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Seven Of Aces

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Among the Nine Worlds, there was a place even lower on the cosmos caste system than Helheim—or hell, as humans might call it.

This was the Realm of Monsters—a one-way world where creatures slithered and lashed and stomped about freely in their lifelong imprisonment. Once entered, there was no way out. An entire world, saved just for the unwanted. An exclusive space for the misbehaved and forgotten, or the ones who've been cast aside because they no longer served a purpose to anybody.

A place where the rejects were left to rot and perish.

See, monsters die too, and it was for this very inconvenient purpose that cemeteries also existed… to dispose of the disposed. To trash the trash. To forever silence what had already been silenced by the outside world. In atonement for their unforgivable sins, if these souls couldn’t afford to rest in peace, then they at least deserved some semblance of quiet in their death.

At least, that was how it was supposed to be.

Lawless as it was, the Realm of Monsters inevitably housed a few… rule-breakers. The kind that would resolutely not allow the dead to get some rest.

Surrounded by misty fog and molding tombstones, Hoseok inhaled deeply, arms raised and eyes closed.

“Rise.” A soft whisper; a strong outcome. Hoseok’s eyes were furrowed in deep concentration as the monosyllable escaped his lips, spreading loudly in the eerie silence of the graveyard.

Crouched with his knees tucked against his chest behind a particularly bulky tombstone was his accomplice, a man with hair as red as blood but skin as pale as snow. Yoongi raised a hand to shield his eyes from the blinding flash that followed. Around them, the graveyard groaned to life, stretching and stirring as though rudely awakened. He pried his eyes open to find that they were no longer alone. 

Translucent white spirits of all shapes and sizes—and in varying stages of decay—hovered just above their designated graves, some yawning drowsily as if interrupted from deep sleep, and others looking decidedly less amicable. As Yoongi straightened up and walked down a row of crooked tombstones, a particularly disgruntled soul spat in his direction with great aim; had spirits been tangible, the nasty fluid would have landed on the lapels of his shirt.

“Foolish thugs, whaddya want?” the spirit snarled viciously. He was a terrible excuse for a skeleton—veiny eyes, sunken cheeks, rickety bones that were visible through thinning flesh—and Yoongi figured he must have overdosed on golem beads and died inhaling the addictive thing.

Mouth curling in disgust, Yoongi ignored him and turned to another accomplice. “Namjoon, which one is it? Quickly,” he urged, casting a glance at the necromancer whose eyes had become two hollow, black orbs, “before Hoseok loses control.”

With steely eyes, the blond wizard's eyes roamed haphazardly over the area. Namjoon was their strategist, and he always knew what to do in all of their less-than-holy quests. “There,” he pointed to a tomb that looked newer than the others. “It’s that one.”

When news of a powerful banshee’s demise spread through the grapevine, Yoongi’s ears had immediately perked up to find out as much as he could, just in case. He was more than certain there was nothing they could possibly loot from an exiled faery who only sang and wept her days away, but as luck would have it, a loud-mouthed goblin’s words had floated their way within his sharp hearing earlier this morning. 

“I heard she kept her tears in a bottle,” the goblin cackled.

“Whatever for?” his friend asked.

“Stupid!” the goblin whacked his friend behind the head. “Don’t you know a banshee’s tears can heal and break almost anything?”

And Yoongi was sold. That night when he arrived home to Hoseok and Namjoon’s company, he’d immediately gathered them and relayed his plan to get ahold of that magical bottle before anybody else.

Grave robbers. Tomb raiders. Call it what you want. It was by no means an honorable title, but when you lived among monsters and the lowest of the low, honor was hardly a cause for concern.

“I can’t reel them in for too long,” Hoseok cursed under his breath. The spirits were starting to get agitated. “Talk to her now!”

Namjoon and Yoongi picked their way through the overgrown weeds and muddy patches of soil and stopped in front of the grave where a solitary, translucent figure slumped against her own tombstone like a lovelorn poet. She had her green face in her green hands and her green shoulders shook with every sob. It seemed that even in her death, she would never be granted reprieve.

“Excuse me,” Namjoon cleared his throat. “With all due respect—“

Yoongi let out an impatient groan. “Just get straight to the point, Joon.”

“B-banshee!” Namjoon barked, although his expression looked apologetic. The weeping girl jumped in surprise and looked up at the two of them. “I’m sorry about your death—“

Yoongi rolled his eyes.

“—and it breaks me to disturb you like this, but we need you to answer a few questions.”

The weeping girl continued to, well, weep. “My death has given me no peace. What are you sorry for? My life was no different. I am miserable, all the same.”

“…Right. We would like to ask,” the sorcerer continued mollifyingly, “if it’s true that you have a bottle stored with your tears.”

The banshee paid them no mind, fat droplets of sadness spilling down her cheeks.

If he could touch her, he would have gripped her shoulders by now and shaken them, hard. But he couldn’t, and so all Yoongi did was clench his fist and demanded in seething voice, “Hey, ugly faery. Can’t you remember where your damned bottle of tears is, or is your memory also as wretched as your sins that got you expelled?”

The girl screamed.

Here’s the thing about banshees: while they spent most of their time singing harmlessly, an upset banshee belonged to a different league of its own.

Like an avalanching tidal wave, the girl’s wailing crescendo-ed from high-pitched trills into deafening screeches, alarming every spirit nearby and prompting the ones who were actually alive to cover their ears in panic.

"Odin's mercy—" Hoseok grunted incredulously, his eyes turning back to their usual amber orbs. He bit on his lip in his struggle to rein in the frazzled ghosts. "Great, now you've gone and triggered both her and the others!" 

Yoongi stayed stoic and quiet, aware of his wrongdoing.

"Step aside," the necromancer commanded, stomping away from where he stood in the middle of the grey cemetery. As he did so, he could feel his the grip of his power over the dead bodies start to slip. He crouched down, pushing his black hair off his forehead to meet the banshee eye-to-eye.

"Hi, I'm Hoseok. It's been hard on you, hasn't it?" he crooned, voice sympathetic and velvety. Yoongi crinkled his nose at the absurdity of it all. "But you've done well, Miss Banshee."

For somebody who dealt with the dead on a daily basis, Yoongi thought that Hoseok seemed fit for more…lively things. The man practically dripped with sunshine. The effect of his smile was like nothing short of magic.

The banshee's tears dried up in an instant, and she lifted her head to look up at the necromancer with sorrowful doe eyes. "I-I have?" she hiccupped.

Hoseok reached over and patted her on the head—unlike others, he was capable of physically interacting with the dead. "Yes, darling. I know your pain. Now, you see, about that precious bottle of yours?"

She nodded slowly.

"I want to help you in... safekeeping it," he stated gently, a twinkle in his eyes. "I don't want other people to steal it and use your powers for bad, bad things."

The banshee sniffed thoughtfully. "But I... don't have it."

Hoseok blinked. Namjoon's eyebrows shot upwards.

Yoongi closed his eyes, fighting to keep his voice calm and even. "You... what?"

"My tears can kill, and so they're dangerous," the banshee moaned pitifully. "I poured them all away, away, away... into the Lake of Regret."

Deafening silence.

"Odin help us," Namjoon muttered hoarsely.

It was at that crucial moment that the fragile strings of control that Hoseok held over the spirits snapped.

(Sinners really should have known better than to utter the gods’ names in times of distress.)

A menacing gust of wind blew past them as a raucous, tumultuous rumble swept over the cracking ground, gaps widening on the very earth on which the trio stood. Yoongi wobbled on his feet and Namjoon stumbled and fell to his knees, palms against his ears as he tried to shut out the guttural cries and moans of the ravenous undead crawling out of their graves.

Hoseok's face turned as white as the ghosts around them. "Yoongi-"

The necromancer had barely gotten a word out when a grotesque hand with soil-caked fingernails shot out from underground and wrapped its skeletal fingers around his ankles.

And pulled.

"Fuck," Yoongi swore at the same time his ally screamed, a familiar heat in his right hand gathering into a small flame. With a swift flick of his wrist, he aimed fireballs like giant bullets at the fingers grasping and clawing at Hoseok's feet. "Get lost, all of you!"

He really didn't want to end up burning down the whole cemetery, but having the undead literally trying to bring you down with them left him with little to no choice. "Namjoon, the portal!"

"I-wait a second, t-the map—" The sorcerer's fingers blurred as he fumbled with the coffee-stained paper in his hands, and in his haste to open it, dropped the whole scroll to the ground...

... at the exact moment that a fresh corpse crawled out of one of the gaps in the earth, crumpled the map in his bloodied hands, and promptly fell back inside his grave like a flightless vulture after getting his arm ripped out by another one of Yoongi's fireballs. Namjoon stared helplessly at the paper still clutched in the undead's hands.

There went their escape route. The sorcerer let out a strangled yelp as his flowing robes were yanked from behind by another group of zombies.

What the…? “Hoseok, I thought only you can be touched by these bloody damned-“

“Only with spirits!” The necromancer yelled over the din as he struggled to pull his leg free. “But these are corpses with real bodies and they’re—“

Bony fingers clamped around Yoongi’s left ankle and gave a harsh tug. His breath hitched in his throat.

"For fuck's sake...!" Sweat pooled at the base of his collar, not from the heat of his own flames, but from terror at the sight of rotten corpses flanking them from all corners like a giant swarm of rabid hornets. Some had fully clambered out of their graves while others were desperately clawing their way up from the layers of dirt they were buried under.

Dropping to his knees, he pressed his palms hard against the sodden ground and cried out with effort.

One moment, the three robbers were facing death (quite literally), and the next, absolute death faced them, razed to the ground in grey ashes and fluttering debris in the aftermath of the fire weaver's raging red-orange flames. All that remained was the reeking stench of burned corpses hanging in the stale, unmoving air.

"Why is it," Hoseok wheezed through the smoke, "that we always end up having Yoongi roasting everything?" 

It was a rhetorical question. All three of them knew that catastrophe was a given outcome in any of their expeditions.

Then again, what was a catastrophe when you lived in the Realm of Monsters?

 


 

“You seriously need to control your abilities more," Namjoon chided as the three of them trudged home later that day. With no map and no directions, the mage could not summon for a portal to open. “Why bother raising the dead and talking to spirits if you can’t put them back to rest?”

With an affronted scowl, Hoseok scoffed, "Says the one who can't even use his magic.” He limped along the other two and tried to wipe his dirty face with his shirt.

“—fully,” Namjoon corrected. “Just like you. Not fully.”

The three of them looked like they'd pillaged the underworld and crawled their way back out on all fours. Namjoon's usually neat golden hair stuck out in every direction, and Hoseok's ankles were bloody from getting scratched by muddied fingernails. From head to toe, they were a sight to behold; black with soot, as if they had mistaken a chimney for a child’s slide in a playground.

“For your information, I can control my necromancy,” Hoseok pouted. “But these stupid shackles are holding me back.” He held out his arms, where two silver bracelets roughly etched with symbols and runes gleamed dully in the waning afternoon sunlight. 

Runes that limited their abilities, kept their gifts in check. Magic bound by magic. Intelligent as he was, Namjoon was no alchemist, and he could not for the life of him figure out a liberating spell or come up with any incantation that could unlock the binds. For some reason, the material was also resistant against any form of substance or extreme temperatures—they’d tried using Yoongi’s fire to melt the metal-like locks to no avail.

“I used to be able to conjure anything without needing anything but my own willpower,” Namjoon sighed. “Now I just make fireworks and potions against naughty hobgoblins. How benign.” 

“Be grateful we can even use our magic,” Yoongi interjected peevishly. “There’s no room for getting all wishy-washy, not on my watch. The sooner we get over the impossible, the better.” He was still irritated over the fact that they hadn’t obtained what they had initially set out for. All that effort for nothing.

Tears with magical proportions to heal or break anything seemed like something they could all use. It would have probably granted them their coveted freedom, had they gotten their hands on it. But here they were, still stuck in underworld limbo. Sometimes he wondered if he’d be better off in Helheim instead—he’d be marked as dishonorable, sure, but at least he was dead. Better to be dead to all the mindless suffering than to be alive and spend every waking moment serving as a reminder of how terrible his life was. If he could even call it a life.

The gods of Asgard might argue that life in the Realm of Monsters gave way for repentance and eventual betterment (hence why they allowed some usage of magic), but to Yoongi, it was another way of saying, “You don’t deserve to die. Live and drown in your guilt.”

“How long have we been here, anyway?” Hoseok asked. “A few months?”

“Seven for you.” Namjoon cocked his head to one side, thinking. “Two and a half summers for me, and…” he trailed off, glancing uncertainly at Yoongi.

Yoongi had lost track of it; hadn’t bothered to count anymore, really. He knew that more than a few summers had already passed since he was banished to this godforsaken land, but he didn’t want to torture himself by finding out exactly how many had come and gone.

A brief image of sparkling hazel eyes and cascading rose-red hair that bore striking resemblance to his own flashed through his mind, and Yoongi closed his eyes to block out the cruel memory.

“What a waste of our efforts,” Hoseok sighed, voicing out Yoongi’s sentiments. “You reckon that that banshee’s tears weren’t bogus? Some overblown bedtime story?”

“We can’t really say for sure, can we? Unless we see for ourselves,” Namjoon answered. 

Yoongi let out a humorless snicker. “Oh, they’re real, alright.”

The two turned to him. “What makes you say so?” they questioned in unison.

“Did you notice any reinforcement bracelets on that dead girl’s wrists?”

Both Hoseok and Namjoon slowly shook their heads.

Yoongi raised an eyebrow as if to prod them on.

He saw the exact moment when understanding dawned on the faces of his friends. “Beard of Thor…” Hoseok whispered in a mixture of awe and horror. “She cried through her shackles.”

“So there is something that can break through the gods’ binds,” Namjoon surmised. With a flourish of his hand, a thick, leather-bound book materialized out of thin air. It hovered just a foot before him, flipping until it landed open on an empty page. Wizards had no use for ink. He used his index finger to scribble in the air, and at the same time, words and symbols appeared on the book’s pages. He had a habit of taking down notes.

“Too bad she was too immersed in her own grief to notice,” Yoongi intoned. “Nothing worse than dying a prisoner—“

“—than dying without realizing you were free all along,” the sorcerer finished, looking nonplussed.

“No problem,” Hoseok tugged at his collar confidently. “We’ll just find another banshee. Shouldn’t be too hard—“

“She was the only one,” Yoongi said. And now she’s gone. “Faeries don’t get depressed that easily. And you know how rare it is to find one when their race is dying out.”

“Ah. Right. 'Course I knew that.”

“Sure did.”

They were nearing their living quarters now—a tiny, rickety room on the third floor of a makeshift multi-story complex that was a stone’s throw away from collapsing. Situated on the other side of The Skeletal Fields, in the slums by the canal bridge overlooking the shimmering purple Lake of Regret, the view granted by their crooked window was as close to picturesque as they could probably afford. They shared living spaces with a plethora of other creatures – friendly ogres, rabid scorpions, armored pixies and horned catfolk, to name a few. Hey, monsters needed housing, too. 

Out of the blue, a gnome skittered frantically past the three of them, eyes darting about here and there. It didn’t even bother to greet them as it usually did (they lived next door), and instead hurried into its home, leaving the tiny door shut itself promptly with a soft “click”.

Strange.

In fact, now that Yoongi noticed it, the usually rowdy street was oddly deserted, as if everybody and their neighbors had suddenly taken off and vanished right in the middle of their daily hustle. Sitting abandoned on the cobblestone street was a half-full basket of freshly washed laundry, with only a few garments hung out haphazardly to dry. Out of the corner of his eye, Yoongi spied a bucket of water lying on its side, possibly having gotten toppled over during a mad frenzy to…to what? Leave?

“What’s going on?” Hoseok’s shoulders were stiff, and his stance turned defensive. Beside him, Namjoon’s arms were crossed in front of him, eyes wary. 

They could all feel it—the air around them was tense and silent, waiting with bated breath. Every cell in Yoongi’s body was screaming for him to be alert, and there was a nagging feeling that a foreign presence had yet to make itself known in this cramped little street.

Yoongi wasn’t about to let himself be a sitting duck.

“Show yourself,” he growled through gritted teeth. He thrust his arms downwards, and sizzling bouts of inferno engulfed his hands, ready to attack. Namjoon and Hoseok stumbled away from the heat they emanated. “Or I will scorch you.”

A sultry, derisive chuckle reverberated around them like there was neither a beginning nor an end to the sound. “Oh, I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” singsonged a honeyed voice.

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. That voice-

An invisible blast of energy broke out in waves, effectively extinguishing his fire. The three of them were brutally shoved backwards out of sheer force as a lone figure plummeted from seemingly out of nowhere, landing so hard that a crater formed and the cobblestone street rippled behind her like a carpet being wrung out to dry.

As she straightened to stand up to her full height, the three found themselves being towered over by a woman with silvery hair and massive wings of blue, incandescent fire. Although marked with unsightly battle scars, her olive skin shone proudly, as if to brandish how she’d survived even the most gruesome carnage. Brass and silver rings adorned her calloused knuckles, and she carried a metal shield that looked stronger (and heavier) than steel. Her muscled biceps put Hoseok’s own well-defined arms to shame.

While she looked younger than any of the three men, her startlingly amethyst eyes, full of unmasked contempt, hinted at age-old secrets. She was the kind of woman nobody probably wanted to upset.

Hoseok gasped, eyes wide. “A Seraph?”

“No,” Namjoon shook his head disbelievingly. “That’s a—“

“—Valkyrie,” Yoongi said in a frigid tone.

The woman nodded. “How very observant of you.”

Unlike the Seraphim, Valkyries were an all-female dominion that served to decide who among the slain souls of the Nine Worlds were deemed honorable or otherwise, and were tasked with bringing them to were they “rightfully belonged”, be it the dreaded Helheim or the yearned-for Valhalla. End up in the former and you were considered scum, but go to the latter and you were a true, celebrated hero. And the decision lay in these women’s hands. 

The Valkyries were by no means angels; that was for certain.

Yoongi quickly pulled himself to his feet, and the other two did the same. 

“I know you,” he said, his voice laced with barely restrained anger. But the woman’s namesake eluded him. He knew her face, but he couldn’t remember her name.

“Of course you do,” the Valkyrie responded, tilting her head to the side like a curious bird. The sound of her voice was achingly familiar to Yoongi, and it brought back a slew of unwanted memories that he’d so long ago tried to forget. However, void of the usual harsh, demanding edge he’d had come to associate it with, it almost seemed wrong, like it belonged to a different owner altogether. “I’m the one who brought you here.”

Yoongi could feel his jaw clenching, but he forced his features to relax into a false smile and tipped his head down sarcastically. “To what do I owe this great pleasure of your visit to our humble abode?”

He raised his head, expecting an infuriating answer. But no immediate reply came. The woman’s expression softened as her gaze bore into each of theirs. Suddenly, her mighty shoulders drooped and her head hung low. A defeated sigh slipped past her lips.

“…because I am also the one who will help you get out.”

Chapter Text

The life of a necromancer was never an easy one.

When Hoseok wasn't using his gift to summon the dead from their graves, restless spirits constantly badgered him for all kinds of reasons and favors - to seek vengeance against an unfaithful husband, to ask for help in carrying out unfinished business or relaying any final words and what-have-you. Like bees to a honey fortress, spirits were drawn to him, whether he liked it or not. Unless he wanted to be haunted forever, he usually had no choice but to acquiesce in the requests, if only for the sake of his declining sanity.

Once, a headless spirit had actually approached him in the dead of the night to ask for help in finding his dismembered body part. He’d nearly suffered a coronary from that. And just a couple of fortnights ago, their neighbour's aunt’s soul visited him to let him know that 'he may pass down her beloved porcelain tea set to her favourite niece as soon as possible'. Even in death, the old hag was still scarily overbearing.

It was for this reason that the necromancer sported shadowy circles and heavy bags under his bloodshot eyes. Because of his power and its…side effects, he hardly slept a wink at night, and he was constantly paranoid that malicious spirits might harm him in his sleep.

Like perhaps slice his ribs open, or strangle him in an act of unloading their unresolved emotional baggage.

And so, as much as he could, he tried to stay awake. But staying awake brought in the night, and with the night came along the leering darkness. Hoseok wasn’t particularly fond of the dark, or deformed creatures. The Realm of Monsters had both.

This world had especially frightening things prowling everywhere, and if they weren’t already terribly gruesome to look at in their lifetime, you could only imagine the kind of non-alive sights Hoseok had to endlessly face on a daily – and nightly – basis. Goblins with bloated heads dragging their useless legs behind them. Ogres with their inner organs spilled and splayed out as they clamored for his attention. Angry, wailing ghosts barking off orders to him as though he was obliged to do their bidding.

The life of a necromancer was never an easy one.

Sure, he might have gotten the hang of interacting with the undead with false bravado and ease, but truth be told, he just wanted to give it a rest. In peace.

If only Hoseok could leave the Realm, even just for a short while, then maybe - just maybe - he could finally get some sense of normalcy. In this case, proper sleep.

So he couldn’t really be faulted when his eyes widened with exhausted hope as he asked the Valkyrie, “Out? As in out of here? Truly?” He pinched himself in the cheek. “Tell me I’m not dreaming this up. Ah, what am I saying, I hardly even sleep anymore.”

“Look,” Namjoon started. “If you came here to play or mock us, I’m afraid you’ve come for the wrong company.”

“This realm is kind of one-way,” Hoseok added. “You’re lying, aren’t you? Wait.” He frowned. “That reminds me - how are you planning to get back to your own world now?”

The Valkyrie shot them a perplexed look, then turned to Yoongi. “That’s why I’m here to tell you that it’s not impossible to leave. I’ve come to fetch you.”

Hoseok stared at her, trying to sense if the woman was lying. A way out of the Realm? Was it possible?

Beside him, the fire wielder stiffened. “Fetch?” Yoongi repeated with a snort, raising a quizzical eyebrow at the woman. “Why would you, who seems to be-“ his eyes flicked over to the number of rings around her fingers, “-a pretty high ranking Valkyrie, want to have anything to do with the likes of us, a group of mere nobodies?”

She gritted her teeth. “This is not something I want. I will explain more to you once we leave for-“

“Oh, spare me the details, I could care less. What makes you think we’d go with you? I just want to know what could possibly be so pressing a matter that the gods themselves would send one of their own warriors to interact with the exiled?” Yoongi cut in sardonically, his voice ice-thin.

“I wasn’t sent by the gods,” the Vallyrie said quietly.

Hoseok’s eyebrows shot upward. A Valkyrie, acting without orders? How bold. But more importantly, why? This tough-looking lady fighter was turning out to be a pretty interesting one, he mused.

“You don’t understand,” she continued. “I need you to come with me. It’s not something I can possibly explain.”

Yoongi’s eyes were narrowed suspiciously, but before he could say more, Namjoon asked, “What do you mean?”

“They…the gods have...” the woman trailed off hesitantly. Her amethyst eyes were downcast, shadows dancing in them. She sighed, and directed another pointed look at Yoongi. “Come with me. Then you’ll find out.”

Hoseok was more than willing to jump in her harms and let her whisk him away, but it seemed like his friend had other plans.

Yoongi, unfazed, only gave a slight grunt and turned on his heel to march in the opposite direction.

“H-hey! Yoongi, where are you going?” the necromancer called out.

Without turning, the fire controller said, “Hoseok. Namjoon. If I were you, I’d scoot back. You could very well be speaking to a glamoured troll right now, what with all the lies that cretin is spouting.”

His words prompted the other two to take a step back.

“I’m not lying! Won’t you even hear me out?” she cried – no, pleaded. (A Valkyrie, begging? Hoseok was beginning to think today was becoming a day of Impossible Things Happening.) “I offer you freedom, and you so heartlessly turn your back on me?”

Yoongi let out an incredulous scoff, and shook his head disbelievingly. When he turned around to face the three of them again, the expression on his face was enough to make Hoseok want to cower and shrink back unto himself.

“What a funny choice of words,” Yoongi said, sounding very much un-amused. “Heartless, you say? I believe you’re the last person who has the right to utter that word.

“We’ve been left here to rot. Cut off from the rest of the Worlds. And now you dare to come barreling in, disturbing sacred our time of… repentance,” he spat, eyes livid, “-without giving us a proper reason why, and you expect us to blindly go with you. Do you even hear yourself?”

The Valkyrie frowned and shook her head. “I don’t understand, I’m saying that you could leave-“

“I’ll find my way out of here on my own terms.” Yoongi’s voice held a tone of stubborn finality to it, signaling that he no longer wanted to take part in the conversation. “Feel free to leave, alone. You’re scaring our neighbors away.” As if to prove his point, a muffled squeak came from above, and they looked up just in time to see a wide-eyed little brownie perched on one of the rooftops lining the street, watching their whole encounter with wide eyes. Caught, the brownie gasped and quickly ducked out of sight.

The Valkyrie kept her mouth shut this time, unable to find a reply. Glancing back and forth between the lady and his fire-lancing comrade, Hoseok wondered who really had the authority here – the warrior or the prisoner? He couldn’t be too sure.

He exchanged a baffled glance with Namjoon, the both of them wondering why their red-haired friend was so defensive and bitter in the presence of this stranger.

Yoongi walked away, with Namjoon following closely behind. After a moment of hesitation, Hoseok shrugged apologetically at the Valkyrie and trailed after the other two back to their home, leaving her alone on the cobblestone pavement.

From the outside, their living quarters were all grey walls and no doors; when they first started staying together, Namjoon had cast a protective spell that only allowed inhabitants of their home to step inside. It was easy to miss, and you might even mistake it for just another plain, regular wall if you didn’t know what you were looking for. It was the best safety precaution they could put up to protect everything that they looted from their… cemetery trips.

They had racked up quite an impressive collection.

Hoseok’s nightmare whip, for example, was one of the rare keeps they’d taken from a dead collector’s closet a few weeks ago. It was a flexible, coiling thing wrought of leather that could extend to distances twice his height. He treasured it dearly. It wasn’t just a typical whip, which they discovered after Hoseok jokingly looped it around Namjoon’s ankles and the leather transformed into a bleeding, stretched out meat-like piece of angry red flesh, roping and tightening itself around the sorcerer’s legs like a snake.

The sorcerer, as it turned out, was afraid of blood. Hoseok could still vividly hear his hysterical howling even now.

The nightmare whip not only showed one’s deepest fears, but also projected offensive illusions of them to instill maximum trauma in the enemy.

Hoseok loved it. He’d immediately staked his claim over the weapon.

“Well, if that wasn’t the strangest encounter ever,” he commented lightly as they stepped into their home. “I’ve never seen a Valkyrie in real life before, have you, Yoongi?”

The flame weaver gave him a look that said, Drop it.

Hoseok shrugged. “I’m going for a dip in the lake,” he announced merrily in an attempt to lift the foul mood that had settled over the three of them. The house was uncharacteristically quiet. The floors creaked beneath their weight, and Hoseok swiped at several purple hybrid cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. He unhooked his whip from his belt and set it down on a small table crammed with Namjoon’s potion vials and books. “Anybody wanna come along? Yoongi, I think you need to cool your head off for a bit, join me?”

Yoongi let out a string of colorful profanity, eyeing the table. “The hell, Hoseok, you had your whip with you all along and you didn’t use it just now?”

The necromancer feigned offense. “Against a Valkyrie with such pretty eyes? Have you gone mad? I can’t ever imagine hurting a lady-“

“No, not her! At the graveyard earlier.”

“Yoongi, you know those things aren’t alive.”

“And so?”

And so? What did you expect me to do? Lob my whip at spirits and then look stupid when it doesn’t latch onto anything but air?” Hoseok laughed. “Come on, you know better than that.”

“Well, what about the corpses?” Namjoon piped up.

“Dead folk don’t have fears,” Hoseok stated matter-of-factly, a wry grin on his face. “They’re dead. What’s there to be afraid of? The whip wouldn’t manifest into anything.”

Namjoon stared at him in a way that seemed to say everything and nothing all at once. “I hope you’re right.”

Hoseok rolled his eyes. “I know we’re all hungry and confused and in need of a bath-“ his eyes travelled over their soot-covered state. “-but can you not start talking nonsense and taking it out on me?” He grabbed a sulking Yoongi by the shoulders and steered him towards the window facing the Lake of Regret. “We’ll take a nice, long soak at the lake and be cleansed of our frustrations, alright? Just look-“

The three of them froze at the same moment, and Hoseok gasped.

The lake was gone.

What once had been a glittering body of water in the prettiest hues of pale pink and purple was now a flat, barren terrain of muddy land. Drab and brown and unmoving, as if someone had taken a giant suction to drain the life out of a basin. The great Lake of Regret, for some unthinkable reason, suddenly un-was. It was, and then it wasn’t.

Hoseok blinked. Rubbed his eyes. Tried to convince himself he was seeing things. Perhaps it was some trickery of the light? Was he that sleep-deprived that he was starting to hallucinate? How could such massive amounts of water just vanish? Surely evaporation couldn’t happen that rapidly.

“What the fuck,” Yoongi breathed, shock and bewilderment weighing his eyebrows down, before turning quickly and bolting out the door.

Hoseok and Namjoon ran after him. “Where are you go- hey, wait!”

They found him outside, breathless and panting as he came face to face again with the white-haired Valkyrie, who had not moved an inch from where she stood.

“The lake,” Yoongi demanded. “What have you done? What have you done?”

The Lake of Regret was not just your average body of water. It was magic. It held purifying elements that could turn the blackest of souls into, well, less black versions of themselves. It would not wash away past sins and misdemeanors, but it was widely known that those who submerged themselves into its clear, pastel waters came out with distinctly less spiteful and calmer attitudes. It worked like a christening charm that, given enough bathing, could wipe the viciousness out of one’s soul slowly but surely. Whenever he felt too distressed, Hoseok usually chose to strip down and let the lake’s gentle waters appease him.

(It could also completely clean their dirty laundry in just one soak, so that was definitely a huge bonus point in the necromancer’s books.)

“You saw?” A grimace tugged at the Valkyrie’s lips. “Believe it or not, it’s not my doing.”

She swept her arms in an outward motion, and the ground on which they stood started to flicker and crackle as an image began to take form on the cobblestone. The three men staggered a few steps back to watch the whole picture come to life. Awestruck, Hoseok bit back a whoop of amazement as the illustration seemed to pluck and peel itself from the pavement and rose up to levitate just a few inches from the ground. Instead of looking like a sketched drawing, the hologram now looked like a three-dimensional, tangible life-sized form.

It was a floating image of a tree. An enormous work of nature, with log-like branches that twisted around its thick trunk and roots that grew taller than any of them, even the Valkyrie. Hoseok craned his neck to look up at its golden leaves, some of them the size of his face.

“The central World Tree,” the Valkyrie said, nodding at the glowing hologram. “Yggdrasil. The tree of life binds and keeps the Nine Worlds together by feeding it with aether – celestial – magic. It is the very core of our ecosystem, and is responsible for giving us life. It has never failed us, not for centuries.”

“Pardon me, but I think we all know our history,” Namjoon interjected. “Why are you telling us this?”

“Because our tree of life,” she continued, “is in great peril.”

It finally dawned on Hoseok that the Yggdrasil wasn’t standing upright; instead it drooped and bent over backwards like a sad question mark. Its branches sagged, hanging low and limp like a curtain of brown hair hiding a shy face. While it’s golden canopy of leaves was usually a beacon of light, now its brilliance was dimmed, as though somebody had draped a veil over the tree.

Stricken, Hoseok asked, “What’s going on? What’s wrong with the World Tree?”

In a heartbroken whisper, the Valkyrie answered, “Yggdrasil is dying.”

 


 

Dying, she'd said.

The corners of Yoongi’s mouth curved downwards. No way. It was impossible. The World Tree subsisted on aether – the all-encompassing energy that was more powerful than even all of the four elements combined. “How?” he said.

The Valkyrie returned him an equally grim look. “That’s what we’re trying to find out. And that’s where you come in.”

Yoongi shook his head. “No. Go ask your gods. Clearly, I’m not a part of this.” Not after I was cast away here. Not anymore.

Needless to say, he was not enjoying this interaction. There was definitely something about the Valkyrie that just irked him, but it felt like his memory still needed to catch up with his brain’s ability to recognize, and so he couldn’t place a finger on what exactly it was about her that bothered him. Was it the way she walked? Her eyes? Her silky-white hair?

And that was when she dropped another bomb.

“The gods can’t help.”

“You mean they won’t help?”

“No, they can’t.”

“Any why not?”

“Because they’re nowhere to be found.”

It was as if somebody had punched Yoongi in the gut and knocked the wind out of him. A hundred questions buzzed in his head – a chorus of why’s and how’s and when’s – still, he swallowed, trying to maintain his collected demeanor. “So you’ve come to find me…why?”

The woman’s gaze nearly pierced through his very soul. “You know why.”

Indeed he did. Yoongi was overcome by the desire to just walk away and refuse, to remove himself from the narrative and go about his own merry way, but at the same time, a curious part of him was pulling him into doing otherwise. He felt an unwelcome sense of responsibility, even though he shouldn’t. Not really.

He pinched the bridge of his nose with an annoyed tch. Why did he have to feel this way?

“It has already affected this realm,” she pressed on. “You saw what it did to your lake. One can only guess what kind of havoc losing the World Tree would mean for us all.”

With a resigned sigh, he uttered, “You said we can get out of here?”

A hopeful light flared in the Valkyrie’s eyes. “Yes. We must leave at once. I can-“

“On one condition.” Yoongi pointed to Hoseok and Namjoon. “Either they come along, or I don’t go at all.”

He watched a myriad of conflicting emotions flash across the Valkyrie’s gemstone eyes as she held an internal battle with herself before finally conceding. “Alright.”

 


 

The portal was a hole in the ground.

Yoongi eyed the entrance apprehensively. He couldn’t see past the circular threshold aside from the fact that it reflected light like a prism but moved like water.

“After you?” Namjoon said uncertainly. The three of them hovered nervously over the portal, their feet just shy of touching it.

“Do we just, um, dive in?” Hoseok asked, scratching his head.

The Valkyrie nodded. “Step in, jump in, however you like.”

The necromancer grinned. “Sounds fun.” And he jumped. Yoongi could hear his gradually fading whoop of excitement as he continued to fall.

Namjoon went next. He gave Yoongi a small nod. “I’ll see you on the other side.”

And then it was Yoongi’s turn. He stole a glance at the Valkyrie only to find her keeping a cautious eye on him. Was she afraid he might bail?

Well, it wasn’t like he hadn’t thought of that.

He cleared his throat, and wordlessly stepped into the void.

It was nothing like falling. He’d half expected to experience the sensation of being lifted out of his own skin, of losing gravity and having his heart nearly jump out of its ribcage. Instead, it was a lot more like simply walking through a door. There were no atrocious butt landings. One moment, he was in place teeming with monsters, and the next, he was standing an entirely different territory.

The first thing he noticed was the garish greenness of it all.

Dried leaves crunched beneath his feet, and he looked up to see lush forest canopy shading him from the radiance of a moon perched lazily in the sky. The branches were elegantly hung with small, rosebud lanterns emitting a warm sunset glow, twinkling like a thousand fireflies around him. The air was moist and sweet, and Yoongi’s ears caught the faint trickle of a nearby stream.

This was all too familiar.

His heart seized in his chest with the realization, I’ve been here before.

The air rippled from behind him, and out emerged the Valkyrie. Yoongi stared at her with new, horrified eyes.

Azka.

Azka – that was what they called her. How could Yoongi have forgotten? The mere sound of her name rekindled an age-old fury in him, one he’d fought to tamp down for years on end. A slew of images ached to burst forth in his mind, but he did not want to recall them just yet.

No, not yet. He had to make sure first.

“Where are we?” he managed to eke out, dread curdling like spoilt milk in his stomach.

The Valkyrie – Azka – refused to meet him in the eye. When she spoke, the fire wielder heard his greatest nightmare turn into reality.

“This is Diadra. The Kingdom of Elves.”

And Yoongi promptly passed out.

 


 

In an entirely different part of the kingdom – say, the palace itself – a boy lay with his tummy flat against the ground, chin propped up on his elbows while his rosy (but mud-stained) cheeks were cupped in his small hands. He had long locks of blond hair so light they were nearly silvery white, falling around his shoulders and past his elongated ears. Leaning down carefully, he gently blew at the row of wilting flowers he’d found hidden under a bush of garden roses.

He watched with pure, unadulterated delight as the baby blue buds seemed to regain strength from his breath, blooming and surging upwards instantly. They winked and smiled up at him, and he giggled, bowing courteously in return.

“You’re welcome,” he murmured.

“Your Highness! Your Highness! Has anybody seen the prince?” A frantic voice burst into the garden, wrought with worry.

The boy paused, quirking one amused eyebrow, for he already predicted what would be happening next.

A deep inhale. And then:

“PRINCE JIMIN! WHERE ARE YOU?”

“I’m right here, Kashmere.”

“Oh, thank Odin’s stars, I’ve been looking all over- YOUR HIGHNESS!”

“What?” Jimin burst into peals of bright laughter as he pushed himself up from the ground to sit up. An angry, red-faced cat with tiny golden horns and fur as white as cotton hovered before him, peach pink wings flapping in the air furiously.

“What are you doing, hiding among the gardens and dirtying yourself?” the cat hissed. “Look; now you’ve soiled your robes. His Majesty will have my head for letting you out of my-“

“Oh, hush, Kash. You’ll frighten the flowers.” Jimin smiled a sweet, serene smile and he waved a carefree hand. He pointed at the flowerbed he’d just given a breath of life to. “I noticed these poor lovelies withering as I was passing by, so I thought I’d stop by to help them blossom a little.”

“While that’s very kind of you and all, I must point out that you are late in greeting the newcomers-“

“Newcomers? We have guests?” Jimin perked up at the word, before covering his mouth with a gasp of dismay. “That’s right! I was meant to be a part of the receiving party- oh, Kashmere, why did you not remind me?”

His servant-pet leveled him with an exasperated look. “There has literally been nothing else I’ve been talking about since this morning,” he said flatly.

“I guess I got distracted. Again,” Jimin said sheepishly. He snapped his fingers. “Oh, I know! I’ll go visit them now. I trust that they’ve been assisted to their chambers? How many of them are there?”

“No need for that,” Kashmere replied hurriedly. “They’ve already been welcomed by your uncle, the Duke. There are three, but unfortunately, I heard one of them fainted. Now, how about we get you cleaned up-”

“Fainted?” the elf repeated, eyes wide. Whoever the traveller was, his heart longed to soothe his or her exhaustion. “Which one?”

The winged cat shook his head. “I don’t know any of their names, but I did hear them being called some very strange titles indeed.”

“Really? Like what?”

Kashmere thought for a moment. “The Destroyer, Harbinger of Death and… what was the last one? Ah, yes. The Phoenix.”

Jimin nodded. “I see. Maybe they’re from a different realm, to have such unique names. It must have been a long and tiring voyage.”

He stood up to brush off whatever dirt he could from his fluttering green-and-silver garb.

Wait a moment. Were they hosting voyagers in the palace?

Voyagers?

Jimin halted all movement as an idea took seed in his brain. He narrowed his eyes, thoughts spinning in his mind like a whirlpool. Meanwhile, Kashmere continued to prattle on about the different duties he was supposed to carry out the following day.

“Kash,” Jimin interjected. “If these people are well travelled, d-do you think maybe they know something about…her?”

Jimin liked to believe he was a pretty optimistic elf, but could he allow a hope as far-fetched and unlikely as this to take root?

The servant-cat lapsed into silence. “Oh, no. No no no. I know what you’re thinking, Your Highness, and I don’t like where this is going-”

“Kash, I must see these visitors immediately. Before my father does. He hasn’t met them yet, has he?”

“Prince Jimin, the whole point of them being here is because His Majesty has requested an audience with them to discuss matters concerning Yggdrasil.” The same frantic tone he’d used while looking for the prince was now seeping into Kashmere’s thin voice.

“And they will get to talk,” the Elven Prince assured him cheerfully, a newfound sparkle in his caramel-brown eyes, “-but not before I do.”

“Their chamber doors are heavily guarded!”

An amused snort. “Oh please, who said I was going by the front door?”

Kashmere stared at him wordlessly. “Don’t tell me...”

Jimin beamed prettily up at him. “It’s exactly what you are thinking, my friend.”

“This is a bad idea.”

“I know. That’s why we’re doing it.”

Kashmere nearly choked on air. “We?

 


 

Here’s a secret about one of Jimin’s many gifts. Unlike other elves, for some reason, he possessed the ability to morph and shrink into the size of a pixie. This, he’d discovered completely by chance as a child of six years.

He had been busying himself with his sketchbooks when one of his water pencils fell from the table and rolled underneath his large oak wardrobe. All he could remember was that he’d seemed to will himself into becoming small enough to slip under the small, dusty gap between the wardrobe and the floor.

The next thing he knew, suddenly his desk seemed too large, his chair too spacious, and then he realized:

It was not his furniture getting larger, but he who was getting smaller.

Like a pixie. But without wings.

Oh, how he wished he could fly!

And now, in this instance, he finally would.

“I knew this was a terrible idea,” Kashmere sniffed grumpily, as he flew in the direction of the tower where the voyagers were staying.

Jimin’s laughter carried over the wind. He made himself comfortable where he was settled atop his cat’s head, and snuggled against Kashmere’s fur to keep warm.

“It’s not too bad, Kash. In return for your benevolent service, I shall reward you with two buckets of glowfish first thing tomorrow.”

“Hardly enticing, but I’ll have to make do.”

Smiling to himself, Jimin looked out to appreciate the kingdom from a bird’s (or cat’s) eye view. Diadra was a realm of thick greenery and meandering rivers and tall mountains. There, on the eastern borders – the Cherry Blossom Forest; the Frostbite Alps up north; the Scarlet River down south, and here, situated right in the heart of the west, stood the Mirror Palace. His home.

As they inched closer to their destination, Kashmere’s voice floated up to him.

“Your Highness, are you sure about this? What if they’re dangerous?”

Jimin waved his words off with a smile. “Father would never bring in anybody who can cause harm to Diadra. I will only take a few minutes. Don’t worry.”

Kashmere delivered him to the windowsill of the tower, and Jimin alighted soundlessly. “Thank you.”

“I will wait for you right here. Don’t take too long.”

Jimin rolled his eyes. “Oh, lighten up, Kashmere. I’ll be back.”

He turned, and hopped into the room. There was no lantern flickering, no light to grant him better visibility. The chamber was quiet, and Jimin vaguely wondered if there was anybody there at all. He quickly shifted back to his regular size.

“Hello?” he tentatively called out. “I don’t mean to disturb, but-“

He barely managed to finish his sentence when a pale hand clamped tightly over his mouth, muffling his surprised yelp. A blur of vision, and suddenly he was being tackled to the ground, straddled at the waist by a lone figure silhouetted by the moonlight filtering through the window. Jimin’s heart spasmed as he struggled to free himself from the choking grip on his throat, threatening to suffocate him. He lashed out with his feet, but they were of little to no help.

His heartbeat quickened even faster and shivers ran down his arms when a menacing baritone growled in his ear, “Who the fuck are you?”

Chapter Text

The duality of dreams was split in two ways: there were dreams you wish would never end, and then there were dreams you wish had never begun at all. Nightmares, that’s what they’re called. But the tragedy of the subconscious was such that dreaming was no optional matter, and the dreamer, powerless and pliant, was obliged to follow suit.

Sometimes dreams came in the form of memories.

In the plane of Yoongi’s subconscious mind, it was twilight, approaching dawn. The sun was only beginning to peak through the horizon in slivers of pale orange light, but the night sky remained a dark midnight blue. Yoongi crept around the grassy outskirts of the sleeping village, barely able to contain his exhaustion. It felt as if his body might collapse any minute now, but he kept one hand on the short stone wall surrounding the village, scouring his target. It had taken the whole night to travel here, but the journey did nothing to ease his tumultuous heart. 

Once upon a time, Yoongi believed in hope. Hope was its own magic that could pluck the very stars from the sky, could make trees grow out of grey ashes and dust, could bring a young boy of only twelve years to bring down battalions of soldiers during a doomed war armed only with his grit and sheer willpower. But hope in the face of never-ending death and destruction was more unkind than magical, and it slowly chipped away at his soul.

The fact that this village had taken – borrowed – the last thing that kept him going made the final strings of his sanity snap. Where was the house? How far away was he? Yoongi was a boy on a mission, and had to locate the right one without failure. Find what had been taken, keep that safe, and only then would he be able to deliver retribution.

Tonight, he would not hold back, and this village would never see the light of day again.

Only his hellfire.

Yoongi bolted upright, inhaling and exhaling in shaky breaths. He was drenched in his cold sweat, but his entire body was stone cold. Fuck. Although it was the same damned dream he always had whenever he succumbed to the failure of his own mind to stay awake, it felt so real. Like he was back there again, to the place that continued to burn vividly in his memory. He ran a calloused hand through his red locks of hair with a sigh, and froze.

The bed was soft. Too soft, he realized. He grabbed a fistful of the blanket that had been draped over his sleeping form and saw that it was most definitely not the rough patchwork fabric of his own bedspread back at home, but a silky satin material. It was dark, and it took some time for his eyes to adjust to his surroundings. Trying to orientate himself, he looked around, and found that he was sitting in a four-poster canopy bed white translucent drapes hanging over the corners. The headboard was stacked with large, plush pillows in varying shades of velvet green.

Green.

Elfish green.

Images of the day’s earlier events flashed in his mind, and Yoongi bit back the urge to yell. A wave of bitter, raging-hot anger washed through him, and he clenched his fists and slammed them down the mattress before he could help himself. He should have known better than to trust a Valkyrie. Azka, most of all.

Why did she bring him back? Had she known of his misdeeds? What was he doing here? Where were Namjoon and Hoseok? Maybe the three of them had been separated. There was strength in numbers, after all.

Checking his wrists, he saw the runic bracelets still intact. He slipped out of the bed and tried twisting the knob of the heavy wooden door. Locked. Of course it would be. He was no guest here.

And yet they put you in a bed instead of a dungeon.

He was in the midst of brainstorming a grand escape plan when he heard the voices outside the window. There’s a window, Yoongi, you slow idiot.

“…sure about this? What if they’re dangerous?”

Low, murmured words that Yoongi’s ears couldn’t catch floated faintly into the room, and then:

“I will wait for you right here. Don’t take too long.”

“Oh, lighten up, Kashmere. I’ll be back.”

Kashmere? Who – or what – in the worlds was that, and what was he doing outside the window?

Yoongi’s thoughts ran wild. Somebody was breaking in through a small opening in the wall. Did they intend to murder him? Well, if they thought they could take advantage of the fire wielder in his vulnerable sleeping state, they were in for a rude awakening. Slinking into the shadows in the corners of the room, Yoongi braced himself for the inevitable thud of a person landing on the stone floor from jumping off the window.

But no such noise came. In fact, much to his utter surprise, a very small… thing, no taller than six inches, quietly disembarked through a thick, roping vine connecting the window to the floor. A pixie? With a frown, the flame weaver watched the thing stride into the chambers as if it owned the place.

No, not a pixie. Yoongi’s eyes went wide and his mouth parted as the pixie suddenly stood still in the middle of the room, and then seemed to grow in size right before his very eyes! Bigger and bigger, until he was roughly around Yoongi’s stature. Now he saw that the thing was not an it, but rather a he. With long, silver-blond hair that tumbled down his shoulders. The room was unlit save for the moonlight streaming in through the window, but he could see enough to take in the stranger’s flowing emerald and silver robes with swirling patterns of the moon and the stars. That, and his long, pointed ears.

Elf.

Unmistakably so.

“Hello? I don’t mean to disturb, but-“

Yoongi pounced, allowing his well-kept madness to course through him now. He wrapped a forearm around the elf’s neck and kicked him off balance by aiming for the place behind his knees, before moving to straddle his hips. His quarry made a surprised noise, which Yoongi quickly cut off by gripping his throat in a vice-like chokehold. His right hand bound the elf’s wrists above his head, rendering the boy defenseless.

Leaning in, he snarled, “Who the fuck are you?”

 


 

 

Jimin was many things, but a fighter he was not.

Which sounded ridiculous, really, because considering that he was the prince of this kingdom, it would’ve made sense for him to be able to at least know how to defend himself. But when you were a size-shifting royal elf with Earth elemental magic at your fingertips, there was hardly any need to learn self-defense techniques.

Or so he thought.

Dimly, as the attacker leaned close, Jimin caught the after-rain scent of candlewick and cedar, and the faint whiff of woodsmoke. If he was going to choke to death, then it might be well enough that he be surrounded with earthy scents such as these, rather than the stench of, say, his own blood.

Please, Mother Celeste, he prayed to the moon as his vision started to cloud over, if this is how I die, I ask that you do not let them demolish the enchanted gardens and the planetarium-

His silent plea was cut off by a delirious screech, followed by the form of a familiar, rabid cat with pink wings zipping past his blurry vision.

Kashmere?

The servant-pet scratched and clawed and bit the attacker’s arms, before whacking him in the face with his tail. The stranger hissed in pain and scrambled backwards, clutching his bloodied arms with a wince and letting go of the Elven Prince in the process. Sweet, sweet air flowed back into Jimin’s lungs, and he gasped gratefully before propping himself up on his elbows. Kashmere continued to nip like a feral bat at the assailant’s clothes until the prince commanded:

“Kash, stop now! He is our guest, not the enemy.”

“B-but this brute assaulted you! We must call the guards-“

“No.” Jimin was never one to let first impressions cloud his judgment. He knew the perilous state of the situation, could still feel his heart thudding erratically in his chest, but he tried not to let that show. After all, he had come here for one purpose, and one purpose only. “I will hear him out first.”

The servant-pet stilled, and the stranger surged forward again, overcome by the need to attack. But before he could inflict any more sort of damage, Jimin waved one hand in the air, and the vines creeping along the room’s grey stone walls stirred to life and sailed through the air like an animated serpent. It slithered across the man’s pale skin and tightened around his wrists and ankles before slamming his back to the wall, firmly keeping him there like a prisoner nailed to a cross. Panic flashed in his eyes and he writhed violently, attempting to break free but to no avail. “Let me go!”

Jimin winced. “I’m sorry! Is it too tight for you?”

“Let me go, you spawn of evil!

All concern melted away from Jimin, every word feeling like a dagger puncturing his heart. Who was this savage, and what right had he to speak in such an uncouth manner? Kashmere darted forward, hissing angrily, but the prince held out an arm to halt him with a small shake of the head.

With a slightly affronted huff, the elf stood up, dusting his clothes off. “You know, I didn’t want to have to do it this way, but you seem tad too disoriented, so I don’t think I’ve much of a choice. First of all, I want you to know that I am not your enemy, and although it might not look like it, I don’t intend to hurt you.”

“Who are you?” the stranger bit out in a hostile rasp, fury boiling in his deep, dark eyes.

“You must not be from around here,” the Elven Prince noted curiously, tilting his head in a birdlike manner.

The guest’s rough words came out in a slow and heavy drawl, as if he were swallowing his words instead of letting them ring, loud and clear, into the air. His voice was the sound of boots crunching deep into the rich earth. Very unlike the Elvish tongue. Definitely a voyager.

“Don’t fuck around with me,” seethed the man. “You know exactly what you’re doing.”

Jimin truly had no clue why he was so angry. Was the room not lavish enough for his liking? Maybe he’d missed dinner and was experiencing intense hunger tantrums. He dared to take one step closer, noticing the man’s features in more details. Uncombed tendrils of hair as crimson as his garden roses, pale skin that could put ivory to shame, and deep, dark eyes…

Eyes that held no trace of recognition for him.

The Elven Prince’s eyes narrowed into splits. Did this man really not know him? How could his father have invited people who did not know Diadran royalty? If so, then all for the better – it was easier to get someone to open up to you if they believed you were on equal footing. “You may call me Jimin.”

“Why did you bring me here? Where are my friends? Take me to them!”

How extraordinarily demanding. Jimin knitted his brows together. “Did you not come here together? Where are they?”

“That’s what I’m asking you, elf.” The man spat the word like it was an epidemic disease, and Jimin felt the first stirrings of fear and worry in his stomach. Was he mistaken, after all? Had his father, the King, brought in barbarians to Diadra? Guilty prisoners?

“I wish I could tell you, but honestly, I don’t know,” said the prince, chewing on his lower lip. “How about we help each other and take turns in asking questions? It hardly seems fair that only you get to ask things when I was the one who made the effort to come here.” He flashed the stranger one of his best smiles. “First of all, could you tell me your name?”

The man glared at him.

“Alright, fine. I’ll call you-“ Jimin’s eyes glanced at his hair. “Sir Scarlet. Seems fitting.”

“Are you fucking kidding me right now-“

“No,” Jimin’s tone turned dead serious. “I’m not here to play games, Sir Scarlet. Neither am I here to hold a man pinned against the wall against his will, and I’m sorry about that, I really am. But I have some questions that need answering, so please, hear me out?”

The man’s features stilled into that of a blank expression, and he leveled the prince with a look that could freeze ice glaciers. “Alright. But you answer mine first.”

“Fair enough.”

“Were you the one who brought me here?”

“No. What is your purpose for coming to Diadra?” Jimin started pacing the length of the chamber, tucking an arm under another and placing his chin on his palm.

“I don’t know. A Valkyrie brought us here, claiming something about the World Tree.” His eyes trailed the elf’s movements, suspicious.

“A Valkyrie?” Jimin parroted in surprise. Why would these people need to be fetched by Sorters of The Slain? “Wherever did you come from?”

Sir Scarlet’s frown deepened. “Unimportant. Where are my friends?”

Jimin thought for a moment before shaking his head. “I don’t know. Are you… voyagers?”

The man scoffed dryly and gave him a look that made the idea of travelling for leisure sound like utter rubbish. “Even if I were, Diadra is the last place I would ever set foot in.”

Jimin’s heart sank, not because of the man’s words, but because he truly did love his kingdom, and he wondered why and how someone could hate it so fiercely. But that was not important. “Do you know happen to know a woman who goes by the name of Luna?”

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

At the utterance of the curse word, Kashmere dashed forward, stopping to hover right in front of the newcomer’s face. “You shall not address him like that, you rude, uncultured savage.”

Sir Scarlet spat at the servant-pet, and emitted a humorless chuckle. “Why? Who the hell is he that he can act so high and mighty? Tell me, kitten.”

“Why you little-“

“Kashmere, prepare to leave,” Jimin instructed. It was disappointing. “I don’t think we’ll be getting any answers from Sir Scarlet.” But just as he turned away, the door of the chambers swung open.

“Yoongi, are you awake? Namjoon and I brought you some of this amazing broth in case you- oh.”

Two men, one slightly taller than the other, stood in the doorway with matching expressions of surprise. Jimin couldn’t fault them. After all, it must be very strange to walk in on your friend being questioned chained to the wall with plants by an elf boy and a flying cat.

“Who’s this?” asked the taller person.

The first speaker gave a low whistle. From head to toe, he wore clothes as charcoal-black as his hair – plain loose pants, and a tunic that was buttoned all the way to the base of his throat. “Wow, Yoongi. I didn’t know you had a thing for bondage.”

The Elven Prince choked in sputtering coughs.

The black-haired person turned to him, mirth clear as day on his face. “And you must be?”

“Nobody important,” answered Sir Scarlet – or Yoongi – gruffly. “He pinned me up here!”

“Good, then that should keep you from running away.” The two men invited themselves in, and the one with black hair set the tray of food down on the nightstand beside the bed. The taller one, a sandy-haired brute in a sapphire blue cloak, approached Jimin with a friendly look in his eyes. When he smiled, two dimples formed on both sides of his cheeks. Something about his stance and gaze gave Jimin the impression that he must be brimming with wisdom and knowledge.

Kashmere hovered protectively in front of the prince, ready to spring into action should any of the strangers act aggressively. Jimin kept a hand on his tail just in case.

“Hello. I’m Namjoon, and that’s Hoseok,” he inclined his head towards his midnight-haired friend. “Did he try to attack you?” he asked gently, pointing a thumb at Sir Scarlet, who was, by all means, still strapped to the wall and was still jostling to break free.

“Yes,” Jimin answered distractedly. He worried that the pale-skinned man would have rope burns against his skin should he keep those actions up. With a flick of his hand, the vines wrapped around Yoongi slowly loosened, withdrawing its grip, and gently set him back down on the floor. The man sank to a crumpled heap, but Hoseok rushed forward to catch him.

Namjoon seemed genuinely impressed by his show of power. “Let me guess – plant control?"

“Earth elemental,” Jimin corrected. “I take it as you are the friends he speaks of?”

The man nodded tentatively. “I guess so? Listen, on his behalf, I would like to apologize for his actions. Forgive him; he’s a troglodyte who can’t deal with strangers as charming such as yourself.”

(“The fuck?” Yoongi complained.)

Namjoon ignored him. “Did you get hurt somewhere?”

Jimin shook his head.

“Good. Now if you don’t mind my asking… who are you and how did you get here?”

“He is Your-“ Kashmere started pompously.

Jimin grabbed the servant-pet by the mouth to muffle his words, and kept him locked in his embrace despite the cat’s wriggling. He considered telling them his real title, but decided against it. “My name is Jimin. And um, I got in through the window.”

Namjoon blinked, and if he was surprised at the prospect of somebody breaking into the palace through the window, he tried not to show it. Jimin marveled at how, without knowledge of his royal status, none of the three had called for the palace guards with reports of an intruder yet. “Oh? Why?”

“I heard news of your arrival, and I have questions that needed to be answered urgently, but your friend hasn’t been very helpful. I promise I mean no harm!”

“Well, perhaps I could try answering some of those queries.”

A small gasp of delight escaped Jimin’s lips. But it was quickly wiped away by Yoongi’s next words.

“Namjoon, stop fraternizing with the enemy. We’re leaving right now.”

“No – wait!” Jimin cried out, the most ridiculous and reckless idea forming in his head. “If you’re leaving, take me with you.”

“What?” Four voices – including Kashmere’s – sputtered simultaneously. They gaped at him with a mixture of bafflement and shock, as if he had just said the most ridiculous thing ever. Which was probably true; in their eyes, he was probably just a mere stranger who had come barging in unannounced, and had the audacity to tie up their friend with his magic.

Jimin himself had no idea what made him say it, but he pressed on. “Please.”

The raven-haired man – Hoseok – was the first to break the astonished silence. But he did not address Jimin’s request. Instead:

“No can do, Yoongi. We’ve promised an audience to the King at first light tomorrow. The Duke is holding us to it,” he said carefully. Jimin’s ears perked up – so he was right. The three guests had not spoken with his father yet. “We can’t just go. The Valkyries are standing guard around the palace.”

At the mention of Valkyries, Yoongi clenched his fists and growled, “Where’s Azka? I’ll have a word with her and we’ll set off at once.”

“If you’re talking about the pretty lady who brought us here, she departed after leaving us with the Duke,” Namjoon shared.

“Which you wouldn’t know, because you were out of it.” Hoseok rolled his eyes and placed his hands on his hips. “Seriously Yoongi, what’s wrong? First the fainting, then you wake up hating everything and everyone. I don’t understand. Why the rush to leave?”

When the redhead did not respond and stubbornly stared at a spot on the wall, Hoseok sighed and turned to Jimin. “I’m sorry you had to face him first.”

The prince shook his head, slightly dazed and unsure of what was happening. Still, he persisted with his own purposes. “S-so why were you called by the King? Are you all voyagers? Will you let me go with you?”

“Whoa, slow down,” Hoseok held his hands up in an act of surrender, winking at Jimin. “One at a time. Why do you seem to have the notion that we’re travellers?”

“Your…accents…”

“Fair enough. How did you come to know of our presence here? We’ve only just arrived a short while ago.”

It was strange, that Jimin was the one being questioned instead of the other way round. He was royalty, after all; nobody dared question the Elven Prince’s actions. But under the heavy, watchful gazes of his company, he felt rather inclined to explain himself. “I have my sources. I’m… an apprentice… of sorts in the palace. And I’m looking for something.” Or someone.

“Well, then I’m sorry to burst your bubble, kid,” Yoongi finally voiced out sarcastically. His jaw was set, as if he was barely holding himself back from lashing out angrily. “But we’re not what you imagined. We didn’t come here of our own accord, and we’re certainly not staying. You’ve wasted a lot of time – yours and ours – and effort in coming here, but we don’t offer charity help to deadweight such as yourself. I don’t know what you are, pixie or magi or whatever, but you should go back to where you came from. So get out.”

…What? Get out?

“Yoongi-“ Namjoon began.

“Out.” Yoongi pointed at the window, eyes hard. “Either he leaves, or I do, Namjoon. If you want me to stay here to speak with that King, then you will leave me alone. All of you.”

This time, his two comrades did not object. Hoseok looked at Jimin with an apology in his eyes, and Namjoon could only bite his lower lip and frown.

Jimin felt as if a freezing bucket of ice had been dumped mercilessly over his head. He was unwelcome here. In his own palace! It was absurd, but it hurt to be turned away like this. These people were just strangers, barely even acquaintances, but the rejection stung nonetheless even though it shouldn’t. His heart was a cushion being poked by a thousand tiny pinpricks. He turned away, blinking back the tears gathering at the corners of his eyes.

They hadn’t even bothered to listen to the reason behind his request.

But then again, why would they?

Shrinking himself in size came easy, for he already felt small enough. He didn’t even care that he was morphing right in front of a bunch of strangers. Shame at his own reckless behaviour made him want to disappear, and as he climbed to the top of Kashmere’s head, he buried his face in his servant-pet’s soothing white fur. Kashmere hissed and screeched cattily at the trio, before whisking him away and out of the room, into the cold night air that nipped bitterly at his cheeks.

It was not until he was back in his own royal chambers, ready to be dressed into his sleeping attire, that his fingers felt around his collarbones and Jimin realized that his necklace was gone.

 


 

 

“Drink this,” Hoseok urged. He handed Yoongi the bowl of broth that he had brought for him, which had now gone lukewarm. “You’re so stubborn. You didn’t have to turn down the kid like that.”

Yoongi only harrumphed in responce, but accepted the soup nonetheless. “I meant it when I said I wanted to be left alone,” he said in a clipped tone, glancing pointedly at the door.

“Fine by me,” Hoseok said with a smirk. “I can go explore the kitchens or strike up a conversation with a fair maiden or two.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Namjoon looked at him in surprise. “We’re free to roam around?”

“Nah, but since when did I ever follow the rules?”

“Terrible… you reckon there’s a library somewhere?” As the two rose to leave, they closed the door behind them, leaving Yoongi to revel in his solitude in the dark.

The fire weaver’s shoulders sagged as the tension eased out of him. He was a wreck, that much he knew. What just happened? He had half a mind to hurry outside and join his comrades, to scour their surroundings and see for himself that he was indeed in Diadra, the Kingdom of Elves, that none of this was some fucked up nightmare. But he stayed firmly seated on the edge of the bed and focused on evening out his breathing. He had to diffuse all that anger out of his system.

The same anger that had caused him to mindlessly attack a maybe innocent elf.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, a more rational part berated himself for lumping in the entire Elven race into one, generic image of “the enemy” instead of adopting a more impartial attitude. But it was hard for him to simply consider otherwise. Not after everything that happened all those years ago.

You see, it was in the self-preserving nature of people that when, say, a dragon attacked them, they would naturally develop a sort of fear or hatred for dragon of all kinds, regardless of whether they’d only been attacked by one specific anomaly.

But you weren’t attacked, were you? Not then. Not now.

It occurred to him, at that moment, that he hadn’t even thought of lighting a single flame against his uninvited visitor. Jimin.

What sort of fire caster was he, that he should stay so defenseless in front of a damned…pixie? He couldn’t believe he’d allowed himself to be so vulnerable. If he was going to be so helpless, then it was better for him to stay down in the Realm of Monsters. Where he couldn’t hurt anybody. Where he couldn’t be hurt.

But if he were to be completely honest with himself, for some strange reason, he hadn’t felt threatened enough to use his magic against that silly elf, even as he was bound by those awful vines against the wall. Yoongi glowered at the vines as if they were the cause of all his misery. They hung there, limp and lifeless without the boy’s magic.

Yoongi set them on fire and roasted them to a crisp.

This is all your fault, elf.

Feeling slightly better, he craned his neck to loosen his muscles, and that was when he noticed it.

A metal pendant on the cold floor, glinting amidst the shadowy darkness.

No, more like glowing. It radiated a luminescent sandstone hue, and the brilliance faded out and flared up like a steadily beating heart. Yoongi hesitantly inched towards it; half afraid it might suddenly move or blow up. Neither of that happened, however, so he squatted down and stared at it, transfixed.

The pendant was a gleaming crescent moon-shaped charm on a silver chain, and in its center was a tiny orb – the source of the light. Upon closer inspection, Yoongi could see wisps of yellow, brown and orange swirling around inside the orb like floating ribbons. The necklace couldn’t have been larger than his thumb.

It probably belonged to that elf, and had come off during their little tussle, because the clasp on the chain was broken.

With a nonchalant shrug, Yoongi picked up the necklace by the chain, and casually pocketed it. Hey, if he could rob graves, then what was one measly little elf? He figured he’d sunken low enough, so there really was no need for trivial things like shame.

Yoongi didn’t catch a wink of sleep that night. Not that he wanted to; he was only as safe as his consciousness allowed him. The hours passed by painstakingly slowly, and with a resigned sigh, he settled for looking out over the window – the same one in which the intruder had climbed – and watched the nickel-silver moon, hanging in the sky like a wolf’s claw. Eerily similar to the one in his pocket. He imagined it talking to him.

I see you, the moon taunted, I saw everything that night.

And you will not tell a single soul, he thought almost pleadingly.

I will not. But secrets, the moon remarked coyly, cannot be kept forever, child.

Yoongi blinked and snapped out of his reverie. Fuck, he was going insane. Talking to the actual moon? What was he, an infant? Must be the lack of sleep, he rationalized.

He held no ounce of faith in deities, let alone the gods that damned him, but a small, fragile part of him wanted to believe that perhaps the moon could be his ally.

And when the sun finally peeked out over the faraway hills in the horizon and Yoongi was called by a chambermaid, he kept two fingers crossed behind his back, with a fervent wish in his heart of hearts for the moon to keep his secrets from spilling in front of the Elven King.

Chapter Text

“Kash, you will never believe the wildest dream I had last night.” Jimin raised his arms and allowed his personal servants to disrobe him to get him dressed for the day. “I dreamt that I was attacked by an enigmatic stranger after I climbed up his tower room, and he spoke in a gravelly voice and smelled of burnt leaves. It felt so real, and you would’ve fooled me if you said right now that it was.” He chuckled with a slight shake of his head.

The intermingling scents of candlewick and cedar, of woodsmoke and an inexplicable… wildness from the stranger had come off so vividly in Jimin’s dream that he could’ve sworn he must have carried his imagination into reality upon waking up this morning. And oh, the danger… it was almost as if he remembered details instead of dreaming them.

He cast an expectant glance at his pet-servant, thinking Kashmere would laugh and dismiss the notion. But the catfolk, who had been prowling over his dresser table only moments prior, came to a complete halt, and stared at him with a stricken expression.

“Are you alright, Kash? You look like a golem, frozen in place like that,” he quipped cheerfully. He inhaled deeply and tilted his face to bask in the warm sunlight streaming in through his balcony. Such fine weather for a fine morning!

Kashmere’s his whiskers were stiff, his mouth agape. “Your Highness…”

“Hmm? What is it?”

“You don’t remember?”

“Remember what?” The servants finished dressing him in his usual royal attire – a pristine white doublet over form fitting pants and polished black boots, cloaked by a deep emerald green robe with silver-lined patterns of a crescent moon encircled by swirls of stars — Diadra’s royal insignia. It made his robe shimmer like galaxies spread out over a lush, dense forest.

“Everything from last night…”

Jimin snorted. “What, are you trying to tell me all of it was real?” He shook his head as if to disperse the thought, but then froze. It took a moment for his pet-servant’s words to sink in, and when they did, Jimin’s whole world seemed to pause. The sun stopped shining. The breeze coming in through the balcony stilled dramatically. In the far distance, the faint sound of glass cracking.

“Wait, you mean to say all of it was real? That everything – my dream – it all happened last night?” Jimin enunciated slowly as a pair of stormy, catlike eyes flashed across his mind. “Truly?”

Kashmere’s uncomfortable silence was affirmation enough.

The elf’s eyes widened into saucers and he raised a hand to cover the almost-unnatural, otherworldly gasp that escaped his full lips. He felt his heart drop to the floor as the dream — no, memories! — from last night came rushing back to him like a giant flood. He remembered the stranger’s veiny fingers holding him down in a tight chokehold, the violent terror that gripped him in his momentary helplessness, his own pleas for them to listen to his request…

Jimin perched shakily on the edge of his bed to recover from the flaming surge of humiliation that rocketed through his very being. “Holy moondust, Kash.”

His pet-servant nodded sympathetically. “Yes, Your Highness.”

“I. Can’t. Believe. I. Did. That.” Jimin bit back the urge to shriek and flail around wildly, knowing his father would frown upon “such unprincely acts”.

“Neither can I. But it’s alright.”

“It’s embarrassing, that’s what.”

“At least you weren’t alone in your greatest moment of stupidity. I was there.”

Jimin pouted. The potted marigolds and tulips peppered across his windowsill drooped. Out of habit, his hand reached for the space between his collarbones, which now felt bare and empty without the familiar weight of his moonstone. He winced and hoped he hadn't dropped the necklace somewhere during the flight back to his quarters the night before. Because if he’d left it with the foreigners… he shuddered thinking about facing them again, especially since one of them seemed to hate him with a passion. “Well, I shall just revel in the knowledge that I probably won’t ever have to see them again.”

At this, his pet-servant gulped nervously. Jimin’s face fell.

No. No way. “Don’t tell me. My first appointment of the day is…?”

Kashmere looked genuinely sorry for him. “A private meeting with King Alfius… and the guests.”

The Elven Prince palmed his forehead, trying to calm the sickening lurch in his stomach. “Noooo…” he moaned miserably, covering his reddening cheeks with his hands. “How will I ever face them?”

With a sigh, his pet-servant flew over to his side to pat comforting circles in his back. “There, there, Prince Jimin,” Kashmere purred. “Don’t worry. Once again, I’ll be with you for this one, so if any of those barbarians decide to attack you again, I’ll definitely claw their eyeballs out!”

It wasn’t exactly the risk of danger that Jimin was anxious about — any conference with the King would surely be heavily guarded; the Council would see to that. No, his concerns were far from the threat of being tackled to the ground again. Call him shallow, but it was the fact that he was going to have to show himself as this kingdom’s Prince, after so desperately begging a group of strangers to whisk him away from his own kingdom, that bothered him the most. So much for hiding his identity.

Seeming to read his mind, Kashmere said, “If I were you, I would’ve let them know who I was from the start. That ought to teach them to show some respect. They’re going to find out one way or another, anyway.”

Chewing on his lower lip, Jimin replied, “I never considered that. I just wanted them to let their guard down so they would talk to me without pretenses.”

“And did you find the information you were looking for?” Kashmere prodded on. Jimin knew he was waiting for him to say that yes, you were right, and I should have listened to you the first time.

“No.” The prince pursed his lips into a tight line. “It was a stupid move. However,” He puffed his chest up and stood. “I will not let humiliation deter me from my duties. There are more pressing issues to attend to, like the trouble with Yggdrasil. I myself am curious as to what’s been happening, and it seems that this talk with Father will shed light on the matter. Let’s go.”

 


 

 

The Mirror Palace was a massive fortress of towering spires and vaulted domes that stood on the edge of a cliff, overlooking a crystalline sea that went on and on for ages. On an especially good day, when nary a speck of cloud dotted the magnolia sky and the sun could shine its golden rays straight down upon Diadra’s evergreen lands, the palace sparkled. It reflected prisms of light to the naked eye, making itself look like a natural landscape of the elements rather than an artificial structure. Hence the namesake. It was an ethereal sight to behold, and legend says that it was a castle born into existence by the blessing and grace of the gods themselves.

In the middle of the palace was a grand golden room with a vaulted ceiling, only slightly smaller than the throne room, where discussions and meetings with the Royal Council usually took place. It was here that Hoseok and his crew were escorted and told to wait, so they took it upon themselves to sit around the huge circle table in the middle of the room. The table’s edges were rimmed with teak wood, while the rest of it was made of glass.

The fascinating thing about this table was that the glassy part seemed to project translucent holograms out of thin air. Right before Hoseok’s very eyes, small but lifelike images of a group of Elves soundlessly moved and floated about in the middle of the table. They formed a small circle and knelt around a tiny illusion of the moon, their hands outstretched over their heads as if to catch something. The necromancer stared at all of this with an expression of utmost bewilderment.

“Let me just get this straight,” he finally voiced out. He pointed at the moving figures. “These… aren’t spirits, right? I’m not hallucinating?”

“No,” Namjoon said, leaning over to study the moving pictures closely. “It seems that Diadrans have mastered a type of art, or technology, that allows moments to be… recorded and projected using glass. Curious and curiouser. But in case you were wondering, this illusion shows the Elven folk performing a ritual during their Twelfthmoon Harvest Festival, the only time of the year where they believe Mother Celeste is closest to Diadra, and will be able to bless them with her rare moonstones.”

“Great. Thanks for the lecture, Master Namjoon. I desperately needed that,” the necromancer deadpanned with a mock bow.

The sorcerer shrugged. “I’m just sharing what I’ve read. Elves are an extremely religious folk.”

Letting out a low whistle, Hoseok drummed his scheming fingers over the table. “But can you imagine? If we could learn this imaging technique and turn it into some form of trade, we’d be stinkin’ rich.”

“Or stinking dead somewhere in Helheim. I don’t think the Diadrans would approve of your methods.”

“We could steal this table. I bet it can fit into that bottomless inventory of yours.”

“I don’t think the Diadrans would approve of that, either.”

Hoseok rolled his eyes at Namjoon and muttered, “Prude.”

He cast a sidelong glance at Yoongi. Since this morning, the flame weaver barely made a sound, and right now he looked like he was about to be sick, all green in the face like mushy peas. Based on his borderline shady behavior since arriving in the Elven Kingdom, Hoseok had developed a little theory of his own: Yoongi must be allergic to Elves. Either that or vegetables, seeing as how this world was practically a life-sized broccoli. There was no other possible explanation.

“Yoongi, I’m saying this as a friend, but in case you ever feel like resting your head, feel free to lean on my shoulder,” Hoseok offered with an understanding smile.

The fire caster glared at him.

“Geez, fine. You two are killjoys, I swear.” Adieu, patience and understanding, for this world is a cruel, cruel place.

Hoseok himself was nervous, what with being teleported to an entirely different world from the fucking Realm of Monsters – which since yesterday he hadn’t even known was possible to get out of – without even knowing why. So Yggdrasil was in danger; that much he knew, and he got that, he truly did… but what did it have to do with him? Or any of them, at all?

As it turned out, they wouldn’t have to wait any longer to find out, because at that moment, a palace servant opened the double arched doors and announced, “All rise to greet His Majesty, Your Royal Highness, King Alfius and his son, Prince Jimin.”

A slender man, tall and fair-skinned, with pale blond tendrils of hair that fell to his waist strode regally into the room. He was dressed in thick fabrics of gold and jade, with an elaborate design of a crescent moon and stars on the back of his cloak which trailed after him on the floor. He held his head high, and his presence alone commanded attention and respect; despite not being the type to take authority very seriously, Hoseok felt inclined to stand up and maybe even actually bow his head in a show of submission.

On second thought, scratch that. This necromancer would never bow his head to anyone. Over his dead body.

But it wasn’t the King that captured his attention the most. No, it was his son, the boy who walked into the room just behind him, all regal and graceful just like how a Prince should be.

Hoseok’s eyes widened. What was that familiar, cascading locks of silver-blond hair? That lithe form and lively brown eyes and strong jawline? They’d only spent a few moments with him, ten minutes at most, but this person… this Prince Jimin

It was the kid from last night.

Well then.

With a wry groan, Hoseok’s head swiveled to face Yoongi, whose entire posture had gone rigid upon seeing the Prince. “N’aww, sweet mother of Thor. Yoongi, you’re fucked.”

 


 

 

Jimin wasn’t sure whether he should smirk or giggle or scamper away under the heated, flabbergasted gazes of their guests. They were gawking at him as if he’d grown a dragon’s head. What was he supposed to do, hold up his arms and say, You got me, I’m the Prince, surprise?

So he opted for a blank expression, and kept his gaze on the wall until his father spoke.

“Please, sit down, gentlemen,” King Alfius’ voice echoed mellifluously, as if he were coaxing a child to eat his vegetables rather than addressing a group of ruggamuffins. Although his bare and hairless face made him look young for his age, the glint in his eye spoke of ancient wisdom. The king settled down on a velvet armchair, with Jimin to his right.

To the rest of Diadra, he was His Majety, King Alfius, fair ruler and decision-maker of the kingdom. But to Jimin, he was simply Father, the man who’d painstakingly raised him alone with his big, warm heart and tried his best to hone him to become the future king of Diadra someday. The man whose laugh lines showed whenever the corners of his eyes crinkled from smiling too hard. He was rain that watered dry, thirsty land. He was the fire that warmed his people’s homes. He was knowledge and power and kindness incarnate.

There was a reason why the prince simply couldn’t believe that the King would bring in a bunch of dirty sinners, even though the rumors from his servants said otherwise. During his briefing before the meeting, Kashmere had told him they were from the Realm of Monsters. The jail of the Nine Worlds.

Because even if they weren’t completely innocent folk, surely there must be a very good reason why they were here.

“I hope you’ve found the accommodation satisfactory?” King Alfius said, eyebrows raised expectantly.

He was met by silence. It seemed that the trio was not yet being finished being stunned by the sudden reveal of Jimin’s royal status, for their eyes followed the prince’s every move.

“Ah, yes. The Prince has always been handsome,” the king’s voice boomed good-naturedly, placing a warm hand over Jimin’s shoulder. “He takes after me, after all!”

The cloaked young man cleared his throat. “Uh, allow me to introduce ourselves. My name is—“

“Namjoon, Hoseok and Yoongi. I know.” As he spoke the last name, King Alfius’ gaze landed on the redhead.

The young man in question narrowed his eyes, but Jimin didn’t miss the way his shoulders lifted up with tension. He seemed… visibly nervous.

“I’m glad Azka found you and brought you here. I didn’t expect there your friends would be coming along, but the more the merrier, am I right?” King Alfius gave a hearty laugh.

None of the three seemed very amused.

“Look, with all due respect,” said Hoseok, sending the King an ireful look, “I’m not really sure what Elves do in their free time, but I don’t think you’ve summoned us here for merrymaking, did you? And I’m fairly certain that I’m not the only one who is confused as to why you’ve asked for us. Why are we here?”

At this, the king noticeably sobered up, and a newfound mask of hardness and worry etching into his features. All traces of crocodile humor all but faded from his eyes. “You must be very curious and puzzled, indeed. I’ll have you know that bringing you here was not a choice, but a last resort.” His steely grey eyes studied each young man solemnly. “Don’t think I don’t know who you are, and what you’ve done.”

The trio squirmed uncomfortably in their seats. Except maybe Yoongi – the man seemed to have turned to stone completely. Jimin wondered if he was still breathing.

King Alfius’ gaze snapped to Namjoon. “The Destroyer.” Then to Hoseok, who gulped. “Harbinger of Death.” Finally, his eyes settled back on Yoongi. “The Phoenix.”

Jimin’s mouth twitched. What did those aliases mean? He felt like a stranger on the outside prying his way into a group of longtime friends who already had pre-established inside jokes amongst themselves.

The necromancer snorted. “Harbinger of Death? Seriously? Look, it’s a long story—”

“But I’m not here to discuss your crimes, however grave they might be that they should warrant you a place among the monsters,” King Alfius interjected wearily.

Hoseok blinked.

“There is something threatening the very foundation of our worlds,” the king continued. “But first, in order to make you understand everything like you want, let me start from the very beginning.”

Jimin closed his eyes and listened to his father’s soothing voice as he narrated a story that the he’d heard countless enough times to know by heart. His lips mouthed off the words he’d long since committed to memory:

“Long ago, before the time of the Nine Worlds, there existed only three dimensions,” King Alfius started, a faraway look in his eyes.

Asgard, the Realm of The Skies. Home of the deities.

Midgard, the Mortal Realm. The human world. Or Earth, as its inhabitants fondly called it.

Helheim, the Underworld.

“And at the center of it all was Ybrahim, Creator and Maker. The beginning of all. But Ybrahim was a lonely deity who wished to pass down his legacy, and so under his wing he took in two protégés—“

“Odin and Zeus,” whispered Namjoon reverently, eyes rapt.

The king nodded.

Two students, both wise and powerful, but with very different views and mindsets.

Odin, the god of wisdom and healing, advocated peace and security. On the other hand, Zeus, the sky and thunder god, was more adventurous and open to… uncharted forms of experimentation to create a perfect world.

“’A better world’, he always urged,” quoted the king. “’For the betterment of allkind.’ Ybrahim, sensing this desire, gave a task for the two of them: he challenged the duo to create their own version of a perfect world.

“And so create they did. Zeus, together with his ally Poseidon, the god of the seas, consolidated the curiosities of the waters to create Aquatica, a strange blue world rampant with the most exotic creatures. Odin was less hasty – he took his time to learn the coveted art of rune magic, and using his newfound knowledge, etched his first runes in to the loamy earth that birthed the first of the elven race. Odin’s magic and earnest heart gave rise to Diadra.” King Alfius’ apprehensive façade cracked to give way to the smallest of proud smiles. “The Kingdom of Elves.”

Jimin watched the faces of their visitors intently. Namjoon’s face was a picture of pure awe, Hoseok looked mystified, and Yoongi… well, he looked like he’d just swallowed a really sour piece of lemon.

It struck the elf for the first time that he didn’t even know if these people had gifts or powers of their own. They must have, otherwise his father would’ve had no reason to seek them out, right?

He would find out soon enough.

“Ybrahim found that he liked both worlds equally, and so he posed yet another challenge to Odin and Zeus,” continued King Alfius. His expression turned grim. “Unfortunately, from then on, everything became a competition between the two students.”

The Elven King stood up and made a sweeping motion over the center of the table, over which the silent tableau that had previously been showing the Twelfthmoon Harvest ritual stopped and vanished into thin air. The hologram then shifted and transformed into a new picture of two seedlings.

Jimin knew what it referred to. It was history, after all.

To overcome his indecisiveness, Ybrahim had given his protégés one seedling each, and assigned them the simple task of planting and growing it. His aim had been to determine who had the aptitude to nurture and raise communities of thousands, as represented by the seedling. With much gusto, Odin and Zeus set about their missions to impress their mentor. Just like before, Zeus’ seedling grew at an incredible speed, and turned into a majestic cypress tree. However, its branches were frail, its trunk bare, and the cypress easily withered in the long run.

Meanwhile, Odin continued his pursuit of knowledge, and learned to harness the power of the heavenly bodies into celestial magic. Together with his runic incantations, he added small doses of celestial magic into the watering can he used to pour over his seedling.

“The seedling grew,” said King Alfius, “-slowly but surely, into what we know today as the Tree of Life. Yggdrasil, our world tree.”

“B-but how could it stand for so long?” Namjoon sputtered.

The Elven King sent him a wry smile. “This is where creation went downhill. Ybrahim, duly impressed by the strong tree that Yggdrasil had grown to be, decided that Odin was the student he could place his trust on. And he did so, by passing down knowledge of the most powerful force in allkind.”

Hoseok gasped theatrically. “Love?”

“No.” There was that glint in the king’s eyes again. “Aether.”

“What’s that?” the necromancer asked.

“An ancient, nearly obsolete form of celestial magic. Borne of the heavenly bodies, empowered by runes, and blessed by an unknown element,” Jimin piped up for the first time. All eyes in the room turned to him, and he could feel heat creep up his cheeks. “Nobody knows for sure how it’s manifested, but aether is the life-force that keeps our worlds going.”

The King nodded. “Upon receiving aether, Odin infused Yggdrasil with in, and ‘til today, the World Tree lives on, and continues to give life. Asgard, Midgard, Helheim, Diadra, Aquatica, Ingen, Nilflheim, The Deserted Isles and the Realm of Monsters. These are the realms that make up the cosmos of the Nine Worlds, upheld by our Yggdrasil. Such is the tale of our creation.” He waved his arm over the circular table once more, and up came an illusion of the majestic Tree of Life itself – thick trunks, golden leaves, branches looping in and out of one another in a never-ending entwine.

“I don’t see the point of all this,” a slightly hoarse voice finally went up and ricocheted around the room. From the corner of Jimin’s eyesight, he saw Yoongi lean back in his seat and raise an eyebrow at the king. “All you’ve done so far is give us a history lesson, but I don’t see how we come into the picture.”

“Patience is a virtue, neio,” King Alfius rebuked lightly, and Yoongi gritted his teeth at being addressed as a boy – and in the Elvish tongue, no less. “While all of this was happening, Ybrahim failed to take into account Zeus’ position. Zeus, who felt the bitter sting of rejection like the stab of a sharp knife. Zeus, who suffered the humiliation of having his tree wilt and wither. He never once voiced out that he, too, wanted a part in Ybrahim and Odin’s new dimension.

“Thousands of years passed. Zeus’ jealousy grew. He distanced himself from Odin and Ybrahim to befriend other gods and goddesses. Meanwhile, with the power of aether, Odin created more worlds – Nilfheim, Ingen, and The Deserted Isles.”

Namjoon said, “And what of the Realm of Monsters?”

“The Realm of Monsters was created by Zeus in his ungodly moments of despair and loneliness,” King Alfius answered. “Over time, his jealousy morphed into envy, and envy, my gentlemen, is a dangerous and virulent snake.”

Another sweeping motion of his arm, and the image of the Yggdrasil disintegrated to make way for that of a giant, lumbering snake with molting grey skin, fangs as long as an elephant’s husks, and ferocious, flashing red eyes.

“This is Nidhogg,” explained the king. “A venomous creature borne of Zeus’ envy, and legend tells stories of him nibbling on the roots of Yggdrasil. For what purpose, we don’t know. That is, we didn’t…until now.”

“Why? What did he do?” Hoseok pressed on, leaning forward.

“You mean what he didn’t do,” corrected King Alfius. “You see, over time, the feelings of animosity that grew between Odin and Zeus only worsened, and eventually culminated into an all-out, raging, battle.”

The Great War of Deities. A prolonged and exhausting armed struggle between Odin and Zeus, as well as their respective allies. The light in the king’s eyes dimmed. Jimin bristled, because he knew that his father was reliving the horrors of the bloodbath he’d managed to survive barely twenty years prior. Jimin had been but a toddler, but none of the bloodshed had taken place on Diadra, for which he was grateful. His kingdom had come out untainted.

“To end the war, Ybrahim had no choice but to send away one of his most beloved students. So Zeus, together with his supporters and comrades, had to leave the dimension of the Nine Worlds without ever returning.”

Namjoon nodded slowly, trying to digest everything all at once. “So that’s why there was hardly any mention of him in books and texts I’ve read before…”

“History is in the hands of the victors; and victors get to decide what stories get told,” King Alfius sighed. “In this case, Zeus had no say.”

Yoongi scoffed and crossed his arms. “The gods seem awfully good at that. Casting people out.”

“Wait, but where did Zeus and his people go?” Hoseok scratched his head. “And what about Nidhogg? Thou art speaketh no sense! Explain thyself, I beg your pardon!”

Namjoon reached over and smacked him lightly in the head.

“As I was saying,” King Alfius continued. “What Nidhogg The Serpent didn’t do…was leave this dimension with Zeus and his clan. After all, he was a separate entity of his own. A whole other being who took no sides during the Great War. And so he stayed, slithering along the roots of Yggdrasil. But due to the fact that he was born into existence out of Zeus’ emotions, a part of him would always somehow remain resentful of Yggdrasil. Hence the, uh… unorthodox habit of nibbling at the Tree’s roots. Niddhogg, for the most part, was harmless.”

Namjoon cocked his head to one side. “Was?”

“Until one day, he suddenly wasn’t.” A frown marred the king’s brow, and an uneasy knot twisted in the pits of Jimin’s stomach from the next words he heard:

“Nidhogg has done the impossible. He has stolen aether.”

 


 

 

Yoongi felt rather than saw the Elven Prince gasp at the revelation.

“That can’t be,” protested Jimin, who’d stood up with eyes the size of the moon. “How? A mere animal—

“It wasn’t a job done alone, Jimin,” said his father resignedly. “Not with the amount of magic in Nidhogg’s body. That snake may be ferocious to look at, but he is too weak to contain such a overpowering energy.”

“T-then how…?” the prince squeaked. Yoongi watched him struggle to grasp his head around the concept. Truth be told, even he himself was puzzled by the king’s words.

Aether being stripped away from its host body was absolutely unheard of. So how did it happen?

Or who could have made it happen, a voice whispered in the back of Yoongi’s mind.

“He was aided by Loki,” King Alfius shared. “Loki the Trickster; god of deceit, whose antics range from harmlessly mischievous to downright malicious.” He shook his head, clenching his palms into fists. “Although this time round, his little prank has crossed the line and put the entire dimension in peril. And now, without aether, Yggdrasil is withering.”

“Can’t the gods do something about it?” Namjoon asked. “Punish him?”

“As you may have already been told, the Asgard deities are nowhere to be found. It’s true. Odin and the rest of the clan…” King Alfius made a soft ‘poof’ sound, further demonstrated by his hands. “All gone. Without a trace. It is a big mystery; one that must be solved sooner than later.”

“W-where did they go?” the sorcerer sputtered.

“Nobody knows, but it must be connected to the disappearance of aether. And to solve the problem, we need to find Loki.”

“How are you so sure that this is Loki’s doing?” challenged Yoongi, doubt and suspicion pressing at the back of his skull. It didn’t seem very fair to him to pinpoint all the blame on someone just because he was known for being naughtier than most others.

King Alfius paused, and there was that spark in his eyes again. Yoongi recalled seeing the same look earlier, like the king had secrets to spill, things he knew that they didn’t. It set him on edge – his gut instinct was screaming for him to run away from the Elves, but he couldn’t act rashly, not when they were flanked on all sides by guards and Valkyries in the room. The hairs on his skin prickled at the thought of being so blatantly surrounded.

With a snap of the king’s fingers, the interior of the room around them vanished. Dissipated, like paint peeling off walls. Their surroundings were quickly replaced by the pulsing atmosphere of a rainforest, and suddenly, Yoongi was no longer standing on marble floor. Instead, he felt thick green grass underneath his feet. Overhead, the domed ceiling had turned into a canopy of rustling leaves, through which the morning sunlight streamed and warmed his bare face. In the far distance, a bird cawed.

Was this the King’s magic?

“Oh, great,” Hoseok quipped, whipping his head left and right to take in the new surroundings. “Tell me, is this another one of your stellar imaging mechanisms, or have we really been teleported to a different place?”

With a deep chuckle, King Alfius replied, “Oh, we are very much still inside the meeting room. We haven’t moved an inch, and yet we have travelled to a completely different plane of existence. This is Shivas, my place of quiet privacy, where nobody else can hear us. Not the guards, not the walls – they have ears, mind you – not even the plants.”

“Only the king can open this secret pocket of the Mirror Palace,” prompted Jimin. “I hope you understand that not a single word of whatever transpires here shall be breathed elsewhere.”

"Listen very carefully to what I am about to say.” The King inhaled deeply. “Loki lent Nidhogg the ability to steal aether, and then hid the snake to a place that no soul from the Nine Worlds has ever treaded.”

“Where?” the Elven Prince wrung his hands in worry.

“To the place where Zeus’ clan escaped to.”

Yoongi clucked his tongue in annoyance. “Like I said, where’s the proof that Loki did this?”

King Alfius raised his hand, and the air before him rippled and shimmered as a brown scroll materialized right before their very eyes, floating in the air for a second before landing into the king’s waiting palm. He brandished it between his fingers. “Because Loki said so. This is the Map of The Worlds, created by him. And it was addressed to me.” He unscrolled the parchment and handed it to Yoongi. “Read behind it.”

Turning the scroll over, Yoongi saw the words in ink as dark as night.

Nidhogg has returned to where he belongs. Come find us — the world of Zeus awaits.

The fire weaver glanced up from the scroll to meet the Elven King’s apprehensive eyes.

“To Loki, this is a game. And we have just become his pawns.”

Another stupefied silence, until Hoseok piped up, “Well, all I can say is this – Loki must have been really fucking bored.”

“It’s a mess,” Namjoon croaked. “I don’t get it – if Loki sought out Zeus and has gone to join him, then isn’t this an act of betrayal?”

“We don’t know his intentions or motivations,” the King responded. “We only know that he must be stopped.”

“What will happen if we don’t?” the necromancer asked fearfully. “No, wait. Don’t answer that. I don’t even want to imagine.”

“So,” Yoongi started pacing slowly, feeling grass rustle under his feet. For a moment, he forgot about his hatred, forgot that he was dealing with Elves. “What is your plan of action?”

King Alfius squared his shoulders and leveled him with an almost pleading look. “This is where you come in.” He turned to the three young men, and much to their surprise, lowered his head in the smallest of bows. “Please. I ask that you help us destroy Nidhogg, and return aether to Yggdrasil. Bring the Asgard gods back.”

