Cold rain lashes Jungkook's face as they round the next hairpin turn. His goggles are streaked. His hair is soaked. He clings to the rim of the sidecar with slick fingers. A long snaking bolt of lightning forks down from the clouds, brilliant and terrible. A moment later, the percussive boom of the thunder sounds. He holds his hands to his ears. Namjoon hits a pothole, and all of Jungkook's teeth rattle.
"Hyung," he says.
No response. Namjoon is hunched far forward over the handlebars, gaze fixed on the road ahead of them. Out here there are none of the new streetlights that line the city streets: everything is dark and dim, except what is revealed by the sweeping beam of the motorbike's headlight.
"Hyung," Jungkook says more loudly.
They hit another pothole. Jungkook lifts out of his seat temporarily, saved from ejection only by the safety belt. The bike shudders. He reinforced the rivets that hold the sidecar to the frame himself, but he still doesn't like that vibration. What time is it? How much further do they have to go? He can't tell. Night came early because of the storm. It might be five in the afternoon now. It might be nearly midnight.
"Hyung!" Jungkook screams over the roar of the wind and the rain.
"What, Jungkook?" Namjoon shouts. "What?"
"Hyung, we're backfiring again," Jungkook screams.
"Huh?" Namjoon turns his head for a moment. The tails of his scarf stream behind him.
Jungkook cups his mouth with his hands. "The engine! We're going to –"
Just at that moment they come to another sharp curve. Namjoon squeezes the brakes with all his might. The tires spin, and for a moment Jungkook thinks they're going to fly out over the precipice and fall – splat! – to the bottom of the ravine. Namjoon leans into the turn hard enough that the right wheel of the sidecar lifts off the ground. The engine gives another enormous pop, sputters, and then goes silent. Namjoon jams the brakes again, so hard that sparks fly, and they coast a bumpy few dozen yard before rolling to a stop against the sheer rock wall where the mountainside has been cut away.
"Shit," Jungkook says. He feels like his brain has been scrambled in his skull. He tumbles out of the sidecar, nearly landing face first in a puddle. He catches himself just in time, but his hands come up muddy and scraped as he climbs to his feet.
Namjoon disentangles himself from the bike and pulls off his helmet. He shakes his head like a large, ill-tempered dog. "Goddamnit, Jungkook, what happened?"
Jungkook huffs. "Hyung, I told you there was a chance my repair to the alternator might not work. I told you we should take the horses. I told you!"
Namjoon frowns but says nothing. They both know Jungkook warned him this might happen. He wipes an ineffectual hand over his face, which gets immediately wet again.
"I told them we'd be there tonight," he says.
It's a point of pride of Namjoon's never to be late.
Jungkook sighs. "Well," he says. "I'll see what I can do, hyung, but I'm not optimistic, considering we're on the side of a mountain, in a thunderstorm, in the middle of the night."
"It's not the middle of the night," Namjoon says, scowling. He takes his silver watch out of his pocket and opens it. "It's only six."
"Oh," Jungkook says, blinking the rainwater from his eyes. "Well, since it's only six, I should be able have the bike fixed right up."
Namjoon scowls. The scar that diagonally bisects his face – from his right eyebrow, across the bridge of his nose, and down his cheek – puckers. That expression had terrified Jungkook when he'd first become Namjoon's apprentice, all those years ago.
He knows better now. Namjoon, in spite of his reputation, is a lot more bark than bite.
"Let me take a look," Jungkook says, taking off his trench coat and throwing it on the ground in a feeble attempt to keep dry. He kneels down, but it doesn't take him long to see the problem. "The engine's flooded. I can't fix this here, hyung. I need to get it inside and take it apart. Dry out the spark plugs. How far are we from the village?"
Namjoon sighs and squeezes his eyes shut. "I knew this job was a bad idea," he mutters. "I think the map said another eight miles after we crossed the mountains."
Eight miles, in this weather? Jungkook sighs, getting to his feet. "Well," he says, wiping his hands on the thighs of his canvas coveralls. "Look on the bright side hyung. At least it's downhill?"
It's a miserable little nothing of a town. Namjoon hates it before they even set foot through the crumbling wooden gate.
At least the rain has stopped. It poured the entire time they'd trekked down the mountain, and rained steadily as they crossed a long bland expanse of dreary farmland, and was still drizzling when they reached the river. Not long after they crossed the bridge (much broader and longer than seemed necessary for the shallow, sluggish river it spanned) the rain finally petered out, and they were, at least, able to finish their journey without any further incident.
Jungkook grunts, settling the gear pack more firmly on his shoulders. He looks exhausted. There are huge dark circles under his eyes, and Namjoon feels a pang of guilt. He should have insisted Jungkook stay back in the city to mind the shop, but this case is important and he’d wanted to come. He’s so smart and honestly such a big help that Namjoon hadn’t had the heart to refuse him.
The streets – really, just one main street that runs down the center of the village, with alleys forking off between the tumbledown stone buildings – are empty. Quiet. Overhead, a big, luminous moon sails the inky heavens. Good thing, because there's not a light to be seen in any of the houses. It's late – nearly eleven – but in the city the streets would still be bustling, full of people enjoying the new electric street lights, strolling arm in arm with their evening's company, sitting out at the sidewalk cafes, soaking up all the thrill and excitement of modern life.
Here, there's nothing. Just dark gaping windows and the wind rattling the high branches of the trees.
"Maybe it's a plague," Jungkook mutter. "Maybe we're too late."
Namjoon shakes his head. "No," he says. "No bodies, and there’s no reek of cremation in the air. This is what it's like in the out in the country, Jungkook. They go to bed early around here."
Jungkook, city boy born and bred, nods, wide eyed. "There's an inn, right? You promised no more jobs where we have to sleep on the kitchen floor."
"There's an inn," Namjoon says. The motorbike rattles sadly as he heaves it over a piece of uneven pavement. "We just have to find it."
They do find it eventually, right on the tiny square in the center of town. There's nothing to distinguish it from the other shabby stone houses, except that it's a bit bigger and there's a sign hanging over the door with the hanja for lodging painted on it in a neat hand.
Namjoon tries the door. Unsurprisingly, it's locked.
He knocks again, more firmly.
Jungkook yawns hugely.
Namjoon grits his teeth and then hollers, "Is there anyone at home in this godforsaken place?"
Silence. Rain dripping from the eaves. An imperceptible breeze sets the leaves astir.
"Shit," Namjoon says.
Just then, the thick wooden door of the inn creaks open a few grudging inches. A hooded face with suspicious eyes peers out.
"What do you want?" the man asks.
Namjoon clears his throat and smiles. "Hello," he says. "I'm Kim Namjoon. This is my assistant Jeon Jungkook. We've been hired by –"
The door swings open all the way. Their questioner is a short man swathed in a thick cloak. He glares at them a moment longer. "You're late," he mutters.
Namjoon bites back a curse. "My apologies. We ran into some mechanical issues on our trip. Speaking of, is there a place we can leave our motorbike until my assistant can take a look at it?"
The man stares at the bike for a moment, seemingly dumbfounded. They're a new innovation, these motorbikes, and even in the city they've only become common in the last five years. Way out here, they may never have seen such a thing before.
"You can put it in there," the man says, nodding in the direction of a sturdy outbuilding.
Namjoon and Jungkook wheel the unruly thing over the threshold, over the uneven paving stones of the courtyard. The bike creaks and groans unhappily. For a terrible moment Namjoon thinks it might not fit through the shed doors, but thankfully it does and they are able to get it safely in and under cover.
The man watches all of this, arms folded, eyes cold. When they've finished, Jungkook is panting from exertion and Namjoon feels like he's reached the very end of his strength. The man says, "Well, let me show you to your room."
He leads them through several dark passages, cold and dripping with damp. These do not seem to be the most hospitable environs, but Namjoon's employer had recommended the place as the finest establishment in town. He's wondering if finest might have been a euphemism for 'only'.
The room, when they finally reach it, is a surprising delight. Spacious, with two comfortable looking beds and a little sitting area. Another man stoops in front of the hearth, stoking a fire. He jump up as if startled when they enter. Red-faced from the flames, he turns to greet them.
"Welcome!" he says, smiling. He's handsome, strikingly so, and younger than Namjoon would have suspected for the proprietor of a place like this – maybe Namjoon's own age, or a few years older. "Welcome! My name is Kim Seokjin. Your escort is my partner, Min Yoongi."
The first man lowers the hood of his cloak, revealing a countenance far less menacing than it had seemed outside in the gloomy evening. He smiles a reluctant smile and waves.
"Kim Namjoon," Namjoon says. "And my assistant, Jeon Jungkook."
"It’s been so dry lately that we’re grateful for any rain, but I worried you had gotten caught in the storm. We were expecting you earlier." Seokjin’s concern sounds sincere.
"We ran into some weather," Namjoon admits, “but we got here.”
Jungkook snorts. “Some weather?”
Seokjin nods, smiling the bland smile of the host. "I'm afraid the kitchen fire is shut up for the night, but I brought you up some tea and bread."
"This is plenty," Namjoon says. "Thank you for your hospitality."
Seokjin smiles and nods again. "Breakfast will be served downstairs in the morning. I hope you’ll be comfortable. Goodnight," he says, and he leaves. Yoongi follows behind him, silent as a ghost.
As soon as the door is shut, Namjoon sets the deadbolt.
No particular reason, but he wouldn't be here if he weren't in the habit of being careful.
"What do you think?" Jungkook asks, frowning. He drops the gear pack at the foot of one of the beds.
"I think this place is going to be more trouble than it’s worth," Namjoon says. He pulls off his sodden shirt, and stands in front of the cheerily crackling fire to warm himself. "Let's go to bed. Tomorrow's going to be a long day."
Jungkook is dead asleep when Namjoon awakes. He's got a mask over his eyes and earplugs in his ears (So Namjoon might snore a little. So what?) and is dead to the world. Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut and then opens them again. His pocket watch is sitting on the nightstand. He opens it. Already ten o'clock. Damnit.
He forces himself out of bed. In the tiny bathroom, he washes his face with cold water from the ewer. The cold water is a trial he's not used to, but the soap is soft and sweetly scented and he does feel more awake after his bracing wash.
He dresses in the same thing he wears for every job: sturdy khaki pants with lots of pockets, a white button up shirt, and a black jacket. Unremarkable clothes. Clothes that let him blend in. Let him pass unseen.
He brushes his hair out of his face, glances once more at Jungkook, who is still blissfully asleep, and heads downstairs to find some breakfast.
He gets lost a few times but finally makes his way down to the inn's common room. It's big and bright and cheery – as well kept and comfortable as their bedroom – and it makes Namjoon think that this Yoongi character must have taken them the back way the night before on purpose. Hmph. Well, maybe he's just not the friendly type. Hopefully Namjoon will have better luck with the other man, Seokjin. He is scheduled to meet with his employer this afternoon, and if he can, he'd like to get the lay of the land beforehand.
Namjoon lingers awkwardly at the foot of the stairs. There are few other patrons: an elderly couple sit at a table in the corner sipping tea, and three rough men crowd another table, shoveling rice into their mouths as fast as they can.
Seokjin comes bustling through a door that must lead to the kitchen, carrying a plate of fried eggs.
"Ah, Namjoon-ssi," he says, smiling. "Please sit anywhere you'd like."
Namjoon mutters a quiet thanks and takes a seat at the back of the room, the furthest from the wall that is open to the porch. He can't help it; that's a lesson his old man taught him, years and years ago. From here he can see the courtyard. The gate, so resolutely closed last night, now stands open. The sky is clear and very high, and he can hear birdsong and someone chopping wood in the distance.
Seokjin brings him a pot of tea, some rice, side dishes, and a bowl of soup.
"My apologies, Namjoon-ssi," he says, smiling frankly. "I know pastries and coffee have become the breakfast of choice in the city, but we're rather old fashioned here."
"It's fine," Namjoon says. "This looks very good."
Seokjin nods appreciatively. "If there's anything else I can –"
"Would you mind answering a few questions for me, Seokjin-ssi?" Namjoon is a direct guy; no point in beating around the bush. He's learned over the years that the best way to find out what you want to know is to ask.
Seokjin's smile grows a bit more hesitant. "Ah, I'm sorry Namjoon-ssi, but I'm quite busy right now."
Namjoon frowns; his displeasure must show.
Seokjin kneels closer, like he's placing another of the little bowls that hold the side dishes. "When my friends over there are done," he whispers, nodding in the direction of the three gruff men.
Ah-ha. Namjoon nods.
Seokjin hurries back to the kitchen. Another group of men comes in. Namjoon sips his tea and slowly eats his breakfast. Seokjin hurries back and forth from the kitchen with trays of food. Yoongi comes in from the yard with an armful of firewood. His shirtsleeves are rolled up, and there is sweat running down his forehead. He glances in Namjoon's direction, but does not reply to Namjoon's nod of greeting.
The first group of men leaves. Preceded by a series of loud thumps, Jungkook comes downstairs, looking very tired.
"I'm starving," he says, dropping down to the seat across from Namjoon. His enthusiasm is tempered when he sees that soybean paste soup is on today's menu. He hates the stuff, but he’s got better manners than to complain when Seokjin brings him his own breakfast. He eats his bowl of rice, and his egg, and all of the side dishes, and then looks around so hopefully for more that Namjoon pushes his own unfinished bowl of rice across the table.
"Thanks, hyung," Jungkook says, beaming.
"You need to keep up your strength to get the bike fixed," Namjoon says.
Jungkook's face falls. "Oh right," he sighs. "I don't know where we're going to find a new set of spark plugs out here though."
"What's the first rule?" Namjoon crosses his arms.
"Always be resourceful," Jungkook recites tiredly. "I know."
The second table of laborers gets up to leave. The dining room is empty now. Only Namjoon and Jungkook are left. Seokjin comes out of the kitchen, wiping his hand on a towel. "Our friends are gone?"
"Well then," Seokjin says, sitting beside Jungkook. "What is it I can help you with, Namjoon-ssi?"
Namjoon takes a sip of his tea. "I'm here to investigate the murders,” he says. “There's a rumor they may involve a monster, and I have been hired to investigate. I work with –"
Seokjin stares at him for a moment, and then laughs. "I know you must think we're at the ends of the earth out here, but we do get papers. I know all about you. Kim Namjoon – slayer of rouge dokkaebi and asocial gwishin, of monsters of all stripe and color. Your reputation precedes you."
Namjoon doesn’t ask for those stories to be written – it just seems to happen. The reporters latch on to one little thing – like the fact that he's the scion of a generations old family of monster hunters, like the fact that he lost his parents to a monster attack, like the fact that he still bears that beast's scar – and suddenly they're trying to build him up into some kind of hero. Well, he's not. He's just a man trying to do his part to rid the world of dangerous, unnatural vermin. From the stuff of nightmares.
"Don't believe everything you read in the papers," Namjoon says curtly. "What can you tell me about these murders, Seokjin-ssi?"
Seokjin sighs. "They started a few years back," he says. "After the new foundry opened up. The first victim was a young woman I knew. She went into the forest to gather mushrooms, and didn't return. Her body was found a week later by a search party."
"All the others were like that? The victim went into the forest and disappeared?"
Seokjin nods. "Yes. All the same. We thought it was just a terrible accident at first, and then after the second murder an awful coincidence, but now –"
Namjoon's employer had explained. Ten murders now, with six occuring in the last half year.
"What do you think of the rumor that a demon is behind this?" Namjoon asks.
Seokjin snorts. "I can promise you there's no demon," he says.
Namjoon narrows his eyes. He’s run into this type before. "What makes you so sure, Seokjin-ssi? I've heard reports from four different sources that there's been sightings of a man – or a man-shaped something – in these woods."
Yoongi comes in from the yard. His face is washed and his sleeves are rolled down. He sits beside Seokjin and scowls. He is sitting so close to Seokjin that Namjoon wonders if they are partners not just in running this inn, but in another sense as well.
"There's no demon," Yoongi says. "That's nonsense."
Namjoon narrows his eyes. "You don't believe there are such things as demons, Yoongi-ssi? I can promise you that they exist. I’ve killed them."
"I don’t know what you’ve killed," Yoongi drawls. "But I'm telling you there's no demon in those woods."
"What makes you so sure?" Namjoon asks.
"What makes you so sure there is a demon?" Yoongi asks, eyes narrowed.
Seokjin pats Yoongi gently on the shoulder and he sits back, still scowling.
"Namjoon-ssi," Seokjin says calmly. "The forest is a very special, very sacred place. My family were caretakers of the forest shrine for generations, before the old practices died off. I know what the townsfolk say, but I don't think a demon would feel welcome in such a sacred place."
Namjoon internally rolls his eyes. There is a thin line between the supernatural and the superstitious, and this kind of talk crosses it.
"What do you make of the sightings, then?"
Yoongi speaks up again. "I’ve heard there's someone living at the old shrine," he says. "He's harmless, though. Just some kind of kooky revivalist, trying to bring back the old ways. People have seen him in the woods, but he’s got nothing to do with the murders."
"Hmm," Namjoon says. "Thank you. That may be important information." He takes a sip of tea. "My apprentice Jungkook needs to do some repairs to our motorbike. Is it okay if he works in the yard?"
Jungkook – apparently driven to desperation by hunger – looks up from slurping down the last of his soybean paste soup. "Don't worry," he says, swallowing. "I know new technology might seem scary, but there's nothing to worry about."
"What kind of engine?"
"Huh?" Jungkook's eyes go wide.
"What kind of engine?" Yoongi asks, again. "Two-stroke? Four? Is it fuel injected, or do you have a carburetor?"
Seokjin laughs at their expressions. "Yoongi is something of a machinist," he explains. "I'm sure he can help you with whatever repairs you need to make, Jungkook."
"Oh," Jungkook says. "Um, thanks? I've taught myself a lot but I'm definitely not an expert, so help would be great."
Yoongi shrugs, like it's nothing.
"And what about you, Namjoon-ssi? Do you need help with anything?" Seokjin smiles, a little too friendly.
Namjoon shakes his head. "No," he says. "Thank you. You’ve been very helpful already. I have an appointment, and I have to get going."
"Well, what do you think?" Seokjin asks, dumping the last of the morning's dishes into the big stone wash basin.
Yoongi drops the load of wood he's carrying and frowns. "About what?"
Seokjin narrows his eyes. "Don't play dumb," he says. "About our guests."
Yoongi starts stacking the wood in the niche by the hearth. "Not as bad as they could be," he says.
"What do you mean?" Seokjin asks, although truthfully he'd been thinking the same thing.
"He talked to you before talking to Yang," Yoongi says, not looking up. "That's something."
"Yeah," Seokjin says tiredly. He rolls up his sleeves and starts to fill the basin with water and soap. "That's something. That nickname though –"
"Scourge of the Supernatural?" Yoongi snorts. "That's just sensational bullshit. You’ve seen him now, hyung. He’s just an ordinary man."
"Yeah," Seokjin agrees, not totally convinced.
They work in silence for a few moments. Seokjin scrubs the dirty dishes. Yoongi stacks the wood. This is their routine now; up before dawn to get ready for breakfast, and then as soon as that's done they prep for dinner. The money the boarders bring is welcome – but Seokjin can't say he's happy.
No. He wouldn't say that at all.
"I don't know what I'm more afraid of," he mumbles, elbow deep in soapy water.
"Hmm?" Yoongi comes to stand beside him. He puts a hand on Seokjin's shoulder. The familiar touch is a comfort.
"I don't know what I'm more afraid of," Seokjin says again. "That he won't find the killer, or that he will."
Yoongi nods, rubs the juncture of Seokjin's neck and shoulder with his thumb.
"Be nice to the kid, won't you, Yoongi?"
"When am I not nice?" Yoongi grumbles.
Seokjin rolls his eye, and turns his attention back to the dishes.
"Please, come in and make yourself comfortable, Namjoon-ssi. I will be with you in a moment."
Mayor Yang Jongyul is a tall lean man, but his leanness is an unhealthy lack of flesh. Sallow skin hangs from his jowls. Dark baggy circles droop beneath his black eyes. His hair is sparse and dyed jet black. His clothes – though impeccably cut in a very modern style – seem poorly fitted, as though originally intended for someone else.
He smiles an uneasy smile and steps back into the outer office, shutting the door behind him.
If there is a town hall in this little corner of nowhere, Mayor Yang Jongul does not use it. His office is at the back of a suite of offices at White Spark Foundry, the company he founded and operates to great acclaim and profit. White Spark products are found in all modern machines: their gears make clocks tick, and their pistons make engines turn. The walls of Yang's office are covered with photographs of him with various notable celebrities and dignitaries. The sepia tones are faded, but there's even an old picture of him with the King, when the King was a young, proud man and Yang had a much fuller head of hair.
Namjoon left the inn at quarter after one, even though Seokjin had said the walk would take no more than twenty minutes. He’d just wanted a chance to get a look at the town, honestly. He'd seen much more today than had revealed itself last night. Amulets and prayers hanging in house windows. The quiet, frightened way the villagers made their way down the street. The suspicious looks they gave him. White Spark Foundry itself, hunched on the riverbank a few miles out of town. They must have passed it last night, but hadn’t noticed in the dark. In the day, it is impossible to miss, belching black smoke and looming, dark and massive, over the countryside.
Namjoon glances at his pocket watch. Quarter past two now. He arrived at precisely two on the dot, as Yang's telegram had indicated. He'd been kept waiting ten minutes out in the lobby and now Yang keeps him waiting here. He frowns. If Namjoon is going to waste time, he'll be the one to decide to waste it.
He is looking at the books on Yang's shelves – trade periodicals mostly, lethally boring – when the door opens again.
"Sit down, Namjoon-ssi," Yang says, with that same oily grace in his voice. "Sit down and relax."
Namjoon sits down, but he does not relax. He sits up ramrod straight, and waits for Yang to speak.
"Well?" Yang, leaning back in his chair, folds his hand in his lap.
"Well what?" Namjoon narrows his eyes.
Yang exhales. "You got the documents I sent by courier, Namjoon-ssi. I have the receipt with your signature. What is your opinion of our situation here?"
Yang had sent page upon page of testimonials – supposedly from terrified townsfolk desperate to have Namjoon solve their mystery. Collecting such evidence showed admirable dedication, but Namjoon is not convinced; many of the accounts shared certain similar turns of phrase – "terrible demon" shows up more often than it should, and "wild, untamed forest". He suspects that more than one of these terrified townsfolk might have been coached in what to say.
"I don't have any opinion yet, Mayor Yang," he says calmly. "I only just arrived, and my investigation has not yet begun."
Yang's eyes flash angrily, but he contains the anger. "Of course," he says. "Of course. I've read so much about how meticulous you are, Namjoon-ssi. That's why I wrote to you asking to help us." He clears his throat. "How will you begin your investigation, then?"
Namjoon clears his throat. "There have been almost a dozen confirmed murders here in the last several years.The accounts you sent me indicate that the villagers suspect a supernatural culprit. There have been sightings of a – how did your letter put it? – 'tall, looming creature lurking under the eaves of the forest'."
Yang nods eagerly. "Yes," he says. "Yes, exactly. The people here are simple folk. They work hard but it is poor country, and they live a hard life. Harder now, with this drought going on like it has. I just feel grateful I've been able to ease their burden a bit. These predations have driven them all have mad with terror."
