth shut. “But I regret not being able to see the one I feel so drawn to.”

 

The abrupt change of subject startled Jaehwan, a hand flying to his cowl without conscious thought. The elf felt bad for the lie now. He’d never felt bad for it before, knowing how much danger it would put him in. Knowing it would put a target on his back, make him vulnerable. Valuable. But this was all very, very new and while Jaehwan did feel a connection to Sanghyuk, connection and trust did not always go hand in hand. His elder brother was proof enough of that.

 

“It is better for you that you can't. But you can feel me, yes?”

 

Sanghyuk nodded but lowered his eyes, very clearly hurt by the elf’s reluctance. Jaehwan felt a twinge of sorrow seeing that expression on the man’s face. “Maybe once we grow to know each other better? If you wish to know me better, that is.”

 

A second nod and a small smile that made Jaehwan smile in return, even if Sanghyuk could not see it. “Good. Are you staying in the city? I was just passing through, but I had no real destination in mind-”

 

Hakyeon knocked on the doorframe, Jaehwan flinching violently at the sudden noise. The apothecary was giving them an odd look, just on the edge of smug, and he had a plate of what appeared to be lemon cookies in one hand.

 

“I thought you didn’t know each other.”

 

“We don’t,” they replied in unison, glancing at each other and then promptly turning away.

 

“Uh-huh,” Hakyeon breathed, not bothering to disguise his disbelief as he padded over to hold the plate out for them. “I’m sure you’ve probably realized by now, but my name is Hakyeon. The one who went to collect your friend is my apprentice, Wonshik.”

 

“It’s nice to meet you,” Jaehwan said, bowing his head respectfully before taking a cookie. Sanghyuk echoed his words but opted for a handshake rather than a bow.

 

“Now, I don’t mean to break up your little get-together but-”

 

The back door swung open with a bang and a man that resembled a hurricane full of teeth swirled into the room, Wonshik trailing behind and looking slightly put out.

 

“Sanghyuk? Night, I thought you’d been killed! Why didn’t you return to the inn?” the man exclaimed, voice several octaves deeper than Jaehwan had been expecting. He rounded on the elf with fire burning in his wide brown eyes. “And who in the five hells are you!?”

 

“This is Jaehwan, he found me and brought me here. He and Hakyeon saved my life,” Sanghyuk said smoothly, stepping in so Jaehwan didn’t have to speak. The newcomer was presumably the Hongbin that Sanghyuk had asked for. “Did you get it?”

 

“Of course, I got it! But I would have happily left it rather than let you throw yourself in front of enemy blades like that!”

 

“I didn’t throw myself anywhere, Bin. I’m better with a sword than you and you’re faster than me. It was a logical solution.”

 

“Don’t pretend like this was some kind of plan! We didn’t plan for this! You acted without thinking, as usual, and I will cut off the rest of our contracts if you insist on being so-“

 

“Stop shouting.” Hakyeon didn’t raise his voice but the two words held a note of command that was completely unassailable. Hongbin rounded on the apothecary with a glare that was downright ferocious. “This doesn’t concern you, healer.”

 

“It does now, since you’ve come into my shop and are screaming at my patient.”

 

Hongbin opened his mouth to retort but Hakyeon held up a hand before continuing. “Sit down and have a cookie.”

 

“Really, Bin, I'm alright,” Sanghyuk added, giving Hongbin a grin so boyish it made Jaehwan want to coo and pinch his cheek. Hongbin eyed the apothecary, squinting and scowling, but he did sit.

 

“Good,” Hakyeon said, moving to perch on the edge of the cot like a sparrow. The apothecary was handsome, Jaehwan thought, tugging the neck of his cowl down so he could nibble on his cookie. The room's gas lamps made Hakyeon's warm skin glow. He had copper flecks in his eyes behind a pair of wire-rim spectacles, and strands of amber woven sparsely through his chocolate brown hair. From Atros, the desert lands in the south, if the elf had to guess. And his boots and breeches and loose linen shirt did nothing to disguise what Jaehwan thought resembled the body of a dancer. Lithe and graceful.

 

Hakyeon tapped a finger thoughtfully against his bottom lip as he assessed the newest intruder in his shop. “Now, tell me what it is that you got.”

 

Hongbin's eyes had narrowed so much it was a wonder he could still see through them. “It’s none of your business. I thank you for helping my friend, genuinely I do, but we really have to get going.”

 

“I did what I could but Jaehwan was the one who saved his life,” Hakyeon replied, gesturing to the elf. Jaehwan gave Hongbin a little wave but it went ignored. “And despite the odd circumstances that brought the three of you here, you are in my shop and are eating my food, and so I deserve at least a cursory explanation.”

