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Ryten, Kyser. Year 610.

The ashy smell of destruction fills his lungs as he takes hesitant steps outside. The building that was sheltering him is barely standing, brick blasted with darkened smog, no doubt ready to crumble at any second. He has to get out of here. His limbs feel weak, his heart is racing as he clutches the book closer to him. His eyes sweep around the ruined remains of what was formerly a great city. No signs of life. Of course--who would be stupidly lucky enough to survive an attack of this scale? He looks down at the book tucked away under his dirty, smattered robes. No one stupid enough except for him.

His chest aches, smoke entering with every heavy breath he takes. He shakes his head, trying to clear the haze, peering beyond the wreckage for a chance to escape. If he doesn’t escape, the soldiers will find him. He has no energy left to fight, no will. With one last glance at the city he used to call home, he grits his teeth and sprints into the nearby forest, gripping the spellbook tight in his hands. 

At the age of eleven he became the only survivor of the attack on Ryten. When the news of the attack spreads to the rest of the country of Kyser, it is recounted as the largest scale terrorist attack in history. But he knew it was not their enemy neighbors, the Gorans, who were behind the attack. He saw the robes of the guards; the smell of their skin and magic were not those of foreigners. 

As the blood red sun of Kyser sets, it reflects over those standing amongst the ruins of the city of Ryten, the last city of lost magic. Purple robes, purple banners, golden crests. Hellsmen, Kyser’s own royal army. His blood sings an ancient song, lusting for revenge. At the age of eleven, he becomes the last person to know the secrets of lost magic. No friends, no family, no one to trust but his own magic and his desire for revenge.  

--

Ryten, Kyser. Year 620. 

“No one survived, huh?” Baekhyun kicks a rock, bored, watching it bounce into the corner of what used to be someone’s home. Now all that stands are slabs of cracked stone and broken glass. “I remember when I heard the news. I was still in training. It was scary--my brother was supposed to be in Ryten, but for some reason his mission was canceled. I couldn’t imagine losing him.” 

Kyungsoo hums noncommittally, peering at his scroll. Baekhyun doesn’t know how many times Kyungsoo has read and reread the royal decree, but Baekhyun knows for sure nothing has changed since the first time they read it back at the capital. This is punishment, grunt work that is meaningless. They were sent on a wild goose chase because Baekhyun screwed up their last mission. Now, they’re on a recovery mission, trying to hunt down some obscure spellbook that surely did not survive the attack, and if it somehow did, it surely would have been found ages ago. 

“It says the book should have been in possession of the Kim family. The shaman elves, supposedly the strongest of the elves. This one.” Kyungsoo points to the house in front of them, the one they’ve been standing outside of for the past fifteen minutes. Nothing remains, just brick and glass, much like everything else. Decimated.

Baekhyun, although certain this was some sick way that Junmyeon is using to punish them, couldn’t help but feel off about this mission. They’ve sent Hellsmen to Ryten before, Baekhyun is sure they’ve searched every inch of this city. Why now? Why some spellbook? It’s not like the Royal Archives didn’t have hundreds upon hundreds of books about lost magic. It’s all useless anyway--only elves can practice lost magic. And there are no elves in Kyser. Not after the attack on Ryten. 

“Hey!” Another voice calls out. “Still standing there?” Baekhyun glances up from his rock, watching Chanyeol and Jongdae come bouncing back from wherever they wandered off to. As usual, they were up to no good, and if it weren’t for Kyungsoo’s crushing glare and demand that someone stayed with him to “finish the mission”, Baekhyun would have joined their antics earlier as well. Jongdae’s cloak was bundled in his arm, purple cloth wrapped neatly, a coy smile lacing the corner of his lips as he approaches Baekhyun. Baekhyun’s cheeks flush, and he tries to shove whatever fluttering emotion he’s feeling away. Now is not the time.

“The scroll says that--” Kyungsoo begins to say.

“Yes, yes. That it should be in this house right here.” Jongdae dismisses. “But it’s not.” Something briefly flashed across Jongdae’s eyes, something Baekhyun couldn’t quite place. He chalks it up to his imagination, then realizes he’s been staring at Jongdae for far too long if he even noticed the slightest change, so he tears his gaze away. “Look what we found!” He exclaims instead, sounding like a giddy child. He motions for Baekhyun to hold out his hands. Against all other senses that told him not to, he opened his arms up anyway. 

Jongdae slowly lowers the bundle into his arms, unfolding the rich purple fabric carefully. The bundle starts to shift, and out slithers a snake, as pale and white as the midnight moon and as large as Baekhyun’s forearm. Baekhyun shrieks, jumping nearly five feet into the air. Kyungsoo doesn’t react save for the slight downturn of his lips and the narrowing of his dark eyes. Chanyeol and Jongdae slip into laughter, high fiving one another, giggling mischievously. “This is no time for children’s pranks.” Kyungsoo chides halfheartedly, so used to their antics.

“Aw, don’t be such a buzzkill, Soo.” Chanyeol pouts, dismissing Kyungsoo’s reprimand. “Besides, we all knew this was just a punishment mission because Baekhyun blew up the Cathedral the last time we went on a real mission.” If it weren’t for Baekhyun still panicking about the serpent winding itself up Baekhyun’s arms, Baekhyun might have retorted that he didn’t blow up the Cathedral.

“Get it off me!” Baekhyun shrieks, trying to remain as still as possible so the snake doesn’t get the wrong idea and attack. 

“But it likes you so much.” Jongdae teases. No one moves to save Baekhyun. Baekhyun doesn’t know why, but for as long as he can remember, he’s been petrified of snakes. “Don’t worry, it’s harmless. It’s a moon snake. The elves used to keep them as house pets.” Baekhyun knows exactly what it is and he does not like it. Baekhyun peers into the snake’s slitted eyes and shivers. Yep, harmless or not, he does not like it. 

“Get it off, please.” He pleads again. Finally, Kyungsoo takes mercy and sighs for the nth time, unwinding the snake from Baekhyun’s arms and setting it gently onto the ground. The snake curls around his feet for a bit before slinking off into one of the nearby fallen structures, happy that it is finally free from the comotion. 

“For a prince, you sure are a big baby.” Chanyeol snorts, reigning in his laughter. 

“What’s that got to do with anything? Snakes are just creepy.” Baekhyun may be a prince, but it hardly means anything. His mother is the sister of King Hodeok. It’ll be a million years before Baekhyun could ever inherit the throne, what with King Hodeok’s sons and daughters lined up for the crown. Besides, Baekhyun doesn’t want the crown. He’s perfectly content being a Hellsmen. He’s never been good with his brain anyway, but he’s always been swift on his feet. Being a soldier is perfect for him. 

“Now, now. Lay off Baekhyun before his feelings get hurt and he throws us all in jail for treason.” Jongdae laughs, throwing an arm around Baekhyun’s shoulder. Baekhyun’s face flames, whether at the insinuation that he would be so petty as to abuse his powers or at the warm weight of Jongdae’s arms across his shoulder, he doesn’t know. Perhaps both.

“I’m going to scan the building again.” Kyungsoo announces, disregarding the teasing and changing the topic completely. Always so level headed and focused. Kyungsoo inhales deeply, closing his obsidian eyes. His skin glows softly when he activates his aerial magic, mind digging through the rocks and rubble of the building in front of him, inch by inch without ever moving or opening his eyes. After another few seconds of silent focus, Kyungsoo sighs, shouldering slumping. The air around them stops pulsing with magic and dust settles back.

“Nothing?” Chanyeol asks. 

“Nothing.” Kyungsoo confirms. Even Kyungsoo knew this was a wasted mission, but it wasn’t like he could say no to Junmyeon, the Royal Archivist. Surely, it was the least painful mission out of all the boring punishment ones they could have been sent on. Kyungsoo heard that Yunho’s squad was sent to Irus to fight swamp ogres. That is infinitely worse than being bored in a ruined city, he supposes. At least Ryten doesn't have ogres whose drool stinks so bad, you’ll smell like rotten trash for days after coming in contact with them. 

“Should we head back?” Baekhyun asks. The trek from the capital to Ryten isn’t bad if they were allowed to use teleportation or magic transit, but as part of the punishment, they were made to journey to Ryten on horseback, the good old fashioned way as Junmyeon had put it. Which meant a trip that could have been instantaneous or only an hour lasted the better half of the day. 

Ryten was right on the edge of the forest that separated Kyser and Goran. The forest is dense, filled with ancient magic and who knows what else. It was supposed to be the best natural defense against Goran and Kyser. Yet, the Goran had somehow managed to break past both magical barriers and trekked the natural terrain of the forest to invade. And for what? To eliminate the last of a powerful species? Kyser had given the last elves a home in Ryten, a safe haven and citizenship. Goran had no rights to attack so backhandedly like that for fear that Kyser would grow too strong with the elves’ help. Baekhyun wasn’t sure what kind of underhanded magic they were using, but if they were to have fought head on, there is no way that the elves of Ryten would have lost.  

The elves were the most magical beings that blessed this earth. Their natural attraction for magic was incredible, not to mention they were able to practice magic that was more than just elemental magic, unlike humans. Humans were limited to magic that were covered by the four major elements--fire, water, air, earth. And while those skills are powerful in of itself, it was nothing like what the elves could do. Elves could do things like bend time or light or even create and manipulate life. Humans simply could not do that, they could only practice magic derived of the four elements. 

“We’ve got time to kill. If we head back now, Junmyeon is only going to accuse us of not trying hard enough and I don’t want to be chewed out for longer than necessary.” Jongdae shrugs. “Besides, there’s so much around here. Let’s explore for a bit. Chanyeol and I found something pretty interesting near the town square.” Chanyeol nods excitedly, agreeing. Baekhyun wouldn’t mind messing around for a bit anyway. They all look expectantly at Kyungsoo, who sighed because he knew he was outnumbered. 