Yoongi froze and gaped at him in disbelief. “Me?” He gestured towards the other two, who wore mirroring expressions. “Them? Us?”

“Yes. Yes, indeed.”

Never in his lifetime had Yoongi ever imagined that he would one day be bowed down to by no other than the King of Elves. It was unthinkable. It almost made him forget that these Elves were the very same species who’d pushed him to commit the sins that landed him in the Realm of Monsters, all those years ago.

Almost.

Yoongi’s eyes hardened. “Can I say no?”

“In this case?” Matching him wit by wit, King Alfius pretended to think deeply before uttering a serene, “No, I’m afraid not.”

“Why? Why me? Why any of us? You have royal guards to do your bidding. You could even ask the Valkyries to come to your aid!” Deep down, a small part of Yoongi feared that they were being chosen simply for their lack of worth – that nobody else was expendable or disposable enough apart from them. Perhaps other creatures were deemed too precious to send off on some wild goose chase to drag a rebellious god back home. Perhaps this was a suited only to for rats like them.

But a big part of him knew that that was not the case.

“You’re the only one in the Nine Worlds who can find where Zeus’ clan is.”

“Why do you say so?”

The Elven King’s golden eyes bore holes into his skull. “You know why.”

Yoongi did, he knew very well, and he so badly yearned to un-know his own existence, undo his state of being. He always wished he’d been born in a different skin, as someone Not Yoongi. But he could never deny himself, and every fiber of his being answered to the king’s calling, much to his chagrin. He knew who – what – he was, and he loathed it.

Jaw clenched, he rasped, “If we accept, what do we get in return?”

“Yeah,” agreed Hoseok with a little smirk, eyes flashing. “Do we get paid handsomely for this? I like my treasure in lump sum, you know.”

“No, not treasure,” Yoongi sent the necromancer a sharp look. “I don’t care for gold.” He marched towards the King and brandished his wrists in front of his face, where the silver runic bracelets dangled. “This. I want you to get rid of these shackles for us.”

King Alfius’ mouth parted and his brows shot up in surprise. “I believe the decision lies with the gods—“

“Fuck what they think, we’re saving their missing asses, aren’t we?” Yoongi hissed, patience waning. “The least they could do is reward us. If we succeed on this mission, I want to be freed.”

Freedom. What a concept. Years of imprisonment had hardened Yoongi’s heart so much so that the word had become all but a myth to him. Unreachable. But maybe not all hope was lost. If he could be free again… he dared not let himself think of the things he would do. The places he would see again. The people he would look for.

The Elven King was quiet for a long moment. Yoongi’s shoulders deflated. Of course he couldn’t be freed — it was a downed dream from the start. He was no elf, and so his life went outside of the king’s jurisdiction—

“I’m sure we can negotiate a compromise,” King Alfius finally said. It was the most he could offer. “If it reassures you, I will see to it that you travel unharmed.”

It wasn’t much, but it was something. Yoongi could live with that. “Then I need to be certain that you won’t go back on your word.”

The King’s gaze relaxed, and Yoongi was almost certain he was trying to humor him. “Ah, and how can I assure you that I won’t?”

“Easy.” He cocked his head in Jimin’s direction with a small smirk. “I will take the prince with me as collateral.”

It was a joke, made in jest. He’d mindlessly blurted it to poke fun and perhaps to rile the King up. He wasn’t blind. He’d seen the fondness in King Alfius’ eyes whenever he smiled at Jimin. He obviously adored his son. Call him petty, but Yoongi wanted to see those serene features distort into an irritated scowl. Him, a sadist? Perhaps.

The King would definitely decline anyway.

“Fine.”

Yoongi’s body went rigid.

“What?” Hoseok sputtered with wide eyes.

With a tight jaw and worry lines creasing his forehead, the Elven King agreed, “I will allow Prince Jimin to escort you on this journey.”

 


 

 

Unbeknownst to the four would-be wayfarers, in a different part of the cosmos, little… incidents had already begun occurring. Without the World Tree’s stabilizing force, the line separating one reality from the next was slowly blurring; the clear-cut boundaries between worlds starting to weaken. Fissures like pockets of air began to rip at the fabric that divided the worlds. It was reaching a point where a creature that belonged to one realm might simply… trip, and accidentally fall into another world without ever needing a portal. In the kingdoms teeming with magic, such abnormalities were still easy to miss.

But for a civilization that operated without magic? Well.

Those moments of aberration stuck out like a sore thumb.

“Did you see this morning’s news?”

“Yeah, fuck, man. It’s insane. Do you think it’s real?”

“Duh. I told you ogres are real. Respect Shrek, dude. I still can’t imagine how they dragged one out of Jeju island. You’d think whale sightings would be the norm.”

Even with specialized, soundproofing earphones blasting music into his ears, Jungkook could still hear the gossipy voices of his schoolmates jabbering off about the week’s latest shocking news. With a frustrated sigh, he pulled his red beanie over his ears in an attempt to block out any more noise, but of course that didn’t work.

“D’you reckon the angels will come get us soon?”

“For sure, bro. I swear I’m this close to joining a cult to repent for my sins. You should stop doing drugs and go home, too. Maybe they’ll be kinder to you.”

The incidents had started off small. Trivial. Normal, by human standards. A small hole in the middle of a busy Gangnam road? Probably just another reconstruction project. A shopping mall suddenly getting flooded overnight? The water piping must have burst.

But then, a few weeks ago, the Facebook community went wild when a video of a “flying horse” over Han River went viral and swept the nation by storm. The video was jarred and blurry, and the person recording it didn’t help matters by screeching like a hyena all the way ‘til the end, but it seemed genuine enough to cause massive public outcry. News media outlets slapped labels like “Unicorn Sighting” and “Bizarre Alien Activity” on the incident, and the hashtag #UnicornsAreReal trended worldwide on Twitter for fourteen hours straight.

Although naysayers and realists first cried phony, they were cruelly proven wrong just two weeks later, when a snow blizzard hit Seoul. In the middle of August.

After that, the world started keeping a keen, close eye on South Korea. Could this be where the apocalypse would start? Was this the trigger to the end of the world? Nobody knew, and it drove everyone mad. Priests scattered about the streets, preaching about salvation, as if last minute repentance could make up for a lifetime of wrongdoings. Every weird happening was given copious amounts of airtime and media attention. Every small thing became strange, and stranger. Even moreso than that Netflix show.

It unnerved Jungkook to no end. But at the same time, he felt relieved.

Maybe I’m not crazy after all.

You see, there was something about Jungkook that no other soul knew. Take the current situation, for example. Here he was, sitting in the cafeteria, trying to enjoy his lunch. Those two gossiping schoolkids? Were all the way in the library.

And yet Jungkook had heard them.

Ever since he could remember, he’d always had the ability to hear, see and smell much further than anybody else. He hadn’t realized how unnatural it was until he was ten years old. He complained about their neighbor, a married couple from four blocks away, because their lovemaking had been a tad too loud and kept him from falling asleep the night before.

The Big Sisters had stuttered and blushed and told him to go play with the other orphans upstairs.

As he grew up, Jungkook soon realized that it wasn’t them, it was him.

Voices. Voices in his head. They followed him around like dried pieces of gum stuck to his shoe. At first they drove him mad, but Jungkook eventually learned how to cope with his heightened senses. It was like mentally turning the knob of a volume toggle. He could easily drown the sounds out, if he tried hard enough.

But sometimes his ability came in handy, especially recently. He didn’t have to read the newspaper to stay updated on current affairs. He didn’t have to try too hard to ace his quizzes. He could just easily tune in to the raucous yammering that his ears picked up for some unintentional-but-deliberate eavesdropping. Of course, he tried not to do that too often.

There was a word in the Welsh language that referred to the feeling of deep longing, or homesickness, for a place that you can’t return to, or never was. Hiraeth.

Jungkook was all too familiar with the overpowering sensation of hiraeth, but he didn’t know why. Maybe it was his artistic side being all poetic and shit. Maybe he was just a really sentimental person.

Or maybe deep down inside, some part of him knew that he didn’t belong here.

But if not here, then where?

Chapter Text

Namjoon had always been fascinated with languages.

There was something about the Elves’ manner of speaking that rang differently in his ears. Their voices sang. Melodious and lilting, as if musical notes were finely woven into the satiny fabric of their strange, exotic tongue. Different from Commonspeak, their universal language. He watched with rapt attention as Prince Jimin and King Alfius traded words back and forth in Elvish. It was foreign and hypnotizing to listen to. He’d once read in a book that the voice was an instrument. Here was proof of it.

Had he known, then, that the prince and the king’s conversation was far from a harmonic chorus – more of a heated argument, really – then he might have thought it less the birdsong he’d mistaken it for. But he didn’t, and ignorance was bliss, so Namjoon continued to gaze in awe upon the two royals until Jimin visibly huffed in defeat and nodded curtly at his father.

“Fine,” the Elven Prince relented with a deep frown, switching back to Commonspeak. “But Kashmere must come along, too.”

His father smiled. “By all means.”

“Wait, no,” Yoongi protested gruffly, mild panic written all over his face. “He’s not- I didn’t mean to- fuck. He can’t come with us.” Namjoon heard his tone as more pleading than aggressive, and he instantly knew that Yoongi regretted gambling such a mindless jest in front of the Elven King. The fire weaver didn’t really want the Prince to come. But, alas, he’d dug his own grave, and now he was going to have to lie in it.

Sometimes, taunting fate could really result in a whole load of bad karma. Namjoon was secretly grateful he had a more tactful mouth.

King Alfius sent him a quizzical look. “And why not? My son is quick and talented. He is knowledgeable. Elves are natural survivors. He’ll be an asset to your little group.”

Yoongi shook his head disbelievingly. “This isn’t a joke.”

“And I’m not joking.”

“We’re not a bunch of babysitters-“

“Are you implying that the prince is incapable?” The Elven King’s nostrils flared. Beside him, Jimin glared daggers at Yoongi.

Uh-oh. Time to intervene. Namjoon held up two placating arms and quickly slid in between the tense group. “Now, now,” he said as soothingly as he could. “I’m sure we can come to a middle ground consensus about this.”

“No. We go on my grounds, or we don’t go at all,” Yoongi cut in dispassionately.

A streak of irritation made Namjoon’s eyes twitch. Why must you be so stubborn?

“Ah, that’s wholly unfortunate,” King Alfius remarked lightly, as if they were discussing something so trivial as breakfast choices. “I guess I’ll have no choice but to send you back to the Realm of Monsters, then.”

Beside him, Hoseok stifled a gasp. Small alarm bells pinged off in Namjoon’s head. He felt a weight settle on his heart. No! This was their chance to be free!

“I don’t want to.”

All heads turned to Namjoon in unison. He pursed his lips. Did he say that out loud?

Oh, well then.

He inhaled deeply. “I… don’t want to go back. Simple as that. The way I see it, life down in the Realm is not a life at all, Yoongi. It’s depressing and gloomy. The Lake of Regret has dried out, remember? Life is being drained as we speak, and there’s really nothing for us to return to.” He sighed. “Now that I’m out, I wish to stay… well, out. Surely I’m not the only one who feels this way. You want it too, don’t you? Freedom.”

Hoseok nodded vigorously. The flame caster clenched his fists until his knuckles turned white, silent.

“So why not? Throw away your inhibitions; look at the bigger picture. The King of Elves appealed to us for a reason, Yoongi, because we might truly be the only ones who can help them in this time of crisis. If we can reduce these people’s pain-“ Namjoon gestured an arm towards the Elves, “-even just down to ninety-nine, or ninety-eight, or ninety-seven percent, then doesn’t that make our existence worthy?”

He forced down the lump that had lodged itself in his throat. Worthy. When was the last time he felt that like that? He’d spent too many precious hours wasting away with the monsters. Maybe this was the time to finally make up for all the darkness he’d unleashed in the past. The time for redemption. Not forgiveness, he didn’t dare dream of that… but maybe redemption. Yes. That much seemed attainable.

Hoseok sighed dreamily at him. “My hero.”

Yoongi massaged the bridge of his nose, eyes shut tight as if trying to battle a colossal headache. Finally, with a deep sigh, he dropped his hand and turned away without so much as a grumbled hmmpf in response.

That was as much of a begrudging acceptance as they were going to get.

Namjoon’s heart soared, and he fought back a smile at this little victory. A time to redeem myself indeed. He glanced at Jimin, who looked conflicted, as if he couldn’t decide whether to be wowed by Namjoon’s speech or upset with his own current circumstances. But then again, the sorcerer recalled, he was practically begging us to take him away last night. People sure were contradictory.

“I take that as a yes,” quipped King Alfius with a triumphant little grin. To the rest, he said, “There’s someone you must find before you set out on your journey to destroy Nidhogg. There’s word of a rare celestial mage up in the mountains of Nilflheim. You must bring this person to Yggdrasil to heal it.”

Namjoon knit his brows. Heal?

“Or at least, slow down the World Tree’s deterioration process,” King Alfius added.

“What do you mean?” Hoseok inquired.

“Aether is a type of advanced celestial magic, remember?” the King prompted. “If we could get a celestial mage to do something about the Tree for the time being, then we could lessen-“

The king’s speech was cut off by an underground rumble that shook the ground beneath their feet, and the illusion of Shivas, and the green rainforest around them shattered like brittle glass. Namjoon drew up his arms to cover himself, expecting an onslaught of broken shards, but none came. The illusion seemed to have simply disintegrated and faded as quickly as it had appeared earlier. In a flash, they were back in the squeaky-clean conference hall, standing around the magical hologram table. Namjoon blinked, a little disoriented. An earthquake?

“…untimely disturbances such as these,” finished King Alfius, mouth set in a tight line. “As you’ve just witnessed, the lack of aether will slowly but surely upset the natural balance of things. Magic isn’t an infinite energy. It has a source, and that is our world tree. If Yggdrasil withers, each of the Nine Worlds will eventually perish.”

A long, miserable silence ensued as each young man tried to take in the gravity of the situation, and the mission that had just been thrust upon their shoulders. Namjoon’s thoughts reeled. Just what were they getting themselves into, really?

“This is really some end of the world shit,” Hoseok attempted at a shaky joke. “W-what if we fail?”

King Alfius studied him intently. “You won’t.”

Hoseok gulped.

You won’t, or you can’t? Namjoon wanted to add. He cleared his throat. “So uh, how do we find this celestial mage? How do we even know where to start?”

The King’s expression cleared, and he handed Namjoon the scroll he was holding. “I’ll entrust Loki’s Map of The Worlds to you. You’re a sorcerer, aren’t you? You may use it to travel.”

Namjoon’s eyes roamed over the broad, golden-brown paper. There was an inked illustration showing gigantic Yggdrasil, from its uppermost canopy of leaves all the way down to massive trunk and thick roots. Each of the Nine Worlds were located in correspondence to their hierarchy in the caste system, from Asgard on top of the page all the way to Helheim the Underworld at the very bottom, way below the Tree’s roots. Each world seemed to ebb and pulsate with a faint, glowing blue light, like it was alive. “Is this a portal map?”

The King hummed his confirmation. “You can summon portals, if I’m not wrong.”

He could, but… “Yes.” Namjoon nodded and rolled his shoulders back to feign composure, though his throat had gone dry. “What about aether? How do we bring it back?”

“Excellent question.” The King opened up his hand, and an ashen-white piece of jagged rock roughly the size of a fist materialized and hovered over his palm. “This is a moonstone that I will bequeath my son, Prince Jimin. I trust that you will take special care in handling this.” Turning to the three young men, he said, “Moonstones are the rarest and most valuable natural stones known to allkind. Do not underestimate its size for its ability to contain anima as enormous and all-consuming as aether.”

The prince nodded solemnly.

“Very well. I’ll have our servants prepare some supplies and food rations you could need. Jimin, make the preparations you have to. You will depart immediately. I’ll have the Valkyries escort you to the Cloud Express terminal.”

The Elven Prince opened his mouth as if to say something, but thought better and closed it, a determined stance taking over his posture. He tipped his head down and said quietly, “I will not disappoint you, Father.”

The King clapped his son in the back. “Be careful out there. Lori ipseja Molda Celestin ava theenivém. May Mother Celeste light the way in your darkest hours.”

He dismissed the meeting. With shaky fingers, Namjoon gathered the Map Of The Worlds in his hands and strode towards the doors, but the King’s voice boomed again.

“Namjoon.”

The sorcerer paused to glance back over his shoulder.

The Elven King smiled softly. “After all this is said and done, and should you return triumphant from this quest, I would like you to consider an offer of becoming an official spokesperson for the Royal Court.”

 


 

 

“You can come in now.”

Jungkook’s head snapped up as a nurse in a spotless white uniform emerged from the hospital ward to usher him in. Standing up, he slung his backpack over one shoulder and padded into the tiny room, trying to ignore the reek of disinfectant and dried sweat lingering in the air.

“Oppa!”

Now, usually Jungkook abhorred being called “oppa”, especially when it was an older woman deliberately using the term on him (what was it with his face that triggered the knee-jerk, must-coo reaction from ladies everywhere?), but this was a rare case. A special one. At the sound of that small, delighted squeal, his mouth spread into a wide, unrestrained grin.

He dropped his backpack beside the hospital bed. “Hi, Jiyeon.”

Little Jiyeon, all of eight years old, lay prone and still on the stiff, light blue mattress so as not to get tangled up in the spider web of transparent tubes poking her pale, pale skin and connected her body to the machines monitoring her condition – her breathing, her heart rate, everything. Her cropped black hair was splayed out and matted over a white pillow. Unlike the other patients, she didn’t have to lose her precious locks. They couldn’t afford the chemo.

She was small, and thin. So thin. Where was the pudgy, rosy-cheeked girl from just a few months ago? The one with a mischievous smile and restless feet? The back of Jungkook’s eyelids stung at the sight, and he tried not to let his smile falter. She’d lost so much weight since the last time he visited her.

Stage 4. That was the diagnosis after he and the Big Sisters rushed Jiyeon to the emergency room after the little girl had coughed up blood – oh, crimson had never been uglier – before losing consciousness. The tubes were patched up to her lungs to suck out fluids and prevent the organ from drowning itself and consequently cutting off her air supply. She was never allowed to go without it.

Eventually, the orphanage decided that Jiyeon could no longer stay with the other kids, so she was relegated to a stuffy, small hospital room that had definitely seen better days.

You’d think such young blood would let the life go out of her, give up like a defeated soldier. But Jiyeon was a fighter as brave as a lion. Jungkook held no doubt that whatever she lacked in physical strength, her soul and will compensated for. Her smile might be weak, but her eyes were clever and bright. Those same eyes regarded Jungkook eagerly now.

“So,” Jungkook said with a smile. “What do you want to hear about today? The alien dissection we did for biology class, or the pretty young enchantress who flirted with me in her potion shop at Myeongdong today?”

It was their little ritual – three times a week, he would visit Jiyeon to “impart knowledge and current affairs of the outside world” (her words, not his), and in his stories, Jungkook always felt obligated to spice up his boring life a little. While he didn’t want to admit it, he actually kind of enjoyed the little girl’s hero worship of him.

“Nah, not today,” Jiyeon chirped playfully, “Oppa, you’ve been debunked. I figured out the secret to your magic trick the other day.”

Jungkook smirked. “Oh, yeah? So how did I do it?”

“You didn’t make the cup levitate! You pasted it on your thumb! You think you could fool me? I’m sick, not blind.”

Cheeky little brat. With a small chuckle, Jungkook lifted his hands in a show of defeat. “Alright, kiddo. You got me there. But I really am a magician, you know.” He wriggled his eyebrows mysteriously.

Not an actual magician per se, but more of clairvoyant of sorts. But nobody had to know that.

Jiyeon stuck her lips out in a pout. “Prove it.”

“What if I told you…” Jungkook strained his ears. “That somebody’s about to come in with your lunch?” He glanced at his watch as the seconds ticked by. “In seven, six, five, four, three, two…”

A knock on the door cut his countdown off, just as a nurse arrived to deliver today’s midday meal. Jiyeon gasped and stared at him with eyes as round as coins. “Psychic. How did you know that?”

“Told you,” Jungkook wiggled his fingers in the air. “Magic.”

“Magic…” The little girl’s eyes momentarily shone with wonder, but the next moment, it was gone. Her shoulders drooped. “Magic’s not real. Thanks for trying though, oppa.”

Jungkook rolled his eyes. “And now she goes full on Miss Realist mode. C’mon, what makes you say that?”

“I’ll have you know that I do believe in the “third time’s a charm” rule,” Jiyeon stated matter-of-factly as the nurse adjusted the reclining bed so that she was sitting up instead of lying down. “First, I wished for parents. Didn’t come true, obviously. Then, I wished for Sungjae to stop putting his nasty leftover gum in my shoes, but as we all know, he continued to pick on me. Strike two.”

It felt like somebody was slowly wrenching Jungkook’s very heart from his ribcage. “And the third?” he asked, fighting to keep his voice steady.

Jiyeon shrugged. “Well, I wished I would get to celebrate my ninth birthday, because you promised to teach me how to ride a bike, but I don’t think that’s coming true, either.”

Stab. That’s how each word felt like. Jungkook’s heart twisted like a rag being wrung out to dry. How had she gotten this mature? Was it from all the time she spent here, solitary and confined in this little hospital room? He bit down on his lower lip so hard he thought he tasted blood. His chest felt tight, and he could feel his resolve wilting.

Don’t cry. Not in front of her.

Not in front of Jiyeon, who had hugged him all those years ago when he got home bruised and bloody from an awful brawl with one of the middle school boys who called him an “ugly orphan rat”. Sweet Jiyeon, who laughed at his lame celebrity impressions and wanted to learn how to sketch like him. Here was Jiyeon, the closest Jungkook would get to ever calling someone a little sister, and he was about to lose her. It was a truth as plain as day, as inevitable as nightfall. And he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Jungkook closed his eyes and faked a yawn to mask his teary eyes. He cleared his throat and reached into his backpack. “By the way, I brought apples. Your favorite. Here, lemme show you another trick.” He held the apple in both palms and tore it into two evenly-sized portions with his bare hands. “See? How many people do you know can slice an apple this clean and effortlessly?”

“Stop showing off.” Jiyeon shoved his shoulder playfully with a grin. “You’re just naturally strong. It’s a given.” She took the fruit from him nonetheless and bit into it.

Jungkook watched her with an appreciative smile of his own, before perking up an reaching into his bag once more for his DSLR camera. “Say cheese.”

Jiyeon scowled and covered his camera lenses with a small hand. “No! I look like an ugly witch.”

He snorted. “A witch? Nah. Maybe a sleepless princess. Like, you know, the opposite of Sleeping Beauty. I wonder what that is.”

She rolled her eyes. “Funny. Are you into photography now?”

Jungkook nodded. “Kinda. New hobby.” Because it would be good to capture memories now and save them for later.

Whatever “later” meant.

He stayed until Jiyeon fell asleep. He watched the steady rise and fall of her chest as slumber pulled her under. Like this, the little girl looked so peaceful. Serene. He so desperately wished that he had the means to make her troubles melt away. But in times like these, not even science could help him. He needed something extreme, something instantaneous, something revolutionary.

He needed a miracle.

Jungkook eased out of the guest chair and quietly slipped out of her room, turning his supersonic sense up to full volume. Eyes alert. Ears keen. Nose sensitive. He ambled down the labyrinth of corridors, bowing graciously every now and then to the occasional nurse he’d gotten face-familiar with from his previous visits. They probably thought him eccentric, or at least a little overly attached. He could hear it all even if they hid their hushed whispers behind their hands.

See? Look, there goes Jungkook, the boy who likes to loiter around the hospital. I wonder why he doesn’t just go straight home.

I heard his little sister is terminal, let him be.

Poor kid.

Here was the truth behind his “random walks” – although part of the reason why he frequented the hospital was due to Jiyeon, the other half was entirely self-serving. Jungkook was doing research.

It wasn’t exactly snooping around – he didn’t have to go that far. He simply had to keep his senses attuned to his surroundings to hear if there was any new groundbreaking discovery about, say, superhuman senses, and whether it was a disease that needed curing.

He wanted to know if he was an anomaly or not. He needed to find out if there were possibly others like him. But so far, his research was all for naught.

Like today. Hanging his head with a sigh, Jungkook turned to leave the hospital. Right beside the building was a secluded little alley that he always took as a route home whenever he visited Jiyeon, because it served as a shortcut to his designated bus stop.

“-fairies are coming—

Jungkook halted mid-step.

“-changing of the seasons—

The sun was high up in the cornflower blue sky, but not even the late summer heat could brush off the sudden chill that seized his spine. His head whipped around to make sure that he was, indeed, alone in the narrow alley. It was deserted, save for an overflowing dumpster and a stray ginger cat.

And yet.

Whooosh.

A gust of wind assaulted his face and he reached up to tamp down his black hair. A loud bang drummed loudly from the dumpster, as though an invisible entity had decided to play timpani with it. Bits of scattered trash and debris danced around his ankles.

He couldn’t shake of the feeling that he was being followed. But by who? Or by what, a nagging voice in the back of his mind whispered abruptly. Sunlight beat down against his back, casting harsh shadows against the pavement, and his jaw hung open when he saw that his own familiar shadow wasn’t alone. There was another one… right beside him.

In that moment, Jungkook’s erratic heartbeat and instincts all screamed the same thing:

Run.

Quick as lightning, he turned on his heel to flee. But no further than two strides had he travelled when his feet tripped on seemingly nothing and fell on the rough asphalt ground. With a groan, he propped himself up against his elbows, only to lock eyes with the very thing his was running from.

What the…? His breath hitched in his throat.

The thing was utterly disfigured and jagged around the edges. Hollow, bottomless eye-sockets. Small, hairy face with a bald, skinless skull. No teeth; only a slit for a mouth, but its tongue was like that of an anteater, and thick drool dripped down its chin like lava bubbling out of an active volcano. It had long orangutan-like limbs that elongated into hands with claws as sharp as knives. Its skin was a half-burnt and bloody, molten red but was peeling off with ghastly black patches in other parts of the body. The sight made Jungkook want to retch.

Most importantly, though, it had wings. Like an overgrown bat.

They flapped in the air, vast and spread out, as the creature loomed over Jungkook, sniffing his hair, drinking in the sight of his form. It drew nearer still, as if trying to study him, and goosebumps skittered over the nape of his neck. Although the creature had no eyes, he couldn’t force his petrified gaze away from those black holes. From this close, his nose caught the smell of burning rubber and flesh. The smell of a rotting corpse.

The stench of death.

He dared not move. He dared not even breathe. Terror gripped him still and rendered him speechless. He could feel sweat trickle down his back, could even hear the hustle and bustle of the city life around him, moving about their daily routine. Everything was magnified when his senses were on full alert. Fear tasted tangy against his tongue.

Seconds felt eternal, and when the creature didn’t do anything, Jungkook thought for the briefest moment that he might be able to wriggle his way out and run home, where he would be safe and sound.

Then the creature released a cacophonous howl and pounced.

 


 

 

Diadra, as it turned out, had a mass public transport system.

“Welcome to the Cloud Express,” called out a cheerful elf from the ticketing booth. “Enjoy your float!”

Namjoon craned his neck to absorb more of his surroundings, his heart thrumming with excitement. The terminal was abuzz with throngs of Elven commuters taking the Cloud trains, and people zig-zagged and dodged their way around the quartet — pardon, the quartet plus talking cat — because theirs was the only group that walked slowly with wide-eyed amazement. Everyone seemed to be in a rush, and nobody paid so much as a sidelong glance at them – the Elven Prince was covered by an emerald hooded cloak, and the only telltale sign that could’ve given away his royal status was the swirling patterns of moon and stars adorning his cloak that represented the royal family’s symbol. But amidst the flurry of activity, nobody really bothered to check.

Towering overhead were sky-high, cylindrical pillar-like rainforest trees that shot up into the clouds – the boarding platforms. The height was necessary, for how could you expect ride the clouds without getting up to their level first?

Hoseok tugged at his sleeve. “Is this really, uh, necessary?” He looked up nervously at the sky towers. “Remind me why we need to take the public transport again when we have a damn portal map on hand.”

“Summoning world-to-world portals at your place of convenience requires an advanced level of magic,” Namjoon explained. He brought his runic bracelets, clasped tight around his wrists, to Hoseok’s eye-level. “Something I don’t have, remember? So we have to go where the portals are naturally located – instead of calling up a portal to where we are, we have to go to them.”

“Right.” Hoseok glanced apprehensively behind Namjoon, where Yoongi and the prince stood feet apart, arms crossed, expressions stony, not facing each other. “Do you think we can make it, you know, intact?”

Something told Namjoon that the necromancer wasn’t talking about riding clouds. He gave a wry smile and flicked Hoseok lightly in the forehead. “Good thing there’s you and me here.”

After locating their correct tree tower – there were several of them, all going in different routes – the group entered and were brought to levitating pods that would elevate them to their boarding platform.

Modern marvels, Namjoon mused to himself as they were brought higher and higher from ground level. The Elves were such masters of the magic they had. According to The Nine Realms: A Study Volume II penned by his favorite author Sir Kirkus Nova, the Elves were among some of the most highly intelligent, innovative creatures next to the Asgard gods. After all, they were the species closest in relation to the deities. What were the odds that he could learn about the science behind these levitating pods? It seemed that the longer time he spent in Diadra, the more he felt like a true foreign countryside bumpkin. Everything was just… interestinger and interestinger. So different from how things were back home—

He put a stop to his thoughts before they could go on any further. Best not to get distracted by unnecessary ponderings. Namjoon believed there was a place and time for everything, and now was not the time to drown in sentimentality.

Their pod slowed to a stop, and they clambered out into the platform, one by one. There was a rectangular, train-shaped cluster of clouds waiting for them – their private ride, as instructed by the King.

“Just checking, for the last time, do we really have to?” Hoseok looked ready to pass out from standing so high up from the ground. “I mean, not that I’m scared, ‘cause I’m totally not, but you know… safety issues. Is it safe?”

A service crew ushered them to go in, and to appease the necromancer’s fears, Namjoon leaned over to ask, “Sir, I’m not from your fair kingdom, and this is my first time riding this… train. Could I trouble you to kindly explain how the Cloud Express works?”

The dark-haired elf blinked. “Mother Celeste’s blessing. Magic.” Like that explained everything.

Right. “So it’s safe?”

The elf looked as if he couldn’t believe anyone was questioning the legitimacy of his work. “Yes.”

Namjoon pointed to the elf and leveled Hoseok with a look that said, See?

“Tsk. Fine.” Hoseok’s fingers grazed over the handle of his nightmare whip, a tic that only showed when he was uncertain. “But you guys go first. I’ll go...” He turned to the cabin, where Jimin and his pet had already made themselves comfortable. Yoongi was sitting at the far end, head resting against the fluffy white seat (made of clouds) with his legs propped up against the empty seat opposite him (also made of clouds). “…Last. Now, I mean. I’ll go now.”

Namjoon watched, bemused, as the necromancer gingerly placed one foot into the train as if testing for cold water. Contrary to its outwards appearance, the vehicle was as sturdy as any mode of land transport. He heard a sigh of relief from Hoseok, and the necromancer stepped in to sit beside Jimin. Namjoon entered last. Within moments, they were off, cutting into the misty sky like a ship sailing across the open seas.

Other clouds travelled alongside them, creating an expanse of sky dotted with white cottony formations zipping past breezily. It was breathtaking. Namjoon leaned out of the window and lost himself in the view until their fellow trains broke away, one after another, to follow their respective routes.

He leaned back in his seat, trying not to feel too self-conscious with royalty in his company. Jimin held himself with regal poise, sitting gracefully with his legs crossed while his cat lazed over his left shoulder. On the other hand, Yoongi who had yet to utter a single word, sat unmoving as he stared out the window with his chin resting on his palm, pretending like the other didn’t exist. The unbridled tension between the two was palpable, and Namjoon had no clue how break it.

Fortunately, sandwiched between the two of them was Hoseok. “So, a Prince, huh?” The necromancer smirked knowingly. “I would have pegged you as more of a village spy, based on what happened last night.”

Jimin bit his lower lip and gave a shy chuckle. “I didn’t mean to hide it from you guys. I just thought it might be… easier.”

“Why do you want to leave your own kingdom so badly?” Namjoon asked, belatedly realizing that they had never even bothered to listen to whatever request the Elven Prince had when he’d visited them the night before.

“It’s not that I want to leave my kingdom; I could never do that,” Jimin admitted. “But I needed a reason to go, because I- I’m looking for someone. And I thought you were travellers stopping by the palace, and that maybe I come along once you left. I never expected to be going on a completely different um, quest, with you.” He sighed. “But in the end, things worked out in my favor, because I finally got to leave that stuffy palace for once, didn’t I, Kash?”

His pet raised an eyebrow at him and gave a lazy yawn. For a brief moment, Namjoon rather thought that if Yoongi were a feline, this was the kind of personality he would adopt, too.

“And who are you looking for?” prodded Hoseok. “A bride? A long lost lover?”

A faint blush crept over the prince’s cheeks, but he shook his head. He looked like he was second-guessing telling them, but then said, “My mother. She disappeared when I was an infant. I never really got to know her, growing up. Father says that she was there one day, and then gone the next, like a phantom dream. I don’t know much because he doesn’t really like to talk about it.” He smiled weakly. “So I thought, why not take matters into my own hands? I’m going to find her. I know that the purpose of this journey is different; to save Yggdrasil, but maybe… maybe I might just find her along the way.”

Namjoon and Hoseok nodded with understanding. “So,” the sorcerer drawled. “How are you planning to find her? Do you have a lead? Maybe we could help. A burden shared is a burden lighter.”

The Elven Prince’s face fell. “Well… I did have a lead. Kind of. I have a moonstone necklace that belonged to her, but it-“ he stopped short, eyes landing on Yoongi.

More specifically, on the chain hanging around the fire weaver’s neck.

It was a crescent-shaped necklace.

Jimin’s sputtered, “T-that’s—“

“—mine,” claimed Yoongi, pale fingers closing over the necklace possessively. “I found it, so it belongs to me now.”

Namjoon frowned. What was this, finders keepers, losers weepers? “Yoongi, don’t be childish.”

The redhead glared at him. “Where’s your proof that it belongs to him? You can’t tell me this is the only necklace in the whole kingdom.”

“It is, though,” Jimin countered, looking desperate but irritated. “The sandstone hanging from the tip of the crescent metal is cut from moonstone. I know for a fact that it’s mine. Return it right this instant.”

Yoongi scoffed, and faced the elf with steely eyes. “You may be the prince of this kingdom, but you’re not my prince, and I don’t really care for being ordered around, Your Highness,” he spat, voice laced thick with sarcasm.

“Oh, come on—“ Hoseok began.

“What’s your problem, huh?” Jimin demanded angrily, voice rising. “I understand if you’re upset with me breaking into your chambers, but you don’t have to be so downright nasty about it. You might take me for a blind idiot, but I can clearly see that you’ve got something against my people. Elves. Why is that? Tell me. I will send a royal decree to fix whatever wrongdoing my people have done against you, if any.”

“Uh, guys—“ Namjoon tried to cut in.

“Yes, you’re just an over-privileged, sheltered prince,” Yoongi growled back. “If you think one royal order can fix all that is wrong with this world, then you’re fucking wrong. You know nothing, and I won’t be surprised if you’re the first one to die among us here.”

“Yoongi!” Hoseok snapped sharply. The prince’s cat hissed at the fire caster, claws protruding and ready to pounce.

“I can very well hold my own ground. Don’t underestimate me.” Jimin’s eyes were glassy when he murmured quietly, in a shaky voice simpering with barely restrained rage and hurt, “You’re a heartless monster.”

“So I’ve been told,” Yoongi chortled humorlessly. “No need to praise me. I’d rather be heartless than a weakling like you.”

“I’d rather be anything but a disappointment to my loved ones like you.”

“Everybody quiet down!” barked Namjoon, unable to keep the alarm out of his voice. They turned to look at him, and he gestured wildly at their surroundings. He choked out hoarsely, “Look.

The thing with clouds was that these natural phenomenons form due to tiny water droplets and ice crystals floating in the sky. And when the temperature got too warm? Poof – they would disappear. Evaporate. Turn to mist and vanish into the atmosphere. It wasn’t magic, but pure, simple science. The kind of science that Namjoon regretted not considering from the moment he stepped onto the Cloud Express.

Because Yoongi was a fire elemental, one with a volatile temper. And it just so happened that he was the kind of fire weaver who, when angry, possessed the dangerous tendency to literally and physically radiate heat. Namjoon watched in horror as the very clouds they were sitting on shrank and melted away from the extreme heat that Yoongi’s temper was emitting. The sorcerer never hated science before, but at this moment, he was pretty darn close to condemning it.

It seemed that the Cloud Express wasn’t as invincible as the Elves had made it out to be.

“Yoongi, watch your temper!” cried Namjoon, dread numbing his mind like an icy chill. “You’re going to make clouds disappear, damn it!”

“I knew we shouldn’t have taken this!” Hoseok screamed as the last of the clouds comprising their cabin floor evaporated. “We’re going to fucking die—!”

Namjoon’s heart and stomach dropped as gravity did its thing, mercilessly pulling them down, down, down into the hundred thousand-mile plunge to their doom.

Death by science, he thought bitterly. How wonderful.

 


 

 

When Jimin was eleven years old, his Father had taken him to Shivas for the first time. He remembered how absolutely awestruck he’d been, because — wow, a secret dimension inside the royal conference room? Incredible!

He also remembered being sworn to secrecy about the place, but most of all, he remembered the words they’d exchanged during their time there. The Elven King had just dispatched the royal guard to settle the rising dissent among countryside gangs and rogue elves living near the Scarlet River, and Jimin had asked how come the royal guard’s intervention was necessary when they could have just negotiated peacefully.

“Some… skirmishes can’t be settled by simply talking it out,” King Alfius explained wearily.

Jimin wouldn’t buy it. He hadn’t yet understood where diplomacy ended and violence was deemed ‘acceptable’ when it came to politics. “But if you love your people, why would you hurt them?”

His father studied him closely. “Think of your garden, Jimin. What if tomorrow morning, as you set out to water your plants, you found ugly weeds growing in the soil where your flowers should be? What would you do?”

“I’d pull out them out to make way for my flowers!” the young prince answered without hesitation.

“Precisely,” King Alfius agreed. “We must get rid of weeds so that flowers may blossom. In this case, we must make small sacrifices for the bigger, more precious things. The gangs I ordered to be captured are renowned for trashing Elven folks’ livelihoods, and it’s time I put an end to all their horrid misdeeds.”

Jimin nodded, realizing that this was how a king should protect his people. His father chuckled, and the young boy lifted his head to meet soft eyes brimming with pride.

The Elven King said, “Son, when you grow up, will you be the savior of the broken, the beaten and the damned?”

And Jimin — oh, the prince and his good intentions — nodded earnestly, not knowing the weight of this binding promise.

Those were the words that replayed themselves over and over in his mind now, the air whipping mercilessly against his cheeks, his heart seizing in his chest, as they fell from the open sky. Despite the panic coursing through his veins, a loud voice screamed for Jimin to do something! Save everyone! Because the people around him were the broken, beaten and damned souls he’d promised to save, regardless of whether they were his species or not.

So Jimin reached out beyond the complexes of his mind, searching, grasping for whatever source of land or earth he could find amidst this endless drop, and when his little group landed on the ground, it wasn’t with a loud, fatal crash. Somehow, the prince had managed to gather and weave together a makeshift pile of bushes and dried leaves into a sort of clustered bedding that cushioned their fall. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop little thorns from prickling and scratching their skin as they made contact with the bushes.

He released a sigh of relief, and uttered a silent prayer of thanks to the moon for blessing him with the presence of mind to use his power at the last minute. Pushing himself up from the bushes, he looked around in search for Kashmere.

“Nngghh,” somebody moaned to his left. Hoseok, with leaves stuck to his tousled black hair, hoisted himself up and out of the thorny bushes, hauling Namjoon and that sick bastard Yoongi along with him.

“Is everyone okay?” Namjoon called out in worry. The sorcerer’s features relaxed upon seeing Jimin and his friends alive. “Oh, thank Odin,” he breathed.

“I can’t find Kashmere,” Jimin said. “But I’m sure he’s alright.” The pet-servant had wings, so he was probably flying his way down, searching for him. The quartet rolled out of the bushes and dusted themselves off.

“Where are we?” the necromancer asked. As far as the naked eye could see, they were surrounded by flat meadows, with no sign of life apart from them.

Jimin frowned. “We were headed towards the Scarlet River, weren’t we? We’re probably not too far off.”

“How did we even survive that fall?” Namjoon asked. He turned to look at the prince. “Was that your…?”

The Elven Prince nodded. “Yes.”

“Thank you,” the sorcerer whispered in a humbled voice.

“Yoongi, you fucker,” Hoseok admonished furiously. “You almost killed us all!” He shoved the fire weaver’s chest, causing him to stumble back.

The redhead rolled his eyes in exasperation. “It’s not my fucking fault that the Elves’ dumb transport system is so pathetically lacking—“

“You will not speak of Diadra that way, you ungrateful bastard!” Jimin roared. The branches of the bushes that caught them crackled, and the leaves trembled and vibrated in his anger. How dare he? How dare he? And after he’d saved his life, too!

“Cut it out!” Namjoon stepped between the two of them. “Yoongi, none of this would’ve happened if you’d just given back Jimin’s necklace—“

Yoongi laughed maniacally — a cold, cruel sound that was more of a jeer than an expression of joy. “Oh, I wasn’t intending to keep it.”

He locked eyes with Jimin, and the prince wondered if there was even a sliver of a soul left in his vessel of a body. “You want your necklace? Then come and get it.”

Jimin felt the searing heat before he saw the fire.

Yoongi tossed his moonstone necklace into the air, engulfed by flames so that it was locked inside a fireball. Amazingly, the necklace didn’t melt. It was as if it was immune to the flames, hovering above the ground. The fire lancer moved protectively in front of it, blocking it out of Jimin’s grasp. “But you have to get through me first.”

Hoseok gasped. “Yoongi, what are you doing—“

“Don’t get in my way.” A ring of red-orange fire rose up from the ground and closed around Yoongi and Jimin, trapping them in while keeping them separate from Namjoon and Hoseok. “Unless you want to get scorched. Don’t you dare set foot inside.”

Jimin inhaled smoke, and his eyes watered. He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head to protect himself from the heat. Realization hit him like a freight train. A fire elemental? This dangerous man in front of him could control and harness fire?

“Yoongi, stop this nonsense!” Namjoon cried out futilely.

“I’m giving him the chance to prove himself worthy to travel with us,” Yoongi rasped, dark eyes blazing. He pointed a finger at Jimin. “You told me not to underestimate you? So prove it. Show me what you can do against my flames.”

At that, he sent a thrashing wave of raging inferno careening towards Jimin.

The prince’s heartbeat might be quick, but his reflexes were quicker. He leapt out of the way, feeling heat graze against his feet as the fire rippled the air beneath him, and landed on the other side of the ring behind Yoongi.

Yoongi turned and sent fiery bullets raining down on Jimin, and prince brandished his thick cloak in front of him like a shield. As the fire bullets made contact with the emerald green fabric, they faded into puffs of smoke, successfully nullified. Yoongi’s eyes widened in surprise as his power was rendered useless against the Elven Prince’s cloak.

Jimin stared at his garb. Huh. So his father’s invincibility cloak proved to be handy after all.

“Using cheap tricks, aren’t you?” Yoongi taunted. “That won’t do.”

But before he could launch his next attack, Jimin finally put his power into use. He wasn’t the type to use his gift for acts of violence, because he genuinely believed that blessings of nature were meant for earthly purposes, but things were skewed differently in the name of self-defense.

Under the prince’s mental command, the ground beneath Yoongi shook, and sharp bits of rock randomly jutted out one after another from the flat meadowland. Yoongi scrambled to get out of the way with a low grunt, narrowly escaping each rock formation that tore out of the cracking earth. When he reached a plot of land that didn’t seem magicked, he paused to catch his breath, at the same time sending another bout of fire in Jimin’s direction.

Jimin blocked it with his cloak, keeping his eyes fixated on the fireball that encapsulated his necklace as he marched towards it in large strides. He needed to distract Yoongi for long enough to get him to relinquish his control over the fire enveloping the necklace, so that Jimin could reach in to grab it without burning his own hand. But how?

An idea took hold in his mind, and Jimin’s eyes zeroed in on the ground on which Yoongi stood. He kept his gaze focused on it, whispering for it to soften, mold and bend to his will. To change from firm soil into its darker, viscous counterpart.

Turn into quicksand. Swallow my opponent.

The earth shifted and Yoongi lost his balance as he began to sink into the mud. Jimin heard him let out a string of curses as he flailed his arms to keep upright while his legs slipped into the quicksand.

The prince’s eyes flickered towards his necklace, which now floated mid-air without any fire. This was his chance. Go.

Fuelled by sheer adrenaline, Jimin broke into a sprint, arms outstretched to reach for his necklace. But then a sudden rippling coldness lanced through his core painfully, and he stopped dead in his tracks.

Gasping, Jimin sank to his knees, not understanding what was happening. It felt like all the heat was being sucked out of his body, leaving him an ice statue, bereft of any warmth. It was almost as if someone was deliberately controlling his body temperature.

His heart gave a slam.

It was almost as if someone was deliberately controlling his body temperature.

Or lowering it.

He turned to where Yoongi was half-submerged in the quicksand, eyes flashing with concentration, and the answer struck like a hot iron. There was no doubt in his mind that this physical change was the fire weaver’s doing.

Jimin desperately wanted to scream for him to stop, that he’d won, but he couldn’t even muster the strength to let out the smallest of squeaks. He collapsed on the ground, drained of energy. He could feel his control over his power begin to slip, releasing Yoongi from the quicksand. Without body heat, his heart rate slowed, and he briefly thought that freezing to death was probably one of the most awful ways to die. It wasn’t even winter. How could the Prince of Diadra go down like this?

He’s right, Jimin reflected resentfully, I’m a weakling.

But just as he thought it was all over, heat suddenly came rushing back and flooded the inside of him, giving him a mad head rush that sent his vision spinning. His heart resumed its pace again, and a cough forced its way out of his lungs. Jimin lay with his head on the ground, unable to push himself to stand up.

A pair of pale legs appeared before him. It was Yoongi, having successfully hauled himself out of the quicksand.

He’s going to kill me, predicted Jimin. Burn me to rubble. The ring of fire that surrounded them continued to slither and dance, and he would’ve thought them pretty had they not been created by somebody as loathsome as the cruel man who loomed above him.

“What are you waiting for?” Jimin croaked, finding his voice. “Go ahead. Kill me.”

A pregnant pause, and then:

“Tch.”

Something landed in front of Jimin, and he slid his hand across the ground to reach for it. As his fingers closed around it, cold metal pricked his skin and he realized that it was his moonstone necklace. Yoongi had returned it to him.

The fire weaver’s voice was frosty as he walked away from his limp form. “You’ve proven yourself unable to defeat me. Leave.”

The last thing Jimin remembered was his blurring vision of a flying cat zipping towards him before the blackness took over him.

 


 

 

Jungkook rolled to the right, just out of reach as the monster lunged at him.

Breathing hard, he stared in stupefaction as the creature rolled into a black ball and shot upright again like a coiled spring, its stance defensive as it sniffed the air and found Jungkook again. Slowly, it turned and faced him.

He scrambled to his feet, but before he could run, the creature grabbed him by the ankle and he tripped face-first into the ground. He pushed himself up, but it had pinned him down to the pavement by the shoulders, its heavy weight disabling him from moving or attempting to throw it off. The creature leaned down to lick the side of Jungkook’s face, like a food critic taking a taste test before the main course buffet. Shivers ran down his spine and he thought he might pass out.

A rush of wind caught his attention, and something sliced through the air. It was a speedy blur of vision that must have been a weapon, because it cut the creature’s grotesque head clean off its shoulders.

Jungkook watched, shell-shocked, as the dismembered head landed on the street and rolled away. There was no messy spillage of blood. Instead, both head and body disintegrated into black wisps of smoke, rising up briefly into the air before vanishing.

His eyes followed the weapon – a boomerang – and did a double take as it was caught in the jaws of the stray cat that had been following him earlier. Stranger still, when that cat suddenly stood on two hind legs, and slowly transformed into the shape of a human, its fur giving way to tanned skin and legs lengthening into human limbs.

Jungkook rubbed his eyes. Was he dreaming? Had he finally snapped for real?

The cat — no, human, maybe, he didn’t even know anymore — sported bright, purple hair that fell into his eyes and he wore, of all things, matching pyjamas. Of the baggy sort. They hung loose and made his body look thin. His dark brown, almond-shaped eyes glinted mischievously as he said to the evaporating wisps of smoke, “Tsk. Begone with you, pest.”

His voice reminded Jungkook of a lullaby spun in golden honey. Deep, soulful and sonorous. But he didn’t look at Jungkook; in fact, he probably wasn’t even aware he was being watched. With a low chuckle, he muttered to himself, “These basilisks. So troublesome.”

He lifted his head, and met Jungkook’s stunned gaze.

The boy tilted his head to one side, bird-like and curious. He looked around him as if to check that Jungkook was, indeed, looking at him and not anything or anyone else. Then he circled him slowly, like a child fascinated with a new toy.

Or like a predator that's found new prey. Jungkook gulped fearfully.

But then the purple-haired boy broke out into a gleeful, box-shaped grin more beatific than the Milky Way. “Oh,” he gasped blithely, eyes shining. “You can see me, can’t you?”

Chapter Text

The Seraphim were magnificent male creatures of the sky that lived in peace with the deities of Asgard. Together with the Valkyries, they were sworn protectors of the highest accord, but unlike their sisters, they were not tasked with sending newly reaped souls out to their respective final resting places. They had female counterparts—Valkyries, Sorters of The Slain—for that purpose.

No, Seraphs were more of guardian angels for the wayward living, not the dead. They watched over you not only to ensure you made the ‘correct’ choices in life, but also to make the sorting business easier for their Valkyrie sisters. Think nobody saw your lesser proud moments? Wrong. The Seraphs would always be there, waiting, watching, silently guiding.

Recently though, there was a pressing lack of Seraphs on field because, to put things simply, some of them downright sucked at being guardian angels. Apparently teaching people to do good proved to be a lot more difficult than allowing them to be bad, angel or otherwise. The skewed statistics of Helheim-bound sinners as compared to those sent to Valhalla was proof enough of their shortcomings.

Whenever this happened, Seraphs would be sacked from the job and get demoted to fallen angel status for the rest of their sorry lives.

So when Donghae, a gentle elf from the Scarlet River community, looked up to find four flailing creatures crashing down from the cloud-swept skies in the distance, all he could think of was, Oh, more Fallen.

What a wonderful happenstance! For his Ma and Pa, anyway.

With a skip in his step, he dashed forward, eager to be the harbinger of good news.

 


  

Jungkook wasn’t exactly the best of friends with Words, and Expressing Himself using them. Not that he didn’t have anything to say because heck, his mind was always rolling with the most random shenanigans, but in cases such as these, he often found his brain shutting down with the phrase Stranger Danger! honking like a police siren in his head. In the end, he usually kept his mouth clamped shut while the gears in his head churned for something, anything coherent to say.

The purple-haired Adonis’ face grew questioning, and drew closer to wave a hand in front of him. “Hello?”

Jungkook couldn’t tear his eyes off the young man’s face—not just because of his ethereal, almost otherworldly beauty, but because of his striking eyes.

His eyes were golden pools of wonder brimming with witchlight. There was something about the way his irises sparkled, flecked with caramel brown wisps swirling around each other in an everlasting entwine, that was nothing short of mesmerizing.

Did Asians even sport such eye colors? They were probably contact lenses. Maybe he was half-Caucasian; that would explain why his features stood out a little more prominently than most. And what was with the popping bright hair? Was he a future idol trainee or something?

The boy hummed concernedly and took one step back. “I guess you’re too shocked to talk to me, huh. Still, hello! Nice to meet you.”

And instead of answering like a regular person would, Jungkook stuttered, “You know ‘annyeonghaseyo’?” before biting down on his lower lip and holding back the urge to punch himself. He’d meant to ask, You know how to speak Korean? but alas, as luck would have it, he didn’t exactly have the best brain-mouth coordination.

Words. How they eluded you when you needed them most.

The boy actually considered his question seriously. “I learn languages easily.”

“W-what was that?” Jungkook pointed to the spot where the hideous monstrosity had been, just mere seconds ago. “What are you?” Again, he’d meant to ask, Who are you? but it seemed that getting almost killed and licked by a demon thingamajig that looked like it escaped from the pages of a superhero comic book short-circuited his verbal filter.

“Ah. That? Was a basilisk. Shadowbeast. Me?” The boy smirked, one corner of his mouth quirking up. “A demonslayer.”

“…Demonslayer?” Jungkook parroted. I must be dreaming. There were no such things as shadowbeasts or demonslayers – they existed only in movies and video games. Maybe he’d been playing way too many of recent, and was now going about his day imagining weird things.

“Yes. But it’s a self-appointed role.” The golden-eyed boy shrugged nonchalantly, his smile turning almost bashful as he added, “I figured since no one else was doing it, why not me, right?” He spoke excitedly with his hands, waving around the boomerang he was holding—it was coated in dark brown wood, etched with strange, glowing symbols that Jungkook couldn’t decipher.

It was the weapon that had knocked the monster out. Jungkook inclined his head towards it gingerly. “What’s that?”

The demonslayer let out a low chuckle as he gazed down fondly at his boomerang. “My memento mori. D’you know what that means?

Jungkook, in fact, did not. But he nodded anyway, making a mental note to Google the phrase later on. “Yeah. Cool… cool stuff.” Then an earlier image occurred to him. “I thought you were a cat,” he intoned. Oh man holy shit, I’m talking to animals.

“Well, I shapeshifted to try and see what it’s like to be a cat for a day, but—“ the demonslayer sighed in dismay, “—I guess that’s not happening, since it’s only noontime and I’m back to being me.” He motioned down to the rest of his body with his hands.

At this, Jungkook concluded that this poor fellow, no matter how beautiful he appeared and how remarkably sane he sounded, had most definitely lost his marbles. I can’t possibly be the crazy one here, he rationalized. He shook his head to snap out of his gawking state.

“Wait, that’s not the point. Who are you and where are you from? What happened just now? And… am I not supposed to be able to see you?” The boy seemed so surprised to find Jungkook staring straight at him.

“Oops, would you look at the time. Gotta go.” The demonslayer grinned down at him, megawatt boxy grin fully in place. “Sorry. Wish I could play with you, but I’m really busy today so… Bye!” He jumped up on the dumpster and onto the ledge of the low wall lining the narrow alley.

“No, don’t go, wait!” Jungkook scrambled to stand up on his feet, reaching on arm out as if that could stop the boy.

The demonslayer paused for a brief second and turned back, still smiling. “You know, you’re lucky I found you and that ghoul. It’s my last day here. But don’t worry, I don’t need repayment.” He clucked his tongue the way movie stars did, pointed animated finger guns at Jungkook, and bounded away in the blink of an eye like a ninja, leaving Jungkook not only alone and unarmed, but also hella confused and borderline traumatized.

Because honestly, what in the world just happened?

 


 

“N’aww great, now he’s all passed out,” Hoseok huffed, staring at the crumpled heap on grassy meadow that was the Elven Prince. His winged pet cat… thing, was hovering and fussing over Jimin like a mother hen, and he tried his best to block out the little feline’s yip-yapping.

“What happened to His Highness?” the cat demanded, wings flapping furiously and fanning air into the necromancer’s face.

“Like I said, he fainted,” the necromancer explained.

“But why? How? Did he break any bones? That fall was too much, too much! Oh, His Majesty will have my head for this, I came here too late, curse these useless wings-!”

“Calm down, he’s alive,” Hoseok quipped, not having the heart to tell the poor thing what had just gone down between his master and Yoongi. “Just out cold.”

Quite literally. “You got a name, kitten?”

“Kashmere, but please do not nickname me— wait, that’s not the point! We must hurry and make sure the prince is safe!” The talking cat nipped at Jimin’s collar and tugged, but against his will, his tiny wings didn’t hold a candle to the elf’s considerably heavier weight.

Hoseok sent Yoongi a withering glare accompanied by a smack in the arm. “You boneheaded dolt! Look what you’ve done. How are we supposed to move him now?”

“Ow.” Yoongi winced, rubbing his arm. “He’s not our responsibility, is he?” He grumbled, the beginnings of a pout forming on his lips. “Kid can’t defend himself, so I told him to leave.”

Beside him, Namjoon rubbed his own face with a groan. “Did it not strike you that the King would be very much less inclined to set us free if he found out that you nearly killed his son?”

“Killed!” Kashmere repeated frantically. “Who killed who?”

Hoseok cast him a sympathetic sidelong glance. Poor kitty.

“Nobody, calm down,” replied Namjoon with a shake of his head. “You’re unusually anxious for a cat. And here I thought catfolk were unruffled beings.”

Hoseok peered down at the unconscious elf uneasily. They couldn’t just leave him here. It would be absurd, not to mention an act of suicide. The Elven King would no doubt wreak havoc if he discovered that his dearest heir had been abandoned in a ditch in the middle of nowhere by the very people he’d decided to trust. “Yoongi, let’s heave him up on count of three.”

The flame wielder scoffed and crossed his arms. “I’m not carrying some deadweight around.”

(“D-did he just say deadweight?” Kashmere mumbled to Namjoon.)

“This was your own doing!” Hoseok retorted tightly. “Don’t tell me you intend to just abandon him here?”

“What? No! I mean, yes, but—”

“Then what’s your grand plan, genius?”

“…but not exactly.” A huff of frustration. “I was thinking we could leave him somewhere…you know, safer? With people to take care of him.”

Hoseok’s eyes narrowed. Oh, so now Yoongi was concerned, eh?

“So we can finally get rid of his annoying ass without being guilty of murder.”

The necromancer sighed. Nah, never mind. “Whatever. Listen, we are not leaving him behind, and as for that silly pride of yours, I want you to put that thing back where it came from, or so help me-“

His words were abruptly cut off by the chilling sound of demented, rapid series of staccato cackling that came in eerie bursts of hee-hee-hee. It was far from a humorous laugh, and more closely resembled a madman’s guffaw – the kind of sound that inspired terror rather than glee. It reverberated in the air around them, and an involuntary shudder rippled down Hoseok’s body.

“Did you hear that?” Namjoon asked, unmoving.

Whatever it was, it definitely didn’t sound remotely… human.

Hoseok whimpered, “W-was that what I thought it was…?”

Yoongi shushed him, keeping one index finger in the air, feeling, sensing. His eyes snapped to the two of them as he muttered, “We should go. Before they surround us.”

Another bout of murderous laughter reached their ears, and Hoseok bit back a terrified cry. He knew what “they” were.

Hyenas.

Hoseok had never seen one before, because where he lived, no such wild animals roamed freely. But he’d always heard stories of how hyenas could be identified by their eerie, unearthly “laughter”– their call of death. They were natural predators who chose no prey. Here in forested lands of Diadra, they were few, but not impossible to encounter.

Only then did he realize that they’d travelled quite a fair bit of distance aboard the Cloud Express, and had thus fallen somewhere completely off the main city grid. With them out here in the grassy meadows, they were sitting ducks. They needed cover. They needed thick canopies of trees for camouflage, or a cave for shelter. Anywhere but out in the vulnerable open.

And Hoseok wasn’t about to let himself become dinner stew.

“Quick, grab Jimin!” he hissed urgently at Namjoon. Together, they slung the Elven Prince’s arms over their shoulders as they shuffled, ever so painfully slowly, towards the nearest cluster of trees visible to the naked eye.

But they weren’t fast enough.

To their left, a yowling spotted hyena with snapping jaws sprang forth from where it lay low in the field just a few meters away. It landed in front of them, snarling, and Hoseok yelled until his voice cracked and he nearly dropped Jimin right then and there, his fight or flight instincts warring inside of him. He and Namjoon dove right, hastening their pace to a pathetic half-jog, half-drag, and Odin’s mercy, how the fuck was the Elven Prince sleeping through this impossible ordeal?

Sure, Hoseok was physically fit, but he wasn’t fucking invincible, and having a whole person’s body – no matter how small – slumped against him while he was running for his life wasn’t exactly how he wanted to be remembered by in his final moments.

Another hyena lunged for them, this time from behind, and they found themselves being almost cornered by two hungry carnivores.

Yoongi pivoted on his heel to pelt both animals with a soaring fan of raging flames, and they scrambled backwards while emitting wounded whines, afraid of getting torched. Two enemies, down.

But more would surely follow. “Hyenas hunt in packs,” Namjoon warned. “We have to seek cover!”

As if to reinforce that statement, the wild animal let out throaty howl, and Hoseok took that as a call for backup.

They stumbled into the jungle, the air cooling around them as gigantic leaves blocked the harsh sunlight from hitting them directly. Hoseok refused to stop until they were well deep into the woods. They ran and ran, and he narrowly missed tripping over roots protruding from trees. Branches and dried leaves crackled underneath their boots as they skid to a halt to catch their breaths.

“Can you still hear them?” Hoseok tentatively broke the silence to ask… wait, where was he? “Yoongi?” He turned around, only to find his friend slowing to a stop a short way behind them, wheezing and panting.

“You… fuckers… run too fast…” Yoongi gasped in between lungfuls of air. “Didn’t even… wait for me.” He bent over to rest his hands against his knees.

“We have to keep going,” Namjoon stated grimly, mouth set in a tight line. “They’ll find us again, and I don’t doubt there will be more of them to ambush us this time round.”

“I know.” Hoseok gestured towards the view in front of them. “But which one?”

Before them were two forest trails that branched out in different directions. The pathway to their left looked well-trodden, with flattened sections of grass to indicate that several have come and gone that way before. Flowers of pink and blue bloomed from the bushes lining the dry dirt path. On the other hand, the right side showed a dank, muddy brown trail that followed a little brook going downstream. Peering in closer, Hoseok saw cobwebs hanging from the bare, dead-looking trees flanking the second trail. A shiver ran chilled his spine.

It was a pretty easy choice.

“Uh,” he piped up. “If you ask me, I think we should go this way.” He pointed to the left.

No, you shouldn’t.

“Yoongi, please. I don’t think now’s the time to argue,” the necromancer said tiredly.

“The fuck?” The fire weaver scowled at him. “I didn’t even say anything.”

Oh, you heard me!

Hoseok blinked. “You didn’t? Then Namjoon…?” His eyes searched for the sorcerer, only to find him examining a clump of bushes several steps away, too far to have spoken that loudly in his ear.

The realization hit him like a freight train. His stomach twisted into knots. It was another one of them.

With an exasperated sigh, the necromancer set Jimin down and leaned him against a tree. Since the prince slept like a log, he might as well sit next to an actual one. Kashmere let out a worried meow and crawled over to nuzzle the crook of his neck.

Hoseok’s hands came up to massage his own temples. “Show yourself,” he commanded into nothing in particular.

“Who’re you even talking to?” Yoongi asked with an impatient frown.

“Hush.” Hoseok looked around, searching for a sign of life. Or, in this case, non-life.

Then a soft, feminine voice like wind chimes slipped inside his head.

Go right.

At this, a lady in a blood-stained pale blue dress materialized before him. Her long, blonde hair flowed down to her hips, and there was a ghastly gash along the side of her neck that, in flesh form, would probably be bleeding profusely. But this was a translucent spirit, and the sight did not faze Hoseok. He’d witnessed worse, and he’d learned long ago to fear the living more than the dead.

I took the left trail, and ended up like this,” she whispered softly, gesturing to herself as she floated closer to the necromancer’s ear. She emitted no breath, but Hoseok still imagined his neck feeling tickled. Or maybe those were goosebumps. “Don’t make the same mistake.

She pulled away with a small smile and a nod before evaporating into thin air.

The necromancer gulped nervously.

“Well?” Yoongi prodded impatiently, a tick working along his jaw as he eyed the unconscious prince warily.

Raising a shaky finger towards the dark and muddy trail on the right side, Hoseok said, “T-this way.”

“Are you sure?” Namjoon asked. “It looks a lot more dangerous than the other trail.”

Hoseok grew hesitant, eyes darting between the two trails. Why did this feel like A Really Important Decision That Could Drastically Affect The Story’s Plot? On one side was a brightly lit path blooming with greenery. On the other: a path that looked like it belonged in the Realm of Monsters. The answer should have been obvious, yet Hoseok couldn’t just shake off the spirit’s warning.

Why did she tell him to take the darker route?

Brain, work with me here. You’re on top of the anatomy for a reason. Be that reason. His eyes travelled down to the stream of water lining the trail. Maybe she was urging them to follow the river. Maybe that was how you survived the jungle – by sticking close to a water source. But what did he know? He was no expert trekker. “Yeah,” he finally mustered. “Let’s just-“

Something from behind the bushes snapped — a twig; or perhaps a prowling hyena lying in wait — Hoseok wasn’t going to wait to find out.

“—go go go!” Namjoon shoved him forward, heaving up the Elven Prince on his back, and together with Kashmere, they all set foot on the damp trail in their mindless hurry. Hoseok’s feet sank a few centimeters down the loamy soil, but he paid no mind. Muddy was a better alternative to turning into living, breathing stew.

They kept a steady, quick pace, ducking out to avoid branches and stepping over foliage here and there. Hoseok imagined his sanity teetering over the edge – he really, really hated snakes. He worried that his fear would invite them like a magnet. Over there – was that a slitherbee he could hear, choking and coiling around its unfortunate prey for dinner? What were those angry, hawk-like cries overhead? Were they scheming to flock and attack them?

Every now and then, he imagined a python or a sphinx-hybrid hissing his way; or an unseen animal would release a low growl that sent his bones rattling. The necromancer nearly jumped out of his own skin each time. His relied on focusing his hearing on the trickle of the nearby stream to calm his nerves. Be like water; go with the flow.

“I think the hyenas are far behind us now,” Namjoon noted cautiously.

“Good,” the necromancer said faintly. “Now we just have to— fuck, Yoongi, don’t just suddenly sneak up on me like that!”

The fire caster rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t even doing anything.”

“Then don’t stand behind me! I have feelings, you know, and you’re giving me some serious heebie-jeebies!”

The redhead ignored him and blew at the bangs falling into his eyes. “So, what’s your spirit guide telling us now?”

“Um.” Hoseok closed his eyes, but no voices filtered into his mind. All he could hear was the chirping of birds and the faint rustling of leaves as a soft breeze drifted past.

Namjoon sent him a pointed look. “Don’t tell me we’re lost.”

Hoseok cringed. He looked left. He looked right. The trees all looked maddeningly similar, branches intertwining in a way that made you wonder where one tree ended and where another one began. “No?”

Yoongi shook his head. “We’re lost, aren’t we.” It was a flat statement, not a question.

“Sshhh.” Hoseok held up a hand for silence, trying his hardest to focus on the energies of afterlife swirling around them. “I’m trying to communicate with the spirits.”

Understanding cleared Yoongi’s sour expression. “And?”

“The spirits tell me you’re sexually starved. No wonder you’ve been so cranky.”

“Help me tell them to go fuck themselves.”

“Believe me, my friend, they’re not the ones who need to.”

Yoongi gaped at him incredulously, nostrils flaring, and Hoseok almost smirked in return when the sudden, loud thwack of a snapping branch caught their attention. They jumped, blood surging with renewed adrenaline, shifting to defensive stances. They kept their eyes alert to scour their surroundings for the closest sign of a trouble.

The thicket on the other side of the stream rustled, and judging from the amount of jerky movements, Hoseok concluded that this animal must be a large one, like a three-headed bull or a wandering panther. Probably went around on four legs. With blood for drool, and fangs like an eagle’s beak ready to claw your eyeballs out.

(Then again, all of that could just be his hyper-anxious imagination.)

More rustling, more twigs snapping. Yoongi raised his hands, orange fireballs coming to life in each one, poised to strike. Hoseok raised his arms as well, not to hide, but rather to shield himself and maybe cower a little (he hated to admit it but he was trembling), and Namjoon… well, Namjoon continued to carry Jimin on his back like the reluctant-but-natural hero he was. The necromancer could’ve sworn he heard the prince snoring, bloody damn it. He hadn’t slept well in months, and here was Jimin sleeping through a life-changing, precarious situation! The audacity!

But anyway.

Hoseok cleared his throat and tried to put up a brave front. “W-who lies yonder?” he called out to the bushes. “I mean, who’re you? Show yourself, wicked beast!”

(It was astounding how much more afraid he was of the living than the dead.)

The trio bent their legs, ready to fight at any given moment. Seconds ticked by. The bushes parted, and-

Namjoon released a war cry. Yoongi swore under his breath. Hoseok shrieked, shielding his face with his fists.

“Hello- whoa!” Their quarry let out a frightened yelp, eyes wide. A pair of eyes that in no way looked animalistic at all.

The three young men paused, hands still in the air, postures still defensive, as they drank in the sight before them.

It was… not a rabid predator. Dark brown tufts of hair poking out over a leafy hat, honey brown skin that spoke of days spent under the sun, and eyes that slanted elfishly stared back at them in mild surprise and alarm. He was of minuscule stature (Hoseok marveled at how there was actually someone smaller than Yoongi and the Elven Prince), with elongated ears that pointed at the tip. Undoubtedly an elf, and a seemingly harmless one, judging form the way he carried no weapons with him.

None of them moved, both parties waiting for the other to break the silence. Yoongi lowered his hands, flames dissipating into puffs of smoke. Hoseok loosened his clenched fists into a semi-hand wave. “Hi?”

The elf’s eyes watered, and within seconds, tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Uh.” Hoseok scratched his head awkwardly. Did they frighten him too much? “Why are you crying?”

“I…” The elf hiccupped, seemingly overwhelmed by emotions. “You p-poor things. It must have been a long journey.”

Only then did the necromancer bother to look down at his state of being. He glanced sideways at his comrades: stray leaves in hair, torn clothes and horror-stricken, mud-caked faces. They looked like refugees. An utterly pathetic sight, if he might say so himself.

The elf’s eyes flickered over to Jimin worriedly. “You’ve all Fallen, haven’t you?”

Fallen? “Ah. Yeah.” Hoseok scrunched his nose and rubbed his lower back, thinking back to their ridiculous Cloud Express mishap. That had been a nasty drop for sure. “Who are you?”

The elf’s eyes glimmered with relief. “I’m Donghae, and I’ve come to fetch you,” he said warmly, turning around and motioning for them to follow. “Let’s go. My family offers a safe place for the Fallen folk like you.”

“Wait—“ The trio stared at the elf’s retreating form as he swiftly bounded up and across the narrow stream, back into the bushes from whence he’d come, and Hoseok answered his friends’ questioning expressions with a shrug. “See? Told you we’re not lost.”

Namjoon grabbed him by the elbow. “Can we trust this one?”

“I don’t know, but you can trust me. And I say we go.” Hoseok’s throat was so parched he thought he would never swallow again, and a long warm soak was long overdue. They’d just gotten chased hyenas, for goodness’ sake. Judging by the way Donghae had spoken, he hoped that wherever they were headed could give him what he wanted. He tugged at Yoongi and Namjoon’s sleeves. “Come on.”

His friends must have been as exhausted as he was, because instead of arguing or complaining further, they complied wordlessly. The flying cat was not a cause for concern – wherever Jimin went, Kashmere would surely follow.

They followed the elf through thick overgrowth that sprouted everywhere, stepping over logs and trying not to walk into trees that stared at Hoseok like silent sentries. Deeper into the forest, the breeze ceased and the air turned stuffy. Every little sound – crickets creaking, hornets buzzing past, the rustling of the uneven forest floor under their footfalls – was magnified tenfold.

“How long more do we have to go?” Hoseok called out, weariness seeping into his bones.

Donghae looked back over his shoulder with a smiling eyes. “We’re here.” 

He reached over to pull aside the last of the branches that covered their view, and Hoseok realized that they’d already reached the edge of the woods, for before them lay a wide, sparkling river with water as red as champagne.

“The Scarlet River,” Namjoon breathed with amazement. They’d made it to the end of the forest.

The woods had thinned out by the edge of the riverbank, and little makeshift bamboo huts with thatched roofs flanked both sides of the river. Groups of women sat washing their laundry at the river’s edge, and remarkably enough, their clothes did not come up stained with a reddish tint from the mysterious water, as Hoseok would have expected. He thought back to the Lake of Regret. Perhaps this river was enchanted as well.

“C’mon, this way!” Donghae beckoned, breaking out into a sprint. Hoseok found himself jogging to catch up with him. They wove their way to the very edge of the community to end up… in front of a giant banyan tree?

It was herculean, with an especially enormous brown trunk as wide as two adult mammoths put side by side, and a vast canopy of leaves with branches that spread outwards as if trying to cover as much area as possible. It formed a cozy umbrella that cast a cooling shadow over where their group now stood.

Their elf guide motioned towards the tree’s trunk. “After you.”

“Huh?” Was he mocking them? Aside from its mighty size, the tree looked as ordinary and nondescript as any other. Doubt crept along the back of Hoseok’s mind. Maybe he was wrong to be so trusting of a stranger, after all. “You, um, want me to run into it and knock myself out? It’s literally just a tree.” A very, very sturdy looking one. He would definitely get an ugly bruise if he collided with it.

“No!” chirped Donghae. His voice lowered to a conspiratorial hush. “It’s just a glamour. Believe me when I say that you won’t get hurt. Just walk right in through the bark. If you’re scared, you can close your eyes.”

Hoseok hesitated, but Namjoon shrugged. “Alright.” He lumbered towards the tree’s trunk with Jimin on his back (fuck, how long was he going to sleep for?), stepped into it… and vanished. Just like that.

“Did he just… what happened?” Hoseok asked panickedly. “Where did he go?”

“Inside,” Donghae answered simply, as if that one word explained everything. “He went inside.”

“B-buh… but how? Inside where?” Hoseok pressed on, flummoxed. Was the tree a portal? Beside him, Yoongi craned his neck sideways, muscles cracking, before also wordlessly stepping into the trunk and disappearing the way Namjoon had.

Hoseok was the only one left.

“Your turn!” Donghae cheered.

This was your idea, Hoseok reminded himself. Deal with it. Gingerly, he placed one foot through the tree’s rough bark (it felt like stepping through air – nothing), and tittered, wonderstruck, as half of his leg disappeared into the other side of… wherever that was.

A glamour, Donghae had said.

Closing one eye, he hopped in, and as his feet met solid floor, he was greeted by the chaotic ruckus of off-key singing and inebriated yelling.

“Dipshit bastard, I oughta knock the living daylights outta ya!”

“Nah, yer ain’t gonna. Yer too soft, arsehat.”

The necromancer cracked one eye open, but then soon found himself outright gaping at his surroundings. How could all of this fit inside a tree?

He was in a rustic tavern of sorts, with age-old furniture and an atmosphere that reeked of stale ale. It was dimly lit by a low-hanging chandelier of candles, and the wooden floor boomed with the clip-clop of boots as customers hustled past one another. In the middle of the pub stood a long and dark mahogany table and a bench, where men and women speaking in rough accents gambled and cursed at one another.

To the right was an oak wood countertop and a barista whipping up kaleidoscopic concoctions of all sorts, not all of them pretty to look at, but his fluid and deft hand motions fascinated Hoseok all the same. Smaller round tables and high stools littered the extra space on his left, and an alcove occupied the upper half of the wall in the far corner. Inside, a pair of human-sized, untethered wings hung like a prized trophy, almost folding into itself because the small tavern couldn’t accommodate its sheer size and width.

Gleaming silver wings of steel. Seraph wings, was that what they were called?

Right above the wing tapestry was a sentence scrawled in Commonspeak, and Hoseok squinted his eyes to slowly read out:

Haven for the Fallen.

The Fallen? Wasn’t that what Donghae had addressed them earlier? Hoseok knit his eyebrows, trying to make sense of things. Did the Cloud Express break down that often that an inn had to be specially built for fallen, lost travellers?

“Great mood, right?” A hand slammed down on his shoulder and broke him out of his reverie. The necromancer let out a small yelp of surprise. But it was only Donghae, coming up behind him with a broad grin stretching from ear to ear.

“Welcome,” he said, “—to The Magnanimous Finch!”

 


  

It’s too early for this shit, Jungkook decided. With a weary groan, he rubbed the back of his neck and checked his body for any cuts or bruises. There weren’t any, and that only served to prove that he must definitely be dreaming. Either that, or the self-proclaimed demonslayer from just now was probably an escaped mental patient. Jungkook didn’t fail to clock in the oversized pyjamas the guy was wearing.

Yep, definitely an insane asylum patient.

It was far too early for this shit. Much as he’d like to just brush the whole incident off, go home and finish his thesis, a part of him knew that he was probably not going to be able to concentrate on anything else. So in a valiant attempt to take his mind off of things, he hopped on a bus to Myeongdong, where he figured he’d do some street and people photography for awhile.

Now this, he could excel at. Jungkook liked to think of himself as a pretty simple dude. People usually pegged him for a crowd-hater and party buzzkill, but that wasn’t entirely true. He didn’t exactly dislike being in crowded places – he was perfectly fine with staying in one corner of a crowded street, observing with a keen eye, all while keeping to himself most of the time. What he didn’t love, though, was being put in the limelight in the center of a large group of people without warning. It was the interacting part that made him feel awkward. It made his skin crawl and he worried too much about saying the right thing just so he wouldn’t get laughed at.

If Shyness were a boy, he would probably be named Jungkook.

There was a reason why he liked to stay quiet. If he told anyone how he saw the world from his eyes, he’d surely become the next big joke in town.

Because apart from just his heightened sensing capabilities, Jungkook could… see. Them. He didn’t know what to call those things.

It first happened when he was five years old, just a wee little child. He’d been playing with his yo-yo over the open window of his room on the second floor, when the string suddenly snapped, and he watched sullenly as the toy landed on the front porch of the orphanage. But just as he made for the staircase to retrieve it, a faint “Psssst!” made him freeze.

Jungkook turned around.

His yo-yo was back on the windowsill.

He stepped towards it gingerly, as if afraid it might suddenly move on its own and start flying, but then from behind the yo-yo, a little human-looking creature with dragonfly wings stepped out, pressing a finger to her lips with a sly smile. It was a pixie, the young Jungkook guessed. Or maybe a fairy.

Little Jungkook had taken the yo-yo, bowed in thanks, and watched the tiny winged lady flutter away with the breeze, leaving nothing but glitter and a taste of sugar lingering in the air. That was the only time in years when he’d seen something like that, and he almost dismissed the memory as part of some childhood fantasy.

But then the recent sightings happened, and suddenly he wasn’t too sure anymore.

Other people could see them now, too.

Oh, but not all of them. To the human world, there were probably around twenty or so recorded appearances of the mythical beings, but ever since that day when the hashtag #UnicornsAreReal went viral, Jungkook started seeing them almost everywhere. Just the other day, his eyes nearly bulged out of his sockets when he found a winged horse grazing the lawn right in the middle of his school campus, yet nobody seemed to notice. He soon realized that some creatures were invisible to the human eye, while some were not.

And a part of him, a small part, wondered if that demonslayer was one of them, too.

(Although for now, he was going to stick with the insane asylum patient concept. That seemed more likely. More realistic, yeah, that was the word.)

These were the thoughts whirling around Jungkook’s brain as he snapped photos of the city breathing and pulsating with life around him. Even in the daytime, especially on a weekend like today, Myeongdong was never without people. He could hear his favourite Big Bang playing loudly from one of the shop’s speakers not too far away. Throngs of shoppers squirmed past one another, and employees in mascots handed out flyers at every corner of the busy commercial street. The flurry of activity made for some good portraits.

A little girl in pigtails eating a multi-tiered ice cream cone. Snap.

An ahjumma peddling savory street food on her cart. Snap.

A boy across the street with an animated grin and an unruly mop of purple hair, winking right into his camera lenses. Snap.

Wait, what?

Jungkook made a garbled sound from the back of his throat, heart stuttering in his chest. He nearly dropped his camera, but he placed his eyes on the viewfinder again and tried to refocus on the same spot as before. So wrapped up in finding the demonslayer was he that he unintentionally tuned out the rest of his surroundings.

“Hello.”

Jungkook jumped, startled. The purple-haired boy was behind him now, leaning over his shoulder and whispering into his right ear. How he managed to travel so fast, Jungkook didn’t want to know. From this close, he caught the distinct whiff of cinnamon and wild honey. He stepped back, pulling away for some distance, and gawped at the boy, confounded once again.

The demonslayer waved his hands. “It’s me again! Remember when I said I was busy?”

Jungkook raised one eyebrow.

“Well, I changed my mind.” The young man smiled, a small pout playing at his lips. “Like I said, today’s my last day, and being alone’s no fun. Since you’re the only one who can see me even with my glamour on, do you wanna accompany me while I finish my errands?”

Jungkook could have easily said no. He should have declined and have the two of them part ways like nothing out of the ordinary happened, but curiosity as well as a much deeper emotions, like maybe humanitarian concern (what was with all that talk of today being the Last Day? Was he suicidal?) gnawed at him. He had no clue what the demonslayer was rambling on about, no idea what a ‘glamour’ even was, but at the very least, he didn’t want to see him dead.

If he could subtly pry some information out of the guy, maybe he could find an answer to all the questions pounding against his brain. Or simply keep the guy safe from harming himself until he could call the mental hospital.

“Fine,” Jungkook replied, watching the young man’s golden eyes light up with delight. “But on one condition.”

“Hmmm?”

“Tell me everything you know.”

“Like what?” There was that birdlike tilt of his head again.

Jungkook held out a hand graciously. “First things first, why don’t we introduce ourselves properly? I’m Jungkook.”

The purple-haired Adonis stared at his outstretched hand. Then his eyes turned uncharacteristically cold. “No. I’m not giving you my memento mori.”

“Huh?”

“Why are you holding out your hand? I won’t give you anything.” The demonslayer shrank away from him, hands hovering protectively over his boomerang.

It occurred to Jungkook then, that this person was grappling with the concept of a handshake. How could he not know what that was? A snort escaped him and he dropped his hand, shaking his head while an unwitting smile tugged at his lips. “I’m not trying to take anything from you,” he said calmly, with a hint of amusement. “I’m just asking for your name.”

“My… my name?”

“Yes. What’s your name?”

“Oh.” For the briefest second, a new, raw emotion flickered in the young man’s eyes. Jungkook could’ve sworn he almost looked… forlorn. Uncertain. But it was gone in an instant, quickly replaced by the box-shaped smile that Jungkook was slowly getting accustomed to.

The demonslayer turned away and hummed lightly, brushing stray locks of purple away from his eyes. He began to wander amongst the crowd aimlessly.

“What’s in a name?” he asked in a singsong manner, a glazed-over look falling over his mysterious eyes.

“Pardon?” Jungkook fell into step beside him, matching his leisurely pace. This was not the response he’d expected to hear.

“What’s in a name? Is it so very important?”

“Um.” Identity. Purpose. A sense of belonging. All his life, Jungkook had always yearned for a full name. A real one, proper surname and all. He’d always been plagued by the notion that he wasn’t whole, and perhaps part of what made him feel so hopelessly incomplete was his blatant lack of an ancestral line. “Yes, of course. It’s everything.”

“Really?” The demonslayer flashed him a doubtful look. “I don’t think so. Names are… names are containers.” He pointed to a shop front down the street, displaying a series of mason glass jars on a shelf adorned with fairy lights for a beautifying effect. “They shape you and tell you who you’re supposed to be.”

Jungkook could only wordlessly stare at him. Again. What was it about this whimsical boy that always rendered his brain cells to stew?

“Can’t I be free to be what I wanna be without being tied down to anything?” the demonslayer sighed almost dramatically, bringing a hand up to his head as if to ward off an impending headache.

Finding his voice, Jungkook ventured, “I don’t think I get you, but okay. What do you want me to call you then? Don’t you have a name?”

A serene smile graced the boy’s lips, and he said plainly, “No. Somebody must have stolen it.”

“Stolen it—what? What are you talking about?”

“When things disappear from you, you either lost it, or it’s been taken away from you,” the demonslayer stated simply as a form of explanation. He chuckled humorlessly, all his previous energy mellowing out. His expression turned somber. “In my case, I think it’s both.”

The way he spoke almost had Jungkook fooled, and he bit back a laugh, deciding to humor the guy for a little bit more. Patience, he told himself. He was dealing with somebody a little out of sorts here, after all. He felt sorry for this purple-haired enigma who spoke of shadowbeasts and demonslaying. Clearly, he was a lost, albeit highly imaginative, soul. “You mean, you don’t know who you are.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Dunno. Can’t remember. Me, I don’t have too many memories about myself.” The demonslayer shrugged and looked up at the sky thoughtfully before speaking. “Someone must have stolen them, too.”

“O…kay.” Jungkook was now completely weirded out. He briefly wondered if he should just call any random mental facility already, because this guy was either seriously deranged, or seriously high on drugs.

“That’s why I’m looking for it.”

“Sorry?” He was distractedly feeling around his jeans pocket, fumbling for his phone.

“Myself. Oh, and I lied to you, by the way.”

“I don’t really think it matters at this point in time.” With all this crazy talk stolen names and stolen memories, how was Jungkook to separate truth from delusion?

“No, really. I’m not actually a true demonslayer, although my memento mori can kill shadowbeasts.” The purple-haired stranger frowned. “I’m a jinni, I think.”

Jungkook paused. “You think? How do you even know that? I thought you just said you didn’t know a lot of things about yourself.”

“Well, I don’t know who I am, but I do have an inkling of what I am. A useless jinni who can’t grant wishes.” The boy eyes his boomerang morosely. “That’s why I decided to just call myself Demonslayer. Maybe I’m more useful that way.”

Aaaand the crazy talk just got worse. Jungkook scoffed. “A genie who can’t grant wishes? You’re pulling my leg.”

“It’s true.”

“How so?”

“I don’t know. I told you, I’m looking for something.”

“Which is?”

I don’t know.” The boy’s voice grew increasingly agitated, diminishing to a lower and raspier growl. “My… my home, probably.”

Jungkook was done with this conversation. He sighed in dismay. “You know what, you’re right. You really do need to go back home. So please, just tell me your name and I can help you return to where you came from.”

“How many times do I have to repeat myself? I don’t have one.”

“Okay, fine. How about a nickname?” Jungkook gritted his teeth, fighting to remain calm. How did he end up in a situation like this? “Surely you must remember something, anything at all.”

“I don’t, but I can make one up.” At the snap of a finger, all the irritation disappeared. The boy’s eyes flashed with excitement and he rubbed his hands together in glee as his eyes darted about as if searching for something. “How about…”

The flurry of activity in Myeongdong continued around them, and glancing up, Jungkook could see one of the big LCD screens playing a video of Big Bang. On the screen, one of the members shouted, “Taeyang hyung!

“Aha!” The stranger’s ears perked up, his face breaking out into a smile. “How about… Taehyung?”

Jungkook choked on his own spit and ended up wheezing. “What?”

Taehyung. Yes, sounds good. I like.” The stranger’s eyes glimmered with untainted happiness, looking utterly content with his random decision. He turned his gaze to Jungkook, a determined set in his jaw. “From now on, call me Taehyung.”

Chapter Text

Jimin awoke to the odd sensation of being watched. When his eyes fluttered open, however, he was greeted by a rough brown ceiling that looked like the inside of a tree and the sounds of porcelain clinking together. He stirred, unaccustomed to the stiff mattress he was lying on compared to his undeniably softer bedding back in the Mirror Palace, and emitted groan that sounded more like a croak due to his parched throat.

“Your Highness!”

In a heartbeat, Kashmere was by his side, peering up at him with wide, worried eyes. Jimin blinked through his bleary state and stroked his pet-servant’s furry head. “Where are we?”

“Ah, you’re finally awake!” chirped a jubilant voice. Jimin’s gaze snapped to the left, where an elf boy with dark hair was carrying a teacup and a saucer to set it down on the small makeshift table beside the cot. “Good. Let me go and tell them.” He strode towards the door.

“Wait—who are you? What happened?” Jimin pushed himself up on his elbows.

The elf winked at him. “Call me Donghae, good sir. I think it’ll be better if they explain what happened. See ya!” He left, leaving the door to shut itself with a creak.

Jimin sat up and tried to take in his surroundings. He was in a quaint little room designed to look like it had come out of a woodwork fairytale; everything was made of the same rough bark – the chairs, the tables, the lamps. Thin logs held up the four-poster bed on which he lay, with leafy vines winding and coiling around them. Candles floating in the air radiated a warm orange glow, and there was a little arched window that told Jimin that the moon had come to borrow the sky from the sun.

Mother Celeste, where have you taken me?

A small gasp escaped him as he recalled Yoongi’s last words to him. Leave. Had he been abandoned?

“Your Highness, what happened to you?” Kashmere fretted. “When I arrived, you were already unconscious. Don’t be afraid to tell me, I’m ready to fight!”

“Where’s the rest? Hoseok, Namjoon?”

Kashmere blinked. “They—“

As if on cue, the door swung open and Hoseok’s lone figure emerged, silhouetted by the light behind him like a victorious hero coming home from battle. Jimin’s shoulders slumped with relief, and he could have shed tears of joy at not having been left behind.

Hoseok stepped in, taking his time as if he were starring in a slow motion mega picture of his own, and grinned down at Jimin upon reaching his bedside.

He cleared his throat. “Let me just begin by saying, no need to thank me,” he said contentedly, holding up two hands in a humble pose. “Everything I’ve done up ‘til now was out of the pure kindness of my heart, Your Highness.”

“I’m sorry...?”

“Of course, I carried you all the way here with the help of my brave compadre, Namjoon, but it was my selfless idea to absolutely prioritize your safety first. Beard of Thor, we even got chased by hyenas! And yet you’re alive! Amazing, isn’t it?” Hoseok held a hand to his heart, wiping away non-existent tears from his dry eyes. “I am. So happy for you.”

A short silence, followed by:

“Bullcrap. You nearly dropped the prince while running for your life screaming like a madman,” Kashmere rebuked.

“Oh, tomato tomato, semantics,” Hoseok tutted, waving a hand dismissively. He perched on the edge of the bed. “Regardless of how it happened, the important thing is, the prince is safe. Now tell me – on a scale of one to ten, with one being ‘in tip-top shape’ and ten being ‘knocking on death’s door’, how are you feeling?”

Surprisingly enough, Jimin no longer felt that icy fire that nearly burned his soul. “I’m fine… I guess?” Noting Hoseok’s company-less-ness, he asked, “Where is this place? And where are the other two?”

And so Hoseok relayed how they were apprehended in the middle of the forest (“We weren’t stranded, I swear.”) by a bright-eyed elf named Donghae, who’d then brought them to The Magnanimous Finch located along the Scarlet River, which, according to Hoseok was a “Haven for the Fallen”.

“I think this is an inn to temporarily house lost travellers like us,” Hoseok remakred. “Seriously though, Jimin, you should reconsider that whole Cloud Express system with your father. Looks like people are making a business out of its failure.”

This was, however, the least of the Elven Prince’s worries. “What about the portal? How are we going to find it now?”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Hoseok assured him. He told Jimin that Namjoon and Yoongi had gone out to comb the area in search of the portal they needed to take to Nilflheim. The sooner they could haul their asses out of here, the better.

“And about what Yoongi did…” Hoseok seemed to hesitate, chewing on his lower lip. He sighed. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. He owes you a proper apology.”

Jimin blinked, realizing that Hoseok must be referring to the duel that Yoongi had challenged him to. Guilt at having used his power against another person coursed through him, and he almost felt sick to his stomach.

“Even if he apologizes, which I highly doubt, I will never understand him,” Jimin supplied in a clipped tone. Gifts were not meant to be abused, no matter how dire the situation was. Yoongi had clearly pushed him over the head. “Can I ask you something?”

Hoseok answered him with an expectant look.

“If Yoongi can harness fire, what about you and Namjoon?” Jimin had never witnessed the two in action before, and he no longer wanted to be taken by surprise by any more hidden powers.

“Namjoon’s a sorcerer. I’ve yet to witness the full range of his gift, but he can summon shit and destroy things. He’s especially talented in breaking stuff. And as for me...” The corners of Hoseok’s mouth curled up in an impish grin. His eyes searched the tiny room, and muttered, “You, over there.”

Jimin pointed to himself. “Me?”

“I see you. Show yourself.” The Elven Prince belatedly realized that it wasn’t him that Hoseok was addressing, but a seemingly invisible presence in the room. Seconds later, Jimin’s mouth nearly dropped to the floor when a fluorescent white figure materialized out of thin air. It was a little boy in a nightgown, looking sheepish as though he’d just been caught with his hand reaching in a cookie jar.

Hoseok smiled warmly. “Hello.”

The boy hid behind one of four-poster pillars, peeking his head out shyly at Jimin.

Hoseok laughed. “Come on now, no need to be shy. Say hello to the Elven Prince of Diadra.”

Jimin gawped at the sight before him. “Is… is he a ghost? Kashmere, look! How is this possible? How am I seeing him? How did you see him?”

Hoseok shrugged casually. “Well, they don’t call me Harbinger of Death for no reason. I’m a necromancer. I see dead people, and I can raise them from their graves. But trust me, it’s exactly as morbid as it sounds.”

