‘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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
A few more seconds of silent struggling and Jaehwan nodded once.
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.
Hakyeon’s mare snuffled and bounced as it followed the road out of town that led in the direction of the Thunderspire. He was unused to riding, almost always preferring to walk on his own two feet. He didn’t even own a horse! Neither did Wonshik for that matter, they’d had to take two extras that the Shayde brought along.
The apothecary's opinion was still out on Taekwoon. Aside from the unpleasantness of their introduction, he’d been mostly quiet as they rode out of Mairis. Sometimes leading the party and sometimes dropping back to assess the shadowy forests on either side. None of the promised explanations had been given yet but Hakyeon was still hopeful.
Hakyeon let his eyes wander around, trying to make out where everyone was. Wonshik was several yards to his left, riding a black stallion like he’d been born in the saddle. Advantages of being a farm boy, probably. Hongbin was directly in front of him with a lantern in one hand and his bow in the other, shifting his reigns constantly back and forth between them. He seemed like the least complicated of all of the companions. Decisive and sure of his opinions, but still open and ready to hear other suggestions (all the bluster and shouting aside). Smart and logical with a very cool sense of humor, just the kind of person Hakyeon liked.
But then there were the other two. Jaehwan and Sanghyuk. The two who insisted they’d never met before last night but were as comfortable together as decade-long friends. Sanghyuk seemed innocuous enough, considerate and easy-going, quick to laughter. But the elf was another matter entirely. Hakyeon had been impressed with Jaehwan right from the start. Not many people would have helped a stranger the way he had, and even fewer would have offered to give whatever Sanghyuk needed without first knowing the cost.
Jaehwan hadn’t had a horse either but he’d refused the mount Taekwoon had offered, choosing instead to ride in front of Sanghyuk on the sellsword's alarmingly large gelding. He’d also tried to set Taekwoon’s cloak on fire twice more before Sanghyuk had gotten him to calm down. Hakyeon couldn’t even blame Jaehwan for the instant animosity. He remembered the stories. Glayce children killed in their beds, entire towns leveled in a matter of minutes, the kind of brutality that gave Hakyeon nightmares as a kid. Jaehwan’s people had been ruthlessly and systematically exterminated, and Hakyeon would honestly be more worried if he didn’t hate the Shayde for it.
Whispering from a little behind caught Hakyeon’s attention and he turned his head, just a bit, just enough that he could listen without making it obvious.
“I thought you’d fallen asleep,” Sanghyuk was saying, followed by a little sniffling sound. Jaehwan's voice drifted on the breeze like the faint chirping of birdsong and he replied, “No, I was just thinking. I’ll be right back.”
Hakyeon did turn all the way around in the saddle this time, right as Jaehwan slid sideways and landed lightly on his feet. They weren’t galloping but they certainly weren’t moving at a slow pace, however it didn’t deter the elf, running silently beside Sanghyuk’s horse with his navy cloak flying behind him and leather boots not more than a blur.
“Jaehwan! Get back on!” Sanghyuk exclaimed, voice sounding more like a croak than anything else as he tried to grab the elf's hand. Jaehwan shook his head. “I want to check our surroundings and make sure he isn’t leading us into a trap. Stay with the others,” he replied, patting Sanghyuk’s shin before darting off into the woods.
Sanghyuk called wordlessly after him with a shell-shocked expression on his face but Jaehwan didn’t return.
“I’ll get him,” Taekwoon said quietly, riding up beside Sanghyuk and tossing the sellsword his reigns. Sanghyuk caught them deftly but he looked at the Shayde with undisguised suspicion.
“Wait, may I ask you something first?” Hakyeon said, a question popping into his mind unbidden. Taekwoon looked him over and nodded. “You paid Hongbin and Sanghyuk extra not to look at the map, correct?”
Taekwoon nodded again. His dark eyes glittered like flecks of onyx in the moonlight and it took a physical effort for Hakyeon to hold his gaze without flinching. “Then why did you say you were counting on the fact that they’d look?”
Taekwoon's thin mouth curved up in the first smile Hakyeon had seen from him. It was a little smile, almost sly, but still a smile. “Young humans are predictable. Telling them not to do something is the best way to assure it gets done,” he replied, patting his horse's flank and then leaping from the saddle and sprinting away into the darkness.
From a few yards ahead, Hongbin huffed.
Jaehwan stuck to the tree line as he doubled back, searching for trackers or soldiers or bandits or anything that could be lurking in the dark. His feet beat out a soundless rhythm against the forest floor. It was so good to stretch his legs after riding the entire night and most of the day.
Not that riding was altogether unpleasant, and certainly not when he was tucked against Sanghyuk and had to do none of the actual steering. But Jaehwan had legs and perfectly good legs at that. Sitting still for long stretches of time had never been his strong suit.
“Where are you off too, Snowshine?”
Jaehwan nearly ran smack into a tree. The quiet voice drifted out of the darkness on his left and he put on a burst of speed, vaulting onto a bolder and up into the canopy above.
“Get away from me, Shayde!” he called, jumping lightly from branch to branch. The world seemed to grow darker around him as he moved and Jaehwan felt his magic spike from anger. How dare this- this monster seek him out?! Where did he find the balls to even speak to Jaehwan after what his people had done?! And in that superior tone. The audacity...
“I just wanted to make sure you weren’t going to abandon us and run.”
Jaehwan barked a laugh and jumped higher, neatly dodging a swirl of shadow that tried to wind around his wrist. “You don’t have to worry, I wouldn’t leave Sanghyuk without saying goodbye, so you’ll have some notice if I decide to go,” he breathed, glancing up at the single moon above. He knew Taekwoon could hear him just as easily as if he’d screamed. Better not to let the others overhear. Not that they would have been able to with that abysmal human hearing of theirs.
“Then where are you going?”
“I don’t trust you, in case that wasn’t abundantly clear already. And I’m making sure my new friends are safe,” Jaehwan replied coolly. He slowed down a bit and swung himself up to a higher branch to avoid another of the Shayde’s weaves.
“Of course, they're safe. I need them.”
“You need to use them,” Jaehwan corrected, not bothering to keep the nastiness from his tone. Taekwoon chuckled softly from somewhere on the ground below.
“You aren’t wrong.”
Well, at least the monster wasn’t denying it. “Of course, I’m n-“
Jaehwan's words cut off in a breathless cry, the well-worn sole of his boot skidding on a loose shred of bark. He couldn’t regain his balance fast enough and before his brain caught up with his body Jaehwan was tumbling through the air, branches catching on his tunic and cloak and tearing the cowl from his face. He frantically began to weave, drawing threads of atmos around himself to try and cushion the inevitable landing but he was moving too quickly.
The ground was right there, closer and closer and closer and then it just wasn’t. Jaehwan was floating in a cloud of amniotic darkness, something pressing against his back and another something hooked around the undersides of his knees. Strong somethings. Strong arms, Jaehwan realized belatedly, lashes fluttering as he gasped for breath.
“Careful, you’ll be needed when all of this comes to an end. Try not to die so hastily.”
Jaehwan blinked hard, clearing the spots from his vision and looking up into a pair of very dark eyes. The Shayde had caught him. And they were moving, running back through the forest the way they’d come, Taekwoon's footsteps even more soundless than Jaehwan's. Muffled by the thick fog shrouding them from view.
He could sense Taekwoon's magic now, foreign and much too cold. He fought against it, trying not to let it touch his skin. He didn’t want Taekwoon’s darkness to contaminate him. “You know,” the Shayde said, shifting Jaehwan in his arms as he ran, “I’ve never seen one of your kind before.”
They were running so fast that Jaehwan could feel his now exposed hair whip around in the air, tangling in knots. His cowl was gone, his favorite tunic ripped, and now he owed this demon for saving his life. This day could not get any worse.
The edge of the tree line where the road lay was coming into view and Jaehwan focused inside, reaching into his well of power and weaving strands of lumina with drops of glacia in the air around them. He shut his eyes, letting electricity crackle from his fingertips and swirl around him until it formed a barrier between his body and the Shayde.
“Do not approach me,” Jaehwan whispered, hearing Taekwoon’s hiss of pain as Jaehwan rolled out of his arms. He landed in a crouch and slowly stood, the sound of Sanghyuk calling his name in the distance barely even penetrating his thoughts. “Do not approach me, do not speak to me, do not even think about looking in my direction. I will help free the heart of the sun, but I want nothing to do with you.”
Lightning bloomed around him, barely controlled, roiling and sizzling and bright enough to light up the trees. But it didn’t burn the Shayde. Just as it had before, Taekwoon’s shadow simply soaked it up. The sparks died before they ever reached him. No matter how much Jaehwan wished he could simply burn the Shayde to cinders right then and there, he had to practice his skills if he ever dreamed of winning a fight one on one.
And he did want to fight, once all this quest business was finished Jaehwan wanted to rip the Shayde’s heart from his chest. If he even had a heart. It wouldn’t be nearly enough to avenge his people but Jaehwan had to start somewhere.
The pounding of hooves finally caught Jaehwan's attention and he doused his lightning, turning a bit and holding his hand up. Sanghyuk’s fingers closing around his wrist weren’t a surprise. Jaehwan could tell it was him, sensing his new friend's presence like a gentle glow that subtly flared in the back of his mind the closer Sanghyuk was. The elf jumped lightly into the air and swung himself up onto the saddle in front of Sanghyuk without the horse slowing down.
“Where’s your cowl? And why were you all... sparky?” Sanghyuk asked, resting his chin on the top of Jaehwan’s head as he turned the horse around to ride back to the others. Just being near enough to touch the man relaxed Jaehwan. His temper was cooling off, anger at Taekwoon dissipating as quickly as it had come. He hadn’t changed his mind about destroying the awful creature but the need to fight was less frantic now. Now that he had his steady friend to lean against.
“The Shayde put his filthy hands on me and I lost my temper,” Jaehwan muttered, “And I accidentally fell out of a tree. I have a spare cowl though.”
Sanghyuk jerked the reins so sharply that Jaehwan nearly slipped to the ground. “He what?! You what?!”
“Oh, not like that, he caught me when I fell. Although I really would have rather he hadn’t. A broken leg would have been better than having to feel his vile magic. Shift over,” Jaehwan replied impatiently, pulling one leg up and balancing so he could turn around and sit the other way. Now facing his friend, Jaehwan could see that Sanghyuk was gaping openly at him again.
The sellsword seemed to do that quite often, but Jaehwan ignored it. He didn’t want to think about the way Taekwoon’s shadow had curled around his limbs like poison vines, and he wanted to speak about it even less.
His and Sanghyuk’s packs hung from straps in place of saddlebags but they were still out of reach.
“I said shift, please,” the elf repeated.
Sanghyuk still wasn’t moving so Jaehwan dropped his hands flat on his friends’ shoulders and pushed him down, the man’s back flush against that of his enormous horse. Jaehwan shimmied halfway up his friend's body until he was essentially sitting on Sanghyuk’s stomach, fumbling around blindly in his pack for his spare cowl.
“Hush, I’ve almost got it,” Jaehwan said in response to the little squeaking noises his friend was making. “If you’d just moved, I wouldn’t have had to squish you.”
“You could have gotten down! You know, like a normal person!”
Jaehwan huffed and ignored that as well, finally locating his cowl and yanking it free. He refastened the top of his pack and sat up. “There, all done.” He scooted back off Sanghyuk, turned around again, and then began winding up his hair while he scanned their surroundings for the Shayde.
Taekwoon was maybe twenty paces away, lounging in his saddle and staring at Jaehwan with an unreadable expression on his face. Jaehwan glowered right back. The last thing he was going to do was give Taekwoon cause to think he was intimidated.
“If you’re done treating Hyukah like a jungle gym, can we get going now? It’s almost nighttime and I want to make camp soon, I’m starving,” Hongbin called, bow now strung across his back. Jaehwan glowered at him as well for good measure.
Sanghyuk’s arms came around him once more, holding the reins in both hands. He made a soft clicking sound and nudged his horse's flanks. It whinnied and began to trot, Jaehwan fixed the cowl in place, and he rested his head on the crook of Sanghyuk’s neck. The elf hoped there would be a water source of some kind near their campsite. He was dying for a wash.
Wonshik set the final pole of his and Hakyeon’s tent in the soft earth of the clearing with a low grunt. He could smell the damp ground, the almost sweet perfume of smoke that wafted up from the campfire Hongbin had just lit. Could hear quiet chewing as Hakyeon nibbled on a strip of dried beef. Night, but Wonshik had missed this.
He loved being an apothecary's apprentice, especially to one as skilled and kind as Hakyeon, but he’d grown up outside. Wind in his hair and moonlight on his skin and dirt under his feet. It was good to be out again. Out in nature, out in the world.
“You did a good job with that. Camp often?”
The quiet voice was accompanied by a rustling of cloth and Wonshik looked around. Taekwoon was rolling out a bedroll maybe five feet away, hair loose from its topknot and hanging down across his face like ribbons of ink. The Shayde hadn’t spoken to him personally yet and Wonshik didn’t quite know what to think about this new development.
Taekwoon was intimidating, on the surface at least, startlingly good looking and quietly confident in his actions. Even with the way he constantly talked down to Jaehwan, Wonshik couldn’t help but feel drawn to Taekwoon in a weird way. And it wasn’t like Wonshik had any sort of motivation to stand up for Jaehwan or feel bad for him. Jaehwan didn’t seem to care about Wonshik at all. The Glayce was much more interested in Hakyeon and the giant bloodsucker to pay Wonshik any attention.
“Yeah, I used to camp all the time when I was a kid,” Wonshik replied, giving the elf a small smile. To his surprise, Taekwoon smiled back. “You’re from the midlands, yes?”
Wonshik nodded, suddenly alert. Why was the Shayde asking him questions? Why now? Was it just because Wonshik was physically the closest person to Taekwoon so he was the natural choice? Or did Taekwoon want something from him? Want to get information out of him for some sinister reason?
This is why you don’t talk to people other than Hakyeon, Wonshik admonished internally. “I’m from Tassion, just south of the silent wilds. I don’t know if you know it,” he replied, lowering his eyes to his pack and reaching around inside. He wasn’t even looking for anything. Wonshik just needed something to focus on other than the Shayde’s dark and penetrating stare.
“I know of it, but I've never been. This is actually only my second time on the mainland,” Taekwoon replied absently. His soft voice didn’t match the cool exterior, Wonshik thought, as he counted and then recounted the packets of herbs Hakyeon had instructed him to pack. If he hadn’t been able to see Taekwoon’s mouth form the words, the apprentice wouldn’t have believed such a sweet sound could come out of him.
“Oh? Why did you come the first time?”
Taekwoon was silent for a few moments but eventually sighed, pulling his black cloak from around his shoulders and folding it neatly on the foot of his bedroll. His shoulders were so broad, body lithe but well-muscled.
Wonshik hadn’t missed the way Taekwoon had been carrying Jaehwan earlier in the day. Like the Glayce weighed less than nothing. The apprentice prided himself on always keeping his eyes open, being aware of his surroundings, catching what others missed. He didn’t think the others had even seen the elves' interaction.
“When my Dusk passed into the realm of the dark mother... I brought his body back to his family.”
“My Dusk. My bonded human protector.”
Wonshik frowned slightly. He’d never heard of such a thing. But... “I’m sorry your Dusk passed on, but that was kind of you. To return him to his family, I mean. What was his name?”
“Minhyun,” the Shayde replied, an almost wistful note to that musical voice. “He was the loveliest man and he left this world peacefully.”
“Jaehwan’s Dawn was murdered. By your lot,” Sanghyuk spoke up from where he was seated on the opposite side of their little camp. Both Wonshik and Taekwoon glanced over at him, Wonshik clearly more wary of the bloodsucker’s sharp tone than Taekwoon was. Sanghyuk may be young but he was still gigantic.
“Oh? It seems as though the job is open then. Are you hoping to fill the vacancy?” Taekwoon replied, voice so sweet it was clearly mocking now and Sanghyuk visibly bristled. Wonshik was just about to duck into the tent and hide when Hakyeon finally spoke up.
“No fighting, children. What happened to all that meant to meet and intangible connection bullshit you were spouting in my shop?” he asked, in the curt and no-nonsense way he reserved for people behaving stupidly.
“I’m starting to have second thoughts,” Sanghyuk snapped.
“Hyukah, go cool off before you say something dumb. And go get Jaehwan, will you? Dinner is almost ready,” Hongbin said, cutting off Hakyeon’s retort and shooing his best friend in the direction of the woods. He was warming some rolls over the fire and dispensing equal portions of fruit and hard cheese into six wooden bowls, making sure everyone had enough to eat.
They’d decided to split the chores, like cooking and washing up, evenly between them and Hongbin had volunteered to take the first shift. Rather uncharacteristically cooperative, if his behavior so far was any indication of general temperament.
From several feet away, Wonshik saw Hakyeon smile.
“Fine,” Sanghyuk mumbled, getting to his feet and retreating into the foliage without a backward glance. There was a spring maybe fifty paces away from their clearing and Jaehwan had scampered off almost the moment they’d stopped, claiming that he needed to wash the twigs and dirt out of his hair or something like that.
His absence was just fine with Wonshik. Taekwoon was nicer without the Glayce around. The apprentice hid a smile of his own and ducked into the tent to change his clothes.
Sanghyuk tried his best not to stomp as he wound his way through the trees in the direction of the spring.
He saw... that look. He’d seen it all throughout his childhood. The way people looked at a Darah. Fear and disgust contorting their features in equal measure. Sanghyuk hated it. He’d always hated it, being looked at like he was some kind of monster. Like he was unclean. Wonshik looked at him like that.
And the way Taekwoon spoke at him. At him, not to him. The distinction was very clear for Sanghyuk. Taekwoon spoke like he could read Sanghyuk’s mind. Like his thoughts were as plain as the nose on his face and Sanghyuk knew they weren't. He had a fantastic poker face. And how Taekwoon threw words at him like barbs, innocent on the surface but thorny beneath. How he talked about Sanghyuk and Jaehwan’s newfound bond like he had all the answers and the human had none. If they didn’t need the Shayde for this stupid quest, Sanghyuk would have put an arrow through his foot several hours ago.
“Hwannie?” he called, cupping a hand around his mouth to try and make himself heard as the spring slowly came into view. But he couldn’t see his friend yet. Maybe Jaehwan was just under water. That nickname was new as well but it barely fazed Sanghyuk. It felt comfortable, rolling off his tongue like he’d been saying it for years. He honestly didn’t understand that part, Sanghyuk couldn’t have only known the elf for roughly thirty-six hours. Surely, he’d known Jaehwan his entire life. He must have.
Sanghyuk reached the tree line and looked around. No Jaehwan. He blinked once and then began walking along the forest's edge, scanning the water for any hint of movement.
There. A few feet away from the shore, skin glittering like diamonds, hair flowing around him like a beacon of silver flame.
Jaehwan wasn’t wearing anything, Sanghyuk realized belatedly, feet rooted to the spot where he had frozen. The clothes that had nearly been shredded in the elf's fall were piled haphazardly on the bank, wadded up and probably now extra dirty. Had Jaehwan never learned how to fold?
Sanghyuk couldn’t tear his eyes from the Glayce in the spring. Jaehwan’s back was to him, submerged up to his shoulder blades in water that was no doubt freezing cold. His long, slim fingers were running through that hair. Winding it around and then letting it go, letting it swirl in the translucent cold. And something else, like spring rain dappling the treetop canopy. Or like a snowflake drifting down from the sky to land on a frozen flower petal. His friend was singing.
The mellifluous voice drifted through the air to the human, tangling his brain up in knots. Sanghyuk didn’t know how to act, how to speak, how to breathe. He could do nothing but listen. Listen and stare as the entirety of his world focused and condensed down to one point.
Jaehwan must have been crouching because he stood then, the water lapping at the base of his spine. He began to wring the wetness from his hair and the sellsword was still utterly transfixed. His friend’s waist was so petite, the muscle at his bicep swelling just enough to be noticeable, the luscious divots at the small of his back drawing Sanghyuk’s eyes and holding them.
“Sanghyuk? What are you doing?”
The sellsword, realizing he’d been caught staring for what was probably the eighteenth time now, tried to take a step back into the woods. It was a useless attempt to hide, really, seeing as Jaehwan had turned around and was looking straight at him. Had he snapped a twig? Made a noise of some kind? Or could his new friend's pointy ears pick up the sound of his slow breathing? Or the sound of his racing heart?
“Did you come to wash as well? I know it looks cold, but I promise it isn’t,” Jaehwan added, fingers tripping over the rippling surface of the water. Steam rose from the places he touched and Sanghyuk watched in amazement as his friend cupped water in his hands and tossed the liquid up in the air, the particles popping and crackling like minuscule fireworks. Each burst of light flaring a different color in the darkness.
Watching Jaehwan do magic was like watching him paint with rainbows.
“No,” Sanghyuk murmured, struck with the beauty of it all. The beauty of him. This enchanting and ethereal being that had careened into his life like a lit firecracker. He should really consider blinking; his eyes were starting to water.
But Jaehwan was smiling at him now, the first smile Sanghyuk had ever actually seen on his un-cowled face, and blinking would mean being unable to see it. Sanghyuk couldn’t stand that thought. Not even a little bit. Not even for a second.
Jaehwan laughed then, like a peel of tinkling bells. Two firsts in a row. “Will you stop doing that? You look like a fish on dry land,” he called, still chuckling as he slowly waded over to the bank. Sanghyuk managed to close his mouth. Finally.
“I do not,” he retorted, hating the croakiness of his own voice as soon as the words left him. Maybe he was turning into a frog. All he seemed to be able to do lately was croak.
Sanghyuk crossed his arms and squinted at the elf, trying his best to look intimidating. “Do not, and I’m here to inform you that dinner is ready,” he replied, watching Jaehwan move closer and closer, the water starting to dip lower and lower and-
The sellsword shut his eyes so fast they probably snapped audibly. Beads of clear water rolling down the side of Jaehwan’s thigh, hair wet and clinging to his skin, lashes stuck together from the damp. Sanghyuk didn’t have to look. His imagination was painting vivid enough images as it was.
