acatwhowrites: (Taohun♡bros)
A Cat Who Writes ([personal profile] acatwhowrites) wrote2015-08-20 12:53 pm

Something They Become

title: Something They Become
players: Kim Minseok/Xiumin, Kim Joonmyun/Suho, Huang Zitao/Tao, Oh Sehun
rating: PG-13
word count: 12,405
warning/s: blood, character death, language, violence
summary: Zitao understood and embraced his duty as a protector. All he believed he needed to know was that Elder Bairns must be destroyed.
a/n: Prompt #111 written for animexodom. I really loved the anime this prompt came from. I watched it all as well as the off-shoots from other studios, because they're all roughly based on the same animated story, which is honestly pretty amazing. It had been a long while, though, since I watched it, and I wanted to keep the general idea but not just rewrite the anime. I did take some quotes right from the anime that seemed key and/or important. Otherwise, this is me working out my frustration over oblivious anime characters and their dumb decisions.

While writing, I mostly watched the Die Hard movies, so there may be less Saya and more Bruce Willis.

Tuesday morning, Zitao dragged himself out of bed, blindly dressed himself, and tripped out of the house with his shoes on the wrong feet, shirt untucked, and bag unzipped.

Last night, His brother Joonmyun had waited for him outside their home beside the small shrine. Immediately, Zitao knew it wasn't just to welcome him home with a hug and questions about how school went.

"Elder Bairn?"

Joonmyun smiled tightly and stepped aside, ushering Zitao into he main room of the temple, where he knelt and waited with his hands on his lap.

For as long as Zitao could remember, and probably even further than that, Zitao's been taught about the Old Ones, or Elder Bairn. He learned what they are and why he fought, but no one was certain where exactly they come from or why they were so hateful towards humans—their only source of food.

Legends written in Joonmyun's books that fill an entire room behind the shrine stated the Elder Bairns had been feeding on humans since ancient times, and they were so strong and so numerous that the humans simply could not fight back. Begging meant nothing. Bartering with those which understood human language always ended in the humans' deaths.

To the Elder Bairn, humans were nothing more than food.

No questions asked, Zitao understood and embraced his duty as a protector. All he needed to know was that Elder Bairns must be destroyed. His fingernails dug into his palms.

"I'll find it." And I'll kill it to protect everyone. Their parents both protected the town and surrounding area from invading Elder Bairns, eventually losing their lives. Joonmyun became a mu, a shaman, so the art of Elder Bairn banishment was taught to the youngest son.

Joonmyun pulled the wrapped Sainchamsageom from its place on a wooden cradle. "Our father's Great Four Tiger Sword..." He looked at Zitao through his lashes. "You still swear to uphold the holy vows of our family?"


Joonmyun bowed his head, recited a brief prayer of protection and handed the sword to his little brother's waiting hands. "Be safe."

Zitao nodded and walked outside, taking a deep breath before channeling all his energy and focusing on the tremours in the breeze. Due east, chasing the setting sun, something was moving.

Tucking the sword securely at his side, Zitao took off running, keeping to the trees and leaping over and around obstacles. His heart beat in his ears; he barely noticed that there were no birds singing, and nothing scuttled through the decomposing leaves and needles on the ground.

He finally stopped at the old railroad tracks. Nothing ran on them, anymore, and they were overgrown to the point of barely even resembling tracks. Just to his left, a train car sat at the platform. Painted red and white, a bold 107 was on the lower left side, and it had many windows, telling Zitao it was an abandoned passenger cat. It didn't look all that old, and there was no sign of the Elder Bairn until the lights flickered on.

Blood streaked the walls and spilled onto the platform, deep red and still wet. A chunk of something, maybe a piece of leg, sat in the puddle and oozed. Zitao wrinkled his nose and eyed the train car.

For how overgrown the tracks were, the train looked neat, except for the blood smears and stains, and it was just the passenger car; there was no engine. Zitao hummed. "So how did you get here?"

Cautiously, sword ready, he boarded the train.

It was empty. The floor beneath his feet squished, staining his shoes. The air smelled tangy and hot, but it was completely empty.

The overhead lights flickered and died, a lone bug buzzed, and the train doors shut.

Zitao gripped the hilt of his sword and slowed his breathing.

The bug was silent, but there was a low groan and barely-perceptible shiver beneath his feet.

Long, snake-like appendages slithered from the overhead racks, approaching Zitao in the semi-darkness. He struck with his blade, severed the toothy heads cleanly, and the entire train rocked on its tracks.

He pierced the floorboards out of curiosity, and the car bucked violently with a screech. Zitao wrenched the sword free and thrust it into the floor again, tearing it open and dropping to the gravel and weeds. He rolled down the shallow hill and crouched, watching the train car as it morphed and shifted to a much larger, slug-like form.

It was gigantic and mauve in the sunset, like a new bruise. "That is just ugly..."

Most Elder Bairns Zitao killed were relatively small, maybe the size of a car at most, but this was well on its way to dwarfing the trees in height.

It lurched left to right, seeking Zitao with large eyes.

Eyes which, usually, were unprotected and soft, gave him four targets larger than himself. The trick was avoiding the whip-like arms and getting there in one piece.

He stood and ran towards it. If he could stab its side and get its attention on him to look at him, he could rip out one of its eyes.

The creature used a tentacle on its head to attack, but Zitao dodged and severed the toothed end. It fell to the grass and seemed to melt like butter left in the sun. The Elder Bairn then opened its mouth and roared, swinging another arm which Zitao barely managed to avoid. It writhed in the air, flipping around and whipping around his right calf. With a sharp yank, Zitao fell to the ground and felt himself being lifted into the air. He kept a tight grip on his sword and pulled himself up in a suspended sit-up. His sword cut through the tentacle around his leg just as it began to swing him like a wet towel.

