There lives a curse in the woods in the form of a boy. He walks on silent naked feet swift as a fox and his black, black eyes reflect the stars even when there aren’t any lights.
If you let him touch you he will grow roots around your heart. He will squeeze it out like an over-ripe fruit. Drip, drip, drip, your blood in the soil.
Do not go into the woods. Do not stray from the path. Do not follow the innocent stranger, for he is evil and will not let you return.
No matter what he says to you, do not believe a word.
And no matter what, do not give an answer.
Listen. Listen. Don’t give him your name. Don’t answer.
He will twist your words into a noose.
It’s a late humid summer morning, the kind that makes the air feel so thick it’s barely breathable, when Jeno wakes up to the smell of death.
It’s not an uncommon occurrence in Blackenridge. Things die all the time. Big things even, like the one time a huge stag was found in front of the church, bleeding out of its nostrils. People say it must have been chased out of the forest by something. Maybe a fox. Or a wolf.
Jeno thinks it was the thing that lives in the woods but he doesn’t tell anyone that.
He heaves himself out of bed, his shirt already sticking to his sweaty chest, and checks if the line of salt on his windowsill is still intact. At a glance out of the window, he can tell the other villagers can smell it, too; two of his neighbours are discussing something across their fences, hushed, quiet, as if not to upset the silence.
Just another Sunday, Jeno thinks. Another boring, hot Sunday with nothing to do except wonder. The summer is long and Jeno’s brother still hasn’t come back from college and without Doyoung there’s really only his mother keeping him in check.
To make matters worse, most of his friends have gone on holiday, leaving Jeno mostly by himself. Hyuck sends him pictures of white sand beaches and crystal clear water and Jeno almost aches with boredom.
He’s always been too curious for his own good.
“Don’t go looking for it,” his mother says immediately when he comes into the kitchen. She’s standing at the stove, making scrambled eggs, and for a moment the smell overpowers the weirdness in the air.
“It’s already dead,” Jeno replies, stepping beside her to try and steal a piece. “It can’t harm me.”
She slaps his hand away and hands him a plate instead. “Whatever killed it might.”
“Whatever kills things never leaves the woods.”
“Then you better not go anywhere near them.”
She gives him a sharp glance but drops the topic and finishes preparing breakfast instead. Jeno shovels his eggs into his mouth at record speed before he grabs another slice of toast and pushes himself up from the chair.
“Wait,” his mum says, snagging him by the sleeve. “I know you never listen to me, so take this with you.”
Jeno watches how she presses a small linen pouch into his hand. It feels heavier than it looks despite being filled with mostly soft, squishable things.
“What’s in it?” Jeno asks, inspecting it closer. It looks like a regular hex bag and smells like it too, of varying herbs and flowers, if it wasn’t for the weight.
“Doesn’t matter,” his mum says. “Put it in your right pocket and it will keep you safe.”
From what, Jeno doesn’t ask. He does as he’s told before he grabs his keys and leaves the house.
Outside, the quiet is as pressing as the summer heat. It’s like the term ‘dead silent’ was made for days like this. No bird song. No breeze. No one’s mowing their lawn. No children play in the streets. Just the sun baking the concrete and the thick heady smell in the air.
Jeno passes his neighbours, nodding hello.
Mr Lin waves at him, calls over, “Think it was something big?”
“I don’t know,” Jeno replies. “I guess we’ll see.”
The entire village remains eerily quiet when Jeno strolls up and down the streets, as if it’s a ghost town. Everything is still, not a blade of grass is moving, the only sound the occasional buzz of an insect and the crunch of Jeno’s shoes on the gravel.
He decides to head to the woods after all. Nothing can harm him as long as he just looks; the dead thing might be somewhere near there. Maybe it’s just a cow that died of heatstroke. He’ll find out soon enough, he thinks.
The woods are a thick, dark thing at the outskirts of town. They’re said to be haunted because that’s what parents tell their children when they don’t want them to go somewhere. But the thing is, the stories are old and those children grow up, and they grow curious and reckless and all the things they were never supposed to be.
Right now, there is no big brother and no best friend to hold Jeno back. Just the prospect of a long, silent summer and the glowing eyes that sometimes stare back from the woods, unblinking, waiting, luring, like wil-o’-whisps.
The half-heartedly built barbed wire fence to keep people away is old and overgrown by now. It takes almost no effort for Jeno to step over it, halting right before the first line of trees. It looks like any regular forest, except Jeno knows better.
There is something that whistles back from the forest when you stand beside it. Cats and dogs avoid coming here. There is something in there that no one wants him to find, something everyone is scared of because of the tales.
People have died in there, though most people say it differently. “Have been killed,” they say. Murdered. Taken. Possessed.
Jeno knows the lore. Of course he does; everyone does, and everyone respects it. Or tries to, anyway.
But Jeno’s grown up in Blackenridge and he’s seen the strangest things happen even outside of the woods. There are reasons why people put salt on their window sills. Sometimes when you dry clothes outside it looks like invisible faces press themselves against the fabric. Then you blink and it’s just the breeze. He gets weird dreams sometimes, and you always, always have to be careful when you look at yourself in the mirror. You might find something else looking back at you, too.
But Jeno’s used to it. He’s never gotten hurt; the people tolerate the ghosts so there is a respectful coexistence on most days. Jeno has the feeling it’s only the thing in the woods that thirsts for blood. It might just be a crazy man living in a forest who occasionally sacrifices animals. Maybe it’s just a rabid stray dog. No one’s ever checked and Jeno has grown out of fairy tales, has learnt that even though he knows ghosts are real, there are still rules they have to play by.
Jeno knows these thoughts are just attempts at rationalising. But he’s already here, at the edge of the woods, with the sickening sweet smell of decay so overwhelming he feels his breakfast churn in his stomach. He’s just going to look. He has the hex bag in his pocket anyway; there’s nothing that can happen if he stays on the barely recognisable path.
The grass is dried out from the heat, snapping under his feet like straw when he walks along the outskirt of the forest. He’s making more noise than he planned and he hopes he was right that whatever kills things stays in the woods. There are spiders and bugs hiding in the underbrush, and Jeno is starting to regret wearing shorts.
He pauses. He’s not sure why; he didn’t hear anything. Maybe it’s instinct. His subconscious trying to point out something. Despite the sweltering weather the hairs on his arms raise. He stares at the forest, squinting to focus on the shadowy spaces between the ancient trees.
Jeno doesn’t plan on going into the woods. He’s just looking into them and he doesn’t expect to find something looking back. Someone.
There is a boy standing between the trees.
A human boy.
Jeno recoils instinctively, heart trapped in his throat. With the daylight barely filtering through the leaves, the boy is nothing but a slender silhouette, standing motionless in the forest like a startled deer.
They stare at each other. Or it feels like they do because Jeno can’t see the boy’s eyes.
The boy looks so normal, really, though Jeno doesn’t think he’s ever seen him in the village before. He can’t be much taller or older than Jeno himself, maybe just another kid who got too curious, and he lifts a hand to wave at Jeno.
“Hey,” Jeno finds himself calling. His voice rises barely above audible volume but the boy between the trees shifts as if listening. “What are you doing in the woods? Come out.”
Too late, he remembers that he’s not supposed to speak to whatever lives in the forest. Even if it’s just a boy. You never quite know what else you’re talking to.
He squeezes his eyes shut for a second. There’s a soft breeze running its fingers through his hair now, brushing through the leaves, a sound like hushed voices whispering to each other. A sound like a magic spell, chipping away caution.