"You're referring to this foundry when you speak of help?" Namjoon frowns.
"We employ fifty people from the village," Yang says, proudly. "And we plan to expand. We'll have jobs for anyone in the village who wants one, Namjoon-ssi, and more. People will flock here, eager to work for White Spark. We'll build new, modern houses, not these old tumbledown stone huts the people live in now. Bring in electricity and indoor plumbing." He frowns. "These people live in a shocking state of poverty and ignorance. I am proud that I can help bring them forward to the threshold of the grand new modern age."
And get rich doing it, no doubt. It's quite the speech. Namjoon wonders if he practiced it. "And what's all that got to do with these murders?"
Yang laughs. His teeth are big and smoke-stained. "Surely you understand that my investors are reluctant to commit to further projects while there's a monster on the loose, Kim Namjoon."
"Hmm," Namjoon says. He meets Yang's eye. Yang smiles. Namjoon says nothing, does not look away. Yang's smile grows wider and then falters, and then finally he looks away.
Namjoon smiles then, and leans back in his seat. "I don't really care what you're doing here," he says. "I personally think you'd be better off leaving these people alone, Mayor Yang, but I've made it my vocation and my purpose to eliminate monsters that prey on the weakest of humankind. I'll investigate your case, and if there is a monster behind these murders, I'll kill it. That's all."
Yang grins again. "And that's all I ask, Namjoon-ssi. So. Where will your investigation begin?"
Namjoon looks out Yang's office window. Beyond the foul grey foundry yard, beyond the belching smoke, the forest clings to the low roots of the mountains, dark and dense and ancient. "At the scene of the crime, of course. I'll be going into the forest this evening, when the wicked things come out."
Namjoon glances down at the array of weapons spread out on the little table in their cozy room. Pistol? Yes, he'll definitely take the pistol, and some of the silver bullets, even though he knows this isn't a vampire. No vampire kills with blunt force trauma.
His knives he'll bring, of course. And the sacred bell, supposedly blessed by Bojo Jinul, that banishes ghosts to the place of eternal rest. A few vials of poison – the datura, and the fuzi, and –
His hand lingers over the black vial that holds his gu. The little bottle, carved with impossibly intricate reliefs of scorpions and spiders and snakes, shudders, as if it can sense his hand draw near. He can feel the heat rise off it. Terrible. Malignant.
No. It is not time yet for the gu. He takes the pouch of dried hyeopjukdo instead.
"Hyung," Jungkook says miserably. "It's too dangerous for you to go yourself. Why won't you let me go with you?"
Namjoon stares at him, at his screwed up face and clenched fists.
"If it's too dangerous for me, it's too dangerous for you. Stay here, Jungkook. Fix the bike. I'll be back by morning."
Jungkook makes a miserable noise. "You're not taking this seriously, hyung," he says. "I know you're good – I mean, you're the best – but this thing has killed almost a dozen people. You need to be careful."
Namjoon frowns. "I'm always careful," he mutters.
Jungkook rolls his eyes. In addition to being Namjoon's apprentice and in-house mechanic, he's also really quite a skilled field surgeon. He's patched Namjoon up often enough to know that's not at all true.
"Hyung," he says. "Is there anything I can say that will convince you?"
Namjoon shakes his head. "No," he says. "I'm going to take a look. You know how many creatures won’t show their face until after dark. You're going to stay here. See if you can find out any more about what's going on from Yoongi or Seokjin."
He takes a mental inventory. Pistols, knives, poisons, bell. Hmm. He reaches for the multi-segmented spear – a weapon of his own invention – and starts slotting the shaft together. The uppermost segment twists open to conceal a blade, but closed, it looks like an innocuous walking stick.
Well. He's as ready as he'll ever be.
"Be careful hyung," Jungkook says once more, starting to put away the weapons that Namjoon hasn't chosen.
Namjoon grins. "I do try, Jungkook-ah," he says.
That's the best he can do.
It is evening and the air is rich and cool as Namjoon follows the road over the bridge and past the foundry, which still rumbles and spews at this late hour, and then, finally, into the forest.
Mayor Yang provided a map that marks the spot of the known disappearances. Namjoon consults it for a moment, and then tucks it in his pack. He has always been of the opinion that the best information come from first hand observation. Namjoon doesn't know what Yang’s motives are, but he doubts they are as altruistic as they seem. The man seemed a little too eager to pin these murders on some nightmare beast.
Forest demon. Really. Namjoon rolls his eyes.
Namjoon was raised from the cradle to know and fight wicked, unnatural things. Time has only strengthened his resolve. Still, in all his years he has never seen anything he might call a forest demon. If there is anything in these woods, he suspects it's something much more mundane. A gumiho, perhaps, or a very powerful gwishin.
Namjoon won’t speculate. The truth will make itself known. It always does.
The woods are silent in the dim evening. Ancient trees, so wide around they are four times his arm span or more, tower overhead. Mossy rocks and gnarled roots force the path to meander. There is a rich dampness to the air here, something old and fertile that Namjoon likes, a stark contrast to the parched, sunbrown countryside he just passed through.
Powerful monsters leave a taint, a foul miasma that hangs in the air like greasy smoke. After so long, Namjoon can sense such things, and he senses nothing of that here. Instead, there is just an old, quiet peace, and a deep sorrow. Nothing moves here – no animals scurry in the underbrush. No birds sing their evening song. The air is heavy and motionless. It is like the spirit that animates places such as this has vanished.
He frowns. Unnatural, maybe, but not malevolent. Not on the surface, anyway.
Still, he is wary. His parents' second rule was 'Be cautious'. Namjoon honors their memory by adhering to it as best he can.
Perhaps half a mile into the forest, he crosses a sluggish stream. The water is cold and clear, flowing down from the mountains, but it is barely a trickle. Strange. It is spring now, and snowmelt should still be flooding the streams and rivers, but they are all half dried up. A little beyond the stream, he comes to the first site marked on Yang's map. He smells it before he sees it. The site of the most recent murder is marked by a dark, charred patch of earth. The trunks of the nearby trees are scorched and black.
They burned the corpse to dispel any lingering evil.
Convenient, Namjoon thinks, that it also destroyed any evidence.
He stares at that dark patch of ground. According to the accounts that Yang provided, all the victims were killed in the same way – blunt force trauma to the head. The bodies were otherwise untouched. It doesn't match the the modus operandi of any kind of monster that Namjoon knows. The undead and the supernatural are not cruel, exactly. They are terrible, but they attack men because they want something – a warm spark of life, or some vivid emotion, or rich memories, or in the worst and most base cases, just food.
This is something else.
He turns away from the charred ground, and follows the path on. It is fully dark now, and far overhead white stars shine. Namjoon takes out his torch and lights it. The unsteady flames make many shadows shiver and dance. It is very quiet here. Namjoon forgot how quiet it is away from the city. It's been years – oh, ten years at least – since he's traveled so far.
Not since his parents were killed.
His mother had been a scholar. Her treatise on imugi is still considered to be the gold standard in the field. His father came from a long line of monster hunters, but unlike his father, who had been brutal and unyielding, Namjoon's old man was curious about the beasts he was supposed to slay. He had written to Namjoon’s mother after she published her first paper. A professional correspondence turned into a courtship; they were married within a year, and Namjoon was born before another had passed.
His childhood had been spent on the road. They had traveled the length and breath of the kingdom, searching for – what? Namjoon is still not quite sure what his parents sought. They traveled and they learned. His mother wrote. When they came across monsters that posed too great a threat to humans, his father would dispatch them, but as the years passed and the city and the towns grew and the old ways became older and dustier and more forgotten, his father's reservations grew.
"These creatures were here before us," he would say in the evenings, while cleaning his blades. "Back when there were endless forests and high peaks and deep places. Plenty of space for all of us. We're the ones who are expanding, but they are the ones who die."
It was very sentimental. Very noble.
But Namjoon's sympathy does not stretch so far. Does not extend, certainly, to the bulgae – fiery and terrified– that had mauled his mother. Does not extend to the beast's mate, who had torn out his father's throat and given Namjoon his scar.
They had been startled from their ancient lair as construction crews blasted through the mountains, preparing to lay down smooth, even roads for the new motorized carriages that were just then coming into vogue. They had been scared, startled beasts, true, but Namjoon’s sympathy had stretched to the limits and then broken.
He sees the terrible burnt image of his mother’s corpse as clearly now when he closes his eyes as he did on the day she died.
His first act, after his long convalescence, had been to find those beasts and kill them. It is a joyless blood-red memory but perhaps he spared some other child the horror of having to bury their parents.
That is what he tells himself anyway. He is doing this for them.
When he was a boy, Namjoon's mother would tuck him into bed (be it the soft, comfortable futon in their apartment in the city, or just a camp roll snuggled between his parents under a wide open sky) and then in her sweet, soft voice tell him stories of the magical and strange and awful creatures with which they shared their world. He had loved those stories back then. Loved learning about the terrifying gwishin and the noble dragons and all the other beasts. Now his memories of those stories are cast in a much colder and more academic light. He has used that knowledge to kill – and to save lives.
He doesn't know what his mother would think. He doesn't want to know.
Further, down the winding dark path. The undergrowth is getting thicker. Ferns brush his hands. Moss hangs in sheets from the trees. This is a strange and fecund place. White mushrooms glow luminously in the night. Namjoon knows a little about herb lore and medicine; there are rare plants that can cure terrible diseases – and lay even the strongest men low. He knows why the villagers still venture into these woods, despite their fear. Those that have not taken work at the foundry are still struggling, still desperate, and still more willing to face unnamed terrors in the forest than starve to death.
Desperation drives people to do many things they could not manage otherwise.
Overhead, shredded clouds obscure the stars, blown in on a cold breeze. Namjoon takes a deep breath of the brisk fresh air. He has seen nothing unexpected tonight. No glimpse of lurking menace. There is something wrong in this place, but it is no forest demon, whatever the credulous townsfolk might think.
It's time to head back, he thinks. He is still not fully recovered from last night's trek through the rain. He'll have to come back during the day. Maybe bring Jungkook. That would make the kid happy, if nothing else.
He walks a few feet further, to the top of a small rise. Darkness and stillness everywhere. No malice. No red eyes leering at him from behind the trees. Just the sleeping quiet of the natural world at night.
Somewhere, not far behind him, there is a quick, loud, jarring noise.
A branch snapping suddenly, under some heavy weight.
Namjoon turns. The light of his torch shines out over the forest. He strains to see but ...
"Come on, friend," he says slowly. "Why don't you come out in the open so we can talk?"
The red flames flicker. The heat they throw off makes his skin prickle.
Another noise. Rustling in the undergrowth. Maybe it's just a bird.
No. Those are the heavy, intentional movements of something much larger than a bird.
Namjoon turns and with deliberate ease starts back down the path towards the village.
He can hear someone following, maybe fifteen feet behind him. He is taut as a string, alert and wary. Not nervous, exactly. He hasn't been nervous since his parents died. There was nothing left to care so much about after that.
He's not nervous, but he is concerned. He's been in bad spots before, and while being followed in a dark, strange wood by an invisible presence isn't the worst he's ever faced, it's not ideal either.
Namjoon walks quickly. More quickly than he should, in his haste. He transfers the torch to his left hand and hefts his staff with his right. His pursuer must take a misstep – there is a heavy noise like someone catching themselves from falling. Namjoon turns, peers into the dark, waving the torch in a wide circle. He sees nothing.
Namjoon reaches the sad little river. He turns here, stream at his back, and calls out, "Let's just get this over with. Come out and face me."
Nothing. No noise except the sluggish gurgle of the water. Namjoon's fist tightens around his staff. Goddamnit. This is not what he wanted to deal with tonight. He takes a step back and...
There is no ground beneath him. He hadn't realized how close he was to the stream edge. He stumbles, arms flailing. He keeps hold of the staff, but the torch goes flying and lands with a hiss in the stream.
Darkness. Real darkness broken only by the very faint light of the stars and the high crescent moon. Namjoon is on one knee. He scraped his hand catching himself. His palm burns. The footfalls come closer. He can see it now – the dark shape moving through the trees.
He gets to his feet, wary. He still has his staff, his knives, the pistol at his sides.
Man-shaped, it is, but giant. Taller than Namjoon, who is a tall man, and broad. Namjoon cannot overpower this creature, and weapons do little good when you can't actually see your foe. There is only one thing to do now.
In the dark, the ground is uneven and treacherous underfoot. The broad flat stones he'd passed without noticing earlier are slick and dangerous now. The earth is a mire, muddy and wet. He scrambles up a rise, but can see nothing. Massive tree trunks rise up out of the darkness, looming like the legs of terrible giants. Namjoon pauses, chest heaving. He is as fit as is required for his line of work; it is more fear than exhaustion that makes his heart pound.
(It was like this before. Namjoon, sixteen years old, scrambling through coarse underbrush. He'd been able to smell the beasts coming then; their skin was hot iron and they reeked of sulfur. They set everything around them to flame. Smoke and ash were their herald.)
He can feel the thing coming now, but he cannot see it and cannot smell it and cannot hear it. He turns, and turns again, circling, on edge.
"Show yourself!" he calls. His voice echoes.
Nothing. No response. Namjoon hurries down the other side of the rise, but – He squints, peering into the palpable darkness. Is that–
He's lost the trail. Fuck.
He hears heavy, plodding footfalls behind him. His mind goes blank – years of training and experience gone in an instant. There is only one thing he can think to do. It is the same thing he thought to do as a child. He ran then, ran until the howling beasts overtook him. He runs now, blindly and fast.
He flies, stumbling, through the forest. He knows this is bad. He knows he shouldn't let panic drive him like this, but he can't think of anything else. He was too confident. He didn't expect to meet anything out here.
He was wrong, and now he is pursued.
The only thing he can hear is his own gasping breath and the pounding of his own feet. He runs until his throat is full of and his legs feel like weights. He does not know how long he runs, or how far he goes. In the morning, he will see smoke from the foundry, and he can find his way back. He stumbles to a halt. That's right. Calm down, Namjoon. You’re a professional. You have slain goblins and ghosts. Too little sleep, and you let yourself get spooked by a shadow in the woods?
He shakes his head. Foolish, really. If Jungkook had been here – if any other human voice had interrupted the tangled weavings of his own imagination – he wouldn't have gotten so worked up. Okay. It's okay. He just needs to find someplace sheltered to wait out the night, and in the morning this will all seem like a big, hilarious joke.
Somewhere in the forest, not far from where he stands, there is a crash, like a branch falling from a height to the ground.
Namjoon's heart jumps. He starts to run again, but the first step he takes goes foul. His foot catches on something – a root, a stone – and he falls. He lands on his side. All the breath leaves him. His head collides with something hard – harder than the muddy ground. Terrible pain. His last flickering thought is – what? Everything is all a jumble. Something. He blinks, but it is so dark that there is nothing to see. He feels something wet and warm on his face, a slow trickle.
Everything goes black. Blacker.
"Whoops, take it easy."
Namjoon opens his eyes. He is... where?
He had a dream – no, a nightmare. Running through the woods. It is a nightmare he's had before, many times, but it felt more vivid than usual, and strange. The usual smoke and fire were absent. He remembers that looming shadow that had come out of him out of the darkness. Remembers stumbling blindly through the woods. Remembers –
Oh. It hadn’t been a dream.
He tries to sit up.
"Hey there," someone says, resting a gentle hand on his shoulder. "I don't think you're ready for that, buddy. You had quite the knock on the head."
The someone is a young man with brown hair curling around his ears and his neck, and eyes that are strangely luminous, like a jar of fine honey held up to the light, golden and bright. He is remarkably handsome, and he is clad in rags.
"Where the fuck am I?" Namjoon's voice comes out as a terrible croak.
The man smiles. It's an inviting smile, a bit awkward but very warm. "You're in my house," he says. "Well, it's not my house, exactly, but I'm living here for now, so close enough, I guess. My name is Taehyung."
Such an ordinary name. Such a strange young man. Namjoon is not sure what he expected.
"Ah," he says weakly. Even that aborted attempt to sit up left his head spinning. "I'm Namjoon."
Taehyung smiles again. "It's nice to meet you, Namjoon," he says. "It's a good thing I found you. You messed yourself up pretty good."
"I fell," Namjoon says faintly. "I was running, and I fell. There was someone chasing me. Something..."
Taehyung's smile falters. "Hey, don't worry about that for now," he says. He turns out of Namjoon's line of sight for a moment, and then reappears with a carved wooden cup full of water. "Drink this."
Taehyung's hands are long-fingered and elegant. He holds the cup to Namjoon's lips, and then tips it so he can drink.
The water is cold and pure and delicious, and Namjoon drinks greedily, until water is running down his face.
"Okay," Taehyung says, laughing. “Slow down. There's plenty more where that came from." He turns again, and comes back with a little clay beaker filled with a dark liquid. "Time for your medicine."
Namjoon blanches. "What is that?"
Taehyung glances at it. "Oh. Hmm. You know. Good stuff."
"I'm not – I don't think–"
Taehyung laughs. "You've already had three doses, friend. Trust me. If there is one thing I know, it is plants. This will only help you."
Namjoon doesn’t like the idea of drinking a strange potion brewed by a strange man but he does not resist when Taehyung holds the beaker up to his mouth. He is too muddle-headed right now to resist. The dark mixture looks like it will taste foul, and he is surprised to find that it does not. It tastes like the forest, like old growth and new leaves and something richer and more secret underneath.
As soon as he swallows the last drop, he feels full of a deep, soothing peace. He is more curious now than ever to know what it is Taehyung has just given him, but he can't get the words out before he closes his eyes again and is instantly asleep.
When Namjoon next wakes, his head is much clearer and he can see that he has been sleeping on a low cot – really more just a pile of heaped blankets – in a small stone cottage. One corner of the cottage roof has fallen in, and sunlight and green forest canopy are visible beyond. Although it is spring and not very cold, a small fire burns in the hearth.
He is alone.
Slowly, much more slowly this time, he sits up. His head feels strange – light and too big at once, as though someone has replaced it with a balloon. He touches his temple. He remembers falling, remembers hitting his head, and then everything is a dark and indistinct dream, full of swirling mists and vague shadowy figures.
Right. The shadowy creature. Namjoon remembers now. He remembers how he'd run, like an idiot, like an amateur, like someone who hasn't devoted their entire life to finding and killing the worst kinds of monsters.
He closes his eyes and breathes in, and then exhales slowly. It is morning now – something about the quality of the light convinces him of that – but he does not know if it is the next morning or the morning after next or ten mornings since he left the little inn and ventured into the forest.
Jungkook must be going out of his mind.
Namjoon needs to get back to the village. He starts to stand. His feet feel distant and uncertain – more the suggestion of feet. He leans heavily against the cold stone wall for support. A little vine grows up and over the sill of the window, curling up the wall. The leaves are as bright as emeralds against the grey stone. He stares at that little vine for a moment and tries to catch his breath.
"Oh! You're up."
Namjoon's heart jumps in his chest. He turns. The man from earlier – Taehyung – is standing in the doorway, silhouetted by sunlight, a dark figure outlined by brilliance. He steps into the cottage and resolves into a more conventional shape. He runs a hand through his disordered hair. His eyes are still that same, strange light color, like something is illuminating them from inside.
"How are you feeling?" Taehyung asks, back to Namjoon as he fusses with something on top of a low table – the only other furniture in the place.
"Strange," Namjoon admits. "What did – what did you give me?"
"Oh, nothing, really," Taehyung says. From a little leather pouch at his side he takes bundles of green plants. Their pungent scent fills the room. He turns, smiling, and ticks off on his long fingers. "Wormwood to restore you, and chamomile to soothe you, and turmeric and ginger to calm you."
Namjoon frowns. None of those sound pernicious, but still he doesn't think he should make a habit of taking strange drinks from stranger men.
"Where am I?" he asks.
"In my house," Taehyung says. "Like I said. In the place I'm living now, at least, which makes it as much my house as anywhere."
Namjoon is not sure if it is the head injury, but he nearly makes sense of that.
"Are you hungry?" Taehyung asks.
Namjoon hadn't noticed, but he is hungry, ravenous actually.
"Yes," he says. He puts a hand on his stomach. "I am."
"Of course you are, friend," Taehyung clucks. "It's been four days and you haven't had anything but tea and a few sips of broth."
Quickly but with great care, Taehyun strips the leaves from the plants and discards the stems. The leaves he puts into a pot of boiling water that is hanging in the hearth.
Namjoon frowns. "I need to go," he says. "I need to get back. Jungkook – my assistant – he must be worried to death."
Taehyung clucks. "I'm sorry," he says, "but I don't think you can go anywhere yet."
Namjoon frowns. "Why not?" he asks.
"You hit your head very hard,” Taehyung says conversationally. “There was blood everywhere! You won’t be in any condition to go anywhere for several days, Namjoon.”
Namjoon reaches up and touches the tender spot on his temple. There is a big, swollen lump there, covered with a bandage. He hadn’t noticed. Something in that little potion of Taehyung’s seems to keep him steeped in a pleasant daze, seems to filter out the bad while letting in the good.
"Shit," Namjoon says, and he sits down heavily on the pile of bedding.
"Don't worry," Taehyung says. "It won't be too long. Just rest a little more and then you can go on your way."
"Why are you doing this?" Namjoon asks. The room feels too small suddenly. Confining. A cage he has to escape.
"Huh?" Taehyung looks up. Those honey colored eyes of his go wide.
"Why are you helping me?"
Taehyung tilts his head, like he doesn't know how to respond. Then he says, "Well, what else would I do?"
Namjoon has no response to that.
He sits and watches the slice of sunlight that falls in through the window travel up the wall while Taehyung prepares food. Wild rice, and kimchi, and pickled radish, and some little nut cakes that are unlike anything Namjoon has ever seen before. There's something delightful and almost magical about the way Taehyung produces all of this bounty. He sings to himself while he works, in a low rich voice. Namjoon does not know the song. His stomach gurgles emptily.
Finally, Taehyung claps his hands together and says, "Let's eat, Namjoon. Let's say thank you to the forest for this bounty, and let's eat."
Namjoon rolls his eyes. He remembers what Yoongi said. Maybe this Taehyung character is just some kind of religious weirdo, worshiping the stars and the trees and the moon or whatever.
They do not speak while they eat. Namjoon is very hungry, and the food is very good. The flavors seem richer and the colors more vivid than the food he is used too – jarred kimchi that he has delivered twice a week, faded greens hauled into the city on carts and wagons, salted meat. Processed food, prepared by another’s hand.
This is different. Each flavor distinct. To be savored.
Still, his growling stomach isn't in the mood for slow gastronomic exploration. When he finishes his first bowl of rice, Taehyung laughs and gets up to get him more.
When the meal is winding down, Namjoon asks, "How long have you been living out here?"
Taehyung tilts his head. "I can't remember a time I wasn't out here."
Frowning, Namjoon says, "Some of the men in the village at the edge of the forest said it was uninhabited. You grew up here? Where are your parents?"
Taehyung nods. "Not here, exactly. The forest used to be bigger, you know, and there were other places. The place where the birch grow, and place where the river is born from the rocks, and the place where the foxes sleep. My parents… You know, I don’t remember them." He smiles sadly. "It’s just me now, Namjoon. Just here, just me. That’s it."
