Chapter 1: Prologue
Wonsik’s shoulder throbbed from the arrow wound, pain spreading through his body. But now he had just one thought. Run. Run until he could go no further. His heart pounded, his feet were swollen and cut from the rough terrain, but he had to escape. He had to. He could hear the three soldiers somewhere behind him. He didn’t know how close. He didn’t dare check. The air was no longer a welcome refreshment, it burned his lungs like acid. The shouts grew closer, his head swam. Run. Make for the tree line. And so he did, a tangled mass of thorny trees and gnarled wood. At any other time, Wonsik wouldn’t have thought to enter such a place, but now he barely noticed as he crashed into the woods, immediately scratched and cut by brambles and underbrush. The forest swallowed up the four men, like a living thing, hungry for its next meal. The air was still, and an ancient and sacred aura hung thick through the air. Wonsik could barely breathe anymore, everything hurt, it was as if his body was no longer under his control. Just like that, he felt himself falling, falling, just managing to turn at the last second to prevent the arrow from being driven deeper. He lay on the ground, gasping for air, mind screaming at him to get up, yet unable to move, completely paralyzed. He cradled with clumsy fingers at the smooth amulet that hung around his neck, fastened with a leather strap that had been braided and re-braided from use. It was ‘for luck’, his grandmother had told him in her sweet and steady voice as her old wrinkled hand placed it in his small pudgy one. He didn’t know if he really believed in it, but he brushed against the surface with his thumb, the edges of his vision began to fade. The last panicky thought he had before he lost consciousness was:
They will catch me.
Chapter 2: The Forest
Hakyeon stumbled a bit as he entered the shrine, leaning against the doorframe for support, letting its cool smoothness soothe his throbbing head.
“Hyung?” Sanghyuk approached worriedly, having just turned the corner and saw the dragon looking pale.
“I’m fine Sanghyuk, don’t worry.” He closed his eyes tiredly and pushed himself away from the wall, willing the dizziness away.
“It’s the curse again, isn’t it?”
Hakyeon just shook his head and limped back to his room. Hyuck watched the elder spirit’s retreating back with worry. Taekwoon appeared beside him, his silent presence making him jump.
“He isn’t well. It has been getting worse and worse. I swear if I ever get my hands on that disgusting human—“ the sentence was left unfinished with a hiss.
“I hope whoever they are, they’re suffering for what they’ve done.” He growled, then shoved past Hyuk and after Hakyeon, hoping that his magic could help ease at least some of the pain.
Wonsik huddled in the farthest corner of his cell, pressing himself up against the wall, mind barely processing what had happened. There was a battle, he had just cut down an enemy soldier...and then it was all a blur. His clothes still smelled of sweat and blood, his armor was gone but there was still the dark liquid crusted and dried onto his face, hair and hands.
The commanding officers had been beheaded, but Wonsik was just a lowly soldier, so they hadn’t killed him. In all honesty, though, he was beginning to feel as if death would have been better. Certainly the sting of the whip across his shoulder and arms, and his swollen eye from where a guard had struck him were bad enough, but he knew it was only the beginning. He had heard from the other prisoners about the horrors that took place in the camp, and he had resolved then and there to make it his goal to escape. The cell was dark and the ground was cold and hard, and he ached all over. Sleep would be a welcome luxury at this point, but it seemed as though he might have to settle for unconsciousness. Wonsik’s head throbbed and the lack of water was starting to get to him now that the adrenaline of battle had worn off. Clumsily, he fumbled in his shirt until his fingers found the amulet. He must not let them find it. Quickly, he took it off and scratched a hole into the hard ground, wincing as his raw fingers dug into the rough soil. Placing the amulet in, he covered it and patted it down, spreading bits of grass over it and smoothing it over, so no one would notice. By this time, everything was so blurry he could barely keep himself upright, and he collapsed onto his hands, which then buckled underneath his weight. His last coherent thought was something about how thirsty he was, before he drifted off into an unconscious slumber.
Hakyeon dreamed. Or rather, it wasn’t a dream, it was a vision. He was standing in a battlefield, watching as men were cut down around him. The scene melted away to reveal a man lying on the ground in a wooden cell, and the unmistakable glow of the pendant around his neck. Hakyeon only got a glimpse of his face before it faded into blackness as he awoke with a start. The man had looked young, bruised and beaten, with a strong jaw and handsome features. He drew his arm across his eyes, signs of his distress and weakness prominent in the manifesting scaly patches.
“Hyung, you should drink some tea. It’s enchanted ginger, it will help clear your mind.” A flurry of tails greeted him as Jaehwan barged into his room and plopped himself down on his mattress, handing him a glass bowl.
“And my sinuses apparently. How long did you let this steep??!” Hakyeon made a face as the bitter root taste assaulted his nose and tongue.
“Ahhh I might have forgotten about it.” The gumiho winced, “but you know it’s the thought that counts!”
Hakyeon just huffed and downed it in one gulp. He elected not to tell Jaehwan about the dream, although he could tell by the other’s expectant look that this would be disappointing.
“I’m fine, Jaehwan. You can go.”
”Alright then, be all mysterious and brooding.” The Gumiho was obviously miffed at not being privy to every single thing that was going on.
Hakyeon chuckled a bit as he watched the retreating tails.
“What do we have here?” Sanghyuk tilted his head, poking at the unconscious human with a clawed finger.
It had been a few days since the incident with Hakyeon, and Jaehwan and Sanghyuk had gone off to hunt.
“Oh Hyuk, leave whatever poor thing you’ve found alone.” Jaehwan’s long-suffering voice called back, clearly not paying much attention.
The demon persisted, however, carefully turning Wonsik’s body over, revealing the arrow wound, which was becoming infected. He curiously examined the blood stained uniform, touching the battered but handsome face.
“Jaeeeeeehwannnnn. It’s hurt.”
“YA! Jaehwan hyung !” Suddenly the gumiho became very interested, the disrespect catching his attention. He leapt gracefully down from the tree branch he was lounging on, snowy white ears twitching in irritation. “What on earth are you talking about? What is hurt—“
He gasped, inhaling deeply the unmistakable scent of human from the sad lump on the ground. His eyes turned a brilliant yellow, pupils narrowing to slits. Humans were unwelcome in the Sacred Forest. They had been driven out by the gods long ago in punishment for their destructive and violent ways. Now all that remained were rotting and crumbling ruins, vestiges of a bygone kingdom. He noticed this human smelt of blood and battle, which made him wary. Just as he was about to bend over and examine the human further, he heard shouts in the distance. Human shouts.
His ears flattened against his head, sharp milky white claws emerging in place of his fingernails.
“Sanghyuk, take this human to the Shrine.” He ordered, pointing deeper into the forest. “we’ll take care of this.”
The younger demon whined loudly.
“But I want to eat too! Can I eat him?”
“No!!” Jaehwan snarled, then his voice softened “we’ll save you a heart, alright?”
After more griping, Sanghyuk gave in with a hiss, and hauled the human into his arms and melted into the shadows, watching Jaehwan’s nine tails disappear into the underbrush.
“Be grateful, stupid human. Jaehwan has gone soft. It’s all that fraternizing and flirting he does with humans. Must have started to take pity on you.” He muttered under his breath, gently laying the limp form down under the small roof of the Shrine.
It was Jaehwan’s Shrine specifically, the name of the powerful gumiho carved delicately into the stone base, worn and faded with time. The wood had once been a vibrant red, and the tiles of the roof a jet black. He remembered the days when humans used to hang brightly colored paper around it, and offered various food, flowers and trinkets. He missed the food, he had to admit. He let out one more petulant whine, then flopped down with his back to the stone base of the shrine and awaited the return of the others.
Hakyeon’s eyes glowed a brilliant red in fury. Humans. In his forest. Scales appeared on his arms and neck, his human form fighting with his inner dragon. Hongbin and Taekwoon appeared beside him, anticipation written all over their faces, anticipation for a hunt, for a feast. He nodded and they sprung into action.
They bolted at almost superhuman speed in the direction of the voices, joined unexpectedly by Jaehwan.
“No Sanghyuk? I’m surprised.” Taekwoon chuckled lowly.
“He’s guarding something.” Jaehwan retorted. “Keeps him busy.”
“Something? Like?” Hongbin raised an eyebrow.
“A human. Injured, unconscious.”
“Best not mention that to Hakyeon just yet—“
“Oh yes of course. Because he’s upset. I couldn’t tell.” Jaehwan flicked his tails, which was the equivalent of rolling his eyes.
“Well, earlier, he—“ Hongbin started, but the leader in question silenced them with a single motion and they slowed, stalking the three clueless humans, watching, listening, waiting.
The humans were talking about something, unaware of the four pairs of eyes watching him from the brambles.
“Where is he?”
“I can’t believe you lost him.”
“I didn’t lose him! We shouldn’t have come here. This forest is cursed.” One of them glances around nervously, “he’s probably already been eaten by it!”
“You believe those old wives tales?” The middle one, somewhat taller, scoffed.
Hakyeon couldn’t help the chuckle that escaped his lips, making the men freeze, whirling around in circles. The sound seemed to come from everywhere, right next to them, from the left, from the right, behind, in front. Suddenly he appeared directly in front of the terrified trio, emerging from a cloud of smoke.
“And you don’t?” He grinned savagely.
The men backed away slowly in a group as Hakyeon advanced. The entire forest seemed to grow tighter and tighter around them as if ready to bite down. They made a weak attempt to scare him away with the feeble light of their torch, but it glanced off Hakyeon’s temple, and they watched in horror as the spark of flame spread down his check and neck to his arm, burning but not consuming. His eyes lit up a brilliant gold and he spat a ball of flame at their feet. Their panicked screams were quickly silenced, the torch extinguished, and they were devoured by the forest.
Taekwoon couldn’t remember the last time he had been fed so well. The fear and terror radiating off of the humans was intoxicating, dizzying. Hakyeon made sure to drag it out for as long as possible for him, something he was grateful for. When the torches went out and other three finally pounced, he closed his eyes in satisfaction. The man underneath Hongbin shriveled up like a grape in the sun as the vampire drained every last drop of blood out of his body, silent scream dying on his lips. As promised, Jaehwan clawed out the still beating heart of the tallest man for Hyuk. When the three were done, they left behind nothing but bones and tattered clothes, to remain as reminders of who this forest belonged to; old and vengeful deities.
Chapter 3: The Temple
Hyuck’s eyes lit up as Jaehwan returned with the promised heart. Jumping up, he snatched it out of the outstretched hand.
“Well?” Jaehwan prompted.
The demon made a noncommittal grunt and shrugged, continuing to eat. Jaehwan sighed dramatically to show that he was unhappy with the response, and leaned closer to examine the wound. His breathing was labored and he was running a fever. A mild smell of death lingered around him. Jaehwan knew enough about human practices that he recognized the human’s tattered and bloody clothes as some sort of military uniform. This man had probably been deceived into thinking some petty disagreement was important enough to risk his life for. His face was tan, and handsome in a unique way, but littered with a few bruises and scratches, an angry, almost complimentary red.
“Let’s get back.” He stood, smacking Sanghyuk on the back of the head, wanting him to hurry up.
Grunting in surprise and indignation, Hyuk shoves thé rest of the heart into his mouth and licked the blood off his fingers one by one.
“What about this?”
He jabbed the human a few more times before Jaehwan slapped his hands away.
“We’re bringing him with us.”
The demon’s coal black eyes nearly bulged out of his head.
“This?? Back? To the Temple? Hakyeon hyung will kill you. You know how much he hates humans.”
Jaehwan huffed and fluffed his tails proudly.
“Well hyung can learn to cope.” He picked up the injured young man and held him dramatically against his chest. “I’m hopelessly attached, I’m afraid.”
