Chapter 1: Into the Turtle's maw.
Choi Han couldn't believe his luck, after the village that took him in got destroyed, its inhabitants mercilessly killed while he was gone inside the forest to gather herbs. Choi Han couldn't believe his luck. After Harris village, the village that welcomed him so warmly, got destroyed and its inhabitants killed mercilessly while he was away inside of the forest, never would he have thought anyone would want to help him.
Since he wasn't from this world, he didn't have any ways to prove his identity, which had led to him being unable to enter the city under conventional means, effectively making him a trespasser. From dealing with grief, hunger and a bloodlust that stuck to his bone, becoming a criminal and hurting himself from narrowingly avoiding to crush some poor kittens, there was no denying Choi Han was at his lowest point.
That is, until that young, brown haired boy looked at him, saw the suffering he was plagued with and still decided to extend his hand towards him, to give him shelter for the night and food to satisfy him. At first, Choi Han thought it was a hallucination, a tricksty mirage his brain provided as he was thirsting for hope but the young man - the noble's? hand was warm and solid, proving he was truly here, truly wanting to help.
Following him to his place, Choi Han was silent as the boy kept looking back at him as if he was to disappear suddenly. The guard accompanying him was certainly unhappy with his addition to their duo, but the black-haired teen didn't mind him. He was pretty weak, and Choi Han was confident he could deal with him even in his state of exhaustion.
Still, they kept walking, kept silent as the roads became larger, cleaner and the houses bigger. They were climbing a soft sloped hill towards one big building he could see approaching fast and Choi Han felt nervous all of the sudden. He knew he had to ask the lord of the city for help with Harris Village, so the villagers would have a better place to rest in death, as his skills in that matter were quite lacking. He never would have imagined the first person he met was going to bring him to the right place so suddenly. He thought the boy was probably someone living in one of the smaller mansions around but the further they walked, the closer the big, ornate mansion of the Count became.
Perhaps to help with his sudden nervousness, the boy walked them to a side door, something way less formal and fitting someone like Choi Han better.
The inside of the mansion was warm and everything looked expensive. Choi Han was very careful not to touch anything, as he would not have enough money in his entire, long life to pay for the damages. And yet, the further they went inside of the mansion, the more expensive it looked. The boy in front of him ignored everything, probably too used and jaded to it to feel anything about the cost of it all.
"Welcome home, Basen." A warm voice made Choi Han jump and look to the other side of the room, where a red-haired man was leaning against a door-frame, a soft smile on his face. His everything claimed 'very weak' to Choi Han's honed senses but there was a hint of something that made him uneasy.
And apparently, he wasn't the only one feeling that way as the boy that took him in, Basen, suddenly went rigid seeing him. Familial problems? Choi Han mused. Fraternal competition? Bullying?
"I'm home, brother." Was Basen's answer, short and to the point. It was clear to Choi Han's eyes the boy was trying to act relaxed and amiable.
"And a new face. Hello and welcome! I am Cale Henituse, Basen's older brother. It is a pleasure to meet you." His smile as he walked closer was without a fault or any traces of treachery, but Choi Han wasn't going to lower his guard just for that.
"Basen," Cale continued, looking at his brother with a soft frown and a tut, "you could have warned in advance if you brought a guest. Now the maids are going to hurry to prepare his room. Sorry for the inconvenience."
"It's alright, brother." Basen said, voice firm as he held his brother's gaze. "Since he's my guest, I have to do it. You can go rest, I know Lily didn't go easy on you."
"That's kind of you." Cale chuckled, making shivers run up Choi Han's back. He was pretty sure this sweet back and forth would have continued for a bit longer if his stomach hadn't rumbled, earning himself an impressed look from Basen for how loud it was, and a blank, if smiling, expression from Cale.
"Perhaps you should deal with our guest's empty stomach, first." Cale said, tilting his head slightly to the side. "I know Beacrox is still in his kitchen, you can ask him to whip something quick for-" Cale looked at the teen, expectant. Right, he didn't even present himself.
"Choi Han." He said curtly. Cale blinked at him a few time before the smile returned to his face, albeit smaller.