 

“We’re sellswords,” Sanghyuk said, earning a sharp smack to the back of the head from Hongbin and returning it with interest. “We were doing a job and there was more security than we expected. I got injured, we got separated, and then Jaehwan brought me to you.”

 

“What kind of job?”

 

“A man paid us to retrieve a map that had apparently been stolen from him.” A jab to Sanghyuk’s ribs made him wince and Jaehwan rested a comforting hand on his shoulder. He didn’t like this casual violence. It rubbed him the wrong way. But the cookie was starting to fortify him, and the whistling of the teakettle only heralded more refreshment, so Jaehwan stayed silent.

 

“What kind of map?” Hakyeon asked, standing and handing the tray of sweets to Wonshik on his way to pour tea. Jaehwan wanted to ask for another, they were absolutely delicious, but he still kept his mouth shut. This didn’t seem like a time to interrupt.

 

“We don’t know.”

 

“Well, you have it don’t you? Let’s take a look.”

 

“No!” Hongbin exclaimed, at the exact same time Sanghyuk said, “Alright.”

 

“Hyukah, you’re just being stupid now! You know that was part of the deal!” Hongbin snapped, jumping to his feet and looking down at his friend. Sanghyuk wordlessly handed Jaehwan the uneaten half of his cookie, getting to his feet as well. Their height disparity was even more striking than Sanghyuk and Jaehwan’s, but the elf wasn’t interested overmuch. Not when he was busy trying to puzzle out how Sanghyuk knew he was still hungry.

 

“Bin, there is something happening here that I don’t understand, okay? I can’t understand it. But Jaehwan was brought to me for a reason and I think,” Sanghyuk shot Hakyeon what he probably thought was a discreet look, “I think Hakyeon was as well. And Wonshik for that matter. And the timing... I mean think about it! I was going to ask to show Jaehwan the map anyway but-“

 

“And who are you exactly?” Hongbin interrupted, turning his glare on the elf.

 

Jaehwan did his utmost not to shrink away, to curve in on himself and hide. He didn’t think showing weakness would do him any favors with this man. So, he forced himself to stand, only feeling the smallest twinge of victory knowing that he was taller.

 

He was taller by maybe an inch, but Hongbin was broader. Very broad indeed and handsome as sin. He was dark of hair and dark of eye, putting Jaehwan in mind of a Tayre prince. The Tayre were all dark haired and dark eyed for better camouflage when they leapt around their sacred forests. But Hongbin didn’t have the pointed ears nor the long legs. No, Jaehwan thought he was most definitely a human.

 

“I think you should be aware that we know Sanghyuk is a Darah,” Jaehwan said, keeping his tone even and measured. Pointedly non-confrontational.

 

Hongbin went visibly pale and Wonshik gasped from where he’d perched behind Hakyeon.

 

“Don’t say such lies,” Hongbin spat, taking a very quick step toward the elf. Jaehwan raised his hand and showed the man his wrist. The faint half-moon scar that was left from Sanghyuk’s bite. Hongbin got even more pale if such a thing was possible but Jaehwan pushed on.

 

“And I agree with him. Something has brought us all together in this moment and if this map has any significance, I believe we should look at it.”

 

He turned to Hakyeon. “I don’t think it was mere chance that led me to your shop earlier this evening. And I don’t think it was chance that I found Sanghyuk bleeding in that alley. It could be the will of the great mother, I do not know, but you and your apprentice play a role. Of this I am certain.”

 

The apothecary graced him with a nod and Jaehwan felt Sanghyuk’s hand settle on his shoulder once again. At least the three of them were in agreement.

 

“Why are you hiding your face? I don’t trust people who cover their faces without cause,” Hongbin snapped, taking another step towards him and reaching for his cowl. Jaehwan felt strong enough by that point to weave and so he did, twirling a strand of atmos around the man’s wrist and yanking his hand away.

 

“I am hideously disfigured; the cover is meant to spare those who have to see me.”

 

Hongbin gave a derisive snort, trying and failing to free his arm from Jaehwan’s weave. “I’ve never ever heard of an ugly elf.”

 

“An accident when I was a child. Believe me, it’s better that you do not see.”

 

With a quiet sigh, Hakyeon stood as well. “If he is self-conscious enough to hide then leave him be. Let’s have a look at this map.”

 

“No!”

 

“Bin, come on,” Sanghyuk urged in a voice that edged in whiney. His friend wasn’t having it though. “Have you conveniently forgotten that we were paid extra for discretion? Not to ask any questions and above all else not to look?!”