The younger hissed and made a mock gagging sound, but ultimately decided that since he wouldn’t be the one to face Hakyeon’s wrath, it really didn’t matter one way or the other whether the horrible fox brought the human back to The Temple or not. So, he followed along after Jaehwan.
The journey back to The Temple was not a long one. The forest was enchanted, and could either stretch on forever and ever, leading it’s sorry prey in circles until they were hopelessly lost in its tangled, eerie thicket, or it could open up naturally to the desired destination. And the forest existed to serve the gods who gave it life.
The Temple was their home, their haven. True, it had been built by men, long ago, but now all that remained was moss covered steps that led to nowhere and a large, once bright yellow gateway that long since was mostly rotted. The Temple, however, has been touched by the immortal hands of gods, and all of the intricate carving and murals were still intact. Elaborate patterned ceilings, daintily carved pillars and glassy floors decorated the interior in all vibrant shades of gold, green, yellow, blue and purple. At the front of the main room was an altar surrounded by thick wax candles, all lit, illuminating the entire place, and behind the altar on a dias were six thrones, draped in luxury, one obviously unused, yet still honored. Two doors on either side led down hallways to the other less sacred parts of the Temple such as the living quarters and the garden.
The ceiling was covered in colorful bright designs, depicting various gods and monsters. The stone of the altar, held up on the four corners by the four legendary creatures, had smudges and stains of long-faded blood and traces of other perfumes, giving the room a pleasant smell, like cedar and plum.
As soon as Jaehwan stepped past the ward on the door, a swish of robes and light pattern of feet indicated his presence was recognized. Hongbin appeared around the corner, always nosey and looking to see what was going on. Jaehwan also guessed he had spelled human blood and wanted to make sure the gumiho hadn’t been hiding anything. He stopped short on seeing his suspicions confirmed.
“Ah….Hyung…” He began cautiously, continuing to move closer with each step, “what are you planning on uh...doing with it?”
“ He is dying. Can’t you see?” The other’s ears twitched in exasperation as he put emphasis on the “He”. Hongbin calling the human an “it” seemed too impersonal.
“And? Why do we care and why is... he ...here?” Hongbin continued, fangs extending involuntarily as he inhaled the smell of human, despite the fact that he had just eaten not fifteen minutes ago.
“Am I the only one,” Jaehwan began loudly, “who has any pity in their soul? I’m being a benevolent spirit, trying to care for this stupid lost human, and all you useless spirits have to say is “why? Why?” He’s handsome, he’s hurt, and he’s….I don’t know what more do you want? He’s just different.”
“Aish okay okay not so loud hyung, calm down.” Hongbin grumbled. “I’ll go find Taekwoon and see if he's in the mood to do some healing.”
“I can go!” Hyuk offered, but his generosity was quickly dismissed.
“No, you’ll just put him in a bad mood. It’s better if Binne goes. You come help me take him to my room.”
Jaehwan’s room smelled heavily of incense, and dimly lit by many paper lanterns placed in the corners. Hyuk placed the human down on the many silky cushions of the Fox spirit’s bed.
“Ugh. Smells like dog.” He wrinkled his nose.
Jaehwan smacked him again, shoved him out without ceremony, and gently set about removing the bloodied clothing. Slicing the fabric down the middle, he pulled it off the man’s chest to reveal the wound fully. The arrow shaft had snapped off only a few inches away from the skin, whether broken off by the man on purpose or accidentally. Something shone in the candlelight, resting above the man’s heart, and it caught Jaehwan’s naturally curious eye. It was an amulet, circular, made from pure jade, an unusually rich accessory for someone who seemed to be a common soldier. He stood up and selected a calming scent, lighting another stick of incense and propping it up so it’s sweet aroma filled the room. Humans liked that kind of thing. The gentle knock on the door was followed by Taekwoon sliding the divider open.
Nekomata are famously silent, and Taekwoon lived up to that name. He made barely a sound as he glided across the room, the deep purple and silver of his robes rustling around his feet.
“Ah, so Hongbin wasn’t pranking me then.” He smiled, feline eyes narrowing and lips curling up just enough to show two long canines. “Let me see.”
“It’s good that he’s still unconscious.” He remarked to no one in particular. “Humans are always so difficult. Afraid of everything they don’t understand.”
Dark violet magic curled out from around his fingertips as he brushed his hand over the place where the arrow met the skin, gripping the arrow and tugging lightly. Purple tendrils danced across the wound, preventing any more blood loss, and searing away any traces of infection. Taekwoon closed his eyes and his fingertips began to glow as the magic spread further, healing the small cuts and bruises. The fever was still present, his magic only worked on open wounds. But at least the pain of the arrow was gone.
He reopened his eyes as the flow receded, and turned to Jaehwan.
“When are you planning on telling Hakyeon about your new pet?”
The spirit grimaced at the reminder.
“When he returns.” Came the vague answer.
By now, Hongbin and Hyuk had gathered at the doorway again, trying to catch a glimpse of the human, and desperately wanting to be included. Out of all the spirits, they were the newest, and had come into being after the humans had been driven out of the forest, so their contact with them had been minimal, and this was a novelty. The Oni also just wanted an excuse to get far enough into the room to step on one of Taekwoon’s tails.
“Evil boy!” came the surprised yell and hiss “I’ll tell Hakyeon about your antics!”
“So? What’s he going to do about it?” Sanghyuk stuck his forked tongue out.
“If you’re going to bicker, get out of my room!” Jaehwan complained.
“SHHH!” Hongbin cried suddenly, “it’s waking up!”
“For the last time ‘it’ is a He!”
“Maybe he doesn’t want to be a he! Humans are particular.” Hongbin defended himself.
“Well fine then. We’ll ask him.” Jaehwan retorted petulantly.
Wonsik awoke to the sounds of whispering and a thick, soothing scent that made him feel drowsy. The first thing he noticed, before he even opened his eyes, was that the pain in his shoulder was completely gone, not just dulled, gone. His head still throbbed and he felt hot and feverish.
“Ugh.” He groaned and tried to open his eyes, deciding that, for now, attempting to sit up was a bad idea.
When he did manage to crack an eye open, he nearly screamed at the sight that met him. Four spirits bent over him expectantly, their unnatural eyes blinking at him. Granted, they weren’t the enemy he had expected, but it still wasn’t exactly welcome. His grandmother had told him about forest spirits and in most of the tales they were none too kind. Wonsik tried to scramble up and away, but his arms refused to cooperate, and he collapsed back down again in a sad huddle. A gentle but firm and unnaturally strong hand pressed against his chest, pushing him back down.
“Just rest human.” A soft voice purred.
“Ask if it's a He.” Another voice whispered loudly.
“Ignore him.” The first voice continued, lulling Wonsik into a peaceful calm. “What should we call you, human?”
Wonsik knew better than to give his real name out to spirits, of any kind. His grandmother had always warned him about that. And yet, this voice...he felt it belonged to someone he could trust. Was he being charmed? Perhaps. He fought with himself as it echoed around inside his head, making it feel like it was stuffed with thick wool.
“W—Ravi. My name is Ravi.” He mumbled out finally, and felt the pressure disappear from his temples.
“Ah. Ravi. I see.” The voice seemed almost...disappointed.
“My head hurts.” He whispered.
“Sleep. It will be gone when you wake up.”
“Mm I’m also a He.” was the final thing he managed to say, voice almost inaudible, and with the tiniest hint of mirth behind it.
Light red creeping across his eyelids was the last thing he saw before he slipped into a peaceful slumber.
“He...he defied your charmspeak?” Hongbin voiced what everyone else had been thinking.
“Not just anyone can do that.” Taekwoon mused.
“Hyung maybe you were right when you said he felt special…”
Jaehwan himself sat back on his heels in shock. He had never encountered a human who defied his charm. It was his power, his ultimate weapon he had used countless times to lure unsuspecting humans to their death. Ravi was clearly not the man’s name. If charmspeak failed, the user would feel the magic violently returned to them in the form of searing pain, which was exactly what had happened. His eyes flirted back to the amulet. It didn’t feel magical, but then again, it wasn’t exactly his area of expertise.
“Well, I suppose maybe it was unfair of me to use it on him.” His nine fluffy white tails drooped.
“We should make him some food for when he wakes up.” Hongbin finally spoke up. “Considering he can’t really... eat what we eat…”
“Who do humans eat these days? Fish? Bamboo? Dirt? Oh! Leaves right?” Hyuk tried to helpfully list off things he thought humans might eat.
“Ok yes to fish, no to dirt. Hakyeon would know this.” Jaehwan made motions to usher everyone out back into the hallway to leave “Ravi” to sleep in peace, but not before pulling the red satin coverlet up around him.
“Yes but if we ask Hakyeon what humans eat, he’ll say,” and Hyuk dropped his voice to imitate Hakyeon’s, “why do you want to know?’ And then we’ll have to tell him we dragged in this stray human, and who wants to volunteer to do that ? Because—“
“Sanghyuk please I can’t hear myself think with the noise you keep making.” Taekwoon tried to swat at the demon, who tried to grab and pull one of his two tails in retaliation. He always went for the tails.
The group continued to bicker down the hallway, their voices fading away.
Wonsik stood on the steps of a temple, old and ravaged with war and time. He didn’t recognize the place, but the air was still and the sky was a dark gray. He noticed he was wearing unusual black robes, as if to perform a ceremony he was unfamiliar with, but his amulet was still there, a constant comfort. An unusual cold wind blew from the East, and a thick fog rolled in, making seeing around him impossible. Suddenly the mists parted, and a line figure emerged. He seemed human in appearance long, dark hair pulled away from his face, dressed in red embroidered robes with deep blue sleeves, but Wonsik knew immediately that he was anything but. It was his eyes, vibrant red one minute, golden bronze the next as he seemed to stare directly through Wonsik’s soul.
“What are you doing here, human?”
Wonsik looked around. He didn’t really know where “here” was. Some sort of dreamscape, maybe, but he had a feeling that the spirit was not referring to the location they were standing in, but the place he had woken up in.
“I was lost.”
He settled on what seemed like the safest answer.
“Mmmm. Lost. Many humans are lost. You’re not lost, you’re running away.” The spirit hummed and moved closer, circling around him.
Wonsik discovered he couldn’t move, held in place by whatever sort of spell this unknown spirit had on him. Or maybe it was no spell at all, and it was instead the powerful, commanding yet playful aura the spirit had about them. It was right, he was running away. From the enemy soldiers, yes, but oddly he felt as if the creature already knew that.
“And what are you running away from, Hmm?”
Wonsik paused. What was he running away from? The pressure of his family's troubles? Their high hopes for him? His feeling of insufficiency? An unjust war?
“Ah yes, humans historically have been known to find that a very tempting solution.”
He couldn’t help the laugh that came out. It was pathetically true. The spirit seemed surprised but not displeased at his amusement, and a long smile spread across its face.
“Well you certainly are human.” He drew back and chuckled. “We will meet again, Kim Wonsik.”
And with that, the façade fell and the man melted into an enormous, four clawed dragon, flying past Wonsik and into the distance, leaving him in a deep sleep with nothing but echoes of whispers, and an unanswered question on his lips: how do you know my name?
Chapter 4: Premonitions
Sorry it’s been a while. Thesis writing caught up with me so I hadn’t had time to post. Anyways enjoy!
Wonsik awoke with the vague feeling that he had had some type of strange dream, but he couldn’t remember. His headache was gone, he no longer had a fever, and the fuzzy, heavy feeling was no longer clouding his mind.
He rolled over and found his shirt had been torn open. The spirits seemed to understand clothing, though, because he noticed a fresh, clean hanbok in the corner. It was a deep navy blue, made of rich material and by far the finest fabric Wonsik had ever worn in his life. After he had dressed, he folded the coverlet and laid it carefully back over where he was lying, smoothing out the wrinkles. The red coverlet had a scene embroidered on it that caught his attention, and Wonsik stopped to examine it.