Zitao flew free, shaking the toothy thing off his leg, and landed with a shriek of metal onto the roof of an old shed. It turned on him, mouth open and gaping, and while Zitao had an excellent view of its many teeth, he felt no desire to familiarise himself with them. He lifted his heels and slid off the mangled roof.

Metal crumpled and mortar crumbled as the Elder Bairn devoured the shed. It shrieked and reared back, hungry for more blood and less brick. Several small tentacles slither from its body to attack; Zitao easily cut through them, but more and more reached for him, until he vaguely wondered if this was a sort of ancient Hydra, duplicating instead of dying.

In a last ditch effort, he charged. The four eyes glared at him, an impressive expression without eyebrows, and it tried to attack with its largest tentacle, located on its head. Zitao leapt away, slicing along its body, and stabbed through the base. Pulling it out flat, the slimy appendage flopped like a felled tree and wriggled in pain.

Zitao met its face with his sword and drove it in the general area its brain should be. He wrenched it down, cutting it open, and finally pulled out to step back. Hot blood geysered out, but it wasn't enough until the Elder Bairn completely stopped moving. He slashed the eyeballs and reached inside with his sword as far as he could without completely climbing inside its head cavity.

Finally, the creature shivered, convulsed, and sighed. Zitao looked at the blood on his hands and lifted one to his lips. The one good eye stared blearily at the strange warrior. "Good," it rumbled. "Honour the Contract."

"Contract?" Zitao nudged it with his foot. "What Contract? Hey!" He poked its corpse with his sword, but it was dead.

He licked the blood off his fingers and headed home.

It was after two in the morning when Zitao finally dragged himself up the hill he and Joonmyun lived on. He didn't ache too much, but he was exhausted and famished. All he wanted was a bath and sleep.

Joonmyun met him at the back door, taking his sword and bloody uniform. Zitao could barely hold himself upright as he stumbled into the bathroom to shower. When the water finally ran clear off of him, he called it good, grabbed a towel, and schlepped to his bedroom.

A thermos and mug sat on his desk, smelling sweet and soothing. Zitao hoped there was no caffeine as he drank a mug and crawled under his blankets.

He'd had a rough night, to say the least, and he had school in less than five hours.

He didn't remember dreaming, and it seemed as though he'd just laid down when he was being shook awake by his brother.

His clean uniform on top of his desk, blue plaid blazer and maroon slacks ironed with neat creases. It was just about routine, Joonmyun cleaning blood and gore from his little brother's clothing, letting him catch precious hours of sleep just to wake him for a normal day at school where he could laugh and play around with his friends. No one but Joonmyun knew what Zitao did, how much he sacrificed to protect their town.

It wasn't large by any means, but it was, effectively, Zitao's whole world. He had no plans of leaving, unlike his friends, who talked about Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and other cities Zitao never even dreamed of. His whole life and only family remained in their small rural town. There were shops, restaurants, the high school, and mail-order catalogs and poor internet and cell signals. Zitao was content to not explore outside the fencing that people erected years and years ago in an effort to keep the Elder Bairn out.

Obviously, it's not a very strong fence, since Zitao had had to go out almost every week to defeat one of the creatures.

"Zitao, if you don't get moving," Joonmyun called from the bottom of the stairs, "you'll be late."

"I'm up! I'm..." He yawned so wide behind his hand he almost swallowed his fist. "I'm up. I'm moving."

"I've already swept the shrine." His brother waved off Zitao's apologies and guilty expression, pointing towards the door as he handed Zitao his backpack. "Go get something to eat and head to school. I'll be gone tonight, so you're on your own for dinner."

He felt better once he got outside. The sun warmed his skin, a breeze ruffled his hair, and a pair of chipmunks chased one another across the yard, racing for the thick trees and chattering between themselves. He laced his fingers together behind his back and leaned forward, stretching his shoulders, and stood up to swing his arms.

It felt like a good day.

At the bottom of the hill the shrine sat upon, Cafe Kim snuggled at the junction where the main roads converged. A bell over the door jingled merrily as Zitao pushed it open.

It was mostly empty, still early for the lunch rush, but even later, Zitao rarely saw many people at the cafe, possibly because it's Western style. Most people who came early ordered a coffee and pastry to go, but Zitao liked to sit at the counter and enjoy a big meal complete with specially brewed coffee.

"Minseok hyung?"

"Taozi! Good morning." Minseok backed into the main room of the cafe from the kitchen, carrying a tray of fresh pastries with such a heavenly scent Zitao started to drool. "You hungry?"

"Just a bit." He wiped his mouth.

"Excellent. I just finished these, so help yourself. I'll make you an omlette."

"Two?" He blushed at Minseok's amused expression. "I-I'm really hungry..."

"Your brother told me you had a long night. Don't study so hard you forget to eat," Minseok chastised. He poured hot water in a spiral pattern over a sieve of reddish coffee beans. "Drink this and sit tight."

Zitao's leg bounced while he waited. He grimaced at the tightness on his feet and switched shoes. The clock ticked loudly in the relative quiet of the cafe, counting down the time until he needed to leave and get to school on time. Even being a small town, it was almost impossible to cut through the woods, and the roads were few and lined with people Zitao knew and felt obligated by manners to greet and chat with. He wasn't complaining, but his homeroom teacher was developing a habit of marking Zitao tardy, whether he actually was or not.