 

“So, we give him back the bonus!”

 

“You must have lost your mind, Hyukah, truly! We had plans for that money- hey!”

 

Unnoticed by either of them, Hakyeon had maneuvered around and snatched a small case from the inside of Hongbin's cloak. Jaehwan couldn’t help but smile.

 

The case was thin and cylindrical, maybe twelve inches long, bound in deep indigo leather and decorated with black embroidery that almost seemed to sparkle. Something about the unnatural glimmer set Jaehwan’s ears twitching with agitation. He drew several drops of glacia from the air around him and wove it with the existing strand of atmos, beginning to probe at the case. Trying to feel, to sense if it had any magic to it-

 

Jaehwan hissed and skittered back until he collided with the wall. It had magic alright, dark magic. A Shayde working that he wanted to be as far away from as he possibly could. It repelled him, disgusted him, made his stomach begin to twist like it was full of writhing worms.

 

Sanghyuk’s worried face was hovering in front of him but Jaehwan kept his eyes fixed on the case. “Zanja’s work, dark magic,” he murmured. If they were going to open it, which Jaehwan now really wished they wouldn’t, letting one of the humans do it would be a mistake. He waved Sanghyuk away and tried his best to suppress a shudder of revulsion as he took a hesitant step into the center of the room.

 

“Back up, all of you, please,” the elf said quietly, reforming his atmos and glacia weave and plucking the case from Hakyeon's hands. It pushed against him, strained, clearly as repulsed by Jaehwan’s magic as the elf was by it. Once all the humans were a safe distance away and Hongbin's protests had been quieted, Jaehwan took a very deep breath.

 

He added a bit of terra to his weave, not enough to be visible but just to give it some strength. Forming that with one hand, he drew up a column of atmos around each of the humans, so they’d have a bit more protection. The first strand began to pluck at the closures on the case, poking and probing to find the seal, then slowly, hesitantly, popping open the snaps keeping it shut.

 

A cloud of pure darkness burst from the end of the case and Jaehwan mentally patted himself on the back for the precautions he’d taken. Still holding it in the air with the first strand, the elf nudged open one of the room's windows and formed a gust of pure atmos that succeeded in pushing the darkness outside before it could touch any of them. He slammed the window closed once all of it had dissipated.

 

“Hold,” Jaehwan snapped. Hongbin made to step forward but froze in place at the sharpness in the elf’s voice. There could still be something else lurking in the case's sinister depths.

 

Jaehwan slowly turned the case upside down. A tight scroll of ancient looking parchment slid out and he managed to catch it on a gentle cushion of atmos before it hit the floor. But that was all the case held. No more darkness flooded the room, no other magic that Jaehwan could sense. Good. He let the case fall a few inches before shoving it into the empty hearth and dousing it with kindra, burning the leather and thread to cinders in an instant.

 

“If you had opened that without me here, the lot of you would have been poisoned by the shadow and died within an hour,” Jaehwan said, dropping the shields around the others. “I would very much like to know who thought they were skilled enough to deal with such magic that they paid you to get it.”

 

“We don’t know,” Sanghyuk replied, one large hand closing convulsively around the elf’s wrist. “They left written instructions. We were only going to meet them when the map was delivered.”

 

“Curious.” Jaehwan didn’t know why he said it, such a concept was anything but curious. Whoever was after such a dark artifact would obviously want to keep their identity a secret in case Sanghyuk and Hongbin failed or the magic was discovered. It was only logical.

 

“Is it,” Wonshik cleared his throat, “Is it safe to touch now? I didn’t like the look of that cloud thing, whatever it was.”

 

Jaehwan nodded slowly. “I can’t feel anything else, neither of malign influence nor good.”

 

“I’ll do it, I’ll look. I found it so I should do it,” Hongbin said, stepping forwards and kneeling before the scroll. His fingers were quick and nimble as he plucked at the chords keeping the scroll shut. They were tied in a simple knot and the man unwound them easily. Jaehwan tried to peek over Sanghyuk’s shoulder to see what was written on the parchment, as his new friend had shifted in front of him, but it was no use. Sanghyuk was just too... too large.

 

“What’s the Thunderspire?” Hongbin asked the room at large. Jaehwan blinked. He’d read about the Thunderspire once, in the library back home in the palace. “A mage tower, or it used to be a mage tower. It was destroyed in the Shimoren civil war some seven centuries ago,” the elf replied, confused. It wasn’t like the tower was a secret. Why would a map to it be guarded so strongly?