Jimin saw the full truth of his words: Hoseok looked tired. Beyond exhausted. The bruised skin beneath his bloodshot eyes drooped, and he wondered when the last time the necromancer had gotten a full night’s sleep was. But he decided not to pry. “Right. The nicknames. What’s up with those?”

Hoseok shrugged. “Dunno. Maybe we’re just that notorious. Namjoon as The Destroyer seems fitting enough – you’ll see it for yourself soon. Yoongi as The Phoenix, I have no clue. I don’t know all that much about him. As you know, your father hauled us out of the Realm of Monsters. Before all of that, though, the three of us lived together. I was the last one to join Namjoon and Yoongi.”

“What do you mean?”

“Long story, kid, I’ll save it for another time. I don’t really know what happened to them, though. The three of us, we don’t do backstories. It’s for the weaklings, according to Yoongi.” Hoseok shook his head, although he was smiling. “But I’ll tell you, the first time Namjoon found out about my necromancy…”

Jimin let out a startled yelp as Hoseok grabbed him by the collar and pulled him close enough to feel his hot breath against his face as he snarled, “Can you bring people back to life?

And then Hoseok released his grip, letting Jimin sink back down against the pillows with eyes round as coins. “What-“

“That was the first thing Namjoon asked me. He sounded so miserable and desperate too.”

Jimin thought for a moment. “And can you?”

“Can I what?”

“Bring people back to life?”

Hoseok let out a bark of laughter. “Kid, I’m not a deity. These powers of mine? Are more of a curse than a blessing. Anyway, I told Namjoon I could only raise the dead, not inject life back into them. You should’ve seen the way he deflated. Looked like his very soul was sucked out of him.” The necromancer’s smile turned melancholic, a faraway look glazing over his cocoa brown eyes. “I think a part of him died right then and there, that time. I never had the courage to ask what he needed from me.”

Poor Namjoon, thought Jimin. The sorcerer sounded like he was chasing after something Jimin would never be able to comprehend. “Well, I hope Namjoon finds what he’s looking for.”

“We’re all yearning for something,” Hoseok stated, an unreadable look in his eyes as he allowed the ghost boy to vanish from sight. “Whether we choose to actively find it or not, now that’s up to us.”

Jimin regarded him thoughtfully. “I like this side of you.”

Hoseok groaned. “Ugh, no. Who is this hapless sap masquerading around as me?” The necromancer sniffed once before standing up and pulling Jimin along. “You must be hungry, right? Donghae says he’s got dinner ready for us downstairs. Let’s go.”

 


 

There was a niggling feeling at the back of Namjoon’s mind telling him that they weren’t supposed to be here. While it was definitely refreshing to have warm bath and a change of clothes, an almost primal, hard-to-ignore instinct called for him to stay very, very alert and keep his friends close. Why was that?

Perhaps it was the way the patrons of The Magnanimous Finch kept throwing them suspicious glances from the moment they set foot there – peeking over their shoulders, eyeing them from underneath low brim hats, some even outright openly staring. Namjoon was fully aware that their little posse was out of place in the tavern. They weren’t brusque-looking or bulgingly muscular; neither did they posses hulking statures or scarred skin that boasted tales of gruesome fights. Truth be told, the place seemed more fit for thugs and ruffians than Elven royalty, and Namjoon was half-afraid Jimin would shrivel up just by simply breathing the same air as those folk.

He’d pretended not to be too intimidated when, upon their arrival, a couple who had human upper bodies but very prominently horsely bottom halves, hooves and all, approached them with matching jovial grins.

Donghae had heaved out his chest and proudly introduced them as “Gruv and Dayai, my parents” and Namjoon tried not to stare, lest they all hear the unspoken question burning holes in his mind: How did two centaurs procreate to produce Elven offspring?

Not that he was judging, goodness no. Namjoon believed in liberality and freewill. If two centaurs wanted to adopt an elf as a son, then by all means – if it made them happy – why not?

They’d been so considerate and helpful, too. Dayai had allotted their group one of their ‘suites’ (apparently the pub was also an inn), and when Namjoon had showed Gruv the Map of the Worlds to ask for directions closest to their designated portal, his eyes lit up like lanterns and he eagerly pointed out the way.

So it wasn’t the owners that the sorcerer felt wary of, but rather the guests. They acted like regular pub-goers enough, but still, Namjoon couldn’t help but feel like something was a little… off.

But that wasn’t his primary worry at the moment. They needed to get to Nilflheim as soon as possible and find that celestial mage so that they could see to patching up the injured Yggdrasil before things got worse.

Looking down at the Map of the Worlds, he squinted his eyes, trying to pinpoint the exact area where the portal to Nilfheim was supposedly located. He and Yoongi were treading close enough – according to the map, the portal ran along Scarlet River.

The moon gleamed down upon them, and Namjoon thought that in the darkness of the night, the river more closely resembled a blood bank.

A river of blood. How apt a name for a place that bore witness to immense carnage.

You see, the Scarlet River didn’t always use to have red-stained water. Urban legend has it that in the last days of the Great War of the Deities, one of the final battles had taken place right here, on this very plot of land on which they currently stood. In the aftermath of the violence, the gods and goddesses stood amongst their fallen comrades and, wrecked with all-encompassing grief, they wept.

And they wept.

And they wept.

They shed tears of blood in the name of their beloved brothers and sisters. Those tears flowed down the Scarlet River, and stained it red forever. Since then, the river continued to carry the weight of their anguish, its unnatural hue a constant reminder of the nightmares of war and conflict.

Of course, legends were legends, and each fable passed down from one generation to another came in varying versions of the tale, so Namjoon didn’t really know how true anything was anymore. Some decried that war had never occurred on Diadran land. History turned to legend turned to folklore turned to myth. Such was the sandpapering effect of the passage of time.

Can truth be measured? he wondered. How much of history was the truth, and how much of it were lies spun in favor of the powerful?

“What are we looking for, actually?” Yoongi piped up after being quiet all this time, breaking the sorcerer out of his reverie. “Enlighten me.”

Focus on the task at hand, Namjoon. He shrugged. “Hmmm. Something that stands out. Maybe something that strikes you as… portal-y?”

“Then I must either be dumb or blind, because I see nothing.”

“Keep looking.”

They reached a narrow canal where a small part of the river meandered off. This part of the river was shadowed by an outcropping of rocks, so it was harder to see with the already limited moonlight they had.

Namjoon scratched the back of his head. “Maybe we should check the banks.” He slipped off his shoes and carefully stepped into the shallow water, shivering as the icy cold seeped into his ankles.

“Joon, what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to figure out if the portal is glamoured.” The map couldn’t possibly be wrong. The little dot indicating the presence of a portal was glowing brightly, so they must be close. Namjoon kept his arms raised to keep the map from getting wet, all while squinting into the moonlit stream.

Like a bolt of lightning, the answer struck him. The answer was so obvious; how could he not have figured it out sooner? His mind recalled the legend surrounding the river. A river enchanted by the gods and goddesses.

“Yoongi,” he murmured, mind whirring. “Do you think… maybe the whole river itself is the portal?”

The fire weaver cast him a skeptical look and scanned the length of the river. “Water as a portal? Is that possible?”

“Water is one of the elemental forces. As a portal, this river would make the perfect natural camouflage.”

Yoongi’s eyebrows creased. “So now d’you have to…uh, awaken the portal or something?”

“Let me see if I’m right.” Namjoon waded further downstream until he was waist-deep into the water. And that’s when he felt it – the thrumming energy of an invisible chasm, coursing through the water on a molecular level. He closed his eyes, raised his arms and closed his fists, gearing up to summon the portal.

Vievre.” Open.

A blast of force hurled Namjoon backwards to the riverbank, sending messy rivulets of water splashing everywhere. He and Yoongi watched, half slack-jawed, as the Scarlet River began to spin and rush downwards to form a mini whirlpool that lead to… wherever the portal led to. Hopefully Nilflheim.

“It worked!” Namjoon fist-pumped the air in triumph. “We need to tell the others!”

He shouldn’t have celebrated too early; for the next moment, the whirlpool lost energy and stilled back to calm waters.

His heart dropped. No.

“Why’d you close it?” Yoongi asked, frowning.

“I… I didn’t.” This wasn’t supposed to happen. Portal summoning was well within Namjoon’s abilities, so why did it shut on its own? He stared down at his hands, and noticed the runic symbols on his silver bracelets glowing almost brightly.

“The bracelets,” he sputtered in disbelief. “They’re containing my magic.”

Yoongi’s expression shifted in a mixture of confusion and irritation. “But you could open portals just fine back in the Realm of Monsters. How is this any different?”

Namjoon swallowed. “World-to-world teleportation is on an entirely different league that requires a higher level of power.” He stroked his chin, forcing himself to think harder. “With the bracelets limiting me, I can’t open portals for long travels, unless…”

“Unless?” Yoongi’s gaze brimmed with curiosity.

Namjoon’s face smoothened, an impossible thought taking form in his mind.

“Unless I get my Summoning Staff back.”

 


 

Jungkook smelled the rain before it poured.

With a clap of thunder and a mighty flash of lightning, the sky gave way to a sudden torrential downpour. Casual shoppers and tourists alike scattered helter-skelter, like ants scrambling for shelter.

“The sky is crying.”

Beside him, the purple-haired demonslayer-slash-genie—or “Taehyung”, as he now went by—lifted his face up to the sky in a welcoming motion, arms outstretched as if he wanted to embrace the shift in weather. His eyes were closed, his mouth tilted upwards in a placid smile, as orbs of rain fell and framed his face like little crystals beads.

Meanwhile, Jungkook cowered under his backpack and ducked under the nearest shop front for cover. He watched, half-amused and half-perplexed, as Taehyung stayed outdoors, twirling and skipping around puddles without a care in the world as raindrops pitter-pattered around him.

He’s got to be unreal, Jungkook mused.

Maybe this was the perfect time to slip away unnoticed. He didn’t have to be responsible for Taehyung, did he? They didn’t really know each other. Jungkook inched backwards one step, two steps, three…

Until a damp hand grabbed his arm. “Jungkook, let’s go up there!” Taehyung was beside him in the blink of an eye, pointing to the banner of a nearby cat café. “I love pussies!”

Jungkook wheezed at the words and stared at Taehyung with bulging eyes. Well, I don’t, he wanted to blurt out.

“C’mon, it’s my last day—“

“Last day where?”

Here,” Taehyung pointed to the ground and gestured to their surroundings, and looked at him like he was the one who wasn’t making any sense. “In this world. I already told you. By tomorrow, I’ll be elsewhere.”

Something akin to panic threatened to grip Jungkook, and a wave of dread began to settle in the pits of his stomach. But before he could assume anything, he had to make sure. “You mean you’re leaving the country.”

“No, I’m leaving this world.”

Jungkook’s eyebrow shot up, and suppressed a horrified gasp as the double meaning of Taehyung’s words hit him. The rain fell hard around them, but his heart pounded harder. What do I do? How do I stop him?

“Be my friend just for today, okay?” Taehyung grinned at him.

How could he refuse such a simple request? “Yeah, okay.”

Just for one day, Jungkook decided he would tolerate all that loony talk of genies and strange demons and stolen names if it meant he could save one life. He wasn’t a hero, nor was he trying to be one. All he could think of in that moment was that somewhere out there, Taehyung must have friends and family waiting for him to come home; people worried sick about him wandering about in a city as huge as Seoul. If he could spare them the pain and suffering of losing a loved one, then follow Taehyung to the ends of the world he would. Maybe if he accompanied the boy, he wouldn’t plan to “leave this world”.

“Awesome! Here, I wrote down a Bucket List of the things I wanted to do today.” Taehyung’s eyes glinted mischievously as he shoved a piece of paper at Jungkook. It was slightly damp from being in his rain-soaked pockets.

Jungkook squinted as he read:

 

Last Day To-Do’s

 

  • Get tattooed
  • Play with cats and dogs
  • Sing karaoke
  • Spin on a roundabout
  • Plant rice
  • Take a picture with Brave The Storm

 

He glanced up from the paper to find Taehyung beaming with pride over what he’d scribbled down.

“You know, I thought long and hard about what I really wanted to do before I go, and after many, many, many strict rounds of elimination, I ended up with those.” The boy looked positively excited, rocking back and forth on his heels, hands clasped behind his back. “Great choices, no? See here, I’ve never played on a roundabout before, because there wasn’t anyone who could push me, but now there’s you!”

Something about the utter simplicity of Taehyung’s wishes made an unfamiliar, burning sensation sting the back of Jungkook’s eyelids, and he gulped down the sudden lump in his throat.

“That’s… a nice list you’ve got there,” he croaked. “Too bad it’s not rice planting season right now. And I don’t have any connections to BTS. But… I’ll help you cross out the rest.”

“Awww.” Taehyung pouted at his words. “What a shame. And I really liked their cyphers, too. I hope someday I can return to meet them.”

Jungkook narrowed his eyes. Return?

Before he could question the purple-haired boy’s choice of words, Taehyung clapped his hands together. “Okay! Where do we start?”

It wasn’t a difficult question to answer. If they were going to walk around the streets like this, Jungkook wanted to attract as little attention as possible. He gave Taehyung’s soaking wet pyjamas a quick once-over. “First, let’s get you dry.”

 


 

While lining up for the cash register to buy new clothes for Taehyung (dark jeans and an oversized hoodie – average enough) and much to Jungkook’s surprise, the former suddenly whipped out wads of cash, claiming to have grown them himself from his very own ‘Midgard money tree’.

“Midgard money tree?” Jungkook repeated. “What, are you telling me money grows on trees?”

“Yes, the dwarves gave it to me as a parting gift before I left.”

…Right. “I could use myself one of those, too.”

Taehyung’s eyes grew wide with delight, but then turned hesitant. “I’d love to get you one, but money trees are rare. If I’m not wrong, they only grow in the green pastures of the Summer Prairie in Ingen.”

How do you respond to a sentence like that? Jungkook made another mental note to Google if a country or a province called “Ingen” truly existed. Sometimes he wondered if this purple-haired enigma was actually an aspiring novelist. A writer who carried universes in his mind and held unspooled secrets in his eyes. Or maybe it was just the crazies.

He may spout nonsense, but you hear and see weird shit too, his mind chided him.

He shook his head. “I don’t get you.”

“Oh, you’re not alone,” Taehyung smirked as he strolled to the front of the cashier line. “I don’t get myself very much, either.”

 


 

“I have a question.”

“Uh-huh?”

“Does your hair really grow out in that color?”

“Mm-hmm! I like to go au naturel.”

 


 

How did I get dragged into this?

At the tattoo parlor, Taehyung had chosen a shimmering golden leaf for the little spot behind his left ear.

“Why a golden leaf, of all things?” Jungkook questioned.

Taehyung gave him a funny look. “Don’t you know Yggdrasil? The Tree of Life?”

“Isn’t that a charity fund campaign?”

Taehyung clucked his tongue. “Wow, what are they teaching kids these days? Humans really are uncultured.”

 


 

What am I even doing?

Jungkook quickly learned that spending time with Taehyung was something that required the support of Redbull. Huge amounts of it. Why, the boy was a walking, talking bundle of energy! But Jungkook wasn’t the type to back down from a challenge, so he made sure to match his enthusiasm wit for wit, refusing to show even a shred of exhaustion no matter what.

Their time at the karaoke room had started out like a competitive showdown. While both boys initially tried their best to out-sing and outscore each other, they ended up singing ballad duets (complete with ad-libs and harmonization) and shaking their hips to hit songs like “Boombayah” and “Red Flavor” together. Without realizing it, two hours had zipped by with just them belting their lungs out.

When they reached a playground behind an old elementary school, Taehyung had hopped on the roundabout with a cry of, “Turn me around, Jungkookie!”

(Jungkookie? Nobody ever called him that, not since he was eleven years old.)

Nevertheless, he complied, spinning the roundabout far too many times for him to keep count. When Taehyung finally asked him to stop, it wasn’t because he’d gone dizzy to the point of puking, but rather because he felt hungry.

To this, Jungkook responded with a genuine chuckle, despite himself.

How strange it was, indeed, to be spending an incredibly normal afternoon with someone as unorthodox as Taehyung.

 


 

Why am I still here?

“Jungkook, look. That woman’s got bruises on her neck. I swear, you better hold me back before I punch that guy!”

“Those… those aren’t bruises, Taehyung.”

“Then why’s he doing that?”

“Because. Um. People do that when they’re in love.”

A thoughtful silence.

“Huh, looks painful. You humans have such strange notions of romance.”

 


 

“It’s your turn to hold up your end of the deal.”

“Hmm?” Taehyung barely looked up from the Pomeranian puppy he was stroking lovingly, perched on his lap. They were sitting in a dog café now, and the puppy—named Yeontan, according to the reception desk—had immediately latched onto Taehyung from the very moment they stepped inside.

“Answer my questions,” he implored. This boy might just be able to explain the unnatural events happening lately. “Please.”

Taehyung nodded. “Fine. Shoot.”

Jungkook sat up straighter and cleared his throat. “Okay, first of all. If you’re a genie, why can’t you grant wishes?” He didn’t know if he was asking this to simply humor Taehyung’s delusional rambling, or because he himself wanted to believe the boy’s words. That there was something more out there. Supernatural things.

“Now, now, I think you’re having a misconception here,” Taehyung answered, hands also gesturing animatedly. He had a tendency to do that when he got caught up in things he was talking about. “Jinnis aren’t wishmongers. We’re spiritual beings, works of divine creation.”

Jiyeon’s pale face flitted through Jungkook’s mind. “Can you heal sickness?”

“Depends on what kind. I don’t usually need to—we’ve got dwarves, and they’re great healers.” Taeyung lifted two thumbs up.

“…Okay. Next question. If I’m the only one who sees you through your glamour, how come other people can see you now?” When they’d come to the dog café, Jungkook noticed that the lady at the counter had clearly greeted the both of them.

“Oh, I lifted my glamour.” Taehyung rested his chin lazily on his palm, elbows propped against the table. “And you. You have astral vision.”

Jungkook’s eyes widened. He sat up straighter and leaned forward. “I have what?”

“Astral vision. You can see us naturally. Humans call it the ‘third eye’ or the ‘sixth sense’, but the proper term for it is actually astral vision.”

“Why do you keep saying ‘us’ and calling everyone else ‘humans’?” Jungkook asked, mystified by Taehyung’s usage of words. “You… where are you from?”

Taehyung sighed and leaned back on his seat, ruffling his already tousled hair. He looked conflicted, as if debating whether or not he should explain further. But then he opened his mouth to speak, and launched into the most inventive tale Jungkook had ever heard – something about gods and goddesses, and a whole universe consisting of nine worlds and a central tree called Yggdrasil.

It was an interesting story, yes, but Jungkook was more amused by how convinced Taehyung was of his own story. It was almost as if he truly believed in it.

“The thing is-” Taehyung rambled, eyes filled with gusto, “humans of Midgard—that’s Earth for you—aren’t supposed to know about magic. Or see us with our glamour intact. But you can.”

Jungkook released a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. “So, to sum things up,” he concluded, trying to arrange his thoughts, “-there are more planets—“

Realms,” Taehyung corrected.

“—than just Earth, mythical beings like unicorns and dwarves exist… and there are people like me who can see them?”

“That’s right.”

It was crazy talk. Totally improbable, completely ridiculous, and definitely some product of high fantasy. And yet… why did it make so much sense to him? Why did this perfectly explain everything?

Impossible logic for impossible situations. Jungkook chortled nervously. “No way.”

“Hey, don’t laugh! You asked; I answered.” Taehyung’s face turned solemn, the light in his golden eyes fading. Never had Jungkook ever seen a person who could shift moods so easily – from playful to hauntingly serious – within the span of a nanosecond. “Be honest. Do you even believe a single word I’ve been saying all this time?”

A sheepish smile made its way across Jungkook’s face. He raised his hands in mock surrender. “I don’t know. I mean, no offense, but I just don’t understand how someone who doesn’t remember his own name can claim to know so much about other things.”

Taehyung sighed, and messed his hair up some more. “I’m not going to force you to believe me. I remember everything else but the most important details about myself. You don’t get it, do you? You don’t know what it’s like, to struggle with this feeling of… of missingness.”

He tore his gaze away. “Tannie, c’mere!”

The puppy happily padded over, tail wagging, and licked the purple-haired boy’s hands.

But I do, Jungkook wanted to reassure him. I know what it’s like not to know who I am.

“But y’know, I’m curious,” Taehyung broke the awkward silence that had fallen between them like a curtain. He let Yeontan go, and leaned forward to study Jungkook intently, eyes sharp, focused and clearly not deranged.

In that moment, Jungkook realized: behind that cheerful and carefree façade, here was a smart guy who knew what he was talking about, broken memories be damned.

Which was… actually pretty darn cool, if he might say so himself. He would never say that aloud, of course.

Taehyung asked, “Do you also have super hearing?”

Jungkook blinked. “How did you—?”

“What can you hear, right now?”

Jungkook closed his eyes and focused on his hearing, tuning in to the different sound waves coming his way and adjusting them up and down like an internal volume toggle.

Over the whines and yips of the dogs in the cafe, he could hear so much more – the soft tinkling of bicycle bells as a cyclist passed by, two streets down; the last few pitter-patterings of raindrops against the building’s roof as the sky finally let up; a TV announcer from the shop across the road talking about an impending lunar eclipse.

“A lunar eclipse?” Jungkook mumbled, opening his eyes. Perhaps that explained the bipolar weather of late – the random snow blizzard from a few weeks ago, the sudden dry spell a few days back, and now the unexpected downpour of monsoon-like rain. An astronomical phenomenon. “Apparently there’s going to be a super blood moon happening this evening.”

“A luuunar eclipse!” Just like that, Taehyung’s childlike demeanor returned. He was like a pendulum—always swinging between two extremes. “I was right! It opens tonight. We gotta go.”

“Where?” Jungkook looked out the window. The sunset sky was an unabashed pastel painting in swathes of baby blue and cotton candy pink, as if it hadn’t been raining cats and dogs a few hours prior.

Taehyung flashed him a secretive smile. “To send me off, of course.”

 


 

Jungkook would’ve been okay with the whole sending-off concept—he wanted to get Taehyung off his back, didn’t he?—as long as they weren’t doing it here.

The Mapo Bridge was a huge transit artery crossing the Han River to connect two separate districts together. In hindsight, it was intended to just be that—a transportation service. Nobody had expected the bridge to become a notorious spot for people to take their own lives, with ninety-three suicides in 2013 alone. There was a reason why it was known as South Korea’s “suicide bridge”, and Jungkook wanted nothing more than to steer clear of it.

But Taehyung had different plans. He’d dragged him all the way here, and now they were standing right in the middle of the bridge, leaning out over the edge’s railing, and Jungkook could have sworn his legs were quaking in his boots. His day had been going by in fifty shades of unreal, but what was happening now had to be the most unreal. The unrealest.

I should have known. He shut his eyes tight and clenched his jaw. He shouldn’t have let Taehyung bring him here. He should have kept in mind that the stories he’d been told today were exactly what they were—stories created to entertain an idle but hyperactive imagination.

Jungkook’s stomach lurched in doubt, regret and frustration. Now that they were on the bridge, it wasn’t like he could just leave. He couldn’t let Taehyung do… whatever he was about to do. He’d never be able to live with the guilt.

It was nighttime now, and in the absence of sunlight, the city skyline was a blinking landscape of neon lights against an indefinite abyss of blackness. The smell of exhaust lingered in the air as vehicles whizzed by them, and Jungkook tried his best to block out the deafening roar of car engines and incessant honking of impatient drivers.

The evening breeze nipped at Jungkook’s cheeks, and the mist of after-rain hung heavy in the air. Above them, the full moon blushed; so red that any unsuspecting passerby might, at any moment, look up and gasp at how Mars suddenly seemed so close and big. However, it was not the red planet at all, but rather a tantalizing blood moon.

“This is it,” Taehyung stated with a tone of finality, looking as calm as possible. “Time for me to go.” He heaved one leg up on the other side of the bridge’s railing.

No!” On instinct, Jungkook grabbed him by the waist, fisting the hem of his oversized hoodie. “Don’t jump!”

Taehyung writhed uncomfortably in his grip. “Eh? Let me go. I have to do this.”

“You can’t!” Against his will, tears leaked out of the corners of Jungkook’s eyes. “Don’t let this be your last day. There’s so much to live for! More days to come. I can’t promise you that they’ll all be great days, but I’ll… I’ll be your friend. Just please, don’t do this—“

“Awww,” Taehyung cooed, eyes bright in the moonlight. He put his leg back down, and Jungkook almost passed out from the immense relief that washed over him from seeing that action. “How adorable. I’ll miss you too, buddy, but I can’t stay.”

A tiny whimper escaped Jungkook and he shook his head. He wasn’t supposed to get this affected; heck, he wasn’t even close to Taehyung, but this was a serious matter, and no way in heaven or hell was he letting him jump.

“Look,” Taehyung grabbed him by the shoulders to gaze into his eyes. “I can never thank you enough for your kindness today. You’ve clothed and fed me. I had lots of fun. May the deities of Asgard return you the favour one day.”

Why, oh why did that sound like a parting speech? Jungkook tightened his hold on Taehyung’s hoodie. The purple-haired boy patted his cheek affectionately.

“Don’t cry, okay? I’ll feel bad. Hey, how do humans say goodbye? Teach me.”

Jungkook’s heart thrashed like a bird trapped in a cage, but against his better judgment, he lifted his right hand.

Taehyung did not look amused. “Tsk. I already told you; I can’t give you my memento mori. It’s my only clue to who I am.”

Jungkook caught Taehyung’s hand and carefully guided it to his, where his fingers closed over the other’s in a warm grip. “T-this is called a handshake,” he hiccupped through his tears. He moved their clasped hands up and down.

Taehyung nodded, and they shook hands, and shook hands, and shook some more. “...And how long do these handshakes last?” he finally asked.

Instead of answering, Jungkook intertwined his fingers with Taehyung’s and refused to let go. He sniffed stubbornly.

Taehyung tugged his hand away but to no avail. When he spoke again, there was a hint of impatience in his baritone voice. “I can’t miss this chance, Jungkook. I really, really need to go. Now.”

With a grunt, he pulled back again, hard, and this time he managed to break free from Jungkook’s grasp. With unexpected agility and speed, he moved so that both of his feet were already placed on the other side of the bridge before Jungkook could deter him again. The only things keeping him tethered to the railing now were his arms.

“No!” Jungkook shrieked, his panic intensifying. Think, think! Then an idea struck him. It was reckless, but it was his last resort. He approached the railing beside Taehyung, held onto the edge, and he swung one leg over.

In his bravest voice, he said, “You jump, I jump.”

He expected the purple-haired boy to curse and yell at him for being stupid. He was more than prepared to be told to back off, and he hoped that that would make Taehyung reconsider his own actions, too.

But Taehyung, as he should have known, was not your typical personality.

“Oh, great! The more the merrier.” Without a second’s hesitation, Taehyung linked their arms together and hopped off the ledge, dragging Jungkook along as gravity yanked them down, down, down into the Han River below.

I’m sorry I can’t visit you tomorrow, Jiyeon was Jungkook’s last petrified thought before they broke the surface of the icy water.

 


 

Jimin never thought he would ever lay eyes on a centaur.

There were supposedly very few of them left—after all, they were creatures made by Zeus, and their numbers had dwindled dramatically after he left the worlds, with majority choosing to join him to build his promised “perfect world”. Those who remained fled to secluded corners different realms. Some stayed in Asgard, some chose to reside with the dwarves of Ingen, others went to Midgard only to be slain by humans who found them (such curious and merciless beings), while some settled in the southernmost parts of Diadra, in the heart of the Scarlet River.

When Jimin met Gruv and Dayai, the married owners of The Magnanimous Finch, his first impression of them was:

Wow, tall.

Gruv’s bottom half was coated in dark brown hair with an ebony tail, while Dayai had the features of a buckskin horse, with creamy alabaster coat and a chestnut brown tail that matched the braided locks on her head. Instead of looking lewd in their top-naked glory, they were breathtaking to behold, and Jimin had gasped in awe when he first saw them.

In spite of their stallion legs, they lumbered — no, glided — almost gracefully around their tavern, sure-footed from years of familiarity. Even though the guests looked grumpy, casting dark looks at Jimin and Hoseok every now and then, the couple went about their work merrily, greeting regular patrons and serving food with unfaltering smiles on their rosy, ruddy cheeks.

He’d half-expected them to bow in his presence when Donghae introduced them as his parents, but then he realized that this far down south, nobody probably knew how the Prince of Elves looked like, let alone consider the possibility of him being here. So he was a walking stranger, then. It was probably for the best, in order to avoid attracting too much fanfare.

This newfound anonymity was freedom to Jimin.

Until he realized that if he were to prance around as an average person, he had to eat like at average person as well.

“Is this… food?” He gulped uncomfortably and stared in dismay at the grey-green glob of gooey-looking mush in the wooden bowl before him. What were those suspicious, withered greens he could see? And were those eyeballs floating in the broth? Suddenly, he missed the cakes and the warm soup he’d always taken for granted at the Mirror Palace.

“Yep!” Donghae affirmed brightly. He and Hoseok were sitting on either side of Jimin at the barstools. “It’s our bestseller, flume ghoulash, made with freshly poached flumes from eastern Ingen.”

“Flumes?” Hoseok repeated. “You mean those floating, three-legged critters that look like blobs of jelly?”

Coming up from behind them, Gruv hummed in confirmation and set down three jugs of ale on their table with a small thud. “Exactly those. Ever tried one, lad?”

“Uhh, no.” Hoseok eyed the bowl uncertainly.

“Ooooh, sweet!” Dayai’s angelic voice sang out from across the room. Eagerness lit up her brown eyes. “First time tasters!”

Kashmere hovered over Jimin’s shoulder with a doubtful look. “Don’t you have anything more… substantial?” he asked Donghae apprehensively.

“No, Kash. I’ll try it,” Jimin offered with a shaky smile. He didn’t want to disappoint their hosts. It couldn’t be too bad, right? “I’m sure it’s their bestseller for a reason.”

The first spoonful made him want to retch. Flume ghoulash was like nothing Jimin had ever tasted before. It was malevolently bad — soft and bland to chew, but left an acrid taste sitting in his tongue even after swallowing the glump down. It slid through his throat like slime, and Jimin wanted nothing more than to push his bowl away and starve instead.

Hoseok seemed to think otherwise.

“Oh, this is fucking tasty,” declared the necromancer, gorging down his bowl as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks. Not wanting to seem rude, Jimin followed his example and forced down the ghoulash into his tummy, too. “If only I could stay here, I’d be your regular customer starting from tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” Donghae brows knitted together. “Why can’t you stay?”

“We’re travellers, see? Heading to Nilflheim to meet some celestial magician, I think,” Hoseok shared while chewing. “Which reminds me, my friends are out there searching for a portal. I better go check up on ‘em.” He pushed away from the barstool and made for the door. “You’ll be fine alone for a bit, right, Jimin?”

Kashmere meowed to answer for Jimin. Once Hoseok was gone, the prince turned back to Donghae, who looked stricken.

“Travellers?” Donghae repeated, paling a little. “You’re… you’re not Fallen?”

Jimin cocked his head to one side. “Well, yeah, we fell down from the Cloud Express, if that’s what you mean…”

“No,” Donghae cut in hastily. He lowered his voice to a whispered hush. “I meant as in… as in Seraphs. Fallen angels?”

Jimin threw his head back and laughed. “Of course not.” How could they be mistaken for as rebellious folk? He’d heard of the Fallen — Seraphs who had their wings hacked off from their bare backs and were banished from Asgard forever. They were rogues driven mad from the bitterness of their failure, and they normally ended up living the rest of their lives as miserable thugs or ruffians. Needless to say, they didn’t blend in very well with others.

Donghae cursed under his breath. Het met Jimin’s bemused gaze with an uneasy one of his own. “Listen. I won’t tell anyone about you guys, but you should go…“

His next words diminished to silence when two men, one blond and one brunette, bounded over and took up the barstools next to them, none too quietly. Their faces might have been ethereally beautiful once, but now they were blotched with scars and bruises both old and new. They wore no upper garments, and from where Jimin sat, he thought he saw faint, haphazard scars running down the ridges of their backs, healed from what must’ve been long-ago gashes.

“I swear, Lemiz, I shouldn’t’ve let that asswipe live. Did ya see the way he glared at me? Deserved more than a beating, that one,” the dark-haired one muttered gruffly under his breath. “Hey Gruv! Two beers over here, would ya?”

“Coming right up,” the centaur hollered with a wink. “On the house to cheer your foul moods.”

“Izacariah’s got too much energy for his own good,” the blond — Lemiz — answered in a lighter tone. “Got into a nasty fight because some dumb imp called him an angel. Rude.”

“He clearly saw that we were flightless!” grumbled Izacariah. “Rubbing salt in the wound, he was. If only I had my bow an’ arrow back, I woulda pierced his heart to a sycamore tree just for laughs. That oughta teach him.”

“And if only I had my sword back, I’d skewer his flesh to shreds and feed it to the wolves!” Lemiz added with a hearty chortle.

“If you truly wanted your weaponry back, you wouldn’t be wasting time getting drunk in a pub here,” a new voice answered gruffly. A hush fell over the inn upon hearing the disembodied speaker.

Jimin whipped his head to the right, and his eyes widened. From the shadows in the far recesses of the tavern, out crawled a large creature with body of a lion, but the head and wings of an eagle. Those wings were drawn close to its side, its feathers a soft, pristine white. The creature had been so quiet, a silent observer all this while, that Jimin had failed to notice its presence until then.

It was a griffin.

Like centaurs, griffins were creatures made during the time of Zeus. These elegant beasts usually lived in isolation, away from any trace of civilization, because greedy folks of allkind have started hunting them for their intelligence since the departure of Zeus’ clan. Formidable but benevolent, griffins allegedly carried the wisdom of age-old scholars in their brains. Jimin had never seen one up close before; life in the castle had kept him remote from the world indeed. Kashmere tucked himself under Jimin’s arm and watched the griffin with wide eyes.

Lemiz waved a hand. “Martimillo! Didn’t even notice you there. Been a while, hasn’t it? Look, Iz, it’s Old Marty!”

Izacariah gave a terse nod in the griffin’s direction and resumed gulping down his jug. “What brings ya here?”

The griffin prowled towards the two Fallen—and thus also in Jimin and Donghae’s direction—while keeping his beady eyes trained on Izacariah. His lion’s paws landed noiselessly on the wooden floor of the tavern with every step. “You have fallen hard, old friend. If not the gods, then may the stars be in your favour from now on. I am here tonight because the wind whispered to me, and it spoke of a certain… presence, that will create an inevitable butterfly effect.” At this, Martimillo’s eyes shifted to meet Jimin’s stare. The prince looked away, feeling pinned down by the griffin’s gaze. Did it know who he was?

Izacariah held up a hand with half-lidded eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Yer talkin’ riddles again. I ain’t in the mood.”

Lemiz, however, thought otherwise. He asked Martimillo to explain what he meant by getting their weaponry back.

“The Outlands, a place neither here nor there,” Martimillo provided in a cryptic manner. “All condemned articles deemed too evil for the Nine Worlds are stored and hidden away in the Outlands, in a special container known as Pandora’s Box.”

“W-what are the chances that we could retrieve our belongings?” Lemiz asked.

The griffin gave a knowing smirk. “I already predicted what you are planning, and let me be the one to tell you outright — you will never be able to open the Box. It is locked and heavily guarded by a cursed woman of its namesake. It is a dangerous item that, if opened, will release evils of the worlds, if not absolute destruction.”

The dark-haired Fallen rolled his eyes exasperatedly. “Then what was the point of telling us, eh?”

Once again, the griffin’s eyes flitted to Jimin, who wanted nothing more than to shrink away at that moment. “I just felt like I had to let you know.”

Jimin’s blood pounded in his ears, and stomach curdled and twisted itself into knots. Why did it feel like those words were for meant for him, and not the ex-Seraphs?

“And with that, gentlemen, I will take my leave.” Martimillo traipsed backwards, spread his magnificent wings out wide, and crouched his hind legs to take off. He leapt and transitioned to flight in one fluid motion, and he was out of the tavern’s door in the blink of an eye.

“That griffin, I swear he’s just messin’ with us,” Izacariah muttered under his breath. He swiveled around in his chair and locked gazes with Jimin. “And what’re ya lookin’ at, huh?”

The prince chewed down on his lower lip and averted his eyes. Kashmere meowed defensively. Beside him, Donghae shifted so that his body obscured Jimin from Izacariah’s line of sight.

Lemiz, who was a little less inebriated, turned to face Jimin too, and something in his eyes stirred at seeing the prince’s face. “You… I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. What’s your name?”

“Jimin!” Hoseok’s loud voice rang through the tavern as he returned with a perplexed Yoongi and a sullen Namjoon right on his heels.

“Jimin?” the prince heard Lemiz mumble. From the corner of his eye, he saw the two Fallen exchange a glance, and his stomach lurched again. “Sounds familiar…”

“You both look like you’ve had enough to drink, hmm?” Donghae said gaily, tone as light as a feather while he kept a steady hand on Jimin’s shoulder. “Perhaps it’s time to call it a night and head back to your quarters.”

The Fallen cast them one last sidelong glance, before grunting and turning away from them.

(Jimin concluded that Grumpy had to be these ex-Seraphs’ middle names. That, and Creepy.)

The whole encounter felt foreboding, and suddenly Jimin wasn’t feeling all too good. His stomach had been feeling jittery ever since he'd chomped down that bowl of ghoulash. Nevertheless, he pasted on a smile as Hoseok and the others approached the bar counter. “So did you manage to find a portal?”

Hoseok fidgeted uncomfortably. Yoongi pinched the bridge of his nose with his eyes closed.

Namjoon sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “About that… we did, but we can’t use it.”

Jimin frowned. “And why not?”

“I… I can’t hold it open.” With much reluctance, Namjoon showed Jimin his runic bracelets and explained how they kept his power in check. On his own, he hadn’t enough anima to support world-to-world travel. “Unless…”

“Unless what?”

Namjoon’s expression turned contemplative, and he stroked his chin while he said, “Before I was cast away to the Realm of Monsters, I used to carry a staff with me. For summoning and other miscellaneous works. I think I need it back if we’re to continue this journey.”

“Well,” Jimin said with renewed hope. “Where is it?”

“It’s… not with me.”

“He lost it,” Hoseok deadpanned. “As expected of Namjoon. One of these days I’m afraid he’d lose himself if he weren’t with us.”

“No, I didn’t lose it,” Namjoon countered firmly. “The gods took my Summoning Staff away from me before they threw me into the Realm of Monsters.”

His words caught Jimin’s attention. “Did you say taken away? Like… like confiscated?” the prince clarified, remembering the griffin’s words. The Outlands. Pandora’s Box.

“I suppose you could say that.”

Jimin’s tummy flipped. The hairs on his arm raised as he realized Martimillo’s purpose for coming to the tavern – it was such perfect timing, really. Had the griffin truly come here to help them? But why? And how did it know what kind of information Jimin would need?

Griffins carry the wisdom of age-old scholars.

Perhaps some things didn’t need an explanation.

“I… I think I know where we can find your staff,” Jimin said breathily, a little awed and dumbstruck. At the same time, he tried not to wince and bit down the bile threatening to force its way out of his mouth. Why was he feeling so nauseous all of a sudden?

The trio regarded him with a mixture of disbelief and surprise, but Jimin could speak no further when he suddenly heaved and spilled the contents of his stomach. Hoseok let out a little yelp and backed away.

If Jimin wasn’t too busy coughing out the bile in his mouth, he’d be flushed red with embarrassment by now. Here was another one of the “uprincely acts” his father had always chastised him for.

“Great,” Yoongi muttered. “You leave him for two minutes and he pukes his guts out. I told you, we should’ve left—“

“Yoongi, no,” Hoseok snapped with a sharp look.

Donghae stood up and tsk-tsked in alarm. “Must’ve been the flume ghoulash.” He rubbed circles into Jimin’s back. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up and put to bed early.” With a call for Dayai to clean up the mess on the floor, Jimin allowed himself to be escorted back upstairs.

“I’ll tell you more tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder to the other three, determined to make up for his perceived uselessness on the team so far.

He had a lead. He could help. This was his chance to prove that he was more than just the fancy, sheltered prince they pegged him for.

 


 

“See? What did I tell you?” Yoongi sent Hoseok and Namjoon a disgusted smirk as they watched the two elves retreating up the stairs. “Deadweight.”

“Oh, come on, don’t be so tough on him,” Namjoon said. “This is probably not what he’s used to.”

“Exactly,” Yoongi argued. “You can’t fit a square peg into a hole. He’s going to die out there, Joon. Before we get too far, I suggest that we leave that kid in these people’s care. They seem…”

A beer jug whizzed past their heads, narrowly missing Namjoon’s right ear, and shattered loudly on the other side of the tavern. Hoseok swore under his breath.

“… nice enough,” Yoongi finished lamely.

“Hey.”

Yoongi turned to where two topless patrons sat on the barstools beside where Jimin had been earlier. One of them had golden hair while the other sported dark, mussed hair. Both were positively smashed — red-faced, slurring their words and giggling like children to each other. But what caught Yoongi’s attention were their bare backs. The bones on their upper halves were deformed, jutting out in unnatural angles, and scars crisscrossed down as though somebody had taken an axe and grated it down their skin, causing large gashes on the left and right. Of course, they’d long gone and healed.

Maybe they were gashes from having wings ripped away.

Yoongi’s spine went as tense a kite string.

“Heeeey,” drawled the voice again. It was one of the two drunkards, the brunette who looked like the worlds had done him wrong. “Ya’s ain’t from ‘round here, are ya?”

The flame wielder bristled, but made no comment. He didn’t want to associate with them. He knew what they were — Fallen. The ex-Seraphs had an affinity for viciousness, and he’d heard enough stories of pure souls being dragged down into their downwards spiral of corruption to know that these were a species you did not want to get entangled with.

Engage with the Fallen, and you shall too.

Namjoon and Hoseok must have realized it too, judging by the way their eyes turned vigilant and cautious. Together, the three of them inched away as naturally as they could, bringing up small talk and any other topic they could think of.

“That kid just now, he ain’t no normal elf, innit? He’s the Elven Prince.”

The words made them freeze. Hoseok was the first to cave in. He pivoted on his heel and said with as much innocence as he could muster, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The brunette grinned — but it looked more like he was baring his teeth. “We been knew. Back when I was a Seraph, I was assigned royal lookout every once in a while. I could’ve sworn I’ve seen that face before! Hey, Lemiz, whaddya say we have some fun with him, eh?” Turning to Yoongi, he bit out, “Ya won’t mind if we borrow him, no?”

Yoongi stayed silent and stoic.

“I bet it’ll be fun to gauge his heart out and offer it to the King himself,” came Lemiz’ answering snigger.

Yoongi walked off. Heavy footsteps thundered after him, and the Fallen shoved him aggressively by the collar.

“I was talkin’ to you!” snarled the ill-tempered brunette, lifting him off the floor.

“Fuck. Off,” Yoongi growled coldly, before closing his hands around the Fallen’s wrists in a bone-crushing squeeze. He directed his flames to scorch deep into the Fallen’s skin and all the way to his muscle until he screamed in agony and let go of Yoongi.

“Izacariah!” Lemiz cried.

“Son of a demon!” bellowed the brunette, his body shaking in fury as his gripped his burnt wrists. He fixed Yoongi with a death stare. “Yer gonna pay for that.”

Yoongi glowered back, lighting his palms with blazing fire. Looks like the do-not-engage tactic wasn’t going to cut it for him tonight. “Make me.”

Izacariah yelled and lunged just as Yoongi sidestepped him. A dagger flew past his head and he whirled around to find Lemiz holding two more in his hands. But before the blond Fallen could throw more at Yoongi’s, a long leather strap latched onto Lemiz’ forearms, and he let out an earsplitting shriek.

Hoseok’s nightmare whip. Yoongi looked to the right, and the necromancer gave him a wink that said, I got you.

Out of the blue, strong hands grabbed Yoongi from behind in a tight chokehold. He coughed and kicked aimlessly, feeling his airways closing. He clawed at the hands that gripped his throat. The next moment, the hands loosened, and he turned around to find Namjoon holding up a barstool, having knocked out his perpetrator. Izacariah.

Excited whoops and whistles reverberated around the pub. “Fight! Fight!”

The thing about the male ego was that it always seemed to be after pride and glory. It was always chasing after the thrill of danger. So naturally, given a tavern teeming with testosterone, every other living, breathing individual in the room seemed to shift gears kick into an automatic and carnal, join-the-fight mode. Never mind that they didn’t know what the brawl was about; it was a fight, and so to the pub-goers, it was meant to be joined.

Yoongi had no idea how it happened. One moment they were trying to make a peaceful getaway from a pair of intoxicated ex-Seraphs, and the next, the entire pub had turned into a scene of total chaos. People started punching one another for no reason at all—perhaps even for fun—and soon enough they’d dragged in the gamblers and patrons from other tables, too. They kicked and grunted and pulled at each other’s clothes; one of the brawlers went as far as to knock over an entire barrel of beer on the floor so that his quarry would slip and fall.

The centaurs simply took shelter behind the bar counter, polishing glasses, unfazed by the wreckage. It seemed that brawls were a nightly affair in the tavern.

Yoongi spotted Namjoon crawling out from the mass of bodies. He also saw a huge man with a wooden club looming over from behind the sorcerer, ready to hand Namjoon a blow.

“Namjoon, watch out—!”

Yoongi hadn’t yet finished his warning cry when Hoseok hurled his whip at the grand chandelier of candles hanging above the pub, and pulled to detach it from the ceiling.

The chandelier fell right on top of Namjoon’s attacker, promptly knocking him out.

The chandelier fell, and each and every candle rolled off their holders.

The chandelier fell, and because the candles held fire and the pub’s furniture were made of wood, what happened next was ultimately inevitable.

The entire tavern burst into flames.

Shouts and panicked cries arose among the fighting men. The fire spread quickly, devouring every wooden surface it could reach with devilish fervor, and Yoongi had half a mind to use his gift to stop the fire, but that would mean he and his friends wouldn’t be able to escape this hell.

They had to escape the wrath of the Fallen for ruining their little safe haven, and this distraction would buy them time and cover their tracks. Instead of tamping down the flames, Yoongi willed them flare brighter. He wasn’t affected by fire, but the black smoke obscured his view as he staggered to find Namjoon and Hoseok.

Somebody grabbed him by the shoulder. Yoongi whirled around, ready to shove the person off-

“It’s me! It’s me, Donghae,” coughed the voice. “I know a way out. Hoseok and Namjoon are already there. Follow me.”

His words made Yoongi pause. Only Hoseok and Namjoon? “And the prince?”

The smoke parted, and in a moment of clarity, he saw Donghae’s eyes water with defeated tears. “I… I can’t get to him. The flames are blocking the way to his room.”

Yoongi grit his teeth. His breathing quickened, and there was a ringing in his ears that muffled the agonized yelling of everyone else in the tavern.

The roof and the branches holding up the tavern crackled and began to give way. Donghae tugged hard at Yoongi’s elbows. “Hurry, we have to go now.”

Yoongi gnawed at his fingernails, torn by the internal tumult inside of him. On one hand, an accident like this would be the best way to get rid of that deadweight. But on the other hand…

The prince said he knew how to help Namjoon retrieve his staff, didn’t he? That made him an asset. They couldn’t afford to lose an asset, not yet. If they were going to get out of this place, they needed Jimin, and they needed him alive.

“No, wait first.” With a grimace and a reluctant groan, Yoongi turned on his heel and fled towards the staircase.

 


 

Jimin awoke to a world engulfed by flames.

More specifically, it was to Kashmere’s hysterical yowling, his own body damp with sweat, and the unyielding heat of fire pressing down on him.

What in the worlds...?

He bolted out of the mattress, blinking rapidly to shake off the disorientation. A tongue of fire licked at his feet and he instinctively curled up, tucking his legs under his arms.

“Kashmere! Where are you?” If anything happened to his pet-servant, he would never forgive himself.

“Your Highness!” a shrill voice answered from the other side of the room. “Your invincibility cloak. It’s with me!”

That’s right. If he could just drape his father’s cloak on, he would be protected. He would be able to leave the suffocating room, march downstairs and seek an explanation for what was happening. He had to find his way out somehow. But...

How? More than just fire, it was the smoke that rendered Jimin blind to his surroundings. He couldn’t even see the sheets in front of him. He tried to reach out with his mind, tried to see if he could move any branches to his advantage, but he found only blackened wood; dead to his calling. He wouldn’t be able to manipulate dead matter of Earth.

Jimin coughed, his lungs trying to keep the smoke out. He had to move now, or he and Kashmere would get trapped here and be swallowed by the raging inferno. The fire was a rampaging beast that blocked everything in its path. Despite the danger of getting his bare feet burned badly, Jimin leapt out of the bed and into the sea of smoke and flames, staying light on the balls of his feet to skip over fallen debris.

He groped his way through the blinding smoke, and tripped on an unseen chair that stood in his way. He landed hard on the floor, and the wood splintered and cracked under his weight. Luckily it was an area that hadn’t yet been reached by the fire, or his face would have been melted right off his head. Nonetheless, Jimin could feel the searing heat closing in. One of the four posters of the canopy collapsed and landed on his thighs, pinning him down to the floor. Jimin released a bloodcurdling yell.

“Your Highness!” Kashmere cried. “Where are you? I can’t find the door, I can't see…”

The smoke was slowly pulling Jimin under. His eyes watered in an attempt to keep them open. He knew. He knew he wouldn’t last longer; not even his magic could hold a candle against a world deadened by flames.

And in the terrible heat of the moment, only one name embedded itself in his mind. One name he knew would have the ability to quell this killing machine around him.

Yoongi.

A sob racked his body at the thought that he was at the mercy of someone so hateful, that he was hoping against hope for salvation that would never come. But perhaps Mother Celeste had heard his reluctant hope, because his ears caught the crescendoing thumping of boots against the wooden floor. To his left, he heard the door slam open, and as soon as the person stepped into the room, the smoke and the flames receded immeasurably.

Jimin’s pulse skyrocketed. No. It couldn’t be.

“Lift your head, elf.”

The Elven Prince’s head snapped up to see Yoongi standing by the threshold, panting to catch his breath.

The fire weaver raised his hand, and whether the flames ceased lashing out violently, or time suddenly stood still, or his heartbeat slowed down in his chest, Jimin didn’t know. Every single aspect of their surroundings seemed to pause; flickering sparks of embers floated mid-air like vermilion glitter. Jimin would never forget how his vision zeroed in nothing but Yoongi, a dark silhouette framed against the raging inferno, eyes smoldering with frozen fire.

As he drew closer, the fire parted to make way for him. He hurled something heavy and velvety at Jimin’s head, effectively separating the prince from the suffocating smoke. His invincibility cloak.

“Wake up,” Yoongi rasped, voice gravelly from the smoke. “You’re not allowed to die.”

Chapter Text

Heave. Haul. Tug. Pull.

That was the plan of action. Yoongi gripped Jimin by the forearms, but the elf grimaced at the first attempt at movement. Their eyes travelled down to where his thighs were held down by one of the fallen logs of the four-poster bed. While the prince didn’t seem fatally injured, he was undeniably, most definitely stuck.

A string of curses fell from Yoongi’s mouth. “Can you shrink yourself?”

“What?” The elf’s cloak was muffling Yoongi’s words, and the crackling flames surrounding them weren’t helping to make hearing any easier. Jimin lifted the fabric off his head and blinked up at Yoongi through the smoke with bleary eyes.

“Do the thing,” Yoongi barked, chewing on his inner cheek. More debris fell around them and he winced. With every passing second, he could feel his grip on the surrounding flames slipping. It was only a matter of time before he lost it completely. “The shrinking thing. Faster.”

Jimin understood immediately; he shut his eyelids, and with as much concentration as he could muster, willed his muscles to tighten, picturing his body as a sponge squeezing itself.

In his smaller form, the prince could easily crawl out of the log. He stood up, checking to make sure that his legs weren’t hurt. If the situation hadn’t been so dire, Yoongi might have faltered and watched in perplexed awe as the elf turned tinier than a shoe.

But time was racing against them, and Yoongi couldn’t afford to lose…well, his control over the fire mostly, but also the prince, because he was essential to the mission for once. He scooped up Jimin’s body in his long, spindly fingers to tuck him into the velvety folds of the invincibility cloak, ignoring the elf’s adamant squeak of protest.

“If you don’t want to get roasted, keep your head down.”

Yoongi turned to the doorway to flee just as a desperate meow caught his ears. His eyes snapped left. Jimin’s winged cat perched on top of a shelf, pawing at the flames leaping at him.

A frustrated growl made its way out of Yoongi. This damned cat.

Trying to keep his footsteps as light as possible, he picked his way back through the creaky wooden floor that was on the verge of collapse, grabbed Kashmere by the back of his neck (only to be met with incessant yowling and clawing, much to his chagrin) and tucked the cat into the invincibility cloak bundled under his arm, too.

And then he ran.

Down the stairs, out the door and into the open night. Yoongi wasn’t the slightest bit affected by heat, but the cool air of the outdoors still nipped at his skin like icicles. For a fleeting moment, he considered using his more power to quell all of the flames devouring the tavern to put a stop to this madness, but a voice at the back of his mind screamed for him not to.

Don’t risk it.

“Pssst!”

There—hiding amongst the camouflage of dead bushes at the far end of the prairie. Donghae waved Yoongi over with the desperation of a hunted prey. You’d think he was the one who just exited a massive bout of hellfire. “Over here!”

Yoongi jogged over, and Donghae motioned for him to follow. He led them to a clump of mismatched rock formations near the banks of the Scarlet River, and crept towards the largest of them all. It was a grey stone boulder that stood almost up to Yoongi’s height, its surface roughened by time, but it didn’t look quite as natural as it should—it was as if somebody had overturned it to lie sideways. Yoongi’s eyes raked over the empty space beside the rock, to the gaping patch of flattened brown grass and leaves and twigs where, he presumed, the rock had originally been positioned.

Donghae dropped to his knees and used his arms to sweep the twigs and leaves aside. Lo and behold, a gaping hole no wider than three feet appeared underneath the dead foliage. Yoongi peered into the black nothingness, but his eyes could not make out what lay below.

“Step inside,” Donghae urged. “There’s a ladder leading down to the underground tunnel.”

How utterly convenient. Suspicion gnawed on Yoongi’s nerves. For all he knew, he could be walking straight into a mousetrap. “Where’s Hoseok and Namjoon?” he demanded.

“They’ve already gone down,” Donghae answered without hesitation. “If I’m not wrong, they’ve probably reached the other end of the tunnel by now.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

The elf stared at him, aghast. “I’m just trying to—“

“Wait!” The bundle in Yoongi’s arms writhed violently, and Jimin’s little head popped out, his long silver hair coming out disheveled and matted across his forehead. “Wait. No. We can’t leave yet.”

Yoongi frowned at him. Aces and spades, he did not just stay behind to save the life of somebody who didn’t want to be rescued after all—

“The inn,” Jimin cried shrilly. He pointed at The Magnanimous Finch. “It’s still on fire!” He looked up at Yoongi with pleading eyes. “There could be people still trapped in there!”

What was this feeling tugging at Yoongi’s conscience?

He wasn’t dumb. He could read the meaning between the prince’s words—save them—but he knew he couldn’t.

It wasn’t that he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

For the flames had grown much bigger now, spreading to other nearby trees like an angry bruise. It cast sharp, claw-like embers into the black void of the night. The sheer size and magnitude of this monstrosity was something Yoongi was powerless against, especially in his shackled state. Fucking runic handcuffs.

There was nothing more tragic than the great irony of being at the mercy of something you were supposed to have full control over. Shackled or not, Yoongi’s power was never completely his. Never had been, and he knew that. If he ever did attempt to wield more firepower than his bracelets allowed…

Don’t risk it, the voice chanted, louder this time.

“I… I can’t,” he mustered weakly, feeling like the most sickening fool of all. He clenched his fists and jaw to keep them from trembling and willed himself to turn away from the sight of the burning tavern that he knew would only manifest in his future nightmares.

But Jimin had other plans.

“What do you mean?” the Elven Prince demanded, face reddening with fury. Wriggling out of the cloak, he hopped to the ground to resume his regular size.

Jimin pointed a shaky finger at the inn. “Are you out of your mind? It’s right there! Do something. We shall leave only after you put it out. There might be innocent lives trapped there!”

“You two—“ Donghae interjected.

“Innocent?” Yoongi spat, blood boiling with mounting anger. “Innocent. Those Fallen shitbags were after you. And you want to fucking save them? Don’t make me laugh.”

Jimin’s face wrinkled. “What are you talk—“

“HEY!” A gruff yell pierced through the air.

Like a demon awakening from hell, a hulking figure emerged from the roaring embers of the Finch. It was Izacariah, and his skin was a mutilated amalgam of red charred flesh blending with scarred skin. The skin around his right eye was gone, exposing a grotesque layer of muscles and leaving blood to trail down his cheek. Same went for his thighs and arms. He was the picture of a condemned soul fighting against damnation. Stubborn but futile.

Yoongi’s pulse pounded in his ears. How the fuck did that scum manage to get out alive?

“No,” Donghae whispered in horror.

Izacariah released another guttural shout and raced towards them with incredible speed for somebody who was already halfway to their grave.

Then the queerest thing happened. Instead of running to save his own ass first, Yoongi instinctively pushed Jimin by the shoulders so that they could run away together.

But Donghae grabbed them by the shirt before they could go. “Not that way!” With remarkable strength, he shoved Yoongi and Jimin towards another direction—the tunnel opening. “There. I’ll distract him while you escape.

Yoongi stumbled backwards and tripped on Jimin’s feet. The ground seemed to disappear from underneath them, and the world tilted as they plunged headlong into pitch-black darkness. Yoongi swallowed his scream, and as he and Jimin went freefalling down the hole, he saw Donghae’s face peering into the opening, growing smaller and smaller the deeper they fell.

Go, the elf mouthed to them with a watery smile.

Yoongi’s heart felt pinched.

An elf is… sacrificing himself? To save me?

His last memory of Donghae comprised of his teary eyes gazing down at the two of them, right before a pair of blackened hands closed around his slender throat.

 


  

It wasn’t a very long fall, by any means.

The ground was cold hard earth, and Jimin grunted as he landed on his butt, just a few feet away from Yoongi. Thinking fast, the prince manipulated the soil around them to close up and block the entrance of the tunnel gap, despite his heavy heart telling him otherwise.

That would keep pursuers out. No crazed Fallen out for bloodlust. They would be safe.

For now.

He kept his arms wrapped around Kashmere, who wriggled out of his grasp to hover before him. Jimin gave his pet-servant an unconvincing smile. “You okay, Kash?”

Kashmere meowed and used his small wings to fan Jimin’s face. “Don’t ask about me. I’m more worried about you, Your Highness.”

Tears pricked the corners of the Elven Prince’s eyes. He’d seen that. He’d seen Donghae staying behind to buy them time, and his chest heaved with the burden of lives that must have been lost tonight. He didn’t know them—they were faceless, unnamed people, yet his people all the same. He wanted nothing more than to crawl back out and drag Donghae to safety to prove that he could protect even just one of them. Citizens of Diadra.

Jimin’s lips quivered as the first sob tore through his throat. He pushed himself up on all fours and hung his head between his shaking shoulders, chest convulsing with nausea. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was supposed to guard his people, make things better, not worse—

“We need to keep moving.” Wasting no time, Yoongi was already up on his feet and stomping away, his figure a faint vision in the dimness of the tunnel. He lit a small flame in his palm and paused mid-step to glance back at Jimin. “You coming or what?”

Jimin glowered at him, and all the words he’d been keeping inside burst forth like a dam. “Donghae’s still up there! We can’t leave him behind! And the tavern…you… you didn’t even bother to put out the fire!”

Yoongi’s stony expression remained unchanged, and Jimin’s feelings of animosity only grew. The fire weaver tromped towards him. “I told you—those thugs were after you. They recognized you. Leaving was the only way—“

“But you shouldn’t have let it continue burn!” Jimin retorted, jaw twitching. There were better ways to deal with lawlessness than death. Death was far too cruel—like flower buds being cut off before having the chance to bloom. In this case, to repent.

“Doesn’t matter now. Nothing else I can do about it.” Yoongi’s words were a monotonous drawl, but each word felt like an icy stab to the chest.

Tears blurred Jimin’s vision. He doesn’t care. He’s heartless.

With a huff, Yoongi marched back and grabbed Jimin by the arms, none too gently, to yank him up and drag him along. “Just keep going—“

“No— don’t touch me!” Jimin wrestled his arm away from Yoongi’s harsh grip and used his other hand to swipe at the fire weaver’s face.

Slap.

Yoongi winced and jerked backwards as if he’d been scalded by boiling water, clutching his cheek.

“I will not tolerate you pushing me around. I will not have you manhandling me, and I will not have you calling me deadweight.” Jimin’s entire body was shaking—holy moondust, he had never screamed or physically hurt somebody else like this before!—but he forced himself to stand firm despite his trembling legs. “You may be alright with others being hurt for your sake, but I’m not. No wonder you were thrown into the Realm of Monsters. You’ve no soul. Shame on you.”

Something in his words must have broken through Yoongi’s mellow stupor, for the fire weaver’s face gave way to fierce rage for the briefest of moments. He pinned Jimin with a soul-piercing glare that almost made the prince suddenly want to back off and forget about arguing in the first place. The scintillating handflame cast jumpy shadows on his face, and for some reason the image reminded Jimin of the moon – incandescent and pale, but never without a dark side.

Because for all the light and warmth that Yoongi supposedly carried within him, they failed to illuminate the blackest corners of his soul.

When Yoongi finally spoke, his voice was steady and even again, although Jimin sensed the unmistakable fury burning on his tongue. “Think what you want. Say what you want. Nothing will change the fact that we’re here, and that the longer you mope about what’s been done, the more you’re wasting Donghae’s sacrifice.”

Sacrifice.

Because that’s what it was, wasn’t it?

The prince’s lips parted to make a retort, but none came to him. The urgency of the situation hit him—this was no time for grieving. There was no room for tears in this quest.

Yoongi spun away as he growled in a strained voice, “You can’t save everyone, elf. Even if you want to.”

Jimin wondered why those words didn't sound like they were being addressed to him alone.

“So make a choice. Stay, or move on? Either way, I won’t be waiting around to watch you kill yourself out there, so suit yourself.” With a tired sigh, Yoongi trudged away, shoulders hunched.

The prince cradled his elbows and hugged himself, standing rooted to the ground as he watched Yoongi amble away, into the unknown beyond. The ignited flame went along with him, and with every step further, Jimin’s surroundings diminished in the dwindling light.

He shivered. His body was ice from the inside out. He wanted to run back, return to the comforts of home if possible, but here he was, trapped in a tunnel with an enemy on one end and a despicable excuse for a person on the other.

He’d never felt so alone.

“What do we do now, Your Highness?” Kashmere mewled uncertainly, wings drooping as he lowered down on the ground. “Where do we go?”

What do I do? Jimin’s chewed on his lower lip so hard he tasted blood. The light was almost gone now, drifting further away. Yoongi’s footfalls echoed lesser and lesser. Soon, only he and Kashmere would be enclosed in this damp, suffocating, eternal darkness.

That simply wouldn’t do.

The elf rubbed his temples. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice to begin with. In order to survive, he needed light… and warmth.

Even if those belonged to someone like Yoongi.

Jimin sighed, loud and resigned. “We… we follow the light.”

Kashmere stared at him then, whiskers twitching, concern written all over his face. He looked like he wanted to say something more, but he just sighed. “Alright.”

“Wait!” the prince called out as his feet scurried after Yoongi. If the fire weaver was surprised to see him, he didn’t show it. His calm and collected veneer was back in full force, and he hardly gave Jimin a sidelong glance as the prince fell into step with him. The jerk probably already knew that Jimin had no choice but to trail after him anyway. To his relief, Yoongi didn’t shoo him away.

They walked in stiff, tense silence, and Jimin kept his arms wrapped around himself, unable to shake off the anxiety that still gripped him. Unable to forget Donghae’s vulnerable expression.

He shut his eyelids to fend off the onslaught of terrible images, but instead they flashed before his mind’s eye front and center, like the main lead of a nightmare. This was not what he’d signed up for. This level of danger was far from anything he’d ever had to face in his entire life.

It was only then that the Elven Prince began to come to terms with the onset of bleak reality. Everything up until that point had felt like a fairytale—a grand adventure of sorts, with swashbuckling heroes, magic carpets and maybe some cake along the way, too.

As it turned out, real life proved to be very, very different. There were no swashbuckling heroes. There wasn’t even any cake—only blood, sweat and tears. It was a realization that felt like a slam to the gut.

Not everything was carved out of dewdrops and rainbows for him. Not everyone was obliged to comfort him in times of distress, and right now, Yoongi was proof of that. The fire weaver walked with one arm locked firmly to his side; the other raised halfway to hold up his handflame. Creepy crawlies skittered across their feet, while the still air magnified Jimin’s erratic pulse. The sodden earth swallowed their footsteps as they paced alongside each another. Together, but not really. The silence was so deafening it hurt Jimin’s eardrums.

Silence, he mused, was not the absence of sound. Rather, it was the sound of absence—of the right things to say, of understanding, of comfort. Silence was what you were dealt with when you were skirting the cusps of uncertainty with another person, or when you’ve run out of scathing words to trade.

Thank the heavenly bodies that he had a friend in Kashmere, then. It was as though his pet-servant could sense the pandemonium of Jimin’s emotions, and sleepily draped his furry body across the prince’s shoulders to keep him warm. No words needed. Jimin exhaled softly and melted into the cat’s reassuring weight. Now this kind of silence, he could appreciate.

As long as he had Kashmere by his side, he’d have the strength to keep going and survive.

But here’s the thing: Jimin didn’t want to just survive. He wanted to live. Happily, boldly, even childishly. Most of all, he just wanted to get along with everyone. He liked being liked. He liked being praised. Jimin craved affection that way he yearned for his absent mother’s love. His skin prickled at the thought that anyone could abhor him.

Like… like Yoongi, for starters. Jimin had no clue why the fire weaver seemed to detest him so much, and he was well aware of the fact that the both of them would never meet eye to eye but… it wouldn’t hurt to try to smoothen the tension out, would it? He didn’t want to be friends with the guy—great skies, he would probably never forgive Yoongi for not putting out the fire earlier—but at the same time, he didn’t want his small hate to grow into a bigger hate, either.

Plus, there was that nagging guilt gnawing at him for slapping the firebender.

He really didn’t like hurting others, even when they deserved it.

Jimin drew in a breath to steel his resolve, and squared his shoulders in what he hoped looked like regal composure. “You know what? Fine. Like you said, let us move past this. Let me begin by saying that I… I shouldn’t have screamed at you like that. But you shouldn’t have grabbed me so violently, either. Nobody—” he forced down the bile rising up his throat. “—nobody deserves to be treated like dirt.”

It wasn’t exactly I’m sorry, but it was close enough. Funny how such a short and simple phrase was so difficult to say aloud.

And then, though it pained Jimin to say:

“And also… thank you.” He bit the inside of his cheeks. “For getting me out of the fire.”

Beside him, Yoongi slowed to a halt, and finally faced him to meet his gaze with furrowed eyebrows. The fire weaver’s expression was gaunt, as if he wasn’t quite sure where to place his distrust. He sighed and muttered under his breath.

“What?” Jimin raised his eyebrows, unable to tear his gaze away. Dimly, it registered that he, too, had stopped walking.

“You...” Yoongi’s eyes flashed with an emotion Jimin couldn’t quite read. “You’re impossible to decipher.”

“Me?” Jimin rebutted, feeling incredulous. “You’re the one who acts like I’m the miserable bane of all existence when I’ve done absolutely nothing to you, and I’m hard to understand?”

Doubt and suspicion flickered through Yoongi’s face. He seemed to be fighting an internal war with himself, and in the warm glow of the handflame, the Elven Prince thought he saw a faint glimmer of surprise somewhere in the depths of those obsidian black orbs. Surprise – and was that sprinkle of… of shame?

It was incredible how one look could convey so much of the unspoken.

What goes on behind that troubled gaze?

The thought had never once entered Jimin’s radar before, but now it was here, pinging around his mind like a relentless ball. What made the fire weaver act like he’d lived through nine lives and back? Why were his eyes always so clouded?

Yoongi peeled his eyes away. He mumbled something else that Jimin couldn’t catch.

“Um. Pardon?”

“I said, me too.” The fire caster cleared his throat and dipped his head in an almost imperceptible nod. “I, uh…” He waved his hands in the air as if wanting to physically pull the words out. “…shouldn’t have done those things. To you.” He sniffed and turned his head away to continue going forward.

But Jimin didn’t miss the guilty backwards glance Yoongi spared his way. Nor did he miss the way his own breathing seemed to have gone labored. No—he wasn’t even sure he’d been breathing at all while locked under the intensity of Yoongi’s gaze.

Huh. Jimin blinked, trying to take in what had just happened. Was that an apology? He’d seen the way Yoongi dipped his head in an almost imperceptible nod while speaking.

Perhaps that was as much of an admission of fault as he was going to make.

Nevertheless, from that simple nod alone, something in the air between them had shifted. It felt like a fresh new page being turned, or like permission for the weight on Jimin’s chest to be lifted. He wasn’t too fond of being at odds with anybody. Learning to breathe the same air as Yoongi seemed to be a good baby step towards co-existence, even if co-existence was all they’d probably ever be able to endure of each other.

Why does he seem to hate me so much?

The prince blinked and shook his head vigorously, as if that could shoo away the questions that had suddenly sprouted in his head. We don’t do background stories, Hoseok had said. It was probably not Jimin’s place to ponder such unnecessary topics.

And yet… despite everything, he couldn’t shake off the new curiosity that sparked in him, small but present. He jogged to catch up to the fire weaver, casting a narrow-eyed glance at him while doing so.

Who was Yoongi, really?

He couldn’t linger on this question for too long though, for the temperature of the air around them abruptly dropped, and Jimin shivered involuntarily. “Are you manipulating heat levels again?” he tentatively asked Yoongi, remembering none too resentfully what the fire weaver had done to him.

Yoongi shot him an offended look. “What, you think I’d turn this tunnel into a morgue? I don’t plan on dying here.”

A blast of wind whooshed past them, jolting Kashmere out of his peaceful nap. The cat hissed, his fur spiking up sharply, and he leapt out of Jimin’s arms to let his wings billow protectively in front of the prince.

Jimin’s nerves drew taut. Nothing in their surroundings warranted any gusts of wind. They were underground, for stars’ sake.

“Aha! Finally found you!” A jolly voice boomed, making both Jimin and Yoongi jump. They whipped their heads around furiously but found nothing. And nothing, and nothing…until there was something.

Just like the way the dead little boy had appeared before him back at the tavern, Jimin’s eyes widened as a pale, ghostly figure materialized out of thin air in a whirlpooling motion. Despite the ghost dripping head-to-toe with illusory droplets of water (Jimin inferred death by drowning), he sported a jovial grin, as if he couldn’t be any happier to be dead.

“Wherever have you been, good sir?” the ghost asked. He had kind eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled, and had he been alive, his cropped hair would’ve been black with greying roots.

Jimin raised his eyebrows. “I’m sorry?”

The ghost cocked his head to the front of the tunnel where, if they would just squint hard enough, he’d be able to make out slivers of pale moonlight filtering through a distant opening. The exit. “Your buddies sent me. They’ve been waiting. Let’s go.”

 


 

“…and the next thing I knew, I wasn’t even alive anymore!” The ghost—Garth, as per his introduction—barked out a laugh as he led them down the short walk to the exit. “But I still woke up, and here I am. The roughest, toughest nut this side of the river!”

It hadn’t been the easiest trying to convince Yoongi and even Kashmere (the two of them were scarily alike when it came to being suspicious of strangers) to follow the ghost, but Jimin managed to get them trailing after Garth anyway after pointing out that there wasn’t anywhere left to go but the exit no matter what.

Jimin heard Hoseok before he saw him.

“Sweet Frigg, you’re safe!” Hoseok tackled Jimin in a headlock the moment he sighted them emerging from the dark hole of the tunnel, which was obscured by bushes. “I was worried sick that the Elven King was gonna whoop my ass if we really lost you!”

To Garth The Good Ghost, who lingered to one side of the group, the necromancer nodded gratefully and said: “Thanks for bringing them here, like, alive. No offense.”

The Elven Prince gave a small chuckle. He would have complained about being smothered by all the sudden affection, but he was too busy being relieved at seeing the necromancer and the sorcerer again to say anything.

Namjoon came forward and punched Yoongi lightly in the shoulder in greeting. “What happened to you?”

An uncomfortable silence fell over them like a heavy veil, and when neither Yoongi nor Jimin said anything, Kashmere sighed and recounted what had gone down while they were separated. Jimin tried not to tear up again at the mention of Donghae. He hoped, with the smallest of all hopes, that there was a chance the elf had survived Izacariah’s wrath. He wanted to believe that was the case.

The sorcerer’s eyes widened after Kashmere finished talking. “Yoongi went into the fire to get you?”

Yoongi scratched the back of his head and gave an half-hearted grunt. “Wasn’t that hard. I figured we needed the kid alive.”

Hoseok shot them an appraising look. “I was starting to wonder how come you hadn’t torn each other’s heads off while in that tunnel. Come to think of it, that’s a perfect alibi for murder, no? I didn’t mean to kill him, sir; it was too dark to see properly.

That earned him a smack in the head from Namjoon. “Ow. Seriously, you have to treat my head with respect. For your information, that’s where the brain lives.”

Jimin looked around. They were back in the heart of the woods. The moon cast a ghostly blue hue upon the forest canvas, and everywhere he looked he was only met with foliage and overgrowth. The air hung thick with the scent of after-rain, and Jimin prayed that if it had rained while they were down the tunnel, the downpour was hard enough to put out the fire that ravaged The Magnanimous Finch.

“Where you folks headin’ off to, hey?” Garth glided over to them and gestured to the left. “There’s nothing but forest that way.”

“Oh, yes, that reminds me,” Namjoon recalled. “You said you know where we could go, Prince Jimin.”

Prince Jimin?” Garth sputtered, surveying Jimin with fresh eyes. His mouth formed the shape of a perfect o. “As in, His Royal Highness of Diadra?”

“That’s right,” Kashmere answered proudly. “Bow down to your future king, elf!”

Jimin covered his face to hide his embarrassment.

The ghost dipped low on one knee in an act of humbling himself. “My prince. I’m honored to meet you, if not in life, then at least in death.” He straightened back up. “Although I could have hazarded a guess, judging by your hair. Rumors say that the Elven Prince sports the longest, finest locks like silk-spun silver.”

Jimin flushed daylily pink, although he couldn’t deny the joy that came with finally being treated like royalty again. “T-thank you. Please stand.”

Addressing Namjoon’s earlier question, he announced, “We’re heading to the Outlands.” He told them what he learned from the griffin at the tavern. “I overheard something about a… a box of confiscated weapons? Maybe we can find your Summoning Staff there.”

Much to his surprise, Garth gave a solemn nod. “Ah. The Outlands.”

Namjoon glanced at him with raised eyebrows. “You know of it, Sir?”

“’Course I do!” Garth cackled. “Do not believe any of that ‘a place neither here nor there’ poppycock rubbish. The Outlands is very much real.” He frowned. “It’s a wasteland, though. Are you sure you want to go there?”

Hoseok shrugged. “I don’t think we’ve any other choice. But oh well, I don’t mind a heist detour every now and then. We’ll just steal what we need and be on our way.”

Retrieve,” Namjoon interjected, sending Hoseok a berating look. “We are going to retrieve something of mine that’s been taken away.”

“How come you know about that place,” Yoongi said suspiciously, “—if your own princeling here has never heard of it?”

“Some topics are not considered fit for royal education,” Kashmere huffed, wings twitching and horn flaring red. He looked more offended than Jimin should have felt. “By right, the Elven Prince need not know all of this.” Turning to Garth, he asked, “Do you know where it is?”

Garth raised his hands defensively. “I am but a well-meaning ghost, so I’ve never been there before, but I knew people who have. From what I know, it’s right out across the other side of the Dust Sea.”

Jimin cocked his head quizzically. “But… nobody ever survives the Dust Sea. How else can we get to Outlands? Do you know a way?”

“Err…not exactly. But I might know how to help. You what they say: if lost, ask for directions.” Garth winked at them playfully. “Lucky you, I’ve been lingering around the Babbling Brook for the last few weeks.”

 


 

Herein lies the myth:

Deep in the outskirts of Diadra, way south-er than the nethermost territories of the Scarlet River and across the Moonflower Meadows, lay a hidden magical pond that spouts answers in exchange for something equally as precious. Follow the path illuminated by the everglow of moonflowers, and you will find the Babbling Brook.

The Elven Prince knew of this folklore. It was a popular bedtime story, and there was an old children’s rhyme he loved to sing while running down the corridors of the Mirror Palace as a young child.

 

Scarlet-moon miracle,

As Mother Celeste blushes whole;

Splish, splash, the water wakes,

To play with wandering souls

 

Ask but yield nothing;

Seek and ye may not find,

For the Babbling Brook answers

To none, save for its own kind

 

Legend has it that if you lean down into the gentle, lapping waters of the brook to whisper your heart’s deepest longings, the brook might just choose to answer you and grant a wish or two.

However, this was a rare phenomenon that only came with the occurrence of a blood moon—a lunar eclipse, or something as astronomically powerful. During this time, the moonflowers surrounding the brook—which usually sputtered a weak glow like a spent firework—would bloom and shine with their brightest efforts, setting the stream awash in an otherworldly lavender incandescence.

“You folks are as lucky as leprechauns,” Garth remarked as he led them through the Moonflower Meadows. “There’s a blood moon happening tonight. Whatta coincidence, eh?”

They reached the end of the clearing, and ducked under particularly thick foliage of leaves and branches until Garth declared proudly: “Here we are.”

Jimin was surprised to find the anticipation in his heart deflate a little. There were no shiny moonflowers, no glittering stream carrying wisps of magic anima. Well, there were moonflowers smattering the edges of the stream, several of them actually, but they weren’t exactly radiant, not in the way the stories made them out to be. They emitted a pale light that only cast an eerie glow under their faces as they traipsed closer towards the body of water.

(This was not their true form, as he would later find out.)

In real life, the not-so-mythical ‘Babbling Brook’ was a shallow stream sluicing over an outcropping of rocks situated along one of the many meandering deltas of the Scarlet River. They were at the very edge of the river now, far from any village. Jimin knew from his weekly geography lessons that any further than this, and the red river would open out into the sea.

He shivered. The Dust Sea, to be exact.

And beyond that… the Outlands, according to Garth.

“This is…your so-called enchanted springs?” Hoseok voiced out, looking duly unimpressed. “Would’ve expected more zing. With misty fog, maybe some fireflies.”

Sensing their disappointment, Garth snorted and shook his head. “That’s how I felt too, when I first got here. But you gotta trust the elements. The Babbling Brook only comes alive at a very specific time,” he asserted. Then his face turned wistful, eyes shining with an emotion Jimin could only describe as longing. “Y’know, this is the night I’ve been waiting for since I died.”

Something in his tone piqued Jimin’s curiosity. “What do you mean?”

Garth raised his head to the sky. “You know how the moonflowers only shine the brightest during a blood moon? They’re magical, and their energy affects the brook.”

Jimin nodded slowly, trying to see where this was going.

He sighed before continuing, voice softening. “It’s a long story. I have—had—a wife. Pretty as a flower. Hard to believe for a bumbling fool like me, I know.” He chuckled lowly, but his eyes were misting over. “But Liv was, and still is, the star of my heart. And boy, we had dreams. Big ones, beautiful ones!”

For a moment, Jimin nearly forgot that they were talking to a ghost. Maybe it was in the way Garth spoke of his love—like it was the stuff of forevers that could outlast lifetimes and beyond. Perhaps there were emotions that carried on even after your final breath.

“Then… she fell ill. Terribly.” Garth’s eyes turned somber, as if he was reliving a memory. “So I crossed lands to find the Babbling Brook because I heard stories, you know? That the moonflowers imparted healing properties into the clear water; that the springs would give you what you wanted if you asked nicely. And as for my Liv, she always wanted to see what a moonflower looked like, so I wanted to bring one home to show her. But…” he trailed off.

Jimin could guess what happened next, and his chest heaved with an unexpected twinge of heartache.

The ghost wrinkled his nose as if trying to stave off oncoming tears. “I swore I’d protect her ‘til death do us part…and I guess that’s exactly what happened. Death did do us part. She passed on while I was away, and my pathetic self drowned while I was on the way back to her.” He forced a grin, although none of them found anything amusing. Jimin could’ve sworn Hoseok was sniffling. “But hey! Good news: after wandering around as a ghost, I finally found the Babbling Brook in the end.”

Too little, too late. For what use was it, to get so close to your personal goal only after you’ve expired? Irony was just as cruel as Time when you really thought about it.

Garth tilted his head up into the sky again. In the shroud of the night sky, stars blinked down on them like animal eyes in the dark. “Maybe I’m still here because of her. If only I could watch those moonflowers shine on Liv’s behalf, I can finally rest in peace. For good. That is my final request.”

Jimin fumbled for his voice against the pang of sympathy he felt for the ghost. “So you’ve been waiting for a blood moon all this time.”

Garth hummed his affirmation. “Pretty much. But listen – the lunar eclipse is also when the Babbling Brook is at its magical peak, due to the augmented moonflowers. So if you’re trying to get to the Outlands, this would be the best time to ask for its guidance. Let’s hope it likes you enough to give an answer, though. It’s quite choosy.”

“I know it’s tonight, but when exactly does this blood moon happen?” Namjoon inquired. They didn’t exactly have the luxury of time to wait.

“Ah, well,” Garth grinned at him knowingly. “Right about… now.”

Jimin looked up at the moon. Mother Celeste was blushing. Just like the folk song. What had—only moments earlier—been a white round orb partially hidden by clouds, was now a red giant in the night sky, its craters seemingly magnified.

A shift in the light and the air made him lower his gaze, and he gasped.

The Babbling Brook had come alive.

As if waking up from deep slumber, the moonflowers surrounding the springs blossomed upwards in bright, astonishing shades of teal and amethyst. Their soft petals swayed gently in the air as if to relish the sweetness of the soft breeze. If flowers had voices, they would be crooning with contentment. And the water! Oh, how they surged forward with renewed energy, invigorated by the moonlight’s magic. Swooshes of water rose out into the air to form figures of men and women waltzing down the stream in pairs. The brook was rejoicing—glittering sparks of rain-like droplets splashed in their group’s way, and a laugh bubbled out of Jimin at their little parade.

It was stunning, it was whimsical, and it was unlike anything he had ever seen before.

“It’s so beautiful,” he breathed at the same time as Garth said, “The stories were true.”

Jimin turned to face the ghost—Garth’s face was serene, soaking in the view. “It really is as breathtaking as they say. Great skies, what I wouldn’t give to have Liv see this right now.” Raising his face to the sky, he shouted, “Liv, my darling! I’ve come to see the moonflowers for you!”

This was Garth’s dream and unfinished business, as Jimin now understood. With a rueful smile, the prince looked down… and jumped with a start.

Behind him, Hoseok stammered, “Garth, you’re… you’re disappearing!”

The ghost looked down at his body, where his ankles had begun to fade. “At last!” he exclaimed, punching the air in victory. “I hope a nice Valkyrie will escort me to Valhalla.”

Like a prayer being heard, a lone figure descended from the skies, wings of blue fire rippling through the air, and a woman with sleek, dark hair landed in front of them. She was dressed in a bronze breastplate and skirt, and armed with a spear as sharp as a viper’s fang.

Jimin noticed Yoongi inhale sharply at the sight, but he stayed unmoving.

“I am Aeris of Asgard, from the Silvermist squad,” she announced. Her voice was as sweet as the murmur of the brook and the rustle of bamboo trees. “And I have come to reap the soul of Garth Fellows…” Her gaze landed on the vanishing ghost. “…and send him to Valhalla.”

“YES! Oh, where are my manners? Good evening, madam,” Garth nodded politely, but he rubbed his hands anticipation. “May I just ask if my wife awaits?”

The Valkyrie only gave him a cryptic smile, though her eyes were kind.

“I take your silence as yes.” Garth turned to Jimin and bowed—for the last time. “Thank you for accompanying me, Your Highness. The honor is all mine.”

Jimin’s eyes softened. Their time together had been so fleeting, so brief, and yet he knew deep down inside that this was an encounter that would stay with him for a long time.

Turning to the rest of them, the ghost said, “Ave nimre estella lorocandra. May the stars guide your quest, gentlemen. And with that, I bid you adieu.”

With a final wave and a broad smile, Garth ascended to the skies with his designated Valkyrie, soaring higher until they were but tiny specks in the sky.

“May I just say,” Hoseok broke through their slightly bedazzled silence, “-that that Valkyrie lady was absolutely gorgeous? If I wasn’t so scared she’d smash my face with one fist, I would’ve asked her out for dinner.”

“We’ve got a World Tree to save,” Namjoon chided gently. “Until then I don’t think you should think about getting… overly acquainted. Times are rough. Safety first, safety second, coolness third.”

“Aren’t you the Quintessential Goody-Two-Shoes?” Hoseok teased. “I swear, I can’t wait for the day you fall in love. It’ll be fun to watch you flounder and grapple with emotions that don’t include the rational parts of the brain.”

Was that Jimin’s imagination, or did the light in Namjoon’s eyes dim ever so slightly?

The sorcerer shrugged. “That won’t come anytime soon.”

“How about we don’t waste time watching wraiths flutter off into afterlife,” Yoongi said, “—and ask the magic brook what we need to know?”

Hoseok clapped his hands together. “Right! See, I was juuust about to suggest the same thing. Yoongi, sometimes I might even believe you’re a genius, but you know, only sometimes…”

 


 

In the light of the moonflowers, the Babbling Brook’s iridescence rivaled that of a heavenly prism. As Jimin leaned out of the edge of the pebbly banks, he saw his nervous face mirrored clearly on the rippling water surface. He gulped.

Let’s hope it likes you enough to give an answer.

Would the creek answer to his call? He didn’t think he was anyone special. He was only a boy, a dreamer, somebody who didn’t possess the power to move mountains-

“Well?” Hoseok asked, hands on his waist. He and the other two stayed standing behind Jimin, who was crouching down beside the stream. “What are you waiting for?”

“I feel stupid,” Jimin said. “What if it doesn’t answer me?”

“You’ll never know unless you try,” Namjoon offered encouragingly. “Go ahead. Trying doesn’t make you stupid, but not even bothering at all does.”

The prince sighed. He dipped his head close to the water, and in a meek whisper, he implored, “Please show me the way to the Outlands.”

He withdrew to sitting position and waited. And waited. And waited. The Babbling Brook continued to glow, but nothing spectacular—or out of ordinary—happened. No images manifested on the water surface. No voice whispered back to him. Nada.

“See? It’s not working!” Jimin huffed.

“Don’t be impatient,” Kashmere said soothingly. “Try again. We can take turns asking if you want to.”

“No, no. I’ll do it,” said the prince, feeling responsible for everything. “Let me try once more.”

He leaned over again, and this time rephrased his question: “Can you show us the way to the Outlands?”

Again, nothing happened.

“Okay, if we’re going to be here for a while, then I might as well look around for some firewood. Yoongi may be warm, but the rest of us sure as hell aren’t. I’ll be back.” Hoseok dragged himself to the other side of the brook. Before he got to far, he shouted while pointing upwards, “Just don’t take too long, yeah? The lunar eclipse looks like it’s ending soon.”

Jimin grew increasingly frustrated. He was right – he wasn’t worthy of an answer from the elements. He buried his head in his hands with a weary groan. “I can’t do anything right.”

Namjoon squatted down beside him. “Maybe the brook can sense your negative feelings,” he said, eyes thoughtful. “Try to shrug those feelings off, and focus on being sincere.”

The Elven Prince lifted his head and flashed him a shaky smile. “You act like you have so much faith in me.”

“I do. I believe in you, Prince Jimin.”

Jimin’s heart squeezed. “Well, that makes one of us.”

A thought struck, and he froze. The brook only answered to those who gave something equally precious in return.

“Magic goes both ways…” he murmured, mind racing. “I need to offer something first.”

His fingers immediately flew to the space between his collarbones, where his moonstone necklace rested. No, he couldn’t give that. His eyes scanned his belongings, heart sinking as he slowly realized there wasn’t much of anything else he could give up, until they landed on his father’s invincibility cloak.

“Kashmere, please pass me my cloak.”

“What?” The pet-servant’s wingbeats turned frantic. “No, you can’t! It’s irreplaceable.”

“Don’t be daft. Of course it is; this fabric was woven by dwarves. I will have a new one commissioned when we return to the palace.”

“B-but His Majesty gave it to protect you.”

It can protect me, but it can’t protect anyone else, Jimin thought bitterly, Donghae’s face flashing momentarily in his head. “I can defend myself well enough, thank you very much.” His voice was stern, and Kashmere sighed in resignation as he gathered the velvet material in his mouth before releasing it into Jimin’s outstretched hands.

He watched the fabric soak up water as it slowly sank into the brook. Like a mechanical flush, the spring swirled in on itself into a whirlpool and swallowed the cloak whole, and it even gave a burp after quieting down.

This time round, when Jimin lowered his head to talk to the water, he let a calm sense of surrender take over him. Hopefully the brook would give him what he needed now – it would only be a fair trade. “Pretty brook,” he murmured. “Won’t you show me the way to the Outlands? My friends and I, we won’t survive the dangers of the Dust Sea. I ask that you help us. Please.”

He carefully retracted from his leaning position to wait, never peeling his eyes off the water. He knew that the blood moon would end soon – the luminescence of the moonflowers was starting to wane. He stared at the dark surface of the liquid, jaw tense. In the reflection, he found Namjoon’s face on his left, as worried as his, as well as Kashmere’s apprehensive one.

And in the reflection, he also found… another face beside his, staring back at him.

There, materializing in the water—a stranger’s face. With golden gleaming eyes and a shocking mop of tousled, purple-as-moonflowers hair.

“What are you staring at?” the face in the reflection asked in a deep baritone.

But the voice had come from over his shoulder. Jimin gasped and lost his balance. He tumbled into the shallow stream. Namjoon released a startled shout and scrambled backwards, too. Wiping his long, damp hair off his face, Jimin dared to look up. There, standing right before them…

…was a handsome young stranger—an actual, real person, not a figment of his imagination—looking back at them with an equally surprised face. He tilted his head to one side in a birdlike manner. “Is there something on my face?”

They continued to gawk at him, stunned speechless. “Wh-who are you?” Namjoon finally croaked. “How did you get here?”

“Oh, boy. Long story.” The stranger sighed and scratched his head. Jimin noticed that he was wearing clothes he had never seen before, and that those clothes were soaked from head to toe. “Wait, why do I need to answer that? Who are you?

Something clicked in Jimin’s mind. Something hazy, like a wisp of memory caught in a spiderweb fuzz. He frowned, drinking in the stranger’s face. No doubt, his beauty was striking – a prominent nose bridge, smooth, bronze skin and thick symmetrical eyebrows…

But his golden sunburst eyes held Jimin’s attention the most.

He could have sworn he’d seen those eyes before.

“Oh. Oh!” The Elven Prince raised a hand to his mouth to stifle another gasp. With wide eyes, he pointed a hesitant finger at the purple-haired newcomer. “It’s you.

 


 

On the other side of the springs, away from the shocking new encounter of his friends, Hoseok trudged through the damp banks in search of fallen wood dry enough to light a fire. He reckoned he should probably try looking further, like maybe away from the water into the woods, but he wasn’t exactly so daring as to brave the night in the jungle, alone and unarmed. Who knew what lurked out there in the dark?

Later on, he would scold himself for being such a coward. He would think it better had he just gone straight for the forest instead. Because as Hoseok was about to find out, not all frightening things come from solely the dark.

But alas, the necromancer kept close to the edge of the Babbling Brook. Thinking back to Garth’s words, he wondered whether the whole answering-your-heart’s-desire thing was truth or a mere sham. Was it actually enchanted? Not that he was being cynical, because hell no, he was definitely not a Yoongi, but when you talked to ghosts on a regular basis, you had to wonder at your own sanity sometimes.

Hoseok sighed. He really hated this stupid power.

This stupid curse.

Most people harbor secret motives behind everything they do. Hoseok just happened to be one of them. There was… something else… he wanted besides freedom from his runic bracelets. But hey, though he may not have the cleanest intentions for coming aboard this little journey, let’s be honest—except for the prince and his haughty cat, who else did? He, Yoongi and Namjoon… they were poisoned souls, the lot of them. At the end of the day, they were all hoping to gain a reward or token in return for saving Yggdrasil anyway, and if he got a great adventure story to tell out of this learning experience along with his freedom, then he had nothing to lose. Win-win.

A small gurgling sound caught his ears and he turned around just as another blob of water shaped like entwined dancing lovers twirled past him, sprinkling his face as they went by.

Despite his bone-weariness, a small smirk turned up the corners of Hoseok’s mouth. Dancing water and swaying flowers? Yep, magical indeed. His gaze travelled down the stream.