A shrine was the focal point in the center, housing a large statue of a gumiho, with many people bringing various gifts. All around the outside told the story of a boy who saw a fox in the woods, threw a stone at it and was later struck in the head by a stone and killed, symbolizing the karmic abilities of the gumiho spirits. On the bottom curve off the circle was the story of a man meeting a beautiful woman, who takes him on a walk through the forest and devoirs his soul, the dark and sinister side of the spirit. The longer Wonsik stared, the more the scene seemed to come to life, the images almost moving in front of his eyes.
His stomach growled loudly and he decided it was time to explore. Pulling the slide open and quietly as possible, he peered out into a long hallway with large lanterns hanging from the ceiling, currently unlit since it was mid morning. A cool fresh breeze blew down the corridor, carrying with it an almost sweet aroma. Wandering until he came to another door, he pushed it open to reveal a large room filled with now extinguished candles, an altar and six seats. Wonsik wasn’t normally a curious person, but he felt drawn to these unusual thrones, and so he approached them, running his hand across the soft cushions. They all had different patterns in characters he couldn’t read. Wonsik’s family was not poor, but they really weren’t rich enough to teach him how to read, and he could only really write his own name. He felt eyes on him, and whirled around, face red with embarrassment, apologizing profusely.
“Sorry, sorry, I was just looking…”
He trailed off as he saw who was standing there. By human standards, he looked young, but he definitely wasn’t human. Long incisors protruded far past his bottom lip, his eyes were a fiery red and black, and ebony horns curved gracefully out of either side of his head, pushing past his black hair. He was looking at Wonsik with a mischievous glee.
“You shouldn’t stick your nose into things that don’t concern you, human.” A long smile began to form. “Now you’ll have to be punished.”
He took a step towards Wonsik, who was nearly too scared to move, but managed to stumble back, eyes wide with fear.
“Sanghyuk! Leave him alone! Now.” It was the same soothing voice from before, back in the room, the one that made his head feel fuzzy, yet this time it sounded more sharp and irritated. “You’re scaring him.”
That wasn’t a lie. Wonsik was terrified. The demon’s lips formed into a sullen pout as he backed away and slunk off, disgruntled at having his fun ruined, muttering about not being able to do anything around here.
“Take a nice breath, Ravi.”
Wonsik let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding, slumping a little in relief.
“Sorry, Sanghyuk is a young and mischief-loving Oni who has a lot to learn. He won’t hurt you, he was only trying to scare you. He’s a horrible bother.” The spirit cooed, yanking Wonsik abruptly into his arms and petting his head repeatedly as if he were some frightened animal.
He tapped at the hands and squirmed a bit, trying to indicate he wanted out of the bone crushing hug.
“You must be hungry. Come, we’ve made something for you.” The gumiho was obviously very talkative, but Wonsik didn’t really mind.
He found it comforting in a way, and was glad there was no pressure on him to speak. He was still very confused and had no idea where he was or how he got here, but he hoped this nice spirit wouldn’t mind answering a few of his more burning questions.
“You may call me Jaehwan, by the way.” The spirit added, as he led him past some more rooms and down another hallway.
“Everyone, I’ve brought the human!” Jaehwan announced triumphantly, and immediately three pairs of eyes turned to stare at him.
Wonsik suddenly felt very shy, and shrank back, seeing the Oni among the other spirits in the room.
“Oh! Nice handsome human! Where do you come from? How old are you? Are you—“
“Hongbin please, one question at a time.” Jaehwan clicked his tongue and the speaker fell silent.
Hongbin, as Jaehwan had called him, had pale skin and bright peachy lips, from which small pointed fangs peek out. His dark hair was braided down his back and tied with a deep green ribbon. He looked curiously at Wonsik with red irises.
Wonsik recognized Sanghyuk from earlier, and there was a third who he did not recognize, silver gray hair, and black ears with two long tails curling from underneath his purple robes. He was the quietest of the four by far, and his catlike eyes seemed to be carefully assessing him. Finally, he spoke.
“Alright, everyone out.”
“What?” Jaehwan looked extremely offended and put a hand over his chest.
“Yes. Out. He’s completely overwhelmed. All of you are too loud.”
There was a lot of grumbling and protesting, and Sanghyuk stuck his tongue out, but eventually all of the spirits save the Nekomata left the room, Jaehwan throwing pointedly hurt looks as he dragged his feet, sighing heavily with every other step. Once they were all gone, Wonsik sat down on one of the cushions and closed his eyes, rubbing his temples. A bowl of something was pushed towards him, and he took it gratefully, slurping it down without waiting for utensils. The other spirit sat cross legged opposite to him, watching him intently, but saying nothing, and expecting nothing to be said.
For the first time, Wonsik felt like he could breathe. Strangely, he did feel a lot less overwhelmed. Like powerful auras weren’t pressing in….But now he was curious.
“Ah…” he began, a bit unsure of where to start.
He glanced up, surprised.
“My name.” Taekwoon offered as a way of explanation.
There was a brief silence before Wonsik spoke again.
“Where am I?”
“You’re in The Temple. It was built by humans long ago to honor the gods of the forest. But then they became greedy and evil and forgot about the gods. And so the gods drove them out of the forest and made it impassable so no human would enter again. Those who do are killed.”
He glanced up to see, as expected, poor Ravi trembling like a leaf, color draining from his face.
“Are you...um...so why am I...alive?”
“Because you are good.” Taekwoon replied simply, picking up Wonsik’s bowl and standing up. It was only a half truth, and there was an omission that went unaddressed, because Wonsik did not know what it was, and Taekwoon was not going to help him.
The spirit gave him a bit more to eat and drink, and Wonsik enjoyed the calm silence that radiated from the other. It was a contract to Jaehwan’s loud and talkative self. But sooner or later, unable to stay away from his new favorite thing, the gumiho came bouncing back in, dragging along Hongbin and Sanghyuk as well. Taekwoom stifled an eye roll and Wonsik smiled. Even in the spirit world, apparently, there were pet peeves.
“Sanghyuk would like to apologize for scaring you earlier.” Jaehwan thrust the demon forward, who smiled innocently at Wonsik and bowed a bit.
“I’m sorry.” He grinned, but it didn’t take a genius to know that he was not in the least bit sorry and he would do it again in a heartbeat. It also wasn’t hard to tell that it was true: he would never really hurt Wonsik.
Apologies always made Wonsik feel burdened. Everyone was constantly apologizing to him, because he was kind and good natured, and oftentimes even pranksters would regret what they had done because he was always such a good sport. In the military, the older, grisled soldiers felt sorry for him, because he was young, and soon war and battle would rob him of his youth.
“Come on, human—Ravi. Let’s walk.” Jaehwan took his arm and linked it through his, leading him through the hallways.
“What is it you wear around your neck?”
Wonsik found it strange that there were things a spirit couldn’t know unless it were told.
“My grandmother gave it to me when I was very small. It’s an amulet for protection, my family has had it for generations. Sort of a family heirloom I guess. She says we used to be quite wealthy, but our ancestors were greedy, and so we had bad luck.”
“Well, that explains it then.” The gumiho chuckled.
“A lot of things! You were lucky to get away from those men chasing you, you were lucky I was there to keep Sanghyuk from badgering you to death, and you were lucky it was us who found you instead of Hakyeon.”
“Ah. Hakyeon. He’s a powerful Mireu and the guardian of the land here. He’s the one who put the curse on the forest, and he protects it from the humans who would try to enter.” Jaehwan chattered away, obviously this was not confidential information, although Wonsik wondered if anything was with Jaehwan. “He’s a bit reclusive, and notoriously dislikes humans, which is why we’re...reluctant to tell him about you.”
“Why does he hate humans so much?”
The question made Jaehwan pause.
“Well...it’s a long story.”
Chapter 5: Tapestries
Ahhh by the way there’s some descriptions of past torture in this chapter. Ravi sort of has PTSD and it shows a little. I put *** around where it is in case anyone wants to skip?
Wonsik quickly learned that Jaehwan was clingy, and enjoyed physical contact. As they walked through the gardens, he would grab his arm excitedly and point out different kinds of plants and flowers, or telling him exactly how many years a specific tree had been there.
Although they were old, the gardens seemed timeless for Wonsik. Small shrines to, he guessed, the various spirits, dotted the garden; carved out of fine stone and carefully engraved to look like tiny temples and houses. A bubbling brook ran through the center, the constant gurgle of the water creating a pleasant lull. It emptied into a small pond, which was home to three ageless and milky white koi fish.
“It’s beautiful at night,” Jaehwan was saying, “thousands of fireflies come and it’s as if the stars themselves had come down for just the evening.”
Wonsik wished his mother could see. She had always wanted a beautiful garden.
That night, as he lay on the bed they had given him, silk sheets smooth and cool to the touch, he thought about his family. By now, they would have received word he was taken prisoner and presumed dead. He shuddered. He would have much rather been dead than prisoner. The conditions were awful, he had barely been fed for the amount of work he was expected to do, and beaten if he didn’t do it. A few times he had thought about trying to hang himself, or slit his own throat on the first sharp surface he could find, bribe a guard to kill him, but that would make his mother cry. Also, for some reason, the amulet has felt so heavy when he had those thoughts, almost unbearable, yet he couldn’t seem to bring himself to take it off. He hitched his shoulder, still unused to the fact that no trace of the arrow wound remained, thanks to Taekwoon’s magic. The scars that littered his back and ribs from the whips, however, were still there. The painful memories associated with them began to resurface and they began to ache like on the day they had been given. Images plagued his mind of men slashed open from neck to navel and left to die in agony for inciting a riot, or spitting on a commanding officer, or refusing to work. Men who had their tongues cut out or their fingernails ripped off for trivial things...The screams of the tortured, the moans of the wounded left to die on the battlefield, it all seemed so real right then; dust and horses neighing and spears clashing, yells and stamping feet—he whimpered and clapped his hands over his ears in an effort to drown out the noise.
And then, cutting through his confused and jumbled thoughts, he heard it: a faint hum that grew louder but never too loud. The noise and chaos melted away in the low reverb of the tune; complex, yet simple, strange, yet familiar. It seemed to be both in his mind and coming from outside, as if someone were slowly pacing the halls and humming. Lulled by the tune, Wonsik closed his eyes and slipped into a peaceful sleep.
Hakyeon slipped into Wonsik’s room undetected by the other spirits. The human had fallen asleep, the swarming negative energy around him completely dispersed by Hakyeon’s song. Bending down, he hooked a finger around the leather cord that hung around the human’s neck and pulled it towards him to examine the charm that dangled from the end. A dragon curled gracefully around the thick circle, it’s claw grasping a small topaz jewel. He sighed heavily as he gently tucked it back underneath Wonsik’s garments.
“Oh human. How I wish I could be released from this curse. ” He growled, but with no real anger in his voice. “If only you could remember.”
Wonsik found himself in the same place again, on the steps in front of a palace. But this time he wasn’t alone: the palace was bustling with life and soldiers stood at attention. The dragon from before was also there, sitting at his feet in his human form. Turning his head, he looked Wonsik in the eye, gaze sad and tired.
“What is your wish today, my lord?”
Wonsik woke up and rubbed his head. A lingering memory of the lullaby from last night and the recent dream fresh in his mind made him more determined than ever to pester the spirits for information, and maybe do some exploring on his own. The first person he ran into, literally, was Hongbin, who happened to be coming down the hall right as Wonsik opened the door.
“Well good morning, human Ravi.”
“Ah.” Wonsik felt awkward, but it definitely didn’t help that the next words out of his mouth were, “What kind of spirit are you?”
His face turned crimson and he wished the floor boards would break so he could fall for eternity. Hongbin, however, didn’t seem to mind and just smiled widely, fangs fully on display.