"Of course. It's important to take care of your guests, Basen. Father wouldn't be happy to hear you were neglecting yours."
At the mention of their father, Choi Han was absolutely certain Basen sucked in an uneasy breath, lips tightening ever so slightly. Was everyone's relationship bad, in this family? In what sort of battlefield had he walked in?! All he could do was stick by Basen's side, untrusting of his older brother and his sickeningly nice attitude, Choi Han 75% sure it was just an act.
"We will be going now, brother." Basen said, sending a strange look towards Choi Han as he started walking away. His brother apparently didn't mind this curt exit and Choi Han already had a hard time understanding what unfolded in front of his eyes.
His mind was in chaos, every thought and emotion trapped within a whirlwind of incomprehension.
He had gotten the promise from Basen that they would meet early in the morning, to sort out any business he had with him or his father. For now Choi Han was granted a large and cozy room. Food was served plentiful and his wound got taken care of.
It was good. This was good... It was what Choi Han had come here to do and more, a chance to speak to the count and a place to stay for now with food and treatment.
And yet all his fatigue came crashing down. exhaustion taking its toll the moment Choi Han was left alone and he took the first spoonful of his simple but extremely delicious meal.
He could feel a few tears fall from his eyes. The food was good, he was so hungry. He was starved. He had run non-stop, he had only faced resistance at the city gates, was forced to jump the wall, which caused his sprain. Yet it hadn't really hurt. Because the hurt Choi Han felt was in his heart and it was drowning out everything else and right now it was drowning him.
He was alone in the world again.
He was alone, a stranger in a reality so different from his barely remembered town. And now he was also a murderer, having taken lives so readily, so easily. Of course, he could argue he did it to avenge the villagers but the satisfaction he had felt when they fell to his sword didn't feel 'wrong', at the time. It had been as if the darkest part of his self, the one he constantly ignored since his stay inside the Forest of Darkness, took the forefront of his mind and massacred everyone in sight without remorse.
he had promised himself to never let it out on humans, to only ever fight and kill monsters.
Now when he saw all his villagers killed those robed figures had been monsters in his eyes, it hadn't felt wrong. But now it did. Now that he was better in a warm room with plenty of rest to calm his mind. Now there was guilt and regret in his heart at having become worse than the monsters that roamed the Forest of Darkness.
It's with a full stomach and a heavy heart Choi Han finally went to bed, succumbing to sleep while trying not to think of the innocence he had lost by taking lives.
Chapter 2: Discussions and demands
With an early morning and more on his plate than he realized, Choi Han is set on his way to give the inhabitants of Harris Village the funerals they deserve.
But the world isn't finished with him just yet, as the count and his son demand a lot more from him.
Turns out he couldn't rest as much as he wanted to. It was something like 7am when a maid knocked at his door to wake him up with breakfast on a platter and a message from Basen, telling him to meet with his father before 8am - as he would be having meetings upon meetings until late in the night, as Thursdays were usually busy days.
When he finished his meal and got fully dressed, a young looking butler showed up to lead him to the count's office. His chatter did nothing to appease Choi Han's nerves as the sun timidly shone through the numerous windows.
The doors to the count's office were pretty normal looking, all things considered: simple, dark brown double doors with delicate gravures representing a turtle. He had seen it several times more in this place, so Choi Han assumed the people living here either loved the animal or it was the symbol of their family. Probably the latter, even if it was nice to think if it could be the former.
The butler knocked on the door and opened the door soon after, gesturing for Choi Han to enter. The room was on the medium side, with a large oak desk and several bookshelves along the walls. The count, an older man with brown hair streaked with gray, was sitting behind it, gaze focused on Choi Han like a hawk's on its prey. Basen's older brother, Cale, was standing to his side, papers in hand as if he had been helping his father.
"You're the young man Basen helped yesterday." The count said. It was stated matter de-facto, as if it was a regular occurrence for the man to deal with his youngest son's impromptu guests.
"I can't thank him enough." Choi Han said, bowing slightly. "And you as well, for allowing me to stay the night."
"Well, it cannot be said that the Henituse are bad hosts." Cale chuckled, earning himself a fond gaze from his father.