The boy shakes his head. Waves again. “I want to show you something.” His voice sounds strange, like the wind rifling through crisp autumn leaves. Low and deep, something to drown in. Like a siren song, it’s pulling Jeno’s feet off the earth and pushing him forward, right into the cool shadow of the forest.
It’s dark. It’s silent. The unease makes Jeno’s skin prickle and his eyes take a moment to adjust to the dimness. When his vision clears, he can finally see the boy’s face, standing a few metres away from him.
He’s broad-shouldered but lithe, his thin shirt hanging loose on his frame. His face is delicate and boyish, light-brown hair falling over his forehead and his big dark eyes that have an impish glint in them. His bare grubby feet are digging into the earthy ground. He looks like he’s part of the forest. Like he’s grown here, as one of the trees.
Maybe he’s not human after all.
“What’s your name? Did you get lost?” Jeno asks. He should know better. But he can’t help it, can’t tell if it’s the curiosity or the strange vibe here that’s pulling the questions out of him.
The boy tips his head to the side, shifting his weight. “My name is Jaemin. What’s yours?”
Don’t give them your name. Never give them your true name.
“What do you have in your pockets? Can I see?”
Jeno has plenty of things in his pockets. His phone. His keys. A Swiss army knife for all sorts of purposes. A pen. A receipt from the local supermarket. The hex bag.
Jeno reaches into his left pocket and pulls out the pen. The boy – Jaemin – steps closer, feet almost silent on the forest ground and for a moment Jeno thinks about running away. But then Jaemin is standing in front of him, holding out his hand for the pen, and he’s too mesmerised to move his feet.
In so many ways Jaemin looks like any other boy, except there’s an eeriness about his features Jeno can’t put his finger on. Jeno expected to find some kind of animal here. A monster. He thought if he found it he wouldn’t survive. But this is a boy, a strange one but with childlike mannerisms, a curious innocence in his movement when he takes the pen from Jeno with dirty fingers.
His eyes grow big with surprise and wonder. As if he’s never seen a pen before. He lifts it to his face and then holds both ends as if to –
“No!” Jeno snatches his pen back. “Don’t break it.”
Jaemin’s eyes are huge dark pools when they fall back on Jeno. There’s a disconcerting quietness in them. “I’m hungry,” he says.
“You want food?” Jeno asks. “There’s a bakery not far from here. Come with me.”
The other boy shakes his head, pouting a little. “I can’t leave.”
“Why can’t you?”
Jaemin bats his long twiggy eyelashes and Jeno feels a pull in his guts, the need to give him absolutely everything he wants. It must be magic and it grows stronger with each breath he takes.
“I could bring you something,” Jeno says hesitantly. The words aren’t his. Someone else has put them in his mouth.
He shouldn’t have come here. He feels the tiny hairs at his nape stand on their ends, goose-bumps raising his skin, the sense of danger kicking up adrenaline in his blood. His heart thrashes in his chest, trying to get away, but his feet have grown roots in the soft organic earth of the forest floor.
“What are you?” Jeno asks. His voice is barely his own, unrecognisable with whatever spell has fallen over him. Plucking the words from his throat like wild berries. “Are you one of the spirits?”
Jaemin shakes his head, honey-coloured strands bouncing. His eyes narrow like a fox’s, mischievous and insidious, watching a bird trapped in its cage. A predator. Maybe Jeno’s found a monster after all.
He’s sweating. A part of him wants to run while the other wants nothing more than to hand himself over to this creature and it’s hard to fight the impulse. “Then – then what are you?”
Jaemin smiles. Rows and rows of immaculate teeth. Jeno can see the saliva glistening on the pearly white. A hungry wolf waiting to sink his fangs into his prey. “Me? I’m what you dream about on moonless nights.”
Before Jeno can think about what that means he’s being pulled forward by strange hands, finds himself pressed against Jaemin’s broad chest, his face hardly an inch away.
Close like this, it’s so striking that Jaemin isn’t human. Is something other. His irises are so big his eyes seem black, his skin too smooth, teeth too white. Everything is a little off, a little bit strange, a little bit too beautiful. His hands are warm on Jeno’s waist but they feel like vines curling around a tree, growing around the trunk before ultimately covering it completely.
Jeno feels helpless. He doesn’t even want to try. The pull of the wild magic is so strong and he couldn’t run if he wanted to, not with Jaemin’s hypnotic eyes fixed on him like that.
When Jaemin leans in and kisses him, Jeno feels like he’s being devoured. Swallowed whole by the dark curse of the woods. He’s given too much away of himself and he’s paying the price now, having the rest taken. No one will find him here. No one will come looking.
It’s intoxicating. The way Jaemin sucks on his tongue, the scrape of his teeth against Jeno’s bottom lip, breaking the skin. It feels good in the way that forbidden things feel good until the consequences of it ruin the memory. Like poison.
But it’s so good. Jeno melts in Jaemin’s arms against his will, shifting closer until he feels his hipbones press hard against Jaemin’s. His hands travel up the length of Jaemin’s warm back, twisting the fabric of his shirt. He wants to get lost. He wants to give in. He wants to give up, crack open his chest, let Jaemin seep into every space between his ribs –
Jeno reaches into his right pocket. Wraps his hand around the hex bag and squeezes, prays it gives him strength. Hopes it’s enough to break the spell for one second, just long enough to escape.
Jaemin pulls away, a string of saliva connecting them until it breaks. His black eyes shine dangerously. “What else do you have in your pockets?”
“I have to go,” Jeno pants and twists out of Jaemin’s grip. He tastes blood in his mouth. “I have to leave, I’m sorry.”
There’s a short pause where Jaemin considers Jeno, his eyes travelling down the line of his body. He looks innocent again, as if he’d done nothing, and the weaker part of Jeno is inclined to believe it, if it wasn’t for the stain of blood on the corner of his mouth.
He must be a spirit. One of the People. A demon in the woods.
“I’ll let you,” Jaemin says, “if you promise to come back. It gets so lonely, you know.”
Jeno swallows. He knows what that means. Knows the weight of his own words.
“Promise me,” Jaemin presses. Flutters his eyelashes. The edge of his smile digs a curve into cheek and Jeno feels the tug in his stomach again.
“I promise,” Jeno says.
Jaemin nods happily and steps back. Jeno can feel the gravitational pull release him. “See you soon, Lee Jeno.”
A chill travels down Jeno’s spine. “I – I never told you my full name.”
“You didn’t have to. It was already on your tongue.” Jaemin’s lips pull into a Cheshire cat grin. “Don’t forget to visit me, Jeno. I’ll miss you.”
Jeno turns and runs. The leaves crunch under his soles and he almost trips straight into the barbed wire fence, avoiding it only by a brave leap. By the time he stops, breathless, drenched in sweat and fear at the doorstep of his house, he realises that the sky is pitch black.
“Do you know how late it is?” his mother snaps, hands propped on her hips.
“I’m sorry,” Jeno says for the tenth time, pressing the tissue against his bottom lip again. It hasn’t stopped bleeding, as if the wound won’t close. “I lost track of time.”
“I should put you on curfew. It’s like you’re twelve again.” She fixes him with a stare, softer around the edges of her face now. “Let me look again. Are you sure you just fell?”
Jeno had to lie to her. He doesn’t know how or why but time seems to pass differently in the forest. He couldn’t possibly have spent longer than fifteen minutes in there and yet, when he emerged, the entire day was over. The stench of death vanished, too, leaving only the cooling tarmac of the streets and the smell of the night.
“It’s nothing,” Jeno says. “I just got carried away. You know how I am when I get obsessed with something.”
She sighs. “I know. But no more reading for you tonight and tomorrow you’ll help me with the garden, understood? Now eat your dinner and sleep.”
