He knew it hadn’t been wise to see him, not when the sun was setting, and darkness began to pool over the treetops. The forest was never quiet during the day, and if any of Them came to disturb the forest, it’s resulting silence would warn everyone else. Night changed things. Though the forest was never truly silent, the natural warning the forest gave was less noticeable. Better to stay tucked deep into the earth, in a hole that they could never find.
Unfortunately for Jeongguk, the Seer would only be in this part of the forest for the night only. And so, his curiosity got the better of him.
Now, he was paying for it.
He hadn’t been paying enough attention, his mind wandering to the milky violet eyes and smirking mouth of the Seer, when artificial light filled his path. He barely looked up before a bullet whizzed past him, barely missing his ear. He was running before the shot rang out, and he barrelled through the underbrush, faster than They could follow.
He knew he was fast, and he knew where to go if he wanted to stay free. He pumped his legs faster, blurring past the tangle of branches and leaves, towards the edge of the trees. As his path opened, he was met with a cliff, and he felt hope. He could make it. Just a jump, and he’d be able to escape. He felt energy flow through his body, answered by the clouds which billowed above him. Behind him, They yelled their displeasure, but Jeongguk thought there was nothing they could do.
Yet even as he felt a surge of wind tug at his skin, he felt a much more pervasive and sharp pain spear through his leg. Screaming, he fell, but not to the forest floor, like he prayed, no. He fell merely ten feet down, his leg ripped from the hook going through his calf, and body dangling perilously over the drop. He knew the hook must have a sedative of some kind, because, despite the pain, his consciousness was fading. He’d been through worse pain, lost more blood. But this creeping sleep meant only one thing. They had captured him. He would no longer be Jeongguk of the Jeons. He would be a number. A weapon. The Seer had lied to him… He would never find his Tamer like this.
He felt his body being tugged upwards, even as his eyes drooped down. He wished he had the strength to kick the spear away and let him drop down.
Falling would have been a much better fate.
He gasped awake. Another dream about him.
Jimin slowly placed a hand on his speeding heart, willing it to slow down. Sweat poured off him, as though he’d been running. But it was never him. Just the man. Running for his life from something unfathomable to him. Jimin ran his fingers through his hair as he turned to the clock by his bed. After affirming that it was too early to be awake, but too late to try to go back to sleep, he pushed off his covers with a groan.
He’d been having the same dream every night for two months, never changing or developing. He couldn’t remember the name of the boy, nor what he looked like. He didn’t know the forest, and certainly didn’t know the people chasing him. If there had been any change in the dream, maybe Jimin would dismiss it as his mind fixating on an abstract idea. But it remained, unchanging like a film, and a permanent fixture in his subconscious. Like a premonition, or an ill omen.
He stretched his neck, then his shoulders, before standing up and deciding to do a workout. Anything to wake him up, and maybe give him something else to think about. Despite his smaller stature, he made sure to keep his body fit.
He started when he was young, hoping it would make his family proud. He was the mistake after all. His younger brother was planned to perfection, genetically modified to have a tall, strong, healthy body. His mind as well, he was given intelligence, and his parents had paid a lot to make sure he was the perfect Park heir. When his mother had fallen pregnant, it was simply that her birth control medication had failed. She didn’t even realise until she was in her second trimester, and by that point the city wouldn’t allow for her abortion. Thus, Jimin was born. He was healthy and strong, but could never compare to Jihyun. He was too short, his metabolism not fast enough, his mind not as sharp. Just human. Boringly so. So, he tried everything to make him right. Workouts to develop muscles that tried to stay soft, diets to shave off his frustratingly plump cheeks, and studying past what any others did. At first the dedication made his family happy. Then it became the new expectation.