“I’m a Gangsi.”
That would explain the old fashioned clothes.
“I know, not exactly a benevolent spirit. You must understand, human, places like this forest…” he shook his head and then began again. “When there are places where great evils occurred, malevolent spirits arise. But benevolent and malevolent are only terms humans use to describe spirits that either benefit or harm them. In the spirit realm, I am in no way evil.”
“Are you going to hurt me?” Wonsik asked bluntly.
“No. You have a very powerful protective spell on you thanks to this.” He tapped on Wonsik’s chest where the amulet lay, “I would not like to anger whatever spirit that might summon. From the looks of it, you’re under the protection of a Mireu. If Hakyeon were here, he could tell you which one, but it’s a bit strange, he hasn’t been seen for a few days now. Plus, i happen to like you.”
A dragon...his dreams…
“Hakyeon...what does he look like?” he ventured bravely.
“In his human form or his dragon form?” Hongbin tilted his head and narrowed his eyes at Wonsik. “Why do you want to know?”
“Ahhh Jaehwan...um he said that Hakyeon hated humans...so I was...well if I ever ran into him I could...hide?” Wonsik was rather proud of his spur of the moment excuse. He wasn’t ready to share his dreams with the other spirits. They felt too personal.
“Oh. Very true. Especially for Jaehwan’s sake.” The gangsi nodded thoughtfully, furrowing his brows before he brightened. “Well he prefers his human form when he’s in The Temple since he’s a very large dragon. He’s tall, lean, very graceful, dark hair, golden skin, narrow eyes. He chose a very nice form. We all have impeccable taste, you should know.”
“Y—-yes?.” Wonsik replied, not knowing what else to say. He hasn’t really heard much of what Hongbin had said. One thing was certain: he was now positive that Hakyeon was the person in his dreams.
That conclusion, however, left him with more questions than answers. Who was Hakyeon then? Why did he keep appearing in Wonsik’s dreams? And his amulet….
“Hongbin?? Hongbin!” Jaehwan’s voice cut the silence like dull scissors, making both of them wince. “Are you bothering human Ravi?”
“No, I’m alright.” Ravi interjected, and Hongbin looked like he was going to rip Jaehwan’s throat out.
“OH! Wonderful.” The gumiho clapped his hands, “Come human Ravi. We’ve made you something.”
The “something” was a very good cooked fish dish that Taekwoon had made. Ravi hadn’t really ever eaten this well in his life, so he made sure to savor every bite, as if it would melt away from him if he wasn't appreciative enough. Yet despite it all, the thought of his unanswered questions weighed heavily.
“Taekwoon-ssi?” He asked politely once they were all satisfied Wonsik had eaten enough. “Why does Hakyeon hate humans?”
Taekwoon’s eyes narrowed and he tilted his head at him, as if surprised by the question. It only lasted a moment, the look disappeared and he rubbed his nose before replying.
“I’m sure you know by now that this forest was not always this way. There was no forest, but a huge city, thriving and prosperous, ruled over by a powerful family.”
He gestured for Wonsik to follow him, and led the man to a room filled with the most beautiful woven tapestries he had ever laid eyes on. They told a complete story if one followed them around the room, from right side to left, like a huge book where the pages were cloth and color instead of skins and ink.
The first had embroidered a scene of a bustling city, the bottom being fishermen by the river, then streets winding up from bottom to top, filled with townspeople buying and selling their wares, children running happily, and at the top was a stately palace, overlooking it all. On the steps stood a man in royal attire, tall and proud, watching his kingdom. It seemed….familiar to Wonsik, a dull ache—the one that often happens when one tries hard to remember something and can’t quite recall it—settled into the back of his skull. He shook his head and moved on as Taekwoon continued.
“For a long time, there was peace. Then one day, a massive army from the North marched on them.”
Wonsik was certain these were magical tapestries, just like the coverlet in Jaehwan’s room, because the people in the images seemed to move, though they were only made of thread. A sea of red helmets and spears, flags and horses moved onto the now seemingly small and vulnerable town, people ran in a panic, the crowded streets were now deserted, baskets and carts overturned.
“All hope seemed lost, until by luck, a powerful Mireu took pity on the once great city, and made a pact with the lord to protect them.”
The dragon was beautiful; large, graceful coils of shimmering white, green and gold, eyes like fire opals, exactly like the one in his dream. Wonsik reached out to run the tips of his fingers over it instinctively only to have his hand stopped by a grip on his wrist, not harsh but firm. Taekwoon was looking at him with a look that was unplaceable but might be described best as curiosity.
“S-sorry.” He mumbled, looking away quickly.
Taekwoon cleared his throat and continued as if nothing had happened.
“The dragon kept his promise and became the guardian of the city. But then the old lord died, and his son took the throne. The son was greedy, power hungry, and nothing like his father. The powers of a dragon are a terrible thing, and the lord unleashed them in full.”
Wonsik found his head was beginning to swim as white flames circled around the fabric, coming alive as they devoured cities. Terror and chaos were strewn in the form of little figures woven into a gray background, yet somehow they were able to convey the same feeling as if he had really been there.
“The lord refused to release the dragon from his spell, turning it into a curse that tormented him constantly with the evil he was asked to perform. And then the lord asked for the unthinkable: the cintamani, sacred possession of the Mireu. It is theirs to keep and their alone, since they are the wisest of the creatures.”
The cintamani was a glittering Amber orb, swirling with milky white and inky black. The lord, deep purple veins of corruption running through him, reached for it, to take it out of the dragon’s four toed claw.
“And did he take it?” Wonsik whispered. His head was throbbing by this point, and for some reason his neck felt like it was being weighed down by a heavy stone.
“It was broken in the struggle.” Taekwoon replied, sadly. “This weakened Hakyeon greatly. But luckily,” he continued, as two figures entered the scene, “he could no longer protect the humans from attacks by spirits such as us. We were angry at what the humans had done to him, and so we drove them out, killing all but the lord and his family, who escaped.”
Blood stains spattered everywhere, the woven faces of Taekwoon and Jaehwan were covered in blood, their eyes blazing with rage, bodies littered the ground.
“But tragedy begets distraught undead spirits like Hongbin, who roam around during the night constantly looking to punish those who neglected and hurt them in life. They are wronged spirits, reanimated by angry gods, and they feed off the life force of humans who do the same to others.
Death and evil actions draw Oni like Sanghyuk, looking to enact a punishment on the greedy and wicked men. He had his fill of that here.”
Sanghyuk turned to grin at the viewer of the tapestry, and Honbin’s head snapped up from where he was feasting on the shriveled remains of what was once a soldier, as the others now stood on the besmeared steps of the palace, now crumbling to ruins. And slowly a forest grew up around where the city had once been, trees sprouting from the dead bodies, overtaking houses and shops, leaving only the palace itself intact.
“And so the forest was cursed, so that no human could ever again set foot in here. But Hakyeon still suffers from his own curse, which can only be lifted by someone of the bloodline. For all we know, they are dead and he will bear it for all eternity, but,” and he turned to look at Wonsik with piercing eyes, “we believe that some still live.”
Wonsik made a strangled noise in the back of his throat, and fell over, clutching at the amulet around his neck, which now burned and stung. There were swift footsteps and a pair of strong arms wrapped around him and turned him over, letting his head rest against their knee. They placed a hand over the amulet and muttered words in a voice Wonsik recognized only from his dreams. Then suddenly the weight was lifted and the burning disappeared, and he felt like he was weightless, floating on clouds.
“Hakyeon hyung, I can explain—“ Jaehwan’s voice sounded far away and faint, frantically trying to say something.
Chapter 6: Hakyeon
Jaehwan watched Taekwoon lead Wonsik away down the hall to the tapestry room. He was surprised at Taekwoon’s willingness to show it to him, given that all of them had a massive distaste for humans. He also knew that Taekwoon had some kind of plan, he could see the gears turning in the nekomata’s mind ever since he’d seen Wonsik at breakfast two days ago.
Turning the corner, he found himself face to face with Hakyeon, who seemed to be in a bit of a hurry.
“Ah! Hyung you’re back.” He attempted to seem nonchalant.
“Jaehwan, where is he.”
“Where’s who?” He looked innocently at the dragon, who gave him a look that caused his ears to droop and flatten against his hair.
“Jaehwan…” that was a warning, and it meant that Hakyeon would not repeat himself.
“He’s...he’s with Taekwoon…”
Hakyeon pushed past him, almost running down the hall towards the door.
“Hyung Wait! Don’t kill him please! I brought him here! It’s my fault…” the gumiho ran after him, begging, but Hakyeon didn’t pay him any attention as he flung open the door to reveal Wonsik on the floor struggling to breathe.
Taekwoon’s eyes widened as soon as he saw Hakyeon, and he made an attempt to stop him from reaching Wonsik as Jaehwan burst in as well. The dragon approached Wonsik and the two turned away, bracing for the inevitable as Hakyeon ripped him to pieces.
“Hakyeon hyung, I can explain—“ Jaehwan trailed off as he turned to see Hakyeon gently kneel and cradle Wonsik in his arms, placing a clawed hand over the glowing amulet and mumbling words under his breath.
Wonsik’s body relaxed into a deep sleep, and both Jaehwan and Taekwoon let out the collective breaths they were holding. Hakyeon looked up at Jaehwan. Immediately Jaehwan got down on his knees and bowed deeply.
“I’m sorry, Hyung, I just...found him in the woods on the night we killed those soldiers. He was hurt and dying and I took pity on him. I’ll take him back to the edge of the forest, I’m sorry for bringing him here, I—“
Hakyeon held up his hand and cut off Jaehwan’s nervous rambling.
“Jaehwan, your idiotic sympathy saved me from an eternity of cursed pain.” He smiled slightly as he noted the shocked face of the other spirit.
“So it is him.” Taekwoon almost laughed. “He’s….not what I expected.”
“Admittedly, I thought he would be more cruel and less...stupid.” Hakyeon mused.
“Whos stupid?” Sanghyuk poked his head in, “oh hi hyung. I see you’ve found the human Jaehwan hyung dragged back from the woods. You’re not going to eat him? Oh well.”
“Oh Hyuk…” Hakyeon sighed and shook his head.
“Why did you show him these??” Hyuk teleported suddenly behind Taekwoon, making the other jump and fluff out his tails, “I look so ugly here. Gross.” He pointed indignantly to the one where he was embroidered down in the front corner.
“He probably didn’t even notice you. He was half choking to death by the time we got to that one.” Taekwoon growled.
“Is that why you came, then, hyung? Must you still protect him?”
Hakyeon nodded and looked down at Wonsik’s sleeping form.
“Yes. Still. When he calls I must come.”
“He doesn’t even know.” Taekwoon rolled his eyes in disgust. “How can someone who doesn’t even know about the curse break it? He is a bit stupid.”
“Don’t say that! He isn’t stupid...well, no more so than other humans. But they can’t help it!” Jaehwan defended, indignant at Taekwoon’s assessment of Ravi. “Plus he resisted my charmspeak. A stupid person couldn’t do that.”
Hakyeon’s head tilted imperceptibly at that.
“Oh? How interesting.”
“Yeah, we still don’t know his real name because of it.” Jaehwan grumbled.
“He’ll tell you when he’s ready.” Hakyeon picked Wonsik up with ease and carried him past the three Spirits and down the hall back to the room. “Stop being so nosey.”
Once he set Wonsik down on the cushions, he tapped his forehead twice. Wonsik sat up with a gasp, grasping at the pendant around his neck in a panic that quickly settled once he realized he could breathe. However, he started when he noticed Hakyeon sitting next to him, staring at him with opal eyes. He pinched himself under his robes to make sure he wasn’t dreaming, before venturing to speak. Hakyeon, however, had other plans and broke the silence.