Jeno is sure sleep is an impossibility tonight. The shadows stretch longer and more threatening than he remembers, reaching for his ankles. He checked the salt on his windows and the candle on his nightstand several times, and still keeps the hex bag in the pocket of his PJs.
He realises he’s scared, so he calls Donghyuck, hoping he’s awake and not busy with something.
“What’s up, fucker,” Hyuck greets him. “You died of boredom yet?”
“Hyuck, there’s a demon in the woods,” Jeno says without preamble.
There’s a short pause before Hyuck takes a breath to answer. “You went into the woods?! Have you gone mad completely now? Jeno, how the fuck did you get out of there again?”
Jeno gives him a brief recount of what happened, feeling more stupid with each word.
More than anything, he wishes Hyuck was here. Between the two of them he’s better at witchcraft, is incredibly resourceful, and bold. He’s the only one who really understands Jeno’s need to find whatever has died all the time and is often the one who proposes searching for things.
He’s always adamant about avoiding the woods, though. For good reason, it seems, but now it’s too late and there’s very little Jeno can do now except prepare himself for what happens when he either breaks or keeps his promise. Both prospects don’t seem too rosy right now.
“Hyuck, what do I do now? I don’t want to go back; he’ll kill me. If I don’t go back, he’ll probably curse me.”
“Jesus Christ, I go on one holiday and you immediately manage to get yourself into mortal danger.”
“I didn’t exactly plan for this to happen, you know –”
“But worry not! Hyuck to the rescue. If you crank up your protection a bit maybe you can escape that promise.”
“I don’t know… it felt pretty binding to me.”
“Well, you only promised to come back once, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t have time to set up a fucking contract or anything –”
“You fool. Anyways. You might only have to go back once and then you just take a ton of talismans, hex bags, salt and iron, and he won’t be able to manipulate you.”
“I don’t want to go back.”
“Then don’t. He’ll probably send you reminders, though… be careful, okay?”
“Right. You’re not going to sleep tonight, are you?”
“Let me tell you about this cute guy I met, then…”
Jeno is jittery all day but it’s as if yesterday’s events never took place. The air smells clean, birds sing, bees happily buzz around in the garden where the bushes and flowers sway in the breeze. His mum makes him help in their little greenhouse until they’re both sweaty and grimy, then they sit outside on the porch and eat ice cream. It doesn’t feel as much like a punishment as it feels like a welcome distraction.
Nothing happens. Jeno keeps waiting but the days pass as if it had been just a bad dream and Jeno is starting to doubt himself. Maybe it was a dream. Heat does things to people, especially in a place like this. Hyuck calls him sometimes and gives him tips; at his request his mother shows him how to make the heavy little hex bags. The shadows don’t seem quite as black anymore and things go back to the way they were before.
Mark even comes back from his own holiday. For a moment Jeno thinks about telling him but Mark is the goody-two-shoes son of the priest and will undoubtedly drag Jeno into the confessional. Jeno isn’t sure what he’d confess then.
But it seems like Jeno is worrying over nothing.
He suddenly appreciates the slowness of summer much more.
On the morning of the seventh day, Jeno wakes up to the smell of death again and immediately knows where it comes from. It startles him to the core as soon as he opens his eyes.
There is something on the floor, the bed, his desk. Black and bristly, moving slightly in the breeze that comes in from the ajar window. Feathers – as if a cat had torn a crow apart without mercy. Just playing with its prey until its claws dug too deep and released it from its suffering.
A window which Jeno pointedly keeps closed at night.
Horror crawls up his spine like cold fingertips when he looks over. The morning light filters through the dirty glass but even with the glare Jeno can see it, the crumpled form on his windowsill.
He gets up. His bare foot touches a feather and he jerks back before approaching the window again. The stench of iron fills his nose.
It’s a dead raven. Its neck is twisted back, snapped like a branch, the black eyes dull and unseeing. Its beak is resting in a small puddle of red, chest cracked open with the thin ribs protruding. It’s a gruesome sight, finding such a small delicate body so mauled and Jeno presses the back of his hand against his nose. The line of salt is broken and has soaked up parts of the spilled blood but not the one that’s splattered on the window pane itself, right at the top where Jeno didn’t see it at first.
His breath catches.
Smeared, like hurried fingers had painted it there, in unpractised letters, almost childlike: you promised.
Jeno barely makes it to his bin before he throws up.
After Jeno has sort of recovered from his panic attack and finished cleaning his room, he calls Hyuck.
“Shit,” Hyuck says when he hears the news. “You have to go back before something worse happens.”
“He’ll kill me,” Jeno replies, words thick. His heart is still racing and he doubts it will calm down any time soon. Maybe he’ll die of a heart attack. That might be kinder. “He’ll kill me, Hyuck. Like that bird.”
“He won’t be able to if you protect yourself. Last time that hex bag helped a bit, so imagine what happens when you actually try. It will be worse if you don’t go.”
“Maybe I’ll die regardless.”
“Maybe there’s something else he wants. Maybe he doesn’t want to kill you, just be entertained. Must be boring to live in a decaying forest for decades…”
“Jeno! Keep it together, alright? You’ll be fine. You’re going to bring all your lucky charms and every single thing that has ever protected you, and then you’re going to make him a present so that he’s indebted to you, and then you walk out of there without him laying a single finger on you. Alright?”
Jeno takes a deep breath. “Alright.”
Jeno finds himself at the edge of the woods again. It had taken him hours to prepare and then talk himself into leaving the house, so it’s already afternoon, the sun burning his back.
He feels like the forest is staring back at him. Like it’s been waiting.
He’s not ready. He’s not ready. He doesn’t want to do this, wants to run back home and crawl under his blanket, except he doesn’t think he would be safe there either.
So he swallows, tells himself he’s brought this upon himself, so he’ll fix it, and steps forward right to the first line of trees, close enough to look into the woods. Again, it takes a moment until his eyes get used to the dimness.
“You came back.”
Jeno startles. Jaemin is sitting on the branch of a big gnarly tree, dangling his feet. His head is cocked to the side and even from here Jeno can see that his eyes are glinting like two black marbles.
“I said I would,” Jeno replies carefully.
Jaemin jumps off the branch, landing silently on the ground like a panther. He straightens and smiles. “Come here, then.”
“We can talk like this just fine.”
The smile vanishes. “But I want to show you something.”
“You said that last time, too.”
“If you’d stayed a little longer I would have shown you then.”
Jeno swallows. Fights against the pull of magic that he feels despite all the protection he’s brought. “Promise me you’ll let me go again if I follow you.”
Jaemin grins but it’s not an expression of joy. It’s a predator baring its teeth. A warning. “What makes you think you can ask favours of me?”
“I – I don’t. I brought gifts. It’s an exchange.”
At that Jaemin perks up, curious. He slinks a little closer to where Jeno is standing and he hopes Jaemin can’t tell how hard he’s shaking.
Jeno lets his bag slide off his shoulders and throws it into the woods, right at Jaemin’s feet. He glances at Jeno before picking it up and sticking his hand inside.
“Food,” Jaemin says. “You brought me food.”
That’s true. Jeno raided their pantry and ran to the supermarket to collect every delicious thing he could think of. He’s spent most of his pocket money on it, too, but he thinks if that means surviving it might be worth it.
Jaemin takes out a jar of honey and twists of the lid before sticking his finger inside. Jeno watches the long string that he produces before Jaemin puts his finger in his mouth, languidly licking off the honey, humming contently.
Jeno averts his gaze. “Do we have a deal?”
“Come here and find out.”