“Hey,” came the soft voice, much closer than before. Some rustling as well, if Sanghyuk had to guess. The elf was getting dressed. Great mother be praised, he mused, pursing his lips in a tight line and trying to banish all thoughts of his friend's naked body from his head. Fantasizing in the middle of these twice damned woods wouldn’t do Sanghyuk any favors.
He was feeling itchy now for some unknown reason. Cold and hollow inside like something was missing. Oh. He knew that feeling. Sort of. This wasn’t exactly how the hunger usually came. Normally it was just a dull ache in the pit of his stomach, manageable for several days if he really tried to ignore it. The sellsword usually ignored it until he keeled over from exhaustion. Anything to delay the moment he would have to steal again.
“What’s twin flame?” Sanghyuk asked, eyes still firmly closed as he tried to ignore the way his insides were twisting around like angry eels trapped in a bag.
Jaehwan hummed wordlessly from several feet away. There was a faint pounding sound as well, Sanghyuk’s body going rigid as he realized what it was. He wouldn’t lose it now. Wouldn’t go all ‘feral predator’ just because he could literally hear the blood thrumming beneath Jaehwan's skin. He was better than that, stronger than that, had learned to control those urges a long time ago.
Sanghyuk had seen what happened to a Darah when they went too long without feeding. How their skin turned ashen, eyes dull and lifeless, driven mad from hopeless longing when the thing their body craved was kept from them. Less than human. But it had only been, what, two days? At most? Not even two days.
They had stolen the map in the evening, then found Taekwoon and ridden all through the night and again through the day. There was only one moon in the sky now, so... twenty-four hours? Thirty? This was impossible. A week between feedings was the routine Sanghyuk had gotten used to. Not a day.
“A twin flame,” Jaehwan replied, “Is what we are. I think. Possibly.”
“That’s kind of a shit explanation, no offense.”
“If you’d let me finish,” the elf grumbled, words running together and sounding distinctly whiny. Sanghyuk smiled even as he clenched his fists. Trying to breathe through his mouth rather than his nose. Trying to keep control. “It’s a bit like a soulmate. Two people that complete one another. Make each other stronger and better and more whole. Not romantic, but more sort of spiritual.”
Sanghyuk could see that. The not romantic part hurt Sanghyuk’s feelings a bit more than it should have or had any reason to, but it wasn’t like he could come up with a better answer for what was going on between them.
“Taekwoon was making fun of me,” he replied, changing the subject with an abruptness that startled even himself. He just had to keep talking, stay distracted until the hunger inevitably subsided.
All of a sudden, Sanghyuk could smell it. The aroma assaulted his olfactory senses like a series of punches to the stomach. Amber, cinnamon, lily, rosewood. The scent of Jaehwan’s magic mingling with the copper tang of his blood. Sanghyuk couldn’t stop the hiss that slipped from between his teeth. It was so strong he could almost taste it, his mouth beginning to water.
“He said his Dusk was dead and I said that your Dawn was too. He asked if I wanted to be your new Dawn,” Sanghyuk grit out, squeezing his eyes shut tighter. Maybe if he opened them his sense of smell wouldn’t be so overwhelming, but- no that wouldn’t help. It would be like looking at a banquet, just that much harder to avoid temptation.
Jaehwan didn’t reply but the sellsword could feel him standing there. Awkward and quiet. “I don’t want to, by the way. I don’t even know what that would entail,” he added, trying to assuage the rush of discomfort that washed over him at the elf's continued silence.
“Yeah, could you not stand so close to me?” Sanghyuk asked, not trusting his feet to move in the direction he wanted if he were to try and back away. Night, but he was royally fucked.
“Because,” he tried, swallowing very hard, “I don’t want to hurt you. Go back to the clearing with the others and I’ll follow.”
The whisper gentle press of a hand against his cheek sent Sanghyuk’s eyes flying open. This really wasn’t fair. Jaehwan was right there, a clean white tunic wrapped around his little body, hair dripping in wet patches and turning the fabric translucent. His pulse was thrumming at the base of his throat, Sanghyuk could see it now in addition to being able to smell it. So royally fucked.
“Please- go away.” White was no good, it would get stained. His thoughts were muffled, vision slightly blurred, the hollow feeling inside his chest getting stronger. Echoing and empty, mouth going dry.
Jaehwan was staring at him, calm, assessing. Sanghyuk couldn’t meet those frozen eyes. He didn’t even have the strength to keep his head up properly, just blinking down at the point where Jaehwan’s trousers were tucked into his boots.
“No,” the elf said softly, the hand still pressed against his cheek tilting his face up a bit. The current running between them from that point of contact... Sanghyuk felt like he was going to burst into flames on the spot. “I know what ails you.”
Jaehwan released the sellsword but stepped a touch closer, holding his pointer finger in front of his eyes. The smell was starting to drive Sanghyuk mad, but he watched, perplexed, as ice crystals began forming on Jaehwan’s fingernail. They piled up and smoothed over until it looked like the elf had a crystal talon.
With a swiftness Sanghyuk hadn’t been expecting, Jaehwan pulled the neck of his tuic aside, his hand flashed across his own collarbone, and a shallow slice opened where the crystal had scratched. Beads of scarlet welled to the surface of his skin and the scent of his peculiar magic filled the air around them like a cloud of toxic gas.
Sanghyuk lost it.
He snatched the elf up, hugging him tighter then was probably necessary, and sealed his mouth over the wound before a single drop of blood could spill. This was easier than actually having to bite. Sanghyuk hated the biting part most of all. Made him feel like he was some kind of rabid dog. He sucked gently on the elf's skin to make the flow a bit stronger, make drinking a bit easier.
Thick and rich and surprisingly hot, Jaehwan’s blood began to pool in his mouth. Relief. That’s what it tasted like. Relief and salt and just a hint of brown sugar. He had one hand on the nape of Jaehwan’s neck and the other on the small of his back, trying to keep Jaehwan upright as he swallowed the first mouthful. It didn’t really work.
Jaehwan had gone soft and pliant in his arms and Sanghyuk indulged in it, bending his new friend so far backwards that his hair nearly touched the ground.
His skin stopped itching after the second mouthful. The second was always the best. Teetering on the edge of enough, but without the mild nausea that the third brought on. Overindulging on an emetic would just make him sick, Sanghyuk had learned that the hard way, but something about Jaehwan’s blood was narcotic to him. The excess magic the elf possessed, probably.
“Sang- Sanghyuk,” Jaehwan mumbled, winding his arms loosely around the human’s neck. “Not too much, just... a little.”
Sanghyuk was having trouble hearing his friend over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. Something else was happening now, after the third mouthful. He was being greedy and he knew it, but that wasn’t exactly the problem. It was like he’d accidentally taken too much energy. Nothing like that had ever happened before, and yesterday Jaehwan had pulled him off before he’d gotten a second mouthful. But now the itching was back. Under his skin. Coiling around his organs and thrumming in his veins.
He sunk down into a sort of crouch after the fourth swallow and forced himself to stop, collapsing in a sitting position on the spongy ground and draping the elf across his lap. Jaehwan was still clinging to him, panting, and Sanghyuk tried to make himself focus. He licked at the cut to get it to heal up, doing his best to be gentle so as not to hurt Jaehwan more than he already had, but it was so hard to think just then with all this power threatening to incinerate him from the inside.
“You’re really strong,” he said quietly, staring across the spring at a tree on the opposite bank.
Jaehwan shifted a bit, sitting up so he could inspect Sanghyuk’s face more closely. “Yes. I am. I thought a little would be okay since you reacted fine after the first time but- Sanghyuk are you feeling alright?”
Sanghyuk didn’t know how to answer that. He didn’t feel bad, just weird. But it was growing stronger, brighter, more insistent with every passing heartbeat and Sanghyuk didn’t know what to do about it. Didn’t know how to handle the vast amount of power that was coursing through him. Every spot that Jaehwan touched him burned.
“I think,” he mumbled, ducking his head and nipping at Jaehwan's pulse point. Not to break the skin or anything, more just for something to do. Something that wasn’t imploding. The elf made a soft little noise that Sanghyuk tried very hard to tune out. “Too much.”
Jaehwan's heart rate increased. Why could he still hear it? He wasn’t hungry anymore, quite the opposite. Or was that his own heart? Sanghyuk had no clue but the phrase so royally fucked kept echoing in his head, over and over and over-
“Listen to me,” Jaehwan said, voice jarringly firm. His hands found Sanghyuk’s cheeks again and he dragged the human’s head back up.
He was worried. A tiny furrow in his brow, eyes wider than normal, lips pushed out a touch too far. That was what worry looked like when it settled across the elf's delicate features. And wasn’t that the kicker? Jaehwan was above average height, for humans at least, he wasn’t small by any means, and yet he looked so tiny up close. So willowy and soft and small. Sanghyuk blinked twice. Maybe it was his energy. Jaehwan had the same energy that a small but loud dog had.
“You aren’t listening.”
“I am,” Sanghyuk lied, because he hadn’t been. Maybe swallowing would help? It didn’t.
Jaehwan took both Sanghyuk’s hands, lacing their fingers together. That didn’t help either. That made it astronomically worse. This was like trying to stop a volcano with a cork.
“You need to let go. Let the energy flow out of you. I’ll weave it for you, but you need to just let it out.”
And how the fuck was he supposed to do that?
“Breathe,” Jaehwan replied, sounding much surer than he looked. Sanghyuk- how did he breathe again? How did his lungs work? How was he supposed to-
Jaehwan pulled the neat trick of elbowing him in the ribs while still holding his hand and Sanghyuk managed to inhale. That was good. Although inhaling just made him feel even fuller than before. And that was bad.
“Now, exhale. Imagine all the energy pouring out of you as you do it,” Jaehwan urged, giving Sanghyuk’s hand a little squeeze.
And Sanghyuk tried.
He imagined the fire inside him shrinking and condensing until it was a tiny ball of light. A small star that traveled out of his stomach and up his throat and now sat on the tip of his tongue. All he had to do was open his mouth and release it. Sanghyuk’s lips parted, air leaving his body with a stifled sort of shudder and Jaehwan's eyes went almost comically wide. The elf had barely a split second to look down at their hands in shock before...
Jaehwan let Sanghyuk go and made an elaborate hand motion in the air between them, like he was tracing the outlines of a spider's web. The man didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how he could help. He didn’t think speaking would be smart yet. Didn’t want to break the elf’s concentration. But Jaehwan had slid off his lap at some point and so Sanghyuk decided to remedy that. Jaehwan's palms came together, just a hairsbreadth from connecting when Sanghyuk’s hand closed around his waist.
The elf’s hands flew apart with a startled cry and the trees around them exploded with pure light. Brighter than the wildest fire and an unnatural bluish white. Sanghyuk tried to pull away but he couldn’t. It felt like his hand had been welded to Jaehwan's hip. He glanced up and nearly stopped breathing again.
A column of jagged electricity was crackling from the elf, shooting up past the canopy high above and right on into the clouds. Like a bolt of lightning had struck the earth and frozen in the moment of touchdown.
Jaehwan exhaled sharply, hair flowing around him like it had been caught in a gale and ice blue irises now the color of freshest snow. He was holding all of Sanghyuk’s extra energy, the man realized, channeling it upwards to stop it from charring them to dust.
As suddenly as the light had come, it vanished, and Jaehwan slumped forwards, limp and shaky and gasping for air.
“Hwannie,” Sanghyuk exclaimed, voice several octaves higher than he would have liked to admit. His hand came unstuck and he pulled his friend back to him. Hugging but trying not to smother.
The sound of shouting and running footsteps some distance off broke into Sanghyuk’s awareness enough that he managed to call a croaked, “Over here,” before losing the ability to focus on any single thing. He was back to croaking now. Back to being a frog. Jaehwan's pointy nose was pressing into his sternum. Warm puffs of Jaehwan’s breath were slightly dampening the front of his shirt. Someone was calling his name.
“Here,” he repeated, just as their four companions broke through the trees on their right. “What in the dark mother's name...”
That was Taekwoon.
“Sanghyuk what the fuck?! I told you to cool off not...”
Then someone crashing to the ground at his side. Not really crashing, more sort of catapulting themselves into Sanghyuk’s personal space. He looked around and found that it was Hakyeon, Wonshik several yards behind him and pressed up against a tree.
“Jaehwan, Jaehwan what’s wrong, what happened?” the apothecary was asking, trying to pry the trembling elf from Sanghyuk’s arms. Jaehwan wasn’t paying attention. He braced his hand on Sanghyuk’s thigh and sat up, wobbling as he turned halfway around and looked directly at Taekwoon.
“Sanghyuk is a conduit,” he mumbled, fingers skittering up to touch his own throat, and then fainted dead away.
Sanghyuk surged forwards, grunting at his friend's deadweight but managing to keep him from hitting the ground. The same couldn’t be said for his hair though. Jaehwan was probably going to whine about just having washed it. This isn’t the time to be thinking such ridiculous thoughts, Sanghyuk mentally shouted at himself.
“Let go of him, we need to wake him up,” Hakyeon was saying, attempting to remove Sanghyuk’s hands from the elf. That wasn’t going to happen. Not a fucking chance. Sanghyuk slipped an arm under Jaehwan's knees and hauled him up until he could comfortably cradle his unconscious friend against his chest.
“Sanghyuk, you need to let-“
“Be still,” Taekwoon interrupted, moving silently forward and kneeling directly before them. He lifted a hand but Sanghyuk scrambled back the few inches he could. “Don’t touch him,” he snapped, glaring daggers at the Shayde, but he went ignored. Jaehwan wouldn’t want Taekwoon to touch him, of that Sanghyuk was absolutely sure.
Taekwoon twirled his fingers through the air in a parody of what Jaehwan had done moments before. A small curl of smoke rose from his skin. Pure, undiluted darkness edged with something that flickered a deep purple.
Sanghyuk watched the trail as it dipped and rolled in midair and then darted forwards towards the elf now prostrate in his arms. This was worse than if they had simply been skin to skin. The man knew Jaehwan's opinion of the Shayde’s magic. But Sanghyuk felt as though he’d been rooted to the spot, powerless to pull away even when the channel of darkness slipped between his friends’ lips.
“No, wait what are you-”
The Shayde’s other hand shot up to cover Sanghyuk’s mouth and Sanghyuk resisted the very strong urge to lick his palm. Now really wasn’t the time to be childish.
“He is depleted, your ways of human healing are not what he needs at this juncture. Not that I doubt your abilities,” he said quietly, nodding respectfully in Hakyeon’s direction without taking his eyes from Jaehwan’s face, “But if you truly are a conduit, I am surprised he wasn’t killed.”
Sanghyuk could still feel the power churning beneath his skin but it was at a much more manageable level. Not burning so much as tingling. He felt like he could run from one end of the kingdom to the other without breaking a sweat or climb one of these enormous trees all the way to the top. Or raise a city to the ground with his bare hands.
But that power came with a price, he saw now. The unconscious elf in his arms was proof enough. Jaehwan could have been killed. Jaehwan could have been killed and all because Sanghyuk had been greedy. This strength wasn’t worth the price Jaehwan had to pay.
With a cough that sent his body shaking violently, Jaehwan came too. Taekwoon lowered his hand and nodded to Hakyeon. The apothecary took over at once.
“Jaehwan, can you hear me?” he asked, shifting over to press his palm to the elf’s forehead, nimble fingers snatching at Jaehwan’s wrist. Jaehwan’s hand came to his own mouth and he coughed one last time. His lips and the pads of his pale fingers dripping with liquid black. Like the elf had been drinking crude oil. He looked up at Sanghyuk, eyes dark and face empty. Sanghyuk tried very hard not to wince. Then the elf's attention turned to Taekwoon.
“That is twice in one day that you have saved me.”
Jaehwan coughed. Taekwoon blinked. It was like none of the rest of them were there.
“Please do not do it again.”
And with that, Jaehwan pushed himself away from Sanghyuk and stood up, promptly keeling right back over. He yelped, palms hitting the dirt, silver hair pouring down to pool on the ground. He’d been out of Sanghyuk’s reach but within Taekwoon's. The Shayde had let him fall. Just sat there and watched it happen without lifting a finger.
Hakyeon moved to help the Glayce back to his feet and brush the dirt from Jaehwan’s white tunic. Fussing. “Help me bring him back to the camp, Wonshik, he needs to be looked over,” the apothecary called behind, lip caught between his teeth with concentration. His apprentice hurried forward and swept Jaehwan off his feet. Another quiet yelp and then the two healers were jogging out of the clearing. Taking Jaehwan away.
Sanghyuk stood to follow, guilt for putting his friend in this state rising in his throat like bile, but Taekwoon grabbed his arm and yanked him back down. The human was ready to start shouting until Hongbin caught his eye. Something about the look in his best friend's gaze knocked the fight from him.
“Did you know you are a conduit?”
“No, I don’t even know what that means.” Sanghyuk hid his face in his hands, unsure whether he should feel ashamed or dejected. Maybe both.
Taekwoon nodded. “Let me try and explain then. You, or your body, acts like an amplifier. I am assuming you fed?”
Sanghyuk grimaced, a fresh wave of self-hatred crashing over him, but he still muttered in the affirmative. “That would certainly explain some things. The Glayce are a powerful race but he is incredibly weak on his own. Without you around to complete him, I have no idea how he’s managed to even survive for this long.”
“Jaehwan isn’t weak, he’s the strongest person I’ve ever met,” Sanghyuk replied, hearing the icy note to his voice and not bothering to try and conceal it.
“That may be so, but he is weak for one of his kind. What he did just now, with the lightning, would not have been possible without you giving him strength. Even the attempt would have left him an empty husk.”
“So, what are you saying? You want me to what?”
The Shayde smiled, a cool little smile, mischief written in the line of his mouth. “Make him do it again.”
Sanghyuk blanched, all ready to shout again until he felt Hongbin’s comforting hand on his shoulder. When had Hongbin gotten there? “Why would I do that? It makes him sick. Did you not see him just lying here unconscious? You’re a dick for not catching him by the way.”
“Did you not just hear him tell me not to save him?”
Taekwoon had him there, but, “That doesn't mean you should let him fall on his face! What did you do to him anyway? What was that black stuff?”
“Calamis,” Taekwoon repeated, sweeping his dark hair over his shoulder with an elegant flick. “It is my shadow magic. The equivalent of Jaehwan’s lumina. His lumina is what now flows in your veins, pure light, the energy of his soul. And calamis is the energy of mine. The Shayde and the Glayce are two halves of the same coin, I guess you could say. We complete each other.”
“What are the Tayre then?” Hongbin asked, giving Sanghyuk’s shoulder a little squeeze. “Superfluous. More useless than both of our races and friend to neither.”
“Great, and tell me why I should amp up Jaehwan's power again if it's just going to kill him,” Sanghyuk said, suddenly feeling very tired. He just wanted to go back to camp and sleep for a thousand years.
Taekwoon’s sharp eyes narrowed slightly in thought but he got to his feet, extending a hand for Sanghyuk to take. “Because, both he and you will grow stronger with practice. You never know when supercharged lightning will come in handy during a fight.”
Sanghyuk didn’t take his hand.
It has been brought to my attention that you might not know what a cowl is, so This is a cowl. Think assassins creed, if that helps
Two more days of hard riding had left Jaehwan ragged. His thigh muscles were positively screaming from being in the saddle and it felt like his spine had been permanently bounced out of its proper alignment. Some vigorous stretching was in order before he could do anything else.
Their little questing party had reached the Thunderspire around mid-morning, both moons high in the sky overhead, but Hongbin had insisted on sweeping the surrounding area for anything nasty that may be lying in wait. Naturally, the search turned up nothing of consequence. Just trees and trees and more trees. And a boulder or two.
“Do you need a boost?” Jaehwan asked. He groaned as he slid off the saddle, legs shrieking in protest at the movement after so much forced stillness.
Sanghyuk got down after him and secured the geldings reigns around a nearby tree trunk. “Couldn’t hurt, I suppose,” he replied, lip curling in displeasure as he eyed the elf over his shoulder.
“Come here then.”
Plucking at the laces that secured the neck of his tunic with nimble fingers, Jaehwan stepped forwards. Lifting the edge of his cowl and baring his throat so his friend could have easier access. Sanghyuk glowered at him. “Can you do the thing? So, I don’t have to- to bite you?”
“Of course,” Jaehwan replied, a razor of ice already forming on the tip of his index finger. It didn’t bother him, the pain. Pain was nothing to Jaehwan and this particular pain was usually followed by a wave of softest pleasure. It was a low price to pay, knowing that his friend would gain sustenance from his lumina. And Jaehwan had plenty of lumina to spare.
From the corner of his eye, Jaehwan saw that Taekwoon was watching them. That narrow dark gaze unmoving even as Sanghyuk’s arms came around him and Jaehwan dragged the ice crystal along his own collarbone in a single sparkling flash.
The shallow cut wept crimson tears across his skin. Sanghyuk barely gave them an instant to roll, lowering his golden head and latching his mouth to Jaehwan’s skin before the elf had time to drop his hand.
Jaehwan closed his eyes, humming a quiet reminder to “Just take a little.” His own pulse began to pound in his ears. Rhythmically and rapidly as Sanghyuk drank the life force from his body. Pleasant tingles ran through him, the heat of his friend a source of immeasurable comfort. Sanghyuk had been absolutely right when he said it hurt more on the arm. Like this, being drunk like a glass of fine wine didn’t hurt one bit.
Sanghyuk’s fingers wound around the fabric of his cloak, hand flexing into a fist at the small of Jaehwan’s back. Stopping took a great deal of effort, Jaehwan could sense the struggle in his friend, the war between his instinct to feed and the hatred of needing to steal that raged in his mind. But Sanghyuk did stop. After only a single mouthful Jaehwan felt the gentle pressure ebb away, Sanghyuk’s tongue flicking against the cut. Urging it to knit back together. Peculiar magic indeed.