The sparkling water looked so radiant and alluring that it almost felt like it was beckoning him to come closer. Forgetting his initial purpose of fetching firewood, Hoseok found his feet padding towards the steadily bubbling stream, like iron fillings drawn to an electromagnet.

He crept closer and peered into the water, semi-startling as he saw his own flushed cheeks and shaggy raven hair on the surface. For once, he admired the way he didn’t look like a walking zombie. His blood thrummed with newfound energy—or was that magic anima radiating off from the brook and its moonflowers?

The blood moon was reflected so clearly in the water it almost looked like it belonged down there, an artifact stolen from the sky.

He imagined what might happen if he tried to ask a question. It wouldn’t hurt to try, would it?

“Pssst,” he hissed at the water, feeling silly but amused at the same time. “Yo. Buddy. Waterbaby. Gimme some firewood?”

Just like with Jimin earlier, the water didn’t move. No magical swirling or tidal waves.

Hmmm. “Do you prefer to be treated politely?” Hoseok joked. “What if I said, ‘please’, hmm?”

Still nothing.

He clucked his tongue and rested his hands on his waist. It didn’t make sense. If the brook was supposedly magical, then how come it wasn’t responding to any their requests, including his?

But wait—where was that gurgling coming from? It sounded too eerily like someone drowning. Or like somebody releasing a breath while submerged underwater. Hoseok was pretty sure he wasn’t hearing things. He strained his ear towards the brook. Was it… was it coming from inside the springs?

He bent down hastily to inch closer to the surface, but all he could see was the ever-present moon, as red as volcanic lava, being reflected on it. The water rippled once, twice, the way it does when there was disturbance underneath.

And then.

Behind the moon’s reflection, rising up from under the shallow water (how was that even possible?), a pale face emerged, with thin lips and hair as dark as coal. Then came his torso, soaked but fully clothed, and then his limbs, strong and corded with muscle. Finally, the body floated up and drifted idly in the water, eyes closed. Draped over his body was a dark, velvety fabric that looked a lot like the Elven Prince’s cloak. Hoseok turned slack-jawed.

It was a boy. It was a corpse.

Aces and spades, of all the magical elements the Babbling Brook could yield, it had sprung forth a dead body. Right in front of his (non-existent) salad!

Up until that moment, Hoseok had been so assured of his ability to stay calm in front of both the dead and undead. He’d considered himself desensitized to the shock factor of being faced with the gruesome and gory. But as it turned out, he hadn’t gotten used to it enough. And so he did what he usually did best.

He screamed like a motherfucking pterodactyl.

(And this is why he really should have gone to the woods instead.)

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a young princeling was rescued by a boy with hair as violet as fresh thistles on a spring prairie.

Jimin had been all of seven summers old when, much to his pet-servant’s chagrin, he snuck away from his tutoring lessons (again) through a tight crevice along the wall of the royal gardens at the Northeast wing of the palace. It was a space too small to fit any full-grown adult, but wide enough for a child of the Elven Prince’s size to squirm through.

He’d wanted to practice his power on his own — enough of those dates and historical gobbledygook! Blasted skies, he never really liked history anyway. In his opinion, there stood a more pressing priority: he’d been waiting for his gift for as long as he could remember, and at long last they’d finally begun to manifest over the past few days.

Not all Elves were blessed with the privilege of having gifts bestowed to them by Mother Celeste. Only those of royal blood were entitled to such powers. However unlike his cousins and other relatives, who could tell fortunes or manipulate the weather, Jimin’s gift had turned out to be earthweaving.

That made him a rare elemental, perhaps the only Elven one, and he was convinced it meant he would someday be destined for great things. Something marvelous. Something heroic.

Of course, heroes didn’t become heroes overnight. He knew he needed to practice.

And so little Jimin skipped over pebbles and crunchy twigs, silver-blond locks fluttering in the wind, as he sauntered into the woods just past the perimeters of the royal gardens. A cheeky smile played at his lips, and he might have giggled at his own bold act of ‘rebellion’, because for the first time in a long time, he finally felt free.

Too bad the adrenaline rush proved to be short-lived.

“C’mon,” the little prince grumbled to himself, focusing his eyes on the vines and roots protruding out of a towering wisteria tree. Its flowery, cherry blossom-pink vines hung down to lightly graze the forest floor, and Jimin imagined them soaring into the air and dancing around like ribbons festooned with wreaths at the Harvest Moon Festival.

But the tree remained still. Jimin sighed in frustration and wiped the sweat forming on his brow. Although the forest canopy shaded him from the blistering heat of the midday sun, sweat still dampened his robes. This was his sixth attempt at animating any part of the natural landscape. Jimin pondered for a moment. Maybe his anima would be stronger if he used gestures?

He lifted his arms and whined loudly, “Answer my call! Move to me!”

By that, he meant, Move to my will, but for a young magic user with very little experience, the Elven Prince had to learn that choice of words sometimes affected the desired outcome of a command. A sudden bout of anima; magic being harnessed. Still unfamiliar with the complex rules and intricate workings of his gift, Jimin’s power spun out of control. All at once, he heard the violent rustle of nature being forced to do something out of the ordinary, and the wisteria tree’s vines did move — they surged towards him.

So did its roots. Like a disgruntled wild bear being prematurely shaken out of hibernation, the thick brown roots that had been lying dormant on the forest floor stirred to life, groaning and crackling reluctantly.

And barreled straight for Jimin.

The prince realized the exact moment he knew he’d made a major mistake. His pulse skyrocketed, and he very nearly forgot to breathe as vines coiled around his frail shoulders and trapped his arms to his sides, while roots twisted around his ankles and jerked him towards the magicked tree’s trunk. He squirmed; he writhed; he thrashed about as wildly as he could, but to no avail. He was bound by his own doing!

The rough, jagged ground scraped against his soft cheeks as he was dragged closer to the tree. Was it going to claim him? Trap him? The vines squeezed tighter, pushing all the breath out of his lungs. Jimin could taste the torrid fear on his tongue. He was going to suffocate. He was going to die.

“H-help!” he managed to yell through his hiccupping tears. “Somebody help me, please!”

Whoosh.

A dark, spinning blur of vision slashed through the air. It sliced the vines around Jimin’s torso in one clean cut, and then swerved directions, hacking through the roots binding the prince’s feet as it returned to… wherever it had come from.

Or whoever it had come from. Surely, a boomerang had a thrower.

The vines loosened its grip around Jimin’s body. The roots retreated back to their original form. Freed from the vicious hands of the wisteria tree, Jimin sniffled and curled up into fetal position, hugging his knees to his chest as he lay on one side. His lips quivered as he kept his tears at bay. He was a big boy now, and big boys weren’t supposed to cry.

Footsteps scrunched against dried leaves as feet padded towards him. Another person’s ragged breathing loomed over Jimin’s small form, but he kept his eyes shut tight for fear of being admonished. It was probably one of the palace guards, coming to drag him back for more grueling tutoring lessons.

“That tree must have really liked you,” remarked a boyish voice. “It likes you, but—hmmm—it doesn’t know how to show you, so it scared you instead. Bad tree! Don’t worry, I punished it for you.”

The speaker sounded like another boy around his age. The Elven Prince risked a small glance to find out who his savior could possibly be.

Olive skin, sun-kissed cheeks. Golden tiger eyes and tousled amethyst hair. A rectangular smile that brought Jimin a sense of comfort despite it coming from a stranger. The Elven Prince’s eyes widened when the boy crouched down to his eye level and placed two big, warm hands on his shoulders to help him sit up.

“Don’t cry,” cajoled the boy, reaching out to pat Jimin on the head reassuringly. He brandished a boomerang from his pockets, and its smooth wooden surface was etched with runes glowing a brilliant purple. “See? My memento mori chased the bad tree away. It’s not gonna hurt you anymore.”

Jimin sniffled. He wondered how this boy found him. “Are you lost?” He was pretty sure he’d never seen him before; otherwise he would’ve definitely remembered such strong and striking features.

The boy cupped his chin in one palm, and tilted his head to one side in a birdlike way. “Nope, not lost! I’m bored. Just looking around.” With another grin, he stood up and yawned. “Well, I gotta go now. Don’t cry anymore, okay?” He turned to run away.

“No, wait! I haven’t even said—”

“See ya!”

“…thank you.” Jimin whispered into the empty air. A shudder rippled through him. The boy was like a wraith — there one moment, gone the next.

It wasn’t until his trek back home that he realized: he’d never even managed to ask for the boy’s name.

 


 

All this time, Jimin had always thought the boy had been a figment of his imagination, a daydreamt visage he’d concocted out of sheer loneliness. But now, here he stood before him, no longer a boy but a young man, and the years had done nothing to lessen his beauty. He’d grown a little rugged, but that was it — the same gleeful spark danced in his golden irises, the same boxy grin spread out across his face.

He gave the Elven Prince a bewildered semi-smile. “Eh… yes? It’s me. Do I know you? Wait. ” His eyes widened with untarnished hope. “Do you know me?”

“Well,” Jimin bit his lower lip sheepishly, picking himself up from where he’d landed on his butt in the brook. His clothes were damp from the water but he paid no heed. “I know your face, but I… don’t know your name. You don’t remember me?”

The boy’s shoulders deflated. “I wish I did. But no.”

Jimin nodded. It had been a long time, so he couldn’t fault the guy for forgetting.

“Hold on—you both know each other?” came Namjoon’s voice, tone laced with confusion.

“Uhhh… yes, and no,” Jimin replied. “He and I met years ago—“

“That’s strange. I would have remembered your friends and acquaintances,” chimed in Kashmere.

“…during one of my castle escapades,” the prince finished with an unabashed grin.

His pet-servant leveled him with a flat look. “No wonder.”

At the sight of the flying cat, the purple-haired boy’s eyes lit up with delight. “Oh? You’re so fluffy!” he cooed, shuffling forward to wrap his arms around Kashmere. Unfortunately (or maybe not) for the pet-servant, neither his legs nor mini wings seemed quick enough to escape the boy’s hug attack. “What a pretty kitty!”

Jimin laughed, surprised to see that for once, Kashmere didn’t seem prickly about who was touching him. The cat-servant actually looked pleased, as his fur proceeded to get squished against the stranger’s cheek.

Namjoon gestured to the boy, whose eyes were glinting like jewels in the sunset. “You two seem to be friends.”

Jimin cocked his head thoughtfully. “I suppose you could say that.” Did one childhood encounter count?

“So who is he and what's his business here?” Yoongi asked, eyes narrowed.

The elf shrugged and turned to the stranger who, with a low giggle, released Kashmere to let him breathe again. “Hello. I believe we’ve never been introduced formally. I’m Jimin, and this is Namjoon, my…friend.” He paused for a moment to realize that the word didn’t actually taste wrong on his tongue. Friend. “What’s your name?”

“Name?” the boy echoed, the light in his eyes diminishing for a second. Then his megawatt smile returned in full force, cheeks flushing pink with pride. “That’s right, my name. I have one! I’m Taehyung. Came up with it myself, you know.” He waggled his eyebrows up and down.

Jimin giggled, although he wasn’t too sure what was so funny. Perhaps it was because all this while, he’d allowed himself to get swept away in a whirlwind journey peppered with the spice of unspoken dangers and uncharted territories. Now, though, something about Taehyung’s presence grounded him and made him feel, with definite certainty, like the world could be righted again. There was solidity to the boy’s presence, and although they’d only met once before, several years ago, there was an innate sense that made him feel as though he’d just found a long-lost friend.

“Taehyung,” the Elven Prince parroted, enunciating the name slowly as if to test it out. “It sounds nice. I like it.”

If the sun could smile, it would rival Taehyung’s at that moment.

“Pardon me, but what were you doing out here all alone?” Namjoon asked, brow creasing. “Are you lost?”

It was the same question that Jimin had asked all those years ago, and his answer remained the same:

“Nope, not lost.” Taehyung shook his head to wring water droplets out of his wet hair. “I’m exactly where I need to be.”

A strained yell cut through the warm air like a huntsman’s axe.

Hoseok. Jimin’s attention shifted down the stream, to where the necromancer was flailing his arms around like a madman. The elf cupped his palms and shouted, “What’s wrong?”

“COME OVER HERE QUICK!” Hoseok hollered in return, jumping on the balls of his feet to demonstrate his panic. Something in his tone alarmed Jimin, and together with the others, he dashed down the pebbly banks to where Hoseok stood.

“What? What happened?” Namjoon breathed, panting slightly.

The necromancer’ looked like he had just seen a dead body. He pointed a trembling finger to the Babbling Brook. “I found a dead dude.”

Jimin turned to the creek, and covered his mouth in shock. A boy, ashen-faced and grey as rain, had washed up to the brook’s shallow banks. He was waterlogged and floating still, but what flabbergasted Jimin the most was the unmistakable sight of his emerald green invincibility cloak, wrapped protectively around the body’s torso. He looked like an overgrown newborn in a bundle.

“That’s not a dude,” Yoongi stated matter-of-factly. He pointed at Hoseok. “You’re a dude. This,” he eyed the strong and muscled body warily, “—this is a man.”

Hoseok placed a hand against his chest in mock affront. “You hurt me.”

Beside Jimin, Taehyung gasped and cried out, “Jungkookie!”

As if he’d heard his name being spoken, the unmoving boy on the water opened his eyes.

 


 

“I swear by Thor’s beard, if you scream one more time, I’m going to shove a flaming gag down your throat.”

“You wouldn’t.”

“Try me.”

The words were a murmured buzz in his ears, distant and discordant, as if he were listening in from behind a panel of thick glass. Jungkook felt like his senses were slushing through mud, but whispers of memory slowly usurped his mind out of its subconscious plane. He thought he heard his name being called. Images flashed before his eyes. Mapo Bridge. River. Falling down.

His eyes opened, but all that registered was an endless blackness stretching on for eons. Blackness… and then faraway stars, he now recognized, as his vision grew accustomed to his dark surroundings.

Then his senses came alive.

An electric chill jabbed at his body like a thousand razor-sharp icicles, and he thrashed his arms violently, only to realize that he was on water, and that knowledge only made the brutal coldness clamp down on him twofold. Cool liquid assaulted his nose and he spurted them out in alarm, before choking on his own spit. He coughed, chest convulsing. He didn’t know which direction was which.

“Fuck, somebody pull him out!”

“Wait, he could be injured somewhere, we can’t just move him—“

“Jungkookie—“

He froze. The world slowed to a halt. That voice…

Taehyung.

Arms and several hands grabbed him, supporting his back and lifting him out of the water. A warm body settled beside his stone-cold one. Grass prickled his skin as the arms lowered him, and the fragrance of cinnamon and wild honey wafted over his nose.

A face hovered before his eyesight — with soft cheeks splotched pink, flowing silvery hair and elongated ears that reminded him of Halloween trick-or-treating nights back when life had been carefree. When the person spoke, his voice was as sweet as a mother’s lullaby, if Jungkook ever had one. “You poor thing, your teeth are chattering. We need to warm you up.”

“Move aside,” ordered a lower, slightly raspy voice.

The face shifted to the right, and a new one replaced the center of his vision. This one was as pale as a white wolf, but sported messy tufts of wine-colored hair. Jungkook felt hands reach for his neck and cup his jaw, and immediately the terribly iciness that gripped his core subsided drastically, throbbing less and less. His heartbeat returned to its regular pace, and he found himself releasing a soft sigh as his breathing evened out.

Dimly, he realized that there was another pair of arms holding him tight all along, and he glanced up to see Taehyung’s chiseled face, half-obscured by shadows, peering down at him worriedly.

He wanted to speak, but all he could manage was a dry croak.

“Water. Give him water. Namjoon, we have a spare one in your inventory.”

The cool rim of a flask touched Jungkook’s lips, and he gulped down the liquid gratefully. His senses were more slowly getting attuned to his surroundings now, and he could pick up the frantic heartbeats of the people around him.

Had he been saved by fishermen?

He struggled into sitting position, and turned to stare at Taehyung. “Y-you’re alive? I’m alive?”

“Jungkook. You shouldn’t be here,” the jinni said hastily in a non-response to his question. “I can’t believe you’re here…it’s my fault. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you into this.”

Jungkook frowned. “What are you talking about? Where are we?”

With his heightened senses back in check, he struggled to take in everything all at once. So many different sounds and smells pressed down on him. The soft trill of birds perched on faraway trees, the gentle bristle of flowers brushing past one another, and the trickle of water from a nearby creek. Earthy, woodsy scents; honeysuckle leaves and cedar, pinecones and petrichor, sweat and tears — all from the bodies present around him.

But what he noticed was how there was a considerably lack of…city-like noises around him. No more honking cars, or the reek of engine fumes. Almost everywhere around him was dark — nary a trace of blinking, dizzying lights, not even that of a dim street lamp.

Then he scanned the other faces looming over him, and the first thing he noticed was how strangely attired these young men were. Cloaks, doublets, high collars and boots like people in a cheesy vampire era film. Was there a cosplay event nearby or something? What was up with the medieval garb?

What stole his breath, however, was the sight of a flying cat.

An actual flying cat, wings and all, like a cartoon character brought to life. There was even a small stump of a horn on its forehead.

The getup looked so authentic that Jungkook did a double take, and his eyes darted around to check if the feline was connected to any strings or machinery that permitted the action. But there didn’t seem to be any, and now he was officially beginning to freak out. What the hell?

“Are we… still in Seoul?” he asked Taehyung, who seemed at a loss for words, scratching his head with a guilty expression.

“Heh. Well, no.” Taehyung rubbed his palms together nervously. “We’re not even on Earth anymore.”

Impossible. Jungkook snorted. “What, is this heaven?” Now, this was definitely one of the most peculiar questions he’d ever voiced aloud, and he wasn’t exactly in a joking mood, but he felt inclined to ask anyway.

“No. You are in Diadra,” one of the strangers, the tall one with cropped blond hair and a sapphire blue cloak, informed him solemnly. “The Kingdom of Elves.”

That’s it. I’m dead. And this is some warped version of the afterlife.

Either that, or he had been saved by some seriously hardcore devoted fans of Skyrim loitering around Mapo Bridge late at night.

He couldn’t quite decide which one seemed more likely.

“You mean this…this human hails form Midgard?” asked the silver-haired guy. He wasn’t exactly tall, but he was lithe and slender—built like a dancer—and Jungkook couldn’t help but think that in his regal clothes, he rather looked like a prince. Which was ridiculous, of course, because there were no princes in modern day South Korea. Props for the costume though—it was a pretty good cosplay. Must’ve cost big bucks, including shipping prices.

“Yep,” was Taehyung’s reply. “Like I said, it’s a loooong story.”

Jungkook cleared his throat and slowly stood up. Pushing down his terrible shyness, he inhaled deeply before saying, “Look, thank you for saving my life.”

“Actually, I think it’s His Highness’ cloak that saved him from drowning,” he heard the flying cat whisper to Taehyung.

(Shit. It could talk, too.)

Today was turning out to be the most bizarre day in all of his nineteen years of life. Jungkook tried to take all of this weirdness in stride. He pushed himself up on his wobbly legs. “Um, okay. So now, we’ll be on our way, and you guys can go back to…um, playing pretend in Elfland. Sorry for disturbing you. I’m still very grateful, though.”

“N’awww, the denial is strong with this one,” commented the guy with shaggy black hair and even darker eyebags. “Tsk tsk. Humans, what can you expect.”

Jungkook ignored him. “And you,” he turned to address Taehyung sternly, “—please don’t endanger your life like that again. What would happen to you if I wasn’t there? We’re lucky we’re alive. Let’s get a taxi, and I’ll send you back to whichever ward you came from. Let me just get my phone— my bag!”

Heart rate spiking, Jungkook groped around for his belongings. His eyes gravitated towards the nearby stream, and he burst into a sprint.

“Jungkook, wait!”

What he forgot to take into account, thought, was the heavy cloak wrapped around him, and he tripped as soon as his legs traversed two steps.

“Shit,” he cursed under his breath, shimmying out of the velvet fabric and pushing himself up to run again. “Oh man, holy shit.” He couldn’t afford to lose his stuff. Already, he owned so few belongings. His camera was inside his bag, and he really needed his photos to build a considerably impressive portfolio…

He stepped into the clearing where the creek was, and stopped short.

All around him, unfamiliar-looking flowers glowed like nightclub neon signs at Hongdae every Saturday night. Jungkook stopped and stared. Were there even such flowers that glowed? He had no clue, but the view dazzled him. If only he had his camera with him.

Which reminded him of his earlier purpose, and his head darted around in search for his backpack. He waded into the shallow creek but came up empty-handed. It was nowhere to be found – not at the banks, not in the shallow stream, not near the grassy patch where he’d been laid down earlier.

All traces connecting him to his normal life were… gone. Lost, just like that. Bile rose up Jungkook’s throat, and he messed up his own hair in frustration. He’d been fighting to keep the impending sense of doom at bay, but now, all at once, the gravity of his situation came crashing down on him. Why did everything seem out of sorts? How did he get out of the city? Why did this place not look like Han River?

Was he going bonkers?

“I swear, this kid’s got surprising energy for somebody who’s had a near-death experience.”

“Shush, Hoseok. I think he can hear you.”

The guys were far out of regular earshot for any average person, but Jungkook heard them loud and clear. He massaged his temples, and turned around with a fearful expression. “Where am I?”

As if asking the same question twice could somehow change the answer.

“Jungkook,” Taehyung said as the rest of them walked up to him. “You’re not in Seoul anymore.”

“Then where?” He didn’t want to believe what he’d heard just moments ago – he had to have been hearing things. He was disoriented. He wasn’t thinking right.

“Look,” the ginger-haired shortie asserted. “We don’t have time to deal with a kid’s tantrums. Now that we know this guy is safe, why not we go ahead first?” Though his words sounded cold, his eyes were sympathetic as he gave Jungkook the cursory once-over.

The black-haired one clapped him on the back. “Sorry, kid. We’re in a rush.”

“Where are you going?” Taehyung stuttered, holding onto the sleeve of the silver-haired guy’s elbow to stop him from getting away.

The long-eared fellow took his hand gently and flashed him a placating smile. “We’re going to the Outlands, Taehyung. We’re trying to open a portal, and to do that, we need to get something important from that place.”

“Did you really need to tell him our business?” sassed the redhead.

“A portal?” Taehyung’s eyes widened, and Jungkook could practically see the gears turning in his head. “A portal. Can you open one to Midgard, where Jungkook belongs?”

The three men eyed him uncertainly. “Well…” the cloaked dude said. “…yes, I guess, but-“

“Then please,” Taehyung blurted out. “Take us with you.”

A short pause, and then:

“Wait,” piped up the black-haired guy incredulously. “You’re not joking? I was waiting for the punchline there.”

“I’m not.” Taehyung’s face was dead serious.

“First of all, we don’t even know you,” countered the guy with crimson hair. Come to think of it, his overall demeanor reminded Jungkook of one his favorite badass heroes from the anime Attack On Titan, Levi Ackerman. They both wore the same, perpetually-unamused expressions. “What makes you think we’ll calmly agree, hold hands and saunter off into the sunset? This is not a quest that involves gallivanting around with lost kids.”

Taehyung shook his head and barked out a low chortle. “You know, you’re surprisingly feisty for someone so fun-sized. I like that, I really do, but you need to calm down,” he said flippantly, a dangerous smirk playing at his lips. “—because I wasn’t asking you. I was asking Jimin over here. You’re the Elven Prince, right?”

“How did you know that?” gaped the silver-haired young man.

Taehyung cocked his head towards his fancy garb. “Royal Diadran emblem.”

Sharp, savage and quick-witted, indeed.

(Let it be known that at this point in time, it would be safe to say that Jungkook had fallen into a dazed coma and had resorted to watching the full exchange with much disbelief and resignation.)

The prince pursed his lips. “I, well—“

Please, Jimin. Jiminie. You said we’re friends, aren’t we? Can’t you help us?” Taehyung slid his hands to clasp around Jimin’s stubby fingers. He put on his best puppy-dog face—eyes blown wide, mouth set in a pout with his lower lips jutting out and quivering for added effect. “Please, Your Highness. It’s only right to send Jungkook back safely to where he belongs, don’t you think? You wouldn’t leave us to die here, would you?”

No, of course not. I can’t let anyone else die.” Jungkook could almost hear Jimin’s resolve crumbling, crack by crack, like a porcelain vase being shaken by the earthquake that was Taehyung’s thunderstorm of a personality.

The prince side-eyed Jungkook hesitantly before addressing the other men. “Namjoon, I presume you can send him back, right?”

The blond—Namjoon—cleared his throat with a sigh. “I can try, but we’ll still have to find a portal that leads to Midgard.”

The redhead emitted a loud, disgruntled scoff. “I can’t believe this. Why should we accept? I don’t even understand how you two got here in the first place.”

It was then that Taehyung finally exploded with the full recount of what happened to him and Jungkook prior to everything so far. He told them about how he and Jungkook met each other. How they travelled from ‘Midgard’, jumping through a portal and winding up in this new land called Diadra.

It was also then that Jungkook began to feel like there might actually be some semblance of truth in all the stories Taehyung had been gushing about to him back at the café. Tales of myths, gods and goddesses and what-have-you. It might have all sounded like rubbish then, but with every passing moment here, those stories were beginning to seem more and more plausible.

Yikes. Jungkook winced. They couldn’t be true. They just couldn’t. Accepting something so absurd meant going against all of the practicality he had to learn throughout his life. He had to be either dead or dreaming with his eyes wide open.

“So you two,” Namjoon reiterated, brows dipped low over his eyes in concentration. “-are from Midgard?”

“No, only Jungkook,” Taehyung replied.

“And what of you?”

“I’m from…one of the Nine Worlds, I think.”

“You think?”

Taehyung grinned and shrugged. “I’m finding myself and figuring out who I am.”

Spoken like that, his words might have been interpreted as something said out of adolescent reconnaissance, like normal phrases teenagers might say to explain their rash behavior to their parents. But Jungkook, for one, knew that Taehyung literally meant them. Heck, the boy didn’t even know his own real name.

With another pout, Taehyung turned to Jimin. “So you’ll take us with you, right?”

After another short silence, a decision was made:

“Very well,” Jimin relented. “You may join us until we find a portal for…Jungkook? I hope I’ve pronounced your name right.” He held Jungkook’s gaze for a lingering moment, but it was enough for him to make the deduction:

Jimin sure was a pretty dude.

(Though, if he was honest with himself, he rather preferred Taehyung’s looks.)

“Awesome!” Taehyung whooped, pumping a triumphant fist in the air. “Thank you, Jimin. Can I call you Chim Chim?”

Jimin blinked. “Um, alright?”

“Yay!” Taehyung slung one arm each over Jungkook and the Jimin’s shoulders, and brought their faces close together. “New friends are always welcome.”

“Looks like you’re one of us now,” announced the raven-haired guy as he drew up beside Jungkook. He grinned and ruffled his hair. “So let’s skip the arguments and head right to the introductions. Hi, I’m Hoseok. I’m the one who found you? You’re welcome, by the way. The guy who looks like he swallowed a sour lemon is Yoongi, a fire weaver; and the tall one is Namjoon: resident wizard and theorist. The flying cat is named Kashmere and he hates pet names so don’t even try, and that little darling over there is the Elven Prince, Jimin. If you ever need a favor, I suggest you call him ‘Your Highness’. Usually does the trick.” Hoseok winked at him. “All good?”

Jungkook was at a loss for words, feeling his brain turn to mush at the overload of titles and information being dumped on him. He didn’t have the energy to question anything anymore, so he just raised his hand for a thumb up. “Gotcha.”

What a wild dream. Maybe if he slept this off, he would wake up tomorrow to the clanging noise of pots and pans and the faint aroma of the Big Sisters cooking kimchi soup for breakfast.

Or maybe not… and that would be fine, too. Jungkook was no longer going to fight absurdity with logic, because that was nothing if not a losing battle. For all he knew, all of this could be true. He could be dreaming, he could be crazy, or this could actually be happening for real.

Jungkook was a simple, go-with-the-flow type of guy. At this point in time, he decided to just let Fate chart its course for him, tired of trying to rationalize everything lest he fry every last bit of his brain cells. He sighed. Oh well.

Taehyung asked, “So, how do we get to the Outlands?”

“Oh, I wonder,” Yoongi wrinkled his nose dourly. “We asked for directions to the Outlands, and the Babbling Brook spit you two out. The worlds must be playing twisted tricks on us.”

Just then, something in the air shifted, and Jungkook’s spine shot up straight as his hearing zeroed in on the change in the wind’s currents. His ears caught the distant sounds of… air resistance? It was similar to how you’d fan your hand right beside your ear, and if he didn’t know any better, he might’ve described them like the sounds of wingbeats.

But he really didn’t know better, because never in his life had he ever been prepared for what was coming. The sounds of wings flapping in the air intensified, and this time it was joined by neighing and whinnying coming from the skies. Almost instinctively, Jungkook looked up. There—first appearing as bright specks in the blanket of nighttime, and gradually growing larger.

He rubbed his eyes, and stared, stupefied once again.

Graceful, beautiful creatures, wild and free, soared down from the skies awash in the moon’s blood-red hue. They descended in a herd, and there couldn’t have been lesser than ten of them coming down altogether. Giant, feathered wings in the finest shades of rose gold and bisque stood out in stark contrast against the blanket of the night sky, and as they landed on the Babbling Brook’s clearing, their hooves struck the earth to produce new springs bubbling with water glittering like diamond pearls.

Jungkook thought he couldn’t be any more discombobulated after everything that has been happening to him. But apparently, he was wrong. This… this was the stuff of high fantasies. This was some serious Harry Potter shit.

“Unicorns are real,” he uttered, completely dumbstruck. He couldn’t believe he was seeing all of this without taking any drugs.

“Sweet Frigg, get your facts straight!” Hoseok let out an exasperated cry. “Those are pegasi. A Pegasus has wings. Unicorns have horns. It’s so fucking simple. I really can’t believe humans sometimes.”

Jungkook couldn’t find it in himself to be offended by anything at that moment, so he merely nodded and made amends to his earlier statement: “Pegasus are real.”

Pegasi.”

“Pegasi are real.”

He wasn’t the only one wide-eyed with awe. The other guys were staring at the magnificent creatures, too, as they leaned down to drink serenely from the brook. They stood so near, so real, that Jungkook was afraid to even breathe, fearing that a single noise might interrupt their peace or break the fragile mirage in front of him.

The silent spell over them dissipated, however, when one of the winged stallions’ legs buckled and collapsed beneath its own weight.

 


 

Jimin suppressed a muffled gasp as the Pegasus crashed into the bank, sending water splashing in rivulets. Without thinking, he dashed forward to the other side of the shallow water and fell to his knees beside the creature.

“What’s wrong?” he murmured gently, his heart feeling bruised.

Your Highness.

His eyebrows shot up in surprise. When she spoke, it was like the tinkling of a thousand crystal bells. And though she said not a word, he could hear her in his mind as clearly as if she had.

It has been a long and tiring journey, but I am glad to find you here.

What happened? Jimin asked, not really knowing how he was able to communicate with the gentle beast. This was another one of his many first encounters.

We are on the run. I’m afraid that I, along with other members of my family, have gotten injured from a clash with a group of terrifying winged monsters.

There was a visceral ache in the Elven Prince that prompted him to reach a hand out to the Pegasus, but his fingers stopped just centimeters short of the horse’s silken mane. “Can I touch you?” Jimin whispered out loud, seeking permission. “Please. Let me heal you.”

Instead of replying, the Pegasus leaned her muzzle into his touch.

“Jimin?” Namjoon’s voiced called out tentatively. “What are you doing?”

“It’s alright,” he responded. “Leave me be.” He turned his attention back to the Pegasus.

This was another aspect of Jimin’s gift – the ability to heal only plants and animals, but never mortals. It was strange and unexplained, and he was certain he never could have inherited such power from his father. His eyes raked over the creature’s limp form – her rose gold wings looked out of shape, disjointed and bent in the all wrong angles. Broken wings.

The prince bit back a hiss at how painful that must be.

Resting a hand against the stallion’s mane, he leaned close and blew softly towards the ailing creature, creating puffy rings of emerald-green smoke and colored dust that dissolved into the Pegasus’ champagne-colored coat and wings.

His magic worked like a charm. Moments later, the Pegasus’ head shot upwards and her newly-healed wings fluttered with reinvigorated energy.

Thank you, Your Highness.

The Elven Prince nodded. You’re welcome. What is your name?

Faustine.

“Faustine,” Jimin echoed softly. “What a lovely name for a lovely stallion.” That earned a soft whinny of contentment from the Pegasus. He smiled and pushed off from sitting position. “Let me just quickly aid your other family members.”

He picked his way around the other Pegasi, all of which were larger over him, being the formidable mythical beings that they were. Their wingspans were probably about Namjoon’s height in meters for each side (that is, if you asked Namjoon to lay flat on the ground), and their legs were knobbly but strong and undoubtedly agile. Jimin fussed over the injured ones with the urgency of a nurse caught in the midst of war, and didn’t stop until he’d made sure that every last on of the winged stallions had been tended to. By this time, his other comrades had drawn closer too, although without knowing how they could offer help, they mostly chose to linger a few paces away to watch instead.

With a sigh of relief, Jimin folded his arms, eyeing the outcome of his healing like a piece of handiwork. “There, all done.”

Faustine traipsed over to him, so light on her hooves that she glided more than anything else. She bent her front limbs to bow her head low in front of Jimin. Thank you, Your Highness. How could we ever repay your kindness?

Jimin parted his lips to tell her that they didn’t have to, there was no need, because kindness wasn’t kindness if you expected something in return… but then his gaze slid over to his waiting friends, and an idea struck him.

“Do you know how to go to the Outlands?”

If Faustine was surprised by his question, she didn’t show it.

Yes.

A smile pulled up the corners of the prince’s lips.

After all, they needed to cross the Dust Sea.

“Hey, everyone,” he called out loudly to catch his company’s attention. “How would you like to ride a Pegasus?”

 


 

There was a long list of things that Hoseok was scared of, like snakes, heights, and balloons. Oh, balloons were no doubt some of the most fearsome creations of the worlds — how they took you by surprise, popping out of nowhere! They were about as unpredictable as the weather during monsoon season.

But flying?

No, scratch that. Flying on a mythical winged stallion without a fucking saddle?

Hah! That was no small problem.

It was a huge problem. Needless to say, Hoseok was definitely, certainly, undeniably… terrified.

“Oh, come on, it can’t be that bad,” Jimin tried consoling him. “I’ve ridden Kashmere to fly on several occasions before, and trust me, it’s not as scary as it appears. It’s like becoming a bird. Before you know it, the journey will be over.”

Hoseok made a face. “That’s because you’re not afraid of heights.”

Jimin shrugged, and regarded him thoughtfully. “My father once told me, Aliora nivikan vien daya ennuim. ‘Bravery in the face of fear is called courage’. I think that applies fairly well to this situation.”

And how could Hoseok argue with Elven wisdom? With a resigned sigh, the necromancer rolled his eyes, and swung his legs over his designated stallion—brown mane, bronze wings. Ruven, if he remembered its name correctly.

The thing is, there was something about Jimin that was just irresistible, and whether he knew it or not, he had an uncanny knack for making people bend to his will without having to force them. That was just how the prince was, Hoseok supposed. Perhaps there was some sort of vicious black magic in the way his eyes turned into half-moons whenever he smiled. Elves were worshippers of the moon, weren’t they?

He snapped his fingers, proud of his ingenuity. That had to be it. The prince’s eye smiles had to be cursed!

Because Odin’s mercy, all Jimin had to do was smile his bright and pure smile, and suddenly everyone seemed so inclined to ride a Pegasus across the Dust Sea to get to the Outlands, no questions asked. It was the most ludicrous idea Hoseok had heard yet. Was he the only one using his brain here? What about basic things like… like safety?

Hoseok’s face fell. But if he was so smart, then how come he, too, was complying with the Elven Prince’s idea?

He shook his head. What-fucking-ever. If they died, he could just raise their spirits and tease them about it for the rest of their non-lives.

“Prepare for takeoff!” shouted Namjoon, already settled atop a Pegasus, the one with silver wings and caramel brown coat.

They were at the edge of a rocky cliff, just a few hundred meters from where the Babbling Brook eventually opened out and rushed down into a gushing waterfall. Twilight was upon them now, and he knew it was only a matter of time before the sky would be swathed in the first pinks and oranges of dawn. Up on the cliff, the wind lashed at Hoseok’s cheeks, and he thought about this must be what a smidgen of freedom must feel like.

Beside him was the new kid – Jungkook – who looked out and over at the waterfalls before them in a sort of dazed stupor. His hands tightly gripped the mane of the Pegasus he was sitting on, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed down his nerves. His eyes were black, in the way the sea is black under starlight. Draped over his wide shoulders was Jimin’s green cloak, because he “needs it more for the time being, as a mortal human”, as per the Elven’s Prince’s words.

“Hey. You okay? You don’t have motion sickness or anything, do you?” Hoseok asked in concern, but not without feeling a small stab of resentment. How come nobody was checking to see if he was alright? He could be on the verge of puking here!

“It’s like I’m in Final Fantasy,” Jungkook whispered reverently, eyes glued to the view in front of them.

It was a breathtaking sight indeed, and would be even more so come sunrise. Clusters of evergreen trees on faraway hilltops sprouted up like fresh broccoli, and from this high of a vantage point, the world and its problems seemed to fall away, making everything else seem so small, so forgettable, so insignificant.

Hoseok knew what insignificant felt like.

“Everybody ready?” Jimin signaled for the men to hold on tight to their respective stallions.

The Pegasi neighed, and Hoseok jolted to a sudden lurch as they moved backwards, bracing themselves for flight. He squeezed Ruven’s mane, hoping that their soft, silky texture wouldn’t reduce the friction between his hands. His hands were already clammy enough as they were. Death by falling off a mythical horse? No thank you.

A sudden rush of speed and wind; the clip-clop of hooves galloping across earthy ground; the world rushing past in motion blur time lapse. Hoseok let out a shriek, heart racing a mile a minute, and he leaned over to embrace Ruven’s neck as they gained breakneck speed… and leapt off the cliff.

And took flight, graceful as a swan. Ruven unfurled his great, shimmering wings to either side, and the air hoisted his wings and carried them upwards to join the other stallions that had gotten a head start in front of them.

Hoseok felt his tummy drop in the sudden weightlessness of gravity, and then subsequently soar as he realized this act of defying gravity. Still clinging onto Ruven’s neck, he opened his eyes just a crack.

He was flying. Aces and spades, he was flying!

A slow smile spread across his lips, and he gingerly straightened his spine to sit up properly. Across him, Jungkook and Taehyung let out cheers and whoops, while he could hear Jimin’s bubbly laugh above him.

The necromancer glanced up. There, on the Pegasus with rose gold wings and sleek, alabaster coat, was the Elven Prince himself, grinning down at him as they soared over the gradually lightening night sky.

And… oh. The sunrise was upon them.

The heavens were no longer an abyss of black. At long last, gentle light permeated the veil of night. The sun bloomed out over the horizon like a giant yellow rose opening its petals on a spring day. Then there was the blush of scarlet, the warmth of tangerine; scattering across the sky like a painter’s delicate brushstrokes. Hoseok’s soul stilled as he watched the sun kiss a brand new day in greeting.

As they soared higher above the skies, he noticed wisps of clouds misting over and swirling around him like fluffy clumps of sweet cotton candy. The air was cooler up here, yet his soul felt so, so warm. Peaceful. The necromancer reached up a hand to let his fingers drift over the comforting dampness of clouds.

He might’ve sung a song then, or he might’ve sighed dreamily. Hoseok wasn’t a singer by nature, but there was a tune in his head that somehow went like, Wishing on a star, wishing on a sky…

If he could name that melody, he would title it Daydream. Because this was how flying on a Pegasus felt like – a yearned for daydream brought to life from his childhood fantasies. In a better world, a world without pain and curses, a world he could call his own… Hoseok was sure he wouldn’t be a necromancer, that he wouldn’t be the sore disappointment he was, and if a realm like that existed, he might even call it Hope World.

That was his dream. Well, part of it, anyway.

It was far-fetched and impossible, but when did that ever stop a dreamer from dreaming? It was his to keep, an unspoken hope, and Hoseok wanted to lock it away in a secret safe in his heart.

“Penny for your thoughts?”

Hoseok jumped with a small start. Without noticing it, Yoongi had sidled up beside him, riding on a Pegasus of his own, with a mane as red as his own hair and coating as milky as his own skin. Two peas in a pod, they were.

“I was just… you know, appreciating the view,” Hoseok answered simply.

Yoongi nodded and cautioned, “Well then, no matter what you do, don’t look down.” Then he sauntered off, moving ahead of him.

But of course, it was in the nature of people to push past boundaries and do exactly as they were told not to. So Hoseok, like most people, did what he wasn’t advised to.

He risked a glance down.

And nearly lost his balance. He yelped and was back to hugging Ruven’s neck once again as he stared downwards with wide-eyed fear.

You see, while everything at his eye-level was stupendously glorious and pretty, the situation below was on a different league of… macabre, to put it lightly.

The Dust Sea was a vast expanse of roaring tides and bleak greyness, like a desert of ashes. Whoever was unfortunate enough to get swept away in its hopeless waters sank into its quicksand madness, never to be heard from again. It was a great place for incinerating waste and unneeded material items, but no mortal was ever advised to stray close to it. Nobody ever survived the withering cinders of this killer sea.

The fact that they were currently flying over it made Hoseok’s gulp. He peeled his eyes away, berating himself inwardly. He should have listened to Yoongi’s words!

Well, as long as he didn’t look down anymore, it was easy to forget and pretend that there was nothing to be afraid of, right? So Hoseok kept his eyes in front, trying to ease his heartbeat to a steady rhythm by focusing on Ruven’s wingbeats.

However, this false sense of calm was short-lived.

A guttural howl rang through the air, and Hoseok’s pulse turned erratic. Taehyung and Jungkook went silent. Namjoon, Jimin and Yoongi’s eyes darted around furiously.

They all waited; bodies tense, jaws tight. Hoseok dared a risk over his shoulders, and felt his heart seize in his chest.

For hot on their tails was a small group of basilisks, or shadowbeasts—black, disfigured monsters with giant bat wings and unnaturally long limbs, hailing from the Land of the Dead, Helheim. They’d once been human, but being left to rot in the Underworld turned them into gruesome half-demons with no souls. Their eye sockets were empty and hollow, and while they bore no teeth, only slits for mouth, they had foaming saliva that could burn any mortal’s skin upon contact.

These vile creatures fed on fear and flesh, and they served no purpose other than to satiate their bottomless hunger. Let’s not mention the knife-like claws that grew on their hands instead of fingernails—those served as their weapons, and primary source of defense.

And they could fly. They circled the herd of pegasi from above like a pack of vultures waiting to strike.

Hoseok saw red. He brushed his knuckles against the tough leather of his nightmare whip resting against his left hip.

They’re coming for me.

Then the shadowbeasts dove down and surged towards them, and Jimin let out a terrified yell. The herd of pegasi dispersed mid-air like a fortress of disrupted hornets, neighing in distress, and the necromancer found himself separated from the others.

As the first of the monsters drew closer, he saw Yoongi throwing blazing fireballs at the one that had grabbed the hem of Namjoon’s fluttering cloak, effectively killing the beast and sending it down the Dust Sea below.

Hoseok unlatched his whip in one swift motion, and hurled it at the shadowbeast nearest to him. The whip wound itself tight around the writhing monster, and Hoseok pulled and pulled until it was within touching distance.

He reached for the basilisk’s chin and squeezed tight to keep it from spitting any foaming saliva at his face. He tried to ignore the foul smell coming out of its decaying skin and mouth.

Leaning in close, he snarled in his deadliest tone, “Help me send a message to the rest of your cronies not to follow us. Return to the place from whence you came, demon. Or else… I will personally see to your own doom.”

Then he loosened his whip’s chokehold, and kicked the shadowbeast in the place where its genitals would have been. The monster let out an agonized roar and fluttered away like an injured honeybee.

One enemy, down.

Another earsplitting cry assaulted Hoseok’s ears, and he looked to the left…

…to see Jimin and Jungkook’s horror-stricken faces, watching Yoongi being wrenched off his Pegasus by two flying shadowbeasts, mouths open and ready to pounce.

 


 

Just like in the burning inn, Jimin once again found himself powerless without any earthly material to manipulate this high up mid-air.

What were those hideous things?

He watched Yoongi kick and twist vehemently as one of the winged monsters made a grab for his feet while the other kept his wrists in a vice-like grip, rendering him unable to attack with fire.

Swoosh.

Similar to how the prince had been saved all those years ago, the dark blur of a boomerang sliced through the air and chopped the shadowbeasts’ heads off in one clean swipe. Jimin’s chest exploded with relief. He looked behind, where Taehyung winked at him, one hand raised as he waited for his deadly boomerang to return to him.

But with the beasts now dead, nobody was there to keep Yoongi afloat, and together with the black carcasses, the fire weaver plunged towards the Dust Sea below, screaming as he went.

Jimin ordered the command before he realized what he wanted.

Faustine, after him!

Yes, Your Highness.

Yoongi was falling south quick and hard, but Faustine was faster, and as she and Jimin raced after the firebender, her mighty wings propelled them to swoop down even more rapidly against the force of air resistance. Jimin clung onto her neck for dear life, but his eyes were hard with resolve, determined to save the fire weaver for some unknown reason.

He stretched his arms out just as Yoongi made contact and landed, half in his arms and half on Faustine’s back, and Jimin wrapped his arms tight around the fire weaver to keep the both of them from losing balance. They hovered just a few meters above the Dust Sea, dangerously close to its grey, stormy surface.

Panting hard, the Elven Prince asked, “Are you hurt?” He set Yoongi upright to sit in front of him.

Yoongi blinked up at him with dilated pupils, mouth parted, but no words came. The wind brushed stray crimson locks across his sweaty forehead. His cheeks were flushed with adrenaline, and he too, was breathing hard. Trembling, even. He swallowed and slowly shook his head.

Jimin’s eyes flickered down his body and saw no cuts or bruises. “Good. Now hold on tight. And don’t complain.” He reached over and across Yoongi’s waist to hold onto Faustine’s mane, trying not to be too hyperaware of the firebender’s proximity and warmth from being sandwiched between Jimin’s and the stallion’s bodies. Yoongi was far too close for the Elven Prince’s liking, but in this situation, what choice did he have?

Let’s go, Faustine.

With a small whinny of agreement, Faustine flapped her wings and soared up into the skies once again. Jimin patted her head affectionately.

“Thank you,” he mumbled softly to the Pegasus.

A life for a life, Your Highness. With this, my debt is now repaid.

“No, I should be the one to…” In Jimin’s semi-embrace, Yoongi squirmed uncomfortably, as if he wasn’t sure where to place his hands. Jimin felt his own cheeks heat up as he realized how warm the firebender’s body felt, seated between his thighs.

Yoongi cleared his throat and kept his gaze focused in front instead, refusing to turn around and meet the Elven Prince’s eyes. “Just…thank you.”

Jimin’s eyes widened. He was not expecting that. And was it just him, or did the air around him suddenly feel warmer?

It was probably because the sun had fully risen now. That had to be it. Nevertheless, the prince’s lips curled up in a small, unwitting smile as he replied, “You’re welcome.”

As Faustine continued to fly to where the others were gathered, Jimin closed his eyes to steady his irregular pulse. The day had barely begun, and already so much had happened. What more was to come?

“Is everybody here?” Namjoon shouted once the herd had regrouped. Taehyung gave them two thumbs up, while Jungkook, who cowered under Jimin’s hooded cloak with wide-eyed with terror (and most likely traumatized for life), nodded vigorously. Jimin and Yoongi answered their affirmations as well.

The sorcerer frowned, counting heads. “What about Hoseok?” The necromancer wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Over there!” Taehyung pointed to a little a-ways in front of them, where Hoseok lay slumped against his own Pegasus, looking drowsy and drained of energy. “Oi! Hoseok!”

It occurred to Jimin how the necromancer once mentioned something about hardly being able to sleep as a side effect of his gift. Was he susceptible to fainting spells? Because right now, he looked ready to pass out – face pale, chapped lips drawn tight, heavy eyelids drooping.

But he still tried to sit up at the sound of his name being called out. Jimin saw his mouth form around the word, “What?” as he pushed himself up from his stallion’s neck, swaying side to side the way sleepy people usually did…

Jimin gasped. He should have seen this coming; the signs were all there. Hoseok was going to faint. But ashes and moondust, of all times to fall asleep, why now?

“Hoseok!” they all cried out. Too late. Too far out of reach.

The necromancer’s eyes rolled to the back of his head. He lost grip of his Pegasus, and consequently plummeted to the thrashing ash waters of the Dust Sea.

 


 

On the other hand, Taehyung had seen it all coming. He might have even predicted it. So when Hoseok’s limp form dropped from his whinnying Pegasus, Taehyung threw all caution to the wind. He immediately followed suit and jumped off of his own winged stallion…

…to morph himself into a giant peregrine falcon, the fastest bird to exist. His head transformed into a small skull with a curved, pointed beak, and his body became streamlined with feathers in a way that allowed speedy movements.

Taehyung didn’t often shapeshift – he only did it when he had to go incognito, or whenever an urgent situation called for it. This was one such case.

His eyes locked in on Hoseok’s body and he used his arms—or temporary wings—to zip through the air like a speeding dart. Almost there.

“Gotcha!” Taehyung used his clawed talons to grab Hoseok by the collar of his clothes, leaving the rest of his body to dangle freely. Taehyung spun around and beat his wings upwards, back to where the rest of the guys were gawking at him, shell-shocked.

He found Hoseok’s Pegasus and deposited him on its back, making sure that he sat secure against it. The young man slowly stirred awake, eyes fluttering open. “Whoa. What… happened?”

Taehyung grinned—or at least, as much of a grin as his limited beak could form—and shook his head without replying, before flying back to his own Pegasus and shifting back to his human form.

Four pairs of wide eyes and stunned silence met his bright gaze.

“You…you’re a shapeshifter?” Namjoon sputtered, looking half-shocked and half-impressed.

Taehyung gave him an innocent, tight-lipped smile and a one-shouldered shrug. “Mmm, yeah. A jinni primarily, but I seem to have various skills.” Not all of them explored yet, but that was due to his broken memories. He reeaally needed to get those fixed.

“What else can you do?” Jimin asked.

Taehyung licked his lower lips to cover the mysterious grin forming on his face. He sing-songed, “Well, what do you think? Told ya, I’m not from Midgard.” He made sure to make eye contact with each and every one of the young men around him.

As his gaze roamed over to where Jungkook sat, his smile grew larger.

He didn’t think Jungkook was from Midgard either.

Oh, but who was he to say for sure? Time has its own set of rules and tricks, you know, and you shouldn’t force it to tell you answers. Let it unfold. Let it reveal. Taehyung could sense a whole lot of delicious secrets simmering underneath everyone’s carefully sculpted facades.

He knew for a fact that all of these guys weren’t being completely honest with one another. But hey, Taehyung was just a stranger here, and he had no right to pry. He didn’t know the full truth, but he knew there was a lot he’d yet to find out on this little voyage.

Looks like he had some truthing and sleuthing to do.

He wrung his hands around his stallion’s mane. “Giddy up! Now, shall we?”

They resumed flying, and as the sun rose higher until it settled directly above their heads, Taehyung spotted a small dot in the horizon, growing bigger and bigger as they approached it. “Hey, Chim. What do the Outlands look like?”

“I’ve never been there, but I heard it’s just beyond the Dust Sea,” Jimin replied.

Well, they were certainly past the Dust Sea now. Taehyung glanced down to see calm, azure waters lapping gently underneath them. “D’you ever think it might be an isolated island with a volcano right in the middle?”

“That’s remarkably specific, but I guess it’s easy to imagine it that way,” said the Elven Prince. “Why?”

Taehyung pointed an index finger forward. “Because, my friend, I think we’ve just reached it.”

Chapter Text


Despite his immense loathing for history and all its difficult conundrums, Jimin could clearly remember one special day when a particular tutorial lesson had embedded itself in his memory as a young, wide-eyed prince.

He’d been sitting with his royal tutor, Bisque, and flicking lazily through yellowed pages of the age-old book he’d been assigned to read when his fingers paused at a moving illustration of a bustling marketplace, with artisans and merchants peddling their goods and crates of fruits and herbs lining the cobblestone streets. At the backdrop of the drawing stood a lonely, cone-shaped volcano emitting puffs of smoke that swirled up and out of the page. Jimin had never laid eyes on such a place in Diadra before.

Fascinated, the princeling pointed to the drawing and looked up at his tutor with wide-eyed curiosity. “What is this place?”

Bisque’s reply was high-pitched and rehearsed. “’Tis only a mythic city, my prince. Pompeii was once a prosperous port city at the southern tip of Diadra, but it disappeared after Mount Elm erupted and completely buried it under a blanket of ashes and dust. According to ancient Elven legend, that is. Pompeii is a land frozen in time.”

“Where is it now?” Little Jimin asked, eyes twinkling with interest as his mind ran amok. Holy moondust, if he had his way, he could ask his Papa to order a search party to find this city!

“As I’ve said, it is nothing but a pure myth. It doesn’t exist.”

The young prince’s heart sank, watching another adventure bite the dust. “So it’s not real?” What was this drawing doing inside a history book, then?

“I’m afraid not.” Bisque gulped, and while his voice was calm, his eyes belied the nervousness he struggled to hide. “There is no need to concern yourself with such nonsensical fairytales, Your Highness. In fact, I will have the servants take this book away as it seems to be… outdated.” Before the prince could protest, Bisque snatched the tome out of Jimin’s tiny fingers and kept it out of sight, taking away the mirage of Pompeii along with it as well.

“Today’s lessons will end here.”

Daydreamer that he was, Little Jimin spent the rest of that day sighing and looking out over his chamber windows, letting wild theories and imaginations populate his head. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Kashmere, to go on an adventure and discover what’s out there?”

His cat-servant rolled his eyes and let out a little wheeze of incredulity. “A prince should stay in castles, not parade in the mud. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s different from what truly lies outside the palace walls. Stay safe, Your Highness.”

“Pffft. You are a killjoy.” With a pout, Jimin turned away and looked out his window again, towards the view of the sea and its seemingly endless horizon. Kashmere wouldn’t ever understand; why, he could fly and go anywhere he wanted!

And so, to make do with what free playtime he had, the Elven Prince busied himself with pretending to be a fearless pirate, or perhaps a daring explorer who travelled across the Nine Worlds in a personal mission to fight monsters and save towns from being devoured by dragons. He imagined himself tracing down the tragic, lost city of Pompeii and finding townsfolk frozen and unmoving in a tableau of daily life happenings, as though Time itself had decided to stand still in the midst of all the hustling activity.

In a way, he wasn’t wrong.

 


 

The Outlands.

A single, lonely island in the middle of the sea covered by pastures and pastures of greenery for as far and wide as the naked eye could see. At its heart stood a volcano dotted by the sunset-tinged pinks and oranges of burgeoning flowers. It was an oasis; a celebration of life outside the tumultuous tides of the Dust Sea, and like the rest of Diadra, every nook and cranny of the island was decked in nature’s emerald hue.

As Jimin and his newfound friends circled the island astride their winged stallions, he saw a strip of candylike, rainbow-colored sand — a beach — that outlined the land’s form. The beach stood out in striking verdigris and rose, teal and goldenrod. From a bird’s eye view, the Outlands looked like a sugary realm from a child’s storybook. Jimin wondered how such a pretty piece of land could have gotten lost and strayed this far out sea.

So much for barren wasteland, he mused, thinking back to Garth The Good Ghost’s words.

“So Jimin,” Namjoon voiced out from the rear, pulling the Elven Prince out of his thoughts as they neared the shore. “Where to? Do you know the way?”

“Um.” Jimin squinted hard to study the tiny island, realizing his slip-up.

He’d been reckless. Now that he thought hard about it, he had absolutely no clue where to start searching for wherever Namjoon’s staff was being kept away. Was this so-called Pandora’s Box a vault? A guarded safe? Maybe he should have asked the griffin for more clues before impulsively deciding to come here. What if Garth The Good Ghost was right, and there was absolutely nothing valuable to be found here? He pursed his lips before speaking. “I think we can first start by combing the area-“

Before he could finish his sentence, Faustine, who was leading the entire herd in front, paused for a long moment, her mighty wings flapping mid-air. She let out a soft neigh and began a slow descent, moving downwards instead of forward. Beside Jimin, Kashmere let out a small meow at the sudden switch in directions.

Woah, easy. Jimin furrowed his eyebrows. What’s wrong, Faustine?

Unusual magic, replied the winged stallion, her voice sounding less calm than normal. There’s an invisible barrier surrounding the island.

A barrier? The Elven Prince looked around, but his eyes failed to notice anything amiss.

“Where’re we going?” Taehyung called out as the rest of the Pegasi herd followed Faustine’s lead. Altogether, they swooped down and headed for the strip of sandy beach lining outermost shore of the island—the only area that didn’t seem to be warded off by the barrier.

Jimin flashed him a frown. “Faustine says we can’t enter.”

Taehyung’s mystified expression mirrored his. Carefully, he pulled out his memento mori to hurl it at the seemingly empty space in front of them. Jimin saw the way the air crackled with a purplish electric buzz at the exact moment Taehyung’s boomerang rebounded, as though hitting a dead end, or perhaps a wall. An invisible wall. So Faustine was right. There truly was a protective barrier surrounding the Outlands. But the million-dollar question that lurked in his mind was—why?

Was it meant to keep something out… or keep something in?

The Pegasi descended almost soundlessly against the sandy beach, and Jimin was the first to alight. Sensing Faustine’s distress, he rested a hand against the Pegasus’ muzzle and stroked her rose-gold feathers in a gentle caress.

You seem restless, Jimin crooned, the area between his eyebrows creasing.

Faustine released a soft huff of air along with her whinny. The Outlands is no place for a Pegasus, Your Highness.

The prince burned with the urge to ask why, but never got the chance to. As if to prove a point, as soon as their riders disembarked from their backs, the other stallions stomped their legs and neighed in distress, shaking their heads and grunting in a show of discomfort. What was it about this place that frightened them?

Jimin was loath to send the fantastic beasts away, but something told him that it wouldn’t be right to keep the herd tied down to their little troupe. Moreover, he hated seeing any creature suffering, and clearly the Pegasi didn’t look too happy to be here. He wasn’t too worried about getting out – surely portal travel would cease to be a problem once they got ahold of Namjoon’s Summoning Staff. He smiled faintly. You have helped us enough, Faustine. Thank you. Now, I must bid you farewell.

(“Psychic, I swear,” he vaguely heard Hoseok mumble to Jungkook and Taehyung. “He talks to animals without, you know, talking.”)

The Pegasi took no time to depart, every single wingbeat rippling the air around them, and as Jimin watched them fly away until they were but tiny specks in the cornflower sky, he tried to push down the most sinking feeling that he was walking into the great unknown with no escape. Letting out a soft exhale to ease the nervous knot in his stomach, Jimin stepped forward, drinking in their new surroundings.

They were at a beach, but it was unlike any normal beach the prince had even seen.

Up close, the sand was a bedazzling Technicolor palette. Jimin had only seen sand in hues of white and yellow before, so the myriad of striking hues was a visual feast to his eyes. There was pink and chartreuse and varying shades of blue—blue sand, what a sight!—and then there was violet like Taehyung’s hair. Kaleidoscopic colors lined up the stretch of the shore, and Jimin couldn’t suppress the enraptured smile that crept its way to his lips.

It was like sashaying into a fairytale.

Together, they walked the length of the beach in in silence, like they had some sort of unspoken agreement not to disturb their environment, until they reached a patch of the ground further inland where the all color and life just… vanished. As if somebody had been painting the beach and simply got tired, packed up, and left the artwork unfinished, leaving only the outer strip of the beach colorful while the rest of the inner parts of the island remained a drab grey.

Jimin frowned, and glanced down to see that this was no random anomaly — the part where the pale pink sand gradually met grey-green ground was marked and dotted by a line of small stones and pebbles that snaked its way around the whole island.

There was a magnetic force field surrounding the Outlands.

“The Pegasi were right,” Namjoon quipped, falling into step with the prince. He too, was studying the small stones intently. “I think the magic barrier starts from here. Curious and curiouser.”

Now that they'd traversed closer inland, Jimin found that he could now finally see what this so-called invisible barrier was. The air before him rippled with the faintest hues of purple and blue, humming with a constant, low buzz that made his nerves under his skin thrum. “What’s it for?”

Namjoon shrugged and emitted a thoughtful hum. “I can see and feel magic energy, and this,“ he pointed at the seemingly empty air in front of their group, “—is powerful ancient magic. I daresay it’s been around for decades.”

"What happens if we pass through it?" asked Kashmere.

Jimin stepped forward. "Well, we wouldn't know unless we tried, right?"

"No, wait." Namjoon held him back by the elbow. “Careful. It’s could be dangerous. I can’t even tell if it’s Fae or Elven magic.”

“Fae magic?” Kashmere spluttered, whiskers twitching. “But the Fae folk are a dying race. They’ve begun dwindling in numbers more than a decade ago!”

“Then that means this barrier was created right before they disappeared…” Yoongi speculated, biting the insides of his cheeks, “…and just a little after the Great War ended.”

Diadra had not always been solely occupied by Elves. Long ago, there had been a time when faeries roamed freely amongst their close Elven brothers and sisters. The Fae folk had been powerful, loyal allies to the Elves, and together they’d fought long and hard on Odin’s side during the Great War of Deities.

But then a dreadful day came when nearly the entire Fae community just suddenly seemed to have… disappeared, without leaving a single trace or clue behind as to why or how, or where they’d gone. There one day and gone the next, they vanished like ghosts evaporating into thin air. Just like that, an entire species was wiped out. But the strangest of all was how despite this mass disappearing act, there were still faeries—albeit very few—who remained. It was almost as if these few had gotten left out or were uninvited to an exclusive field trip to nowhere by the rest of their kin.

“Oh,” was all Jimin could muster.

“Do you think maybe there’s a hole or an entrance?” Hoseok suggested, tapping his feet as he drummed his fingers lightly against his hip. “I mean, there must be a way inside.”

Yoongi let out a scoff. “Seriously? You think anybody would be stupid enough to cast a protective shield with holes in it?”

“Don’t be wet blanket,” Hoseok shot back offhandedly, his upper lip curling in his signature pout. “This is called brainstorming.”

“Hoseok, you’re right!” Taehyung’s deep voice called out, sounding muffled and distant.

Jimin turned to find that the jinni and Jungkook had strayed to the far end of the beach, almost obscured from view as the strip of land rounded out and turned away from sight. Taehyung bounced on his heels and waved his arms up in a classic gesture asking them to come over. "We found something!"

Jimin’s group followed, jogging to where the two were standing. As they approached, he finally understood what their excitement was all about.

Like a gate to a sacred fortress, a massive white stone archway with thick, gilded pillars towered over them, looking older than Time itself. In its heyday, it might’ve looked majestic, welcoming even, but now it just looked like a withering gateway mourning an era long gone. Interestingly, this seemed to be the only point on the whole island that wasn’t protected by the magic barrier.

It was an entrance.

What captured Jimin’s fascination, however, was the stone statue of a gargoyle perched above the archway. As with most gargoyles, it was crouched in a squatting position, shoulders hunched over and expression guarded, as though carefully observing any potential trespassers with squinty-eyed shrewdness. It had small wings jutting out from its back, with two small horns atop its bald head. The gargoyle was the only decoration accompanying the lonely archway.

It looked so life-like that it was easy to imagine it narrowing its eyes and clucking its tongue at outsiders attempting to get through the archway, past the island’s protective barrier.

It’s only a stone statue, Jimin tried to remind himself. Just a golem. It’s not alive.

Easier said than done. Especially when, as he let his eyes flicker up from the gargoyle pointy chin to its slanted eyes, it suddenly… blinked.

Jimin could have sworn he’d all but stopped breathing at that moment.

"Aces and spades," Hoseok's voice was a hoarse whisper. "D'you see that?"

"See what?" asked Jungkook.

As if to answer, the gargoyle's head swiveled in their direction, and directly met Jimin’s gaze. “Hello.

 


 

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Jungkook felt caught in a landslide, with no escape from reality.

Because oh man holy shit, did that statue really just move and speak to them? He rubbed his eyes, trying to make sure that he wasn’t imagining things. The encounter with those demonic beasts earlier was still tattooed fresh in his mind, and he was pretty sure he was just a stone’s throw away from cardiac arrest with every new surprise that came his way.

Around him, a collective gasp buzzed through his new acquaintances (calling them friends at this point would be a bit of a stretch, for Jungkook still wasn’t completely sure if he was actually just dreaming this whole world up).

“Ooooh,” Taehyung sing-songed, a spark of interest lighting up his eyes as he studied the talking gargoyle. “Enchanted, huh?”

Enchanted. Magic. Energy. These were words that Jungkook had been hearing repeatedly over the last few hours. Needless to say, he felt like a flapping fish out of water. One that had jumped from the pan and into the fire. Never in his wildest dreams had he ever imagined he would witness a real life, talking stone statue. In fact, his only memory of seeing anything remotely close to a gargoyle involved the ones from that classic Disney animated film, The Hunchback of Notredame, which he’d been forced to sit through and watch with Jiyeon on her seventh birthday.

His heart suddenly felt weighed by a truckload of barrels. Jiyeon.

Her pale face and sunken cheeks flashed in his mind’s eye. Jungkook hoped his foster sister hadn’t slept through breakfast (again) today. Would she be expecting him to swing by the hospital later? Tonight? Tomorrow?

He didn’t want to imagine the smile that would slowly slip off Jiyeon’s face at the mistaken thought that he’d forgotten about her. Belatedly, he realized that if he truly was in a different world, as he was slowly starting to accept, then there was virtually no way he could reach out to her. He needed to get away from this place.

"Who... no, what are you?" Jimin spluttered, staring up at the gargoyle with his mouth slightly ajar.

The statue scrunched up its nose as it peered down at them, the movement sending age-old dust and flakes falling off its face. Then it spoke, in a low and jarringly disembodied voice as rough as rusty anchors: "I am the sentry posted to keep strangers from ever attempting to risk their lives inside this island again."

"Right, yeah, that much seemed obvious enough," Hoseok said. “But why? You keeping secrets, buddy?”

"No, no. I am merely trying to keep the casualty count low.”

Jungkook gulped. Casualty count? As in like, a death toll?

“What do you mean?” asked Yoongi, eyes narrowed.

The gargoyle ignored the question, its expression turning soft but stern. “Believe me, there’s nothing to find here, sir. Best turn back and be on your way."

"Nah, but that’s no fun,” Taehyung whined, meeting everyone’s eyes. He hooked a thumb in the golem’s direction. "I don’t know about you all, but the more this statue talks, the more curious I get."

Jungkook hummed thoughtfully and stepped closer to the archway to peer inside. It was kind of like looking into a framed painting. From his vantage point, the island seemed harmless enough – he spotted gentle bugs fluttering from flower to flower, evergreen pine trees being caressed by the sea breeze, and a lazy volcano letting out slow puffs of smoke.

Every bit the embodiment of a serene environment.

“You must understand,” the gargoyle implored. “This island has already seen too much tragedy. I cannot allow history to repeat itself.”

“History? What happened before?” Namjoon inquired, his eyebrows pinched.

The stone statue shook its head vehemently. “It is not my story to tell. So unless you are here to free us and banish Pandora, I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to leave, and never return.”

“Pandora,” Yoongi parroted monotonously. Jungkook realized that for all the quiet calmness the young man exuded, his senses were as quick and sharp as a lion’s.

Namjoon remarked, “I feel like I’ve heard that name before…”

“Yes,” the gargoyle hung its head in sorrow. “She and that cursed Box of hers have brought us such great misery.”

“Wait, who’s Pandora?” Hoseok asked in bewilderment.

“Where is Pandora?” Namjoon added.

“I’ll do you one better,” Taehyung said. “Why is Pandora?”

“You’re all making shit sense!” Yoongi yelled, scowling. “Shut up and let the golem speak.”

“Nothing but thieving wench,” the gargoyle spat, and despite its stony features, its eyes were undoubtedly livid. “After stealing the Box from Asgard, she fled here to escape the gods, but oh, she’s a foolish girl, you see?”

The gargoyle’s rasp took on a bitter tone that prickled Jungkook’s ears. “Thought she could escape the deities, she did. But the sky is the wisest of us all—it has seen all of everything. Nobody ever escapes its watchful eyes. Nobody. And when the gods found out about her wrongdoing, they punished her severely.”

Now, in typical Jungkook fashion, the brunet tried his best to keep up with the situation by simplifying the given facts into a summary in his head:

 

1)    He had just ridden a horse. A flying horse, mind you;

2)    A stone statue was talking to them;

3)    They were, apparently, on a cursed (?) island…

4)    …which was being terrorized by a woman called Pandora.

5)    He was not dreaming all of this up.

(Though he wished he were.)

 

With a sudden snap of his fingers, Namjoon exclaimed, “Aha! I remember now. Are you perhaps referring to the legend of Pandora’s Box? The keeper of the worlds’ greatest evils, guarded by a cursed medusa?”

The gargoyle nodded stiffly.

(“What’s a medusa?” Jungkook whispered lowly in Taehyung’s ear. The jinni shrugged.)

“The griffin was right… Pandora’s Box does exist.” Jimin muttered to himself in exhilaration, brown eyes dancing with light. He glanced up at the gargoyle. “And then? What happened next?”

The golem’s face turned sour as it shook its head. “Catastrophe, that’s what.”

Jungkook frowned, but he kept quiet, riveted by the story.

However, instead of continuing or explaining further, the gargoyle said, with a tone of finality: “So gentlemen, I urge you to turn around and never look back. The is a cursed island. Leave now before you get entangled in the perils of this place.”

“No, no…” Jimin protested. “Nothing adds up. Why would the Outlands be dangerous?”

To this, the gargoyle nodded once and then grumbled, stony-faced, “It didn’t use to be called the Outlands…”

“Oh, boy,” Hoseok said, realization seeping into his eyes. He turned to the group and bit out in a dramatically hushed whisper, “You don’t suppose that this Pandora’s Box is where Namjoon’s Summoning Staff is being kept…?”

Jimin let out a small squeak. “That’s right! That’s what the wise griffin at the tavern told me – that there’s a box where all confiscated weapons are being kept.” He turned to look at the area of the Outlands marked by the other side of the archway. “And it’s in there.

The talking cat—Kashmere, if Jungkook remembered its name correctly—let out a weary groan. “I don’t like where this is going… this is a bad idea.”

“I know,” Jimin answered, grinning. “That’s why we’re doing it.”

His flying cat sighed. “Why does this feel like déjà vu…”

“Wait. Doing what, exactly?” Jungkook ventured, adjusting Jimin’s cloak tighter around his shoulders. He felt an involuntary chill sweep through his veins despite the sweat beading on his forehead from the midday sun’s heat. “What’s happening now?”

The Elven Prince smiled like his life was finally going in the direction he wanted. “We’re gonna go inside, retrieve Namjoon’s staff, and save this island from a curse.”

Jungkook winced. It sounded like the premise of a bad Hollywood movie plot. The kind that he had no keen interest to star in. Once again, he wished he were back in Seoul — familiar, safe, comfortable Seoul.

“Now, who’s with me?” Jimin looked around, his cheeks dusted with light splotches of pink.

“Me, me!” Taehyung slung an arm around the elf, the beginnings of a smile playing at his lips. The prince’s eyes lit up. “Count me in.”

Namjoon scratched his head apprehensively, and turned to Yoongi and Hoseok. “Well? What say you?”

What say you’, my ass,” Yoongi huffed. “It’s not like we have a choice. C’mon. Let’s just get this over and done with.” And with that, the firebender took the lead, stepping past the archway and into the island. The other two quickly trailed after him.

“Many have come this way and never left the island! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!” The gargoyle attempted to stop them, but the older guys had already ploughed ahead, leaving Jungkook, Jimin and Taehyung at the archway. With a resigned sigh, it turned to them. “Listen to my final word of caution, will you?”

“What is it, Mr. Stone?” Taehyung tilted his head upwards.

A grim frown pulled at the gargoyle’s face. “If you ever come face to face with Pandora, never, ever meet her eyes. Don’t even try to look into them, lest you want to be turned to stone. For she is cursed, and her gaze is lethal.”

Jungkook gulped. That didn’t sound like a joke, did it?

He fell into step with Jimin, perhaps because the elf was the only other person in the group besides Taehyung that he’d instantly felt comfortable enough with. At least, he didn’t seem as intimidating as the other guys. The way Yoongi, Namjoon and Hoseok behaved reminded Jungkook of the older college fraternity blokes he often tried his best to avoid on his way to class.

But before they could walk more than a few paces, Jimin backtracked and craned his neck up one last time to ask the gargoyle, “You said that this place didn’t use to be known as the Outlands. What was its former name?”

And Jungkook would never understand why Jimin gasped at the statue’s monosyllabic answer:

“Pompeii.”

 


 

Taehyung lingered behind the group, watching with mild bemusement as Jungkook doggedly followed Jimin and his flying cat through the giant archway.

He’s adjusting pretty well, thought the jinni.

“Strange, isn’t he?” The gargoyle’s voice jolted him to the present.

“Huh?” Taehyung looked up to find the statue also peering after Jungkook’s retreating form.

“I could’ve sworn he wouldn’t be able to step past this gate,” the gargoyle shared, then shook its head as if to dispel whatever it was thinking. “Ah well, I could be wrong.”

“What are you talking about?” Taehyung prodded.

The gargoyle shot him a perusing look. “Like me, this whole archway is enchanted, you see? It only admits a specific kind of people.”

Taehyung arched an eyebrow, but he decided to play the clueless fool. Wasn’t that always the easiest way to get information you wanted? Pretend not to know anything, and people took you for an imbecile. Then, once they’ve let their guards down around you… well, that’s when the most accidental truths usually spilled forth.

“Oh, really?” he trilled. “And what sort of ‘specific people’ are allowed inside?”

The gargoyle flashed him a wry grin, and gave an answer that sent Taehyung’s adrenaline surging, confirming his unspoken hunch. “Magic wielders.”

 


 

 

As Namjoon stepped past the archway and into the Outlands, his breath hitched in his throat.

The other side of the archway couldn’t have been any more different from its outer appearance. Instead of being greeted by lush grass and warm sunshine, his foot hit moss-covered earth and his nose sniffed stale air. He squinted his eyes, trying to make out their surroundings. Misty fog twisted around their feet and stung his eyes, obscuring their view, but already the sorcerer could tell that the Outlands wasn’t as beautiful as it had first seemed when he’d spotted it from above. His heart sank.

This was not the promised wonderland they’d sighted from outside the barrier.

Then the fog cleared slowly, taking Namjoon’s breath away with it. His jaw hung open as dread crept up his spine.

Definitely not a beautiful tropical paradise.

Instead of a garden, they were in a clearing of sorts, with jagged rocks and weeds poking out of the ground. Namjoon rubbed his eyes, flummoxed by the abrupt change in scenario. Overhead, a pewter-colored sky loomed over them and rushed like the changing tides, blocking out the sun’s light and draping a gloomy veil over the island.

The only thing that remained the same was the island’s volcano. There it stood in the distance, cone-shaped and gigantic, but instead of being covered by bushes and trees, it was layered with an unsightly mixture of rubble, brimstone and black-burnt stalagmites. Namjoon cursed under his breath. Fools, that’s what they’d been. They should have taken the gargoyle’s warning seriously. They’d warded into uncharted territory unprepared.

What rattled him the most, though, were the…decorations…peppering the field. It was heavily scattered with dark grey stone statues of people — people frozen in different poses, and they looked so frighteningly lifelike, you might mistake them for real living beings. In many ways, Namjoon might as well have been back in the any of the damned graveyards from the Realm of Monsters—for around them, everything was dead, deader and deadest.

Over there, to the left – a group of young children crouched low with their hands raised above their heads, eyes wide and desperate; to the right side were grown men in various stances of the running position, mouths wide open and faces twisted in horror. All around, there were other stone statues were lying on the sodden earth, curled up in fetal position as if to cower away from something. In each of the statues’ expressions, Namjoon saw one common thread of emotion – fear.

Goosebumps skittered down his arms.

The statues, they looked like villagers caught in the midst of running away from something ominous.

But what? the sorcerer wondered. And who in their right mind would design such ghastly caricatures, and deem them fit as island decorations?

“Well,” Hoseok remarked, tsk-tsking with his tongue. “Some welcoming party this is. I was expecting something like the Garden of Eden here, but nope, we get a Garden of Golems.”

Namjoon frowned. Surely this couldn’t be the same place they’d been flying over mere moments ago? Where were the trees? The chromatic flowers? The crystal clear magnolia sky? A thought flitted past his mind. Could it possibly be a—

“Glamour.” Yoongi said, his voice austere as he reached the same conclusion as the sorcerer. “I knew it. I had a funny feeling about this place — it looked too pretty on the outside.” The flame weaver shook his head. “Can’t ever trust the pretty ones.”

So the magic barrier wasn’t just a protective shield. It was a beautifying mask. In simpler terms, a lie. But what for? What kind of truth was ugly enough to warrant a cover such as this?

Namjoon turned to the necromancer. “Hoseok, do you sense anything? Are we surrounded by any spirits?”

The necromancer wrinkled his nose and closed his eyes. After a brief silence, he muttered, “Eh, no. My death radar isn’t pinging.”

Nobody to interrogate, then. Namjoon’s frown deepened. Strange. There was something amiss here — a puzzle piece he hadn’t yet quite grasped, and he burned with the ache to quell his need for knowledge.

“But,” Hoseok added as an afterthought. “I do sense some bad juju going on around here. Something’s not quite right.”

Yoongi grumbled, “Bad juju? The fuck is that?”

“Dude, my bro, the darkness to my sunshine. Juju means energy. Ki.” Hoseok gave the nonplussed fire weaver a look that seemed to convey you’re my friend but you’re a sad idiot. “It’s a slang? I swear; you gotta keep up with the times, man.”

With an eye roll, Yoongi said, “The only time I have to keep up with, is avoiding any more time with you.”

Hoseok laughed and clapped Yoongi in the back. “Oh, lighten up, buttercup.”

Namjoon shushed them both and paced across the eerie field, lost in thought. He wove through the maze of horror-stricken statues, all previously held thoughts of Pandora’s Box and retrieving his Summoning Staff leaving his mind momentarily.

So many stone statues, all gathered in one place.

“They’re so well-made, no?” Hoseok commented, leaned down to come face to face with a frozen Elven child. “They almost look like real people who were frozen to stone.”

Another thought struck the sorcerer like a bolt of lightning. “Hoseok,” Namjoon breathed, mind reeling with realization. “What if… what if they were?”

Yoongi stared at him. “You mean, that these people are the island’s actual folk?”

It was absurd, but not entirely impossible. Namjoon looked around — the island was in shambles. Dilapidated. A chilly breeze blew across the field, scattering fog around their ankles like misty snakes. Wilderness was now swallowing whatever civilization remained here. The few trees that sprouted up from the earth were all bare-naked. No doubt the Outlands hadn’t been visited in the last couple of years. Maybe even decades, who knew?

Frozen people in a place frozen in time. The idea seemed more and more plausible the longer Namjoon thought about it. He grappled with what little bits and pieces of information the gargoyle sentry had told them. So the Outlands was a cursed place — that much they all knew. He glanced back at the way he had entered, and then back at the statues. Interestingly enough, they all seemed to be heading in one direction — towards the archway. The exit.

Were they trying to leave the island?

He pursed his lips, letting his eyes scan his surroundings with newfound interest. If these statues had once been living, breathing people, then what had they been running away from? A threat? A ferocious monster? Was it the same thing that had reduced them into this unmoving state?

His pace quickened, and he started walking around in circles, chin in his hand.

(“And there he goes again.” Hoseok nudged Yoongi knowingly. “Muttering to himself.”)

Namjoon ignored them. The faint beginnings of a throbbing headache pounded against him temples. He glanced back at the statues, but instead of observing which way they were going towards, the sorcerer let his eyes follow the direction that the villagers had been running away from

…and his gaze pointed to only one location. The volcano.

Sweat dampened his forehead and he gulped.

Why, he pondered, would the islanders run away from the volcano? Maybe it was about to erupt? But then again, if it had truly erupted, then why wasn’t the island buried neck-deep in layers of ash and dust? A thousand and one questions milled about in Namjoon’s brain, but he couldn’t arrive to a single, conclusive answer.

“The curse,” Yoongi said, making Namjoon halt in his tracks and breaking him out of his train of thought.

“Huh?” the sorcerer shook his head as he snapped back to the present.

“The gargoyle said this place is cursed,” explained the fire weaver. He gestured an arm towards the statues and raised his eyebrows as if he were stating the obvious. “What if this is it?”

Hoseok made a sound of agreement. “That makes sense.”

A curse that could turn people into stone?

“That’s… actually possible.” Namjoon nodded slowly, trying to ignore how Yoongi’s words brought a new chill that made his skin crawl. “But why? And how?”

The clues weren’t adding up. And what of that cursed Pandora woman, and the so-called box that hypothetically kept his Summoning Staff? How did they fit into the bigger picture? Namjoon needed to know more. Curiosity sparked inside of him like the first flicker of a firework.

The sudden noise of footsteps running against the ground shook them out of their brainstorming.

“It’s Pompeii!” came the Elven Prince’s breathless titter.

They turned around to see a bright-eyed Jimin sprinting towards them, followed closely by a shifty-eyed, nervous Jungkook and a bemused Taehyung. “I can’t believe it!” the prince cried. “After all these years, the stories were all true! Pompeii exists.”

“Woah, woah, simmer down,” Hoseok said, holding to hands out in a placating. “What are you talking about?”

“This!” Jimin threw his arms out and twirled like a ballerina, making a sweeping gesture at the area surrounding them. “The Outlands, it used to be Pompeii!” he chirped, eyes glimmering with the thrill of discovery.

Namjoon couldn’t understand what his excitement was all about. “What is a Pompeii?”

“A legend. Or well, maybe not anymore, I guess.” Jimin cleared his throat and inhaled deeply in an attempt to collect himself. “There’s a myth among us Elven folk about a lost city called Pompeii that used to be a part of the Diadran mainlands. But then it disappeared after Mount Elm—“ he pointed up at the formation looming above, “—exploded with lava and buried its people. And this is it. We’re standing on the very ground I’ve only ever read about in books.”

Mount Elm. If the prince was right, then that was probably the volcano’s namesake.

“Jimin,” Namjoon said quietly. He didn’t want to burst the little guy’s bubble. “Look around you.”

His words startled the prince and wiped the grin off his face. “Huh?”

“Does this look like civilization to you?” Namjoon didn’t quite buy the story of a singular natural catastrophe resulting an entire island being cut off from the rest of the world. It was called the Outlands, not the Lavalands. No, there must’ve been some other reason or root cause as to why this place had been separated. “Do you see traces of a volcanic explosion anywhere?”

Jimin blinked. “No, but I…“ his voice trailed off, eyes widening at the sight of the statues. His shoulders sagged and he went slack-jawed with dismay. “What… what happened here?”

Hoseok half-shrugged. “Beats me. Sure doesn’t look like a ancient city to me.”

Yoongi let out an undignified snort. “More like an ancient ruin.

“Woah,” Taehyung said, letting his golden gaze roam over the golem-ridden field. He tromped over to one of the frozen figures, unfazed by its contorted expression, and waved a hand in front of its face. “It’s like entering a different dimension. Did we go through a portal? Is that what the archway is?”

“No,” Namjoon answered. “We were fooled. The magic barrier surrounding the island is nothing but an elaborate glamour.” A carefully fabricated lie. Whoever had cast the glamour must have been very powerful indeed.

Whoever had cast it must have been protecting a very important secret.

“I don’t understand,” Jungkook mumbled, looking one heartbeat away from freaking out. “What is this place?”

“I don’t know.” Namjoon’s mouth pursed into a grim line. He turned to the Elven Prince. “Listen, I don’t think your folktale is completely true.”

“W-what do you mean?” Jimin stammered. His eyes darted around nervously. “We are in Pompeii.”

Kashmere added, “The gargoyle himself said so.”

“You may be right, but that is not what I was referring to.” the sorcerer interjected. “Like I said, a mere volcanic eruption couldn’t have torn this island away from Diadran mainlands.” He narrowed his eyes at the volcano. “There’s a dark kind of magic at play here. Besides, look at these figures.”

“We think it’s the curse that’s been plaguing this place,” Yoongi shared, folding his arms and cocking his head in the direction of the statues.

“Oooh. You mean these people aren’t just golems, but real people?” Taehyung asked.

Hoseok nodded. “Seems like it.”

Namjoon hummed his affirmation. “But what kind of curse…?”

“Oh, oh! The gargoyle did mention one more thing to us,” Taehyung snapped his fingers. “He warned us to never look into Pandora’s eyes should we ever come face to face with her, unless we want to turn into…” he trailed off, eyes widening as he came to the conclusion at the same time that Namjoon did.

Understanding dawned on the sorcerer’s face as another puzzle piece clicked into place.

“…stone,” Namjoon finished the sentence. Dread curdled in the pit of his stomach like spoilt milk. It was far-fetched by all means. An entire island, cursed by a woman?

The very notion of this concept made Namjoon want to backtrack and leave. But...

“Brrrr.” Hoseok made a huge show of shuddering. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but the sooner we find Namjoon’s wand-“

“-Summoning Staff,” corrected the sorcerer.

“Yer a wizard, Namjoon. To me, it’s a wand.”

Namjoon rolled his eyes, biting back the sudden, tiny smile that pulled at his lips. Hoseok’s power might be macabre, but he sure had a knack for making anything seem lighter - even the prospect on being in a cursed place seemed less bleak with him around. Wait ‘til you see it, he wanted to tell the necromancer. “Right, go on.”

“…as I was saying.” Hoseok eyed each of them. “The sooner we get what we came here for, the better. I don’t like the vibe I’m getting from this place. Smells like bad juju.”

“Yeah, but how do you plan to find it?” Jungkook said, finally breaking out of his shyness. “Do we have a map? Usually in video games there’s like, a map or a tracker at the corner of the screen.”

(“I really wish I could relate to half the things this kid says,” Hoseok lamented to Yoongi. “But he’s just so…” he waved his hands in the air in search of a suitable word, “...mortal.”)

Namjoon hummed thoughtfully. They did have a map – the Map of The Worlds. But its sole purpose was to trace down portal openings. Other than that, it was about as useful as any other plain, un-magicked piece of scrap paper. “It won’t really help.”

“Fucking fantastic,” Yoongi grumbled. “We’re lost in a cursed place, with no lead.” He sent the Elven Prince a pointed look - unfriendly, but not exactly hostile. Namjoon had no clue what had changed between the two ever since the fire broke out, but Yoongi seemed to be calmer around Jimin of late. Keyword being slightly. “Perhaps you should’ve planned this thoroughly before making us come here, elf. Heaven knows we could all die from your recklessness.”

Taehyung jumped to Jimin’s defense. “I don’t think it’s very fair to place all the blame on one person. ‘Sides, we don’t even know if this island really is cursed.”

In retrospect, it was all just a baseless theory. Plausible as it might be, Namjoon was aware that he needed solid, concrete proof to confirm and believe it. Arms folded, he began pacing about again, winding his way down another row of statues, until a particular one caught his attention. See, while the field was rife with Elven folk of different shapes and sizes, there was one figure among the crowd that stood out to him.

Behind a towering overgrowth of untamed grass and weeds stood the lone statue of a Seraph wielding a sword mid-air as if to ward off an approaching enemy. Its wings were spread out wide like an eagle’s, ready to take flight at any given moment, and it occurred to Namjoon that perhaps rather than a volcanic eruption like Jimin’s folktale, a very different scenario might have taken place on these deadlands. Something akin to battle.

He edged closer to the Seraph, drawn to it for some reason, and stopped just right in front of the grey statue. If their theories were right, and every statue on this field had once been alive, then Namjoon supposed that this Seraph must have been very strong, judging by its tall and brawny build.

“What’re you doing, Joon?” Yoongi’s voice rang with a hint of caution.

Namjoon’s eyes shifted towards the scimitar gripped in the Seraph’s outstretched hand. Upon closer inspection, he noticed that its blade was faintly scrawled with some form of writing. He narrowed his eyes, skimming over the hieroglyphic scribbling. Ancient runes.

“It says, ‘A touch of the past guides the present'.”

The sorcerer yelped, nearly jumping out of his skin at the sudden voice. Taehyung had stealthily made his way and sidled up next to him, eyes focused and intent on the Seraph’s sword. Namjoon hadn’t even noticed the jinni approaching. What a sneaky guy. “You can read runes?”

Taehyung glanced at him and gave casual half-shrug, looking back and forth between Namjoon and the blade. “That’s what they’re called?”

"Yes." Namjoon watched the jinni carefully, still not completely sure what to make of this young man. Runes were an ancient knowledge; rarely did people ever know how to read them anymore. Not even the sorcerer could decipher them. So how did Taehyung, who looked younger than him, know how to read a long-dead script?

Curious and curiouser.

It struck him then, how odd Taehyung's overall demeanor was – how he seemed to be on a constant plane of awareness and un-awareness, and knew things without knowing how he knew them. He was like a vault of age-old secrets hidden under a mask of youth.

The sorcerer could sense a deep streak of wisdom lying dormant inside Taehyung, simmering just underneath the surface. Sure, the guy was rather... unorthodox in behavior, but he sure seemed to know what he was doing at any given moment.

But Namjoon didn't have time to linger or mull over this detail, though, because he had a bigger mystery to crack.

"A touch of the past..." he mumbled to himself. His eyes widened. Could it be?

To test out his growing hunch, Namjoon brought a hand up close to the Seraph's blade. Right before his index finger made contact with the frozen steel, a tiny spark flared at the spot where his skin would have met the surface. He jerked his hand back as if if he’d been burned.

“What was that?” Hoseok cried out in alarm.

“Message encryption.” Namjoon clasped his hands behind his back. “This Seraph’s sword is a capsule. Somebody wanted us to find it here.” To what? Unlock the secrets shrouding the island?

Message encryption was a form of magic only performed by messenger wizards and sorcerers - it was the art of compressing  visual or auditory messages and anchoring them into a specific item called a ‘capsule’. It could be any kind of item too, depending on what the messenger wanted to use - a necklace, a scroll of paper, a sea conch - you name it. During the Great War, it had been a convenient and useful mode of communication among allies. Camouflaged conversation at its finest. After all, to the naked eye, a simple brooch could be just that - an accessory.

But Namjoon’s power allowed him to sense magical energy, and he knew, as much as he knew that the sky was blue or that water was wet, that this Seraph’s sword was infused with it.

Yoongi calmly stepped forward and edged closer to the statue, eyeing it from head to toe. “How do you open the message then?”

“That’s…” Namjoon chewed on his inner cheek. Hmmm. He lifted his hand and let it hover close to the scimitar blade.

Flash, another spark. A thrum of energy buzzed beneath the skin of Namjoon’s fingertips.

He drew his hand away, and the buzzing gradually faded.

Oh.

“A touch of the past…” Namjoon repeated, moving his hand back towards the sword and feeling the electric hum dig under his skin again, “...guides the present.” Almost daring not to breathe, he pressed his palm all the way to the surface of the blade, and let his magic flow.

Koveir.” Reveal.

You must understand. Namjoon wasn’t just any average sorcerer. He was The Destroyer - expert manipulator of magic energy, usually to the point of annihilation. Breaking things, opening things, tearing things apart… all of these came as easy as breathing to him. Some might call it a terrible case of clumsiness, but it was actually a superpower on Namjoon’s part, and it was the very same black magic that had gotten him banished to the Realm of Monsters in the first place. After all, how dangerous would it be, to have a formidable wrecking force wandering free and easy?

So with a white-hot flare and a forceful blast that hurled the sorcerer away from the statue, the world of the Outlands, as they all knew it, slowly transformed.

 


 

 

It was as though somebody had awakened the island. The ground rumbled and began to rock tumultuously, nearly toppling Yoongi out of balance. In an instant, everyone around him went into a defensive battle stance. As he let his hands burst into flames, ready for any upcoming attack, Hoseok uncoiled his nightmare whip from his belt hook. Namjoon pushed himself back up to stand upright, and Jimin hugged Kashmere close to his chest. Taehyung had his boomerang in his hand, and Jungkook… well, Jungkook just gaped at everything.

The ground stopped quaking, but no enemy came. No dragons or monsters or shadowbeasts lunged at them out of nowhere.

Instead, the air around them shimmered and rippled in the way air usually did when the weather was sweltering hot. Yoongi inhaled sharply when, right before his very eyes, their surroundings undulated and morphed into a completely different scenario.

Gone were the statues, replaced by living people. Gone were the moss-ridden field and the trees with spindly branches, replaced by a busy marketplace. Storekeepers peddled crates of fruit and barrels of ale, haggling prices and shouting over one another. The aroma of freshly baked bread wafted through the air, and Yoongi could hear the delighted peals of laughter from children running and chasing circles around one another.

He stepped aside to avoid being hit as one of them nearly ran into him, missing him by a fraction, when he realized that none of these people—the kids, the elders—seemed to clock in his presence, or any of the other guys’, for that matter. It was like they were invisible.

It’s an illusion, he realized. By unveiling the message encryption, Namjoon had thrust them back into a time when the Outlands had been thriving and pulsating with the heartbeat of its people.