The door bell chimed again, alerting the shop to another person—a cop, not a patron. Zitao hadn't ever seen a cop before; crime was little to nonexistent.

The officer nodded to Zitao, glancing around the room. He was young, probably new and trying to take whatever job he was given with the seriousness of the plague. Confirming no one else was around but Zitao, he pulled a photo from his pocket and approached Zitao at the counter. "Excuse me." He flipped the photo over. "Do you know this child?"

Kim Jongdae smiled at Zitao from the photo. Smaller than Zitao but with a big voice and bigger attitude, Jongdae attended school with Zitao. They were in the same grade, and he was always with Byun Baekhyun or Park Chanyeol. The trio made a set of noisy troublemakers who could be equal parts fun and annoying.

Zitao swallowed his coffee, now grossly bitter, and nodded jerkily. "He's my friend."

"Have you heard from him or seen him lately?"

"Friday at school? We all thought he was sick."

The officer hummed and pulled out another photo, holding it up in front of Jongdae's. "And this child?"

"Baekhyun...another friend..." His appetite was gone. The coffee sat like sludge in his gut. "What happened to them?"

"We're looking into it. Please tell us if you see them."

Minseok nudged the kitchen door open with his toe. "Good morning, officer."

"Sir. Do you have a moment?"

Setting the plate of hot omelets before Zitao, Minseok wiped his hands on his apron with a nod.

"Have you seen these boys?"

"They've been here a few times; they're friends with Zitao. Has something happened?"

"They're missing. Possibly just ran away. You know how it is, living in a small town. Some kids just feel that they're too big for it." The officer tucked the pictures back into his pocket. "Call us with any information."

"Of course. I hope they're found safely."

The officer smiled. "That's all we want, sir. Good bye." He left, door bell chiming as merry as ever, and Zitao thought it echoed in the settled silence between him and Minseok.

"Eat your breakfast, Taozi. Your friends will turn up."

"I'm not hungry anymore," he mumbled, pulling his backpack over his shoulder. "Thank you for the coffee."

"Zitao, wait." Minseok leaned over the counter, holding out a small box. "At least take this. Some sugar may make you feel better and keep you awake." He's always looking out for Zitao, as though he was his own brother. The cafe was one of the few places Zitao felt completely at ease. He'd sometimes spent the better part of his weekend days just sitting in the shop, chatting with Minseok about everything and nothing.

Other times, it felt as though Minseok saw right through him and knew all of his secrets.

Zitao took the box and peeked inside. "Marshmallows!" He smiled, eyes prickling with sudden tears. "Thank you, hyung."

Minseok crossed his arms on the counter. "It's only been a few days. Just try and make it through today, okay? It'll get easier."

Zitao opened and closed the front door of Cafe Kim so softly the bell didn't move. The sky still hung clear and blue, birds still danced on the breeze, and no plagues or locusts rained down to destroy the world, which is what Zitao felt should be happening.

His friends disappeared. Two of the brightest people in his whole world.

Tucking the box into his backpack, Zitao noticed his hands shaking and clenched them tight. It didn't help. He hastily tucked in his shirt and headed into town, where his school was.

The walk cleared his head. If officers were investigating, his friends would be found in no time. They probably just ran off together. Where one went, the other always followed, and Chanyeol was rarely far behind—in fact, he was often leading or being dragged along. He probably knew where they went and would cave after a short while. Secrets were not his forte.

Just outside the last couple blocks to school, Zitao paused, body rigid. His fingertips tingled, and there was a distinct feeling of something watching him. His eyes slid to his right and, sure enough, saw a small, tired-looking poodle.

He should ignore the dog and head to class.

The dog blinked slowly, yawned, and bowed its head to scratch its ears. One perked up at the human's sharp inhale.

He should really ignore the dog and head to class.

It finished one ear and began the other, foot thumping and neck stretching out to reach the sweet spot.

He really should just ignore the dog and head to class.

It rested all four paws back on the ground, gazed up at Zitao with deep brown eyes, and cocked its head.

All resolve snapped. "You're so cute!" He gathered the dog in his arms, cooing at it—him—and scratching the soft neck and ears until the dog went limp in his arms, tail wagging.

Something rustled in the bushes, and the dog's eyes snapped open. It wriggled from Zitao's grip and leapt into the thick underbrush on the opposite side of the road. "Hey! Where are you going?" The dog, predictably, didn't reply, but one of the kind ladies who lived up the street shuffled outside, broom in hand.

"Zitao? Don't you have school today?"

He patted his pockets for his phone, swiping the screen with bated breath and squinted eyes. Crap. "Yeah! See you later, Mrs Jung! Have a good day!"

"You, too, Zitao!" she cackled. Young kids and their energy. She envied them.

Zitao ran the rest of the way to school, bringing up the rear of the students, as usual. Even when he skipped breakfast and was on time, something had to keep him behind. Figured.

He kicked his outside shoes off and slipped his school shoes onto his feet, weaving in and out of other stragglers until he reached his homeroom.

The bell rang just as his butt touched his seat. Safe. Behind him, his best friend Sehun poked his shoulder. "Dude. You oversleep, again?"

"I bet he saw a kitten," Chanyeol commented, chewing his pencil.

"I did not oversleep," Zitao insisted, frowning at the sarcastic applause from his friends. He pulled his notebooks from his bookbag and stuffed it under his seat. "And it was a dog."