 

“Is that all?” Hakyeon asked, moving to kneel at Hongbin's side. “It says...” Hongbin trailed off, paused, and then continued, “One of ten, five of two, together when the world was new. Come look here and then you’ll find, that all the stars have been aligned. One of dark and one of light, hand in hand instead of fight, break the seal and look within, return the sky to what once has been.”

 

“There’s more, an inked #1 on the bottom, and here in this corner,” the apothecary said, the honeyed lilt of his voice slicing through the silence that hung thick in the air. The rhyme or poem or whatever one called it was foreign to Jaehwan’s ear, but he could almost feel an unnamed magic humming within the words. Hakyeon nodded to himself and began to read.

 

“Six of six the set must be, if they wish to find the keys. A child of ice, a child of shade, a child of blood and the land remade. A child that mends, a child that breaks, a final child that speaks with snakes. Two of one heart reunited, one of love most unrequited. The second two of north and south, both possessed of a wicked mouth. The final two still more unalike, one that runs, and one that fights. Six children must join the quest and give the captured heart its rest.”

 

“What in the five hells is that supposed to mean?” Wonshik asked, a note of strain very clear in his voice. Jaehwan... Jaehwan didn’t know. He could guess though, the bit about a child of ice. There were only two children of ice left in the five kingdoms and his brother was certainly not going to join any quest. But-

 

“Unless one of you is also a Darah, I’m going to go ahead and assume that child of blood means me. We aren’t all that common,” Sanghyuk said, running his free hand through his hair.

 

“And I’m a Larmah, but we are pretty common. Still, it takes care of the speaks to snakes part,” Wonshik added, eyes fixed firmly on his boots. The Larmah originated in the central kingdom of Alenrac. Normal humans who’d developed the ability to communicate with the snakes that roamed their fields, Jaehwan remembered.

 

“And you,” Sanghyuk continued, motioning to Hakyeon, “You’re a healer, you mend. And Bin, you break basically anything you touch.”

 

“I resent that,” Hongbin snapped, but he went ignored. “I’m also from the south, my family has roots in Glimmerland for the last five generations at least,” Hakyeon added. Jaehwan didn’t know exactly where Glimmerland was, but his guess that the apothecary was a southerner had been correct.

 

“Great, do you have something I can write with?” Sanghyuk asked, taking the parchment and stick of charcoal Wonshik passed him with a smile. Using the wall as a desk, he wrote: ‘Ice, Shade, Blood, Mends, Breaks, Snakes.’ He drew a little check mark next to the final four and then turned to look at Jaehwan. “You aren’t disfigured, are you?”

 

“What?” Jaehwan blanched, taking several very fast steps backward. The man sighed. “Listen, you tasted weird. I know you aren't a Tayre, but I wasn’t going to push you since you’re clearly not comfortable. This-” he waved at the map, “This changes things. We need to know what you are so we can know if you’re part of it.”

 

“You don’t know what you’re asking, and you’re all making assumptions and jumping to wild conclusions! There’s no proof that the rhyme means us specifically,” Jaehwan said sharply, inching further back as Sanghyuk moved forward.

 

He couldn’t show all of these strangers. Not without preparing himself first. Couldn’t expose his truth so abruptly after so many years of hiding. The thought sent waves of panic crashing over him, sent the magic in him roiling. Sloshing from side to side within his body like water in the bottom of a boat.

 

He knew Sanghyuk was right, knew that they needed to know but he just couldn’t-

 

“Jaehwan,” Sanghyuk murmured, resting a comforting hand on his arm and thankfully not reaching for the cowl. “You said that you feel it, whatever it is that's between us two, and that something brought the five of us together. And you know what I am, you know my secret. So let me know yours.” His voice had grown softer as he spoke like he was trying to calm a frightened animal, and Jaehwan hated to admit that it was working.

 

The elf darted a look toward Hakyeon, then Wonshik, then Hongbin. Too many eyes one him. Too focused. Too intent. It felt like his heart was going to punch a hole through his ribcage. Sanghyuk sighed. “Do you have somewhere the two of us can speak privately?”

 

The apothecary gave Sanghyuk a very measured look but eventually nodded. Sanghyuk nodded back and took Jaehwan’s hand, the two of them following Hakyeon into the shop’s proper. Jaehwan did his best not to notice the way Hongbin was glaring at him as they passed.

 

“Just in here, it’s more of a storeroom than anything else but it’ll have to do.”

 

“Thank you, Hakyeon. Really,” Sanghyuk said, nudging Jaehwan inside before following. Hakyeon gave them that same near-smug smile and returned to the others.

 

~❅~☾~❅~

 

Sanghyuk flipped the switch of the wall-mounted lamp to fill the storeroom with light before closing the door.