“Better?” Jaehwan asked, a small smile breaking across his face when Sanghyuk hummed grumpily against his shoulder in response. Neither of them had slept well the night before, nerves for the coming day’s activities leaving them restless.
Sanghyuk gave a perfunctory nod.
“As adorably gruesome as this little ritual is, we have things to find,” Hakyeon called, sipping from his water flask and passing it to Wonshik.
Jaehwan was growing to like the healer more and more each day. Hakyeon was a remarkably efficient individual with gentle hands and a kind heart. He respected Hakyeon's knowledge in the healing arts and admired his quick smile. However, referring to Sanghyuk taking in lumina as gruesome, especially when Sanghyuk was already so sensitive about his needs, made Jaehwan frown.
“Please do not speak about it that way. I’m sure you meant no offence, but the Darah feeding ritual borders on sacred. Where the Dark Mother is concerned, at least.”
Jaehwan looked around, half expecting the words to have come from his own mouth. But, no. It was the Shayde who’d spoken. Given voice to Jaehwan’s own thoughts as though he could read Jaehwan’s mind. What an unsettling thought that was.
He watched the Shayde through appraising eyes. Hakyeon had begun to apologize and Sanghyuk had gone very stiff beside him, but Taekwoon was fiddling around with his saddlebags as if he’d said nothing of import. It wasn’t important really, Jaehwan supposed, looping an arm through Sanghyuk’s and guiding him toward the entrance to the Thunderspire. But the statement displayed an uncharacteristically sympathetic aspect of the Shayde’s personality.
Not that a few kind words made Jaehwan hate Taekwoon any less.
“Alright, what’s the plan?” Hongbin asked, striding right on past Jaehwan and up to the stone doorway. The man’s legs were short in comparison to Jaehwan’s, but he still moved remarkably quickly.
A pulse of power rushed through Jaehwan’s body, radiating out from the place he and Sanghyuk touched. It wasn’t overwhelming or debilitating, but it was strong, and the elf’s fingertips sparked of their own accord.
“Stop that,” he whispered, nudging his friend’s ribs with his elbow and trying to pull the excess lumina back inside himself. Sanghyuk flashed a mischievous grin. “Stop what?”
Jaehwan’s breath left him in a huff. “You know what. Save your strength for when you really need it.”
They’d practice that trick the previous evening, under Taekwoon’s irritatingly sharp gaze. Sanghyuk taking lumina from Jaehwan and then returning it tenfold. Weaving the increased supply of lumina was overwhelming to say the least and the elf didn’t think himself up to the task yet. He’d spoken the truth when he said he was out of practice and, despite his very vocal protests to the Shayde’s accusation of weakness, Jaehwan knew he’d always been the runt of his family where magic was concerned. It would take some getting used too.
“Listen up twin-flames, or whatever you are, we don’t know what could be waiting behind that door,” Hongbin snapped, Jaehwan jumping to attention and giving the man a silly salute.
The door in question appeared to have been carved directly out of the Thunderspire itself, a jagged column of granite that sprouted from the forest floor and stretched up several hundred feet. It put Jaehwan in mind of a pointing finger. It occurred to the elf that their party had discussed the significance of the Thunderspire at length, but not what they would do once they got there.
Jaehwan peered up at the spire, squinting in the moonlight to try and see the top. “If I may make a suggestion, I believe we should pair up. Match our skills and cover as much ground as quickly as possible,” Taekwoon said, that soft voice of his sending a chill through Jaehwan’s bones.
“Pair up how?”
Hongbin, ever skeptical. Ever suspicious.
The Shayde hummed as if in thought. “Wonshik and Hakyeon, since Wonshik is strong but not a very good fighter and Hakyeon can mend him as they go.”
A snort of humor from the healer was accompanied by a whiny sounding grumble from his apprentice.
“Hongbin and Sanghyuk are already used to fighting as a pair,” Taekwoon continued, “And I can supplement the force that Jaehwan’s magic lacks.”
Sanghyuk actually laughed out loud at that. “You must be fucking kidding. Seriously, that’s gotta be a joke.”
As if the Shayde ever joked.
“I’m entirely serious.”
Sanghyuk’s hand found Jaehwan’s wrist and held on tight. “So, what? So you can kill him in private and make it look like an accident? Not happening.”
“We have been over this several times now. I do not want to kill Jaehwan. I need Jaehwan to find the heart of the sun. Without him, our quest will fail. Please try and listen more carefully,” Taekwoon sighed, those dark eyes flicking to Jaehwan for an instant.
Jaehwan shifted in place, peering out from under the hood of his cowl. He wanted to be left alone with the Shayde about as much as he wanted his arms chewed off by wolves but being spoken about rather than too was starting to get on his nerves.
“Night, leave Taekwoon alone! You talk about him like he’s evil, but why should we trust you, bloodsucker?” Wonshik’s deep, rumbly voice hit Sanghyuk like a shockwave. His eyes narrowed to knife cuts, entire body going tense for roughly half a second, and then he was across the clearing with Wonshik’s collar wrapped around his fist.
“Call me that one more time,” Sanghyuk hissed, backing the other man up against the nearest tree, “And I will break you in half.”
“That’s enough! Will you two stop snapping at each other like rabid dogs?!” Hakyeon exclaimed. Hands thrown up in the air and expression one of complete impatience. Jaehwan could empathize with the healer on that sentiment.
He took a few steps forward, intending on stopping his friend before any real damage was done, but Hongbin was way ahead of him. “You, watch your mouth,” he said, aiming a glare at Wonshik as he hauled Sanghyuk backwards. “And you,” he continued, attention returning to Sanghyuk, “Relax.”
“He’s fucking insufferable,” Sanghyuk breathed, eyes never once leaving Wonshik who’d slid behind Hakyeon, using his mentor like a shield.
Jaehwan rested his hands on his friend’s back, murmuring a soft, “Don’t listen to him, Hyukkie,” before turning to face the Shayde. “I have a better idea. Why don’t we all stick together, and if splitting up is required, we can discuss it then. Safety and thoroughness should be a higher priority than speed.”
Taekwoon’s gaze was unreadable. Hakyeon was quietly chastising his apprentice, Sanghyuk was vibrating with indignation as Hongbin muttered to him, but the Shayde simply stared. He looked a bit the worse for wear, Jaehwan noticed belatedly. Exhaustion darkened the skin under his red rimmed eyes. Perhaps Taekwoon hadn’t slept well either.
“Wisdom, Snowshine. Let us begin then, unless the humans wish to continue hurling abuses at one another.” His words hanging heavy in the air between them, Taekwoon inclined his head in agreement and whirled away to the door with a swirl of black velvet.
Jaehwan gaped at the Shayde’s retreating back. That Snowshine nonsense would need to be stopped at the earliest convenience, but since when was the infuriating elf so agreeable?! It put Jaehwan on edge.
“So, what exactly are we looking for?” Hongbin asked, following Taekwoon to the stone door and attempting to pry it open.
“Another map, but that’s a given. Most likely a key or amulet of some kind as well. Assuming that ‘one of ten, five of two’ means what I think it does, then we will need ten maps, and two varieties of other objects, five each.”
Sanghyuk ducked his head, mouth close enough to Jaehwan’s ear that the Glayce nearly shivered. “What did he call you?” the man murmured. His concern was plain enough, and it served to dampen the anger that flared in him not even a minute ago.
“Nothing, just another way to try and mock me,” Jaehwan replied.
With a reassuring pat to Sanghyuk’s arm, the two moved to follow their -for lack of a better word- questmates and stood before the door. It looked to have been crafted from one piece of solid stone. Jaehwan looked closer and realized that he couldn’t find the seam that should be in the center.
“Is it sealed shut?” he asked, pressing his palm to the door and finding it cool to the touch. Taekwoon hummed under his breath. “This was a mage tower. Perhaps one must prove their proficiency in magic to enter.”
“Step back, then.” Jaehwan raised his hands, sending strands of atmos to run along the front of the door. Feeling for cracks and weak spots.
Taekwoon snickered softly. “You think you’re strong enough to break through it?”
Alright, Jaehwan had had just about enough of the Shayde’s taunts. “I said, step back.”
The others skittered backward, Taekwoon moving at a slower pace than the humans seemingly out of spite. When they were a safe distance away, the Glayce curled his fingers into a fist. Gripping the terra within the stone door with invisible hands and yanking with all his strength.
Sanghyuk’s little boost earlier must have increased Jaehwan’s capacity more than he first thought because the door exploded. Fragments of granite blowing out from the doorway in every direction, stone dust billowing down around them and turning the air beige.
Jaehwan squeaked in surprise at the force of his weaving. He stumbled backward, arms up to try and avoid getting his head bashed in by the debris.
“Great mother be praised!” Hakyeon exclaimed once the dust had settled, Hongbin giving Jaehwan a congratulatory pat on the back. The Glayce shook himself like a wet dog, attempting to remove some of the dust that now coated him from the top of his hood to the toe of his boots. He felt like he’d just walked through a sandstorm.
Sanghyuk appeared beside Jaehwan once again. “Marvelous, Hwannie!” he praised, eyes wide, smile signaling that his feelings of animosity towards Wonshik were temporarily forgotten.
Jaehwan tried to inhale, choked, and promptly spat a mouthful of dust onto the grass beneath his feet. Mage tower didn’t taste very good.
A light weave of atmos and glacia swirled gently around the Glayce. It plucked the debris from his clothes and left his exposed bits of skin clean. This wasn’t Jaehwan’s magic. He hadn’t woven this. He was going to, had been just about to weave it, but someone had beaten him to the punch. “Sloppy,” Taekwoon murmured, breezing past Jaehwan and entering the abandoned tower.
Jaehwan nearly screamed from annoyance.
The six travelers entered the Thunderspire in a quasi-diamond formation.
Hakyeon made sure Wonshik stayed behind him, turning his head every few minutes to check that his loyal apprentice was still there. The place had an undeniably spooky vibe. Each room they passed was empty, well- not entirely empty, empty of people. There was still food (now so rotten it was nearly unrecognizable) in the kitchen they stumbled upon first, then a library with books still waiting to be sorted into their correct shelves, even open inkwells (useless and thoroughly dried out) on the desks and half penned letters. But no people. No bodies either, for that matter. It was like the spire’s inhabitants had simply vanished in the midst of everyday life.
The two elves were leading from the front, Taekwoon heading up the formation with Jaehwan behind and a little to his right. As was to be expected, Sanghyuk was shadowing the Glayce like a wraith, his sword drawn in one hand and posture stiff.
“Doorway up ahead, on your left,” Taekwoon murmured, just loudly enough so that they could hear. Ribbons of darkness wound around his hands. Magic temporarily dormant but ready to be deployed in an instant should the need arise. Jaehwan had something similar going but the look of it was more subtle. A faint glow shimmering halfway up his arms, fingertips sparking each time Sanghyuk touched him. The effects of that conduit business, no doubt.
Hakyeon was not well versed in magic, never had been. The subject always failed to captivate his interest. He knew how to mend minor magical wounds, kindra burns and cuts from enchanted blades, but that was about it. Hakyeon's passion lay elsewhere. In the way a body reacted to herbal concoctions. The way commonplace plants could be mixed together to make something marvelous. How bones managed to knit themselves back together and skin sealed over seemingly of its own accord. How those processes could be sped up or altered with the proper care. That was magic enough for Hakyeon.
The floor of the Thunderspire sloped constantly upward. They’d been walking for all of ten minutes and must be on the third story by now, strolling around in a wide set spiral without once encountering a single set of stairs.
In truth, thinking they were on the third story was just a guess. There were no windows and the unending slant made it difficult to judge both time and distance.
“Hold,” the Shayde breathed, waiting for them all to stop before inching forwards to peer around the doorframe. All was still. Hakyeon held his breath, watching the shadows around Taekwoon’s feet begin to undulate like gossamer curtains being ruffled in a gentle breeze.
Jaehwan took a half step to follow, only stopped by Sanghyuk’s hand on his arm. “I sense something. What do you see?” he asked, the glow surrounding his hands growing a bit brighter.
“What is it?” Hakyeon called. He checked behind him for Wonshik the second time that minute, nerves sending the hair on the back of his neck prickling. The healer could feel it now as well. Not sorcery, per se, but something off.
“Snowshine, weave a barrier around the humans, would you? As strong as you can.”
Well that wasn’t reassuring at all.
Jaehwan did as instructed, huffing at the Shayde’s new nickname for him but doing something that made the air in front of Hakyeon ripple. Hakyeon felt it tingle. Charged, as just before a lightning storm.
The humans, as they’d been so charitably referred too, clumped closer together. Instinctual shifting and small movements that ended with Hongbin directly in front of the healer. His broad shoulders like a brick wall to shield Hakyeon from whatever sinister mystery lived inside that room. Hakyeon brushed the sellswords shoulder in an attempt to be reassuring.
Taekwoon took one step forward. Then a second. A third, and he was fully on the threshold. Hakyeon was struck with a sudden burning need to scream at him to get back, turn around and run away but his lungs had constricted too much for speech.
Whatever Jaehwan was about to say didn’t matter. He didn’t get a chance to finish.
The doorway filled with a light so blinding that it felt like Hakyeon’s retinas had been seared. There was no sound. No boom or echo or crack. Simply a flash that turned the corridor around them pure white.
What the light was, Hakyeon had no clue, but it surely aggravated the shield Jaehwan had woven around them. Golden sparks flared every few inches like firecrackers. Some unseen projectiles being hurled at it and attempting to break through the weave.
Hakyeon made a grab for Wonshik, his other arm circling Hongbin's middle by feeling alone. He was entirely blind.
Someone in front of them made a noise, a garbled sort of shriek, and then darkness bloomed in the midst of the light. It billowed out like fog, rolling across the hallway until it reached the shield. Swirling and whirling but not breaking through. Like looking at smoke through a pane of glass.
“Thena, mother of the world and beacon of eternal flame, protect your humble children in our darkest hour...”
The murmur came from behind him. Wonshik was praying. Maybe it would help.
“Do not move,” Taekwoon’s voice called, high and sharp and entirely unassailable. None of them moved. Hakyeon didn’t think he could have moved if he’d wanted too. Shallow panting accompanied his words but it was emanating from a different direction. Closer to Hakyeon and a little to the left. Was someone hurt?!
With an almighty bang, the smoke cleared. Dissipating and melting away to nothing in the blink of an eye. The unnatural light was gone now as well. Hakyeon blinked, watercolor impressions printed behind his eyes.
“Huh,” Jaehwan sighed, breathing labored and shallow. As the healer's vision began to clear, he saw that the elf’s hands and side of his jaw were an angry crimson. Holes singed in his sleeves and the front of his tunic. The hood of his cowl was still obscured the majority of his face, but he hadn’t had the wrap pulled up over his nose and mouth like normal. The exposed skin was burned.
“You idiot,” Taekwoon hissed, stepping back from the door and snatching up Jaehwan’s arm. Peering at the still smoking flesh through narrowed eyes, “Why didn’t you get behind the shield as well?”
“I believe you instructed me to only protect the humans, no? I simply did as commanded.” A forced note of sarcasm drenched in pain.
Hakyeon finally snapped out of his temporary daze. “I can heal kindra burns, let me help,” he called, but his attempt to move past the protective barrier was halted by Hongbin who still stood resolutely in front of him.
“This is not from kindra,” Taekwoon replied, ignoring both Jaehwan’s squeaky protests and Sanghyuk, who was pressed up against the barrier like a child peering through a sweet shop window. “The flash you just saw was pure lumina, and the only reason he-“ vague motioning to Jaehwan “-wasn’t incinerated is because of what he is. This was a Glayce working.”
“At least that means we’re on the right track then?” Hongbin asked, sidestepping to block Hakyeon a second time. Taekwoon nodded. “The right track, indeed.”
Hakyeon could smell the perfume of leather and sweat on Hongbin's skin, he was standing so close. Feel the reassuring warmth rolling off his body as though the healer stood before a furnace. The sensation nearly distracted Hakyeon. Nearly.
Ribbons of shadow curled out from the Shayde, rolling around the burns now decorating Jaehwan’s skin. Hakyeon would have assumed the Glayce would reject the Shayde’s help. Pushed Taekwoon away and cursed him for a murderer. But it seemed that the pain was great enough that Jaehwan kept his mouth shut for a change. Liquid darkness soothing the red away.
With a quiet sigh of relief, Jaehwan dropped the protective barrier between the humans and elves.
Sanghyuk was on him in an instant, cupping the elf’s hand like it was made of porcelain. Their bond, if that’s what it really was, both baffled and amused Hakyeon. It was sweet to see two people care for each other so much if nothing else. But it seemed that the man in front of him didn’t share that opinion. Hongbin's shoulders grew markedly rigid.
“Come along, let's be about it,” Taekwoon said, retracting his shadow and skulking sideways through the doorway.
The rest of the party followed close on his heels. Hakyeon kept one hand around Wonshik’s wrist, placing the other on Hongbin’s back. They moved in a straight line now rather than a clump. Walking one by one like prisoners to the execution block.
Once over the threshold, Hakyeon got a bit of a shock. The room they’d entered was no room at all. It was another hallway, identical to the one they’d just left. Same pale beige stone, same slanted floors, same curve stretching off infinitely in both directions. Curious.
“This is new,” Wonshik said from behind him. Hakyeon scoffed. “It’s completely identical, what are you talking about?”
All turned to see what Wonshik was looking at. His nose was barely an inch from the wall, squinting at a row of scratches in concentration. “They’re runes. I recognize them from the temple in Tassion.”
“Can you read them?” Hakyeon asked, coming to give the scratches a closer look. They were nothing more than chicken scratch to him.
Wonshik gave a distracted nod, tracing the marks with one finger.
“Where did a farm boy like you learn to read runes?” Hongbin’s question was met with silence. All of them waiting as Wonshik translated in his head.
“Looking here, one faces north. Up toward the rise, down towards the set.”
Wonshik cleared his throat. “It’s directions. Probably in case one of the people who lived here got lost. If we stand like this,” he straightened up, angling his body at the wall, “We’re facing north. The second moon rises in the east, and sets in the west. So, if we want to go west, we should walk down the hallway, not up it.”
“That’s completely counterintuitive,” Hongbin replied, running one hand through his lovely brown hair. “We just want to reach the top of this damned tower! And why does it matter whether we go east or west? The only direction that matters is up.”
“You’re thinking too literally,” Hakyeon spoke up, the pieces finally clicking, “Not set as in west, set as in close. Finish. The end of the hallway is at the bottom.”
“Can you not hear me or something? We’ve been at the bottom, that's where we came in! We want to go to the top!”
Hakyeon turned on the sellsword with a scowl. “I can hear you fine, you’re just wrong.”
“I think Hakyeon is correct.” Hakyeon brightened at the show of support, turning to flash the Glayce a brilliant grin.
“Down it is, then. We can’t leave until we find the next map so we can walk back up if we have too,” Taekwoon added, swirling past them and leading the way west.
They walked in slightly tense silence for maybe ten more minutes, boots echoing on the stone floor, Wonshik pausing every now and then to examine more sets of scratches. This seemed... too easy. One flashbang and a simple maze? Not even a maze, just a circle? He should be grateful for the lack of obstacles, but their absence set Hakyeon’s teeth on edge.
“If I had to guess,” Sanghyuk said, both hands resting on Jaehwan’s shoulders at the front of the group, “I’d say we’ve been walking down longer than we went up.”
Odd, but he was right.
Hakyeon put voice to his own thoughts. “Surely, we must be underground by now.”
There was no way to tell, what with having no windows to check their position. They should have reached the bottom already so why were they still going downwards?
“How do you know we’re going down?”
Hakyeon stared at the back of the Shayde’s head, bewildered. “Uh- the stone beneath my feet? The angle of the floor?”
“How do you know we aren’t on the ceiling?”
That stopped the healer dead in his tracks. The halt was so abrupt, in fact, that Wonshik walked smack into his back. “What in the five hells is that supposed to mean?!” he exclaimed, propping a hand on his hip. Eyes narrowed and nose crinkling in disbelief.
“I mean,” Taekwoon replied, stopping along with the rest of them and pulling a square of parchment from the pocket of his trousers, “Look here.”
With stick of charcoal scrounge up from a hidden compartment in his cloak, Taekwoon used the wall as a desk and began to draw. Two parallel lines slanting downwards, a little stick figure (presumably representing them) standing on the bottom line, and an arrow pointing down-right.
Taekwoon rotated the parchment 180 degrees so the figure was upside down, the lines now slanting upwards and the arrow pointing in the opposite direction.
Hakyeon blinked. Once. Twice. “I see that,” he replied, tone careful, “But we,” he indicated at himself and the others, “Are walking downhill.”
The rebuttal was soft as a whisper but contained not a drop of doubt.
Jaehwan made a huffy little noise, inflating his cheeks as he crouched and used some unknown magic to gouge a small chunk of granite from the floor. “There is a simple way to test this theory.”
And with that, the elf straightened up and tossed the rock into the air.
It didn’t come back down. Hakyeon waited for it, stood there like a dumbstruck fool as he waited for the rock to reach its peak and arc back down to the floor, but no such thing occurred. What did occur was the small rock flying higher and higher until it hit the ceiling, bounced once, and then stuck there.
“Great mother...” murmured Wonshik.
“What the shit?!” exclaimed Sanghyuk.
“How is that even possible!” gasped Hongbin.
“If you recall,” mused Taekwoon, swishing a lock of inky hair off his forehead, “This is a mage tower. Where mages lived and studied magic. It’s a crude, human sort of magic, not elemental or pure, but this structure has magic in its bones.”
“We must have been going up, walking the same direction, this entire time! That’s fascinating!”
Hakyeon couldn’t see Jaehwan’s face, concealed as it was beneath his hood, but the healer bet he was smiling.