“Fine. But we leave long before the sun sets. I’ve heard too many rumors about Ryten to stick around to find out if they are true.”

“What? Is big ol’ grumpy Soo afraid of ghosts?” Chanyeol taunts, grin threatening to split his face in half. How does someone have that many teeth? It’s simply unnecessary.

“No, you fool. Ghosts aren’t real. But the curse of this land is. Ancient, dark magic is very much real. We don’t know what lies beneath these grounds, what kind of hatred festers in this bloodied soil.” With that, Kyungsoo marches in the direction of the square. The other three falter in their step, letting Kyungsoo’s words soak in. Of course Kyungsoo would have noticed the heavy atmosphere. Being this far away from the capital should have cleared the air, like with other towns and cities this far away from the busy capital. But instead, something clings in the air like a heavy film. Baekhyun swears he can still smell smoke and decay. He shudders, snapping out of his thought to realize the others have already started walking. 

Baekhyun knew Ryten before the wreckage. He trained with the elves when he was younger, and though his memory of Ryten isn’t clear, he knew the towering magical structures that used to loom these streets. He knew of the people and their bright culture, their joyous albeit intimidating magic. This is the first time he’s visited since the incident ten years ago and he can’t help but feel like something isn’t quite right. 

“Baekhyun, you’ve been here before, right? Before…” Chanyeol’s voice trails off. 

“Yes.” 

“What was it like?” Jongdae asks. 

“Beautiful. Powerful. These,” he points to the pillars that lined the streets, “used to be conduits for magic. They would pulse and beat and rearrange into different shapes. I think they were just for decoration but they were beautiful.”

“They weren’t just for decoration.” Jongdae interjects firmly. Baekhyun glances at Jongdae, who had stopped next to one of the pillars. Dust kicks up as he caresses the pillar. Though it’s now faded, you could tell that there was once great artwork on the pillar. “They used to be teleportation hubs. It allowed you to go from one end of the city to the other, even underground.” Jongdae explained, sounding very serious. It was unusual for him, someone who always had a kitten smile and joke on his lips. “Or so I think. Junmyeon was rambling about it earlier about how convenient it would be if the Capital had these. Too bad no one knows how to recreate them.” With that, the brightness returned to his voice. 

“And for a second, I thought you might have been cultured and visited here before too.” Chanyeol jokes. “You lived in a village near here, though, right? Maybe we should pay your family a visit before we head back into the capital.”

“It’s not that close.” Jongdae immediately shuts down the idea. “Besides, my brother and I got into another fight and I don’t want to see him until I have to.” 

“So petty.” Baekhyun pouts, disappointed. For all the years that they’ve been friends, Baekhyun still hasn’t met Jongdae’s family. Jongdae said that there was nothing exciting about his farming village, that such a place wasn’t fit to host guests of such nobility like Baekhyun and Chanyeol and Kyungsoo. All Baekhyun knew was that Jongdae had a brother who he apparently did not get along well and a handful of pets that he always talks about animatedly. 

“I don’t want to hear that coming from you.” Jongdae retorts, moving away from the column to catch up to Kyungsoo who has wandered off to examine a piece of wall filled with colorful, undecipherable words. 

 

“You know,” Chanyeol begins quietly. “If you want to keep the fact that you have a huge crush on Jongdae a secret, you should keep the lovestruck look off your face whenever you look at him.” 

“Shut up, I do not!” Baekhyun squeaks, affronted. His cheeks flush. He glances at where Jongdae is standing next to Kyungsoo, waving his arms animatedly about something. Jongdae is beautiful, Baekhyun will give him that. Golden tan skin kissed with soft, brown curls that always managed to stay stylishly misshapen. Sharp cheekbones layered with charming freckles, and eyes that glisten in the sunlight, reflecting everything around him. Kissable lips--not that Baekhyun has thought about kissing Jongdae, of course. Jongdae is very different than what the capital would consider beautiful. He isn’t pale and perfect like Baekhyun, isn’t stern and intimidating like Kyungsoo, isn’t broad and tall like Chanyeol. 

Jongdae is loud, but not in the same way Chanyeol is. He’s thoughtful, witty, and cunning. He always knows what Baekhyun is feeling. He’s gentle when no one is looking. He’s loyal to the core. And Baekhyun for the life of him cannot figure Jongdae out. He knows Chanyeol inside out because they grew up together. He knows Kyungsoo, even if Kyungsoo isn’t talkative. But Baekhyun never knows what Jongdae is thinking. And Baekhyun sometimes catches him when he thinks no one is around and he sees how sad Jongdae is. Baekhyun just wants to embrace him in those moments, wants to wash away his pain and bring him nothing but happiness. 

“Are you trying to convince me that or yourself?” Chanyeol, that bastard, prances away as if he didn’t just unveil one of Baekhyun’s most protected secrets. Yes, Baekhyun will never be king. Not unless fifteen other people die, but he is still a prince. And Jongdae is--Jongdae is a poor farm boy who rose the ranks with nothing but his own hard work and skill. Baekhyun isn’t someone who judges that type of thing, but he can’t imagine how his mother will react. She already threw a fit when Jongdae was assigned to Baekhyun’s squad, saying that a mere peasant shouldn’t be able to fight alongside a prince. But of course, her words have no weight when it comes to guards matter. Still, Jongdae hasn’t grown on her after all these years. Her prejudice is not uncommon for nobles. Jongdae doesn’t deserve to hear those types of rude comments. If anything, Jongdae is too good for Baekhyun.

“Earth to Baekhyun, anyone in there?” Baekhyun jumps, startled out of his thoughts. “Damn you’ve been spacy lately. Didn’t get enough sleep?” Jongdae waggles his eyebrows, tone insinuating something dirty. Baekhyun rolls his eyes, pushing Jongdae on the shoulder. 

“You feel it, don’t you? This city--something isn’t right about it.” 

“Hmm.” Jongdae hums, eyes flashing again, those unreadable emotions that Baekhyun can’t decipher. “No. You’re going crazy.” Jongdae cackles, grabbing Baekhyun’s hand to pull him along. “Let’s go dig for some treasure.” Jongdae’s smile is so brilliant that Baekhyun doesn’t even bother to correct him. There is no treasure here in Ryten. Everything valuable had been taken by the Gorans. And whatever was salvageable had already been cleared by Hellsmen years ago. All that’s left is ruins of great structures and whispers of a people long forgotten by everyone. 

--

They make it back to Visguard in one piece. Kyungsoo only yelled at them five times on the trek back, which is a blessing in of itself. The sun had just set when they enter the palace grounds. Servants greet them, taking their horses to the stable and their bags in exchange for fresh clothes and drink. 

“Who wants to deal with Junmyeon?” Chanyeol asks when they round the palace halls to head into the inner atrium. Junmyeon is the Royal Archivist, the keeper of the Magic Archives and someone with incredible knowledge on all things magical. He happens to also be Baekhyun’s cousin. The son of the other sister of King Hodeok. He too, will never see the throne, but is more than happy with the position he landed. After all, he is the King’s most trusted advisor in all things magical and nonmagical. Junmyeon also happened to be a real pain in the ass when he wants to be.

“I volunteer you.” Jongdae points to Baekhyun. “You, for one, are his cousin and he cannot kill you without committing treason.”

“But--” Baekhyun begins to protest.

“I agree with Jongdae.” Kyungsoo’s lips twitch into what could be interpreted as a ghost of a smile, amusement lacing his tone. Baekhyun does a double take. It could just have been gas, Baekhyun considers because as soon as the smile graced his lips, it was gone. Kyungsoo never smiles. That’s his charm. He’s intense in everything he does. But Baekhyun forgets just how handsome he truly is when he smiles. There’s a certain softness to him that kisses his skin and balances out his piercing gaze. Perhaps it’s because his magic is so powerful that it’s always overflowing, always giving his skin an incandescent sheen. 

Kyungsoo is a noble and has noble training. He’s always polite to the right people, but always ready to destroy them with words alone. They attended the Academy together, along with Chanyeol. Chanyeol is one of the royal physicians’ sons. His status as a noble may not be the highest, but he grew up within the palace walls, same as Baekhyun, alongside Baekhyun. And he’s ridiculously charming. He may seem like a lumbering oaf at first glance with too-long limbs and penchant for tripping over air, but when it boils down to it, he’s as reliable as they come. His brown hair is always fluffy, unkempt and his eyes are slightly wild. And he has too many teeth. Yet he makes up for it by being extremely friendly to the point of annoyance. There is no one that Chanyeol cannot charm, including Junmyeon himself. And Kyungsoo for that matter. 

And then there was Baekhyun--the poster child of royalty. Pale, white skin, unmarred by imperfections. Silky, long black hair, always kept in a neat bun, pinned by an expensive charm. Bright golden brown eyes and a pretty smile and perfect posture. Baekhyun grew up being babied by his mother his whole life. He can be childish at times, but he too was trained in the ways of the royal court. He knows exactly the role he needs to play in order to survive the cutthroat race for the crown. That’s why he’s managed to keep peace for so long. Unlike Junmyeon and Baekbeom, who are constantly stepping on King Hodeok’s toes, threatening the order for the crown. 

Baekbeom is the captain of the Hellsmen, well respected by basically every man in the guards. He has the heart of everyone in the Hellsmen, their favor and utter devotion. He’s known to the public as heroic, and stories of his feat only get more ridiculous the further away from the capital they get. Then there is Junmyeon, who is so tactful and graceful that word of his knowledge has spread throughout the land. He is often sought out by scholars and even teaches a class at the Academy about magic. His knowledge is unparalleled, and his reputation is spotless. Those two are constantly being tugged by the push and pull of those who vie for the crown. Baekhyun was perfectly content to become a Hellsmen. He thought he would be working directly under his brother, but Baekbeom had laughed and said he needed to earn his way up the ranks. Which is how he ended up in a squad with the other three. 