He wasn’t sure whether it was healthy to continue his current lifestyle, but if he stopped now, he knew his parents would never forgive him. Jihyun knew his struggle and had tried to ease up on his own achievements, if only to make the distance between then less noticeable. However, their parents were eagle-eyed, and began to punish Jimin for his brother lagging. And Jimin didn’t want to be what slowed others down. Especially not Jihyun.
Jimin searched through his drawers to find something to wear, before unceremoniously throwing his clothes into the laundry chute in his room, leading straight to working robots for the house. So many menial chores had been taken over by them, and it meant his family were able to do what they needed to do without distraction. At least, that was what his mother said. He’d been interested in learning, just in case the city generators ever failed. He didn’t like that he would be helpless if that happened, but he figured there wasn’t a real reason to learn. Maybe when he left the family home, he’d pick something up. Or he would just pick up a robot, like everyone else. He sometimes thought that was laziness speaking, yet he always justified that he truly didn’t have time to learn. He was just about to walk out his room, when his bracelet monitor began to ring.
He blinked, looking down and smiling gently. Hoseok. He must somehow be awake and had noticed Jimin was as well. He rolled his eyes and tapped the bracelet to answer. “You know, it’s not really a decent time for conversation”.
“Never mind that. I’ve been working on the choreo for the freshman, and I need you to tell me whether it’s too much.”
Jimin sighed. Normally it would take a while to convince Hoseok to get to the point of the conversation, but where dance was concerned, he was surprisingly frank. It was why Jimin had trusted him with teaching him dance when they were both in high school. He didn’t want someone to tell him that he wouldn’t succeed. He just wanted to learn. Hoseok didn’t play around, he just taught. After many years, Hoseok was Jimin’s only real friend, having found solace in an art form that he had chosen, and a friend whose sunny personality kept him going even when he was about to break. He smiled at the thought, before realising he’d taken too long to respond. “Uh, yeah, I’ll head on over.”
Hoseok paused, obviously hearing the lag from Jimin. “Hey, Min, you okay? You sound tired.”
“It is 5:30. Were you expecting me to be awake?”
“Of course I wasn’t, but my monitor said you were active. I was surprised as well, but it was right.”
“Well, maybe I’m sleepwalking.”
Hoseok barked out a laugh, before composing himself. “But seriously, Min. You okay?”
Jimin ran a hand over his face, humming in thought. “I mean… Yes. But…”
“Are you having those dreams again?”
Jimin bit his lip. “Dreams implies that there are multiple different ones. But yes. It was the dream. Given that I feel like I’m falling at the end, it always jolts me awake. So, I’m awake. And you need my services. How much will you pay up this time?”
“Ice cream. And my eternal love.”
Jimin giggles softly at that. “One of those things isn’t worth very much.”
“Excuse you, my love is what anyone with a brain desires!”
“I meant the ice cream, hyung…”
“What if it was love flavoured ice cream that you were turning down?”
“Who said anything about me turning it down?”
“The ice cream said so, Jiminie!”
Jimin laughs a bit harder at that, even as he tries to keep quiet. “Hyung, I don’t want to wake anyone up. Please stop.”
He snickers. “Only for now. But now you owe me ice cream.”
“How did I know you’d do that.”
“I’m your favourite hyung, and I deserve ice cream for putting up with you. Oh, gotta go, I thought up another step.”
And just like that, Hoseok hung up, and Jimin was left speechless. This would be an interesting morning.
He’d barely made it onto the train. The security guard attempting to stop him from boarding last minute, but Jimin managed to weave past him, and slid in as the doors closed. He smiled in victory, before his bracelet pinged. He pouted, looking at it. Seemed he was a petty guard, giving him a demerit, even at this time of the day. He sighed, and pulled up the monitor to message Hoseok, griping about yet another meaningless infringement. He hadn’t stalled the train, he hadn’t disturbed anyone, other than Mr Officer. Even then, he properly proven that he could board, and his ID cleared him to cross zones. But no. Apparently, he’d been too impatient for Mr Officer. If Jimin got another demerit this week, he’d have to serve a punishment, and they were never enjoyable. They were, however, fairly common. Hoseok had served one three months ago, having to plant new flowers in the government gardens. Even Jihyun had served twice, and he was a golden child.
