Khun woke up with a headache and a high fever.
He wasn’t that surprised. Really. Fighting Zahard for decades wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Endless battles and forcing his body to the limits made him used to the not quite rested feeling. It was a small price to pay for surviving, Khun knew that perfectly well, but the feeling of being cooked inside out was still hard to get used to.
Panting and unable to open his eyes because of the tortuous headache, he reached out with his hand to the nightstand to get a hold of the glass of water he kept for when the fevers didn’t want to let up. Instead, he just found vast clumps of soft silk covers. It was initially a very welcomed and familiar feeling, Khun had always had high standards for everything he wore and used. Bam only recently started noting the difference between his and Khun's clothes, funnily enough, the constant ripping of clothes and ‘Khun, I really don’t want to waltz naked in front of half the Rankers to fight them’ led eventually to some awkward mix-ups but-
The fever-induced trail of thought was quickly shut down when he remembered he was at a war, and the piece of silk he was touching was definitely his bedsheet, which wasn’t possible as the best ones he could get were cotton ones.
Feeling more on alert, Khun began panicking a little. He had been moved to another place and had no recollection of it. He was in no condition to fight, his chances of winning against any kidnappers were nearly zero. His friends should have noticed him missing if he wasn’t present by breakfast, Bam had to at least, but he couldn’t be sure if he was the only one abducted. He needed more information, only his mind was spiralling in a painful mess.
‘Fucking shit, this headache couldn’t have come at a worse time.’
Fighting the pain, he focused on trying to regain his breath. That was the moment he noticed the hint he was missing.
Even after all the years he spent travelling the Tower, there was no way he could mistake that sweet saccharine scent, a smell that tried to overwhelm your senses so no one could notice what it tried to hide. Khun's mind was instantly assaulted by memories of blue and red, crowds of smiles full of warmth and deceit, his mother's gentle touches before being given a sharp knife that carried the weight of an entire family. He had escaped this place called ‘home’ long ago, the mere thought of being back only hardened Khun's resolve to run away again.
Ever so slowly he opened his eyes, wary of everything but only finding himself alone in a room. Blinking against the harsh light entering the room from the window beside the bed he laid on, he noted the bareness of this living space. Following a hunch, Khun glanced quickly over the place to confirm his suspicions. This room could be one of endless in the Khun estate, but the windowsill still had a little ‘A.A’ carved into it, the only sign that someone had lived in this place at any point in time.
The room he was held in, was his own.
Gaining a bit of confidence, and really needing something to soothe the fever, Khun slowly crawled out of bed and steadied himself. Then he finally noticed why his coordination was worse than usual.
He had shrunk. When he was thrown from this place, everything in the room had been just a tad too small for it to be comfortable to his 17-year-old self. Now, however, the bed was a bit too tall to get off from.
Finally getting his sight focused on his hands, he observed the wide expanse of unscarred skin. His vision swam a little as he inspected a view he wasn’t supposed to be able to spectate again, but here he was, alive, in his old bedroom with a perfectly fitted nightgown, not a single scar from war but a mind that remembered perfectly well the pain of each wound and futile sacrifice to try and save his friends.
Not really knowing if this was reality or some fever-induced nightmare (or maybe a Floor Test, he had encountered worse), Khun slowly walked towards the bathroom. Once inside, he was met face to face with a reflection of his old self, a child with a blue earring with which he refused to part, a blue-eyed killing machine and master schemer with an arrogant dream of becoming the next leader.
Looking at this kid he was facing, he still couldn’t quite place himself as, well, his past him. There was this small rift between his self before and after Bam. This kid facing him is all sharp edges and venomous tongue, too scared of even touching his most precious treasures. His true self, however, had long since passed those childish beliefs, he was a guy that for all his bark was actually really caring for his friends, someone who remained proudly by the side of a man who showed him a starry future.
He stood there for what seemed to him like a long time, unblinking and with a straight face. When his breathing got more labored and his cheeks began getting hotter, he simply took a glass of water and went back to bed.
He was, so very tired.
Khun liked to think about himself as a rational and calm person. Travelling back in time was, however, a real test to his beliefs.
The week after he woke up in the past was spent mostly in a state of half-consciousness, not being able to do much more than taking down the fever and sitting alone with his thoughts. While thinking is something he rather enjoys, whatever happened to take him to this place in time seemed to have tampered with his memories and was affecting his capability of forming more than a couple of coherent strings of thought. He tried meditating to calm his mind but didn’t gain any notable progress in the time being. Most of what he could remember clearly got only to after completing the test for floor 98, after that there were some snippets of them preparing for, what he could best assume, battle.
(He tried to remember what happened after, if they did fight or he came here before, but was simply met with nothing but a migraine).
After the fever went down Khun finally left the room to gather intel and begin doing something. Contrary to his old body, this one didn’t feel like a wall of bricks had fallen on him after a high fever, rather, his inactivity made him feel somewhat restless. And anxious, but that was for entirely other reasons.
He was correct in his guess of being in his teens, also, by some sort of miracle, his sickness began right at the start of the ‘official fights’. Everyone was too distracted by the bloodbath between the ten-year-olds to really be concerned for him. Even his mother had left him alone in preparation of the Princess competition, allowing Khun to stroll anywhere he wanted for a short period of time, and he was going to use every chance he could take.
Being known as a slacker was proving to be his best advantage. The time he spent in the past fishing was now invested in regaining body mobility and improving his overall endurance. He tried on occasion to attend the lectures, but after a near slip of tongue and having verified that he wouldn’t be missing anything, he stopped attending altogether.
Instead, he took a liking to spectate and participate more in the ‘practical’ classes. When he was little, he never really enjoyed them (he was talented with a knife and didn’t need to kill more than necessary, mind you), but now this was a good opportunity to test his improvements and getting once again used to real fighting in a body that wasn’t up to par to what he was used to.
At one point, he got injured. It was a calculated slip, he was attracting some attention for fighting and winning against older family members, and being under the family’s scrutiny was the opposite of his plans. He arranged it so the gossipers saw and that way he guaranteed himself a few weeks of peace. Faking shame, he dragged his feet back to his room and tried summoning the firefish for the first time, not knowing if it had actually come back in time with him.
After the fifth attempt, he stopped trying.
This was an expected outcome but still remained a major setback to his plans. Nevertheless, everything was already prepared, the only thing that remained was to wait.
Khun began scheming the moment he knew when he had come back to. He couldn’t remember the reason for it, but he was fairly sure it was not by coincidence he arrived by the time the tension between family branches had reached its peak. The perfect time to gain total control.
In the past, Khun once made a decision. It was not a good one. Calling it a mistake would be absurd, he was a master strategist and knew perfectly well what was to come. However, now he was man enough to admit it was a cheap way out that led to more bloodshed than it should have.
He once spoke to Bam about it, in one of those rare periods of time where battle wasn’t their first priority. Khun had been mulling it over since the Hidden Floor, and after a small encounter with Khun Eduan in the 87th Floor he was forced to deal with the truth.
Bam quietly hummed and chirped in questions when Khun needed to be prompted. He listened as Khun explained how, to help Maria become a Zahard Princess, he made a choice that wasn’t that of a leader. He spared those beside Maria because he was still afraid of his father, he was a coward who didn’t honestly think he was able to be in charge. This route would lead to Maria winning the competition on the long run, however, starting as the underdogs but ending as a branch with similar power as his own would lead to stronger hatred and more bad blood between both families. His family’s mistake of underestimating Maria’s power would end up being what would wipe out them from an ever-growing family tree.
Bam, being the kind friend that he was, rasped out a – ‘You’re not at fault Khun.’ –and looked at Khun with sad gold eyes, mouth frowning as if wanting to say more but knowing it would not be heard.
Those words reverberated in his mind as Khun prowled through the empty hallways. Bams sincerity when speaking that phrase was a small band-aid that Khun had carried the floors beyond and now finally felt he was able to rip off, he would face this new reality by doing what he was initially supposed to. No more regrets.
When one of his mother's maids came he watched as she confused her target. He stood by Maria's side at the memorial watching her cry silently, whispering words of comfort in her ear while knowing it was not a coincidence her sister died.
The sudden passing of one of her strongest supporters a few months later came as a big surprise to everyone except him. Weapon possession was only known to happen with the 13 month series, the death was deemed natural. Some rumors started spreading they killed themselves to save face for when Maria lost.
His mother spent never-ending nights praising him for the other less inconspicuous killings, showing for the first time a happy smile to him while unaware of the trap she was slowly falling into. The gifts she brought with her each time were carefully hidden away for when he left this nest of snakes.
By the time an unexpected third party appeared and launched an early attack to lower his sister’s defense Khun was already sneaking into his father’s Treasure Room. The newly found hatred and ambition Maria had was a fire he slowly built up over the past year to explode the moment she was given an opportunity.
She did not let him down.
This time when he walked by the bloodied halls, alone, he could only recall the pain and anger that consumed him here. When he was thrown away, he was afraid of what would happen to him. Now though... Now he knew that beyond these walls in front of him was a lone boy with dark hair and gold eyes. Hidden away beyond the Tower there was a man who would bring destruction and a breeze of hope to Zahards falsely peaceful domain.
Somewhere beyond his reach right now, a sly monster was trying to consume once again a starry night.
As he ran out of the Khun estate, Khun heard his mother's shouts of anger. Maria, covered in blood and tears, looked at him from the door seething with anger and betrayal written all over her face. Realization came to her far too late.
He might have set off a ticking time bomb, but as he rushed away from that hellish place the only thing he could think of was Bams face slowly hardening up after each fight. The frown that was now a norm on his face and the woman that drove the innocence away from his sight.
‘I wish I could’ve met Bam before you did.’
It was a phrase he said a long time ago, a small, bitter statement that he wished would happen but never truly believed in.
Now, he was given an opportunity to right some wrongs. Destiny made a mistake once, Khun won’t allow it to repeat twice.
A masked blond arrived at a full Arcade. He drifted inside, with blue eyes that betrayed a confident smirk.
And hence begins my retelling of the story. I don't know what to feel about this chapter as it's more of an establishing one. Khun has begun his first mission: meet Bam before Rachel does. And he will need help to do it. A winged tree might ring a bell?? Hehe
Thank you so much for reading!! Comments and kudos are much appreciated <3
Chapter 2: Prelude: Slump II
Okay, I'm back with a monster chapter lol
Thank you guys so much for all the comments and kudos left ㅠ-ㅠ I still can't quite believe this received such a positive response, just really, thank you so much <3
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The blonde strode confidently between the ocean of arcade machines, eyeing the games to see if he knew any. He wasn’t an avid player by any means, but he did hate losing and, as put by Androssi — ‘Always had the stupidest fucking luck’ and ‘Khun, if you throw another golem carcass while I’m on first place I will destroy your hair straighteners’ .
So, he was betting on himself. And an off comment he heard once while in a call with Hachuling.
The thing is, Khun needed assistance for his plan to work. He was now stuck in the Outer Tower and needed the help of at least a Ranker. Most of the Rankers he knew he couldn’t call, he either didn’t have a method to do so or wouldn’t be able to explain how he knew them. That left him with very few choices, so he decided to go for the one that if he played his cards well, would lead to a possible strong ally in the future.
Stopping his wandering in front of a random machine he started playing. His first tries were good, he quickly got used to the controls and once he understood the game he would get to the higher levels with ease. However, there always came a point when a Boss appeared that couldn’t be damaged and led him to stare at the end screen where the Top Score table was shown.
He never could quite understand Androssi's anger towards him when he won. And yeah, winning was better, but she really shouldn’t be so mad over the game when she lost because of her own mistakes. Her anger towards the pixels was unwarranted.
But oh boy was he getting mad over those pixels now. He would comprehend if his incompetence drove him to lose, he wasn’t an expert in games and at least that would be fair. Instead, he just had to watch as his character died once again unable to do anything, followed by the mocking sight of the Top Scorer’s being displayed in big bold letters. After the fifty-third failed attempt he began to believe he had developed a sudden allergy to blueberries. That nickname was going to haunt him in his sleep.
Unwilling to give up, he embarked in a long painful journey of earning every eleventh place in every game he tried. Unjust bosses, falling two milliseconds short of winning, sudden malfunction of the controls, glitching of games… Each loss only wounded more his ego, he had to get in the Top Ten to grab his half-sibling’s attention and he sure as hell was gonna do it.
The frustrating ending of the first day left him with enough tokens to exchange for the largest plushie in the shop and a coupon for a free meal in the adjacent restaurant. The average spaghetti taste in his mouth was a bitter reminder of the day's failure.
The second and third day went much the same. By the fourth day three plushies stared at him from his bed in the motel, a physical manifestation of his lost time. He had nearly completed the whole Arcade and was starting to have doubts about whether this was the fastest way of getting in touch with Hachuling.
Exhaling a sigh he picked up his mask and headed for the last time to fight his new sworn enemy. If this ended up not working he would just try another way.
Surprisingly, the game that ended up working was the oldest one in the whole place. A small shabby looking machine that seemed to have been there since before Zahard climbed the Tower. From the looks of it, no one had touched it in ages and Khun nearly walked past her, only coming to a stop when he saw the flickering chessboard on the screen.
It was a nostalgic feeling, memories of sitting in the sanctuary of Floor 91 overwhelmed his mind. Endless vast green skies that enveloped their tiny dojo-esque island, a red river that flowed around them like a barrier to keep out the enemies that led them to this place, a small refuge of illusory relief with quiet mourning halls and paper walls too thin to hide the pained cries in the night.
At that time, Khun took a liking to walking throughout the whole place, quiet footsteps that began as a way to get out of his head and ended in a silent way of checking up on his fellow teammates.
It was in one of those strolls that Shibisu had caught and forced him to sit down for a cup of tea.
He had felt restless then, body anxious to do something, anything to justify this rest. When Khun finally decided to make some excuses to leave, Shibisu wiped out a brand new chessboard and animatedly challenged him to a game. Khun had glanced at him unimpressed but ended up humoring him.
He didn’t have anything better to do, really.
(It was also kind of nice to strategize without having the weight of people's lives as collateral.)
With the refreshed memories of that routine with Shibisu - wake up, walk around, get found, play chess- Khun breezed through the levels, not really a challenge compared to his teammate. He was genuinely enjoying his time for once, and when he got to the last level instead of the expected ending screen a special event appeared to have been triggered.
‘WOULD YOU LIKE TO CONTINUE?’
Before knowing it, Khun had pressed the YES button. He was a bit shaken at the change of pacing after all the other levels, a curious gaze staring now at the black loading screen.