"My son said you had some business with me." Again, a direct statement, as if asking was unnecessary.
"The village I lived in had been attacked by an armed group and, while I buried them as best as I could, I would like to request for them to be properly buried and for a funeral to be held for them. Those were brave people and deserve to have a proper rest in the afterlife."
"You're a good child." The count smiled sadly, shoulders sagging down lightly as if those deaths were heaving him down. "What did you say the village's name was?" Finally a question, as the man pulled up a blank sheet of paper and a small map of the territory.
"Harris Village, sir." Choi Han said.
There was an immediate reaction as the name left his lips, the count freezing mid-action and Cale losing the small smile he had on his face. A touchy subject, perhaps?
"Cale. Leave." The count said without looking at his son, his gaze fixated on Choi Han who sweated slightly at the steel in the man's eyes. Cale obeyed without saying anything, the door closing behind him silently as if he was nothing but a ghost.
"Did I say something wrong?" Choi Han asked, feeling like he made a mistake.
"... no." Was the answer, the count passing a hand on his face, sporting a rather tired expression, now. "Cale's mother died on her way to Harris Village, a long time ago and he is still emotional about it. I prefer he doesn't get upset by staying."
Choi Han only nodded, not quite understanding but empathizing with the young man.
"Everyone died." Choi Han added, not quite knowing what else to say. "I killed the bandits that did it but didn't bother burying them. They were all wearing the same kind of clothes, though. Black with stars as a symbol."
"Stars...?" The count muttered, looking down at his papers and Choi Han couldn't see his expression clearly.
"Yes. I can't describe it better. I... I wasn't in the right state of mind when I killed them and then... well... I didn't really want to look at what was left of the bodies."
This earned him a piercing gaze as the count looked him up and down properly. The silence stretched uncomfortably between them and Choi Han was beginning to think he probably should have left out the fact he minced the bandits into unrecognisable parts.
"Right..." The count sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Young man, if I could ask something of you in return: could you go to the Capital and inform the Seneschal about it? There have been a few incidents in the kingdom about black robbed bandits and it could be useful for them to learn about Harris Village's fate."
"If you're sure about it." Choi Han replied, a bit hesitant. He didn't know if someone in the Capital would really care much about a small village so close to the Forest of Darkness.
"Call it gut instinct, young man. You can rest in Rain city for a few days, to regain your strengths and in the meantime, I will write a letter of recommendation, so you can go straight to the Seneschal's office."
A knock behind them and the door opening cut their conversation short, as an old looking butler passed his head in the opening.
"The director of the weaver guild is here for her appointment."
"Thank you Fedor. Choi Han, thank you for warning me. Your village will be in good hands."
"Thank you sir. Really." Choi Han bowed, slightly feeling like he was ushered outside more than anything, but the count was indeed a busy man, as he could see a line of people starting to form outside.
Choi Han was shown the door, given a pouch of money and recommended a good inn before he was all but shoved outside politely. He understood why, of course. As a stranger and someone who was graciously given the opportunity to talk to the count without prior engagement, he had no other reasons to stay inside of the estate, even if he would have liked to thank Basen once again.
Truly, he didn't know what had taken the boy to help him, especially given the state he had been in when they met but Choi Han would be eternally grateful for him. Rare were the people willing to blindly trust someone they found in an alley, and rarer those who would bring them to their house. For the boy that showed him the kindness of a saint, Choi Han was deeply indebted.
If the occasion ever presented itself, he would do anything for him.
Still, he couldn't ignore the count's [demand] after the kind gesture he demonstrated by allowing a funeral to be performed for the inhabitants of Harris Village. With the thought that, after he regained his strength, he would be set for the Capital, Choi Han felt slightly better with himself. Having a goal, something to focus on and look forward to was infinitely better than wallowing in self-pity with nothing to tether him to the real world.
A knock at the door shook him from the trance he got into while sharpening his sword. He frowned slightly, not expecting anyone to come see him. Setting the stone and sword aside, Choi Han got up from the bed, quickly fixing his clothes so he looked more presentable.