"Oh," Namjoon says quietly. "My parents are gone too. Killed by a bulgae."
Taehyung bares his teeth in something like a snarl, and those light eyes of his flash a shade darker. "I'm not a big fan of fire," he says. He closes his eyes and breathes in and as if forcing himself to relax. “I am very sorry for your loss.”
"Same," Namjoon says quietly.
He's not sure which part he's agreeing with. Maybe both.
After the meal is over, Taehyung says he is going to the stream to wash the dishes. Namjoon insists on coming.
The cottage is nestled in a grove of very tall, very old trees. They rise like the columns in a temple, stretching towards the heavens. They are so tall that it's lighter here than in younger parts of the forest, where the canopy grows low and close. Sunlight streams down in lush golden beams. Dust motes and dragonflies swirl in the air. The ground is soft with moss, and the river here is clear and cold, although still choked and not flowing as strongly as it should.
Namjoon sits on one of the big boulders that line the bank. He is already a bit light headed from that short walk, already a bit breathless. Taehyung is right. He cannot leave yet. Not in this state.
Taehyung crouches on the riverbank, toes digging into the mud, and washes the dishes one by one. Bent like that, his curling hair falls around his face. Exhaustion or pain or shock dulled it, but now Namjoon notices again how beautiful he is. Unnaturally so, almost. Namjoon himself is tall and fit, but his features were never anything remarkable, and now when most people look at him, all they see is his scar. Even clothed in rags and with hair long and unkempt, Taehyung looks like he stepped out of a painting.
When the dishes are clean, Taehyung sets them on a rock to dry.
"What do you need to do now?" Namjoon asks.
Taehyung looks at him and tilts his head. That seems a characteristic move. It's charming.
"I don't need to do anything," Taehyung says, like having things to do is the most absurd thing he's ever heard of. "It is afternoon, so I thought I might lay down on the moss and let the sun warm me." Then his smile goes bright. "You're welcome to join me, if you'd like."
Namjoon snorts. "Uh. Okay. Sure."
Like a great dog, Taehyung circles a few times and then throws himself down on the ground a few yards back from the river, where the moss and the clover and the ferns make a soft, sweet-smelling carpet. Namjoon, moving much more gingerly, slowly lowers himself down beside where Taehyung lays.
"Carefully," Taehyung cautions, blinking up at him.
"I am," Namjoon says.
It's odd, really. He slowly lays down beside Taehyung. He can feel the uneven ground beneath him – pillowy moss and rough rock and little stones and pebbles. It's not uncomfortable though, more just that some of the discomfort that is normally smoothed away by soft futons remains. The trees spreads their leaves far overhead, like a sky full of green flags, bright in the sunlight. The water trickles. The heat feels good on Namjoon's face.
Still, he has never been very good at relaxing. Even now, feeling so strange and almost drunk with exhaustion and wonder, he feels the burr in the back of his mind pressing him forward, pressing him on towards his obligations: the job and Jungkook and that monster that chased him and the correspondence that must be already building up at his apartment in the city and Jungkook really must be worried sick and what if the motorbike can't be fixed and –
"You're thinking too loudly," Taehyung chides.
He puts a big, warm palm over Namjoon's eyes. Namjoon goes still. Darkness.
Taehyung lifts his hand.
The darkness is gone. The sky is bright over head.
"Sorry," Namjoon says, chagrined. "It's a habit."
Taehyung laughs, low and rich. He shifts, and his knuckles brush Namjoon's. "It always is, with your sort. Just be still and listen."
Namjoon listens. There is birdsong, and the louder song of the river, and the faint rustling voice of the wind in the trees. Old trunks creak and groan. Something small skitters in the underbrush, upsetting last year's dry litter. More noises, so faint he can barely distinguish them – a universe of sound.
"That's better," Taehyung says, happily.
The back of his hand brushes Namjoon's again.
Namjoon stays still and listens until the warmth and the peace soothe him to sleep.
Namjoon wakes in the cool evening, alone. The sun has set, and the forest is still and draped in many layers of shadows. Yellow-green fireflies hang in the air, as profuse as the stars in the sky.
Namjoon smells wood smoke. Slowly, he gets to his feet. When he gets close to the house, he can see Taehyung sitting in front of a modest fire, well contained within a circle of stones.
"Hello," Namjoon says. "I'm sorry I slept so long."
Taehyung looks up at him. "Why are you sorry? You need to sleep to heal."
Well, there is truth in that.
"Sit down," Taehyung says, patting the earth beside him.
Awkwardly, Namjoon sits and scoots back away from the fire. The dry wood Taehyung is burning snaps and crackles happily. The flames leap up towards the sky, and the sparks drift higher.
"Dangerous," Namjoon says.
"Huh?" Taehyung looks up.
"The fire," Namjoon clarifies. "Don't you worry it will spread?"
Taehyung smiles. "I don't usually start a fire," he says. "I thought you might appreciate the warmth. It gets cool out here at night. We are very close to the mountains."
"Oh," Namjoon says. "Thank you. I do. I just. I don't like fire much."
In the city, in his apartment, there are no hearths. The building is new construction, heated by gurgling radiators that are fed by a coal furnace in the basement. He lights no candles. All the lamps are electric, which is new enough technology to delight and terrify guests. Namjoon had few criteria when apartment hunting, but those had been the two on which he had absolutely been unwilling to compromise.
"Neither do I," Taehyung says.
Namjoon leans back. He is thinking of something, but he’s not sure what. The memory feels slippery, elusive. Taehyung sits up and tosses another bundle of herbs into the fire. It sparks and hisses, and a thick cloud of steam rises up, soporific and fragrant.
Namjoon breathes in, and whatever it is he'd meant to remember flows out, gone with the exhale. There is just the quiet and the night and the fire, terrible and beautiful, in its little stone ring.
"It's nice," Taehyung says after a long silence.
"Huh?" Namjoon shakes himself from some uncertain and clouded half-dream. "What's nice?"
"Having someone else here." Taehyung says quietly. "It's been such a long time since there's been anyone else."
"Oh," Namjoon says, feeling awkward. "Well, I'm glad to keep you company, Taehyung-ssi."
Taehyung smiles. The dancing light casts shadows. Deep chiaroscuro, so that all Namjoon can see is a hint of lip, nose, cheekbone, and gleaming eye.
They don't say anything else. The fire dies down to embers, and then to nothing. Namjoon laboriously gets to his feet and goes inside the cabin to sleep. Taehyung stays out in the dark, as if watching over the remains of the fire. If he ever comes inside, Namjoon does not hear it.
The next morning Namjoon's head is much clearer. He sits up in bed and braces himself, and then, wincing, gets to his feet.
"Taehyung-ssi," he says, emerging from the hut into the bright morning. "I need to go back to the village today. I'm here for a job, and I need to let my employer know what I've found."
Taehyung is standing outside. His ragged shirt is off. His skin is tan and he is slim and strong, and not as thin as Namjoon thought he might be, living hand to mouth out here.
He is very beautiful, of course, but that is so obvious that Namjoon has already started ignoring it a bit. If such a thing is possible.
"Ahh," Taehyung says, eyes bright and curious. "And what did you find?"
Namjoon frowns. "There's someone murdering people in the village. Something, I should say. I'm a monster hunter, and I was hired to track it down and kill it, if need be."
Taehyung's eyes flash dark again. "I see," he says. "So you go into far wild places and you hunt the gumiho and the dokkaebi and the gwishin? Chase them from their homes? Drive them out in the open and slay them?"
Namjoon frowns. "I go anywhere that monsters are threatening good, honest people," he says.
Taehyung nods. A smile plays on his lips. "And what about where people are threatening good, honest monsters?"
Namjoon has heard this line of argument before. "This is a big country. There's plenty of room for everyone."
"Ah," Taehyung says. "I see. So tell me, monster slayer, what did you find in the forest?"
Namjoon takes a deep breath. "I don't know what it is yet," he says, "but I was chased by something big. Big, and man-shaped. I'm surprised you haven't run into it, actually. Monsters are drawn to humans. Most of them feed on us, somehow – our memories, or our emotions, or our flesh."
"Oh," Taehyung says airily. "I know the forest very well, and I have ways of keeping myself hidden." He looks up and smiles though. "I have seen this monster of yours, though, Namjoon. Seen it many times."
Namjoon leans forward. "You have? What kind of creature is it? If you've seen it, why didn't you tell the villagers? How long ago did you last see it? Do you know where its lair is?"
Taehyung laughs. "I can't tell you any of that," he says.
Namjoon frowns. "Why not?"
"Because you are working for Yang Jongyul," Taehyung says calmly. "And I won’t help you if it means helping him."
He smiles and then turns and walks further down the riverbank.
"What?" Namjoon hobbles along after him as well as he can. "What are you talking about? How do you know I'm working for Yang? Are you from the village? I thought you said you weren't."
Taehyung just laughs, dark and a bit ominous, and heads deeper into the forest.
Taehyung forgets so much.
Forgets, or never knew, more likely. He remembers other things: the rustle of silk robes, the perfume of the incense they burned, the sweet savor of spilled wine, spilled oil, spilled milk.
Namjoon knows nothing of those things. He is a different sort of man all together.
Taehyung kneels. The earth is soft and rich. He remembers the tree that fell here long ago. He remembers the storm that felled that tree. It shook the forest when it fell, and its corpse lay for many years, rotting slowly, providing shelter and sustenance for beetles and worms and mice and shrews and birds and many thousands of other creatures.
Taehyung remembers that great tree when it was just a sapling. So much else has faded and drawn inward, but of course he remembers all the trees.
Now, a tiny sapling sprouts from earth made rich by the decay of its ancestor. It is a small, fragile thing. Two tiny leaves tremble on the end of a thin stem. It will be many many years before this little thing grows into a titan of the forest – if it is not eaten or trod underfoot first.
Taehyung presses his fingertips into the dark soil. He closes his eyes to see more clearly. He can see that little spark of life: the spirit of the tree, small as a mote of dust. He smiles, and exhales, and some of him – his own spark, his spirit – flows into the tree, and that little mite of dust glows bright, like a tiny speck of stardust.
Yes, Taehyung thinks, this little one will make it.
He does not have the power he once did, but he can spare a bit to bless a tree growing in as auspicious a spot as this.
"What are you doing?" Namjoon asks.
He stands a few feet behind Taehyung, hands on his hips. He has followed Taehyung all morning, asking question after question after question. Now that he thinks Taehyung has the knowledge he needs, he seems reluctant to leave more than a few feet between them, as if Taehyung might disappear if Namjoon lets him out of his sight.
"Oh," Taehyung says. "Nothing. Just checking on that little guy."
Namjoon's mouth twists. He thinks he is very cold and hard, but Taehyung can feel his curiosity. He burns with the desire to know – not so that he can do his job, like he pretends, but out of the sheer pleasure of learning something new.
Taehyung likes that about him. He likes this man, this Namjoon.
"Are you some kind of botanist or something? What are you looking for? Disease?"
"Nope," Taehyung says. He stands and wipes his hands on his thighs. "Just wanted to say hi and see how she was doing."
Namjoon rolls his eyes, like the idea of saying hello to a tree is beyond absurd, but he is smiling. There are more cracks in his armor than he would ever admit.
Yes, Taehyung likes this Namjoon. Likes him too much, maybe, and that scares him.
The next morning, Namjoon steps out into the sunshine to find Taehyung naked, washing himself in the stream.
Namjoon isn't shy. He is the better part of thirty years old. He's had lovers. He's not shy.
He is private, though, and communal bathing is not the fashion in the city, these days.
"What are you doing?" he calls, not looking at Taehyung, deliberately not looking at him.
"What does it look like?" Taehyung asks, laughing. His laughter today is a bright and dancing thing, as quick as the mountain stream. "I'm washing. Would you like to join me, Namjoon?"
Namjoon glances down at himself. He has washed his hands before meals, but his clothes are filthy and his hair is oily and he smells. Embarrassing. It's embarrassing.
He doesn't particularly want to bathe with Taehyung, but he thinks it would be more embarrassing not to do so.
Slowly he strips off his pants and shirt. They are sturdy and well made, but his pants are torn at the knee and the shirt is stained with blood and dirt. Maybe Taehyung has thread and needle; Namjoon is not exactly adept with a thread and needle, but he can manage a quick fix.
Taehyung stands. Water streams down his body – shining on the curve of his waist, the strong line of his thighs. He squints in the bright sunlight. "It won't come to you, Namjoon," he calls. "So you'll need to come to the water."
Namjoon rolls his eyes to hide his embarrassment. He steps, slowly, into the cold stream. It is shallow at the edges, lined with smooth pebbles that don't quite hurt underfoot. A deeper channel runs down the middle of the bed. Namjoon crouches and dips his head in the water. It is brilliantly cold, shockingly so.
"Shit," he says, teeth chattering. "Aren't you freezing?"
Taehyung, who is scrubbing under one arm, pauses and looks at him. "Oh," he says. "I guess it's a bit cold, but you get used to it."
Namjoon hopes he gets used to it before he loses an extremity. With his back to Taehyung, he scrubs himself down as best he can, crouching in the clear cold water.
"Do you have soap?" he calls.
Taehyung takes a moment to respond. "Soap? No. No soap."
What kind of a bath is this? Freezing water, and no soap? He would have been better off staying dirty. Warmer, certainly.
He washes himself as well as he can, and then washes his clothing, scrubbing hard at the bloodstains on his shirt. He doubts they'll come out. Damn. If he had another, he'd give this one up as a lost cause.
"Namjoon," Taehyung says. He is sitting in the stream. His brown hair is made dark by the water, and his eyes are like gold coins. "I have something to show you, if you'd like to see it."
Namjoon's heart jumps. "The monster? Will you show me where the monster lives? The beast that’s killing the villagers, I mean."
Taehyung hums to himself, a strange little song. "Not that," he says. "I told you I can't show you that. But I can show you something else worth your time, if you'd like to see."
Namjoon is not the kind of man who normally has the patience for riddles and games. He feels anger start to bubble up, but tamps it down. Taehyung holds all the cards here. Namjoon is hurt and lost; even if Taehyung is just playing games with him, he still needs the man’s help to get back to the village.
“Fine,” he says. “What do you have to show me?”
Taehyung stands and shakes his head like some huge, unruly dog. He smiles. “I can’t tell you,” he says. “If I could tell you, I wouldn’t need to show you.”
Namjoon closes his eyes. “When can you show me?” He asks.
“We’ll leave tomorrow, just before the sun rises,” Taehyung says, climbing up the bank, getting dark mud on his newly cleaned hands. The thick muscles in his thighs stretch.
“Tomorrow? I can’t wait until tomorrow,” Namjoon says. “I need to get back. Why can’t you show me today?”
Taehyung turns suddenly, imperious even wet and naked. He folds his arms over his chest. “I do not have to show you at all,” he says in a low voice. “If you want to learn what I have to tell, we will leave tomorrow, just before the sun rises.”
He does not move, and nothing about his posture suggests aggression, but still Namjoon can feel a terrible seething energy, barely contained. He sinks down lower, so that he is sitting chest deep in the cold water. Taehyung’s eyes are so dark they look almost black.
He watches Namjoon for a moment longer, and then turns and walks off towards the cottage.
Feeling very small and very low, like a scolded child, Namjoon lets the stream water cool his temper for a little while longer. It’s frustrating. Idiotic, really, but he’s not the hot-headed kid he was at twenty. He’d been angry then, so angry, like the unnatural fire that consumed his parents — the fire he extinguished — burned on in his heart. Age and sorrow have mellowed him, but sometimes it gushes up, like an eruption, and it’s all he can do not to lose his head.
He does not trust Yang, and he knows the men at the inn weren’t telling him all they knew. Taehyung may be some kind of crazy religious hermit, but he’s helped Namjoon, and he knows these woods. Of that Namjoon has no doubt. It’s foolish and risky and maybe he shouldn’t, but Namjoon trusts Taehyung — believes he has something important to show him, in any event. He will follow him tomorrow, and learn what he can learn, and then go back to the village and put an end to this madness.
That is why he was hired, and that is what he will do.
Namjoon, after he has had all he can take of the stream, spreads his clothes to dry on a big rock, and warms himself on the river bank. It’s thrilling and strange, being naked out in the open air, even with no one anywhere around to see him. He wiggles his toes, and breathes in the rich, clean air. When his clothes are dry, he puts them back on.
There is no sign of Taehyung. Namjoon does not know where he’s gone. He got so angry — angrier than Namjoon had expected. Perhaps he is off somewhere letting his own temper cool.
If he does not come back, Namjoon will just go back to the village.
He hopes that Taehyung comes back.
In the afternoon, Namjoon’s stomach growls piteously. He searches through the cottage. He finds rice stored in a woven jar, but he does not know what Taehyung used to light the fire. There is no lighter, certainly, and no flint.
Namjoon counts himself more capable and handy than most men but not even he can start a fire with no tool.
There was a lighter in his pack, but that is lost now. He must have dropped it in his flight, or maybe Taehyung left it behind when he rescued Namjoon. Either way it is gone, along with several of Namjoon’s poisons. He is only thankful that he thought to pack the rest of the weapons on his person. Pistol, bell, and knives — he still has them all, tucked into the appropriate holsters and pockets in his jacket.
For one wild moment he thinks of starting a fire with the pistol, but he’s not sure it will work and he has too few bullets to squander even one on such a foolish experiment.
He eats kimchi for lunch, and pickled sprouts, both of which he finds in big clay jars beneath one of the loosened flagstones that pave the floor of the cottage. Taehyung — or someone — has excavated a little hollow beneath this loose stone, to store his jars of preserved vegetables.
It is a meager lunch. Namjoon is still hungry, and the hunger makes him feel sulky and angry and scared.
He is a monster hunter, not an outdoorsman. What does he know about foraging?
He curls up in the bed and sleeps, for lack of anything better to do.
It is still dark out when Taehyung shakes him awake.
“It’s time to go,” he says softly. “If you still want to.”
Namjoon blinks. His head feels thick and sluggish, not just from his fall but from sleeping too much. Reflexively, he reaches in his pocket for his watch. The silver pocket watch that had been his father’s is worse for the rough wear he’s put it through, but it still ticks strongly. By the faint light of moon and stars, he sees that it is quarter after four in the morning.
“Now?” He asks.
“Now,” Taehyung says. He is clothed again, in loose pants and a rough-woven tunic. A strip of fabric keeps his hair back from his face.
Reluctantly, Namjoon stands up. His head spins, and he staggers, catching himself on the wall.
“Ah,” Taehyung says, waggling a finger. “I told you you weren’t fully healed yet.”
“Just a dizzy spell,” Namjoon protests, but while he puts on his boots and gathers his things, Taehyung mixes him another little potion.
“Drink,” he says, holding out the clay cup.
Namjoon frowns but drinks it. The liquid is black and tastes cold and hard, like metal, like stone.
This time, he does not ask Taehyung what is in it.
Outside, it is raining softly. Namjoon reflexively throws his hands up over his heads.
“It’s raining,” he says, cowering in the doorway.
Taehyung tilts his head. “I know that,” he says, smiling. “You’re not a clay figure, are you? Men don’t normally dissolve when they get wet.”
Namjoon frowns, but steps out into the rain.
They walk in silence through the silvery, spangled forest. Mist hangs low, obscuring the tops of the trees. No birds call. The shivering raindrops make their own song. Taehyung goes barefoot. His feet squelch in the mud. Namjoon wipes the water from his eyes. His boots are wet, and he thinks he might be getting a blister.
By mid-morning, the rain has passed. It cooled the air, and made the ground slick, but it isn’t enough to offset a drought. Not close. With the rain gone and the sun out, it is hot, and Namjoon exhausted. His feet hurt, and his clothes dry stiff and unpleasant.
"How much further is it?" he asks quietly. His voice sounds loud and jarring.
Taehyung turns, and walking backwards, smiles. "I don't know how much further," he says. "We'll walk all day today, and part of the day tomorrow, and then we'll be there."
"Ah, don't make that face, Namjoon," he says. "Deer and boar and fox blazed trails through these woods long before there was a village here. Nobody has ever measured them in feet." He stretches his arms over his head. "The sun is shining, and the air is cool. Time will pass quickly."
Namjoon rolls his eyes when Taehyung turns around. He is not so sure about time passing quickly – he is thinking every moment of how worried Jungkook must be, of what might be going on back in the village – but he finds it surprisingly hard to keep his annoyance in the front of his mind. The sun is shining, green and gold through the trees, and the breeze is cool on his bare face, and try as he might the worst of his aggravation slips away without him noticing it, so that he finds himself trailing along behind Taehyung not thinking much of anything at all.
The terrain has gotten rougher. The deep loam of the valley bottom has been replaced by great boulders that have tumbled down from the heights. They have been going uphill gradually for quite a while, and it is harder going than Namjoon would have expected. He does not know how Taehyung manages it without shoes on, but if the sharp, broken granite hurts his feet he says nothing.
It is maybe a little before noon, as Namjoon inexpertly judges by the position of the sun, when Taehyung turns off the trail and wanders a little way into the forest. It is all birch trees here, slim and white. Between the trees ferns grow – a waving and restless sea of them. Taehyung kneels down, so he looks half submerged, half vanished among the green. He stands a moment later, with something black and misshapen in his hand.
"Chaga," Taehyung says excitedly.
He holds the thing out to Namjoon. It is a little smaller than fist sized, and ugly. Unwillingly, Namjoon takes it.
"Those are very rare," Taehyung continues. "They only grow in birch forests. They're very good for you. I'll make you tea tonight."
"Oh," Namjoon says. "Well, thank you."
He stares at the ugly little thing. It might be very good for him, but it does not look appetizing in the least.
Taehyung smiles even more widely. "You're welcome," he says. "You're still on the mend, Namjoon. It's important to take care of yourself."
Namjoon nods dumbly.
"You know so much about the forest," he says quietly. "How did you learn it all?"
Taehyung shrugs. "Just picked it up here and there."
That is not at all a satisfactory answer. Picked it up here and there?
"I know a little about plants," Namjoon says.
"Oh?" Taehyung asks.
Namjoon nods. "For my work," he says. "There are times when a poison is the most effective measure. And certain plants are effective against certain beasts, of course. Wolfsbane has been very effective."
"Ah," Taehyung says. "That's right. Of course, plants can do just as much damage as they can do good. It's all about how you use them."
Namjoon frowns. "I do good," he mutters. "I protect people, Taehyung."
"Right," Taehyung says, but he sounds like he's humoring Namjoon.
"You don't know what it was like in the city," Namjoon says. He has to take a half jump to climb up over a little shelf of rock. "You turned the corner at night, down a dark alley, and suddenly dokkaebi fire flared bright and blue in front of you. If you were lucky, it was just some cham dokkaebi who wanted to play a joke. If you were unlucky, it was something much worse."
"Ah," Taehyung says. "Dokkaebi are drawn to men. The city must be to them like a flame is to a moth."
"Haven't you ever been?" Namjoon asks.
Taehyung shakes his head. "No," he says. "I told you. I have always been here." He tips his head, gesturing to the forest all around them.