“Do you know what this is, Wonsik?”
Wonsik looked down at where the spirit was pointing to the amulet.
“Should I?” He winced.
An enigmatic smile came over Hakyeon’s face, a bit like as if he were speaking to a child he cared for very much.
“Wonsik, do you know anything more about this amulet? No one in your family told you anything?”
“N-no. Only that it was for protection, and if I ever needed help, I should turn to it. But I didn’t really believe in it so I never did, until those soldiers were chasing me in the woods. I really did think I was going to die.”
“Listen, human.” Hakyeon began patiently, “That amulet is an ancient pact that was made between me and the ruler of the long forgotten city that used to stand here. You are his ancestor.”
“The person on the tapestry? Who hurt you?” Wonsik dragged his hands down his face, glancing around in hopes of possibly finding a window to jump out of. “Oh dear.”
A pause. Hakyeon could hear the poor human’s heart beating rapidly from either fear, embarrassment or both.
“Can—can I break it for you? Is there a way to free you? Here, I’ll—“ he tore it from his neck and was ready to throw it on the ground when Hakyeon caught his wrist, grip strong and gentle.
“Human Wonsik calm down.” He spoke gently, contrasting against Wonsik’s panicked hurried tone. “Destroying the amulet will do nothing. You must find my cintamani which was lost and return it to me. Then the agreement will be dissolved.”
“But I don’t know how!”
Hakyeon hummed, coaxing the amulet again from Wonsik’s sweaty fingers which clutched it in a tight grip, and hung it back around the human’s neck. He carefully wound the snapped and frayed threads back together in a firm and intricate knot, securing it again as it was before.
Wonsik sat frozen in place, suddenly alarmed at the close proximity of the spirit. He felt the inside of his mouth go dry as the tips of its claws brushed the smooth skin of his throat and the name of his neck. Hakyeon had an overpowering aura, so strong Wonsik felt his every emotion heightened: guilt, worry, fear. But he also felt the spirits emotions: a calm ocean of acceptance and the tiniest hint of amusement and endearment.
He had had this “gift” ever since he was a young child. His grandmother was a powerful and well respected shaman, and it was from her that the amulet has been passed on. She told him he had an unusual ability that was possessed by his ancestors; deep connection with the spirit plane. She had predicted great things in his future, but he had only ever been a simple peasant, and a rather good soldier.
Something in Hakyeon felt a sort of sixth sense radiate out from Wonsik as soon as he drew closer, but it shied from him like a frightened deer, cringing away from the energy waves that came from within himself. It was a beautiful gift, given to only choice humans by the Moon Spirit herself, although Hakyeon had begun to doubt her judgement after one such a human had controlled and abused him so many centuries ago. His sense had been proud and bold, grasping at everything that passed, while Wonsik’s was soft and timid, waiting for others’ energies to reach out to him. Hakyeon felt he could trust him.
“In honesty, human Wonsik, I don’t know how to repair it.”
Wonsik looked ready to cry, so he continued.
“Please accept my offer to stay here while I try and find out how?”
Hakyeon looked at him openly, and he looked him in the eye. Wonsik stared back. His mother...she needed someone to help her, since her eyesight was failing, and his family was struggling. They relied on his income as a soldier in the imperial army, but now that he was missing and presumed dead, the income would stop and his younger brother would be sent out, to meet the same fate as Wonsik: a prisoner of a ruthless enemy in a pointless war. But at the same time, Wonsik felt that doing this for the Mireu would bring luck and happiness to himself and his family, and earn back their favor with the spirit. Also, he did feel horribly ashamed, at his ancestor’s expense for what they had done to Hakyeon and firmly believed that some sort of reparation was in order. His family would have to wait just a little longer.
“Al-alright.” He said finally, nodding. “I want to help you, and I will stay here.”
“Human Wonsik,” Hakyeon asked, “is this really what you want? You must be sure.”
“Yes. Yes it is.”
Hakyeon breathed smoke out his nostrils.
“So be it.”
Chapter 7: The Dream
“He’s staying?? Oh I’m soooooo glad!” Jaehwan made to charge into Wonsik’s room before Hakyeon stepped into his path with his arms folded.
Jaehwan’s ears flattened and he put on his best puppy dog eyes, knowing he was going to get scolded.
“We still haven’t talked about the fact that you brought a human back here, even if he does so happen to be the descendant of the Kims.” Hakyeon raised an eyebrow.
“I’m...well...see he just...my heart told me to.” Jaehwan spluttered lamely.
“Much as i value the feelings of your heart,” Hakyeon began with a tone that made it abundantly clear he did not value the feelings of Jaehwan’s heart, “you can’t keep doing this, Jaehwan. I know you’re interested in humans, but messing around with them isn’t going to get you anywhere good. Sure, Ravi is very sweet and kind, a good human, but they’re not all like that. Just like not all spirits keep the balance of the universe as they should. I’m worried for you. One day, they might try to kill you. Gumiho tails are good luck, and I'd hate for you to lose one of yours.”
Jaehwan sniffed a bit.
“So?” Hakyeon prompted.
“I won’t bring any more humans back to The Temple.”
“Good. Now you can go see Ravi but don’t get too aggressive. His aura is very sensitive, I don’t want you upsetting him.”
With that, Hakyeon stepped out of the way and Jaehwan gave him a happy apologetic hug before scurrying past him.
“Human Ravi!!” He cooed as soon as he came in, “I’m so glad you decided to stay with us!”
Wonsik seemed pensive, and didn’t immediately respond to Jaehwan’s advances. Jaehwan settled next to him and wrapped three of his large soft tails around him.
“Human Ravi,” he began again, much softer, “you seem to have a lot on your mind.”
“I do.” Wonsik sighed heavily, relaxing a bit, “I agreed to stay because I believe it's the right thing to do, but I’m very worried about my family. My mother’s eyesight is so poor she relies on us to do all the tok at home, but when I left for the army it was just my brother. But now that I’ve been missing, they’ll make her send my little brother too! I don’t want Junhyuk to have to fight. He’s only fifteen.”
“Oh human! You should have told me!” Jaehwan smiled so wide his sharp teeth glinted in the candlelight. “You forget you’ve found favor with not one but six spirits. Taekwoon is a karmaic spirit.”
“Oh.” Wonsik hadn’t thought of that. Well, he had, but didn’t dare impose his wishes on the spirits.
“Not to worry!” Jaehwan jumped up, startling Wonsik. “TAEKWOON!” He yelled out the door.
There was no response, then a faint bang and a pattern of feet.
“What’s the meaning of this????” Hissed Taekwoon, eyes burning as he wrapped his hand around Jaehwan’s neck.
Wonsik had no idea how to deal with two spirits fighting, so he thought it was prudent to stay put and pretend nothing was happening. He was doing his best to ignore it, when he heard his name being mentioned.
“It’s just that he’s worried about his mother!” Jaehwan was saying.
Immediately leaping into action, he fumbled to clarify.
“But it’s alright, I don’t mind waiting until I help Hakyeon! You really don’t have—“
Taekwoon’s anger melted away instantly and he shoved Jaehwan unceremoniously out of the way.
“Human Ravi!” He purred, “What's wrong? All you have to do is ask. I exist to bring good karma to those who deserve it.”
“Just...just my family; my mother and brother.” Wonsik stammered.
“Is that so?”
“Ah yes. They’re probably so worried about me, but I’m the oldest. They need me.”
“Consider it done.”
And with that, Taekwoon spun with a flourish and his sleeve fell to reveal a large gray cat with glowing eyes in his place. Wonsik watched as it scampered off out the window.
It was getting late. He yawned and laid back on the bed, Jaehwan had left, and Hongbin was out in the hallway now fully awake. The sun bothered him, so he was most active at night, Wonsik had learned the hard way.
He dreamt of a path, a small, thin dirt trail lined with tiny periwinkle and yellow flowers. Delicate willows bent over it, the tips of their branches almost brushing the dust, yet somehow they remained a vibrant green. The babble of a brook could be heard close by, and he guessed it flowed parallel, hidden out of sight. As he stood at the head, a voice whispered
A cool welcome breeze blew towards him, enveloping him with a sweet and enchanting aroma, the mere smell enough to make him immeasurably happy.
Hesitantly, he took one step, and then another, carefully brushing the branches aside. Something told him he was being watched. With each passing second he felt more and more aware of a powerful presence; more powerful than Hakyeon even. Far more. And very very old. It was all around him, the very air he breathed was permeated with the aura of this ancient being. Finally, he came to a grassy clearing, where there was a still and silent pool, rock-lined and impossibly clear. Not knowing what else to do, he sat down in front of it, waiting. Fog he had not noticed before settled over the ground, and suddenly, a hand tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around with a start, only to find it was morning, and Jaehwan was shaking him awake to eat.
It had been several weeks since he had been with the spirits and he was getting restless. The spirits had all become very fond of him, especially Jaehwan and, surprisingly enough, Hakyeon. They spent a lot of time with him, talking about his life and his family. He didn’t say much about his time as a soldier, unwilling to remeber the torture he had suffered or the horror he had seen. But they all seemed to understand, and never pressed him for answers or explanations. Every so often, when he had nightmares, Hakyeon would be there in his room, humming that sad and strange tune, lulling him to a dreamless sleep. And sometimes, right as he drifted on the brink of waking and sleeping, he felt Hakyeon pull him into his arms.
“Hyung, I’ve never seen you like this before.” Taekwoon confronted Hakyeon once, as he came out of Wonsik’s room early one morning.
“The amulet hasn’t been this strong in a long time.” Hakyeon said lamely, looking for a way to get out of the conversation.
“It’s not just that.” Taekwoon shook his head.
“I want to go explore the forest today.” Wonsik announced at breakfast one morning.
The Temple and the gardens were beautiful, but the Forest was so tempting. Besides, he had been having that dream again every night for nearly a week; calling him.
“But human Ravi—“ Jaehwan started, but Wonsik interrupted him.
“—what?” Jaehwan turned to him, looking with full attention, his voice dropping to an uncharacteristically low volume.
“It’s my real name.”
The entire room fell silent and turned to look at him. Wonsik felt awkward and shifted nervously in his seat.
“Thank you for sharing it, Wonsik.” Jaehwan gave a slight bow.
“Names hold power,” Taekwoon spoke up quietly. “People who know your name have a command over you; it designates your place in the universe. We will always honor and cherish it.”
Hakyeon stretched a bit and stood up, making it a clear indication that he was already privy to this information before the rest of them. It went unspoken that they had tried to charm Wonsik into revealing his name, but the human was unaware of how utterly violating that was. It was probably best he didn’t know. Jaehwan had since come to regret trying, and would eventually have to apologize, now that he, and the rest of them, were beginning to hold humans in a higher regard.
“Wonsik, you are free to go wherever you’d like.” Hakyeon moved closer, holding the pendant around the human’s neck between his forefingers, “If you are ever in trouble, call me, and I will come.” (A/N: 🎶see ya never gone my way better will someday never far away🎶)
Hyuck snickered, and Hakyeon elected to ignore it.
Wonsik knew Jaehwan wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of him wandering around in the woods, but he felt the excitement thrumming through his veins. The ability to explore this entire forest was everything his childhood self wished for. An adventure! He felt like a kid again as he launched himself over an old rotten log, stumbling upon some old ruins. He couldn’t really read the characters engraved in the walls, half worn away by time, but he imagined they said something important: a memorial, a prayer, a name.
The structure he was currently investigating was covered in vines, trees growing up where there might once have been a courtyard. An abandoned fountain, long dry, stood in the center, iridescent green birds nesting in the top tier. The stone floor was cracked and deep green moss and grass sprang up in the spaces. Cracked and soft wood stumps, slightly splintered, was all that was left of the pillars of a structure. Shiny yellow beetles and bright red ants crawled away as he passed, disturbed by his presence.