With mounting interest, Yoongi continued to watch the hustle and bustle of daily life in Outlands—or rather, Pompeii, as Jimin had previously called it. He wondered how such a vibrant civilization could have gotten reduced to a city of stone and rubble. Looking around, he couldn’t pinpoint what could have possibly gone wrong. All seemed well and everyone had been happy.

Until, of course, catastrophe struck like an unforeseen typhoon.

And catastrophe, well, she came in the form of a girl.

Here was a revelation; here was the truth untold surrounding Pompeii’s downfall, as Yoongi witnessed the events unfold before him like a life-sized virtual movie:

A twinkling flash in the sky; a distant figure descending from above. But nay, it was not a Seraph, or Valkyrie, nor any other winged creature.

On the Seventhmoon marking the first summer since the Great War ended, a girl with hair as dark as midnight dropped from the sky and crashed into Pompeii’s shores. The perilous fall hardly seemed to injure her though, as she sported nary a single cut or wound. Instead, she picked herself up, dusted off the colorful sand from her skin, and forced herself to stand on wobbly knees. In her hands she clutched a gilded box—like a small treasure vault—close to her chest as if it was her very lifeline.

Her name was Pandora, and she was a thief.

Thieves are relentless. Thieves are tireless. Pandora had come a long way, you see, and she wasn’t about to stop moving, portal travel exhaustion be damned. Asgard might be worlds away from the kingdom of Diadra, but Pandora knew that the gods and goddesses were onto her. She had to be quick, lest she get caught.

For she had stolen something of utmost importance to the deities.

The Box of Anathema had once belonged to Ullr, the god of archery and war. He’d been appointed as Safekeeper - the peacemaker of the Nine Worlds, and so it had been his responsibility to sequester every kind of weapon that could be exploited and used as a tool for evil means. To prevent another Great War from happening, he decided to hold all of these dangerous items inside one all-encompassing container.

How Pandora had managed to nick the Box from him, nobody would ever know. Perhaps she seduced him. Perhaps she sang him to sleep. When Ullr woke up, the Box of Anathema had vanished, purloined from right under his nose. In his wrath, he called forth his fellow gods, and together they gave chase to the nasty thieving woman whose singular, selfish act threatened the peace of the worlds.

Yoongi watched in stoic silence as the illusion of Pandora raced across the beach - the very same one they’d all landed on earlier - dressed in a long, flowing dress made of lavender silk. It might have been pretty once, but in her haste and desperation to get away from her pursuers, it had gotten ripped and torn all over. Her hair spilled out from the bun on her head, falling across her terror-stricken face like limp, lifeless vines.

Thieves should be shrewd. Thieves should be resourceful. Unfortunately for Pandora, she was neither.

Just another starry-eyed, naïve and self-serving elf, she was.

Pandora hurried through the busy town of Pompeii, scampering through crowded streets and trying to stay inconspicuous, when her gaze landed on the the peaceful volcano standing in the distance. She paused, and Yoongi could practically see the lightbulb moment go off inside her head.

He let out a scoff. Don’t tell me she’s going to take cover in the volcano.

That, she did. Pandora hid at the foot of the volcano for three days and three nights, lulling herself into a false sense of security, until the gruesome inevitable finally befell her.

Come nightfall, the deities found her hideout and set their ambush into motion. Pandora awoke to Ullr’s gold-infused arrows zipping across the air and setting fire to her little makeshift camp.  It eventually spread and created a ring of smoke and flame surrounding the base of Mount Elm, and Pandora’s cries for mercy went unheard. They seized her and bound her hands tight. Ullr reached behind him for an arrow and pulled at his bowstrings, ready to strike her heart. A punishment worthy of her betrayal.

Yoongi watched with bated breath as Ullr’s muscles went tight as he gripped his bow. The god of archery remained in that position for one, two, three seconds too long.

Then he dropped his arrow.

Yoongi’s eyes lifted in surprise. He’s hesitating?

“C’mon, just kill her already,” he heard Hoseok mutter beside him, clearly immersed in the illusion.

But love is a powerful thing. It survives even when it shouldn’t.

Unable to kill his lover but too deeply hurt by her betrayal, Ullr convinced the other Asgard gods that death would be a punishment too light for the heinous crime that Pandora had committed. Instead of ending her life, they decided to curse her for the rest of her days.

First, they took her beauty away.

Yoongi’s skin crawled as he watched the deities turn Pandora into a medusa, disfiguring her face and transforming her skin until it became pallid and craggy. Her long dark hair morphed into a band of poisonous, hissing rattlesnakes with venom dripping from their snapping jaws. At the end of her changing, she resembled the creatures that Yoongi typically sighted in the Realm of Monsters.

But the havoc did not end there. In fact, it was only the beginning. In her anguish and misery, Pandora unleashed her wrath on the townsfolk of Pompeii - being a medusa meant turning whoever met your eyes into stone, whether you liked it or not. Soon, word of a cursed medusa whose gaze petrified people to stone spread across the island, and she became an outcast, feared and avoided. But this only fuelled her fury, and in due time, Pandora had turned the entire island of Pompeii into a city of stone.

The gods and goddesses were not pleased. They decided to impose a heavier penalty for her retrogressive behavior.

As part of her life-enduring punishment, Pandora was banished to live inside Mount Elm for eternity, and the task of safekeeping the Box of Anathema was, with much irony, passed onto her. The deities of Asgard decided that if she wanted it that much, then she should be soulbound to it. Together with her banishment came the separation of Pompeii from the mainlands of Diadra; by then it had been plagued with too much horror beyond salvation. The woman, the box and the island were all cast away to be forgotten. And so she remained trapped in Mount Elm, together with the box she had stolen out of greed, the box that had caused her irreversible damnation.

This was the myth of Pandora’s Box.

The illusion faded, and the bleakness and greyness of the Outlands returned. Yoongi blinked repeatedly to make sure that it hadn’t all been one big hallucination. His head felt like it had been dunked inside another person’s dream, and only now was he slowly awakening from it. Around him, he saw the faces of his comrades wearing equally astounded expressions that probably mirrored his own.

“Woah,” Jungkook remarked, more to himself than to anyone else, “That felt like being in a Marvel movie.”

Jimin was still standing rooted to the earth, a stricken look on his angelic face. Gone was the exhilarated smile. Now, he inhaled sharply and stumbled back, blinking back tears in his eyes. “These… these are my people? Elves?” Beside him, Kashmere let out a sad meow and perched atop his head.

He’s getting emotional. Yoongi looked away. None of that sappy shit! Clearing his throat, he attempted to change the subject, not wanting to see the prince cry - tears were an unbecoming sight on Jimin. “Stay focused, elf. At least now we know where to go.”

“Huh?” Jimin shifted his gaze and met Yoongi’s eyes. “Where?”

The fire weaver cocked his head in the direction of the cone-shaped volcano. “Pandora was banished to Mount Elm. My wild guess is, the box of weapons is there too.”

Hoseok rubbed his palms together in a scheming manner. “N’aww, hell, finally. Operation Retrieve Namjoon’s Summong Staff officially starts now.”

Waiting for nobody, Yoongi turned around and brisk-walked in the direction of Mount Elm. They didn’t have the luxury of time to waste. Much as he hated to admit it, he agreed with Hoseok about this city possessing ‘bad juju’. He liked to think of himself as fearlessly lionhearted, but truth be told, he couldn’t help feeling unnerved by the empty gazes of the golems surrounding them. An irrational part of him felt inclined to be constantly alert, in case any of the statues suddenly started moving or something.

It took no longer than half an hour of picking through dead grass and stepping over upturned roots to reach the base of Mount Elm. Yoongi craned his neck to look up. From this vantage point, the volcano towered over their group and blocked out all sunlight, casting a giant shadow across the southern half of the island. One would expect the area to be alive with the sounds of birds chirping or leaves rustling, but in this frozen pocket of time, everything was still and dead.

Hoseok rested his hands on his waist and tapped his foot lightly. “So. Any idea how to get in?”

Taehyung raised his eyes and studied Mount Elm’s top. “I could shapeshift into a bird and carry us all up there.”

“You guys really wanna go?” Jungkook croaked. “Inside a volcano?

“We’ve got a firebender here, don’t we?” The jinni smirked, casting Yoongi a sideways glance. “He’ll keep us safe, won’t he?”

Depends if I want to, Yoongi held back the urge to retort. Taehyung had a knack for activating his snarky side – he couldn’t decide whether the kid was just too brave or carefree or loose-lipped. Maybe he was all of that, and more.

Instead, he quirked an eyebrow at him and made a disapproving face. “Too time-consuming,” he objected. At most, the shapeshifter would only be able to carry two people at the same time. Besides, Yoongi wasn’t too fond of the idea of being whisked hundreds of feet into the air by a bird. No, thank you. “We need to find a more… stable way in that allows all of us to enter together.”

“Let me try something, then.” They looked up to find Jimin pacing close to the volcano’s roughened surface, eyes focused on a spot on the wall. He raised his hands, palms facing out towards the rocks, and a moment later, Mount Elm’s exterior vibrated as low tremors shook the land. Then, a chunk of the volcano’s wall collapsed in on itself, sending debris and dust scattering into the air, to reveal a dark tunnel leading inside.

Yoongi tried not to gape at how the earthbender had simply punctured a hole into Mount Elm. He wasn’t impressed, of course he wasn’t. What Jimin had just done was most certainly not mind-blowing at all.

“Odin’s mercy, that was brilliant,” Namjoon complimented, and the tips of Jimin’s ears turned pink.

Kashmere praised, “Clever thinking, Your Highness!”

Alright, so maybe it was slightly ingenious. Not too shabby a move, if Yoongi might say so himself, but that was already more than he cared to admit.

But then Jimin turned to look at him, a proud look and a tiny smirk playing at his lips as if to say, Hah, I did THAT, and Yoongi made a sour face to cover up the fact that he was on the verge of maybe-sorta smiling back. The fuck does he want me to do, give him a cookie?

So with a huff, Yoongi shouldered his way forward and marched towards the tunnel entrance. Behind him, Taehyung called out, “Hey! What happened to going in together?”

“Just hurry up, you wet snails.”

(“That’s his way of saying, ‘Stop being slowpokes’,” Namjoon explained gently.)

Yoongi leapt through the fallen debris of rocks and stepped into the darkness of the tunnel. The air was rank and stale, and he squinted his eyes to grow accustomed to the new darkness that enshrouded his vision. In the still darkness, everything else seemed magnified, as if the sensory organs were compensating for the lack of sight. Yoongi could have sworn he heard a strange hissing sound somewhere nearby. He edged towards the tunnel wall and kept his right hand pressed against its coarse, dry surface. Behind, he could hear the footsteps of the other men following after him.

“Careful,” Namjoon’s voice echoed. “The ceiling’s low so there’s not much headroom.”

“Ugh,” Hoseok blurted squeamishly. “I think I just stepped on something slimy. Yoongi, light.”

Raising his left palm, Yoongi ignited a handflame, letting his power spill forth from his fingertips to spark a small fire.

What greeted his vision made a gasp die in his throat.

Instead of soil and earth, the floor glistened with the scaly bodies of what were unmistakably… snakes.

Or more specifically, rattlesnakes. The ground was teeming with hordes and hordes of them, and they slithered past their feet at an almost leisurely pace. Yoongi grimaced. So that’s where the hissing sound was coming from. He kept his eyes trained to the ground and saw the exact moment when one of the snakes started coiling around – of all people – Hoseok’s ankles.

“SNAKES!” The necromancer let out a strained screech that made Yoongi’s blood curdle. He started jumping on the balls of his feet as if he were standing on scalding hot water. “Get it off me, get it off me!”

Jimin held out his arms to try and restrain the man. “Wait, Hoseok, you’ll startle them-“

“I hate snakes, I fucking hate snakes-“

With an impatient groan, Yoongi shot two pellet-sized fire bullets around Hoseok’s ankles, effectively making the rattlesnake recoil and jerk back, hissing as it slinked back into the shadows. “Hoseok, get your shit together.”

The necromancer stopped whimpering and gulped fearfully. “H-how do we get past this…?”

“Calm down,” Jimin coaxed, his voice like pearls in an oyster clam. “Let me handle this.” His face was serious as he bent down to a squatting position and – to everyone’s surprise – had a staring match of some sort with the snakes. It took Yoongi a heartbeat or two to realize that the Elven Prince was possibly communicating with the damned creatures.

The fuck. He’s a whole snake charmer. A memory of the prince doing the exact same thing with the injured Pegasi earlier flashed in Yoongi’s mind. No, scratch that. He’s an animal whisperer.

By some miracle, the snakes actually seemed to listen to Jimin’s unspoken request, and as the elf stood back upright to walk, the creatures parted to make way for him like knife to butter. With an impish grin, Jimin glanced back over his shoulder, at his thunderstruck comrades’ faces. “Coming?”

Taehyung was the first to recover. He jogged to catch up with Jimin and slung an arm over the elf’s shoulders. “Chim, you’re so cool.”

“Cool?” Jimin’s eyes flickered in Yoongi’s direction for a split second. “No wonder I seem to have it rough with the warmer types.”

“Pah.” Hoseok snorted, completely appeased now that the snakes seemed to be under control, and clapped Yoongi on the back. “Your deadweight’s got spunk,” the necromancer whispered to him, his eyes dancing with amusement under the oscillating firelight.

Yoongi made a face. “He’s not my deadweight.”

“Hey, guys?” Namjoon’s voice was wary, pulling them out of their banter. “Do you see that light?”

A light at the end of the tunnel – cliché’ as it might sound, such was the case in this situation. Yoongi lessened the intensity of his fire in order to see further into the dark abyss before them.

Over there – a faint blue spot glowed softly in the distance, and the boys hastened their pace to follow its direction. The nearer they went, the brighter the blue light became, and they walked closer until the tunnel ended and expanded out into a wide opening that led into… a cavern?

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. He assumed, given that Mount Elm was a volcano, that there would be, you know, molten red-hot lava at its very core. Instead, they stepped into a circular, dark cave that was nearly bare-empty except for what lay right in the middle, where the aquamarine flare blazed the most intensely.

A raised, stone platform in the shape of a square jutted out three feet from the ground, and a short flight of stairs led up to its smooth, flat surface. Right in the middle of this dais was a massive cube that was even taller and wider than Namjoon’s height. Each visible face of the cube was engraved with hieroglyphic carvings that Yoongi couldn’t make out from this far. He realized that the blue light was coming from the carvings on the cube.

“More runes,” Namjoon muttered under his breath, his face awash in blue from the cube’s brilliance. “I think this is it. We’ve found Pandora’s Box.”

As their posse drew closer to the box, their footsteps echoed around the hollow cavern. “Hello?” Hoseok said, his voice ringing into nothingness. “Huh. Nobody’s here.”

Something – perhaps a gnawing, innate instinct – warned Yoongi not to relax just yet. This was all easy – way too easy. According to the myth, the Box of Anathema was supposedly guarded by a medusa called Pandora.

He cast his eyes down to the floor, where he noticed more runes shining faintly like stars on a night sky. Belatedly, it occurred to him that they were being drawn to the glowing cube like moths to a flame. Could the light possibly be hypnotizing them into a trance? Was it pulling them to come towards the Box of Anathema?

But why?

The answer clicked in Yoongi’s head as he watched the pattern of the glowing runes form a circle around the stone dais, creating a ring – a magic, runescape ring. He looked up. Namjoon had already gone within the perimeters of the ring, not having noticed it, and was on the verge of stepping up the last rung of the stairs up to the stone platform.

It’s a trap.

“Namjoon, wait!” Yoongi’s words came out in a garbled rush.

Too late. With a loud hum, the magic ring buzzed to life and created a gossamer-thin force field that enclosed the space surrounding the stone dais, trapping Namjoon all alone inside the platform and separating him from the rest of their group.

A loud thwack crackled from up above and stole their attention. Yoongi looked up for the first time since entering the cave, and he felt his heart drop to the floor.

Jimin gasped and pulled Kashmere close, Taehyung went deathly silent, and Jungkook's face went as pale as a ghost’s, unconsciously slipping his hand into the jinni’s.

“What the fuck,” Hoseok choked in a broken whisper, “is that?”

 


 

Three things:

I am trapped.

I can’t see anything going on outside.

The Box of Anathema is right before me.

Whenever Namjoon got into a tricky situation, his brain would automatically go into hyper-analytical mode, where he would sort and sift through the presented facts and hitherto decide on a course of action based on said available information. He whipped his head around frantically, but no matter which direction he turned, he found himself surrounded on all sides by opaque, blue walls (he had no clue that his friends could see him clearly from outside the one-way barrier)

Well, then. Panic would cause him no good, not in this situation. Namjoon inhaled deeply to steady his erratic pulse and forced himself to think. He was going to have to make do with what he had at hand, and that was… the Box of Anathema.

If Jimin was correct, then his Summoning Staff was inside. So close, yet so far.

The cube still glowed radiantly before him, unperturbed, and Namjoon took one step nearer to study it intently. Runes covered every inch of it, pulsating like it had a heartbeat of its own. It was a humongous thing wrought of stainless silver, and he could only imagine how many weapons it probably contained, considering that it held age-old years’ worth of the worlds’ deadliest tools.

He shouldn’t have hesitated, but the cusps of Namjoon’s mind were aware that if he opened this cube, he could potentially be unleashing something horrible. Lethal. Catasrophic, going by the stories he’d heard. He didn’t want that. Then again, at the same time, he needed his staff, and he certainly wanted to get that back.

But if Namjoon were honest with himself, he knew he’d already made a decision from the moment he saw the cube. Still, it made him feel better to know that he still possessed some semblance of a conscience, regardless of how frayed his psyche was.

His lifted his hands towards the cube, trembling with the force of his magic, and uttered with as much focus as he could muster, “Vievre.

Open.

The Box of Anathema vibrated, levitated a few centimeters off the ground… and unsealed itself.

Unbeknownst to him, a very different scenario was unfolding outside the runescape ring.

 


 

There was a woman frozen inside a giant, diamond-shaped crystal.

Her eyes were shut tight, forearms crossed in front of her chest, and her hair, made out of the same black snakes that had greeted them in the tunnel earlier, lay splayed out across her pale shoulders, unmoving. Frozen like the rest of her.

“It’s Pandora,” Yoongi concluded, spine stiffening.

“Yeah, no shit,” Hoseok answered.

But that wasn’t what flabbergasted Jimin the most.

The crystal hung suspended in the air without being tethered to any string or contraption, several meters above the stone dais where the Box of Anathema was. Where Namjoon was.

Jimin rubbed his eyes, unsure if he was just seeing things. It made sense why they’d seen the cube’s blue light glowing even back when they’d been in the dark tunnel – the crystal was like a prism that reflected light off to far reaches of the cave.

Taehyung broke out of his speechlessness. “Why’s she floating up there though? All crystallized like a mummy?”

The necromancer shrugged and rested a hand against his forehead anxiously. “Very bad juju?”

Yoongi, on the other hand, was more perceptive. “She’s soulbound to the Box. I think as long as it remains undisturbed, then she will stay like that, too.”

“You mean if the Box gets opened, Pandora will be awakened?” Jungkook verified.

“That’s the theory, yeah.”

Jimin swallowed nervously and gestured towards the dais, where they watched the sorcerer inching closer to the cube. “But Namjoon-“ He never even managed to finish his sentence, because the next moment, they saw Namjoon raise his hands to do exactly what they were dreading.

With a radiant flash of blue, the cube shook and disassembled on its own.

With mounting fear, Jimin glanced up and winced as a second crack split down the diamond holding a sleeping Pandora captive.

Without warning, another wave of tremors shook the ground, and Jimin knitted his brows together, not sure what was causing it. “Wha…?”

The quaking intensified, and Kashmere, who had been burying himself in Jimin’s arms, suddenly sprang into the air and bared his claws. “Someone’s coming.”

Listening closely, Jimin then understood that the earthquake was the result of footsteps, hundreds of them, barraging collectively into the cavern.

This was part and parcel of a medusa’s magic – control over the statues that she had petrified. And though Pandora was not yet completely released from her crystal, her magic already ebbed and flowed into the cracks and worked its way through the island, bringing every piece of stone to life.

Terror gripped Jimin’s spine when the first of the stone statues came barreling from the tunnel and into the cave, coming to attack them. The sight was nothing short of chilling – men, women, children, they could’ve passed off as regular Elves, people but not really people, save for the fact that their eyes remained blank and their flesh remained as grey as ash.

They were an army of golems, coming to apprehend them, for who dares steal from the Box of Anathema?

Oh, the irony. In a way, Jimin mused how they weren’t doing any differently from what Pandora had done all those years ago – Namjoon might call it ‘retrieving’, but essentially they were stealing. And now they were caught red-handed.

Good thing they weren’t exactly defenseless, either.

Yoongi gritted his teeth and set the ground ablaze in a feverish ring of fire in an attempt to ward off the onslaught of stone-faced statues. But the crucial point here was that statues were made of stone, not flesh, and so Yoongi’s fire did little to fend off the medusa’s army. They continued to storm ahead, paying no mind to the heat, heading for where Namjoon was standing on the platform. The redhead swore under his breath, and Jimin realized at the same time as him that the statues didn’t care about them, they only cared about seizing Namjoon.

“Protect Namjoon!” Yoongi hollered. "Hold them back!"

“How?” Hoseok yelled back. “I don’t think he can even hear or see us!”

The necromancer, on his part, had no connections to any ghosts or spirits this deep inside the volcanic alcove. It wasn’t as if he could manipulate the stone army either – they were cursed, not dead. To avoid being mobbed, he launched his nightmare whip at a protruding rock on the cave’s walls, and hauled himself aboveground and onto a ledge on the wall. “I can’t do anything from up here!”

It was the first time that Jimin had ever witnessed the two men’s gifts being rendered… useless in a situation. The tirade of statues was non-stop, and they were rapidly closing in on Namjoon.

Quick as a flash, Taehyung whipped out his boomerang, ready to strike them out of the way.

“NO!” shrieked the Elven Prince. He kept his eyes on the elderly and children who were part of the crowd. Cursed or not, these were Elves. His people. They were mothers and daughters, fathers and sons. Jimin couldn’t risk losing a single life under his watch. “Don’t hurt them, Taehyung!”

Before the army of sculptures could fully surround and ambush them, Jimin called forth his gift and whatever scrap of rock and earth he could control to bend to his will. Thwart, don’t kill. He repeated the words in his head like a mantra. Thwart, don’t kill. Mother Celeste, please allow me to protect everyone here.

With an audible grunt, he molded the cavern floor to turn into rock-made shackles – hundreds of them - and clasped them around the ankles of the attacking statues just before they could reach the platform where Namjoon stood, keeping them locked to the ground and unable to move anywhere.

This stunt halted all movement in the cavern. The sculptures tried to wrestle their legs free but to no avail. Jimin let out a breath he had no idea he’d been holding. This should give Namjoon enough time to get his staff, right? He looked over his shoulder to see the sorcerer holding onto a long brass stick with a cerulean gemstone at the top, which he assumed must be the infamous Summoning Staff. A relieved sigh pushed its way out of Jimin’s throat.

He rejoiced far too soon. Overhead, the crystallized diamond gave one final crack before fragmenting into a thousand smithereens, and for the first time in decades, Pandora’s eyes slid open.

 


 

Back inside the runescape ring, Namjoon was oblivious to the chaos happening to his friends.

With the thrum of the Box of Anathema ringing in his ears, he watched the cube come apart on all sides like a toy robot being dismantled. The top lid flipped open, and Namjoon braced himself for the worst.

But no evil spirits or vile creatures emerged. He felt foolish, only now remembering that Pandora’s Box was a vault of weapons, not monsters. In fact, the Box seemed to be… waiting for him to do something.

Sensing his chance, Namjoon opened his left palm, mentally grasped for wisps of his own familiar magic energy, and called forth his Summoning Staff. Please, let it be here.

Like opposite magnetic poles, his staff tumbled out of the box and Namjoon’s hand latched onto it firmly. He allowed himself one brief moment to revel in the grip of the arcadium rod, the cool feel of his long-missed weapon solid against his skin. After all, what was a sorcerer without his staff? A cripple, that’s what.

Now here comes the interesting part. Apart from just his staff, something else came careening out of the Box of Anathema right before it snapped closed and returned to its original static position. It was a tattered-looking brown leather book, and Namjoon caught it just in time before it crashed on the stone platform. The book weighed heavy in his hands, and the sorcerer could sense a different kind of magic energy throbbing from within, as thought the book was an enchanted tome with a life of its own.

Flipping quickly through the yellowed pages of the book, Namjoon found the most mystifying illustrations and drawings – luckily the pages were labeled in Commonspeak, so he could actually read the names labeling each drawing. There was a sketch of a woman with a humanly proportioned upper body, but sported a crab’s red-orange pincers on her head and an octopus’ tentacles on her rear-half. He read out the sign on top of the page. Cancer.

His eyes skimmed through the next page, which showed an image of a red-eyed, horned bull with a broad body but spindly human legs. Taurus.

The next page showed a drawing of twin dragons that shared only one body despite having two head. One head had white scales while the other head sprouted navy blue scales. Gemini.

There were so many more peculiar creatures – Aries, Scorpio, an archer called Sagittarius, among others – featured in the pages of the ancient book, and Namjoon couldn’t quite deny the curiosity these illustrations kindled in him. To him, knowledge was a water well constantly needing to be pumped. So without a second’s hesitation, he swiped at the empty air to summon his bottomless inventory, zipped it open, and tossed the book inside.

Later, Namjoon would come to regret ever taking the Book of Chimaera with him, for there was a very good and valid reason as to why it had been kept inside Pandora’s Box all this time.

But now, right now, he was a confident sorcerer who’d just reunited with his long-lost staff. He felt empowered. Even though he still had runic shackles binding his wrists, he felt infinite. Unstoppable. The force field trapping him posed no obstacle anymore. He could now effortlessly break through it.

Grinning from ear to ear, he raised his staff and shattered the runescape ring, snuffing out the magic energy powering it. As the trap dissipated, the air became less suffocating and Namjoon turned around, ready to join his friends…

…only to be met by an army of writhing grey statues, his comrades’ horrified faces, and the smashing sound of glass breaking right above him. Shards of crystal showered down on him, and Namjoon dared a glance upwards to see what the fuss was about.

His blood ran cold.

Here was the girl from the myth. She was floating mid-air. Her upper body was bare, and her lower half was only covered by a modest lavender silk cloth – the same piece of garb she had worn ages ago when she’d first been escaping from the deities of Asgard. Here was Pandora, whose head slithered with the twisting bodies of snakes and whose eyes-

“Don’t look into her eyes!” Namjoon bellowed to the others, his voice going hoarse. “Avert your gazes!”

Heart in his mouth, the wizard slammed the slim base of his Summoning Staff into the ground. One glance at the Map of The Worlds informed him that this cave was, in fact, a world portal. Perfect. They had to get out of this cursed hellhole now.

A chasm opened out across the floor of the cave, just a tiny crack between dimensions, and Namjoon held the portal open with his heightened magic as he urged his friends inside. “We have to go! Jump in!”

Unfortunately, his scream shook the medusa out of her reverie. Pandora blinked and, with an enraged squawk, she lunged menacingly at the first non-stone creature that her eyes could find.

Fortunately, it wasn’t Namjoon, for which he was grateful.

Very unfortunately, medusa’s target happened to be none other than the young man cowering in one corner, having been separated from the others amidst the swarm of wild statues. Jungkook.

 


 

It all happened within a nanosecond.

Pandora charged downwards, and Taehyung’s protectiveness kicked in. He ran like the wind and leapt in front of Jungkook right before the medusa could come any closer. Not that she could move any further, because just then, a leather strap looped around her body, cutting off her momentum and holding her back like a dog’s leash.

“Hell no, you aren’t. Stay back, woman!”

Hoseok, Taehyung realized with a silent victory whoop. He might get himself one of those nightmare whips someday. Pretty nifty sometimes.

Keeping his eyes downcast to avoid the medusa’s eyes, Taehyung lifted his arms and willed them to transform into the one and only solution he could think of to end Pandora’s terror reign once and for all. He molded his hands into a mirror to reflect the medusa’s gaze back unto herself.

Taehyung’s smirk widened. “How ‘bout a taste of your own medicine?”

Pandora’s eyes widened with horror as she stared at her own reflection, realizing what the jinni had just done. Her transformation was slow and excruciating: first her eyes turned black, and the mop of snakes on her head stopped hissing as they turned to into rock. Her agonized scream was cut off mid-way as her throat hardened and her vocal cords froze. Soon enough, her entire body had turned into grey, polished stone.

Around them, the islanders of Pompeii gradually came back to life, now freed from their curse. They blinked drowsily, as though waking from a long slumber. Which, in a manner of speaking, they were.

Taehyung turned around to face Jungkook, whose body was trembling like a leaf. “You okay?”

The human only nodded at him, utterly shell-shocked.

“You two!” Namjoon’s usually calm voice was loud and urgent, and he made an ushering gesture into the portal he was keeping open. “Go. Now!”

Without another word, Taehyung interlaced his fingers with Jungkook’s and pulled him towards the chasm. He figured that since he was the culprit who’d brought the poor fellow here in the first place, it should be his responsibility to at least look out for him.

Jungkook paused, staring down at the opening on the floor. “Is it safe?” he asked Namjoon apprehensively. The sorcerer nodded. Unconvinced, Jungkook glanced at Taehyung, who only smiled cheekily in return.

“Technically, this isn’t your first time with me.” He sent the mortal a sly wink. “You’ve portal-hopped before; you know it’s safe.”

“You mean that time when I nearly drowned?”

Taehyung didn’t get to respond to that, because with an impatient and pained sigh behind them, Namjoon pressed his palms against both boys’ backs and pretty much shoved them into the portal.

Jungkook yelled, Taehyung laughed as together, they bid farewell to Diadra and plunged down into a new dimension. An entirely different realm.

“Oof!” Taehyung’s outcry was muffled as he landed face-first into a mound of powdery… snow?

Jungkook crashed beside him, and they immediately pushed themselves up to standing position, now wanting to be swallowed by snow in their underdressed outfits. The drastic drop in temperature sent shivers racing down his arms and it was all he could to keep his teeth from chattering. Taehyung looked around and saw that Jimin and Yoongi glaring at them, arms crossed.

“What took you so long?” Yoongi scowled.

“We thought you’d gotten hurt,” the Elven Prince said, a frown marring his features. “Or worse, petrified into a statue.”

You guys are acting like parents, the shapeshifter wanted to reply, but instead he wrinkled his nose and asked, “Where are we? What is this place?” He hugged himself to keep warm. They were on a snowy terrain covered in a thick blanket of white like a Winter Wonderland. It was very much unlike the evergreens of Diadra, and instead of midsummer sunshine, snowflakes drizzled down around them like scattered pixie dust.

“It’s Nilflheim,” came Namjoon’s answer a few paces away, and his voice was every bit as frosty as their surroundings. Taehyung had never quite seen the sorcerer look so bitter. “The land of ice and snow.”

Something was amiss. The jinni’s eyes darted left and right, scanning for any sign of one missing person. “Where’s Hoseok?”

It was as if the question shattered Namjoon’s soul. His eyes glistened with defeat, and with a despondent sigh, he stepped aside. “He’s right here.”

Taehyung forgot to breathe.

This was the most serious he’d ever seen the necromancer look. He was unsmiling, expressionless, and he wasn’t even fidgeting the way he usually did whenever his hands were free and he had nothing else to occupy himself with. His skin was also bleak and grey, and not a single sound escaped his frozen lips.

No.

Hoseok, necromancer and chief mood-maker, had turned into pure, unmoving stone.

 


 

Deep underground, beneath layers of ice glaciers and buried by treacherous patches of frozen stalagmites, a temple – no, a castle, really – stood grandly, towering over piles of snow. This palace was nothing like the ones wrought of irons gates and bricks in your fantasy novels, no. It was a castle made of pure ice, but instead of blue, it was pink.

Pink as rose petals; pink as a cherub’s cheeks; pink as the northern lights. The castle’s lone inhabitant, you see, really adored the blushing color, and decided that blue was too somber a hue for something as breathtakingly lovely as ice. He liked pink so much that he even decided to dye his silky locks of hair the same shade.

Not that he had anything against blue, because blue was the color of his eyes, and he really loved his eyes. They were as clear as a summer’s day and as shimmery as a dragonfly’s wings. If he were to be completely honest with himself, though, he truly liked every aspect of his face, not just his eyes. He felt no shame about it. Works of art were made to be appreciated, weren’t they? And his face was nothing short of a masterpiece – strong jawline, defined cheekbones, full lips like the fruit of a forbidden tree, and long eyelashes that stroked his cheeks every time he blinked.

He was a beautiful man, and he was a lonely man.

His only connection to the outside world was a silver-gilded, oval mirror perched upon his bedroom wall, which showed glimpses of others’ lives if he requested nicely enough (and if the mirror was in an agreeable mood). Hopefully today would be one such day.

Pushing his soft hair out of his face, Seokjin stepped close to the reflective plane and asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall; who’s the handsomest of them all?”

Chapter Text

There was a place, among the Nine Worlds, where nighttime wrapped around the sky like an eternal shroud. Daylight? Unheard of. If you so much as looked up, you’d find nothing—nothing but endless night, not even a moon or a trace of the stars.

This was Nilflheim, the land of ice and snow. The land of ever-night.

Typically, such a cumbersome predicament would make for a gloomy community, but no – the people of Nilflheim were a jolly, cheery folk, especially so in its capital city, Umalia. Despite the freezing conditions of their homeland and despite the very literal lack of light in their lives, they lived as though life was a bed of spring roses, cruising through each moment with neither guilt nor grief. Voyagers who’ve come and gone there before might describe the city as such: a sprawling metropolis covered by a blanket of pink snow, with glittering snow sculptures as formidable as temples, and skyscrapers of transparent ice shooting up to the sky.

These ice towers lit up on their own, seemingly from inside, with colors more vibrant than a pink rainbow. Walk down the streets of Umalia be dazzled by the brilliance of pinkish tones reflecting on every glossy surface. The city had its own light, its own power, and it was known as Umalia – the City of Light.

Where did it get all this buzzing energy from? Where did the colors and light come from? Nobody knew. See, the people of Umalia cared very little for the details and intricacies that ran their perfect little utopia. Night after night, they sang merry tunes whilst working, drank to their hearts’ content, feasted on more food than their bellies could take. To them, life was simple, life was easy.

Why rack your brains figuring out the nitty gritty of the smaller picture, when you could dance through life basking in the bigger picture?

Ah, but alas, carelessness always did invite the monsters in.

Now hush. Hear that?

No?

Try harder. Close your eyes. Take a long, deep breath. Tune the world out, and feel the magnetic thrum of energy humming in your veins. Perhaps if your ears strained hard enough, you’d hear it: like faint whispers ghosting over your skin, an icy breeze crawling past your ears – the sound of fear.

Of secret, unspoken fears. Quiet, unrealized, but there.

You’d think, as a distant observer, that Umalia was a place where darkness went unheard. So flawless. So picturesque. So untouchable.

Untrue. For underneath that mask of extravagant happiness lay something ugly, something denied, something crawling in the pits of every citizen’s stomachs.

Perhaps it started weeks ago, or months ago; nobody knew for sure. Nobody remembered anymore. All the Umalians knew was that they feared for the safety of their children, sooner or later.

Once a certain time struck, mothers locked the doors and fathers bolted the windows. Close the curtains, barricade the fireplace. The children, young and younger, were tucked close to their parents’ sides to keep them secure, warm and most importantly, present.

Safety precautions, lest the… nighttime phantom… come to steal their children in the middle of the night.

Now you may ask — who was this faceless haunter?

Nobody knew. A child thief, faceless and unknown, who never seemed to follow a pattern for kidnapping. Only picked homes at random and “borrowed” their children for one night.

Mysterious disappearances, that’s what they were called. People refused to acknowledge it, wanted to continue living their worry-free lives. But in the back of their minds, the question always gnawed: why take only their children? Who was this Phantom Of The Night?

Like a wraith, it always came and went silently, without a single trace, leaving behind nothing but empty beds in the middle of the night. Nobody had ever seen its face before.

Stranger still, was that these children were always returned to their parents come morning. But they held no recollection of their ‘borrowed time’; never remembered a single memory.

In the time they were gone, nobody ever knew what happened to them, the stolen children of Nilflheim.

 


 

Heave, huff, stomp. Heave, huff, stomp.

“Y’know, you’d think statues would be easier to carry.”

A snort. “This was your idea, Yoongi. I hardly think you have any right to complain.”

“Not like we had any other choice. What, did you expect us to abandon Hoseok, then? In this forsaken iceland?” Yoongi huffed, his breath sending misty fog wafting up in the air in front of him. “I mean, we could do that, but not before your good old samaritan ass comes back to collect him two minutes later.”

Namjoon had no witty comeback for that, and Yoongi made no further comments as well, lest he get told off for complaining again. He was no whiner. He was no quitter. He was a man! He could weather anything.

The five of them were all lending a hand in moving Hoseok’s frozen body across the snowy terrain they were currently travelling through, hauling the statue up on each of their shoulders. Leading ahead was Namjoon, cradling the back of Hoseok’s head like a precious piece of gem, while Yoongi and Jimin hoisted the necromancer up by the waist on either side, with Kashmere flying right beside the prince. Just behind them was Taehyung, holding up his upper thighs, and Jungkook completed the rear, keeping the necromancer steady by the feet.

They looked like pallbearers carrying a coffin to its final resting place.

Through it all, dread and regret settled in the pit of Yoongi’s churning stomach, and a part of him feared it would be there to stay.

The only time I have to keep up with, is avoiding any more time spent with you.

Yoongi flinched at the memory of the words he’d spoken back in the Outlands. Fuck, when he’d said that to Hoseok, it had been a jibe made in jest, a joke not to be taken seriously. Now that his friend had actually gone and turned like this, Yoongi didn’t quite know what to do with himself.

But then again, neither did anybody else.

It would’ve been much more honorable and face-saving to say that they didn’t panic at the sight of Hoseok being reduced to stone, but that was exactly what all of them did.

They spent well over ten minutes talking over each other’s voices, each one trying to be heard, with the exception of Taehyung, who squatted in the snow, clinging to Hoseok’s frozen leg dramatically and mourning his name as if he’d died. (“Gone too soon, Hoseok! Gone too soon!”) None of them could figure out what had happened to the necromancer, although Yoongi had a few theories up his sleeve:

“Hey, kid,” he called out to Taehyung, who made a sour face at the term. “You used a mirror against Pandora, didn’t you?”

Taehyung peered up at him from where he squatted. “Yep.”

“And Hoseok had been right behind her, holding her back with his nightmare whip?”

Taehyung cocked his head sideways in thought. “I think so?”

Yoongi turned to Namjoon. “My guess is that Hoseok accidentally looked into the mirror at the same time as Pandora-“

“—which explains why they turned into statues together,” Namjoon finished, horror creeping into his dark eyes. His eyes went wide and he cursed under his breath.

Well. That was a good explanation as any.

“W-will he be alright like this? How can we turn him back?” Jimin stammered, eyes frantic with worry as he stared at Hoseok’s standing form.

That was one of the rare moments where Yoongi had seen Namjoon on the brink of losing composure – the wizard’s temples beaded with sweat despite the nasty chill around them, and his eyes were aghast. Probably blaming himself, as Namjoon always tended to do whenever things went wrong.

So Yoongi had suggested: “You got any magic for this, Joon?”

Namjoon had held out his staff in an attempt at a reverse spell, but with the runic bracelets holding his power back, there wasn’t much he could do by way of transformation magic, not even with his Summoning Staff. Jimin wasn’t much help, either – sure, he could manipulate earth and stone, but not breathe human life into it. By the end of it all, Yoongi had felt compelled to step in:

“What if I used my flames?” he’d suggested. Maybe he could melt the stone off of the necromancer.

Namjoon looked horrified. “No! What are you even thinking, you’ll melt him completely!”

“Some people are worth melting for…?” Yoongi deadpanned, trying to ease everyone’s distress.

Silence.

Once again, it was supposed to be a lighthearted joke, but he was immediately shot down by Namjoon’s withering glare. “Not funny.”

(He really had to work on his comedic timing skills. Also facial expressions.)

And that had been the end of that.

In the end, Namjoon decided that they should all look for shelter first, and work together to bring the necromancer to safety.

And so commenced their painstaking trudge through this hilly expanse of unending snow, heads ducked against the wind. Yoongi’s feet sank into the snow with every crunch of his boots. He wasn’t cold, but it safe to say that he was totally out of his element here.

“Are you really sure you know where we’re going, Namjoon?” he asked for the umpteenth time. He had no clue where they were heading – everywhere he turned, everything looked the same – but Namjoon’s strides were calculated, measured, confident. As if he knew which direction to take.

“Yeah,” his friend replied, not offering any more insight.

Yoongi chewed on his inner cheek. “Yeah? You’ve been here before?”

“…in a manner of speaking, yes.”

Yoongi waited for Namjoon to elaborate further, but the sorcerer chose to keep moving forward instead.

He squinted his eyes. Namjoon was behaving… differently. Quieter, more subdued, more withdrawn. Normally, he would be more open with his speculations and plans, and Yoongi would’ve expected him to be spouting philosophical musings about how snow was colored white to represent purity or some shit like that. Instead, ever since they’d stepped foot on Nilflheim, the sorcerer seemed dazed, lost in his own thoughts, even more so than usual. Stayed heavily cryptic too, and it made Yoongi feel uneasy.

Maybe he was just on energy reserve mode. Or maybe the piercing cold just made everyone a little grouchier, a little less energetic. Taehyung had somehow shifted his skin to mimic that of a winter bear’s, all thick and furry; Jungkook was trying not to wiggle around too much to keep his frame fully protected using Jimin’s invincibility cloak; meanwhile Namjoon had cast a light protective charm to fend himself from the cold (his runic bracelets prevented him from sharing his charm with everyone else).

A curious hum caught his attention and he craned his neck around to see Taehyung scanning their surroundings with an unreadable expression. “Weird.”

Yoongi’s cocked his head slightly. “Weird what?”

“I feel like I’ve been here before…” the jinni frowned to himself, before he shook his head and let his usual cheerful look return to his golden eyes. “But I could be wrong.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“Perhaps? I could have, or I could have not. Maybe I dreamed it, or maybe it’s a memory. Hoooo.”

Yoongi wrinkled his nose. What?

“Don’t get too confused,” Jungkook piped up from all the way behind. “He tends to speak in riddles sometimes.”

Now, curiosity burned in Yoongi like one of his little flame sparks. Amidst the chaos of The Outlands, he’d almost forgotten about the two newcomers to their group.

Who exactly was Taehyung and where did he come from? How trustworthy was his story of coming from the human world, Midgard? And as for Jungkook… for someone supposedly from the human world, he was being surprisingly blasé about his new surroundings, as if this wasn’t his first time witnessing the world of magic. Yoongi wondered, and wondered some more. Something about these two that struck him oddly. Looking at them felt like studying at an abstract painting without knowing what kind of picture he should be seeing.

Yoongi had Big Questions he’d like to ask them both, but he didn’t want anyone to think he was being a tactless busybody, so he chose not to press the matter further right then. There’d be a better time and place for interrogation later, when they weren’t all on the brink of freezing their asses off. Safety first, safety second, getting-to-know-each-other last.

Which reminded him. “Hey, Joon,” he called out again. “Weren’t you supposed to send these two kids back to Midgard after you got your staff back?”

(“Am not a kid,” Jungkook muttered.)

Namjoon shook his head without looking back. “According to the Map, there aren’t any open portals to Earth at the moment. The most recent one had been at the Babbling Brook in Diadra.”

“Can’t we make a detour there?” Yoongi asked. It wasn’t that he wanted to get rid of the two, but he simply didn’t see the benefits in travelling in too big of a group.

“I told you, it’s closed now. And just think—with Hoseok like this and with every second we waste putting Yggdrasil in danger?” Namjoon countered. “I wouldn’t advise so. We don’t have time to make detours. Besides, King Alfius tasked us to find a celestial mage here in Nilfleim, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Fair enough. “In that case, we need to find this mage as soon as possible and get the hell out of this ice dessert.” Yoongi didn’t want to dilly-dally in this godforsaken terrain that brought everyone’s spirits down. After all, not everyone could be as comfortably warm in low temperatures like him, who could regulate his own body heat.

Case in point: there was one person who had nothing to shield himself from the cold with, because like an idiot, he’d lent his only cloak to Jungkook. To his left, on the other side of Hoseok’s waist, the Elven Prince sniffled loudly for what probably seemed like the fifth time in the last minute.

Yoongi hazarded a veeeery casual glance over the necromancer’s statue-fied body, studying Jimin intently without meaning to, without knowing he was doing it.

The prince’s nose was as red as a reindeer’s, and there was a light smattering of snowflakes settled atop his long, pointed ears like dandelion tufts. His silver hair fluttered freely while his shoulders shuddered involuntarily with every gust of wind that swept through their group.

Sensing the firebender’s gaze on him, Jimin looked up to meet his eyes.

Yoongi averted his gaze sharply, wanting to smack himself for no reason at all.

How could he have mistaken this person for an enemy? Jimin was about as destructive as a gremlin hatchling.

It was coming as a slow realization to him, like waking up from an eternity of slumber, but he was gradually understanding that Jimin was far from… them. The people who’d planted this sickening hate in his gut in the first place. Hell, he was the Elven Prince, heir to the throne of Diadra, and yet he hadn’t uttered a single protest at having to carry the necromancer through a snow-ridden hilltop.

It was… a huge contrast to the entitled prince Yoongi had initially pegged him for.

When a stray snowflake landed on Jimin’s button nose, he let out a tiny, squeaky sneeze noise—a squeaze—that sounded not unlike a wheezing kitten. Achoo.

Something stirred in Yoongi’s chest right then, something close to what he could only describe as annoyance. It was all so annoying to see Jimin this way – all cold and shivery like a drowned otter – and it didn’t quite sit right with him.

Screw the wind and weather temperature for making Jimin this way; if this delicate little princey got any worse and fell sick, he’d only… well, he would only slow their group down. As if they didn’t already have Hoseok to worry about.

So Yoongi decided that to ease the unnecessary annoying-ness, the prince had to be warmed up. That was it. That was the solution. “Uh.”

“Huh?” Sniffling once more and rubbing his nose, Jimin looked up to make eye contact with him through his eyelashes.

Yoongi cleared his throat uncomfortably, glancing down at the prince’s bare hands. The tips of his fingers were turning fucking blue. That couldn’t be healthy. “You, uh…” he murmured, before trailing off. Fuck, how was he supposed to phrase his next words without sounding, you know, concerned? Because he wasn’t. “You cold or something?”

Jimin blinked owlishly at him, and Yoongi could practically imagine the gears in his brain turning. “You mean- do I have the flu?”

A short but painful, awkward silence stretched out between them.

Yoongi tried again. “No. I meant- are you, uh, feeling cold…?” Sweet Frigg, why did his voice go high-pitched at the end of that sentence? What the fuck was the temperature doing, short-circuiting his brain-to-tongue filter like this? He was nothing if not a man of composure, wasn’t he? “Like, the weather. Is cold. Right?”

A heartbeat, maybe two, until Jimin realized that Yoongi was, in fact, quite possibly asking after his well-being. Surprise slowly flickered to life in the prince’s widening eyes. “I’m-“

“Your Highness, you’re shivering,” came Kashmere’s worried voice, breaking the moment between them. Fighting back the urge to sigh, Yoongi clamped his mouth shut and shook his head to himself.

Aces and spades, why the fuck did he even bother?

“I’m alright, Kash,” Jimin replied through chattering teeth, lowering his head into his collar to avoid another whoosh of wind. Or maybe to avoid Yoongi’s perplexed gaze, whatever.

“Yeah, right. Sure you are.” The winged cat hovered close, slung his paws around the nape of Jimin’s neck as if to ride piggyback, and then draped his wings around the prince’s shoulders as a sort of customized, protective cape. “Better?”

Jimin smiled at him appreciatively and nuzzled his cheek against Kashmere’s, giggling softly when his whiskers tickled his skin. “Mm-hmm!”

It was a disgustingly sweet moment to watch, but for some reason, Yoongi couldn’t tear his eyes away.

What was it like, being bonded to another being strongly enough to sense their needs without having to voice them out?

“In case you were wondering, I’m cold,” a deeper voice answered from behind him, strong and clear against the howling wind. Yoongi could practically hear the grin in Taehyung’s sing-song voice. “Jungkook, too. So, like, if you wanted to warm us all up, don’t hold back.”

Yoongi rolled his eyes. Cheeky little shit, acting all comfortable with him. How did Taehyung do that? How and where on earth did this jinni pull his confidence from? He turned his chin up defiantly and kept his eyes trained in front. “What makes you think I’d do that?”

He could practically hear Taehyung grinning at the back of his head. “I was just trying my luck, Grumpelstiltskin.”

Jungkook suppressed a snort, and Yoongi wanted to ask, Who the hell is that? but he didn’t want to seem uneducated, so he just stewed in silence, a deep frown etched onto his face.

The nerve of this jinni. Him, use his firepower to share warmth? Absurd. He would never.

(At least, not publicly.)

Yoongi swallowed once, feeling nervous for nothing. He tightened his hold on Hoseok’s body and then, adding just the slightest amount of pressure, allowed the energy of his magic to flow like electric currents into the statue and spread to the rest of the parts of the necromancer where the other guys were touching.

There.

Beside him, Jimin’s posture relaxed a little as he snuggled closer to Hoseok’s body, unknowingly soaking up whatever of flame caster’s warmth that he could. At this, Yoongi arched an eyebrow and pursed his lips, dipping his head down to stifle the self-satisfied smirk threatening to blossom across his face. Not too shabby, Yoongi.

“Awww, even as a statue, Hoseok is so warm,” Taehyung crooned dreamily, melting against the necromancer’s thigh. “Me likey likey likey.”

“I know, right?” Jimin added. “I guess Hoseok is just the kind of person who radiates warmth no matter what.”

Now that diffused the lightness Yoongi felt. His smirk dropped and he side-eyed the two men with the beginnings of a displeased pout. Seriously? The betrayal tasted bitter on his tongue. This was his magic at play here, not Hoseok’s. His!

His lips formed an involuntary pout. Why he had even tried to help these ungrateful kelps was beyond him anymore. To hell with them, to hell with them all! They could freeze into fucking snowmen if they wanted. See if he’d warm them up again. Sulkily, Yoongi turned his face away from Jimin with a petulant huff. What-fucking-ever.

They marched on in silence, until a low rumble snapped Yoongi out of his stewing. He looked up, eyes darting left and right, and he turned his head towards the direction where the noise was coming from.

There in the distance, rapidly spinning at the speed of light, was a whirling snowstorm of screaming silver. It looked like a tornado, starting out thin at the bottom and widening as it rose higher and higher, gathering speed and strength as it went.

“Is that… what I think it is…?” Jungkook’s voice died in his chest as their new natural enemy approached closer.

“A blizzard.” Namjoon’s reply was calm but brittle. “We need to get out of the open area.” His grip on his Summoning Staff tightened, and he quickened his pace. The others followed suit, blindly, but the fire caster had had enough of not knowing where they were going.

“Since you seem so familiar with this realm,” Yoongi commented offhandedly, “tell me, where exactly are we?” As far and wide as he could see, there was only a never-ending expanse of snow. A frozen desert with no oasis in sight.

“Oh?” Namjoon shifted his hold on Hoseok’s head so he could turn around to look at Yoongi. He looked genuinely surprised by the question. “Ah. Did I not mention it to you earlier?”

“Would I still be asking if you did?” Yoongi quipped coolly, trying not to sound too impatient even though he felt exactly that. “You’re completely out of it, Joon. Where’s your mind gone off to? You’re the only one who can read the portal map, the navigator of the group. It’d be really nice if you didn’t leave us in the dark. Where are we supposed to go now?”

“Um, you two-“ Jimin intercepted.

Namjoon halted his footsteps, and the rest of their group stopped walking too. He faced them, looking perplexed. “Sorry, Yoongi. My bad.” He bit the insides of his cheeks, a faraway look clouding over his deep-set eyes. “Guess I’m just… I’m just a little on edge.”

About what? Yoongi wanted to ask. But choosing not to prod, he just nodded. “So, where are we? And what’s this grand plan of yours?”

“Uh. Yoongi, Namjoon—“ Jungkook said hastily, but he went unheard.

Namjoon grimaced. “Currently, we’re at the Tumultuous Tundra. But we need to get out as soon as possible, and there’s someone I think who can help—“

“HEY!” Taehyung yelled with a clap of his hands. Both sorcerer and fire weaver jumped at his voice. “Over there! Look!”

Yoongi’s eyes snapped to the left, where Taehyung was gesturing wildly, and he almost dropped Hoseok’s damned body in favor of bolting away. Because holy fucking beard of Thor—

The tornado they’d spotted just a few moments ago had changed its course and was now barreling straight towards them like a raging beast that had taken on a life of its own. It obliterated everything in its path, sucking up mounds of snow towards itself like a vacuum and in turn, growing larger and larger. The wind howled in Yoongi’s ears as if to warn him to stay away.

“That’s not all,” Jungkook said, face paling as he pointed in the opposite direction. Tremors shook the snow-covered ground and sent a deep rumble reverberating through their ears. “There’s one over there too.”

Yoongi whipped his head to the right, at the edge of the low-lying hilltops that they were skirting around. Just up ahead was the source of all the mysterious quaking — a ball of snow tumbled down the steep incline towards them, seemingly out of nowhere and gaining speed with its rapid approach.

Beside him, he felt rather than saw Jimin wince against the bite of the wind, the snow from all sides lashing against his cheeks in stinging gusts.

Well, fuck. A million thoughts buzzed in his mind and Yoongi struggled to inhale, eyes darted from side to side.

To their left: a thrashing snowstorm.

To their right: a gigantic avalanche, white and ruthless.

Then, right in the middle: their group, legs trembling, sandwiched by two formidable forces of nature. Which was the lesser of two evils?

They had no time to decide, only move, but with Hoseok’s stone-heavy body weighing them all down, none of them could run. It wasn’t like they could simply let go of the necromancer and leave him in the middle of nowhere.

“Joon,” Yoongi hissed. “Any portal nearby?”

Namjoon shook his head in alarm. “None.”

“We’re doomed,” Kashmere moaned miserably, whiskers shaking.

“No.” With an audible grunt, Namjoon thrust out his Summoning Staff and chanted a string of words Yoongi couldn’t understand. It had to be a protective charm, because when the sorcerer slammed down his staff into the snow, a thin sapphire blue ring appeared and traced the area around them, enclosing their group like a shell.

A force field.

A force field that lasted all of two minutes before flickering out. It evaporated uselessly into the ice-cold air campfire smoke.

Namjoon swore under his breath. “’M out of practice.”

“Fucking hell.” Yoongi closed his eyes, panic rising hot and fast in the back of his throat. They were trapped. He glanced around, calculating the risks. As the snowstorm and the avalanche drew nearer, the heavy wind lashed harder at their faces. Meanwhile, whirling hail reduced visibility to near-zero. The same terrified expressions on everyone’s faces were unmistakable, because without Namjoon’s protection, they knew.

The snow was going to eat them up alive.

Yoongi couldn’t allow that, not when they’d already gotten this far. Call it want you want—protectiveness or self-preservation, it didn’t matter. All he cared about in that moment was that no harm should befall them.

Heart leaping to his throat, he let go of his hold on Hoseok’s waist and lifted his arms to let his fire burst forth, runic shackles be damned. If he had to melt this whole damn hill and possibly kill himself in the process, then so be it.

But before he could even let go of his first flaming geyser, everything just… stopped.

Halted, as though somebody had pressed the “pause” button halfway through a cinematic reel. The avalanche no longer rolled and the tornado abruptly ceased its aggressive motion, and it seemed as if time had suspended itself into an encased crystal snowglobe, until Yoongi realized that it wasn’t time that had stopped moving, but the elements around them. Mounds of snow and visible shards of ice stayed suspended in the air, a gleaming white sprinkling of contrast unfurling against the backdrop of an ever-night sky.

What in the worlds..? Yoongi let his arms drop by his sides.

Baffled, each of the six young men turned around, eyes wide as they took in how, in the absolute absence of movement, every piece of snowflake sparkled like after-rain crystals. It would have been picturesque—a still image suspended in time—had the situation not been so abrupt.

What was causing this?

No. Wrong question. Yoongi inhaled sharply as he squinted his eyes, slowly making out the figure of another person-shaped thing in the distance.

Who was causing this?

As the suspicious figure hovered closer, it gradually gathered more shape, seemingly from the snow, until it manifested into a whole person – one with cropped, silvery white hair, pale skin (even paler than Yoongi’s) and a wry smile etched into his face. He walked barefoot on the snow—how utterly daring—and wore only a single layer of clothing: a light blue tunic with brown breeches.

Yoongi blinked and rubbed at his eyes. The young man couldn’t have been older than him, than any of them. Where did he even come from?

It was Namjoon who remembered his manners first. “Oh..? Thank Odin. It’s you.”

The stranger’s voice was as deep and fluctuating as the howling winds: “Namu? Long time no see!” Then his eyes flickered to the rest of them as he noticed that the sorcerer was not alone. “Hello. Pleasure to meet you. Name’s Jack Frost.”

 


 

If he had his way, Jimin would have shrunk himself and perched on Kashmere’s back by now. He was tired. And cold. And hungry.

Don’t get him wrong—Jimin liked to think he wasn’t an entitled elf, but ever so slowly, he was realizing that perhaps he wasn’t so well-suited to this whole journey to save the world thing after all. Perhaps the safety and familiarity of the Mirror Palace was where he truly belonged. See, this was his first ever trek out of the realm of Diadra, and already he had had:

  • A near-death experience in the form of wild snow
  • A bone-deep chill settling beneath his skin
  • A growling tummy begging for reprieve

 

Not to mention that his right shoulder ached from carrying Hoseok’s frozen figure for far too long. And all right, perhaps the hunger was an irrelevant concern, but Jimin had never gone a full day without a meal before. He wanted to whine and whimper about how empty his tummy was and how his legs felt like lead, but he bit back his tongue because he wasn’t so stupid as to voice out what might paint him as a sheltered spawn of royalty. Especially not when they had more pressing worries, like the necromancer’s situation.

Or the mysterious newcomer in front of them, who neither stood on his feet nor touched the ground, but glided. Like, flying.

Yes, Jack Frost was above and beyond the mundane norms of walking – literally. Barefoot as he was, he floated above the ground so that his feet wouldn’t have to touch the snow. How he could defy the rules of gravity, Jimin didn’t know. In all honesty, the prince was just glad he hadn’t gotten squashed by the blizzard, thanks to him and his mysterious snow manipulation.

“What do we have here?” the green-eyed boy said, zipping through the air and coming to hover over Hoseok’s face to inspect him. “A statue, Namu?”

Namu? Jimin frowned. Who in the worlds was—

“Jack,” Namjoon said, his shoulders sagging in relief. “Oh, great skies. You’re here. Look, this is Hoseok and he— it’s a long story, but please help us. He’s a friend who’s been petrified into stone.”

Oh. Jimin looked back and forth between Jack Frost and Namjoon. An old friend, perhaps?

“Petrified?” Jack Frost’s silver-tinted eyebrows shot up. “By what? Whom?”

“A medusa called Pandora.”

The newcomer shook his head slowly. “Sorry, Doesn’t ring a bell. I presume she’s not from Nilflheim? But anyway, I digress.” He eyed their group, staggering under the weight of Hoseok’s body. “I can’t unfreeze your friend since this is not a work of ice, but what I can do—“ he lifted both arms in the air, “is to help lighten the load.”

He raised his hands, making swift motions as though molding a snowball, and to everyone’s wide-eyed awe, a swirling flash of white—of snow and ice and hail and wind—surrounded Hoseok’s body until… the necromancer disappeared from their grasp! Vanished, as though the whooshing snow had claimed it.

Their stricken gazes shifted to where Jack Frost’s balled up hands started to emit a radiance so blinding they had to close their eyes against the brightness. Then the luminescence eventually faded to a dull throb, and when Jimin opened his eyes, he saw a crystal snowglobe in Jack’s hands.

And inside that crystal glass was Hoseok, shrunk to the size of a pinky.

Jimin blinked. Jungkook looked dizzy from whiplash. Yoongi’s face was impassive, and Namjoon let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Jack.”

Taehyung gasped. “Hoseok’s been turned into a figurine!”

Jack Frost laughed and shook his head. “In a way, yes? Really though, the crystal snowglobe is just a shell to encase him in a more portable size, which I figured you all needed.” He handed the snowglobe to Namjoon, who cradled it in his palms like it was a precious gem ornament.

Lips trembling, Namjoon mumbled, “Poor Hoseok.” Then he flicked his hand to conjure his bottomless inventory and a zipper suddenly sliced through the air out of nowhere. The sorcerer carefully placed Crystallized Hoseok inside. “There. We’ll safekeep you here for the time being, okay? We’ll get you out of there. We’ll get you out!”

(Distantly, Jimin hoped Namjoon remembered talking to Hoseok as a statue was pointless.)

Now freed from carrying the necromancer’s body, Taehyung craned his neck sideways and rolled his shoulders to stretch, groaning as he did so. “Thanks, Jackster. I must admit Hoseok is pretty heavy to carry, so this was a literal burden off our shoulders.”

Jack sent him a playful salute. “Nothing to thank me for. I’m just returning a favour to an old friend.” His eyes flickered over to Namjoon, whose eyes remained worried.

“We need to find a way to turn him back to his true form,” the sorcerer quipped quietly.

“I know, but don’t get carried away yet. He’ll be safe, but you guys won’t, not out here in the Tumultuous Tundra,” Jack replied. “You’re lucky I was out here or else you would be buried under by now.”

Namjoon nodded, exhaling slowly. “We could always find a sheltered cave or-“

“No. Follow me, I’ll bring you somewhere out of the natural-occurring blizzards for the time being.” Without another word, Jack Frost spun around and motioned for the rest of their group to trail after him.

Who was this person? How interesting. Were there hidden deities of the Nine Worlds who didn’t live in Asgard? Jimin couldn’t quite remember; as far as he knew, every deity lived in the realm of the skies. Thunderstruck and unable to keep his curiosity to himself, Jimin blurted out, “Jack Frost, are you a god?”

The light-haired boy turned around and shook his head, the ghost of a smile playing at his lips. “Hmm. Want to make a guess?”

Eyes shining, Taehyung exclaimed, “A snow sprite!”

“Aha! Nope.” With a laugh, Jack added, “Close, but not quite.”

“A ghost?” Jungkook asked fearfully.

“No. I am winter itself,” Jack explained, chest puffed out proudly. “I am the wind that lashes at your cheeks, the snowflakes that settle on top of your heads, the frost that nips at your lips. I am all of that, and more.”

“In other words, a child borne of frost,” Namjoon supplied helpfully. “Hence the namesake.”

Jack nodded. “Pretty much. Winter boy, that’s me.”

They stared at him, and stared, and stared, until Yoongi mumbled, “You’re fucking joking.”

“Do I sound like it?” Jack Frost leveled Yoongi with laughing eyes, but they held the depths of someone older than Time itself. “I am 300 years old, and I’ve no energy to make meaningless jokes. Not that I don’t have a sense of humor,” he added with a quick wink. Then he did a somersault mid-air and, right before their eyes, burst into an explosion of snowflakes, transforming into fireworks of icicles that swirled in the wind, and Jack Frost’s low chuckle spun around their group, carried by the breeze.

Then the snow re-gathered and turned back into the body of a boy – Jack Frost’s regular form.

Yoongi scoffed and stayed silent for the rest of their journey, but not before muttering something that sounded like, “Show off.”

(Jimin then concluded that a fire weaver and the very living embodiment of winter would most naturally not get along. Opposites indeed.)

“Now, let’s get out of here, shall we?” Jack suggested.

“Wait, what about the place you were bringing us to, Namjoon?” Yoongi said. “I thought you said we were supposed to go somewhere. Aren’t we still going to search for it?”

Namjoon gave him a wan smile. “We didn’t find the destination.” He pointed at Jack Frost. “The destination found us.”

And so they went. As they crossed the frozen mountain to wherever Jack intended to bring them, Jimin tugged at Namjoon’s sleeve and whisper-asked, “Is Jack Frost is the celestial mage we’re looking for?”

“No. But he can help us. He’s good-hearted, and he knows many things.” Namjoon’s eyes flickered to the other men. “And I think everyone needs to rest a little.”

They passed by a frozen waterfall, the hardened liquid twinkling like giants slabs of diamonds, and soon enough, the blindingly-white snow of their surroundings turned several shades darker. Jimin realized that they must have been entering a forested area, with trees clustered close to one another. He looked up and his jaw fell slack.

This… this was unlike any other forest he had ever seen before.

Usually, cold climates called for plantation that could adjust to extreme temperatures. You’d think that a forest in the middle of a frozen terrain would sprout coniferous species, like juniper or pine. Tough. Sturdy. This forest, however, was bizarrely different—in fact, it was far from any regular tropical woodwork Jimin had ever seen in Diadra.

High above, the trees towering sprouted clothes instead of leaves.

Clothes.

Jimin didn’t know why he was so surprised, because with magic, impossibility was rendered null. His jaw hung ajar as their group continued walking beneath a canopy of sweaters and pants and coats, casting shadows over them that made the night seem even darker. From every direction, branches grew out not leaves nor flowers, but wool and silk and satin.

“What is this…?” Jungkook whispered, eyes like saucers as he turned his way this way and that. Socks, sweaters, even underwear – you name it, the trees grew them.

“Welcome to the Fabric Forest,” Jack announced heartily, spreading his arms out wide. “Keeps you warm, all this material, so I chose to live here. My shed’s just up ahead.”

Yoongi, ever the practical one, blurted out: “Can we wear them?”

With an amused grin, Jack Frost agreed. “Knock yourself out.”

And so their group scattered briefly in a mad frenzy to yank fresh clothes off branches the way you would pluck ripe apples from a tree. Much to the Elven Prince’s delight, he found a tiny, cat-sized sweater that fit Kashmere perfectly.

“Look!” Jimin exclaimed, holding it up.

“It’s pink and has ruffles,” Kashmere deadpanned. "End me."

“It’s adorable,” Jimin corrected before hastily pulling it over his pet-servant’s head. Kashmere could only give a weak meow of protest before just… deciding to wear the stupid sweater anyway, albeit with a wrinkled nose, because this was Jimin, and he could never deny Jimin anything.

“Ooh, I like this!” Taehyung’s excited cry came from Jimin’s left, and the prince turned to find him holding up a thick, pleated woolen skirt in front of his waist. “How do I look?” Taehyung made wiggling gestures to mimic shimmying into the skirt, and Jimin giggled at his display. The bright red article clashed horribly with the other’s shock of neon purple hair.

“Just lovely, Taehyung.” He really did feel comfortable with the jinni, despite not fully knowing everything about him – Taehyung’s warm presence felt like a friend’s hand that was always open, always willing to hold his.

With a small hum, Taehyung turned to Jungkook, who stood awkwardly as he alone continued to stare at the strange trees. “We should get you warmed up too. Your lips are turning blue.”

“How is t-this possible?” Jungkook chattered, unable to keep the fascination out of his voice as he rubbed both hands over his arms.

“Magic,” Taehyung sing-songed as he marched over to a nearby tree and wrenched off a thick black coat, which he slung over Jungkook’s shoulders. “There.” He slid his hands down to grip Jungkook’s. “Oh? Your hands are freezing. Wait here.”

He turned around to approach a small bush and made a grab for a pair of dark green leather gloves at the same time as Yoongi, who appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The fire weaver snatched it faster.

“Hey,” Taehyung pouted, miffed. “I saw those first!”

Yoongi sent him a lazy half-smirk and dangled the gloves in the air in a show of triumph, prompting Taehyung to send him another dirty look. “Early bird gets the worm.”

Then he tossed them in the prince’s direction and trudged away with another word.

Jimin’s pulse spiked.

Huh?

His gaze dropped to where the gloves had landed in the snow, just a few paces in front of him. For me? he wondered. Weird. He didn’t manage to ask about it, because by the time his brain had formed a coherent sentence, Yoongi had treaded out of earshot already. So Jimin just picked them up gingerly and pulled them on over his small hands. Despite the small size of his hands, the gloves fit perfectly, as if they were tailor-made for him.

They were warm. Jimin didn’t even realize how cold he was feeling until he’d pulled the gloves on. His lips quirked upwards, a funny feeling settling in the pit of his tummy. Like baby moths taking flight.

“Sorry, Kookie,” Taehyung’s dejected voice broke Jimin out of his trance. He looked up to see the jinni scratching the back of his head apologetically. “But it’s okay, I’ll just hold your hand instead!”

“You really don’t have to—“

“There. Warm?”

Jungkook seemed to freeze, peering up at Taehyung with an unreadable expression before letting his eyes flit down to where their hands were now interlocked. He nodded once and burrowed deeper into the collar of his coat, and whether his ears were red from the cold or something else entirely, nobody would know for sure. “Mmm.”

Taehyung grinned and swung their hands together as all of them gradually regrouped to continue walking, but Jungkook halted mid-way, releasing their clasped hands to uncoil a red scarf off a tree that they were passing by. He spun back to face the jinni and wrapped the teal blue fabric around his neck. This time, it was Taehyung’s turn to send him a questioning look.

Clearing his throat and looking anywhere but at Taehyung’s golden eyes, Jungkook mumbled, “You need more layers too.”

Taehyung chuckled, made an involuntary cooing noise and cupped Jungkook’s cheeks. “My, my, what a good boy.”

“S-shut up,” Jungkook snorted and swatted his hands away from his face, flustered. He settled for gently pulling down Taehyung’s wrists and interlacing their fingers again. “Let’s just go.”

Jimin watched all of this unfold with a dopey smile on his face, not really understanding the tingling feeling that stirred in his chest. He quite liked those two, and a small part of him knew he’d be sad to see them go so soon.

“Alright, chop chop everybody,” Jack Frost announced, his voice carrying clearly over the canopy of clothes. “Time to move along.”

It was, in a nutshell, singlehandedly the most peculiar winter-gear hunting Jimin had ever participated in and, for the lack of a better word, was rather unnerving because come on, clothes growing out of trees? How utterly absurd! Dimly, he noticed that Namjoon stood unmoving near one cluster of sock bushes, not joining their outfitting party. Probably didn’t want extra layers if his magic could protect him well enough.

Before joining the others, Hoseok’s face flashed across Jimin’s mind. He didn’t have any extra clothes with him, did he? Stepping back, the prince scampered away towards the direction of the trees again.

“Your Highness!” Kashmere called out. “What are you doing?”

“Just—“ Jimin grunted with effort as he pulled off an oversized, fur-lined jacket from a branch. “Don’t you think we need to get something for Hoseok to wear too? For when he wakes up.”

“Oh.” Kashmere nodded. “That’s very thoughtful of you.” Then he yowled as Taehyung grabbed him mid-air and hugged his tiny body close.

Now, had Hoseok been awake at this point in time, he would have outright refused to wear clothes from the forest. He would have immediately sensed that these clothes came from a more morbid source—the dead, to be more specific—but unfortunately, the necromancer was clearly not awake, so Jimin and the rest would never know that they were wearing hand-me-downs from the passed and perished.

These trees were called the Resurrection trees for a reason, but that was a story saved for another time.

As Jimin hurried back to join their retreating group, he felt the weight of two eyes on him, heavy and intense. He looked up and there was Yoongi, studying him, lingering behind while everyone else continued to march on, as if… almost as if to make sure that Jimin wasn’t getting left behind.

Jimin’s heartbeat slipped in and out of rhythm, and suddenly the moths were back. No, it couldn’t be. How absurd, the prince thought. Yoongi had no reason to be concerned at all about him.

And yet.

Jimin bit his lower lip as he pocketed his hands, still clad in the gloves that the fire weaver had so unceremoniously dumped in his way just a few moments earlier. As he caught up to the rear end of their group and fell into silent step with the Yoongi (a miracle on its own, really – Yoongi, willingly walking alongside him?!), a light bulb went off in Jimin’s head, and he pulled his hands out his gloves. He offered them to Yoongi. “Here.”

The fire weaver glanced down at it and raised one eyebrow.

“I… think you dropped this?” Jimin smiled cautiously, still not quite sure what to make of this unusually peaceful atmosphere between the both of them. Was this a conversation? Were they on cordial terms now? Friends, even?

Yoongi snorted. “I don’t need them, elf. Keep it.”

Or maybe not.

Of he course he has no need for them, the prince berated himself, if he could control others’ body temperature, what more his own? Jimin narrowed his eyes the slightest bit, and he tilted his head to one side as he fiddled with his fingers. “So… these are for me?”

No, they’re obviously for Hoseok.” Yoongi sent him a glower that seemed to say, You think? He jutted his chin outward as if to challenge Jimin to question the gesture.

The Elven Prince rolled his eyes. “I was just asking. Sweet Frigg, you are pricklier than my bedroom cactus.” Nonetheless, he pulled the gloves closer to his chest and started pulling them over his blue-tipped fingers again. But perhaps his hands were too frozen, too numb from the cold, so the simple action of wearing the gloves became a fumbling task.

Beside him, he heard Yoongi let out a garbled, exasperated noise. “Fuck’s sake.”

Then the gloves were snatched out of Jimin’s grip. But before he could do more than pout or protest, Yoongi ordered, “Hands. Out.”

Jimin paused. They both stopped marching on the snow, and he turned to face Yoongi properly. When understanding dawned on him, he gingerly offered his hands in the fire weaver’s direction, wrists facing out but not before sneaking in a snarky remark: “Sheesh. You didn’t have to sound so bossy.”

“Just keep still.”

With surprising gentleness, Yoongi slipped the gloves over his fingers. Their skin did not touch, separated by the thick fabric, and yet shivers danced down Jimin’s spine at the intimacy of the gesture. Yoongi’s hands ghosted over his, and suddenly Jimin had to remind himself to breathe evenly. Belatedly he realized that they’d unknowingly stepped one foot closer. Just one foot into each other’s spaces, and yet it felt like entering a different zone. A different bubble of pull.

Back in the Mirror Palace, no one else besides his handmaids had ever gotten this close to him. This was new. This was different, but strangely not unpleasant. And oh, the gloves, they were warm—way warmer than the first time Jimin had worn them. Something, maybe gut, maybe naïve optimism, told him that a certain firebender played a role in this. Gloves didn’t just heat up by themselves, did they?

Once Jimin’s hands were properly tucked in, Yoongi let his arms drop by his sides. He stuffed his own hands in the pockets of his trousers.

"Um, thanks." Jimin pursed his lips. "Again."

Yoongi nodded. Eyes still lingering on the prince’s hands, he scrunched his nose and mumbled a string of words that Jimin couldn’t quite make out save for the last few words: “…so small.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing.” Yoongi faced front and resumed his pace, hands flying to rub the beck of his neck. The others had gone a fair bit of distance ahead the both of them now. He turned back to face Jimin with a glare. “Just. Quit being a slowpoke and walk faster. We’ll get left behind.”

Jimin emitted a bemused scoff. For some reason, he didn’t feel at all threatened by that glare anymore. There was none of the hostility he’d come to associate with the fire weaver present in those eyes.

Perhaps… perhaps this person wasn’t as cold and unfeeling as he thought. For the first time ever, he flashed Yoongi the tiniest of genuine smiles, eyes crinkling softly at the corners like a happy half-moon. It was not a smirk, but an actual show of gratitude. There was a word in Elvish that seemed to describe Yoongi perfectly, and it sat right at the tip of Jimin’s tongue. Something about people and clams – pearls hiding under a hard shell. Miervo. Maybe the fire weaver was just a miervo. “Thank you, Yoongi.”

Beside him, Yoongi stiffened and slowed to a gradual stop, turning to hold Jimin’s gaze with wide eyes for the longest heartbeat. A crease furrowed between his brows and his jaw kept clenching and unclenching, as if deciding back and forth whether to say something or not.

In return, Jimin also halted his pace. He found himself unable to tear his gaze away from the fire weaver’s, watching curiously as a myriad of emotions flitted through those stormy irises.

Somehow, Yoongi’s eyes reminded him of the sea at night, whenever he looked out of his balcony in the Mirror Palace. Deep. Unknowable. Inviting him to dive in without the promise of safe return, and that should he ever do so, the prince would never again be the person he once was.

Jimin’s tummy swooped up and down. Why—in spite of the all the snow and frost around them—did his cheeks heat up under that gaze?

Thank you, Yoongi. Had he really said that?

He gulped, because only then did he realize: this was the first time he was addressing the fire weaver by his name. Not “hey”, or “bastard”.

Just Yoongi. It had slipped out so casually.

Then the fragile moment ended. Yoongi let out a low exhale that seemed almost like a sigh. He blinked and shook his head, letting his wine-red bangs fall over his eyes.

“S’nothing,” he rasped in a tremulous voice before shouldering forward and stomping faster to join Namjoon up front, leaving Jimin to stand behind the group on his own.

Was that the elf’s imagination, or were the tips of Yoongi’s ears pink?

Probably from the cold,
Jimin rationalized. Letting out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding, he brushed his fingers lightly over his chest, where the moths had found their way up from his tummy. His breathing had turned shallow and uneven, and he chalked that up to the cold weather, too.

Jimin reckoned he would never be able to understand the enigma that was Yoongi. He was a walking, talking model of contradicting qualities – quiet but opinionated, ruthless and surprisingly gentle. As foul-mouthed as he was, the Elven Prince was beginning to glimpse past all of that, like a door cracking open to let out the smallest sliver of light. Truth be told, the fire weaver was shaping out to be a lot more than the asshole caricature Jimin had mentally made out of him after that first encounter in the Mirror Palace, when the Yoongi had tackled him to the floor.

It didn’t make sense how one person alone could possess all those traits and more.

“Your Highness!” Kashmere’s panicked, high-pitched yowl ripped Jimin out of his daze. He glanced up to find Taehyung squishing the cat-servant against his tanned cheek like a pillow. “Help!”

“Cuuute, you are so cute, Kitty-Kashmere,” the jinni coo-ed, stroking Kashmere’s head adoringly.

Meanwhile Jungkook watched in amusement, trying to hide a smile. “He’s a Kit-Kash. Have a break. Have a Kit-Kash.”

The pet-servant could only mewl and squirm as he pawed lightly against Taehyung’s face. “No. Save me! Prince Jimin!”

The Elven Prince giggled, eyes softening with the knowledge that Kashmere could easily claw these two men’s eyes out, and yet wasn’t even trying to—a testament to his fondness for them. “Isn’t that nice, Kash? New friends for you!”

“Chim, I want to adopt him!” Taehyung asked, giving his best puppy-dog eyes as gazed down fondly at the cat-servant in his arms. “Look at his tiny little pink wings! They match his sweater perfectly. He’s so soft, I’m sad. Meow meow.”

Kashmere rolled his eyes, although his whiskers twitched from the attention. “Beard of Thor, please, I would prefer if you didn’t meow at me. How degrading.

Jimin grinned before tuning out the rest of their conversation as his focus settled up ahead, on Jack Frost leading the group followed closely by Namjoon and Yoongi, who walked in silence. His eyes fell on Namjoon’s particularly - Namjoon who hadn’t been speaking unless absolutely necessary. Jimin frowned.

Why does he seem so… different? he wondered. The sorcerer wasn’t carrying himself with his usual air of confidence – he was using his Summoning Staff as a walking stick to pick through the snow, shoulders hunched as if he wanted to hide from the world. There was a restless, almost anxious energy radiating off of him, and he drummed his fingers against his staff from time to time. I wonder what’s wrong. Perhaps Jimin should ask if there was anything troubling his mind.

But before he do anything, Jack Frost halted, bobbing up and down mid-air, and so did their group. He whirled around and smiled warmly at them, spreading his arms out wide. “Here we are.”

Jimin peered around Jack’s shoulder, expecting a cottage or a shed, but that was not what he found.

An igloo. Jack Frost lived in an igloo, an actual circular hut made out of – what else? – compacted snow, and it looked like one half of a giant, overturned coconut husk with an arched entryway cut out in front. Except that instead of brown, the domed shelter was pure white and made out of blocks of snow.

So vastly different from the settlements in Diadra. “It’s all just formality, really,” the boy explained with a lazy grin. “Obviously I don’t actually need a house, but I like to pretend I’m human so… welcome to my humble abode.”

This was Jimin’s first time seeing a home made out of snow. “Wouldn’t you freeze to death inside?” he asked, before realizing how stupid that must have sounded – he was talking to the personification of winter itself, Jack Frost, for moondust’s sake. How could Frost experience frostbite? Jimin smacked himself internally.

But the boy only chuckled, his eyes glimmering with warmth. “Fun fact: igloos are warm because snow insulates. There’s nothing to worry about, you can see for yourself. Come in.”

 


 

In a way, Jungkook knew who Jack Frost was – on a fictional level. His limited knowledge, however, was based on a movie he’d watched in the past with Jiyeon called Rise of The Guardians. In that movie, Jack Frost carried a staff around with him and charmed his way through every situation, fighting the bad guys with his trustworthy group of friends, including Santa. Now, while there were certainly some similarities with the boy in front of him (like the fact that they could fly), Jungkook’s musings were debunked after he’d asked with a polite smile, “So where’s the Toothfairy and Sandman? The whole gang?”

Jack Frost looked very, very confused.

“He’s from Midgard,” Taehyung piped up helpfully, as if that explained everything. “They tend to confuse their myths.”

“Ah. Human, I see.”

And Jungkook fell into subdued silence after that, disheartened for some reason. What was it about being called ‘human’ that seemed to excuse him from not knowing Important Things? Here he was, trying his very best to distinguish the blurring line between reality and delusion. Mingling with these people, he felt like a blindfolded person grasping for something solid in the dark.

Jungkook didn’t like not knowing things. He didn’t like being wrong. Most of all, he didn’t like how he wasn’t sure what to think anymore. As the saying goes, “to see is to believe”, but what if everything you’re seeing is everything you’ve been taught to not believe in?

“So,” Jack began once they’d made themselves (somewhat) comfortable on the furs draped over every inch of his little igloo – the chairs, the floor, the tables were covered in animal fur, which made Jungkook wonder if these were materials obtained from real animals or faux fur from, say, the Fabric Forest they’d walked through earlier. “Tell me why and how you got here.”

“Uh. Through a portal?” Yoongi sassed.

“We’re looking for a magus. A celestial mage,” Namjoon answered, producing the battered, rolled up Map of The Worlds and spreading it out on the table in the middle of their group huddle. “See here? Before we got here, I summoned a portal to Nilflheim, but instead of leading us to the capital city of Umalia, it landed us in the middle that snowy terrain.”

“I don’t understand how you could have failed with your Summoning Staff,” Jack said somberly.

“I’m out of practice. It’s been… a while since I last wielded it.”

“’A while’? You lost it?”

“No,” Namjoon said. “It was taken from me.”

Jack Frost raised an eyebrow and hummed in thought. “It really has been a long time since then, huh. Feels like I’m talking to a different person right now.”

“Wow. I am confusion!” Taehyung interrupted cheerfully with a clap of his hands, but Jungkook didn’t fail to notice the way his eyes glinted sharply. The jinni raised a hand to motion between Namjoon and Jack Frost. “You two – friends?”

“It’s a long story,” both men answered at the same time, before sharing a look and grinning. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you,” Namjoon said, giving Taehyung a good-natured pat in the back. “But that’s not the most urgent thing right now. Jack, listen.”

As the sorcerer relayed to Jack the purpose of their coming to the land of ice and snow, Jungkook, too, learned the main gist of their group’s mission. Something about a quest to save a withering Tree of Life, and how this so-called celestial mage they were looking for would be able to help slow down the Tree’s deterioration. It sounded like a dangerous voyage, something he didn’t really want to be a part of.

Jungkook bit his lower lip. No wonder Yoongi had seemed anxious to get rid of Taehyung and especially him as soon as possible – the fire weaver probably didn’t want his apparent ‘human-ness’ to weigh everyone down.

It wasn’t fair, though. He wasn’t a baby; with or without any supernatural powers, he could very well take care of himself!

Meanwhile, Jack Frost listened to every word with rapt attention. After the sorcerer finished talking he cautioned with a wear sigh, “I hope you know what you’re getting yourself into, Namu.” His eyes flickered towards everyone else. “We don’t want history to repeat itself.”

“It won’t,” Namjoon said, and Jungkook heard the strain of frustration in his voice. “So do you know anything about this celestial mage? And about Hoseok – is there a way for us to turn him back?”

“I believe the mage can help you with that. I’ve never met them, but from what I know, they hold great power. Do not underestimate. You ever heard of animancy?”

They shook their heads.

“The power to bring inanimate things to life. I’ve only heard about the extent of such capabilities but I’ve never witnessed it for myself. I don’t think anybody has.” Jack Frost leaned back against his seat and kicked his feet up on the table, putting his arms behind his head in a posture of utter relaxation. “The celestial mage you’re looking for will be able to bring your friend back to life. But what makes you so certain that they’ll help you?”

“We’ll talk to them!” Jimin answered brightly. “Come up with a two-way negotiation. Make a deal.”

Yoongi tsk-tsked. “Yeah? What’re you gonna do? Say ‘please’?”

“Yes,” Jimin said in a fake-mock tone, voice light, “because obviously I can’t expect that of you.”

Yoongi cast the Elven Prince a dirty look. Jungkook and Taehyung exchanged glances and shared a stifled snigger.

“Good. In that case, the mage shall not only slow down Yggdrasil’s deterioration, but also bring our friend back to life. We need to find this person quick, by hook or by crook,” remarked Namjoon. “We need Hoseok. We can’t do without Hoseok.

“But I’m curious,” Jack drawled. “How are you so certain that what you’re looking for will be in Umalia?”

“The Elven King himself told us so,” answered the Jimin, voice firm. “He said he’s prepared for an escort to host us during our stay.”

Jack Frost nodded before asking casually, “So do you know the story surrounding that city?”

Their group fell hushed.

Jungkook wondered if Umalia, like the Outlands, was a cursed city too. Were they going to have to face yet another Pandora? He still hadn’t quite recovered from having to face an enormous army of stone people like those famous terracotta warriors from China. Was probably gonna have nightmares about the memories for nights to come.

“What do you mean?” Jimin inquired.

“I don’t know about you,” Jack Frost said, “but in my time going around as the embodiment of ice and snow, I’ve come across people who have, well, walked away from that city. I don’t know why they leave, but there’s always this… haunted look in their eyes. It gives me chills every time.”

(“You can’t possibly get chills, Frost,” Yoongi sassed under his breath.)

“And neither do you, fire boy,” Jack Frost retorted with another trademark lazy grin. “I heard ya.”

Yoongi shot him a dark look.

“Don’t you ever try to talk to them? The ones who walk away from Umalia?” Taehyung asked, eyes wide.

Jack Frost shrugged, drawing icicle patterns in the air that turned into little bursts of snowflakes. “What for? My personal motto is not to meddle with the living so much. Not anymore, anyway.” He cast a sidelong glance at Namjoon. “That I’m interacting with you folks right now is already a huge violation of that…”

“Such an honor to be graced by your presence, Lord McWinter,” Yoong muttered in mock reverence.

“I’m sure each of us here is genuinely grateful for that, Jack,” Namjoon said, his voice laced with warning as he sent Yoongi a pointed look. “That being said, we’d hate to waste your time. Guide us, won’t you? Show us how to get to Umalia, and we’ll be on our way.”

The young man slouched in his seat and leveled him with a long, pensive look before sighing slowly, like a train letting out steam. “You know, you’re lucky we’re friends.” He let his head fall back to rest against his seat, eyes sliding shut. “If you step outside of my igloo, you’ll find your ride waiting and ready to whisk you off. Have a safe trip. You’re welcome in advance.”

The group exchanged surprised glances, and Jungkook wondered if that was all it would take for them to get what they wanted. It almost seemed too easy – call him paranoid, but after everything that he’d been through so far, he wasn’t about to relax when things seemed convenient for their purpose.

He needn’t have worried too much though, because for once, luck was on their side. As each of them moved out of Jack’s igloo, their eyes zeroed in on their mode of transport to the capital. Their “ride”.

What.

Jungkook had stopped believing in Santa Claus the year he’d turned eight years old and caught the Big Sisters sneaking presents under the orphanage’s Christmas tree, but staring at what was in front of him, he couldn’t help but second-guess himself, and if the flutter in his chest was anything to go by, he might even admit to feeling excited.

“A sleigh!” Taehyung exclaimed, rushing forward to the vehicle that was—in classic Jack Frost fashion—wrought completely of hardened ice: a cool, transparent blue that gleamed even in the darkness of night. It looked tailor-made for them, and contrary to what Jungkook thought he knew, there was no sign of a reindeer waiting to pull the sleigh.

He lingered back, watching the other guys call dibs on which seats they wanted like a bunch of teenagers boarding a school bus, and when he felt Jack Frost amble up beside him, Jungkook managed to whisper in awe, “W-where are the reindeer? How will it move?”

Jack Frost chuckled lowly at that and reached out to ruffle his hair. “You seem to forget that I am Winter, and that snow bends to my will. Watch and see. Now hop on or you’ll get left behind, magicker.”

Jungkook’s head snapped towards him. “What did you just call me?”

A knowing grin. “That’s for me to know and you to find out.” Frost gave him a light push on the shoulder. “Go on.”

Jungkook stumbled forward, the last to clamber aboard. Despite the sleigh being an ice sculpture, his butt didn’t feel like it was about to freeze to death as he sat down and wedged himself at the back seat between Taehyung and Jimin. In front of them were Namjoon and Yoongi, engaged in conversation.

I can’t believe I’m actually on a sleigh. Oh, the stories he’d tell Jiyeon after he returned!

Jungkook’s exhilaration faltered slightly. If he ever got back.

“Strap in!” Jack Frost hollered through cupped hands.

Jungkook glanced down to look for straps or safety harnesses. None. “But there isn’t any- woah!

Fwooom. Without warning, the sleigh lifted off the snow-covered ground and launched itself mid-air, following Jack Frost’s arm movements. Taehyung laughed, Jimin let out a delighted squeal and Jungkook very nearly wheezed to death at the sudden lurching motion. If he didn’t die at the hands of magic somewhere down the line, he figured the constant heart attacks would most likely end him anyway. This alternate universe never ran out of surprises.

From this high up in the sky, he could spot the vast expanse snow, snow, and more snow – a white desert than stretched out to the horizon, and in the distance, the smidgen hints of a city glimmering in the darkness.

A loud chortle caught his attention, and Jungkook scanned around only to find Jack Frost flying off the ground to levitate beside their sleigh, floating in circles on his back as though he were cruising lazily on an invisible swimming pool. “All good? Buckle up.”

“There aren’t any seatbelts!” Jungkook cried in alarm. He only had one rule when it came to travel: safety first, safety second, coolness third. (In this case, literally.)

“Hah!” Jack’s face broke out into a wide grin and he clutched his belly while cackling. “That was just formality!” He gave a final nod in Namjoon’s direction and sent them off with a swift salute. “Bon voyage, folks.”

A light flick of the wrist, and Jack Frost sent the sleigh zooming through the night, his hysterical laughter fading along with the trail of snow it left in its wake. No need for flying horses or reindeer to pull them along – the sleigh flew itself, maneuvered by Jack Frost’s winds and direction.

The icy air assaulted Jungkook’s cheeks and he nestled his face deeper into the scarf that Taehyung had given him. He’d returned Jimin his invincibility cloak thingy – that shit looked expensive and he didn’t want to soil it – earlier, since he now had a thick coat to cover himself up with. Beside him, Taehyung peered over the edge of the sleigh as they soared past undulating hilltops and tiers of snow.

“Namjoon?” Jimin asked softly.

The sorcerer shifted in his seat to face the back. “Yes?”

“Tell us more about Umalia?”

Namjoon’s shoulders drooped a little. “Truth be told, I’ve only ever been to Nilflheim once before, but never to its capital city. This will be my first time, too.”

“You’ve never mentioned anything about coming here before,” Yoongi remarked.

“Well, I didn’t think it was a big deal.” The blond sorcerer shrugged, but his attempt at nonchalance couldn’t mask the troubled look in his eyes.

Jungkook wished he could ask, but he had no courage to and he didn’t want to sound like a prying nobody. Maybe he was intimidated; if this were the real world, Namjoon would strike him as one of those really cool kids from his local college, the kind who probably had companies offering him internships before he even graduated. Someone Jungkook would likely love to learn from, because he exuded a strong aura of cleverness and leadership that made him seem trustworthy.

Jungkook’s eyes slid to the smaller man sitting beside Namjoon and a shudder rippled down his spine. Yoongi was… something else. Somebody he wouldn’t want to mess with for sure. He was the one who wanted him and Taehyung gone, after all.

Which reminded Jungkook once again: what am I even here for?

His last two brain cells wanted to believe that he was still trapped in some warped, extended dream, but deep down inside, he knew all this had to be real. Horses could fly, people had superhero powers. Magic was real, that much he could accept. That much he already knew, since he was young.

He elbowed Taehyung lightly. “Hey.”

The jinni settled back down in his seat and turned to look at him. “Hmm?”