The Shayde nodded, entirely unfazed by what, to Hakyeon, was a revelation. “Indeed. Let’s keep going because unless I’m very much mistaken, we appear to be approaching the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And he was right. Hakyeon looked left- or right- or down or whichever gods damned direction they’d been walking in and he saw that the corridor no longer stretched on into infinity. There was an ending. A door.
Taekwoon clasped his hands behind his back as they walked the final distance, thick cloak a comforting weight on his shoulders and expression one of practiced blankness.
One might ask, why was Taekwoon -a Shayde- actively working to undo his people’s greatest triumph. One might then also ask what in the five hells he was doing associating with those illustrious beasts called humans, let alone a member of the Glayce royalty. Or possibly ask what he was doing leading the group, rather than letting his inferiors walk before him to take any oncoming heat.
The truth was simple. Taekwoon was a good person.
He’d grown up in the heart of Fecante, raised by two scholars and the youngest of their four children. Taekwoon’s parents owned a book shop. He’d gone to school and made a few friends and misbehaved on occasion. Done everything that a normal kid would do. But what Taekwoon loved more than anything was reading. Learning. Absorbing the knowledge concealed in the pages of his parents’ books like a sponge.
When he was young, Taekwoon was taught that humans were inferior. That the Glayce were upstart weaklings that had no right to the influence they claimed. That his own people were the strongest, the best, blessed children of the Dark Mother and charged with bringing her everlasting glory.
But Taekwoon didn't believe most of that propaganda nonsense.
He’d read about all the amazing things that humans had created, numerous inventions that helped to better the lives of every creature in the five kingdoms, not just themselves. He’d read about the wonders the Glayce performed. Their sculptures of living ice and vast stores of magic. And he loved his people, loved the calamis that ran thick in his blood and the dark land that he called home.
Taekwoon didn’t think his people were bad, he just didn’t believe they were better than everyone else.
The war had broken out when Taekwoon was 172. He could remember like it was yesterday, the sun melting in the sky, it’s heart tumbling to the ground like an asteroid. The world falling into perpetual darkness, hopefully never to see another sunrise again. Taekwoon’s people had celebrated, his friends, his elders, Dark Mother even his sisters had drunk themselves silly with joy at the Shayde’s apparent victory.
Not even a full day after, the Shayde elders realized their mistake. The heart of the sun did not land where they’d thought it would, but rather across the border in the Glayce territory. The place that would become enemy territory, that stunning land of snow and ice and almost boundless magic. Shayde soldiers had mobilized and the army invaded within the month.
It was wholesale slaughter. Taekwoon and his Dusk had avoided the majority of the fighting. They’d been drafted like all the other healthy adult males and so were brought to the front, but the pair always stayed to the back of the raiding parties and kept their hands as clean as possible. Neither Taekwoon nor Minhyun had a taste for violence. And they didn’t fancy the idea of killing innocents Glayce in pursuit of something that shouldn't be on earth in the first place.
Once Minhyun was killed, accidentally caught up in an explosion of lumina, Taekwoon had deserted his position in the military. He’d brought Minhyun’s body back to his family on the mainland, never taken another Dusk, and sequestered himself away in his parents' bookstore for the next hundred years.
The war was long over by the time he emerged into civilized society. Taekwoon’s grieving period was done and his research into the heart of the sun had begun. That research had brought him here, with these five unique individuals, about to walk into what was clearly a trap.
Taekwoon looked left from the corner of his eye. Mentally running through the list of his companions one by one. He liked them all in truth, if for different reasons.
Directly behind him was Hakyeon, a frightfully methodical individual with gentle hands and an iron will. And a step behind Hakyeon was Wonshik, the Larmah. He was harmless enough, though that devotion to the great mother had the possibility of getting very tiresome very quickly.
Beside Hakyeon strode Hongbin. His razor-sharp wit never failed to make Taekwoon smile, even if he kept those smiles to himself, and he had a fire in his soul that was downright contagious. Hongbin was almost ferociously loyal to his friend as well, a trait that Taekwoon could appreciate.
That friend currently hovered near Taekwoon’s left shoulder. Sanghyuk was a hulking presence in the Shayde’s periphery, but despite his unconcealed dislike of Taekwoon and propensity for drinking blood, Taekwoon didn’t really mind the man. His self-loathing streak was a bit annoying but aside from that he was fine.
But the jewel of their little party, the Glayce, walked at Taekwoon’s side on dainty feet. Steps soundness and pure white light ringing his slim hands.
Taekwoon was head over heels for Jaehwan. From the first moment he laid eyes on the Glayce, the Shayde was entirely enchanted. When Jaehwan took that tumble out of the trees a few days ago and tried to burn Taekwoon when he caught him, that was when Taekwoon knew it was love. He knew this beautiful, belligerent little snow elf would be in his life forever.
Then, why all the teasing, one might ask? It’s the principle of the thing. Innate superiority was expected from a Shayde. It would be stranger if he didn’t poke fun every now and then. Plus, angry Jaehwan was a very entertaining sight to behold.
“Be on your guard,” Taekwoon murmured, charging up the calamis that always pooled just beneath his skin. The energy of this place was wrong. Something was about to happen; he could feel it.
Jaehwan raised his hands and pulled the hood off his head, silver hair tumbling down around him like a lightning strike. “If you thought I let my guard down around you for even one moment, Shayde, you’d be mistaken,” he snapped, the ends of his hair crackling with unspent electricity as he shook it out.
Taekwoon’s mouth quirked into something that was almost a smile. “Probably for the best.”
The room they entered was... not what Taekwoon had been expecting. No spell books strewn about or holy altars to the great mother or mystical sigils carved into the walls.
A perfect cylinder, too-tall ceilings, as though they stood at the bottom of an enormous well. The top of the Thunderspire was empty but for a single sandstone podium. And on that podium-
Hongbin had bolted around them and was jogging toward the podium before Taekwoon had fully processed his surroundings.
There was indeed a map, or what looked to be a map, half uncurled and lying atop the podium beside a small golden key. Narrow stem and with a handle shaped like dragonfly wings. But rushing into things without gauging the situation fully didn’t seem like the wisest course of action. Especially since they’d only face one measly obstacle so far.
“Wait, wait Hongbin- hold on,” Hakyeon called, trying to dart past the Shayde just as the air in the room shifted.
Taekwoon grabbed the healer by the arm and hauled him back, forgoing gentleness in order to stop Hakyeon breaking an ankle. Cracks and pits had opened all across the floor as soon as Hongbin touched the map. Jagged and apparently bottomless, as far as Taekwoon could tell. And the dust that coated the room had begun to swirl.
“Nobody move, don’t even breathe. You too, Hongbin, stay perfectly still,” Taekwoon cautioned. His gaze flicked around the room, trying to guess, trying to assess, put himself in the mindset of these human mages that had vanished so many centuries ago.
This was a trap, that much was undeniable. But what kind of trap? What kind of magic had the spire’s occupants been studying? Certain humans had affinities for certain types of magic, could wield one element, two at most, but only after years and years of practice. These mages could have done any number of things, set any number of snares. Were they interdisciplinary or solely focused on the control of a single element?
Sanghyuk had his sword drawn, the silver tip glinting to Taekwoon’s left.
“Uh- we have a problem...”
That was Wonshik, still at the very back of the group when Taekwoon turned slowly to glance at him. Nothing seemed amiss, the apprentice had a pair of Sai’s in hand and by the look of it, he knew how to use them. But-
The door was gone. Wall entirely smoothed over as though their only exit had just melted away to nothing. Well shit.
And then Hongbin started to scream.
Taekwoon whipped his head back around, staring in horror as the sandstone podium began to twist and writhe, crawling up over Hongbin’s hand where it rested, on the spot he’d placed it after slipping the map and key into his pocket.
“On your right!” Sanghyuk called. He was already moving away toward the podium, toward Hongbin, dodging the fissures in the floor with a swiftness not normally expected from a person his size. Taekwoon hesitated to follow, only for a breath, but a breath was enough. Something struck him from the right -presumably what the sellsword had warned him about- and nearly knocked him clean off his feet.
The swirling dust had formed grotesque parodies of men. Sucking chunks of stone from the walls and floor and ceiling as they charged, crude weapons in their fists and smooth featureless faces. One such creature was responsible for what felt to Taekwoon like several bruises on his ribs and upper arm. Just lovely. A nice touch. At least he knew what these mages had been studying. Earth magic. Terra.
Taekwoon pointed with two fingers at the thing that had attacked him, indigo pulses shooting out from them and colliding with the stoneman’s chest. It was blown apart, shattered to smithereens, but rather than crumbling to the ground like Taekwoon had expected, its broken pieces were sucked up by its cohorts. The dead were strengthening the living. Or, the animated anyway.
“Snowshine, don’t break them, burn them!” he shouted, spinning on his heels and taking aim at the next closest stoneman. Twin streams of black kindra flew from his outstretched hand, scorching the thing to ash. The other stonemen still absorbed the leftovers, but ash was much less substantial than rock. Progress.
Jaehwan was clearly doing his best, jets of white-hot fire lashing out at the stonemen around him, those lovely cheeks flushed with effort. He had Hakyeon pressed between his back and the wall, shielding the healer from harm. But would his best be enough? Without his twin flame, his conduit, how much power did the Glayce really have?
Taekwoon advanced further into the room, incinerating every threat that came within five feet of him, until he reached the podium. Tongues of black flame rolling off his shoulders and black razors on the tip of every finger. “Let me,” he snapped, neatly extricating the still screaming Hongbin from Sanghyuk’s grip. “Let me do this, go help Jaehwan.”
The stone continued to creep up Hongbin’s arm, crawling insidiously along his flesh like it was trying to devour him. Earth magic wasn’t Taekwoon’s strong suit, but he was no novice. The mechanics were simple enough, and rudiments were the same for all elements. Go small. Work particle to particle, section by section, until enough raw energy was gathered that it can be molded to one’s will.
He began to weave, looking for cracks in whatever enchantment was currently crushing the sellsword’s fingers. It was dense. Old workings that Taekwoon had never encountered before. That doesn’t matter, focus Taekwoon, just focus and take it apart.
Something behind him cracked like canon fire, breaking the Shayde’s concentration enough that he accidentally looked around for the noise’s source.
Hakyeon was still mostly obscured behind the Glayce, but he’d retrieved Hongbin’s abandoned bow and sent arrow after arrow flying, spearing the stonemen in the chest. Wonshik was grappling with one of the creatures as well. He’d apparently given up on stabbing, reverting to brute strength and simply beating the thing with the pommel of his Sai. Sanghyuk was fending the things off with his sword, one hand gripping the hilt and the other pressed flat to Jaehwan’s stomach.
But Jaehwan was glowing. Taekwoon caught his breath at the sight. Bright white tendrils sprouted from the Glayce’s back like wings of pure light, long hair whipping back and forth as kindra poured from his palms. Irises flaring the color of ice and pupils obscured entirely. Sanghyuk must be giving him a boost.
That was good, but it most likely wouldn’t last long. Taekwoon returned his attention to the matter at hand. He wove as fast as he could, painstakingly peeling the rock from Hongbin’s forearm and stopping its continuous spread.
Hongbin was in pain. Taekwoon could see it each time he dared a look up at the man's face. Eyes squeezed shut and mouth contorted in a grimace. “I’m getting you out, just breathe, your hand will be fine,” he said, aiming to reassure and not quite managing it. “Hongbin, you need to relax, can you hear me?”
The man gave no indication whether he could hear Taekwoon or not. He was panting fast, body growing warmer by the second, skin heating up under Taekwoon’s hands like he had a fever. An unnatural fever, too hot, like he was being burned from the inside out. The effects of the spell? Or...
Being burned from the inside out... under stress... in a huge amount of pain... oh, oh Dark Mother-
“Get down!” Taekwoon shouted, ducking low just as the heat growing inside Hongbin ruptured.
Fire exploded from Hongbin as he screamed, a solid ring of bright red flame that sent the floor shaking and cracks shooting through the walls on all sides. Every stoneman in the room was reduced to nothing. The rock encasing him up to the elbow was just gone. Reduced to nothing in the wake of that fire, but nothing on Hongbin himself was out of place. Not a singe on his clothing or mark on his skin. He’d stowed the map and key in his cloak before the bedlam broke out, thank the night, so they were safe. But-
“Hongbin, are you alright?” Taekwoon asked, rising slowly and inspecting the man's face. Hongbin wasn’t looking back at him, staring blankly at the wall opposite and gripping the remnants of the sandstone podium for support. Probably just in shock.
“I don’t know what the fuck that was, but we need to find a way out of here!” Wonshik called, he and Hakyeon both picked themselves up from where they’d crouched. Taekwoon knew what it was. An Awakening. Hongbin’s (apparent) affinity for kindra had been dormant up until now. It was a relatively normal landmark for humans with magical abilities and he was the right age for it. But now wasn’t the time to explain. “You’re right, any ideas?”
Jaehwan was still powered up, he and Sanghyuk ringed in shimmering air. “I have one,” the Glayce whispered, peering sightlessly around through those now solid white eyes, “But it’s ludicrous.”
Taekwoon wrapped an arm around Hongbin’s middle to try and give the sellsword some support, half holding him up as he watched Jaehwan move. Eyes now closed and breathing deep, the elf circled both arms in an outward arch and brought his hands together on the downswing. Fore and middle fingers extended so they touched, forming a point at his sternum with his thumbs underneath like a triangle.
That gesture was familiar to Taekwoon, a way to gather and center one's power, and he realized what the Glayce was planning a split second before it happened.
Jaehwan flicked his hands forward and outward, lightning crackling from him and sheering straight through the wall. A gaping hole was left in its wake and before Taekwoon could act, before he could think, Jaehwan took off running at a dead sprint and leapt into freefall.
From behind him, Sanghyuk gave a wordless shout, but Taekwoon was already gathering the humans into a clump and leading them toward the hole. They needed to get out of there before more stonemen formed or more traps went off. “Come on, you have to trust me,” he said, peering over the edge of the newly created ledge.
Jaehwan was a speck on the ground maybe 200 feet below. “I’ll catch them in an atmos net, just slow their fall,” he called, Taekwoon’s elven hearing picking up the words despite the distance.
Not the most elegant plan, but simple enough. Taekwoon set curls of atmos -a pale grey as it was tinged with his shadow, his calamis, rather than Jaehwan’s glittery white weaves- winding around the human’s limbs. Making them lighter. Tying the weaves off and holding the ends of them in his hands like marionette strings.
“Jump, all of you. Jaehwan will catch you, have no fear,” he said, nudging Hongbin into the healer’s arms so his own arms were free.
Sanghyuk, unsurprisingly, was the first to jump, arms wind milling as he dropped. A blind leap of faith in Jaehwan’s abilities despite knowing the Glayce must be nearly depleted by now. The idiot. Hakyeon went next with Hongbin. Less haste and more care. They were all three safely on the ground before Wonshik finally got up the courage to jump.
Taekwoon guided all their falls so they were smooth and controlled, finally leaping from the ledge himself. No need to rely on Jaehwan’s net though. His own landing was cushioned by a pillow of calamis, the black fog absorbing impact and setting him gently on his feet.
“Well... that could have gone worse, I suppose,” Wonshik sighed, lying flat on his back amongst the tall grass. Taekwoon nodded. “I suppose so.”
He took a moment to shake the leftover energy from his limbs and then paced over to where Hakyeon was inspecting their savior. “You were excellent, Hongbin,” he said, “Without your kindra, those things would have kept coming at us.”
“I don’t know what happened.” The look Hongbin gave Taekwoon was unfocused, hazy. “You had your Awakening. Did you know you have an affinity for magic?”
The sellsword shook his head. “Is that why I’m here? The fire?”
“Perhaps, in part. Or perhaps not. Only time will tell.”
“Cryptic,” Hongbin muttered, eyes closing as he slumped to rest his head on Hakyeon’s knee. “He just needs to rest,” Taekwoon assured, giving the healer a pat on the shoulder, “We’ll camp here for the night.”
“He’s still hot, much too hot!” Hakyeon was fretting, hands shaking as he poked and prodded the man in his lap to check for injuries. Most likely the first time he’d been in a fight situation. Taekwoon couldn’t blame him for the nerves. “Wonshik, bring me my pack!”
“Water is what he needs, and- Snowshine, would you mind? A little ice?”
Jaehwan was being thoroughly cuddled by Sanghyuk a few feet away, limp and drowsy looking now that his temporary powerup had worn off, but he had strength enough to wave one hand. Little water droplets fell down around Taekwoon and he managed to catch a good amount, cupped palms filling with frozen rain. Hakyeon held out and handkerchief into which the Shayde deposited the ice, then pressing it to Hongbin’s forehead
Not too keen on watching the twin flame’s affectionate exchange, Taekwoon set about unloading everyone's packs and making camp with Wonshik’s help.
“Where did you learn to read runes, by the by,” the Shayde asked quietly, watching the apprentice roll out his and Hakyeon’s bedrolls. Wonshik blinked, gave a shifty look around, then finally met Taekwoon’s eye.
“Before I moved to Mairis, my mother and sister and I all lived at the sisterhood temple in Tassion. I left when I was sixteen, but they taught me much.”
“And how old are you now?” Taekwoon asked out of curiosity. That would certainly explain the constant prayers being sent to the great mother.
Wonshik blinked at him again. “Twenty-five, why? How old are you?”
The response managed to startle a gasp from Wonshik and Taekwoon flashed a smile. “We aren’t immortal, you know, elves simply live very long lives. I’m sure Snowshine over there is at least a hundred.”
“I’m Four-Hundred-and-Two! In the prime of my life!” Jaehwan snapped, tone pouty with offence. “You’re just an old man.”
“I am not an old man.”
“Yes, you are! Anything over five hundred is just... honestly, you start to decay.”
“Hey,” Hongbin called, deep voice soft as a lullaby. He’d cracked an eye open, digging around in his pockets as Hakyeon continued to fuss. “After all that, would one of you mind telling me what this stupid map says?”
Said map was tossed in Taekwoon’s direction, as well as the little dragonfly key. Taekwoon dug around in his pack. Grasping fingers reaching until- ah. There it was. He pulled free a small box containing a thin silver chain and strung it through one of the loops on the key’s left wing. Best to keep such an important artifact safe, and the safest place Taekwoon could think of was around his own throat.
Wonshik hummed as he peered at the map, flattening atop the grass. “Mirror’s Edge. That’s all it says. Oh, and a small #2 in the corner. No weird riddles though.”
Taekwoon looked at the parchment over his shoulder. No riddle. No rhyme. Just a sapphire blue line inked from where they currently were, the Thunderspire, to a peninsula on the most eastern part of Shimor’s coastline.
Upon hearing Mirror’s edge, both Hongbin and Sanghyuk made little noises in their throats. “What? Have you been?” Wonshik asked, looking anxiously between their resident Shimoren locals.
“No. And I don’t know a single person who has,” Sanghyuk replied, shifting around and combing his fingers through Jaehwan’s silver hair. “That beach is haunted.”
“Haunted? Don’t be absurd,” Hakyeon snorted.
Hongbin made an unsuccessful attempt to sit up, but both his eyes were now open. “It’s superstitious nonsense. People think that it’s infested with Serena.”
“The-” Wonshik stuttered, touching two fingers to his forehead as a ward against evil, “Those fish women? That eat your soul?”
“Serena aren’t real,” Hakyeon replied. He stopped Hongbin’s second attempt to sit with a hand on his chest. “For now, let's just focus on getting there, shall we?”
Taekwoon chose against disagreeing with Hakyeon out loud. No reason to alarm his companions until they’d actually made the day’s long ride to the coast. Peace and rest were what was needed now.
tell me your thoughts, I'd love to hear them
“Tell me, what was the sun like?” Sanghyuk asked, boots clutched in one hand. The legs of his trousers were rolled up to his knees and his bare feet sank into the wet sand of Mirror's Edge.
The journey here had taken longer than they’d originally anticipated, which was swiftly becoming a trend. Hongbin wasn’t fit to ride for three days after his Awakening, his body slow to recover from the fire that raged through it. It had been astonishing to see, a fact that Sanghyuk would freely admit, but he was also the smallest bit scared of his old friend. Hongbin had never talked about magic, given no hint of his predisposition for wielding kindra. He’d always been reliably, resolutely human.
“The sun,” Jaehwan raised his cowled face to the two moons floating in the sky above them, “The sun was beautiful. And so, so warm, Hyukkie. Even up in Lurlian where the ice never melted, you could lie out and the sun’s light would kiss your skin with warmth.”
Sanghyuk smiled at that, picturing his elven friend curled up like a cat in a patch of moonlight. “That sounds nice,” he murmured.
The true image of it was incomprehensible to Sanghyuk. A giant ball of fire dancing on the horizon. Close enough that the world could feel its heat but just far enough that they would not burn. He’d joined a quest to find the heart of the sun, but in truth, two moons was plenty for the sellsword. He didn’t know any different. Didn’t understand why having only one would be better.
Jaehwan hummed to himself, a soft little tune that had already gotten stuck in Sanghyuk’s head before he finished it. “It was nice. It was magical. Plants- not just plants, animals, people, elves, life flourished. The world is different now than how it was when I was young. Flora and fauna adapting to live in perpetual darkness. It’s colder now.”
“Surely that’s a good thing for you, isn’t it? My little snow elf?”
Sanghyuk smiled at the light slap to his shoulder.
“Colder is good for me, you’re right. But I’m not the only inhabitant of the five kingdoms, am I? What about the rest of you?”
“Fair point,” the sellsword replied, slinging an arm over Jaehwan’s shoulders and looking out at the sea.
The six adventurers had paired off, Hakyeon with Hongbin, Taekwoon with Wonshik, and Sanghyuk with Jaehwan, to look for clues. Unlike the Thunderspire, a very obvious landmark that was hard to miss, the beach at Mirror’s edge stretched on for nearly two miles. It was just a coastline. No spires, no temples, no buildings to speak of at all. People didn’t even live here. Only the water and the sand.