He froze. The bird song ceased and it grew extremely still. The voice. The voice from the dream! In that moment it seemed like the entire forest held its breath, waiting for his response. Tentatively, Wonsik took a step, and a wind blew strongly behind him, as if urging him forward in the direction he was facing. He started walking and it immediately died down, as a small path he had never noticed opened up before him—exactly as he had seen it in his dream. He listened for the stream running nearby, and he heard its cheerful bubble, the only other sound audible.
The wind blew again, warm and gentle, bringing with it the unmistakably sweet odor as he breathed in deeply. Golden lights danced all around him as he stepped along the soft fine dirt, letting it slip between his toes like fine velvet.
The clearing was small, secluded, and the pool was still. A small marble shrine older than anything Wonsik had seen stood off to the side, colorful ribbons blowing in the breeze. He sat down and stared into the pool. The water was crystal clear, and he could see the bottom, which was just multicolored pebbles: muted purples, pinks, oranges and grays with a few glittering pieces of quartz. He was so absorbed in the pool, he did not hear steps behind him, and suddenly, a reflection appeared next to his own.
It was humanoid, but Wonsik could immediately tell that this was not a human, but a very old and very powerful water spirit. He was tall, maybe Wonsik’s height, long silver hair and dark eyebrows, with unnatural cyan eyes that shimmered like water.
Wonsik was caught between standing or bowing and so he embarrassingly sat there with his mouth agape and did nothing. The spirit merely laughed and sat down next to him.
“You’ll let flies in.”
Wonsik snapped his mouth shut and lowered his eyes.
“You’re looking for answers to your problem, yes?” It began, looking at him expectantly.
“Who—you’re ahhh….who are you?” Wonsik blurted out suddenly, cringing at his own rudeness.
“I am Rain.” It responded simply.
“Rain?!” He nearly fainted. He felt a rush of heavily concealed power, and it was dizzying. “Rain…” he mumbled again.
“Don’t wear it out.” It paused, then continued, “Your grandmother was very devoted to me. I told her then what I will tell you now.”
Rain took a deep breath and exhaled shards of a broken glass ball.
“These,” he said, assembling them in midair with a blue smokey magic, “are the pieces of Hakyeon’s cintamani. A cintamani gives the Mireu the power to grant any wishes, but all wishes come at a cost. You see, Wonsik, all things must be in balance, and for anything created, something must also be destroyed. For the pact to be destroyed, this orb must be repaired, but at the ultimate cost for you.” He turned, holding the now whole orb out to Wonsik, who ran a hand over its cracked surface, “To repair the orb and break the curse, you must die.”
Chapter 8: Rain’s Message
Wonsik was too stunned for words. He opened his mouth, then closed it again.
“I understand humans view death as a very big deal. It isn’t so bad.” Rain continued in a vaguely reassuring voice, “Unless of course you happened to be.”
Wonsik was no stranger to death. From the time he was very little, he had been by the bedside of his father when he drew his final breath. As a soldier, he saw the ugly, violent side: men stuck full of arrows and left to bleed out slowly on the battlefield, the screams as they fell and were run through with spears, stabbed again and again, the horses shrieks of terror as they plunged headfirst, throwing their riders through the air. He’d seen men he considered friends, people he’d built up a camaraderie of shared experiences and hardship, fall beside him. And of course while a prisoner, Wonsik remembered the executions: some swift and severe, and others slow and torturous. But for some reason now, he balked at the thought.
It was senseless, really. He had joined the military no problem, continued to fight no problem, even though this put him high on the list for the Grim Reaper. But now…? Maybe it was because he had lived through so much, overcame it, avoided it, only now when he was finally safe, to once again face the inevitable.
“You don't have to do this.” Rain spoke after a while of leaving Wonsik to his thoughts, “It has to be a choice. No one can force you. Not even yourself.”
There was a low rumble of thunder in the distance and it began to rain. It was warm, and soothing and brought with it the comforting smell of petrichor, and Wonsik let it wash over him, fat droplets falling on his face and mingling with the tears that rolled down his cheeks. He didn’t know when he had started crying, and he didn’t know when he suddenly ended up in the gardens of The Temple again. The fog had rolled away with the rain and with it the pool, the clearing, everything.
He felt sick to his stomach. He truly believed that helping Hakyeon was what he wanted, but to leave his family? He hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye….He thought about what Rain had told him. The choice was his, he could leave, go back to his family. Hakyeon wouldn’t stop him. But then he would abandon him to suffer from the curse for who knows how long until again another one of his descendants happened to chance across the forest. He cried even harder. He didn’t notice it had gotten dark by now; time spent exploring the forest and with Rain had made the day pass by without his realizing.
A figure dressed in familiar attire sat down next to him. Hongbin.
“Human Won..sik. Why are you crying?”
Wonsik wiped his eyes on his sleeve and hiccuped.
“I know how to fix Hakyeon’s curse.”
Hongbin waited patiently for him to continue, expression neutral.
“I—I have to die.”
Hongbin stayed silent for a while, then spoke.
“Call me biased, but, death. Why does this bother you?”
Wonsik smiled a bit, watery but there.
“Well, truth be told, I’m a soldier. I see death everyday. It’s always been very real for me. But...it’s not so much me, but my family. They need me. All the karma isn't going to help them if I’m not there helping. I’m worried for them.”
“Mmm.” Hongbin twirled the single braid in his hair, “so this is your only hesitation?”
“You impress me, human. I never had a chance as to whether I died or lived. But here I am, both living and dead.”
“Well no offense,” Wonsik licked his lips, “but I’m not sure the idea of living off the life essence of humans exactly appeals to me, and I’m fairly attached to the sunlight…”
Hongbin genuinely laughed this time, showing his pointed teeth, ash gray face flushing a darker color.
“I would be surprised if it did. But look, Wonsik. You have to make up your mind. You strike me as someone indecisive. Now is the time to decide, because you’re the only one who can. We can all offer to help and give you advice, but it’s you. Always you.”
Wonsik nodded, before sighing deeply. His eyes were still red from crying, tear tracks drying slowly in the warm night air as the rain slowly dissipated. His hair was sticking to his face, and he was wet and slightly miserable, but at least his mind was made up. Hongbin sat out with him a bit longer, the night being the only time he could be awake. His red eyes glistened in the light of the moon.
“Hongbin, who were you in life?” Wonsik asked finally.
“Me? I served in the court of the king. My father was the chief advisor.”
“Did you….know the royal family at all?”
“Well,” Hongbin tilted his head a bit, looking at him intently for a few moments before replying, “I knew his son. We used to play together in the courtyard. This very one, in fact.”
The human nodded slowly, taking in the information. A nightingale song could be heard in the distance, and the night sky had become clear, filled with myriads of stars.
“I need to tell Hakyeon at some point.” Wonsik spoke, dread creeping into his heart. Hakyeon would not take this well. Jaehwan wouldn’t either, but his probably loud explosion of tears would be nothing compared to Hakyeon’s deep cutting sorrow.
Hongbin didn’t reply, but the unspoken words in the air confirmed the unease.
Hakyeon knew as soon as Wonsik came inside that he had been in the presence of something, someone very powerful.
“Hakyeon,” he started, “I know how to break your curse now.”
Hakyeon turned fully to look at Wonsik, but his face fell as soon as he saw the look in the human’s eyes.
“You should have told me!” Wonsik hissed reproachfully, irritation and betrayal bubbling up inside of him.
“Told you what, human?” Hakyeon tilted his head.
He was unsure why the human was so unhappy with him, but he had a feeling that it had something to do with his curse.
“Were you afraid I would say no?? I told you I was willing to do whatever it took! You were just going to keep me here until when?? Letting me have hope that somehow you would find a way out of this that didn’t involve my death?!” Wonsik was yelling by this point, a vague feeling in the back of his mind that he was being irrational and possibly borderline disrespectful, but he kept going.
“Death? Human Wonsik, no one said anything about you dying.” Hakyeon interrupted firmly, the very idea making his stomach turn.
“But that’s the only way!” Wonsik threw his hands up.
“What are you talking about?!” Now Hakyeon was raising his voice, panic tugging at his rationality.
“Your wish granter. It draws its power from a human life! That’s how you grant all those wishes, Hakyeon!”
The dragon nearly teleported in front of Wonsik suddenly, towering over him as the human shrank back a bit.
“Be careful, human. Making claims about things you know nothing about.” A dangerous glint flashed in his eyes.
“But I do know!” Wonsik insisted, undeterred by Hakyeon’s outburst, “Rain told me!”
“Rain?” All of the dragon’s anger faded away like a withering flower and he visibly deflated. “Rain...yes of course. That’s who you’ve been talking to.”
“Did I do something wrong?” Wonsik challenged, warming up to his case.
“N-no...no it’s not that it’s just…Wonsik have you lost your mind? Are you under a spell?”
He took steps toward the human with his arm outstretched in an attempt to banish any magic, but Wonsik caught him around the wrist, stopping him in his tracks.
“I’m under no enchantment but my own. My family has been having bad luck for centuries!! We went from being rulers of a city to a poor working class family who get stepped on by everyone else! My mother works herself to the bone to help my brother and I. The least I can do to repay her is offer myself as a sacrifice to make up for the sins of my ancestors.”
“Wonsik that isn't how things work! Your ancestors’ sins are their own! I don’t want your life!! I want you to live yours!” Hakyeon so rarely raised his voice or got frantic, but all of his dignity flew out the window as he argued with this human over the value of his life.
“I know!! I want to live it too! And I know I did nothing wrong! But sooner or later this has to be fixed! Please Hakyeon!! It’s the only way!” Wonsik took hold of Hakyeon’s robes, but the elder jerked away from him, turning his back and allowing Wonsik to stumble forward empty-handed.
“He’s right, Hakyeon.” Jaehwan’s voice came from where the gumiho had entered the room.
“What do you know!” Hakyeon spat, keeping his back turned. “You put so much faith in what Rain has to say, hmm? Fine. I’ll go find him myself.”
And with that, Hakyeon shifted into his dragon form, rattling the windows and shaking the building as he flew out and away with a snarl. Jaehwan ran over to where Wonsik was curled up in the corner with his arms shielding his face, trembling.
“Oh Human Wonsik!! It will be alright. Hakyeon isn’t angry, he's just scared.” He pulled Wonsik into a comforting hug, “he’s scared for you. He doesn’t want to lose you.”
“I don’t want to die either Jaehwan.” Wonsik burst into tears, burying his face in the gumiho’s shoulder.
Chapter 9: Decision
Me taking forever to remember to update again while I get distracted and write like three other things -_-
“YA JIHOON!!” Hakyeon yelled, standing in the empty forest clearing, “What have you been telling Wonsik???!!”
There was no response, and Hakyeon grew impatient. Snarling he spat white flame onto the ground, igniting the grass.
“Come out and tell me the truth!!”
“Tch! So rude to your elders” a calm and bemused voice chuckled behind him, waving the fire away with his hand.
Hakyeon whirled around to face the deity, who gave him a look, raising an eyebrow.
“Well? Show some respect. This certainly is no way to address someone.” The rebuke was not harsh, but it was firm.
Hakyeon set his jaw, glancing downwards to the side as if thinking over his actions. Finally, he lowered his head and the defiant look in his eye disappeared.
“I’m sorry. It was very rude of me to act this way.”
“That’s better. We should meet as equals, Hakyeon. The human’s life is in the balance, there is no place for you to act childish and temperamental.”
Hakyeon said nothing. The elder god seemed satisfied with this, and immediately Hakyeon found himself sitting on cushions in front of a low table, Jihoon pouring him tea.
“So you think I was lying to Wonsik?”
“I—not exactly.” Hakyeon admitted as a steaming cup was pushed towards him, “I just found it strange that he would take away the option of death.”