Jungkook paused, briefly rendered breathless by the way Taehyung’s golden eyes shimmered and how his purple locks fluttered freely over his face as they zoomed through the air. Seriously, this guy was the stuff of anime. How was he even real?

He cleared his throat and kept his voice hushed. “So. If we follow these guys, will I be able to get back to um…” What was the term they’d been using for Earth again? “…Midgard?”

Taehyung’s eyes did that thing again – that quick, momentary shift from his easygoing veneer to his sharp and observant hawk-eyed demeanor. Jungkook would never figure out how the guy did that, like he was turning a switch inside of him. Playful mode, on. Playful mode, off. “Go back to Midgard? You really want to?”

“Of course. That’s where I’m… where I’m from.”That’s where I’m familiar with. Jungkook didn’t say ‘home’. Was Earth considered home? What even was home?

“Hmmm.” Taehyung didn’t reply, simply regarded him quietly while tilting his head in that birdlike manner of his. Jungkook could only watch as the jinni studied him with equal parts amusements and fascination. 

“What?” Jungkook shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “What are you thinking?”

“Oh, nothing much. Just admiring your pretty eyes, Jungkookie.” Taehyung smiled wide and patted his cheek reassuringly. “How about this — once we get to Umalia, we’ll explore and look for a portal, okay?”

It sounded like a logical plan—a city would probably offer more passageways to different, uh, realms right? And it wasn’t like he and Taehyung were obligated to search for this so-called celestial mage together with the others; it was not their mission. None of their business.

Moreover, he rather liked the idea of spending time with just the jinni alone. Taehyung was slowly becoming a pillar of stability to him, a rock to hold onto when his world was tilting out of focus.

Jungkook nodded, but before he could say more, Namjoon turned around and met his gaze head-on.

Eyes kind, the blond-haired sorcerer said, “I apologize for having dragged you here with us, Jungkook. I’ll get you back to Earth no matter what. I imagine it must be terrifying to be thrown in a place where you feel no sense of belonging whatsoever.”

Jungkook could only give a half-hearted shrug. What was he supposed to say? ‘I don’t really feel like I belong anywhere, anyway’? What use was belonging when you had no parents to look to for guidance, or a warm home to run to in times of trouble? Life as an orphan had taught Jungkook to keep people at arm’s length.

“Or maybe you’ll find a place among us!” Taehyung cheered, patting his shoulder over and over. “I mean, who knows, right? Maybe Midgard isn’t where you belong after all.”

Jungkook found that he had to rebuttal for that. Midgard was the world meant for humans, wasn’t it? If his nagging suspicions about himself were correct, then didn’t that mean that he neither belonged here nor there? He shook his head to dispel the thoughts warbling in his brain.

Too much. Too much to mull over.

“Where are you from, Taehyung?” Jimin’s silvery voice floated into Jungkook’s ears. “I know we’ve met as children before. I remember. But I realize that I do not truly know much about you. Surely you are not of Elven descent?” The prince’s doubtful eyes raked over Taehyung’s ears, which were neither elongated nor pointed like his.

“I am a jinni,” Taehyung explained with confidence, “…who can shapeshift,” he added almost as an afterthought. Jungkook noticed how he’d pointedly ignored the question about his place of origin.

“You know, I am in awe of that ability,” Namjoon shared, leaning forward in Taehyung’s direction. “What sorts of rules apply to your gift? Does morphing one part of your body require lesser energy than, say, a full body modification?”

Taehyung’s face turned serious. He nodded. “Complete transformations drain my anima. I’m unable to hold it for too long. Certain body parts are no big deal, though. Watch.” He closed his eyes, and after a few moments, the rest of them watched in fascination as his disheveled mop of purple hair turned into a dry nest of brown twigs.

Beside Jungkook, Jimin giggled. “Did you just turn yourself into a mini plant?”

Grinning, the Elven Prince raised one index finger in the air, and Jungkook’s mouth formed the shape of a little ‘o’ when Taehyung’s stiff twig-hair suddenly followed Jimin’s movements, twisting and swaying like a dancing version of Groot from Jungkook’s favorite Marvel movies.

He couldn’t believe his eyes. Here were two superpowers—shapeshifting and earthbending—intertwining at play with each other. The possibilities were endless. What a wild world.

Taehyung emitted a chuckle at Jimin’s display before he let his hair return to normal. The prince then said, “You have the most fun and fascinating gift.”

Taehyung only waggled his eyebrows as if to say, Yeah, I know. “Yours is really neat too, Chim. I wish I could move mountains and create earthquakes at will. You are a skilled elemental.” He flashed a lopsided smile, face sincere and open.

Jimin’s cheeks pinked at the flattery and he squeezed Kashmere tight until the cat started meowing in protest. “Aww, stop it, you.”

Jungkook squinted his eyes, not missing this obvious tactic at all.

Taehyung, king of deflecting questions. Just like that, he’d masterfully turned all the attention and the nosy questions away from himself. Sneaky fellow. How did he do it?

Meanwhile Namjoon quipped, “Interesting. Most interesting. I’ve never quite met a person with such diverse capabilities before.”

I don’t think anybody’s ever met a Taehyung in their lives, Jungkook thought. The boy was a human typhoon.

“A jinni, huh.” Yoongi suddenly turned around from his sitting position in front of the three of them. “You grant wishes, kid?” His eyes shone with what Jungkook could only describe as scheming. He too, regarded the jinni with keen interest.

Taehyung shrugged. “Don’t believe the myths, my friend. Not all jinnis can grant wishes. Not me, anyway. Why?”

“But you’re supposed to be able to, right? Can you break these if I wished for it?” Yoongi raised a hand, and only then did Jungkook notice the glint of metal – a silver bracelet—around his wrist. They were inscribed and glowing dully with some ancient sort of writings he couldn’t understand. Egyptian hieroglyphs? He looked at Namjoon and glimpsed the same accessories adorning the wizard’s wrists.

“Nope.” Taehyung inclined his head towards the silver bands. “What are those?”

“Runic bracelets.” Namjoon’s face darkened. “Keeps our powers in check.”

“What for? How come?” Taehyung immediately jumped to ask, letting his brain-to-mouth filter go unfettered. “Are you perhaps bad people? Prisoners?”

(“Taehyung, you can’t just ask people if they’re bad or good,” Jimin hissed under his breath. Jungkook heard it anyway, thanks to his heightened hearing.)

“Why?” Taehyung turned to the Elven Prince and asked, “What about you?” He pointed at both Namjoon and Yoongi none too discreetly. “Do you think they’re bad seeds?”

Put in the spot like that, Jimin fumbled for the right words to say. “M-me? I, well, no, but I mean- I don’t think-“ He cleared his throat to start over. “I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid reason why they have to wear those.”

Jungkook heard Yoongi let out a disbelieving scoff. For the briefest second, he thought he caught the prince glancing surreptitiously at the fire caster, but it could have been a trick of the low light.

“Prince Jimin is right. They’re for our own good. You could say we are prisoners of our own making. See these runes?” Namjoon said, tapping at the metal. “They prevent us from overusing our abilities.”

“What happens if you do?” asked Jungkook.

“Pffft.” Yoongi gave a wry smirk before remarking sardonically, “Oh, wouldn’t you like to find out?”

“Yes! Yes, I do!” Taehyung nodded eagerly. “So show me!”

“I’ll show you.” Yoongi’s mouth tipped upwards into what had to be the closest semblance of a smile before he lifted his hands once more—

“Yoongi, don’t you dare-“ Namjoon warned.

—but the fire weaver wasn’t listening; he had his brows dipped low in concentration as he weaved warmth and light seemingly from his very fingertips, and Jungkook watched as sparks burst forth from his fingers like the first flickers of an awakening firecracker. They shot out from Yoongi’s hands as he toyed with his gift and sent the sparks reeling in every direction. Then they clustered into one giant ball of orange light before exploding around their moving sleigh like a rain shower of fairy lights, similar to the way Jack Frost played with snowflakes earlier.

Yoongi’s grin was smug. “How’s that?”

Taehyung clapped as gleefully as a child and prodded him on. “Brilliant. Spectacular. Innovative. Life altering, never-been-done before. Wonderful.”

(Jungkook suspected the jinni was being sarcastic, but since Yoongi seemed to lowkey preen in the overflowing adulation, he decided not to point that out.)

“Show off,” Namjoon muttered. “Don’t scare me. You know what’ll happen if you go over the runic bracelets’ limit.”

The fire weaver rolled his eyes. “Fucking goody-two-shoes. I was just having fun. I’m not a fool.”

“If Hoseok were here, he’d have smacked you out of it.”

“If Hoseok were here, he’d be clapping for me. Maybe even ask one of his ghost friends to watch.”

At this, Namjoon and Yoongi caught each other’s eye and the two shared a rueful chuckle, not needing to voice out anything more. Beneath their bickering, the concern for Hoseok’s safety was palpable—that much Jungkook could sense. He wondered just how close the three of them must be for them to understand each other’s simplest facial expressions and looks so easily.

“So what happens if you overuse your powers while wearing those runic bands?” Taehyung pressed on.

Namjoon looked at him and shook his head, a reluctant look falling over his eyes. “Let’s hope it never gets to that.”

“If it counts for anything,” Taehyung said. “I don’t think you’re bad guys. Not if you’re crossing worlds to save Yggdrasil like this.”

“Don’t get us wrong. I don’t want anyone here to think we’re on some heroic journey to save the Tree of Life for a noble cause.” Yoongi yawned and faced front again, leaning back on the sleigh’s seat. “We’re here because the Elven King gave us his word that he’d free us from these fucking shackles in exchange for preventing the Nine Worlds from collapsing into chaos.”

“So you want to be free,” Taehyung concluded.

“Who doesn’t?” the fire weaver said.

“Fair enough. But why does the Elven Prince have to come along?” Taehyung looked at Jimin, the question written all over his face.

At this, Yoongi huffed, clucked his tongue and stubbornly refused to answer while Namjoon chortled lowly and clapped his friend in the back. Before the sorcerer could reply, Jimin piped up in a prim manner:

“I like to consider my role here as… um, watch duty! Yes. An overseer to make sure these young men don’t botch the task assigned to them.”

Taehyung nodded his full understanding, and they all fell silent after that, each man settling into their own individual headspaces. However unlike the previous awkward, strained silences that plagued their group before, Jungkook deemed this one to be more comfortable. He felt less intimidated now. He wasn’t the best at talking about himself, but listening to these people and seeing where each man was coming from helped to break the ice.

He was broken out of his deep thoughts when the ice sleigh gave a light jolt and a lurch as it ascended up, up, up way above tufts of clouds, and they started cruising the scope of Nilflheim’s snowy landscape the way Younger Jungkook had always imagined Santa Claus probably would. There were no stars out night, not even a moon, but the little fire spectacle Yoongi had performed earlier seemed to have clung to their sleigh, and glancing behind, Jungkook saw the vehicle leave tiny orange sparks of trail in the wake of their route.

“So pretty,” a honeyed baritone commented softly.

Jungkook glanced at Taehyung sitting to his left, admiring the environment around them, and even in the weak luminescence he looked every bit like one of those flower boys from every anime Jungkook had marathoned before – tousled purple hair sticking out in all directions, soft smiling eyes, snowflakes swirling around his face like airborne fairy glitter.

“Yeah,” Jungkook agreed, though he might as well not have been talking about their surroundings. “Really pretty.”

Taehyung’s gaze lifted to meet his, and in true Taehyung fashion, he winked, a playful smile playing at the corners of his lips. “Enjoying the view?”

Now, despite the supposedly crippling cold, heat crept up Jungkook’s neck and colored his ears red. Fighting back the urge to roll his eyes, he ducked his head and pressed his face closer to his scarf. Damn it. Pretty boys should be banned from flirting.

Instead, he reached over, held Taehyung’s chin and gently guided the jinni to face front. “Yes, and you’re totally missing out on the view.” Literally. Snow covered terrains and clusters of trees whizzed past below them.

A deep rumbling sound of amusement came from Taehyung as he sing-songed, “Whatever you say, Jungkookie.”

The front of the sleigh dipped downwards and they began to slow down as their ride lowered itself like an airplane preparing for descent.

To his right, he heard Jimin’s audible gasp. “Kashmere, look! Do you see what I see? Looook!”

“I’m looking, Your Highness. Am looking.”

Curious, Jungkook tried his best to peer over the Elven Prince’s shoulder.

And that was how he got his first sneak peek of the capital city, rising out of the snowy terrain like a shining beacon.

And… wow.

Jungkook had never been to an amusement park before, had never had the parents to take him, but if Disneyland were coated in a thick blanket of snow, then this was it. Except that instead of brick or concrete, every building was made out of – yep, you guessed it – ice. The first thing he took note of was the giant cathedral with an analog clock tower that had no numbers on it, and it was as tall as a lighthouse, right in the center of the capital.

He blinked. O…kay. He let his eyes roam over the rest of the place.

From a bird’s eye view, he saw how the northernmost sections of the city seemed built for commerce, with winding streets and closely compacted ice domes standing side by side. The southernmost part of the city was probably a residential settlement, judging by the village of igloos scattered across there. In the middle of the town was something that looked like a market square, with a spacious area in the middle marked by a water fountain. It had the figurehead of a white wolf, sprouting water that was not colourless in the way that water usually is, but pink. Like peach juice. Or like rose tinted bathtub water. A tangle of streets and alleys branched out from the central square of the city, spreading in different directions like blood vessels leading out of the heart. The ice-carved streets were paved in scarlet and sienna, rose quartz and russet.

And that was the thing. Everywhere Jungkook looked, the city radiated a pinkish haze, a palpable aura of rosiness. Set against the dark background of the night sky and the white flurry snowflakes outside the city’s gates, it stood as a stark contrast of color. So although the world outside this city was pure white – as snow should be – the world inside was… pink.

Pink, pink, pink.

You’d think a city wrought of ice and snow would be a pristine white spectacle, or perhaps a cool blue picture, but no. While there were a plethora of colors that Umalia pulsated with—there were rose golds, salmons, corals, magentas—each hue seemed to fall under the umbrella term of “pink”. Every possible variant of the color, from the darkest to the brightest. Almost as if somebody had gotten overly excited and drenched the entire town in their favorite color.

“Well, ain’t that a sight for sore eyes,” Yoongi commented, voice flat.

Instead of delivering them outside the city’s gates, the sleigh seemed to have a mind of its own, and soared right past the city’s twenty-meter-high walls. It carried them to the open-air piazza in the middle of town and spiraled downwards to land, ice skidding on ice as the vehicle came to a complete stop.

“Mama, look!”

Of course, such a bombastic arrival was bound to attract the attention of many, and attract they did – a small crowd of townsfolk had gathered in a semi-circle around the boys, and when Jungkook looked up to meet them, he felt his jaw drop open for what was probably the millionth time that day.

My eyes are playing tricks on me.

Arctic foxes, arctic foxes all around. Kind of. The Umalian people—if you could call them that—had features that belonged to that of a human and an arctic fox: they had human faces and limbs, although with the added detail of fluffy white ears and bushy white tails. Like some kind of genetic hybrid experiment gone wild.

Adults, teenagers and young children stared back at this group of newcomers with the same amount of wonder and curiosity as they did, an excited buzz sweeping through the town. Some of them cast Jungkook and the guys strange looks, as if they were the strange ones for not possessing the same… extra features as these Umalians.

Just what kind of city had they waltzed into? Was this yet another curse that had befallen the place? Jungkook hoped not. Perhaps these species were a product of genetic mutations meant to adapt to their living climate. There had to be a scientific explanation for this.

Namjoon was the first to disembark from their sleigh, his boots making almost no noise as he stepped on the ground coated with a thin layer of snow. “Hello.”

Silence.

“We come in peace,” the wizard added.

In Jungkook’s very humble opinion, such a greeting sounded exactly like what suspicious people said when they were trying hard not to be suspicious.

(“’We come in peace’?” Yoongi grumbled under his breath. “The fuck are we, aliens?”)

“Hello,” came a lady’s reply from among the townsfolk. “What brings you here, young men?”

“We are voyagers sent by the Elven King of Diadra, looking for-“ Namjoon produced a scroll given to him by the Elven King and squinted as he read off of it, “-the appointed mayor of Umalia, Elir Azoi?”

“Who are you?” asked on of the Umalians, not with distrust, but with actual amazement. His fox ears were perked upright and his eyes were round as buttons. “Are you the mayor’s guest?”

Namjoon paused to think. “I suppose so, sir.”

An excited titter swept through the crowd.

“My, my! A guest!” another man’s eager cry came from somewhere in the crowd. “How exciting! Hustle now, everyone!”

“Excuse me, excuse me, sorry,” a shrill voice cut through the crowd like knife to butter, and the throng of Umalians slowly parted to make way for a petite young lady to pass through. Blue-eyed and pale-skinned like the rest of the Umalians, she looked not a day older than Jungkook himself. Her hair was the color of the finest goldenrod tumbling down in ringlets on her shoulders, and her cheeks were as rosy-pink as the snow falling around them. A bewitching smile graced her heart-shaped face, and when she spoke, her voice sounded like every man’s daydream:

“Hello, pleased to meet you. I am Silva, daughter of Elir Azoi.” She touched Namjoon’s forehead with two fingers in a show of greeting – the Umalian equivalent of a customary handshake, Jungkook surmised. “We’ve been expecting you! Everybody, say hello to our guests!” he declared brightly, turning to the crowd around them.

It was as though Silva’s words had broken the citizens out of their initial shyness. The people cheered, rejoiced, clapped their hands. Their rapture thundered to a deafening roar that made Jungkook wonder if this was a reception more befitting a World Cup football team instead.

“Hello! Hello!”

“Welcome to Umalia!”

“Long journey, hey?”

Jungkook couldn’t control his baffled stare as some of these hybrids produced musical instruments presumably from out of nowhere (did they carry flutes and tambourines in their pockets around here?) and began playing a happy, upbeat melody that had Jungkook’s nerves thrumming with anticipation, and despite his bewilderment, his head felt woozy with the haze of it all.

Ah, but the cheering was only the beginning. The more flamboyant individuals burst into an honest-to-goodness song, like they were in some sort of real life Disney musical, and despite his own reservations, Jungkook found himself smiling as Silva herself joined their little celebration, stepping up on a podium and belting out lyrics that sounded like “hakuna matata”. Her ears twitched happily and her tail swished with zest and vigor from side to side as they sang.

“What are they singing?” Jimin asked over the din. Beside him, Namjoon and Yoongi wore alarmed expressions, unsure what to make of the scene before them at all.

Jungkook shrugged, deciding to just stand back and watch.

And so Umalia’s choral went:

 

Hakuna Matata!

What a wonderful phrase
Hakuna Matata!

Ain't no passing craze
It means no worries for the rest of your days
It's our problem-free philosophy
Hakuna Matata!

 

Watching them prance about, Jungkook felt lightheaded, short of breath. The blinking city radiance in the night, the merrymaking, the effervescence of the people—the Umalians were one kinfolk, singing a spell that sent him spiraling down a heavy state of wonder and euphoria.

Then the people started dancing, their movements synchronized and arranged in a way that made you wonder if they had prepared the choreography beforehand, and Jungkook couldn’t suppress the smile from blooming on his face when Taehyung let out a peal of laughter and joined them. The jinni tapped his heels and shimmied his hips while smirking in Jungkook’s direction, and although he was the odd one out, being the only one without a floofy tail or animal features, that didn’t seem to bother him. In fact, the Umalians rejoiced in his participation and egged him on, whooping and making good-natured catcalls to encourage Taehyung’s impromptu dance.

Jungkook couldn’t suppress the smile tugging at his lips, his heart doing the most unexpected flip in his chest. He thought wrong—Taehyung wasn’t a raging typhoon. Taehyung was euphoria incarnate.

(All along, Taehyung failed to notice Silva’s enamored gaze settling on him.)

It was, by far, the zaniest thing Jungkook had ever witnessed in the history of ever. Kind of like deep-diving into musical film, except that this was real life. Or as real as it could get. He didn’t really know anymore. He felt drunk with enchantment and he couldn’t even say for certain whether he wanted this dreamlike sequence to stop.

Too bad not everyone seemed to enjoy it the way he did.

“Are they done yet?” Jungkook heard Yoongi whisper-hiss to Namjoon, patience wearing paper-thin. “You reckon this is an everyday affair in this city?”

Namjoon shrugged. “It could be. Be grateful they’re not turning us away.”

Finally, finally, the song-and-dance number ended. The crowd dispersed with a few final shouts of welcome, and Silva and Taehyung clambered down the podium to rejoin their group, awkwardly clustered to one side of the piazza. They were both breathing hard from exertion, cheeks flushed.

The shapeshifter grinned at Silva and showed her two thumbs up. “You sing great!”

She, in turn, batted her eyelashes at him, eyes shining with unmistakable admiration as though Taehyung had swept her off her feet rather than joined a frivolous dance routine. “Thank you. I’m afraid I never caught your name?”

The jinni tilted his head to one side. “Uhhhh—“

“Taehyung,” Jungkook cut in, surprised by how authoritative his own voice sounded. He rested a hand on the jinni’s shoulder and kept it there. “His name’s Taehyung.”

“Yep! What he said.”

“I see.” Humming in acknowledgement, Silva glanced at Jungkook but made no further comment. After making formal introductions, she resumed her former beaming expression. “Now come, come!” she urged, linking her arm around Taehyung’s. “It must have been a long journey for all of you. My father has been awaiting your arrival since he heard word from King Alfius. Follow me, for you will be staying with my family for the time being.”

Unlike Jack Frost’s humble igloo, the mayor’s home was a glacial mansion of epic proportions. Built from a curious ensemble of marble, ice and granite, the residence was shaped like one giant diamond, with a wide, spherical base making up the living space and roofs that slanted to a sharp, pointed tip. Crusted bits of ice surrounded the walls like rose quartz jewels falling in reverse. There was no door, only a thin sheet of glassy ice that was apparently enough to ward off trespassers.

“Careful,” Silva cautioned as they crowded around the mansion’s entrance. “Allow me.” She pressed her palm flat against the door and it disappeared into thin air to allow them in.

Namjoon made an impressed noise as they stepped inside. “How…?”

“Ice manipulation,” Silva answered matter-of-factly, although she sounded proud. “Every Umalian can do it.”

“How do you keep out uninvited people then?” Yoongi asked.

“The door only recognizes ice manipulation from the people allowed inside our home. Like me, my papa, or our servants. It’s identification-protected.”

Ah, yes, the servants. They worked tirelessly around the residence – from maids dusting non-existent frost on the frescoed ceilings to the butler at their every beck and call. It was safe to assume, in Jungkook’s opinion, that Silva’s family was very well off.

As she toured them around the eight or seven rooms of the mansion, Jungkook’s mind strayed to the orphanage where he’d grown up all his life. How more than twelve cots were forced to fit inside a single cramped room, how they had to make do with toys from donated boxes. The stiff mattresses. Nights spent wondering why they didn’t have parents like other children. Waking up at ungodly hours just to spend more than a few minutes in the bathroom to shower.

He didn’t miss those shitty living conditions at all, and yet remembering his friends’ faces and – most importantly, Jiyeon’s sunshine smile – sent an unfamiliar pang of ache twisting in his gut. Here he was, walking down the hallways of one of the most lavishly decorated houses he had ever set foot in, and he was thinking of the orphanage.

Learn to live in the moment, Jungkook, he told himself as he watched Taehyung laugh loudly at something Silva had whispered in his ear. You’re in the here and now.

Dinner was an extravagant affair. They sat around a long table, and each of them tried very hard not to look like starved rats about to gorge on the several rounds of food served. There were salads and pumpkin soup and grilled strips of meat and loaves of bread of all shapes and sizes. Platters of ripe fruit, bottles of champagne, jugs of lager. Silva was especially enthusiastic about introducing Nilflheim’s apparent signature dish called “flume ghoulash”, which made Jimin crinkle his nose as he pushed the bowl away from himself.

“Bad memories,” the prince whispered when Taehyung looked at him with questioning eyes. “Not too fond of flume ghoulash.”

He was missing out. In Jungkook’s opinion, it was scrumptious – savory on the palate but not too salty. Like porridge, but with the texture of silky pudding rather than rice.

The mayor of Umalia, Elir Azoi, a stout and pudgy arctic fox hybrid with a Rudolph-red nose, joined them. Jungkook didn’t have much of an opinion of him, except maybe that radiated the same beaming happiness as his daughter, the same agreeableness as the rest of the town. In fact, after encountering one Umalian after another, Jungkook was beginning to clock a pattern of… sameness, in every hybrid resident in this city.

The initial buzz had worn off now, and he was able to observe through a more rational lens of thought. These folks, they all dressed in similarly styled (but overly fashionable) pink furs, petticoats and trousers – from rosewood to fuchsia to coral. They hummed happy tunes and wore smiles that seemed more and more like the painted-on smiles of marionettes in an antique doll shop.

It gnawed at Jungkook’s nerves. He didn’t know why, but it did.

After exchanging pleasantries, the mayor said, “I am glad to hear that you’ve arrived in our city safe and sound. The Elven King had sent a messenger a few days prior to inform me of your stay. Though he might have been mistaken.” He gave each man a pointed look. “I was told there would only be four of you. Not including the talking cat.”

(Kashmere scowled.)

Sitting across Jungkook, Namjoon let out an awkward laugh. He could only guess what went on in the wizard’s mind. Actually, there were six of us, but one’s been frozen to stone and kept away. Oh, and by the way, those two kids aren’t supposed to be with us in the first place. “I guess the more manpower the better.”

The mayor leaned forward with his elbows on the table. “Has any of you been to this realm before?”

“I have.” Namjoon cleared his throat, his eyes taking on a haunted, faraway look for the quickest second. “But not to the capital. Umalia is as unfamiliar to me as it is to the rest of us.”

“Well, then perhaps my daughter here could give you a tour of the city after dinner,” said Elir Azoi. “Good thing you lads arrived before Aesop Hour, too. That way we can give you the proper welcome you deserve.”

“Aesop Hour?” Jimin repeated. He reached for a glass of water to swallow down the food in his mouth before asking, “What does that mean?”

“You’ve never heard of it, Your Highness?” Elir Azoi looked genuinely surprised. “Have you heard of Aesop at all? Aesop’s Fables?”

They all shook their heads. Jungkook leaned forward, interested to hear more.

“He was a talented storyteller who travelled far and wide across Nilflheim, and his fables grew the most popular in Umalia during the times of the Great War,” the mayor provided matter-of-factly. “People look to distractions during times of disquiet, you see. And when he died, his stories continued to be passed down and told through the years. A legend, if I may say so myself.”

“And this is relevant… how?” Yoongi drawled, face impassive.

“One of Aseop’s famous folklores was that of the Pied Piper,” Silva shared. “A musician who used his magic pipe to lure away the children of the city—”

“Silva, that’s enough,” Elir Azoi chided gently, a dangerous gleam flashing in his eye. Then it was gone in a heartbeat, replaced by a strained chuckle. “Odin’s mercy, you shouldn’t scare away our guests with meaningless bedtime stories like that.” To Namjoon, he smiled apologetically. “Don’t mind her, I’m afraid my daughter spends too much time in her head, dabbling in her childish fantasies.”

With a roll of her eyes, Silva pouted and clamped her mouth shut, put off at having been reprimanded.

The sorcerer licked his lower lip and nodded cautiously. “I understand.” His eyes darted to the mayor’s daughter for a moment before flickering down, waist-deep in thought.

Was he as suspicious as Jungkook felt? Something seemed… not right. He couldn’t put a finger to it exactly just yet, but Jungkook wasn’t stupid, and he usually caught on when people were trying to hide things from him. Years of living with other naughty boys had taught him to be wary.

“Anyway! We shan’t bore you with our boring local folklores.” Elir Azoi rubbed his hands together. “Let us talk about the purpose of your stay here. You are searching for a person, correct?”

Namjoon nodded. “A mage, actually. His Majesty the Elven King informed us of a magus with celestial abilities living on this side of Nilflheim. Do you happen to know of any?”

Elir Azoi exchanged glances with Silva. When he looked at Namjoon again, he said with a frown, “None that I—we—know of. Umalia is a prosperous city that runs on the blessing of the Ice Prince. We are not known for keeping some nameless mage.”

“An Ice Prince?” Yoongi said. “You mean to say Umalia is ruled over by royalty?” Sitting beside him, Namjoon all but froze, tension seeping into his form for reasons Jungkook didn’t know.

Jimin mumbled, “But my father definitely mentioned there was a celestial mage here…”

“In that case, we must talk to this Ice Prince,” Yoongi declared. “We need to find a lead to whoever looking for.”

Silva laughed. “Silly billies, there is no Ice Prince. It’s just a term we use for whatever’s the unknown driving force that keeps the capital city alive and alight. Just another phrase for magical blessing from the deities. If you ask me, the Ice Prince to Umalians is what Mother Celeste is to the Elves.”

Later, they would all come to find out that Silva was sorely misinformed, for the Ice Prince was real, as Jungkookw as about to find out, but no Umalian ever knew that. The city all painted him as a non-existent, ascended entity, and he did not occupy even the smallest bit of space in their memory.

Jungkook leaned back in his seat, mind reeling. No celestial mage? He watched the other men’s expressions, all equally stumped. They’d hit a dead end. What were they supposed to do now?

“Why don’t you gentlemen give this matter a rest,” suggested Elir Azoi. “Seeing as you’ve all come a long way, you may rest here for the night. Come morning, we will figure something out, I’m sure.”

The mayor excused himself from the dinner table and stayed locked away in his upstairs office to attend to paperwork. Meanwhile the rest of them continued to feast, choosing to put aside other priorities in favour of their insatiable hunger. Jungkook ate until he thought his belly would pop. Just when he thought he’d seen the last of their five-course meal (he counted), the servants emerged from the kitchen’s double doors to serve their dessert – milk snowcones!

“With a twist,” Silva crooned. “The cream used here is specially imported from the cow farms in Ingen, which makes our snowcones taste like autumn. Chilly, but makes you feel warm on the inside.”

(Jungkook bet that if she had been on Earth, she’d probably be a food blogger, one of those viral YouTube celebrities whose videos were always trending.)

He licked the snowcone and his eyes widened. “This is actually hella lit.”

“What does that mean?” Jimin asked, turning to him with eyebrows furrowed in confusion.

Ah, that’s right. He couldn’t just go around spouting random modern slang here. Jungkook pursed his lips. “Uhhh. Where I come from, ’hella lit’ is like, a thing we say whenever we find something really cool.”

The prince studied his snowcone carefully. “You’re right. Since this is an ice dessert, it is cool.”

“No, no, not literally cool,” Jungkook corrected, feeling self-conscious all of a sudden. “But more like, exciting. Or fascinating. You get me?”

“You mean… if I think that something or someone is interesting, that makes them ‘hella lit’?”

“Um. Yeah. I guess you could say that.”

Jimin thought about this. “I see. The Earthen language really is evolved, don’t you think so, Kash?”

The pet-servant was curled up in Jimin’s lap, having finished his generous helping of fresh glassfish from Nilflheim’s glacier shores.

Since ending up on this of the universe, it was the most fulfilling meal Jungkook had had in a while. They finished the last of their food, and after the every plate and each piece of cutlery was cleared, Silva pushed off from her chair and chirped, “Well, everyone! How about I give you a tour of the city? Aesop Hour won’t hit for about another two hours – I think we’ve got ample time.”

There it was again, that phrase – Aesop Hour. Just what did it mean?

Yoongi faked a yawn and said, “No thanks. I’m throwing in the towel. What about you, Joon?”

“Not for me, either. I’d like to rest,” Namjoon replied stiffly. Jungkook studied the sorcerer, sensing something seemingly off with his mood. There were dark circles under his eyes that made him look like he hadn’t slept in weeks. In fact, now that he thought about it, Namjoon had seemed more closed off ever since arriving in this world. Huh. Maybe he really was just drained. Portal summoning must be exhausting.

If Silva was displeased by the rejection, she covered it up expertly with another one of her signature sweet smiles. “Then come, I must show you to your rooms.”

They followed the hybrid down a hallway covered by soft, fur-lined carpets. Along the way, she made casual small talk, chattering away about this and that. In hindsight, Jungkook could hardly give two shits about whatever she talked about. She was perky and bubbly and all the things he was not, and something akin to a bad itch stirred in him whenever Taehyung so much as chuckled at her attempts at flirting.

“You must be wondering why we look like this,” she said pointedly, referring to her tail and white furry ears. “Do I look weird?”

Taehyung, ever the honest person, said, “No, it’s cute. Makes city looks like a town of pretty half-kittens.”

“You think I look like a kitty? A cute one?” Silva more or less purred, basking in the shapeshifter’s attention.

(In Jimin’s arms, Jungkook could hear Kashmere letting out a soft, aggravated huff and a small hiss.)

Taehyung nodded. “Of course!”

Silva’s cheeks turned pink. “Good to know somebody appreciates our appearance. It’s a natural adaptation that we’ve evolved into; helps us live with the constant cold.”

“Very informative, much educational,” Yoongi intercepted. Silva must have missed the way his voice dripped thick with sarcasm, because she actually beamed at him. “Now, can we move along?”

And so they did. Despite the mansion having more than enough rooms to house a hundred guests, they decided to share a room with another person—naturally, Namjoon chose Yoongi, while Taehyung grabbed Jungkook and Jimin’s arms to announce that he would like to room altogether.

“But three’s a crowd, don’t you think, Taehyung?” Silva interjected in a saccharine sweet voice. “If it’s alright with you, I’d like to give you a separate room! That way, Jimin and Jungkook can stay together—“

Kashmere was not having this. “But my prince is the one who deserves his own—“

“Hush, Kash, I don’t mind,” Jimin said quickly, not wanting to affront their host. “I can stay with Jungkook. But what about Taehyung…?”

Taehyung looked as if he wanted to run away. “That’s really thoughtful of you, but-“

“Oh, no need to thank me,” Silva tittered, all smiles. She stepped closer and smoothened the lapels of Taehyung’s jacket, her voice lowering to a sultry timbre. “I’ll let the servants give you the room beside mine. Won’t that be fun? I’m so excited I don’t think I can sleep tonight!” She let her hands slide down the shapeshifter’s chest before letting them fall away.

Jungkook suddenly felt like retching all the food he’d chowed down earlier. His gaze shifted to his friends’ faces, and they all wore the similarly uncomfortable expressions. Namjoon’s eyes were practically as big as two full moons, Yoongi had the face of someone who wanted to just sleep and play dead right then and there, while Jimin looked halfway between constipated and nervous.

Meanwhile, if Taehyung was bothered by the mayor’s unica hija’s downright shameless flirting, he didn’t show it. In fact, he suddenly looked at ease, face relaxed, slipping into a new kind of element. A bold one. He threw his head back at her antics and flashed her a crooked grin—to Jungkook’s dismay, it looked a lot like the same type of smile he’d been throwing his way the whole time. Damn it. Here he was all along, honestly believing that that smile had been reserved for him, and him only. He thought, just because he knew Taehyung first, that the boy would always stick by his side. He thought he knew Taehyung.

How wrong he was. As it turned out, there was plenty to learn about this dumb, self-proclaimed demonslayer.

Pretty boys really should be banned from flirting.

Disheartened, Jungkook hung his head low and let the servants lead him and Jimin away towards their chambers for the night, not bothering to send one last glance over his shoulder. What was the point, if all he’d witness was Taehyung encouraging Silva’s affections to grow?

Damn, why does it even matter? His head felt like rain clouds. Why did he care? Whatever Taehyung did was none of his concern. Shouldn’t be. Jungkook hoped such dark clouds would part and let sunlight filter through sooner than soonest. A sigh whooshed out of him. Suddenly all he wanted to do was plop down on a mattress and hide under a snuggly duvet forever.

Distantly, he might have heard Jimin and Kashmere humming in approval at their room’s well-kept order; not that he cared. The day’s events had finally caught up to his energy level, and as Jungkook fell against the bed pushed against the fall, it didn’t take very long for sleep to weigh heavy and shut his eyes closed.

And perhaps he would dream of purple-haired falcons with mysterious golden eyes tonight, but hey, at least his dreams couldn’t possibly disappoint him any more than reality already had.

 


 

 

The moon was hiding tonight.

Or perhaps it wasn’t there at all. Yoongi stood by the window of his shared room with Namjoon, his form casting a silhouette against the window while he gazed up at the night sky. Blank as a midnight canvas, it was—there were no stars or moon, no sign of the twinkling heavens overhead.

This was something Yoongi often did – like a secret, he studied the skies quietly, in a manner unknown to others. He might have formed an attachment to the moon (and sometimes even talked to it, in spite of his better knowledge). He thought that if the land of the living was so fraught and chaos-ridden, then he might as well seek solace in a place untouched by the frivolity of man. Somewhere up there, maybe peace of mind exists.

“How long have we been in this realm?” he asked.

Behind him, Namjoon was already lying down in bed, half-asleep. He cracked one eye open at Yoongi. “Why? Is this world too cold for a fire elemental’s liking?”

“No.” Yoongi shook his head and pointed upwards. “It’s just that… I noticed, since arriving here, that we’ve yet to see the light of day. There’s no moon or sun here. Seems to be nighttime all the time.” It had felt like over a day had passed and yet there was no trace of daylight skimming over the horizon anywhere.

Now, if he’d been more alert, perhaps he would’ve seen the way Namjoon’s eyes hardened, or his posture stiffened, or his hands clenched into fists. But Yoongi was enraptured by the scene outside his window, eyes on the pinkish everglow that seemed to radiate from each icy surface.

“Nilflheim is a realm of night,” Namjoon spoke, voice thin. “You will never see daylight here.”

Yoongi grunted and turned around to face the sorcerer. “How come?”

Silence permeated the empty pocket of cold air between them. Namjoon’s jaw clenched and unclenched. Reluctance and hesitation danced across his features. Yoongi waited. He wasn’t stupid; he knew being in this realm was affecting his friend somehow. He just didn’t know why.

With a deep sigh, Namjoon finally said, “I’m a cursed man of many failures, Yoongi. Nilflheim is my biggest failure of all.”

The fire weaver’s eyebrows jumped. “What do you mean?”

“Let’s just say that a long time ago, I failed to dispel the eternal night that shrouds this world. It had been my mission, once.” Namjoon rubbed a hand through his face. “Being back here reminds me of many things I’ve been struggling to forget.”

Yoongi stared at Namjoon. “I don’t understand. You’re from here?” He looked the wizard up and down. “But you don’t have hybrid ears or anything.”

“I’m not an Umalian, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Namjoon said, side-eyeing him. “I come from The Wandering Isles. But look; none of that’s important right now. Let’s just… let’s just not talk about this.”

And although he wanted to press for more, Yoongi relented, pursing his lips. The three of them—Hoseok, Namjoon, and himself – never talked about where they came from or what kind of lives they’d led prior to getting banished to the Realm of Monsters. Backstory was considered taboo to them. Maybe because reminiscing only brought pain and regret, and who wanted that, right?

So Yoongi decided to tread a safer—albeit no less macabre—topic. He traced a finger across the windowpane, not knowing the right way to form the next words he wanted to say. “Hoseok.”

“Hmm? What about him?”

“You think he’ll be okay?”

Namjoon sat up in bed and folded his “Hoseok’s a fighter. Once we find the celestial mage, we’ll be able to turn him back and save Yggdrasil. Don’t worry.”

“I wasn’t worried,” Yoongi blurted petulantly.

The sorcerer let out a low, bemused chuckle. “Right.”

“I’m curious. Why couldn’t you just use magic to turn him back?” Yoongi eyed the Summoning Staff leaning against the headboard, just within Namjoon’s arm length. Even in the darkness of the room, the sapphire jewel on top of the arcadium rod gleamed like a mirror reflecting sunlight.

“It doesn’t work that way,” Namjoon explained, a crease forming between his eyebrows. “The primary purpose of my Staff is to facilitate travel. Portals. Magic is only secondary. As long as we’re bound by these runes-“ he lifted his wrists, “I’ll never be able to conjure as much magic as I’d usually be able to.”

Likewise for Yoongi. To them, the silver bracelets around their wrists weighed heavier than a slave’s shackles. He hated it. He hated what it did to their bodies every time they tried to use more power than allowed. What made you a prisoner, Namjoon? He wanted to ask, but he bit back his tongue. Instead Yoongi said: “Now that you have your Summoning Staff back, you’ll be able to conjure portals anywhere no matter what, right?” 

“In theory, yes.” Namjoon frowned. “But I feel like I must get used to it again. My anima and the staff’s energy have yet to reach a balanced equilibrium to allow me to use it smoothly.”

Yoongi nodded. He remembered the way Namjoon had retrieved the Staff, back inside the volcano. He had looked so empowered, so complete. “What was it like to open Pandora’s Box?”

Namjoon let out a whoosh of air. “Terrifying. I didn’t know if I could do it, really.” He was quiet for a moment, deliberating his next words. “In fact, my Staff wasn’t the only thing that the Box spewed out.”

Yoongi looked up, intrigued. “What?”

“There’s this book,” revealed the sorcerer, “an old one, titled the Book Of Chimaera, with illustrations of creatures I’ve never seen before. Unusual names too. Cancer? Taurus?” Namjoon shrugged before continuing, “It tumbled out of Pandora’s Box as if… as if it was meant for me to take, Yoongi. I figured it wouldn’t hurt to read it later.”

“Well, have fun with that.” Yoongi cracked the smallest smile in his friend’s direction. Typical Namjoon — even the midst of a dangerous world-saving quest, he would bring a book along to read.

They lapsed into comfortable silence after that. Yoongi tried to sleep, but a certain face with pointed ears and silver hair wouldn’t leave his mind alone, not even after he closed his eyes and tried to count sheep. The Elven Prince’s face smiled at him, and his heart felt pinched.

How annoying. He groaned in frustration.

“Namjoon.”

“Yoongi, if you can’t sleep, at least let me.”

“Just one last thing.”

A sigh. The rustling of sheets. Namjoon sat up again and leaned against the bedframe. “What is it?”

How was Yoongi supposed to phrase this? He had to be tactful.

And so went his carefully crafted speech:

“Hypothetically speaking, very hypothetically speaking… let’s say you met a person, and your judgment was clouded over by bias, and you acted rudely towards somebody, maybe even borderline uncouth… but then as time passes by, you realize that maybe you were wrong and that this person didn’t deserve to be treated that way… what would you do?”

Namjoon raised an eyebrow at him. “Is this about Jimin?”

Yoongi threw a pillow at him and sputtered, almost tripping over his tongue, “No, I said hypothetically speaking, you dumb fuck.”

The sorcerer regarded him intently, and Yoongi averted his gaze.

“Were there harsh actions done towards this person?”

“Maybe.”

“Spiteful words?”

Yoongi cringed inwardly. “What’s your point?”

“Well, words are knives that often leaves scars.” Namjoon settled back down on the mattress and shut his eyes tight. “Hypothetically speaking, I would just hope for the best and pray their scars heal quickly.”

 


 

Taehyung was many things, but an early sleeper he was not.

Tip-toeing out the door wasn’t an option. Taehyung was dead-certain that Silva – whose bedroom was right next door – was keeping an ear out to check whether he had fallen asleep or not. Sweet mother of geese, she might even climb into his bed halfway through. The thought made his skin crawl.

None of that! He was having none of that.

Earlier on he’d tried his best not to upset her, but now he wondered if his frankness had been mistaken for flirting. People nowadays thought that way when you were too nice to them.

So despite his weariness from using his shapeshifting gift to turn his skin into thick fur in order to battle the cold this whole time, Taehyung tapped deep into his anima and morphed himself into… a gecko.

Hey, geckos were cute! And light, and agile, and way too easy to miss especially in a mansion like this. Smaller creatures required less power anyway. The adhesive pads on his feet helped him stick to the smooth surface of the ice ceilings and the walls like glue. With a gleeful smile, he pit-a-patted out of the gap between the door and the walls and scampered all the way down the hall then turned left. The world was upside down, but he pushed on. He wanted to play with Jungkook. He’d promised to help him look for a portal once they landed in Nilflheim, didn’t he?

So absorbed in his mini getaway he was that Taehyung failed to notice the way the ceiling ended and caved in to form the domed roof of the living room area. Without surface to cling, Taehyung lost his footing and his little lizard body fell, fell fell…

…right on top of a person’s mass of silvery hair.

Ooof. Hi, Jimin, Taehyung mused. What was he doing in the living room all alone?

“Eeep!” Rattled, the prince let out a short, startled yelp and shook his head as though a swarm of wasps was attacking him, swatting at the gecko with his hands. Taehyung cringed internally as his limp form landed on the corner of the carpet. Ouch. So much for a quiet escape.

Alarm rising, he quickly returned to his human form and made haste to calm down Jimin, who was jerking around sharply and rubbing at his body, his shoulders, his hair.

“Shh! Be quiet, Chim, it’s me!” Taehyung held his hands out in a placating manner, as if that could stop Jimin from going into hysterics.

It worked. Kind of. The elf stopped making strangled, garbled noises (how were people not awake yet?!) and he paused his ministrations halfway. “You... wait. Taehyung?” he gasped.

Taehyung grinned and spread his arms out hesitantly. “Heh. Surprise?”

The prince scowled at him. “You scared me! Why did you even-“

“Shhh, I can explain later. Can you take me to Jungkookie?”

Jimin hummed in thought. “He’s fallen asleep. Looked pretty upset, so I don’t think this is a good time to interrupt his rest.”

“Oh.” Taehyung pouted. He was really looking forward to exploring the capital with the boy. “And you? Why are you awake out here?”

“Couldn’t sleep. I was just… thinking about things.” Jimin shifted from one foot to another, hands fiddling with the fabric of his invincibility cloak bundled in his arms.
You?”

“Told you. I wanted to see Jungkook.” A light bulb pinged in Taehyung’s head. “Hey—I’ve got an idea!”

Jimin eyes him warily. “Yes…?”

“Why don’t you play with me instead?”

“What— me?”

“Yes!” Taehyung flashed Jimin the box-shaped grin he always did when he got too excited. “We’ll go outside, just for a few hours, and explore the city. Sounds fun, right?”

He waited, thinking Jimin would probably reject him, since he was a well-protected prince who probably stayed out of danger anyway, but was taken by surprise when a radiant smile blossomed across his face like a flower, eyes crinkling into crescent moons.

“That sounds wonderful.” Jimin glanced behind him, probably in the direction of his room. He crept closer to Taehyung and, lowering his voice to a dramatic hush, whispered in his ear: “Kashmere is asleep right now, so this is the perfect chance. Come on!”

Taehyung eyed Jimin’s retreating back with an appreciative smile — not the goody-two-shoes he'd initially assumed after all. Truth be told, he held no solid memory of the Elven Prince even though he claimed to remember being his childhood friend. None. Nada. Looking into his memories was like reaching out blindly in a fog-ridden mud swamp. But Jimin was an important link to his past, and he reckoned befriending him (again) might just be the triggering trip down history lane that his brain needed. Was that how people recollected their memories?

Ah, not his problem. Not yet, anyway. Whatever happens will happen.

“Great, now how do we leave the mansion?” Taehyung asked, frowning. “The doors can only be opened by residents and servants.”

Jimin looked around, spotted something hidden among the the frescoed domed ceiling that made his eyes sparkle, and smirked at the jinni. “I’ve found that windows are some of the easiest points of entry or exit to anywhere.” He pointed upwards. “Are you able to turn yourself into a winged creature? Anything. A bird, a bat—”

“Not a problem.” Taehyung was slowly tiring out—he could only do so many full body transformations, but for the sake of helping Jungkook find a portal as he so wished, he figured it wouldn’t hurt to use just a bit more power than usual. He closed his eyes, and when he pried them open once more, he was a white dove.

Wait. But why did Jimin ask him to change—

“I’ll have you know that you’re not the only shapeshifter around here,” said the prince before he shrank in size right in front of the jinni’s eyes. Smaller and smaller he became until even Taehyung, as a bird on two spindly legs, was taller than him. Amazing. Just what other talents could Jimin be hiding under his sleeve?

Jimin walked over to him and hauled himself up on Taehyung’s back, almost beside himself with giddiness. He clutched the feathers on the nape of Dove Taehyung’s neck for leverage. “Alright, Taehyung, take us away! There’s an open window high up there,”

Window? Understanding clicked in Taehyung’s mind. He unfurled his wings. Flapped once, twice, and then they were going up, up and away, towards a window left ajar. As he emerged from the mansion, the temperature changed from indoors to outdoors and coldness bid hello to his feathers. Taehyung bit back a curse. Great, now he was going to have to mold his skin into a protective layer to shield him from frostbite once again.

He landed on the snow-covered ground outside the mayor’s gates and promptly changed back to his regular self. Meanwhile Jimin hopped off and returned to his actual size.

Taehyung grinned as he watched it unfold. “Can all Elves shrink like that?”

Jimin shrugged. “I suspect it’s only me.”

“Oooh, then can you do it the other way round? Turn into a giant?”

Jimin tilted his head to once side, pondering. “I’ve never considered that. As far as I know, I’m only able to shrink in size.”

“I think giants are interesting.”

“I feel like you think everything is interesting.” Jimin clasped his invincibility cloak over his shoulders to shield his body from the blast of wind coming their way. “There. Now I feel less like an ice sculpture. Now, where to?”

Taehyung looked left. He looked right. The mayor’s mansion was located deep within the residential sector of Umalia, flanked by several other massive houses on either side. There was an ice-coated street in front of them that led to both directions – turn right and you forayed deeper into the district; turn left and it led you straight into bright town square.

There was no debate. Taehyung pointed left.

They followed the frozen path for a good long while, their footsteps creating a tinny plink plink noise as their feet thudded against the ice, until the road widened out into a bustling space, vibrant with activity and the riff-raff of commerce. The market square.

Here, the air smelled like cocoa and freshly baked bread; peddlers left and right beckoned them to try chocolate-covered fruits and different assortments of cake. A hybrid merchant sold tassels and glittering pins for young ladies to decorate their tails and ears with. There were wagons pulled by horned mares, and as one passed by Jimin and Taehyung, the driver winked at them and waved hello. Laughter, laughter everywhere. Bright and young and hopeful. Furs of vermilion and saffron lined the crates by the alleys and every nook and cranny of the place soared with the sweet trill of a flute and harmonica.

Taehyung closed his eyes and let himself be swept away by the song of the city, the heartbeat of its people. If you told him he was walking on air, he might’ve believed you. He swayed side to side with every step. Beside him, Jimin giggled as children ran circles around them both, singing a song that sounded more like a cautionary tale than a bedtime lullaby:

 

hush, hush

beware the Pied Piper

music of the night

onyx eyes of a viper

merry, merry tune!

sans mournful adagio

scaramouche, scaramouche,

will you do the fandango?

 

They traipsed past stalls selling barrels of sparkling juice and crossed a wide ice bridge to get to the central plaza – the same place they’d landed in hours ago – where the cathedral and the fountain stood. People milled about, walking here and there, and there was a crowd of children around the fountain, tossing coins in and closing their eyes.

With a grin, Taehyung pulled Jimin by the arm. “Let’s make wishes too!”

Up close, he had to crane his neck to drink in the full sight of the statue of a white wolf in the middle of the fountain. It stood regally on all fours, muzzle turned upwards as if about to howl at the moon.

(Taehyung looked up at the sky, and noticed there was no moon.)

They each took their turns tossing coins and clasping their fingers together. My memories, Taehyung wished, please return to me.

Memory. What was a person without it? He was a person with no memory, no name. Did that reduce him to a walking, taking shell of a person?

He felt a new presence step beside him, and Taehyung peeked to see. To his right, Jimin still had his eyes closed mid-wish, but to his left, a stranger had stepped up to the fountain—a hybrid boy, barely a teenager, with curly dark hair. His fox ears were flattened against the curved of his skull. His cheeks were sunken, expression gaunt, and his eyes were devoid of emotion as he stared into at the wolf statue in the middle of the fountain.

Taehyung’s mouth curved south, unable to look away. What a sight to behold. This had to be the first unhappy person he’d encountered in this city.

He was about to ask the teenager what was wrong when the boy’s face contorted into a mask of… anguish? Despair radiated off his posture in waves. He drew his hand back and hurled a single gold coin into the fountain, but not at the water – he aimed straight for the white wolf’s head. The coin pinged against its polished snout before plopping into the pink water limply. Then the boy turned around and stalked off hastily, each stomp leaving a deep imprint into the pastel pink snow.

Taehyung tilted his head in a birdlike manner, staring after the disgruntled teenager. Weird. How could someone sport such an angry face while living in a city as picture perfect as Umalia?

I’ve come across people who have, well, walked away from that city. Jack Frost’s earlier words echoed in Taehyung’s mind.

“So what did you wish for?” Jimin asked.

Taehyung blinked, startled, and turned to look at the prince. Mastering his emotions, he smirked, pushing down the urge to flinch. “If I tell you, then my wish might not come true.”

Jimin snorted and raked a hand over his silver hair. “I can tell you mine. I don’t believe in wishes that much.”

Affronted, Taehyung scoffed, “Why not?!”

“Well, for one, I’ve been wishing to meet my mother my entire life and that’s never happened.” Jimin sighed and rubbed a hand over his nose until it turned red. (Taehyung wanted to squish them or maybe pat the prince’s head.) “Maybe people just make wishes to feel less hopeless about themselves.” He laughed, but it was more wistful than amused.

“What happened to your mother?” asked Taehyung.

Fiddling with a crescent-shaped pendant looped around his neck, Jimin murmured, “She just… disappeared one day, back when I was an infant.” And Taehyung learned. He learned Elven Prince had seen it as a window of opportunity to get out of the palace and see the world, perhaps even find his mother.

After Jimin finished talking, Taehyung remarked, “Funny how we’re all just looking for something, no?”

Jimin glanced at him inquisitively. “What about you? What are you searching for?”

The jinni shrugged. “Myself. My home. My true nature. You know, the basics.”

“What do you mean by that?”

Should he just tell him? What was he supposed to say—that ever since he'd awoken without a memory, he'd been hopping through portals and searching different worlds for himself? Taehyung knew he had to say it someday, but what would the prince think of someone as incomplete as him?

“Jimin, I think… I think I’m broken.” Wow, why did he whimper? That came out a little more somber than he had intended. Taehyung had meant for it to sound light, like it was no big deal, but truth be told, it wasn’t light, and it was no small matter to him. He was afraid. His lips trembled. He felt small.

Lost. Like he was constantly swimming in a lake of haze and uncertainty, not knowing fact from lie, not knowing anything without a secure memory to back him up.

Jimin froze and stared at him, his gaze piercing. He whispered, eyes misty: “Taehyung. Why would you say that?”

Like a burst dam, Taehyung let his mind spill forth. His hands shook as he told the prince how he remembered nothing, not a single scrap or clue as to who he once was; he confessed how he didn’t truly remember Jimin despite the prince having claimed to recognize him from their childhood, how ‘Taehyung’ wasn’t even his real name, just a fabricated alias. Each revelation felt like one brick after another being lifted from his chest.

When he finished, Jimin wiped a thumb over Taehyung’s cheek and smiled, eyes soft. “Thank you for telling me this.”

Taehyung sniffled. “Jungkook is the only other person who knows. And now you, I guess.”

Jimin nodded, and they carried on in comfortable silence. He reached out a hand to catch descending pink snowdrops, watching with a serene smile as they landed on his palm as gently as cherry blossoms.

“You know, there’s a phrase my folks like to say in times of hardship. Ruminev aliyati jevum. Vulnerability is a form of strength.” He let his hand fall away and clapped Taehyung in the back. “You’re not broken, Taehyung. Maybe a little rough around the edges, but aren’t we all? You’re not broken. You’re brave.”

And Taehyung smiled, his eyes blurring with unshed tears. “Thank you.” Relief washed over him like the calm waters of the sea after a storm. How could he ever have hesitated to trust Jimin? The Elven Prince was probably the purest of them all. Must protect.

He broke eye contact to looked up with a jolt, distracted by the sudden ringing of bells from the cathedral just ahead of them. It was massive, with two towers with needle-like spires on either side of the domed central building. The one on the left was an analog clock tower that had no numbers on it. Instead, there were two words on opposite sides of the clock’s surface where the number ‘12’ and ‘6’ would usually be:

Awake. Aesop.

Why words instead of numbers? Curious, Taehyung watched closely as the hands of the clock tower slid from ‘Awake’ to ‘Aesop’.

Ding, ding, ding, went the cathedral bells as the arrowhead hands pointed to ‘Aesop’.

Dong. Like birds sent into disarray, people scattered to leave the central plaza.

Dong. Mothers embraced their children and pulled them away, whispering, “Home. We must head home.”

Dong. Peddlers ceased their shouting and shopkeepers shut their stalls. Before they knew it, the central plaza and the marketplace were deserted, leaving scraps flying in the wake of the citizens’ abandon.

Or maybe not.

“Well? Aren’t you leaving?” hissed a voice as hard as the blade of a shovel. Taehyung’s head swiveled sideways. Jimin clutched his jacket sleeve. There was one last merchant—an old man wearing a dusty top hat, with a scraggly grey beard that looked like it could use a good brushing or trim. “What are you young lads still doing here? It’s Aesop Hour.”

Was that a warning? It sounded like one. “What’s Aesop Hour?” asked Taehyung.

The merchant’s eyes nearly bulged out of his head. “You don’t know?”

“W-well, you could explain it to us,” Jimin said. “Is it the equivalent of the end of work hours? Is that why everyone went home?”

Eyes darting about nervously, the merchant crept closer to them, his spine hunkered over by his old age. He kept his voice to a hushed tone. “You must be the newcomers. We follow the clock tower here. Aesop Hour means you should stay indoors, because the Phantom might come and steal your children away during this time.”

The Elven Prince gasped. “What…”

“It’s an unspoken secret here in good old Umalia, that everyone’s modeled the Phantom after the folktale of the Pied Piper, as told by Aesop himself years ago.” The merchant scrunched his nose in dissatisfaction, as though he’d inconvenienced himself by staying out too long to talk to the boys. “Righty, now I’m off. Good evening to you two. Remember to stay in. Who knows what Aesop Hour may bring.” He tipped his hat and limped away.

If fear were a smell, it would be rancid and bitter, hanging heavy over the marketplace like skewered fish hung out to dry. The city still glowed pink, but despite its rosy hue, now it seemed… cold. Cold in ways more than just physical. Gone was the merriment from a mere few minutes ago; gone was the music, the laughter.

Jimin grabbed Taehyung’s hand and tugged. “Tae, let’s go back.”

 


 

They came into the mayor’s mansion the same way they went out. Jimin, now in his small form again, hopped on Taehyung-As-A-Dove’s back and the two of them slipped through the open window with little to no effort. They landed inside the grand living room noiselessly, the air changing from biting coldness to… less biting coldness, given that the mayor’s mansion was still carved out of ice, after all.

They returned to their regular human bodies and Jimin dusted the snowflakes off his clothes, heart still racing from having snuck out and being told off due to this so-called ‘Aesop Hour’. What even was that? Sounded like a superstition. “Well, that was fun, wasn’t it, Taehyung—“

He turned around and froze mid-sentence.

Oops.

“Hi, Yoongi,” Taehyung greeted casually at the man sitting on one of the fur-coated chairs behind them.

Yoongi nodded in acknowledgement at Taehyung, before his piercing gaze settled on Jimin. The prince gulped, his hands turning clammy for absolutely no reason at all. He felt like a child caught red-handed with his hand inside a cookie jar. He sucked in a breath and reminded himself that he was Prince Jimin of Diadra, and that he had no business in suddenly feeling shy or awkward like this. He was confident. He was royalty.

Yet all he managed under the weight of Yoongi’s unreadable stare was: “Hi.”

And then: “You’re still awake?”

(Nailed it, Jimin thought. He liked to believe he was a natural conversationalist.)

Yoongi’s eyes roved back and forth from him to Taehyung, putting the puzzle pieces together. “You went out.” His voice was low and rough, as though he hadn’t spoken in a while. He looked like he wanted to say more but he remained silent, stoic.

“Yeah, just to explore the city. It was fun.” Taehyung shot finger guns at Yoongi. “You should definitely come with us next time.”

“No, thanks. I’m good. Just making sure you guys didn’t freeze to death or whatever.” Yoongi looked away. “But it looks like you made it back in one piece, anyway.”

Taehyung must have sensed the awkwardness in the air, because he slowly inched away and excused himself. “Yes. Haha. So. I’m just going to… go check on Jungkook and sleep. See you later, Chim!” And he was gone in a flash, leaving Jimin alone in the room to deal with the fire elemental.

Jimin’s feet itched to go back, but something about Yoongi’s presence rooted him to the floor. His mouth twitched with unsaid words, unsure whether he should say something or not. Ever since a few hours ago, every time he looked at Yoongi, all he could remember was how gentle the man had been with him with the gloves earlier. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Yoongi shrugged, eyes averted still. “I don’t sleep that much. Or very well, for that matter.”

“Ah. I see.” Jimin stepped to the opposite side of the room, making sure there was at least a coffee table between him and the fire weaver. It felt silly, wanting to put a distance like this, but at least he was less frazzled this way.

“You’re not wearing them.”

“Sorry?” Eeep. Mother Celeste, please don’t let him maul or scorch me to a crisp tonight. “Um. Not wearing what?” Jimin feigned ignorance.

Yoongi’s eyes flickered to his hands. “Nothing. Never mind. It’s fine.”

But Jimin was not fine with not knowing what Yoongi meant half the time, or not knowing where they stood. He was the Elven Prince of Diadra, and he felt entitled to voice out his thoughts at any given point in time. He knew that the fire weaver was referring to the gloves. Did Yoongi consider them as some sort of gift or something? In that case, were they friends? Friends gifted each other all the time.

So he inhaled deeply and asked, in a very frank manner, “Are we friends?”

If Yoongi was caught off guard by the question, he didn’t show it. His gaze dragged over the table between them to meet Jimin eye-to-eye, and silence stretched between them like a thin cord until he answered quietly:

“I don’t hate you.”

Jimin frowned. “That doesn’t answer anything.”

“It does.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Stubborn, ever so stubborn, this firebender. Were they going to argue yet again? The prince was tired. Here was his attempt at cordial conversation, and he was not about to let the effort go to shambles. He closed his eyes and licked his lower lips. “Not hating someone doesn’t automatically make you friends. Look, I shan’t dance around the topic - why did you give me those gloves yesterday?”

“Well, why did you save me?” Yoongi countered abruptly.

Jimin cocked his head to the side, not understanding.

“That time, when I—” Yoongi cleared his throat and lowered his gaze, tonguing at his inner cheek, “-when I fell off the Pegasus and nearly plunged to my death into the Dust Sea. Why did you catch me?”

Jimin blinked. Good question. Why did he do that? He wasn’t exactly fond of Yoongi, but that didn’t mean he wanted the fire weaver to die.

“You could’ve let me just drown,” Yoongi added, his voice barely above a whisper.

Jimin thought for a moment. “Um, I mean, I don’t hate you-”

“Exactly.”

“Huh?”

“See? That’s my whole point.” Yoongi’s gaze flitted back up to meet his, and this time round there was triumph in them. “You don’t hate me. I don’t hate you. That’s the answer. Can’t we leave it at that?”

Jimin’s nostrils flared and he parted his lips to make a snarky retort but he was cut off by Taehyung bursting into the living room like bull-horned ram, his face a mask of uncontained panic. Jimin’s heart leapt to his throat.

“Taehyung? What’s wrong?”

“He’s not there.” Taehyung was breathing heavily. “Jungkook. He’s gone.”

  


 

Jungkook awoke with a jolt.

Or, to put it better, to the sensation of being poked in the cheek.

His eyes fluttered open while his consciousness grasped for stability, and the first thing he realized was that he was no longer in the same room he’d fallen asleep in. The ceiling was flat and high instead of slanted to a cone, and it was dotted everywhere with tiny ornaments like the glow-in-the-dark star stickers he used to paste on his bedside wall back in the orphanage. But rather than cheap star stickers, these jewel-like things were actually… icicles? Pink icicles reflecting light like a rose-hued prism, drooping from above the way a frozen stalagmite would.

The second thing he noticed was the smell. The rich aroma of vanilla and maple leaves surrounded him like a cocoon, coaxing him to fall back asleep. Was that breakfast? What’s going on? Where am I?

“Ah, he wakes,” sing-songed a triumphant voice.

And the last thing he noticed was the tall young man standing by the bed, pink locks of hair falling over his blue eyes, and oh man holy shit, he looked like every Korean drama actor Jungkook used to watch on TV screens. He also happened to be the one who’d been poking Jungkook’s cheek with—he glanced down at what the man was holding—the green stalk of a rose.

Confusion surged through Jungkook. “W-what’s-“

“Hello, you may call me Seokjin — your worst nightmare, hah!”

Jungkook groaned, scratching his arm. What on earth.

“Just kidding, I won’t hurt a single hair on your pretty little head,” the pink-haired man declared, and his voice was nasal, a little high-pitched. “That is, if you choose cooperate with me.” He threw his head back in what had to be a pseudo-evil laugh.

Bleary-eyed and dazed, Jungkook rubbed a hand over his face and yawned. “Yeah. Okay. Are you kidnapping me?” He meant it as a joke—maybe this Seokjin dude was one of the mayor’s servants or something. He sure was one overdramatic fellow, though. Loud, too.

Seokjin scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Darling, I’m not kidnapping you. I’m borrowing you. Two different things.”

Silence. Jungkook’s brain took a few seconds to let his words sink in. When the reality of the truth dawned on him, he bolted forward, sitting up so quick he got whiplash. He scanned his nearby surroundings.

A chamber decorated with pink ice furniture. Pink tables, wardrobe, chairs… heck, even the bed he was in was in the same color. Blazing hot pink. Flamingo pink. Definitely not the room he’d been given to share with Jimin, which had more muted tones.

Jimin. Where was the prince? And Kashmere? Dread twisted in Jungkook’s stomach. He swung his legs over the bed and made a move to race out (despite not knowing where out was) but he didn’t make it very far.

With a wave of his hand, ice geysers shot forth from Seokjin’s palms to create a barricade that trapped Jungkook to the confines of the four-poster bed he was trying to escape, keeping him in like a prisoner in a jail cell.

Jungkook grunted as he strained to smash the ice. “What the hell?”

“There’s no point in struggling, foreigner,” said Seokjin, eyes stony, unfeeling. “I told you, it’ll be easier for you if you cooperate.”

As the full force of the situation hit Jungkook like a freight train, his shoulders slumped, forehead resting against the ice railings. He was alone. He was unarmed. And much to his confusion, he’d somehow been kidnapped.

Holy shit.

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, a man died.

As his final breath poured from his lungs, drifts of snow swallowed his spirit and rebirthed him anew.

 


 

“Today’s the day.”

Bent over from inspecting the latest delivery of ice blocks, Seokjin made a hum of acknowledgement without looking up. “So?”

“So,” his uncle said, sounding incredulous. “You’re allowed to be absent from your morning duties. The ice won’t melt just because you’re not around for a few hours. It’s Solstice, Jin.”

Seokjin grimaced. He was aware of today being the ever-anticipated Solstice a.k.a Reaping Ceremony, thank you very much. What with it being the talk of the town for weeks and weeks and weeks nonstop, you had to be living under a rock not to catch drift of everyone’s excitement. He turned around and pasted a customary smile on his face. “Are you sure about that? I mean I could always, you know, not turn up…”

It was a futile attempt at shirking. No mage escaped Solstice, not even the son of the Second Legion’s Chief Commander. Seokjin wasn’t privy to such privileges, especially now.

“Now, don’t be daft, lad. Where’s the fun in that?” said his uncle, rolling his eyes and folding his arms. “No practicing magus misses Solstice. You know you can’t skip it.”

Seokjin couldn’t argue against that, but it didn’t mean he was going to willingly dress up only to offer himself like some throwaway tribute to a system that made tradition of sending youths to their imminent near-deaths. He sighed. “I know that.”

“Yours was only a matter of time.”

He heaved another sigh. “I know that, too.”

The Wandering Isles were made up of a smattering of dwarf islands and two expansive mainlands. There was Holm Turi—the land of mystics and shamans, magickers who bent to the natural order of the world; and then there was Ellyria—of casters and summoners, weapons masters and alchemists. These were the wizards who bent nature to their will. Two mainlands, two different people.

After the Great War, in a diplomatic effort to promote and repair harmony in the Wandering Isles, Holm Turi and Ellyria had committed to a truce pact. The treaty stated that they would send their graduating wizards in random pairs to different realms of the Nine Worlds as part of their final year examinations. From then on, the pact was made known to every living mage as the Solstice.

Each year, student mages from Holm Turi and Ellyria were tasked to team up and work together to complete an assigned mission within a month, only after which they could return home. Based on their success rate in said assessments, the Council would determine whether or not hopefuls passed before granting every mage’s ultimate goal: a license to practise magic.

This year was Seokjin’s turn.

“Aren’t you excited to meet your partner?” asked his uncle, busying himself with ice picks to start working on a block of ice.

Not really, Seokjin wanted to say. He watched, frowning, as his uncle hoisted an ice block off the wheel cart and placed it on his workstation with a loud thump. Another sculpture waiting to be crafted to perfection. “Are you sure you can manage without me?”

He was stalling for time. Truth be told, he wasn’t too keen on stepping out of the comforts of the dusty shop he’d grown up in; the world had prying eyes, and he didn’t want to be seen. Not anymore. It had been a year since he was sent to live with his uncle, but the shame from that day – from the disappointment in his father’s face—still scalded Seokjin’s mind afresh. What was he going to do without the shelter of the home he’d come to know and love? He wasn’t ready. Deep down inside, he feared he never would be.

“Hah! You speak as though I haven’t been running this ice business since before you were born.” His uncle made a shoo-ing motion with his hand and resumed focus on his workstation. “Besides, I’m a tough nut. Ain’t no type of ice I can’t crack. Now go, before you miss the ceremony.”

The ceremony. Seokjin sighed. All blaring trumpets and banging drums, festooned wreaths and lacquered faces. For such a supposedly conservative island, Holm Turi sure was loud about Solstice. It was all a festive affair to welcome their Ellyrian neighbors who were coming to stay here for a few days until the Solstice ceremony ended.

Although it was still hours away, dread had already settled in the pit of Seokjin’s stomach.

Most Turi kids his age would be jumping at the chance to meet and work with an Ellyrian wizard. Once upon a time, Seokjin had, too. Why, a wizard from the other mainland! What a grand opportunity! It wasn’t everyday they got to work with people outside of their own kind.

But Seokjin wasn’t like most Turi. Over the past year, he’d decided that he was okay with the status quo. He reveled in the safety and comfort of what was familiar. Risks? Not for him. Not after everything he’d dreamed of crumbled to dust with just one word, one command.

He turned to leave. If he couldn't avoid the Solstice, then he might as well start packing.

“Seokjin?”

He paused by the rickety door. “Yeah?”

“Make your father proud. He’ll hear of it, I’m sure.” Seokjin's stomach turned. His uncles eyes bore into his, grim and serious as if telling him, you have to come back from your mission. “I’ll be waiting.”

In other words, you have to survive.

 


 

If there was one thing the world couldn’t fault Seokjin for, it was his face.

He was the kind of person you couldn’t help but see – tall, fair-skinned and broad-shouldered, he strode with calm purpose that belied what little confidence he had. Tousled dark hair and a straight nose; almond shaped eyes and red lips that could put any courtesan to shame. He was beautiful, in ways that made ladies swoon and men pause to stare with a secret kind of envy – or lust, for some.

Seokjin used to be the type who never shied away from attention. Back when things had been... better... for him, he’d lapped it up, basked in it, soaked in adulation and praise the way a sponge would water. One could even say he downright enjoyed constantly having people’s eyes on him. After all, he was—or used to be—regarded as one of Holm Turi’s most eligible bachelors to grace the island.

Why, during last season’s Midwinter’s Festival Dance alone, his poor feet had barely had time to rest, what with request after request snowballing from ladies and gentlemen alike to become his dance partner. That had been a wild night. Seokjin used to laugh at the memory.

Not anymore, though.

Now, as he wandered towards the Central Square where the ceremony was being held, people parted to make way for him like a curtains being drawn apart in the middle. Not out of awe, mind you, or anything close to worshipping at all. Around him, gasps and whispers—low and accusatory—rose in the air, and some of the Turi openly stared. He could feel their heavy frowning gazes, like pinpricks sending hot shame sparking down to his gut.

Seokjin could only imagine what they must be thinking.

There goes the Chief Commander’s unwanted son, wonder what his power is?

Cold and deadly, or so I’ve heard. That’s why he was sent away on his father’s orders.

Don’t look at his face. Rumors say his beauty will lure you and steal your wits from you.

It seemed that rumor about him had spread like wildfire. Though the townsfolk said nothing, their eyes gave them away.

Still, Seokjin kept his chin raised—eyes hard and defiant—if only to show that no, your condescending smirks won’t bring me down and that no, I’m not hurting at all. Clenching his fists by his sides, Seokjin marched forward and joined the line of student mages leading into The Vault – a pyramid shaped stone building in the middle of Central Square, with a spacious arena and indoor amphitheater where important matters were hosted. He ignored the snorts and muted chatter that arose as he wove his way through the crowd.

Today was the Solstice ceremony, and he needed to keep calm. He would not be fazed.

There was a grim-faced watchguard manning the entrance of The Vault, and Seokjin gave him the common Turi greeting—one hand over the heart, then two fingers pressed against the other’s forehead—before showing him his identification scroll.

From this point onwards, only magi taking part in Solstice were allowed inside. When he stepped through the giant doors, the hustle and bustle of the outdoors quieted down.

It was different in here. While the Central Square was elaborately festooned in the finest silks of Holm Turi’s rose-gold-russet and Ellyria’s blue-and-silver, the corridors of The Vault were all gray and muted colors. The walls were bare. Footsteps echoed up to the high ceiling. Still, people whispered excitedly among themselves, eager to get to the Ceremony.

As he walked, Seokjin kept his gaze blank, but when he looked up— ah, well hello there.

Up ahead, there was Persis the wind chaser, Lupine the crystal welder, and Aldrine the fortuneteller. His old friends. He longed to call out their names, sitting so familiar on his tongue, and join their wild laughter and easy camaraderie. Just like the old times. But he kept his mouth shut.

That was then.

This was now.

And so, forcing his heart to turn as numb as ice, Seokjin averted his eyes and let himself be swept away by the throng of excited mages as they headed for the indoor amphitheater.

This year, the Solstice Ceremony was being held at Holm Turi. Next year it would be in Ellyria, and then alternating back and forth between each island hitherto onwards. It was a pattern maintained to observe ‘fairness and equality’ between the two mainlands.

It also meant that the Ellyrian wizards were guests to Seokjin’s homeland today, hence all the fanfare.

When Seokjin stepped foot in the amphitheater, a sea of cobalt-and-silver robes had already filled up the left half of the dome, seated and waiting for the ceremony to start. Their satin and silk of their garb glimmered like ocean waves even under the dim lanterns lit around them. Ellyrians. Meanwhile, mages decked in rose gold and russet robes continued filtering in like spots of sunset blossom, hurriedly taking their seats next to friends and fellow classmates. These were Seokjin’s folk. Turi.

As the amphitheater filled up, Seokjin picked out an empty, stone-carved seat at the end of a row and sat down. There was a young man already seated beside him, and with a gasp, he did a double take upon meeting gazes with Seokjin.

Seokjin arched one eyebrow. “What are you looking at?” He didn’t mean to be rude, but it came out that way all the same.

The guy blinked and looked away, face flushing. “N-nothing.”

He had green eyes and light brown hair. Freckles dotted the skin around his nose, and if only he didn’t behave like a terrified mouse in Seokjin’s presence, he might have thought him cute.

Be that as it may, he supposed that the guy must’ve heard the stories going around about him. What a pity.

Oh well. The beginnings of a smirk curled up at the corners of Seokjin’s mouth. “Be careful,” he told the guy, voice saccharine sweet. “I bite. Grrawr.”

He worked up a growling, purring sound from the back of his throat and raised his left hand to mimic the gesture of a cat sharpening its claws, and the guy beside him visibly paled. Sweat broke out across his temples.

Seokjin bit back a grin.

(Perhaps there was some truth as to why people dubbed him as haughty, or stuck-up and sadistic, or best yet – Heart of Ice, but he didn’t care for their opinions that much. Not at all.)

“What’s your name?” Seokjin asked.

The guy glanced at him cautiously, as though Seokjin were a boiling pot of hot water ready to hiss at him any time. He opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish, perhaps debating whether he should tell him or not, but then said: “Vonn.”

Seokjin nodded. At least this guy wasn’t purposely ignoring him. He should be used to this by now, this wary coldness from strangers he’d never met, and yet somewhere deep inside of him, he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to succumb to the idea that this was his fate, and that he should resign himself to this lowly treatment for the rest of his life.

The Seokjin he knew was loved, and adored, and highly regarded by Turi.

Once upon a time, that is. “Well, nice to meet you, Vonn.”

At that moment, the chatter in the amphitheater simpered down to a hushed silence as a tall, grey-haired man, sharply dressed in flowing black robes, strode towards the podium stepped on it. Clearing his throat, he cast his gaze upwards to let his eyes rake over the students gathered before him, all one hundred and twenty of them – left half Ellyria, right half Holm Turi. Lapis lazuli and quicksilver; rose gold and russet. The two mainlands' national colors couldn't have been any more different if they tried.

“Good day, mages.” His voice was a crisp baritone, loud and low, and it ricocheted off the Vault’s stone walls and made Seokjin’s veins thrum.

He sent a nod of acknowledgment in the direction of the blue-robed students. “And welcome to the shores of Holm Turi, citizens of Ellyria. I am Professor Nivu, Headmaster of the Arcane Academy.” He paused to inhale before continuing, “First of all, congratulations for making it up until here in the course of your training. That you should reach this stage already speaks volumes of your potential as wielders of magic, and this will be your last hurdle before you become fully-fledged wizards. Today marks the eighteenth year since Solstice began, and today will also determine the fate of your future as a mage.”

He waved a hand, and not a moment later, a golden, leather-bound book appeared in the air, floating up and down. He paced the length of the stage around the podium as he spoke. “Here is the Registry for this year’s Solstice. You know the rules.” Professor Nivu made a flicking motion in the air, and the book flipped open to an empty page. “Since this year we are hosting Ellyrians over in our island, they get the chance to come forward and write their names into the registry, and the book will assign a partner to appear beside their names on the page.”

It worked like this: you write your name in the Registry, and the Registry would randomize a name to appear next to yours on paper. Then, after the selection, your and your partner’s names would appear on each other’s wrists like a tattoo, which was how people usually found out that yes- they would be stuck together for the next month or so. Only upon completion of the mission would your names be erased from each other’s skin.

You couldn’t refuse the Registry’s decision—it was always final.

“Without further ado, let the selection process begin.” Professor Nivu snapped his fingers, and a table manifested out of thin air front of the podium, the golden Registry placed neatly on top of it. It was open on a blank page, but later on by the end of the ceremony, each page would be scrawled over in black ink with countless people’s names. “Ellyrian students, we will go by alphabetical order.”

The mages in dark blue robes stood up and formed a line leading towards the table. Seokjin sighed and sank back against his seat. This was going to take a few hours. Now all the Turi folk had to do was sit back, relax and wait until a name appeared on their wrists, announcing who their assigned partners were.

Well, not everyone could relax. Vonn jiggled his leg incessantly while drumming his fingers on his knee, a nervous mannerism. If Seokjin looked close enough he might’ve even seen the sheen of sweat forming on his forehead.

“What’s got you so on edge?” Seokjin asked. Might as well kill time while waiting.

The guy startled, nearly stumbling out of his seat. Odin’s mercy, he sure was a jumpy one. “Um.” He pursed his lips, contemplating whether to talk or not. “It’s just that… I’ve heard stories, you know?”

“Stories?” He wanted to ask.

“Yeah. I don’t know how they were raised, but Ellyrians think and behave differently from us. Sometimes teams don’t work well together, and missions can fail.” Vonn’s voice was high-pitched and brittle, which reminded Seokjin of a cracked mirror.

“Fail.” Seokjin parroted. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve heard some people have died during their missions.”

Seokjin hummed thoughtfully and let out a small chuckle to hide the way his gut was nervously clenching. “Oh?”

“Yes. There have been incidents, few but not untrue. Even though you’re supposed to work together, partners can betray you, too.” He lowered his voice to a hushed rasp. “That’s why the relationship between Turi and Ellyrians is so strained.”

Seokjin wiped a clammy hand against the side of his thighs, but he didn’t let his face show apprehension when he said, with feigned brazenness, “That’s ridiculous. Like you said, if you betray a partner, you’ll fail the test, and nobody wants that, right? I’m sure every last person in this hall will return to Holm Turi safe and sound.”

Vonn didn’t say anything in return, only stared at him with a hopeless sort of desperation, and Seokjin decided he wanted none of that negativity. With a wan smile, he said, “Don’t let senseless horror tales fill up your pretty little head, hmm?” Then he faced away, and that was the end of the conversation.

His uncle had told him he’d be waiting for his return. And now that Seokjin thought about it, this exam was his chance to prove to his family that he wasn’t a throwaway like everyone thought, and that his power wasn’t as harmful as everyone was making it out to be. He could be useful. This was the opportunity to redeem his fallen title, and return to the life of glory.

Seokjin didn’t have highly coveted gifts like telekinesis, nor could he inflict pain on enemies with mind control, but he was headstrong and had great willpower. As much as he hated Solstice – the danger and everything that came with it – he could perhaps use this as a means to prove himself. Redemption.

If he came back intact and successful from his mission, wouldn’t that be a huge Fuck You to those who had thrown him away like mice droppings?

So he kept his eyes peeled on registration process to watch in keen silence, mind racing with renewed vigor. Whoever his partner would be, he had to make sure they’d pass this final exam together.

Among the students lining up, Seokjin’s eyes landed on a blond-haired young Ellyrian mage walking up to take his turn to write his name onto the Registry.

Now, Seokjin knew what beauty was—he looked at it in the mirror everyday—and this man was certainly not beautiful, not by his standards. His mouth was too small for his egg-shaped face, nose a tad too soft compared to the rest of his features, but nonetheless, there was something about him that was simply… striking.

Seokjin sat up straighter and leaned forward without knowing it, wanting to study the Ellyrian’s face closer.

Perhaps it was the way he held his eyes wide and fascinated, like they were too small to ever possibly see the big-ness and entirety of the world, or perhaps it was the warmth and energy radiating from him like a fire-lit lantern. Although he wore the same blue-and-silver robes as the rest of his peers, it looked nothing like a uniform on him. He stood out, with the blue taking on a sapphire shimmer and the silver glinting like melted diamonds lining his shoulders.

Drat, he could be wearing potato sack and still look like a regal prince. The Ellyrian crest on his left breast seemed to gleam and glow on him, and when he beamed at the Headmaster before bending down to write his name, it was with a confident and assured smile that told the world how at ease he was in his own skin. He looked so proud of who he was in all his Ellyrian-ness, and Seokjin wished he could feel the same kind of pride in himself, too.

The man was not beautiful, not by any means, but he was extraordinary.

And when he straightened his back after writing his name on the Registry, a faint prickle buzzed underneath the skin of Seokjin’s left wrist. The burn of a name carving itself into his skin.

Breath hitching, he glanced down, knowing at once that this was a name that would remain etched in him always.

Namjoon.

 


 

When Jungkook was thirteen, he had his first love. There was nobody that compared to his baby and nobody came between-

Okay, wrong timing? Wrong timing.

He groaned, and rested his head against the wall, thoughts prancing about like a baby deer. Truth be told, when he was thirteen, he’d learned this phrase called, ‘YOLO’ — You Only Live Once. He used to think that was true. But by the way things were going, he would beg to differ. If cats had nine lives, then perhaps Jungkook had ten, because he was truly starting to doubt if he was still actually, you know, existing, or just hopping from one ridiculous life to another. Every time he opened his eyes he was someplace else. Surely this wasn’t a dream anymore – not even he had such a wild imagination. So the only conclusion was: after plummeting into the Han River that night, he’d gotten himself yeeted into a fantasy version of the afterlife.

Too many impossible things happened, and were still happening, to him. This whole scenario was more unlikely than meeting Justin Bieber in real life.

Case in point.

“Hey,” he called out for what was probably the nth time in the past hour. His voice was hoarse; his throat was parched. “Excuse me, sir.” He peered out of the ice barricade that was keeping him trapped to one corner of the room, this flamingo pink room, and tried to catch a glimpse of his captor. Seokjin was facing away from him, sitting in a lush pink velvet chair with one leg crossed over the other, and from this angle Jungkook could only spot strands of his shocking pink hair peeking out from behind the armchair’s headrest.

And just like he had for an hour now, Seokjin ignored him as if he wasn’t even there. Jungkook chewed on the inside of his cheeks, stewing and contemplating. Just what was going on? Question after question jumbled in his mind.

How did this man find me?

Why am I here?

The last thing he remembered was falling asleep in one of Silva’s mansion’s rooms. That, followed by the blackness of slumber. Perhaps he’d slipped in and out of dreams, but that was it. How did he get here? And—

Where, exactly, is ‘here’?

After enduring an hour of this cold treatment, he was admittedly feeling a lot calmer now. Earlier, right after waking up and finding himself face-to-face with his kidnapper, Jungkook had tried everything to scramble away and demand for answers. Like any normal person who realized they’d been abducted, he’d screamed, pounded against the frozen ice wall, and yes – even thrashed his legs and kicked about like a child with a raging tantrum.

“Let me go!” he’d yelled, panic bursting from his chest. “Where am I? What do you want from me?”

At that point, Seokjin left him alone with a sneer curling his mouth, as if somehow sensing that he would never be able to hold a rational conversation when Jungkook was being anything but. Instead, the man sat in one corner and buried his nose in a book. The picture of perfect apathy.

It was all terribly mystifying behavior, and Jungkook had no clue whether he should be questioning his own sanity or downright terrified for his safety. In the movies, the super villains who kidnapped their victims were always obnoxiously loud, revealing their schemes to the main character like the careless chatterboxes they were.

But Seokjin remained quiet.

He needed a new tactic to get the man to speak.

By now, all traces of Jungkook’s fighting spirit had sputtered out like a spent firework, and he sat on the marble floor, watching a rose gold chandelier – made of icicles, no less – glitter and glimmer up on the vaulted ceiling with glassy eyed stupor. In his mind, Jungkook had decided to dub this secret lair of Seokjin’s as the ‘Pink Palace’, and if there was one thing that he noticed about this place, it was that—

The were no doors in the Pink Palace.

Sure, it looked like a fancy shmancy Victorian castle doused in pantone shades of paint, with tinted glass shelves and heavy velvet curtains and gilded pillars holding up the ceiling. Sure, it was wide and spacious, enough to house royalty. But for all the luxury it held, the Pink Palace had no doors, and neither did it have any windows – just walls, and walls, and walls, encasing him like a prince on house arrest.

What was that all about? Was it meant to keep something in or out?

Maybe it was on purpose. Maybe Seokjin was a megalomaniac who thrived on the adrenaline of keeping his captives trapped in one place, and this was the optimal solution.

He stood. Seokjin’s ice barricade kept him stuck to one corner of the bedchamber, pink frost spreading over its surface like spiderwebs. It hadn’t melted since the man first put it up, not even a single drop of condensation coating it, and Jungkook presumed it was another work of magic. He stared at its semi-transparent surface, marveling at the strange pink hue it seemed to naturally carry, like some kind of glassy glow stick. Ice was usually white, right? If this man was an ice wizard, then did he have something to do with why the icework inside Umalia was pink, too? Jungkook realized that it was possible that they were still in the land of ice and snow, perhaps not even far from the capital city itself.

But until he confirmed his suspicions, all of these were just wild theories running in his head. With nothing else to do, Jungkook reached out and… touched the ice. He shuddered.

It was cold.

(Of course it was, what did he expect?)

More than afraid, more than confused, Jungkook was growing restless. Boredom had drop-kicked, slam-dunked and eclipsed every other prevalent emotion, and a bored Jungkook was a cheeky Jungkook.

Because despite the hauteur and attempts at being intimidating, after the first hour of sharing the same space with Seokjin, Jungkook had gone from terrified to confused to just plain… exasperated. Just one hour gone by, and he’d concluded that the young man was absolutely whacked.

In his kitchen, Jungkook had watched Seokjin speak affectionately to objects that didn’t talk back to him, even calling them by given names – the kettle was known as Eomuk while the broom went by Odeng. It would’ve been amusing, if it didn’t make Jungkook question his sanity. The man talked to inanimate things, but not to him?

And now, he reckoned that since he was already doomed anyway, then he might as have fun while going to hell. Jungkook hardly ever played with fire, but he was bored, and there was nothing stopping him.

“I hate ice,” he said out loud, remembering the way Seokjin had shot out geysers of ice from his bare hand. “I hate the cold. Don’t you have any heating in here?”

From the corner of his eye, he spotted Seokjin bristle. The man shut his book, turned around, and threw him a wary glance. “I beg your pardon?”

Jungkook’s eyes widened. Yes. He had to keep him talking. He cleared his dry throat, and fixed his features into a disinterested expression. “You heard me. I haaate ice. It’s cold and ugly and-”

“Excuse you,” Seokjin scoffed, rising from his chair. “Your opinion is invalid.”

“I’m allowed to think what I want,” Jungkook fired back, telling himself not to cower.

“Ice is beautiful, and useful. It just takes the right person to understand it.” Seokjin’s voice was high-pitched, and there was a shift in his eyes that made him look softer, kinder, before his expression morphed back to affronted disdain. Step by step, he inched closer to Jungkook’s little ice cage.

Jungkook narrowed his eyes. “Oh really? Then prove it.” With one finger, he traced down the ice wall as he paced towards Seokjin, ignoring how prickling cold it felt against his skin. He shivered, albeit a little melodramatically. “Take down this wall. I’m freezing cold here, man. Show me ice isn’t as harsh as I think it is.”

Seokjin seemed to sense his intention, and at the snap of a finger his eyes went from miffed to shrewd. “That depends on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you done yet?”

Jungkook crossed his arms, growing baffled. “Done with what?”

“Throwing your tantrum.” Seokjin’s eyes were watchful. With a flourish of his arm, he manifested an ice chair out of thin air and sat down, directly opposite Jungkook from the other side of the wall. Despite the ice barrier between them, his voice rang loud and clear. “Think perhaps we can have a proper conversation now?”

Jungkook made a face at him. What, all this just so he wouldn’t run away? “I don’t think there’s anything proper about what you’re doing, sir.” He sighed and rubbed his palms over his face, tired.

In the span of less than a week, he’d met a jinni, plummeted into the Han River, travelled to entirely different worlds, and was now being held captive in who-knew-where. It was like being part of some screwed up anime series, except that this was real life. “And I really don’t know what I did for you to treat me like a prisoner.”

“Fair enough.” Seokjin shrugged. “But I will still do whatever I want, because I’m Seokjin, and you’re in my territory. Now, I shall start my interrogation.”

“I’m not gonna try and escape,” Jungkook huffed, shaking his head. “It’s not like your little castle has any doors for me to run through, anyway.” His head felt like slush. Despite the supposed imminent danger he was in, he felt neither threat nor a sense of urgency under Seokjin’s gaze. Curious for answers, yes. Afraid? No. Perhaps, at the back of his mind, something told him that Seokjin, for all his peculiarity, was as much of a prisoner as he was in this place.

“Good. It’s nice to know you’re using your head, sweet pecan.”

Jungkook rolled his eyes, but his gaze strayed back to study Seokjin. Up close, the man was… visually distracting. Jungkook didn’t view Seokjin the same way as he might view, say, a certain jinni, but nevertheless he couldn’t stop staring at the rosy strands framing the sides of Seokjin’s oval face. He was immaculately dressed as though ready for a masquerade party any time – crisp white shirt with a high-necked doublet tucked under a velvet scarlet coat, and dark mocha breeches befitting a prince.

(Briefly, Jungkook hazarded a glance at his own jeans and wondered if the guy’s balls even had breathing space in those tights.)

His eyes roamed back to Seokjin’s hair. What if he and Taehyung were connected? They both had bright neon hair like idol trainees. One pink, the other purple. What if, in this world, people with brightly colored hair were related or belonged to the same tribe?

He was likely grasping at strands of poor logic here, but he had to try. For Taehyung and his muddled memories.

So Jungkook pointed up at Seokjin’s head and asked, “Is your hair color in-born?”

If Seokjin was surprised by his query, he didn’t show it. Much to Jungkook’s surprise, his captor paused to consider his question, biting his lower lip before sighing like a lovelorn superdiva. “No, it’s my own handiwork. I turned it pink. But it looks natural, doesn’t it?” He flicked his hair from side to side, and it swished like one of those slow motion camera tricks Jungkook usually found in shampoo commercials.

Damn. Oh well. Wrong lead then, not related to Taehyung. Nevertheless, Jungkook nodded. “It’s pretty enough.” He didn’t miss the way Seokjin’s pupils dilated at the praise, and pressed on, “You know, I have a friend who has bright purple hair and he says it’s au naturel. I don’t know if I should believe him. Back where I’m from, hair colors don’t come in bright shades, so it’s a bit of a culture shock.”

That earned him an acknowledging hum. “I see. Well, I must say hair color is a very highly discussed topic among beautiful people such as myself.” Seokjin leaned forward where he was sitting, now immersed in their conversation. “I know! You should let me meet this friend of yours, come for a consultation and— wait a fucking second,” he spluttered, eyebrows knitting together. He glowered at Jungkook and pointed a trembling index finger at him. “You distracted me from my interrogation!”