 

The young sellsword’s head was spinning with all the madness that had taken place in the last two hours. He was used to a life of action, minor scuffles and treasure hunting and pockets heavy with coin. A life of excitement. But it was a mundane sort of excitement. The kind of excitement that a man could grow used to and end up craving more. The kind of excitement that ended up being no excitement at all.

 

What he certainly wasn’t used to was being rescued by anyone other than Hongbin. Feeling drawn to anyone other than Hongbin. Caring for anyone other than Hongbin. And definitely not caring for a total stranger.

 

He turned to look at the man trying to hide himself in the corner behind a rack of shelves that reached over his head. Jaehwan was... Sanghyuk still didn’t know. He was an elf, that much was obvious. He was more skilled in wielding magic than anyone Sanghyuk had ever seen in his twenty-four years of life. Sanghyuk could taste the power in his blood and, no matter how much he despised himself for needing to steal Jaehwan’s life force, Sanghyuk couldn’t help but want to taste it again.

 

“Jaehwan,” he said quietly, extending his hands, palm up for the elf to take. Jaehwan didn’t move.

 

“Come on, it’s just us two. I won’t tell anyone what you are, I promise. You know I’m telling the truth; I know you do.”

 

The elf still didn’t move so Sanghyuk tried again. “You said you feel a bond with me? Like connecting two halves of your soul? And then this weird map, talking about two of one heart reunited or whatever it was? It can’t be a coincidence. In fact, I’m sure it isn’t.” He tactfully left off the bit about unrequited love. Sanghyuk didn’t know what that was about, and he didn’t care to.

 

“Just let me see.”

 

Jaehwan’s fingers shook but he reached out and snatched up Sanghyuk’s hand. He was quiet for another moment and Sanghyuk didn’t press him. Sanghyuk could see how difficult this was for him. Jaehwan had given up his blood like it was nothing but revealing his face... Sanghyuk wondered how bad it was. How bad it could be that the elf felt like there was an earthquake about to shake him to pieces.

 

“Close your eyes.”

 

And Sanghyuk did. He let his eyes fall shut and kept them shut, even when he felt Jaehwan squeeze his hand. Even when Jaehwan released him and he could hear the rustling of cloth.

 

“You may look now, just- just please don’t scream.”

 

Sanghyuk opened his eyes, blinked, and promptly forgot how to breathe.

 

Jaehwan was... Sanghyuk didn't have a word to describe it. He was the exact opposite of disfigured.

 

Handsome, almost too handsome for traditional masculinity. Hair like a frozen waterfall, gleaming silver and arrow straight that tumbled down to just above his hips. He had the pointed ears and pointed nose that all elves possessed, but the mouth. Every elf Sanghyuk had seen had thin almost translucent lips but Jaehwan’s were full and a soft blush pink. And the eyes. Not brown like Sanghyuk had been expecting but ice blue, sharp and piercing and eons deep.

 

“What-“ Sanghyuk gulped, blinking hard to make sure he was seeing the truth. When he opened his eyes again, this vision still stood before him. Trembling and scared with his arms wrapped around his torso. “What are you?!”

 

“I’m a Glayce.”

 

“The Glayce died out centuries ago!”

 

Jaehwan nodded sadly. “All but two of us. My elder brother, the Crown Prince of Lurlian, and me.”

 

“But why do you hide?! If people knew-“

 

“If people knew, I would never be free again. Every kingdom would be after me for my magic, every ruler would try and trap me so they could use me against the others. It is safer like this, safer to hide, safer to simply wear my cowl and pretend to be a Tayre.”

 

Sanghyuk felt his mouth go slack but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything else. He understood now. Glayce were the ultimate weapon if he was remembering his school texts correctly. Able to access a type of power that only they could. Sure, the Shayde could use shadow magic but that was nothing compared to the Glayce.

 

“Child of ice,” he murmured. Jaehwan nodded and raised a hand, the newborn scar on the inside of his wrist flashing white as he twirled his fingers above his head. Sanghyuk flinched as the sight of that scar, suppressing a savage stab of self-hatred as snowflakes drifted down around them from nowhere.

 

They spoke quietly for a few moments more, Sanghyuk watching the elf wind his hair up into a tight knot at the nape of his neck before pulling the cowl back over his head. Features safely hidden once again, Sanghyuk regained the ability to breathe evenly.

 

“Where is your... what was it called again? Like a special bodyguard or something? I thought all Glayce had them.” He could vaguely remember something about humans who dedicated themselves to one Glayce and one Glayce only, pledging to protect them with their lives.

