It was a struggle to climb the steep, frosty hills when the twisted tree roots embedded beneath thick snow were determined to trip Hoseok. As delightful as face palming in the icy muck sounded, Hoseok would rather not experience hypothermia. Much less freeze to death. A grave laugh left his heaving lungs. How easy it was to imagine his waxy, cold corpse buried in the snow. At least his "family" would have no use of him, unless they, of course, decided to partake in necromancy.
But they weren't so desperate or foolish, Hoseok hoped, to have their prized possession back (except that was a lie and even he knew it).
Thin limbs trembling from the hike and the thinning oxygen as the land grew more slanted, Hoseok paused to catch his breath. The sun was beginning to disappear behind the mountain, the treetops no longer glistening with snow but capped by the darkness. The forest was teeming with nocturnal life when the moon was out, most not friendly. Hoseok didn't want to encounter the old goblins that liked to climb from their burrows for a late hunt. Becoming a midnight snack was not on his itinerary.
Huffing in frustration, the man went further along the alabaster land, praying there to be a place where he could find shelter for the night. And behold it be, by some higher being, the last touch of sunlight illuminated the opening of a cave. Hoseok snorted at his dramatics as he placed his palms on the cold rock, lifting himself over the protruding edge into the cave entrance. Panting from the exertion—he was extremely unfit— he snapped, and his palm shone with a soft flame, his silhouette twisting on the wet walls. Stalagmites hung from the ceiling, coated in cloudy water, but otherwise, it was empty.
Exhausted, Hoseok spread his cloak, sprawling out on top of it with a heavy sigh. His pocket jostled and squirmed before a small creature crawled from it, nails clicking on the rock as she went to her master's side, nuzzling the spent male's aching shoulder. Hoseok pried an eye to look at her, chuckling at his sweet familiar. The tiny ball of sandy fur mewled, watching him with big grey eyes that glistened with motherly concern.
"I'm fine Zemi." Hoseok pat his chest coaxingly, tucking an arm beneath his head to support his stiff neck. The cat meowed, unimpressed, but complied anyway, leaping onto the witch's chest and nestling herself between his sternum, head resting on her paws to gaze at the man's face. Hoseok sighed as his eyes fluttered shut. He was beyond tired, but the restlessness thrumming through his veins made it hard to relax.
Hell, he escaped. He actually escaped.
He knew not to dwell on the thought too long. He was out in the open; he wasn't safe. His father wasn't above paying a ridiculous bounty to have him back. Hoseok feared hunters would find him to drag him back kicking and screaming bloody murder. Hoseok knew he needed to be cautious.
With cold fear embracing him, Hoseok let the cicadas chirping lure him to sleep.
Hoseok's nose twitched with irritation at the claws scratching at his nostrils. Urgent meows filled his ears, grogginess fading away as his rest was disturbed. Hoseok exhaled angrily, sitting up on his elbows.
He forced his heavy eyes open, rubbing at the sleep crust in the corners. "What is it you wicked thing?" He heard it before the offended Zemi could answer. Voices, muffled but close. And growing closer. Towards the cave.
Hoseok cursed, rising to his feet and snatching his cloak from the ground to snap around his neck. Zemi had burrowed herself rightfully into his pocket, and he thanked her for her swiftness as he muttered a few words and swept a hand over his form, concealing his presence from the wandering eye. Temporary, but effective.
It was pitch black outside the cave opening, probably late into the night. The glow of torches ignited the foyer, followed by footsteps. Hoseok held his breath as two hooded figures entered, their sinister shadows deformed on the walls. He clutched the cat in his pocket for comfort, crouching back in the darkest corner.
"Are you sure its here?" One spoke, gruff and deep.
"If you look up you'd see it." Sweet. A honey tenor but sharp in his tone.
Hoseok spared a glance upward to see what it was they spoke of and had to hold back a gasp. The stalagmites were covered in chunks of turquoise jewels, pulsing bright. A low whistle brought him back to reality. Strangers. Escaping. Right.
The men whispered among themselves and Hoseok tuned them out, calculating their every move. Damn, he'd been so close. What would he do should they discover him? No doubt his previous master had alerted the town and its neighbors of his missing presence. They didn't seem like hunters, but hungry for riches? Yes. A plentiful bounty had to be over Hoseok's head, and they'd be idiots not take advantage of such an opportunity. There wouldn't be much Hoseok could do about it, not with the metal cuffs at his wrist restraining his magic, weakening him.