"Not even to the village?" Namjoon asks, frowning. Taehyung must be nearly his own age; he is well spoken and polite. He says he’s never left the forest but there is a veneer of civility on his speech.
"Never," Taehyung says, "but a long time ago people from the village used to come visit me. A very long time ago, now. They used to bring me things, and teach me things, and talk to me."
Ah. Someone from the village must have taken pity on Taehyung and his family. He will need to ask Seokjin about that when he gets back.
"The city is a wonderful place," Namjoon says, pushing on. "There are street lights now, powered by electricity, so that even on the very darkest night, even at the very latest hours, you can walk outside without fear of something lurking in the shadows. The streets themselves are paved – not just with cobbles, like in the village, but paved with smooth asphalt, for motorbikes and automobiles. And the apartment buildings are amazing. As tall as these trees! We have hot water and electric lights, all kinds of marvels. And there's so much less risk of fire."
Taehyung tilts his head. "That is a good thing," he says slowly. He licks his lips. They are very pink. "That is a very good thing, Namjoon, but I'm sorry. The rest of it sounds awful."
"Awful?" Namjoon snorts. "How can you say it sounds awful when you've ever seen it?"
"These street lights and automobiles and apartment buildings are very clever, I'm sure. Very convenient. It all sounds so dry though. Dry and dead. Stone and asphalt." Taehyung turns, and takes Namjoon's hand in a gesture of consolation. "You didn't mention one plant. Not one tree."
He sounds truly sad, like to live in a place without trees is the most tragic fate he can imagine. His fingers are cool, almost sleek. He squeezes Namjoon's hands once, a gesture of comfort, of consolation.
"There are trees," Namjoon says, a bit defensively, gently pulling his hand out of Taehyung's. "It's not all dead and grey. On sunny days, the parks are full of people. People grow flowers on their balconies, and some of the streets are lined with trees."
Taehyung sighs. "Still," he says. "Poor trees. That's no way for a tree to live."
Namjoon laughs, but Taehyung's expression is still mournful. He isn’t joking.
They walk a little further and then take a break to eat. Taehyung produces some rice balls from the shapeless sack he carries and they eat them sitting on a fallen log. Taehyung talks while they eat, talks about the forest, about the creatures that live here now, about the creatures that lived here long ago. He doesn't say where he learned all these ancient tales. Maybe from his parents, who taught him as they were taught. That is how Namjoon learned.
"Once there were wolves," Taehyung says. "Wolves, with coats the color of shadows. They hunted deer and sang to the moon." He smiles, as if he can hear that forgotten wolfsong.
"Where are they now?" Namjoon asks, frowning.
Taehyung smiles sadly. "Gone," he says quietly. "Men cleared trees to build villages, ate into the mountain to build roads. They dam the rivers. Wolves need a lot of space, Namjoon, and this forest grows smaller every year."
Namjoon feels a quick sharp bite of guilt. "Men need space too," he says, but it's a feeble protest.
Taehyung nods. "I know," he says. He meets Namjoon's eyes and does not look away, and there is profound sadness in his expression, sadness and acceptance.
Then he smiles again, quick as sunshine, quick as the breeze, and leans over to reach for his bag, which he dropped unceremoniously on the ground. His shirt – loose and green and airy – rides up, and and his tan soft smooth stomach is bared for a second. He grabs the bag, triumphant, and then fishes in it for a moment before pulling out another rice ball.
"Here," he says, smiling, holding it out to Namjoon. "You have to keep your strength up, Namjoon-ssi."
Namjoon smiles. "Thank you, Taehyung," he says.
"It's my pleasure," Taehyung says, and he says it with such warmth and enthusiasm that Namjoon almost thinks it is.
The path goes more steeply uphill, winding among big rocks, around craggy ravines whose walls are covered in ferns. It is tiring going, and Namjoon maybe isn't quite as well as he told himself he was. Taehyung, on the other hand, seems more buoyant by the hour, as if he gains strength the further they head into the forest.
Taehyung, ahead of him, on the narrow path, asks, without looking back, "Are you a very famous monster hunter, Namjoon?"
Namjoon snorts at the absurdity of the question.
"I don't know," he says. Then, more honestly, "Fairly famous, I guess. Newspapers write stories about me, sometimes."
"Oh," Taehyung says, sounding amused and delighted. "I didn't realize I was in the presence of celebrity. Tell me about your most famous case."
Namjoon rolls his eyes. "It was all blown out of proportion," he says, mildly, "but the first time I was in the newspapers it was because of a gwishin – a water ghost. That summer was so hot, and people sought relief anywhere they could. They gathered at the river, wading in the shallows even though the water was filthy. A child drowned. The family swore they looked away for only a few moments, swore that something pulled him under."
He remembers so clearly the terrible look on the mother's face: hollow-eyed, empty, like the last part of her life had been extinguished, pulled under the water with her little boy. Namjoon knew that expression. He saw it every day in the mirror.
"There was another drowning, and then another. All children. The police investigated, but they didn't find anything. They put out a statement – something about hidden currents, and shifting channels." He shakes his head. What a farce that had been. "The family came to me. They knew that it wasn't a natural death. I went on the night of a full moon."
"Ah," Taehyung murmurs, appreciative. "Everything waxes full at the full moon."
"Yes," Namjoon says. When he closes his eyes he can still see the light of that big, yellow summer moon, shimmering on the water. It had been a stifling night. Too hot to breathe. Too hot to think. The city had felt on the edge of some precipice, about to descend into horror. Madness.
"I was younger," Namjoon says. "I didn't really know what I was doing. I stood on the riverbank, waiting, but nothing appeared. I didn't know any better way to find the creature than to walk in myself, so I did."
"Dangerous," Taehyung says.
"I know," Namjoon says, laughing, a little embarrassed, a little rueful. He had been so ignorant in those early days, and so angry, and so ready to take on the world with only the strength of that anger. "I got lucky. The hand closed around my ankle. It was cold as ice and so strong, but I kept my wits, and I had my father's bell."
"Oh?" Taehyung asks, curious. "A bell?"
"Blessed, supposedly." Namjoon had been skeptical of that as a child, but he has seen its power now. He does not know if that power come from the blessing of Bojo Jinul or some other less mystic place, but he knows that it works. "I rang the bell, and the ghost's grip went slack. I rang the bell again and the water went cold. The ghost's hair spread ou like dark strands of kelp, and the grasping hand let go of my ankle. I rang the bell a third time, and ice formed on the surface of the water."
He remembers that cold – the coldest he's ever felt. The stifling heat of that summer night, the fires still stoked in his heart – all of it went dead, and all he left with was the cold and the wet and the damp and the dark.
"I managed to get to the shore," he says quietly. "I had commissioned a prayer from a shaman – my father always told me to keep a few on hand – and when the ghost came for me again, I threw the prayer at it. There was a sound like lightening, like water and hot oil, and then a cloud of steam, noxious and thick. My ears rang and my eyes watered, and when they cleared and I could see again, the ghost was gone."
They reach the top of the rise. The forest spreads out below them, around them. Everywhere. Namjoon is breathing hard. He does not think it is from the exertion of the climb.
He can still feel that cold, just like he can still feel the heat of the fire. Sometimes he feels like he is just barely holding those two forces at bay.
"You are a very lucky man," Taehyung says quietly. Namjoon does not say anything. He knows that.
They climb up and up, into the mountains. The trees are taller and darker – firs and pines that carpet the ground with their needles and scent the air, fresh and sharp. It is getting towards late afternoon, and Namjoon is tired. It's a good tired though, that comes from exertion. The sky is faded and touched with gold at the horizon. A bird calls somewhere, angrily. The path forks ahead, one branch climbing up further, towards the heights, and the other branch descending again into the low dark of another valley.
Taehyung pauses at this branching, and waits, like he is waiting for something to tell him which of these two paths to take.
"Are we lost?" Namjoon asks.
"Have some faith," Taehyung says. "We're not lost. I couldn't get lost here." He frowns. His brow knits. "We're going up, a bit further still, but I feel something that way." He points towards the path that descends into the valley. "Something familiar. Someone I haven't felt in a long time."
The wind blows, and all the leaves shiver. "A friend?" Namjoon asks.
Taehyung looks up towards the sky. "Hmm. As close as I've got."
There is something so sad and so lonely about the way he says that that Namjoon's heart aches. He was alone for so long, before he met Jungkook. When a scrawny kid with big eyes and big ears knocked on Namjoon's office door, he'd been prepared to send him packing, but somehow – somehow! – Jungkook talked his way into an interview, and then into an apprenticeship, and now he is Namjoon's best friend and brother and the closest thing he has to family left in this world.
"You should go find him then," Namjoon says, resolutely.
Taehyung's brows crease, and he tilts his head. "I thought you were in a big rush," he says.
Namjoon shrugs. "I can spare a few hours," he says.
Taehyung smiles at him, quick and tender. Namjoon meant much more than he said, and he thinks Taehyung knows it.
The climb down is hard. Namjoon is not as sure as his feet as Taehyung, and there are several times when Taehyung has to offer him a hand as he makes his way down a particularly steep decline, where the ground is soft and rocks jut at odd angles. Taehyung is quiet, as if listening, but there is no noise except the birdsong and the quiet tremble of the forest.
The trail bottoms out, and leads into a dark, dim wood. The ground is swampy, and Namjoon's boots squelch. Taehyung's bare feet sink in up to the ankles. It feels too close here, cut off from the breeze. Taehyung goes slowly, pausing every few steps to listen, to take stock.
They have gone on like this for maybe a half an hour when Taehyung frowns, and starts forward more quickly. His walk turns into a trot and then a run. Namjoon hurries along behind him. His drab clothes blend into the dim forest, and Namjoon loses sight of him for a moment. His heart pounds and alarm starts to build, but then he nearly trips over Taehyung, who is crouched low on the ground, in front of the still, trembling body of a red fox.
No. Not a fox. Namjoon can see now. Nine tails. It is a gumiho.
Something inside of him recoils. Monster, he thinks. This thing is a monster. This is Taehyung’s friend?
"Ah," Taehyung says, running his big hand down the monster's flank. "Ah, it's okay, Hoseok-ah. It's okay." The gumiho's chest rises and falls too quickly. Is it –?
Ah. Yes. Namjoon can see now. One back paw is a bloody, mangled mess, like it was caught in a trap.
"Will it live?" Namjoon asks quietly.
Taehyung's eye are huge and wet when he looks up. "I don’t know,” he says quietly and then he turns back to console the gumiho. "Shh. Quiet now. I’ll help you. I’m here."
"You’re going to help it?” Namjoon feels slightly sick. He’s seen what gumiho can do. They eat hearts: the spirit and the flesh, and leave broken wretches behind.
The gumiho that Namjoon dispatched did that, at least. This one is a small, injured animal, caught unawares in a cruel trap.
"I can," Taehyung says. "Not here. I need –" He closes his eyes for a moment. "Up higher, back up toward the peak, there is a birch forest. There. I can help him there."
He scoops the gumiho up in his arms. It is larger than a normal fox, of course, but still not very large. Its pink tongue lolls. Its dark eyes are closed. Taehyung goes as quickly as he can without jarring the beast in his arms. Back up they climb, back up the path. It is steep, and hard going. Namjoon loses his footing, slips once. A breathless slide a few feet back down the trail before he catches hold of a thick root to stop himself. Taehyung seems entirely unaware of Namjoon’s startled cry. He is focused only on that thing in his arms.
When they reach the place where the trail forked Taehyung takes the higher branch this time. The path is firmer — hard packed earth and stone. He is nearly running now. Blood drips from the gumiho’s injured foot. A little trail of red beads mark their way. The evening sky is all flushed with fire. A late wind whips the trees. On the horizon, the moon is just rising.
Namjoon’s chest burns by the time they reach the place of the birches. The ground levels out, and the forest opens up, and the slim white trees rise out of the evening gloom. He does not know how, but he can tell this place is not quite normal. He can’t say what he means when he thinks that but he can feel it. Things are more here, somehow. The trees are quiet sentinels, and the rest of the forest and the far distant world of men seem to fall away, infinitely far.
Taehyung lays the gumiho down in the center of the clearing, on a bed of soft grass. He roots around in his bag then, and takes out a little green vial, and a little blue vial, and something wrapped in a broad waxy leaf. Gently, so gently, he cradles the little fox head in his hand, and pours the first vial down its throat. Immediately, its breathing seems easier. Less labored. Namjoon, watching, steps back. He feels like an interloper here, out of place, trespassing, seeing something private not intended for human eyes.
His mother knew these things, he thinks. His mother studied dragons, but it was more than that too. She was their friend, some of them, and they told her old, old stories forgotten by men and showed her some of their secret ways.
(Those things didn’t save her, of course, when her curiosity and trust were betrayed.)
Taehyung unstoppers the second vial and slowly feeds that to the gumiho. The creature is still now and Namjoon is startled to realize it is glowing. A pearly luminescence clings to its limbs, to its flanks and its twitching fox ear. It is barely visible only because the clearing is now surrounded by fireflies, more flieflies than there are stars in the entire sky.
It is so marvelous and so strange it takes Namjoon’s breath and it takes his words.
He does not know where he is. He doesn't know what this is. He is afraid, and delighted.
Taehyung unfolds the leaf to reveal a pinch of fine powder that glimmers like it has been milled from shooting stars. He pours this powder into one palm, and brings it to his mouth, and breathes on it, whispering. The shine grows brighter, yellow and green, sparkling and alive.
Namjoon doesn’t dare breathe. Doesn’t move. Couldn’t if he wanted to.
Taehyung looks up, quick and alert, and finds Namjoon. He smiles.
His eyes are the color of emeralds now, and they glow too.
Then Taehyung turns back to the gumiho, and breathes out, blowing the powder over the limp fox body. It hangs in the air like a curtain for a moment and then settles like a net of stars, sinking down into the earth. The wounded fox body dissolves, wisps of smoke rising into the air, insubstantial and gone. There is a moment where everything is twisted, two worlds tangled up in some way Namjoon’s eyes or mind can’t understand, and then in place of the fox body is the body of a young man with flushed cheeks.
The thing looks like a young man, Namjoon reminds himself, but he is not. He is still a monster.
Taehyung sits back, head tipped up to the sky, chest heaving. His cheeks are pale, and his mouth hangs open, like whatever he just did was a very great exertion. Like he just barely had the strength for it.
The strangeness is fading. The fireflies disperse. Evening has come, and the moon is rising in an indigo sky.
Somewhere in the underbrush, some small creature disturbs a dry leaf. The noises of the forest return.
“Namjoon,” Taehyung gasps.
Namjoon says nothing.
Taehyung’s eyes flutter closed. “Namjoon,” he says again. “Can you make a fire? I just… I need a minute here.”
Namjoon does not want to start a fire. His first instinct to run. He does not understand what he just saw. There is magic here, stronger and wilder than any he has ever seen.
But Taehyung saved him, and Taehyung has promised to help him, in his own strange way, and Namjoon is not an ingrate or a coward, so he walks a little way into the wood and gathers some dry fallen branches. When he has enough, he piles them in the driest, barest part of the clearing. His hands fall to his side, and he looks around, helpless.
“I don’t have a flint,” he says, feeling stupid, feeling like a child, feeling dumb.
He hates this feeling.
Taehyung opens his eyes. With effort, he sits up and reaches into his bag. He extracts something and tosses it to Namjoon.
A brand new lighter, manufactured by White Spark Foundries.
He stares at it for a moment, and the laughs.
Taehyung’s cheeks go dark.
“Some of these new fangled inventions of yours are pretty useful,” he mutters.
Namjoon kneels down and holds the lighter to some of the dry litter he piled around the wood. It takes a little careful tending, some careful re-arranging, but after twenty minutes or so, there is a merry fire burning, sending shadows dancing against the pale trunks of the trees.
“Can you move Hoseok closer?” Taehyung asks.
He looks better now, but is wary of fire still, just as he was back at the stone cottage.
Namjoon stares at the gumiho. There is nothing in the way he looks now that reveals his inhuman nature; that’s exactly what makes gumiho so dangerous. Still, he is loathe to touch the creature on principle.
Taehyung watches, mouth spread wide and unhappy. His eyes are dark again, but something of the earlier shine lingers.
Namjoon sighs and slowly pulls the gumiho closer to the fire. The warmth seems to do the thing good. He turns towards it, curling up, and exhales peacefully.
“Thank you,” Taehyung says quietly when Namjoon is done.
He turns to his bag again, and pulls out two rice balls. He hands one to Namjoon, who only then realizes how how utterly famished he is. He eats his too quickly, and wishes there were more, but Taehyung does not offer, and Namjoon will not ask.
“What did you do?” Namjoon says, when they are done eating and are sitting in the quiet night, listening to the fire sing.
“I brought his spirit body into this world,” Taehyung says, sighing. “He won’t be happy, but I wasn’t strong enough to heal his other flesh.”
Namjoon frowns. “You… what?”
Taehyung smiles, a sad half smile. “I thought you knew these things, Namjoon. Aren’t you the renowned monster hunter? Don’t you know the nature of the people you slay?”
Namjoon swallows. “I know more than anyone,” he says. “I know—“
“Any human, maybe,” Taehyung says quietly. Then, in a more sonorous voice — almost a chant — he says, “The creatures that are not humans were here before humans. They are the residents of the spirit realm, but in places and at times when the mortal realm is weak and the spirit realm is strong, they can slip through. Sometimes, they are not strong enough to bring their spirit flesh into this world, so they send only a shadow of themselves and inhabit some other flesh here. Gumiho are like that — most of them, these days. It wasn’t always the case, but now only the very strongest gumiho can bring their spirit flesh here.”
“But you brought him here,” Namjoon asks, frowning.
“Yeah,” Taehyung says, “but I wasn’t sure if I could, and the effort of it —” He yawns hugely. “Took a lot out of me, Namjoon. Hoseok won’t be pleased, either, but it’s the best I could do, considering.”
Namjoon watches him for a moment. His face — finely sculpted though it is — is a human face. Two eyes, nose, mouth. Expressive brows. Ears just a little too big. There is a beauty mark on his nose. Beautiful, and human.
“What are you?” Namjoon asks quietly.
Taehyung laughs. “I am someone who knows more about gumiho than you do, Namjoon-ssi.” His laugh is big, echoing, filling the entire night.
Namjoon’s cheeks burn. He swallows.
“Sorry,” Taehyung says, softly, reaching over and putting one hand on Namjoon’s knee. “I did not mean that as an insult. You helped me a great deal today.”
Namjoon did nothing — only started the fire. How had he helped? He does not ask.
“Thank you,” Taehyung says. He yawns again. “I’m about to fall asleep. You must be tired too, Namjoon-ssi.”
The shock of the gumiho and what Taehyung had done masked it for a while, but yes, Namjoon is exhausted. Bone weary. Heart weary, too, although that is nothing new.
“Let’s sleep,” Taehyung says. “Sleep, and if your dreams do not answer your questions, Namjoon-ssi, maybe the morning will.”
He lies down with his head cradled in the crook of his arm and his back to Namjoon.
Namjoon ignores the burn of anger behind his eyes. It’s nothing — just the smoke blowing on the wind. He lies down himself and tries to sleep, but in spite of his exhaustion sleep does not come. He stares into heart of the flame instead, as if he might finds answers there — but there are none, and the eventually fire dies and goes dark, and only then does he fall asleep.
It is mid-morning when Namjoon wakes up. The trees are swaying in a sweet breeze, and birds are singing, and there is no sign of Taehyung or the gumiho.
Cold fear runs down Namjoon’s spine. Did the monster turn on Taehyung, angry at what he’d done the night before? Did they leave together, leave Namjoon alone in this remote place with no supplies and no way of finding his way home? Did they —
“You’re finally up, sleepyhead,” Taehyung says, coming up the path. The gumiho — wearing a loose pair of pants that look much like Taehyung’s — is behind him.
Namjoon mutters, “Sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Taehyung is carrying a skin of water. Namjoon doesn’t to know what it’s made of — some very tight woven fabric coated with a flexible, clear resin. “Here,” Taehyung says as he holds the skin out to Namjoon. “Had to get some water. I was parched.”
Namjoon realizes he is thirsty, too. His throat is dry and raw. He takes the skin and drinks, spilling some of the water down his front.
Taehyung doesn’t laugh, but there is mirth in his eyes. Namjoon looks down at his lap as he wipes his mouth with the back of his hands.
The gumiho hangs back, near the trees, smiling a nervous, canine smile.
“Ah,” Taehyung says, clapping his hands together. “Namjoon, this is Hoseok. He is a very dear friend.”
The gumiho — Hoseok — waves. “Hello,” he says. “Hi.” He grins.
In the graceful rapidity of his movements, there is something of the fox. His eyes, too, are fox-like — golden in his angular face.
“Hello,” Namjoon says, politely — and nothing more.
“Don’t be like that,” Taehyung says cheerfully. “Namjoon is a monster hunter,” he says to Hoseok, “but he’s a good person in spite of that.”
“In spite of?” Namjoon scowls.
Taehyung puts consoling hand on his knee again, like he did last night. “Everyone has flaws, Namjoon,” he says solemnly.
He retrieves his bag from where it lies on the ground and extracts this morning’s meal. Given the bag’s seeming dimensions and how much Taehyung has already taken out of it, Namjoon is starting to suspect there’s something not quite normal about the thing. Today, Taehyung has hard bread and very sweet honey. He metes some out for each of them. Namjoon is famished and the bread is very good, so he finds that he forgets, for a moment, to be wary of the gumiho, who is enjoying his own breakfast just as much.
When they are done eating and have rinsed their hands with the last of the water, Taehyung turns to Hoseok and asks, “What happened?”
Hoseok sighs. “I was foolish,” he says quietly. His uncanny gold eyes are downcast. “I’ve been asleep for so long —“
“What woke you?” Taehyung says.
“I don’t know,” Hoseok says, frowning. His brows draw together. “I slept in the mountains, and then they shook, like the earth itself was tearing apart. I left the cave where I slept and the air was filled with dust and thunder.”
“Blasting,” Namjoon says. “They were blasting to put in a road.”
Hoseok frowns at him, like he has no idea at all what Namjoon means.
“What did you do then?” Taehyung asks, gentle but insistent. This is a story he wants to hear, and he waited, apparently, so that Namjoon could hear it too.
“I should have gone deep into the forest,” Hoseok says. “I should have gone to the deepest, darkest place I could find, but I met Junhong, and he told me a rumor.”
Taehyung waits for him to continue, serene and still.
Namjoon feels uneasy, and folds his hands in his lap.
“He said that the river was —,” Hoseok falters, and swallows, like he is struggling to find the words he needs. “He said that Jimin was dead.”
Taehyung squeezes his eyes shut for just a moment, and then opens them. “I have heard that rumor too,” he says quietly, reaching for Hoseok’s hand and squeezing it. “I know the river runs slow and sluggish, but I don’t know the truth of it. What did you find out?”
“Very little,” Hoseok says. “I followed the river up into the mountains, but I never saw Jimin. There were —“ He glances at Namjoon, quick, fearful. “There were men, everywhere. Loud and filthy. They dirtied the water and the air.”
“I would say no offense,” Taehyung says, grinning a sharp grin, “but that wouldn’t be very honest of me, Namjoon.”
Shame pricks the back of Namjoon’s neck. He does not understand why.