“Hakyeon.” The spirit looked directly into the dragon’s eyes. “That’s because death is his only option.”
“What...what are you talking about? I don’t understand.”
“Humans believed that only four clawed dragons were wise enough to possess a cintamani. Why do you think that is? Even the humans knew the immense power and sacrifice that comes with granting a wish.” Rain sat back, taking a long sip of hot tea and exhaling the steam through his nose as Hakyeon waited expectantly. “When you bound yourself to that human all those centuries ago, you gave up your life. So now to break the curse, someone must give back a life.”
“But,” Hakyeon laughed nervously, “he doesn’t have to actually die? I can consider his life as sacrificed to me. Although sometimes it seems as if I sacrificed my life to him again.” he mumbled under his breath.
“Hakyeon, stop lying to yourself.” The older spirit replied cooly.
“I’m not lying to myself! I just don’t want Wonsik to kill himself for my sake!”
“Then you will definitely not like what I have to say next.”
Hakyeon made a pathetic noise of confusion in his throat, looking over the rim of his cup at Rain with terrified expectation.
“You have to kill him.”
The dragon spat out his tea.
“WHAT?!?! I CAN'T KILL WONSIK!!”
Hakyeon stood up abruptly, knocking over the table as Rain calmly removed the kettle from impending disaster just as the rest of the contents flipped onto the floor. He followed Hakyeon’s frantic pacing with his eyes. He was still a very young god, emotional, confused; still uninformed about the ways of the universe.
“He’s good, and kind, and he has a family! His mother—“
“Hakyeon, please calm yourself. You nearly ruined my tea.”
“Calm myself??? Calm myself? You don’t understand. We’ve all grown very attached to Wonsik. Jaehwan especially. He’s the one who dragged him in here to begin with. No,” he shook his head with finality, as if convincing himself more than the others. “They’re too attached.”
“Hakyeon are you so narrow minded as to believe that Wonsik’s death will be his end?” Rain set the tea down on the floor, “his spirit will always live on.”
“But I can’t keep his spirit here. That would be cruel. He would want to pass beyond the gate, not stay trapped and lonely. Also once his family dies he’ll want to go to them.”
The elder god didn’t reply, just sighed deeply.
“Hakyeon. This isn’t your choice. It’s Wonsik’s.”
Hakyeon by that point had calmed down enough to stop pacing and come to a standstill in the middle of the room. He ran his hands through his hair in distress.
“I can’t….do it. Kill Wonsik? Me?” He mumbled more to himself than anyone. “Me….”
“If it’s his wish, and you care about him, won’t you honor his wishes? His desire to restore the balance is admirable.” Rain paused, examining his hands, before a small smile tugged at the corners of his lips, “Self sacrifice in humans rarely goes unrewarded.”
Hakyeon did not fly on his way back to The Temple. The ache in his heart grew with each step, and a train of crystals followed in his wake: his tears.
“Wonsik, why do you have to be good?! Jaehwan, why did you have to bring him here!? I always hated humans, they cause me nothing but trouble and pain!” He snarled, wiping his face vigorously and straightening his shoulders as he approached.
He wished he hadn’t spoken to Rain. He was an old god, he didn’t understand the attachment to humans the way Hakyeon did. Horrible old man. He ran smack into Taekwoon, who tilted his head at the pained expression that must be on Hakyeon’s face.
“He really wants this, you know.” The Nekomata said simply. “You should go to him, hyung.”
“I can’t see him right now.” Hakyeon shook his head.
“Why?” Taekwoon asked the question so simply, no judgement and not pressing for an answer.
“Because….if I see him, I will change my mind.”
There was silence between the two of them for a moment, before Hakyeon swallowed hard and spoke.
“Say your goodbyes. You have a week.”
“But—“ Taekwoon began, then thought better of it and stopped as Hakyeon brushed past him into the Temple
Chapter 10: Goodbyes
This chapter is sad, but also very fluffy with some cute Navi cuddles. Also the MCD occurs in this chapter but it is not permanent, in case you were hesitant to read because of that
Hakyeon locked himself up in his room, and didn’t come out for the entirety of the following week. Several times Jaehwan tried talking to him only to be repelled by strong magic before he even reached the door. Finally he gave up. Not even Hyuk tried at that point, and Wonsik didn’t dare.
Hongbin was currently sitting with him outside on the front steps.
“Hongbin, why does he hate me?” Wonsik wailed, dragging his hands down his face.
“Hakyeon? Hyung doesn’t hate you. I’ve seen what he does to people he hates. It isn’t this.”
“Well then what is he doing??”
Hongbin paused for a while, the sound of crickets chirping suddenly sounding very prominent. Wonsik gazes out into the moonlit night, watching the rhythmic blinking of the fireflies. Finally, the jiangshi spoke again.
“He’s distancing himself from you. So it doesn’t hurt so much.”
“....You don’t know, do you?”
An uneasy silence settled over the two of them, and an overwhelming awkwardness that Wonsik had never felt before with Hongbin stuck him suddenly. If Hongbin could flush he would be right now, as he cleared his throat.
“When you….die...how you die, rather…the one who has to kill you...is Hakyeon Hyung.”
“Oh.” Was all Wonsik said simply.
Admittedly, Hongbin had expected more of a reaction, but Wonsik accepted the news without even flinching.
“I’m glad it’s him.”
“But I’m sorry he has to do it.” He said again after a long while of being seemingly lost in thought. “I think I understand now why he’s so upset.”
“Maybe it’s that amulet but, hyung has never been this interested in a human before. True we’ve never really been much for conversation with humans. We just eat them.”
Wonsik winced a little.
“Ah, Sorry. But it’s okay,” Hongbin hurried to explain, seeing the discomfort in his companion, “you're different!”
“Human Wonsik!!!” Jaehwan’s voice reached their ears, and Hongbin groaned.
“He’s probably here to say goodbye for the tenth time.”
“Goodbye?” Wonsik frowned before he remembered and nodded, “Ah, yes of course.”
He didn’t have much time to say more since Jaehwan tackled him dramatically to the ground in a hug.
“We’re going to miss you.” He mumbled, before pulling away and looking at Wonsik in the eye, “I’m glad I brought you back here.”
“Hey, I found him!” Sanghyuk protested, appearing next to them in a cloud of dark smoke. “Although I did want to eat him at first.”
“SangHYUK not now!!” The others reprimanded in unison, Taekwoon smacking his head.
“I’m glad you didn’t eat me then.” The human laughed, he couldn’t ever really get annoyed with the Oni.
“You have all been good to me. Especially when I didn’t deserve it. Humans have hurt Hakyeon so much, and even the rest of you, and still, even though I apparently looked pretty tasty, you didn’t kill me, healed me, and have just been nothing but kind to me...and…” Wonsik broke off with a sniffle before taking a deep breath and continuing in a shaking voice, “I never really had friends before….and…”
“You never had friends?” Hyuk clicked his tongue, “humans have such bad taste.”
Jaehwan, of course, had also started crying.
Taekwoon pressed Wonsik’s hands in his.
“Please understand, human Wonsik, that before you came, we really hated humans. We never understood when Rain would tell us that we were made to help and protect. Humans had never done anything for us before besides give us material gifts, and—“
“The food and rice wine is very welcome.” Sanghyuk interrupted and Jaehwan shushed him.
“And, although those are acceptable, no one had ever offered us any type of love. It was all flat and empty. A human’s devotion is something that colors a god’s life.” He paused a moment.
“Your family has been blessed by me personally. They are safe and well. You deserve to know that before you die. We will watch over them.”
Wonsik gave a watery smile and nodded.
“They will be so happy.”
Hakyeon watched them in silence from his room, pulling aside the door a bit, unnoticed. The scene made him sick, so turned away, unable to watch anymore and shut it again quietly. He crossed the room to where a golden box sat on a stand, opening it and lifting out an intricate knife. He almost put it back, shut the lid and disappeared into the forest so that no one would ever find him again, but he thought better of it and set it down on the cushions. Lighting the candles in his room one by one, he thought about Wonsik; the silly questions he always asked, his simple human amazement at even the most basic things, his love for the garden and the little animals, his extreme fear of insects for no logical reason, the way his face lit up when he spoke about his family, and the adventures of him and his brother when they were little, how hard his mother worked, how beautiful and kind she was. He felt himself starting to cry again.
The night was beginning to turn into early dawn as the faintest glow of light began to appear and the dark navy black of the sky began to fade into a soft blue.
“You should go to Hakyeon now.” Taekwoon uncurled himself from where he had been and stood up.
“Does He have to go so soon?” Jaehwan pouted, not willing to let go of Wonsik.
“I’ll be alright.” Wonsik stood up and bowed to all of them. “Thank you.”
“I’m sure we’ll see him again. Someday. Maybe he’ll be reincarnated.” Taekwoon watched the retreating form as the human disappeared around the corner towards Hakyeon’s quarters.
“I’m just glad it isn’t me who has to do this.” the gumiho mumbled, wiping his eyes with his sleeve.
Sanghyuk had gone oddly silent, which was never a good sign. Finally he spoke up.
“Aren't you all curious?”
“About….?” Taekwoon didn’t like where this was going.
“About Hakyeon hyung and human Wonsik.”
“This is a terrible idea.” Taekwoon mumbled to himself, trailing after them as they crept towards the dragon’s room. “Hakyeon is going to kill us, nevermind about Wonsik.”
Wonsik pulled the door open gently, bare feet noiseless on the smooth floor. Hakyeon was sitting on his heels with his back facing him, silvery black and blue floral robes fanning out behind him, and surrounded by candles wrapped in colored paper. The soft yellow of the candlelight made his honey skin glow, and for the first time, Wonsik thought he really did seem inhuman. This was Hakyeon’s personal room, somewhere he had never been in the time he had spent in the Temple. The aura was calm, and warm and gentle, like Hakyeon himself, but he was overwhelmed with the sense of incredible sadness. He knew it hurt Hakyeon to have to do what he was about to, and although Wonsik was sorry, he never once reconsidered his decision. It was for Hakyeon’s own good.
He was about to make his presence known, when Hakyeon turned his head before sitting up and turning fully to face him. Wonsik immediately noticed the shimmering tear stains on his face; Hakyeon wept crystals instead of tears. It pained him to see the dragon this upset, so he crossed the room and sat in front of him. Immediately, Hakyeon opened his arms with a pleading expression on his face. Wonsik quickly curled up to him as the spirit wrapped strong arms around him and pulled him close, burying his face in Wonsik’s hair. The hug was comforting and even though he was in the arms of a being about to take his life, Wonsik had never felt more safe. Hakyeon pulled back after a while, and ran a thumb tenderly across his cheek, eyes brimming with emotions.
“I’m so sorry.” He apologized for what felt like the tenth time.
Wonsik shook his head and smiled.
“I want to do this.”
He laid back in Hakyeon’s arms, facing up towards him, moving around until he felt completely comfortable. Hakyeon lifted a dagger from beside him and unsheathed it in a swift motion. The hilt was engraved with silver work, fire opals and lapis lazuli entwined in the graceful curls of the precious metal, but the blade was the most beautiful. It shimmered a creamy pearlescent, a rainbow of soft colors reflecting from it at certain angles in the candlelight. It was so beautiful Wonsik felt he wouldn’t mind dying from its strike, and still less if it was Hakyeon delivering the blow.
“It’s very beautiful, Hakyeon.” He said out loud, bringing his hand up to trail a finger along it, feeling it was smooth and cool to the touch.
“A dragon’s blade is something no mortal eyes have ever seen.” Hakyeon replied, the faintest smile crossing his face at the human’s amazement. “I use it to shed my scales, the most ancient and precious ceremony. This blade has seen me at my most vulnerable, and now... I am at my most vulnerable.”