When they first were sorted, everyone was sure that their squad would disband or cause widespread chaos. None of their personality seemed to fit. Kyungsoo never got along well with Baekhyun and Chanyeol, especially while they were in the Academy together and the two would constantly prank Kyungsoo to try to garner friendship. Looking back, that wasn’t the best tactic to worm their way into Kyungsoo’s heart. And then there was Jongdae. A no name peasant from the countryside who defeated all odds and became a Hellsmen based on skill alone. None of their magic meshed, either. Not with Kyungsoo’s air magic, great for defense and surveying, but lacking in serious attack power. Not with Chanyeol’s fire magic, destructive in all its nature, unable to distinguish friend or foe with its brute intensity. Chanyeol had always had an issue with holding back his strength. Then, there was Baekhyun’s water magic. Beautiful, but extremely unpredictable. Weak at times and destructive at others. It wasn’t until Jongdae came that all of them seemed to finally fit together. Jongdae’s earth magic tying them down, sorting out their differences and melding them together to be the perfect unit. Grounding them.

That was almost three whole years ago. Now they’re the elite first squadron of the Hellsmen. If it hadn’t been for the mishap at their last mission where Baekhyun accidentally fired his magic at a really expensive, irreplaceable relic inside the Visguard Cathedral, then they wouldn’t have been sent on a wild goose chase. The only reason Junmyeon didn’t immediately kill him was because it was Baekhyun who destroyed the relic. Anyone else would have had to answer to Junmyeon’s rage. 

“It’s fine--leave the ass kissing to me.” Baekhyun relents, marching forward towards the palace library. The heavy, intricately engraved double doors creak open, revealing Junmyeon sitting at the long central table, wire rimmed glasses perched on the bridge of nose, flipping through the pages of the book he’s holding at an ungodly speed. One by one they trudge into the room, lining up against the table, waiting for Junmyeon’s acknowledgement. 

It seemed like hours before Junmyeon sets the book aside. He sweeps the glasses off his face, folding them neatly on the table. Junmyeon stares at Baekhyun expectantly, tilting his head. “We didn’t find the book.”

“I didn’t expect you to.” Junmyeon says simply, shrugging. “You know your brother suggested we send you to Irus to fend off the ogres.” Junmyeon starts. “He said sending you to Ryten would just make you guys antsy, not repent.” And Baekbeom had been correct. While they certainly were frustrated that they wasted a day, it didn’t seem like punishment at all. “Call it favoritism from your relatives, but I wanted to confirm something.” Junmyeon had always been strange. He spoke in riddles and never had the courtesy to explain his thought process, always leaving his words up for interpretation. It makes others hesitant of him, because on the one hand he could just be spacey, but who knows what he’s really thinking? 

“Confirm what?” Chanyeol asks. Leave it to Chanyeol to be blunt. 

Junmyeon’s eyes crease as he smiles. “It’s a secret.” He laughs, pressing his forefinger to his lips. “Well, how was Ryten? The weather there should be exceptionally beautiful now. Come, sit. Why are all of you standing? Did you think I had honestly expected you to come back with the spellbook?”

They pull out the chairs around the long table and sit, all of them on the edge of their seat still. Junmyeon is unpredictable, in a good mood for one second and a bad one in another. Such is the finicky personality of royalty. “It was beautiful. We found a lot of moon snakes.” Jongdae recounts. 

“Ah--moon snakes. Baekhyun surely did not have a good time, then.” Junmyeon seemed to really enjoy that fact. Baekhyun pouts, but not disagreeing. Perhaps that’s also why Baekbeom agreed to send them to Ryten instead of Irus. “I used to have a moon snake. They do not thrive in the humidity of Visguard, though. It got very sick and died very shortly after. That taught me a lesson to not remove things from its natural habitat just because of my own selfish desire.” It’s mesmerizing how Junmyeon speaks. His words are compelled to be heard. It flows like water, but different than the way Baekhyun’s magic worked. If Baekhyun’s magic was like an ocean, Junmyeon’s magic flowed like a river. 

“You used to torment me with it.” Baekhyun accuses. He remembers the moon snake, though not fondly. He often woke up to it winding its way around his body.  

“Ah, you’re confusing me for your brother. I simply lent him my snake. He did all the tormenting of his own accord.” 

“Your highness,” Kyungsoo interrupts. “I understand that this mission was meant for us to cool off, however, I think you did have an ulterior motive in sending the four of us to Ryten.” Kyungsoo truly never misses a beat. Junmyeon motions for Kyungsoo to elaborate. “Something was wrong about Ryten.”

“Wrong?” Junmyeon repeats. 

“The air--the ground. When I did my aerial scans of the Kim’s residence, something was just unsettling. Though everything is in ruins, the air still smelled like smoke. And I couldn’t shake the feeling of something lurking around every corner we turned.” 

“Surely you aren’t giving into the wild tales of the elvens’ curse, are you?” Junmyeon implores.

Kyungsoo hesitates, opening his mouth before clamping it shut. “No, your highness. I’m not one for superstition. At least I thought so. But when I was there, it felt like there was a sleeping beast underneath the city. The city still seemed so--alive.”

“Hmm.” Junmyeon hums in contemplation. “And the rest of you?” Junmyeon motions to the others. “Did you feel this strange magic?”

Chanyeol raises an eyebrow, considering. He shakes his head. Jongdae also says no. Baekhyun--Baekhyun definitely felt something off. But he couldn’t place it. Not in the same way Kyungsoo did. But Kyungsoo had always been much more attuned to magic and sensitive to those types of things. “I mean, I was just afraid of moon snakes the whole time. I didn’t notice anything dangerous like that.” Baekhyun admits, sheepishly rubbing his neck. A nervous tick he never learned to get rid of despite his mother’s constant nagging.

“Kyungsoo, I know you are extremely sensitive to magic. But the elves had different magic than we do--perhaps the journey wore you out and their lingering magic is so vastly different than ours that it unsettled you. I have never heard of reports of dangers in the ruins from any other Hellsmen,” Junmyeon explains. “Not that I doubt you, of course.” He quickly adds. “But I think your hypersensitivity to magic, paired with the remnants of lost magic confused you.” Junmyeon concludes, sounding genuine in his words of belief. 

“Perhaps.” Kyungsoo says quietly, not entirely convinced. Baekhyun feels bad. Maybe he should have admitted to the strangeness he felt as well. But he was awfully distracted and who can enter a city like that and not feel strange? Baekhyun never was good at deciphering the kinds of magic anyway, and his intuition has always been shit.

“Very well. I am glad that you’ve returned safely and I will relay the result of your trip to his Royal Highness. Thank you for your service.” And with that, they’re dismissed. Just as they were about to exit the room, however, Junmyeon calls out to Jongdae to stay. Baekhyun lingers at the door, but he knows better than to eavesdrop. So he follows Kyungsoo and Chanyeol back to their sleeping quarters, awaiting for Jongdae to come back they can all eat dinner together.

--

“You know, for someone so small, you sure eat a lot.” Jongdae reaches over the dining table to wipe at the corner of Baekhyun’s mouth. There seems to have been some sauce smeared across his face. “And messily. Oh, if the royal keepers saw you now.”

“I don’t wanna hear you call me small.” Baekhyun complains around a mouthful of meat, ignoring the other jabs at his eating habits. That, he couldn’t deny. The keepers would lose their minds if they saw how he ate.

“You’re all objectively small, though.” Chanyeol chortles.

“Shut up, you giant buffoon. You’re just unnaturally large.” Baekhyun snaps, no heat to his insult. 

“Can we not eat in silence?” Kyungsoo sighs, pushing around the boiled peas on his plate. Ever since they got back from the trip, Kyungsoo has been especially quiet.

“Oh sorry, I forgot lunch time was for brooding.” Jongdae deadpans. It seems like Kyungsoo’s been feeling unsure of himself ever since Junmyeon dispelled his intuition about Ryten. “Don’t stress yourself out, Soo.” Jongdae says gently.

Baekhyun remembers the days back in the Academy when Kyungsoo would insist on sitting by himself during meals. Baekhyun and Chanyeol started to invade his table, and despite Kyungsoo’s protests, Baekhyun and Chanyeol continued to invite themselves over. Eventually, Kyungsoo stopped complaining. But he didn’t start opening up to them until well into the semester. But even then, it was snapped comments and harsh chiding. Kyungsoo was prickly all over, but he cared in his own way. It wasn’t until they graduated and met Jongdae did Kyungsoo stop acting like being around them was the worst thing to have happened to him--well, not entirely, but for the most part. 

“I’m just so sure something isn’t right. I’m never wrong.” That’s true. Kyungsoo was hardly ever wrong. His intuition and natural ability to sense magic had saved their asses time and time again. And with his newly perfected attack magic, Kyungsoo is the perfect Hellsmen. 

“No, but you do tend to overthink things a lot.” Chanyeol points out. 

Kyungsoo chews thoughtfully for a second. “You’re right. It’s probably nothing.” 

“Has Captain Baekbeom assigned us a new mission yet?” Jongdae inquires, diverting the topic. 

“No, he told us to rest for a bit. Though he did threaten to send us to Irus if we destroy anything again.” Baekhyun supplies.

“Did he explicitly say us or just you?” Chanyeol jokes, “Because as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t me who got distracted and accidentally set my magic off like a twelve year old Academy student.” Chanyeol winks when he said distracted. But it’s true. Baekhyun had in fact been distracted. They were sent to guard Visguard’s Cathedral after catching wind that a band of thief was trying to steal ancient artifacts housed there. 