Off in the distance, Sanghyuk could just barely make out two dark dots, dots that he assumed were the Shayde and the hateful little mother-loving brat. If he looked behind him, he’d be greeted by a similar sight. Hongbin and Hakyeon off in the distance, combing the shoreline for hints as to why they were there.
Jaehwan slipped from Sanghyuk’s arms and skipped ahead, humming that same wordless melody. Cloak swirling behind him so the dark fabric caught the moonlight. It had silver thread worked around the hem, intricate embroidery that Sanghyuk had never noticed before. Beautiful.
“Come back here, we’re supposed to be hunting for clues not frolicking about like children,” Sanghyuk called, a grin breaking across his face as he jogged after his friend.
The elf simply laughed. “Want to race? I bet I can beat you!”
“I bet you can beat me; I seem to recall you keeping pace with my horse at a near gallop!”
“Race me anyway!”
Sanghyuk rolled his eyes but the smile never vanished. He tossed his boots up toward the dry sand and took off at a dead sprint, Jaehwan squeaking as the sellsword overtook him. Goddess, but it was good to run, stretch his muscles and just let himself feel free for a moment. Salty sea wind whipping at his hair and body heating up from the exertion.
He almost missed it when Jaehwan breezed past him. That speed was something else, his light elven steps barely compressing the sand beneath his feet.
“Is that really as fast as you can go?” Jaehwan called, and Sanghyuk realized the little demon was running backwards to taunt him, blue eyes glinting with mirth beneath the hood of his cowl. Sanghyuk clenched his jaw and tried for a burst of speed, but he was definitely nearing the threshold of how fast his limbs could physically move.
Jaehwan turned mid-step and zipped away, cackling like a madman. It seemed as though he crossed ten feet with each step, just there one moment and gone the next. Sanghyuk was beginning to understand why the elves were not known for their skills as equestrians. They simply didn’t need horses. Maybe only for carrying things, but all the same, Jaehwan could probably outpace a thoroughbred stallion if he put his mind to it.
“Come back!” Sanghyuk shouted, cupping his hands around his mouth and nearly breathless as he slowed down to a jog. Jaehwan was just a speck in the distance now, but the speck was growing larger. Larger and larger and larger until the elf was running past him back the way they’d come. Then around and keeping pace with Sanghyuk. Panting with laughter.
“I know,” the sellsword replied, making a grab for Jaehwan and missing. The Glayce had skipped out of his reach just in time.
That was about enough of that. Sanghyuk wasn’t a sore loser but this was just shameful now. He slowed down a bit more, waited until Jaehwan zoomed back over for another round of gloating, and then caught the elf’s wrist so he couldn't escape.
Jaehwan squeaked again and tried to pull away, but only succeeded in putting them both off balance. Legs tangling up and toppling to the wet sand in a giggling pile.
“You’re a wild one, you know that?” Sanghyuk gasped, trying to catch what little breath he had left. Jaehwan was squishing the remainder from him, his lanky body sprawled atop Sanghyuk, cloak tangled around his arms as he continued to laugh. “One can’t truly live without being a little wild every now and then.”
Sanghyuk was about to say that his friend had a point, but something had caught Jaehwan’s attention. Head snapping up and squinting out at the sea. The sellsword turned his head to look. A body. A woman, lying half-in-half-out of the water, surf lapping across her bare back. Dark hair in tangled knots and overlong nails digging into the sand like she’d been trying to crawl up the beach.
Jaehwan was up and off him in a blink, Sanghyuk half a step behind. The elf collapsed to his knees at the woman’s side and tried to turn her over, smoothing the hair off her face. “I think she’s drowned! Fell overboard, perhaps, Sanghyuk, help me with her!”
By the time the surf receded, it was already too late. They had maybe half a heartbeat of surprise before the woman’s hand shot out, grabbing Jaehwan by the upper arm and flicking her tail, pulling them both into the next wave that broke against the shore.
“Great mother,” Sanghyuk breathed, frozen with shock for a moment too long. He felt something coil around his head, a wind he could barely see that blocked all sound from his ears. The sellsword couldn’t hear, but he could certainly use his eyes. There was no near-invisible bubble around his friend’s head, nothing protecting Jaehwan from these legends come to life. Jaehwan had used the split second he had to help Sanghyuk but had left himself exposed. Defenseless.
It was a Serena. An actual Serena, a creature from folklore, half-woman half-shark. A creature that sang hypnotizing songs and drowned men beneath the waves for no other reason than that it amused them. Oh, and for food, Sanghyuk supposed, if all the lore was to be believed. Feasted on flesh and drank souls like wine.
“Jaehwan!” Sanghyuk shouted, unsure if his voice would even make it past the barrier shielding him from sound.
The water around Jaehwan and the Serena was beginning to freeze, cobwebs of ice coating the tops of the waves and solidifying the sea like a moving sculpture. Jaehwan must be trying to use his magic- or losing control of it, Sanghyuk didn’t know which. Still kneeling on the beach like a dumbstruck fool as the Serena tugged the cowl from his friend’s head.
Loss of control seemed like the more realistic option. Without his hood, Sanghyuk could see that Jaehwan’s face was serine, a lovely smile and glassy eyes. He aimed that smile at the creature even as it dragged him deeper and deeper into the frigid water.
“Hongbin! Taekwoon!” Sanghyuk screamed, finally returning to his senses and following his friend into the water. Hopefully the Shayde’s elven hearing would pick up the sound of his cries. Hopefully.
The sellsword splashed into the breakers, the temperature a shock to his system and strong currents tugging on his feet as he tried to reach his friend. He hadn’t realized there were currents this close to the shore. Riptide, he thought the phenomenon was called. But not here. Not at Mirror’s Edge. Those sorts of currents were more frequent on the western half of the continent, not here.
Jaehwan. He just had to get Jaehwan out of the water and away from that thing before something bad happened. It was more of a struggle than it had any right to be. The currents weren’t helping matters any and neither were the chunks of frozen seawater that Sanghyuk kept having to dodge. His toes were going numb from the cold but Sanghyuk didn’t care.
He kept his eyes locked on his friend. That silver hair floating atop the water. The Serena’s webbed hands combing through it, touching Jaehwan’s face. Jaehwan reached up to brush its cheek as though in a trance and the creature nipped at his finger with unnaturally sharp teeth. Breaking the skin. Its laughter was silent to Sanghyuk, but he could still smell. The perfume of Jaehwan’s blood. Amber, cinnamon, lily, rosewood, mingling with base notes of tangy copper. It pierced his senses as the blood began to drip into the water.
It didn’t look like Jaehwan cared all that much. He hadn’t even blinked. And he continued not to blink even as another head popped up above the surface. Nearly identical to the first creature, it swam to Jaehwan and took his injured hand, licking the wound with a tongue that was the slightest bit forked.
“Taekwoon!” Sanghyuk shouted again, desperate now, a shelf of frozen water separating him from Jaehwan and the creatures. The smell wouldn’t leave him alone. He hadn’t fed that morning, which was clearly a mistake, it was driving him slightly mad. The tantalizing aroma of that precious life force he craved so badly, dribbling slowly into the ocean and tinting the water scarlet.
Four more of the creatures had appeared by the time the others reached him, Taekwoon carrying a startled looking Wonshik and running at full elf speed, then Hongbin and Hakyeon running up from the other direction a few moments after. They all had weaves around their heads as Sanghyuk did. Must have been Taekwoon’s weaving, as they weren’t entirely clear. More a translucent stormy grey.
“Help him! I know you don’t like him, but you need him! Get him back from those monsters, please, Taekwoon, I beg you!” the sellsword pleaded, panting, voice gruff from the craving that had him in a choke hold.
Each prick of sharp teeth cutting through Jaehwan’s skin was a burst of pain for Sanghyuk. Each caress from those scaly hands like a knife-edge grazing his own body. And Sanghyuk could feel Jaehwan’s loss of control, now that he was trying. The intoxicating harmony that the Serena were chanting in Jaehwan’s ears, whispering promises.
Anything he wanted, everything he wanted, the castle his brother currently occupied, that same brother’s head on a spike of ice on the castle gates. His people returned from the grave. His parents, his friends, his Dawn. Everything. Jaehwan could have everything if he just let go a bit more. Gave the Serena his power. They’d give him the five kingdoms on a frozen platter if only he would just let go a little more.
It was like secondhand poison. Because Sanghyuk could hear those promises through Jaehwan’s ears, process them, and then they lost their shape. Mutating inside his own head. Because Sanghyuk had power as well. A different sort of power but power, nonetheless. Power to amplify, power to steal the life force from his enemies and gain strength from it.
Sanghyuk had power and all he had to do was let it go. Give it up to the Serena and he could have whatever he wanted. He could be a Glayce like Jaehwan, so full of lumina that he’d never need to steal again. He could be a Glayce and live a long, long life, with Jaehwan at his side. The other half of his broken soul, his silver prince of ice and snow, his forever. He wouldn't have to fight anymore, wouldn’t have to risk his life, the life of his childhood friend, for a bit of coin anymore. All he had to do was let go.
“No,” Sanghyuk hissed to himself, the smell of blood cutting through the sinister whispers trying to penetrate his mind.
The sea water was frozen before and behind, his body was growing sluggish and dull from the cold. But Sanghyuk fought anyway. He clawed at the ice holding him captive, trying in vain to pull himself over the crest of a wave now nothing more than a chunk of solid ice. Jaehwan was still out of reach, the creature that had hold of him nibbling at the soft part of his cheek.
Another drop of blood in the water. Another spark of pain on Sanghyuk’s skin. The sellsword snarled wordlessly.
Black descended around them like a blanket of fog. Sanghyuk managed to tear his eyes away from the creatures long enough to see that the rest of his friends had all waded into the water a few feet behind him. Darkness oozing from Taekwoon’s fingertips. Crackling flame dancing on Hongbin’s palms. Hakyeon, trying to shield his apprentice despite the fact that he was both smaller and unarmed.
“Sisters...” came the call, not more than a breath of sound where there had been nothing but rushing wind a moment ago.
The first creature, the one who had hold of Jaehwan, looked around. Its head twisting at an unnatural angle as it peered at Taekwoon through eyes of solid white.
“Sisters, we have business with you...” the murmur continued, and it was only then that Sanghyuk realized the voice was Taekwoon’s, carried to him on a coil of midnight vapor.
It happened so fast that Sanghyuk almost didn’t register the change. Six creatures, six men. And then it was twelve men. The Serena each stealing the appearance of one of the adventurers. Almost like they were looking in a mirror.
Sanghyuk stilled in place, half-in and half-out of the water with a leg up on the frozen wave.
He stared at his own double, the Serena that licked at Jaehwan’s bleeding wounds. Utterly transfixed. Was that really what he looked like? That large? That wild? Were his eyes really that dark?
And then, one of the things was in front of him, Jaehwan was in front of him. Not the real Jaehwan, but his monstrous double. It glided toward him through the water, silver hair streaming behind it like silken ribbons.
The other creatures were doing the same. Hakyeon’s double swimming up to Hongbin and twining around his body like a vine. Hongbin’s double running its no-longer webbed fingers through Hakyeon’s hair. The Wonshik double slunk up to Taekwoon and clung to the Shayde’s arm. All but the creature still holding the real Jaehwan above the water. Taekwoon’s double. That one did nothing.
“Stop your song so we may speak...”
A hand snaked around Sanghyuk’s wrist and dragged him back into the water. The creature with Jaehwan’s face beamed up at him, ice blue eyes glittering with mirth as it wove their hands together, pressing the sellsword’s back against the frozen wave he'd been trying to climb.
“What do we have to speak about, Shayde? The well of power within you is deep, we just want a taste...”
“We seek the heart of the sun...” Taekwoon replied, still speaking on the current of air as he walked further into the water. Of all of them, he was the only one succeeding at keeping his monstrous attacker away. Wonshik’s double pouted at him and tried to pull him closer with little effect. Taekwoon ignored it completely. “You remember the sun, do you not, sister? The light in the sky that gave you power of your own? The light that kept you beautiful and whole before you were corrupted by perpetual darkness? Driven to consuming human flesh to sustain yourselves...”
Sanghyuk glanced around, finding that the creature copying him was plucking at real-Wonshik’s clothes and petting his cheeks. What an unnerving picture that was. He turned back and tried to get a leg back up on the frozen wave, eyes locked on his twin flame, but the Serena-Taekwoon bared its teeth and hissed at him. Or, it looked like the thing was hissing, Sanghyuk still couldn’t hear anything. But the face it made was alarming enough to stop the sellsword in his tracks once more.
“What do you want with the heart of the sun...”
Goddess, but that voice was eerie. Sanghyuk still wasn’t sure how he could hear it. Probably speaking through the fog as Taekwoon was. Even so... creepy.
“My friends and I wish to return it to its rightful place in the sky...”
The Taekwoon-Serena stopped snarling at the sellsword for long enough to laugh, its expression contorting in a grotesque parody of a smile.
“We know of your quest, dark brother, but why should we help you? Why would we give you, a Shayde, a key to the heart of the sun? Do you search for it so you may finish what your people started so many moons ago? What else could one such as you want...”
Sanghyuk whipped around to glare at the Shayde, trying his best to ignore the hands caressing his face. It had never even occurred- how could he have missed- why hadn’t he thought of that earlier?! What proof did they have that Taekwoon was actually trying to save the sun?! Him wanting to destroy it once and for all made so much more sense! The sellsword narrowed his eyes, a seed of suspicion now planted firmly in his mind.
The real Taekwoon’s expression had smoothed over, that catlike gaze spearing the Serena mirroring him.
“Not all Shayde believe the elders did the right thing. I am here, with them, to put the world back to the way it should be. That is the true and only reason...”
“Stop it, leave me alone,” Sanghyuk snapped, glowering at the creature who’d latched itself to his front.
The resemblance to Jaehwan was truly uncanny. Same slightly upturned pointy nose. Same sharp jawline. Same supple cheeks and rose-kissed lips. Its fingers curled around the nape of his neck, nuzzling his throat. The Serena seemed to be giving off heat as well, the water not so frigid the closer to Sanghyuk it got. Or maybe he’d simply gone completely numb and couldn’t feel anything anymore.
“You say you know of our quest, so help us. Give us the next key if it is in your possession...”
Sanghyuk felt like he’d be hearing Taekwoon’s ghostly voice in his head for the rest of his life. The Shayde wouldn’t stop talking.
“You may have it, but you must come and take it, dark brother...” the Serena in charge replied, turning the corners of Taekwoon’s mouth upward in a wicked little smile. It drifted backward, the still giggly Jaehwan gathered up in its arms, seemingly impervious to the snow now falling from nowhere around their heads.
Serena-Jaehwan felt like it was purring, eyes closed, and chin tipped up as it bit gently at Sanghyuk’s jaw. The things were going to eat them all alive. This whole conversation nonsense Taekwoon was doing was just a game, the monsters amusing themselves before devouring the adventurer’s whole.
At least he’d be able to die in the arms of something beautiful, Sanghyuk thought vaguely, squinting down at the creature wearing Jaehwan’s face like a mask. Would its blood give him the same amount of lumina if he... blood.
The smell of the blood dribbling into the water, magic mingling with the perfume of salty spray, it cut through Sanghyuk’s awareness again. Hunger keeping him grounded if nothing else.
“Stop your song, let us speak normally...” Taekwoon’s ghostly voice murmured, drifting on the indigo smoke. The Shayde was moving through the water now as well, approaching his double, fending off Serena-Wonshik’s grasping hands without even bothering to look.
He wasn’t sure how he knew, but Sanghyuk could tell when the Serena’s noxious singing ceased. It was a physical change in the air. Like a loss. Like something had died in the deepest part of his heart. Without the calls for him to give up his power, Sanghyuk felt like he had no power at all. Like he had nothing worth giving up.
Slowly, very slowly, Taekwoon lowered the bubble of wind from around his head. Then, from around the heads of the others. It took the Shayde a few extra seconds to realize that Sanghyuk still couldn't hear and he banished the shield obscuring Sanghyuk’s hearing with a flick of his slim wrist.
The world around Sanghyuk was suddenly too loud. Crashing waves. Calling of gulls. His friend’s frightened voices calling out to him. Telling the sellsword to come back to shore, shouting his name, fighting their aquatic doubles off with as much force as they could muster. Sanghyuk even heard the crackling of flame still burning blue on Hongbin’s outstretched palms.
What was worse, was he could also hear Serena hugging on to him. Its crude approximation of Jaehwan’s lovely voice crooning to him like a long-lost lover.
“You want this one,” it hummed, latching its arms around Sanghyuk’s neck now that he was chest-deep in the freezing water. “You want this little elf so much I can smell it on your skin.”
“I do not,” Sanghyuk grit out, wrapping the creature's long silver hair around his fist and yanking it backward. Trying to get it away from him. His stomach did an uncomfortable flip-flop at the sight, heart twisting where it was now lodged in his throat.
Serena-Jaehwan looked mighty like the real Jaehwan. Pulling what looked like Jaehwan’s hair, watching Jaehwan’s face contort in surprise as it splashed back into the wall of ice, black pupils blown wide in the center of those knife bright irises.
Sanghyuk let go barely a second later. He scrambled back as fast as he could, but the creature’s face had already contorted in rage. Teeth bared and snarling as it advanced on him with Jaehwan’s hands outstretched. That was not an expression he wanted to see on the Glayce’s face ever again.
“Too bad for you, Darah. So sad. Such a shame,” it hissed, digging the tips of its too-sharp nails into the meat of his shoulders and dragging him close. Pressed cheek to cheek and chest to chest. Its mouth resting just beside Sanghyuk’s ear. “He feels no longing for you. It is the Shayde that sings the song of his heart. Not you, you weak little human nothing. You could never measure up to the strength of your dark companion. How could anyone ever want you, compared to him?”
The sellsword tried to shove the Serena away again but failed. It had well and truly dug its claws into him and didn’t appear to have plans to let go anytime soon. He wasn’t listening to the creatures' poisonous words. He was not. He wouldn’t let it get to him.
“Give us our friends back or I'll scorch the lot of you to ash,” Hongbin shouted, despite having less than no knowledge about how to use his newfound powers. The Serena didn’t know that though and they exchanged hasty glances.
“If you end us, you will never have the map. Your quest will end in this cove and the world will fall into indefinite ruin.” It was the creature impersonating Hakyeon that had spoken, wound sensuously around Hongbin’s torso like a very cuddly serpent.
“There will be no ending of anyone,” the real Taekwoon said, his voice holding a note of sharp command that suited his intimidating exterior much better than his customary softness. “Give us the map and be on your way. This exchange can be a peaceful one if you’ll be gracious enough to allow it.”
The Shayde had drifted through the water farther than any of them by that point, melting the floating ice chunks blocking his path with magical heat radiating from his hands and subsequently pushing the Wonshik-Serena away with gusts of grey-tinted air.
Heart pounding in his chest and body entirely numb from the cold, Sanghyuk watched the Serena impersonating Taekwoon lift Jaehwan’s limp wrist to his mouth and gently bite the inside of it. Goddess be damned but that smell was going to be the death of him. It drove him wild, chaos swirling around inside his brain and captivating his focus entirely. Sanghyuk felt so hollow, so empty without the energy he stole from Jaehwan. Why the hell hadn’t he fed that morning?!
“Map,” Taekwoon snapped, finally reaching his double and dragging the real Jaehwan into his arms. His Serena double didn’t let the Glayce go without a last word, whispering confidentially into Taekwoon’s ear as the hand-off was made. Too quiet for the rest of them to have a hope of hearing.
With a soft splash, the Serena accosting Sanghyuk ducked below the water and then popped back up, head glistening wet and a scroll case made of some strange type of leather clutched in one hand. It was still wearing Jaehwan’s visage and, to the sellsword’s horror, it leapt on him and pressed its cold lips to his.
Sanghyuk flinched away, recoiling, the monstrous creature cackling with mirth, but it allowed him to go. Smiling a dagger sharp smile as he half ran, half paddled through the water back to the shore. His heart felt like it was going to punch a hole straight through his ribcage. That wasn’t what kissing Jaehwan would feel like. Sanghyuk was absolutely positive. But it unsettled him all the same. Put him off balance.
He was so overwhelmed with panic that he didn’t even realize he now had the scroll case in hand.
“Jaehwan!” Sanghyuk called, attempting to get to the Glayce, but he was stopped by Wonshik’s hands on his shoulders. The stupid fucker was holding him back?! Why?!
“Not now, we must leave this place. Run.”
Taekwoon bolted into a blur of motion, a very woozy Jaehwan clutched in his arms, running down the beach at a speed Sanghyuk couldn’t even begin to comprehend. At least the smell off the blood was less maddening now.
Even without it, Sanghyuk could feel Jaehwan hurting. The little wounds now decorating his body imprinted invisibly on Sanghyuk’s own form. It was torture, knowing there was nothing he could do to help.
“Let’s go, bloodsucker, before you do something even stupider,” Wonshik said, voice gruff with what appeared to be fear. He yanked the sellsword away from the encroaching surf none too gently. Trying to get him moving.
Sanghyuk looked around as he forced his feet to go forwards, willing the numbness from his extremities, noticing that Hakyeon and Hongbin were fussing over each other. Hands places they normally wouldn’t be. The healer’s fingers on the nape of Hongbin’s neck. Hongbin’s own hands on Hakyeon’s chest. Neither seemed to have realized that the party was taking their leave so Sanghyuk gave his old friend’s arm a tug on his way past.
“What were you thinking, getting into the water with those monsters,” Wonshik asked, equal parts incredulous and frustrated as they broke into a jog.
“We weren’t trying to get in the water,” Sanghyuk snapped back, angry with Jaehwan for falling for such an obvious trap and angry with himself for letting it happen. “They tricked us. Trust me, I never want to go near those things again if I can help it.”
Wonshik huffed, sodden boots slapping wet sand in contrast to the lighter steps of Sanghyuk’s bare feet. Oh fuck, his boots. He and Jaehwan had tossed their boots somewhere before they even got into the water, when they were having their race. Fuck fuck fuck.