“I wanted to see what they were doing,” Hoseok says. “I went closer, near the place where they camped, and I fought with something — a terrible human monster with iron jaws that closed tight around my foot.”
Namjoon snorts — he can’t help himself. “It wasn’t a monster,” he says. “It was a trap. To trap wild animals.”
“Why would you want to trap animals?” Hoseok asks slowly.
“Because,” Namjoon says — but he finds he does not have an answer. Because they are dangerous? Because the rich like to wear warm coats lined with soft fur. Because it is just easier when the wild, dangerous things are gone. Easier, and safer.
Taehyung watches him intently for a moment. When Namjoon does not say more, he smiles.
“How did you escape?” Taehyung asks.
“It was a terrible monster,” Hoseok says, “but not strong enough to hold a gumiho. I pried its jaws open and fled, but my foot was crushed and I was bleeding. I had slept a long time, and that fox body had grown weak during my sleep.” He ducks his head. “I would have died if you hadn’t found me, Taehyung. Again, and always, thank you.”
Taehyung says nothing.
Namjoon cannot help himself — he has never had the chance to question a gumiho before, at least one not driven mad by rage and lust, one not hungering for human flesh.
“Can’t you turn back into a fox?” He asks.
Hoseok startles. His eyes go wide. “Oh,” he says, a little nervous. “No, that’s not how it works. When my true flesh is here, I cannot take another form.”
Taehyung sighs. “I’m sorry for that, Hoseok,” he says quietly. “I am weak too, and I could not think of anything else to save you.”
“It’s fine,” Hoseok says. “It’s more than fine. I would rather be wholly in this realm than dead in all of them.”
They share a smile, quiet and a little private. Namjoon looks away. A trail of ants skirt along the edge of the grass, near where the trail falls away. They are big and black, and walk all in a line, as orderly as soldiers.
“Where will you go now?” Taehyung asks quietly.
“Where I should have gone to begin with,” Hoseok says. “As far as I can into the forest.”
Taehyung reaches out and takes his hand. “Take care of yourself,” he says.
“I try,” he says, grinning a foxy grin. “Thankfully I have you to take care of me too.”
Hoseok gets to his feet, and so does Taehyung, and they embrace. They stay like that, with their arms wrapped around each other, for several moments. Taehyung faces Namjoon. His eyes are closed. Namjoon feels like he shouldn't be watching this, but there's nothing else to watch but the ants, who continue their methodical work, ignorant of the dramas playing out on grander scales.
Finally, Hoseok pulls away. They hold hands still, and, quick as a bird, Taehyung leans forward and presses a chaste kiss to Hoseok's lips.
"Be safe," he whispers.
Hoseok nods. He glances once towards Namjoon and smiles – but that's it. Then, skittish and quick as lightning, he starts down the trail at a half run.
Taehyung turns to watch him go, arms folded.
"That's it?" Namjoon asks.
"Huh?" Taehyung frowns.
"That's it? You saved his life, and he's just going take off like that?"
Taehyung tilts his head. "Do the people whose lives you safe stay to thank you?"
Namjoon shakes his head. "No," he says quietly. "They are glad to see the last of me, I think."
Taehyung nods. "Hoseok and I were very close once, but it has been a very long time, and things have changed, and now the best thing for him to do is get far away from here, as quickly as he can."
Namjoon nods slowly. "He didn't seem –"
"What?" Taehyung asks, sharply.
"I've... I've handled cases with gumiho before," Namjoon says, choosing his words carefully. "Hoseok wasn't what I expected."
Taehyung snorts. "There are many different kinds of people in the world, aren't there?"
"Well, there are many different kinds of gumiho," Taehyung says. "Only the very most desperate or depraved prey on men."
Namjoon says nothing, but feels strangely shamed. He stares down at the ground. One ant has strayed from the path set forth by his fellows. He circles around a pebble, many times his size, many times his weight. To the ant, it must seems like a massive boulder, immovable and permanent.
Perspective is a strange thing.
"Do you want to keep going?" Taehyung's voice is surprisingly gentle. "I can take you back. All the way to the edge of the forest, if you want. You can go back and tell Mayor Yang that you found the monster lurking in the woods." There is a wry twist in his voice that Namjoon doesn't quite understand.
Namjoon licks his lips. He has learned enough to know that there are strange and dark things in this forest, but he still has no answers.
"I want to keep going," he says slowly, "if you think it will help me understand."
Taehyung smiles, bright and real. "Good," he says. "I knew there was a reason I liked you, Namjoon."
Namjoon smiles back, feeling much gladder than he should.
They walk go more slowly today. Whatever Taehyung did last night took a real, physical toll on him, even though he is in a chipper mood. Today he whistles, trilling and sweet like a bird, and the birds sing back. The air is clear and cool, and the mood feels lighter.
By midday they have climbed high enough that the trees are smaller and spread wide amidst thick waves of rhododendron. It's windier up here, and cooler. Taehyung takes a thick scarf from his bottomless bag and wraps it around his neck. They climb higher, to where even the rhododendron won't grow, and the sun is bright and biting. Finally, Taehyung comes to the stop at the top of a rise.
"Look," he says, shading his eyes.
Namjoon turns and looks, and far, far below, far away, he sees the village, and the bridge, and the factory with its hood of dark smoke.
They have come far. Ten miles, maybe, and climbed high as well.
"Is this what you wanted to show me?" he asks.
Taehyung shakes his head. "No," he says. "I just thought it was a pretty view."
He smiles, and Namjoon rolls his eyes. "Are we almost there, though?"
Taehyung nods. "Yes," he says. "Just a little further."
They follow the white dust path a little further. A hawk circles lazily overhead. Namjoon can hear something now – a muted roar. Some great din, somewhere nearby but out of sight. Namjoon is tired again. They haven't eaten since the bread and honey this morning and he is hungry, too. He is nearly at the point of asking Taehyung if they can take a break when he realizes that Taehyung has stopped where the path crests the top of the ridge, just a little further ahead.
Namjoon comes to stand beside him. What must have once been a valley quite similar to the one they climbed out of is now a vast, smooth lake, blue and serene in the sunshine. The roar he heard was the roar of the water, falling over the spillway to cascade down maybe fifty feet and explode into droplets and mist. Across the valley, the mountainside is bare and scraped. Men are working there, and he can hear the cold ring of metal.
"This is what you wanted me to see?" He asks. His voice is barely audible over the roar of the water.
Taehyung nods. "Not long ago," he says, "this was all forest, thick and ancient. Yang built the dam to power his factories, and now the trees are all drowned."
There is a note of unimaginable sadness in his voice, like each of those trees was a dear friend, now lost.
"This is why the river is so low?"
Taehyung nods. "The river flowed fast and cold for so long, but now they've caged it. Not enough water. Not enough for the forest, not enough for the village. The rains did not come, and the river went dry. Farms failed, and the hungry people went to Yang for work."
Namjoon swallows. "How do you know all of this?"
Taehyung glances up at the hawk that still circles high above them. "I'm a popular guy, Namjoon. My friends tell me things."
"Why are you telling me this?" Namjoon asks quietly.
Taehyung smiles. "Because," he says, "I think that in spite of yourself you are a good person, Namjoon. I think you tell yourself stories about how cold and dark and terrible the world is, but you smile in the sunshine and sing along with the birdsong. I wanted you to understand what Mayor Yang is doing, what he wants."
Namjoon shakes his head. He still doesn't understand. "What he wants? Taehyung, people are being killed. This isn't some game. Yang is awful – I can't deny that – but he's trying to protect his–"
"Is he?" Taehyung asks, voice low. "Is he trying to protect those people?" He exhales, angry. "Once they looked to the forest for protection. Now Yang offers them some quick and showy comforts, and cuts into the mountains to find metal for his factories, and still people are dying."
"What are you trying to say?" Namjoon squints into the bright sky. The hawk has been joined by another, and the two of them swirl up and up and up into the sky on some column of warm air.
"I'm trying to say that Yang wants to turn the entire world into that," Taehyung says, frustrated, barely able to get the words out. He waves his arm in a big arc, encompassing the dammed river and the bare mountain and the men working there.
To Namjoon, it is a scene of industry. Not pretty, certainly, and he understands the damage done, but there is a price to progress.
He wonders what Taehyung sees. Dust, maybe, and dry land, and death.
"My job," Namjoon says slowly, "is to figure who is murdering people from the village. Taehyung, I'm just one man. I don't have any control over what White Spark does."
Taehyung frowns, ugly, tense. He looks like he might cry. "If the villagers fear the forest – if they hate it, if they think it is a place where monsters live – do you think they will protest when the forest is the thing that dies?"
Namjoon narrows his eyes. "Taehyung," he says slowly, "what are you?"
Taehyung huffs out a laugh. His eyes are green in the bright sun. "I thought you were supposed to be smart, Namjoon. I'm here," he says.
"The forest," Namjoon breathes.
"What's left of it," Taehyung says, grinning. "Well, technically, a guardian spirit." He exhales again. "But yeah, I guess for your purposes, I'm the forest." He swallows. Namjoon can see the fine muscles in his neck shift. "And he's killing me, Namjoon."
They hike back down. Clouds roll in as the afternoon progresses, and darkness comes early. By evening, a cold rain is dripping down through the layers of leaves and boughs. Namjoon shivers in his wet clothes. Taehyung hasn't said much since his confession on the mountain, and Namjoon hasn't either, although he has many questions.
A bolt of lightning inverts the world – light become dark, dark become light – and a moment later a tremendous peal of thunder sets everything shaking. Taehyung looks up, sighing.
"Once upon a time," he says, a little mournfully, "I could have sent this puny little storm far away."
"Now?" Namjoon asks, gently.
Taehyung huffs, amused. "It has been a long time since I could do things like that. Saving Hoseok was a big effort, and it will be a long time before I can even do that much again. Besides, we badly need the rain."
Namjoon frowns. "What happened?"
Taehyung blinks owlishly at him – his wet hair hangs in his face, and although he may be a nearly omnipotent forest deity, right now he just looks like a very wet, very cold, very weary young man. "The forest was bigger then," he says. "Bigger, brighter, richer – more alive. There was more life here, and humans believed then, too. The hut where you woke up belonged to the caretaker of a beautiful shrine. They sang and prayed and made offerings, and all of those things made me strong."
"The man who runs the inn I'm staying at in town said his family used to tend the shrine," Namjoon says slowly. "Kim Seokjin."
Taehyung shrugs. "Funny they still remember," he says. "I don't, not any more. I used to remember the story of every tree that grew here, every seed that sprouted, every squirrel that chattered. Now I'm not much more than you, really. Barely more than human." He smirks, amused, as if he's made some great joke.
Almost human, Namjoon thinks, remembering the way Taehyung's eyes shone green, remembering the way he called the fireflies, and saved his friend. Almost, but not quite.
The forest goes white bright again, and more thunder makes the leaves rattle. Taehyung wipes the water from his face. "Come on," he says. "There's a cave nearby."
They are both soaked by the time they reach the cave, which is just a sandy-floored recess in the side of a rise, maybe three times the length of a man and twice as wide. There is not much room, but once they are inside it is cozy enough, and dry. The rain is falling more heavily now, a real downpour, and the lightning is wicked. Taehyung stares out into the damp, gloomy dark for a moment, and then stands up and starts to strip.
"What are you doing?" Namjoon asks.
Taehyung looks at him and laughs. "I wish you could see your face right now, Namjoon," he says. "Ah, I forgot how humans are about bodies." He leaves his shirt off, but laces his pants back up. "The clothes will dry faster if we lay them out."
There is sense to that, but still, Namjoon keeps his wet shirt on. Taehyung spreads his out in the back of the cave. It is very dark, and cold, and Namjoon wraps his arms around himself.
"Hmm," Taehyung says, and then he snaps and a little green light pops into existence. "I'm not much of a god anymore," he says, “but I have a few tricks left up my sleeve."
It is better with the light. Easier. Taehyung sits with his legs crossed and rummages through his bag. He hands Namjoon more of the bread from this morning, and a little cloth bag full of some kind of nut Namjoon does not recognize.
"Sorry," Taehyung says apologetically. "This isn't exactly the best provisioned trip."
"It's fine," Namjoon says quietly. "Thank you."
They eat without speaking. The rain is noisy enough in its persistent cacophony. The wind is still howling, and the sky is even darker, but Taehyung's little globe of light hangs in the air above their head, right below the cave roof, giving them even, steady light.
Namjoon finishes eating, and wipes his hands on his dirty shirt, and drinks a little of the water that Taehyung offers, and then he finds that here in this close space with the storm raging around him, there are no other distractions. All he can do is look at Taehyung – a god! – and wonder.
Taehyung catches him staring, and grins. "What? Something on my face?" He makes a show of wiping it, exaggerated and silly.
"No," Namjoon says quickly. "No. It’s just – You're a god."
"Nah," Taehyung says. "Not really. Not anymore. I'm more like a godlet." His grimace is self-effacing.
Namjoon can't help but laugh. "Okay, godlet, then. Still, you're immortal."
Taehyung shrugs. "I guess," he says slowly. "I mean, kind of. I'm the forest. I live with it, and I will die with it."
He sounds like he thinks his death is a foregone conclusion. He has been here for thousands of years, watching over this place, protecting it, and now he's just given up.
"Why don't you go into the village?" Namjoon asks slowly. "I think some of the people there would believe you. They'd help you. The innkeeper and his partner – they're good people, and they don't like Mayor Yang."
Taehyung shakes his head. Outside, the storm rages more ferociously than ever. "I can't leave," Taehyung says quietly.
"The forest," Taehyung says. "I can't leave the forest. I mean, I’ve never tried, but I think if I leave, I'll die."
Namjoon narrows his eyes. "You know that?"
Taehyung shakes his head. He blinks. There are tears hanging on his long lashes, and there is a freckle on the end of his nose.
What kind of god has a freckle? Godlet, even?
"The forest is all I have," Taehyung says quietly. "I've protected it and fought for it, but I'm not strong enough, Namjoon. If I leave this place... I don't know what will happen to me, but I'm not brave enough to find out."
Namjoon understands fear. Fear and anger have shaped every part of him, have turned him into this cold, hard, sharp-edged person who has no pity. He understands. If he gave up the quest he swore himself to – to make the world safe from the predations of monsters – what would he be?
He too is scared of that answer, but not, maybe, as scared as he once was.
Taehyung chuckles, choked and harsh. "It's silly, isn't it?" His voice is rough. "I could tell you were a good person and I thought maybe if you saw what Yang was doing, you might be able to help me. I'm sorry. I know that's not your job, and I shouldn't have asked you."
"Taehyung," Namjoon says quietly. "I wish I could help you." He swallows. There is a lump in his throat he cannot explain. He can destroy gumiho and banish gwishin and slay dokkaebi, but he doesn’t know how to help this trembling, sad young man in front of him, this wounded and marvelous god. "What can I do?"
"I don't know either," Taehyung says, laughing again. It is a terrible, tragic sound. "Don't worry. It will all be okay, in the end. Everything changes. Even rivers don't flow forever, you know. The river spirit was my brother – stronger and more brilliant and more determined than I'll ever be. Yang trapped him, caged him behind thick walls of stone. If Jimin couldn't survive, I don't know why I thought I had a chance.
"Taehyung," Namjoon says again, feeling young and scared and stupid. So many years, and so many deaths, and he still has no answer. He still can't make things right.
"Let's go to sleep," Taehyung says, with forced optimism. "The rain will pass, and the world will seem fresh in the morning."
Namjoon is not so sure of that, but there is nothing to do now but sleep. He takes off his wet jacket and spreads it on the ground, as if it might offer any sort of comfort. He curls up on his side, head pillowed on his arm. Outside, the storm still rages.
Taehyung's little wisp o'the will light blinks out.
"Goodnight," Namjoon says quietly.
"Goodnight, Namjoon," Taehyung says.
The ground is uncomfortable. Namjoon shifts, trying to find some way to lay that doesn't hurt his shoulder, hurt his hips. His clothes are still damp, and he is cold. He feels very tired and very sad, and very, very alone. He wraps his arms further around himself and closes his eyes, but he cannot help the way he shivers.
"Are you cold?" Taehyung asks quietly.
"Yeah," Namjoon says. "A little."
"Hmm," Taehyung whispers. There is a shuffling noise, and then Taehyung is right behind him, closer than anyone has been to Namjoon in a very long time. Taehyung wraps his arms around Namjoon. He presses his feet into Namjoon's cold, wet feet. In spite of the damp and the chill and the awful howling of the wind, there is some rich woody scent that lingers on him. Namjoon breathes in and smiles.
"Is this better?" Taehyung whispers, quiet and close.
"Yes," Namjoon says, barely daring to breathe.
"Good," Taehyung says, hush and content, and he pulls Namjoon in a little closer still, and they sleep.
In the quiet pre-dawn, Taehyung sits with his back against the cool wall of the cave, listening to the wind. It is a peaceful wind this morning, glad to be blowing, soaring over the mountains and then diving into the valley. It comes from the north, and brings no news of men with it.
Namjoon wakes with the first breath of morning, when the eastern horizon is just touched with periwinkle and blush. Taehyung held him last night, until his trembling stopped and his breathing evened out and he slept. Taehyung had slept too, a little. Once, he had been a tree and he had not known sleep, and then he he had been a god and not needed it, but now he is something less — something much closer to what Namjoon is — and he needs sleep too, especially after exerting himself as he did with Hoseok.
In sleep, Namjoon’s face is smooth and serene. All the tension it holds during the day — that angry mask he has worn so long — is gone, and even the scar that runs down from one temple to the opposite cheekbone looks smoother, less twisted and red. He wakes slowly, stiffly. Taehyung understands. He is stiff too from the damp and from sleeping on the hard floor.
Namjoon stretches, arching his back, and his dark eyes open slowly. He smiles. There is a dimple in his cheek when he smiles.
“Good morning,” he says drowsily.
“Morning, sleepyhead,” Taehyung says, although really it is very early still.
Slowly, shrugging off sleep, Namjoon sits up. He is smiling still, sweet boy. He wears that smile so much more easily than the guarded frown that is his customary expression. “What time is it?”
Taehyung laughs. “You’re the one with the watch,” he says. Ah, these men and their little machines. As if hours mean anything here. It is the time when the first birds call. The time before the dew dries. He wonders what Namjoon would make of that.
Namjoon takes the little metal watch out of his pocket. He opens the lid, which is engraved with twining vines. He frowns, and shakes the thing.
“Stopped,” he says, a little petulant. His face falls. “It was my father’s, and my grandfather’s, and now…”
“Don’t you have some clever-fingered human friend who can fix it?” Taehyung asks. He does not know for certain, but from what the birds say, men can fix almost anything. Their cities and towns overflow with metal thingies and doohickeys, more and more all the time.
“Maybe,” Namjoon says. “I mean, in the city, yes, there are watch shops, and they could fix it, I’m sure, but it’s never stopped before, and I don’t —“
“Namjoon,” Taehyung asks quietly, because he wants to know. “How did you get your scar?”
Namjoon startles, shocked and tender as a deer. He brings his hand to his face, brushes his hair forward as if to hide it. “I’m sorry,” he says. “It’s pretty awful, isn’t it?”
Taehyung shakes is head. “No, it’s not,” he says. “I’m just curious.”
Namjoon brushes his hair back then, and squares his shoulders.“I told you my parents were killed by a pair of bulgae,” he says quietly. “They were disturbed in their lair, and they had a pup. They rampaged and set fire to a village, and my father was called in to investigate. He was a monster hunter, like I am, like his father was, like his father’s father was, but he wasn’t…” He smiles, lopsided and wry. “You would have liked him, I think. He would do anything he could not to kill.”
Bulgae. Sun dogs. Creatures of fire and iron. They are no friends of the forest, certainly. Taehyung has only seem them from afar, as they run across the sky.
“The female went after my mother,” he says quietly, staring at his lap. “I was with my father. When the male went for him, I tried to pull it off, but it batted me away. The claw — it was like a red hot iron ingot across my face. The doctor said I was lucky not to lose the eye. I should have gotten up and tried to help my father, but the pain was so bad.” He squeezes his eyes shut now. “I couldn’t do anything but lie there with my hands on my face, crying, sobbing. Almost out of my mind with pain. Some of the villagers came looking when we didn’t return to camp that night. I had passed out, and my parents were dead.”
Namjoon looks up, stricken and pale. “I couldn’t save them,” he says. “When I look at my reflection, and see the scar, that’s all I can think. I couldn’t save them, and the bulgae turned me into as much of a monster as it was.”
Taehyung can feel his hurt, just as he can feel the hurt of the felled trees. Just as he can feel the hurt of the mouse that makes the weasel’s dinner. Just as he can feel his own spirit ache, deep and terrible, at the thought of every single creature he failed to protect, failed to save.
Taehyung shakes his head. The bulgae scarred Namjoon, but the worst scars by far are the ones on his spirit. “You tried to save them,” he says quietly. “It’s not a scar. It’s a badge.”
Namjoon shakes his head. “Maybe it could have been,” he says, “but I answered their deaths by turning to death, and now that’s all I know.”
Taehyung closes his eyes. This poor, hurt human. This tender, wounded soul. Taehyung’s heart aches for him. With him. He thinks of all his old friends — Jimin and Hoseok and all the others he failed.
He gets up and steps across the cave to sit beside Namjoon, and he wraps his arms around him. It is a simple gesture, animal almost. Close contact, body warmth. There are things Taehyung knows that he cannot explain in words. You tried. You are loved. You did all you could.
I failed too.
Namjoon goes all tense again, like he is not used to touch of any kind. His shoulders hunch, and his heart pounds, and for a moment Taehyung thinks he might pull away. But then he shudders, and presses his face into Taehyung’s neck, and wraps his own arms around Taehyung’s waist, and they stay there like that until the red sun is all the way above the horizon.
They get back to Taehyung's cottage around midday. Too soon, Namjoon thinks. It is a strange morning, humid but cool, and he feels strange. Stricken. Raw and sad in a way he hasn't let himself feel in a long time.
"Well," Taehyung says, as they round the corner and the ruined stone building comes into sight.
They hadn't said much on the walk back. There hadn't been much to say. Now, though, Namjoon feels close to tears again. So many years since he's cried, and now he's at the point of it twice in one day.
"Taehyung," he says, haltingly. "Taehyung, why don't you–"
Taehyung's smile is forced. A hard thing. "It's not a long walk back to the village. You will be back before dark, if you can keep from getting lost again."
"Taehyung," Namjoon says again. "Why don't you come with me?"
Taehyung's face falls. "I can't," he says quietly. "I can't leave."
"You don't know that," Namjoon says. "Come to the village. Talk to the people there. Tell them what you know. Who you are. Maybe you can convince them there's a better way."
Taehyung hangs his head. "I don't have anything to offer them that can complete with White Spark," he says quietly. "They want food and shelter and modern conveniences. I can't give them that. They realized long ago I can't give them what they need. They left, and this place fell into ruins."
"Those mushrooms you found," Namjoon says, stubborn. Had that only been yesterday? It seems like a year ago. "Those are valuable. Powerful. There are powerful herbs and mushrooms in the forest. There's got to be a way to turn that into something they can use."
