It’s a measure of a ways off until the hour of sleep, but many turns past the time of waking when Sungmin reels his line in, checking both ways past the river before settling his feet in the cool water, sighing and paying no heed to the bucket laid out with fish beside him, silence reigning supreme as the rushing water ripples around his legs.
The stars are dim today, he notes, golden light barely holding enough strength to discolor the water’s reflection, weakly dotting the sky and gracing them with their light. It’s an omen if he’s ever seen one, but the priests have called for nothing of the sort, so he shrugs it off, lightly kicking his feet back and forth.
“Hey, what are you doing with your feet in the sacred water? That’s grounds for a lashing.” A voice booms clear over the tranquil silence, and Sungmin nearly jumps out of his skin, he was sure there had been no one there just a moment before. His lips curl in a frown when he sees who it is, pulling his feet out to sit cross legged on the rock.
"Like you've never done it before, Jongwoon," he bites back teasingly, leaning back on his arms. He eyes the basin the other has in his hands. "Being punished with fetching duty again? What'd you do this time?"
Jongwoon rolls his eyes, setting the clay basin down next to Sungmin's fishing rod before plopping down on the stone bank next to him. "It's like they always know when I ask Jongjin to trade the sleeping hour chime with the waking hour chime. I would much rather stay up late than get up early."
Sungmin represses a chuckle, reaching for the rod and casting the line back out into the river. "It's not like you have a choice either way. Everyone has to get up at waking hour, anyway, so what's the big deal?"
“Well what’s wrong with breaking a little tradition? Is it so wrong to want to sleep in for once in my life?” Jongwoon huffs, eyeing the still flopping fish out of the corners of his eye, running a finger along the ripples of the water. “A little chaos outside structure never hurt anyone.”
“Now that’s the kind of talk that’ll earn you a lashing, my friend,” Sungmin laughs, pushing Jongwoon lightly on the shoulder, watching the line catch the light of the stars and disappear into the river’s murky depths, and he estimates how many more fish he can get before Jongwoon refills the clock and the sleep hour chimes. “Even you aren’t so foolish to say something like that around anyone else.”
“Is that a challenge?” Jongwoon grins, and Sungmin amazes that he can be older than him, Jongwoon never seems to be anything but laid back and carefree. Sungmin envies him for being able to do so, watching fingers skim across the water’s edge.
Sungmin says nothing in reply, just sits in the quiet company of his time keeper friend. They've known each other for much too long to worry about constantly filling the silence. Instead he fiddles with the line, which has lost a little of its slack in the current. The fish in the bucket on his either side are few -- another omen. He hasn't been able to catch many lately, and he wonders if they're being punished by Luzo.
He really hopes not.
An elbow nudges him and he looks over to meet Jongwoon's contemplative face. "Agate for your thoughts?"
“I think I’d need a whole month’s pay for the advice you offer,” Sungmin teases lightly, smiling over at Jongwoon even as his brow furrows lightly, thinking on what has caused his contemplation in the first place. “It’s these omens, does no one else see them? The fish are scarcer, the crops less plentiful, the stars don’t shine as bright. Something’s going to happen, soon, Jongwoon.”
Jongwoon stares at the ripping water, fingers playing along the ripples and frowning thoughtfully. He settles for sighing with resignation, leaning back on his palms, back resting against the other side of Sungmin’s rock.
“The priests haven’t said anything about omens, but I trust those old bats about as far as I can throw them,” Jongwoon grins, leaning his head back so the his shaggy bangs fall out of his eyes, sparkling as they make contact with Sungmin’s. “I trust your judgement a hell of a lot more, Min. What do you think is going to happen?”
"I... don't know," Sungmin replies, looking back up at the stars in the inky darkness. "But whatever does happen, I hardly think it can be any good."
"You worry too much," Jongwoon chortles, rising to his feet and reaching for the basin.
"Yeah, well, maybe you don't worry enough," Sungmin mutters as Jongwoon dips the basin in the river. Jongwoon busts out laughing and moves as if he's going to dump the water over Sungmin's head. The younger man starts laughing too as he raises his arms in mock defense. "You are just a glutton for punishment, aren't you?"
Jongwoon merely brushes the comment away with an airy wave of his arm as he turns to head back to the plaza where the clock stands. As he walks away, he notices something out of the corner of his eye and stops. "Oh, Min, your line is taut."
“It is?” Sungmin’s gaze abruptly changes to that of the water, looking for the hint of a scale in its depths, the struggle of a fish caught on his line. He frowns as he sees neither, slowly reeling it in to reveal a necklace, a coin of sorts by its shape, a sizable hole cut in its center to which the hook comes through.
“What is it?” Jongwoon sets the basin down, stepping quickly to Sungmin’s side, and examining the object with a high level of interest, reaching a hand out for it before Sungmin snatches it away, feeling something strange in the pit of his stomach as he stares at it, strange runes etched around the edges. “Come on, Min, let me see.”