Opening the door, he was confused to see the youngest son of the count.
“Young sir Basen?” He asked, confusion written over his face. ‘What are you doing here?’ he doesn’t say but thinks pretty loudly.
“Hello Choi Han. Mind if I take a few moments of your time?” The young boy smiled at him, slightly leaning forward in a way that could only mean he wanted to enter the room. Not one to refuse anything from his benefactor, Choi Han stepped aside to let the boy in, getting slightly more confused when the noble asked for his knight to go downstairs and wait for him there.
"I asked father if I could be the one giving you the letter or recommendation." Basen said, pulling out an envelope from his coat pocket. "How is your ankle?"
"Pretty much healed." Choi Han answered, taking the envelope and glancing at the turtle on the sealed wax. "A few days' rest did wonders."
"Good. That's good to hear." Basen sighed before shifting on his feet, as if hesitating to say something.
"If… I could do anything for you to repay my debt.." Choi Han said to break the uncomfortable atmosphere, receiving a complicated gaze from the young noble.
"Anything…?" Basen said, nibbling at his lower lip before he looked at the door as if someone was going to enter abruptly.
"I owe you so much, for helping me, feeding me, giving me the opportunity to let my friends rest properly. Ask and I will do it."
Basen looked at him once more with steel in his gaze before he took a deep breath and muttered something about third-party.
"I want to make sure you won't regret it. Will you do anything if I asked you to?"
"Absolutely." Choi Han was firm in his resolve, not backing away from his words.
"Then… I want you to kidnap my older brother."
Chapter 3: Actions and profound reactions
That was a really bad idea. Choi Han knew it, had debated it with himself for a few hours but, ultimately, still went with it. He had said he would do anything to pay his debt. He just never thought he would be doing a kidnapping.
"I will be leaving Rain City early in the morning tomorrow, for the Capital. I have requested to take Cale's butler and cook with me, without those two you will be able to enter the mansion undetected."
Usually Choi Han would have also dwelled on why apparently a simple butler and a cook were deemed the biggest obstacles in the household, but his mind was occupied with many complicated emotions as it was. Right now, if it made his act easier then he would question such a thing at a later date, when he wasn't at risk of being incarcerated anymore. What would be the punishment for kidnapping a noble anyway? Prison? Death by hanging? He didn't know. Didn't want to know.
Choi Han had promised Basen he would do everything to repay him. But never in the tens of years of his life would he have expected the kind young master to request something so…
The black haired swordmaster couldn't understand at all. Basen was a good person, so much better than he himself.
That night when they had met, Choi Han had been ready to attack the kind, brown haired boy. More than that, Choi Han had killed people. They were not innocent, far from it, but it didn't change the fact that Choi Han was now as well.
Choi Han wasn't a bad person, but he was no longer innocent. Maybe he hasn't been for a long time now. When he chose to abandon so much of himself to survive in that damn monster filled forest. But he could still judge people well, his feelings had never been wrong.
Basen was innocent. Basen was kind and he wouldn't be able to commit a truly treacherous act. So he must have had a good reason to request something like the kidnapping of his brother, right?
"Once I leave with the Butler and Cook, you will have a chance. Infiltrate the estate and enter my brother's room while he is still sleeping."
To go after a sleeping target didn't sit right with Choi Han. The older brother had clearly been just as innocent as his sibling. And from what he saw those two don't seem to have any animosities between them.
The only thing Choi Han noticed was a certain unease Basen seemed to have around the redheaded noble.
"You can't miss his room, it's the furthest East on the third floor. Since it's still warm out, his windows will be left ajar, that's your way in and out. Security will be lax around 1 in the morning, but you will still have to act fast."
It was easy for Choi Han to jump straight to the window, nervousness chilling his bones and morality squeezing his heart. It was easier to slip unnoticed into the room, his eyes already used to the dark. His keen hearing picked up soft breathing and nothing else, the mansion as silent as a tomb.
"My brother always goes to bed at 11 in the evening and wakes up at 6:30 in the morning. Nothing will wake him up before that, so you will have at least five hours to get as far as possible from Rain City.”