Admittedly, Jimin had served a few more than Jihyun. Or Hoseok. Or both combined. He just had a knack for doing the wrong thing when the wrong person could see. Hoseok called it a gift, but Jimin called it a curse.
He heard a ping, and saw Hoseok had responded happily, reminding him that he’d probably have to work as a gardener again, which meant that Hoseok could come a taunt him. Perfect. Jimin rolled his eyes and looked out the window as the train elevated onto a monorail which would take him directly to Hoseok’s zone. The train was cleaner than normal, an impressive feat given the robots maintaining hygiene. The metal seats were shining chrome, and the white walls gleamed. There were never many on board the monorail, which meant Jimin could enjoy the whole carriage to himself. Trains had become a necessity to him, being the only transport between the zones, and his school being situated in Zone 3. He smiled gently before looking out to the city below.
It was a sight that had become monotonous to him, although he remembered being enamoured as a child. The city stretched out, the houses of his zone a mix of glass, metal and white. While the shapes were often slightly different, depending on the family housed, the uniform colour created a strong theme among the elite families of the city. To live in Zone 2 was a high honour. The only families who lived better were ones with international ties or government rank. They lived in the great skyscrapers in the middle of the city, surveying everything beyond. Jimin let his eyes wander further beyond his zone wall, toward the gardens surrounding his home. A mix of old-world plants and new ones grew together in carefully planned sections. Separate and tidy. Then there were the trees, where a few cafes and parks were for families. Well, Zone 2-4 families. Beyond that were the office buildings that made up Zone 3. The only difference between them and the houses were addresses, and Jimin had gotten very lost before he learned how to read the street signs properly. Beyond that were the small apartment flats of Zone 4, as tall as 3, without the ambiguity. They were for packing as many people in as possible. The only tall buildings there were for drones of workers to use up their life. But at least they weren’t Zone 5, the people who worked and lived below the city, unseen, forgotten. Jimin had never been allowed to go down, but he always wondered.
Hoseok lived in Zone 4 and had made it to a Zone 3 school based entirely on his dance. Jimin could only dream of having that much talent, to be cleared for entry to a higher Zone. So few people ever left their home zones. Either you weren’t good enough to ascend, or you didn’t want to dirty yourself by going lower. Jimin couldn’t understand the rationale. Hoseok’s home was just as nice as his own, if smaller and less shiny. Though could never prove that claim to Hoseok. If Hoseok attempted to follow him to Zone 2, he knew that guards would catch him. An infringement was one thing, but an arrest meant one thing. Zone 5. The inescapable.
Jimin looked out further, trying to pin-point the place where the dome began. Being so far away, it was impossible to see it, but he knew that it wrapped around the entire city, attempting to protect them all. From what, they never said. It could be the toxic waste left over from the wars. It could be wild people twisted from radiation. Jimin shook his head, willing himself back to the city. After all, there was no point in thinking about what was beyond. No one ever left.
The train arrived at Zone 3 station, and Jimin barely had to wait for Zone 4. The guard here was more friendly, although he was intrigued by someone from Zone 2 wanting to go to the ‘slums’. Jimin bit back a retort at the word, his newly obtained demerit feeling like a brand on his skin. He walked into another empty carriage and looked back to his home-zone.
Not for the first time, he wondered if he should bother going back.
Maybe he just needed to get out of his head.
The second train was always less interesting, as it didn’t travel as high, so the view remained a constant flood of buildings. It was a shorter ride, for which he was grateful, and he walked off the train.