“This isn't anything from here though, no one uses these types of symbols, what are they?” The stars shine bright off the necklace, playing with the hues of the metal and bouncing off the cavern’s walls, river continuing to flow. “Where do you think it came from?”
It takes a little pestering for Sungmin to relinquish the necklace to Jongwoon, who holds it up to the light. "It looks like copper. But why would someone waste it like this?" he murmurs, totally ignoring Sungmin's question. "Surely none of the smithies would have made this. They know copper is only to be used in tools because of how scarce it is."
That bad feeling in Sungmin's gut is beginning to grow, especially when he hears a strange noise from somewhere upstream. It's almost like a crackling noise, and he squints into the darkness, trying to discern it. His heart does an awful somersault in his chest as he realizes something. "Jongwoon, look," he whispers, horrified as he tugs on the elder's sleeve to bring his attention from the coin. "The stars."
Jongwoon looks up and nearly feels his heart stop. The stars, which were dim today to begin with, have nearly flickered out entirely. "Heavens," he breathes, following Sungmin's gaze upstream to the Forbidden Land. Everyone knows that they are not allowed to follow the sacred river to its source -- it is a gift directly from Luzo himself, and they are not to question that gift, lest they have it taken from them. But from up the river, a light much brighter than the stars filters through, faint at first and then growing. And then the ground beneath them shakes.
“What’s happening?” Sungmin whispers, watching as the light, blinding as the stars and filtering down from upstream, and he can swear he sees dark shadows falling into the sacred river, swallowed up by it’s current. There’s a horrifying moment where he can swear he sees movement, and he thinks it may be the very fist of Heaven come upon them. “Jongwoon, did you see that?”
Jongwoon is frozen on the ground, eyes wide as saucers and eyes focused on the light, gold like the rays of heaven and shining through the sky, looking as if Heaven itself were falling. Which, Sungmin thinks, it very well might be.
The stars are ominously dark, disappeared and Sungmin thinks he may see their remnants floating along with the stream, dark and foreboding as Sungmin stares at them, a sudden break in the water, a trace of brown among the murky blackness, added traces of gold.
"Heaven have mercy," Sungmin gasps, snapping out of the trance that the heavenly light has put him in, and in a split second he tosses his fishing rod aside and has torn off his vest.
"What are you doing?!" Jongwoon snaps just as the undershirt comes off.
"Jongwoon, it's a person!" is the only answer the older man gets before Sungmin dives into the murky depths. Jongwoon feels his heart stop -- Sungmin is swimming in the sacred water and with the stars completely blacked out the water looks like nothing and what if it really is a person and they fell from the heavens and --
"H..help!" a voice splutters.
Jongwoon snaps out of his momentary stupor to see a hand gripping onto the rock Sungmin had been previously sitting on, a flash of red bobbing up and down in the water, and he thinks he must be seeing things, there’s no way this can be happening to him, he goes to service every week, he’s always done as the elders told him, there’s no reason for Luzo to have sent demons from above for him, and Sungmin is already breaking the highest rule and what does he do-
“Please, help me!” A watery voice chokes out again, and Jongwoon gets a better look, seeing not a demon but a man, eyes wide with fear and gripping what surface he can with white knuckles, looking pleadingly at Jongwoon.
He slips just as Jongwoon reaches for his arm, grasping the crook of his elbow with all the strength he has, yanking the man up onto the embankment and watching him with wide eyes, wondering what on Earth has just happened.
The man pulls himself to his hands and knees, violently coughing up water from his lungs. He heaves, gulping for air and Jongwoon just sort of stares and wonders what the possessed him to pull the stranger from the water. He looks like a man but he fell from the sky. Maybe he's a fallen angel, Jongwoon ponders as the man finally seems to catch his breath. Or a demon in disguise.
The man looks up to catch Jongwoon's gaze and he can't help but shudder -- there's a wild look in his eye and honestly, it frightens him. The heavenly light catches on the necklace in Jongwoon's hand and the man's eyes grow impossibly wider. "Where'd you get that? Where is Henry?" he wheezes, still shaken from nearly drowning.
Who this 'Henry' is, Jongwoon doesn't know, but suddenly he remembers that he has someone he's supposed to be more worried about and shit, Sungmin still hasn't surfaced yet. His mind is whirling, and too much is happening all at once. His eyes trail over the surface of the water and he finds it hard to swallow past the lump in his throat.
His heart has nearly stopped completely when Sungmin finally surfaces, hair plastered to his face and attempting to drag himself up onto the embankment, arm wrapped tight around another man’s waist. Jongwoon backs up instinctively, still keeping a wary eye on the other man, biting his lip as he wonders what he should do.
“Stop gawking and help me, Jongwoon, I can’t pull him up by myself!” Sungmin chokes out, spitting some water from his mouth and getting a leg up onto the rock, arm shifting securely around the man in his arms, unconscious by the looks of it.