“At least we got the map. That’s it, isn’t it?”
Sanghyuk glanced at the case in his hand as he picked up speed, feeling finally coming back to his arms and legs. Pins and needles, but still better than nothing.
“I think so. What’s this made out of?” he asked, brandishing the tube in Wonshik’s direction as they ran. Sanghyuk was so shaken he’d accidentally forgotten to be angry at the infuriating man.
“Seal pelt, if I had to guess.”
That was a more plausible explanation than cows, Sanghyuk supposed. Probably easier for the Serena to catch.
The two men veered left, following their old footprints and cresting over the dunes where the two elves sat in the seaside grass. Huddled together. Heads bowed. They hadn’t even reached for their packs, were not speaking, just sitting there. Out of the corner of his eye, Sanghyuk noticed Wonshik wince.
Jaehwan’s head snapped up, his silver hair tumbling down around him in wet, matted knots. He looked stricken, with terror, with anger, Sanghyuk couldn't’ exactly tell. But to the sellsword’s dismay, the Glayce didn’t reach out for him. Didn’t extend his hand. Didn’t call for Sanghyuk to come to him. Simply sitting mute within the Shayde’s embrace. Eyes wide and fingers trembling. And he was still bleeding.
Sanghyuk’s pulse jumped in his throat, the craving overcoming him in a single swift heartbeat. He hadn’t even had time to fully process the need before he was no longer able to think of anything else. It ripped through his core like a bolt of liquid fire.
“No!” Taekwoon exclaimed, Wonshik grabbing Sanghyuk just as he sprang forward, wrapping the younger man in a bearhug.
A snarl tore itself from Sanghyuk, the sound so animalistic that he actually startled himself to stillness. Eyes widening and mouth snapping shut.
“What goes on here?! Unhand Sanghyuk! Now!”
Hongbin had finally come running up behind them, Hakyeon close on his heels. And he was a feisty ball of outrage at Sanghyuk’s back.
“He needs to feed. Now. Will you- are you still willing to let him?” Taekwoon’s reply was frosty and clearly aimed at Hongbin, the tips of his fingers darkening the slightest bit. Like he was preparing a weave.
“Of course, I am!” Hongbin snapped, but Jaehwan seemed to have come to his senses. He stood on shaky legs, waving away the Shayde’s concern and Hongbin’s glare.
“Come.” Jaehwan beckoned Sanghyuk to him, like he was calling a dog to heel, but Sanghyuk couldn’t find it in himself to care. He leapt forwards and latched himself to the elf, allowing Jaehwan to lead him away from the group. A bit of privacy couldn’t hurt. He was so hungry.
Hakyeon’s mind was still reeling from their encounter with the horrid Serena creatures.
He couldn’t shake a feeling of urgency. A need to get away from this accursed beach and the monsters that inhabited it. And what the Serena had whispered to him, wearing Hongbin’s form, smiling Hongbin’s smile. That he could have a comfortable life, settle down in the countryside and cultivate his herbs, craft his simples, with a good man for company. All he had to do was give up his knowledge of the healing arts. Let the Serena slip into his mind and take the information they wanted, and he could have it all. He could-
“Are you alright?”
Hakyeon glanced up from where he was seated on a patch of sandy grass. He’d taken all the jars and vials from his pack and was sorting them by descending size, taking an inventory to see what he’d need to stock up on next time they were near a town. It’s not like he’d used much of his supplies yet but having something to do helped Hakyeon begin to relax.
The person who’d spoken was, fittingly enough, Hongbin.
“Fine,” replied Hakyeon, tensing up the slightest bit when the sellsword knelt beside him. “And you?”
“Fine,” Hongbin parroted back. A small grimace twisted his handsome face into the picture of displeasure. “My best friend is currently being monopolized by an uppity little prince in exile or whatever he is, and your assistant is fawning all over our scary tour guide. Not much to do.”
Hakyeon forced his mouth into a grin, hoping it came across as playful. He kept half-expecting the man to turn into that Serena, and that expectation was something Hakyeon wanted to rid himself of as soon as possible. It wasn’t healthy and it wasn’t fair to Hongbin. “I’m your last choice of companions then?”
“Quite the contrary,” Hongbin fell back a bit and sat himself beside Hakyeon with his legs crossed. “You’re the only one here with a drop of sanity, as far as I can tell.”
That- it wasn’t exactly a compliment but still -made Hakyeon’s grin turn genuine. “That’s reassuring, I feel like I’m going slightly mad. What with all-“ he gave a vague wave around at their campsite, “-this.”
Hongbin nodded sagely, those lovely brown eyes of his lowering to Hakyeon’s stash. “Understandable. What are you doing with those?”
“Just organizing. Having something to do with my hands is- relaxing."
“Understandable,” Hongbin repeated. He sounded distracted, though, and Hakyeon would have asked about that if Hongbin hadn’t continued speaking. “What did that thing say to you? It had my face, so I feel like I’m entitled to... I’m curious.”
“What did the one with my face say to you? If you’re entitled to know then so am I.” Hakyeon said, flipping the comment around in an attempt to deflect. He wasn’t comfortable enough with the sellsword yet to give up information as sensitive as his heart’s desires. And he honestly didn’t expect Hongbin to answer, so the sellsword’s reply caught him off guard.
“It wanted my fire. It said I could have anything I wanted if I gave up my fire. It would make Sanghyuk better, he wouldn’t be a Darah anymore and we could live in peace, think of Mairis as our home rather than a hunting ground. That my feelings would be-“
Hongbin cut himself off, eyes flicking to Hakyeon’s and then away again so fast that the healer almost believed he’d imagined it. “Anyway, the overarching message was it wanted my fire.”
“Why do you think it borrowed my face?” Hakyeon asked, feeling his cheeks warm the slightest bit.
That thing about feelings, and Sanghyuk, did Hongbin have feelings for Sanghyuk? Hakyeon had assumed so upon meeting the two of them, the protective way Hongbin acted towards the younger sellsword, the chilly glares he threw Jaehwan when he thought nobody was watching. It seemed like the most logical explanation. Hakyeon hated himself for feeling disappointed at the idea of it.
Hongbin adjusted himself, pulling his tunic sleeve down and clearing his throat. “Trying to tug at heartstrings, if I had to guess. Make me want to give it anything it wanted.”
Wonshik bounding up to them saved Hakyeon from flushing further, thank the goddess. It also stopped his mind of lingering on the question of why his face would tug at Hongbin’s heartstrings.
“Taekwoon says that we need to find a ship,” his assistant said, looking too excited for their current circumstances.
Hongbin groaned loudly and fell back on the dune. “I hate boats.”
“Are you or are you not originally from a fishing port?” Hakyeon asked with a soft laugh, “shouldn’t a ship be like a second home to you?”
“I get seasick,” Hongbin growled. “Very, very seasick.”
The chabin is developing~
Also, if it seems like Taekwoon is doing all the work rn, the others will all get their turn, don't worry.
“How are you settling in, Hongbin?”
Hongbin raised his eyes from his pack, glancing over to the cabin door that now stood ajar. The little snow elf waited on the threshold. He looked equal parts wraith, dressed in black from head to toe with his cowl covering his face, equal parts anxious sparrow. Weight shifting restlessly from foot to foot.
“About as well as the rest of you. I didn’t bring much,” Hongbin replied, returning his gaze to the pack in front of him.
He truly hadn’t brought much. Two sturdy tunics, a few linen undershirts, two pairs of breeches, and several sets of thick woolen socks.
Aside from a few other small essentials kept snugly in the pack, Hongbin’s sword, bow, and quiver were propped against the cabin wall in the corner along with a thin leather map case. He’d been entrusted to take charge of it for some ridiculous reason, to guard the three maps they’d collected on their journey so far. It was alright though, at least the Shayde didn’t hold all the cards. Just the artifacts.
It had been two days since the party had left Mirror's Edge. Two long, damp days worth of riding along the coast until they’d reached the city port of Estyre on Shimor’s southern end. Taekwoon hadn’t allowed them an extra night at an inn so they could have proper beds or baths, pushing stubbornly onward until they’d paid for passage on this godforsaken ship and climbed aboard.
Hongbin hated ships.
“No,” Jaehwan murmured, shaking his head, “I meant, how are you settling into your power? We haven’t had a chance to speak privately yet and I didn’t want to ask around the others. I know how challenging it can be to wrangle one's inner power, trust me.”
The sellsword grimaced. He’d hoped to avoid a discussion like this.
His power, such as it was, probably frightened Hongbin more than it frightened anyone else. It was foreign and overwhelming and terrifying. To know that he had fire in his blood, was liable to explode at any moment, and completely lacking any semblance of control. And then to think that it had been inside him all along. Lying dormant at his core until his awakening, for an outside factor to trigger it to life. That was how Taekwoon explained it, anyway.
It made his own body seem like an unfamiliar land. Somewhere he had to be on constant guard. Unsafe and overly cautious.
“I’m fine,” Hongbin replied aloud, staring down at the midnight blue tunic he’d folded and was now refolding. He didn’t want to talk about this newly discovered inner turmoil with anyone just then, and the elf was probably last on his list of partners for a heart to heart.
Jaehwan nodded slowly, Hongbin watching from the corner of his eye as the elf’s long fingers brushed the doorframe. “Okay. Just-“ he paused. Taking a single slow breath. “If you do want to talk, at some point in the future, you can talk to me. I may not be as gifted as our Shayde companion, but I’m much less prone to giving lectures.”
Despite himself, Hongbin smiled. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”
With that, the elf gave the sellsword a polite little bow and backed away, shutting the cabin door as he went.
Hongbin let out a sigh as he straightened up. The cabin contained two hammocks, one of which was still conspicuously not moved into.
He’d decided to put his foot down on this occasion, insisting that he bunk with Sanghyuk and nobody else. Not out of jealousy, because while his best friend's obvious infatuation with the Glayce annoyed him, it didn’t actually upset him. But because Hongbin needed the simple comfort of his best friend by his side during this mentally turbulent time. And the sea sickness. He didn’t want to end up puking his guts up in front of anyone else.
But the cruel waves weren’t rocking too badly yet, his stomach wasn’t that unhappy, and Hongbin didn’t fancy sitting in the cabin alone and staring at the wooden walls for hours on end.
He had no clue where Sanghyuk actually was, now that he thought about it. He’d assumed his friend was with Jaehwan, but Jaehwan had been alone when he’d popped in just then. Perhaps he was making eyes at the deckhands. Or, more likely, drinking himself stupid in the galley with a few members of the crew. That last seemed more likely.
So, for lack of anything else to do and in the mood for light and intellectual conversation, Hongbin stowed his pack in the bulkhead so it wouldn’t roll around on the floor and ventured out into the cramped hallway. He made the short journey consisting of six steps and a right turn, paused, and knocked on the door of the neighboring cabin. Silently hoping that one of its occupants wasn’t inside.
Hongbin turned the knob and let himself in. His hopes were answered. Jaehwan hadn’t returned after his short visit, only his temporary roommate visible, swinging lazily in his hammock with a book open in one hand.
“Good evening” said Hongbin.
“It is quite a good evening, isn’t it? No more of that nasty drizzle,” replied Hakyeon.
He hadn’t even looked away from the pages of his book.
Hongbin grinned and shut the door behind him.
It was midnight. A cool sea breeze washed across his face. The ropes were rough on his skin but not unpleasantly so. Reflected starlight gleamed off the calm sea.
Jaehwan had decided to risk it.
He was strategically perched in the rigging on the mizzen-mast, mostly obscured by a billowing sail so the man up in the crows-nest wouldn’t be able to see him.
No other crewmen were out on watch just then. The decks below were empty and the air just felt so wonderful that he’d removed his cowl. Only for a few minutes. Just long enough to feel the moon's light kiss his skin and the wind tangle it’s fingers in his hair. A breath of fresh air.
Jaehwan closed his eyes and tilted his head back, smiling sightlessly up at the sparkling sky.
He’d always loved the sea. If not specifically the sea, then Jaehwan had always loved water.
His home in the north, the gargantuan palace carved from the inside of a glacier and made of solid ice, had fronted onto a broad lake. The water in it was so still that it looked like a mirror reflecting the grey clouds above. Jaehwan had sat at the great window in the library and stared out at that lake for hours on end.
In the warmer months, that weren’t all that warm in truth but at least free of snowstorms for the most part, Jaehwan and his Dawn would venture outside the palace walls and jump in that lake, shrieking at the frigid temperatures, giggling and shivering until Jaehwan managed to weave enough magic to warm them up.
‘Shin Wonho! How dare you!?’ He remembered shouting once, spluttering and choked with indignation after his Dawn had lifted him up and tossed him in the water without any warning. Wonho had laughed so hard he’d toppled right over into a snowdrift.
But those days, happy days, were in the past.
“You’re so beautiful, Snowshine, when you aren’t hiding.”
Jaehwan squeezed his eyes shut even tighter and wound one of the ropes around his fist. “Your people are the reason I must hide in the first place.”
With a soft swish and slight jostling of the rigging, Taekwoon’s physical presence entered Jaehwan’s realm of awareness. Like a shadow descending over the moon. Drowning out its light. “You speak only the truth. I am eternally sorry for your circumstances.”
Not knowing what else to say, Jaehwan muttered a sullen, “I believe I told you once already, do not speak to me.”
“We have to speak on occasion, at least,” Taekwoon replied. His weight settled on the beam beside Jaehwan with a quiet creek.
“I believe I also told you not to approach me. In the same conversation, in fact.”
“Would you like me to plait your hair for you?” Taekwoon asked, disregarding Jaehwan’s words like the Glayce hadn’t even spoken. Jaehwan snorted. “Why on earth would you do that?”
He could hear a smile in the Shayde’s low voice. “I have three older sisters and they always made me braid their hair when I was a child. Anyway, doesn’t it get in your eyes when it’s down like this?”
Jaehwan shot Taekwoon a filthy look before turning his gaze down to the sea below. The gentle waves lapping at the wooden sides of the ship. The Shayde’s own long hair was half up, secured in its customary topknot, the loose strands flowing down is back like a sheet of ink. The styling was most likely for practical purposes but it highlighted his smooth forehead and sharp cheekbones regardless. Jaehwan hated it.
“I’ve had it in a bun for almost two days,” the Glayce muttered, “The pressure on my scalp was getting unbearable.”
“Why exactly have you come to disturb my peaceful solitude?” Jaehwan snapped, flicking his silver hair over his shoulder and glaring at the Shayde now perched in the rigging at his side.
Taekwoon hummed in thought. One of his long legs swung lazily through the air, a shiny silver buckle on his boot catching Jaehwan’s eye for an instant. “Honestly? Wonshik’s praying was driving me mad.”
Jaehwan let out a breath of humorless laughter at that. “I don’t know how he can stand to be around one such as yourself, what with his hatred of Zanja. He curses Sanghyukkie for a monster and yet you, a child of the dark mother herself, are somehow tolerable.”
That was somewhat of a sore spot within their little questing party. Wonshik refused to be alone with Sanghyuk, or around Sanghyuk at all really. It was only a matter of seconds before the two of them got in a fight. The apprentice's dislike of Sanghyuk was pure religious nonsense. Based on nothing more than crude superstition.
Jaehwan saw how much the name calling and nasty words hurt Sanghyuk. Could see the pain in his eyes after each snide comment. Underneath the anger. His friend was a sensitive individual, Jaehwan knew, and possessed an unhealthy dose of self hatred. The knowledge of it made Jaehwan’s heart ache.
“He does seem to have taken a fancy to me, hasn’t he?” Taekwoon murmured.
It took the Glayce a moment to remember who he was referring too. “Wonshik? Yes, our little devotee to the Great Mother has taken more than a fancy to you. He drools every time you look at him twice.”
Taekwoon sighed, adjusting a fold of the emerald doublet he’d donned that morning before they had packed up camp. It was a lovely thing, quilted velvet with embroidery at the collar and cuffs. Jaehwan eyed it covetously.
His own clothing was not as fine as it once had been. All sensible linen and sturdy cottons and thick wool now, better for traveling than the silks and satins he’d worn for the majority of his early life. No hand-worked embroidery or threads of spun silver for the Glayce prince any longer.
Well, there was one exception. His cloak. Like his long hair, the cloak was something Jaehwan hadn’t been able to give up when he’d finally left home. A navy so dark it edged on black, arctic fox fur lining, silver embroidery around the hem and collar. The threads had been worked into runes, the magical symbols blending seamlessly into the stars and snowflakes that made up the majority of the design. Protection. Safety. Good fortune. Much too precious of a garment to simply discard.
But Jaehwan didn’t have his cloak on right then, it was safely stowed in the cabin he was sharing with Hakyeon. All he currently had in the way of clothing were a pair of black breeches tucked into his boots and a grey linen tunic. Not much when compared to the Shayde in luxurious finery beside him.
“It bothers you?” Taekwoon asked, drawing Jaehwan back from memories of home. Of the palace and his brother and the long dead royal court.
“What bothers me?”
The Shayde cleared his throat. “Wonshik’s fondness?”
“No,” Jaehwan scoffed, tugging at a lock of hair and twirling it between his fingers. A tick he’d never managed to break. “I could care less who Wonshik is or isn’t fond of. I just wish you would step in when he’s being nasty to Sanghyuk.”
“Not often enough,” Jaehwan snapped, “He listens to you. The insults injure Sanghyuk and I both, so if you are the peacemaker you claim to be, make him keep his thoughts to himself.”
“When did I claim to be a peacemaker?”
“The start of this quest!” Jaehwan waved a hand out before him, struggling for words for a moment. “This whole ordeal, your wish to return the sun to its proper place in the sky, righting the wrongs of your people.”
“You see this as making peace with the Glayce, Snowshine?” Taekwoon replied, incredulous. “The Glayce are longdead. I have no need to make peace with the dead.”
“Not all dead. There are still two of us.”
“Two of you,” the Shayde hummed, twisting a minute coil of darkness around his index finger. Jaehwan had been suppressing his awareness of Taekwoon’s magic since the Shayde had approached, but the small display of power had his pointy ears twitching with agitation. “Tell me, Snowshine, about the other Glayce that still lives.”
“No.” Jaehwan spoke the word flatly, not allowing any venom into his tone. To do so would give away how sensitive of a topic it was. His elder brother. Jaehwan would not discuss his elder brother with this elf. Never.
“Why not? Surely, they are important to you. The only other member of your race. Or perhaps they aren’t, as you’re here and they are presumably back home.”
“If you wish to continue sitting there,” Jaehwan hissed, “Pick something else to talk about. Or else I’ll- I’ll shove you off and we can see if Shayde’s always land on their feet like cats do.”
“You wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Jaehwan could hear the smile again and it made him wince. “Try me.”
“Fine,” Taekwoon relented, raising his face to the darkened sky. Jaehwan watched him covertly from the corner of his eye. “Tell me about your Dawn, then.”
“Tell me about Sanghyuk.”
“You have known Sanghyuk precisely as long as I have,” Jaehwan replied, still weaving the same bit of hair through his fingers. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“That he’s in love with you, for a start.”
It took all of Jaehwan’s self control not to kick Taekwoon off the beam. “He isn’t in love with me. He is my twin flame, you said so yourself. I don’t even know if twin flames can be in love with each other. There are so many other emotions in the way.”
“Twin flames most certainly can be in love,” Taekwoon said softly, “And I’ve been thinking about that, actually.”
“Have you really?”
Jaehwan thought his sarcasm must have missed its mark because the Shayde nodded, the picture of earnest sincerity. “You know, I mentioned it in jest several days ago, but I believe Sanghyuk is meant to be your Dawn.”
Mouth falling open on a half-choked laugh, Jaehwan grabbed for a rope to stop himself slipping off and dropping to the deck below them. “You must be joking.”
Taekwoon gave another thoughtful hum. “No... not joking.”
“Sanghyukkie cannot be my Dawn, Taekwoon. I don’t know how it is with your people and your Dusks, but this is not the way. Taking a stranger as a Dawn would be laughable.”
Jaehwan bit his lip. “A Dawn is raised to be such. They are Dawns from birth, usually born to a family with strong ties to the Glayce, and trained to carry out the duty of a Dawn as soon as they’re old enough to walk. My Dawn, may he rest in the heart of the Great Mother, was with me from infancy. Gifted long life by the magic of our elders. I didn’t just happen upon him in a darkened ally.”
“So,” Jaehwan replied, trying to make himself as clear as possible, “Sanghyuk has no training, he doesn’t know our ways, and above all else, he has no wish to become a Dawn. He told me so. Flat out.”
“I don’t know if want really plays into such things, Snowshine. You said yourself, a Dawn is a Dawn from birth. Do you know why?”
“No,” Jaehwan grit out, “Something to do with magic, I suppose. I’ve never thought about it.”
“Well,” the Shayde shifted around, hooking a leg around a sturdy rope and taking a fistful of Jaehwan’s hair.
Jaehwan recoiled in an instant. Sparks bloomed on the tips of his fingers as he wove a strand of lumina and infused it with glacia from the sea below. He didn’t even notice the clouds beginning to blot out the stars. Beneath the cuffs of his tunic, the veins in Jaehwan’s arms had begun to glow a subtle blue-white.
“Let go,” he snarled, gritting his teeth even as Taekwoon’s haze of shadow absorbed the infant lightning crackling around his hands.
“Calm yourself, Snowshine. Sit quietly for a change and allow me to explain,” Taekwoon replied, entirely unfazed as he began to separate Jaehwan’s silver locks.
Jaehwan wanted to lash out, longed to burn those pianists hands until they were nothing but blackened stumps. But he was too weak. Sanghyuk hadn’t given him a boost in days, and on his own, Jaehwan knew all too well how powerless he was in the face of the Shayde.
So, he turned his face away and shut his eyes. Unable to look at the ocean or the deck or anything at all with the sensation of Taekwoon’s fingers stroking his hair. Too overwhelmed by half.