Glancing up, he was met with a Hoseok’s beaming smile, and he raced over to hug him. “Jiminie! Just the man I was waiting for!” He ignored Jimin’s futile struggles and steered him toward the exit. As they passed through the station doors, Jimin glimpsed a small group of men. The group looked them both over, sizing up a possible target, and Jimin looked away slowly. If his gaze changed too quick, they’d know he had something to hide. Like money.
They walked quickly to the studio Hoseok worked in. They moment they arrived inside the mirrored room they both sighed in relief. Hoseok turned to Jimin, his eyes tired, but perhaps from more than a sleepless night. “Sorry, Jimin-ah… There’ve been a few groups hanging around the station… Following patrons… And… You know.” He rubs the back of his neck.
He hated that. His hyung looking embarrassed, like Jimin didn’t know what Zone 4 could be like. He hated that the school had treated him like he barely mattered, despite achieving the most out of anyone. Hated that it made Hoseok feel inferior. That he carries that feeling even to this day. No one should feel like that. Least of all him. Jimin immediately runs over and nearly bowls into him as he hugs him. His friend is startled, but Jimin continues anyway, “You know Hoseok-hyung… You can just say you couldn’t wait to hug me. You missed my cuddles, I understand, I won’t hold it against you.” Hoseok sputtered a little, and manoeuvred Jimin around, until he had him in a chokehold, and chuckled out, “And you should be grateful to have my affections at all, punk!”
Jimin may have whined loudly at the compromised position, but if it meant Hoseok would smile, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hoseok eventually let go and rolled his shoulders. “Alright, then. Let’s go through it. I won’t go easy, just because this is a favour.”
Jimin sighed. “I expected as much. Let’s just get to it, slave driver.”
Hoseok smiled that heart smile. And they began.
Convincing Hoseok to go to Zone 3 for ice cream was not as easy as it should have been. Jimin had given a lot of feedback, and Hoseok immediately wanted to begin modifications, trying to get Jimin to help. Under other circumstances, Jimin would be all for it, his workaholic perfectionism rearing its head. But this was a rare day of rest for Jimin, and he needed to enjoy it. They boarded the train without running into another group of would-be-muggers, when Hoseok turned to Jimin. “So… When are you going to tell them?”
Jimin shivered a little. “I-I haven’t found the right time.”
“You know, a right time may never come, Jimin. If you actually want to do this with me, then you need to make sure they know what’s coming.”
Jimin sighed. “I know, Hobi-hyung. I’ve already set aside more than enough to get the business up and running for you while you wait for my graduation. But we still don’t know how your application will be processed. Even with my word, I’m technically not that influential.”
Hoseok sighed and rubbed his back. “Jimin… As sad as it is, your last name alone holds more influence that most clans do in Zone 3. They find out who you are, and people jump at the opportunity to help you. Of course, you’ve got influence. You’ve just… I dunno. You were made to think that’s not true.”
Jimin grinds his teeth a little. “Hobi-hyung… You know that it’s not me. That saying I’m a Park is one thing… But I’m not Jihyun. I’m not important. Ignoring me isn’t like ignoring them. And people know that. Trust me.”
Hoseok sighs. “…Zone 2 sucks. But of self-righteous assholes.”
“Oh, is that why you like me so much?” Jimin grins at him, feeling his eyes close up.
“Don’t try to side-step it. You know it’s not fair. I’m not modified. Most in 4 aren’t. Why do 2 care so much?
Jimin’s smile fades into a mirthless smirk. “…At least my Zone change should process without issues. Zone 2 doesn’t really want a ‘natural’ polluting their midst. Might as well fix the situation for themselves.”
Hoseok curls his lip in annoyance at the idea, then hums. “Something tells me your application is the one in question, not mine.” Turning to him with a frown, Jimin looks at his hyung, not full comprehending. The sigh that leaves Hoseok’s lips speak volumes. “Even if you’re not some Zone 2 genetic Adonis, or whatever, you’re still Zone 2, which holds power over smaller fish in Zone 3. So, say you get profitable, then someone gets jealous of that. They might then accuse you of stealing business because of your zone-rank. That causes disruption amongst others. We all know how well Zone 1 loves disruption among the masses.”