“Well, that seems to be the end of it,” Khun whipped out a knife as he turned around to find the source of the voice towering over him. His blade, contrary to the first time he encountered Hachuling, was now pointed at the other man’s chest.
“How- how long have you been here?” Khun grasped a bit out of breath, his initial surprise dissolving into narrowed eyes. The Ranker didn’t even make the attempt to hide an amused smile at Khun’s reaction.
“Not long. A day or so.”
This statement seemed to tick Khun off more. “So you just did what? Lurked around, watching me?”
A long pause stretched between them as Khun glared at the calm Hachuling, the knife still steadily held against where the eldest’s heart was.
“So... Who are you, little boy?” Hachuling restarted the conversation.
Being reminded of his current state didn’t exactly help calm Khun's anger. “Hachuling,” the mention of his name drew an arched eyebrow from the blue-haired man, “stop wasting our time. I come with a proposal.” Khun drew back his knife as a signal of peace.
The Ranker stood for a few seconds while a lighthouse appeared out of thin air behind him, opening up as he turned around to enter it. Khun followed closely behind with a calculated blank face. He had never gotten on smoothly with the man, the other appeared quite fond of him in his past life, but Khun could never do more than act civil when they talked. His distaste for unreadable mysterious characters had only grown with each passing year inside the Tower.
Hachuling scrutinized his brother from his end of the lighthouse as he came to a stop near the entrance. He hadn’t seen a family member in a while and frankly hadn’t planned to return to their floor. Not because he wasn’t on good terms with his family, it was just more of an open secret that he didn’t associate with the Khuns anymore.
“I need your help,” Khun began when he saw in the screens behind Hachuling that they had left the Arcade. The older brother nodded to signal he was listening. “And I want to make a deal. With Wolhaiksong.”
Khun didn’t miss how Hachuling’s hand twitched before he twisted around to face the screens. “And you think I know how to get in touch with them?”
“Well, I would be surprised if you couldn’t when you’re part of them.” As he said the words he noted the small curve of Hachuling’s lips. Contrary to Khun, Hachuling wasn’t averse to the idea of not being in control, he enjoyed the challenge.
“You seem to know a lot about me - Khun Aguero Agnis - for someone who hasn’t even begun climbing the Tower.” Khun stood tense, unsure of whether Hachuling’s now neutral tone was a good sign. “I do want to ask you some questions, but I don’t doubt that you are the type who likes to keep your secrets to yourself,” Hachuling briefly glanced back at Khun who nodded curtly, “so I’ll avoid us the trouble and will just ask one for now. Don’t try lying to me, you should know that won’t work.”
“What do you want from us?”
A short considering pause. “I need to get out of the Tower.”
And done. Now that the words were out there Khun couldn’t take them back. Maybe he should have phrased it differently but at least the fact that he was met with silence wasn’t that bad.
A burst of slow laughter erupted from the Ranker. The ever increasing sound of it was grating on Khun’s nerves but he patiently waited for Hachuling's answer.
“Oh, but don’t we want all? Listen here kid — if that was possible I wouldn’t be here right now with you. But go on, you have picked my interest...” he trailed off while changing directions of the lighthouse and then added almost like an afterthought, “I assume you want to meet Urek? I can’t really let you meet Ryu.”
“Urek is fine.” Khun's shoulders sagged in relief, he had hoped for Hachuling to be more curious than cautious of him and had gotten the best result. “And it’s not literally getting out. Not yet, at least.”
“Then we may be able to help.” Hachuling controlled the lighthouse to slowly descend into an aircraft. “It has been a while since I entered the Inside Tower, but I hadn’t expected such a bold response. All of his children now behave like that? Or are you more of an odd case?”
“I thought you were only going to ask one question.” Khun spoke while walking out of the lighthouse into the ship.
“Come on, brother. It’s been a while since I met any of you guys, and I’m still curious about who told you to beat my scores in the Arcade. You’ve got a knack for gaming you know? I think my highest score there was in the top fourteenth at best.” It was an offhand comment said while they ventured into the navigation deck.
“I have my ways of ge…” Then Khun finally processed what Hachuling had told him. “Wait- fourteenth? What.” A slow look of understanding dawned on Khun’s face. “The Top Scores were fake.”
A beat of silence.
Khun’s murderous gaze grew stronger as he remembered the frustration and a tad of desperation he went through for the past few days. Hachuling, smile still on his face, walked unrushed to take a seat in front of the comms interface.
“So, as I was telling you - you don’t really have to answer, but I am …” Hachuling continued as if nothing, the family’s nerves of steel were for once of use to him.
Khun sat down in an empty chair far away from the other man, preparing for an onslaught of questions from the only person who could help him right now. He breathed out an angered huff to try and relax, but it proved to not work all that much.
It was going to be a long ride, but he was finally on the right path.
“So – and I’m really hoping I got this wrong – you’re basically proposing us to go to war against Zahard in exchange for what ? The death of millions in the Tower?” Urek spat out as he walked around the room, circling the table at which sat a Khun kid that Hachuling had brought with singsongs of praise. “I see you descendants of those goddamn idiots do take after your heartless parents.”
Khun withstood the insults unfazed, waiting for Mazino to be done to continue his argument. “This war will begin sooner or later. I’m not asking you to start it, but to consider what role do you want Wolhaiksong to play in it.”
And that gave way to another angry tirade from the Irregular.
“Wolhaiksong exists for the sole purpose of getting out of this Tower, we can’t carelessly interfere with Zahard and the ten arrogant bastards. The Tower is bloody enough without us doing anything, do you understand the state it would become if we actively participated?” Urek regarded the kid with a heavy stare, trying to figure out what his deal was. “You can’t just waltz in here to tell me to sacrifice millions of innocents like it’s nothing just ‘cuz. I know your families don’t think much about Wolhaiksong, but you’re vastly underestimating our fighting power right now.”
The Irregular was positively enraged. No one had ever talked to him about war the way the kid had, and the actual deal was absolutely insane, just strings of theory and destiny talk that was driving Urek up the fucking walls . The worst part was the absolute calmness with which the other talked, absolutely sure that everything he said would become true and not giving any hint of willingness to back down. It was this last bit that stopped him from throwing the kid out, alongside the fact that some of the things the Khun predicted would happen had been a concern of Mazino the past decades.
“When the war starts,“ Khun continued as if he hadn’t heard Urek, “Zahard will not stop with only the Families, it will be a genocide. FUG alone won’t be able to fight on all of the fronts. If you don’t take this opportunity you won’t ever see the outside you so wish for — hell, I would be surprised if there was even a Tower left after that massacre.” Khun's voice went hard as he continued speaking, Urek saw for the first time some sincerity in his eyes. “You will end up fighting in the war, I just want to help Wolhaiksong avoid most casualties in exchange for an alliance.”
“But you’re going to be on the opposite end of Zahard, right?” Mazino slowed his pace and sighed, he was still struggling with all of the information the younger one was dumping on him.
“You could say that’s my destiny, yes.” A small bitter smile adorned the kid's face, it didn’t reach his eyes.
“Destiny again, I see. I think you’re too obsessed with something that is so easily broken. There’s no such thing as an unavoidable future, just weaklings who can’t assume defeat.”
Urek contemplated the desk while the other took a pause to ponder on his next words. He mournfully was taken back to the hidden nooks and crannies of his mind, the ones that were mere reminders of cowards and traitors he once cared for.
“I have a team,” the silence was suddenly broken by the bluenette, Mazino looked up at him. “They’re loud and obnoxious, everyone has to have a say in everything and no one will budge, I can’t remember a single day when someone didn’t fight with each other — someone took something without asking, there’s a room that’s bigger than the others so the obvious next course of action is to fight to the death to see who gets it, you can’t propose a plan without there being at least two people on your back crying out that they want to fight more — and god forbid you try to find some peace and quiet because the next thing you know there’s a group of people haunting you down to siege you with questions about why where you leaving them and-“
Khun took a sharp breath and Urek was glad he finally saw more to the stoic looking kid, it was new to see how he was getting so worked up over a group of people, a little peek into the mind of someone he had labelled heartless just mere minutes ago.
“I know them all inside out,” his blue eyes were now wide open, the apathy of before completely gone from his face, “but they always find some way to go beyond what I expect, for better or worse. All of us are so different that the fact we haven’t killed each other is a miracle in and of itself, the only reason we are still a team is because of one guy, and he’s the biggest handful out of all of them.
“He’s naive, at times acts like he has a death wish, and so very stubborn. I have never met someone who is so inflexible about what he wants. He will jump from a bridge without a second thought and we will all follow behind because we don’t know any better. He finds the best even in the worst people which usually backfires, and still the thought that some people are simply bad hasn’t crossed his mind. His life is fucking terrible but he will only cry if it’s something involving his friends, he’s so selfless that being by his side is simultaneously the best and worst thing that has happened in my life, and- and I just can’t help but try and follow him around like an idiot .” Khun ended his tirade breathlessly looking right back at Urek with eyes that were focused on another far-away place.
‘Probably besides that boy’s side’, Urek mused. The kid finally broke out of his stupor after a few beats and hid again behind that blank stare. ‘I should have just taken Eduan’s life if this is the end result of his fucked up bloodline.’
Khun finally spoke the end of his speech. “Destiny is for the weak, but I wouldn’t be here right now if it wasn’t for it. I have to defeat destiny because they’re the one thing I can’t lose. And believe me — if Wolhaiksong doesn’t begin moving now I won’t be the only one that ends up alone.” The once again matter of factly tone irked Urek in the wrong way.
“Is that a threat?” The Shinsoo in the room stirred awake around them while Urek stared down Khun. The chair the young boy was sitting on let out a faint sound of protest. “Don’t forget I’m still one of the most powerful in this Tower.”
When the Shinsoo pressure increased, a panicked flash of fear passed through Khun’s face. This was something even High Rankers would be wary against, let alone not even a Regular. The kid grouched a bit for a few seconds before Urek observed as a quick look of determination gave the bluenette the force to try fighting against his most natural instincts of running away, a tentative knowing smirk stretching on his lips.
“It’s a promise that I don’t want to see fulfilled.”
They continued staring at each other with only the faint buzzing from the Shinsoo as a way to break the silence. Both guys were unwilling to move a muscle, one trying to get the other to back down, the second just barely holding himself up by his sheer force of will.
The Irregular, in the end, was the first to back down, dispersing the Shinsoo so the Khun boy could finally breathe. “I really hope that this will be worth it. For both of us.”
“I wouldn’t expect it to end up otherwise.” The exhaustion was clear in the kid's face and Urek regretted having been that harsh with him, but he still couldn't back down completely.
“Don’t get too ahead of yourself, baby,” Khun visibly scrunched up his nose at the pet name. “I still have to discuss it with the rest of Wolhaiksong, if one of us doesn’t agree with the deal we won’t proceed with it.”
“That’s fine by me, I wasn’t expecting much anyway.” Urek moved out of the way as Khun sat up from his chair.
“I’m still unsure about the plan working. Having another Irregular on our side would be interesting, but you can’t be a hundred percent sure if you will actually succeed .” It was this what gave Urek pause. If they ended up agreeing to help but Khun’s theories weren’t correct… There was simply no way they could help him if he was already on the Outside.
“If - and that’s a big if - I don’t succeed, you will be able to back down without losing much. I would worry more about when I do enter the Tower because that is when FUG and the families will begin to stir.” Khun’s confident smirk while talking to the Irregular was a little unnerving, a sign that he was probably hiding something from Urek.
It was something they would have to look into later. Now, however, Urek was more troubled by what the kid had warned him against. The opportunity of having a real fight in a while was exciting to him, but it also meant that big trouble was coming.
“We’ll take that into consideration then.” Urek walked to open the door of the room. “It’s nice knowing there’s at least one decent Khun left,” an offended ‘Hey’ could be heard from the outside, Urek couldn’t help a tired smile as he retraced his steps to take the seat vacated by Khun. “I will send our conversation to the members now, they should answer soon.”
“Good.” The bluenette turned around and moved to the exit, his small frame a stark contrast against the door by which he took a pause. “I will wait for a month, I can’t lose more time than that.”
The door closed behind the kids' back before Urek could honor him with a reply.
Soon after, Urek’s Pocket rung. Mazino stared a while at the caller's ID lost in thought, only answering at the last moment.
“Urek,” A low voice reverberated through the office. “Are you sure about this?”
“About what? Nothing has been set in stone yet.” He reclined in his chair, hearing the cracking of its hinges under his weight, he really should replace it, how old was this thing again?
“For the love of Zah-... You know that no one of them would refuse to a fight. I’m more concerned about what I’ll have to do to cut our losses short.”
“If you don’t want to do it, we won’t,” the voice on the other side inhaled to try and begin an argument, Urek hastily continued. “I mean it, baby. I understand the risk, but it’s just-.” He wobbled his hand around as if trying to search for an answer.
“You’re fond of the kid? What, your fatherly senses suddenly are kicking in~?” The voice took an amused cadence, but an underlying tone of seriousness was still present.
“Hah, I wish. There’s nothing childlike about that one. I don’t know what they do now with their children, those ten asses, however, if this is the end result maybe fighting them isn’t that bad of a deal.” Urek couldn’t help but remember the look in Khun’s eyes, ‘it wasn’t a look someone that young should have’ , he thought.
“Watcha’ say? Ugh, I swear the connection of these things is getting worse each year.”
Or maybe he actually said it out loud, dammit. “Nothing, there’s just this weird feeling that surrounds him. I did try to force him to back down with Shinsoo - yes, I know I shouldn't have, I’m currently reflecting on it - but he simply took it. He doesn’t seem the type to risk his life without a reason.” Or maybe he was much more foolish than Urek thought, that could also be it.
“Actually, that’s why I was calling,” the Irregular looked at the Pocket and arched an eyebrow. “I didn’t see this path.”
Urek silently assessed what he was told, a small teasing smile appearing on his face. “Aren't you literally born to do that? You getting old or-?”
“NO! No , it’s not like I didn’t fully see it. Do you remember how a couple of years back I told you the routes were a little fuzzy?” Urek grumbled an affirmative sound. “I was mostly annoyed by this. All of us were, really. It happens from time to time, so we didn’t sweat much about it. But here comes wonder kid today and- shit, I don’t know how to put it.”
“Messes with your expectations?” His smile gave way to a considering face. At least he wasn’t alone in this.
“YES! It’s a weird feeling ‘cause it feels like we just took a sharp turn. I’m more interested in if it will lead us to a good path or a bad one.”
“So that’s why you were worried? Did I call you ‘baby’ so much that you actually started believing you are one?” The caller on the other end spluttered.