“Promise me first.”
Jaemin laughs. It scares Jeno a little; it’s low and deep and just as unearthly as his voice. It’s a sound to fall in love with. A sound that makes you drown yourself. “I promise.”
Jeno takes a deep breath, squeezes the hex bag in his pocket and steps into the shadows of the woods.
The world goes mute immediately. No rushing breeze, no birds, no crackling insects. It’s cooler in here but Jeno would prefer the burn of summer instead of the unnatural chill this place exudes.
Jaemin is still grinning when he approaches Jeno, holding out his hand. He pulls it back before he touches him, though, eyebrows furrowed.
“Why won’t you let me touch you?” Jaemin asks, looking betrayed. He juts his bottom lip forward in a pout. “Did you not like it last time?”
Jeno doesn’t say anything. Offending Jaemin might be his death sentence and the fear is already overpowering. The relief that his protection seems to be working is barely enough to keep him from panicking.
And yet his body remembers what it was like to be kissed by Jaemin. A warped memory. It was exhilarating.
“You have so little faith in me,” Jaemin whispers, circling Jeno like he’s looking for a weak point. Jeno doesn’t let him get behind his back. “So little trust. How are we going to be friends if you push me away?”
“Friends?” Jeno asks.
Jaemin narrows his eyes at him. “What did you think I would do? Did you think I would cut your throat? Let you bleed out all over these roots? Is that what the stories say?”
“But it’s you, isn’t it? Who kills the animals.”
“We’re all slaves to our nature,” Jaemin replies. He stretches his hand out as if to touch Jeno’s cheek, but doesn’t. “And I don’t kill the animals. They kill themselves for me. But you’re special, Jeno. You’re so human. Why would I have let you go if I just wanted you dead?”
“What does that mean?”
“You don’t have to protect yourself from me,” Jaemin drawls. “I’m what’s keeping you safe here.”
“You wouldn’t promise that.”
“I will if you give me one of your charms.”
“Oh, Jeno, it was so nice of me to ask; I’m trying so hard to be polite. Don’t make me take it from you.”
Jeno takes one of the smaller hex bags out and hands it over.
“Oh,” Jaemin says, surprised, as he holds the hex bag in his outstretched palm. “That tingles.”
Jeno watches him carefully. Jaemin must have weaknesses, too; every supernatural being does. If the stories are true, demons can’t handle iron. Then again, Jeno doesn’t know what exactly Jaemin is.
Jaemin makes another small noise and that’s all the warning Jeno gets before Jaemin clenches his fist around the hex bag. The contents crunch and the fabric breaks, herbs spill over his fingers like entrails, feathers from the raven, sparks from the magic that was binding everything into a protection spell. Jaemin’s skin singes but he doesn’t let go until he’s destroyed it all.
He opens his hand and lets the remaining crumbs fall to the floor. The palm of his hand looks burnt but the expression in Jaemin’s eyes says nothing of the pain and everything about superiority. There’s no protection for him here, Jeno realises. He was a fool to think he could outsmart a being like this. A fool to think that he would live.
“Look,” Jaemin says and lifts his other hand to Jeno’s jaw. His touch is hot, searing like he has a fever, but he doesn’t pull away again. “I can touch you now.”
“Please don’t,” Jeno says weakly but it’s already too late.
Jaemin kisses him again, tongue flicking against his lips like a serpent. He tastes like honey and Jeno feels his talismans like extra weight around his neck, dragging him down, and he wants to take them off, throw them out of the woods, burn them –
Jaemin’s fingers are sliding down his throat to his collarbones, still sticky from honey, tracing the edges. He pulls away with a wet sound but stays close, eyes huge and captivating and full of black magic.
“You’re such a pretty thing, Jeno,” Jaemin whispers into the small space between them. “Such a delicate little thing. But don’t worry. You’re safe here with me.”
For now, he doesn’t say. He doesn’t have to. Jeno hears it in the second between this breath and the next. Fear is a fist in his guts, right under the flutter of his rabbit heart.
“I’m letting you go now,” Jaemin says and picks up the things Jeno brought him. “I promised to let you go, so you promise to come back. This time, don’t keep me waiting or it will be your cat’s blood on the window pane.”
“Okay,” Jeno says tonelessly.
Jaemin smiles and turns away. As soon as he does, Jeno runs.
That Sunday, Jeno goes to church. He sings along with the choir, folds his hands and recites the prayers the way he has learnt years ago. He closes his eyes and begs God for guidance and support. Asks for forgiveness. Thanks Him for protecting him thus far. He stays afterwards and asks Mark’s father to speak a blessing for him.
It doesn’t feel like enough. Like Jaemin has already dug his fingernails into his flesh. Rotten. Spoiled. One foot behind the veil.
Jeno dreams. He is in the forest but instead of trees there are doors. So many doors. He doesn’t know why he thought it was the forest. He pushes one open and there’s nothing but darkness behind it. He moves on. More doors. All of them lead to darkness. Jeno knows if he walks through them he’ll never come back.
There’s a hand on his shoulder.
It’s Jaemin, smiling. Always smiling, a Cheshire cat. His eyes are black like the darkness behind the doors. Jeno looks into them and knows he won’t come back.
Jaemin is saying something. His mouth moves around a single word. Jeno doesn’t understand him; he can’t hear. Now Jaemin is screaming, screaming in his face, full of rage so tangible it burns, but Jeno can’t hear what he’s screaming.
Jaemin pulls back and opens the closest door. The wood is old and carved, skewed from weather. In a different world it would be beautiful. The darkness behind it sings to Jeno.
Jaemin is behind him. Jeno doesn’t know how he got there. He feels his hands on his shoulder blades, warm fingers splayed out like wings, before he pushes.
Jeno stumbles into the darkness.
The void swallows him whole. There’s nothing. Jeno tries to reach out but he doesn’t have a body. There’s nothing and then there’s something – heavy and wet all around him, thick, pulsing, convulsing, suffocating – blood.
Jeno wakes up screaming. His room is awash with silver moonlight and the curtains of his window part, the night air flowing in like black lake water. His breath is heavy and already the memory of the dream is escaping him, like sand between careless fingers, but the fear won’t leave. It writhes in his bones, worms its way up his spine.
Jeno touches his throat. It hurts, like he’s been screaming for a long time. Did he wake his mother? Hopefully not.
He switches on the light and nearly chokes on a silent shout.
His hands are black with blood. It’s everywhere, under his fingernails, crusted at the sleeves of his shirt. The stench of iron overpowers him with sudden awareness, heavy and pungent, shocking his heart into his mouth. He scrambles up, out of his room and into the bathroom.
He doesn’t find any wounds or other sources for the blood spill aside from a few downy feathers near his window. It takes him an hour until he’s washed it all off and much longer before he feels safe enough to go back to bed but sleep won’t come. He keeps the lights on and stares at the window until the sun rises.
“Did you have a nightmare last night?” his mother asks at breakfast. “I thought I heard you.”
Jeno looks up from his plate with bleary eyes. He wonders why she didn’t come check on him. Maybe she was scared of what she’d find. “Yeah.”
“I’ll put new salt on your window sills later.” She sighs and for a moment she looks worried. “Things are being strange lately.”
“Why?” Jeno asks. His mother isn’t usually concerned about the strangeness. She’s lived here all her life.
“Something,” she says, “killed the neighbour’s chickens last night. Or someone. All their throats are torn. It’s a massacre.”
Jeno sits frozen in his chair. He thinks of the blood on his hands, the stench of it too real to be a dream. How it was under his nails, in every wrinkle, so much of it that it felt like it was under his skin. He thinks of the few feathers he found.