That little, crucial detail spurred Hoseok into action. Quiet as a mouse, he'd only risen to his feet when one of the men went abruptly still. Hoseok froze with him.
The shortest turned, face obscured in the shadow of his hood. "What?"
"I sense something."
Sense? Hoseok felt his eyes double in size as the rigid man grabbed a torch and started in his direction. Heart slamming frightfully hard against his rib cage, Hoseok moved not a muscle, not even trusting to blink when the man was standing right before him, close enough for Hoseok to smell the mint cloves his breath. It was too dark to make out a face, but Hoseok could see sharp, emerald irises amongst the darkness of the cloak hood.
They were petrifying.
"Where?" The other man asked, voice distant.
"Right here but I don't-" The stranger cut himself off. His eyes slid away from the wall, and Hoseok swore he was looking him dead in the eye. The man uttered a series of familiar words that made Hoseok's blood run cold. Not waiting for the revealing spell to take effect, Hoseok sprinted pass the man, feet slamming hard and desperate on the rock. Voices collided behind him, but the wind and blood rushing through his ears were much louder.
Just as he got a foot on the edge, prepared to throw himself from the ledge, an invisible hand clasped around his throat. Hoseok fell to the wet rock with a cough, screaming as he was dragged back to the cave.
"No!" Hoseok writhed, snarling a chant to free himself before jumping to his feet, whirling to lash out at the strangers. There was a bitter incantation on his tongue, sure to harm, but two arms thrust out in tandem and Hoseok was sent hurling back, soaring in the frozen air. He heard the breath leave his lungs in a gasp before his skull cracked sickeningly against a tree trunk.
The first time Hoseok came to, he was in motion.
Someone was carrying him, arms latched behind his knees as he hung over a shoulder like a worthless sack of grain. Each step jostled his head that sloshed and throbbed in terrible agony. It was hard not to sob, hot tears welling in his eyes and blurring his vision.
"Shh, it's okay." A voice cooed, a palm rubbing his back as though he were a coddled child. It belonged to the honey tenor, voice saccharine. "I'm so sorry, don't cry little one."
Hoseok was not assured in the least, but his vision swam,. He blacked out.
When he was conscious again, Hoseok felt unbearably warm. The heat was like a body suit, and he squirmed to get out of it, suddenly craving the cold wasteland that was winter.
A tongue licked his cheek. Full-grown Zemi stared back at him, her eyes wet as though she'd been crying, too. Hoseok laid a shaky hand on her head, scratching at the space between her ears to assure her he was alright. And it was the truth, at least physically. His head didn't ache as it had before. The pain that had slammed into his temples the initial time he'd awoken was gone, or at least numb.
Yes, numb. He felt inexplicably and disconcertingly numb.
He sat up slowly to take in his surroundings. He was in a room, blanketed in a thick duvet with a fire crackling just feet away. There were plants everywhere. The ceilings weren't too high, but they were covered in vines that seemed to shiver with life. On the mantel were exotic flowers. The bedposts were decorated with thick vines and vibrant nightshades, twisting into an intricate canopy above. There was so much botanical life that he couldn't find the door until the knob twisted and creaked open. Hoseok grew weary once again, but the strange numbness didn't make him afraid. Whatever had happened to him, it had robbed him of his common sense.
A man walked in, carrying a silver tray with a hot meal. His complexion was like gold, his curls silver and soft. Spotting Hoseok, the man's brilliant violet eyes widened, roseate lips parting in surprise before melting into a smile. "Oh, you're awake!" He scurried across the room, setting the tray on a vine that balanced it effortlessly, before sitting at the edge of the cot. His stare was intense and despite himself, Hoseok felt his cheeks warm at the man's proximity. "How do you feel?"
"Numb." Hoseok followed the man's gentle hand as it peeled away a green leaf from his forehead, sticky with sap.
The man giggled. "It will wear off soon, don't worry. I had to give you something so you could sleep peacefully, you were crying so much," The man's expression contorted in concern before he smiled again. If Hoseok were in his right mind, he would have flinched at the sudden mood shift. "Here, let's get you fed."
