His eyes open to the darkness of the room. There is never a night now, where he does not wake up momentarily in between irregular sleep cycles, while the moon waxes and wanes, while the figure in the bed beside him lets out the softest of snuffling snores through a thread-bare blanket.
Nothing has changed. The wallpaper is still peeling off, bit by bit. The floor is still scraped-up and scratched-up, claw marks against parquet. The wind still billows in through the tiny crack in the corner of the tightly-shut window. Everything is the same.
The house is still as quiet as it had been four hours ago, when everyone had gone to bed.
But this stillness is unnerving. Too unnerving.
His fingers curl around the wand that’s tucked under his pillow. He waits.
There is a rustle. A little thump that floats up from down below that doesn’t come from the slam of his heart behind his ribs. He has known this day would happen.
Someone is inside.
The radio shudders to life, on the dented surface of the table.
A wand is tapped against the top of the radio. Sound buzzes through the room, crackling static, and the second tap brings the clearing of a throat, and a clearer voice that streams through.
“And here we are tonight, with the Wireless News. This is your regular caster, Seoltang, speaking. It’s time for the weekly update.” A heavy breath, and a hacking cough. “Forgive me, folks. This caster’s just come out of a nasty scrape with some of the opposition. Let us move on with the week’s updates.” Another hard cough fizzles through the airwaves. “One quick word of caution, by the way: never get in the way of a Lung Dissolving Curse, folks. It never ends well. Take my word for it.”
A shrill scream echoes through the air. It sounds too familiar. But there is no time to think about it now. He’s made a promise, he has, and he intends to keep it, no matter what the cost.
Just take him and run, she’d said. Take him and go, and don’t look back for anything. Make sure of it. Promise me. I said, promise me. Good. You remember that promise, alright? You swear it on your life, that’s a good lad, now.
He tears the sheets off, jumps to his feet soundlessly, and the figure lying in the bed beside him sits up immediately. “Hyung,” he says, voice small, and he looks even smaller in the pale sheen of the moon, “they’re here, aren’t they?”
“Come on,” he says, lacing their fingers together, and tugging him up behind him. “Let’s go.”
“Do you have everything?”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he says, stressing the word, “I’ll be fine. You know I will be, sir. I’m ready to go.”
“I know.” A hand comes to rest on his shoulder. Encouraging. “Do well, kid.”
“I will.” He nods, and slings his bag over his shoulder. Vials clink audibly, liquid sloshes around. He hopes nothing spills on the trip over. “Don’t worry, sir.” He worries enough for everything else, as it is. “I’ll be fine.”
There’s no time to lose.
Nothing else is grabbed save a single backpack with a featherlight charm casted hurriedly onto it. A hastily muttered lumos lights up the darkness, and the quiet turn of a doorknob is the only sound that fills the still-empty hallway, followed by the soft padding of feet.
The alarms blare.
“Merlin, no.” He jumps to his feet, and casts the alarms down with a flick of his wrist, pulls up the beds and the potions stock with another, and stands facing the doorway, wand at the ready. “No, no, no, they just left, they can’t—”
Three people apparate straight into the room, and one of them collapses straight onto the floor, clutching at his side. Cutting Curse, he figures, a well-aimed one, definite organ damage. His eyes take in the other two quickly, the way he always does: minor scratches, dislocated shoulder; Bone-Breaking Hex to the kneecap, another sharp Cutting Curse barely skimming the arm, minor scratches.
He can handle this. He can. He’s been trained all his life to.
Then why is his pulse racing like it’s the first time he’s seen someone stumble in on the brink of death?
“Password?” he asks hurriedly, eyes darting towards the collapsed figure. He’s bleeding out, he needs more time, say the godforsaken password, he needs more time, he doesn’t have enough time. “Tell me the fucking password!”
“Barbiturates,” croaks out the one with the shoulder injury, “hell, they caught us right on their fucking doorstep.”
He cancels the barrier immediately, rushing forward. No time, no time, no time. He needs more time.
There will never be enough time.
The alarms go off again, and again, and again.
The silence is disturbed when a haze of spell-casting begins anew on the floor below them, and he’s whispering, “Run, run when I tell you to,” even as footsteps sound up the stairs, even as he’s pointing his wand straight ahead, the syllables of a stunner on his lips.
“Hey,” he says, nudging his shoulder with his own. “Ever wonder what it’d be like if we hadn’t chosen to do this?”
A shrug. “Not really. As long as we’d still be doing it together.”
“Huh.Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“I’m always right.”
Leaves crackle underfoot.
There is not enough time to catch their breaths, not enough, none at all. The woods are dark and teeming, but the unknown that lies ahead of them would much rather be taken than what comes stirring up behind, rushing towards them, rushing for them, rushing at them.
And he has sworn to not turn back. No matter what.
“Faster,” comes the exhale, the sound of shoes across the forest floor of overgrown roots and razor-sharp grass that sways quietly in the night wind, “faster!”
There is nowhere to hide now, nowhere to hide. No place to go now, no place to go.