“Me? Worried? You talk like you don’t know me. I’m curious! This is the first time I don’t know what will happen next. I have to be the voice of reason because your guys are more jittery than usual, Wolhaiksong hasn’t done anything in ages. I dream with a chance to be more than a babysitter.”
“We’ve been slacking off for a while now…” the Pocket lit up to show a rapid-fire of new messages that Urek read in quick succession. “And it seems we all agree.”
“That Khun was just really convincing. I respect the guts he has to save his friends, not many in this Tower would go to such lengths.”
“Yeah, I just hope he’s right on his theories at this point… The plan isn’t exactly failsafe if he ends up trapped Outside we won’t be able to help.”
A giggle resounded from the other side. “I think we will have more trouble getting rid of him when he enters the Tower. He looked like the demanding type~.”
“You don’t say.” The room was once again illuminated with a last message. Mazino got up from the chair while stretching his arms. “I’ll have to get going. I need to get to Baek before the time limit.”
“You just want to get drunk with him again, don’t try lying~ to me.”
“You’ve caught me,” Urek’s flat response teased another bout of laughter from the other end. “Let’s catch up once we’re both here. I’ll see you soon, baby~.”
Entangled never-ending stairs and paths were rapidly deciphered as a small figure in a black cloak zoomed past wrong turns without a moment's hesitation. Their hurried pace wasn’t a normal sight to behold in-between Floors and when finally the figure came to a stop it’s cape floated around them, revealing a small winged badge.
The figure crouched down where it stood, looking into infinite darkness as if waiting for something to appear. After a few minutes of waiting it began to move around impatiently.
It was when a sudden light appeared in the distance that it seemed to make a decision.
The cloaked figure jumped into the darkness.
Soo, that's that hahahah
I originally planned for KhunBams reunion to be in this chapter, but in the end I just enjoyed writing a lot Urek lol, I really enjoy his character and I hope I'll get to write more of him, and don't worry, Bam is coming owo
I'll also have introduced a new character! He's OC so I'm fairly excited about that heheh
Khuns interaction with Hachuling was kinda hard to write, I still hope that the more light hearted tone translated well into this
Once again, thank you so much for reading 🙇 I would really appreciate it if you leave some comments haha, and the kudos are always welcome!!
PSA. Is the chapter lenght alright? Or would you prefer for it to be shorter??
Chapter 3: Prelude: Slump III
Hi hii, I'm back
Again, thank you so much for +100 kudos, I'm just impressed that so many people enjoy my work, I never expected it and I'm over the moon by the kind reception and all the nice comments you leave <3
This chapter is later than I would like bc I actually wrote this chapter twice. A sudden writer's block hit me and I struggled a lot with it, but I think it came out fine in the end lol
I'm gonna share more thoughts on the end notes, so see you there!
Note: there are going to be multiple OCs appearing in the future. Keal is one of the few that will be "important", but others like Silas, Raine and Roxane will maybe return sporadically, or not. I don't want to overwhelm cannon with my creations, but they're also necessary as we don't have much info about Wolhaiksong members and such
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“There’s no way we are doing that.”
Khun stared from his seat at all the Rankers in the room. “You all knew about the plan before coming here, are you seriously backing down now?”
“Khun… Everyone in Wolhaiksong wants to help you for one reason or another, but you’re asking for an early grave right now.”
And therein lies the problem. Khun hadn’t thought too much about how Wolhaiksong would react to him — they had a neutral relationship in his past, no point in common besides protecting Bam — and now it was coming to bite him in his ass.
The past couple of months were calm. It was making him impatient but things in the Tower could never go fast, it was why he had spent most of the time holed up in the training rooms alone. His only interactions were with Hachuling when he occasionally popped up here and there to talk to him, but he was mostly working on the fake Regular record Khun needed.
When the first Wing-Badged members arrived Khun had become a bit angsty. He couldn’t train as freely and even though it meant that his departure was nearing it also brought an urgency to all his moves. He had to prepare for the Outside without drawing too much suspicion to himself while at the same time maintaining a neutral relationship with the curious Rankers.
He only now saw what his amicable small-talk with them hadn’t bought their trust completely.
‘I really should have seen this coming,’ Khun thought to himself as he looked at the members discussing when they would start the plan. ‘I literally appeared out of nowhere with no explanations and didn’t even try to make myself look more appealing. Stupid, Khun, you’re so fucking stupid.’ He clicked his tongue at himself and tuned into the conversation again.
“-more to it than just ability. He’s smart, it’ll be fine.”
“Majex, you dumb-robotic-fuck, there’s no fucking enough brains in the world to salvage the physical disadvantage he’s in right now. We can’t rush into this like headless chickens.”
“Oh, shut your trap, Silas. The kid’s plan is fine as it is, don’t try to overuse your little mind or you might end up hurt.”
“What d’ya’ say, Raine?! Do I’ve to remind you who is stronger between us?! Huh?!”
“Try me, FUG scum.” She spit out.
“We have to risk it,” a feminine voice raised from Urek’s side. Khun was glad Yeon Woon was somewhat taking his side. “He may not reach our standards now, but we can’t be sure when he will be able to do it. We could be wasting valuable time.”
“There won’t be Shinsoo out there,” and yeah, Khun agreed with Ms. Ice Strawberry's statement, but he had taken that into account alr- “and don’t get me started on his fighting abilities, he needs at least some years of training if he wants to fight his way out of that prison-“
“We don’t have that time.” Silence fell in the room as Yuje spoke. Khun’s eyes slightly opened in surprise, he certainly hadn’t expected the black-haired man to be on his side. Yuje had stood silently in his suit behind Urek the whole time, now his tone continued rushed, opposite to his otherwise blank face. “FUG has begun moving already, security in all floors and between them will get tighter. If we don’t take the opportunity now it will be riskier and Khun‘s probabilities of infiltrating the Floor would highly decrease.”
“FUG has moved already? Isn’t it too early?” Raine accusingly glared at Silas with her three eyes. The man avoided her gaze and crossed his two arms that weren’t grabbing swords.
“They might have used the fact that Urek went to Floor 77 to their advantage.” The ten people in the room turned to look at the Irregular when Khun told his speculation out loud. It had been bugging him since he didn’t know when or how FUG had prepared for Bam in the past, now that he knew ahead of time their plans Khun had thought strange that they had started already. “I also need time to find my friend, as Ms. Ice Strawberry pointed out there won’t be Shinsoo so I can’t take with me anything that could help me track him down.”
“Yeah, you guys also need to get to your floors plus I have to take him to the entrance.” Came from the Pocket by Urek’s side,
“Ugh, he won’t be able to keep up with you Keal! You’re asking a fifteen -year-old to sneak into a prison that we aren’t even sure he will be able to escape,” Roxane, a green-haired canine woman, angrily said to the Pocket. “Maybe not a year, but we need to prepare him more.”
“He came to us knowing the risks he was gonna take, our lives are at stake also here.” Kurudan’s voice rumbled through the room, his tall body a bit hunched to avoid hitting himself with the ceiling.
“What’s the point of risking it if he’s just gonna die the moment he’s out of our reach?! He’s a child for Yama’s sake-!” Roxane pointed
“Then why did you accept?” Khun stated impassively at the crowd.
“I came to this organization with a request, you didn’t have to accept it in the first place.” He fixed her with a narrowed gaze.
“A.A come on, we want to help but-“
“Hachuling, I think you should be the first to understand that underestimating a Khun is a mistake,” the elder slowly closed his mouth. “I am aware of my current limits, but right now the priority is to move fast. You’re stalling and taking valuable time because you only see me as a kid, I didn’t come here with the intentions of gaining a parental figure, but to form an alliance.”
“Well said kid!” Keal’s voice chirped. Khun barely contained an exasperated sight.
Roxane scrutinized him from her place, grey eyes a bit hurt. “You offspring’s of the Ten Families sure are arrogant. Fine! I won’t try to hide you from the danger, but if you dare die on us after all that talk you better be prepared to be haunted by dogs in your next life.” She was still livid and didn’t try to hide it, form tense with fiery rage.
“I will take care of his training.” Urek finally took the stand, Khun wasn’t thrilled by his words, however, the rest of the room broke into positive exclamations and various promises of harm to Urek if he didn’t do his job right. “And we’ll begin getting into position as soon as Keal gets here, which will be…?”
“I’ll be arriving by the end of next week!”
Urek nodded. “We don’t have much time, baby,” Khun’s grimace was mirrored by some of the group. “Be sure not to fall behind.”
Khun rolled his eyes and let out a “yes” which everyone in the room heard, some receiving it with more enthusiasm than others.
“I should go already to the Floor of Test then.” Hachuling’s voice rose from his side. Khun was kind of curious with how little the man had spoken in the time they’d been arguing about what to do.
“Yeah, I think with Khun-o over here we’ll take a month or so to get under the 1st Floor.”
Khun appreciatively looked at the Pocket. “Well, at least someone does see me as competent.”
The voice laughed. “Oh, if anything I think you’re the most competent out of all of these bastards.” And the room exploded once more into angry shouts.
Khun watched as the tension from the group slowly faded out with a small upturn in his lips. He comprehended that their concerns were founded - he hadn't chosen them as his allies because he thought them completely brainless. When his team had reached the 77th Floor they encountered the only organization that wasn’t outright trying to use them and had somewhat competent people on-board. These were probably the only people he might be able to begin to trust in the long run, but the truth was that he didn’t know them as well as he wanted.
He had never met most of the members of Wolhaiksong, by the time Bam had formed a tentative alliance with them it became already too late to save most of the people in this room. The sour reminder erased the smile from his expression.
The group animatedly continued polishing the last details of the plan while Khun reminisced in the past. In the years since he had come back, he had never sat down to think about all the “ghosts” that he was going to face once more.
The Tower was cruel. The fact that Khun had risen to higher Floors and most of his companions were still alive was more of a miracle on and of itself. Each time they discovered more about the Tower and destiny Khun became more and more sure about some theories he had since entering the Inner Tower.
It also meant that when his comrades started falling he ended up putting all the fault on “destiny”.
Seeing those golden eyes sullen each time only dragged him back to consider his cowardice in accepting everything with such ease.
A small tap to his arm made him turn around. Hachuling had risen and was pointing to the door with his head. His face, as usual, was blank, but Khun did notice that his mouth’s edges were facing downwards.
Believing he wasn’t needed any more there, he jumped from his seat and lead the way out.
When the door closed behind them Hachuling reclined himself on the door frame. “A.A, you do understand that I believe in you, right?”
“Sure looks like it with all the opposition to the plan.” He didn’t look at him directly, choosing instead to stare at a small knife he had taken out to do something with his hands. It didn’t have the calming effect he hoped for.
“Don’t go all sarcastic on me now, I’m trying to have a conversation here.”
“We’re both uncomfortable with this and you know it. Just go do your tasks and stop trying to play the good-big-bro. Our kind is more likely to stab each other than actually be friendly.”
Khun continued doing tricks with his knife, spinning it and making it fly between his fingers while awaiting Hachuling's answer.
He didn’t have to wait long. “I left our family for a reason.”
“Yeah, and that changes everything you’ve been taught, obviously.”
“No, but I do want to change.”
“A.A, we both have a choice here. We are not only that man’ sons. We don’t have to continue following the stupid rules we had ingrained in us since little, there’s no need for it anymore.”
“...” the blade of the knife shined sharply.
“I don’t want us to up and pretend to have a normal sibling relationship, we both know it wouldn’t be possible, but I also don’t want you to think of me as a complete stranger. I care for you because you’re my brother, but also because I want to get to know about you.”
The blade stopped spinning. “We’ve only been acquaintances for a couple of months.”
“ Yes , and I want to know more about you. I’ve been curious from the very beginning, it’s you who completely shuts me out whenever I try to approach you. I won’t mind if you chose to not want to talk to me or not even regard me as an acquaintance, but only if that’s a choice you made.”
“I don’t want us to be more than allies.” His gaze fell on Hachuling, eyes bored. This was probably one of the most unnecessary conversations Khun had ever had.
The older Khun breathed out in exasperation. “You’re only following Eduan’s idiotic family rules,” Khun opened his mouth to argue. “Just— try to think a bit for yourself. You don’t have to answer me now, but keep it in mind while you’re out there.”
And then he left.
Khun turned the other way and stalked into his bedroom. He would probably spend the night awake worrying about whether Hachuling’s words held any truth, and he wasn’t looking up to it.
He couldn’t wait to leave this place.
As expected, Keal arrived the week after the reunion. The greetings were short and everyone immediately departed to their destinies.
Now, nearly a month since leaving the hideout, Keal and Khun had finally arrived at the last stopping point. The Wolhaiksong members updated them daily on their steady activities to create a small stir in the Tower, nothing going awfully off-track except for a scare when one of the teams had temporarily disappeared on the 67th Floor - some FUG member had appeared and used the situation in their favor, it led to more Zahard’s forces to be drawn there and a longer stake-out than expected.
Keal for his part had been pleasantly surprised by the non-Regular. He was one of the fastest Guides in the Tower and it had its perks, but mostly it just meant that he had to hold back and guide his clients through safer routes - not many Rankers enjoyed the same thrill of risking their life after reaching the top.
But this kid had gone and obliterated his already high expectations.
He hadn’t talked much with him and most of it was because of the times he proposed him a choice between two routes. He watched with glee each time the young boy rapidly analyzed and chose the fastest (and most dangerous) way without the slightest hint of hesitation. Khun even had caught him once when he tried to go an easier path at the start of their journey together.
Their chats were short but Keal always did the most out of them. He prodded Khun in places he knew the other would get a rise of, spoke to him about how the operation was going, tried and failed to get him to open up more about those friends he had only talked about that first time with Urek. It was entertaining to be with someone who clearly knew much more than they showed, a mystery or puzzle that Keal was and would be struggling to unravel for the first time in a while.
However, with each passing day, it was getting clearer for Keal that Khun had grown more irritable. He waited unmoving for the reports from the other teams and barely got a blink of sleep in their already short stops. They were now breaking camp, the last “long” break they would have, and Keal was fairly sure that Khun’s eye bags hadn’t receded one bit.
“You know, for someone so young... You worry too much.” Keal said to the void. Khun who was looking in the opposite way turned his gaze on him, eyes furrowed. “See? You may gain eternal youth once you climb the Tower, but the wrinkles you’ve got won’t be fading ‘cause of it.”
His eyes steeled more, small shoulders becoming tense as he saw the Guide pack up the last of their possessions. “We are treading on the beginnings of a war and have nearly lost people already. You seem too calm for me.”