He stares at his hands. They’re trembling.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” his mum laments, mistaking his horrified silence for another kind of shock. “No wonder you had nightmares.”
Jeno spends the rest of the day at the local library, researching. For a place this haunted, there’s surprisingly little material. Or maybe it’s not surprising. Maybe writing it down would make it all too real, too tangible. People are scared. They don’t want to tempt ghosts into breaking their peace.
Jeno feels lost.
He doesn’t find anything but a few horror stories and a yellowed record of a kid that got lost in the woods, decades ago. They never found his body. The boy’s name was Park Jisung.
Jeno wonders if that was Jaemin luring a victim into the forest. Wonders what Jaemin has done to him – if maybe he got bored of enchanting that boy and devoured him instead.
It’s so difficult to believe, considering Jaemin’s face. It must be the memory of the magic, making Jeno think a single fond thought about him.
But Jaemin is beautiful and Jeno hasn’t ever felt like this – terrified but attracted, like a moth to a deadly flame, walking into its own violent end.
Two days pass without incident. Jeno reads everything he can find without getting any smarter. Every day feels the same – sweltering, hot, humid, a last roar of summer before the autumn storms come. Maybe time doesn’t pass, just rewinds itself with the last strike of midnight.
When Jeno comes home this time, eyes tired from deciphering handwritten texts, the house is empty.
“Mum?” he calls, kicking his shoes off. There’s no answer, just quiet. He wonders where she is this late in the day.
There’s something wrong with the silence.
Jeno isn’t sure how he knows. It’s like a gaping hole; nothing where something used to be. It’s the complete absence of sound. A void.
Jeno strains his ears. He thinks he hears a clock ticking somewhere.
The wood creaks when he walks up the staircase. Usually it’s a familiar, comforting sound and it announces his approach, which is often enough to scare away shy ghosts.
Jeno doesn’t think it is a shy ghost. The sound is too loud and echoes in the quiet.
Upstairs, everything seems normal. There’s the gaping mouth of the hallway with the ticking clock hanging at the end of its throat, and Jeno goes into his room, where everything is ordinary, too. With a look out the window, he sees his mother’s bike is absent. She must have gone to the shops. He hopes she gets back before nightfall. It’s already getting dark.
The clock ticks. Jeno’s heart drips with trepidation. He gets up, intending to look out the window again but his feet take him to his mirror.
Jeno’s put a bed sheet over the surface days ago, to protect himself from the beings that may cross through the veil. But he takes it off now, stares at the dim reflection of his room and himself.
He doesn’t look tired, just worn out. His skin is ashen, cheeks hollow from not being able to sleep properly, and he thinks he looks a little like one of the ghosts. Something cool trips its fingertips up his back – slowburn fear. It lives inside him now, ready to escalate at the hint of danger. Jeno looks at his quiet room and everything is as it should be. There’s no reason to be scared, he tells himself. No reason at all.
Jeno looks at himself again. Has he really changed that much? His hair is a black nest and his clothes are rumpled but his eyes are alert, awake, glancing to his left.
There’s someone behind him.
Jeno whirls around, ready to strike out, heart beating painfully against his ribs.
There’s nothing. Just his room, innocent and silent at dusk.
Slowly, he turns back to the mirror, dread sinking into his stomach. The silhouette is still there, right at his shoulder, and it moves closer. Jeno suppresses the urge to turn around again and watches how the being lifts its head.
Jaemin is grinning at him, the late sun catching on his perfect teeth. There’s something wrong with his eyes, or maybe it’s just that they are blacker than usual, completely devoid of light.
He lifts his hand and puts it on Jeno’s shoulder. Jeno feels it like a phantom touch, both there and not there, trapped in the liminal space.
“You miss me, don’t you?” Jaemin whispers, lifting a finger to caress Jeno’s cheek. “I heard you thinking about me.”
“Jaemin,” Jeno croaks. “What are you doing here?”
“Checking if you’re still around. I worry, you know? You haven’t come to see me in a while.”
“I was busy.”
“Don’t lie to me.”
Jeno swallows. “I’ll come back soon.”
“Do you remember how to? I’ll come get you if you don’t.”
Jaemin keeps staring at Jeno through the mirror. Jeno wishes he could move but Jaemin’s eyes are hypnotising, keeping him rooted to the floor as if his body is no longer his own. His heart aches with the desire to jump out of his throat and into Jaemin’s hands.
“You’ve killed for me, Lee Jeno,” Jaemin whispers and Jeno can almost feel his breath hot on his ear. “You don’t know it yet but for me you’ll do anything.”
Jeno opens his mouth to answer but with the next blink Jaemin is gone. Jeno whips around but the room is empty and silent.
Jeno puts the sheet back over the mirror with clammy hands, goes downstairs and waits in the kitchen with all the lights on until his mum comes home.
Jeno promised he’d come back so he’s here now, at the edge of the woods again. The sun is high, sweltering, but there’s a breeze flipping the leaves and grass blades. Perhaps there’s a storm coming. It’s the end of an eternal summer.
When was the last time he spoke to Hyuck? Jeno doesn’t know.
His heart is a chased rabbit.
Jeno walks into the gaping shadows of the forest and sees Jaemin standing between the trees, nothing more than a silhouette. Jeno is powerless against him. He’s brought no protection this time and after fight or flight, there is only surrender.
“You’re back,” Jaemin says cheerily, skipping towards him.
“Why did you do it?” Jeno asks. “The chickens?”
“Ah, but I didn’t do it,” Jaemin replies.
Jeno stares at his hands.
“Yes,” Jaemin says. “Didn’t I tell you?”
Bile rises in Jeno’s throat. A part of him didn’t want to believe it. He’s doesn’t know if he should be glad he can’t remember what he did. He thinks of the whispers in the village – murdered, taken, possessed. “Why –”
“You’ll understand soon.” Jaemin steps closer and Jeno pulls back. Jaemin makes a displeased face and approaches again, slower. Jeno’s feet have grown roots in the soil. Jaemin’s presence feels more like a curse than ever, suffocating, like the humidity of summer but much more deadly. Jeno doesn’t have the strength to get away.
“I know you’re scared. But I like you. And ask yourself: Are you really scared of me, Jeno?” Jaemin tips Jeno’s chin up with his fingertip. His fingernail is digging into the sensitive skin. “Or are you just scared of what you’d do for me?”
“Please,” Jeno says. “Let me go. I beg you.”
Jaemin considers him. He’s so striking. Beautiful, in the same way a natural disaster is beautiful. Maybe it’s not beauty, but awe-inspiring nonetheless. Jeno is small and inconsequential in his hands, a fruit fly in a spider’s web. “You’re always leaving me. I don’t like that. Let me show you something first.”
It doesn’t feel like a choice, so Jeno follows him deeper into the woods. This is it, he thinks. He’ll never see the sun again. Jaemin will lead him into this wild maze until Jeno won’t find his way back. He can already see it: his body, decayed and unrecognisable, vines blooming through his broken ribcage. And Jaemin will sit next to him, pick flowers from between his bones, and smile that deceiving smile of his.
The forest is a dark, quiet thing, like a brooding entity itself. There are no paths and Jeno has to fight thorny branches and wet moss to keep up with Jaemin, who seems to know the woods like the back of his hand. It’s a labyrinth of black trunks, swallowing the bit of light that filters through the thick roof of leaves.
It doesn’t feel like a normal forest to Jeno. The shadows between the trees are too inky, too impenetrable to be natural and Jeno feels watched, like the trunks have eyes that follow him. He would be glad for Jaemin’s company if Jaemin himself wasn’t just as eerie. The promise of safety doesn’t help at all but Jeno is forced to trust him. He’d never find the way back by himself.