It wasn’t Baekhyun’s fault that Jongdae had nearly activated a hidden rune set by the thieves, and in Baekhyun’s haste to warn Jongdae, he accidentally released the spell he was about to cast. The King’s Cup just happened to be in the way, shattering into thousands of shards of magical crystal. Baekhyun hadn’t accidentally set off spells in ages. The destruction of the Cup came as a surprise to everyone there. 

Baekhyun used to not be able to control the intensity of his magic very well. Strong spells became weak and weak spells became strong. It all was linked to his emotions. He broke free of that habit during training at the Academy, but occasionally, his emotions still overwhelmed his focus. 

Chanyeol used to be the same way as well. Except for him, there was no end to how destructive his magic got. It was entirely dangerous to be around him in the beginning because his magic was explosive. He too learned how to control it. 

The Academy shaped them all to be the best warrior they could. That’s why it’s so unlikely that anyone who did not go through Academy training to be able to enter the Hellsmen. Which is why Jongdae is such a scary anomaly. His magic is unassuming at first, bending the earth inconspicuously until it completely engulfs you. Baekhyun hasn’t seen someone more in control of their own magic. His control rivals Kyungsoo, who was at the top of the class in the Academy. Once Kyungsoo learned to hone his aerial magic to do damage, he was easily the best student at the Academy.  But Kyungsoo and Jongdae are both evenly matched when it comes to magic.

Actually, it’s quite thankful to the two of them that their squadron rose through the ranks so quickly. While Chanyeol’s magical abilities are never ending, he often rushed straight into things. And Baekhyun’s magic is still unstable, if his focus was broken, he can’t recover as quickly. Kyungsoo is well rounded, supplementing strategy and tactics where his attack magic might not be the strongest. And Jongdae--Baekhyun thinks that Jongdae has never used his full force in any situation, even in brawls with Kyungsoo. Baekhyun is sure Jongdae is the strongest of them all, though he doesn’t let that show. Sometimes, if Baekhyun really focuses, he can feel the magic that Jongdae is holding back. 

“Do you want to do anything today?” Chanyeol asks.

“We have to train.” Kyungsoo reminds him.

After training, Soo.” Chanyeol inclines. “I’ve been meaning to pick up some new charms, anyway. Let’s go shopping!” He suggests excitedly.

“We’ll see.” Kyungsoo dismisses. 

“How about you two?” 

“I have nothing better to do.” Jongdae shrugs. 

Baekhyun remembers that Baekbeom had wanted to get dinner with him and their mother. “Maybe another time.” He appeases.

“Booo.” Chanyeol and Jongdae jeer. Kyungsoo shakes his head at their reaction.

“Hey, if you want to deal with my mother, you’re welcome to come along.”

“With your mother? I’d rather eat dirt, no offense.” Chanyeol states, huffing a small breath of laughter. Jongdae snickers, Kyungsoo silently agrees. His mother is a handful, Baekhyun is well aware of this. His father died when he was four, and ever since then, she has been overprotective of him, almost to a fault. Baekhyun spares a quick glance at Jongdae, only to avert his eyes quickly because Jongdae was staring straight back at him. Jongdae, unfortunately, has been on the receiving end of her overbearingness. Princess Hyoyeon wasn’t a bad person, no. She’s just beyond sheltered, and bred to believe she is superior. Baekhyun wouldn’t fault her for being judgmental. That’s all she’s ever known. He’ll make up for her every flaw. That’s his duty as her son.

“Hurry up and finish your food or else we’ll be late to training.” Baekhyun feels Jongdae’s eyes on him the rest of their meal, but he is hesitant to look up. Seriously. Baekhyun has never felt this useless about a crush before. He’s Byun Baekhyun--beautiful and charming. Yet in front of Jongdae, he’s reduced to a floundering fool. Maybe that too is magic. 

--

Training was ridiculously hard in the humid Visguard air. Baekbeom had them spar and run, then spar again. The high noon sun beat down on the rows of guards, all standing in unison. 

“Who wants to go next?” Baekbeom asks, voice commanding and loud enough to reach everyone’s ears. “Do we have any volunteers?” No one makes to move. Baekbeom scans the rows, head tilting thoughtfully. 

“Kyungsoo.” He calls out. “And--Jongdae.” Ah, the usual combo to stir up excitement. It’s no secret that Kyungsoo and Jongdae are among the strongest in the Hellsmen. They are constantly pitted against each other in these sparring match, and with good reason too. They are always entertaining to watch.

The rows separate, allowing for Kyungsoo and Jongdae to step into the makeshift ring. Jongdae and Kyungsoo have shed their heavy armor. Purple cloth cling closely to their skin, dampen with sweat. The golden emblem of Kyser hangs on the skirt of their robe, glistening in the sunlight. Kyungsoo’s hair is tied up in a perfect knot, keeping his long waves from his eyes, displaying them for all to see. Jongdae’s own curls fall over his eyes, shielding them, hiding their intention. Kyungsoo’s spear is in his hand, glinting dangerously as he shifts the weight from one hand to the other. Jongdae’s own sword is still sheathed by his side, but everyone knows it won’t be long before it is drawn.

They circle each other for a bit, waiting for Baekbeom’s announcement to start the match. As soon as Baekbeom declares the start, their magic is released. Air swirls around the circle, kicking up dust and dirt. Anyone close enough to it feels like their skin is being whipped by an invisible flog. Meanwhile the earth rumbles, shifting and rotating beneath their very feet. Kyungsoo strikes first, lunging at Jongdae, spear encased in a dangerous swirl of magic. Jongdae barely dodges, shifting his feet at the very last second. The earth beneath Kyungsoo’s feet crumbles. Kyungsoo slides forward, regaining his balance as he eyes Jongdae’s next movement.

Finally, the sword is unsheathed. Thin, delicately crafted. Deadly. In an instant, Jongdae drives the sword into the dirt in front of him. Pillars of hardened earth rise from the floor, threatening to topple Kyungsoo over. With each new pillar, Kyungsoo is forced further and further away from Jongdae. Kyungsoo bites his lip in concentration, spear slicing through the air, sending forwards blast of razor sharp air that cannot be dodged. Jongdae curses, summoning a wall of dirt to shield him. The air slices through the wall, sending dirt and debris in every direction. 

Everyone watching is excited, cheering on the two as they demonstrate great magical precision. Jongdae collapses the pillars, dashing forward towards Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo widens his stance, waving his spear in front of him, beckoning Jongdae’s attack. When Jongdae swings, Kyungsoo parries. They attack back and forth, swinging and dodging and parrying. Quick steps to maneuver, bold defense, agile swings. They come face to face, pushing against each other until the tension snaps and they both are sent flying backwards, instantly regaining balance. Their breathing is deep, sweat glistens from their exposed arms. Neither had gotten a solid blow on the other yet. 

“Damn, you don’t give up, do you?” Jongdae shouts over the noise of the crowd. His sword is by his side, rays of light reflecting off the balanced steel, poised for attack.  

Kyungsoo scoffs, “Look who’s talking.” Another flurry of magical attacks are unleashed. Kyungsoo’s air magic dancing, slicing and dicing anything in its way. Jongdae’s columns of earth are flexible in defense and powerful in speed. They block Kyungsoo’s piercing wind. 

Honestly, the two of them could fight for hours on end if they needed to. But both of them are reaching the end of their patience. Jongdae charges at Kyungsoo again, sword high and ready to swing. Kyungsoo braces for impact, hands outstretched, mouth muttering some silent spell. Suddenly, everything around them stops. Intense pressure from above pins everyone in place. It was as if the sky had dropped on everyone’s shoulder. Jongdae’s steps falter just moments before he reaches Kyungsoo, gritting his teeth as he’s pinned in place by the incredible invisible force. Kyungsoo’s hands are still outstretched as he easily sweeps Jongdae’s feet from under him. Jongdae falls, groaning in pain. It was only then that Kyungsoo relaxes his arms, releasing the pressure. Everyone around them sighs in relief. Even the pressure had been deafening. It feels as if everyone’s ears have suddenly been cleared of liquid. 

“When did you learn that?” Jongdae grits, pulling himself up from the ground. Jongdae wasn’t seriously injured, or even slightly scratched, but that was enough to end the match.

“Secret.” Kyungsoo replies, brushing the skirt of his purple robe before returning to his place amongst the ranks. Jongdae trudges behind.

“That was incredible, Soo. I felt it all the way back here.” Chanyeol praises when they reach their place back in line. Others continue to battle, though no magic as intense as Kyungsoo’s was demonstrated the rest of the time. Finally, they are released from training with a few words of encouragement from Baekbeom. 

“I’ll see you all later!” Baekhyun waves, letting his friends leave as he stays behind to wait for Baekbeom.

When everyone is finished being dismissed, Baekhyun jogs to the front of the training arena to catch Baekbeom. 

“Your friends get scarier every time.” Last time, Jongdae had come out victorious after trapping Kyungsoo in a wall of dirt that was impenetrable by both magical and physical attacks. Kyungsoo had also suspended Jongdae midair once, high above the ground, before dropping him. Kyungsoo only resuspended Jongdae moments before Jongdae was about to crash head first into the ground. To retaliate, the time after that Jongdae had collapsed nearly the entire arena, almost burying everyone alive. Yeah, they were scary alright.

“And what about me?” Baekhyun asks.

“I’d be more impressed if you didn’t run around destroying ancient artifacts.” Baekbeom replies. Baekhyun mopes. Destroy a stupid cup one time and no one will let it go. “It’s been awhile since the three of us have had dinner together, huh?”

“Mother and I have dinner all the time. It’s you who’s always absent.” Baekhyun starts walking away, heading towards the exit of the arena. Baekbeom jogs to catch up.