Hoseok sat against the headboard, allowing the odd man to spoon piping hot, yet delicious soup into his mouth. Thank gods his taste buds hadn't been numbed, or Hoseok would not have been able to groan and praise the dish, noticing the proud flush the man's cheeks would adorn from the words. "It's Jin's recipe, but I tried," was his humble response.
When his stomach was full, and the bowl was empty, Hoseok finally asked. "Where am I?"
"You kind of had a little accident, so you were brought here. Don't worry, you're safe." The man smiled again, and Hoseok knew the effects of the numbness were wearing off because that smile did not seem as sweet as it had before. There was a cutting edge to the corner of his lips, a hint of malice in his eyes.
A shiver ran down Hoseok's spine. His nerves tightened.
"Who are you?"
"My name is Taehyung, but you can call me Tae." Taehyung stood, coaxing Hoseok to lay back down with a press to his shoulder. "Take another nap. You're still grey from the concussion."
A part of Hoseok wanted to say no, he didn't want to take another nap, but before he could protest, his eyelids were suddenly heavy, and his breathing had evened out.
The third and final time Hoseok awoke, it was to the cold. A migraine pulsed at his temples, but otherwise, he felt fine and well rested. He remembered the silverette, Taehyung, and his surprisingly husky voice. The golden room filled with green life.
He was sure it was real. Which was odd. Because his eyes took in none of that.
The vines had gone limp with exhaustion, the once healthy stems black and covered with thick thorns. The safety and protection the room once emanated was desolate. As if he were in a mirrored world; a darker, foreboding version.
Hoseok nearly fell from the bed, narrowly missing his slumbering lioness. He nudged her awake, searching for an escape in the windowless room. There was only the door that loomed several feet away, threatening and covered in overgrowth. The witch grit his teeth, ignoring the increasing pounding at his temples in favour of stumbling towards freedom, the dead petals crushing into dust beneath his feet. Zemi followed after him, steps agile and quiet.
A board groaned with a step, wood grinding on wood. Hoseok's blood went cold when from the corner of his eyes, he caught a presumably dead vine twitch. They weren't there to be decorations. They were watchdogs. His fight or flight kicked in, and without the magic to fight, the only option was to flee. Hoseok lurched, making it four steps towards the door and reaching out with a desperate hand. His finger's brushed the icy knob before a vine wrapped around his ankle, yanking mercilessly. He hit the ground chest first, forehead ricocheting off the planks and sending a sharp pain shooting through his skull. The vines twisted and curled around his body, suspending him upside down. Zemi meowed in fear but Hoseok couldn't respond as blood rushed to his head.
The room span and his vision filled with black dots, going in and out when the door to the room suddenly opened. He recognised the bright indigo eyes and ashen hair, but not the pale skin or twisted runes crawling up Taehyung's throat, disappearing into the fabric of his tunic. Taehyung cooed in a sinister voice, groomed claw stroking Hoseok's cheek. The fragile skin split easily, a droplet of crimson trickling towards his temple.
Taehyung collected the drop, licking it away. "Leaving so fast, sweetheart?"
Hoseok groaned, head weighed with pain and blood. "I appreciate your help, but I must be going now."
"Worried about the hunters?" Icy violets flashed knowingly. The thorny vine caressed the scarred skin of Hoseok's calf, squeezing. It was just Hoseok's luck to come across another witch, an enchanter at that, and one intending to turn him over to the hands of his previous owner.
Perhaps it was desperation and the incessant throbbing in his head, but the words flew off Hoseok's tongue. "I will repay you, I swear. Please don't turn me in."
Taehyung held the witch's quivering chin between slim fingers. "You don't need to worry. I didn't plan on it."
"Sorry, but I don't trust enchanters." Despite Hoseok's serious tone, the ethereal man laughed sweet and light, tapping a finger against Hoseok's lips.
"How about this. I let you down in exchange for a kiss."
"Is that all?"
Thick brows furrowed thoughtfully. "Another meal?"
Embarrassingly enough, Hoseok's stomach decided to rumble then. "Fine."