“Nothing’s really started yet, and believe or not, those guys ain’t dying so easily. They are wild but not stupid. You gotta enjoy this voyage more, it’s not every day a non-Regular gets to travel between Floors with someone like me.” He pointed at himself and proudly showed his winged badge. “How does it feel to be guided by someone as respected as me?”
His little flail of grandiose didn’t amuse Khun much. “They shouldn’t have had a close call at all. When I come back there won’t be room for mistakes, there are too many things at stake for everyone.”
Sensing that the younger one wouldn’t budge, Keal strode by him and continued on the path they had decided to go. He heard Khun’s steps closely behind.
“You’ve got to trust us more Khun-o. You may not be part of Wolhaiksong but an alliance means that there is some form of faith between us,” he took a turn and started descending a staircase with seemingly no end. “We believe in you and help you get your friends safe and sound, you trust that we will do so because we’re simply awesome.”
“You’re doing this because you will gain something from it, don’t try to sugarcoat it.”
“Yeah, but isn’t that why you came to us in the first place?” Khun hummed in affirmation. “There’s nothing bad in it, you probably think it’s more of a ‘use and be used’ but it doesn’t have to be like that. What really matters is the intention behind it. We are-“ he skipped a few steps. “-adults that want to help you get your friends back, you’re a kid that wants to help us change this fucked up Tower. It’s mutually beneficial, there’s no need to use, only walk side by side and do the best to support the other when necessary.”
A silence extended. Keal contentedly continued walking while hearing the small steps behind him, always alert in case a new way appeared to him. The stairs surrounding them increased and decreased in number in their travel down the stairs, the empty black spaces showing him the Middle Ground they were passing by. It was comforting to see they were walking by so many ‘alive’ beings, the barren lands between Floors weren’t entertaining on its own.
They reached a clear and Keal paused to take out of his bag the restriction artifact and take off his badge. Then he went to put the restraints on Khun, who let his arms fall from their previous crossed position and was staring warily at him.
“What?” He elevated an amused eyebrow. “Still worrying that we are mere useless minions? Or- nonono, wait, do you-“ a shit-eating grin began forming on his face. “Do you think we’re gonna betray you?”
At that Khun slightly scoffed. “You aren’t that useless.”
He waited a few beats for him to answer the second question. No response came, so he laughed at the uncomfortable look that overtook Khun’s expression. It was hilarious . “For the love of Zahard. We like to riot from time to time but we aren’t that low to sell our allies . I don’t know what you-“
“But if something went bad you would consider it.” Keal was stunned into silence, eyes wide at the accusatory tone from Khun. “Wolhaiksong wasn't in bad terms with Zahard to begin with. You could stay quiet in the war and not take sides. Once I’m gone -by any means- you can step out of all of this without repercussion even if some of the teams get caught. You simply would have to trade me off for them.”
The seriousness in Khun’s tone wiped the grin from Keal. He clenched his fists at his side and was ready to speak some sense into the kid’s mind-
Then he noticed the slight fear in Khun’s eyes.
It hadn’t dawned on Keal how much time Khun spent think- over thinking. He didn’t want to be so ‘on’ him and gave him some space, he believed it would warm up Khun for him in the long run. He had rambled on occasion about his appreciation for his teammates and his worries for the plan — not really ‘worries’ per se, more like nervous talking. Now however, he saw that he had probably only added logs to the fire of uncertainty the kid felt.
“Damn , you got some trust issues.” He said it without ill intent, it came out rather harshly and Keal winced at his lack of tactfulness. “That wasn’t what I-! Okay, no, look. It’s true that we haven’t opposed Zahard that much. BUT! And that’s a big but - we have never agreed with his or the Ten Families doings. Urek already told you so, and I will remind you. Our passiveness was because at that moment we would lose and gain nothing. I may be one of the biggest reasons we never even considered trying, it was hard enough keeping everyone alive as it was—
“What I mean,” Keal took a breath and passed a hand through his hair. “Is that we are fully on your side. Wherever that is. Everyone in Wolhaiksong agreed to it and is willing to help you at any costs. We know the risks and even with them we still believe that this is worth it. There may have been some doubts but it was all because we want you to be safe, not because we’re scared of risking our hides and see you as ‘inferior’ or ‘a temporary excuse to attack Zahard and then have a scapegoat’. We’re not FUG for fucks sake, there’s no scheming or groups of people with different fucked up ideals. We wanted to get out of the Tower without having to shed blood which was pretty naive from us. Now we are trying to change and actually do something. It’s- ugh, I’m rambling again but I hope you understand my point.”
Keal anxiously looked for any reaction from Khun. The teen’s expression became more relaxed and a small sad smile graced his lips. It was the first time Keal had viewed Khun’s facial expression to be this open in person; the second if he counted the footage of his conversation with Urek.
There was a moment in the stretched silence when Keal nearly spoke, he wanted to give him more reassurance, a bigger explanation on why he could trust them, that they weren’t his family or like those in the Tower that were quick to betray each other for a small compensation.
He also acknowledged that he wouldn’t be able to change overnight the way Khun was taught, he could only hope that this alliance would help influence him in the long run.
“I do have trust issues,” Khun’s voice was steady; Keal’s furrowed eyebrows relaxed a bit. “And they aren’t unfounded.”
Again a slight sour look loomed on Khun’s face. Keal wished he could hunt down the people who made such a young teen already know what betrayal tasted like.
“I hope Wolhaiksong will give you reasons to trust in us more in the future.” Keal offered an olive branch for the other to take.
A deprecating smile reigned the bluenette’s face. “I hope I won’t ever do anything to make you regret your decision.” Keal wanted to argue but chose to just roll his eyes at the other. “So,” he cleared his throat, clearly ready to leave the heavy conversation behind, “are you gonna put the restraints or are you comfortable to walk in there with an alleged ‘really dangerous’ FUG member whom you also apparently know?”
“You’re insufferable.” Keal said lightheartedly.
Khun merely answered with a smirk.
They took out Khun’s supplies and hid them in a special pocket that was specifically designed for this. It was a temporary earring made out of suspendium that would hide its contents to any throughout search for a short amount of time. Khun lightly touched it and it jingled between his fingers, small greenish sparks reflected the light of the lantern Keal had produced.
“If you’ll excuse me…” Khun nodded once at him and the restraints circled around Khun’s form with ease.
“Lead the way, oh you vile servitor of Zahard.”
“Are those going to be your last words to me? Really?” He was met with silence and he chuckled slightly. “Well well, then I shall escort this really dangerous kid to another one of Zahard’s weird power-driven makings.”
Keal grabbed the red Shinsoo rope that enveloped Khun and proceeded to take them down another flight of stairs. No words were exchanged as they entered a forgotten yet protected place in the Tower.
There were rumors —after all, where does Zahard keep those people who oppose him and suddenly disappear?— but only a small portion of the Tower’s population knows about Floor 0, and even less know how to get there. Being a silver dwarf meant that Keal was one of those few who were able to find this zone, he could still remember when he was one of the few chosen to be revealed this place.
It was once something he prided himself in. Now he was just glad he could navigate the messy passages without putting Khun in a greater danger than they already were because of entering this place.
They passed by some trees and Keal zoomed into a hidden passageway. Khun curiously looked pointedly at the small patch of vegetation and arched his eyebrows in question. He could only shrug in response, as he himself knew nothing about how time and space behaved here. Aside from Shinneuh, it shouldn’t be possible for anything to survive between Floors, that rule was broken only between Floor 1 and 0.
Slow but steadily they traversed through this mystery land. Luckily they didn’t encounter anyone, however, they did hear on occasion voices far away. The long hours of walking stretched with the tension that grew higher because of their inability to relieve it.
When at the dawn of their third day walking Keal spotted a light he couldn’t decide if he was glad they were approaching the end of the unnerving stay at this place or if he was nervous for what would happen with Khun once he had to throw him Outside.
An even smaller figure than himself greeted them from where it stood in front of a marble column. Like everyone else in this lands, it wore a cloak that only revealed a greenish chin and mouth that showed sharp teeth in a smile.
“May Zahard bless us with his infinite power and knowledge.”
“And may the Tower always treasure his mercy.” He said in response, Khun stumbled by his side before falling still.
“Haven’t seen one of you in a while, dwarf.” The figure spewed out.
“You know how it is, the Ten Families always enjoy to push us around this Tower as they please,” he rolled his eyes and saw the other snicker. “I’m glad I was able to stumble upon this little ruffian.” He clasped a hand on Khun’s shoulder.
The figure tilted its head slightly in his direction. “What’s he? A Ranker? He looks too young to be one.”
“Nah man. Just a Regular who made the worst choices.”
“Hmmm, not that smart for being a Khun from what I see. Your papa didn’t teach you to at least be sneaky?” Under his grasp Khun’s shoulders tensed, he clenched his hand in hopes of calming him down.
With a fake laugh, he continued the conversation. “Oh, he taught him alright. Was a big pain in the ass up to the last moment. Kind of why I’m here.”
“Well, this is the right place to make pain in the asses disappear,” their smile grew wider, sinister somehow. “I need his profile and the report of what happened.” A pocket appeared from its side.
“Aye aye,” Keal summoned his own and quickly sent the information over. “I was told to be the one to send him, something about ‘being sure he was dealt with’.”
They read the information that Keal shared. “There’s nothing about that here.”
“Oh, I’m such a clutz, sorry, sorry.” He dramatically moved his hands as if apologetic and transferred the last file. “Yuri Zahard asked for it. I know it’s not normal procedure, but help a man out, yeah? She ain’t in her right mind.”
The other seemed to ponder on it while examining the letter. The few seconds that passed anguished Keal more; he didn’t need to accompany Khun till the last moment, but he would much rather prefer it.
“I really shouldn’t be doing this,” Keal struggled to hold the sigh of relief. “But I’m out of here in a few years and I would much rather not have to face an angry Princess.”
Another laugh. “Yeah yeah, I’ll make sure to even put a good word in for you. Give ya’ a better allocation next time, eh?”
“I would appreciate a place in the army…” they spoke and moved out of the way.
“Sure, sure.” He once again grabbed the red Shinsoo and pulled Khun behind him.
His steps were rushed and the smile fell from his face the moment it was out of view. He couldn’t be too sure of his success until the operation was finished.
“Oi! Wait!” They stopped. Keal turned his face.
“Yes?” His voice came out even, smile more fake than he would wish to.
“What group is he from?”
“Wolhaiksong,” he saw Khun’s eyes widen a fraction, this wasn’t what they agreed on. “Is that all?”
“Yes! Don’t fall in there too!”
A small wave of a hand.
They continued down the path, steps echoing more the lower they went. He could practically hear Khun thinking and that made him laugh. For all his talk about how Wolhaiksong shouldn’t trust him, he sure as hell worried about them.
Finally, they reached the end. A metal door that looked like any other rose before them.
Keal undid the restraint and pocketed the artifact, Khun’s expression was neutral, his brows the only indication of his distress. He took off his hood and smiled at him, it was the last reassurance he would be giving the kid in a while.
When Khun nodded, Keal walked out of the way to the door. The young boy pushed it and glanced for the last time back.
A soft ‘clack’ reverberated in the empty dark.
Khun fell, and he fell hard .
At first, he tried to muffle his soft cries of pain. Then he remembered that now there wasn’t any risk for talking or attracting attention, he was finally outside Zahard’s grasp, no risk in cursing a little.
“God-fucking-dammit.” His hand hurt like a bitch, he missed the firefish.
Grumbling and clutching his hurt hand to his chest, Khun sat up and took in his surroundings.
He had fallen into a wide-open cave that wasn’t that well illuminated, bare for the fact that around him some light was evidently flying. This same mass of light was spreading through the open space and allowing him to get a better picture.
Shrooms grew from much more places than Khun thought at first; they almost encompassed all of the walking space and that was of just this place, he could already see that this was only a crossroad of paths and he would have to pick one of them sooner or later.
Dammit, Bam could never make things easy for him. A fucking labyrinth was the last thing he needed.
He felt a breeze pass by him and instinctively reached out for the Shinsoo, a small yet stupid thing to do on the only Floor of the Tower that didn’t actually have it. There’s a reason why he had endured heavy training (even for someone of the Ten Families) for the past months, and it wasn’t because he would have any sort of advantage for being reincarnated.
Angry at his show of stupidity, Khun got up and accidentally kicked one of the shrooms in his vicinity. Another cloud of light rose from it and spread in the direction the breeze had blown earlier. Huh.
He walked around the cave to investigate a little, but if the shrooms he was stomping on were anything to go by, it didn’t seem that anyone had passed through there in a while. Unless they walked on ceilings, that is.
Without any other options, he retraced his steps and zeroed on the passage the wind had come from. It had to come from somewhere so it would be his best bet. He took off the false earring and crushed it while walking, taking out its contents. Manbarondenna naturally fell into his hand, opening readily to his touch. Khun breathed a relieved sigh when its Pocket Dimension seemed to work fine, rapidly fishing out some bandages from its inside that he had the foresight to pack in case he got hurt. He proceeded to bandage his hurt hand.
Next came the Pocket, which had immediately begun orbiting around him. He was probably going to encounter someone at some point —he hoped it happened sooner than later— and not being able to communicate with them was going to be a challenge. However, with the Pocket, he at least would be able to understand them, another minuscule advantage that Khun would gladly accept.
He continued his stroll, bypassing more caves and crossroads than he could count. On occasion he took a break to eat or simply explore, but his mind always reminded him that each second lost was a higher probability that someone had gotten to Bam before him. He accelerated his pace and continued following the wind. It wasn't long before he had to slow down because of his weariness.
Weariness that was probably due to the fact Khun couldn’t remember the last time he slept.
A detail that had slipped his mind on more than one occasion. Sleep was always the thing he would sacrifice in lieu of doing other tasks. Not strong enough? Train instead of sleep. Anyone on his team needed to talk? He could wait a bit to get some rest. A big fight was looming over them? Khun couldn’t possibly relax and not plan a countermeasure in case something went wrong… The list went on.
Everyone had gotten used to him having some pretty dark circles around his eyes. No one was sneaky in their tries of getting him to sleep, Hatsu probably was the most vocal about it — you must take care of your body, it is the most important part of being a man — or something of the sort. Khun mostly pretended to follow their recommendations and went to his room. It didn’t fool anyone but at least it lessened their concern.
The nightmares also didn’t help.
Those troubling memories danced in Khun’s head and were probably the reason why he didn’t notice immediately the ray of light that was entering from the exit of the cave, a nearly blinding sight for his unaccustomed and tired eyes.
Blinking surprised, he ran towards it and raised Manbarondenna to shield his vision from the glaring light. What extended before him was a breathtaking sight he hadn’t expected he would be able to see in that place, his mouth falling open and eyes drinking in every piece of everything there.