Before Jongwoon can even blink the first man is on his feet, eyes wide and worried, helping Sungmin pull the man, Henry, he supposes, from the water. Jongwoon amazes at how calm Sungmin can be, it seems like their very world is ending around them and he’s still being a good samaritan. The thought nearly makes him snort, and helps him regain some sense of normality.
Henry's friend is close to sobbing as Sungmin pumps the boy's chest in a way he has only seen done once before, when Jongjin fell into the bathing springs many years ago. The time keeper father had gone to fetch the water for the clock and left the boy alone. Sungmin had forgotten all about the incident until now, and he can't even begin to fathom how remembers something that he had witnessed in passing so long ago. But he isn't complaining: human or not, Sungmin would rather be scolded for breaking one of the highest laws than passively let Luzo's most precious gift -- the gift of life -- slip away.
"Breathe, come on," he mutters, hoping beyond hope that this works. Finally, after what seems like hours but really is only a few moments, the boy called Henry coughs up water and takes a heaving, shuddering gasp. The other man shoulders Sungmin out of the way and throws himself on Henry's chest, sobbing heavily now and gripping his hand tightly. Sungmin pants heavily himself, kneeling on the stone outcrop, too relieved to see the boy alive to worry about how rude his friend was.
Jongwoon is awed at his best friend -- awed that he had to do the courage to something so incredibly taboo -- but he can't help but worry about the consequences of those actions. "What have you done, Min?" he murmurs, more to himself. "Have you cursed us all?"
“I don’t care Jongwoon, I couldn’t just let him die!” Sungmin snaps, hands on his knees as his breath evens out, glancing over at the two men on the edge of the embankment, eyes still filled with concern. “If that’s what damns me then so be it, I won’t trade their lives for any kind of Heaven.”
“Thank you,” Henry says in a small voice, rough from coughing and trying desperately to soothe the sobbing man crying into his chest, eyes still drowsy and soaked to the bone. “You didn’t have to save me, but you did. Truly, thank you.”
Jongwoon bites his lip guiltily, he knows that no human’s life is worth less than an ideology, but it’s been ingrained in him since he was young that there are rules for a reason, it’s hard to even imagine breaking any of their rules, set in stone as they are. But he glances at the sobbing man, at the one who nearly drowned, and thinks maybe there are some things that are more important.
The river runs black as night and silence reigns, Henry’s choking subsiding to small coughs and he glances at his saviors, eyes sliding from Sungmin, to the necklace still dangling from Jongwoon’s hand, eyes going impossibly wide, hands groping at his neck.
Jongwoon catches this, and tosses the necklace like it was suddenly molten copper. It lands with a tiny clatter at near the two strangers and Henry scrambles to snatch it up before it slides back into the water. He clutches it to his chest, along with his still-crying friend who hasn't stopped clinging to him since he regained consciousness. A tense silence falls upon them, broken only by the occasional hiccup between the sobs of the crying one.
Sungmin rises shakily to his feet and runs a hand through his dripping hair. A powerful force sweeps down through from direction of the heavenly light, which has dimmed some, making him shiver. It chills him to the bone, and so he goes to put his shirt and vest back on, when he stops. The two from the sky, they must be cold too, he thinks. And so he picks up the clothes from where he had cast them aside and approaches them.
Henry looks up at him, wide-eyed and unsure of what to say. Sungmin merely offers a small smile and hands out the shirt and vest. "Here," he says, "put these on. You're cold, right? These are dry." The one whose name he doesn't know finally stops crying and looks up, pale face swollen from the tears and eyes shimmering with emotion.
"A-are you sure? You don't have a shirt..." he whispers meekly.
Sungmin shakes his outstretched hand, emphasizing the clothes. "Really, take them. I have more at home."
Henry looks suspicious for a moment for smiling slightly and nodding gratefully, re fastening the necklace around his neck and accepting the clothes, clutching the vest around his shoulders, handing the shirt to the smaller man, rubbing his back lightly and speaking softly.
“Look, I’m okay, Ryeowook, stop crying,” He says lightly pushing the other man on the shoulder slightly, smiling warmly. Sungmin wonders at how bright spirited he can be when he was previously just inches form death, and decides that even if they are devils, there’s no way they can be that bad. After all, how can devils offer genuine comfort and thanks? “We’ll be okay, pull yourself together.”
Ryeowook nods, wiping at his eyes furiously, shivering again despite the fresh shirt hanging on his shoulders, clutching at it like a lifeline. Jongwoon feels a stab of sympathy and shed his vest as well, walking up cautiously and draping it over the wet man’s shoulders, ignoring the coolness now seeping through his undershirt, the strange sensation of cool pressure rebounding off his face.
“Just who are you people?” He asks softly, staring at their strange attire, bright hair an anomaly from where he’s only seen black, an air about them different from what he’s ever felt before. “Are you angels? Or devils sent to damn us all and bring the stars down upon us?”