"You can tell them, then. I can't leave," Taehyung says, trembling, terrified. "I'll die."
"You'll die if you stay," Namjoon says, too loudly, too angrily. Angry at himself, really, for not being able to help. For failing once again.
Taehyung is crying now, tears running down his red face. He shakes his head and turns, burying his face in his hands.
Namjoon wants to go to him. He wants to wrap his arms around Taehyung and offer him consolation just as Taehyung consoled him that morning. It seems so much longer ago. Another world. Another time, in that cave, listening to the wind and the storm. Namjoon wants to offer consolation, but Taehyung is not a child. He is a god, and this is his realm, and if he wants to die with it – well, that is his choice.
Namjoon will be alone again. That is how it has always been.
Taehyung is still crying, shaking with it, trembling like a young tree in the wind.
Namjoon hefts his staff and turns down the path towards the village.
"Kid," Yoongi says quietly.
Jungkook, all big eyes and nervous energy, looks up. There is a smear of oil on one cheekbone. "Hyung? What is it? Did Namjoon hyung –?"
"No," Yoongi says, shaking his head. "No. Seokjin sent me out here to force you to come in for some food. It's almost nine o'clock."
Jungkook frowns. He wipes his cheek with the back of his hand. It just smears the oil. "I'm not hungry," he says. His chin juts stubbornly.
Ah damn. Youth. Had Yoongi been this stubborn?
He struggles not to laugh. Yoongi, aged seventeen, miserable in the tiny village with the rutted cobblestone streets and silent ink black nights, had run away. Run away from his family and his home and his best friend in the world. Run all the way to the city, to learn the secrets of electricity and metal.
Yoongi had been that stubborn. He's pretty damn stubborn now.
"Come on, kid," he says. "You can come back and work on the bike later. I'll even help you. But if you don't eat now, you're gonna be stuck with bread and water."
Jungkook's frown deepens. "I don't care," he says. "I need to get the bike fixed. I want it to be ready to go when Namjoon hyung comes back."
Yoongi closes his eyes. Goddamn. This poor kid. It's been a week. Kim Namjoon is not coming back.
When Yoongi opens his eyes again, Jungkook is scowling at him still. Yoongi scowls back – he can scowl with the best of them. There is a tense moment during which neither yields, but this kid has a thing or two to learn if he thinks he can out-glower Min Yoongi.
Finally, Jungkook sighs. He gets up, wiping his hands on his apron, and then takes it off and hangs it on the hook by the door. He turns off the kerosene lantern, and walks out into the courtyard, shutting the door to the shed behind him.
They are halfway back to the kitchen when someone knocks loudly on the outer gate.
They've been in the habit of locking it at dusk for quite a while now, but since the news of Namjoon's disappearance and Yang’s meeting announcing it, things have gotten bad. They have not unlocked the gate at all except when they need to go out, and then they lock it tightly behind them.
"Probably just someone messing around," Yoongi mutters.
The person knocks again. Jungkook freezes. "No," he says. "No, Yoongi hyung, it's Namjoon. It's gotta be."
Yoongi squeezes his eyes shut again. He feels a headache coming on. This poor kid. "Kid," he says. "You go head into the kitchen. I'll see who's at the gate."
Jungkook folds his arms over his chest. "No," he says. "I'm not going until we see if it's Namjoon."
Yoongi's heart sinks, but fine, whatever. The kid is asking for it. He takes the heavy iron key from the loop at his side and walks over to the gate. The lock – he designed it himself, improving upon the original – turns over ponderously, and the heavy timber doors swing open.
Standing there, in the evening gloom, is Kim Namjoon. Sunburned and filthy and stubbly, and with a big bruise on his temple. His clothes are tattered, and his boots are in ruins.
"Hyung!" Jungkook cries, and flings himself at Namjoon with so much force Yoongi is surprised he doesn't knock him over.
"Jungkook," Namjoon says hoarsely. "Hey. Sorry it took me so long to get back. I got a little lost."
Jungkook, still hugging the older man tightly, just shakes his head. "Don't worry, hyung," he says. "Don't worry. I believed in you. I knew you’d come back."
Yoongi shakes his head. The damn kid had been right, too.
After a bath and a change of clothes, Namjoon heads down to the common room of the inn feeling almost all right. Almost, but he can't shake the ominous sense of foreboding that has settled heavy in the pit of his stomach. He can't stop thinking about the terrible way Taehyung had turned from him, crying silent tears.
He can't stop thinking that, in leaving Taehyung, he made some terrible mistake.
But Taehyung is the one that decided to stay.
Pausing on the lowest step, he squeezes his eyes shut for just a moment. It hurts, but he's used to that. He pushes the feeling away.
Jungkook is sitting at the table nearest to the fireplace, rapidly shoveling something into his mouth. He puts his spoon down when he sees Namjoon. "Hyung! Seokjin hyung is bringing your dinner now. How are you? Are you sure you're okay?"
Namjoon takes the seat across from Jungkook. He is body sore and heart sore, but there's no point in worrying Jungkook. "I'm fine," he says, trying to smile. "Just tired."
Jungkook frowns, nodding. "Hyung, I knew you were okay," he says. "I knew there was no way that Kim Namjoon would go down without a fight, no matter what that creep Yang said. I knew –"
"Keep your voice down, Jungkook-ah," Seokjin says. The common room is nearly empty at this hour, but there are a few men at one of the far tables, drinking and playing godori. Their laughter is raucous, and they slap the cards to the table with far more force than needed.
Seokjin sets a bowl of stew and a bowl of rice down in front of Namjoon. "There's plenty more," he says cheerfully, and then bustles off to get more alcohol for the other table.
Namjoon eats slowly. It's not exactly like he was starving, but it feels good to have a hot, filling meal. Jungkook finishes his food and sits fidgeting. Namjoon can almost feel how badly he wants to ask a question, but he's a polite kid, and he waits for Namjoon to be done with his food.
After Namjoon is done, after the men at the other table retire, after Yoongi comes back in from the yard, Seokjin comes out of the kitchen with a pot of tea and four cups. He pours them each a glass and then, sitting down beside Namjoon, says, "Namjoon-ssi, if you wouldn't mind, Yoongi and I are very interested in knowing what happened."
Namjoon nods. He's not totally sure he trusts these men, but he knows he trusts them more than Yang. Beside, they took care of Jungkook, and Namjoon owes them a debt for that.
"I wanted to see the murder site," Namjoon says. "At night, because that is when most monsters are active. I had a map that Yang gave me, and I was armed, and Jungkook knew I was going. The woods were – normal."
Seokjin nods, one hand curled around his teacup.
"Normal?" Jungkook asks. "You didn't feel anything?" He has come to trust Namjoon's intuition more, maybe, than Namjoon trusts it himself.
"Nothing," Namjoon says. "Just trees, and night, and quiet. I went to the spot on the map, but they'd burnt it."
"That's Yang with his mumbo jumbo bullshit," Yoongi interrupts. "He's the one that started the talk of the forest demon, and now all the villagers think that if they don't purify the scene of the crime some boogeyman is going to come and get them." He rolls his eyes. Not a believer, this Yoongi.
"Well," Namjoon says quietly. "If there had ever been any hint of evil power there, it is gone now." He sighs. "I was walking back to the village, when I heard something behind me. I thought it was just nerves – I was tired from our journey here – but I turned, and I saw... something."
Seokjin sucks in a sharp breath. "A demon."
Jungkook rolls his eyes. "There's no such thing as demons," he says, in his too young and occasionally pedantic way. "Hyung, what was it?"
Namjoon knows more than nearly anyone about monsters and gwishin and other unnatural beasts. It galls him to have to admit that he doesn't know. "I didn't get a good look," he admits, "but, just like the wood, it didn't feel evil." He sees the face Yoongi is making and cuts him off before he can interrupt. "There's a feeling you get, when you're around a powerful supernatural presence. Chills down the back of your spine. A pressure, almost. Not physical, but mental. Or spiritual, maybe. I didn't feel any of that."
Strange, though, how he hadn't felt any of that with Taehyung. Had felt nothing, really, except a sense of calm and ease.
"What happened, then?" Seokjin asks.
"It chased me," Namjoon admits. "I ran back towards the village, but I tripped and dropped my torch, and I panicked." He shakes his head. "I don't know what came over me. I acted like some amateur."
"It's okay," Jungkook says, consolingly. "It's okay, hyung. Everyone has off days, and we barely got any sleep the night before, and –"
Whatever else Jungkook is going to say is interrupted by the sound of someone knocking hard at the gate.
Seokjin and Yoongi look at each other, and then Yoongi sighs. "Probably another one of these asshole White Spark men coming back stinking drunk." He gets up slowly, more cautiously than his casual words merit, and heads towards the door. "Don't know why they can't drink here. Nothing wrong with our booze."
The door shuts behind him. Seokjin watches for a moment, and then turns back to Namjoon. "Did this thing attack you, Namjoon-ssi? Do you think it was the beast behind the murders?"
Namjoon shakes his head. "No," he says. "I mean, I think it may have been behind the murders, but I outran it. I lost the path in the dark and –"
The front door bursts open, bangs into the wall. Yoongi stands in the doorway, eyes wide and face pale. The firelight carves his face into sharp planes of light and shadow.
"What?" Seokjin asks, frowning. "What is it, Yoongi?"
"There's been another murder," Yoongi gasps.
Namjoon's blood turns cold in his veins.
Out, into the teeming streets. The townsfolk are pouring out of their humble houses. Namjoon and Jungkook, Seokjin and Yoongi join them, anonymous in throng. It's all wrong though. Too quiet. There's no jocular laughter, no cheerful greeting of neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend. People are silent and withdrawn, shoulders hunched, heads down. A few men carry torches, and their red flickering light is ghoulish and strange.
A crowd has already gathered in the little square, and people stream in from the surrounding streets, more all the time. Unease roils the crowd. These are anxious people, afraid and waiting, and their discontent is spreading. Namjoon's stomach turns sour. This is wrong. All wrong. This town is balancing on a knife edge, and another murder will tip them all into hysteria.
Cold. Namjoon wraps his arms around himself. His head aches. Jungkook is quiet and troubled, and Yoongi and Seokjin keep to themselves, a few steps away. This anonymous crowd feels like a monster itself – something big and dark and lurking that is waiting to rise up and strike.
Smoothly, like they knew what to expect, the crowd parts. Slowly, a glossy black automobile pulls through the narrow streets and into the square. Black and gleaming, with chrome details, it is a massive thing – as fancy as any seen on city streets, and a rarity out here. When it is right in the middle of the square, the car rolls to a slow stop. Headlights still on, the driver gets out. He is a large man – very large – wearing a black suit of foreign cut and a cap. With massive stateliness he rounds the car and opens the passenger door.
Mayor Yang steps out. He looks thinner – almost skeletally gaunt – and his skin is bone white. Not well. He doesn't look well at all. He is wearing a heavy wool coat – too heavy for the weather – and black leather gloves.
Yang's appearance breaks the spell of silence on the crowd. At once, dozens of voices call out.
"Mayor, is it true?"
"There's been another murder?"
"Where is –"
"Are we safe?"
"What are we going to do?"
The last is nearly an existential wail, full of dread, full of horror.
Yang lets this go on a moment too long, lets it reach almost a fever pitch before he raises one black-gloved hand.
"Quiet, friends," he says. "Quiet, please. I know how upsetting this news must be, but let's keep our heads."
The furor subdues slightly, but there is not silence. Yang seems to wait, biding his time, shifting his weight slowly from foot to foot. The big driver glowers at the closest of the townsfolk, who back away slowly. The torches crackle. Oily smoke rises into the air.
Finally, when things have quieted to his liking, Mayor Yang speaks. "I am sorry to tell you all that Lee Geunyoung, a resident of this village and an employee at White Spark Foundry, was found dead this evening." There is an audible gasp, although surely everyone already knew the poor man's fate. The crowd is restless again. Unsettled.
"His wife –" Here Yang gestures to a small, trembling woman wrapped in a shawl. She seems barely able to keep herself upright, and is consoled by a very young woman who must be her daughter. " – reported him missing when he failed to come home after his shift. Given the times we find ourselves in, I organized a search party right away. White Spark employees combed the foundry grounds and the neighborhood nearby, and I am very sorry to say we were not in time to help poor Geunyoung. We found the deceased just inside the old forest, with his head cleaved in."
Yang shares these details with the faint clinical sorrow of a physician, but Namjoon can tell how much he relishes the effect his words have. Immediately, the crowd is loud again, yelling, straining against the boundaries of propriety.
" – found the demon?"
"Are we safe?"
"How can you keep us safe?"
Yang hushes them again. "I know how concerned everyone is," he says slowly. "And I want you to know that I am taking every course of action available to me as your mayor to make sure that the people of this village are safe." He clears his throat. "I know some of you believe that there is some supernatural force behind these deaths. Given that not even infamous monster hunter Kim Namjoon was safe, I can’t help but think there is some truth to these rumors."
If the announcement of Lee Geunyoung's death was a tremor, this announcement is an earthquake. People surge forward towards Yang. A woman wails, high and shrill. Namjoon feels frozen in place, unwilling to be pressed further forward into the crowd, but angry too, furious, really, at Yang daring to use his name as more foul propaganda.
"Calm," Yang says. "Calm!" He is yelling now, too, but his voice is barely audible over the din of the crowd.
"We're not safe," someone screams.
A man, red-faced and rough, grunts agreement. "That forest is an evil place. Always knew it."
"Prayers don't work," someone else sobs. "Nothing works."
"We're not safe," someone else says, and that is the refrain the crowd takes up. We're not safe.
We're not safe.
"Hyung," Jungkook says, tugging on Namjoon's sleeve. "Hyung, do something."
Namjoon feels sick. His head spins. He needs to do something, but he is just another faceless man in this throng.
"Please," Yang yells. "Please, everyone. Calm down. Let's approach this rationally."
But it is too late. Any thread of control he might have held is gone.
"We need to do something." A woman's voice, thin with fear.
The red-faced man has climbed on top of a barrel. His red face goes redder as he hollers to be heard. "We're being hunted. Things are good here now, better than they've been in a long time, but there's something evil in that forest, and it's coming for us."
A murmur of agreement.
"We need to do something!"
He is holding at torch, and he thrusts it skyward.
Yang and the driver, Namjoon notices, are waiting, watching, not trying to regain control of the crowd any longer.
The man on the barrel screams now, throat straining. "Let's burn it!"
The roar is concussive. Suddenly, the crowd is moving much more quickly. Violent. Jarring. Namjoon grabs Jungkook and pulls him close. He knows how easy it is to lose your footing in a crowd like this. People are trampled. People die. He is breathing hard. Jostled, he presses against the flow, and then Seokjin is there, suddenly, grabbing for them both, pulling them out of the thick of the crowd into the tiny alley between the two nearest houses.
"You okay?" Yoongi asks.
"Yeah," Namjoon says, panting. "Shit."
The square is half empty now, and emptying further all the time. The sleeping beast has been roused, and its bellows ring loud in the quiet night. Everything seems wrong. The rushing bodies are anonymous, nightmare figures. Namjoon reels, head spinning. The meal he'd eaten earlier threatens to come up on him, but he swallows through the nausea.
"Hyung," Jungkook says.
His voice seems distant, muffled by the general roar and by the strange rushing noise in Namjoon's ears. What's wrong with him? He has faced down so many nightmare creatures – teeth gleaming, claws flashing, full of malevolent old evil – but it is this crowd of frightened, hollow-faced men and women that threatens to undo him.
"Hyung, are you okay?"
Namjoon swallows, and then rights himself. Yang needs to do something. He pays lip service to peace and rationality but he is the one who set this town on this ill-fated course, and he stands back idly now while they set the world to burn.
Namjoon pushes through the square, past the people still lingering, most with children, unsure of where to go or what to do. As he draws closer, he can hear the contented hum of the car's engine. Yang, hands clasped behind his back, watches the disbursing crowd contentedly.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Namjoon's voice sounds strange in his own ears. Too harsh. Raw.
Despite what he told the crowd just a few moments earlier, Yang doesn't seem even slightly surprised to see Namjoon.
"Kim Namjoon-ssi," he says in that oil slick voice. "So you did manage to find your way back."
Namjoon frowns, wrinkling his nose.
Yang bursts into laughter, dry and rasping, like dead leaves rattling on the branch. "Oh, so you haven't figured it out yet?" He tuts. "Your reputation, it seems, is overblown, Kim Namjoon-ssi."
He gestures with a skeletal hand to the driver. The man is even bigger up close. Hulking. More shockingly, one side of his face is a mass of scars, skin twisted and puckered. A patch covers the place where his left eye should be.
It hits Namjoon hard, right in the gut. It is like looking in a mirror, and he has to fight the urge to bring his hand to his own face and feel his scar – ugly and terrible, but nothing compared to this wreck.
"Poor Woopunggie has worked for me since he was a very young man. Really barely more than a child," Yang says. "He was injured – you have no idea how dangerous foundry work is, Namjoon-ssi. There was a faulty mold, and an explosion. I paid for his medical care, of course, and after he healed and we saw the extent of the damage, I found a place for him on my household staff." He smiles his thin-lipped smile. "He has never been the brightest, our Woopunggie, but he would do anything for me. Very loyal, and very, very strong."
The silent, hulking man grins, stretching the scars.
Namjoon's stomach churns again. Now he sees. That looming shape in the dark rears up out of the dark of his dreams.
"It was you," he growls. "You killed all those people."
Yang sneers. "Oh, very clever," he says mockingly. "The great Kim Namjoon figured it out at last." He folds his arms again. "Not me. Do I look like the type of man who could overpower so many young, strong victims?"
Namjoon can't find the words for his anger. It's hot now, burning through all his weariness, all his long cultivated control. "You fucking monster," he spits. "You're supposed to take care of these people. You're supposed to protect them."
Yang shakes his head. "And I have, Namjoon-ssi. I brought them prosperity like this town has never known. It wasn't easy, either. This is a backwards place, and these are backwards people. You wouldn't believe the foolish things they said when I first proposed clearing more land. The forest, they said, was their friend. Their guardian." He laughs cruelly. "Ignorant peasants. It wasn't hard to plant another idea in their mind. The forest that was once their protector had turned on them, was hunting them, and now, look. I've empowered them! They have taken their safety into their own hands."
Namjoon has no weapons – no pistol, no poison, no knives. They are all back at the inn, forgotten in his haste. His fists clench. Woopung shifts his weight subtly. He is a big man, but his size is deceptive. Namjoon has already seen how quickly he can move.
Nothing. At the end of the day, Namjoon can't do anything. He closes his eyes.
Jungkook, coming through the crowd, puts a hand on Namjoon's shoulder. "Hyung, are you okay?"
"I'm okay," he says quietly, even though he's not. Not really.
Woopung comes around to the side of the car and opens the door for his master. Before getting inside, Yang turns to look at Namjoon once more. "Remember," he says, slick and self-satisfied. "You are a dead man now, Kim Namjoon-ssi. I have spent a long time and a lot of money waiting for this night. Tomorrow, the sun will rise on a new world, free of old superstitions and biases. Don't try to stop it."
He gets into the car and Woopung shuts the door before lumbering back around to the driver's side. He puts the car into gear and slowly pulls away, back down the narrow streets.
Yoongi and Seokjin come up then. "What's going on?" Seokjin asks, frowning. "What happened, Namjoon-ssi?"
Namjoon swallows. "Yang is behind the murders. He's behind all of this."
Yoongi curses. "I fucking knew that snake was up to no good. Hyung," he says, turning to Seokjin, "You need to go talk to them. I know you don't believe me, but people trust you. They'll listen to you."
Seokjin sighs. "In the morning, maybe, Yoongi-ya. I don't think they'll listen to anyone right now."
"What are we going to do, hyung?" Jungkook asks. He has stood by Namjoon's side as they faced ghosts and demons, and Namjoon has never heard him this scared.
"I don't know," Namjoon says. He feels hollowed out now. Stupid and gutted. He couldn't save his parents, and he couldn't save this town, and he couldn't save –
He can smell it now. Smoke, blowing in on the breeze.
Namjoon feels suddenly alert.
"They're going to burn the forest," he says.
Seokjin looks towards the sky. "More rain is coming," he says, "but it's not here yet. It’s been so dry lately, too. All we can do is hope it starts falling before the fire spreads too far."
"No," Namjoon says. "They're going to burn the forest. Taehyung is – I need to get into the forest. Fast."
Maybe he can't save this place, and maybe he won't be able to save Taehyung either, but he can try. He has to try.
Jungkook looks at Yoongi. "Hyung, the bike?"
Yoongi nods, considering. "Yeah," he says. "What the hell. Let’s take the bike."
They ride through the dark night. Yoongi insisted on coming, and Jungkook too, and so all three of them are squeezed front to back, hanging on for dear life. It’s not safe, and Namjoon feels himself lift off the seat more than once when they hit a particularly jarring rut in the road.
They can see the smoke now, rising black against a dark sky. It is coming from the other direction — back towards the foundry, where the mob must have entered the woods. They are taking another way. Yoongi knows all the roads around here. Before he left, he says, he used to spend hours exploring these old ways, and although things have changed, the old roads are still there.
On the way back to the inn, Namjoon had explained about Taehyung — not everything, but enough for them to understand that there was someone in the forest that needed to be warned. He’d run up to the room to grab his knives and then nearly tumbled down the stairs in his haste. Yoongi and Jungkook had gotten out the bike. Yoongi had tried to get Seokjin to come too, but Seokjin had insisted on staying behind.
The inn, he’d said, was the most secure building in town beside the foundry, and the largest. If things got violent, he wanted to be there to offer people what little sanctuary he could.
“You care a lot for these people,” Namjoon had said.
Seokjin had shrugged. “This place is my home,” he said. “I have to try to help them.”
Now, they skirt the edge of the forest. Branches reach for them, tangling in hair and clothes. The bike’s engine whines. Namjoon’s eyes water from the cold and from the smoke. He can smell it, even though they can’t see the plume, can’t see the flash of flame from here beneath the trees.
Everything rushes past in a flash. They take a turn too sharply and nearly skid out, but Yoongi leans hard into it and rights them. Jungkook’s arms are wrapped tight around Namjoon’s waist, but he is hollering with delight. Just when they've gotten upright, they hit a bump, and go airborne for a moment. Namjoon's stomach is in his throat, and his heart is racing. He clings desperately to Yoongi, who hunches low over the handlebars. They land with a great crash. All of Namjoon's teeth clatter, and his breath rushes from his chest.
Smoke hangs thick in the air now. The smell of it makes Namjoon's heart race. Fires have always done that to him, at least since the bulgae. His eyes sting, and he is not sure if it is the smoke or tears.
They jolt along for another few moments and then Yoongi brakes the bike. The air is thick and dry now, and the forest is a shadowy strange place.
"I'm going to run into a tree if we keep going," Yoongi mutters. "Can you go the rest of the way on foot?"
Jungkook hops off the bike, and Namjoon follows.
They already crossed the river, so they cannot be far now. Namjoon isn't sure if he knows the way, but he trusts the forest will help him.
"Yes," he says. "Thank you, Yoongi-ssi. I can't tell you how much this means. If you two wait here for me I'll –"
"No," Jungkook says, chin jutting. "I'm not letting you go off on your own again, hyung."