Their teacher, a pleasant man from the city, fresh out of university, called a greeting to the class. He took attendance, smiling a little when neither Jongdae nor Bakehyun responded, and Zitao determinedly focused on him, ignoring Sehun's bored abuse. He was almost immune to his neck being tickled and warm air being blown against his ears, but he couldn't ignore the tickling fingers in his side.

"Problem, Zitao?" Mr Lu turned from the board, eyebrows raised with the perfect rhetorical expression. Zitao burned red and slouched at his desk until Sehun poked the small of his back. He sat up with a squeak and blushed even deeper. His classmates laughed at his expense; even Mr Lu chuckled and shook his head.

Zitao scooted forward, swatting at Sehun's reaching fingers behind his back. He couldn't focus at all, with the empty seats in class and Sehun's abuse, and determinedly scribbled in the margins of his notes for the rest of class.

"Why do you do that?" Zitao wailed at lunchtime. They all sat outside at a table beneath the largest tree in the backyard across from the tennis and basketball courts. He bit into his food with a put-upon pout that Sehun dutifully ignored, leaning forward to steal a tomato from Zitao's bag.

"'s fun. Plus, Minseok makes amazing food, especially these pink marshmallow things, so I need to wear Zitao down in order to steal it."

Yixing, the class president as well as very talented dancer and kind friend, gave Sehun a subtly chastising look—closer to a tolerant smile that was more suited for someone looking at a really cute pet that could just do no wrong. "Mr Lu is going to catch you, one of these days, Sehun. Just leave Zitao be, and go to Minseok yourself, if you like his cooking so much. I'm sure he would be flattered."

Zitao scooted closer to Yixing, partly to evade Sehun's grabby hands and partly to hide the pink of his ears at the mention of Minseok. "Can't you make him stop? Class president and all?"

"It's just so boring!" The boy stretched over his crossed legs, using the dramatics to try and steal more of Zitao's food, but Zitao intercepted and stabbed at his friend's hand, chopsticks clicking against the wood between Sehun's fingers.

"I can't do anything, Zitao, but Sehun will get tired, eventually."

"Unlikely," Chanyeol snorted. He whimpered when Sehun kicked his shin.

"So what's the deal with Baek and Jongdae?" Zitao swallowed his marshmallow without chewing it, fear rising in his throat. "First Yifan, now those two chuckleheads."

"I heard Yifan dropped out."

"That makes no sense. What would he do?" Sehun snorted. "It's not like he could get into acting or modelling with that face."

While his friends bickered, Zitao held a marshmallow to his lips, not really tasting it or even realising it was in his hand. Three classmates gone without definite reason. Why was it so hard to remember?

The last time he'd seen Baekhyun and Jongdae was during practice after school last week. Both Baekhyun and Jongdae were there, and everyone sat together to eat dinner during their break.

Jongdae kicked his feet onto Baekhyun's desk and tapped his toe against his friend's shoulder to be a nudje. "Why are you even here, Jongdae? You don't dance."

"I figured you would all be missing me, so I came to be adored."

"Are you sure you have the right people?"

Jongdae ignored him. "Oh, hey. There's Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo!" Jongdae waved his leg to get the boy's attention. Large eyes blinked in their direction, once, and stared. Baekhyun pushed the offending ankles, sending Jongdae's feet crashing to the floor.

They all finally breathed when Kyungsoo began walking again.

Away from them, which was preferable.

Sehun shook his head and shivered. "Do not do that again."

"C'mon. He's not so bad. I sing with him; he is amazing. Not as good as me, but he's got a nice set of pipes."

"And we all, of course, know you don't mean his legs."

Jongdae shrugged and smiled. No comment.

Zitao packed his backpack and was on his knees when Sehun tugged at his shirt. "Where you going?"

"Kyungsoo eats alone. I was going to sit with him."

"You are terrified of Kyungsoo."

"Maybe...he's not so bad? He could be like you and just has an unfortunate face."

Baekhyun and Jongdae hid behind their shoulders, snorting with laughter.

Sehun scowled. "I refuse to look for your body if he kills you with his eyes or something."

Yixing set a hand on Zitao's arm, smiling. "I'm sure he'd enjoy the company, but maybe another day? Break is nearly over."

Zitao nodded and sat against the wall, almost hip-to-hip with the class president.

Chanyeol peeked around the door, as if afraid to walk into a dance studio and expose his graceless, bowed legs. "Jongdae; break's over."

Jongdae sighed hard enough to blow Baekhyun's bangs off his face—"Ew, Jongdae!"—and got to his feet. "It's been fun, kids, but duty calls. Don't miss me too much."

"If you don't leave, we can't miss you."

Jongdae blew them all a kiss, and that's the last they saw of him. Two days later, Baekhyun said he was going to check on him at home, and no one heard from him since.

"Zitao?" He jumped a little, thrown out of his thoughts by a light touch to his knee.

Chanyeol grinned at him. "You okay? You're miles away, man."

"Yeah. Just thinking."

"Don't hurt yourself," Sehun sang.

"Sehunnie, be nice." Yixing gathered everyone's trash onto his lunch try. "Let's head back. Lunch is almost over."

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Zitao took notes carelessly and regretted it as he sat at his desk that night, staring at his homework. He was completely blank.

He pulled out his seldom-used laptop and opened his messenger, double-clicking Sehun's screen name.

abstylemartialpanda sehun. lemme copy your homework.

bubblehun do it yourself lazyass

abstylemartialpanda i couldn't focus with your fingers in my back. you owe me.

abstylemartialpanda i'll bring you tea from cafe kim tomorrow.

bubblehun fine but make it choco

Zitao closed the lid and packed all his books into his backpack, sitting back with a tired sigh. All day, he carried a niggling feeling that he was forgetting something important. His dreams were vivid, he knew, but he couldn't recall them from the depths of his over emotional teenage subconscious.