It was a forest. The wildest forest Khun had ever seen, countless trees rising from the ground and into the high, really high up ceilings. Some he could barely see from his place, but others like the one right next to his exit seemed to even cross the ceiling and grow to where the light came from. There were splashes of color —green, yellow, red, purple, blue… Even black?— that he couldn’t believe were even real. It went against all the things he had learnt about nature, an impossible landscape present right in front of him.
And there, in the center of it all and below the large opening in the ceiling where the light came from, a large space with nothing extended. Its bareness was alluring, calling out to Khun in all its weirdness of being nothing in between so much.
He jumped to one branch of the rather convenient tree. The descent was easy for his trained body, his leap to the ground a pleasant one; the vegetation cushioned his fall and it felt so unbelievably soft on him. He couldn’t shake the feeling of just being welcome in this relatively small part of the Tower, legs almost going on autopilot to the clearing he had set his sight on earlier.
Flowers and bushes stood in his way but seemed to part when he neared, everything looked so alive that he was even glad that the forest apparently was sentient and wanted him to pass so much that it moved itself out of the way.
He walked and walked. Occasionally he heard the murmur of the leaves being blown by the wind, but aside from that, the only thing that made a sound in this calm forest was his own feet touching the grass under him. At some point he even thought himself lost, all the different trees and plants forming more of a random maze than the empty caves he had just left; there was no rhyme or reason to anything there, only the will to survive in an otherwise barren place.
Eventually, the flora around him decreased. Bushes became scarce and Khun could clearly see between the tree trunks the plain he had lowered down to see. With a small burst of energy, he ran towards the edge of the treeline.
Once again he was met with hard rocky floors. The shade of the forest no longer protected him and he could already feel the temperature rising to make him sweat. It was a desert; deathly yellow, ochre, gray and brown a stark contrast with the bright colors that enclosed the edges of this place. Khun wanted to run away, leave this dead hellscape behind in favor of the much safer forest that was oh so close...
But there was something in the middle of the plain, and it was calling out for him.
Shaky on his feet, he began closing the distance. Like a magnet to metal, the closer he got, the faster he walked —no, ran— towards whatever was there. He stumbled a couple times, pain shooting up his arm when he accidentally pushed himself off the ground with his hurt hand; it helped him gain back some of his sanity, but he also finally remembered why the energy emanating from that place felt so familiar.
He didn’t want to claim victory too early, however, Khun was fairly sure that what laid under that place was a certain golden-eyed Irregular.
A lying plaque received him in the end. There were some scribblings on and around it that Khun couldn’t care less about. His toes curled up in excitement, heavy breaths and eyes so wide that people who knew him would probably have thought him out of his mind. He dropped to the floor, hands extending to grip one edge of the plaque.
His face lit up, smile so wide Khun thought it would hurt his cheeks. Hastily, his eyes scanned through the hole a “mountain” of rocks, gaze softening the moment he saw the face covered in dark locks of hair looking directly back at him.
Khun jumped inside and slid down to where Bam was, head following Khun’s path. He tried to stop himself, but his inertia was too strong; without hesitation, he extended his arms and threw himself at the other's body hitting him full force and sending them down the small slope to the ground.
He had done it. He had finally found him.
Bony arms were enveloping him, unsure of their touch. Khun let himself a few minutes to calm down, to rake in that it wasn’t a dream and yes, he really was hugging the younger version of Bam right now. His worries and tiredness were kept at bay by his mere euphoria, eyes maybe stinging a little with unshed happy tears.
Breathing in deeply —Bam’s smell a familiar one to his nose— Khun let go of the other teen and pushed himself up to take a good look at the other’s face.
Bam’s bangs didn’t hide his face, probably because his hair was blown away from their fall. His hair was longer than when he went by the name of Jyu Viole Grace and wasn’t kept as neatly as before. A tentative smile graced his lips, mouth slightly open in surprise and wonder.
And his eyes — honey-coloured and so clean — without traces of any pain or suffering behind them, gaze full of innocence and awe at Khun. He hadn’t noticed how much he had missed the way Bam had looked at him on the Floor of Test, couldn’t fault himself for promising to do everything to protect the dark-haired boy that was destined to get hurt so much.
“I-“ Khun’s voice came out raspy, barely above a whisper. He gulped down and cleared his throat. “Bam I-“
“-A..hel?” Bam breathily said.
Khun froze in his place, silent horror and anger at himself crowding his expression.
He could hear ringing in his ears, his pulse spiked up in a second and his breathing got heavy again. But the most pained of all was his heart, taken by a deep pressure that made Khun suffer a hollowness he had long since forgotten. His insides twisted in discomfort, nausea building up steadily.
‘ Maybe ,’ Khun thought, ‘ maybe this is how heartbreak feels like .’
He had never hated himself more.
Uhhh we finally reach the part everyone had been waiting for huhuhuh
What will happen!? Well, we will all see it next week (or in two weeks, depending on how long it takes to write)
In my original idea, I had planned for Khun to rely more on Wolhaiksong, or more like for Wolhaiksong to trust him more,but it felt somewhat wrong. The group is massive from what SIU has implied, so I didn't want to completely forget cannon and go my way
((yeah, I think my depiction of everyone will be pretty OC, but I still want to follow the cannon rules))
Khun is a character that trusts no one but himself. That was a rule taught to him by his family and he has only broken it with his team (or at least in this au). He rejects his family but at the same time still clings to it, I hope I'll be able to explore it more in the future of the fic, so you can look up for that
Ahh, and the Outside. The idea that Bam is under the Tower has been in my mind since I read a theory about it. I'm making some rules up as we go, so don't take the info I'm dumping from cannon.
I've spent hours researching and reading the wiki to try and follow SIU's rules, but there's just so much I can do haha
This chapter is once again long. I still remember when I was satisfied writing only 1k words, ahhh those were good times haha at this pace I don't see this fic getting any shorter than 150k,so fml i guess, you'll be getting updates of this for a long time haha
Thank you so much if you've read till here, I'm pretty exhausted so idk if anything i wrote makes sense lol
Please leave me a comment or kudos, they're much appreciated and really lift up my mood. I always reread them when struggling to write and they're the biggest reason I got out of the writers block so fast
And thats all for today folks, sayounara 🥴
Chapter 4: Prelude: Slump IV
There are slight mentions of homophobia and cannon typical violence, it's not touched upon more than 2 sentences but if it's something you are triggered by, please keep it in mind
Hey hey, I'm back!
Sorry for not updating last week, this chapter took some time to prepare and is quite long (9k words! And it was supposed to be longer but I decided to try and keep it "short" lol)
Thank you so much for +1,4k hits and the kudos that keep growing ㅠㅠ also the comments, I sound like a broken record but is amaizing to see so many people that enjoy this work, i love you guys!
ALSO, HOW ARE YOU GUYS DEALING WITH TOG COMING BACK?? I teared up when I read it hahhah
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Bam’s eyes grew full of concern as the quiet seconds ticked by.
Khun watched, like almost an out of body experience, as Bam removed his arm from where it fell on his hips after he undid their embrace to see his face. The hand, bony, traced the edge of his jaw, softly, carefully, as if it was touching something that would break with the most minimal force, something weak, something fragile . Khun’s insides twisted again and he could barely contain the tears of frustration, anger, guilt, rejection —
The realization that he was coming undone in front of his most dearest friend shook him back into reality.
Bam had risen a bit from his laying position, hand still crawling up Khun’s features with more certainty than before. Calloused fingertips travelled through his cheekbones, barely touched the shell of his ear and then continued above his eyebrows. It was then when they finally seemed to arrive at their destiny, as Khun felt soft decisive touches in between his brows, Bam’s hand trying and failing to smooth out the crease that had formed at Khun’s obvious distress. It was a touch so familiar, yet foreign at the same time, that Khun’s body couldn’t decide whether to tense up more because of the sheer intimacy or to melt away everything and simply bask in the attention he had missed for so many years.
The pain hidden in the concerned honey eyes convinced him to relax.
His body sagged against Bam, suddenly too tired to do anything more than stare at the person he had met so many years ago, who was and is the ‘something’ Maria had told him he was missing, the Irregular he once thought he had lost but now was here, in between his arms, and whom he will not give up for anything.
The soft caresses grounded him to the place, even though his mind still wanted to scream, to rage, to break something— but no, he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Because the only other thing he could damage here is Bam, and Khun would never dare even consider inflicting him pain, he would much rather destroy himself—
Bam’s tender tone caught him by surprise, too caught up in his thoughts to prevent the flinch from his body that made Bam jerk his hand back, gaze worried from apparently making Khun uncomfortable.
He was going to ask Bam to repeat the question, but then he was reminded that currently only he could understand him. He signaled Bam to wait with a hand while at the same time he searched into Manbarondenna to take out the additional Pocket, stretching his hand with it so Bam could take it.
The long-haired boy looked at the sphere in confusion, then at him, and at Khun’s encouraging nod, he took it and curiously rotated it in his hand. When the sphere blinked to life a surprised gasp broke from his lips, Khun’s now amused eyes not leaving him for a moment.
It was weird, being in the past before they had entered the Inner Tower. They had been separated multiple times in their journey and had reconnected another bunch. Their reunions were always a moment of joy, but also held this slight unspeakable uncomfortable feeling, especially the ones after not seeing each for a long time. The friendship foundations were there, however the small changes they had gone through were always palpable, the uncertainty of not quite knowing the other person a barrier which they treaded carefully, an awkward dance of getting to know again someone whom you’ve once had known inside-out. It was getting used to their perks, the new emotions they now carried, the way they behaved with others and testing if any of the previous trust they held had disappeared.
(Khun and Bam’s trust was always steady, the only stability they could cling to in their tumultuous lives.)
That was probably why coming face to face to the past he believed he would never see made Khun’s lips upturn. His later memories were plagued of himself indulging at the beginning of their climb when the horrors that didn’t let him sleep at night weren’t in the picture. The higher Floor’s always made him nostalgic for the Test Floor which he wished he could relive again, pain flaring through his chest at Jyu Viole Grace’s figure that always came to take him back to reality.
But now. Now he had the chance to rewrite and live one more time, to protect the boy who was labeled a God far too early, who was forced to carry far more things than he could but still struggled against all odds so he would be the only one hurt. So no one more had to walk his same path, even if they wished to help him.
Bam followed with his head the Pocket, an awed stare that fell to Khun after the sphere stayed in place. His lips parted, and once again he spoke. “Who are you?”
“My name is... Khun.” The words rolled off easily from his tongue, hand extending before him like in their first meeting, a symbol of peace, alliance, “Khun Aguero Agnes,” this time however they held nothing but a promise of a true friendship, no second thoughts of usefulness. “And yours is?”
Bam caught his hand. “I’m Bam… But you already knew that?” The questioning tone wasn’t lost to his ears.
But Khun was good at ignoring things when necessary.
“Just Bam?” He asked.
He had never known much about the time Rachel and Bam spent together. Nothing ever clear between them, a place that no one but them was allowed to enter. But he had drawn some conclusions from what he knew, or more the things Bam hadn’t known. Bam had been given his name by Rachel, but maybe, maybe, Khun let himself hope, maybe it was just the 25th that she added .
Their hands broke apart. “Yes,” and Khun let slip the breath he was holding, “should there be more?”
‘ Yes, but you don’t have to know that ’
“No… No there shouldn’t.” He let a calming smile spread, riling up for the next question. “Bam, what are you doing here?”
“I— I don’t know…” His head moved to the side, not quite meeting Khun’s eyes. “I just, woke up here I guess.”
“Do you remember anything before that?”
“Everything is just- dark. I- I was trying to get out when Khun-ssi fell from the light.”
Taking a deep breath, Khun prepared himself to ask the question that was haunting him.
“Did- has anyone come here before me?”
With bated breath, he waited.
“No? Were they supposed to?”
Khun could barely hold his excitement, tight knots in his stomach unraveling and then constricting his lungs at the slightly dejected look Bam threw his way. It was one of loss, abandon, a sight for which Khun chastised himself for feeling happy for seeing. Bam had spent years lonely in this dark cave, believing he was alone, nothing more to hope for than reaching a small ray of light.
He hadn’t come too late, but it also wasn’t on time.
“No,” and he wished he could hide better his happiness, wished he could be better than this, “after all, I’m here to take you outside.”
Bam’s eyes glinted with confusion that transformed into excitement. “Outside?”
“Yes Bam, we’re going to the light together.”
Both boys looked at each other, twin grins on their faces. Khun stood and went to help Bam up with ease. His grip faltered in the other’s hand, now more conscious of his actions, but when Bam began to walk up the rocks and didn’t try to let go, Khun simply let himself follow him, always behind so he could support in case it was needed.
At the top, Khun crouched down to impulse Bam to the edge of the opening without breaking a sweat. He then jumped up after him, to find the long-haired boy on his knees, looking everywhere .
Khun could only imagine what it would be like to see the world this way for the first time. It was a sight that he himself had been oddly fascinated by even though he had seen countless biomes that could be far more interesting and impressive than this. But for someone like Bam, who had been trapped inside a cave that was only dark and brown, this sudden mix of colors and things he didn’t know even existed… Everything must feel so alien to him, beautiful yet strange at the same time.
He wanted to ask, wanted to hear himself what Bam thought about it, but he instead waited, never willing to force Bam to talk more than what he wanted to. He would observe from the sidelines as Bam looked around and absorbed everything in, his presence only a distraction of the world that the boy was finally entering, a world that he had been denied.
When Bam walked up to him with that huge smile on his face, Khun didn’t resist his pull, their running steps leading them to the magical forest he had been in merely minutes ago. They stopped, Bam crouched down and Khun looked curiously over his shoulder.
A flower grew out in the dry yellow stone. It was sapphire blue and alone, the only one of its kind that he had seen. Bam moved so he had a full view of the flower and Khun at the same time.
“It’s the same color as Khun-ssi’s eyes!” He announced as if it was the most brilliant discovery of the century.
“Yeah? I think it is much brighter.”
Bam shook his head. “No! It’s the same! What is it? How can it be the same?”
“It’s a flower. They normally are very colorful, but this one seems to be more so than others. Do you see the other tall things over there?” Bam nodded. “They’re called trees. It's the first time I see trees like those too, where I come from they don’t get this many colors.”
“Where you come from?”
Khun pointed to the ceiling and Bam followed the direction to get blinded by the light. “Above here a Tower exists. It’s divided into floors, and each one has a different world. You can climb the Tower and once you reach the top you get to ask for a wish.”
“Has Khun-ssi climbed the Tower?”
Khun sat by his side. “No, but I will.”