 

“Dawn,” Jaehwan nodded, what Sanghyuk thought was a solemn note in his voice. “My Dawn was killed in the war. They all were.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Sanghyuk tried, but Jaehwan waved it away. “It was a long time ago.”

 

When they re-entered the room, Wonshik and Hakyeon were whispering to each other while Hongbin sat, sipping his tea and glaring at the window like it had caused him personal offense.

 

“We can trust him. He’s a part of this,” Sanghyuk said, voice a touch louder than necessary so he could get everyone’s attention. “How do you know?! You’ve spent all of five minutes alone and you think you know this person?! Don’t be ridiculous!”

 

Sanghyuk gave his best friend a tired smile. He knew why Hongbin was so upset. His best friend liked a routine, liked the safety and security that routine provided. Liked knowing his territory and knowing exactly where he stood in every situation. Being off balance in any capacity always made Hongbin nervous, and when Hongbin was nervous, he liked to shout. Possessed of a wicked mouth indeed.

 

“You trust me?”

 

Hongbin swallowed what Sanghyuk was sure would be a sharp retort, but he nodded all the same.

 

“Good, and I trust him. He’s coming.”

 

“Coming where?!”

 

“I think we should go have a nice long chat with our patron,” Sanghyuk replied, taking the scrap of paper from where he’d left it and slipping it into the pocket of his cloak. Hakyeon perked up.

 

“I thought the same. We are only five after all, your patron could make six.”

 

~❅~☾~❅~

 

After much discussion and even more debate, Sanghyuk, Jaehwan, and Hongbin had all waited while Hakyeon and Wonshik went upstairs to pack their things.

 

The five had decided to follow this map no matter whether the patron came with them or not. They figured that if it wasn’t the patron, they would pick their sixth person up along the way. It was putting quite a bit of trust in fate but Sanghyuk still felt his stomach churning with nervous excitement. An adventure, a real adventure.

 

The inn where they were supposed to deliver the map was only a few blocks from where Sanghyuk and Hongbin were staying. They’d planned it that way and Sanghyuk was even more grateful for the close proximity now.

 

“You really trust this elf? You weren’t just saying it? We could still bail now, go out the back door and never see these people again,” Hongbin said, breaking the silence as they moved around their chamber to collect their things. The others were waiting down in the common room and Sanghyuk had been expecting this line of conversation as soon as the two of them were alone.

 

“I really do.”

 

“And you can’t tell me why?”

 

Sanghyuk rolled up a spare linen shirt and slid it into his pack. “No. You’re just going to have to believe me.”

 

Silence for several heartbeats until Hongbin asked, “Which pair are you? The pairs from that weird poem thingy... I’m fairly certain I’m the northerner with a sharp tongue or whatever it was.”

 

“The two of one heart reunited,” Sanghyuk replied, keeping his eyes fixed on his pack. The younger was thankful his friend didn’t press him further.

 

Things packed and map secure in Hongbin's pocket, they went to collect their three companions. It was a short walk to their patron’s inn and Sanghyuk stuck himself between Jaehwan and Hongbin, both wanting to keep watch over them and keep them apart. The streetlights were on, they always were when only one moon was in the sky, and Sanghyuk couldn’t help wondering what his new friends' hair would look like reflecting their pale glow.

 

“Room 203,” Hongbin said, leading the small party through the common room and up the stairs. They’d been left a key with their last set of instructions and Sanghyuk passed it to his friend when the door they were looking for came into view.

 

Jaehwan tugged on his sleeve. “What is it?” Sanghyuk asked quietly, resting a hand on his sword hilt that was concealed under his cloak and ducking his head so his new friend could whisper in his ear. “We need to go. Take the map or leave it, it doesn’t matter, but we have to go. Now.”

 

Sanghyuk’s eyes flicked to the door Hongbin had just opened and bit his lip. “What’s wrong? You don’t have to be scared-“

 

“I’m not scared, but this is bad business. I can feel it. Blackness. Shadow, do you understand? It’s not safe, we have to get out of here.”

 

The words of that silly poem came unbidden into Sanghyuk’s head. A child of ice, a child of shade...

 

“It’ll be fine,” he said, forcing a surety he didn’t feel and taking Jaehwan’s hand.

 

The room was dark, not a single lamp or bulb alight to show them what was within. Sanghyuk couldn’t even tell where the furniture was. The blinds must have been drawn to keep out the moonlight. Maybe their patron wasn’t here-

 

Wonshik shut the door behind them and a voice spoke, high and cool, echoing from the far side of the room, “I was under the impression I had only hired two men, not five.”