Maybe sitting outside would help him think.

The dew hadn't yet settled on the grass, but it was chilly. Zitao sat on the bottom step at the back of the house and hugged his thighs, chin resting on his knees. He'd like to just stay like this, calm, relatively carefee, in a pretty little town with only the occasional small Elder Bairn.

Shrubs rustled, and the caramel-coloured poodle crawled into the clearing. "Don't you have something you should be doing?"

The boy whined. "I'll do my homework tomorrow morning."

"Not...Not quite what I meant, but—" The dog shivered at the heavy weight of Zitao's stare. He barely managed a yowl of displeasure when he's grabbed and squished between Zitao's chest and thighs.

"You're so cute! I can't believe it!"

"Zitao, please! I'm trying to help you!"

Zitao stopped his assault on the dog's silky ears. "Help me?"

"Yes! You don't remember, but you asked for my help."

Zitao sighed, loosening his hold on the dog enough for it to tuck its feet beneath its body and look like a furry bread loaf. His brother knew the risks of fighting Elder Bairns; he prayed every day they would never turn up again, but prayers only went so far, and he always supported Zitao from the sidelines. His friends didn't even know the horrors he fought or the lengths he went to just to protect their home. It was a lot of responsibility, and although he's fought for many years and accepted that he was the only one who could possibly fight the Elder Bairn, he couldn't help questioning his life's mission.

"I just don't get it. I've been having a weird feeling, lately, like I should be doing something, but I can't remember what. Like...I have dreams, I think, and I just cannot remember."

"Do they have anything to do with the Elder Bairns?"

"I think so? But there's someone else. A bit of a voice." Zitao shook his head, running his hands back through his hair. "I dunno. It's not important. If it was, I'd remember, right?" He didn't sound convinced. The dog said nothing, eyes closed as teh breeze ruffled its fur. "Hey. I have a question. These things I fight—that my parents fought—are they born 'it'? Or is 'it' something they become?”

The dog hummed. “Evil doesn’t always seep out. It’s possible to hide it if you’re careful and skilled.”

Zitao scrunched his face. "You sound like a really bad fortune cookie."

"Not all fortune is good fortune."

"I don't think I understand."

The dog sighed. “Someone once came to my shop to have their wish granted. Wishes have a price that must be paid, and the more dear the wish, the greater the price, so there are limits to what I can do.” It looked at Zitao over its shoulder. "I can only do so much for you, Zitao."

"Well, I don't remember asking in the first place, but I appreciate it, all the same."

They sat in comfortable silence, watching the lightning bugs flicker on and off among the tall grass. Zitao felt as though he could fall asleep like that, but the dog began to wriggle, and Zitao lowered his legs to release it. He heard footsteps behind him when the dog disappeared into the undergrowth.

"Zitao? You're needed."

He forgot the dog and bizarre conversation, brushing off his pants as he stood and followed his brother to the shrine.

His senses led him to the park. Somehow, he always managed to fight at night, but the park was lit up with streetlamps. Crickets chirped, and lightning bugs flashed in the thickening fog. Thankfully, no one was out; there was no need to be.

The sword on his back was a comforting presence. He carefully pulled it from its scabbard and held it loosely in his fists, stalking among the deserted playground and benches.

His feet hit something soft; the fog was so thick he had to crouch down to see what he'd stepped on.

A woman. Zitao recognised her as the convenience store clerk he and his friends would buy snacks from on the way home from school. Her chest rose and fell steadily, and he moved her to a nearby bench before shaking her. "Miss Lee? Can you hear me?" She rolled her head to the side but didn't wake up.

He pulled out his phone to call the local clinic when a sharp thrill ran down his spine, as if hundreds of spiders had been poured down his back. He spun on the balls of his feet to brace himself on his knee, sword up and ready.

The fog cleared, revealing a monk, or someone dressed like a monk. They wore sandals, a robe, and a wide-brimmed hat that covered their face, and a tall wooden walking staff stood at their side.

Zitao snarled and lunged, staying low and swinging his sword up in a sharp arc.

The monk leapt backwards, dodging but losing their hat. Fog began to creep up around Zitao again, and the monk jumped to kick his head off his shoulders. He ducked and pivoted on the balls of his feet, striking fast but only managing to slice the hem of their robe.

Every move Zitao made was blocked and replied to with equal force and calculated retaliation. They were an incredible fighter; Zitao actually fell back a little to catch his breath and lick his wounds.

The monk stood tall, out of reach but ready, watching every move Zitao made.

He called across the park, "I won't let you hurt anyone. I care about these people; you made a big mistake coming here."

The monk lifted their staff, dropping to a defensive stance. "You made a bigger mistake, killing my comrades."

If they were going the low road, Zitao would just take the high road.

He pushed off the cement and jumped to grab the top bar of the swings, walking up the support beam to hook a leg over the top and haul himself upright and eventually to his feet, adrenaline making his movements strong and sure. When the monk charged him, low and readying to leap at him, he jumped at them at the same time, catching their staff with his sword and knocking them onto their back.

The monk's head struck the cement with a dull sound, like something soft, and the fog lifted again for Zitao to realise he was nose-to-eye with an Elder Bairn whose entire head was made up of an unprotected eyeball.

They're strong, though, and he barely has them pinned when a leg kicked at his side, trying to roll them over. The opposite leg struck between his thighs; Zitao fell back with a wheeze. "You're a girl, aren't you?"