“I have an entire army to lead, Baekhyun.” Baekbeom informs. Baekhyun can’t tell if he sounds guilty or sad. Probably both. Baekbeom is busy, that’s for sure. When he’s not leading his men in training, he’s with King Hodeok and the council, planning and advising. Baekhyun is well aware of that.

“I’m just saying, sometimes it feels like you’re needlessly busy. Mother misses you a lot, you know. Without you there, she fusses over me ten times more than needed.” The sun is setting below the walls of Visguard. Visguard is beautiful. Tall stone buildings towering over each other, yet in a way that is not cramped and suffocating. The streets are clean and lined in flowers, always blooming in the humid Visguard heat. It’s the symbol of Kyser’s might, built to be impenetrable, yet livable. 

“That’s what you get for being the youngest. At least she isn’t nagging for you to settle down. God--do you think she’s set up another blind date for me?” Baekbeom dreads the thought.

Baekhyun chortles. “She already canceled your meeting tomorrow. There’s no way you’re getting out of this one, bud.”

“Oh god. Who is it this time?” 

“I think it’s Kim Yuri of Tydell. I hear her family basically owns all the ports.” Great, a merchant’s daughter. 

“Do you think if I feign sickness now, she’ll buy it?” Baekbeom asks, hopeful. He’s never been good at these blind dates. Dreads them. But his mother has a way of convincing him to go every time despite them all ending horrifically. 

“Hmm.” Baekhyun considers for a second. “Not unless you die some time between dinner tonight and tomorrow.” He concludes. Baekbeom groans, massaging his temple.

“You know, our mother is really too much sometimes.” 

“Oh, trust me. I know.” 

Princess Hyoyeon has her own estate on palace grounds. This is where Baekbeom and Baekhyun grew up. It’s basically an extension of the palace, but smaller. Home-ier, if palace stones could make anything feel like home. 

They both split to their respective quarters to change. Mother will only complain of them smelling like sweat if they showed up now. Baekhyun tosses his heavy boots off immediately after entering his room, sighing contentedly. He places his polished armor down on his dresser carefully, then peels off his dirty robes. The purple fabric feels soft in his hand. He’s always been fond of the colors of Kyser. Purple for royalty, purple for loyalty. Gold for harmony, kindness, and respect. The lions crest that is stitched onto the bottom of his robe glimmer as it catches the light. Each thread hand sewn on, delicately embroidering the cloth. Each stitch is meant to symbolize unity and safety. That is why Kyser is one of the most powerful nations, if not the mightiest. 

It is why the elves, when driven from their homes in the forest, had chosen Kyser to be their home. Baekhyun’s shoulders slump at the thought of the elves of Ryten. Long ago, they were their own nation with their home deep in the enchanted forest and mountains that surrounded all the nations. Still, the magic of the forest grew too strong, too dark, and drove the elves out. Of course the elves put up a fight, but it seems the more they fought the forest, the stronger and more dangerous the forest got. Eventually, with their numbers dwindled, the elves sought refuge in Kyser. 

Baekhyun remembers the tale. Long ago, the queen of the elves stumbled into Visguard, her people trailing behind, beaten and battered by the forest. She begged the King of Kyser to allow them to become citizens. Needless to say, the King granted them refuge, and allowed them to build their own city. That was nearly two hundred years ago. Ryten had been apart of Kyser for so long, yet in a moment’s notice, it was gone. And like that, the elves became extinct, their magic forever lost. It’s one of the world’s greatest tragedies. To this day, Goran and Kyser are still enemies. 

A knock at the door jerked him out of his thoughts. Lately, he can’t help but reminisce over the stories of Ryten and its elves. “Your highness,” a servant says, politely ducking his head in greeting. “Dinner is ready.” 

Baekhyun thanks the servant, dismissing him before inspecting himself in the mirror. His casual dress is so much less severe than the striking purple of his guard attire. Dressed in a simple, pale yellow silk shirt and loose dark pants, he almost looks ordinary. Of course, he knows this silk is worth more than a civilian’s pay for the month, but Baekhyun is so used to seeing himself in either fancy royal garb or the guard’s uniform, he almost forgot how he looks outside of those attire. 

With a final fix of his bun, he heads towards the dining hall. 

Baekbeom and his mother are already seated, speaking animatedly. Baekbeom looks like he wants to die, so it seems like his mother has already begun her matchmaking speech. 

“Perfect, Baekhyun! Tell your brother how pitiful it is to be nearly thirty and without a wife. You’ll surely die alone at this rate, Baekbeom.” 

“Mother,” Baekhyun simply greets in lieu of answering.

“Baekhyun, please tell our mother that I am busy and have no time for dating, much less marriage.”

“Oh my! At this rate, I will die before I ever get to hold my own grandchild.” Princess Hyoyeon is an extraordinary woman. She is strikingly beautiful. Long, straight black hair frames her soft face, balancing the severity. She wears a golden circlet on her head, a pretty emerald stone adorning her pale forehead. Matching emerald earrings dangle from her ears. Her eyes are exactly like Baekhyun’s--golden brown that appeared more gold than brown in direct sunlight. 

“Mother!” Both Baekhyun and Baekbeom protest, affronted by the casual talk of death from their mother. She is the youngest of the siblings. Princess Sooyoung, Junmyeon’s mother, is the oldest, and King Hodeok is the middle child. 

“What? Am I wrong? You children forget that I am growing older every day.” She doesn’t look like it at all. Of course, it’s not like she’s worked a hard day in her life to age her quicker. Still, if she wanted to, she could convince most people that she was in her late twenties, and not approaching fifty. “Baekbeom, it would not hurt to at least speak to Yuri. I’ve met her quite a few times. She’s gorgeous, smart, and independent. You’d like her. Trust me. Mother knows best.” And with that, Baekbeom has lost. Baekhyun fears the day she shifts her attention onto him. But Baekhyun is still young, barely having started his twenties. 

Outside, a blast of thunder could be heard, penetrating through the thick palace walls. “Hmm. Was it supposed to storm tonight?” Baekbeom wonders offhandedly. 

Their meal arrives. Now that their mother had convinced Baekbeom to go on a date, dinner goes by a lot smoother. They chat idly, mother filling them in on royal gossip.

“You know, Hyojong is causing trouble again. Honestly, how he is Hodeok’s son, I don’t understand. He’s nothing like his siblings. Hopeless.” She reveals. She glances at the two of them who were both spacing out. She adds, “More so than you two.”   

“What did he do this time?” Baekhyun indulges in her gossiping, though he isn’t necessarily curious. What Hyojong does is Hyojong’s business. Baekhyun hasn’t been close enough to his younger cousin to be updated about his life, or any of Hyojong’s siblings for that matter. King Hodeok had four children. Crown Prince Yesung, Princess Yoona, Princess Seohyun, and then there was Hyojong. Hyojong certainly wasn’t anything like his siblings, that’s for sure. He’s constantly running away and stirring up trouble. Baekhyun sympathizes with him--he knows a child acting out in demand for a parent’s attention when he sees one. It reminds him a lot of how he was as a child. And that’s exactly what Hyojong is--a child.

“He supposedly ran off with some peasant servant,” Baekhyun winces at the way his mother says peasant like it’s a dirty word. “They say he got her pregnant.” She speculates, sighing dramatically. “Hodeok raised three perfect child. And then there’s him. So unfitting of royalty.” 

“Mother, Hyojong is still a child. We were all like that at one point.” Baekbeom defends. 

Princess Hyoyeon harrumphs. “Not my boys. Not Junmyeon.” Of course not Junmyeon. Junmyeon is the poster child of perfection. Even Yesung is pale in comparison. Years ago, there used to be huge debates about whether the crown prince should be Yesung or Junmyeon. While Yesung is the oldest, Junmyeon was the most qualified. And just because Hodeok was king, did not mean that Junmyeon, or even Baekbeom, should be taken out of the equation for inheritance. Baekhyun remembers how cold those days were. Junmyeon had barely been fifteen years old. Now that he thinks about it, it was right before the attack on Ryten. After Ryten, the court of Kyser banded together in solidarity, leaving petty squabbles about lineage behind in lieu of strengthening their defense.

“Mother, you know these things are in the past.” Princess Hyoyeon had been vocal about supporting Junmyeon’s ascension. Hodeok had accused her of trying to overthrow him, of trying to gain favor with Sooyoung and Junmyeon so that her own sons could benefit from it. 

“I’m just saying.” Their relationship is still not repaired. Formal gatherings are very awkward, with the two sisters huddling together, leaving Hodeok behind. It’s no secret that the rift between them only increased, with Hodeok threatening to exile them. If not for Junmyeon voluntarily stepping down, accepting the position of Royal Archivist, pledging his loyalty to Yesung, who knows what kind of internal war would have occurred. “If Junmyeon were to be king--” Another loud boom of thunder startles them. The candles surrounding the table flickers. Outside, the sky had darkened. The glass windows reveal ominous clouds, still there was no sign of rain. The three of them watch in silence as a streak of lightning rips through the dark clouds, illuminating the room for a split second. The lights flicker again. Another roll of thunder follows the lightning.

“I wonder if the others are back from shopping, yet.” Baekhyun mutters. 

“They’re shopping in such conditions?” Princess Hyoyeon asks. 

“It was perfectly clear when we left training.” Baekbeom interjects. “This storm came out of nowhere--I heard we were going to have a pretty clear week.”

“Well, it’s not like we can control the weather, right?” Princess Hyoyeon shrugs. “Boys, eat your dinner before it gets cold.” She chides. They resume eating in relative silence. 

Baekhyun can’t shake this feeling. It was something similar to the way he felt at Ryten--something he couldn’t quite place his finger on. For some reason, he wanted to see Jongdae. More than his usual pining amount. A sense of urgency overcame him. 