Henry blinks owlishly. "Angels? Devils?" he says incredulously. After that, he can't come up with a response, opting instead to let his mouth gape open slightly.
Ryeowook, too, is perplexed. "We're only human. It's a good thing you miners were here, though. I don't even want to think about what would have happened..." he trails off.
Jongwoon and Sungmin exchange befuddled glances. "We aren't miners," Sungmin offers slowly. "I'm a fisherman; Jongwoon is a time keeper. The miners have no business over here."
"But..." Ryeowook interjects when Jongwoon pauses. "If you aren't miners, what are you doing down here?"
"We should be asking you the same question," Jongwoon replied, his eyebrows furrowing in confusion. "You two fell from the sky into the sacred river, bringing the stars down with you. So forgive me if I'm more than a little wary."
"The sky? But... but the ground caved in beneath us..." Henry stammers. "I'm sure of it!"
“Are you two crazy? This is the ground we’re standing on, you fell through the sky, and shattered our stars,” Jongwoon says, slightly impatient as he can’t work out what the strangers are trying to tell him, none of it adding up in accordance to what he’s always known. “Don’t you see them floating down the sacred river? How are you even alive, that was the forbidden grounds that you came from!”
“What are these stars you keep talking about? There aren’t any down here,” Henry asks curiously, cocking his head at Jongwoon’s questions, glancing at the water when it’s mentioned and light coming behind his eyes when he recognizes what they mean. “Oh, you mean the lueuror? Those aren’t stars, they’re just-”
“Stop! Get away from them, put down any weapons you may have and come quietly, demons!” There’s a shout from down river that cuts Henry off in the middle of his speech, and Ryeowook goes wide eyed, backing into the rock as a mob of people approaches, and immediately turning to Sungmin and Jongwoon, eyes narrowed.
“I thought we could trust you,” He hisses, eyes dark with betrayal. “You’re just like everyone else on the surface, nothing matters but your own personal opinions in the end, does it?”
“But, we didn’t-” Sungmin starts, confused eyes trading a look with Jongwoon as the townspeople gather around him, and he’s quickly pushed out of the way so everyone can gawk at the two men, elders and their militia at the forefront, regarding them with wary eyes.
Jongwoon feels himself being pulled back by his arms and he whirls around to come face to face with his little brother, eyes wide with worry. "Are you okay? The demons didn't hurt you, did they? Mom and Dad were worried sick when you didn't come back in time to fill the clock." His eyes can't settle, roving up and down Jongwoon as he examines him for injury.
"What? No, who told you that?" Jongwoon gaped, surpised at how quickly what seemed like the entire town had amassed on the banks of the sacred river. He looks through the crowd to where Sungmin, too, is being scoured from head to toe by his brother and father.
"Sungjin saw it all! He went to help bring back the fish and he saw Sungmin being dragged into the river by a demon! And he said they tried to get you too, and I was so scared, Jongwoon, I thought you were going to die!" Jongjin sounds near hysterics. Jongwoon's eyes narrow and he casts his gaze to Sungmin, who hears it all, even over the din of the people crying outrage and closing in on the poor souls pressed against the rock.
"That's enough!" Sungmin shouts as he shakes off his father's arm, silencing the crowd. Sungjin reels back as though he'd been slapped when Sungmin directs his angry glare his way. "Sungjin you are my brother, and I do not know if you misinterpreted or have ill-intent, but I cannot let this lie continue . These two are not demons, nor did they try to drown Jongwoon and I. I jumped in to save them."
A collective gasp runs through the crowd, and even Ryeowook and Henry seem surprised at Sungmin's outburst. Jongwoon waits with bated breath for the reaction, but everyone seems stunned into silence. Sungmin appears unwilling to say more in his own defense, so he swallows the thickness in his throat and speaks. "He could not let them die," he starts quietly. "Life is too precious to let the current sweep it away. He could not let them die in good faith."
"Possession!" a woman in the crowd crows. "They've been possessed, the both of them!"
"Slay the demons and free the children!" roars another man. The riot uproars again and someone steps forward, raising a wheat sickle as if to strike. Henry and Ryeowook flinch into each other but the strike never comes -- Sungmin, reflexes sharply trained for the life of the catch, jumps forward and catches the man by the wrist, nicking his arm in the process.
"Do you not see the lives that are in front of you?!" Sungmin argues passionately. "You should be ashamed of yourselves! Doesn't Luzo teach us that the taking of a human life is the utmost sin?"
"They aren't human, they are demons who stole the stars right out of the sky!" Sungjin retorts desperately.
“We are human though!” Henry pleads, shielding Ryeowook behind his back and eyeing the townspeople with distrust, mouth pursed in worry and looking to Sungmin pleadingly, the only person he dares to trust in the crowd. Sungmin tries to send him a reassuring gaze, but even he is doubtful of how much he can do for the two, especially when his father, the Elder, steps forward.