She didn't grace him with an answer, raising her staff to crush his skull.

He blocked it with his arm, striking up with his fist and grimacing at the dry, rubbery drag of his knuckles across her cornea. Her knee caught his abdomen, and she pushed him away.

Fog rolled in, obscuring everything once again with a dense haze.

Zitao rubbed his aching gut and glared into the thickening fog. It seemed to wrap around his head, covering his eyes and filling his nose. If he opened his mouth, he was sure he'd taste it.

Unable to see or smell, he closed his eyes and let his head drop forward. He focused on his feet firmly on the ground, his sword in his fist, and the silence cloaking the park. Even his breathing was silent.

Somewhere, the Elder Bairn was waiting. Finding her without seeing her would be no problem if he could just hear her movements.

Miss Lee moaned from the park bench. A cricket chirped nervously. The wind whispered in Zitao's ear, and a single footfall wrenched his upper around, arm extended, driving his blade into the glaring eyeball and out the opposite side. The top slid off and hit the ground with a wet plop. Jelly-like vitreous humour mixed with aqueous humour fluid and poured down the Elder Bairn's shocked body. Zitao thrust his sword into her heart as well, twisting a little for good measure and pulling it up and out to separate her neck and shoulder.

The fog dissipated completely as the body fell, and Miss Lee screamed when she woke up alone in a bloodied park.

"I'm doing this all for you, you know." Zitao hazily focused on the man across from him. He was too tired to lift his head. "Don't give me that look. I know we may have...misunderstood one another, but this is exctly what I said I'd do. You agreed to it." He stood and walked around the long, long table. Zitao felt his presence but only saw his shoes. Something fancy, leather and shiny. "I hate to see you like this, honestly. You're usually so lively..." He leaned forward, backlit by the light from the drawn blinds. Fingers under Zitao's chin almost lifted his head, but he rolled away, defiant. The man sighed.

"There's no need to be so sulky, but I suppose you can't help it. You have lost a lot of blood." Zitao felt the pull of tiny somethings in his arms and thighs as he tried to move. Even his back tingled, and he fought the hazy fog to figure out what weighed him down so bad. Thick rope bound his forearms to the captain's chair, but that wouldn't usually hold him back.

Snakelike tubing coiled alongside the stranger's feet, dark red with infrequent bubbles implying sluggish movement. He straightened, and Zitao screwed his eyes shut from the light.

Zitao rolled over and groaned as the sunlight hit him full in the face. His head pounded, as if his brain had an amplified pulse.

Joonmyun called to him from downstairs. "Zitao, if you don't get your butt moving, you're gonna be late."

Maybe Zitao's moan of hyung sounded pitiful enough, but Joonmyun ascended the stairs and peeked into his little brother's room with a frown that also worked his eyebrows up to a bridge of concern. "What's the matter? Are you sick?"

"Just my head..." Zitao didn't even want to remove the blankets from his face. He needed as much darkness as possible.

The headaches were coming more and more frequently. Dreams woke him during the night as well, sometimes for no good reason. He'd simply wake up and feel too wired to fall back asleep. Sometimes, he was too afraid to even close his eyes.

A cool hand brushed his hair from his forehead, and Zitao pulled his blankets down to peek out, uncovering his face completely when he saw his blinds and curtains were both closed. Joonmyun kneeled beside him, mug in hand and a bottle of painkillers at his knee. "You've been working so hard, lately. I wish I knew why so many Elder Bairns have been coming."

"It doesn't matter." Zitao's hand slithered out from under his blankets to grab the medicine bottle and pop the cap off. He upended it into his hand, counting four with his fingers, and cupped the rest in his palm to fall back into the bottle when he flipped his hand over again. "I'll kill however many come here."

"Not if you're sick," Joonmyun mothered. "I can call your school, so you can stay home and rest. Just for today." He pet his brother's hair from his face, frowning a little when the boy shook his head.

"I'll be okay once the painkillers kick in. I don't want to fall behind. My friends are pretty useless with notes, you know."

"At least take your sword with you."

Zitao didn't think that was allowed, but it didn't seem like a big deal, either. He could keep it in his schoolbag and pass it off as an instrument or something. "Okay."

Joonmyun smiled and nodded. "I'll prepare it. Get dressed, but don't stand up too fast!" He left, and Zitao laid on his back for a while to control the spinning sensations before deeming it safe to sit upright again and tentatively scoot off his bed to stand.

His uniform was immaculate, as usual. Zitao sometimes suspected his brother had multiple sets of the uniform, because he could never find the tiniest stain or patch. Bending over to pull his socks and pants on sloshed his brain around too much, so he sat on the edge of his bed to make it easier or at least lessen how far he had to fall.

Downstairs, Joonmyun motioned to a thermos and plastic-wrapped plate. "Minseok brought you some coffee. He seems to know the times you need the caffeine."

"Oh, marshmallows!" Zitao popped the pink sugar puff into his mouth and washed it down with a gulp of coffee. His brother sighed but didn't comment on the lack of proper nutrition. Sometimes, he just let Zitao be spoiled; he deserved it.

When Zitao finished with a satisfied sigh, he felt infinitely better. Joonmyun stood next to his stool and handed him a cylindrical, zipped sheath with both hands, presenting it reverently. "Remember your oath. Stay vigilant. The Elder Bairn have been moving more, lately. Do not let your guard down."

"I won't." The boy nodded, taking the concealed sword and carefully tucking it into his bag. As he left, Joonmyun hollered for him to go straight to school and not be distracted by an animal again. Zitao's ears flushed pink, and he hurried down the hill towards the cafe.