“Is it because you want to make a wish?”
“Hmm… I wonder.” His motivation to climb the Tower had long since changed.
“Then, can’t you stay here with me?” Khun arched an eyebrow at Bam who colored red and tried covering himself. “I- I mean— if you don’t have a reason to go, will you still go? Can’t- can’t you stay with me a little longer?”
“It’s okay Bam. I understand. But aren’t you curious about what is in the Tower? The wish doesn’t have to be the only reason to climb it.”
“Ohh, are there more flowers there? Like this one?”
“Yeah, you can find places that are full of them far more wide than this. This is just a small portion of what is out there.”
Khun could practically picture what Bam was fantasizing about in his mind, his eyes focusing on the lone flower.
“And Khun-ssi is going to that place?” Khun nodded. “Can I- can I come along? I want to see those worlds with Khun-ssi.”
Warmth bloomed in Khun’s chest. “Of course you can come Bam, I won’t leave you behind.”
Bam jumped from his excitement to his feet and nearly crushed the flower. “Oh! Sorry flower, I didn’t mean to.”
Khun followed Bam’s steps and laughed at the other’s haste to apologize. “Don’t worry, it won’t mind it.”
“Still! Flowers are good, right? I don’t want to hurt them.”
“Yeah! ‘Cause they have the same color as Khun-ssi’s eyes!”
“That’s—“ Khun laughed at the logic, he had missed Bam so much. “Yes, they’re good.”
“I knew it! Khun-ssi, where will we go now? Is it another place with flowers?”
“I think it’ll be a little less exciting, but let’s go ahead,” he looked up and saw that something similar to night was coming, “I don’t know if this place will be the same once it becomes dark.”
“Okay!” Khun began walking and Bam joined him, but not before crouching and whispering a fast “goodbye, flower.”
Khun continued guiding them through the forest while Bam animatedly asked him questions, smile never leaving his face.
Finding a house in the middle of nowhere was a surprise.
Bam, ever the innocent soul, ran up to the darkened windows before Khun could do anything. His small form hidden by the white piece of rag made it seem like a ghost was trying to take a look inside the dark two-story house, jumping outside to try and sneak a peek through the high up glass planes. Khun would have laughed, had he not been too caught up in the fear of the obviously-very-big-thing living there possibly not being friendly.
“Khun-ssi! Khun-ssi come here!”
The urgency in Bam’s voice made him approach fast, body still ready to fight.
“What.” He whispered, tone clipped.
“I think there’s someone inside! Maybe we can talk to them?” Bam’s body buzzed with energy and excitement, completely unaware of Khun’s clear discomfort as his eyes hadn’t left what he saw beyond the windowsill he was grabbing onto.
“Shush. Bam, we don’t know them, this is dangerous.”
“Well, then we should meet them! They have flowers, they can’t be bad.”
Baffled at the statement, Khun watched eyes wide as Bam dropped next to him and ran to the door to knock on it. He quickly grabbed his hand before it touched the decaying wood, mouth moving without emitting sound.
“Khun-ssi, if we ask kindly enough they could help us. You’re tired, I know you’re trying to hide it but I see it. Please just let me get some help.” His eyes focused on him, body oozing with worry.
“Bam…” Khun had thought he had been hiding it well, Bam’s cheerfulness was unaltered during their travel. “I— we can’t barge into places without an idea of what they are or who is in there. They might not be bad people but they could react badly thinking we are the bad ones.” Though the fact that nothing had happened yet shortened the list of possibilities.
Bam looked thoughtful, listening attentively to his words and carefully archiving them for later. Khun was about to get them out of there when he heard a knock, his gaze sharply falling on Bam’s other hand.
An innocent smile spread. “I still think we can do this, I have a good feeling about it.”
Then Bam pushed the door and dragged him inside.
The floor creaked as they stepped inside, Khun’s frown deepening at the sight of the big hallway with dirtied paint. While the outside hadn’t been in perfect condition, it was clear that the inside had seen better days, most floorboards were somewhat damaged, some even missing, and one of the doorframes they could see was pulled out of its place, crashed nearly to its top where it had been clearly grabbed.
Not wanting to lose sight of Bam, Khun gripped his hand harder while the boy led them precisely to the room with the destroyed doorframe. It smelled bad, and if the insects running on the furniture were anything to go by, the habitants of the place either had a pest problem or hadn’t been there in a long time.
The —what Khun could best assume— salon had a wooden table and chairs. There were shelves with books and what looked like photographs on the back, and the window which Bam had previously been looking through had a small sofa under it, pink dirtied with fallen paint and dark spots.
But what grabbed their attention was the reason for the stench in the place. Opposite to the window sat a big, fluffy armchair, and on it laid a small human body. It was an old woman, dark creasy face showing a peaceful smile that would confuse everyone who saw her as a mere old lady who was taking a nap.
Her unmoving bloodied hand holding a wilting flower told a different story.
Bam approached the body without a single care. Khun pulled him back and covered his eyes in a last attempt of protecting him.
“What? Khun-ssi! She’s fine, there wasn’t any attack or something like that, stop being such a worrywart.”
Khun wished this didn’t have to happen so soon, but hiding it from Bam also wouldn’t be smart. With a sigh, he began speaking. “Bam, she isn’t alive anymore.” He uncovered the golden eyes and looked at their confusion straight on. “That woman is dead.”
Bam’s gaze seemed to grow even more confused. “Dead?”
“She isn’t here anymore, it’s- no, she isn’t going to come back. From what I can see she was killed some time ago…”
“It means someone made her dead. She didn’t die willingly.”
“But- why would someone do that? What- I want to see.”
With renewed determination, Bam moved Khun out of the way. Khun joined him after a few seconds, the wide opening in the woman's stomach coming into view. Thankfully the sight wasn’t as grotesque as it could be, the insides had been cleanly cut.
“This is horrible.” Bam was struggling with the image, face turning greener every second.
Khun left him alone in favor of looking at the pictures that adorned the room. They showed the woman in another place, far younger and with lots of other people surrounding her, each one a photograph of a different moment of her life but with the same pattern. Only one that seemed to be the most recent had her stand by a giant woman, taking each other’s hand and the most radiant smiles on their faces.
It was the frame of only that one photograph that was broken, glue messily thrown to fix it.
A letter that hid behind the picture painted a far different story to the happy photos.
“She was banished and hunted down.”
“She loved another woman… Apparently that was enough for her family to make them hate her. She was brave and escaped with her lover, they lived here until… Well, you can see the result.”
“But, what did she do wrong?” The incredulity in Bam’s eyes was replaced with anger slowly but steadily. “Why aren’t you angrier at this?!”
“They did it because of their beliefs. Everyone has their own and some can’t accept that others don’t…” Khun knew it, he had encountered it far too many times. “This is just one of the millions of deaths that happen, we can’t do anything to stop it. I’ve tried, it didn’t work.”
“But that’s wrong! You can’t just give up, she didn’t deserve this! Dying, killing… It isn’t right!”
“Inside the Tower only the strong are right. Killing and dying is what makes everything move.”
“And you want to join that? Why?!” The accusatory tone made Khun a bit angry. “How can you talk so calmly about this? She died- ”
“Don’t talk as if you know what I’m thinking.” It was harsh and Bam was surprised at the sudden outburst. Khun had never raised his voice that way. “The way to survive is to kill, otherwise you get killed. That is the reality on the outside you wanted to see, don’t try to force your ideals in a world you just got to know, it’s far more difficult than the way you’re putting it.”
Bam was hurt, but he wasn’t done. “You- Khun-ssi… Have you ever killed someone?”
Silence spoke the loudest at times, this was one of those moments.
“Because I had to.”
It was a lackluster answer, but the truth shouldn’t be adorned. He could try to justify himself and paint it in a better light, but while he wasn’t proud of the killings like others, he also didn’t regret them. He had a neutral relationship with death —hating and loving it at the same time— and would feel destroyed when it took one of his friends, but still use it without thinking twice in his favor.
He didn’t want to think about it much more, there were other matters of far more importance.
“We can clean this place up. It can be a good place to stay for a while.”
“Okay…” Khun began turning to go search for something to help their task. “Wait! Khun-ssi, can I ask you one more thing?”
“Are… Will someone try to kill you in the Tower?”
A laugh escaped him. “It would be easier to count the people who don’t want me dead, Bam. Don’t worry too much about that, I’m used to it.”
Bam wanted to say more, but Khun got out of the door before he could ask anything more. He had come far already, and his tired bones wanted nothing more than to finally have a place to rest for a while. This house could be a good base for as long as their supplies lasted, they just had to fix it a little.
There was much to do, and time was running out.
In the end, they were forced to leave the new-found safety of the home to search for supplies.
Khun had originally planned to do so alone, but Bam insisted on accompanying him, curious about what was out there and still uncomfortable with the remnants the dying lady had left. They didn’t talk more about it, the salon becoming a banished zone even after they buried her body.
It wasn’t like they needed all the space, the kitchen and bedrooms proved to be enough for them, and Bam took a liking to a hidden garden behind the house while Khun repaired what little necessities they needed. They made a routine, and it was simple, after breakfast both teens went to do their thing and when Bam tired out he would run to Khun to bug him with the new questions he had thought about and ask him to read the books they had seen around the house. Khun obliged to the other’s demands, and they kept at it until dinner time came around and Khun had to prepare something.
When the rations he had prepared began to run low, Khun had tried to sneak out alone. He was quickly caught when Bam’s senses alerted him that he had gone missing.
That was why they were currently walking through the passages, Khun taking the lead with an excited Bam behind. He wielded a knife in his hand, body lax showing a false impression of calmness. Bam walked behind him with heavy steps, sound echoing around them as they searched around them.
Then silence fell, and Khun’s heart nearly beat out of his chest as he jumped to the place Bam had been moments earlier.
A long slimy monster looked at him from above, slit white eyes staring directly at Khun. Bam was caught by its tail, his body slowly being dragged upwards to the beast's needled body. Khun had never seen anything like it, but he didn’t hesitate a moment to throw his knife to the creature's eyes.
Its trajectory swerved as a gust of wind blew, landing in between the scales that composed the body and making the creature shriek. Khun dodged to the side as it fell to the ground, cave trembling around him as it landed upside down. It moved its paws from side to side, kicking away the debris that was falling on it in every direction.
Not wanting to waste the opportunity, Khun ran to its tail while dodging the rocks that came his way. He saw a flock of Bam’s hair and took another knife before beginning to stab in-between the scaly tail, movements quick and efficient. When the hold lessened, he grabbed the hand that emerged and pulled with all his force, taking out a bloodied Bam —‘not his blood,’ he noted— from the creature’s grasp.
He moved them to the side to avoid being hit by the now flailing tail, but what he didn’t expect was for it to be able to turn over now that its tail didn’t have anything to hold to. Its face turned to look at them, a snake-like tongue angrily flicking at them before it began grabbing at them with its claws.
Khun deflected the first swipe with Manbarondenna, body nearly falling from the force, and took the next hit by stabbing the gaps in the fingers, barely avoiding the sharp claws, pain shooting up his arm. Getting more enraged, the monster continued the attack while Khun desperately stood his ground to protect Bam who laid behind him, unable to help because he didn’t know how to fight.
He wasn’t taught until after entering the Tower.
Exhaustion grew heavy on him and his injured hand wouldn’t withstand another direct hit, he had somewhat deduced the monster's attack pattern but his body wouldn’t be able to continue much longer with the unrelenting attack, he had to risk it or they would both die.
He grabbed the other’s shoulder and pushed him in the direction they had come from while he himself dashed towards the creature's back. Its claw dug into the place they had just been and the loud crunch of the rocks breaking under the claw wasn’t lost to Khun’s ears.
He hailed himself on the beast’s back, narrowly avoiding the broken spikes, and ran upwards its neck to jump on its risen head. He stabbed near a hole on its head as it rose on its hind legs to try and crush him against the ceiling, but ended up only hitting itself as he grabbed onto the knife and let his body fall with all of his force, opening a gash in its side and covering himself in its blood.
Both touched the ground at the same time, but Khun continued to try opening up more of the creature’s exposed neck, not stopping until it became still.
Panting, he turned around to find Bam staring at him with a difficult expression. He began walking towards him, but then he noticed that the tail beside Bam moved and a sole uncrushed spike was ejected.
He ran and pushed him out of the way, back going in flames as they hit the ground. An exhausted laugh fell from his lips, and then he rose as Bam grabbed him by his sides.
“Khun-ssi…!” He winced as Bam’s hold tightened. “Are you okay? Don’t- why would you-?”
“Peachy,” he detached himself from Bam, sitting up straight with a wince, “can you grab me Manbarondenna?”
“Man-? Ah, yes! Give me a second.”
He walked around the pools of blood until he found the briefcase, hands shaking as he gave it to Khun.
Khun discarded his broken shirt in favor of the bandages he once again had to use. He made a quick work of it as Bam stood and watched him, eyes twitching every time Khun roughly pulled the material across the open gash on his back. He took out another shirt and covered himself, standing up as Bam extended his arm to help.
“Ah- umm…” he took his hand back, “you- you sure you’re okay?”
“Yes, don’t fret over it. Let’s get to work.”
“Work?” Bam blinked surprised.
“We’ve got a few weeks supply right here. We need to pick what we can before someone or something else comes here.”
“Oh, I see. Then I’ll cut and Khun-ssi can-“
“Hah, stop it. Here, take it,” he gave him Manbarondenna, “keep it open and be on alert of any sound, it’ll be faster that way.”
Bam’s brow furrowed, Khun ignored the pout in favor of taking one of the discarded knives. “But-“
“I’m fine, this isn’t something I can’t take.”
Then he began carving into the monster.
He took some large patches of skin and cut as much meat as he could, a sickly squelching sound the only thing that filled the silence. Khun pondered on what had happened, slightly pissed at nearly letting Bam get hurt, but overall was happy with the result. He had gotten hurt, but now they had food and nothing happened to Bam, it was the best result taking into account that it was the first time he encountered any type of living being of this type.
When he deemed the food enough, he turned to the claws. They were far sharper than he initially predicted and could be useful, so he wedged the knife where they started and cut them out. They were incredibly light on his hand and Khun swung one around experimentally.
Bam’s attention was grabbed by this, eyes focused on the improvised weapon.
“Can you teach me?”
He stopped himself mid-swing. “Teach you what?”
The question surprised him. He turned to see a serious-looking Bam, body blazing confidence that he had only shown after Khun’s two-year sleep. It was weird, as this Bam shouldn’t have already the will to fight, but Khun couldn’t stop himself from feeling quite excited at the development. He missed fighting alongside him, missed that perfect teamwork they always had.