True to his words, the red-haired nobleman was peacefully sleeping in his bed, dead to the world and the person that broke into his home. With a deep inhale, he pushed the bedsheets away from the slumbering man before gently lifting him into his arms.
Choi Han left as quickly as he came, careful not to jostle the Cale too much.
Just as Basen said, Cale did not stir, his breathing slow and regular as if he was still in his bed instead of someone's arm, being whisked away from his family.
But then there was the next part of Basen's request that Choi Han still remembered vividly, echoing in his mind.
"Please. You're the only one I trust with my brother's life. I fear something will happen to him if I'm not here to protect him, so bring him to the Capital with you. I will try to give you as much help as l can but I am limited in what I can do. I rest my faith in your hands, Choi Han."
Whether or not that was all a trick, Choi Han didn’t know, couldn’t back away from it. He was a murderer, a trespasser, a kidnapper yet he refused to become a liar as well. He still wanted to keep some of his moral rules, after stepping on a lot of them already. And if, truly, Cale was in danger by staying here, he wasn’t one to leave a victim to their fate. He just hoped he was making the right decision.
Luck had to be on his side this night, because he was able to traverse the town towards the western walls without getting caught by patrolling guards or the few drunk bystanders that roamed the streets in search of trouble.
Arriving at the base of the wall, where he knew security was lax, Choi Han felt his confidence waver slightly: this was the last line to cross before truly becoming a criminal. It wasn’t too late to bring Cale back like nothing happened. Yet, the memory of Basen’s sad brown eyes at the inn stopped him from going back. It was wrong to take Cale away from his family, but Basen said it was worse to leave him here. It was also true the noble could have had reasons to lie to him, stir up pity inside of his shaken up soul to manipulate him more easily but Choi Han still recognized someone genuine when he met them.
Soft mews at his feet shook him from his thoughts and he lowered his head, his gaze meeting those of two extremely familiar kittens. They were the same ones he had avoided a few days ago when he first jumped the wall to get inside of Rain City, those who kept him company until Basen came and held out his hand to him. They looked up at him with their golden eyes, red and silver fur shining under the moonlight.
“Hey, you two.” He softly said to them, receiving more mewing in return. “I’m happy to see you well but I need you to step back, I don’t want to hurt you while I jump.”
The kittens curled around his legs, looking up with something akin to curiosity in their eyes. Even the first time they met, Choi Han had the feeling they were more intelligent than regular animals and imagining them questioning his actions was easy. Feeling guilt sloshing in his stomach, he kneeled in front of them, careful not to jostle Cale too much and addressed the cats once more.
“It's.. it's not what it looks like. I mean, yes, that's exactly what it looks like but I am not going to hurt him. I swear on my life." Choi Han said to them, with the tone of a man riddled with guilt.
The kittens mewed at him louder, one of them even jumping on Cale's torso to sniff at him, making Choi Han even more nervous.
"No… please jump down. He's fine, he's just sleeping. Shoo!”
The silver cat seldom looked at him, settling itself on Cale’s chest as if it was a comfortable pillow. Choi Han awkwardly shifted Cale’s weight around, trying to push the cat off of him, to no avail. It was as if it had glued itself to the noble, stubborn in its refusal to move. Then, as if one wasn’t enough, the red kitten jumped on as well to lay down against its sibling.
“Oh no. No no no, please. I can’t bring you too, I don’t know how to take care of cats.”
The cats didn’t seem to care, didn’t even look at him as they started preening and purring a storm.
He was going to have to take them with him, now. He truly didn’t have much choice, as he didn’t want to put Cale on the ground and the way the kitten’s claws looked a hair breath away from prickling the noble, Choi Han wasn’t going to try and get them off anymore.
With a sigh, Choi Han put Cale on a more comfortable hold, making sure he wasn’t going to jostle him or the cats too much. Then, he jumped, climbing over the wall without too much trouble, so differently from when he first entered Rain City the same way, hurt, hungry and exhausted, barely able to hold his sword.
With Cale and the two kittens in his arms, Choi Han walked away from the city, barely looking behind him as he continued on with Basen's plan, for better or for worse.