“Silence,” He shouts out, voice thundering over the mass chaos, arms raised and staff set still on the ground. “We will give these men a chance to explain themselves, perhaps they really are deities of Luzo.”
“We don’t know what you’re talking about,” Ryeowook says softly, poking his head over Henry’s shoulder, biting his lip and gazing at the large hole in the ‘sky’ upriver, clutching Jongwoon’s vest tighter around himself and pressing hard against the rock, still glaring at the townspeople. “We come from the surface, there was a cave in of some kind, the ground below us just collapsed and we ended up here, Henry nearly drowned in the river until we were saved by those men.”
He points hesitantly to Jongwoon and Sungmin, eyes still untrusting but filled with some small gratitude, and Sungmin smiles encouragingly back, nudging Jongwoon to do the same, even as Sungjin stares on, horrified.
“Sungmin, how can you be kind to them? They’re outsiders!” He hisses, glaring at the two men on the ground and looking to their father, lip curled back and eyes shadowed in fear. “Father, you can’t believe this, there is no ‘surface’, they are clearly disgraced angels that Luzo banished from Heaven to damn us all!”
The Elder sends his younger son a sharp gaze. "Not another word out of you," he hisses, tone laced with finality, and Sungjin wisely keeps his mouth shut. The crowd parts when the respected man moves forward to kneel before Henry and Ryeowook. He meets their gazes, one before the other, and firmly grasps Henry by the chin.
"Tell me," he says, quirking an eyebrow at the nervous but indignant fire that flashes in Ryeowook's eyes as Henry tenses. "Your garb is different from what we have. Your hair, lighter; your eyes, clearly unblessed by the light that Luzo has bestowed upon us." He gestures to the stars, which have begun to flicker back into a shadow of their former brightness now that the heavenly light has dimmed. "Tell me why that is."
"We already told you," Henry insists. "We fell through the ground and the river carried us here. Our hair is lighter because of the sun, and eyes are used to it, not the darkness or the lueuror. And we have no idea who this Luzo you keep speaking of is."
Sungmin resists the urge to wince when his father's lips settle into a thin line, his eyes narrowing and a vein in his temple throbbing. He knows that look; despite the outward calmness he knows that Henry has sealed his own doom. The Elder rises to his feet, judgement clear on his face.
"Heaven sent or hell bent, no person nor beast denies the glory of Luzo," he says, his voice dangerously low. "Strangers who have fallen from the sky, your humanity is no longer in question. It matters not; you are not welcome here. We will send you back from where you came."
A tense silence follows the verdict of the Elder, the people unsure of what to do. Jongwoon isn't sure he likes the hanging implication of what his best friend's father means, because if what these strange beings say is true, then there is no way for them to return. Ryeowook seems to realize this as well. "Sir..." he speaks meekly, "I mean no disrespect but... I don't think we can go back the way we came."
The Elder lowers his gaze to the two men at his feet. "Indeed not," he says. "Though you have misunderstood. There are two directions in this land -- in, and out -- and both are by the grace of Luzo. One way in," he waves an arm to a mother in the crowd cradling a newborn baby to her chest, "one way out."
“Father, you can’t do that to them!” Sungmin exclaims, stepping towards his father and swinging his arm out to gesture at the still cowering men, blood running down his sleeve. Jongwoon eyes his friend worriedly stepping next to him to make sure he doesn’t do anything too rash, knowing how Sungmin gets when he’s dedicated himself to a cause. “This is human life, you can’t kill them simply for not knowing our beliefs, each person is entitled to their own.”
“You watch your mouth, Sungmin,” The Elder warns, eyeing his son harshly and seeing past him to the other men, sparing a glance at Jongwoon as well. “That’s the talk of a heathen, if you don’t step out of the way I’ll be forced to punish you, blood or not.”
“I refuse to let you kill two innocent men, Father,” Sungmin continues, stubbornly ignoring any warning glances sent his way. He refuses to let the men he just risked his own life to save die, especially when they send him equally hopeless looks, almost looking resigned to their fates. “Punish me if you will, I refuse to see this injustice carried out.”
Sungmin’s father regards them with shaded eyes before motioning to the men with spears in their hands, pointing to Henry and Ryeowook on the ground.
“Take them away, I need to talk to my son and the eldest of the time keeper’s children without their presence.” The guards nod sagely and pushes past Sungmin to haul the two men to their feet, yanking them down river, and Sungmin notes it’s in the direction of the geyser, looking at his father incredulously.
"You wouldn't," he breathes. "Father, please, that's cruel!" Sungmin is aware the tone of desperacy, the begging in his voice, but in all the years he has lived, he has always looked to his father as an exemplar role model. Now he feels like he's been lied to, like wool has been pulled over his eyes his entire life.