Bam nodded, mouth forming a flat line. He then grabbed Khun’s hand and turned, starting the way back home.
Khun only felt slightly ashamed at bloodying those innocent hands far too early.
It was an inevitable outcome.
One of the consequences of Khun’s injury was the inability to move his arms and body around much.
Really, who could have thought that being nearly slashed in half would leave a scar equally as big that bled every time Khun so much as tried doing things?
If Khun’s previously immaculate shirts that now sported some brownish tones were anything to go by… It was clear he hadn’t accepted the fact that injuries worked differently in this place.
(He convinced himself that feeling the pain was to prepare him for worse when the time came, deep down he knew that was a lie).
This caused a new routine to begin after the fight. Bam refused to leave his side at any time of day and forced his help for every little thing. He got angry —or as angry as Bam could get— with Khun when he so much as moved the first week, eyes avoiding his injured form with a scowl on his face that quickly melted when Khun begrudgingly asked for a cup of water.
Once he finally was able to move, Bam continued his plan. Khun caught himself laughing a lot at the image of the angry-concerned puppy that followed him around, his irritability at the lack of personal time and space fading when he saw Bam’s happy smile each time he believed himself useful.
That was why he probably asked him the first time to help him comb his hair.
The bathroom was the only place Khun put his foot down in not allowing Bam to follow him. He had managed to clean himself, the wet scar tissue proving to be more elastic than normally and allowing his arms to move around more freely.
His hair however… Calling it a bird’s nest would be a stretch, but it had lost its usual perfect arrangement.
Now, even months after the last of his injury had healed, Khun still sat patiently as Bam weaved his fingers through the strands of his hair. It was the calm moment before they started the fighting practice and Khun always basked in the small massages that Bam had begun including after noticing how his form relaxed with the pressure.
“Is everyone's hair like yours in the Tower?”
Khun hummed. “The color is characteristic of my family, but it varies from person to person.”
“...What about the length?”
“Everyone cuts it as short or leaves it as long as they want.” He opened an eye and looked at Bam’s twinkling eyes in the mirror.
“Then… Could you cut my hair?” He said with a loud voice, excitement clearly bubbling out.
“Of course Bam,” he hadn’t proposed it to Bam before as he wanted him to make his own choices, but seeing his excitement now maybe he should have brought it up before. In a smooth move, he traded places with Bam and copied the customer-service smile he had so many times seen. “Welcome dear customer, how shall I be cutting your hair today?”
A giggle burst out from Bam. “Hmmm, I would like something similar to Khun-ssi.”
“Oh, yes? I hear he has quite a stylish haircut,” Khun’s smile widened, “but are you sure about it? A shorter cut might look better, your face is quite handsome, it would be a shame to hide it from the world.”
This Bam seemed to ponder on more seriously. “It will grow out later, right?”
“Yeah, if you don’t like it you can just grow it out.”
“Khun-ssi, I doubt there can be anything you do that I won’t like.”
Khun hid his embarrassment by righting Bam’s head and hair, long flocks of hair falling on gold eyes. “You can’t be so sure about that.”
“Of-“ Bam tried to twist around but fell still, “of course I can say that, it’s what I think! Khun-ssi has been nothing but kind, you’re always taking care of me and thinking about my wellbeing, I see it even when you try to hide it.”
“But I might do things that you won’t like in the future,” strands of hair fell to the floor, “nobody's perfect Bam. I’m not different from those inside the Tower, killing isn’t the only one of my faults.”
“But that is because of that cursed Tower, it isn’t your fault…” he said dejectedly, “I don’t need to see the Tower to know that no one else can compare to Khun-ssi, in my eyes you are perfect. I don’t need anyone else if you stay by my side.”
Those words carried far more than what could be heard. It had the same single-minded obsession with which Bam had entered the Tower and the one that tortured him in their climb. He had tried but never been able to erase the marks Rachel had left on him, Khun a mere outsider to their deeply-rooted relationship that was far too broken to fix but still impossible to ignore. Khun didn’t want for his relationship with Bam to resemble his previous one with Rachel, it was wrong and twisted and made Bam too vulnerable. Too easy to manipulate at his will.
And no, Khun would never use Bam. But he couldn’t trust his future self to never consider it, and allowing for it to even be a possibility wasn’t going to help.
Bam shone the brightest when free, Khun wouldn’t let his darkness engulf that.
“You might not believe me now, but once we’re inside the Tower you will find a lot of different people. Some worse than me, but most of them better. You’ll grow to love them and they will do so right back, building a strong friendship with everyone you encounter. You will enjoy it, I assure you.”
He rotated to the front, picking at the last long strands. Bam looked him directly in the eye while speaking. “I already enjoy my time with Khun-ssi.”
“And that is good. But there are different types of joy out there, and I can’t give you all of them.”
“What about me? Can’t I give Khun-ssi all of the happiness you want?”
“I want you to live and see. I’ll be happy as long as you stay safe, even if we fall apart.”
An offended scoff. “We won’t! I’ll be safe and sound as long as Khun-ssi doesn’t leave me. We will climb and get your wish come true, then we can get a house and live together forever!”
“Okay, okay Bam. Thank you for wanting to help me.” He laughed.
A final snap rang through the room and Khun moved out of the way. Bam’s eyes still stayed on him for a couple of seconds, but then he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
Bam’s mouth dropped open and Khun chuckled at the reaction. “ I love it Khun-ssi ,” he wiggled his head around, “my head weights so little now! I can see without trouble! I bet now I’ll be better when we spar!”
“You get a haircut and get cocky already, I see.” He threw the taunt out.
“Khun-ssi is the one who said I’m a fast learner!”
“But you only learn when you get hit.”
“You haven’t been able to hit me twice with the same move! Now that I can see clearly you might not be able to hit me even the first time.”
“Wanna bet?” He grinned.
“You’re on!” Bam reciprocated with a smile and rushed out of the bathroom to get changed.
Khun swept the floor and threw the hair away. He stood in front of the mirror for a while.
He had grown a lot since he time traveled, his body developing faster in this false-Outside, but the biggest surprise was the smile he was met with.
Maybe he didn’t deserve it, but for today, and just today, he will let himself enjoy what he has.
After all, they will soon have to begin moving.
Khun opened his eyes.
A gust of wind rose from the cliff nearby, chills running up his spine at the lack of warmth. The slight smell of burned wood lingered in the air and Khun turned to where the sounds of snoring came. Bam was happily sleeping beside him, moving around from time to time, hands grabbing as if searching for something.
Laying on his back, Khun stared at the false starless sky. He hadn’t noticed it in the beginning, but the caves had made him feel uneasy, claustrophobic even. In the Tower everything was so vast that you could easily forget that everything was confined in a closed space, but here the walls loomed everywhere you looked. It was a constant reminder that there was a limit to everything, your liberties bound by something like rocks and monsters that lurked between them, your knowledge about Shinsoo stripped from you as it was rendered useless.
The anticipation and creeping feeling of running out of time came later than he predicted. If he was honest, he may have even lost count of time at some point. Time spent with Bam was always fast, not enough. He taught him how to fight and answered every question he was given, or at least the ones he had an answer for.
But the more they hung around, the more Khun noticed the clear difference with the Bam he knew.
That was what had burst his bubble and ended up forcing them out of the house in search of other things. The cliff they were now resting on led to a big expanse of plain territory and it looked like a town could be seen in the distance. They had stumbled upon here after some weeks of search, and Khun now saw for the first time the empty sky Rachel had hated so much.
He couldn’t understand her, because while the stars were beautiful, they as well weren’t tangible. Stars adorned the sky like gods, present and bright but also static and cold, entities that craved faith and gave peace, but never helped with actions. They had removed themselves from everything long ago, and they didn’t plan to go back to their beginnings.
Even now, Khun laid side by side with one of the supposed gods. Bam shone the brightest because he was the closest, but would he this time around leave him behind? Khun didn’t want to treat him like his other treasures, keeping him hidden wasn’t a possibility and it wasn’t what he wanted for him. They had to grow together, create a new future that didn’t have the same painful past…
But was it possible?
Khun had been disappointed when Bam saw him without a hint of recognition. He had a faint hope that maybe he wasn’t the only one with the knowledge and experience of another life, but fate wasn’t so good to him. Hadn’t been since the start.
He’d thought about telling him everything, it wasn’t like Bam wouldn’t believe him. But Bam’s plate would already be full, Khun had and is trying to delay the inevitable, only so much time could be bought. He was an adult for fucks sake, he could deal with this until the information from the past became obsolete. Maybe then he would feel less guilty about hiding it, so mentioning it in passing wouldn’t feel like a betrayal of their trust.
Khun would build a new start for a future he didn’t know. He was scared, but if this was what it takes for Bam to live freely, to have a choice, then he would fight whoever came in his way without doubting it. He was making a new foundation for a Bam he didn’t know, a Bam that maybe would hate him because his and this Bam weren’t the same.
They were different, and while his Bam had grown into a good man even with all the struggles, Khun wouldn’t let this Bam get that damaged.
He once thought he would side with the devil if that could bring Bam back to life.
Now he knew, death wasn’t the scariest thing anymore.
It was gold empty eyes.
“Khun-ssi, Khun-ssi! What is that song? Do you know it?”
A group of children danced in the square of the town. Khun and Bam huddled together on the top of a roof, inspecting the boisterous place before showing themselves.
“No, it probably is native to this place.”
“It seems like fun…” Bam’s eyes didn’t leave the group for a second.
He might regret it, but… “Do you want to join them?”
“What? No! Khun-ssi was the one that said it could be dangerous, I can’t possibly-“
“I’m saying it because it’ll be fine if you do so.”
“Oh,” Bam tried to keep his face straight, but the corners of his lips were already rising, “really? Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Just try to not talk too much. You can pretend that you don’t understand them.”
A quick nod. He turned to jump but came to a small pause, “thank you, Khun-ssi,” and he jumped.
Khun kept close tabs on him, eyes focused on his form and ears alert to any piece of information that came from the loud market nearby. He stayed in his place for a long time, smiling at the animated boy on the square. It was nice to see that even now he could make quick friends with anyone he encountered, the previous dance now dissolved in favor of a game of tag, a kid riding on Bam’s back as a handicap.
Then suddenly he heard a name he knew. Someone in the crowd below had mentioned Arlen and his heartbeat in his ears from the excitement.
He hadn’t thought about it much, but maybe he could get to know more about Bam’s mysterious mother here. She was probably the only one who could tell the whole story, the one that held all of the answers that Khun had searched.
But when a head with dirty blond hair came into view Khun’s excitement turned into killing intent really fast.
On the other side of the square, Rachel walked with a boy that Khun mistook for Bam for a second, as he was wearing the same clothes with which Khun had met Bam —that was information he would leave for later. Rachel was as frail as the first time he saw her, body too thin and gaze showing a melancholic dumb glint so others would take pity on her. She wanted to be a victim, and Khun could already see himself fulfilling her wish with a swift move of his blade. It would be fast, and no one would be able to trace him; even if they did he would be long gone inside the Tower for them to be able to do anything.
‘I’ll make you see the stars alright.’
He drew his hand back and was met with a strong hold on his arm. He struggled against it and dropped the knife to his other hand. Khun was ready to throw it but then a voice spoke in his ear.
“Khun-ssi, stop it.”
Bam. It was Bam. ‘ Of course it was Bam,’ Khun thought bitterly, ‘even this time he won’t let me kill her.’
With a deep breath, he turned around. Bam was angry, eyes boring into him with all of his goodness.
“What were you trying to do.”
It was a rhetorical question, Bam knew the answer. “Nothing, just some target practice.”
“On a square full of people?”
“It’s how we were taught in my family. The best killer is the one that can choose who dies and who doesn’t.”
His obvious lies did nothing to calm Bam. “And you thought it would be nice to kill someone here? That they deserved to die because you said so?”
A pang on Khun’s consciousness. “Kill? No, quite the contrary. I just wanted to scare them a bit. Create some chaos so it would be easier to blend in.”
Seeing that Khun wouldn’t back down, Bam let him go.
“I got us a place to sleep. Follow me now that your ‘target practice’ is over.”
Without waiting, he once again joined the crowd below. In a last attempt, Khun searched for that blond hair but it was clear she was already gone. He cursed at himself and then proceeded to drop in an alleyway to follow Bam from a distance, guilt crawling up at making the other angry.
If he had explained everything, maybe Bam would even have helped him. While hating the notion of killing, this Bam had the initiative to fight. He understood that inside the Tower monsters similar to the ones they encountered were going to appear and that other people like the ones who killed the original owners of their house would also threaten them. Bam didn’t want to be the one being protected, he had always had a strong sense of justice and hated putting others at risk, more if it was because of his failings.
But what he saw now was a Khun that wanted to kill an innocent —even if said ‘innocent’ had done far too much evil— and then tried to lie to him. And maybe he was right, this time Rachel hadn’t done anything, she didn’t even know Bam and hence wouldn’t be able to enter the Tower. She was at the end of her road, they would disappear from here in no time and that would be the end of it.
Khun’s harsh thinking could also have led to more troubles. In the spur of the moment, he had judged it as a good risk to take, but what would have happened if he actually got caught? He would be separated from Bam and something worse could have occurred.
He was ashamed that he so quickly clung to the choice to kill. Hachuling was right, he had let himself be consumed by rage, something that a Khun shouldn’t do, and then had tried to act like a Khun, which was even worse. He had one foot on each path, unable to reject his roots and unable to act as he wanted. He thought the choices he made were his, but was that the truth?
Even to this day he was haunted by his Father, he believed it was solved in the past but it was clear now that he still had a lot to think about.
Maybe someday he will be able to confide in Bam once again.
He couldn’t wait for that time to come.
The moment finally came while they were hanging out in a church.
They had slowly made up. No apologies were told, but the silence was too much for both to bear. Bam was the first to make a move, and Khun gladly followed. For now, they would pretend that nothing happened, Khun may be praying that a time when they need to talk about it doesn’t come, but Bam had proven to have good memory for the things Khun hoped he would forget or leave alone.
He was lazing around while hearing Bam play the piano to the amazed audience of his friends. The kids he had befriended were apparently from an orphanage in town, that was why they had been given a place to sleep without many questions asked. Being the older ones, they were quickly assigned with jobs to do.
Bam, being the only one that could communicate with them, looked after the energetic kids and teens. He helped in cooking and other activities, and after showing his quick learning skills he was scouted to help in a church nearby. The old piano player liked him and asked if he would want to learn to play.
Obviously, he said yes.