Jaemin stops when they arrive at a pond. The sun doesn’t reach it – when Jeno looks up there’s just branches upon branches covering the sky. The water looks black, partially overgrown by water lilies and other plants. There’s no creek feeding it and it seems unnaturally round, a gaping mouth in the ground.
“Look into the water,” Jaemin says gently, “and tell me what you see.”
Jeno does as he’s told. His feet sink into the soft mossy ground with sickening noises and it takes effort to free them again.
There are no insects on the surface. No frog song, no fish, no motion or life at all. When Jeno arrives at the edge, he’s no longer sure if this is really water or maybe something else. Maybe it’s acid. Maybe it’s tar.
Maybe just liquid darkness.
Jeno squats and stares into the depth. With such little light, his reflection is hardly more than a black shadow. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to see. His heart quivers.
“Try harder,” Jaemin says somewhere behind him. His voice is weirdly muted as if he doesn’t have as much power here.
Jeno tries harder, squinting until he can make out his own features. As far as he can tell it’s a normal reflection. Except maybe not. There’s something slightly different about his face but he’s not sure what has changed.
He leans closer. Yeah, there’s definitely something wrong. But what? Is it his mouth? No. His features all seem sharper. Maybe his eyes –
They’re black. Like Jaemin’s. Swallowing the light.
Jeno jerks back, nearly falling, and scrambles away from the pond as fast as the slick will let him. “What – what is that? Am I –”
Jaemin smiles at him and takes his hand. “It’s what you could be.”
“Shh,” Jaemin makes. “Don’t be scared.”
“But what –” Jeno can’t think. He can’t breathe. He wants his eyes back. Does he still have them? Is it too late? “What does that mean?”
Jaemin seems to lose his patience, tugging at Jeno’s hand until it hurts. Jeno suddenly thinks of his nightmare, Jaemin’s bottomless rage and the word he screamed. The prospect of facing it in reality is a hundred times more terrifying than any dream.
“Did you think it was a coincidence that you kept finding my sacrifices? That you’re the only one who’s curious about all this strangeness in the village?” Jaemin snarls. “No. I chose you, a long time ago. I tested you and tempted you and you walked willingly into my woods, into my arms. You’re one of mine now and you will never walk away.”
Jeno thinks of the stories. How children have gone lost in here and no one ever found their bodies. How the church decided after the case of Park Jisung, decades ago, to build a barbed wire fence around the edge to keep everyone out and the monster in.
Jeno is going to be another one of them. Another pile of bones so overgrown no one will ever find it. “Why – what are you?”
Jaemin’s grin is a sharpened knife. “A child of the shadows. I live in the night. I’m the shapes in the dark that you see when there’s no moon. You meet me in your black, black dreams.”
“I don’t want to be like you,” Jeno whispers.
“You wouldn’t be.”
“I don’t want to be with you.”
“You’re breaking my heart,” Jaemin says. Even through his panic, Jeno can tell that he sounds hurt. He should know better than to believe Jaemin anything but he can’t help it. Who knows what Jaemin is capable of when he’s hurting. “It’s time to stop lying.”
Jeno wants to ask what that means but Jaemin is already pulling him back through the forest, the way they came. He’s urgent but never lets go of Jeno’s hand, impatiently tugging when Jeno stumbles and falls. By the time they’re back at the edge, Jeno’s shins and knees are scratched and bleeding.
“I will see you again one more time,” Jaemin says. The timber of his voice is different, almost sad. He sounds hollow and numb and it makes Jeno wonder. “Just once more, that’s all I’m asking. You’ll get your answers then and I’ll get mine.”
“But what…” Jeno starts and then trails off. His mind is reeling and his heart aches from beating so fast for so long. He should leave before Jaemin changes his mind. “Um. Alright then.”
Jaemin presses his lips together. They’re red like wild berries. Inviting. Something inside Jeno regrets not kissing him, wants to remember what it was like, wonders if next time Jaemin will touch him again.
“You don’t have to resist it,” Jaemin says, reading Jeno’s struggle like he’s an open book.
Jeno doesn’t say anything. There’s no point – something about Jaemin’s proximity is too addictive, too poisonous. He smells like earth and wood and the sweetness of flowers, of iron and wildness, and he tastes like it too. The kiss is filthy, all shameless hands and sharp teeth that have Jeno’s knees give in. It’s a nightmare and a daydream; ecstasy drenched in venom.
By the time Jaemin pulls away Jeno’s mouth is numb and his vision is spinning. Days could’ve passed like this and he wouldn’t know. They’re kneeling on the ground and Jeno’s shirt is rumpled, his hands shaking with the need to touch more of Jaemin. Embarrassment burns him from the inside out, just like hunger.
“I – I’m going,” Jeno stammers, twisting his fingers together.
“See you soon, Jeno.” Jaemin’s smile is brilliant, is a super nova, is a nuclear catastrophe. There’s no trace of sadness or hurt. The feeling it gives Jeno follows him all the way home but he doesn’t look back even once, too scared of what he’d do if he did.
A day later, Hyuck comes back home. Jeno walks over to his house in the afternoon, finding Hyuck tanned and incredibly self-satisfied. He’s brought Jeno a fridge magnet as a souvenir.
“I’m glad you’re still alive,” Hyuck says. “Any more incidents with the demon?”
Jeno realises he hasn’t told Hyuck about the latest happenings. He isn’t sure why. He isn’t sure why he isn’t saying anything now, either. Something seals his mouth shut, keeping secrets, hiding away like a shadow in the night.
“No,” Jeno says. “Everything’s back to normal.”
Hyuck sighs, relieved. “Man, I was really worried. Let’s never go looking for anything supernatural ever again.”
It’s almost disorienting to hang out with Hyuck again. He’s so warm and normal and alive. Somehow the past weeks have felt like years, like Jeno had been existing in a different reality where everything was heavier and darker. It’s hard to remember that Hyuck is real, a constant in Jeno’s life, and Jaemin isn’t. Jaemin is what doesn’t belong. Jaemin is what Jeno will – and must – forget.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Hyuck asks again.
Jeno frowns. “Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know. It’s just.” Hyuck bites his lip. “You seem different somehow. Kind of… distant. Untouchable.”
Jeno smiles and waves him off. He stays until late at night, lets Hyuck show him pictures from the beach and retell him stories he already heard on the phone. Somehow it doesn’t feel like it used to but Jeno ignores the feeling and goes home. It started raining at some point and by the time Jeno opens the front door he is drenched to the bone. Summer is over.
They sit on the soft, dry forest ground close to the outskirts, opposite of each other. Jeno isn’t sure how long it’s been; the sunlight begins to slant already. Jaemin has eaten all the fruit Jeno brought with him as a sort of goodbye present, hoping it will appease Jaemin enough to truly let him go.
Jeno wonders what Jaemin will do once he leaves. If he really does let him leave. He wonders how his own life will continue – how does one meet a monster and walk away from it?
With his eyes downcast and his legs crossed, Jaemin almost looks like a normal boy. He looks warm and friendly, with a smile that invites kindness, arms that invite hugs. He’s beautiful enough to make you look twice and captivating enough to make you wish you’d never have to stop looking.
If Jaemin was human, he’d be the mischievous kind, Jeno thinks. The one that would pull pranks but never go too far. It’s so easy to believe when they’re sitting here like that, as if this is a mere picnic between friends.