“Don’t turn off the light,” comes the whisper, the hurried whisper that is followed by the sound of a loud trill behind, the sound of branches breaking and the sound of more screaming. He shuts it out, and focuses on what he needs to do now. “Please, don’t—don’t let the light go out, hyung—”
“I won’t.” They slam past bushes and splash over a small creek that bubbles across. Somewhere in the distance, a voice calls, high and eerie, calls for their names, calling their names like a chant, like a children’s rhyme, singsong and elongated vowels. “I won’t, come on, faster, we’re almost there.”
The Apparition point is so close, now. They’re almost there. Almost there.
The light at the tip of his wand is all that leads them now, all that keeps them from being discovered too quickly, because once the lights are out, that’s when they come for them, the light mustn’t go out, it can’t, it has to stay alight, it has to stay—
A chill runs down his spine. That hadn’t been his voice.
They are pitched forward into darkness, coming to a stop immediately.
There is nothing but night. The terror that floods them cannot be compared to anything else in the world, the terror that only builds when a soft voice laughs, somewhere around them, all around them. Because it’s only when the lights go out, only when the lights go out, never let the light go out, the lights are out, no, no, no, don’t let the light go out.
“Hyung,” comes the soft whisper, “they’re here.”
“I know.” There’s a sharp inhale. “Run.”
And they run.
Hands reach for them, disembodied hands pulling at their heels, their arms, ghostly hands attempting to pull them back into the forest. But they run, they run, they keep running until they hit the invisible point where the air is free, the air is free and he swings his wand through the air, and there’s a shout of, “Grab my arm, now!”
The crack that echoes through the air comes just a bare second before red light sears the ground they have just been standing on.
They stumble into another section of darkness, into weeds and mud, and there’s barely a second to catch their breaths when a voice barks, “Reveal yourselves!”
Wands, all around, pointed straight at them.
“Please, don’t—don’t fire, please.” His face is illuminated in the dim light of the wands that are aimed straight towards them. “My name is Kim—Kim Seokjin. Please—please, we need sanctuary. Nature abhors a vacuum. Please.”
“How did you come to know of the Apparition coordinates?” questions a man, standing closest to him, his wand steady.
“From a friend. A—A messenger.” His breath is still coming in ragged exhales. “He—we worked together. In the Ministry. Please, I need—my cousin, he needs to be kept safe, they want him—”
“Me,” comes a small voice, and now, they notice the boy who’s clutching at Seokjin’s arm, “my name is Jeon Jeongguk.”
“Please,” says Seokjin again, desperate, “please, I’ll do anything, just take him, keep him safe, don’t let them take him.”
“Why do they need him?” asks the man, still staring straight at them, distrust in his eyes, wand still held up. “The opposition is not interested in children.”
“No, look.” A wand is raised, and both Seokjin and Jeongguk flinch, but the wand only glows brighter at the tip. “Look at his neck.”
There is blood smudged across a row of neatly printed numbers, along the line of Jeongguk’s neck, right under his ear, but they are clearly visible in the light, and several of the people let out surprised sounds. A few wands even go up higher.
Jeongguk retreats further back, voice trembling, “I’m—I’m registered, please—don’t hurt me.”
“Werewolf,” says one of the women, and she’s staring at them, an unreadable expression on her face. “The Old Lord has been recruiting Dark creatures into his forces. I didn’t think he would stoop so low as to take the young ones, as well.”
“He’s a good kid,” says Seokjin, tone pleading, “I swear, don’t let what he is blind you, just—don’t let them take him, I promised to keep him safe, I promised!”
The group stands, silent, wands still raised.
“I swear,” chokes out Seokjin, once again, “I swear on my magic, we just need somewhere safe to go. We mean no harm against the Order. We just seek sanctuary. I’ll do anything to prove it to you.”
Around them, the wind blows, cold and biting.
Seokjin is determined to keep the promise he has made.
A wand drops. “Tell us where you’re from, boy.”
The radio buzzes softly. Two taps do the trick. It’s time again.
“And here we are tonight, with the Wireless News. This is your regular caster, Seoltang, speaking. It’s time for the weekly update.” A pause, a short cough. “It has been confirmed that Dark creatures have been joining the opposition’s forces, though in small numbers. What is yet to be confirmed are the creatures themselves, though a voice in the wind states that the werewolf clans of the northern region have been seen moving downwards. Be wary, folks.
“The opposition continues to target villages along the coastline, and are said to be moving towards the inlands within the month. If there is anyone out there who still has not evacuated, please move towards your nearest safehouse, as soon as you can. The code will be broadcasted at the end of this session, as always.
“Let us have a moment for this week’s lost.” Some seconds ebb by slowly, before a throat is cleared. “The confirmed death toll for the week has risen to thirty-six, seven more than last week. The missing this week come up to a number of twelve, with a total of fifty-eight missing, since the beginning of the war’s third year. We urge everyone to keep safe, and to continue hoping for the safe return of those missing. Do not lose hope. I repeat. Never lose hope.
“The opposition continues to wage war, but we will continue to fight it with everything we have. For this week into the next, and the same as the last, the only words you need to remember are, nature abhors a vacuum. This has been your regular caster speaking. Till next week. Remember, good folk. Always keep the light on. Always, and if you forget all else, remember only this. Keep the light on. Stay safe.”
There is a cough. The radio fizzles into silence.
“Hyung—don’t let the light go out this time, okay?”
“I won’t. I promise. It won’t.”