“I’m not feeling well.” Baekhyun suddenly blurts out before he could stop himself. “Please excuse me.” With that, his chair scrapes backwards as he stands, folding his napkin neatly next to his plate. He bows at his mother and brother before they get a chance to protest. His mother stares on with a look of confusion and his brother with a look of betrayal, silently saying how dare Baekhyun leave Baekbeom alone with their mother so she can instill him with more nonsense about his lack of love life. 

He runs through the halls that twisted and turned before he stumbles outside. The sky is darkened, it smells like a big storm is approaching. The air is electrifying, pulsing. It almost feels like walking through webs of Kyungsoo’s pressure magic. Baekhyun swallows the lump in his throat, sweeping a stray strand of hair out of his face. He makes his way towards the soldiers’ quarters. He passes several familiar faces along the way, barely stopping to acknowledge them though the training instilled in him screams at him that it’s impolite.

He doesn’t know how he got there, but by the time he’s in front of Jongdae’s door, he’s out of breath. He’s about to knock when the door swings open, causing Baekhyun to stumble forwards. His face smashes into Jongdae’s chest and he hears Jongdae let out a surprised gasp before breaking into a fit of giggles. 

“Wow, a personal door call from his majesty,” Jongdae greets. “You missed me this much?” Baekhyun realizes he’s still pressed against Jongdae and pushes himself back, coughing to clear his throat.

“I was just wondering if you guys were back from the marketplace, is all.” He lies.

 

“We never went. It was going to storm.” How Jongdae knew it was going to storm, Baekhyun didn’t think to ask. “So, what really brings you here?” I had a bad feeling and wanted to see you to make sure you’re okay. Well, he definitely can’t say that. Baekhyun begins to wonder more and more as to why he’s here. What kind of irrational fear led him to abruptly leave dinner with his family like that?

“Mother and Baekbeom were squabbling about marriage and I got tired of it.” Baekhyun states flippantly. 

“Mm. I would leave too.” Jongdae sympathizes. “Well, lucky for you, I was just about to meet up with Kyungsoo and Chanyeol before you fell into my arms.” A furious blush strikes Baekhyun’s cheeks. “Apparently there are secret passages in the palace and Chanyeol found a way into them.” Oh there were definitely secret passages. Baekhyun knows them like the back of his hand. There’s not a lot you could do in the palace when you were seven and hiding from royal keepers, so Baekhyun got fairly acquainted with the hidden walkways. 

“Kyungsoo agreed to come?” Baekhyun asks, shocked.

“No, of course not. We had to threaten him.” Ah. That makes more sense. “Come on, let’s go.” Outside, the rain finally falls. It splatters against the windows loudly. The sky rumbles in anger. Jongdae peers out the window with a distant look in his eyes before taking Baekhyun’s hands into his own and leading him to Kyungsoo’s and Chanyeol’s rooms.

When Kyungsoo opens his door, he grumbles about not wanting to do this. Chanyeol just peers at where Jongdae is grasping Baekhyun’s hand and waggles his eyebrows, but thankfully spares him from any lecherous comments. Stupid giant. 

“Baekhyun, I know you know where the entrances are. Direct us!” Chanyeol demands. 

“No. Didn’t you want to explore? Wouldn’t be much exploring if I led you all.” Baekhyun quips. “Don’t worry, I’ll hold your hand if you get scared.” He adds with a chuckle.

“Hmm, seems someone else is preoccupied with holding your hand.” Chanyeol doesn’t miss a beat in replying. Baekhyun feels steam coming out of his ears from how red they got. Jongdae just laughs good naturedly. Kyungsoo rolls his eyes.

“Fine. There’s one right there.” Baekhyun shakes Jongdae’s hands off him, pressing forward against a stone block in the nook next to Chanyeol’s rooms. Nothing happens. Baekhyun grits his teeth, applying a bit more pressure. Slowly, the stone slides back, grinding against each other. A dark passage is revealed. Chanyeol has to duck to step inside. The palm of his hand erupts into a makeshift torch, illuminating the dark passageway. 

“Now this is what I call prime adventuring.” Chanyeol mutters excitedly. “How deep do these go?” 

“They cover the whole palace. There are entry points everywhere, even the inner chambers.” The inner chambers are where the rest of the royal family lives. King Hodeok and his children. Princess Sooyoung. Junmyeon resides in a room within the Archives because the man never leaves the place. But he technically has a room in the inner chambers. Princess Hyoyeon had long since cleared from there, but Baekhyun remembers his old room there. He wonders if it still lies empty or if someone else had moved in there. Only those trusted by the royal family have access to the inner chambers. It’s heavily guarded at all times. No one besides the royal family knows about these hidden passages. They were meant to be a means of escape in case there was an attack. 

“If we get caught, we’ll be in serious trouble.” Kyungsoo reminds them.

“Soo, we literally have a prince with us. It’s not like we stumbled upon these ourselves. Speaking of, where are you leading us, Baekhyun?” Chanyeol counters.

“To the Archives.” It’s such a cliche, but the passage leads them to the back of a bookshelf, which opens into the main floor of the Archives. “I used to scare Junmyeon all the time this way.” There’s a book that if you pull, you can see into the room without opening the door. Baekhyun peers into the room, not surprised to see Junmyeon slumped over a boom, fast asleep against the table. The double doors that opened into the room are old and creak every time they open, always notifying Junmyeon of someone’s arrival. But this door slides open without the slightest sound. 

Baekhyun tries to hold back his snicker as he creeps up behind Junmyeon. “Ahhhh!” He screams directly into Junmyeon’s ear, hands shaking his shoulder. Junmyeon shoots straight up with a scream of his own. His eyes squint, trying to focus on his surroundings. As soon as his vision clears, he frowns deeply. 

“Baekhyun, I see you’re still seven years old.” Junmyeon says, tone filled with disappointment. 

“And you’re still a scaredy cat.” 

“Your highness, this was entirely Baekhyun’s idea.” Chanyeol shifts the blame before Junmyeon could even get angry.

“Of course it is. Why are you sneaking around in the walls?” Junmyeon inquires. 

Baekhyun shrugs. He went from having a stressful meal with his family to goofing around with his friends. And besides, the uneasy feeling in his stomach hasn’t gone away yet. “I almost forgot about those.” Junmyeon mutters. “It’s been years since anyone has used them.”

“I suppose all the children have grown up.” Maybe that’s how Hyojong keeps running away from the palace undetected. Baekhyun wonders how many times Hyojong has escaped that way. 

“Actually, this is perfect that you’re here. I was going to send for you earlier, but I heard you were with your family. Hyojong’s back.” That quick? Baekhyun supposes Hyojong has been gone for a couple of days, but he only recently learned about it. He doesn’t stay up to date with palace gossip unless his mother is the one telling him. “I want you to go talk to him.”

“Why me?” Baekhyun hasn’t seen Hyojong since the last formal gathering they had. What was it? Princess Sooyoung’s birthday. It was very rare that the royal family gathered together. But birthdays are important and are always celebrated, by everyone .

“You two were close once.” Yeah, a really long time ago, Baekhyun thinks to himself. Time changes people. They barely exchanged greetings at Princess Sooyoung’s birthday dinner. “Hyojong,” Junmyeon falters. “He sees me as a figurehead. And he’s right. We’re all helplessly tied to politics, Baekbeom, and his siblings and I. He needs a friend. Not someone to tell him what to do. Just someone to listen to him, to help him.” Baekhyun considers that for a moment. Curse Junmyeon for making so much sense. Of course, Baekhyun was the least threatening of all the cousins. They all knew Baekhyun wanted nothing to do with politics. Of course, if anyone can get through to Hyojong, it would be Baekhyun.

“I suppose.” Baekhyun mumbles begrudgingly.

“And you guys,” Junmyeon directs his attention to the rest of Baekhyun’s squad. “Don’t go using those passages by yourself. They are meant for the royal family--if someone catches you, you’ll be severely punished. Hellsmen or not.” With that, Junmyeon shuts their adventuring down. Chanyeol looks mopey about it. Kyungsoo looks relieved. Jongdae stares at the open passageway curiously.

They all part ways, with Chanyeol, Kyungsoo, and Jongdae returning back to their own rooms. Baekhyun ventures deeper into the inner chambers, navigating the hallway with ease and familiarity. He sends a servant ahead to notify Hyojong of his arrival. He wants to ease Hyojong into the meeting as painlessly as possible. He takes his time getting there.

When he arrives, he knocks twice simply. The door opens. A very haggard Hyojong greets Baekhyun shyly. Baekhyun steps inside the room. It looks barely lived in. The decorations are lavish, typical of a royal’s chambers. But it seems so unfitting of Hyojong, this extreme ellagance. It doesn’t feel like home at all. 

“Would you like something to drink, hyung?” Hyung. That’s a word he hasn’t heard in awhile. No one calls him hyung. He’s always been the youngest in whatever he does. Something in his heart constricts. Hyojong sounds so tired . “I can have a servant fetch you something.”

“No, I’m quite alright.” Baekhyun finds himself sitting in one of the chairs against the window. Outside, the storm rages on. The cushions feel new, as if no one has sat in them since they were brought here. His unease grows. “So,” Baekhyun begins, but breaks away. What is he supposed to say? Sure, Junmyeon told him to talk to Hyojong. But about what? 

“I know Junmyeon hyung sent you.” Hyojong states. “He talked to me earlier today.” 

“I see.” Baekhyun mumbles. He’s not good at this. Why send him? Why not Baekbeom? Baekbeom is infinitely better at words than him, infinitely better at driving morale up and just knowing what to say in general. 

“Thank you. But I’m not going to change my mind.” Hyojong mutters quietly, his voice full of conviction despite the low volume. “She’s not--she’s not pregnant like the rumors say. We didn’t run away because of that.” Ah yes. The servant girl that Hyojong supposedly fell in love with and impregnated. “You understand right? How fucking suffocating this place is?” Baekhyun winces at the profanity, his proper, perfect training telling him to scold Hyojong for speaking foully, but he catches himself. 