 

Jaehwan hissed like a house cat that’d been dunked in a river and his hands flew up, ropes of pure light shooting from the tips of his fingers in the direction of the voice. Before they reached the wall, however, something swished through the air and sliced straight through them. Startled into action, Sanghyuk had his sword drawn and Hongbin had his bow in hand with an arrow knocked before the elf had a chance to react.

 

“Shayde!” Jaehwan spat the word like a curse, fire sparking in the palms of his hands. He’d stepped around Sanghyuk and dashed further into the room before either sellsword could stop him. The flames that erupted from him were doused as soon as they came but Jaehwan didn’t stop. First the fire, then stirring the air, then more beams of that white light. All of it was swallowed up by the pool of inexorable darkness in the corner.

 

“Easy, cousin, don’t be foolish.”

 

His voice made a glacier seem warm. It was a male voice, Sanghyuk registered that much, but he was too startled by the elements being hurled helter-skelter around the room to move.

 

“You are no cousin to me, Shayde,” Jaehwan hissed, forming an arrow of distilled heat and flinging it towards the pool of shadow. Sanghyuk couldn’t see the elf’s face but Jaehwan’s voice was pure poison. Again, the arrow dissipated before it came into contact with whatever Jaehwan was aiming at. “Stop hiding, coward!”

 

A soft laugh was the reply, the sound chilling Sanghyuk down to his bones, and then Jaehwan began to choke. “That’s rich coming from someone with their face covered.”

 

“What are you doing to him?! Stop!” Sanghyuk croaked, finally coming to his senses and stepping forwards. He collided with a solid wall of nothing. The sellsword didn’t understand, there was nothing there. One of Jaehwan’s hands flicked behind him and a gust of air shoved Sanghyuk backward so hard that he nearly lost his footing.

 

“I didn’t know any of your kind survived the purge,” the voice said, a man slinking out of the shadows with one hand outstretched. He was Elven as well, but Jaehwan’s polar opposite. Long hair as black as pitch, tied half up in a topknot. Catlike black eyes narrowed; lips pursed in something close to a frown. Darkness simply seemed to pour from him, floating around his feet like fog and rolling off shoulders so broad they’d give Hongbin’s a run for their money. “Let’s see if you are what I think you are.”

 

“You have five seconds to stop whatever it is you’re doing, or I’ll put this arrow through your eye.”

 

The man didn’t even spare Hongbin a glance, but the aforementioned arrow spontaneously burst into flames. Sanghyuk looked frantically around. His best friend was cursing and stomping on his now charred arrow to put out the fire, Hakyeon had shoved Wonshik against the door and was standing protectively in front of the bigger man, both staring at the larger elf with panic in their eyes.

 

Their patron advanced further, a current of shadow curling around Jaehwan’s middle and lifting him off the floor. Jaehwan was scratching at his own throat, not even seeming to care that the dark elf reached out to pull the hood off his head.

 

“No!”

 

Sanghyuk’s strangled shout went ignored. The cowl fell to the floor, Jaehwan’s silver hair tumbling down around his shoulders in a phantom breeze, more black fog pouring from his open mouth.

 

“As I expected. Your kind was always so weak,” the man murmured, stepping closer to peer into Jaehwan’s wide eyes. “Are you going to calm down and let me speak?”

 

Jaehwan’s foot connected with the man’s stomach and he grunted in surprise but recovered quickly, straightening up and backhanding the smaller elf across the cheek. Sanghyuk felt his friends whimper of pain like he’d taken a knife to the gut. Again.

 

“Done?”

 

A few more seconds of silent struggling and Jaehwan nodded once.

 

“Good.”

 

The fog evaporated and Jaehwan dropped to the floor, landing in a one-kneed crouch. Panting hard and massaging his throat.

 

Sanghyuk didn’t know what to do with his hands. He couldn’t decide whether or not to sheath his sword. It was just taking up energy trying to hold it and this elf could clearly kick his ass into next week whether he had a weapon or not. He ended up just dropping it on the ground and running to his new friend's side, the invisible wall previously holding him back now mercifully gone.

 

“Actually, it’s good that you’re here, cousin. Even if you’re a bit less powerful than I hoped you’d be.”

 

“I’m out of practice, and stop calling me that!” Jaehwan snapped, wiping his mouth with the back of one shaking hand and allowing Sanghyuk to help him to his feet. “I should kill you where you stand for what your people did!”

 

The Shayde closed his eyes and sighed, clasping his hands behind his back. “I thought you were going to let me speak.”