Damn it. “Oops.” The corner of Jungkook’s lips twitched upwards and he bit back a snicker, shrugging. “You’re pretty easy to distract.”

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear the last three words, and only listen to the part where you said, ‘You’re pretty’, because that much I can acknowledge,” Seokjin said. When Jungkook rolled his eyes, he raised a hand in the air as if to say, Thou Shall Not Speak. “And anyway, who says you get to shoot me questions? From now on, I’m the one doing the asking here. I’m no longer answering anything from you, little rascal.”

“Yeah, cool. Anyway. You know, I was thinking ‘bout how I got here,” Jungkook carried on without missing a beat, growing bolder with each passing second. Something about this man’s petulant ways amused him, and he wanted to see how much he could irritate Seokjin until he exploded. “I’m guessing you can teleport?”

At this, knowing gleam flashed across Seokjin’s eyes. “That’s one way to put it.”

Jungkook frowned. What’s that supposed to mean? His eyes darted around, trying to search for doorways or windows that weren’t there. Surely Seokjin must’ve brought him in here somehow.

Eyes blowing wide, Seokjin immediately clamped his mouth shut, realizing too late that he had just, once again, answered another one of Jungkook’s questions unknowingly. “You’re a sneaky one,” he remarked, and Jungkook’s frown gave way to a satisfied smirk. “I thought I said I’m not telling you anything.”

“But see, that’s not very fair. That wouldn’t be a conversation at all,” Jungkook reasoned wryly. “If you want me to answer your questions, then you have to answer mine, too. Win-win. At least tell me that you’re not planning to kill me or sell me off to slavery or whatever.”

Seokjin gasped, looking affronted by the mere mention of his ideas. “That’s such low-class behavior.”

“As opposed to… what?” Jungkook challenged, arms still folded over his chest. Later, he would wonder where this burst of bravery in front of a stranger was coming from. “...taking people away and keeping them fenced within an ice barricade?”

Conflict danced across Seokjin’s features, and he tutted his tongue contemplatively. Jungkook kept his gaze pinned to the man. He imagined his eyes shooting laser beams that seemed to say, Release me, you heinous fiend! Like in his favorite comic books.

If there was one thing he deemed himself good at, it was the art of Staring Matches. Here was proof it, because a heartbeat of hesitation later, Seokjin caved in and grumbled, “Fine.”

Jungkook held back a grin.

With a flick of his wrist, the makeshift ice-cage melted around Jungkook, and he was freed. Relieved, he unfolded his arms to watch the spectacle take place… and ended up going slack-jawed instead. Instead of turning into water and staining the carpet-covered floor, all trace of ice simply… evaporated into thin air. Vanished, like it had never been there at all. “Woah. Are you like… Elsa?”

“What in the Nine Worlds is an Elsa?” Seokjin cast him a strange look.

Ah. Right. Jungkook licked his lower lip, reminding himself not to confuse the mortal reality with this one. “Never mind. You control ice?”

Seokjin sighed, and nodded.

“And you can teleport?”

Seokjin’s ocean-blue gaze pinned him down, studying him intently. Whatever was flitting through his mind, Jungkook would never know, but he had to stay composed. He stared back, unafraid. He kept telling himself that if Seokjin truly wanted to harm him, he would’ve done so long ago instead of keeping him alive like this. Surely the man had brought him here for a reason.

When the man didn’t respond, Jungkook prodded him on: “You can, can’t you? How did you bring me here?”

Seokjin’s eyes slid shut, fingers coming up to massage his temples. “I... borrowed you.”

Jungkook’s left eye twitched. “Yeah, but like, what do you mean by that?”

“You were asleep,” Seokjin answered, sounding resigned, and at that moment Jungkook knew he had won their battle for the upper hand in the conversation. “When I brought you here, you were asleep.”

Jungkook’s frown deepened. He said nothing, only waited.

“Watch closely.” Seokjin lifted his arms, and Jungkook bit back a gasp at the way waves of energy thrummed through his skin, making the ends of his hair vibrate. Seokjin moved his hands, and Jungkook didn’t understand what was going on until he saw their surroundings fall away right under his nose, like pieces of a puzzle being taken out of frame. First the armchairs disappeared, and then the bed, and then the entire room. It looked like a simulation test glitching in the midst of changing scenes.

It was as though Seokjin’s arm movements mimicked the actions of someone stitching together a new image, a new fabric of reality, and cancelling out their current surroundings. The next instant, they were no longer inside a bedchamber, but in an antique library, with a stacks and stacks of books on aisles of shelves and ladders reaching more than three storeys high. One moment they were in a royal suite, and the next, they had simply hopped someplace else.

They were, and then they weren’t.

Flabbergasted, Jungkook blinked and rubbed at his eyes. What was this? Portal travel without using portals? Finding his voice, he eked out, “What… what did you just do?”

Seokjin turned to him and smiled without emotion. A non-smile. “Have you ever heard of dream weavers?”

 


 

“I don’t understand,” Taehyung said, pacing the length of the bedroom floor. Jimin sat on the edge of his bed, chewing on his lower lip, and Yoongi and Namjoon stood by the doorway, faces grim. “I could’ve sworn he was just there.”

“Was he already gone when you came inside the room?” Namjoon asked.

Taehyung shook his head. Earlier when he’d entered the room to check check in on Jungkook, he’d found the boy’s sleeping form there, his breathing even and steady. Then he turned around for one second, just one, and found the bed empty. There one moment, and gone the next. “He was still here when I came in.” He placed one palm flat against the Jungkook-shaped outline ghosting the sheets. “See? It’s still warm. I swear my eyes were playing tricks on me.”

“You mean to say he just vanished into thin air?” Yoongi snorted. “I thought you said he’s from the human world. He couldn’t have done that.”

“Maybe he just went out to fetch himself some water,” Namjoon suggested.

“Or a walk. If humans have the free time for that kind of shit.”

“In his pyjamas?” Taehyung made a face. Somehow, the visual image of Jungkook walking around unaccompanied in this dangerous realm didn’t sit well with him.

“What?” Yoongi shrugged. “It’s possible.”

“Doesn’t seem like something he’d do. And anyway, not everyone is as warm-bodied as you. It’s freezing outside,” said the Elven prince.

Yoongi glowered at him and parted his mouth as if to make a retort, but seemed to think the better of it, choosing to ignore Jimin instead.

Taehyung doubted that Jungkook would just decide to step outside for a random walk, what with now being this so-called ‘Aesop Hour’ and all, but he said nothing. He turned to Jimin. “You believe me, don’t you?”

Jimin scratched the back of his neck, one hand fiddling with the moonstone pendant hanging around his neck. “Yes, but I don’t think Jungkook could’ve just disappeared like that, since he’s not endowed with gifts like us.”

Beside him, Kashmere said, “What if he was kidnapped?”

Yoongi snorted. “That’s even more impossible. We’re guests here. If anybody lays a finger on any of us, I’ll roast their heads to a crisp until only their scalp remains.”

“Oooh,” Taehyung couldn’t help but let slip, “feisty.”

“Hey, Joon. Can’t you just use that Summoning Staff of yours to magically teleport us to the kid? I’m losing my fucking sleep here.”

Before Taehyung could retort that Yoongi hadn't even been sleeping when he and Jimin found him earlier, Namjoon shook his head apprehensively. “For portals to open, I need to already have a destination in mind. But we don’t know where Jungkook went. I don’t have anything to work with.”

“And like that old man from the marketplace said, it’s Aesop Hour.” Jimin tilted his head to one side, deep in thought. “Nobody would be out and about.”

Sensing Namjoon and Yoongi’s intrigued expressions, Taehyung provided, “The locals here believe this fable about someone called the Phantom…” his voice trailed off, realization hitting him like a poison dart. “…stealing children away.”

His eyes blew wide. Perhaps Kashmere was onto something here. Jungkook was by no means a child, but Taehyung couldn’t rule out the possibility of this whole case being a mere coincidence. His pulse spiked with the urgent need to learn more. They couldn’t act like this, not when they had no clue what they were dealing with.

“Tae?” Jimin said, taking in his stricken face. “What’s the matter?”

There was only one person in this household he could ask for help. It was reckless, but… “I’ve got an idea.”

 


 

Tucked against a cozy corner of her room, Silva slept soundly on her bed, her tail twitching every now and then. Despite her father’s disapproval of fantasies, she was a staunch romantic dreamer, and right then she was dreaming of someday ruling fair palaces wrought of ice, with a certain handsome purple-haired stranger by her side.

Silva enjoyed the finer things in her privileged life, and in her eyes, Taehyung the newcomer was leagues above ‘fine’. His face was perfect, and though they’d only spoken briefly the ghost of his smile followed her in her dreams.

They were standing in a ballroom, dancers surrounding them in frozen poses as though waiting for the couple to take the lead and sweep the scene in motion. Dream Taehyung turned to her and reached for her hand, and Silva, with her fluttering eyelashes and lustrous gaze, gladly raised it for him to hold and press a kiss to.

His golden gaze stayed focused on hers as his lips brushed over the skin at the back of her hand, and Dream Silva’s cheeks warmed at the trail of fire his touch left. Music rose in the air. He rested a hand on her waist, and when he tugged her forward, she gasped-

—awake, her eyelids snapping open.

In the darkness of her room, Taehyung’s black silhouette loomed over her, gently shaking her awake. Silva blinked, heart rate picking up slowly, and suddenly it dawned on her that she was no longer Dream Silva, and the man standing before her was no longer the Dream Boy with his hot mouth—

And oh, was this no longer a dream? Had her heart yearned for Taehyung desperately enough that Freya, the goddess of love, heard her and decided to grant her wish?

“Hello,” she breathed, hardly daring to believe it.

Taehyung pressed a finger to his lips, and in spite of the darkness that masked his eyes, Silva guessed they were alight with the same desire as hers. He gently coaxed her out of bed, and as she slipped out from under her duvet, her pulse kicked up a pace of its own.

She was really doing this. Running off with a charming stranger in the middle of the night. They would ride a white mare and gallop off into the sunrise, and her father would never again have to deal with her so-called romantic dreams, because this was no longer a dream at all, but the reality she was living.

Silva supposed she was a very lucky person. A smile pulled back the corners of her mouth. True love existed. Here was living proof of it.

Taehyung motioned for her to follow him out the door, and as he turned, Silva caught his sleeve between her fingers.

Anywhere, she wanted to whisper to him, dazed and distracted. I would follow you anywhere.

Taehyung let her hold onto his sleeve, and out of the bedroom they went. When they reached the front door, he asked her to unlock the ice barrier that kept it shut, and she did, almost beside herself with giddiness.

They stepped outside, Aesop Hour be damned, and the cold wind did little to her warm heart. But she paused mid-step when she realized they weren’t walking out of the mansion as a pair. No, instead three other men followed after her and Taehyung’s heels, treading out the front door. Her father’s guests, the whole lot of them.

There was no white stallion waiting for her outside, like she’d hoped – expected, really. She turned around and stumbled on a clump of snow to face them, but Taehyung caught her by the arm and set her upright.

The young men – whose names she hadn’t bothered to learn – wore matching expressions of worry and weariness, and for the first time since waking up, Silva wondered what she was being carted off for. The wheels in her head turned, and her dazzled smile dropped from her face.

Digging her heels into the snow, she uncurled her tail around Taehyung’s ankle and withdraw her arm from his grip. “W-what is going on?”

Taehyung’s head snapped to hers, and instead of finding admiration or desire there, Silva saw only dark desperation. Her heart lurched. This was not the dream she wanted.

“Please,” he said in a low voice heavy with pleading. “We need your help.”

 


 

“Dream weavers?” Jungkook gulped, gawking at the towering library shelves with wide-eyed wonder. So much for getting used to the ways of magic. “Wait. Are we in a dream now? You mean to say I’m still asleep?”

“Oh, no. You’re very much awake.” Seokjin strode over to a chair and sat straddling it, his forearms coming up to rest on the headrest. He gestured to a rickety wooden stool opposite him. “Have a seat.”

Jungkook pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at him, not making a move. To him, this was like playing a dangerous game of chess with a man whose intentions and motives he couldn’t read. Unafraid as he might be, his instincts screamed at him: tread with caution.

“What? Think I’ll bite you?” Seokjin leveled him with a flat, stern look. “I only bite naughty kids. Let’s talk. Man to man.”

“How do I know you won’t try to put me in another ice cage?” Jungkook asked. He wasn’t taking any chances.

Seokjin lifted one eyebrow. “You’re not in one now. I think that speaks a lot for itself, but you do you.”

Very well. So Jungkook obliged, too dazed to continue making sassy remarks. Perching on the edge of the stool, he asked, “Then what’s all of this?” He pointed to the fireplace, at the wooden fixtures surrounding them which had, mere moments ago, been made of marble and polished stone of a royal bedchamber. “Is this real? Am I— are you… really here?”

Seokjin studied him, still with those keen eyes, but then shook his head with a low laugh and said, “I really went and gave myself away, didn’t I?”

Jungkook’s brows knit together. “What?”

“So much for me interrogating you. You’re a clever lad.” Seokjin chuckled, before meeting his gaze again. “I went into your dream, and borrowed you, and now you are here. You could say this is real, as real as illusions go.” Coming from his mouth, the words sounded more and more like facts than fantasy bullshit, and Jungkook found himself wondering, once more, if all this really was happening. “Like I said: dream weaving.”

Jungkook glanced around. “What happened to the uh… the castle just now?” Dream weaving. Dream hopping. An idea took root in his mind. “You mean…” he trailed off, grappling for the right words to say. “These places… you borrowed them from dreams? You can literally manifest them?”

“And bring things to life,” Seokjin provided, tone smug. “I can step inside someone’s dream, and bring them outside, to the physical place of existence. That’s how you’re here. Dreamweaving is just one of the many aspects of a gift called animancy.”

“You have two powers?” Jungkook’s eyes went wide.

“A rare occurrence among mages, but not unheard of.” With a growing smile, Seokjin snapped his fingers, and a new rustle and movement in the room caught the corner of Jungkook’s eye.

A wooden broom, which had been resting limply against the wall, stood taut and began to float mid-air, as though awakened by Seokjin’s magic. Then, Jungkook’s eyes nearly bulged out of their sockets when the broom sprouted legs and started walking around.

What. The. Hell. He held back a warbled gasp, and pointed at it instead, at a loss for words.

Seokjin said simply, “That’s Odeng.”

“That’s impossible.”

No, I told you, its name is Odeng!” Without anybody holding it, Odeng The Broom began sweeping the floor, back and forth, back and forth, like one of those automatic robots Jungkook has only ever seen on TV.

Except that this wasn’t a robot, and this wasn’t TV.

“How?” Jungkook rubbed at his eyes, overwhelmed. He gaze flit from Seokjin to the broom and back again. “What… what are you? You ‘bring things to life’?”

Seokjin nodded at Odeng. “Case in point. But I’m still discovering the limits of animancy.” He gestured to the cottage. “I’ve recently found that I can hop into dreams, and bring elements of their subconscious to reality. It’s been fun, especially with the children.”

Jungkook pursed his lips. “Children?”

Seokjin waved him off. “In your case, I brought you out.” There was a new brilliance in his eyes that wasn’t there before, like he was an excited boy showing off his new toy. “This library right here is a manifestation – a reenactment – of a dream from a child that I’d also borrowed before, once. It’s a form of celestial magic.”

His words caught Jungkook’s full attention. Hadn’t the other guys mentioned something about searching for a certain celestial mage during dinner earlier this evening? Who was this fellow with the strange ice powers and ability to breathe life into seemingly inanimate objects?

Narrowing his eyes, he ventured, “What, exactly, are you?”

Seokjin met his gaze head-on, aloof smile still intact. “Allow me to make proper introductions: hello, I’m Seokjin, a celestial mage.”

Jungkook mouth went slack.

I knew it. Parting his lips, he tried to make sense of what he’d just heard, perhaps say something intelligent, but his tongue couldn’t find words to curl around. Surely this couldn’t possibly be the mage they were…?

Could it?

He reminded himself to keep breathing because- holy shit. This really was it. Here was the person they all thought they’d never find. Seokjin was in front of him, and he was real, flesh and bones and all. What were the odds that they’d meet like this? Did Seokjin know there were people out there looking for him? Question after question bulldozed one another in Jungkook’s mind, but his train of thought shattered when Seokjin said—

“And you?”

Jungkook snapped back to the present. “Huh?”

“Your name is?”

“Uh.” He cleared his throat, and forced his mouth to string letters into words. “I’m Jungkook.”

“Close your mouth, will you? It’s rude to stare.” Seokjin tilted his head to one side and shrugged, smiling contentedly to himself. “But oh, well. I guess with my level of stunning-ness, it can’t be helped.”

That broke Jungkook out of his gawking. With a snort, he shook his head, not in denial of the man’s beauty, but in utter disbelief at his confidence. How he wished he were that assured of himself, too.

“So, Jungkook. Where are you from?”

Jungkook’s face pinched into a frown. He thought about this. Where was he from, really? In the most technical sense of the truth, he supposed he could say he hailed from the land of-

“Earth. Or Midgard, as you folks call it,” he answered, although the words seemed to ring false in his ears. Something about what he just said didn’t sit quite right with him anymore.

“The mortal realm?” Seokjin said, keeping his face blank, before his ocean-blue eyes flit up to meet Jungkook’s. He cocked his head to one side – curious. “My, my. What business could a mere human possibly have with the Nine Worlds?”

Jungkook grew hesitant. “Um. I honestly wish I could tell you?” He lifted one shoulder in an apologetic half-shrug. “But really. I don’t even know. I feel like I got dragged here out of my will, and half the time I have no idea what’s going on? I grew up in Earth my whole life. If you’re looking for answers to…” he left a hand gesturing in the air, searching or the right words to follow up, “…to uh, whatever you kidnapped me for, I really think you got the wrong person here, man.”

Seokjin narrowed his eyes, unconvinced. “How curious.” He waved his hand, and a miniature table appeared out of thin air between them, complete with a tea set and porcelain pink cups. “Won’t you have some tea with me, Jungkook?”

His calm veneer unnerved Jungkook. “As long as it’s not poisoned.”

“That’s low-life behavior.” Seokjin tsk-tsked with his tongue. “I would’ve hoped you’d put me above that.”

With another snap of his fingers, a pair of feathered wings—wings!—sprouted from the teapot. The utensils rattled to life, like soldiers scrambling to stand at their commander’s attention. Jungkook watched with thinly veiled amazement as the teapot whisked its way to pour them two cups of fresh, warm tea.

“Chamomile or peppermint?” Seokjin asked in a sing-song tone. To the sugar bowl, he said politely, “One teaspoon, darling”, to which it followed to a tee.

“I— uh, I’m not really choosy.” Jungkook smiled awkwardly as the teapot bowed out and fluttered away. How do you treat a non-human servant?

This was getting fifty shades of ridiculous. Tea break with his kidnapper in the middle of a library? How elegant. He scratched the back of his head. “Look, Seokjin, sir…”

“Jin,” the mage corrected. “Call me Jin.”

“Um. Okay.” Jungkook swallowed. “Jin. This is gracious of you and all, but I’m just gonna be straightforward with you now—why me?”

Seokjin took a sip of tea, ever unbothered. “You have to be more specific than that, hmm?”

“Why did you choose to…” Jungkook licked his lower lip, contemplating the right term, “borrow me? And bring me here?”

This time, Seokjin’s answer was immediate. “Because I saw you. Twice.”

Jungkook’s frown deepened. “Saw me? That makes no sense.” He crossed his arms. “I’ve never even met you before. C’mon.” Let’s be real—as a photographer, Jungkook had a keen eye for the finer specimens in this world, and if he had laid eyes on Seokjin before, he would’ve remembered the man, no doubt.

“It’s no fib,” Seokjin said breezily, swirling the liquid with a teaspoon. Then he sighed, closed his eyes, and the air around them began to ripple and change once more.

Before Jungkook could ask, the library suddenly morphed back to where they’d been earlier – the royal hall. The pretty little pink palace. Seokjin raised his hand, gesturing to a gilded, oval-shaped mirror at the far end of the wall, hanging beside his bedframe.

Jungkook turned to see. The life-sized mirror was a glassy pool of light, reflecting every possible color in the spectrum. Pure chroma that seemed to radiate with speckled sunlight, despite the absence of windows in the room that would let any kind of light inside.

Seokjin said, “The Mirror of Reveal showed your face to me. And up here too,” he tapped twice at his temple, “I saw you. In my dream.”

Huh? Jungkook’s pulse thrummed and nausea threatened to spill up his throat. “What do you mean? Are you like, some prophet?”

Was it possible to dream up a face you’d never met before?

“Drink up,” Seokjin advised, breaking the tense air. He nodded at the teacup in front of Jungkook. “Your tea will go cold.”

Jungkook curled his fingers around the handle, and gingerly sipped from the teacup. He set it back on the table. “I don’t understand,” he admitted, mind racing with untangled thoughts.

“Neither do I, to be frank. That’s why I brought you here, but I seem to be mistaken.” Seokjin explained, face aghast. “I thought you were from the Nine Worlds, because the Mirror of Reveal showed your face after I asked-“

“Asked what?” Jungkook’s hands grew clammy.

“—I asked, ‘How do I escape this place?’” Seokjin finished in a frigid tone. “And then your face turned up. I thought… maybe you were my key to the way out.”

Jungkook’s eyes blew wide. So he was right. “You’re trapped here too, then. But where,” he lowered his voice to an almost-whisper, as if asking a private question, “is here?

Seokjin shrugged and shook his head. “I don’t know. Somewhere, elsewhere.” He blew at the loose strands of pink hair falling over his forehead. A look of haunted defeat darkened his sapphire gaze, and for the first time since waking up, Jungkook felt the first stirrings of pity for the man. “When I woke up, I was here. Maybe we’re in still Nilflheim, maybe we’re not. I just want to get out.”

“You mentioned Nilflheim,” Jungkook noted. This was progress. Surely the man must be connected to that realm. “Have you been there before?”

Seokjin cackled—humorless, like he’d told an dry joke. “Been there? Darling, I died there.” His acid tone made Jungkook flinch.

And then he rolled up his sleeves to reveal the bare skin of his arms.

Or perhaps… non-bare skin.

Jungkook sucked in a breath.

Tattoos. How could he not have noticed the inked skin earlier? Granted, the man was wearing long sleeves, but they covered almost every inch of Seokjin’s arms like bruises peeking out of the hem of the fabric—from the delicate circle of his wrists to the dip of his elbow to the skin under the fabric of clothing hiding the juncture of his shoulders. Like serpentine marks, the glowing indigo ink twisted around the man’s limbs in serrated, irregular shapes that reminded Jungkook of the same hieroglyph alphabet etched onto Namjoon and Yoongi’s bracelets, and all at once he realized: runes.

Runes, inked and permanent, winding up and coiling around Seokjin’s arms like chains ensnaring a rabbit. What did they mean?

Horrified, Jungkook breathed, “What… what are those for?”

“Long story.” Seokjin rolled his sleeves back down, shielding his arms from view. “Would you… would you like to listen to it?” Around them, the air turned chilly, and Jungkook shivered.

Well. Not really, Jungkook thought with an internal wince, though he could not tear his eyes away from the man’s clothed arms. Now he was afraid. Afraid of this celestial mage and his mysterious abilities and even more mystifying tattoos. He’d wanted answers, not a bedtime tale.

A sigh. “Of course you do. What a kind, listening ear you are offering me.”

I literally am not, Jungkook held himself back from saying, lest he invoke the man’s wrath. After all, he was still under Seokjin’s mercy. And so he pressed his lips into a thin line and nodded. “S-sure.”

Seokjin straightened his spine and leaned towards Jungkook, resting his chin on both hands with a melodramatic sigh. There was that look in his eyes again – that glazed over, faraway reverie, and Jungkook wondered if the mage was still present in the same room as him at that moment. Perhaps not.

Some people, he mused, seemed to be perpetually trapped inside the cages of their own memories.

Jungkook sighed and sat back against the headrest. It wasn’t like he wasn’t curious – he might as well listen. If Seokjin truly was the person they were searching for, then maybe he’d get more answers this way.

“Let me tell you,” Seokjin sing-songed, “about how I came to be here.”

 


 

To be more geographically specific, the Wandering Isles were a floating archipelago comprising four mage-inhabited islands:

  • Ellyria, the land of casters, summoners and sorcerer-wizard types;
  • Holm Turi—of the mystics, marvelers and shamans;
  • Revkt, a group of indigenous tribes

 

…and then there was The Reach.

As the smallest, it was an uninhabited dwarf island caught between Ellyria and Holm Turi that was too large to be called a piece of rock jutting out from the sea, but too tiny for people to make a home out of. Although deserted by civilization, its forested area was home to exotic flora and fauna, and it had no real name. To wizards it was simply known as The Reach – a lonely, neutral zone.

It wasn’t entirely useless, though.

Because this was where the Solstice send-offs were held.

Once every year, mages would set foot in The Reach, leaving the comfort of their homes for the next coming weeks in order to complete their assigned missions. Right then, what usually stood as barren land was teeming with young mages, ready to take off into adventures of their own.

Today was the day.

It was still dark out. The sun had barely risen over the horizon, but a few yards ahead, rising amongst clustered mops of colorful hair, Seokjin could vividly make out two twin rock boulders shaped like jagged horns, jutting out from the ground and shooting up twenty meters into the sky. They were positioned like an upturned pitchfork with its handle lodged deep into the earth, if pitchforks had two spiked prongs rather than three.

According to the fables, these towering rocks were responsible for piercing a monstrous basilisk that once threatened to rule over The Wandering Isles, hundreds of years ago. As the beast’s blood trickled down the rocks, the magic from its life force seeped into the ground and birthed a portal anew—Kao Na’an, the people of Turi and Ellyria called this portal, aptly named after the beast that died for it. Each of the two rock boulders bore different namesakes—the one on the left was called Chronos, and the one on the right was coined as Kairos.

Seokjin didn’t know how true the legend was, but he had never once questioned it. Legends, he mused, were neither truths nor lies, but rather a stack of truths on lies on truths on lies. They stitched together in a way that blurred reality from superstition. All he knew was that the Kao Na’an was a naturally occurring portal that led out to different parts of the Nine Worlds, and that was that.

A low buzz of chatter hummed in his ears as the gathering of student mages continued to grow. Both Turi and Ellyrian wizards alike milled about and talked among their own groups, never quite mingling with one another. Just like the scene back at The Vault, it was as though there was an unspoken barrier that divided the two groups—Ellyrians crowded around Chronos, while the rest of the Turi flocked to Kairos. Blue and silver, pink and brown.

Seokjin kept to himself, choosing not to speak with anyone unless spoken to first. Once upon a time he might have been the one to initiate contact with another Turi wizard, laughing and making small talk, but that version of him had long since fizzled to fine dust now. He preferred his own company, if only to avoid the withering stares and fearful expressions sent his way.

Glancing at the name inked on his wrist, he peeked out over the group of cobalt-robed figures standing in the crowd opposite his, wondering if he might catch a glimpse of a certain blond-haired mage among unfamiliar faces. Namjoon. The name of his would-be partner for this mission. Seokjin had seen him once, but his face had stuck to his mind like stubborn glue. It was annoying.

He hoped this guy was as street-smart and capable as he looked, because if he wasn’t going to be the beauty aspect of their team, then he at least had to be the brains. You know, to strike a fair balance.

Because Namjoon wasn’t beautiful. Not at all. And if Seokjin’s eyes kept straying to find him in the crowd, it wasn’t because of his face, surely.

Surely.

He ripped his gaze away from the Ellyrians and turned to face the front. Headmaster Nivu was standing on a stone dais just beside the portal of Kao Na’an, and when every last student had finally joined the mass gathering, he raised both arms for attention, black robes fluttering in the wind.

Like a wave, silence swept through the crowd. Every head turned in the direction of the elderly wizard, whose face was set in a mask of carefully collected calmness. “Today your new journey begins,” he said.

Today marks the start of my so-called ‘escape’, Seokjin mused, though his heart heaved with rising dread rather than excitement. One would think he’d be more impatient to leave a place that made him so uneasy, but Holm Turi was the only home he’d ever known, and he was not ready to part with the last remnant of familiarity he had.

“I beseech you to take measures in ensuring that you proceed with utmost care and caution,” Headmaster Nivu declared. He continued droning on about what safety precautions to take, and how each of the Nine Worlds would present them with different challenges – tumultuous climates, ferocious beasts, untamed magicks. “As you are students taken under my wing, I don’t want any mishaps to take place.”

The crowd tittered nervously, eyes shifting among one another. Seokjin remembered what Vonn had told him at the ceremony—that it was possible to fail. Since that day, he’d tried to find out more about these so-called ‘failures’, and found the most unfortunate horror stories: of witches driven to insanity after being lured to eat goblin fruit, of stormchasers having the weather get the best of them, of mages having their gifts stolen from them.

He couldn’t allow that to happen.

Though he’d never admit it to anyone, last night Seokjin had lain in bed tossing and turning and thinking: could he do it? Pass with flying colors?

The Seokjin from before would.

He looked down at his palms, curled into fists and shaking with tremors. Before his gift manifested, he used to cruise through academy examinations with easy confidence, but now…

He shook his head. No. This is unlike you. To steel his determination, he chanted inwardly, redemption, redemption, redemption. Like one of those prayers the shamans at the Faulk’s Temple always murmured. He had to be brave. He needed to keep his chin up. In life, if you wanted to be something impossibly out of reach, then you had to pretend until you became that thing.

And so he tried to convince himself that he was fine. All of this was fine. Never mind that he had close to zero level of practice with his own gift, this cursed, cursed gift. Never mind that Holm Turi despised— no, feared him for it; Seokjin would complete his final assignment flawlessly, prove everyone wrong, return to Holm Turi and then reclaim the life of luxury he had always known.

As much as he hated the whole idea Solstice, he was going to have to ace this. That was the game plan.

A hand shot up in the air. “How do know what our assigned mission is?”

“What are the chances of failing?” a silver-haired mage questioned.

Headmaster Nivu nodded and smiled wanly. “A fair question.” He stretched out a hand, and one of the professors standing by the dais came forward carrying a stack of golden scrolls. Picking one out, he lifted the scroll for all to see, and unfurled it. A pale, translucent image of a holographic map rose out from the flat surface of the scroll’s page, turning in slow circles to give full dimension of its place.

The crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed.

“One scroll map shall be assigned to each team, pre-determined according to the skills and abilities that you and your partner are capable of,” Headmaster Nivu explained. “And so do not fear that you might be unable to complete your tasks. These examinations are made to challenge you, not annihilate you.” He scrolled the map shut, and leveled the crowd with a sweeping, serious gaze.

Seokjin cast his eyes down. He might have been full of confidence and bravado once, but now eye contact with one of the most powerful wizards in the Isles felt too vulnerable. He had the most irrational fear that Headmaster Nivu might simply look into his, and see through him as though his soul were made of brittle glass.

“I will call your names, and each pairing shall step forward and make your greetings before stepping through the portal.” Headmaster Nivu shuffled closer to the Kao Na’an, and pressed one palm against the rocky surface of Kairos. The space between the two boulders were roughly that of two men standing side by side, and with his other hand, he reached out to touch Chronos.

Nothing happened at first. And then the ground rumbled and shook, as though the headmaster were conjuring thunder from underground, and everyone stumbled and struggled to stand upright. Over the horizon, as the first dollop of blazing sunlight pierced the air and slid through the Kao Na’an, the world around them flared with blinding whiteness, and Seokjin raised one hand to shield his eyes from the brightness.

The next time his eyes snapped open, he saw, for a glaring moment, Headmaster Nivu standing over the stone dais, two hands pressed to the portal. His eyes were wide open but the cerulean blues of his irises had all but vanished, leaving them white and empty.

And then the moment ended, and the shaking stopped. Up ahead, the space between Kairos and Chronos shone like a rainbow, and then the air… slid open, like a curtain being pulled back, to reveal a doorway leading out to the rest of the Nine Worlds.

The Kao Na’an had been awakened. The portal was alive.

Headmaster Nivu released the two boulders, and resumed his place on the dais. Clearing his throat, he took one golden scroll and read off each duo one by one:

“Cerise and Lupine.”

A ginger-haired girl in Ellyrian robes and a dark-haired young Turi broke away from their respective crowds, and Seokjin saw what would, from then on, his last glance of a once-friend. Lupine was a crystal welder – as a molder and fabricator of bejeweled artefacts, he would no doubt be assigned to a task that had to do with his power.

Despite everything, a small part of Seokjin wished his old friend success. He and Lupine had, at one point, fantasized what they’d do once they were granted their magic license. Travel the far reaches of Revkt. Soar through the skies on dragons. Forge diamonds, and fancy themselves kings of the worlds.

The memories stabbed him like tiny knives, and Seokjin and willed them away.

He watched Lupine and his assigned partner greet each other, the air between them terse and wary, before turning to Headmaster Nivu and taking their mission scroll together. The headmaster’s mouth moved to utter his parting words to the pair, words that Seokjin could not make out from this far. And then they were off, stepping through the Kao Na’an and into the great wide unknown. What awaited them?

What awaited them all?

The process carried on. Seokjin eventually lost track of time, and it might’ve been hours or minutes passed for all he knew, when he heard the headmaster call out-

“Seokjin and Namjoon.”

The names didn’t register, not at first. Seokjin had worked himself into a state of Staring Into Blankness, and it wasn’t until somebody nudged him brusquely that he snapped back to the present. “Huh?”

Much to his surprise, he found a familiar face standing beside him. The same mage from the amphitheater – Vonn. Seokjin’s eyes darted around. The crowd of Turi mages around them had thinned out by now, and he guessed that the guy had somehow ended up jostled into ending up in the same space by him.

Vonn cocked his head to the front. “Your turn.”

Seokjin blinked, and then cleared his throat. “Oh. I knew that.”

He excused himself, side-stepping mages to weave out of the crowd, but not before hearing Vonn wish him in a soft, hesitant farewell, “Odinspeed.”

Ducking his head, Seokjin allowed himself the smallest of smiles. Perhaps not everyone in Holm Turi hated him.

As he strode to the front, towards where Headmaster Nivu stood, he felt the air beside him ripple with a new kind of presence. One sideways glance told Seokjin that his partner was walking beside him, and for reasons unknown, he felt the hairs at the back of his neck raise. Which was weird, because Namjoon was supposedly nobody to him. Good hair and magnetic charisma maketh a handsome man not. At least, that’s what Seokjin told himself.

“Make your greetings,” Headmaster Nivu urged when they stopped before him.

Seokjin turned, and oh—

Great saints, Namjoon was even more striking up close and personal. His hair, the color of starburst and sunflower petals, was parted to one side, not a single strand out of place. Looking at him made Seokjin’s breath hitch, and when the Ellyrian mage smiled, a small crater dimpled in his left cheek, his lips pulling back to reveal pearly whites.

Aces and spades. Seokjin had to force his eyes down as he gave the traditional Turi greeting – right fist over his heart, left hand raising two fingers to press against Namjoon’s forehead.

Their first touch, first contact. Underneath his fingers, the Ellyrian’s forehead radiated warmth and energy, and though it was a natural given that all mages were made of magic and mystique, Seokjin had no name for the kind of tingle that shot down his toes. What was this?

Eyes widening, he pulled his hand back, raising his eyes to meet Namjoon’s.

Sunrise was well on its way now, and when the first streak of light pierced the space between them to cast Namjoon’s irises aglow, Seokjin saw only grey. Grey like thunderclouds rolling over an ocean, grey like a wolf’s mane. They sparkled into Seokjin’s own boring blues, enough to send his brain into overdrive. But when the Ellyrian stepped closer to rest his forehead against his, Seokjin panicked.

He leapt backwards with a gasp, pulse skyrocketing. “W-what are you doing?” He wasn’t a fan of people barging into his personal space, and this- this mere stranger was overstepping!

Namjoon cocked his head to one side, brows furrowed. “This is how Ellyrians greet each other,” he stated, voice husky.

Seokjin blinked. Oh. A greeting? He shook his head to cast off the strange haze that had overtaken him a moment ago. He glanced around and felt his cheeks go hot at the sight of his peers and other Ellyrians staring at him, bewildered by his uncalled for defensiveness.

Drat. He should have paid more attention to those that went before him. Shame twisted in his stomach.

“Calm yourselves.” Seokjin’s attention returned to Headmaster Nivu as he spoke. “The both of you. I trust that you have acquainted yourself with each other, yes?”

Seokjin chewed on his inner cheek while the Ellyrian beside him shook his head guiltily. After finding out who his partner was on the day of the Ceremony, Seokjin had gone home, cooped himself up and spent as much time alone as he could. Once or twice his uncle told him there was somebody waiting for him at the front door, but instead of discussing the conundrums of teamwork with his partner, like most others did, he chose to be by himself. It was his way of storing energy before stepping out of his comfort zone for the last time.

Which was just fine. After all, he didn’t need anybody to succeed, or complete this mission. Just because he was assigned a random Ellyrian partner didn’t mean he had to become buddy-buddy and dependent on him. Seokjin had nobody but himself, that much he’d learned recently.

He watched the headmaster’s eyes narrow at the both of them. “Are you prepared for your mission?”

“Yes,” Seokjin answered, keeping his voice casual even though he was loath to leave. He kept his eyes trained on the headmaster, purposely ignoring the great presence beside him. “I will be fine.”

“This assignment is not a matter of individuality,” Headmaster Nivu was quick to reproacg in a gentle manner. “From this point onwards, even before you step through the Kao Na’an, you two are one. Do away with all notions of “I” or “you”, and you will succeed.”

Before either of them could say anything in response, Headmaster Nivu picked up their mission scroll from the stone podium behind him and pressed it into their hands—one end of the scroll for either mage. “Never lose this. When you step inside the portal, do not let go of the scroll. Stay connected. It will bring you to where you are supposed to go.”

Seokjin swallowed thickly, and glanced down at the section of the rolled-up parchment gripped in his right hand. Beside him, Namjoon held onto the other end with his left, while his right fingers closed around a long staff with a carved sapphire on top.

Turning his back to them, Headmaster Nivu faced the two stone boulders of the Kao Na’an, raising his arms as he cited an ancient summoning incantation in Turi. The next instant, the air went static with newfound energy, the atmosphere around them shifting with tension as the portal started to open. Seokjin adjusted his grip on the scroll. He looked left and right, where the two boulders of the portal, Chronos and Kairos, seemed to rumble with tremors. Gold-silver sparks and bolts flared and covered every inch of their rocky surfaces until they were no longer just rocks, but two massive pillars of undulating light. Seokjin shielded his eyes to avoid going blind.

When he cracked them open an inch, he found… a mirror?

Spanning the length and height of the portal, the crystal clear surface showed Seokjin and Namjoon’s reflections, dressed in their island’s colors and sporting bare, stunned faces, but this mirror showed little else. Not the headmaster standing with them, nor the flock of students watching from far behind. Not even the grass on which they stood, and it was then that Seokjin realized that this was by no means a functioning mirror.

The Kao Na’an had opened for them, and only them.

“Go forth,” said Headmaster Nivu, giving their shoulders a light, encouraging push. “Safe travels.”

Seokjin’s heartbeat raced as he stepped towards the portal, and beside him, he sensed Namjoon stiffen. One step, two steps, three, and then—

They paused right before their feet touched the portal’s edge. Seokjin turned his head to glance at Namjoon, only to find that his partner was already looking at him, and in those grey eyes he saw the same fear and apprehension mirroring his own. Jaw tight, Seokjin sent him one small, firm nod, which the Ellyrian returned.

With one last deep breath, Seokjin screwed his eyes shut before he and Namjoon stepped forward, into the portal. 

Together.

Chapter Text

Prelude: Petals In The Wind

  

Jump, Seokjin.

In the few seconds they spent sucked inside the portal warp, a series of images flashed before Seokjin’s mind:

Him, all of eighteen summers both in frame and gait, legs trembling as a bark ordered for him to make a leap from one end of a steep cliff to the other. His two older brothers lingered behind, watching with hard gazes that belied their fear for Seokjin, because this was a tradition in their family that would not pardon intervention. A leap of courage, in its most literal sense. Everyone in the family did it once they hit eighteen: to jump over a Void—a magic-induced vacuum of a gap that was little more than a blackhole, and use your powers to make it back out alive. The Void was hidden in the valley behind their house in Holm Turi, and today Seokjin’s actions would determine whether or not he deserved to be called son of the Chief Commander.

Having grown up with a strict father, a battalion commander no less, Seokjin had learned the meaning of blood, sweat and tears way too early for a child who was supposed to be playing with wooden sticks than swords. He came from a clan of fierce warriors, the frontline defenders of Holm Turi, and to Seokjin it seemed that he was expected to uphold that legacy for as long as their blood ran through his veins.

Keeping up a strong façade and proving one’s worth meant everything to his Turi clan.

Right then, it was Seokjin’s turn to brandish his steel soul, show what he was capable of… even if he was not yet prepared.

In Holm Turi, most adolescent mages discovered the magical core of their soul—their anima—at fifteen or sixteen. Two summers had passed since his supposed affinity awakening, and Seokjin had yet to know what his gift was. And so, because his power was taking too long to manifest, his father surmised that this might just be the final push he needed.

“Jump, Seokjin. Fear is your enemy. Fight it at all costs.”

Seokjin chewed on his upper lip and nodded. There he stood, toes grazing the edge of a cliff that ended in a fatal plunge into nothingness. He had to make it to the other side alive. Looming over him was his father, arms crossed and expressionless as he waited for his son to discard all forms of ‘cowardice’. Ranmire stood tall and proud, and it was as if his whole intimidated Mother Nature herself, for even the very breeze that mussed Seokjin’s chestnut hair hesitated to touch a single strand on his father’s head.

“So?” asked his father, brusque in every way. “What are you waiting for?”

The Void was less than five meters wide, but he’d been small and skinny, and although he’d seen his brothers succeed before, he hardly thought of the same for himself. It’s all in your mind, Seojun had once told him after he’d done their father proud, it’s not as difficult as you make it out to be.

Seokjin swallowed. Leap. Don’t fear the fall.

He steeled his nerves. He was not a dormant shell, and he would not be the black sheep of their family. Fear was a flower that bloomed in the dark. He had to scatter those petals in the wind. Seokjin was certain he had a magical gift hiding somewhere inside of him. His father was right. He just needed to prod it out.

His left foot grazed the ground as he braced himself. The Void lay ahead, a smorgasbord of endless darkness writhing like dark earth over a dead man’s grave. All he needed to do was jump across. Somehow. His gift would take care of the rest for him, whatever it was. Right?

With a deep inhale, Seokjin crouched on both legs, readying himself for the big jump… just as a burning sensation lanced through him shooting forth from the depths of his chest, bubbling like boiling water. Seokjin cried out, and he crumpled to the ground as pain shredded through every cell of his being.

His gift had answered. His gift would save him.

Seokjin ended up on his knees, on all fours, hands holding up his weight. And as he stared at the place where his palms connected with the dirty ground, his eyes widened at the sight of pale blue frost spreading from his fingertips like mist, coating the soil in a thin layer of—

Of snowflakes. And then, slowly, ice.

“Are you brain-dead? I said jump!” howled Ranmire, unaware of Seokjin’s inner turmoil.

His gift had come to save him, but not in any way he could have ever imagined.

This, Seokjin would regret for the rest of his life.

 


 

They landed in a graceless heap on a pile of untouched, spotless white snow, their hands still gripped around both ends of their assigned mission scroll. Blinking away a mad rush of post-travel vertigo, Seokjin puffed his cheeks and spat out a mouthful of snow that had unwittingly found a way past his lips. His eyes darted about around, and what he found had his heart sinking to his stomach.

This has to be a joke.

It was nighttime, but Seokjin could clearly make out that they were in an endless terrain covered by ice and snow as far and wide as the naked eye could see. Like a frozen desert, or an iced tundra. He curled his hands into fists.

Why here, of all places? The temperature in this realm was drastically lower than the tropics of sunny Holm Turi, and fully dawned on him that the Kao Na’an had teleported them to the only realm where it snowed without stopping--

“Nilfheim?” Namjoon muttered under his breath beside him, sitting upright and stretching his neck from side to side. He twisted his back with a grunt, cracking a few joints with a satisfying crunch. “Ooh, that feels good.”

To say that stepping through a portal was disorienting was a fine understatement, but the Ellyrian wizard was casually rolling back his shoulders and stretching like he was just returning from a morning exercise after travelling to an entire other realm. How he managed to act like portal travel was no big fuss to him was beyond anything Seokjin could fathom. He sighed. “Seems like it.”

He had hoped with all his might that he’d be sent elsewhere, anywhere but a place directly linked to his abilities… but what was he expecting, really?

With his deep blue robes tangled around his gangly legs, Namjoon rolled over to free himself of the fabric. He pushed upright to his feet and shivered both hands rubbing over his arms for friction warmth. “Odin’s beard, I’ve read up a lot about this realm. Cold and brutal,” he remarked, eyes growing wide and wild whilst his hands grasped around, seeming to be in search of something.

Seokjin’s eyes slid a few paces down, and spotted the gleam of a sapphire-blue gem sparkling beneath a thin sheet of drifting snow. He pointed at it. “Your… wooden stick’s over there.”

“It’s called a staff. A Summoning Staff, to be more precise.” Namjoon glanced down and offered a hand to pull up Seokjin, who smacked his fingers away to stand on his own two feet. He could help himself up, thank you very much.

With a strained smile, Namjoon let his hand hover between them for a heartbeat longer, before he shrugged and moved to pick up his Summoning Staff. “Phew. Thought I’d lost it.” While he brushed away all remnants of snow smattered atop his staff’s brilliant gemstone, Seokjin’s eyes drifted to the top of his golden-blond hair, also dusted with stray snowflakes like delicate daisy petals.

He refrained from reaching out and ruffling them off Namjoon’s hair, though with a barely perceptible flick of his wrist, Seokjin silently willed the clumps of snow to scatter before the Namjoon could notice.

There we go. Seokjin watched, biting back a satisfied smile, as the snowflakes lifted off the other mage’s head and swirled away in rivulets, returning to the breezing elements where they belonged.

“A classic family heirloom, this one is,” Namjoon gushed without a clue, voice climbing higher and quicker. He beheld his staff the way a father would his newborn son. “Passed down over seven generations. Really precious. You see this?” He gestured to the crystal orb at the tip. “That’s pure lapis lazuli, said to have been granted to my family from the time when dragons once soared through Ellyria’s skies. I inherited it from my father. Oh, and you should see what happens in battle—“

“A Summoning Staff, huh,” Seokjin interjected, cutting to the chase, feigning impassiveness. Not that he was curious or anything. And definitely not because Namjoon’s voice was a soothing timbre to listen to. Not at all. “What’s it gonna do? Can you order things to move around at will?”

Namjoon licked his lower lip, undeterred. “Technically, no. That’s a misunderstanding among many mages. It’s called a Summoning Staff for a reason—whoever wields it can open portals.”

Seokjin raised an eyebrow. Portal travel. No wonder Namjoon didn’t seem too fazed by their trip. Boy probably hopped from world to world in his free time. “And I take it as you’re an experienced portal summoner?”

“Not yet… But. That’s the dream,” answered the Ellyrian, eyes glazing over. “Have you ever read up on the Tales Of Bjørn Shmick?

What was he harping on about now? Seokjin hardly thought this was the prime time to be prattling on about irrelevant tittle tattle, and yet… something about Namjoon made lit a bulb of curiosity in Seokjin. He cleared his throat. “No. Who is he?”

“No?” Namjoon screwed his face up in confusion. “But that was required for first year Ellyrian freshmen.”

“Not in Holm Turi,” Seokjin was quick to counter.

“Right.” Namjoon nodded and shrugged. “Well. Decades ago, he used to be an Ellyrian watchguard, but then he left his post to chase after his dream of becoming the greatest dragon tamer ever. And he did it! He spurned hundreds of dragons in his lifetime. A legend, that one.” Namjoon sighed like a lovelorn poet listening to a ballad for the first and last time. “I’m not saying I want to be a legend too, but that kind of freedom… that’d be nice. Don’t you think?”

Yes, Seokjin agreed. But instead he shrugged and pocketed his hands. “So you want to tame dragons.”

Namjoon shook his head. “It’s just an analogy. Eventually I’d like to be, well…” And perhaps that might have been Seokjin’s imagination, but something told him the pink splotching his cheeks weren’t caused by the cold. “…the Bjørn Shmick of the summoning arts.”

“You want to open portals for the rest of your life?” Seokjin balked. Somehow the image of Namjoon guarding portals such as the Kao Na’an didn’t fit quite right. Everything about him was larger-than-life, like a moonflower grown too big for its pot, and he pulsated with an energy that seemed wasted on the routines of a portal keeper. “Like a doorman?”

“Not that either, I mean—nothing’s set in stone.” Namjoon hummed in thought. “I’m interested in alchemy, too. Or perhaps I could dabble in sorcery, master the ancient mystic arts, but I’m keeping my options open until I graduate.”

Options. Must be nice to have them. Seokjin mustered a fake smile and clapped his hands together for added effect. “Oh, I know! Why not be all?

Not sensing his sarcasm, Namjoon looked at Seokjin like he was the one spouting one ridiculous verse after another, and replied, “It behooves a mage to choose only one. What about you? Do you know what you want to do?”

Seokjin’s smile dimmed.

There were various denominations of professions in the magical workforce, each with a unique purpose. Although coined under the umbrella terms of “wizard” and “mage”, there existed far more specific positions: casters, summoners, chasers and weavers were some of them. It depended on which craft one chose after graduation, or – should a mage still remain uncertain – which field one would get slotted in based on your affinity.

Of course, that would only be possible once they graduated.

First they had to complete this mission.

Fuck, less than five minutes into a new realm and Seokjin was already forgetting what they’d travelled to Nilfheim for. Curse Namjoon and his smart mouth. Focus, they had to focus on the task at hand. Seokjin averted his gaze.

“Where’s the scroll?” he asked instead of answering Namjoon’s question.

He could have sworn they’d both been holding onto the it when they first arrived in this snow-crusted wasteland, but somewhere along their attempt to re-orient their bearings they must have dropped it. They couldn’t afford to misplace something as fundamental as their own mission scroll first thing after being sent out. Seokjin’s eyes darted left and right, to and fro. Drat. Not a good sign. Seokjin’s pulse turned erratic. He was already breaking Headmaster Nivu’s prime rule: never lose it.

Namjoon blinked, the thrill in his smile morphing to mild panic. “We lost it?” He turned this way and that, scanning the snow-covered ground in frantically, and even shoved his hands into his cloak and as though he might find it there. “Great Odin. I must let you know, I’m terrible at keeping track of things…“

Seokjin closed his eyes, wishing his nervous heartbeat could keep from thudding too hard. There wasn’t much of a choice—though he wasn’t a master of his affinity, he had to try.

He paused and strained his ears to listen, ignoring Namjoon’s incessant rambling until even his voice faded into silence. Then Seokjin felt it – the whispers of a million miniature frost particles flurrying around them, the energy of snowflakes beckoning to him – hear us, command us – desperate to be harnessed.

Desperate for a master.

He wasn’t the master the ice needed. But at the very least, Seokjin could let those voices guide him. With a hissing inhale, he opened his eyes, trembling not at the cold, but at the rush of power that coursed through his veins in that moment.

Namjoon was scratching his head. “I could have sworn it was just here…”

“Aha.” Seokjin marched a few meters down the tundra’s incline, bending down to retrieve their half-buried, wood-and-paper scroll underneath a shapeless pile of snow. “Found it.”

Namjoon sighed in relief, before pausing like a deer caught in plain sight. “Wait.” And then, with newfound understanding, he regarded Seokjin with something like admiration twinkling in his bright grey eyes. “You’re a snowchaser.”

Seokjin remained quiet.

An awed gasp. Namjoon took a step closer. “You are, aren’t you? You’ve a natural affinity for the world’s coldest elements. All this ice. All this snow.” He cast his eyes around at their surroundings with a low whistle. “You can command all of this.

I wouldn’t say so. Seokjin pursed his lips without uttering a word. He glanced up, suddenly finding himself immensely interested in matters of the celestial bodies, and oh – how come the sky was empty? Usually he’d find the Sun searing the world, or the moon dangling idly, or at least an expanse of stars sprinkled over this obsidian veil above them. But this one was a listless backdrop of gloom. Lifeless, colorless.

“I mean, you have every right to remain silent, but it all makes sense now, why we were assigned here.” Namjoon snapped his fingers as he concluded: “You being a snowchaser must have something to do with our task.”

Blinking back to meet the Ellyrian’s gaze, Seokjin shook himself out of his thoughts. The assignment. They had to get going. “Then I supposed it’s high time.” He waved their mission scroll in the air. He was not here to waste time. Enough with the chit-chat-yibber-yabber. He was not supposed to get carried away any more than he already had. “Let’s get this done and return home.”

Nodding, Namjoon’s eyes shone with excitement as they both unrolled the parchment together. The smooth, brown paper revealed their task in a glowing aqua, cursive script written in Commonspeak.

 

The sky bleeds for its stolen Sun

Moonlight diminished,

From the heavens she was vanquished!

Stripped stars surrender.

 

The white wolf howls,

The white wolf prowls

Beware Fenrir, dismantle his heart

Purge the beast to seal your part.

 

Thawing souls along the glacier ridge,

Weeping for their semblance

Take heed: never plunge asunder

 

Conquer the clan for the King’s return.

 

Seokjin looked up from the scroll with a blank expression.

“I’m— I don’t understand,” he admitted without shame. All brains had a limit, and here was where his drew the line.

He’d never been one for riddles and poetry. His upbringing had seen to that – back in his glorious, worry-free days, he used to spend afternoons sparring with his brothers as though he himself were a soldier-in-training to join an army. And so while those sessions had been fruitful in shaping him into a skilled fighter, they didn’t exactly guarantee literary problem-solving as a particular forte of his.

Who in the worlds had written these complicated lines? Even Old Asgardian texts made more sense than this. Seokjin felt his earlier determination waver like a ripple in a pond, growing by the second, and once again he wondered if he was equipped enough to survive the big, wild, world after all. Maybe he’d been raised wrong. What did he know, really? He flipped the scroll over in his hands, eyes raking over the paper. “Maybe there’s more written behind…?”

But there was nothing. His shoulders slumped when he found only blank paper, and he let out a perplexed huff.

See, though Seokjin enjoyed his fair share of puns and light wordplay, he wasn’t a fan of actual poetic riff-raff. In the past, he often used his words as jokes, tools made to charm and flirt, not dissect and ruminate. Puns were made to entertain; poems were made to bore. A slapdash of verbose gobbledygook. “This is pointless.”

“Wait,” Namjoon’s voice cut him from his frustration, before gently prying the scroll out of his hands to hold them out for himself.

Seokjin opened his mouth to discourage him, but paused when he saw the serious expression on the Ellyrian’s face.

With his eyes narrowed and forehead crinkled in concentration like that, the bouncing little boy persona in Namjoon seemed to just… step aside, making way for a wiser self. It was like nudging open a door, only to be met with another door behind it.

Studying the scroll intently, Namjoon cocked his head to one side, and Seokjin could have sworn he imagined cogs and gears turning in his partner’s head.

“You’ll burn holes in that scroll if you stared any longer,” Seokjin muttered. “I tried. Staring at it won’t make answers appear—“

“I got it.” Namjoon said, cutting him off. Seokjin paused again, doubtful.

Then, with one hand, Namjoon raised his Summoning Staff inches from the browned, empty side of the scroll. As his eyes turned serious and serious-er, the lapis lazuli orb on his staff glowed blue, casting his face in a cool tint. He remained focused until Seokjin spotted it - the faint outline of a map materializing on the parchment, tracing lines across every inch of the paper’s blank surface as if they had been always embossed there, even though none had even been visible mere seconds before.

Seokjin stared. “What…?”

With a hum of understanding, Namjoon looked up and pointed to the map. “Alright. We must head up the Glacier Alps, find Fenrir and seize his heart, if I’m not wrong, so that the heavens will correct itself,” His eyes carried a unrestrained sort of frenzy, like his thoughts were churning too fast for his lips to properly capture them all in words. “And this scroll contains a secret map that we need to follow. Come on, this way-”

“Wait one second,” Seokjin said, not sure if he should be impressed or irritated by the fact that his partner had figured out something that he probably would never be capable of.

His partner blinked.

“How sure are you?” Seokjin snatched the mission scroll from Namjoon and spread it out with both hands. Was the Ellyrian seeing something he was not? “What secret map? And who’s Fenrir? How do you know even about this so-called Glacier Alps? Look here – nowhere does this riddle mention anything about a mountain!”

Namjoon shot him a bewildered look as if to say he was slow on the uptake, and Seokjin’s ears warmed. He felt foolish.

Lifting the scroll, Namjoon said calmly, “This. The whole riddle is our mission. It clearly states what we must do. See?” He stepped beside Seokjin and pointed at the middle of the paragraph. “This line here means we must find a wolf known as Fenrir, and take out his heart—which means we probably have to kill him—so that the Sun and Moon will return to Nilfheim’s sky…”

“The sky? What about it?” Seokjin could hazard a guess, but he didn’t want to come off as an idiot making far-fetched assumptions.

Namjoon pointed upwards, and though his face was patient, his tone suggested he was anything but. “Look up. What do you notice?”

Seokjin obliged. Just as he’d suspected, there really was something off about this particular sky. Not a single life-force seemed to dwell in it. “It’s pitch-black.”

An encouraging nod. “Which means…?”

“…it’s night time?” Seokjin pursed his lips.

Namjoon shook his head, a crease marring the space between his eyebrows. “The sky weeps for its stolen Sun,” he repeated the line from their mission. “Same goes the moon and the stars. I think… I think Fenrir has to do something with their disappearance.”

“You think so?”

“I can feel it in my gut.”

“Great. Fantastic. So we’re going by gut instinct now. I’m enthralled.” Seokjin spluttered, throwing his hands up in the air. “I just want to make sure. Isn’t there some kind of rule when it comes to these things? Safety precautions?”

“We’re out on a field assignment,” Namjoon rebutted, scratching at his wrist, where Seokjin saw his own name inked like a tattoo. Their sealed bond. “What rules apply in the classroom doesn’t always work in the real world.”

He was surprisingly attractive when he was serious. The kind of smart aleck that oozed charisma without effort and drat, Seokjin shouldn’t be thinking this.

Seokjin tongued at his inner cheek. Maybe Namjoon was better off yapping on about Bjorn what’s-his-name. The beginnings of a headache pounded at his temples, but he closed his eyes and reminded himself to think. “So let me get this straight: we kill Fenrir, and the sky will go back to normal?”

Weird. Whoever the fuck this Fenrir was must be some monstrous beast in order to take down actual celestial forces.

Namjoon nodded. “Precisely. Seize his heart, eliminate his terror reign over Nilfheim. And this map leads to the Glacier Alps.”

“What will we do with his heart?” Seokjin eased the scroll out of Namjoon’s hands and pointed at a line in the riddle. “This part here. What’s it trying to say?”

Namjoon shrugged. “You could, I don’t know, freeze it? Preserve it as proof of our success once we return home. It should be easy for you, what with your gift and all.”

Seokjin let out a dry laugh.

The poor man had no idea.

 


 

“…and two moons ago, I’d gone on a trek with my mentor to the mountains of Revkt, where we found a sleeping firebird! Can you imagine it? Catching an existing firebird alone is as rare as a blood moon, but to come upon a sleeping one? Absolutely divine. Best night of my life, definitely going down in my thought journal.”

Not once had Namjoon stopped prattling off about his adventures since they set off to the find Glacier Alps, and Seokjin was not sure if he should be more proud of himself for having the willpower to exercise such patience, or for learning how to tune out streams of rambling for extended periods of time. Perhaps both. He’d kind of eased himself into a self-induced catatonic state somewhere between Namjoon’s tales about his grandfather’s fables and his personal theories about the existence of the space-time quantum.

Looks like all those months of learning to ignore taunts and jeers in Holm Turi proved to be useful after all.

“Do you know what a thought journal is, Seokjin?”

“I can’t say I remember wanting to.”

“Well, it’s quite like a diary, but with magic,” Namjoon gushed in one breath, his breath coming out in misty fog. It was growing colder—Seokjin couldn’t tell feel the change in temperature, but he guessed so by the redness of the Ellyrian’s cheeks. “Everything I jot down in its can be relived and replayed as a form of memory, and I’m telling you, it’s my most brilliant creation yet—“

Try as he might not to let it, Seokjin’s curiosity won. “You invented it?”

“In a manner of speaking. I channeled my magic so that I can hop back into a memory whenever and wherever I want. It’s kind of like animancy, but not. Thought journalism,” answered Namjoon, giddy as a hunter with freshly caught game. Seokjin hadn’t failed to notice the way his eyes lit up whenever he talked about…well, virtually anything. It seemed that there was no topic in the world that Namjoon didn’t have an opinion on. “You should try it. And make sure to credit me once it becomes part of your culture.”

Seokjin’s blood ran cold, and he snorted. “You reek of Ellyrian privilege.”

Namjoon looked genuinely mystified. “What does that mean?”

“Ellyrian privilege,” Seokjin repeated. “Like a colonizer, you steamroll over the lifestyles and ingrained norms of those you find lesser beings than yourself.”

The Wandering Isles’ two mainlands lived very different lifestyles, with one being more attuned to the naturalist side of magic, almost despising great change – Holm Turi. They preferred co-existing with the status quo, harnessing the powers they were endowed with rather than seeking to bend the rules of the cosmos to their will.

Meanwhile, the other mainland was full of radicals (ergo, ‘visionaries’, or so they liked to believe).

Ellyria was populated by magi who embraced all forms of change with open arms, who kept open principles that guided their way of living. It was the Ellyrians’ liberated mindset that corrupted the traditional flow of magic – at least, that was what the Turi folks believed. Constantly pushing the boundaries, always playing and experimenting, they interrupted the flow of anima – the essence of power. Seokjin had heard of so-called “miracles” created by the Ellyrians. Machines that facilitated time travel (unnatural). Pillows that stored dreams and allowed them to be watched and shared (embarrassing). Plant seeds that could blare whinnying alarms at the faintest sight of a suspected thief (nuisances).

Miracles? Please. More like abominations.

“Your prejudice runs deep. Honestly, you wouldn’t think so if you Turi magi weren’t so steadfastly averse to the smallest notion of change,” Namjoon said. “A little progress would do your people some good.”

“My people are perfectly content with how we lead our lives,” Seokjin snapped back coldly. “And we will always be fine, so thank you for your concern, but no thank you.”

Like a chided child, Namjoon trudged on in subdued silence afterwards, and Seokjin decided he could live with that.

 


 

As it turned out, Namjoon was an excellent portal summoner. With a flick of his mysterious Summoning Staff, a slit tore through the air like a curtain parting to make way just for the two of them.

The only problem was: he had a bad sense of direction.

And so the next time they stepped through the vortex that deposited them into a different part of Nilfheim, they found themselves wandering through a thick forest laden with unnatural shadows; shadows shaped like deformed monsters that sent a chill rolling down their spines. Here, the snow covering the ground was thinner due to the canopy of trees blocking it, and there were even visible bits of purple grassweed poking out in clumps. Seokjin looked up and took a staggering breath.

Neither leaves nor fruit grew from the surrounding tree branches, but clothes. As in, actual garments. Silk dresses and suits, coats and wool scarves; tulle skirts and trousers, winter caps and even underwear of all shapes and sizes were draped over the branches as if they were growing, not hanging, from the trees.

Seokjin let out a low whistle, immediately noting how they were far from anything that looked remotely mountainous. So much for teleporting to the Glacier Alps. Then he crossed his arms and flashed Namjoon a stern gaze. “I’m guessing this isn’t our destination?”

Flushing, Namjoon glanced down at his staff. “Portal summoning is a deeply complex craft. I must have… miscalculated my coordinates.”

“Coordinates," Seokjin repeated, voice flat.

“It takes a set of mathematical skills, some highly advanced arithmetic computations, you see, for a summoner to pinpoint exactly where he wants to go—“

“Yes, yes. I get it. You’re smart. But be honest with me,” Seokjin glanced around. “Because it looks like you haven’t been using your staff that long.”

Namjoon gave him a sheepish smile, running his fingertips over the gem on his staff. “I’ve only taken up summoning a few seasons ago, so I’m still green. But I will get the hang of it!”

“Whatever. Let’s just get out of here.” Seokjin didn’t like the way this forest raised gooseflesh raised over his arms.

“S-sure. Sorry,” Namjoon concurred, teeth chattering as he raised his staff to cast another summoning incantation. Seokjin glanced at him, and paused when noticed that both the Ellyrian’s ears and lips were turning blue.

“Wait.” He might have a cold – literally – reputation back in Holm Turi, but Seokjin was not one to let people die under his supervision. Especially not boys like Namjoon.

(Seokjin convinced himself that he was doing this as a favor. Not that he cared.)

“Huh?” Namjoon sneezed, his nose turning pink. The beginnings of a cold. That didn’t bode well.

Clucking his tongue, Seokjin marched into a thicket of bushes populating the base of the strange clothed trees, grabbed a coat and a winter cap, and returned by Namjoon’s side while holding them out. “Wear these. Thank me later.”

Namjoon eyed the clothes and gasped. “Dear stars,” he sniffled, tugging them on. “You are Odin-sent.”

The vain side of Seokjin couldn’t help but preen inwardly at the compliment. Yet he snorted and responded with a half-sincere, “Lie to me some more.”

The Ellyrian shook his head vehemently, golden hair whipping the snow from atop his head. “I mean it! I don’t lie. Two summers ago, I received a badge of honor from my institution’s council for upholding honesty and integrity, you know.”

“Is that so?” Seokjin hummed distractedly. “And what did you do?”

“I returned a bag of gold coins to a leprechaun who lost it.”

“Aren’t you a cookie-cutter boy scout,” Seokjin commented, barely hiding the sarcasm in his tone. This man was beginning to sound like a star pupil, every parent’s dream child; a golden boy who probably farted fairydust in his sleep. Seokjin wouldn’t be surprised if he was the president of some Ellyrian student council.

Namjoon considered this with a solemn expression, before lowering his voice to a hush as though telling a great secret: “…I actually am one. Hence the badges.” He giggled, pointing to an array of colorful patches and pins adorning a sash that ran diagonal to his blue Ellyrian garb. He looked less like a full-grown young adult than a young boy showing off his first trophy. “Namjoon of the Magi Scout Society, at your service.”

Aces and spades. Seokjin tried not to roll his eyes. His gaze roamed over Namjoon’s entire form—underneath the gap between his cloak was the freshly pressed uniform of the Ellyrian delegates. Not a single crease in sight. Namjoon stood like a statue—confident, untouchable, probably revered back in his homeland. Seokjin supposed he was charming enough; though he could certainly make do without all the bragging.

“Let me guess,” Seokjin said drily. “You’re graduating from your Academy as a scholar, too.”

Namjoon smiled his confirmation, and Seokjin tried not to roll his eyes again. Namjoon sure was something—one moment he could be devastatingly irritating, the next he was heartbreakingly endearing. There was no in-between with him. His demeanor reminded Seokjin of a puppy, tail wagging and willing to please at all costs.

They continued walking, searching for a ‘perfect spot to summon a portal’ according to Namjoon’s words, whatever that meant. When they passed by a bush of winter lilies, Namjoon pointed at it and asked, “Do you have a favorite flower?”

“Do you ever stop talking?”

“Sorry.”

He should be irked, but he wasn’t. Despite the randomness, Seokjin actually found himself considering the question. What did he like? He sighed. “Smeraldo.”

Namjoon’s eyes went wide. “Is it because they grow in the winter?”

“No,” Seokjin rebuffed. “It’s because they’re as pretty as me.”

Namjoon chuckled, screwing his eyes shut and scrunching his face. “Confident. I appreciate that.” Then, after a moment’s hesitation he added, “Seokjin, before we hop into another portal… I must say I’m sorry.”

“You already said that.”

“No, it’s not that,” Namjoon insisted. “I’m sorry for earlier.”

Seokjin arched an eyebrow. “For what?”

Namjoon’s breath was coming out in puffs of mist. “For upsetting you, by talking about the Turi people the way I did.”

A soft part somewhere inside of Seokjin calmed at the apology, but instead of accepting the Ellyrian’s apology, he found himself lying. “I wasn’t upset.”

“You were, I could feel it in my wrist.”

“In your wrist?” Seokjin bristled, fingers absentmindedly travelling to his press the pad of his thumb against his own wrist, while eyeing the way his name was inked on Namjoon’s. “That’s a little dramatic.”

“I have this theory,” said Namjoon, growing excited once more as he tapped at his own wrist, “that our names are soulbound by the Registry through our tattoos. Of course I’ve never experienced it yet, but according to senior recounts at my Academy, there are magical tissues that sync a team’s pain receptors together, telling you that your partner is in trouble. So if ever I’m hurt, you would know.” His grey eyes bore into Seokjin’s. “My pain is yours, and yours is mine. It’s science and magic working together. Isn’t it fascinating?”

Seokjin made a face. “More like… masochistic. So if you’re in pain, I’m supposed to feel it, too?” What kind of stupid teamwork-trust exercise was that?

“To some degree,” Namjoon affirmed with a matter-of-fact nod. “And I’ve just proven it, haven’t I? I sensed that you were emotionally winded. Please don’t be upset, I’ll be more careful with my words.”

“You use such big words, Brain Boy,” Seokjin replied. “I was offended, not upset.”

“Close enough. And the apology still stands.” Namjoon sidestepped Seokjin to stand in front of him with arms spread out, puppy-dog eyes slipping back in full force. Seokjin had to remind himself not to crumble right then and there. “Seriously, I’m sorry. Forgive me?”

Seokjin cast his eyes over the Ellyrian’s face, open and brimming with sincerity, and had to hold back from letting them stray towards Namjoon’s dimples, forming as his pout deepened. Drat. Blasted skies, this was going to be a tough mission. He groaned. “Fine. Apology accepted, whatever. Let’s just go already.”

The look of pure triumph and elation on Namjoon’s face made it hard not to smile back.

“This is nice,” the Ellyrian said once more, eyes twinkling even in the shadows of the many clothes overhead.

Seokjin squinted his eyes. “What is?”

The mage pointed at himself, then at Seokjin, smiling. “This. You, and me. Getting to know my partner.”

His voice was a song Seokjin wasn’t prepared to stand duet to. He averted his gaze, swallowing. Forcing a polite smile across his mouth, Seokjin nodded curtly and ignored the way the Ellyrian’s gaze made something inside of his tummy curl. He turned his nose up in the air. “If you say so.”

“It’s true.” His partner looked seconds away from bouncing on his heels, or combusting right then and there. Seokjin wondered how much giddiness a person could contain before bursting at the seams. “Listen. This is my first time working with another mage from Holm Turi, and I just wanted to say… well, thank you.”

Seokjin raised an eyebrow, puzzled. “What for?” They had barely gotten started.

“For going on this quest with me! Traversing worlds, tackling evil, journeying to accomplish a mission, swashbuckling adventures…” the Ellyrian mage rambled, breathless with fervor. “It won’t be easy, I’m aware, because you and I have never worked together before so I don’t know if you could hold a candle against me-“

Seokjin narrowed his eyes. Here we go again.

”…but isn’t it all so very exciting?” Namjoon gushed, stars in his eyes. “Though I do wish I’d gotten to know you a few days earlier, at least. I think it’s so important, you know, to know each other inside out—”

He couldn’t help it; Seokjin let out a bark of humorless laughter. “Aren’t you being a little too idealistic?”

“There’s a fine line between optimism and idealism, and I’d like to think I’m treading on it precariously.”

And Seokjin found he could not argue with that. His first instinct was to lash out an embittered monologue, yet he held back his tongue for some reason – something inside told him to stand back, to observe. And besides, Seokjin could not bring himself to be the one to dash this boy’s dreams to ashes with bouts of pessimism.

The Ellyrian was little more than mildly annoying as company, but he wasn’t the worst. Better childish fantasies than outward disdain. At least Namjoon, this untainted soul, held no preconceived judgments who Seokjin was. “You don’t want to know me.”

Namjoon arched an eyebrow at him. “Don’t I?”

Seokjin cast his eyes down to study his feet.

Grinning, Namjoon added, “Let’s just say I’m just glad you’re here. That’s the most important thing.” He flexed his fingers and held his Summoning Staff out in front of him, preparing to open a new portal. Energies and wisps of blue light thrummed in the air, gathering in clusters—

Just as a low rumble caught their attention, followed by the snapping of twigs.

Seokjin’s spine went rigid. “Did you hear that?” Years of combat training had taught him to be alert. He rested a hand against Namjoon’s shoulder, motioning for him to stop. Seokjin scanned for the closest sign of disturbance, any source of that noise. Was it a wild animal? Another lost mage wandering through the forest? Or could it have just been the wind, howling its loneliness?

“Hear what?”

Crack.

There it was again, louder this time. Seokjin sucked in a quick inhale. “That.”

Beside him, Namjoon tensed, hands gripping his staff tighter. They stood together in solidarity, back pressed against each other, ready to defend.

A heartbeat passed, then two. The wind howled in their ears. Both mages kept their eyes peeled for the smallest sign of trouble, but when nothing emerged from the darkness of the woods, Namjoon let out a soft sigh.

“There’s nothing. Was it a false alarm?”

But there was a low drone pulsing through Seokjin, one that gradually crescendo-ed to a frantic twittering that sounded like a warning from the very molecules that made up the snow particles falling around them. The snow was speaking. The elements were trying to tell him something. But what? As someone who had not taken time to practice wielding his affinity, Seokjin struggled to make out what their message was, until—

Until—

Until it was too late, and the threat had come too close. Another rustle reached his ears, but this time it came not from the late, nor from the right.

“It’s not a false alarm,” Seokjin croaked with mounting dread, finally understanding the snow’s warning. “We just didn’t expect it to come from above.”

At that moment, they both looked up to find a massive Yeti perched on the trees, looming over them with its fanged mouth ready to pounce.

 


 

“We’re almost there.”

Since it was currently the middle of Aesop Hour, the central piazza was still deserted when they trudged through it, with Silva leading the way. She’d agreed to Taehyung’s heartfelt request without putting up a huge fuss, hardly protesting the moment the shapeshifter settled his golden gaze down at her. One smile and she was gone.

How Taehyung managed to somehow convince people to do his bidding, Yoongi could only ever wonder. Were those eyes hypnotic? Was it a work of witchcraft? He could only guess.

“I must warn you ahead of time,” said Silva, uncertainty crossing her delicate features. “What you’re looking for might be… dangerous.”

“Why?” Taehyung asked, but she simply shook her head and gestured for them to follow.

“Allow me to show you.”

The footfalls of their boots were muted against the layer of undisturbed snow covering the ground, and to Yoongi’s surprise, instead of leading them to somewhere grand and majestic-looking—like perhaps the towering cathedral just beyond them, as he’d expected—Silva brought them to a fountain that stuck out like a sore thumb in the middle of the piazza.

There was a statue of a white wolf at the center of the fountain, its muzzle tilted up to the sky as though about to howl at the non-existent moon. Water poured from its parted mouth, landing on the fountain’s hexagonal pool that sent ripples undulating outwards. Something seemed off about it—whether it was because of those too-real eyes or too sharp teeth, Yoongi could not pinpoint exactly.

“We were here earlier,” Jimin said, and Yoongi caught the curious look that passed between him and Taehyung. “To make wishes.”

“This fountain is not wish-granting altar,” Silva said. “It is a prison.”

Yoongi’s forehead crinkled. Beside him, Namjoon gave a curious hum.

“So why have you brought us here?” asked the sorcerer.

“You asked me for help,” said Silva.

“Just in case it wasn’t clear,” Yoongi reiterated. “We’re not looking to toss coins and make wishes here. We’re looking for a missing… friend.”

“I know,” Silva answered, and pointed to the water’s surface which, despite the weather, was nowhere close to freezing over. It was as cerulean blue as a pond under a summer’s sky. “Over there.”

Yoongi scratched at his left ear with an exasperated huff. “Lady, quit messing with us, alright? We’re not here to waste time-“

His paused when Silva held up a hand to silence him, blue eyes bereft of their usual whimsical sparkle. “I’m not.”

She turned in a slow circle to address each and every one of them: “My people and I, we harbor dark secrets of our own. The city of Umalia is not as happy as we make ourselves out to be.” She worried her lower lip, hesitating to continue. “I am not supposed to divulge this to strangers like you, but you’ve left me without much of a choice, and I don’t intend for you to lose your friend.”

Yoongi’s brows dipped lower, her words stirring wariness in him.

And then she parted her lips once more, and the truth surrounding this city of ever-night, the city of Umalia, made itself known:

“I will be honest. There is no Pied Piper, unlike what Aesop had told in his stories. But our Ice Prince, that much is true.” Silva’s eyes darted towards the fountain, and Yoongi followed suit. “He lives inside there, alone and miserable in exchange for the happiness of every citizen of Umalia.”

“Wait, what?” Jimin spluttered, discombobulated. “Why?”

“It is a trade-off,” Silva explained. “One man’s misery, for an entire city’s prosperity.”

Taehyung, who’d been listening quietly, remarked, “He must be so lonely.”

Silva shook her head with a bitter laugh. “Oh, trust me. He is not. I have an inkling, a theory really, that he steals our children at night and returns them in the morning without their memories.” She explained to them about an ongoing case of a mystery phantom plaguing their neighborhoods, and how all clues point to their so-called Ice Prince being the culprit.

“Whatever for?” Namjoon asked.

“To keep himself company, I presume. But can we blame him? Loneliness is a demon. It makes beasts out of people. But the Ice Prince is fair—he gives where he takes.”

“And you’re turning a blind eye to this?” Yoongi grunted, his mounting horror causing his voice to dwindle to a rasp. “Letting children get taken away? Who knows what happens to them?”

Silva’s jaw tightened. “We must protect Umalia’s secrets in exchange for safety, for this light and life that we have.”

It was a non-answer that made Yoongi’s fingertips twitch. He couldn’t believe it.

“That’s horrible,” Kashmere hissed, tucked against Jimin’s chest, and for once Yoongi found that their opinions weren’t at odds with each other, which was… odd, in and of itself.

Before an argument could arise, Namjoon stepped forward and asked, “How are you so sure that this is the doings of one man?”

Silva shrugged. “One can never be too sure. But I am not as stupid as I seem, no? I do believe all clues point to the Ice Prince and the Phantom being one and the same. Which brings me to your missing friend” – she paused for effect, as if knowing damn well that the boys were all hanging onto her every last word – “Jungkook, am I correct? I’m more than certain he’s down there, with the Ice Prince as we speak.”

At her words, Namjoon released a slow inhale, while Taehyung nodded vigorously. The jinni clasped Jimin’s hand and tugged him forward. “Let’s go.”

“No, wait,” Yoongi said, his mind scrambling for an excuse to stall. What if this was a set-up? He couldn’t trust people who couldn’t be trusted with children. “This could be a trap. Are you really going to act based on this lady’s words alone?”

He disliked the prospect of facing a force more dangerous and powerful than any of them. And besides, wasn’t this just a major distraction from their quest to save Yggdrasil in the first place? How the fuck was nobody seeing this?

The other three men swapped apprehensive looks, and Yoongi addressed Silva: “How do you even know this Ice Prince of yours is real? What if he’s only a fairy tale?”

“Because I’ve seen him.”

Silence ensconced their group, punctuated only by the wind, until Jimin said, “If you’ve seen him, why have you never tried to free him?”

A slow, wistful smile spread over the hybrid’s cheeks. “We have our reasons. He must be kept prisoner for this city’s sake. Everyone in Umalia knows about the one who suffers for the sake of our happiness.” She sighed, eyes turning glassy. “It’s a rite of passage – as children we are told stories about him; that he lives in a separate space-time continuum from us, and that his power, his very life force, is what keeps the city going. That’s why we can’t kick him out despite him kidnapping our children.”

“The whole city knows his crimes?” Yoongi repeated.

“No,” Silva threw him a sharp look. “My father and I do. But the way we care for our people is none of your business.”

She had a good point, and Yoongi wasn’t inclined to argue. Who was he to dictate how people should behave?

“That’s… so many levels of messed up,” Namjoon commented with a sour expression. “What sort of bastard would do such a thing?”

Silva looked at the fountain ruefully, where water rippled outwards with every drop from the wolf statue’s mouth. “A lonely one.”

“Lonely or not,” Namjoon said, his chin lifted in determination, “if we want to get Jungkook back, we need to get rid of him first.”

 


 

It was a ferocious, wicked thing, with grey mottled fur like that of a bear’s covering the whole span of its body. Black, bottomless eyes stared down at them, and at one point in time might have belonged to a person, but now whatever force consuming the beast had tipped it over the brink of madness. The Yeti had limbs longer than its own torso, unwinding from where it looped around a tree bark so it could leap down to the ground with a deafening roar.

They sprung apart as it landed, rocking the ground and sending heaps of snow dispersing under the sheer force of its weight. Then it swung its giant hands in every direction, as though pawing at everything within reach like a savage on a rampage. It was furious. It was hungry. It was hunting.

Seokjin stumbled several paces back, barely keeping his balance, and landed on his ass, just out of the monster’s immediate proximity. Snowflakes that had, mere moments ago, been drifting gently around them started swirling into the beginnings of a blizzard as though to mimic the way his heart pounded erratically in his chest.

Namjoon was not quite so lucky, rolling aside but not far enough from the Yeti’s reach. The monster swiped at the Ellyrian, aiming for his head but hitting him square in the chest with brute force instead. He cried out as he got knocked off his feet, and lost grip of his Summoning Staff. It hurtled away from him, landing on the snow beside Seokjin, useless without its wielder.

“Namjoon!”

His muscles moved of their own accord. Seokjin bent down to snatch the Summoning Staff from the snow—without it, they wouldn’t be able to escape this place—with every intention of returning it to its owner. But when he raised his eyes and spotted Namjoon, his blood ran cold.

The Yeti stomped to where Namjoon sat hissing in pain, and pinned him down to the snow by the neck. It opened its jaws, and a black, snake-like tongue slithered from its mouth towards Namjoon, who screamed and writhed in its grasp.

Panic gripped Seokjin, crowding his thoughts and rooting his feet to the ground for a moment that felt like an eternity, something at the back of his mind yelled for him to hide. Take cover. In this fight or flight situation, his guts opted to flee, and so he slid beneath a nearby cluster of brambles, his pulse thundering through his temples.

The agonized yelling continued, and tears rolled down Seokjin’s cheeks as he clutched the Summoning Staff close to his body. This was not a fighter would do. He hissed when the inked tattoo of Namjoon’s name on his wrist throbbed like a freshly opened wound—his partner was under great distress. When Headmaster Nivu mentioned that pain binds teams together, he literally fucking meant it.

Jump, Seokjin.

He paused, stricken, as his father’s words rang in his head. The snowstorm around him ceased in its tornado flurry, like a hall of dancers pausing mid-waltz without music. He could hear his breaths coming out loud and ragged, his chest heaving.

Think. Think clearly.

What was he doing? Here they were, under attack by crazed creature, and he was trembling underneath a bush while his partner took the blow, believing a few twigs might offer him some form of protection. He was hiding, holding back once more, like the coward he was. How his father would delight at such a brave display of personhood.

Over his dead body.

Fight, Seokjin.

For years after that first failure, Seokjin had repented and poured his heart and soul into proving himself. He spent hours sharpening his combat skills, training how to fight, pushing his body over the limit and punishing himself for every disapproving glare from the one man he wanted to please. But all he had done, again and again, was disappoint his father. He’d even tarnished the family name.

He would not be that bastard anymore. There was no place for fear in this mission.

Hands shaking, Seokjin pushed to his feet and staggered towards the enemy.

And then the unexpected happened. One second later, a burst of ice shot forth from his trembling hands, barreling towards where the Yeti’s tongue was curling around Namjoon’s neck to squeeze all breath out of the mage.

It was a cheap shot, lacking finesse. Whether by skill or by luck, the ice formed itself into a blade that struck the Yeti’s tongue like an axe, slicing it in half. The creature reared its head back with an earsplitting howl, followed by another furious roar as its grip around Namjoon’s neck loosened. Its severed tongue fell limp, tainting the snow-covered ground in green muck. Blood. The Ellyrian mage gasped in a lungful of breath, red-faced.

Seokjin stared at his hands, mind reeling, before he waved it over his head and shouted, “How about you scram off!” like a madman. He ignored the way his voice cracked over his words. He needed to distract the Yeti long enough for Namjoon to slip away.

It worked. With a displeased growl, the Yeti spun away from Namjoon and directed its full attention on Seokjin. It moved like a gorilla gone berserk, lumbering left and right as it marched forward. Out of the corner of his eye, Seokjin spotted Namjoon crawling away, clutching his neck as though he was still being strangled by the monster’s tongue, before passing out face-first into the snow.

No.

The ground shook as the Yeti stormed closer, and with a gasp, Seokjin screwed his eyes shut and held out his hand out in front of himself once more.

But he had little command of his power. It was a foreign entity to him, since he’d chosen to spent his years honing what physical fighting abilities he thought would make him a more legitimate warrior, rather than spend his days wielding an unwanted ‘gift’. He hadn’t dedicated enough time to handle his affinity better.

Powers were like seedlings—living, sensitive things inside their hosts’ bodies that needed to be pruned and watered to grow to their full potential.

Seokjin had never accepted his, and so it happened that when the time came where he needed it most, it rebelled. It did not heed his call.

Cursing loudly, he dropped his traitorous hand to his side and ran. Holding the Summoning Staff close in one hand, he dodged clothed branches and bushes and tree trunks, swiping away at the heaps of clothes blocking his path. The forest was a winding maze full of multi-colored fabric that fell from branches high and low like heavy curtains. But the Yeti chased him through the labyrinth of trees, and Seokjin could hear the beast’s thundering footsteps gaining distance on him, echoing the thumping of his heart.

He would be defenseless like this. Namjoon was unarmed and unconscious; nobody would help him.

Then Seokjin tripped on a protruding root, stomach swooping, and dropped to the snow-laden forest floor. He tried scrambling to his feet, but they’d gotten entangled with a pile of red scarves growing from this particular tree’s roots.

As the monster closed the distance between them, Seokjin twisted and kicked at the ground, struggling to stand. He called forth, hollering for the snow to listen to him, for the treetop icicles to bend to his will, but they did not.

And they did not.

And they did not.

What greater irony than for a snowchaser to go unheard in a place surrounded by his own element?

This is how I die, thought Seokjin as the Yeti lifted him by the arms and moved its bleeding mouth to bite his neck from his body. Something foul and acrid assaulted his nose, and Seokjin closed his eyes to avoid seeing its halved tongue frothing green-black, like a rotten piece of meat.

Then, as sudden as lightning, the Yeti’s grip fell away, releasing Seokjin. He collapsed into the snow, scuttling back on his hands and knees and shaking like an autumn leaf as he watched a gigantic, serrated shard of crystal ice pierce its heart from behind like an arrow; someone had shot it, landing once but true. The ice spear twisted before ripping itself out.

With a final throaty whine, the Yeti dropped dead, presenting its killer—or rather, Seokjin’s savior—behind its body, holding up a bow and arrow made entirely out of ice.

His hair was as silver as a rushing river under moonlight, and his mouth curled into an easy smirk when he greeted a near-hysterics Seokjin with a bubbly:

“And once again, Jack Frost saves the day!”

 


 

“Wait. But I still don’t get it,” Yoongi drawled, pacing the edges of the fountain with a deepening frown.

“Which part of my people’s history confuses you?” Silva asked, giving him a weary look.

“It’s not that, even though that story sounds like a bogus fairytale,” Yoongi answered without missing a beat. His eyes kept straying to the water’s surface. Shouldn’t fountains have a light blue tinge to its clear water due to its shallow bottom?

But this one… its water surface was an unnatural, murky deep blue. Like that of a bottomless ocean. There was something beneath the surface, something he wasn’t sure he was ready to tamper with.

“Yoongi—“ chimed in Namjoon.

“Because honestly, you haven’t really given us the answers that we’re looking for, have you?” Yoongi continued, unfazed by the interruption. He searched Silva’s face for a change in expression, or a clue that might reveal more. The girl wasn’t telling them everything. “I get it, I really do. Tragic town, tragic backstory. Cry me a river and wipe your tears. But that still doesn’t explain why you’ve brought us here,”—he pointed at the wolf, and waved a hand towards the fountain, then gestured to their group—“to this exact place. So answer.” Stepping closer to Silva, Yoongi asked in a low voice. “How do we get the kid back, and where can we find him? And how does this fountain prove anything?”

It didn’t make sense to Yoongi what this place meant. Maybe this so-called, blasted Ice Prince was keeping Jungkook in a dungeon elsewhere. For all they knew, this spoiled princess could be tricking them, leading them in circles with her pretty little lies. After all, everyone is a liar, including himself.

Silva’s eyes slid to the fountain, its water serene and undisturbed. “You must go inside.”

Her words echoed into silence. Yoongi blinked and stepped back. That was as far as possible from what he expected. Taehyung and Jimin gasped in tandem, while Namjoon remained quiet.

Then Kashmere punctured the stunned silence. Bursting into snort-squeaking laughter, the Elven Prince’s cat-servant pawed at his eyes as though to wipe away tears of joy. “That… is the best joke I’ve heard in a while!”

Though nobody else seemed to agree, Yoongi couldn’t help but stifle the urge to start laughing, too. Not out of amusement, mind you, but at the sheer improbability of what Silva’s words implied. Did she really think they were a bunch of imbecile rats, clueless enough to fall for her prank? Considering the freezing weather, at most they’d get frostbite from jumping into the damned fountain. “This witch wants us to drown, it seems.”

“It’s not a joke,” she denied, looking genuinely hurt by Kashmere’s reaction. She faced Namjoon with a pleading look, and pointed an index finger at the marble fountain. “Go ahead and test it. See for yourself. As something that only awakens during Aesop hour, the Fountain of Fenrir is—“

“A portal,” finished Namjoon in an awed tone. “A natural occurring portal.” Something haunted flickered in his eyes when they settled on the frozen wolf more closely, but it was gone the next instant. He held his breath, then ventured, “Did you just say Fenrir?”

Silva inclined her head to one side. “Yes? Why?”

His Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, Namjoon swallowed and shook his head, “N-nothing.”

There he was again, acting all odd and secretive. Yoongi rolled his eyes. “Are you really listening to this hag’s words?”

Silva gasped, and try as he might, Yoongi couldn’t help but feel hyperaware of a certain elf impaling him with an icy glare. Inwardly, he cursed his mouth; cursed his brain for its inability to hold back scathing words.

(“It’s not very proper to be rude to our host,” Taehyung commented offhandedly, inspecting his nails.)

Namjoon pursed his lips and turned to him. “You’ve seen how portals take form, Yoongi. The Scarlet River. The Babbling Brook. This one might not be so different.” He strode over to the fountain’s edge, and with a low, indecipherable chant slipping past his lips, tapped his Summoning Staff against its surface.

Yoongi’s eyes widened as the water turned luminous, glowing from a calm navy to bright blue zircon, before draining the fountain dry as though it were a fishbowl with a hole punctured at the bottom. Namjoon’s staff had unlocked something, and it was beginning to transform. All of them stumbled back. As its radiance diminished, the water all but evaporated, turning the hollow, empty space within the fountain into… a staircase?

Stunned, Yoongi rubbed at its eyes. Where a fountain pool had been flowing earlier, in front of them now lay a set of winding steps made of sturdy pink snow, spiraling downwards to…to where? Yoongi craned his neck, but he could not see further than the opening.

He heard a gasp. Jimin took a tentative step forward, and before Yoongi could stop himself he blocked the way to the staircase with a low line of red-orange flames and cautioned, “Don’t.”

Stunned, the Elven Prince halted mid-step and turned to him, an unspoken question in his emerald eyes. Not just him, but everyone else, and their attention brought unnecessary warmth to Yoongi’s cheeks. He licked his lower lip, feeling pinned down by all the pairs of eyes trained on him, and averted his gaze.

“I mean. Don’t you think this is all too dangerous?” he added, folding his arms to cradle his elbows. “Yet another portal. We don’t know what we’re dealing with here, Joon. We already… we already lost Hoseok, and now this mortal kid. I just, I can’t afford to—“ he cut himself short.

He couldn’t bring his lips to form the words. I can’t afford to lose anyone else.

Yoongi would like to believe he was a resourceful man who knew when to cut his losses and when to call it a day. Who else would look out for these people but him? He’d known loss and grief greater than all the force of the stars in the Nine Worlds could offer. He’d lived through the horrors of the Great War, seen miracles and massacres, and he would never forgive himself if… if—

Something warm rested on his shoulder. Before Yoongi knew it, Namjoon’s hand was reaching out to him, eyes kind but determined, and he knew at once that the decision had been made already.

He didn’t have the heart to keep protesting when Namjoon gave him that look. For the last few years he had foraged graves and scraped for a living with him and Hoseok by his side. Yoongi had never admitted it out loud, but without them he doubted he’d have kept his sanity intact, or even be here still, dragging his feet halfway across realms to save one motherfucking tree.