"It is the will of Luzo. Heathens who cannot be saved in this life must return to his side in order to be born again." The Elder turns from where his gaze had followed the guards and their captives out, to his son, whose eyes are burning with passion and betrayal. "Though I never thought I would see the day where I have to brand my own son as such. And as for you, Jongwoon, I expected better of you. Both of you will be punished for aiding the strangers and for encouraging heresy; ten lashes each. I should hope that will teach you both a lesson in faith."
Jongwoon bows his head guiltily. His family stares at him from the crowd, Jongjin worried for his older brother and his parents embarrassed for the shame he has brought upon their family. And yet, Jongwoon doesn't feel guilty for that -- instead, he is more ashamed of himself for letting his best friend down by keeping his silence. What a coward, he thinks bitterly of himself.
Sungmin, however, hasn't finished yet. "I was taught that the will of Luzo was to promote peace and prosperity through our faith in him, not through murdering innocents who hadn't the blessing of being taught of his grace."
The sound of a hard slap echoes over the silent crowd and Sungmin clenches his fists to keep from reaching up to touch the stinging cheek. Instead he keeps it turned, refusing to meet his father's gaze. "I will not have you talk to me that way, young man," the Elder snaps. "Perhaps one lash for every year Luzo has given you will remind you of what you have been and have not been taught."
Sungmin’s eyes narrow and he turns his head to face forward but still doesn’t meet his father’s eyes, glancing over at Jongwoon and trying to apologize with his eyes for dragging his friend into this, but he knows that Jongwoon understands when he smiles nervously back, apologizing softly under his breath for not saying anything in his defense.
“It’s okay, I wouldn’t want you to have any more lashes than already demanded,” Sungmin whispers softly as they’re pushed along downriver to the town square, right in front of the giant clock that keeps the time, large water tubes connected to it keeping it ticking. Seeing Jongwoon tense, he teases him lightly in an attempt at helping the mood, even though he sees the whip being handed to his father out of the corner of his eye. “And you’re practically an old man in comparison, that many lashes would kill you.”
“Silence,” Sungmin’s father reprimands, voice hard and laced with disappointment as he looks at his son, distaste on his tongue as he wonders where he could have gone wrong in raising him. It does not do for the son of the highest Elder to denounce their God, even if it is in the defence of others. “You shall take your punishment quietly, lest more lashes be added, and let this punishment remind you of that which created you, and a warning to all others thinking of denouncing the existence of our Creator.”
Jongwoon gulps thickly as he sees Sungmin kneel down, pressing his forehead to the floor. The hand holding his arms behind his back tightens menacingly as Jongwoon squirms. He cringes as the Elder raises the whip as high as he can and brings it down, leaving an angry red mark down Sungmin's back.
Crack. Sungmin presses his forehead a little harder against the floor but does not make a sound. Crack. The second strike lands nearly in the same spot and it burns twice as much as the first time. Crack. And the third lands crossways, searing pain stinging fresh skin. Crack. Crack. Crack. By the time the eighth strike comes down the skin is chafed and bruised and starting to peel, bleeding in some spots. By the twelfth strike, he is biting his lip so hard it bleeds in order to keep quiet. Ten more to go.
Jongwoon watches his friend being beaten with a heavy heart. He can see a bit of Sungmin's face and how it's contorted in pain, and it's unbearable to watch. His back is bleeding profusely now and he can hardly see an inch of untouched skin. However, when he turns his head away and closes his eyes, willing back the bile rising in his throat, it is jerked back in Sungmin's direction by the same man who grips his wrists. "Watch," he growls. "Watch, learn, and repent."
By the twentieth strike, Sungmin's vision is swimming from the pain and the loss of blood. Crack. The twenty-first strike comes down and he clenches his eyes shut, forcing a deep breath as he prepares for that final lashing. The Elder only hesistates for a split-second, so slight it went unnoticed, before bringing down the whip with one last powerful blow. Sungmin finally whimpers, the first noise to escape his mouth as he slumps to his side, the pain finally overcoming him.
“Sungmin!” Jongwoon exclaims before he can stop himself, stopping a wince in the back of his throat as he’s cuffed on the back of the head, shoved forward to rest next to Sungmin, unconscious in front of the clock and blood tinging the edge of his lips, back a bloody mess. Jongwoon steels himself and motions for the Elder to pause before beginning his lashes, stopping to shed his shirt before glaring defiantly.
“I should have the same punishment standards as he did, we committed the same crime,” He says softly, trying to keep the tinge of sarcasm from his voice and kneeling on the ground, resting his forehead against it and taking a deep breath, readying himself for the first strike.
“Very well,” Sungmin’s father says, hardly sparing a glance at his son on the ground before moving to Jongwoon, readying the whip again and glancing at Jongwoon’s bare back, a tinge of respect for taking more punishment than he was actually given, thinking this boy may be redeemable yet. “Prepare for your punishment then.”