Jimin frowns harder at that. “But I won’t have any Zone 2 qualifications, nor resources. That makes no sense.”
“Doesn’t really have to. The big wigs tend to snip things in the bud long before they may have become an issue.”
Jimin turns away at that. It certainly was a possibility he’d considered, but wording it that way, he could see the reality Hoseok had painted was more probable than he’d hoped. “I can still help. I’ll still be able to work. I just will have to travel. Besides, what would you do without me?”
He shrugs. “Try to find someone else who’s willing to jump two zones just to help me before 6:30.” He smiles at him, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
Jimin looks down and pulls a leg up to rest his head upon it. He hums in thought. “…If I can convince my parents, maybe I can make sure we both get the place set up, with our applications approved. If they think I won’t bother them again, they probably will do it.” He pursed his lips thinking through logistics, until Hoseok light punched his arm. Jimin looked up, startled.
“Jimin… Don’t do that. Don’t let them treat you lesser. If they want to help, good for them. But don’t let them wash their hands. You deserve better.”
A nervous laugh bubbled up his throat before he could stop it. “Hoseok-hyu-”
“Promise me, Jiminie. Don’t let that happen. Don’t do that to yourself.”
Jimin paused, maybe for a moment too long, before whispering out, “Yes, hyung.”
Hoseok raised his brows.
Jimin gulped. “Yes, hyung”, still a whisper, but stronger than before, “I promise.”
The train pulled up at the station, and Hoseok looked relieved. “Good. I’ll remind you if you forget.” He took Jimin’s hand and pulled him up and they began walking to the ice cream parlour that Hoseok had wanted to try for weeks.
They began to bicker about who was really paying and how many scoops was acceptable, when the ground shook underneath them. The pedestrians on the street all stopped, a spooked look appearing on their faces. Jimin shook his head, trying to figure out if there had been a crash, or something to explain it, when another stronger tremble working through the street. That’s when people began to panic, running in a disorganised mob, trying to run from whatever was happening. Jimin pulled Hoseok towards the garden areas, not far from there. It would be safer than being near buildings, and surprisingly few people were attempting to flee that way.
The tremble continued to work its way through the streets, becoming stronger, causing many to lose their step and fall into the rippling ground. Jimin and Hoseok worked their way as fast as they could through the streets toward the entrance of the gardens. There were cars parked outside, that began to move in time with each shock, causing them to crash into each other, and into people attempting to run. Jimin thanked their lucky stars that the ice cream parlour was so close to the gardens, merely a block away, but even then, they barely manged to stumble onto the first walkway. As they fled towards a more open area, Jimin tripped and smacked his head on the concrete path. He moaned in pain, but the wound wasn’t enough to knock him unconscious. Hoseok yelped at the sudden loss of his friend’s hand, and knelt before him unsteadily, yet still helping him back up. “Why the hell are we feeling an earthquake! The city suspension is meant to deflect it.” Jimin was too dizzy to answer, even if he thought the same thing. He looked up, and saw a tree swaying ominously through the shockwaves, which just felt like they were getting stronger. He looked behind them, only for his heart to drop to his stomach.
Something… Jimin couldn’t wrap his head around what the something was. Like… a golem, made of some toxic sludge. It was shaped less like a solid thing, but more like an amalgomous shapeshifting heap of smoke. One moment is seemed squat, but at another moment it simply seemed like it had too many limbs. Jimin couldn’t wrap his mind on it but noted that it had broken a hole through the foundation of the ground and was still ripping through thick steel like it was paper. It hadn’t worked its body through the gaping wound in the soil completely, yet it was already big enough to eat four vans comfortably. Every movement it made cause another shudder to slam into the few people that had run to the gardens. As Jimin had just done, others who had looked back began to scream in terror, finally understanding the cause of the earthquake. The thing ignored the noise of the people, in favour of reaching out to everything with massive yet still too long fingers. Whenever it touched something, the sludge wrapped around it, even if it was a park bench, or a person. As the sludge did so, smoke began to rise in a violet cloud, looking like some old-world poisonous gas. That’s when he smelled it. Death, rot and decay. Jimin tried to scream, but as he did, he felt more than saw it look at him.