“I know, yes.” Baekhyun does know. This place--it’s a breeding ground for hatred and pettiness. All of this over a piece of metal, a crown that no one truly deserves to hold. 

“I’m in love with her. They say all types of things about her. That she seduced me, that she’s a whore. That she’s undeserving because god forbid she was born into a peasant family, as if she chose that life.” At the mention of this her , Hyojong’s voice grows louder, more angry. “She’s a human being. A nice, understanding, loving person. They’ll never understand her. Not mother, especially not father. They called her a witch, accusing her of using dark magic to charm me.

“But that’s all bullshit. That’s all because they promised to marry me off to some prissy princess from some perfect country. I’m just a pawn; not useful because I’m not Yesung hyung, or Yoona or Seohyun noona. 

“I’m just tired, Baekhyun hyung. So tired of fighting everyone by myself.” Baekhyun glances up for the first time at their conversation and really took in Hyojong’s appearance. His skin is pale, but not in the way Baekhyun’s is. It’s sallow. He looks like he might throw up at any given moment. 

“You’re not alone.” Baekhyun tries to say, not knowing how else to console Hyojong.

“She’s in the dungeons right now, hyung!” Hyojong cries, distraught. “They wouldn’t leave us alone. We ran so far, we almost made it to Canne.” Canne is their neighboring country, a small peaceful nation known for its simple lifestyle and neutrality. “But they found us. They dragged us back and now she’s probably going to be killed. All because I wasn’t strong enough to protect her.” Hyojong hiccups, tears freely falling from his sunken eyes. Baekhyun understands then, the unsettling feeling in his stomach. “Please. They won’t let me leave. Of all people, I know you would understand my love.” 

Baekhyun’s heart sinks. Of course there are rumors of him spreading around. There are rumors of him with every man he interacts with. The palace knows of his sexuality, and they are not kind about it. The worse rumors are of course about him and Jongdae. Maybe that is why Princess Hyoyeon is extra menacing to Jongdae. 

“I--Hyojong, what am I supposed to do? I have no power to stop your father. If you ask Junmyeon or--”

“Junmyeon can’t help! Father won’t listen to him about this. But you--you have access to the dungeons. You can free her. And then we can escape once and for all.” Baekhyun is beginning to understand why Junmyeon sent him. Of course Junmyeon wouldn’t be so unkind as to watch Hyojong struggle like this. Of course he knew to send Baekhyun, quite literally the only person who intervene without it being seen as treason.

“Hyojong, you know they’ll only come after you again, right?” King Hodeok’s reach is immense. There is no inch of this earth his power and fury does not reach. 

Hyojong shakes his head, wiping his eyes. “Not this time.” He says it with such belief, with such passion, Baekhyun couldn’t help but be convinced. 

“Alright.” He finds himself saying. “Alright, I’ll help.”

Hyojong sighs in relief, lunging forward to embrace Baekhyun. Baekhyun stiffly returns the hug, caught off guard. “Thank you, hyung. Thank you.”

“I need you to slow down first, though. If we’re breaking someone out of the dungeon, we need a solid plan. Even if I’m a Hellsmen, it’s not like I can waltz into the dungeon and demand her release.” 

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Hyojong apologizes, dejected.

“Tell me about her.” Baekhyun says, trying to distract Hyojong, hopefully calm him down.

Hyojong hesitates, looking confused as to why Baekhyun would want to know. “She’s amazing.” He says softly. “Her name is Hyunah. She’s from Eastfell, it’s a small village next to Ryten.” Baekhyun knows of it. That’s the same village Jongdae is from. He wonders if they know each other. “She--her mother is very sick. That’s why she came to Visguard. She was searching for work.” 

“How did you meet?” 

“We met two falls ago. Hyunah was lost in the garden. She often gets lost, she’s always spacing out like that. She just happened to find me by mother’s fountain.” Ah yes, the queen’s fountain. The perfect getaway, hidden behind mazes of trimmed rose bushes. 

When they were growing up, they used to play there all the time. Baekhyun’s almost forgotten about it. They really were all close, huh? Baekhyun remembers Yoona chasing him around, trying to shove a frog she found down his shirt. He remembers Seohyun giggling as she braided his hair with roses she picked herself. When Baekbeom used to lie to the royal keepers with ease so they could escape from boring etiquette lessons. Or when Junmyeon would be buried nose deep in a book, stumbling over his own feet as he trailed behind them, laughing at their antics but refusing to dirty his clothes so never joining in. Baekhyun remembers when Hyojong used to laugh wholeheartedly, eyes shining brightly as he demanded Baekbeom to carry him. When did they all become so wary of each other?

“I was sulking alone. Father yelled at me that day for messing up my speech at Yesung hyung’s wedding announcement.” That had been a bad day for everyone. No one wanted to be there, including Yesung himself. It was all formality, as most events are where the entirety of the family is in attendance. Yet tradition still needed to be held. “She didn’t even recognise me. She had never seen anyone from the royal family before, she mostly worked in the kitchens. She just saw that I was sad and didn’t hesitate to comfort me. She treated me like a human being.” Ouch. That implies that no one else had treated him like a human being.

“She’s just everything I never knew I needed. She doesn’t look at me like I’m a pawn to be used or someone who always needs to be waited on. I didn’t even tell her I was a prince for the first months we saw each other. How could she possibly take advantage of me like everyone accuses her of?” 

“I see.” Baekhyun notes, trying to process everything that was just relayed to him. Somewhere along the way, they really messed up.

“I love her, Baekhyun hyung. I really do.” Hyojong says with so much sincerity, Baekhyun feels it. Baekhyun doesn’t hesitate, then, to launch a plan to save Hyunah. 

After a bit of planning and replanning, they finally settle on something that might work if done correctly. “I need you to do everything as I just told you, okay? This won’t be a breeze.” 

“I understand, hyung. Thank you.” With that, Baekhyun leaves, head down, trying to feign utter annoyance as he walked out. Who knows what the guards might relay to the King if he doesn’t keep his part in the charade? They need to keep their plans under wraps.

Baekhyun still can’t shake off the feeling of unease, but at least there’s hope in changing the way things work in this place. 

Outside, the storm rages on. 

--

It’s midnight when Baekhyun strolls down into the lower area of the palace. The stone staircases wind down further and further into total darkness. God, does their dungeon need to be such a cliche as well? Baekhyun sighed, wishing he brought a torch with him. Or Chanyeol. But that isn’t possible right now seeing as Chanyeol is already down in the dungeons. 

Immediately, he is stopped by the guards when he reaches the entrance of the dungeon. The guards do a double take when they recognize who it is they just stopped.

“Your majesty, I’m afraid we’re under direct orders from His Highness that no one is to be let in.” One guard reveals.

“And why is that? I’m here to fetch a fool I call my friend, nothing else.” Baekhyun states using his royalty tone. “I’m here for Park Chanyeol.”

“I’m afraid Sir Chanyeol has--”

“I know what he’s done. He used the secret passageways meant for royalty and was stupid enough to be caught by Junmyeon.” Baekhyun sighs, waving his hand dismissively. “Let me in.” 

“I’m sorry, Your Highness, I just--”

Baekhyun cuts the guard off once again, only feeling slightly bad that he’s causing the guards so much distraught. “Listen. I ordered Chanyeol to sneak through the passageway to get back at Junmyeon. It was my order and under my direction that Chanyeol knew where they were. Now, seeing as that those passageways for royalty, and seeing as I am royalty, I see no reason to keep Sir Chanyeol captive. All of this would have been just a harmless prank anyway if Junmyeon weren’t in such a pissy mood. Now, who are you more afraid of when they’re pissed? Bookish Junmyeon or me?” By the end of his speech, Baekhyun had raised his voice, emphasizing his anger. 

The guards are practically peeing their pants. Baekhyun is slightly proud that he still can intimidate people to this extent. “Let me in while I’m still asking politely.” He demands once again, and this time, the guards open the gate. Baekhyun extends his hand, eyes shifting down towards the bundle of keys on the guard’s belt and stares expectantly. The guard immediately takes the set of keys and places them in Baekhyun’s outreached hand.

Baekhyun strolls in, passing another handful of guards who all keep their eyes trained on the ground, afraid to even look at him. Baekhyun reminds himself to ensure that the guards don’t receive punishment for what he’s about to do. 

He finally arrives at the cell where Chanyeol is sitting, looking entirely too amused for someone who was just arrested. “Wow, some speech. I heard it all the way from down here. You really channeled Kyungsoo there, it was like I was getting scolded by him.” 

“Shut up.” Baekhyun sighs, unlocking the door to Chanyeol’s cell. Baekhyun scans the rows, eyes squinting trying to adjust to the lack of light. Chanyeol tilts his head to the cell directly across from him.

Sure enough, inside was a small girl, curled up in a ball on the dirty floor. Even in the dim light Baekhyun could tell she was beautiful. “Hyunah?” He gently asks. He sees her shift and hears a sniffle, but she doesn’t respond to him. “Hyunah. I’m Hyojong’s friend. I’m here to help.” Hyunah perks up at the mention of Hyojong’s name. 

“Hyojong? How is he?” She asks, rushing to the door. Small hands grip the bars of her cell door. She peers through the bars, having to stand on her toes to look at them. She looks worn out. Her eyes are sunken, same as Hyojong. She probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks.  

“He’s doing--well, he’ll be better once we get you out of here.” Baekhyun responds.

“How? There are so many guards.” Her shoulders slump, the tattered gown on her shoulder pooling. 

“Not that many.” Chanyeol says. “Baekhyun could probably even take all of them on his own if he concentrates hard enough.” 