Minseok was outside, watering some hanging plants, and waved as Zitao approached. "Good morning, Zitao! Feeling better, I hope." Joonmyun said to avoid the animals, not the friendly shop owner, and Zitao felt it would be rude to not at least say hello.

"Yes, thank you for the coffee."

The man nodded with a smile. "You're welcome. I figured it would help get you back on your feet." He looked up at Zitao's face and frowned a little. Turned the hose head off, and reached up—standing about eyes-to-chin on Zitao—and brushed the hair from his face. He laughed at Zitao's blush. "I'm sorry! Your hair managed to catch some bits of leaves."

Zitao's fingers ran through his hair self-consciously. "I-I should get going. Thanks, again." He bowed.

"Anytime, Zitao. Have a good day." Minseok picked up the garden hose again and turned his attention back to his plants.

Zitao spent the better part of his walk to school steadfastly ignoring the heat in his cheeks and focused instead on his feet hitting the pavement. His shadow followed close by, walking in front of him with the sun at his back, and a much smaller shadow with four legs joined him. Sliding his eyes to his right, he acknowledged the dog with a soft sigh. "You, again."

"Have you remembered anything more?"

"No... It's still just dreams, and I can hardly remember them when I wake up."

The dog hummed. "How did last night go?"

"Last night?" He could still smell the hot blood of the Elder Bairn, and his stomach turned over. "It was stronger than a lot of the others, but I got her before she got me."

"Good," the dog sand lowly, "and Miss Lee made it home safely, then?"

"Miss Lee?"

Before the dog could reply, Zitao heard the clanging of the school bell and stopped in his tracks. He looked down with wide eyes. "I'm already late!" He waved fast and tore down the road, sliding onto the schoolyard before the gate rolled closed entirely and tossing his street shoes into his locker. He was caught trying to sneak into his classroom and sat at his desk with red ears and anxiety-bitten lips.

Just another day. He tried not to pout as his classmates laughed at his expense; even Mr Lu had his hand over his mouth with his back to the class. Sehun poked his back sharply and whispered, "Another dog, or a coffee date?" Zitao sat back sharply, pinning Sehun's hand between his spine and the back of his seat, only shifting when he heard his friend's soft whimper.

Attendance was recorded quickly; more students were missing, along with Jongdae, Baekhyun, and Yifan. No one had heard anything from any of them. Zitao gazed a little forlornly at Kyungsoo's empty desk.

Everyone jumped when a pop song began to play, looking at one another and shaking their heads when they denied it was them. Up front, Mr Lu dug into his coat pockets and pulled out his cell phone. "Family emergency," he muttered before pointing to Yixing and leaving the room, leaving the class president responsible and in charge until he returned.

"Huh. Who gives teachers detention for their phones going off in class?" Sehun slouched in his seat, knees on either side of Zitao's seat. Chanyeol yawned and shrugged.

Yixing stood at the front of the class, looking calm and kind of sleepy. He didn't mind his classmates chatting, as long as they didn't get rambunctious. Along the far side of the classroom, where the wall was more glass than plaster, Kibum knocked his foot against Minho's and pointed out the window. "What is that?"

Amber looked up from doodling on her desk and stared outside. She frowned and leaned over Kibum's shoulder. "Something for the playground?"

Kibum shook his head, face screwing up in disbelief. "That wouldn't be in the backyard, though." Curiosity got the better of the others, who crowded around the desks at the windows. Zitao stood beside Yixing, who was beginning to panic a little at everyone being out of their seats, and stood on his tip-toes to see over everyone's heads.

Back towards the courts, near the tree where Zitao and his friends often ate lunch, stood a tall, multi-legged Elder Bairn. It was stoic and silent, simply watching the school building.

Zitao felt something like rage burn in his chest. How dare an Elder Bairn show up at his school. No way it would go away nicely; he needed to think fast. "Yixing, I'm going to the bathroom."

The class president appeared hesitant. "I can't let you go without Mr Lu knowing."

"So tell him when he gets back, or get a mop ready, because I have to pee really bad—"

"It's alive!" Seulgi shrieked and tripped over Henry's feet. She never liked bugs, big or small, and the giant spider creature shifting its weight elicited a disgusting feeling across her tongue, like tiny legs.

The class shouted with disgust and awe as the Elder Bairn flexed its legs and bent its joints, a morbid fascination replacing the instinctual fight or flight, but they weren't complacent. Shrieks and some swears flared up as elbows caught ribs and feet trampled toes, everyone pushing forward to see better.

Zitao grabbed Yixing's elbow, eyes narrowed at the creature outside. "You need to get everyone out."

"What is it?"

"Now!" His outburst barely attracted any attention, screams drowning him out as the Elder Bairn jerked forward and ran towards the school. Its many legs made it appear uncoordinated, but it moved with an efficient grace and jumped onto the brick face, hanging off of it easily.

There's a mad dash for the doors as two massive, sparsely haired legs reached back and burst through the glass windows, spearing students and smearing blood.

"Everybody get out!" Zitao wrenched a door open and grabbed whoever he could, tossing them into the hall. He busted the plastic cover of a fire alarm and tugged it down, wincing a little as the alarms rang high and shrill.

More glass broke, and the Elder Bairn pulled the wall apart to lift itself inside. The scent of blood, metallic and pungent, drew it in, advertising a hot buffet.