“Dawns and Dusks are identical. The only differentiating characteristic between them is the race they are tied to. They do not need to possess magical skill, not necessarily, nor do they need to be raised at the side of their elven companion. A Dawn, or a Dusk in the case of my people, will find their elf no matter what. Early in life or late. In a time of war or a time of peace. Circumstance matters not. They are given life by the goddesses for the express purpose of finding their other half, and tailor made to suit their elf’s needs.”
Taekwoon had begun combing his fingers through the silver strands, but it felt more perfunctory than anything else. Like he was simply working out tangles rather than petting. That thought eased Jaehwan’s racing pulse somewhat. Not that he liked it, certainly not. He was simply glad that the Shayde’s touch didn’t linger.
“But that poem,” Jaehwan breathed, not daring to move a single muscle, “Two of one heart reunited. That pair is Sanghyukkie and I.”
“Not necessarily,” Taekwoon replied. Jaehwan’s heart sank. “The poem feels more like a riddle to me. The lines don’t necessarily mean what we think they do. What was it again?”
“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.”
Jaehwan recited the verse from memory. His breath was coming short and shallow, a lump forming in his throat.
Taekwoon hummed, seemingly in appreciation, as he tied off the end of Jaehwan’s new braid. The Glayce didn’t dare look to see what he’d used, but if he had to guess by the slippery sound, Jaehwan would say it was a ribbon.
“There was a bit about six in the beginning, yes?”
“Split it into sentences rather than verse. ‘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.’ I believe the ‘north and south’ are Hongbin and Hakyeon, almost beyond a shadow of a doubt, but...”
The Shayde paused, laying the long braid along Jaehwan’s spine before dropping his hands. Jaehwan released a shaky sigh of relief. “It could mean many things. I don’t know who would run away rather than fight. We’ve been in several and nobody has run. And I don’t know for certain whose love is unrequited, although I can guess. I’m sure you can as well.”
Jaehwan winced again.
“The twin flames could be someone else- perhaps, or...”
Taekwoon lapsed into pensive silence for a few heartbeats.
“In any case, it doesn’t particularly matter who is who. I’m sure our group is complete. But, to return to my earlier point, I only called Sanghyuk your twin flame on our first meeting because that was what I assumed the riddle meant. It never occurred to me that the bond described would be the bond between elf and Dawn.” Taekwoon gave Jaehwan’s arm a little pat. “He does behave like a Dawn, you must have noticed.”
Jaehwan had in fact noticed. He’d tried not too, but it was impossible to ignore.
Sanghyuk hovered at Jaehwan’s shoulder almost constantly. Each of his protective outbursts, the familiarity that ran deep in his touch, the furtive glances when he thought Jaehwan’s attention was elsewhere. All of it reminded Jaehwan so strikingly of Wonho.
His Dawn had not been a conduit like Sanghyuk, but Wonho had been gifted in several types of magic. Much more so than a normal human. Those gifts had served to strengthen Jaehwan in their own way, the two of them weaving in tandem so their combined power was stronger than most other Glayce. Sanghyuk giving Jaehwan boosts after feeding had much the same result, even if the method of strengthening was different.
This idea, that Sanghyuk was meant to be his Dawn rather than his twin flame, deepened Jaehwan’s omnipresent sense of loss even further.
“What is the matter, Snowshine? You look positively grief stricken,” Taekwoon asked. He reached out, gently touching Jaehwan’s face and then his shoulder.
The fleeting contact brought back another memory.
After that horrible creature had released him, salt water soaking through his clothing and plastering his hair to his skin. Dazed from the Serena’s hypnotizing song that rang in his ears for hours after they’d returned to the depths of the sea. Being cradled in the Shayde’s arms as he ran. Wind stinging his eyes and chapping his lips.
And then, when the running had stopped, the soft sound of Taekwoon’s murmuring. The heat from the kindra he’d woven around Jaehwan like a blanket. The security and reassurance Jaehwan had felt as Taekwoon had rubbed circles into his back. Their foreheads pressed together as Jaehwan had tried his best not to shake apart from terror.
Jaehwan had felt safe in Taekwoon’s embrace, and he despised himself for that.
“It would be simpler if Sanghyuk was my twin flame. I prefer simple.”
“Nothing about our quest is simple.”
Silence stretched out between them for a few moments. Jaehwan stared out at the water, pretending not to notice Taekwoon watching him.
“I’ll leave you be, if you’d like,” the Shayde said, turning away and starting to untangle himself from the ropes, “At least you won’t be strangled by your own hair now.”
“No!” Jaehwan squeaked before he could stop himself. He wasn’t entirely sure why he didn’t want Taekwoon to go. This was the longest private conversation they’d had together, by miles, and he couldn’t bring himself to let it end. Besides which, the idea of being alone right then was suddenly and violently intolerable.
Jaehwan made an aborted little motion, extending his hand and then pulling it back. Curling his fingers in a loose fist. “No, just-“ he swallowed hard, “Just stay for a minute more.”
“As you wish,” Taekwoon replied, resettling himself on the beam in such a way that he was closer to Jaehwan than before. “It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.”
“You could go back to your cabin.”
“And do what? Try to sleep through Wonshik’s unending stream of prayers to the Great Mother that the ship won’t sink?”
Jaehwan laughed at that, although he thought it sounded more like a hiccup.
“Why aren’t you in your cabin?”
“Hongbin is in there with Hakyeon, or he was when I checked earlier. I got a snack from the galley and went to ask if Hakyeon wanted some, but he was too absorbed in giving a lecture on the healing properties of ginger to take much notice of me. I figured I’d leave them to it.”
Taekwoon smiled down at his hands where they were clasped in his lap. “Those two... equal parts smitten and oblivious, the both of them.”
Jaehwan nodded in agreement. Their blooming romance was almost sickening to watch it was so sweet, even if neither Hongbin nor Hakyeon actually noticed the others feelings.
“And why didn’t you go to Sanghyuk’s cabin then? If Hongbin was elsewhere, I’m sure he would have welcomed the opportunity to keep you entertained.”
“Ah,” Jaehwan sighed. “Sanghyuk was in the galley when I got my snack. Sampling the cook’s ale and taking turns arm wrestling with the crew. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously, and I think a little fun was just what Sanghyuk needed, but it was so loud. Rowdiness didn’t suit my temperament. So, I came up here.”
Another pause, in which Jaehwan found himself getting momentarily lost in the Shayde’s dark eyes.
A question came to him, a question that should have come the moment he felt Taekwoon beside him. “How did you know where I was?”
Taekwoon’s smile widened almost imperceptibly. It occurred to Jaehwan that he hadn’t seen the elder smile like that before. “I could hear you humming.”
“I was humming?” Jaehwan asked, slightly bewildered. He hadn’t realized he’d been making any noise at all.
“Yes. I didn’t recognize the melody, but you have a beautiful voice.”
Jaehwan looked away and the two of them settled back into silence. Listening to the faint rumble of thunder some ways off, the flap of wind catching the sails, the slapping of waves against the hull. It was- uncomfortably comfortable. Sitting on the beam thirty feet off the deck like a pair of elven songbirds perched on a tree branch.
After several hasty glances in the Shayde’s direction, Jaehwan opened his mouth to speak. Then closed it again. Then opened it. “Our- our people used to be kin, used to be friends, a long time ago. Before the jealousy and the slaughter.”
Jaehwan struggled to find the correct words to express his thoughts and failed.
“They could be friends again, when all is put to rights,” Taekwoon murmured, finding the words for him.
Skin tingling and lungs feeling unpleasantly tight, Jaehwan turned to face the Shayde again. Taekwoon was already looking at him and Jaehwan almost shied away from the intensity of his gaze. He had no idea what he wanted to ask but the unformed plea seemed to be clawing at the inside of his throat. Pricking hot at the corners of his eyes.
“I’d like to try something, if you’ll allow me,” Taekwoon said, soft voice as rich as chocolate.
Despite the sharp pang of panic setting his insides sparking, Jaehwan gave a single, slow nod.
Taekwoon turned fully to face him then. Jaehwan mirrored the movement. Unsure, unsure, he was so damn unsure of everything.
“Focus on your lumina, please.”
The ‘please’ startled Jaehwan into complying. He diverted the majority of his attention to the core of condensed power that always resided right at the center of his chest. Like a ball of bright light he could reach in and touch if he was so inclined. It flooded his awareness with the softest of glows, tinting the edges of his vision.
“Keep focusing,” Taekwoon continued, one hand already cupping Jaehwan’s cheek. The Glayce had been focusing so hard he hadn’t noticed when it had gotten there and he nibbled his bottom lip, worrying it between his teeth as he stared at the Shayde before him.
“As you focus on your lumina, I am focusing on my Calamis.”
Jaehwan nodded again. His heart in his throat.
“Keep focusing,” Taekwoon repeated, and then he leaned in even closer.
Jaehwan felt like a puppet on a string, but he knew his actions were entirely of his own volition. There was nothing forcing him to lean in as well, no sinister outside force, no compulsion. It was pure instinct that brought his face near enough to close the gap between them.
Taekwoon’s lips were soft against his, melding together with only the smallest amount of pressure. His long hair like warm satin where Jaehwan touched it. The sensation emptied Jaehwan’s mind of all thought. Not even the fact that he was kissing a Shayde could penetrate. Such intimacy in a first kiss, he’d never experienced. Nor so much power.
One of his hands found Taekwoon’s, an index finger brushing a thumb. Fingers lacing together as the kiss deepened. Jaehwan parted his lips the smallest bit as Taekwoon cradled his face.
The sweet softness was suddenly charging, Jaehwan’s insides growing hot as the intensity of it crashed through him.
He gasped into Taekwoon’s mouth, tasting the green tea and jasmine rinse he knew the Shayde favored, and then all of that power burned right through him. Across his chest, down his arm, into the hand still clasping Taekwoon’s.
It lit the sky like nothing Jaehwan had ever seen. He had to tilt his face up slightly to look, eyes still half closed and lips pressing featherlight kisses to the corner of Taekwoon’s mouth. A bolt of lightning cut the sky, indigo electricity, shattering the clouds like they were made of glass.
Jaehwan could see the weave, partially, feel where it had shot from their tangled fingers. Lumina and calamis. Darkness and light combined.
“Interesting,” Taekwoon panted, smiling against Jaehwan’s cheek.
The Glayce’s body felt heavy, like he’d been pushed to the edge of sleep, but he managed to keep some semblance of balance. Drowsy from the comfort and the warmth of Taekwoon’s skin and the pleasure of their kiss.
He didn’t allow any new thoughts to enter his consciousness. The fact that it had been wrong, a mistake, a perversion of his purity and his power. Those would come later, inevitably.
In the present moment, however Jaehwan’s mind lingered on one single, unassailable truth. Balance. A kind of balance he’d never experienced in his long, long life.
Jaehwan didn’t protest as the Shayde scooped him up. Didn’t protest as they both drifted lazily down to the deck on a pillow of darkness. Didn’t protest when Taekwoon murmured that he should rest after using so much of his power. He was nearly purring in the Shayde’s arms, more content than he’d been in centuries.
What the morning would bring, possible changes to their interactions, what the repercussions of this momentary dalliance would be, Jaehwan didn’t know. It was night now. Night was the time for secrets.
Not for the first time, as Taekwoon set him on his feet and stroked his cheeks, Jaehwan wished he’d been gifted with telepathy. He longed to know what Taekwoon was thinking and feeling in the aftermath of his little experiment.
“Come, Snowshine, before you collapse right here on the deck and someone sees your hair in all its glory.”
Jaehwan nodded, allowing himself to be led back into the bowels of the ship. His fingers still laced through Taekwoon’s.
What the morning would bring, Jaehwan didn’t know. And in that moment, he didn’t much care.
Keo’s Dawn and Dusk are their musical hyungs, in case I forgot to mention that before lol
Homoromantic asexual Hongbin is the hill I will die on
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I don't like this,” Sanghyuk muttered, eyeing the rest of his party now gathered on deck. He didn’t like it. Not one bit.
They’d docked in Roseport harbor only maybe fifteen minutes previous, the crew scampering around the deck and hauling ropes and raising sails. The six paying travelers were all but forgotten in the chaos.
Sanghyuk knew that Roseport was their destination, had known it before they’d ever set foot on this stupid ship. And he knew that, as its name suggested, Roseport was a port city and trading post on the northern edge of Beleme. And the sellsword also knew that Beleme was the homeland of the Tayre, the most common type of elf, widely known for their love of nature and specifically forests.
But what Sanghyuk hadn’t known, because nobody had thought to tell him, was that any Tayre elder they encountered would be able to tell what Jaehwan and Taekwoon were on sight. Cowl or no cowl. Hood or no hood. Something about their energy. And since that was apparently a bad thing, the two elves would be breaking off from the company to skirt around the edge of the city as unobtrusively as possible and then meet the remaining four at some remote outpost.
That, in Sanghyuk’s personal opinion, was an extremely bad idea. He didn’t trust the Shayde as far as he could throw him, and certainly not to be around Jaehwan alone and in an unknown land. What if Taekwoon simply decided to kidnap Jaehwan and take him back to the Shayde elders as a captive? Or what if he just killed Jaehwan outright and ran away? None of them had the orienteering skills to track a dark elf across foreign territory if either scenario were to occur.
Sanghyuk sounded like a broken record, even inside his own brain.
But the thing that Serena monster had said, about Taekwoon’s motivations on this quest. About Taekwoon only wishing to find the heart of the sun so he could destroy it for true. That idea was something Sanghyuk was unable to shake and it made him even more suspicious.
“I know you don’t like it, Sanghyukkie, but we don’t really have another choice,” Jaehwan hummed, petting one of the forearms Sanghyuk had crossed over his chest.
The elf was covered in black from head to toe, as usual, but a glance flicked downward gave Sanghyuk a glimpse of blue eyes looking up at him from under the hood. The prettiest, sparkliest eyes he had ever seen.
Sanghyuk shook his head a little and turned away, staring stubbornly out at the city laid before them. “If you need to avoid suspicion, surely we all do. I don't understand why we can't stick together.”
“Because we need supplies, remember? There is a reason I never came to this kingdom on my travels. It is dangerous for one of my kind to be here. I can't simply walk around the shops with the rest of you like I’d be able to in Mairis.”
“Not to mention,” Taekwoon added, despite the fact that his input absolutely had not been asked for, “That six riders are much more noticeable than two. Or, one I suppose, since Snowshine does not have a horse.”
Undeterred by this line of reasonable argument, Sanghyuk shook his head once more. “If Jaehwan is the one in danger, he and I can go and meet the rest of you outside of town.”
Jaehwan sighed, a soft little sigh, his hand traveling up to gently squeeze the sellsword’s shoulder.
There was something different about the Glayce this morning. Sanghyuk had picked up on it quickly enough, first when he had fed and then again when the questing party had assembled after breakfast.
When he had fed (a thoroughly awkward experience in Jaehwan’s cabin, slung halfway on and halfway off of the elf’s hammock with Hakyeon studiously looking the other way as he packed his bag), he’d been able to sense the change. Jaehwan’s blood had tasted odd. Not bad, exactly, still filling the sellsword with the lumina his body so craved, but just odd. A bit spicier maybe.
And then, up on deck, the elf grew quiet when the rest of their group had arrived. Not bickering with Taekwoon or chatting happily with Hakyeon the way he normally did. And he wouldn’t look anywhere but in the general vicinity of Sanghyuk’s head. Not that Sanghyuk minded having the elves undivided attention, not at all, but still. It was strange.
“I am in just as much peril as Snowshine, unfortunately. My people are not well liked by the Tayre,” Taekwoon hummed, adjusting the straps of his pack and appearing frustratingly bored. “We’ll meet the rest of you on the Great South Road, I already gave Hakyeon directions on how to get there.”
“On that point,” Jaehwan added, speaking up so quickly it was like he hadn’t heard the Shayde’s words, “May I borrow your horse, Hongbin? I don’t have- I normally go with Sanghyukkie and his is a bit large...”
“You can ride with me, Snowshine.”
Sanghyuk opened his mouth to argue that point but Hongbin cut in before he had the chance. “Take my night-damned horse, I don't care, take anything you want, just get me onto dry land, please,” he groaned, leaning up against the cabin's outer wall and looking distinctly green. Hakyeon had fed him some kind of tincture for nausea during the night, but his best friend’s seasickness had still been extremely unpleasant to witness.
Discussion momentarily paused; the six adventurers made their way down the gangplank. Ushered ashore by the slightly anxious captain once the second half of their payment had been collected.
“I’ll come with you two then,” Sanghyuk said, somehow unable to make himself drop the subject. “Bin can keep his horse and Hwannie can ride with me.”
“Great mother, just leave it! you're acting like a scared little kid,” Wonshik mumbled. Impatient.
Sanghyuk shot him as icy a glare as he could manage. “You’re one to talk, I could hear you praying all night through the cabin wall.”
“Yeah, and I was asking for safe passage and calm seas so he-“ a hand waved in Hongbin’s direction, “-wouldn’t throw his guts up all over the deck. All you’re doing is being a brat and holding us up.”
“Thanks for the prayers- can’t say they did all that much good though,” grumbled Hongbin.
“Shik, you’re not helping,” snapped Hakyeon.
Before Sanghyuk had a chance to get close enough to punch Wonshik in his stupid mother-loving face, because the apprentice was honestly begging for it at this point, Jaehwan tugged him a few steps away from their little clump. Creating an illusion of privacy.
“It’ll be okay, Hyukkie, you don’t need to worry so much,” the Glayce murmured, running a hand along Sanghyuk’s upper arm. Like he was petting a nervous dog to try and soothe it. And Sanghyuk could not say it wasn’t effective, which only served to annoy him further.
He reached up and tugged the cowl down maybe an inch. Enough that he could see a small smile playing on Jaehwan’s lips. Sanghyuk pouted. “I don’t trust him, and I just want to make sure you’re safe.”
“I know,” Jaehwan replied, playfully bumping Sanghyuk’s knuckles with the tip of his nose before pulling the cowl back into place. “I’ll be fine.”
“Why are you so calm about going with him all of a sudden? I thought you hated him.”
It was a petulant question, and before he’d even closed his mouth, Sanghyuk wished he could have taken it back. Wonshik was right, he really did sound like a bratty child.
Jaehwan’s shoulders fell on another sigh and Sanghyuk looked away.
He didn’t understand why it bothered him so much. Didn't enjoy worrying about another person like this. It made him antsy, his normally calm demeanor replaced with a snappy temper. Constantly off balance unless the elf was within his direct line of sight. This pervasive, all-encompassing need to care about someone that was practically a stranger. It frightened him, even if he refused to admit that fact to himself.
“Fine, go. We'll meet you on the south road or whatever it’s called,” Sanghyuk relented, turning around and stalking back to the group without a backward glance.
He wasn’t particularly looking forward to a shopping trip -watching Hakyeon and Hongbin cozy up without having his own person to cozy up to, and having to endure Wonshik’s snide comments- but he’d do it. Because he was a grown man, and he could handle a few hours of boredom.
Sanghyuk settled into routine, securing his pack onto the straps usually meant for saddlebags and checking his horses' bridle. The gelding, Carrot, named such by his original owner, whinnied quietly in greeting. He seemed to have taken the brief ship journey well, no wobbling legs to be seen. Sanghyuk grinned a bit and stroked his golden mane.
He continued tending to Carrot, determinedly not looking around as Hongbin passed Jaehwan the reins of his own horse, a rather impressive looking chestnut stallion that he only ever called Colt (Sanghyuk wasn’t sure if that was the horse’s real name but he’d never been bothered enough to ask). He didn’t look when Jaehwan swung up onto Colt’s saddle with that unnatural elven grace. And he didn’t look when Jaehwan called out that he would ‘see them all soon’.
“I’ll take good care of him,” Taekwoon hummed, so quietly that nobody else could hear, already mounted up as he trotted past the sellsword.
Sanghyuk didn’t look, and he didn’t punch the Shayde in the stomach either.
Jaehwan glared at the Taekwoon from under the edge of his hood as they rode briskly down the dock, then turned off into a relatively empty alleyway.
“You really are a unique flavor of bastard.” The words left him in a hiss, so quiet that a passing group of human sailors couldn’t hear it. “Don’t antagonize Sanghyuk like that. It’s cruel, not that I’d expect any less from one of your kind.”
Taekwoon turned to him, dark hair flowing in the breeze, expression calm and blank. He was resplendent in a jade and charcoal jerkin, somewhat sweaty black linen shirt, tan doeskin breeches, and guilt-heeled knee boots. Black traveling cloak billowing out behind him. That conspicuous wealth was just as likely to draw attention to them as the nearly tangible Calamis that rolled off his body.
The memory of those lips set Jaehwan’s heart to pounding; feeling of those hands as soft as lamb's wool.
Jaehwan swallowed down a wave of fear and regret.
The horror he had so blatantly ignored last night, the wrongness of what he’d done, allowed himself to do, had caught up with him upon waking. Letting the Shayde touch him. Letting his magic be corrupted. Letting himself feel comfortable in the arms of his enemy. It had all been so, so wrong.
He could not be so reckless, could not make the same mistake again. Being around Taekwoon was unavoidable at this stage of the game, but he would keep the Shayde at arm’s length until their business was done.
No more midnight dalliances. No more heartfelt conversations. No matter how much the idea sent an unhelpful pang of sadness searing through Jaehwan, he could not. No more... just no more.
“I wasn’t antagonizing him, I was telling the truth,” Taekwoon replied in equal softness, “I will take good care of you.”
Jaehwan spat a curse and nudged the sides of his borrowed horse, urging them into a fast cantor. He overtook Taekwoon’s stallion and kept right on going, until the buildings around him had sufficiently thinned and they broke out onto an open meadow. “I can take care of myself.”
Hongbin glanced up at the sound of a soft moan emanating from the inside of his tent and grimaced.
“I know that whole thing is supposed to be sacred or something,” he muttered inclining his head in the tent’s direction, “But I still can’t help finding it a bit gross.”