They glare at each other. Jungkook is good at so many things, and stubbornness is not the least of his skills.
Covering his mouth with a hand, Yoongi says, "Whoever is going better hurry the fuck up, or we're not getting out of here."
He coughs, harsh and angry, and then wipes his mouth with his hand.
Namjoon shakes his head. "Fine," he says. "Fine, Jungkook. Let's go."
They run blindly through the smokey forest. Namjoon's chest burns. Jungkook is just at his heels. They can see flames now, flickering in the distance. The fire has spread fast. Clouds obscure the moon now, but the rain has not yet come. It will not come quickly enough to save them.
Namjoon prays to anyone listening that he is not too late.
The world is made strange by the haze. Namjoon is afraid he has lost the way. Where is the stone cottage? Where is the river? Taehyung cannot save him this time.
But just as panic starts to seize him a dark shape rises out of the mist. The cottage!
Namjoon circles round to the door. Inside, everything is dark. The hearth is cold.
Taehyung is not here.
Namjoon squeezes his eyes shut. He swallows. He's too late. Of course he's too late.
"Hyung," Jungkook says, gasping. "What's wrong?"
"He's not here," Namjoon says. "He's gone."
Jungkook exhales. "He can't have gotten far. Let's keep looking."
He dashes off down the path towards the river, disappearing in a moment behind the thick curtain of smoke. Namjoon watches him go, but his heart is already turned to ash. Somewhere, deep inside, he knew that he would not save Taehyung. He has never been able to save anyone – not when it really mattered.
He steps into the cottage. How small and sad it looks now – shabby and long abandoned. There is something loose and shapeless on the floor. Taehyung's bag. Namjoon kneels to pick it up. Taehyung seemed to be able to produce inexhaustible delights from this bag. Namjoon turns it inside out now. It is empty and in all respects unremarkable. Whatever magic animated it is gone now.
Still holding the bag, he heads back outside. The smoke has grown thicker. Namjoon's throat burns. It is very, very dark, and Namjoon smells the reek of fire, of death.
He starts down the path after Jungkook. He has failed, and they need to go. Back to Yoongi, and out of the forest and out of this goddamn miserable town. Back to the city, where radiators keep them warm, and smokeless electric lights keep the night at bay. Back to his drab offices. Back to his cold, fierce purpose.
He is started from his morbid reflections.
"Hyung!" It is Jungkook. "We're by the stream!"
We? Namjoon breaks into a sprint. His boots slip on the loose earth. Trees loom up out of the mist. He sees first just a dark shape, shrouded in smoke, but as he gets closer it resolves itself into two figures: Jungkook, kneeling, and, on the ground, sprawled, Taehyung.
Namjoon's heart leaps.
Taehyung is ghostly pale, but he is awake and he smiles a brilliant smile when he sees Namjoon.
"Howdy, stranger," he says, but even this seems too much effort, because he is immediately consumed with coughing. "Didn't think I'd see you again."
His voice is a dry rasp.
Namjoon's hands are shaking. He drops to his knees.
"Taehyung," he says. "What's wrong? Are you hurt?"
Taehyung shakes his head. "No," he says. "I am hurt, but not the way you're thinking. Remember what I am." He puts a hand to Namjoon's cheek. His palm is hot. "They're burning me, Namjoon."
He coughs again. Namjoon takes the hand on his cheek and squeezes it. He brings his other hand to Taehyung's forehead. His cheeks are flush. The fire that burns in the forest has kindled in his flesh, too.
Tears run down Namjoon's cheeks. This time, he knows they are not from the smoke.
"Taehyung-ah," he says. "Come on. Get up. Let's get you out of here."
Taehyung shakes his head. "Can't go," he says. His eyes are glassy and unfocused. "Won't make a difference." He curls up tighter, knees almost to his chest, and coughs violently.
"Hyung," Jungkook says, tugging on Namjoon's sleeve. "What's wrong with him? Let's go. Yoongi hyung is waiting."
Namjoon shakes his head. All he can hear right now is the roaring of the fire – that rush of hot air. He can feel the blistering heat on his skin. His scar is as bad as it is because the bulgae's iron claws had cauterized the wound. When the creature had lunged, it had howled with the voice of a raging fire.
Jungkook says something else. Namjoon can't hear it. He couldn't save his parents and he can't save Taehyung and everything, finally, is flame and fucking ash. There is not enough water in the whole world to –
He remembers the play of the clouds on the surface of the reservoir. Deep and placid, all that water, trapped up in the mountains.
"Taehyung," he says urgently. "Taehyung."
Taehyung opens his eyes. They are a dark, strange color – the color of burnt wood. "Namjoon?"
"The dam," he says. "If we open the dam, would that stop the fire?"
Taehyung blinks. He licks his dry lips. He blinks again, and then shakes his head. "I don't know," he says. "I can't see anything, Namjoon. I can't feel anything. It burns."
The anguish in his voice makes Namjoon's heart tear.
Taehyung might be a god, but right now he has no answers. Namjoon is a man, and beyond that, a failure – but this is the only idea he's got.
If he fails – when he fails – maybe having tried will offer some consolation.
He gets an arm around Taehyung's shoulders and another under his legs. Taehyung is not light, and Namjoon's back protests as he lifts, but there isn't time to worry about that. Taehyung's head lolls back, and his arms hang limp. Other than the painfully red flush of his cheeks, he is bone white.
"Jungkook, come on," he calls. "Let's go."
They stumble, half running, through the smoke, following the path back as well as they can. The fire has spread. The fire is coming. Namjoon can see flames lick the tops of the trees on the next ridge. Sweat rolls down his back.
"Jungkook," he says, gasping. "Jungkook, the river is dammed."
"Huh?" Jungkook shakes his head. "What are you talking about hyung?"
"The river is dammed," Namjoon says again. There's no time to explain about Taehyung. "We need to put the fire out. If you get to the dam, can you open it?"
"Open it? Yeah. I think I – I can figure it out, hyung."
Namjoon, in spite of the terror, laughs. Jungkook would try to take down the moon, if Namjoon asked.
"You're too good for me, Jungkook-ah," he says. "Thank you."
"I'm just glad I can help, hyung. Will your friend be okay?" Jungkook sounds worried.
"I don't know," Namjoon says, shaking his head. "I don't know, Jungkook, but he saved me, so I have to try."
Jungkook nods, like that's the most sensible thing Namjoon has said all day.
Yoongi is waiting in the clearing with the bike.
"You found him?"
Namjoon nods. His chest is burning and his arms ache, but if he sets Taehyung down now, he's not sure if he'll get him back up. "Yoongi-ssi, I need you to do me a big favor."
"Bigger than this one?" Yoongi drawls.
"Can you take Jungkook to the dam? How long will it take?"
Yoongi frowns. "Up in the mountains? I don't know. An hour, maybe? What the hell are we going to do up there?"
"We need to open it, hyung," Jungkook says.
"Open the dam? If we open it all at once, the river’s going to flood – oh." Yoongi looks at Namjoon, startled.
Namjoon smiles, grim and determined. "Exactly."
When Jungkook and Yoongi have their mission and the sound of the motor bike is receding in the distance, Namjoon sits down next to where Taehyung is resting on the grass. He brushes Taehyung’s sweaty hair off his brow. Hot, too hot. He need to be cool down, but they can’t stay here. The fire is coming for them.
As gently as he can, he lifts Taehyung again, this time so that Taehyung is half thrown over his shoulder. It can’t be as comfortable, but it’s a bit easier for Namjoon to carry him that way, and frankly Taehyung is not in much of of a state to care.
He is dying. Namjoon can feel the heat rise off his body, hot and dry. An hour at least until Jungkook and Yoongi get to the dam. Namjoon has to keep Taehyung cool until then. He many be a god, but his body is a real flesh and blood body. Namjoon can feel his heart beat, hear the ragged pained way he breathes.
The river. If he can get a little closer to the village, the river flows out of the forest. The water is sluggish and low but there must still be a pool he can bathe Taehyung in.
“Don’t worry, Taehyung-ah,” he says, and he almost laughs at the absurdity. He is talking to a god — an ancient, powerful creature, maybe the most powerful he has ever encountered — like he is a child. “Don’t worry. We’re going to cool you off in a few minutes.”
Taehyung makes a faint, pained noise. Namjoon’s arm close more tightly around his waist.
“It will be okay,” Namjoon murmurs. He closes his eyes. That is what his father said, as he lay bleeding and burned. “It will all be okay, Namjoon-ah.”
Nothing was ever the okay after that. Namjoon has spent the last ten years trying to burn out all the evil in the world, and the only thing he’s done is turn himself into something dry and burned and mean. Something as scarred and ugly inside as he is on the outside.
Almost. Almost he did.
Taehyung saw something in him, still fresh and full of wonder. He doesn’t know how. It was buried so deeply, under years of anger and pain, but Taehyung is a god, and he used some magic and now that tender thing that Namjoon tried to burn out is sprouting, fragile and green.
He doesn’t dare put a name to it yet, but he remembers this feeling. Remembers what he felt for his mother and his father. What he feels for Jungkook.
What he might feel for Taehyung, one day, if they have the time.
Right now, he is not sure they even have the hour that it will take Jungkook and Yoongi to reach the dam.
The smoke is a curtain of flickering grey, thinner here but still oppressive.
There is a world outside this hurt, Namjoon thinks.
He closes his eyes and pushes forward.
Cool, and sweet, the mountain water.
This is… not that. Not exactly.
Taehyung shuts his eyes. Water runs down his face, wets his hair, sticks his clothes to his chest. His head feels heavy. He feels…
Something is wrong.
He can’t feel anything. He can’t see anything. For a thousand years — for longer, for a length of time beyond the reach of man’s measure — he felt the forest. Not all of it, not at once, but as a faint and reassuring presence in the back of his mind. Trees and birds and worms and flies and ferns and sprouting acorns and diving hawks hunting trembling mice and the sun on every leaf. He felt that all. He was that all.
Now, there is nothing.
He opens his eyes.
He sits in a shallow pool near the edge of the river. Namjoon’s arm is around his shoulder. Namjoon is holding him up, and pouring handfuls of cool water over Taehyung’s head.
No. Taehyung does not feel nothing. Suddenly — wonderfully and terribly — he is entirely in his body. His head aches and his throat is dry and his lips are cracked and he is sitting on the hard, uneven bottom of the river.
“Namjoon,” he says, quietly.
Namjoon, cupped hand full of water hovering in the air, freezes. “Taehyung!”
“Namjoon,” Taehyung says. “What are you doing?”
Namjoon looks at him in a way that Taehyung does not ever remember being looked at — intent and probing, and wanting something.
Taehyung no longer has anything to give.
“Taehyung,” Namjoon says. “They’re burning the forest. You were — You have a fever. You were so hot. You were burning. The only thing I could think to do to cool you down was bring you to the river.”
Ah. Yes. Taehyung remembers now. The smoke and the bright flames. His oldest enemy. Fire. He felt it consuming him, tree by tree.
He does not feel it now.
He looks around. They are sitting at the reedy edge of the river, but the bank behind them is flat and bare. Overhead the night sky is wide and unobscured by branch or leaf. He can see the great pillar of smoke rising off towards the mountain, where the fire still burns.
Taehyung is out of the forest. He is broken from it now, ripped out of the place that made him him.
He thought leaving would kill him, but he is not dead.
He should be angry. Namjoon — this terrified, courageous, tender-hearted human — brought Taehyung out of the forest and entirely into this world, made him real and whole.
“You saved me,” he says, dumbly.
Namjoon frowns. “Taehyung,” he says. “You still have a fever. I want to bring you back to the inn. The innkeeper will have medicine that can —“
“No,” Taehyung says. He reaches for Namjoon’s wet hand, and brings it to his forehead. His skin is cool now, and every moment he feels more awake, more alert. Blinded still, compared to what he could once see, to what he once knew, but alive.
He has spent so long as a god. Watching and looking and listening and protecting. Always, protecting. But men grew smarter and stupider at once. They forgot him, and made sharp metal tools, and Taehyung couldn’t keep the forest safe. He thought it would kill him, a long, slow terrible ebbing of power and reason until he was just dumb, dead wood.
He never thought he might live.
“Your fever broke,” Namjoon says dumbly.
“I think,” he says, “when you took me out of the forest, I left part of me behind there. The part that tied me to the spirit world. I can’t feel it any more, Namjoon. I can’t feel the burning. I can’t feel the trees.”
Namjoon’s face crumples. “I’m so sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know, Taehyung. I didn’t —“
“Shhh,” Taehyung says, shushing him. “No, it’s okay.”
He feels something big in his heart — huge, really — bigger than every tree in the forest. Bigger than a hundred forests. He can’t help himself. He throws his arms around Namjoon and hugs him. “Namjoon,” he whispers, “Thank you. You saved me. I’m alive.”
He can feel Namjoon’s smile against his cheek. “We’re alive,” Namjoon says. “But there’s something we still need to do.”
Yoongi brakes the bike and pops the kick stand. His face is windstung and his knuckles are raw, and he’s been jolted and bumped so much that he thinks every single bone has been knocked out of place. Jungkook, younger and apparently made of sterner stuff, hops off the back, pulling off his helmet as he goes.
“Hyung,” he calls. “Hurry up! We need to open the dam. We need to —“
“I know, kid,” Yoongi says. He gets off the bike too, a little more gingerly than Jungkook, but as quick as he can.
He knows how little time they have. As they raced up the mountain road, they could see the fires burning off to their right. They can see the smoke still, just beyond the ridge, rising in a thick, black column towards the pale moon.
The dam is a massive cement thing, but the control house is strangely diminutive. Just a simple cinder block hut. No windows. One door.
Jungkook tries the door now.
“It’s locked,” he says, frowning.
“There’s got to be manual controls,” Yoongi says. “Come on.”
They walk towards the edge of the reservoir. Yoongi knew they’d done it. He knew they dammed the river just as everyone in town knew. The feeble little trickle that flows under the bridge now is nothing like the rushing torrent of his youth. He’s never been up here though, and there’s something alien about the great flat expanse of water, trapped, patiently waiting.
A ladder leads down to a lower walkway. They climb, cautious even in their haste. The metal rungs are slippery from the spray. The spillway lets out just a fraction of what it must be able to disgorge at full flood, but it’s still an impressive amount of water.
When they open this dam, the river will erupt.
On the lower level, another door cautions that there is electrical equipment beyond. The turbines.
It too is locked.
“Shit,” Yoongi curses.
“Hyung,” Jungkook says. “What are we going to do? Namjoon hyung is counting on us.”
There is a note of desperation in his voice that Yoongi has not heard before, not even when a week had passed and Namjoon had still been missing.
Yoongi shakes his head. “You’re supposed to be some kind of genius, aren’t you?” He tries to sound more confident than he feels. “Come on. We can figure something out.”
Back up. Back to the top. There’s some equipment a little further down the road. Pickaxes and shovels, for the mining work they’re doing further up. That won’t do them any good, wouldn’t do them any good even if they had a week to do this, instead of an hour.
“Hyung,” Jungkook says, hushed and alarmed all at once. “What’s that?”
Yoongi looks. Something sparkles on the water. “Just the moon, Jungkook. Come on. Help me —“
“No,” Jungkook says. “Look. It’s a man.”
It is definitely not a man. The thing — sparkling, quicksilver bright — is man shaped, but it is not a man. It shimmers just under the surface of the water — bright eyes, full lips, pretty and definitely not natural.
It smiles at them.
Yoongi blinks. The river spirit is still there.
“Hello,” Jungkook says. He gets down on his knees, reaches down with one hand, as though to shake the spirit’s hand. Where his own hand touches the water, the image of the spirit blurs, like it is nothing more substantial than moonbeams.
The spirit laughs, delighted.
“Can you help us?” Jungkook asks.
The spirit nods. He points, back further along the edge of the reservoir. Jungkook gets to his feet and runs in the direction he points. Yoongi is just a step behind. Behind the control building, there are some crates he hadn’t noticed before. They are old and weathered, overgrown with rank, dust colored weeds.
Yoongi pries the loose lid off the nearest crate.
Kegs of black powder.
Jungkook draws in a sharp breath. “Hyung,” he says. “We could —“
“Yeah,” Yoongi says. He’s already doing the math in his head. He’s blown a thing or two up in his time. There is more than enough here to do the trick. But... “If we blow the dam up, it’s going to flood the entire valley. The factory, even the the town, maybe. I don’t know, Jungkook.”
“If we don’t, the forest is going to burn,” Jungkook says, stubborn. “Hyung, we have to do something.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Yoongi notices that silver flash on the water. The spirit is still there, watching them. Something shifts, and then the water surges , like a wave cresting, and there is a man there, silver-skinned and silver-haired, clinging to the edge of the reservoir.
“You’re trying to help my friend,” he says, in a voice that flows and dances like a mountain stream. “The forest. You’re trying to save it.”
Jungkook, eyes huge nods.
“We want to save your friend,” Yoongi yells, “But the village is my home. I’m not going to destroy it.”
The spirit nods. “If you free me,” he says, “I’ll steer the flood away.” He closes his eyes, and there is strain in his smooth face that Yoongi had not noticed before. “I am not as strong as I once was, but if you free me, I will owe you a very great debt. What is your name?”
“Jungkook,” Jungkook says, “And that’s Yoongi.”
“Jungkook and Yoongi,” the spirit says, smiling. “Good names. I am Jimin. I am the river. If you free me, I promise you, I will keep your village safe.”
Yoongi squeezes his eyes shut. When he was a kid, his mother told him stories about the old gods — forest and river and mountain and sky. She told him stories about the gumiho and the dokkaebi, all the strange creatures of the mountain. Those stories, from what he remembers, rarely ended well for the credulous human forced to make a deal.
But he doesn’t see they have any choice.
“Fine,” he says. “Let’s shake on it.”
The spirit laughs. Yoongi hesitates, and then takes his hand. He almost gasps — he had been expecting something cold and wet, fishy and not alive, but Jimin’s hand is warm and soft and very real.
“Thank you,” Jimin says, smiling. “Thank you both. I won’t forget this.”
Then the wave breaks, and the spirit is gone, back into the water.
Jungkook seems to barely breathe.
Yoongi reaches into the crate for the first keg of powder.
“Come on, kid,” he says. “Ready to blow some shit up?”
Jungkook just grins.
Namjoon, wet and barefoot, walks the road towards White Spark Foundry with his hand in Taehyung’s. After they climbed out of the river and onto dry land, Taehyung had reached out and taken it, and has not let go.
Namjoon is glad. Very glad.
They haven’t spoken since they left the river. There is too much to say, and things are still too uncertain. The forest still burns. Has burnt, here. The trees are skeletons. The ground is bare. Embers and ash make a ghoulish snow. Tears hang in Taehyung’s eyes.
It’s not the same thing, but Namjoon knows a little bit about what it feels like to watch part of yourself burn. Later they will talk — if there is later — but right now the best consolation that Namjoon can offer is to hold Taehyung’s hand as tightly as he holds Namjoon’s.
Ahead, just beyond where the road curves away from the river, White Spark Foundry looms, massive and black against night sky. The gates, normally so well guarded, are thrown open, and townsfolk mill about. They pass a woman with soot smeared on her face and a dazed, blank expression.
"Mother," Namjoon says quietly, "Please. Go back home. It's not safe here."
She looks at him, blinking. Dazed. The terrible fear that animated her has burnt out, and now she does not know what to do.
Namjoon understands that feeling, too.
"Go home, mother," he says gently. "Go home to your family. Don't be afraid."
She nods, blinking those watery eyes, and slowly starts back towards the village.
Taehyung bites his lip. "Are they all going to be like that?"
Namjoon shrugs. "No," he says. "Some will be angry still. Some people like feeling angry, Taehyung."
Taehyung nods slowly. He squeezes Namjoon's hand once and then lets go, and they walk through the tall iron gates into the yard of White Spark Foundry.
Crowds of people mill about, exhausted and filthy. Most seem confused about what happened. Confused about what they should do now. That terrible fire that animated them has been extinguished, and now they are left with nothing.
That is what Namjoon always feared. He was so afraid of that emptiness, and now it is all around him.
But these people are not alone, and neither is Namjoon, and they have infinite opportunity to find new light, new growth.
Namjoon clears his throat and squares his shoulder. Cupping a hand to his mouth, he yells. "Listen," he says. "You need to go back to the village. You need to go back to higher ground."
"Who is that?"
A rough looking man, middle aged, with soot smeared all over his face like a mask, pushes through the crowd. "Who the hell are you?"
Namjoon frowns. "I'm Kim Namjoon."
There are gasps, and the man's face twists. "Liar," he says. "Kim Namjoon is dead. Mayor Yang said so."
"He's the liar," Taehyung says, heated. "Mayor Yang is a big liar. He's been lying to you all along."
The man snorts. "And who the hell are you?"
Taehyung opens his mouth, and then shuts it.
"He's a friend," Namjoon says, "and he's right. Mayor Yang has been lying to you all."
The crowd is growing thicker now, people crowding around.
"Maybe he was wrong about you," the man says, "but what about all the other deaths? People have been dying. We've been dying. Nobody was doing nothing about it. We had to keep ourselves safe."
"But how could you burn the forest?" Taehyung's plea is raw. Pained.
There's a murmur in the crowd.
"Dangerous," someone mutters.
"All those people killed."
"You're the one who knows about demons," the man says, stubbornly. "All I know is there's something in the forest that's no good. Something in there is killing people."
"Do you really believe that?" Taehyung's voice is as soft as the whisper of the breeze in the treetops. "When you were a child, you went into that forest with your brother, and you pretended you were a great hunter. You made little snares and spears from broken branches and stalked wolves through the winter woods."
The man's face twists, brows knit. "How do you know that? My brother's been dead for ten years. How the hell could you know that?"
Taehyung turns to another woman. She is plain and somber looking, a respectable matron, but now her hair is all in disarray and the hem of her skirt is scorched. "And you," he says. "You know the forest as well as anyone here. Before you were married you wandered far into the mountains to gather herbs. You slept by the river, and gathered feverfew and ginseng and other good things. The medicine you made with those plants saved many lives."
She gapes at him.
Taehyung points at another woman, who has a baby on her hip. It bawls, loud and senseless. "When you were a child you found a blackbird with a broken wing in the forest and took it home and healed it."
He points to another. "When your father died, and your mother fell ill, you gathered acorns and bracken and herbs in the forest so that you would not starve."
The crowd is quiet now, waiting. Taehyung is breathing hard. He looks around, wide eyed and wild, like a cornered animal. Namjoon is close to his side, but does not take his hand.
The woman with the scorched shirt shakes her head. "How do know all these things? Who are you?"
Taehyung shrugs, and his tension disappears. "I'm nobody," he says. "I'm nothing, now. Just someone who loves this place as much as you all did, once. The forest has been there, watching you, protecting you in its own small way, for a long, long time. Far longer than terrible factory will be here."
There is muttering. People shift from foot to foot, uneasy.
"What did we do?" someone back in the crowd wails.
The surly man at the front of the crowd looks hangdog and a little ashamed.
"We were just trying to keep ourselves safe," he says, sounding defensive.
"I know," Taehyung says, smiling. "It's okay."