Until Jaemin looks up through his eyelashes and Jeno is reminded of everything that Jaemin is – a viper waiting to strike. His gaze makes Jeno’s stomach churn with a strange kind of desire, a sort that feels like rampant hunger. Jeno’s starving for his touch.
It doesn’t make sense. Jeno knows he should fear Jaemin and he does. He always does. But he still wants him.
Jaemin seems to read Jeno’s thoughts straight off his face. Maybe he put them into Jeno’s head in the first place. Jaemin shifts until the loose collar of his shirt reveals the sharp relief of his clavicles, and smirks.
“Do you want to touch me?” Jaemin reaches out to take Jeno’s hand and places it on his chest, slides it down and over his ribs. “Ask me and you can have it.”
Jeno burns with want and shame. “No…”
“You’re such a bad liar.”
Jeno can’t hold up anymore. He feels the give in his willpower, the magic immediately seeping through the crack, clouding his mind like blue ink in clear waters. His hands move on their own accord, gripping Jaemin’s slender waist to pull him closer. Jaemin follows easily and pushes Jeno into the ground, fitting himself against him like he’s part liquid, and mouths along Jeno’s throat. Jeno groans when his teeth scrape over his jugular and Jaemin chuckles.
“Liar, liar,” Jaemin murmurs against Jeno’s lips. “You love this. You love me.”
Jeno doesn’t get to say anything before Jaemin slides his tongue back into his mouth and slots his thigh between Jeno’s legs. He presses up and Jeno bites down on Jaemin’s lip, suppressing a moan at the friction. Jaemin tastes sweet, intoxicating, everything Jeno could want.
It shouldn’t feel good to have a demon this close and this isn’t happiness, Jeno knows. It’s something much more primal, something Jaemin can control and Jeno can’t, something that reduces him to wax in Jaemin’s hands. Everything is wrong. Everything is backwards, coming undone. Jeno doesn’t want him stop. Jaemin could crush him into the earth, could tear the tendons out of his throat with his teeth like a famished wolf and Jeno would still ask for more.
“Tell me you’re mine,” Jaemin breathes against Jeno’s Adam’s apple. “Tell me.”
Jeno wants to. His body already knows it’s the truth, arching up to meet Jaemin’s touch. But under the fervid haze, something remembers.
“No,” Jeno grits out. “You said this is the last time.”
All at once, Jaemin pulls away. His cheeks are flushed, his chest heaving. He looks so good. He looks so beautiful. Jeno has to dig his fingernails into his palm to not pull him back in.
“It’s the last time you came back,” Jaemin says slowly, “because you’re not leaving again.”
His words hit Jeno like a wave of iced water. He should have known. A part of him did know.
Jaemin blinks with his doe eyes. “Do you know how lonely it is – to be a god alone?”
“Wicked,” Jeno pants, trying to scramble away. It’s like the forest grounds are quicksand, like Jaemin is a black hole, like Jeno has already sold his soul away to this devil. He can’t run anymore. Maybe he never had a chance. “You’re something wicked.”
Jaemin nods and smiles sweetly. “Soon you will be, too.”
Jaemin brings them back to the pond. Like last time, the water is unmoving and eerily silent, like a blank mirror facing the roof of leaves. Jeno is shaking in Jaemin’s grip and almost stumbles to his knees when Jaemin lets go. For a second Jeno thinks about running away but he’d never find his way out.
There’s something fierce about Jaemin here, right now. It terrifies Jeno more than when he’d first realised what Jaemin was capable of – this seems uncontrolled, uncontainable, indestructible. Jaemin is so much more than Jeno is. He could squash him like a fly.
And yet. Beneath it all, Jeno can feel the yearning for him, like a quiet siren song.
“You’re going to give yourself to me,” Jaemin says, sweeping his gaze over the water. “You’ll walk through the dark for me.”
Jeno doesn’t understand. His heart hasn’t stopped trembling; it knows it will stop soon. Everything. Jeno can feel it, the finality of it.
He looks around, at the unnatural shape of the pond, the weird surface of the water. It stares back at him, a dull eye that won’t blink, watching, luring.
“Is this what you did with all of them?” Jeno asks. “With Park Jisung?”
Jaemin snaps his gaze up from the water, fire behind his eyes. “Don’t you dare speak that name.”
“What happened to him?” Jeno swallows. “You said you’d give me answers.”
Jaemin seems to fight with himself, unsure how to respond.
“None of them,” he says eventually, “were strong enough.”
For what? Jeno doesn’t ask. Jaemin stares back at him, raw and ferocious, dripping with poisonous rage. There’s nothing beautiful about him now.
“It gets so lonely,” Jaemin says. “You can’t blame me for wanting a friend. For wanting someone who’s like me.”
“You don’t kill friends!” Jeno replies.
“I tried not to. I really did.” Jaemin’s eyes blaze. “But sometimes I can’t help it.”
Jeno didn’t think a confirmation would change anything but it does – this is the monster. All this time, Jeno knew but something – maybe the magic, maybe the naivety in him – believed maybe it had been something else.
What makes a monster a monster? When it makes you fear it.
“Are you going to kill me, too?” Jeno asks instead. His voice wobbles. He doesn’t want to die – he’s so young. He’s too young for this. And yet, he knows that it’s his own fault. He should’ve listened to the lore but he did not and this is the price he’s paying. He was cursed the second he stepped into the woods.
His mum will sit at the kitchen table and cry for a son that was too stupid to listen to her. His name will be written in the books, will be forgotten, be turned into another story to teach the children. Don’t go into the woods. Do not look into them, for they will also look back at you.
Jaemin’s face is expressionless. “You will be born again.”
“That’s not a real answer.”
“Jeno.” Jaemin steps closer and somehow, though it’s sick and twisted and wrong, his proximity feels comforting. Somehow Jaemin has become something familiar. Like the same feral wolf you encounter on hikes. You know it can kill you. You know it would, if it was hungry. But it’s familiar nonetheless.
And right now, Jeno is less scared of Jaemin than he is of dying, though there’s no real difference between the two. Every thought is jumbled inside Jeno’s mind, askew, rotten, corrupted. He’s not his own anymore.
“Will it hurt?” Jeno asks. His voice comes out rough and thin, barely a sound.
Jaemin laughs and frames Jeno’s face with his hands. His palms are warm and soft against his skin, dripping with magic. It slows Jeno’s heart. “What a mortal thing, to be so scared. It will, probably. But when you rise you will thank me for releasing you from everything that tethers you to this reality.”
Jeno looks at Jaemin’s black eyes and realises he is unknowable. There’s no comfort, just magic whispering for him to surrender himself. There was never familiarity. There was never fondness, or comfort, or any pleasant feeling. Desire is a sin and Jeno has felt it. He will burn alive for it.
Jaemin takes Jeno’s shoulders and guides him backwards into the pool. The icy water chases a chill up Jeno’s body and sloshes thickly around his ankles, his calves, his thighs. “Let me baptise you in the Black Lake and you will rise a young god.”
Horror crawls up Jeno’s spine. “Jaemin –”
Jeno kneels against his will. The ground of the pool is slick and muddy and invisible. Jeno feels tears prick in his eyes when he looks at Jaemin again.
Jaemin’s expression smooths into something gentle, almost kind. His hand touches Jeno’s jaw and then the back of his head, his nape. “Tell me you’re mine.”
The first tears fall, hot and overwhelming. Jeno’s heart beats so wild he thinks it might kill him before Jaemin does.
“Jeno, I’m a slave to my nature. If you won’t say it I will kill you. The darkness will take you. If you want to live,” Jaemin says, “give yourself to me.”