At his side, Hakyeon let out a bark of laughter. A warm, rich sound that brought a smile to Hongbin’s face. “You’re one to talk,” the healer replied, gently bumping Hongbin’s shoulder, “Seeing as the two of you used to get up to the same thing. Feeling slighted, perhaps? Jealous that Jaehwan stole your main entree spot on Sanghyuk’s proverbial menu?”
There was a tease in Hakyeon’s tone that Hongbin didn’t miss, but he shuddered all the same. “No, not even a little bit jealous, I promise you. But that-” another nod in toward the tent, “-Isn’t how we did it. I’d just bleed a little into a glass and he’d drink it. Very civilized. And there was never any moaning involved.”
Hakyeon’s expression seemed to smooth over in thought, head tilted a bit to the side. Hongbin didn’t know whether he’d said something interesting or if something else had caught the healer’s attention, but Hakyeon’s wire-rim glasses were sitting crookedly on the bridge of his nose. A nicely shaped nose, Hongbin thought as he absently reached out to adjust the glasses, much nicer than the ski slope Jaehwan was working with. Nice eyes as well, chocolate brown flecked with copper.
Belatedly realizing what he’d just done, Hongbin set both his hands and his eyes firmly back on the task of setting up dinner. A slight heat warming his cheeks.
He already had a small fire going, a wooden spit all ready for whenever Wonshik and Taekwoon returned from hunting, and six empty bowls were arranged around him in a sort of half-moon. Hakyeon had taken pity on him after his first rather disastrous cooking attempt and was helping him out now, stirring delicious smelling spices into a broth he had heating beside the fire.
“We can hear you, you know,” Jaehwan called, wriggling out from the tent. Looking pouty and distinctly disheveled. Sanghyuk followed close behind him, color warming the apples of his cheeks and golden hair in disarray, but much less grumpy than he’d been earlier. “And Sanghyukkie feeding is sacred. It’s sacred to the dark mother, and while I'm not exactly her biggest fan, even I know better than to mock the sanctities of a goddess.”
“That’s you told,” Hakyeon snickered, settling back to lean against a nearby tree trunk. Hongbin pretended he hadn’t heard.
“Whatever. How about you skip the lecture and make yourself useful? Gathering more firewood would be a good place to start.”
“It’s all good, Hwannie. Bin didn’t mean anything by it,” Sanghyuk said good-naturedly, snagging the elf’s hand and practically hauling him over to the tree line, “Any kind of moaning offends his virgin sensibilities.”
“Shut it!” Hongbin grabbed a stick and hurled it at the back of his best friend’s head, face flaming as the sound of Sanghyuk’s chuckling grew further and further away.
The elder of the two sellswords dropped his gaze and turned his face pointedly toward the fire, hoping its warm light would help disguise his blush.
The embarrassment threatened to overwhelm him, filled with a sudden urge to leap to his feet and sprint off into the forest, not stopping until he reached the safety of home.
It wasn’t that Hongbin felt bad about not having had sex yet. He’d never actually found the idea of sex all that appealing and didn’t personally care. He wasn’t a captive to such feelings, the way Sanghyuk and others were. But the reaction of his old school friends and peers had drilled the shame into him for years now, and it was almost impossible to fight off.
A gentle hand brushed his arm and Hongbin made a valiant effort not to flinch. He still refused to look, glowering at the little patch of flames.
“You don’t have to be emba-“
“Why are you here?” Hongbin interrupted, not wanting to hear any pity or mockery in Hakyeon's voice. A discussion of his nonexistent intimate experience was, very probably, the last thing he wanted to have. “I mean, why did you come on this quest? You found your calling, have a shop, why did you give all that up so hastily?”
Hakyeon hummed wordlessly to himself, thankfully accepting Hongbin’s abrupt change of subject.
“You know,” he said, peering out into the vastness of the night when Hongbin dared a sidelong glance, “I’ve never truly considered myself a religious person. I’ve only been to temple a handful of times and my family isn’t particularly devout.”
The healer shifted a bit and finally turned to meet Hongbin’s gaze. Intent but comfortable at the same time. “You’re correct when you say I found my calling. The healing arts and herbalism means everything to me. But, I believe that each of us were given our lives for a purpose.”
An easy sigh, the words flowing from the apothecary without much conscious thought. Like he’d considered the question before. Hongbin was listening so raptly that he almost accidentally dropped one of the bowls into the fire.
“I love my work and the simple life I lived back in Mairis, but the call of adventure... a chance to save the world? Who could turn that down? And if the great mother put me here and taught me to love healing just so I can stop the lot of you dying every five minutes, then so be it. I’m happy to do it. And I’m happy to have had an opportunity to make such unique and inspiring friends. That’s why I’m here, Hongbin. I’m a great believer of destiny.”
“Why are you here, Hongbin?”
Hongbin blinked once. Then twice. He hadn’t been expecting such a genuine answer and he didn’t know how to respond in kind.
“Well,” he spluttered, trying to collect himself, “I mean I knew Sanghyuk was dead set on going, and I wasn’t just going to let him run off by himself with a bunch of strangers-“
“We’re back! And we’ve come bearing gifts!” Wonshik’s voice called out from the darkness, the interruption sparing Hongbin from giving what would have surely been a lame reply.
He and the Shayde appeared in the clearing where they had made camp. Each holding what looked to be a dead rabbit, quivers over their shoulders and bows strung across their backs.
“Wonderful,” Hakyeon exclaimed, doing a happy little clap that made Hongbin's insides twist uncomfortably like his stomach was full of snakes, “Those will be perfect in my soup!”
Hongbin watched the two newcomers, staying uncustomarily quiet as they knelt beside the fire and set about cleaning their kills.
It was nearly impossible to miss the furtive glances Wonshik shot in Taekwoon’s direction every few seconds. The tentative way he kept touching Taekwoon’s arm, trying to hold his attention. If the Shayde minded, Hongbin couldn’t tell. Only a minuscule smile on that darkly handsome face. Wonshik was a hypocrite for that as far as Hongbin was concerned, but a generally harmless one.
“Surely, you don’t need a bow to hunt, Taekwoon? Can't you just...” the sellsword wiggled his fingers in a poor attempt to mimic the elf’s spellcasting.
Taekwoon looked back at him for a quiet moment before replying. “Surely, you can light a fire without a flint, now that you’ve had your Awakening?”
Hongbin’s eyes flicked to the flint lying in the short grass beside his knee, but the Shayde continued without giving Hongbin a chance to respond. “In any case, I’ve always enjoyed archery. No point in using magic when I can shoot instead.”
“You’re great at it,” Wonshik added, the soul of obsequiousness. Always ready to take advantage of any excuse to compliment Taekwoon.
The Shayde laughed, a short almost sardonic laugh, ducking his head and murmuring a quiet, “Thank you,” just as the final two members of their party returned with the wood they’d fetched.
Hongbin settled back against a tree trunk and wrapped his cloak more snuggly around his shoulders. Mind busy, jumping back and forth from thought to thought.
Watching Sanghyuk glare at Wonshik.
Watching Wonshik smile hopefully at Taekwoon.
Watching Taekwoon pluck at a strand of Jaehwan’s loose silver hair before getting his hand slapped away.
Watching Jaehwan begin to chatter at Hakyeon about some plants he’d just picked.
And finally, watching Hakyeon’s skillful fingers sprinkle more herbs into his little cookpot. Lovely warm skin almost glowing in the moonlight, dappled with shadows from the canopy above.
Hongbin simply sighed.
“This new scarf, Hyukkie, I could just kiss you! It’s so soft!” Jaehwan chirped from a few yards ahead.
Wonshik didn’t bother looking up from the path they were following. He knew what he’d see if he did. Jaehwan, as insouciantly charming as ever, long hair and annoyingly pretty face hidden beneath a swathe of peacock blue cashmere. Sanghyuk had picked it up for the Glayce during their shopping trip in Roseport and Jaehwan had taken to wearing it instead of his cowl when the threat of encountering strangers was low.
Sanghyuk chuckled but Wonshik missed his reply, the words snatched away by the wind. The bloodsucker would probably be delighted at the prospect of a kiss. Great mother bless them, Wonshik thought grumpily. If Jaehwan gave in and succumbed to Sanghyuk’s disgusting puppy love, then perhaps Taekwoon would stop being so distracted and more receptive to Wonshik’s feelings.
Taekwoon liked him, as far as Wonshik could tell. Always easy-tempered and making quiet jokes whenever the two of them were alone. He smiled when Wonshik smiled and seemed to enjoy making Wonshik laugh. And Wonshik adored his attention. The apprentice felt such a stark longing to be by Taekwoon’s side that even the smallest moment of being ignored or looked over made him a bit nauseous.
His sister had chided him once, said that he feels too deeply and holds onto pain. Wonshik couldn’t really deny those assertions.
“Look! Straight ahead, can you see that?”
Wonshik did raise his head at that.
After departing from their little camp outside Roseport, they’d ridden inland on horseback for only a day and a half before the forest had grown too dense and the undergrowth too wild for riding. So, they questing party had to hike for the last week, only stopping well into the night and waking up at moonrise to try and cover as much ground as possible.
The elves had done some kind of magic to the horses, woven air around their hooves or something to lighten their steps so they could more comfortably be led over the rough terrain. Wonshik wasn’t sure about the particulars, but he was thankful for it all the same.
And for the past day or so, a dark fog had slowly begun to descend around them. Penetrating the leafy canopy and growing thicker by the mile. Dampening the air so it felt like walking through soup.
So, when Wonshik looked up, he wasn’t all that surprised to discover what essentially amounted to a wall of grey that blocked out everything more than ten feet in front of him. “I can't see shit,” he muttered, hiking his pack up more securely on his shoulders. Not that anyone would hear him, or particularly cared about what he had to say.
“It looks like the right place. We haven't come across another bridge for days; this has to be it!”
The Sandstead Bridge, as their newest map referred to it, was a complete unknown to Wonshik. He had never been anywhere near this kingdom before, and so had no idea what to expect of their bridges. But as he continued forward and the mist revealed what Hongbin was shouting about, Wonshik felt himself swallow in fear.
It was not a bridge so much as a rickety pile of moldy logs. And what was worse, Wonshik couldn't see the end. There was nothing but a sheer cliff dropping off on either side and the beginning of the bridge. Stretching on for an unknown span and of questionable structural integrity. “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me,” he exclaimed, feeling Hakyeon grab his hand in a death grip, “This cant possibly be the right place.”
Taekwoon materialized from the fog on Wonshik’s right, dark and mysterious, like some sort of reaper come to take the apprentice's soul. Wonshik shivered.
“Only one way to find out,” the Shayde replied, gliding past the rest of the party and right up to the foot of the bridge, “We’ll have to cross it.”
At his side, Wonshik could hear Hakyeon whispering something under his breath. Too soft to make out the words.
“What’s wrong?” Wonshik murmured, taking the hand his friend had wrapped around his elbow in his own. Hakyeon’s eyes were wide, mouth pressing into a thin line, breathing through his nose as he stared unblinkingly forward.
“You can’t what?”
“I can’t- I cannot do this.”
Oh. Oh. Wonshik understood the problem after a few seconds of confusion. Hakyeon was terrified of heights.
“You do remember jumping off the top of the Thunderspire, don’t you?” he asked, gently patting Hakyeon’s back with his free hand, “It can't be any worse than that.”
“That was different.” Hakyeon swallowed audibly, fingers trembling. “I had a patient. Hongbin needed to get down and I had to help him. I didn’t even think about it. But this-” another gulp, “I can’t.”
A few yards away, Wonshik saw that Sanghyuk was crouching on the edge of the, for lack of a better word, chasm. “This should tell us how deep it is,” he called, picking up a stone and tossing it over the side.
They all waited, still and silent, for the sound of impact. The stone hitting the bottom.
No sound came. Or, if it did, it was too far down for them to hear.
“That doesn’t bode well,” Jaehwan said, his conversational tone incongruous amongst the others' tension, “Who’s going first?”
“Oh, goddess, Hyukkie, enough!”
Wonshik looked away from the now chastised and scowling Sanghyuk and returned his attention to his mentor. “It’s going to be fine,” he continued, picking up the thread of their conversation, “We didn’t come all this way for you to turn back now. You’re the strongest person I know. You can do this.” Trying for a reassuring smile, Wonshik added, “You can hold my hand, if that’ll help.”
Hakyeon didn’t even turn his head. As still as a statue where he stood among the trees.
“I’ll go,” Taekwoon called, shrugging off his cloak and tossing it in Hongbin’s direction. The sellsword managed to catch it, which was admirable, but Wonshik was a bit distracted watching the elf tie his long hair up into a swirl at the nape of his neck. “Someone has to test it, might as well be me.”
Giving no indication that he’d heard Taekwoon speak, Jaehwan shrugged off his own cloak and new blue scarf, dropping both on Sanghyuk’s head and strutting over to the foot of the bridge. “Me first.”
Always so competitive.
Only a second before his foot connected with the first plank, Taekwoon grabbed the Glayce by the arm and hauled him rather roughly backwards. Jaehwan stumbled but Taekwoon didn’t release him, looking the smaller elf over with those intense dark eyes.
“You will not. You will stay until I tell you it's safe, and then you will cross one at a time.”
Jaehwan shook him off, looking like he was about to spit on the ground but thought better of it. There was a tense moment, charged, as the two elves basically had a staring contest. Having a wordless conversation that Wonshik couldn’t begin to understand. Jaehwan should go first, in his opinion. Most annoying ones over the bridge of imminent death first.
After much too long, Jaehwan relented. Pouting ferociously and curling one slender hand around the railing, but stepping to the side.
With a small nod of approval, Taekwoon shook himself and held his arms out to the sides, not touching the railing. Hands hovering an inch above it as he took a single step onto the bridge. Walking as though he were astride a tightrope.
The wood creaked beneath his foot, a very loud and very ominous noise in the silence of the forest.
Mist hung above them like a grasping shroud as Taekwoon took a second step. Slow, cautious, and yet Wonshik still held his breath. Inching closer to the precipice without even realizing he was doing so.
Ten more steps, and Taekwoon seemed to relax. The ridged line of his shoulders smoothing down. He’d reached the struts that stuck up like a rickety arch, supposedly lending the narrow bridge structural support, although Wonshik didn’t exactly trust them to do all that much.
“I can see the end, it’s not too far,” Taekwoon called over his shoulder, giving the rest of them a small smile. “It’s not as bad as it looks-”
Several very startling things happened in very quick succession.
Something snapped, a loud snap like the sound of a bone breaking. The planks beneath Taekwoon’s feet crumbled and the Shayde dropped like a stone, smacking his head on one of the support struts as he fell. And Jaehwan, running so fast he was almost a blur, leapt after the falling elf, ending up on his stomach and hanging halfway out of sight.
“Help!” Jaehwan shrieked, very visibly sliding further over the break through which Taekwoon had fallen.
Insides frozen with panic, Wonshik moved forwards, his steps quickly overtaken by Sanghyuk. The sellsword sprinted onto the bridge, another plank falling away as soon as he stepped off it that Wonshik neatly avoided as he followed.
He wasn’t even sure why he was going. Sanghyuk could handle Jaehwan well enough on his own, but the image of Taekwoon falling was burned into his brain. Internal alarms screaming for him to help the Shayde any way possible.
Sanghyuk grabbed Jaehwan’s ankle to stop his slide and was about to pull him up when the elf shouted again. “Don’t move, just make sure I don't fall and give me a boost!”
Wonshik crept past Sanghyuk and peered down through the newly created hole, gripping the railing for all he was worth. And he saw why Jaehwan didn’t want to move.
His attempt to catch Taekwoon hadn’t been fast enough. Taekwoon was dangling in the air, unconscious, a trickle of blood running down his forehead, only a thin chord of white light connecting his wrist to Jaehwan’s hands. There was a foot of empty distance between them.
Jaehwan had been entertaining them with little magic tricks all morning as they hiked. He must have depleted his pathetic store of power and didn’t have enough to pull Taekwoon up any more on his own.
“Give him a boost! Now!” Wonshik exclaimed, voice gruff with fear as he tentatively crouched at Jaehwan’s side. The bridge was just wide enough for the two of them to be shoulder to shoulder, but the continued groaning of ancient beams indicated that it may not hold up much longer.
“I haven’t- haven’t fed! I can't!” Sanghyuk replied, straining to hold Jaehwan and Taekwoon's combined weight.
“Great mother, just bite him now then! And hurry up!” Wonshik shouted, annoyance mixing with his terror.
“His leg, I don’t fucking care! Just do it!”
“Hurry, Sanghyuk, please!”
Wonshik looked back just in time to see the sellsword tug Jaehwan’s pant leg free of his boot, gulp, and then bite down on the soft skin behind Jaehwan’s knee.
Jaehwan screamed again, this time from pain, but Wonshik averted his eyes as Sanghyuk began to feed. The whole business was filthy but if it would save Taekwoon’s life then he wasn’t going to comment.
It never took long, the transfer of power. Wonshik had seen them practicing and Sanghyuk was able to give Jaehwan boosts almost immediately. His monstrous body processing the energy and then releasing it back to the Glayce in a matter of seconds.
And now was no exception. Sparks bloomed on the tips of Jaehwan’s fingers, the veins in his neck and arms glowing a haunting bluish-white, both irises and pupils obscured by electric fire now burning in his eyes.
Tendrils of light shot from him, curling around Taekwoon like puppet strings and lifting the Shayde to safety with frightening ease.
As soon as he was within reach, Wonshik grabbed Taekwoon around the middle and hauled him the rest of the way up. Hugging so tight he half worried it might bruise the unconscious elf.
“Take him across and then return to help the others. I will not let you fall.”
As it always did when he was powered up, Jaehwans voice sounded dreamy and far away. His sightless eyes peered down at Wonshik, hair fanned out and crackling with electricity. And hovering a foot or so in the air, Wonshik saw, Sanghyuk clinging to his middle like he was worried the Glayce might float away.
The apprentice didn’t need telling twice. He hefted Taekwoon in his arms and jogged to the opposite side of the bridge and off it, sighing as he stepped onto firm ground. He only noticed the bands of light around his own body when he lay Taekwoon gently on the grass.
The idea of getting on the bridge again was utterly terrifying but he made himself go. Hakyeon was there. Hakyeon, who was scared of heights and who must be downright petrified after what he’d just witnessed.
Wonshik jogged back across the twenty yards of disintegrating bridge, only half seeing the light winding around the entire structure. Stopping the thing from collapsing entirely. He didn’t know how much energy Jaehwan would have left now, but he guessed it wasn’t much. Haste was an absolute necessity.
“Come on, Yeon, we’ve got to go. Now.”
Hakyeon was still backed up against the same tree, panting and shaking his head back and forth.
“I can’t do it,” he replied, voice barely more than a whisper.
Hongbin, who’d been securing all the horses together, so they formed a train, stopped beside them. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s afraid of heights,” Wonshik said, contemplating simply picking his mentor up and dragging him across the bridge.
Apparently of a similar mind, Hongbin tossed Wonshik the lead reins and clapped twice.
“Take them across, will you? I’ve got him,” he said, not giving Hakyeon a moment to protest before sweeping him up in his arms and jogging away. Running across what remained of the bridge and carrying Hakyeon bridal style. Not paying the healers shrieking the slightest bit of attention.
Once he’d crossed a second time, Wonshik finally noticed what looked to be a sandstone pedestal with a glass lid on top, a bit like one of those fancy cake trays one would see in a bakery. He spared a moment, approaching slowly and lifting the lid. Beneath it was a chunk of raw emerald, an accompanying jewel to the piece of sapphire that had been hidden in the Serena’s sealskin map case, as well as another map. Much smaller than the previous one and showing a smaller section of the kingdom. Scrawled in the margin were the words ‘A Test of Bravery’ and their new landmark, X marks the spot, simply the word ‘Ratara’.
As soon as Wonshik succeeded in securing the horses to a tree, he collapsed back at Taekwoon’s side. The Shayde still hadn’t come too and Hakyeon was apparently too busy screaming at an unbothered Hongbin to begin tending to him, but Wonshik wasn’t useless. He was a healer's apprentice and had some skill at the very least.
He’d torn up strips of his linen undershirt to use as bandages and was just starting to mop up the steadily drying blood when the bridge finally collapsed.
Wonshik jumped and looked around, startled by the noise, only sparing enough time to see that Jaehwan and Sanghyuk had safely crossed. The former came to kneel at his side, still powered up and glowing like a magical firefly as he leaned over Taekwoon. Hair pooling on the ground as he gently nudged Wonshik out of the way.
Wonshik went, but not far. And he wasn’t happy about it.
A current of nearly transparent light left Jaehwans mouth on an exhale, slipping between Taekwoon’s slightly parted lips. The Shayde’s heart seemed to be glowing, more light visible from inside his chest, through his shirt where Jaehwan had rested his palm.
That must have been the last of Jaehwan’s power because his light flickered out. Reduced to his normal fragile self as Taekwoon awoke with a gasp.
Snow pale lashes framing milky blue irises. That was the first thing Taekwoon saw when he regained consciousness, whole body tingling with electricity and mind filled with an unidentifiable haze. Jaehwan’s eyes.
His face lacked the definition of experience, Taekwoon thought vaguely. Expression so young and open. Although that carefree face could be misleading. True, there were no scars or healed brakes to be seen, but the damage from past suffering was most likely hidden away inside him. Buried down deep.
“Snowshine,” he rasped, a pounding headache growing like a storm inside his skull, “What happened?”
“You fell. I saved you.”
“You- saved me?”
Jaehwan’s arms wobbled and he collapsed, halfway on and halfway off Taekwoon’s chest. Clearly drained from some exertion Taekwoon could not remember. Breathing rhythmic and slow. Chilly body shivering in the cold. Taekwoon raised one surprisingly weak arm, only barely aware of Sanghyuk fretting and Hakyeon clinking glass jars beside him, to pet Jaehwan’s side.
“I saved you,” the Glayce replied, nodding a bit, and then falling instantly asleep.
Jaehwan saved Taeky for a change <3
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