 

“Speak, then,” Jaehwan snapped, maneuvering around so he was in front of Sanghyuk and backing them both closer to the wall. The sellsword looked down at the top of his new friend's silver head. He could feel energy still prickling off Jaehwan’s body, unspent and liable to explode at any moment.

 

“I take it you’ve looked at the map?”

 

“Yes,” Hakyeon replied, voice surprisingly steady. The Shayde nodded at the apothecary, looking at each of them in turn. “Good, I was counting on that. I would like to join your quest.”

 

Sanghyuk felt Jaehwan go entirely still. “Why? Who said we were going on a quest?!”

 

“I made an educated guess, based on the fact that all of you have packs and are dressed for travel. Additionally, I am aware of the prophecy this map contains.”

 

“Child of shade,” Wonshik mumbled, the dark elf giving him another nod. “Yes. I believe the child of shade is me. And our child of ice is here, presumably trying to shield his twin flame?”

 

Twin flame? Sanghyuk had never heard that phrase before but Jaehwan reacted to the words like he’d been burned. The younger sellsword cleared his throat. “I’m a Darah, child of blood,” he said, choosing not to comment on whatever a twin flame was.

 

“Mending,” Hakyeon added, raising his hand like a student in a classroom. A sharp, “Breaking,” from Hongbin was quickly followed with Wonshik’s squeaked, “Snakes.”

 

“Excellent, we’re all here then. My name is Taekwoon, by the way.”

 

“If you knew who Jaehwan was and know about the map, why did you try to kill him just now?” Hakyeon asked, still standing resolutely in front of his apprentice. Taekwoon... he didn’t laugh so much as snickered. “In all fairness, he attacked me first. And I wasn’t trying to kill him. If I was trying to kill him then he’d be dead. His light is strong, but I can snuff it out easily.”

 

Sanghyuk hated to admit it, but Jaehwan had started it.

 

“And if you know so much, do you know where this is going to lead us? Not just to the Thunderspire, but do you know what the point of all of it is?” Hongbin asked, resettling his bow over his shoulder and crossing his arms.

 

“Indeed, I do. I’m sure you’re all aware of the story about the heart of the sun?” Taekwoon replied. He knelt and retrieved Jaehwan’s cowl from the floor and tossed it to the Glayce with a disinterested flick of his wrist. All five of them nodded.

 

“Well, I am of the belief that my people made the wrong choice when they ripped the sun’s heart from the sky. I have my reasons but suffice it to say that it was unfair. We could have survived perfectly well in our lands with the sun intact and the rest of you shouldn’t have to pay the price for our greed.”

 

Sanghyuk had heard the story about the heart of the sun at least a thousand times. It was a fireside regular, every child in the five kingdoms grew up on it. How the Shayde elders had cracked the sun like an egg and stolen the fire from its center. Leaving behind nothing more than a second moon. How they’d messed it up somehow and the Glayce had found the sun's heart instead, hiding it to keep it safe so it couldn’t be destroyed. That was why the war had started. Every single Glayce killed and not one would yield the secret of where the heart of the sun was kept. Or... all but two Glayce had been killed.

 

“Liar,” Jaehwan snapped, electricity fizzing off his skin as he tried to step forward. Sanghyuk wrapped an arm around his new friend's shoulder to keep him still. “Child of shade, Jaehwan, we need him,” he whispered.

 

“And you,” Hongbin said, rounding on the smaller elf, “All this fuss just because you're blonde?! Who cares if you’re blonde?!”

 

“No, he’s smart to hide. If anyone of importance knew that a Glayce still lived, he’d be either dead or shackled within a month,” Taekwoon replied, eyeing the cowl Jaehwan had started to put back on. “And to answer your previous question, this map is one of ten. They each lead to somewhere that a key has been hidden. All must be followed, and all the keys retrieved, and once we have the keys, we can release the heart of the sun. Remake the sky as it should be. Right my people’s greatest wrong.”

 

Sanghyuk had never seen the sun, he was too young. Couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to have a ball of fire floating around in the sky. The room was silent for a long moment as the Shayde moved to retrieve his pack from where it had been propped against a small table. “Shall we go? I’ll explain more along the way.”

 

It wasn’t like they had much of a choice. Finding a Shayde on the mainland didn’t happen every day and this one was very clearly part of the whole thing. Sanghyuk wasn’t sure what to do so he waited for the others to act, first Hakyeon following Taekwoon into the hall, then Hongbin, before urging his feet forward and pulling Jaehwan with him.

 

“I do not trust him,” Jaehwan murmured, holding tight to Sanghyuk’s hand as they hastened back the way they had come, Wonshik close on their heels.

 

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