Wonsik nodded in understanding, a bit in awe that Hakyeon considered him so important as to allow him to have knowledge of such a special and intimate part of himself.
A few scales appeared in place of Hakyeon’s skin around his neck and arms, piercing though much like his emotions; spilling over and causing him to lose some control over his form. They sat like that for a while, in silence, savoring every last moment they had. Wonsik lay snuggled in Hakyeon’s arms, the spirit holding him close. He felt the gentle breaths up and down, and watched his peaceful expression. Guilt welled up in him again. How could Wonsik still trust him so completely even though he was about to run a knife through his heart? His face looked so peaceful, he resisted the urge to run a clawed finger down his sharp nose. Finally Hakyeon decided it was time.
He pulled Wonsik in for one last hug. Into it he poured all his guilt and happiness and sorrow and relief, his curse would be broken, but he would loose Wonsik, the most bittersweet mixture of feelings. Truly the creation of a cintamini was a powerful thing, full of inmost thoughts and emotions.
Wonsik laid his cheek on Hakyeon’s shoulder and closed his eyes, letting out his breath.
“I wish,” he mumbled quietly, “that I could watch over my family, and stay with you here, too.”
“Maybe,” Hakyeon replied in a whisper, not trusting his voice, “you will be able to.”
Wonsik didn’t reply, and for the longest second, it was still, as if time was frozen. Then one arm wrapped around to comb soothingly through his dark hair, the other drove the dagger deep into his chest in a swift movement, piercing through his heart. Wonsik felt a horrible pain and gasped as he seized up, clutching onto Hakyeon. Then it was gone, and he just suddenly became acutely aware of the smallest details; Hakyeon’s uneven breaths, the tickle of his hair on his neck, the smell of vanilla and lilacs that permeated the room. His grip on the other loosened and fell as he slipped away into nothingness, still clasped tightly against Hakyeon’s warm chest, a smile fixed onto his face.
Hakyeon felt Wonsik jolt and a shiver run through his body, the pained noise he made nearly broke his heart. And then, he slumped limply in his arms; gone.
With a choked sob, Hakyeon laid the lifeless body down on the pillows, delicate knife still sticking from his chest. Suppressing his emotions, he finally summoned the willpower to remove it, pulling it out and pressing his hand down against the wound to stop the sluggish flow of blood. Fingers brushed carefully over Wonsik’s eyes, closing them, and folding his hands over his chest. Hakyeon leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss on the human’s forehead. More tears dropped from his eyes and suddenly he was crying again, laying his head on Wonsik’s chest as he sobbed.
Chapter 11: Guardian Spirit
“The tears of a dragon are quite powerful.” A voice said suddenly. “You shouldn’t waste them.”
Hakyeon turned around with a snarl, eyes flashing red as he grasped Wonsik to his chest. The familiar face of the older and far more powerful spirit met his gaze, smiled a bit and approached, crouching and placing a finger under Wonsik’s chin.
“Aww. It’s not so bad now.” He clicked his tongue fondly and stuck his lower lip out a bit.
His gaze turned to Hakyeon.
“Your cintamini is restored. Your curse is broken, you are free.”
“Was this the only way?” Hakyeon whispered, almost inaudibly.
“Yes.” Rain replied simply, “But Wonsik’s sacrifice brought about something much more beautiful. It is something that even I hardly understand.”
Though Hakyeon was still hesitant to let Rain touch the lifeless human in his arms, he did allow him to take Wonsik’s limp face between his hands and press his thumbs against his temples.
“Awaken, Guardian Spirit.”
Violet eyes snapped open, and Wonsik sat up in a blur of lilac colored magic, nearly colliding with Hakyeon’s head, looking down first at his hands in confusion, then at his chest, feeling for a wound, then at Hakyeon who stared, clearly as confused as he was, and finally at Rain.
“You made a wish before you died, Wonsik.” He said simply.
Wonsik opened his mouth to reply, but a quiet grunt from right outside Hakyeon’s room caused all three to turn towards the door. Rain crossed the room to the door and opened it suddenly, causing the other four spirits to come tumbling in from where they’d been eavesdropping outside.
“What’s this?” Hakyeon sat up, gently pushing Wonshik onto the cushions, brushing off and straightening his crumpled robes, “what were you all doing out there?!”
“W-well we just...wanted to listen in case you were going to do anything…..Ah! Anything desperate after killing Wonsik!” Hyuk finished, clearly satisfied with his explanation.
“Yes!” Jaehwan backed him up immediately, “you could have done anything!”
“You all listen here,” Hakyeon growled and he stepped closer towards them, shaking his fist, “don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to! Whose idea was it?”
All of them simultaneously pointed to Hyuk, who pointed to Jaehwan.
“Hey! It was his idea too!”
“I am not surprised.” He mumbled, “Taekwoon how could you?”
“Listen, I was just curious!” The Nekomata helps his hands up defensively.
“Ha! Curious isn’t the right word.” Hakyeon scoffed.
“But it’s good that Wonsik is alive!” Hongbin tactfully tried to change the topic.
They all turned to look at him for the first time. Wonsik was examining his hands with glowing lilac eyes, his tan skin taking on a crystalline shimmer. His veins now glowed within him as well, which was what he was currently looking at.
“What am I?” He finally spoke in little more than a whisper.
“You’re a guardian spirit.” Rain sat down in front of him, giving the others a look.
They got the message and shuffled back awkwardly, except for Hakyeon, who was reluctant to leave Wonsik’s side.
“Would you unglue yourself for five minutes? You have an eternity, I’m trying to explain Wonsik’s duties.” Rain snorted.
Hakyeon then, too, was finally forced out of the room, unable to disobey an older and more powerful god.
“Now. That’s much better.” Rain settled across from Wonsik. “You were once human, and you wished to protect your family. Hakyeon unknowingly granted you this wish. You have the power to protect and watch over your family especially through the generations.”
“Really?!” Wonsik nearly jumped up then and there but Rain sat him back down again.
“You can’t go out like that, no one will see you. You need to choose a form to appear in. Here why don’t we have some tea.”
“Hakyeon hyung!” Jaehwan gasped, finding Hakyeon sitting outside the door with his ear up against it.
“What?” He looked guiltily at Jaehwan, “I just am...curious.”
“HA!” Hyuk jumped out from around the corner in a cloud of smoke and pointed at him. “And you were just accusing us earlier of this same thing!”
Hakyeon elected not to answer him and stood up, dusting his robes off turning with a huff. Just then, the door opened and Wonsik emerged rubbing his face and looking overwhelmed.
“He has a lot to learn.” Rain said, nudging the new spirit in the direction of the others, “So you all had better help him out.”
“Come visit me, Wonsik. Unlike these others who live in the same forest yet never have the decency to stop by.” and with that, he disappeared through the walls of the Temple, leaving behind a silvery mist.
“I’m going to visit my family.” Wonsik said immediately before anyone even had the chance to ask him what he planned to do.
“Oh!!! You’re going to see humans?? Can I come too?” Jaehwan got extremely excited at the mention of the possibility of humans.
Wonsik looked helplessly at Hakyeon, who closed his eyes and took a deep breath before walking over and placing his hands on the spirit's shoulders.
“Make sure he doesn’t cause trouble.”
Wonsik nodded, smiling.
“And don’t let him flirt with anyone. ”
Wonsik nodded again.
“Don’t worry, hyung, I won’t do anything. Poor Wonsik couldn’t handle me if I did.” Jaehwan laughed.
Wonsik narrowed his eyes in response and shot a condensed burst of purple energy at Jaehwan that hit him square in the chest and made him yelp in surprise as a shock went through him and his tails puffed up.
“I could handle you.”
The rest of them burst out laughing at the sight of Jaehwan’s frizzy fur.
“Ah! Wonsik, how did you do that??” Jaehwan held his head with wide eyes as he stared into the younger spirit’s violet ones. “Hakyeon! You made him too powerful!”
“I didn’t do anything! Wonsik is just special.”
“Gross.” Hyuk made a face and turned. “I’m leaving.”
Chapter 12: Epilogue
Jaehwan made sure he was visible in his most alluring form, but Wonsik chose to remain hidden in his spirit form.
“This is where you were born?” Jaehwan asked.
Wonsik nodded. The village was simple and small, and it was market day. People were laughing and chatting and everyone knew everyone. It reminded Wonsik, in a way, of the picture on the tapestry. Jaehwan wanted to go look at a bunch of shiny spoons that a vendor was selling, and Wonsik let him, making his way past the crowds, easily passing through in his immaterial form.
A mottled cat was sitting on the porch as he drew close, and it turned to look at him as he went by, then stretched disinterestedly. The house was exactly as he remembered it, clean, well kept. In the corner was a small bowl with two incense sticks burning, before a sheet of paper with his name scrawled on it in awkward characters. Junhyuk had definitely written that. A smile played across his face as he leaned down to smell the incense. Just then, he heard voices and turned to see his mother and brother enter the house, baskets full of things they bought at the market. Wonsik was glad the war had so far left this peaceful town untouched. Suddenly he understood how Hakyeon must have felt, why he wanted to protect the humans of that city long ago. He sat in a chair and watched his family. To his surprise, both Junhyuk and his mother stopped in front of his memorial and lit two more incense sticks. He felt touched.
Later that evening he found Junhyuk in front of the little memorial again, sitting on his heels. Wonsik sat next to him, watching his brother.
“Wonsik hyung,” Junhyuk started, “I hope you’re well and not in pain. We miss you a lot, but we know you’re watching over us.” He paused, sniffling, “I’m just so scared now. It’s so much responsibility; I need to be strong and brave now like you were but I don’t know how to, hyung! Please help. If you can hear me…”
At his brother’s words Wonsik felt a rush of power come over him, so strong it made him clutch his non-existent heart. A gust of wind blew through the open door, jingling the small wind chime and in a moment the incense sticks were consumed by a subtle purple fire that was gone as quickly as it came. Junhyuk turned, and looked wide eyed at the door.
“Hyung is it you?” He whispered.
Wonsik wanted to reach out and hug him, whisper words of encouragement, but he was powerless except for his new divine powers of blessing, and so he poured every last bit of it into his brother’s heart in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, he could feel it.
Wonsik refused to leave when Jaehwan came to get him, giggling and energetic. He sat on the floor stubbornly, even though his family had long since gone to bed.
“Don’t be silly, you can come see them whenever you want.”
Wonsik shook his head.
“You’re overwhelmed and not thinking clearly. Let’s go back to The Temple, Wonsik.” Jaehwan tugged his sleeve.
“Just a little bit more.” Wonsik finally agreed, carefully standing and approaching the bed where his younger brother slept.
“Junhyuk, hyung is sorry he had to go...hyung is sorry for a lot of things. But I am happy. I did this for you so you can be happy too. I’ll always be there, Junnie-ah.”
Reaching up, he pulled the amulet over his head and laid it in his brother’s open palm, watching as the younger’s fingers closed instinctively around it.
“I hope you have good luck and happiness.” Wonsik pressed his thumb to the middle of the boy’s forehead, leaving a glowing purple mark.
“I’m ready to go now.” He announced, standing up and reappearing by Jaehwan’s side.
They visited the village often after that, Jaehwan always as a handsome man, otherworldly looking, Wonsik under many forms from kindly old man to young playful child with violet eyes. The townspeople all knew him, called him their guardian spirit. He watched his brother have children of his own, and was there to guide his mother’s spirit over the beyond.
“You’re not coming, Wonsik?” She asked.
He smiled and shook his head.
“I’m a god now, mother. I promised to stay and watch over the family line.”
“You didn’t have to, you know.”
“I wanted to. I chose to become this so I could stay with someone very important.”
“I’m glad you’re happy, son. Very glad.” She turned and opened the door.
Wonsik waited until she closed it behind her, and turned to go find Hakyeon back at the Temple.