The first lash hurts just as much as Jongwoon expects it to, but it’s the ones afterwards that really drive it home. He bites into the dirt to keep from making a sound, glancing at Sungmin from the corner of his eye. He reminds himself to take it for once in his life, the quicker that it’s over the faster he can get Sungmin some medical help; the welts on his back are likely to fester infection if not tended to. It’s that that keeps his vocal chords silent, even as the last lashes begin to draw blood, and he feels it run hot down his bare skin.
Then as quickly as it began, it's over. Jongwoon pants heavily, trying to focus on everything, anything but the pain in his back. The Elder lowers his whip and hands it back to it's owner. "Let this be a lesson to all," he annouces to the crowd. Then he turns to Jongwoon, who he is surprised to see is still conscious. "You may go have your wounds treated; the healer knows the limits to treating the punished. My son will accompany you when he comes to."
"Sir," Jongwoon pleads softly, face still pressed to the ground, "please, let me take him. He'll get terribly ill if the lashes become infected."
An unreadable expression crosses the Elder's face but it betrays little of what he is thinking. "If you insist. If you have the strength to carry him, you may. However," and here he raises his voice back to the crowd. "No one is to help you. Understood?"
“Yes, sir.” Jongwoon grits out, pulling himself off the ground and wincing lightly as he makes his way over to Sungmin, touching his shoulder and shaking him gently, careful not to aggravate any of his already bleeding wounds, voice soft in his ear. “Min, can you hear me? I have to carry you to the infirmary, can you move at all?”
He gets nothing but a small, pained sigh in reply and frowns, this certainly makes things harder. If he carries Sungmin in his arms, he risks opening the cuts on his friend’s back even more, which leaves the option of piggyback, at the risk of aggravating his own.
It doesn’t take him long to make his decision.
He grimaces as he kneels on the ground, pulling Sungmin up to get an arm over his shoulder, nudging a hip over his waist until he has Sungmin mostly on his back, feeling an intense burn all along his skin as Sungmin’s chest meets his abused back, feeling the man stir lightly against the back of his neck, consciousness slowly beginning to stream back.
“Hang in there, Min,” He murmurs, ignoring the Elder’s eye on him and simply makes his way, slowly, away from the clock, every step burning more than each of his lashes, but he takes comfort in the fact that at least Sungmin doesn’t have to endure any more pain, his friend having to live through too much of it on a daily basis.
He can't imagine how much pressure there must be on Sungmin, the oldest son of the highest Elder. He thought he had it bad; being a time keeper is such a vital job to their community that his father was always pretty strict growing up. But he never lashed him, not once. Scolded, grounded, and spanked, sure, but he never used the whip. The fact that Sungmin's father could beat him to unconsciousness without batting an eye... it's unsettling.
By the time Jongwoon gets to the infirmary, a small building tucked away in the corner of the town, his legs are shaking with the strain of supporting his and Sungmin's weight. The daughter of the healer, sitting behind the counter, jumps up at the sight of them. "Oh my..." she gasps. "What happened?"
Jongwoon gives a wry smile. Of course she would be the only person who hadn't gone running when the town began to riot. "Long story. Where's the healer?"
"He's in the back studying some new material. I-I'll go and get him," she replies shakily, pushing back her stool and scurrying to the back room. "Father," Jongwoon hears her voice trailing from down the hall. "Father, come quickly."
“What is it?” The healer steps through the curtain in time to see Jongwoon’s legs buckle beneath, landing hard on his knees and panting with the effort of keeping Sungmin on his back, trying desperately not to hit the floor. “Oh heavens, Jongwoon, what-”
“We are to be given the standard treatment to those who are punished, nothing more,” Jongwoon pants out, black closing in on the edges of his vision, barely seeing the healer’s daughter rush to the cabinet for the medicinal herbs, feeling Sungmin being eased off his aching back slowly. “By orders of the Elder, you know what to do.”
The healer’s eyes are sad as Jongwoon finally collapses entirely on the floor, brow creased in pain and back looking aggravated. It’s nothing to the bloody mess that resides on Sungmin’s though, and he shakes his head. He never was one to agree with such drastic punishment, no matter what act the two could have committed. Though he supposes he will hear the whole story sooner rather than later, and it’s always best to wait before passing judgement.
Sungmin stirs lightly when laid down on the cot, but otherwise gives no reaction. He begins by wiping the the wounds gently, attempting to sort through the drying blood to get to the actual wounds, and winces as he knows that even when the memory fades, these scars will never fade.
"Be a dear and bring me the ointment, would you?" the healer says to his daughter. "The bandages too, the wide ones."
The girl's eyes go wide. "But Father, shouldn't we suture them? Those gashes will never heal properly if we don't--"
"Unfortunately, that's the point," the healer replies softly as he rinses his cloth in cool water before moving over to pick Jongwoon off the floor and put him on the cot next to Sungmin. "It's part of the punishment."
A horrified look crosses her face. "But what could they have done to warrant such a lashing?" She crosses the room, ointment and bandages in hand. Her eyes are fixated at the ugly marks on Sungmin's back as she hands her father his materials.