Baekhyun shifts through the keys before unlocking the door on her cell. He motions for her to stay back and to stay quiet. Baekhyun remembers that there were two guards posted at the very front, and one every so often in between the entrance and this block. That’s at least seven guards that he has to knock out successively and quickly as to not alert the others in the immediate area. 

The first guard was unassuming, so he was easy. A quick blow to the back of the head and he dropped like a fly. The noise of his body hitting the ground, though alerted a nearby guard, who immediately drew his sword. Baekhyun sighs. They’ll have to do this the hard way, then. With his fingers outstretched, Baekhyun begins to focus his mind. He envisions the ocean, waves crashing onto the shore before receding. Slowly, but powerfully. And like that, a huge surge of water shoots from the palm of his hand, knocking the next guard back into the wall before he could say anything. The water trickles onto the floor before quickly dissipating. 

“I never get tired of watching you do that.” Chanyeol praises. 

“Shut up.” Baekhyun hisses, embarrassed yet pleased at the unexpected compliment. 

The next two guards were dual hits by both Baekhyun and Chanyeol. Before they know it, they’re in front of the staircase to head back up into the palace. The only thing that was wrong was that instead of the two guards who Baekhyun had intimated, there stood Yunho, a member of the second squadron of the Hellsmen. “My, my, what do we have here?”

“Fuck.” He hears Chanyeol curse. 

Fuck indeed. “You two were right to alert me.” Yunho says to the two guards standing behind him. Baekhyun knew something like this could happen. “A jailbreak, Baekhyun. Seriously? For Prince Hyojong’s tramp?” He sounds so disgusted. The hair on Baekhyun’s arm stands.

“Baekhyun I--”

“Stay back Chanyeol. Keep her safe.” Baekhyun commands. 

“Baekhyun, you won’t get in trouble for any of this, you know? But Chanyeol? These guards? You royals prance around without a spare thought about the consequences for everyone else.

These guards’ jobs are to keep the prisoners imprisoned. What do you think will happen to them when you let that bitch and Hyojong run away together, huh? Chanyeol would lose his head, as would these guards.” Yunho spits. Baekhyun flinches at his words, hating that he isn’t entirely wrong. “You have no sense of responsibility. Now if you let her go, we’ll take care of this and act like this never happened.” 

“You know I can’t do that, Yunho.” Baekhyun pleads. 

“Then I’m afraid you’ll have to go through me.” Yunho unleashes a hailstorm above him, ice raining down in sharp shards that could slice through bone. Baekhyun barely had time to deflect them with a bubble of water. 

“Chanyeol, get her out of here!” 

Right as Chanyeol was about to dodge past Yunho, Yunho sends more flying shards of ice his way. “Oh no you don’t.” Hyunah collapses into Chanyeol, a mixture of fatigue and fear. Chanyeol slings her over his shoulder, ducking behind Baekhyun. 

Baekhyun huffs a frustrated breath, channeling a spiral of water twisting at ridiculous speed. It was like a mini hurricane being shot through the air. Yungho deflects with a wall of ice, returning the spell back to Baekhyun. Baekhyun quickly dispels the spell, watching the water flop to the floor useless. Yunho reaches behind him and in an instant the stairs are frozen over, too slippery to walk on. Baekhyun curses, hands clasping together to send another wave crashing into Yunho. Yunho isn’t so lucky to deflect this time, but he manages to freeze most of the water Baekhyun sent at him and suffers minimum damage. 

It was always hell on earth when Baekhyun sparred against Yunho. Yunho’s ice magic was inherently superior to Baekhyuns’s magic, freezing every attack he tried to send Yunho’s way. That, coupled with Yunho’s experience, made it very difficult to win. Baekhyun seldom won against Yunho. 

They send spells back and forth. Yunho freezes everything Baekhyun sends and Baekhyun tries his damnedest to defend against Yunho’s attacks. Yunho’s ice magic is so sharp, it slices through everything. Then there was the situation of the frozen stairs--their only escape.

Baekhyun, frustrated with everything realizes one thing. He may not be able to defeat Yunho, but there is a certain person right behind him whose magic is inherently superior to Yunho. It seems as if they were on the same page, because as soon as Baekhyun shifts his attention away from attacking Yunho, Chanyeol yells at him to duck. Baekhyun immediately dives, feeling a surge of heat fly across his head, melting the ice shards that were sent by Yunho. It was almost too easy how Chanyeol was able to encase Yunho’s magic in a sea of flame. He knocks Yunho out, with his fist fortified by flame magic. 

“Oh we are so getting executed for this. You owe me big time.” Chanyeol mutters, running up the stairs with his feet fortified by flames, melting away the ice as he steps on it. Chanyeol had Hyunah slung across his shoulder like a sack of rice. Baekhyun trails behind, looking back at the mess of flame and water and ice. He isn’t too sure if he’ll be spared from execution either.

When they make it out, they’ve realized that the commotion of their fighting has stirred attention. Baekhyun has to blast several unassuming guards along the way to their meetup point. It seems like forever before they arrive at the queen’s fountain. Baekhyun navigates the maze easily, even without the moon’s guidance as the storm above them pelts down relentlessly. 

Hyojong was there, just as promised, pacing anxiously, looking like a soaked puppy. As soon as he sees Hyunah, he breaks into a sprint to take her from Chanyeol’s hold. “What happened? Is she okay?” Hyojong asks fiercely, hand reaching to feel her forehead. They move her under the gazebo where they can hide from the storm.

“She’s fine. Our magic might have frightened her.” Chanyeol responds, stretching his shoulder where Hyunah had been slung over. 

“Magic? You had to fight?” Hyojong sounds worried.

“Yeah, the plan did not go so well. We’re gonna have to answer a lot of questions. Do you have your stuff ready? You need to leave as soon as possible.” Baekhyun says, eyes nervously scanning the perimeters. They should still have enough of a head start to escape.

“But if we leave, you’ll get in trouble.” A crack of lightning rips through the sky, a loud boom quickly following after. That was close. The summer air is making his clothes dry sticky. 

“We’ll be in trouble even if you stay.” Baekhyun claims. “Don’t worry about us, Hyojong. Your father will be mad, but you have more people on your side than you think.” Junmyeon, Baekbeom, and his sisters would definitely defend him. And of course, Baekhyun. 

“You say that, but--”

“Leave.” Baekhyun cuts him off. “You said it yourself. You won’t get caught this time, right?”  Baekhyun smiles, encouraging. “Be happy for us, Hyojonggie. Be happy for yourself.” The endearment rolls of his tongue. No one has called Hyojong that in ages. 

With that Hyojong seems convinced and gathers the few items he packed. Chanyeol removes a teleportation ring from pocket. “Once you’re outside of the castle, use it. Don’t use it on the perimeters because then they can track you. This will lead you to Canne. Once you’re there, Kyser cannot hunt you down.” Your father will not be able to hunt you. 

“There’s an address to a mailbox under my pseudonym, don’t worry about your father finding out where you are, so write to me okay? Once you’ve settled down?” Baekhyun asks hopefully. 

Hyojong smiles back, brilliant like how he used to. Despite the tiredness that clings to his face, he appeared youthful at that moment. His golden brown eyes shimmer, even in the dark, more gold than brown. “Of course. Thank you, hyung .” Hyojong waves one last time before he carries Hyunah into one of the servant’s exits. 

Baekhyun temporarily forgot about the unsettling twist in his stomach. 

Chanyeol sighs, running a hand through his damp hair. “So how are we explaining this to King Hodeok. Actually--how are we going to explain this to your mother?” Baekhyun shivers at that thought.

“I don’t know. Junmyeon will figure it out.” 

They return to the palace to find it in utter chaos. Guards are stampeding everywhere. Baekhyun guides them back through the secret passage to the Archives where Junmyeon is calmly waiting for them. 

“I still don’t get why you had to imprison me to break her free.” Chanyeol grumbles, grabbing a towel Junmyeon had prepared to dry off.

“Oh, I didn’t. I just wanted you imprisoned.” Baekhyun laughs, dodging Chanyeol’s attempt at slapping him. 

“Boys, boys. You’ve caused me a great headache.” Junmyeon shushes. “It’s a good thing I’ve already talked to Yoona and Seohyun. And of course Baekbeom is always willing to help. Both of you are either going to lose your heads tomorrow or you’ll have to go to Irus to kill every last ogre in that damned forest with your head still attached.” Junmyeon doesn’t sound too worried though, even cracking a small smile.

“We did the right thing right? They’re going to be happy, right?” 

Junmyeon’s smile broadens, nodding. “Of course they’ll be happy. They’ll be happy for all of our sakes.”

Baekhyun goes to bed, still not quite feeling like himself. It had been an eventful day. Maybe it’s the storm scattering magic around, making him feel wary. Maybe it’s the long journey from Ryten and grueling training that exhausted him. Maybe it’s just some bad fruit he ate earlier. Still, sleep comes to Baekhyun like an ocean wave crashing into the surface of a cliff. And just like waves, sleep recedes his thoughts into the back of his mind until there was nothing but stillness.

--

Baekhyun wakes up to a room full of sunshine and Baekbeom aggressively shaking him awake. “Wake up Baekhyun--wake up!” Baekbeom sounds angry. Maybe words of last night finally reached him. Baekhyun wasn’t ready for reprimand this early. “Baekhyun, can you hear me? Hyojong is dead!” It was as if ice water had been poured down his back. His mind cleared of the sleepy fog. 

“What?” He croaks, voice unused in the early morning, heart shattering.

“Hyojong’s dead.” Baekbeom cries, hugging a stunned Baekhyun into his chest as he sobs. 

Like an ocean wave crashing into the surface of a cliff, tears begin to drift down his face. Slow, slow, fast, then, like water flows, nothing.