Eyes burned through his mind, not because of any true gaze. The eyes were made of nothing. A cold void. Yet the cold was sharp enough to dig into him. Like a splinter through his brain, the frozen dagger of those eyes bore into Jimin’s mind. He whimpered at the sensation, and Hoseok finally turned around. His scream tore through Jimin’s ears, causing him to close his eyes at the piercing wail. Suddenly the pressure on his mind was gone. He turned to Hoseok. “Don’t look into it’s eyes! Quick! We have to run!” Jimin hauled himself up, and they sprinted through the trees. A roar followed them, the creature displeased at them, before it finally hauled itself out of the hole, and began to follow the boys at a terrifying speed.
Jimin knew it was gaining, as the ground trembled more the closer it came. Yet the shaking didn’t match up with the sound of the creature moving. There was no audio trigger for each jerk of the earth beneath them. He began to wonder, briefly, if the creature was shaking the ground in another way, but such thoughts were pointless now. Especially when it raced in front of Hoseok and Jimin. They just manged to stop before the thing, which stood taller than some of the trees beside it.
Hoseok started gibbering besides him, now that they were unable to fight or flee. Jimin tried to watch its movements, rather than be tempted to look again. But it didn’t matter, Jimin still felt the cold pressure in his mind. Hoseok cried out, and Jimin was aware that his best friend was also feeling it. He struggled to look at his hyung, only to cry out when he saw a black sludge forming on his best friend’s eyes. He tried to bring him closer, attempting to shield him, when he felt the dagger in his mind pierce through his last defence. He felt the sludge ball up in his mind, like it was being spewed from a pipe. And with it, he felt the consciousness the monster.
Are you Tamer?
Jimin trembled, and tried to scream for help, but it was useless. His eyes were filling with the sludge, just like Hoseok’s. Soon, he’d be gone. He knew it. They would never be able to open their dance studio. He’d never learn to live for himself. He’d never see his brother. He’d never get his parents’ blessing.
All that he’d done, would be lost.
Just as the last of his mind was filled, he felt a surge of intense heat through the air, and immediately the sludge drained from his mind. Jimin sucked a gulp of air, his lungs burning as though he were drowning. He fell to his knees, dragging Hoseok with him. As he slowly caught his breath, he checked Hoseok. The sludge was gone from him too, and while he was unconscious, he was breathing. Jimin slowly looked up, trying not to let the dizziness stop him from seeing what saved them.
He took in two forms. One a man, probably around his height, hanging behind another man. Or creature. It certainly looked human, but the fire dancing over him was inhuman, and was lit up to an intense blue. He seemed to have… a tail? Horns? Or were they strange ears? The form flickered in front of him. Either way, it used its fire to burn away large sections of the monster. The metallic screech of the creature was the only indication Jimin needed to know that these people were winning.
Even though Jimin wanted to see it dead, he could feel himself slipping into the oblivion of sleep. It wouldn’t hurt anymore to sleep. And he wouldn’t need to be scared. But he couldn’t. He had to thank them. They’d saved him, and he had no idea who or what they were.
As the fire melted the last part of the creature, Jimin finally collapsed. Just in time to hear a deep voice, and a warm hand on his cheek.
“You were very brave, human… Sleep. We’ll take care of you.”
Jimin smiled, his eyes fluttering shut, even though they were already unseeing. He drifted to the sound of a man speaking out, “Tamer Suga and Beast V reporting two affected zone-dwellers. Requesting extraction.”