“Hoseok’s not lost,” said Namjoon, moving his hand from his shoulder to give Yoongi’s back a firm, comforting pat. “And neither is Jungkook. We’ll get the both of them back. But you know what’s considered losing?”

“Not getting the last slice of cake?” Taehyung offered.

“Getting caught sneaking out of a castle?” Jimin suggested.

“Losing sight of your prince in charge?” said Kashmere hopefully. Jimin shot him a dark look.

(“You men are very strange,” Silva hummed from the sideline with a shake of her head.)

Namjoon snorted a small laugh, and it was that sound, out of all things, that undid the twisting knot of unease at the pit of Yoongi’s stomach. What a relief, he mused, that he was surrounded by people who could make even drastic situations seem light.

“No,” said the wizard. “It’s not even trying that guarantees loss.” He cocked his head towards the fountain staircase. “Good thing nobody here likes losing. Am I right?”

He wasn’t wrong, but he wasn’t completely right, either. Yoongi might hate losing, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a loser. Namjoon was gambling here, putting too much faith in a failure like Yoongi. With a reluctant groan, he brushed Namjoon’s hand off his shoulder – gently. The man was too good with his words. “I still don’t think we should just dive in…”

The hope in Namjoon’s eyes diminished, and he folded his arms. “Then I can’t force you to go with us.”

“Damn right he can’t.” Their heads turned in the direction of the speaker’s voice. “He’s a lost cause.”

The Elven Prince was pulling the hood of his invincibility cloak over his head, directing a meaningful sideways glare at Yoongi. With a determined pout, Jimin bit out to Namjoon, “If that’s what he feels, then he can stay here, stand guard while we go save someone who might be in danger. At least then he’ll be useful.”

Yoongi narrowed his eyes. Where was all this spunk coming from? Hearing it from the elf’s mouth, he sounded like a chicken cowering in the safety of its coop. Was Jimin underestimating him? Implying that he was a coward? Hah. As if. That didn’t sound right. Yoongi was a tough man!

This would simply not do.

Irked, Yoongi waved a hand, and the flaming wall dissipated into smoke, clearing the way. He picked up his feet and marched forward. They wanted him to go? Then so fucking be it. As he passed by Jimin, he paused long enough to mutter under his breath, “You have a talent for pissing me off, young elf.”

“Likewise,” Jimin said without missing a beat. “Tell me something I don’t know.”

Yoongi scowled and whirled away, making sure to skid his heels juuust right so that he would ‘accidentally’ send a lump of snow spilling over the prince’s boots. At Jimin’s maddened gasp, Yoongi stifled a triumphant grin.

Yoongi: 1. Jimin: 0.

But he’d gone no further than two steps when he tripped over a random crater that suddenly appeared beneath the snow-covered ground. He stumbled, stomach lurching, barely catching his step. Yoongi was certain it hadn’t been there before.

“Whoops.” He could practically hear the cackle in Jimin’s sorry excuse of an apology. “Careful now.”

Yoongi: 1. Jimin: 1.

(A few steps away, Taehyung and Kashmere giggled behind their hands. Or paws.)

And his irritation was probably making him see things, because the last thing Yoongi remembered was Jimin’s fleeting smirk just before their group began descending the frozen staircase.

 


 

Three days. Three nights. That was how long Seokjin and Namjoon stayed under a certain snow Guardian’s care.

Jack Frost lived in an igloo in a land clearing smack dab in the middle of the Fabric Forest. Precisely camouflaged, it was the kind of magical sanctuary that would be impossible to find if you didn’t know what you were looking for, or if you came snooping without permission from Frost himself. A haven hidden in plain sight.

But Seokjin had neither the luxury of time nor spare energy to marvel at his new surroundings. He was grateful enough that the snow god had decided to taken the both of them in after seeing their injured conditions. Upon arriving, he and Jack dragged in a barely conscious Namjoon together, and set him down to rest a thick bundle of clothing (which Seokjin had gathered from the trees as they went), before he himself collapsed onto a rug that Jack had laid out for him.

Time passed by in a blur. Seokjin hardly remembered time passing. His body rested but his mind never let up. Even in his fog-ridden sleep, he dreamt of claw-like shadows slithering in and out of sight, gripping his throat, the monster folding his body into half with its bare hands until his bones snapped.

“No!” He awoke with a shrill cry, sweat beading his forehead despite the snow surrounding him. He sat up gasping for breath like he’d just marathoned a mile in his sleep.

A nightmare. That’s all it was. Seokjin groaned, burying his head in his hands and running his fingers through his hair.

Morning sunlight spilled in through a rectangular slat in the igloo—a singular window. Raising his head, Seokjin squinted his eyes against the light. Around him, snowflakes hung in the air, suspended yet quivering as though reflecting the tremors running down his own hands. When his eyes slid to his left, he found Namjoon lying still, brows burrowed as he whimpered in his sleep.

He turned to the right, a cup of cold water on a low-lying ice table caught Seokjin’s eye. He reached out and cradled it in his hands to take a cautious sip, scanning the rest of the igloo’s interior. Everything here was in the same white-blue variation that was ice and snow. Standing by the curved wall was a single bed wrought of ice so clear and transparent it looked like a crystal. Beside it was a small stool made of ice blocks stacked above one another, while a mini-chandelier made of tiny drops of icicles hung from the ceiling, reflecting filaments of dispersed light that filtered in through the igloo’s only window.

And then, of all things, Seokjin spotted two pairs of house slippers—house slippers! What for?—made of compressed snow on the ground by the door-less threshold. As if Jack Frost even needed footwear when he could bloody damn fly.

“Those aren’t for me to use,” a husky, disembodied voice broke the silent igloo, seemingly reading Seokjin’s thoughts. Or maybe his puzzled expression gave him away. “They’re for you. Make yourself at home.”

Materializing out of thin air, a boy with apple cheeks and silvery white hair appeared in front of Seokjin with a smile, pink lips pulling back to show pearly whites. “Yo. Thanks for waking up, I thought I’d have to start digging graves for both of you.”

Seokjin blinked, disoriented.

“Kidding!”

Seokjin stared at him, heart rate jolting. “Who are you?”

The boy frowned. “You don’t remember? Name’s Jack Frost. I stopped a Yeti from making dinner out of your bones?” At Seokjin’s increasingly baffled look, he lifted a hand, and a tiny ice handbell formed between his fingers. It chimed and tinkled in a series of ding-ding-dings. “You know, yesterday? Ring a bell?”

Oh. With the memories of the previous day’s events flooding back to him and replaying themselves in his mind’s eye, Seokjin blurted without thinking, “Ah. So is this the part where I get on my knees and plead loyalty to you?”

Jack Frost’s eyebrows jumped in surprise, and he let out a bark of laughter, eyeing him with keen interest. “You’re a spirited one, huh.”

He somersaulted in the air, hurtling in circles once, twice, before maneuvering to float in a belly flop position, chin resting on his palms. Seokjin watched the display of flight with a cool expression, trying not to let too much awe show, and Jack chuckled. “I’m not out to gather loyalty or recruit people so I don’t need you to plead anything, but hey, a little ‘thank-you’ note would be nice.”

Seokjin’s ears reddened. “Thanks,” he mustered, fisting the blanket thrown over his legs. “For saving us back there.” He’d heard of the snow Guardian before—Jack Frost was one of the rare deities that didn’t live in Asgard—but never in a hundred years did he expect to actually encounter the divinity himself.

Jack shrugged. “No big deal. You, however, have a lot of brushing up to do.” He cocked his head to one side, studying Seokjin so intensely it felt like he was shooting lasers into his skull. “You’re bestowed with my blessing, aren’t you?”

Seokjin’s eyes dropped to his hands, finding a transparent layer of frost coating his fingernails. He could not lie. Not before the deity himself.

All snowchasers, icemakers, casters of all things frozen were far and few, but in Turi they were considered illevinra eld Frost babati—children of Frost, bearers of his power. But whereas Jack called it a blessing, Seokjin considered it a curse. He wasn’t really proud of who he was, but he had no intention of letting it show. He was Seokjin, confident. Seokjin, charming.

Seokjin, fabulist.

“You have little command of it,” said Jack. “Clearly, you don’t practice. Why?”

“I mean,” Seokjin forced a chortle past his lips, though he stomach felt like it was being wrung into shreds. Beside him, Namjoon stirred and rolled onto one side. “It’s not like we have Yetis back where I live.”

“That was not a regular Yeti,” Jack corrected firmly. “That was Ymir.”

Seokjin cocked his head to one side. “Ymir?”

“The giant. First marauder of Nilfheim. He’s usually gentle, but earlier…” Jack Frost sighed, a mask of anxiety on his face. He lowered himself to the floor, then settled into a cross-legged, sitting position. “May his soul rest in Valhalla. Anyway, I don’t blame your lack of skill for the mess back there. It was an unusual scenario. Ymir isn’t known for being aggressive, so I think something must have gone horribly wrong with that him.” He trained his ice-blue eyes on Seokjin, burning with searing intensity. “Did you notice anything off about him before it attacked?”

Grateful for the change in topic, Seokjin racked his brain for snippets of yesterday’s madness. All he remembered were hollow eyes and a snake for a tongue. He hummed contemplatively, “The creature’s eyes were completely black. I don’t know if that counts.”

“Yetis normally have pale bronze eyes, though…” Frost trailed off, lost in his thoughts. “But come to think of it, many of Nilfheim’s creatures have been going rogue lately. That’s why I’ve started making rounds on patrol, which was how I found you two.”

Rogue? Seokjin frowned, wondering if such occurrences could possibly be connected to the reason why he and Namjoon were sent to eliminate Fenrir. What was going on? Was Fenrir causing other creatures to ‘go rogue’? Just how vicious and widespread was this wolf’s threat that he was affecting others, too?

“Which brings me to my question,” continued Frost, “why are you here? Not that you’re not welcome, because I love having people around, but y’know, I rarely see citizens of the Wandering Isles, well…”

“...wandering into your territory?” Seokjin offered, lips twitching up at his own joke.

Jack Frost sent him a flat look.

“What?”

“You need to brush up on that sense of humor.”

Seokjin rolled his eyes, waving his words away, before launching into a blow-by-blow recap of how he and Namjoon ended up in Nilfheim, how they’d been sent by their respective academies to fulfill a task, and what their mission was. When he mentioned Fenrir, the snow Guardian’s face turned grim.

Fenrir, huh,” Jack repeated grimly. “I’ve never actually seen that wolf. Your theory is that he’s marauding about Nilfheim in a reign of terror?”

Seokjin nodded. “You’re a Guardian. Can’t you do something about it?” Not that he was complaining, but if there was a whole Jack Frost keeping watch here, then what was the point of sending him and Namjoon to eliminate Fenrir in the first place? “Can’t you just kill Fenrir?”

“Quit being lazy. You’re just pretty much asking me to do your task for you.” Jack sent him a frosty smile. “I do not interfere with the affairs of mankind.”

Seokjin’s eyebrows dipped together. “But you just saved our lives.”

“I saved your life. I am the embodiment of ice and snow, and so is the core of your anima. You’re as much of me as I am of you.” Jack’s eyes slid to Namjoon’s sleeping form. “This wizard is just lucky to be linked to you, so I brought him along.”

Absentmindedly, Seokjin’s fingers brushed over the Ellyrian mage’s name imprinted on his skin. The ink on the soft skin of his wrist glowed blue, pulsating as though keeping in time with Namjoon’s heartbeat. “So… you won’t help us kill Fenrir?”

Jack Frost tilted his head to one said. “Who says I won’t?”

“I don’t understand.” Seokjin massaged his throbbing temples. Less than a few minutes after waking up and he could already sense a huge oncoming headache. Jack Frost was talking in circles here. “But you just said you—“

“I won’t kill for you, but I can help prepare you. Look at yourself!” Jack Frost exclaimed, sending a gust of wind hurtling over Seokjin’s head and mussing his hair. Seokjin bit back a curse – if there was one thing he hated, it was getting his beautiful hair out of sorts. “So weak! So juvenile! Can you block this?” With a flick of his hand, Jack Frost sent an ice disc spinning towards Seokjin.

With a muffled cry, Seokjin crossed his forearms over his head, cowering. Was Jack Frost going to slit his neck, end his life in less than a second? And did he just call him weak?

But nothing came. Peeking through the strands of his hair, Seokjin saw Jack Frost laughing silently, clutching his stomach. The ice disc had stopped careening towards him, hovering mere inches from his head, staying pitched mid-air like a frozen halo gleaming in the morning light.

Through it all, Namjoon snored peacefully, fast asleep.

Blood boiling, Seokjin harrumphed and glared wordlessly at Jack Frost, whose laughter faded as he returned the look with an equally cold one of his own.

“Your sense of humor is not the only thing you need to brush up on. I will teach you how to make use of your gift.”

“I don’t need to use… these powers,” Seokjin snapped, curling his hands into fists. The Guardian’s face smoothened into cool aggression. “Besides, I can fight. I’m trained to handle myself out there. I’m strong.”

The way Jack Frost raised a dubious brow at his statement suggested otherwise. “So strong you couldn’t fend off Ymir?”

“I was caught off-guard.”

“Strength without skill is meaningless. Don’t you know,” he said, eyes flashing with something dark and almost dangerous, “what happens to mages who deliberately refuse to use their anima?”

Seokjin tried not to shrink back in fear. He wasn’t some dainty flower that withered under intimidation. He met Jack’s gaze with a raised chin, the question hanging heavy in the silent, charged air. He didn’t need to answer because oh, he knew alright—

“Your power goes berserk. You spiral into madness. At the end of it all, you’re as good as dead.” Jack Frost pointed at Namjoon’s sleeping form. “You two are in this together. Don’t you think he deserves to see this mission through? To not have his partner die or fail him?”

Gritting his teeth, Seokjin could not argue. He didn’t want to admit it, but a huge part of him felt responsible for letting harm come to Namjoon. If only he knew how to strike Ymir right off the bat, used geysers or cannon snowballs or whatever, then Namjoon wouldn’t have suffered in the giant’s hands like that.

Seokjin raised his hands to the light, eyeing the frost circling the pads of his fingertips. “How long does it take to learn?”

Jack Frost shrugged. “Depends on how willing you are to lower that pride of yours and start from scratch.”

And so it began. For three days and three nights, Seokjin learned—albeit begrudgingly—from the master wielder of ice and snow himself. Jack Frost had a volatile temper, and each training session left Seokjin feeling like he was treading on thin ice. It was grueling and rigorous, being drilled like a soldier about to head into the battlefield, but in many ways it was not something Seokjin was unfamiliar with. He was the son of the Second Legion’s Chief Commander, after all, and he’d learned to build up his physical strength in a similar way.

But whereas close-range combat and swordfighting were physically daunting, harnessing his barely active power proved to be more mind-numbing than he thought. A craft that took others mages years to control suddenly became one he needed to master within a span of days. Seokjin wasn’t the quickest learner out there. The task of simply commanding ice to take whatever shape he wanted was difficult, and with every bark and harsh instruction from Jack Frost, he caught himself questioning: what am I doing this for?

Each time, the quiet answer at the back of his mind never changed.

Honor. Approval. Acceptance again, it would whisper whenever he though he was at his breaking point.

On the second night, Namjoon finally awoke from his deep slumber, looking sleep-mussed but more or less healed from their tryst with the Yeti. After a quick talk and a brief on their situation from Jack Frost, the Ellyrian decided that he too, would join their training to learn what he could.

“But you’re not even an ice mage,” was all Seokjin could say.

“I believe we can always gain valuable knowledge from anyone and anything,” Namjoon stated, chin jutting forward in a determined manner, and Seokjin quickly scampered away before the Ellyrian could go off into a soliloquy about life’s meaning and how every element was connected to culminate into Greater Mysteries.

Sometimes these ‘lessons’ went smoothly, but other times Jack Frost’s anger would flare like a blizzard careening from nowhere, urging Seokjin to work on those arms! Don’t let the fear consume you! Connect with your anima!

“Lower that elbow,” Jack ordered on the last day, hovering closeby while Seokjin adjusted his grip on a new bow-and-arrow contraption he’d learned to mold out of pure ice. It weighed his arms down—a smooth, zircon-blue weapon that made Seokjin’s body shake from drawing it taught.

They were outdoors, and Jack Frost was teaching him the same ice-make technique that he’d used to take down Ymir’s rampage. Nock, draw, loose, the Guardian had advised. Focus on the target. Aim wise to land true.

With a grunt, Seokjin drew his arm back, but right before he let his arrow loose, he felt the air behind him shift and suddenly, Namjoon’s breath was fanning against his neck. His ears warmed at the sensation of the Ellyrian mage’s cheek brushing his, and he clenched his teeth.

Namjoon murmured, “Your shoulders seem tense.”

Seokjin’s breath snagged, arm shaking from the weight of his bow. With a sharp exhale, he let go. Fwick. The arrow sailed off-kilter. The spearheaded shrapnel splintered into smithereens, bursting into an ice shower as it collided with a nearby tree bark.

“No! Not like that!” Jack reprimanded. “You’re doing it all wrong. Look, your arrow’s made of ice—let it speak to you, and the control will naturally come later on. You should be able to direct it where you want.”

“You’re telling me to relinquish my control of the ice to gain control?” Seokjin spluttered gruffly. How did that even make sense?

Jack nodded sternly. “Correct. You’re an ice mage. Your gift lies in the frozen elements. You’re negating your anima by always trying to control it. As it is, you are no different from a child attempting to hold onto to a handful of sand, only to find each particle slipping from his fingers the tighter he squeezes.”

Seokjin was not the most patient of students. Whenever his nerves got the better of him, he would send a snow flurry raging over their heads with an agitated scowl. “I’m not a child. I am trying my hardest here, you cold-blooded reptile!”

“And that, is exactly how a child would respond,” Jack Frost answered lightheartedly.

Seokjin wanted to rip his hair out.

“Pardon my partner, Sir Frost,” Namjoon implored with wide eyes, cutting through the tension, “he may not the most agreeable person, but his heart means well. Deep down inside.”

Seokjin threw a hissy fit. Like a prince with a tantrum at seeing his tea had gone cold.

“Like. Really deep, deep down,” Namjoon added, more uncertain. “But trust me, he’s a nice person!”

Rolling his eyes, Seokjin turned away to hide the redness creeping over his face.

 


 

The night before they were set to leave for the Glacier Alps, Seokjin strode out of Frost’s igloo, readying himself try the stupid arrow trick once more, and saw a trail of footprints leading into the depths of the Fabric Forest.

He followed it, ducking to avoid the tirade of countless skirts and shirts growing out of each tree branch—seriously, how did this forest grow such clothes?—and at the end of the trail he found Namjoon perched on a branch of a giant sequioa tree.

Well, hanging would be a better word.

With his legs slung over a thick branch woven in tawny yarn, the Ellyrian mage hung upside down with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes shut tight in concentration. His golden mop of air swayed in the gentle breeze of the night while snowflakes fluttered past. If he heard Seokjin’s approaching footsteps, he made no show of it.

“What are you doing here?” Seokjin asked, walking towards the base of the tree.

Namjoon hummed, eyes still closed. “For a lack of better words, I guess you could say I’m just… hanging out.”

Seokjin shook his head. Unbelievable. “Don’t make fun of me.”

“On the contrary, I’m honoring your penchant for wordplay.”

“Tell me you’re not sleeping like that,” Seokjin said as he climbed up the tree to join him. His foot slipped when he stepped on top of a weak branch, and when a twig snapped, Namjoon’s eyes slid open.

“I call this my Thinking Position,” he intoned, eyes glassy and glazed, though Seokjin found it hard to take him seriously when he was upside down like that.

“Really now,” he said distractedly, hauling one leg to straddle the same branch from which Namjoon’s body hung like a piece of drying laundry. “Thinking Position?”

“I’m searching for answers, and thought perhaps looking at the world from a… different angle would help.”

Literally. Why was he not surprised? Seokjin rolled his eyes with an amused huff, and scooted back to the juncture where branch met trunk, until his spine could lean against the tree. “And what answers have you found so far? Have you perhaps figured out how this forest is growing clothes instead of fruits and leaves?”

Namjoon’s eyes closed once more, and Seokjin thought he wasn’t going to answer, but then he said: “I actually asked Sir Frost about that. He said that the Fabric Forest grows clothes worn by the lost souls of Nilheim who die of frostbite.”

Seokjin shuddered. “You’re not kidding? These clothes—“ his eyes locked on a scarf hanging from another branch directly above him, “—are from dead people?”

A terrible thought presented itself in his mind: if he and Namjoon had died by Ymir’s hands that day, would their clothes eventually be found in the Fabric Forest? Would future wanderers come across a silver-blue Ellyrian cloak and a rose-russet Turi tunic draped across the branches here? “H-how does that even work?”

Namjoon shrugged, which was strange sight for someone hanging upside down. “Who knows?”

His question trailed off into silence. Around them, snowflakes continued drifting by, like sprites dancing in the breeze. The sky was ebony black – a stark contrast to the otherwise pearly white snow-dusted Nilfheim.

“Indeed,” Seokjin found himself mumbling in bemused agreement. “What do we know, really?”

Humming thoughtfully to himself, Namjoon stretched out his arms and sighed, “Not much. It’s strange. This mikrokosmos holds endless mysteries.”

“Mikrokosmos?” Seokjin quirked an eyebrow.

Little universe,” said Namjoon, his voice floating up to Seokjin’s ears. “The Nine Worlds—I like to think it’s a little universe of its own, each world a planet with its own people and moons and stars. We live in a mikrokosmos full of questions, with answers far and few between.”

“Questions like what?” Try as he might, Seokjin had figured out early on that he would never be able to pick apart Namjoon’s thoughts. How would one start?

He of the star eyes and soft smile. He of the mind as vast and deep as oceans poured together. Attempting to understand his stream of thought was like comprehending a toddler’s babbling. Some people you meet and think ‘the universe took its time on this one’. Here, now, was living proof.

“I was just wondering… who is Fenrir? What’s his agenda?” said Namjoon, pulling Seokjin out of his awestruck reverie. “How much trouble is he causing? I know we have the riddle from our mission scroll, but that doesn’t answer much. How does wolfing down the whole sky—“ With one arm, he gestured to the empty heavens above them, “—benefit him? It’s a bit selfish, don’t you think, to rob Nilfheim of their moon, and Sun, and stars? I feel like we’re missing something here.”

Seokjin’s thoughts strayed to their mission, and could not help but feel that it seemed like he was overlooking a glaring loophole. Like a missing puzzle piece.

The mention of Fenrir made him bristle, reminding him of why he went outside in the first place. “You know, I’m supposed to be practicing right now, honing my power.”

“You should.” With a languid groan, Namjoon tried to sit back up, arms flailing, and without a word Seokjin reached over to help pull him upright. He settled to a straddling the branch, mirroring Seokjin’s position. “I can’t concentrate with you here.”

Seokjin’s breath went shallow. “You can’t?” He licked across his lower lip, holding his breath, and mustered the courage to jokingly chuckle, “Is it because of my inevitable beauty?” He turned his head this way and that, letting his chestnut hair swish from side to side. “Wait. Don’t answer. I already know, thanks.”

“Very much so,” Namjoon admitted without a heartbeat’s hesitation, looking at Seokjin like he was absurd stating the obvious. “You make me nervous.”

Seokjin’s gaze snapped to his, his next joke fleeing his tongue. “Why?”

“Well,” Namjoon continued, eyes never leaving Seokjin’s, “You have the kind of face that would make goddess Freya jealous, and Aphrodite doubt her own.”

Oh, please. “You’re insufferable, Brain Boy,” Seokjin countered with a low burst of laughter, remembering the gods and goddesses who split after the Great War. “Aphrodite has long since left the Nine Worlds.”

“That, I’m aware of, but that’s not my point. The books say that her beauty is timeless,” Namjoon’s voice was hushed, like he was imparting a precious secret, and in this low light, his grey eyes were silver swirls – sparkling with something that made Seokjin’s pulse skitter. “Much like yours.”

This sweet-talking little imp.

“Namjoon, I swear if you don’t stop trying to flatter me right this instant, I’m going to push you off this tree,” Seokjin threatened, though his words went without bite. He was grinning now, unable to fully deny the giddiness spreading down to the tips of his toes.

He loved compliments. He loved the fleeting, shallow business of it all; the way with which they could be thrown at people like trading cards, or like candies – sweet but temporary. There was a certain security that came with knowing that everything was fake. When everything was a lie, you didn’t have to try hard to be real.

Now though, coming from Namjoon’s lips, each word of praise felt like a seed sown in Seokjin’s chest. He added, “You’ve nothing to gain from me, so there’s no need to lie.”

Namjoon chuckled. “Lie? I have a friend who is a painter, and if he saw your face I daresay he would call it ‘the golden ratio’.” He winked at Seokjin. “It’s the truth.”

Seokjin flushed. “It’s your opinion.”

“Opinions are not necessarily lies.”

Shaking his head, Seokjin’s smile grew wider, and he nudged Namjoon’s ankles with his own. “You’re not so bad yourself, Brain Boy.”

“Ah, thank Odin. I knew the dimples were foolproof.”

Seokjin laughed, shoulders shaking.

How? How did this happen? How was this one measly Ellyrian – with his sweet sincerity and charismatic clumsiness and raw way with words – managing to worm his way into Seokjin’s good graces? Each earnest gaze from Namjoon was a lungful of crisp, fresh air. Seokjin feared he would get too used to breathing something so sweet and end up wanting more. He hardly remembered the last time he felt this light, this free and easy, with another person. Namjoon’s voice was an endless serenade. And the two of them together was a perpetual conversation. 

He should’ve seen it coming, so why did this newfound awareness hit him with the force of a rolling avalanche?

“How are you feeling?” Seokjin asked in an attempt to change the subject, bring the conversation back to stable ground. His eyes flitted to Namjoon’s neck, remembering the way Ymir’s tongue had coiled around it, ready to devour its meal. He could only imagine how terrifying that must have been.

Namjoon tugged at his collar as though to dislodge an imaginary coiling there. “I’m just grateful to be alive. Thanks for distracting Ymir. I knew I could trust you.” And then, almost as an afterthought, “You’re a good person.”

“You can’t say that for sure,” Seokjin rebuked.

“Maybe, but you could have left me high and dry back there,” Namjoon whispered. “You could have chosen to leave me alone to die. And yet you didn’t.”

Did his irises always carry those teal flecks swirling in them? How could the universe bottle so much wonder into one soul? Here they were, two wanderers caught in a winter wonderland, and Namjoon was looking at him as though he’d dare pluck the stars out of the sky and name every last one after Seokjin.

It dawned on Seokjin that somehow, they’d moved closer to each other now, their faces inches apart. Like this, Namjoon looked less puppy, more man. Just one tip of the head and their mouths would meet. They were so close.

Too close. Seokjin’s breath caught in his throat and he bolted backwards, but his sudden movement made the sequoia tree branch’s rattle, and he swayed off balance with a loud gasp. Namjoon’s hands shot out to steady him by the waist, pulling him closer.

“Easy, easy,” he murmured, voice deep and husky against the shell of Seokjin’s ear. His heart took flight on hummingbird wings. Namjoon was close enough that Seokjin picked up the musk of sandalwood and grapefruit and something else, something like the earthy scent of after-rain, emanating from him. Petrichor. “Don’t go falling now.”

A shudder that had nothing to do with the cold danced down Seokjin’s spine. Right. Don’t. Though Namjoon’s arms held him steady, he realized he was trembling when he struggled to re-orient himself by resting both hands on Namjoon’s shoulders.

Seokjin released a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and edged back a few inches to create some thinking space between them. Heart, be still. Mind, stop racing.

He leaned against the tree’s trunk and cleared his throat, feigning nonchalance. “Hey, by the way...”

Namjoon lifted his eyes to his.

“Um. I know I haven’t been the nicest person to you,” Seokjin said, voice growing hushed as he lowered his eyes to where his hands rested in the space between his thighs where he sat on the tree. “So... I’m sorry. For being a standoffish prick at first.”

Namjoon’s gaze softened, before he smiled. “Funny how I always thought that was just you being you. You don’t have to be anyone but yourself, Seokjin.”

Seokjin’s heart swelled. What was it about this man that made him feel so… so safe? Here he was, struggling to play the part of an easygoing persona, layering mask after mask, and here Namjoon was, genuinely wanting to see him past all of that. He pressed his lips together. “Jin. Call me Jin.”

“Jin.” Even his name sounded precious coming from Namjoon’s lips. “Why are you crying?”

Was he? Seokjin swiped at his cheek, realizing all too late that they were damp. “Oh.”

Namjoon looked down at his hands, fingers ghosting over to the skin on the underside of his own wrist where Seokjin’s name was scrawled in cursive sapphire ink, before understanding seeped into his gaze. He looked across at Seokjin and quipped tenderly, “You’re in pain. Why is that?”

You’d hate me if you knew. Seokjin lifted his eyes to the starless skies, trying his best to keep more tears from rolling down his cold-pinked cheeks. What was this? Seokjin was no crier. Tears did not befit beautiful faces like his! He was a hardened fighter. He rarely let his true feelings simmer crack the smoothened lines of his face.

But when Namjoon was looking at him like this, as if he had all the time in the world to listen, Seokjin found himself wanting to talk. What were words? Words, swords. How alike in sound, how separate in meaning. It was bizarre, the way Seokjin wanted to master his mouth the way he did his hands.

His voice cracked in his reply: “There’s a reason why I gave up trying to master my… gift.” The word burned liked acid on his tongue. “I despise it.”

Namjoon sat back, waiting, ever patient. A steady presence. A true friend. “How come?”

Time seemed to ebb away in slow motion, and Seokjin’s heartbeat rushed in his ears when he raised a hand to set the falling snow around them in clockwise motion. Jack Frost had taught him well in just a few days—manipulating snow came easier now. “Do you want to hear a story?”

“If you’ll indulge me.” Hope lit Namjoon’s eyes, and he leaned forward eagerly. “I mean. I’ve always been curious about you. What excites you? And what makes your heart beat? Speak yourself. Tell me your story.”

“I never said it’s my story.”

“But I would still gladly listen. Speak yourself.”

Seokjin twirled his fingers, and the snowflakes in the air clustered together… to form a small ice figurine of boy of slender build, but boasted broad shoulders. Using his left hand, he created another figurine: one of a brawny middle-aged man, with a square jaw and big feet. He stood hunkering over the boy, who seemed to cower under his ice gaze.

“Once upon a time, there was a liar who liked to pretend he was something he was not,” Seokjin started, his voice a hoarse croak. But he forced the words out. Who better to tell this tale than himself? “He used to believe he was the river, going with whichever way the flow took him. He came from a family of soldiers, see, and so he trained to be a good fighter in hopes that one day, his father might be proud of him.”

Namjoon’s gaze never faltered. “What a good son.”

Seokjin nearly laughed. He went on, “His family liked to throw extravagant parties every Spielmite Season, and so he learned to dance and laugh and participated in the frivolities of aristocrats. He weaseled his way into everyone’s good graces. Fighter, dancer, entertainer. He was many things, except himself.”

With another twist of his wrist, a miniature valley—Seokjin’s Turi hometown—appeared between him and Namjoon, and Seokjin placed both ice figures on the edge of the valley’s top. “Most of all, he wanted to prove himself worthy of his father’s approval. He pushed himself beyond his limits to earn every smile, every pat on the head. When he turned eighteen—“ Seokjin inhaled sharply, and paused for a second.

In front of him and Namjoon, the two figurines—father and son—standing atop the mountain started shaking with the tumult of Seokjin’s emotions, and to his surprise, they began to move of their own accord, coming to life as though animated by Seokjin’s intention to tell a story. They moved in a silent tableau, and although they made no sound, Seokjin could practically hear the words each figurine seemed to say.

Jump, Seokjin, said the bigger figurine.

He continued, “…and when he turned eighteen, he had to take a leap of faith.”

Namjoon’s brows were furrowed, his eyes following the two figurines’ movements. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“It’s tradition for the men in the family to prove their survival abilities once we—I mean, once they, were of age,” Seokjin said, stumbling over his own words but caught himself at the last minute. “There’s this thing called a Void, below this mountain”—as if on cue, the ice mountain cracked and parted to present a shapeless space, and the boy shrank backwards from his father in fear—“and if somebody jumps inside and makes it out alive using their gift, then they’re considered worthy.”

Namjoon’s lips parted as though to make a hasty comment, but he quickly closed his mouth to let Seokjin continue.

“But this boy’s father thought he might be a dormant shell.”

“An Ungifted mage?” Namjoon clarified.

Seokjin nodded. “And so to ‘awaken’ his powers, the father ordered for his son the make the jump.”

“Wait,” balked Namjoon, fists clenching. Seokjin’s pride swelled at the thought of his Ellyrian partner getting riled up on his behalf. “I know that most mages’ powers typically present by age sixteen, but to force out someone’s anima? Your father—I mean, that young man’s father is a bastard. Isn’t it dangerous?”

“It is. But back then, this boy”—Seokjin pointed to the ice figurine of the boy, who was peering over the edge of the cliff and into the Void, shaking like a leaf—“wanted so badly to please his father that he decided he’d do it.”

“Even without the certainty of his gift manifesting?” Namjoon looked horrified.

Seokjin nodded. “He was a fool. He jumped… or tried to. At the last second, his body seized up.”

He could still remember it, the way he collapsed right before his feet hopped off from the edge of the mountain, right before the Void swallowed him. He’d tottered backwards with a scream that scratched his throat raw, clutching his chest as his body writhed to unleash the anima brimming underneath his skin.

“What happened next?” asked Namjoon. “So he didn’t get to jump?”

“No.” Jaw tightening, Seokjin shook his head, the memory washing over him as vividly as though it had happened only yesterday. A wave of hurt and regret made his chest constrict, and he swallowed before speaking once more. “Every mage’s gift manifests to protect its host, right? For the boy, his power showed itself when he needed it most.” But not because of the Void.

Because it wasn’t the Void that Seokjin had regarded as a real threat. No, there was something—someone—he feared more.

Between him and Namjoon, the animated ice figurine of the boy fainted, swaying at the edge of the cliff, and the bigger man – the father figure – rushed forward to catch his son. But he’d taken no more than three steps before an ice serpent burst forth from the boy’s unconscious body like a second soul, tackling the older man to the ground.

Here lies the real story:

Seokjin had fainted at edge of that cliff, but whereas he’d gone limp and unconscious, his anima had come alive, taking the form of a crystal-clear serpent that attacked his father. And though his eyes were closed that time, Seokjin heard his brother’s screams of terror, heard his mother’s cries when the ice snapped its fanged jaws over Ranmire’s head, swallowing him whole.

But instead of dying of venom, his father had frozen over, turning into ice from head to toe.

Seokjin had unarmed the Second Legion’s Chief Commander, turned him into nothing more than a sculpture, with no idea of how to reverse it. It had taken three weeks, four shamans and finally the island’s most powerful water elemental to thaw his father, undo what Seokjin had done, and by the time his father regained consciousness—

The entire island of Holm Turi had heard of his atrocious act, and branded him a danger to society. Lies spread. Rumors tainted his family’s reputation. Seokjin had harmed his own blood relative! What worse was he capable of? What could he not do? How much damage would he bring?

“The boy’s family sent him to live in the hills where his uncle lived, so that he might ‘make myself useful’ with his uncle’s ice business,” Seokjin finished, shoulders hunched forward and eyes downcast. “But he knew what it meant.”

Now, in front of him and Namjoon, the animated ice sculpture of the boy crept up a hill slowly, sadly, tugging all of his belongings (tiny sacks and suitcases made of compact snow) behind him. It wasn’t easy, having to adjust to a life with an uncle he hardly knew. That Seokjin was allowed continue studying in Holm Turi’s Academy at all was a miracle, to say the least.

“What did it mean?” asked Namjoon.

Nobody had said a word back then, but everyone knew what that ill-fated future awaited him. Isolation. Lifelong banishment. All because of a stupid power he didn’t know how to control.

“But that’s unfair,” whispered Namjoon, voice hoarse as he watched the ice figurines in front of them shatter and whoosh back up into the air. He sucked in his cheeks together and stared at Seokjin like he was seeing him in a new light. “He must’ve felt so scared.”

“I did,” agreed Seokjin with a nod, before coughing to cover his answer. “I mean. He did.”

Granted, he’d tried to live with it in the beginning. It wasn’t as if Seokjin deliberately refused to use his power, not at first. He’d experimented with manipulating the energy of ice and snow at the backyard of his uncle’s cottage, but with his emotions scattered all the time and the ever-present fear of accidentally screwing over Holm Turi’s climate, he’d never quite learned. Seokjin hardly ever tapped into his anima aftewards. He, who had once enjoyed attention, refused to stir any more attention to himself. Feeding the grapevine with overblown lies about his barbaric ability was the last thing he wanted. “I didn’t know what to do with that… that thing inside of me.”

Since that horrible day, the serpent never showed itself again, but with each passing day Seokjin felt it inside of him, slithering and pulsing with a heartbeat of its own, begging for release, patiently waiting for a new opportunity to resurface.

“I understand,” Namjoon carried on, inching forward so that he could reach for Seokjin’s fisted hands and uncurl his fingers He rested their palms together. “You have been so lonely.”

The warmth of Namjoon’s hand was fire to Seokjin’s ice. “I didn’t deserve what they did to me.”

“You really didn’t.”

Seokjin’s eyes slid closed, and a hundred images flashed in his mind’s eye. “It’s just. I wish I could rewind time. Take it all back, made sure none of it happened.” If only he could undo eveything, then he would still be living the good life. The worry-free life.

“Would it have been worth it, though?” Namjoon asked.

“What do you mean?” Seokjin cracked an eye open, only then realizing that his hands were engulfed in the Ellyrian’s rough ones, resting on Namjoon’s thigh. “O-of course.”

Namjoon shrugged, a knowing smile playing at the corners of his lips. “I mean, the truth’s out. You can stop pretending now. You may have been sent away, but at least you’re free now.”

He was wrong. Seokjin scoffed. “There’s no freedom in being hated by your own people.”

“But there’s freedom in finding acceptance elsewhere,” Namjoon countered, voice lowering to a hush. “You want to know what I think? Everything that happened led up to this very moment. Right here, right now. You might have made a mistake yesterday, but yesterday’s you is still you. Today, you are who you are with all those mistakes. Tomorrow, you might be a bit wiser, and that’ll be you, too.”

Seokjin’s heart ached, and he exhaled. His chest heaved and suddenly it was hard to breathe. The back of his eyes stung.

Namjoon understood. This stranger, this mere newcomer in his life, had looked into his eyes and listened to his shortcomings without holding them against him.

“Thank you,” he choked out. A quiet sense of euphoria made his heart tumble, and when the first teardrop streaked his cheek, he found himself ensconced in Namjoon’s arms, drawing Seokjin into his calm warmth. Surrounded by sandalwood and grapefruit and that sweet, sweet petrichor.

With a soft exhale, Seokjin relaxed in his hold, more tears leaking out of the corners of his closed eyes.

“Nobody’s perfect,” murmured Namjoon, his throat vibrating against Seokjin’s temple. “These faults and mistakes? All of them are what you are now, making up the brightest stars in the constellation of your life.”

“That’s cheesy.”

Namjoon’s laugh rumbled against Seokjin’s chest. “It’s the truth.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Anything to make you smile.”

How did they end up like this? Seokjin would only ever wonder later. Were they friends, or were they more? He reckoned he’d figure out the answers later, choosing instead to burrow deeper in their embrace and resting his head on Namjoon’s shoulder. He rarely sought out comfort this way, because he’d always had to play the strong persona. But in Namjoon’s arms, Seokjin felt less like a failure and more like a—

Like a comet waiting to be born. He realized he was allowed to be weak and strong, both at the same time. Anything to make you smile. Seokjin let an unwitting smile form on his face, a mischievous idea forming in his mind. “Really?”

“Of course.”

“Sing for me, then.”

Namjoon froze and sputtered out a surprised cough, and then it was Seokjin’s turn to laugh. “I was kidding,” he whispered into Namjoon’s neck. “You don’t have to—“

“There’s this song,” Namjoon eked out, voice small and childlike. “That my mother used to sing for me when I was younger.”

“No really, you don’t have to—“

But Namjoon, as Seokjin should have guessed, was always eager to please. Ready to offer comfort, he and his big heart be damned. So with a sharp intake of breath, the Ellyrian parted his lips and hummed:

 

 

Two drifters off to see the world

There’s such a lot of world to see

We’re after the same rainbow’s end

Waiting ‘round the bend

My Huckleberry friend

Moon river, and me

 

As the last of the song’s lyrics faded into comfortable silence, a rush of fondness flooded Seokjin’s chest, and he let his fingers close tightly around the back of Namjoon’s cloak. “You’re so silly,” he mumbled. Though Namjoon didn’t have the best singing timbre, Seokjin wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“Let’s keep this a secret between us, please,” said Namjoon, sounding abashed. “Wouldn’t look too good for my cool boy scout genius image.”

With a horse-like chortle, Seokjin smacked his chest, never making a move to unlatch himself from his partner’s gentle hold.

There was much to be said about men like Namjoon. If Seokjin were as skilled a wordsmith as he was with swords, he’d have penned countless sonnets and acrostic poems devoted to Namjoon’s name by now.

They stayed that way: two wizards sitting on a sequoia tree wrapped in each other’s arms, legs swinging back and forth, one quiet heartbeat echoing the other.

Then Namjoon was tapping at his shoulder, rousing him from an almost-slumber. “Jin.”

“Mmmm.”

“Look down.”

“Odin’s sake.” Seokjin was getting comfortable already. With a miffed sigh, he lifted his head tiredly, eyes opening just a crack.

And then he gasped.

What had, moments ago, been an empty clearing around the base of their little tree—covered by grey slush of snow—was now sprouting huge blooming flowers, its soft pastel petals unfurling one by one whenever a snowflake landed on a bud. Swaying in the gentle breeze, they sparkled periwinkle and lilac and even goldenrod at some angles, each petal carrying a glow of its own, illuminating the ground below their tree.

Seokjin’s eyes widened. “Smeraldo,” he whispered.

He hadn’t noticed them earlier when he’d come to this clearing. Smeraldo buds and seeds were plain, unnoticeable things, naturally wired to blend in with their surroundings to avoid getting trampled on. But given the proper conditions, they could bloom bright and beautiful. Seokjin had only ever seen one off the pages of a history book before.

“Flowers that only bloom under harsh weather,” Namjoon said, looking right at him. His voice was low and rich, like melted chocolate. He spoke in a tender drawl, eyes sweeping over Seokjin once more and— there. There it was again. That burning gaze in those glittering grey eyes that seemed reserved only for Seokjin.

In the violet everglow of the winter flowers blossoming below them, Namjoon’s face was as radiant as a full moon. A moonchild, if Seokjin had ever seen one. One who probably belonged better to the skies rather than land.

“Jin, I have a small question,” said Namjoon, unaware of the wildfire starting in Seokjin’s chest. “Since you’re skilled in the art of combat, do you think perhaps you could teach me some of your best techniques? I’d like to learn to defend myself better, you know. And also…” He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “Also because I’d hate to embarrass myself in front of you any further.”

He was sweeter than faerie-spun sugar. Seokjin found it hard to turn away, and his eyes followed the way Namjoon’s mouth moved. He smiled. “You talk an awful lot.”

With half-lidded eyes and his heart in his throat, he leaned forward to brush his lips against Namjoon’s snow-bitten ones to shut him up. Just once. Light and chaste, but it was more than enough. It was thank you and you’re wonderful, both at the same time, because Seokjin was better at showing rather than telling, and he hoped Namjoon would understand.

He need not worry. When Seokjin leaned back, eyes fluttering open, Namjoon was smiling at him, eyes mirroring the soft fondness in his. “So is that a yes?”

Seokjin’s heart soared, and a smile spread over his face as he nodded. “When we’re back in the Isles, I’m yours.”

Jump, Seokjin. His father had always told him that.

But Seokjin shouldn’t have been afraid of falling in the first place.

Overhead, a flurry of snowflakes came to a standstill, before morphing into the shape of tiny flower petals and they showering down on them like tiny fairydust. He blinked and looked up with a small laugh, curling up against Namjoon’s side. Had he caused that? Had he truly created something remotely pretty with his own ice anima?

Perhaps this cold element was not as hideous as he thought. It seemed too optimistic a thought to have come from Seokjin himself, and part of him was convinced that had it not been for the Ellyrian by his side, he wouldn’t have dared to believe.

The world was calm and still, and Seokjin’s heart sang in harmony with it. He settled his head back on Namjoon’s shoulders, winding both arms around his partner’s waist.

“Hey, Jin?”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad it’s you. Here. With me.”

“….me too.”

 


 

“That’s so sweet,” Jungkook commented, settling his teacup down. How he loved being reminded of his single-ness. “I’m uh, happy for you.”

It was a half-hearted remark; part of him was playing the role of listener, here in this fancy chamber, whilst the rest of him was struggling not to open his jaw in a full yawn. Seokjin should have warned him beforehand that he was going to start a bedtime story—this was the stuff of fairytales.

Seokjin gave him a wry smile. “If only that was the end of it.” 

Ah, shit. “There’s more?” Jungkook asked. But of course. Seokjin had told most of his ‘story’ without revealing too many details, like certain names and certain places, and Jungkook had a hunch that the man wasn’t telling him everything. Could be trauma. Or maybe it was just a case of forgetfulness.

Tucking a strand of pink hair behind his ear, Seokjin scoffed. “That’s hardly even half of the story.”

“Okay. Pause. Wait a sec,” Jungkook said, sitting up straighter, remembering the one name that Seokjin hadn’t bothered to conceal. “Backtrack a little. You um… you met some guy called Jack Frost?”

“Yes.” Seokjin’s eyes narrowed. “Do you know him?”

“Dude!” Jungkook all but exclaimed, his chair scraping backwards as he stood up, nerves tingling. “I met him too. Not too long ago? White hair, but looks like a teenager who never grew up?”

A slow nod.

Jungkook let out a low whoosh of air. “That’s so cool. And he taught you how to”—Jungkook cocked his head to one side, eyes wide in awe—“he taught you cool ice tricks? How to use your power?”

Yes. Were you even listening to me this whole told? I told you—we stayed with him for three days and three nights!” Seokjin harrumphed, sending him a Disappointed Look.

“We.”

“What?”

“You said we,” Jungkook repeated, pacing in circles now, tonguing at the insides of his cheeks. He couldn’t help it—it wasn’t in his nature to keep still when he was deep in thought. It was like his feet were gears churning, making up for half the thinking his brain had to do. “You keep saying ‘we’, but you never really told me your partner’s name, or anything much about him.”

Seokjin mulled over his question. “Well, he could wear a potato sack and still look like a prince.”

That was, in Jungkook’s very humble opinion, the epitome of a non-answer.

“Oh. Wait.” A new thought crept into his mind. Did Seokjin and his partner somehow get separated during their mission? Or worse, had that person… passed on? Gone kaput? “Did he…”

“Die?” Seokjin’s gaze darkened, and his tone grew even frostier. Jungkook was compelled to shrink back in a sudden uptick of fear. “I hope he did, after what he did to me.”

 


 

Interlude: Cherry Wine Feast

 

The Glacier Alps loomed before them like jagged bones protruding from land. Each sharp, snow-covered peak reminded Seokjin of the undulating knobs of a man’s spine, and he beheld every sharp crevice along its boughs with a wary eye. What ran amok in those shadows? Trees surrounded them from all sides—silent, ghost-like guardians of the mountain, and the only thing larger than the range of granite peaks was the lifeless midnight sky.

Beside him, Namjoon shuddered, and Seokjin squeezed his hand in reassurance.

According to their mission scroll map, Fenrir was supposedly prowling among these alps—had made a home of it, even—and Seokjin and Namjoon’s task was to find him, seize him, and stop his reign of terror over Nilfheim once and for all.

But first they had to trace Fenrir down.

Let the ice speak to you, Jack Frost had advised, and though it had only been a short period of training under the Guardian, Seokjin had painstakingly learned to let go of his own control over his mind, and let his anima’s core take over. The strong winds and each ice particle guided his senses, whispering to him the directions leading to where the wolf lay, and that was how he and Namjoon came upon a cave hidden deep within the trenches of the Glacier Alps. They stopped over a hundred paces away from its entrance.

“Fenrir is inside,” Seokjin said, and the snow around him thrummed in agreement, twisting in silver ropes like arrows pointing to where his target lay. Standing beside him, Namjoon nodded agreement, eyes focused on the glowing lines of the map spread out in his hands.

“Let’s go.”

“No, wait.” Seokjin grabbed the velvet material of Namjoon’s robes, and the Ellyrian paused to throw him a questioning glance over his shoulder. “We need a strategy. We can’t just attack the enemy’s lair without thinking it through.”

Namjoon’s mouth parted open. “Oh. You’re right.”

Seokjin rolled his eyes and shot him a wry smirk. For someone so brilliant, Namjoo could be so clueless sometimes. “What, did you think we could just stroll in and announce our presence?”

“I like to keep my options open,” Namjoon replied with a wink, an easy smile painting his lips, and Seokjin tamped down the urge to kiss them once more. “Like, how about we knock and calmly say we hope we’re not intruding?”

“And what makes you think he’ll easily let you in?” challenged Seokjin with an eyebrow arch. Were they even talking about Fenrir here anymore? Now hardly seemed like the time for this. “Tell me you’re not serious.”

“I actually am,” said Namjoon, the light in his eyes darkening to something more intense, and Seokjin knew right then that the conversation had steered itself to more than just about taking down the enemy now. “I have never been more serious about anything in my life. I’d love to intrude, if he’ll allow me. You know that, right?”

Seokjin held his breath and swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Cheeks hot, he ripped his gaze away to focus on the task at hand.

Something had shifted between them after their little heart-to-heart talk last night, and Seokjin was unsure if he deserved every tender gesture Namjoon had started showing him since then. Maybe he shouldn’t have acted recklessly, shouldn’t have kissed him like that. Namjoon walked like poetry and talked like music. Seokjin didn’t think he was allowed to indulge in either.

But do I regret it? A small part of Seokjin reveled in the fact that he did not.

Deep inside, he wanted to walk away from the dangers of this mission already, find a place between heaven and lust and settle himself cozy in Namjoon’s arms. And then perhaps take Namjoon’s face in his hands to pepper it with soft pecks right then and there. Some, and then more. Seokjin’s entire being thrummed with wonder anew, and with each passing second it became harder to tamp down his emotions.

But that wouldn’t be the responsible thing to do.

Afterwards, he comforted himself. After the mission, once all had been said and done and they returned safely to the Wandering Isles, Seokjin hoped he and Namjoon could have all the time in the worlds getting to know each other more.

The plan was simple enough: lure the enemy out, then strike. Seokjin knew very well that to walk into the lion’s den—in this case, the wolf’s cave—would be to invite inevitable death, and so they had to drag Fenrir out into the open terrain if they were to stand a chance at killing him. They didn’t know what the white wolf was capable of, but Seokjin took comfort in the knowledge that at least outdoors, they would have the upper hand because they would be surrounded by his element: ice and snow.

At best, soft. At worst? Feral.

Namjoon had discovered, while Seokjin was busy training with Jack Frost, that he was capable of opening portals to teleport not only himself, but other objects, too. And so that was Phase One of their plan.

And as it turned out, among his many other talents, Namjoon was a strategic mastermind, too.

“You’ll create a small snowstorm inside Fenrir’s cave, ruffle his furs enough to disturb him,” Namjoon said, laying out the groundwork for their grand ambush. “And while he rages and stomps about, I will open a small portal inside where he can fall through, and dump him in the middle of that clearing over there”—he pointed to a space behind them at the edge of the mountain peak, beside which a snowy cliff jutted out—“and that’s where you come in.”

“Me?”

Namjoon nodded. “Put those ice powers to test. I trust you.”

Seokjin hoped he could trust himself that way, too. He cleared his throat. “Leave it to me, I’ll kill that beast.” If he couldn’t win using his affinity, he at least had his fighting experience to rely on. “But what if I need backup? Not that I’m saying it will, because I can definitely handle myself, but… you know, just in case things go out on control.”

“If the situation goes awry, I’ll summon a portal and get you to safety,” Namjoon promised. “Alright? Now let’s—“

“Namjoon.” 

“Yes?”

“We’re in this together, right?” Seokjin said, fingers coming up to clutch the sleeve of Namjoon’s cloak. “Can I trust you on this?”

Namjoon smiled softly, tilting his head down to meet Seokjin’s, and for the first time since they met Seokjin realized that their heights perfectly matched each other’s. “Don’t worry. Just call for my name, and I’ve got your back.”

And Seokjin wanted to believe that. So here he was now, lying in wait behind a cluster of coniferous trees in the shroud of the night, waiting for Fenrir to drop from Namjoon’s portal. He didn’t know where the Ellyrian was—they’d both agreed to hide separately—but Seokjin assumed that Namjoon was hiding safely. A strong breeze had picked up from earlier, and snow was falling heavier around him, but Seokjin was numb to the cold.

Crouched low, he peered through a thicket of branches, keeping an eye on the flat snow clearing right below him, and formulating his plan to kill Fenrir. From this high above, he had a bird’s eye-view of where Fenrir was supposed to land, and he felt like a spectator at an coliseum arena waiting for gladiator battle to begin.

Seokjin glanced to the far left of the clearing, where the terrain ended abruptly in a sharp cliff. He made a mental note to avoid stepping too near that area, but at the same time knew that he could use that cliff to his advantage. He would fight to his last breath: that much he knew, but having a backup to his backup plan wouldn’t hurt.

A loud thundercrack roared through the air and alerted him, and at once Seokjin was on his feet, shoulders tense, every nerve ending buzzing with anticipation. It was time.

Up ahead, he saw the empty space above the clearing start to shimmer a stark, electric blue – the color of Namjoon’s anima – before it split open like a wound, as though someone was slicing through the air. Through the gash, a gigantic wolf in dirty-white fur swooped to the snowy ground with a howl. Its eyes were pools of fire, its massive back hunched as if its spine was wrought of contorted metal, and its teeth were bared in aggression. Its fur spiked in every direction as a growl rumbled from its chest.

Seokjin’s eyes widened. Fenrir. This was the wolf responsible for turning animals into crazed monsters.

He stayed beneath the cover of the trees as he put his own anima to work.

Before Fenrir could lash out or run away, four walls of impenetrable ice bulged up and rose from the snowy ground like a barred cage, trapping the wolf in a small space. The wolf let out a blaring cry and rammed against the ice walls, but they were as sturdy as boulders. With a grunt of effort, Seokjin manifested ice chains to loop around each of Fenrir’s legs to the ground, keeping him from thrashing about.

Seokjin rocked back on his heels with a smirk, satisfied with his work. This was easy, wasn’t it? Way too easy. He watched Fenrir cease his struggling, choosing to crouch against the snow as though trying to make himself seem small.

And now for the final blow. Seokjin lifted his arms to an archer’s poise, and an ice-blue crossbow appeared in his hands. He would use Jack Frost’s killing move while adding his own flair to it. If Seokjin couldn’t master a traditional bow-and-arrow, he would make do with a crossbow. He raised his weapon and pinched one eye closed, focusing on his target.

Then Fenrir started howling.

“Too bad, mister,” Seokjin muttered under his breath, bracing for a clear shot. “Crying’s not going to help you now.”

But the white wolf continued to howl—a drawn out, haunting song that sounded more and more like a death march that grated Seokjin’s ears. Then, rising above the incessant howling, Seokjin thought his ears picked up a new thumping sound, getting closer and louder. His eyebrows dipped low together as he scanned the area beyond him, searching for the sound’s source.

It was too late when he realized that the noise had been charging at him from behind all along. In a blur of movement, Seokjin’s crossbow was knocked off his hands, and it skidded on a treacherous patch of ice, away and out of reach. He cried out, pulse jackrabbitting, and barely had time to re-equip himself with a new ice weapon before something large and heavy launched itself against his backside, bringing him down to his knees.

Panting, Seokjin turned and scrambled backwards, meeting his assailant at last.

It was… Fenrir? Up close, the wolf was twice the size of any man, and Seokjin could see that his ‘fur’ was spiked with serrated prisms of metal rather than actual fur. Sharp enough to cut glass.

But how could that be possible? Confused, Seokjin dared a glimpse behind him, and saw that Fenrir was still in the ice cage like an ensnared rabbit, howling with his snout turned up. So who was this lookalike?

Seokjin’s eyes blew wide open when understanding struck him like an iceberg. There was another wolf? The mission scroll hadn’t mentioned anything about there being more than one!

The newcomer wolf stalked circles around Seokjin, a vulture staking its claim on its prey, and as Fenrir continued howling his song of sorrow, more wolves materialized out of thin air, each one bearing a striking resemblance of Fenrir’s abomination of a body. A gasp of horror escaped Seokjin when realization sank in that—

Fenrir was cloning himself.

Multiplying until he was surrounding Seokjin like a giant swarm of hornets.

But Seokjin would not run. Not this time. He was born and raised to be a fighter.

Pushing himself on one knee, he feigned collapsing, waiting until the wolf clone closest to him pounced with a roar, before rolling to the left. Equipping himself with an ice rapier, Seokjin thrust it right through the wolf’s gut with a sickening squelch. It let out a whine, before fragmenting into a whirl of hail and snow. Just a clone, not the real thing, because the real Fenrir was out there in the clearing, trapped in Seokjin’s cage. All he had to do was get to that clearing and kill the actual host.

But first, he had to forge a way past Fenrir’s clones.

The wind grew malicious and the snowstorm picked up, reducing visibility to near-zero. No big deal. The ice was Seokjin’s ally, and he let his element guide his movements. He threw two ice daggers that impaled another wolf clone’s eyeballs bulls-eye, and in a burst of speed, sprung backwards to brace himself against a nearby tree bark. Using the momentum, Seokjin vaulted over mid-air, sailing across a horde of wolves below that had been cornering him moments ago.

He landed on both feet just in time to drive an ice rapier into another wolf clone’s throat, and hurled a knife-sharp, circular disc as one more leaped from behind, seemingly out of nowhere. The ice disc sliced the clone’s head off, but there was no blood to be splattered, for these creatures were merely clones. They vanished into the thick of the night. The coast was clear.

Or not.

Below, Seokjin glanced down to find that Fenrir had created more clones of himself to break the ice walls imprisoning him. Four wolf clones rammed their entire canine forms against each of Seokjin’s ice barriers, and to his horror, one side started cracking. “No!”

It was now or never. Seokjin tried to run down towards the clearing, but the snow was gathering too heavy and too fast, and he struggled to trudge through ankle-deep slush.

“Blasted skies.” He hadn’t trained enough to know how to ward off this much snow yet. It would take too long to clear his path, and more wolves would have come for him by then. How many more were there?

Clenching his teeth, Seokjin thrust both hands outwards to forge an ice slide that crossed the distance between where he stood on higher ground, and where Fenrir’s trap was. Slippery and shiny, the frozen ice path shone blue despite the lack of moonlight, and Seokjin did not hesitate to slide down. Wind lashed against his cheeks, tore at his chapped lips, and even ripped his rose-gold Turi cloak clean off his shoulders. But he paid no mind.

When Seokjin landed on the clearing, he charged at a new army of wolves with a battle cry, and it occurred to him that he was the gladiator in this scenario, fighting predators, fighting for his life. But he’d handled the wolves uphill earlier; surely he’d waltz through this mob.

But these wolf clones were different. Bigger somehow, and stronger than their earlier counterparts. Seokjin slashed at each monster, but instead of disappearing into the air, their wounds healed, as though Seokjin hadn’t created any form of damage in the first place. They were trying to tire him out, and it worked.

Through it all, Fenrir watched with a wicked smirk, fangs poking out over his muzzle. He paced inside Seokjin’s cage, calm and confident. He was a caged wolf, yes, but what need was there to fight for his life when he had clones to do the dirty work for him?

As Seokjin spent more energy in valiantly attacking the clones, more and more of his anima seeped out of him. His reserve was burning low. His stamina needed refueling. Again and again he equipped himself with every weapon he could name – Excalibur, longsword, crossbow, scimitar – but again and again the wolves would return unharmed, and even more ferocious than before.

There was no end in sight.

His movements turned slow, and that was how one wolf clone’s spiked tail clubbed the side of Seokjin’s head. He skidded sideways, precariously close to the cliff. Stars exploded before his eyes and he dropped to the snow without so much as a grunt, throat too tight to make any louder protest. His heartbeat thundered in his chest and his pulse roared, but he could not muster the energy to pick himself up once more, not even when a wolf clone hovered over him with gnashing teeth and snapping jaws.

Not even ice could outdo brute strength, not when the enemy was too great.

He had never expected this. How could Headmaster Nivu think he was capable of taking Fenrir down?

This assignment is not a matter of individuality.

Headmaster Nivu’s final words of advice rushed back to Seokjin in a whisper, sidelining his thoughts. This was supposed to be a team effort. His breath caught in his throat.

Namjoon. Where was he? He promised to be Seokjin’s gate out, didn’t he?

So when the wolf clone pinned Seokjin down by the shoulders, he yelled as loud as he could: “Namjoon!”

The wolf on top of him bared its fangs at the sound of his piercing cry and pushed harder on his shoulder, unleashing its claws to puncture through Seokjin’s skin until it scraped his scapula, and he bellowed in anguish as white-hot fire claimed his broken shoulder.

But other than the roaring wind, no answer came. Namjoon was nowhere to be found, and no portal appeared to carry Seokjin back to safety.

There was no way out.

Seokjin’s shout cut off into a harsh choke when the full force of the realization hit him like a boulder, so rampant and heavy he believed it would crush his lungs. His airways closed off, and his vision swam with nausea. Namjoon had abandoned him.

But before grief could steal his sanity, Seokjin forced his mind to go numb. There were still wolves to feed, and he was hell-bent on not becoming predator dinner. With or without Namjoon, he would not yield to Fenrir.

As broken as his soul might be, his spirit screeched otherwise, and in that moment Seokjin’s goals sharpened into one thought—that if he were to die, he would die out of his own doing, by his own hands, and not between a pathetic wolf clone’s jaws.

With a final grunt, Seokjin dredged deep into the very core of his gift—ice was a gift and a protector; that he now knew—and used every last drio of his mental prowess to will the entire cliff, this whole patch of outlying land, to break off from the side of the Glacier Alps.

It shouldn’t have been possible. Moving mountains was earthbending work, but because everything was covered in snow, Seokjin managed to grasp control of his surroundings like a master puppeteer maneuvering his strings. Icequake.

The ground rumbled and shifted. The wolf on top of Seokjin lumbered off-balance and let out a startled whine. Around him, shards of icicles rolled and creaked, and new lines of cracks began forming, marking the space between where Seokjin lay along with Fenrir the wolf clones, and stable ground.

The ground beneath Seokjin gave way, and as wolves howled altogether in their fall, he closed his eyes to brace for the plunge to come—

“Jin!”

Seokjin’s eyes bolted open. That voice. His throat was raw but he found his voice. “N-Namjoon—”

The cliff broke off completely. Seokjin’s stomach lurched, and then he was weightless.

As he plummeted the thousand-meter distance from the Glacier Alps to the bottom, the last thing he remembered was Namjoon’s face from way up above, peering down at him. What had taken so long? He was too late, and now Seokjin was falling, falling…

Air rushed past his ears, but at the last moment Seokjin heard Namjoon’s panicked cry of, “I’ll come for you! Wait!”

And he, a fool with a heart too trusting for his own good, had believed in those words. In spite of it all, Seokjin did not want to think that Namjoon had betrayed him by not opening that portal when he’d screamed his name. Heck, Namjoon was coming to save him now, wasn’t he? He’d seen Seokjin take the plunge hadn’t he? Seokjin was certain that, if he were to survive this fall, his partner would no doubt come looking for him. If he hadn’t been sure before, he now was: he wanted to live. That didn’t mean he believed he deserved to, but he wanted to, so very much.

Those were the thoughts plaguing his mind when Seokjin crashed to the ground, breaking his spine and his legs with a fatal crunch.

Rendering him unable to run away when Fenrir, miraculously unharmed, broke free from Seokjin’s binding ice magic and pounced on his prone half-corpse.

The last thing Seokjin remembered seeing was the back of Fenrir’s warm throat as the wolf snapped its jaws over his head.

Namjoon promised he would come, but he never did. Not even when the wolves’ mighty paws crushed Seokjin’s skull. Not even when his heart ceased beating. Not even as the each beast tore Seokjin’s arms off, made pastries out of his fingers, and stained the once-pristine snow in strokes of cherry wine red.

Much like the way he’d fought this battle, Seokjin died alone, and with him, his hope and his heart.

 


 

All of this, Jungkook would never be privy to. There are simply some stories we cannot trust another soul to safekeep.

He stopped pacing, remembering the way Seokjin’s face had morphed into intense hatred when he said he’d ‘died’ in Nilfheim, whatever the hell that meant. Dare he ask? But what if he did, and Seokjin took offense and suddenly froze him for good? His skin scrawled at the thought.

He’d once read in an online ThoughtCatalog article that you shouldn’t force people to talk about topics that triggered them unless they voluntarily shared them. And damn, this guy had some major issues. Whoever the poor fellow on the receiving end of Seokjin’s repressed rage was, Jungkook felt sorry for him. There was enough venom in Seokjin’s voice to out-spite a medusa’s head of coiling pythons. He pursed his lips nervously. “I’m sorry about your, um, death. What was your partner’s name again?” Jungkook noted how Seokjin had not once mentioned a single name while he told his story.

Seokjin turned away. “It’s not really important, is it? I’m here now.”

Jungkok watched the way his jaw tightened. Okay, definitely a touchy subject. Jungkook feigned nonchalance with a shrug, pushing down the urge to ask how Seokjin supposedly died and came back alive. “If you say so. But anyway.”

Slowly, he sat down again, and the armchair scraped against the carpet as he leaned forward on the table. Something else had caught his attention, something that Seokjin had mentioned earlier. “So. This Jack guy… you were saying he taught you how to use his magic.”

“Like a boss.” As if to illustrate his point, Seokjin waved a hand in the air, and the carpeted floor froze over, gleaming like glass.

Eyes wide, Jungkook chewed at his lower lip, an idea taking hold in his brain. What was it that Jack Frost had told him before they left his place again?

Magicker.

Jungkook’s eyes flitted from the frozen floor to Seokjin and back again, mind ticking off questions one by one. Could it be? He couldn’t bring himself to hope too much, but what if—

What if he was an ice mage like Seokjin, too? What if the Guardian had sensed something in him that he’d lived his whole life blissfully unaware of? It wouldn’t hurt to try and find out, right?

So with rising anticipation, Jungkook stood up (again), strode to the middle of the room, and held his palms outwards with bated breath. Waiting for something, anything, to happen.

“What are you doing?” Seokjin’s voice called out.

“Shhh,” Jungkook hushed him, eyes closed in deep concentration. “I’m trying to see if I’m like you, too.” Maybe he was an Avenger! What was he supposed to be feeling? Some type of special energy coursing through him? He tried to emulate his favorite superhero’s pose, and directing his open palms towards the floor, the way Iron Man would whenever he took off from the ground. This was how the Avengers did it, didn’t they?

“Come on, come on,” Jungkook urged, eyes closed, batting at his chest for good measure. Honestly, this was turning out harder than he thought it would. He clenched his core muscles so tight until he thought he might let out a stink bomb at the level of exertion and effort. “How do you like, wake your powers up?”

He heard Seokjin sipping tea loudly. “I’d sit my ass down, if I were you. You can’t force anima out.” Then, expression hardening, he added sotto voce, “I would know.”

Grumbling under his breath, Jungkook slumped back on the pink velvet armchair, pouting. He didn’t mean to sulk like a kid, but he’d really been hoping Jack Frost had seen something extraordinary in him. He sagged against the backrest, head drooping in dismay. “That proves it, then. I’m really not one of you people. Just a human with no powers.”

Dead silence enveloped the air.

And then Seokjin threw his head back, cackling loud and wild in a way that reminded Jungkook of his much-dread spring cleaning days back in the orphanage when he was tasked to wipe the windows. Seokjin’s shoulders shook up and down, and there were even tears in his eyes, the sadistic motherfucker.

Frankly, Jungkook had no idea what the joke was, and because of his supersonic hearing, the sound of Seokjin’s mocking laughter was amplified twofold. It was humiliating. “Ouch? I wasn’t trying to be funny.”

Maybe Jack Frost just wanted to mess with his head back then. Somewhere inside of him, Jungkook was grateful only Seokjin, a stranger whom he hardly knew, had seen his antics. Because had Taehyung witnessed that stupid attempt at ‘powering up’, Jungkook was dead sure he would only earn pitying looks—something that he despised with the force of a thousand suns.

Wiping away a tear, Seokjin managed to choke through his laughter, “You? No anima? What a joke!”

Great, now the guy was just really overdoing it. Jungkook rolled his eyes. “Fine. You’re the badass one here. Sorry for trying.” Jungkook was a normal human being, and for some reason, that disappointed him.

“Are you even hearing yourself?” Seokjin barked, and this time there was less amusement in the way his blue eyes flashed.

“I know, I know—“

“Jungkook.” Seokjin leaned forward, face sobering and lips setting into a smooth, tight line. “I’m serious. Are you even hearing yourself?”

Huh. Jungkook’s frown deepened. “I don’t understand.”

“You do, actually,” interjected Seokjin, studying him intently. “Very much so. Don’t you realize?”

“Realize what?”

“That all this time, I haven’t been speaking with you in any human tongue. We’re conversing in Commonspeak.”

Jungkook could’ve sworn he stopped breathing.

“And yet you understand me perfectly.”

He heart pounded against his throat, and if he hadn’t already been sitting down his legs would have buckled underneath him. Seriously? He never even realized he wasn’t hearing a single word in Korean or English the whole time he’d been here. “You’re not pranking me, are you?”

Seokjin huffed. “Why do you think I put that ice barricade around you when you first woke up?”

Searching his brain for an answer to this one was an easier feat. “To keep me locked in, of course.”

“No, you fool. To keep myself safe. From you, Jungkook,” Seokjin drawled, folding his arms. His blue eyes were stern. “Because you’re no mere human.”

Adam’s apple bobbing up and down, Jungkook parted his mouth to say something, but his mind drew a blank. He closed it, then opened it before closing it again like a goldfish.

Seokjin squinted, and perhaps Jungkook’s was going delirious, but the older man’s eyes almost seemed to glow – sparks of topaz and hazel whirlpooling in his irises. Was this his celestial power at work? Jungkook recoiled backwards when a deep, silky hum worked its way up Seokjin’s throat. “And you know it, don’t you? Because you’ve used anima before.”

Underneath the table, Jungkook’s fingers twitched.

 


 

The memory replayed itself in vivid colors—a sharp gash in the weave of his dreary childhood.

August brought in heavy monsoon rains to Seoul, pattering against the orphanage’s windowpanes, and so most of the time, the children stayed in and busied themselves with indoor chores. At the end of each day, they retired to their beds early, exhausted from scrubbing the floors and dusting the ceilings and polishing silverware or whatever else the Big Sisters asked of them.

Pit-a-pat, pit-a-pat, lamented the skies. It had been pouring earlier, but now the clouds had let up to a light drizzle.

The room was cold for a summer night, and because the lamppost outside had stopped switching on at night weeks ago, near-total darkness reigned over their room. Shadows crept across corners. Weak moonlight slanted in through their newly cleaned glass panes, casting the walls in a bluish glow, like a ship’s quarters submerged underwater. Bunk beds creaked and his friends snored, fast asleep.

But not Jungkook.

At the far end of the room was a sheltered balcony, its door ajar. There he sat outside, leaning against the metal railings, a torchlight tucked under his chin while he furiously scribbled away on a sketchbook resting on his lap.

At eight years old, he had committed himself to a hobby. He didn’t enjoy roughhousing with other boys his age. Instead, he’d found solace in the empty sketchbooks that always arrived tucked inside monthly donation boxes. While the other children made a habit of fighting over who called dibs on what garment or which toy was rightfully theirs, Jungkook would quietly sneak away, a new sketchbook tucked under his chubby little boy arms.

He was busy working on his latest masterpiece, eyebrows furrowing and the tip of his pink tongue sticking out in concentration. The lack of good light made him squint, which strained his eyes, but he liked this time of the night the best, when nobody would scream for him to ‘quit drawing fantasies and get back to doing chores’ instead. Hard knock life.

After a few more strokes and shades, Little Jungkook held up his art, proud of what he had drawn.

It was a chocolate doughnut with rainbow sprinkles and big, cartoonish, googly eyes. Two birdlike feet sprouted from its nether areas, and it the doughnut was smiling up at him with teeth made of white frosting.

“Mr. Doughtnut Man,” Jungkook whisper-greeted with a small dip of his head. One might risk offending a doughnut’s feelings. “How do you do?”

For a child bereft of his family, imagination was his best friend. Jungkook had taken to drawing small friends – with the heartfelt belief that they were his playmates. Maybe even siblings. The other children were too loud to deal with. At least in the comforts of his own creations he need not feel like an outcast.

Sometimes, if he tried hard enough, Jungkook could imagine his drawings leaping out of their pages and talking back to him; some might offer listen to how his day went.

But just like every other drawing before him, Mr. Doughnut Man only smiled from the sketchbook page, lifeless and inanimate. Jungkook sighed and set his torchlight down, shoulders drooping. “I wish you were alive. Then I’d have someone to talk to when the hyungs pick on me.”

From below the orphanage’s balcony, a loud yowl screeched through the air, startling Jungkook. With a small gasp, he put down his sketchbook and stood to lean out, only to spot a stray cat hopping down from a neighboring building’s roof to a dumpster in an alley. Just the usual nighttime shenanigans. Shrugging, Jungkook turned back around to pick up his sketchbook. Bedtime.

And that was when he saw it.

His sketchbook page was empty.

Empty, as though he was staring at a fresh, un-drawn on white page of paper. Jungkook squatted down and picked up his sketchbook, flipping through each page in growing confusion. He could not remember erasing Mr. Doughnut Man.

His drawing had disappeared. But where to?

Thunk.

The soft sound caught his attention, and Jungkook looked up to find… Mr. Doughnut Man—in all his 2D gresyscale, pencil-shaded glory—making a grab for Jungkook’s torchlight by his feet with spindly stick arms made out of frosting, seeming to have freshly stepped out of Jungkook’s sketchbook.

Jungkook’s mouth hung open, and he rubbed at his eyelids. At age eight, he already had an inkling of the boundaries between reality and fantasy. Surely he was dreaming? The sight of his drawing, standing upright and actually moving of its own accord, was something out of the children’s fairytales that the Big Sisters sometimes read to them, when they where in a good mood.

“Mr. Doughnut Man?” he breathed, unsure.

His doughnut drawing looked up at Jungkook and waved at him.

“Are you really, really real?” Little Jungkook asked, reaching out to poke his own animated drawing. Mr. Doughnut Man backed away in a silent laugh, tickled by Jungkook’s finger.

It was all sorts of absurd. Eventually Jungkook convinced his doughnut drawing to drop the torchlight and return to the page where he came from, and Mr. Doughnut Man had complied obediently.

Jungkook went to sleep that night feeling very, very befuddled, and when he woke up the next day his mind had convinced itself that yes—he’d simply imagined it all.

It had been over a decade since then, and in all that time, Jungkook had never again encountered something so bizarre. As he grew up, so did his consciousness, and his art became less of a projection of his mind, and more of an expression of his, well, teenage angst. If you told him that that night had been real, that a mere drawing of a 2D doughnut had ripped itself out of his sketchbook, Jungkook might laugh in your face and call you delusional.

The memory was nothing but a blur of moonlit wisps to him now, and on most days he could convince himself that was nothing but a dream, or perhaps a product of his over-active, childish imagination.

Today was not one of those days.

“When I was younger, I remember this one time when I brought one of my drawings to life,” Jungkook shared in a tremulous voice, feeling self-conscious under Seokjin’s hawk-eyed gaze. “The drawing, it just… peeled itself off from my sketchbook, stepped into the world and like, started walking around.”

Hearing himself say the words, Jungkook wanted to laugh. It was stupid. It was nonsense. But Seokjin remained wordless, and Jungkook wondered, distantly, if this was what therapy was like. Weren’t therapists supposed to listen to you spew all your bullshit and act casual about it? Or maybe Seokjin was just silently judging him. Who knew?

Still, he rambled, “I was only eight back then. I had no idea what it meant, and I thought I was just seeing things. Also, just in case you might be thinking it, I never took drugs so… yeah. I couldn’t have imagined it, right?” His fingers fiddled with the hem of his shirt to give distract them from going clammy. “But that’s not all. I can…” Taking a deep breath, Jungkook leaned closer and whispered loudly: “I can hear things. See things, too. My senses make me feel like everything is magnified. But I promise I’m thinking straight.”

Right, because definitely did not sound crazy. He could see it now, plastered across walls: Jungkook, resident village lunatic. He wondered for the billionth time how frayed his own sanity must be by now.

“Interesting” was all Seokjin commented, leaning back against his chair. His eyes told Jungkook that his mind was elsewhere.

The silence between them grew so thick and awkward Jungkook thought he might suffocate. He jiggled his right leg, restless. He scratched behind his ear, watching Seokjin’s flying teapot—what was its name again?—fuss over his and Seokjin’s teacups before their drinks went cold. Funny how he felt less like a hostage and more like a respected guest now. At the back of his mind, Jungkook knew he should probably be worrying about the other guys, but he felt relaxed here somehow.

He was enjoying this interlude way too much. It was like a tea break. A tea break from insanity.

“Aha!” Seokjin snapped his fingers, and Jungkook broke out of his reverie at his exclamation. “I knew it. I’ve figured out what you are.”

“Please don’t tell me I’m a vampire.” Jungkook’s nerve-endings tittered and buzzed, and his leg continued jiggling. “Oh, but can I be a werewolf? Or a half-wolf? Big woof-woof energy.”

The celestial-ice mage released a strangled noise like he had a toothpick stuck in his throat. “Wolves exist, trust me, I know, and you’re clearly not one, but… what in the great Odin’s name is a vampire?”

Jungkook stared at him, taken aback for a hot second. “No fucking way.” Did this guy really expect him to believe in a world where Jack Frost and elves and real-life Elsa’s and talking hybrids existed, but not vampires? How messed up was that? “You don’t know what a vampire is?”

“If I did, would I be asking you?” Seokjin fired back.

Good point. “You’re serious?” Astounded, Jungkook told Seokjin what kind of creatures vampires were, and after he finished, his captor shuddered.

“Humans of Midgard have the strangest make-believes,” Seokjin concluded with a borderline condescending expression, shaking his head like the prospect of blood-sucking creatures disgusted every last cell of his being. “I will never understand humans. You’re so lucky you’re not one.”

“So tell me then, oh wise one,” Jungkook said. “Because I’m really done trying to crack my head over who I am.”

If Seokjin and Jack Frost were right, and he was not human, then who and where were his parents? Were they even alive?

What were his parents?

“Back where I came from, there was someone like you,” Seokjin shared, rolling his shoulders back as though preparing for another Storytime With Seokjin Session.

Jungkook groaned. “Ah, shit. Here we go again.”

“Hush.” Seokjin held up one crooked finger, and Jungkook clamped his mouth shut. “Listen. Headmaster Nivu was someone who could bring his work to life. Art, penmanship, you name it. But his medium lay especially in tattoos.” Pulling up his sleeves, Seokjin brandished his arms, inked with the bruise-colored runes that Jungkook couldn’t understand. “Much like these. Using his power, he could do a lot of things. Like… like bind people’s souls and feelings together.” His gaze turned glassy, before his shook his head, seeming to snap back to the present moment.

“But that’s only one aspect of that magic type. If you look at it from a bigger picture, anything he drew and wrote with his hands, he could manipulate. Because he was a scribe.” Seokjin’s unblinking gaze weighed heavy on Jungkook’s skin, and it was all Jungkook could do not to squirm uncomfortably. “And I think, based on what you shared with me, you might be one, too.”

Jungkook gulped, and he flexed his slender hands, staring at them as if they might start making spectacular shit happen, like glow purple or something. How was he supposed to react?

A scribe. He didn’t know what to think of it. The word seemed to fit him like a pair of shoes two sizes smaller than his feet. Shouldn’t he be feeling a sense of rightness about finding out he was? Like maybe a sense of homecoming, knowing that he finally had an answer to a big part of him? On one hand, it seemed accurate enough of a word that explained the phenomenon he’d created back when he was eight years old, but on the other hand… it didn’t feel like a complete descriptor of who—or what—he was. “Really? I’m a scribe?”

“I said ‘might’. Confirming it is a whole other story.”

But Jungkook was compelled to take what he could get. “Let’s prove it. Do you have a pen here somewhere?” Did pens exist in this world? Another thought struck him and Jungkook cocked his head to one side, feeling stupid for having to ask: “Er. Actually. What does a scribe do? Write shit?” He glanced down at the runes decorating Seokjin’s forearms. “Make magic tats?”

Seokjin gave him a wary look as if to say, Oh, honey.

But before the celestial mage could open his mouth to begin another explanation, Jungkook’s ears picked up a new sound. His spine snapped straight and he held up a hand, and Seokjin paused too, alarmed by his the stricken look on Jungkook’s face.

“Wait. Can you hear that?”

Seokjin blinked. “Hear what?”

Ears twitching, Jungkook strained to listen to soundwaves rippling in the air. His ears were sensitive to each rippling soundwave, and as each one crescendo-ed, Jungkook gradually realized it was the distant sound of… water. Rushing water.

Which didn’t make sense. His eyes raked over the grand royal suite chamber, searching for a fountain, or a sink perhaps, or just any source of the trickling liquids noise. “Is there a lake anywhere in here?”

Nonplussed, Seokjin shook his head. “Why? What’s going on?”

“I’m hearing something.” Jungkook glanced at the celestial mage’s flying teapot. “Could you ask your furniture friends to stop moving for a minute? Let me trace that noise.”

“Done.” Not more than a millisecond later, every active piece of furniture—from Seokjin’s broomstick to his kettle—froze in place, like a video paused to a still image.

Jungkook grunted, the crease in forehead deepening. Despite all activity in the room having halted, the rushing of water escalated in his ears, like a tidal wave gathering energy before sweeping through land.

He rose from his seat to follow the noise around the room. Inching past a pillar and rounding towards the left corner of the chamber, Jungkook’s ears led him to stand directly in front of the Mirror Of Reveal, its surface glassy and clear as water.

Water.

“Here.” Jungkook said, and noticed that Mirror of Reveal seemed to be shimmering unusually brightly for a place that had no natural light. He pointed at the mirror. “Something’s going on. In your... mirror thingy.”

By now, Seokjin had followed his steps and stood behind Jungkook, arms resting on his waist. “Jungkook, that’s just the Mirror of Reveal. Nothing but glass, I’m telling you.”

“But I’m not lying,” Jungkook swore to an almost whine. He tapped at the mirror’s surface, and to his surprise, ripples started spreading from the point where his index finger had touched, moving as if he’d disturbed calm waters.

That’s it, then. He must be really, truly losing touch with reality now. “Oh my g—did you see that?” He crept forward and moved his head closer to the Mirror of Reveal. “Listen, I swear can hear something coming from here.”

“Well, I don’t.”

“Man, must be tough being that old, huh.”

“Hey!” Seokjin gasped and pinched Jungkook’s earlobe, giving him some serious side-eye. “Why, you little—“

“I know! Why don’t you ask?” Jungkook suggested, barely paying attention to the snowchaser’s affront. He nudged Seokjin forward until he was standing in front of the mirror instead. “Isn’t this your mirror magical or something? Go ahead. Ask what’s going on. Do your ‘mirror mirror on the wall thing’.”

Seokjin heaved a deep sigh and rolled his eyes. “You are insufferable.” He brought both hands together, cracking his knuckles, as he swept his hair out of his face. “But fine. Watch and learn from the divine master.” He lifted his hands in the air like a maestro poised to conduct his own orchestra.

Now it was Jungkook’s turn to make a face. Seokjin sure had a flair for the dramatics.

Reaching out to touch the gilded edge outlining the Mirror of Reveal, Seokjin mustered with as much gusto as he could, “Mirror, mirror on the wall; who dares trespass the safety of this hall?”

He’d barely finished his sentence when the Mirror of Reveal’s glass surface started rippling faster, like liquid mercury pleating over and over, and Jungkook shielded his eyes with his arms just as the mirror flashed in a blinding flare of sapphirine light.

Then came the water.

Cold, callous and constant. It was as if the Mirror of Reveal was a dam that had come away unhinged, opening wide to let in a giant tsunami out of nowhere. Jungkook had no time to leap back before the rapids engulfed him and Seokjin, sweeping him in a mad rush of water so cold it numbed his senses, violently crushing the air out of his lungs. The water was leaking into Seokjin’s chamber like a burst pipe, filling the cylindrical chamber until it looked like a half-full glass of water.

What the hell was happening?

Jungkook thrashed wildly to keep his bearings. He opened his eyes underwater and fought to stay upright, kicking with his legs until his head broke the surface of the water. He gasped in one breath after another, blood thrumming through his pulse as he struggled to stay afloat. He glanced up and squeaked.

As more water entered the room, the ceiling loomed closer overhead. Soon enough there would be no space to breathe. He would drown.

Then, without warning, all of the water stopped moving and turned into ice, trapping Jungkook along with it. Somewhere, Seokjin was using his power to stop the tsunami from advancing. With a panicked grunt, Jungkook tried to move his arms and legs to no avail. He was stuck like a seal caught in a glacier.

A low groan caught his attention, and Jungkook’s eyes snapped to the left. Seokjin was standing on the frozen water with his hands outstretched, red-faced in an attempt to freeze every last drop of water to a halt.

It worked for about half a minute, until the ice started melting, cracking at the seams before evaporating into the air until the mini sea of water receded slowly but surely. Seokjin yelped and stared at his hands as though burned, confused by how the ice didn’t seem to be listening to his command. It just continued melting, evaporating. It wasn’t just a battle of temperatures, but rather a battle of elements, and Jungkook knew there was only one person who had the capability to melt ice in a single instant.

His pulse skyrocketed, and when his feet touched the floor again—suspiciously dry and warm—he looked around frantically, eyes searching. Where? How? Out of the corner of his eye, Jungkook saw the Mirror of Reveal’s glow diminishing to a dull throb until its surface returned to looking like a regular, reflective mirror.

A portal, he realized. The mirror was a portal. The question was—was it a gateway in, or out?

A hacking cough stole Jungkook’s attention. On one side of the room, Seokjin was on all fours on the carpet now, shell-shocked, his head hanging low between his shoulders. He seemed dazed and distracted, unaware of his surroundings as he stared at his hands, before his eyes travelled to pin a betrayed stare at the Mirror of Reveal.

“There he is!”

Jungkook’s shoulders tensed at the sound of that honey-chocolate baritone, and pivoting on his heel, he finally saw them at the far end of the room—all four of them, huddled together within the protection of an electric blue energy field that looked as fragile as a soap bubble. He gasped. Each man was untouched by the receding flood that had brought them to this strange place. In the middle of their human cluster stood Namjoon, holding up his Summoning Staff, keeping the shield intact. Jimin was hugging Kashmere close, and beside him, Yoongi’s fiery hands shook with the effort to melt every last remnant of ice.

But where was Tae—

Then Jungkook was being tackled to the floor, enveloped by a warm cinnamon scent he’d come to associate with comfort and familiarity.

“Found you,” Taehyung whispered, winding his arms around Jungkook in a bone-crushing hug.

Jungkook let out a small grunt as his back hit the floor, but he wasn’t about to complain about Taehyung’s weight on top of him. “H-how did you get here?” he managed to croak out, his body seizing up with an unexpectedly sweet surge of gladness and bewilderment.

“We took the stairs,” replied Taehyung, simple and ridiculous as that. “And then some. It’s a long story.”

Jungkook blinked, mind whirring like a pinwheel. Amidst this frenetic flurry, his brain only honed in on the fact that Taehyung was actually here, flinging himself at Jungkook, and at that moment Jungkook’s brain-limb coordination short-circuited because oh man holy shit—where were his arms supposed to go? Around Taehyung’s shoulders? His waist? His ass?

He didn’t have time to make a decision though, because the next moment, he saw a tongue of red-orange fire burst forth from Yoongi’s palms and shoot straight for where Seokjin was crumpled in a dazed heap on the opposite side of the chamber.

“You,” he heard Yoongi growl, with every intention of punishing.

(But Jungkook could be giving him too much credit. Maybe the man was just bloodthirsty by nature.)

And although Seokjin seemed out of it, his knee-jerk reflexes were quick, and he rolled out of target’s way, barely just managing to avoid getting his hair singed by the fire caster’s flames. Crouching onto one knee, he glared at Yoongi, all attention on him, and Jungkook surmised that if Seokjin had fangs he’d be baring them by now. He could smell the aggression radiating off the celestial mage.

“Who are you?” hissed Seokjin, voice dangerously low, springing forward into a sprint towards Yoongi while two ice-shaped daggers materialized in his hands.

He didn’t get very far. Jungkook watched it happen in slow motion.

“Stop.”

In a blur of movement, Namjoon leapt in front of Yoongi and blocked Seokjin’s daggers with his own staff, their weapons crossing each other’s with a resounding clang.

At the sound of Namjoon’s voice, Jungkook saw how Seokjin’s head snapped away from Yoongi’s face and flickered into Namjoon’s, so lightning-fast he thought the guy’s neck might break.

A shadow of pain fell over Seokjin’s eyes, and his face switched from furious to thunderstuck. He sucked in an audible breath and meandered back as though burned. Recognition sparked in him, sharp as shock.

Namjoon’s eyes mirrored the same myriad of micro-expressions in his.

Then he breathed in a hoarse whisper, “…Jin.”

What’s his name? Jungkook had asked Seokjin several times while listening to his story.

Each time, Seokjin had dodged the question. What Jungkook did not know was this:

Here was Namjoon who had put his arms around Seokjin like a border when he cried. Namjoon who had laughed at his stupid jokes, and given him a listening ear when the rest of the world was dark and empty. Here was Namjoon who had left him to die alone.

With a choked whimper, Seokjin’s daggers dropped from his hands and shattered into a thousand glittering icicles on the floor. His arms fell limp by his sides and he stared, eyes wide and haunted, at the person standing before him. And now, he spat the name like poison through gritted teeth. “Namjoon.”

 


 

Postlude: Awake

 

Across the barren snow desert, a hooded figure walked wrapped in dense fog, the tail of her cloak curling into stygian smoke. Shadows fells across her face, leaving nothing but rouge lips exposed to curious eyes. In her left hand she held a pointed sceptre, its forked tips adorned with blood-red garnets and its handle polished with ebony sands from the enchanted deserts of Saffara.

Not much was known about her, except perhaps that she was tall, though even the exact measurement of her height remained a dubious matter—ask different people and you’ll get different answers. Some might remark she was shorter than a door, while others might veto that she stood as tall and slender as a willow tree.

One trait unmistakable about her, however, was the dark scar slashing down her face, from her left eyebrow to the curve of her jaw, charred and raw as though it had never quite healed. It was an open secret, hidden but not unheard of. People whispered about the origins of that scar, and though some might have guessed the correct answer, the worlds were not privy to her trove of secrets, and nobody was to know for certain.

Everybody knew one truth, though: she liked to steal.

But not things, oh no—material objects were far below her definition of a rightful steal. Often she wandered about the dead, picking through rotting heaps of carcass and corpses before the Valkyries came like an early bird at a fruit market. The more, the better.

Today the market count was low, but as she came across a body with an unrecognizable head and dismembered limbs, she sensed… something.

Alive and pulsing with a steady drumbeat, but it was not a heart. Not a heart at all.

It was the anima that this person had carried, strengthened by tragedy, encased in terrible grief that lived on even in death, and when she wove the corpse’s last moments back to life she watched his story unfold.

It was… too bad, really. Of monsters and men and their formless frivolity. The goddess had long since disposed of her empathy and so she felt nothing for this man’s demise, but she was taken with the unyielding nature of his anima, as though he’d died determined to conquer death.

Conquer death? An upward surge of adrenaline swept through the goddess, and she smirked.

Not in any lifetime. She was death, after all, and no soul had ever vanquished her.

But she could play those games.

She’d come here not just to steal from her friendly neighborhood Valkyries, but also to investigate the disturbances caused by a very naughty wolf. The monster needed to be stopped, kept in shackles, but to do so would take the entire life force of anima.

And what better way to freeze wayward creatures than with ice?

There was a way, there was always a way. She was not one to mess with the rules and workings of the living worlds. That was not her primary purpose. But the goddess of death never ran out of tricks to beat silly rules. She was bored and powerful.

A deadly combination. And so a decision was made. She would re-insert this man’s soul back into the world he’d just departed from, herd him back to the physical living realm, so that in return, he may herd Fenrir for her. In exchange for giving him back his life, this man would be bound and cast out with Fenrir for eternity. Win-win situation.

Kneeling beside the corpse, she whispered into its tattered earlobe. “Avsa hinibbi, morteusa loma.”

Summoning the celestial power of the stars, Hel stitched the corpse’s body back together like a seamstress with her ragdoll. And when all the work was done, she smiled. “Auribus teneo lupum.”

In the wake of her departure, heavy snow drifted in tufts to form the shape of a coffin. And inside, Seokjin opened his eyes.

Blue as the ice that rebirthed him.