"That's something that has always been beyond me, dear," her father replies, opening the ceramic jar and applying the ointment gently to the damaged skin. Sungmin flinches unconsciously from the sting of the cold and the healer's daughter moves to hold his shoulders down. "But I suppose it is necessary to keep the order. I just hope I never have to see something this bad on someone this young ever again."
Sungmin’s eyes snap open the moment that the ointment touches his back and he gasps at the sting, the healer’s daughter’s hands barely keeping him on the table, hissing lightly as the healer’s hands attend to each of his wounds, only barely cleaning them before moving onto the next, work slow.
“Jongwoon?” He chokes out, throat feeling suddenly parched, flinching again as a hand brushes a particularly deep lash wound, consciousness coming slowly as he glances to his friend lying beside him, eyes still closed and brows creased. “Is he okay?”
“He’ll be fine, but it’s thanks to him that your wounds aren’t half as bad as they could be,” The healer says softly, watching the muscles in Sungmin’s back tense as he readies the bandages, wishing he could do more for the young man. “If it wasn’t for him sacrificing his own wounds to carry you here, your scarring could have been even worse.”
Sungmin’s eyes narrow and he weakly reaches out to shove Jongwoon’s arm, trying to nudge him awake.
“You idiot,” He murmurs, feeling the blackness close back in again as the rough bandages rub over his wounds, already beginning to itch as the healing begins. “It’s all my fault we’re here in the first place, why did you have to make things harder on yourself?”
The healer smiles, glad to see that despite the situation the two friends are able to be selfless for each other. "I'll need you to sit up so I can wrap these up, can you do that?" Sungmin nods, moving to push himself up off the cot, relying heavily on the healer's guiding arms to get himself into a sitting position. "Good, now just lift your arms up..."
His arms feel like lead, and it takes him an enormous amount of effort just to lift them high enough so that the healer can wrap the bandages around his torso, criss-crossing them over his shoulders to cover the highest welts between his shoulder blades. When he finishes, he tucks the loose end in snugly so that the bandages don't come loose, and Sungmin lets his arms drop to his sides with a forced sigh.
"Thank you, sir," he murmurs. "Once you finish cleaning up Jongwoon, I'll make sure he gets home safely." He hopes -- it's taking a lot of blinking just to keep the blackness from closing in on his vision. But he knows the healer is not allowed to offer them beds for the night, and the last thing he wants to do is get more people in trouble.
"Nonsense," the healer scoffs, "you'll do nothing short of staying here until you regain some strength."
"But sir..." Sungmin protests. "If my fath... If the Elder comes around..."
"I will tell him you haven't come to yet. Punished or not, I still have a duty to Luzo as a healer to make sure my patients do not do themselves in from overexertion," the healer interrupts with a slight twinkle in his eye. Sungmin begins to argue but suddenly a spell of dizziness hits him and he pitches forward. The healer's daughter catches him and helps him lay back down on the cot, belly down. "Now, rest."
Sungmin looks like he’s about to protest, but a hard look from the healer stops him before he can begin and he simply lays his head back down, sighing gently and resigning himself to the fact that he will lose this argument.
“Fine, but don’t keep us too long, Jungsu,” Sungmin says sleepily, the darkness only creeping in more with each second, pain in his back fading to a low throb as he lets his eyes slide shut, giving one last deep sigh before letting the darkness take over. “I don’t want my father to punish you if he finds out, you’ve done too much for us already.”
Jungsu smiles, waving off Sungmin’s thanks and watching him fall into a light sleep, blood splotches beginning to show slightly through the bandages already. He sighs, moving to tend to Jongwoon and getting a fresh cloth when his daughter calls him.
“Father,” she asks slowly, look on her face contemplative, glancing at Jongwoon and Sungmin on the table. “Aren’t you going to ask them what they did? Surely you’re much too kind to them, there must have been something extremely serious to have happened to warranted this punishment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many lashes.”
"Whatever it was, it can't be anything that Luzo wouldn't forgive, so we need to forgive, as well. They've been punished enough, and clearly repented for their sins. There's no reason to cast them aside, as well." Jungsu wipes the last of the ointment from his hands before going to smoothe his daughter's hair and press a kiss to her crown. "Just promise me I won't ever see you in this position, Jinri. This old man doesn't need a heart attack, okay?"
Jinri smiles fondly at her father, and then it turns sad again when he looks back at the two men on the cots. "Still... I can't help but wonder what happened. I mean, short of selling your soul to a demon, I can't think of anything that would make being beaten within an inch of your life acceptable."
Jungsu shakes his head, motioning for Jinri to help lift Jongwoon so he can wrap the bandages around his torso as well. "I don't know, my dear. I honestly don't know." He doesn't have to wrap Jongwoon as extensively as Sungmin, and when he finishes he and Jinri lay the man down on his stomach as comfortably as they can manage. Then they quietly head into the back room, allowing the two men their rest.