The silverette chuckled, deceivingly sweet. He snapped and at his will, the vines released Hoseok. He fell on his ass with a grunt, scowling. As the blood made way back to their respective places, Hoseok grew light-headed with relief, an exhausted sigh leaving his lips. Zemi nudged her massive head into his back, purrs too soft for her imposing frame. Hoseok took a second to regain himself, sighing into the warm coat of his familiar.
"She's a beauty."
Hoseok glanced up, nearly forgetting Taehyung's presence. It was a great effort to lift himself from the ground onto his unsteady feet, surprised to find he had to look up a good inch or two to meet the enchanter's gaze. The raw power radiating from him made Hoseok uncomfortable.
Taehyung's scrutinising gaze did not fair well with Hoseok's irritable mood. He said nothing, pointedly looking towards the withered vines crawling on the floor. They were gathering at Taehyung's feet.
Taehyung continued. "Her size tells of formidable power. But I don't sense that from you."
Hoseok raised his wrist, not proud of showing the thick bands encircling them. They were made of iron, rusted from age, engraved with strange ruins. Taehyung's tried to touch them, but Hoseok drew back quickly. "It's an alloy that burns other witches."
Taehyung blinked, silent for a few seconds in thought before he shrugged. "I'm sure we can find an unbinding spell somewhere in Joonie's library."
Hoseok made to ask who Joon was, but Taehyung decided to close the distance between them instead. Hoseok made a confused noise as an arm wrapped around his waist, fingers lifting his chin.
Hoseok felt odd in the witch's embrace, not used to such proximity or the feel of satin lips to his own. He was stiff, awkward. A complete virgin to kissing. Taehyung seemed patient with him though, coaxing his lips apart to slip his tongue between the tight seam of Hoseok's lips. The latter grunted in shock at the unexpectedly pierced muscle, eyes snapping open to glowing violets staring back. He did not expect Taehyung's pupils to be narrowed into thin slits. Fear crept in Hoseok's gut, hands twisting in the witch's tunic. The chaste kiss dissolved into something that singed like the embers of a fire. It was filthy, the way Taehyung stole his lips with a skillful mouth that left Hoseok flushed and breathless. Hoseok crumbled at the sharp, hot tongue leaving no surface untouched. He whined, managing to pull away for a second until the silver-haired witch descended again, bruising Hoseok's poor lips. Hoseok panted as Taehyung's palms slid to his hips, crushing his slender frame against his own. The air was too hot as Hoseok suddenly grew aware of the bed edge pressing into the backs of his knees.
No no no—
A throat cleared and Hoseok was first to rip away with an unpleasant smack, lolling his head to the side. He saw a pair of familiar emeralds glowing beyond the threshold of the room.
"I should've known you were up to no good. I said to check him, not fuck him." It was the man with the gruff voice. He had a doll-like appearance, skin as white as winter. He had jet black waves curling around his silver-filled ears. Another lethal beauty, another danger.
Taehyung chuckled, ignoring the intruder as he gazed at Hoseok with the intensity of someone who was starved, running a thumb across the witch's kiss-swollen lower tier. "Such sweet lips. That was your first kiss, wasn't it?"
Hoseok swallowed, weakly shoving the mischievous man away. He fought the urge to drag his sleeve across his mouth or punch the laughing witch. "A deal is a deal. I'm leaving." He clicked his tongue for Zemi, nerves soothed with the familiar weight of the tinier lioness on his shoulder. "Thank you for your hospitality." Bowing, Hoseok paused in front of the doorway, expecting the looming man to move.
When he didn't, Hoseok huffed. "Excuse you."
Sharp jade stared down at him before the man finally stepped aside, floor creaking in the silence. Hoseok felt the weight of the gazes boring into his back as he used the poor light in the halls to guide him towards an exit. The ceilings of the home weren't that high, the walls greyish and the air clogged with dust that swirled in the flicker of the flames.
Zemi meowed in distress, and Hoseok calmed her with a pet. He chanced a glance behind to see if the two witches were following, but he was shocked to find a forest path directly behind him, milky with fog. He turned back, and the trail continued up ahead. It was an amazing feat to witness a secret passage, and despite being magic-born himself, Hoseok stood silently in awe before the reality of his situation came crashing down.
He was alone again, and with the sunlight seeping through the treetops, he'd be found easily during the day.
He almost considering going back to the witches cabin.