In the meantime, Khun took care of the youngins and injured ones. His attentive eye was helpful in catching signals of distress before someone began to cry, and his medical knowledge was far better than the girl before him. He spoke to no one and while not disliked, he also wasn’t as popular as Bam. Some kids did seek him out when needing a quiet place to be and didn’t want to be alone, but otherwise, he was avoided.
Life, once again, was easy.
And coming to an end.
He felt a tug from his insides, so powerful he almost threw up. He gasped for air surprised and made some kind of noise because Bam’s presence was suddenly at his side.
“Khun-ssi, are you alright?”
“We have to get out of here.”
Bam understood and left him in favor of going to say his goodbyes to the confused kids. Khun was leaving through the doors when someone hugged his leg. It was one of the quiet kids, Caleb, and one of the ones who enjoyed being with him.
With tears in his eyes, Caleb spoke for the first time. “Are you going away?”
Khun felt lost, he was able to understand him, but the other couldn’t. In a panic, he nodded.
“Will you come back?”
That was a harder question to answer. Not because he didn’t know the answer, but because maybe it was too cruel to give someone so young. Still, he shook his head.
“Why- hicc- do you not- hicc- like it here?” Caleb was fighting through the tears.
“Of course he likes it here Caleb.” Bam’s hand fell on the kids head, ruffling his hair. Khun nodded at the questioning look Caleb still threw him after trying to mentally thank Bam for coming in his aid. “But he has another place to be now.”
“And you? Why- why are you going too?”
Bam crouched to his level, a comforting smile appearing on his face. “Because I don’t want to leave Khun alone.”
“I- I want to go too!” He said passionately, but his eyes betrayed him when they looked back at the other kids.
“Then who will take care of the others here? Who’ll be tag when no one else wants to?” Bam taunted, eyebrows rising in question. “Let’s do one thing. I promise I’ll keep Khun safe if you promise to take care of the others here. Deal?”
Khun felt another tug inside and struggled to maintain a calm expression for the pondering kid. When he released his leg, Khun let out a breath of relief.
“Okay,” it was said with conviction, “you can’t break a promise!”
Bam laughed. “I won't, I won't. Go with the others, take care Caleb.”
Caleb whipped the tears from his face and left them. Khun was still surprised that the kid with whom he hadn’t spent that much time was already this attached to him. His character wasn’t exactly the most pleasing to be around.
“Khun-ssi, we have to go.”
Both ran to the outskirts of the town and arrived at a place they had set specifically for when the time came. The cave was hidden and no one went near it, so the risk at being seen was nonexistent. Khun entered first, tripping on a rock and falling awkwardly at the bottom. Bam, who was close behind, followed suit, forcing a hurt ‘hmph’ when he landed on Khun.
Laughter filled Khun’s eardrums. “Can we count this as payment from when we met?”
“Hah, I didn’t weigh nearly as much as you do now. Always striving to beat the master, eh Bam?”
“You’re still much stronger than I was then. Khun-ssi could probably take another four of me easily.”
Khun wanted to give a smart retort but was once again hit with the uncomfortable sensation, this time with much more force than before.
Bam’s face became clearer as a light spread from the floor under him, his gold eyes reflected Khun’s illuminating form and he looked at him as if he was seeing him for the first time again. Awe and wonder spreading in his features.
Khun let out a grin, an idea suddenly surging in his head.
“Bam…” He whispered as if telling a secret.
Bam leaned in, careful to hear him clearly. “Yes, Khun-ssi?”
He raised his unoccupied hand to Bam’s face.
“ Tag, you’re it .”
The last thing he saw was Bam’s surprised face breaking into a laugh.
And there it is, with this we end the prelude of the fic.
(pleade no one talk about how we are 20k words in and they just entered the tower or i'll become depressed)
My Bam will be more mature than cannonicaly i believe, he wants to see the outside world and was never taught by khun to "obey" him, so their relationship is more on equal footing. While Bam follows Khun with a similar motivation to Rachel, he is also genuinely interested in seeing the world Khun comes from, even if he doesn't agree with some things that it entails. I'll continue exploring how his beliefs and how they will be challenged in my work so yeah
I think I'm putting a lot of myself in Khun haha, but his character is one that I really like to write, he's very complex and like SIU said, very human. I hope I could express that through my writing!
Every comment, kudos, bookmark and subscribe is appreciated ^^ but if you enjoyed it even a little bit I'll be happy already 🙇
So yeah, thanks again for reading till here, if you're interested I recently opened a new twitter, let's be mutuals! @PartOfW_Py
Chapter 5: Intro: FlashBack
Apologies for the late and short update.. The plot will only thicken from here on out and I had to comeback to reread the beginning of TOG ahhh..
Thank you for all the love as always! The story has surpassed 2k hits and 200 kudos and God ㅠㅠ really, thank you
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Purple light was the first thing Khun saw.
The room surrounding him was antique, walls with carvings fell apart and debris of destroyed columns scattered around. It could be mistaken as a ruin of a fallen civilization from millennia ago still inside Floor 0, but the flow of Shinsoo welcoming him was a dead giveaway of where he was.
Khun was the first Regular that had set foot on the 1st Floor.
“Oh, I have been searching for you.” A high-pitched voice boomed in the enclosed space.
He dusted himself as he faced the Guardian, cautious of his next words. “I’m honoured to hear that. You’ve got some nice place going on here, too bad no one gets to see it.”
Headon narrowed his eyes. Khun hadn’t seen him since he entered the Tower but his memories were still fresh, the voice that promised the world once you reached the top haunted him as their group closed the distance to the final Floor. This white rabbit-esque Guardian that now levitated through the space to loom above and observe him was just another piece for the war that was to come, but he was the catalyst of everything.
Headon was useful. But dangerous.
“You weren’t chosen.”
A shiver ran up his spine. It was a fact, but Headon’s tone carried an unspoken warning — ‘you aren’t supposed to be here’ — and the purple light above flickered.
“The doors opened for me.”
He wasn’t lying, so he held himself patiently while Headon scrutinized him.
“No one from Eduan’s kind can open them.”
Headon seemed to take the bait. Perfect, he would be able to correct some of the information he had. Bluffing, he stood his ground — showing weakness to the Guardian would be a mistake.
“Don’t lie. You were ordered to kill any child from the first Irregulars. The one who is coming isn’t an exception.”
No response came. He had been right.
The caretaker of the Tower circled around him, his golden staff dragging on the floor and creating a screeching sound. Khun winced as the pitch became higher after bouncing on the walls, his mind filling away the information for later.
“You…” Finally, Headon came to a stop. The bluenette could have sworn the Guardian’s slit-like eyes held surprise, but his tone was aggressive. “Are a cheater.”
And, okay, maybe Khun wasn’t the fairest of characters, but that was plain slander. He, for once, had actually followed the rules.
“I don’t see how the Tower allowing me to enter counts as ‘cheating’. And you’re the one who did open the doors.”
“You used my power…”
Khun pretended to think over it and nodded. Much like his encounter with Urek the Shinsoo revolved around the angered Guardian, still indecisive over what to do: kill the irregularity or humour it.
“Khun Aguero Agnes, you’ve breached the Floor no Regular can see.”
And this was what Khun had been waiting for. “I am not one.”
The silence was tense. This was a question he couldn’t ask outright but he still needed an answer, Khun’s next actions depended on what he was determined as.
As if sensing his distress, Headon hummed as a devilish grin crossed his face to reveal his sharp teeth. The Guardian chose to not satisfy his curiosity. “But the Tower doesn’t want you.”
Khun really wished that was the case.
“No, it doesn’t. It needs me.”
Because the Tower needed everyone that entered it. Headon was the one responsible to invite millions into the Tower because he knew what it needed. And Khun knew that to maintain the balance Headon couldn’t forfeit even one person from entering. Chaos happened when an Irregular entered but it had always been contained by fate, only one monster would be able to devour everything the Tower stood for.
Destiny will get destroyed only by him, but the groundwork for his rising had been building for millennia, and Khun was one of the necessary pieces for it to happen.
“Oh, aren’t you cheeky? Right now you’re nothing. Your disappearance would pass unnoti—“
“Then kill me.”
“I shouldn’t have even been able to see this place. If you — the caretaker of the Tower — want me dead we wouldn’t be talking right now-“ a gruff escaped the Guardian and Khun noticed his hold on the staff shifted. Maybe... “Or not. Does the Tower not let you kill me?” Headon’s eyes shone with a warning, Khun pushed boldly. “Hah. Well, for once I might have to be thankful to it for something.”
Headon was clearly displeased, but Khun showed his characteristical smirk. The joy of playing with the Guardian that so many regarded as a God was very satisfactory. His years with Bam in the Outside were a good change of pace for him, but he had always loved being in control and that was something he could only get here.
“Aren’t you interesting, cheater?”
The Shinsoo around him cracked, dispersing to create a space where he had woken up minutes ago. His blue eyes narrowed on Headon as the mood surrounding him relaxed, sharp teeth hidden once again behind his mouth.
“We’ll continue this later, the true guest has come.”
He stumbled as he was teletransported from the room. Khun had now first-row seats for the first test, his view perfect to see how Bam appeared out of thin air on the floor. The space was a bit cramped, though he decided against saying anything in case Headon decided to fuck with him some more. He may not be able to kill him, but making his life more difficult would be easy.
As Bam stirred awake, Khun gravitated towards the opening to try and make out what the boy said. Sadly, wherever Headon had put him was soundproofed and Khun could only make out that the golden-eyed boy was calling him when he turned in his direction, lips making the familiar move to call his name.
They had talked about what would happen when they entered, so he was a bit pissed Bam had disregarded his recommendation of not giving right away that they knew each other. Well, Khun was more preoccupied about what would happen next, as had hoped they may be able to take the first test together. Unfortunately for them, Bam will have to take it alone and Khun could only watch as he confronted whatever test Headon constructed. He had never known what Bam had fought against in the 1st Floor, but he did hope that this time Yuri wouldn’t have to enter the scene.
She was a strong ally but attracted too much attention. If they wanted to survive safely, they shouldn’t mingle with the big fish till after reaching the 20th Floor — Wolhaiksong was also not going to be of much help till then, the alliance more of a backup plan in case something happened with Khun.
After all, this was already a future he couldn’t be sure of.
Khun bore his eyes into Bam’s back as he talked with Headon, making a mental note to ask him about their conversation when they reached Evankhell’s Floor. After a few minutes, the wall behind Headon fell to reveal a cage that contained a white steel eel and Khun raised a hand to his head.
Of fucking course Headon would make a test that involved risking your life to climb the Tower. Bam was lucky he was an Irregular and Shinsoo density didn’t affect him, but there was no way he could fight that eel head-on. Khun should have taught him some basic Shinsoo control even if they couldn’t practice it — in his current state Bam wouldn’t be able to even scratch its scales, and running from it wasn’t an option.
Unbeknownst to Khun’s internal struggle, Bam confidently walked to the cage as he took out a spade that had been hanging from his side. It was the same one Khun had made with the claws of the monster that attacked them in the caves after going to search for supplies. Curved and sharp, the handle was the only part you could touch safely after Khun smoothed it out, the rest of its surface dangerous as small unseen spikes covered it.
Making it had been fun. Learning to use it had been even better.
And Bam had spent a long time learning.
Now, Bam used one of Khun’s spare bandages to secure the blade to his hand — ‘smart move’ — and stepped into the death trap. In the worst-case scenario, he would at least remain with the blade attached to him, even if his grip loosened.
Maybe it wasn’t going to be too bad. Bam had always proved to Khun that he was far more capable than the bluenette gave him credit for, and this time around he would do it as always. Then they would reunite in the 2nd Floor and Bam will smile while Khun berates him for taking that idiotic test without a second thought but everything will be—
The eel left a black orb behind as it dove towards Bam. Khun would have cheered at Bam’s quick jump to evade it, but then the boy fell back on the ground and simply stood in his place, unarmed arm holding his shoulder where the Shinheuh had cut him.
Bam didn’t even pretend to evade when the eel swam around to his place with more agility than before, and Khun could only see the back of his head as the eel opened its mouth and swallowed him in one go.
Khun only knew time had passed because he could hear his heartbeat in his ears. He began gathering Shinsoo to try and get out of the space he had been watching from but then the jaws of the beast spurted red.
And a small figure fell out with the blood from the eel’s mouth.
The Shinheuh screeched — or he assumed it did as it contorted — while Bam rolled on the ground and sprinted to the ball that was left unattended. He didn’t seem more hurt than before — thank God — and his arm raised the bloodied blade to break the ball.
The black orb broke with ease and Bam disappeared. Khun saw that Headon tilted his head as in surprise before he was transported back into the room.
He was still trying to understand how Bam figured out that the best way to fight the Shinheuh was by getting himself eaten. Khun thought he had taught Bam to appreciate his life more this time but the self sacrificing tendencies had clearly also begun in this timeline—
“That was underwhelming,” Headon’s shrill voice pierced Khun’s ears to break him out of his reverie. He was glad they were going part ways soon, the Guardian’s voice was as unpleasant as its producer. “You cheater took my fun away from me. Why would you give him that weapon? Tsk, the spectators were supposed to step in.”
If he could, he would have punched the Guardian in the face. However, he showed incredible self control by only plastering a smile in his face. Feigning calmness, Khun crossed his arms across his chest. “So what? You’re gonna be making me take an even harder test to compensate? Don’t want the spectators to get too bored, right?”
The menacing grin came back to Headon. “Maybe another time… You won’t be taking the test.”
Huh. Well, that wasn’t bad. “A deal then.”
Shrieking laughter erupted. “Yes! Wasn’t that what you were hoping for?”
Bullseye. “I want to hear the conditions first.”
“It's nothing much,” Khun arched an eyebrow as Headon fell to the ground in front of him. “If you promise to fulfil my request... I can even make you the hero of the story.”
Finally, it came the time for Khun to grin.
“Oh, no,” he lowered himself in a mock bow to stare directly into Headon’s eyes. “I will become the villain.”
And here begin the parallels in the story uhuhuh
The chapter is late mostly bc I finally noticed that I can't wing it too much, I had to go back to do a more detailed outline and I'm still unsure of it. Still I'll continue working on it! I really want to deliver a good story for you guys
This chpt also feels weird because of its shortness, I tried for it to be longer but it just didn't feel good. Maybe I'll comeback later to edit it, but well.. I'm used to writing more but as I need to begin to follow cannon it'll get harder to let myself run too free. Next chpt we finally will reunite with the gang, so I'm looking forward to that! There's a small piece of foreshadowing for what'll happen next ehe
Thank you again for reading! Any comments are appreciated as always ♥ I hope this update wasn't too disappointing - it's just the beginning of their true journey inside the tower haha