There isn’t much of a choice. It’s death either way, whether or not he trusts Jaemin. And he doesn’t. How could he? His body is telling him to try. It’s the call of the wild magic. The kind Jaemin is made of, the kind that’s irresistible. Forbidden things are often the most beautiful and the most destructive.
Again, Jeno sees his black-eyed reflection. A terrifying, wrong version of himself. At once Jeno wonders if, many moons ago, Jaemin was human, too.
“Jeno,” Jaemin says softly. His name sounds so tender in his mouth.
Maybe that’s what breaks Jeno. Maybe, if they’d both been normal human beings, Jeno would have loved him. Maybe in another life he has. In this one, he will die for it.
He says, “I’m yours.”
Jaemin kisses his forehead before he forces him underwater.
Jeno was right – this isn’t water. It’s thicker, like ooze, enclosing him until he can’t see the surface. It’s full of black magic, threatening to crawl into his veins like a virus, to chew through his brain like maggots. It’s insanity made physical.
Jaemin’s hand is insistent on his head, not letting Jeno come up for air. It’s absolute darkness, absolute silence. Jeno fights it, struggles until his muscles contract and lungs burn. Jaemin’s grip chokes him more, forces him down into the dark.
Just like that, the fight bleeds out of him. The hand is gone. Jeno can’t move or think or breathe. He can’t tell whether he’s facing up or down. His consciousness is splintering into a kaleidoscope.
There are voices. They whisper. They cast spells. They turn Jeno’s mind inside out until he’s spilled all his secrets.
The darkness is in his nose. His eyes. His ears. His lungs burn with the effort of trying not to breathe, of not being able to breathe, crushing into themselves. The panic kicks him in the chest, releasing what little air had been left in there.
He gasps. The black liquid fills his mouth – bitter, acidic, sliding down his oesophagus like fire. He’s going to die. He’s going to drown, choke, disintegrate in a pool of poison. He thinks he’s crying, or screaming, or coughing. Maybe all of it. This is it. This is hell –
Under the droning of his weakening heartbeat, there’s a voice.
Jeno knows this voice. It’s calling a name that isn’t his. Maybe it was once. Panic renders him a creature that answers to none. It will be his name again, cursed, hushed, forbidden. The voice is still calling him. His senses explode into searing pain.
“Rise,” the voice commands. “Rise.”
Jeno stretches out his hand. His lungs threaten to burst. His heart runs and runs, kicks against his ribcage like a horse trapped in a burning barn, forgetting it is a horse.
Fear makes him forget pain. Not forget – disregard. The blackness fills his throat, thick and unbreathable, his lungs, his chest. He’s dying. He fights it and he fights it but there is no fight to win.
“Rise and you shall be born of the shadows.”
Someone is chanting. The darkness will kill him – it will be soon. Another kid lost to the woods. The demon’s sinful voice is irresistible, calling him to a land behind the veil, as one of the ghosts. A claimed soul. He’ll never see the sun again.
Lee Jeno, name to a boy who is being unmade.
“Rise and rule by my side, child of the night.”
The darkness around him bubbles like acid. It melts off his skin, makes something new. It will spit him out, bones blank and faceless, like Jeno was never a boy at all. A ghost. Always a ghost. He feels his heart convulse, a last attempt at rebelling, and then the failing of it. His mind fades; the pain fades. The world is in pieces.
“Rise.” Jaemin’s voice echoes and echoes. “Rise and return a god.”
Once upon a time, Lee Jeno was a human name for a stupid mortal boy with too much curiosity and not enough resistance. It was the name of a boy who liked exploring, who liked laughing with his friends, and who liked being liked.
That Lee Jeno is dead.
What rises out of the pool, answering to the same name and wearing the same face, is a creature made of darker matter. With time, people will learn to fear it.
They will see his black eyes glinting in the shadows between the trees and speak of a dark angel.
Lee Jeno is immortal. Nothing will kill him. He’s death himself. He is – he is.
He opens his eyes and looks up at his creator.
Jaemin, the prince of darkness itself, is standing at the edge of the pool, smile triumphant, vibrant, vicious. A serpent. An angel. A trickster.
Fear is foreign; it has died violently in the black pool, like the mortal Jeno once was.
He takes the hand Jaemin extends to him and kisses his knuckles. There’s something at the back of his mind screaming at him to run, but it’s easy to silence when Jaemin caresses his cheek.
Jeno sees it now, with striking clarity. Jaemin is everything. Calamity. The wildfire. The rider on a pale horse. Jeno will love him until this forest has decayed into nothing, until this earth has gotten sick of itself and retched up its own blood, until the universe collapses. And even after that, Jeno will love him. It’s what he was made to do.
“You’re so beautiful,” Jaemin says, proud and in awe. Jeno can feel his power like static in the air. Jeno is made of this very magic and Jaemin is looking at him like he’s all his desires bound in one body. “I knew it would be you.”
“Jaemin,” Jeno says, his voice new and smooth in ways it never used to be. It’s a weapon now, wielded against all weaker beings. “Thank you.”
He hopes Jaemin knows he doesn’t mean the compliment, but everything. The words leave a strange taste in his mouth, like he shouldn’t have said them but something made him.
“Do you remember what you used to be?” Jaemin asks.
Jeno remembers something. Remembers feeling small and uncertain. Remembers being scared, being curious, being terrified. A mouse between crisp leaves.
“A boy,” he says. “I was a boy.” Something inside him is screaming still. He will forget it, he knows. But right now it is hurting and screaming that something is wrong, everything is wrong, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. “I used to like being human.”
Jaemin’s eyes sharpen, like razor blades glinting in the sun. “Do you still want to be human now?”
Jeno is aware of Jaemin’s hands on his face. He could break Jeno’s neck with one quick movement. He could shove him back into the blackness. He made him like this and he can unmake him again.
But Jeno knows Jaemin won’t have to do that. Because Jaemin has picked him, has lured him, has given him this magic, and has chosen Jeno as the one to love him and to be loved.
Jaemin’s nature is to take. To tempt. To kill. He’s overcome it to fight unbearable loneliness. He’s overcome it to make Jeno into a god, an equal, a companion.
“No,” Jeno says. “I’m yours.”
“Then rise to your feet,” Jaemin says, smiling his impossible smile, “and claim your place at my side.”
It’s Jeno’s nature to give. To protect. To please. He will forget everything else he ever was.
He gets up and Jaemin is waiting for him with open arms, crushing him to his chest. Magic is everywhere and Jaemin is everything, wrapping around him, claiming him like wild vines claim an abandoned house. Something in Jeno feels hollow at that but Jaemin’s breath is in his mouth, making him forget. This kiss tastes like lightning and thunder, the first autumn storm, the first flood.
Jeno will never leave him.
There is a boy at the edge of the woods. They’ve been watching him from the shadows of the trees, like predators. He’s calling the name that Jeno used to answer to, squinting angrily into the dark. There’s a smatter of moles on his tan skin, visible even from where Jeno is waiting.
The image wakes something in Jeno, like a distant shout, a single string being plucked and echoing in the cavity of his chest.
Beside him, Jaemin is watching Jeno with calculating, hungry eyes.
“He will come back,” Jaemin tells him. “And we will hang him from a tree until he’s bled out like a slaughtered pig. I don’t want any more people to come looking for things that no longer belong to them.”
Jeno nods and lets Jaemin slide his hand over his nape. His touch burns there, as it always does, but the gesture is familiar. He belongs to Jaemin. Everything he is and will be belongs to Jaemin. This is his place – hunting, luring, chasing shadows with him.
The corpse sways gently in the cold autumn gusts. Soon they will smell it in the streets.
Something inside Jeno never stops screaming.