If anything, Taehyung's kind acceptance seems only to make the man more sad, more upset.
"What are we going to do now?" the woman with the scorched skirt asks.
"Go back to the village," Namjoon says. "We have a plan. We're... we're going to open the dam and flood the river."
More screams. The night is riven.
"You'll drown us all!"
"The village will be washed away."
"No," Namjoon says, loudly. "No. It won't reach the village, but it might put out the fire. Or stop it at least, until the rain comes. It will be okay. You just need to get back to the village, and away from here."
It's too late, though. The crowd is not listening to him any longer. Some of that earlier terror has been sparked again. Children are crying, and people are already streaming out of the gate. The man with the coarse face glares at Namjoon. "You fool," he growls. "You might not be dead yet, but you'll drown us all before you're done."
The man with the coarse face sneers, teeth bared, and then stalks off. The crowd is disbursing. The rumors have spread. A flood is coming. The dam will burst and swell the river. They have to get back to the village and lock themselves, snug and safe, inside.
Namjoon and Taehyung linger, going from person to person, making sure everyone understands that they must go. Namjoon feels delirious from exhaustion, and Taehyung looks nearly as tired. The spell that bound him to the forest must have sustained him, somehow. Now he seems as frail and human and fallible as Namjoon does.
Finally, the courtyard is empty, or nearly so. Namjoon sags back against the brick wall.
"Do you think they've done it?" he asks.
Taehyung shakes his head. "I don't know," he says, sounding scared. "I can't tell, Namjoon. I can't tell anything, anymore."
"Jungkook wouldn't let me down," Namjoon says, sounding more confident than he feels, trying to answer his own question.
The sky is strangely grey, and for a moment Namjoon wonders if there is some other strange magic afoot, but no – it is just dawn, finally come. A grey, sad, strange dawn, with the world still curtained in smoke.
"What's going to happen?" Taehyung asks.
Namjoon shakes his head. He does not know. Whatever strength he once had to convince himself that he knew the right path forward is gone.
"Come on," he says, reaching for Taehyung's hand. "We need to get back to the village, too."
Taehyung hesitates, and then links his fingers with Namjoon's.
It comes with no warning, like a sudden summer shower unsettling the surface of the water. The two men work diligently, but Jimin, bound as he is, chained as he is, cannot see what they are doing. He gave them the idea – a gift – and he must trust them to make it work. He circles his cage, this terrible lake formed when the men caught him and trapped him between the mountains. He soars, flying through the cold water, faster and faster. He has been so eager for motion during these years of his captivity. So eager to feel the delight of water rushing down its ancient course. The thrill of dancing over rocks and tumbling down cascades. The delight of spreading life, down through the forest, down into the lush river valley below.
His river is a small one. Just a mountain torrent, tumbling down from the snowy heights. Still, Jimin is the spirit of the river and he has longed to flow.
Underwater, all noise is motion, and that is what Jimin feels first. There is a rushing wave of water that throws him back towards the mountains, and then a roar, and then a blossoming, brilliant explosion of light that rattles him and leaves him seeing stars. Oh. He didn't know it would be like this – so powerful. These humans are so much stronger than they realize, to have such power at their disposal, trapped in those little wooden casks.
There is a terrible noise then, like the mountains themselves are groaning. All the waters are unquiet. Jimin can feel them pushing, straining – all the penned up weight of the river. Jimin is not corporeal, not without great effort, at least, but he pushes too. He wills the water forward. He wants to be free and it wants to be free and freedom is so, so close. Nearly within reach.
Just as he is at the end of his strength, something in that terrible cold stone wall that has penned him for so long buckles. The stone snaps as easily as a twig caught between two rocks. Great chunks of masonry fall away, and then in a second explosion, less jarring than the first but still impressive, Jimin takes flight.
The freed river pours out and down, through the air, cascading in a mighty rush. White foaming fury and delight. He is free!
In a shimmering shape like a great salmon, he leaps above the surface of the water. The two men are still there, exhausting, wet, nearly at the end of their strength. Jimin can do nothing for them while they stay on dry land, and he would not trust the river to protect them now, not when it is in such flood. He leaps, and leaps again, and he hopes they understand that he will never forget this. For as long as the river flows, it – and he – will be their friend.
Then he is gone, swept down the mountainside in a great unrestrained rush, sweeping trees and boulders away as if they are nothing but dust. He has never felt this full of joy and anger and terror. He sweeps down, spreading and growing as he falls. It has been so long since he tasted the green sweet flavor of the forest, and it is like a balm to him, but is changed too. Fouled. He can taste the char and ash, just like the filth the humans dumped into him down by their terrible metalworks.
Fire. The forest is on fire.
He understands now what he must do. He wills the water to flow towards the places where the fire rages, hot and terrible. He forces it to obey, bending it to his will. He is the river, and he has made a promise. This is his purpose, now. He can feel the fires die in an instant as he smothers them. He can taste the bitter burnt flavor of the water. Dirty and foul, it makes him sick to his stomach, but he will endure it. He needs to save the forest. He needs to save Taehyung, his oldest and dearest friend.
It makes his heart ache, seeing how much has already burnt. It makes him seeth and tremble. He may not be in time, he realizes. He may already be too late.
With all the fury of the flood behind him, he roars down the riverbed, down towards the valley, down towards the men who were the cause of all of this horror, all of this destruction.
When they are sure everyone else has left for the village, Namjoon and Taehyung leave too, out back through the big metal gates onto the uneven dirt road. They are silent. Namjoon does not know what to say. The grey sky is neither light nor dark. They are stuck in some half world, suspended between life and death. The smoke is still thick in the air, and Namjoon's throat and eyes burn.
They are halfway to the river when a tremendous noise echoes across the valley.
"They did it," Namjoon says quietly.
Taehyung nods. He knits his brows. "I can almost feel it, you know. Almost. Like a limb that's not there anymore."
Namjoon swallows. "Maybe it will come back, Taehyung."
Taehyung shakes his head. "No," he says. "It's gone. Whatever I am now, it's not what I was before." He smiles, then. "I'm still here though. Thanks for that, Namjoon."
Namjoon smiles too.
As the road draws closer to the river, Namjoon's heart starts to quicken. But when they reach the place where the road draws just up parallel with the bank, he is disappointed. The water is shallow and placid still. Whatever flood Yoongi and Jungkook leashed has not reached this far yet.
Taehyung pauses halfway across the span of the stone bridge. He rests his hands on the rail and looks out across the forest, dark and still smoldering. Ghost trees. Skeletons. Up to the mountains, wreathed in smoke and fog.
"What's wrong?" Namjoon asks, putting a hand on his shoulder.
"Just saying goodbye," Taehyung says.
Namjoon nods, and steps away to give him a moment alone.
He is looking down into the dark still water when he hears someone coming up the road. A motor hums, and for a moment he wonders if it is Yoongi and Jungkook – but no. Two headlights shine through the gloom like evil yellow eyes.
Yang's massive dark car creeps down the road and onto the bridge and then stops slowly. The driver's door opens, and Woopung gets out. He is filthy now, his neat outfit ruined by soot, and there is a cut on his temple. Blood runs down his face.
Slowly, mechanically, he circles the car and opens Yang's door.
Pale and terrible as a ghost, Yang steps out of the car. His eyes are blazing, and he twists his boney hands together.
"What did you do?" His voice is shrill. "What did you do, Kim Namjoon?"
Namjoon frowns. "I told them to go home, Yang."
Yang makes an inarticulate noise of frustration. "No, idiot."
A second person gets out of the car. It is the man with the coarse face. The ringleader.
Namjoon feels rage well up in his chest.
"He says you blew up the dam," Yang says, nearly on the point of hysteria. "What is he talking about? What is this person saying? Tell me he's lying, Kim Namjoon."
Namjoon says nothing.
Taehyung steps away from the edge of the bridge and comes to stand at his side.
Yang howls. "You fools. You'll kill us all. We'll all be drowned."
Namjoon shakes his head. "The village is on high ground." He glances at Taehyung. "And the river will flow where it is most needed. You tried to burn the forest, Yang. I had to try to save it."
"I told you, sir," the coarse man says. "I told you. They're crazy, the both of them. They're going to kill us all. Crazy fools. That one –" He points at Taehyung. "– Is some kind of freak. Knows all kinds of things he shouldn't. Wouldn't be surprised if if they were the ones behind the murders this whole time."
"Your mayor knows who the murderer is," Taehyung says. He shakes his head, and sighs. "Go home. I know how much it hurt you when you lost your Mieun. I know how much it still hurts. You need to go home now, Kwanghyung. Go home and mourn your dead in peace."
Kwanghyung's eyes bulge. "A devil," he hisses. "I told you, sir. How could he know? How could he know about Mieun?" His lip trembles, and his face is scarlet.
"Be quiet, fool," Yang hisses.
"And you," Taehyung says, eyes narrowed. "There has been something empty inside of you for a long, long time, hasn't there?" He shakes his head. "I felt it right away. That cold, dark void." He closes his eyes. "No amount of wealth will fill that void, Yang. Your greed has only made it grow. You are even more insatiable now. More desperate. You could fill this kingdom end to end with your factories. Cut down every tree. Fill every river with the sludge from your foundries. You will still want more. Nothing will ever be enough."
Yang's face is bone white. "White Spark products are in every modern home. I make lives better. Some child dares lecture me? Who do you think you are?"
Taehyung laughs. "Don't you know me? I'm the one you've been trying to kill these long years. You nearly did it too."
Yang's eyes flare. "You... you liar. You claim to be the spirit of the forest? That's just mumbo jumbo I invented to fool these bumpkins. There's nothing in the forest except wood to burn, and ore to extract, and land to develop. That's it."
"I don't claim to be anything," Taehyung says. "Not anymore. Not really." He blinks, and looks towards the mountains again. "But I can tell you that right now, you need to get in your car, and drive to the village. A flood is coming, and that is the only place where you will be safe."
Yang laughs, hysterically. "Of course that's what you would say. You want me to go to the village while you and your friend here go and loot my factory. Of course."
Taehyung laughs, rolling his eyes. "Loot your factory? You have nothing we want. I'm trying to save you, little though you deserve it."
Yang scoffs. "I am not so gullible, boy. You go cower with those flea-infested simpletons. Come, Woopung, we are going home."
"What about me?" Kyunghyung asks. He reaches for the mayor, hands grasping.
Yang brushes him aside, like he might brush aside a gnat. "I don't care what you do," he spits. "Woopung, now."
The big man doesn't move. It is hard to read any emotion on his ruined face. He looks slowly from Yang to Taehyung and Namjoon. "We should go with them," he says. His voice is deep and surprisingly eloquent.
"Woopung, you fool," Yang says, nearly hysterical. "Get in the car."
Woopung stares at his master.
"Listen to him," Namjoon says. "He's smarter than you are, Yang. Nobody wants your factory. We're just trying to do you a favor, in spite of all you've done. Come with us know, and later the both of you can do penance for all of your crimes."
Yang bares his teeth, and grabs for Woopung’s sleeve. He tries to drag him towards the car, but it is a laughable effort.
Quick, with massive strength, Woopung shakes his master off. Yang falls to the ground, moaning. Woopung’s scarred face crumples, and he kneels at his master’s side. Yang groans, holding his head. “You’ll kill me too, you fool.”
Woopung sits back, folding his hand. There a timid nervous look on his face that is all at odds with his massive face. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
“Namjoon,” Taehyung says urgently. “Come on. The river is – come on. We need to go.”
“Kyunghyung-ssi,” Namjoon says. “Come with us.”
Kyunghyung’s eyes are still wet. He wipes them roughly with the back of his sleeve and storms past, down the road towards town.
Woopung helps Yang to his feet, helps him to the car. He opens the door, but Yang pauses a moment before he gets in.
“You will regret this, Kim Namjoon,” Yang says, and he spits, before getting back into his big black car and slamming the door shut.
Woopung stares at them for a moment. There is fear in his eyes, but Namjoon is not sure of what. Then he shakes himself and circles around to the driver’s side.
“Namjoon,” Taehyung says, tugging on his cuff. “The flood is coming.”
Namjoon can hear it, he realizes. A great, terrible roar, louder than the voice of the mob had been earlier, distant but drawing every second closer.
“Oh shit,” Namjoon says, and he grabs Taehyung’s hand, and they run.
Chest pounding, throat burning, Namjoon runs as fast as he can. The song of the flood is growing louder all the time behind them. The village is still half a mile off or more. They will never make it. The marshy low banks of the river spread out to their right, and to their left are low fields, fallow and muddy. There’s nowhere to go. Namjoon blinks. He thinks he might cry and he isn’t sure why. He’s courted death so many times fearlessly. Now it is at his heels, and he is terrified.
“Here,” Taehyung says. “Come on, Namjoon. This way!”
He cuts across the road, and leaps over the low mound of earth that separates it from the fields. The going is not easy. Mud clings to Namjoon’s boots, to Taehyung’s feet. Namjoon still doesn’t know where they’re going. There is no shelter here, just the low muddy fields, and narrow ditches, and there, in the middle of the field —
“Taehyung,” Namjoon says, gasping. “It won’t hold. We’ll be swept away.”
Taehyung shakes his head. “No,” he says. “Trust me, Namjoon. Please. I’m not a god anymore, but I can do this last thing. That tree has grown since before there was a village here. It has seen its friends cut down and carted away. It has watched over the people as they toiled under the sun. I promise you, it will hold.”
They are just coming up to it now. It is a great, silver-trunked oak and, as Taehyung says, it must be very, very old. Very old, but it is still just a tree, and more often than not trees like these are weak inside. How can anything live so long and see so much pain and not be rotten to the core?
“Please,” Taehyung says, frustrated, sounding nearly to the point of tears. “Trust me, Namjoon.”
Taehyung believes he can save them, and that is good enough. It has to be.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, Taehyung.”
Quick, Taehyung cups his hands and gives Namjoon a foot up. Fingers tips scrambling, he grabs hold of a branch maybe seven feet off the ground and hauls himself up. Taehyung jumps up and catches hold and pulls himself up. Up they climb, higher, stepping through the lush green world, hidden. Namjoon’s fingers are raw and his heart is pounding. He feels nearly at the end of his strength. He is at the point of saying he can’t go any further when Taehyung settles down on one of the branches, thick around as a man’s thigh, and pats the space beside him, nearer than the trunk.
“Here,” he says. “This is enough. We’re high enough.”
Namjoon sits down beside him, panting, sweat dripping down his temples. They are maybe thirty feet up, and there is a fine view. The river is a foaming wall of water, and just as Namjoon settles down beside Taehyung, just as Taehyung’s arm slides over his shoulder, that wall of water engulfs the little stone bridge.
There is no sign of the car.
The flood presses forward, swallowing field and road. Namjoon holds his breath. It takes a minute — no more — for it to reach their tree. He closes his eyes. The trunk shudders as the water slams into it. Beside him, Taehyung tenses. He closes his eyes, and reaches over to place his hand on top of Namjoon’s, flat against the trunk of the tree.
There is a queasy moment of inversion, and just for one moment Namjoon feels like he can see with double vision. There is the tree and the flood and the real world he knows and something else, a place of shadows and mist and light. From that place of light and mist, Taehyung calls something — a tiny glowing spark, like a brilliant lightning bug. It passes down Taehyung’s arm and into his hand and through Namjoon’s hand into the tree. Chills run up Namjoon’s spine, and he smells something bright and fresh and good, like spring, like light, like the wind in the highest branches.
“That’s it,” Taehyung says. “All I can give. All I have left.”
Namjoon takes Taehyung’s hand, big and brown and elegant, in his own and he kisses it.
The great tree shudders still, but the worst of the flood is past them. It has held. It will hold.
Taehyung gasps, choking and wet, and presses his face into Namjoon’s shoulder. He stays there, shaking softly, and Namjoon holds him. All around them the water of the river spills out, devouring, cleansing. The forest is a lake now, whose unquiet waters are pierced through with the black skeletal remains of trees.
That’s it. It’s done.
Namjoon closes his eyes. The leaves of the old oak stir in a sudden breeze, and he feels something wet on his face.
It takes him a moment to realize that the storm has come, too late, but still welcome.
A soft warm rain falls, blowing in from beyond the mountains, and the tree offers no shelter. They are soaked through, dripping, but it feels good. It feels like everything is being washed clean.
“Namjoon,” Taehyung says. Raindrops hang on his eyes lashes, and his wet hair clings to his neck, to his cheeks. “What am I going to do now?”
Namjoon shakes his head. He’s never known that. “We just have to keep living.”
Taehyung nods, and Namjoon might imagine it, but he thinks he sees something warm and green flicker in his eyes. “Yes,” he says. “That’s right.”
The rain is a soft silver curtain, and the storm is blowing the smoke away so that the sky is purple and grey. Namjoon leans forward and kisses him again. His lips are soft, and his eyes widen in surprise for just a moment before he smiles against Namjoon’s mouth.
They are alive and together, and everything else seems to matter very much less.
As quickly as it came, the flood recedes. By evening, the river has returned to its ancient course, where it flows fast and strong, flashing gold and silver in the evening sun.
Namjoon and Taehyung climb down from their tree, and walk slowly and with some difficulty back to the village. The flood did not reach so far; they pass the spot where it crested, just where the road curves away from the riverbank.
Some knot in Namjoon’s heart loosens. Everyone is safe.
No. Not everyone.
He and Taehyung saw the car in the distance, from their treetop perch. The flood had lifted it and carried it maybe half a mile down the road, and left it there. They did not look inside. That will come later. Namjoon knows what they will find, and in spite of everything Mayor Yang and Woopung did, he is not glad for it.
Another knot loosens when they get back to the inn. The wooden gate is locked, and it takes a few minutes before it is thrown open. Seokjin is standing there, beaming. “You made it,” he says. “Jungkook said you would. I supposed I need to start listening to that kid.”
“He’s back?” Namjoon asks. “He and Yoongi are okay?”
Seokjin nods. “They had to take the long way back since the bridge was washed out, but they showed up a few hours ago, a little wet but no worse for the wear.” He looks Namjoon and Taehyung over. “Are you okay?”
Namjoon closes his eyes. He can’t answer that question. Bodily, he is unharmed, but a hot fire he kept long kindled in his heart has gone out, and there is something tentative and tender and green growing in its place. Something that must be protected and nurtured if it is to thrive.
“I think, finally, I might be,” he says quietly.
Taehyung reaches out and takes his hand, and squeezes, and like that they follow Seokjin into the inn, to warm baths and good food and finally, at last, a moment of peace.
“Here!” Jungkook cries. “Over here!”
“Hold on,” Namjoon says, jumping over the fallen trunk of a great tree. “Are you sure? Get Taehyung to check.”
“He’s right,” Taehyung says, hopping up from where he was crouching down to peer at some tiny sprout. “Red ginseng. There’s no spot in the entire forest better for red ginseng.”
He puts a hand on Namjoon’s shoulder, and then leans over and presses a quick kiss to his cheek.
“I think this just might work,” he says, smiling, before going to see what Jungkook has found.
It is spring. The long, cold winter is over, and new green things grow from the black charred ground. They are in the forest today, looking for ginseng.
The months since the flood have been neither easy nor idle. The factory was ruined, Yang was dead, and half the village suddenly found themselves deprived of their livelihood. Seokjin, with impressive skill, took stock of their resources and organized those whose were able bodied into teams to clear and plant the fields. They were late sowing, but they had a warm summer, and everything grew with preternatural speed. They got the harvest in just before the worst of winter came.
Still, it has not been easy. Not easy at all. Months of cold, dark nights and bad dreams, and Namjoon wondering all the time if he shouldn’t just go back to the city.
He wondered, but he knew he would never go. Taehyung had said he would not, and if Taehyung stayed, then Namjoon would too.
So they had stayed and worked, mending and hunting and keeping bad feelings at bay with industry. Slowly, by inches, Namjoon and Jungkook and Taehyung wove themselves into the fabric of the town. All day they worked, and at night, in the snug bed in the room that Seokjin had given them at the inn, Namjoon told Taehyung about his plans.
Now they are here — Namjoon and Taehyung, Seokjin and Yoongi, and eager Jungkook — to see if his planning will bear fruit.
Red ginseng is worth a minor fortune.
Taehyung and Jungkook are crouched down near a spindly looking plant with green glossy leaves and one red berry, digging gently, fingers black with soil. Tenderly, Taehyung works the long root out of the earth. A sharp, clean smell fills the air.
“Well?” Namjoon asks.
“Ginseng,” Taehyung confirms.
Namjoon grins. Seokjin gives a little whoop. Yoongi bends down to smell the root more closely. Jungkook wipes his hands on his thighs.
Seokjin takes the root in his hand and turns it over. “Namjoon, will this really sell for as much as you say?”
Namjoon is no expert, but he knows what ginseng used to sell for, last time he was in the city. “I think so,” he says. “But…” He turns to Taehyung. “Are you sure this is okay?”
Taehyung nods, smoothing the earth where they dug up the plant. “It’s okay,” he says. “We can’t take too much at once, so no one will get rich, but if we do it carefully, it will be okay.” He grins then, wide and pleased. “You saved the forest. This is its way of saying thanks.”
His way of saying thanks, even though no thanks are due.
“Excellent,” Seokjin says. “This is going to change everything.” He looks between Namjoon and Taehyung and grins.
He is thinking, Namjoon knows, of the things he can do for his village. It is not official yet, but they will elect a new mayor soon, and since Seokjin has been filling that role in all but name, he is a shoe in. He has big plans – new roads, and a market, and Jungkook and Yoongi even think they can rebuild the dam, on a far smaller scale, to provide electricity to the town.
They’re off, looking for more plants. Jungkook hollers with delight as he finds another, and Yoongi chides him not to be a hog. Seokjin tells them to behave, but then laughs with delight as he spies another little red berried plant hiding behind a log.
“They’re happy,” Taehyung says, wiping his hands.
Namjoon blinks. Is he happy? He is here in the forest, with Taehyung and with his friends, on a day when the sun is shining and the breeze is fresh.
He is happy.
“I am,” he says. “Mostly. I think.”
“It’s never a sure thing,” Taehyung says. “But you’re trying.”
“I’m trying too,” Taehyung says. Namjoon knows how hard it’s been for him. There is so much he doesn’t know. His entire world has changed, but he is trying.
“You are,” Namjoon says.
“And that’s all we can do,” Taehyung says definitively, like that’s the answer they’ve been looking for. He smiles again, and reaches down to break off a little white flower that is growing in the shade of an oak. He tucks the flower behind Namjoon’s ear, and says, satisfied. “Beautiful.”
Namjoon wrinkles his nose. He knows what he looks like – he is scarred and always will be – but he doesn’t know what Taehyung sees. He is trying too, though.
“Come here,” Namjoon says, and reaches for Taehyung’s waist. Taehyung collapses into him, and they both tumble to the ground.
Taehyung’s hair curls around the nape of his neck, and his plush cheeks are flush. The sun hits his face, lighting him up like some kind of statue, carved and precise and perfect, except there is just the hint of a gleam, green as spring leaves, in his eyes.
“Beautiful,” Namjoon says, and he kisses him.
Taehyung laughs, and it is like the song of birds and the wind in the highest branches, and Namjoon’s heart is full of a cool, sweet peace.