Zitao saw Seulgi and Seunghwan crouched behind some broken desks, whimpering and crying. A single fang-like leg caught the barrier of desks, hooking Seulgi's uniform blouse and jacket, and lifted her into the air. Seunghwan watched in silent horror as her friend was dropped into a gaping mouth, legs kicking even as teeth bigger than a human head bit into her. She scrambled among the desks on her hands and knees, sniffling and practically foaming with terror.

Yixing stood at the other door, pulling whoever he could out and dragging the wounded and crying. Everyone else adopted a singular attitude, pushing friends aside to run ahead. He reached for Sunyoung and grasped her hand as a spider leg stomped down, aiming to impale her back. Zitao broke the zipper on his disguised sword, wrenching it apart with his hands and swinging the sword, scabbard and all, like a baseball bat at the Elder Bairn's leg. It cracked, and the creature shrieked with rage.

Sunyoung stumbled outside as fast as her shaking legs could carry her, leaving behind the smell of fear and urine. Seunghwan caught her arm, and they tripped over themselves to find safety.

Zitao threw the sheath aside and spread his feet, holding the sword before him.

Within the minutes of the Elder Bairn's attack, the classroom was in shambles, looking more like a war zone. Blood dripped from the walls and ceiling. Bits and pieces of classmates lay strewn about the debris of desks and books.

He stood in the thick of it, a living nightmare. He wanted to wake up.

But he forced himself to focus and calm his breathing. When the creature shifted to strike, chuffing at the diminutive state of Zitao's weapon—thinner than a single leg hair of the Elder Bairn—Zitao spun and dodged, rolling away and slashing one of its legs, severing the foot.

That left seven unaccounted for, and he barely heard his name when a warm body slammed into his shoulder. It lifted, higher and higher, dropping precious blood. The Elder Bairn opened his mouth to drop Yixing inside, and Zitao saw red. Screw tranquility and concentration; there was no way he'd allow his friend to be lunch meat.

The coagulating blood made staying upright difficult; Zitao climbed onto desks and leapt over the mess as if the floor was lava. He pushed off the edge of an upright desk and used the momentum to thrust out his opposite leg, driving his knee into the leg holding Yixing's body and bringing his fists down on top of it, crushing it with the combined force. Yixing fell in a heap on the floor, looking more like a bloody rag than a human.

Zitao closed his hands around the leg and planted his feet against its face, straightening his legs and leaning back. The Elder Bairn tried swiping him off, slicing into his back and sides and nicking itself with a pained hiss. The wound loosened the limb enough for Zitao to tear it from the body, and the sheer adrenaline filling his veins was almost enough to make him disregard his sword and rend the creature limb from limb.

All he could see, hear, and smell was blood. It even seemed to coat his tongue, and his hands were tingling with energy. Blood-slick fingers closed around the hilt of the sword. All he wanted to do in that moment was kill every single Elder Bairn in existence. Drop out of school, leave school, go outside that fence surrounding his home, and hunt down the monsters.

For now, he'd settle for the creature that attacked his school and killed his friends.

It's fast and surprisingly agile for its size, but Zitao figured the long legs had a lot to do with it. Less mass had to be dragged through piles of junk; it could simply pick its way daintily and barely get dirty.

Two legs twitched, separate from the body but still jolting with messages to move. Six left.

Zitao chopped a reaching limb and twisted another one around its neighbour, whacking them both as well but not severing them. They buckled, leaving the Elder Bairn with three legs grouped on one side and a lone leg struggling to hold balance. He kicked the single leg out, sidestepping the fallen body, and ambled to its front. Lidless eyes glared at him, jaws snapping. Its legs tried to sweep him into the mouth, but he dragged his blade down the appendage, cutting close enough to peel hair and skin but not jeapordise the functionality. The mouth opened, tongue reaching, and was split in two flaccid, useless halves.

The Elder Bairn seemed to realise its time was done. It groaned at the sting of its shorn limbs and spoke for the first time. "Why do you cry?"

Zitao rubbed at his face. It felt wet, but what he thought was all blood was actually mixed with tears. He's not surprised when his vision blurs, blocking out Yixing's mangled corpse. "These people you attacked were my friends. I take that very personally."

"I...don't understand..."

"Of course you don't." He stepped onto the spider creature's face and climbed to the summit of its head and spun the sword in his hand so his thumb pressed over the pommel. The blade plunged in and out of the Elder Bairn's head, scrambling its insides and finally killing it, but Zitao stabbed it a few more times for good measure and just because it felt good.

Floodlights flashed on, blinding him momentarily, but he didn't need his eyes to tell him where his enemies stood. His sword reflected the light, sparks of life in the dead of night.

Masked men watched idly around him, surrounding the outer perimeter of the fence and armed with guns but making no move to aid or kill him. If they stayed away, that suited him just fine; it wasn't their fight. He was born to kill.

The final creature fell with a whine, and he scowled at the blood running down his blade and staining his skin. Someone clapped from a raised platform, standing in the shadow of the shed's overhang.

"You never fail to impress me, Zitao. Show me what else you can do." A stinging sensation shot down his spine, clear to his tailbone, and he pitched forward into darkness.

When Zitao woke again, the nightmare was over. He laid on his back in his own room, pajamas and duvet kicked to the floor. If not for the scent of blood still clinging to his skin, he'd almost have written off the whole attack at school to be an awful dream.

Something bounced off his bedroom window. A tiny sound, like a pebble.


Zitao rolled out of bed, tugging his shirt back down over his hips, and peered outside. Beneath his window, uniform undone and scowl in place, Kyungsoo dropped the handful of gravel to the ground. "What happened yesterday?"

Understandably, school was cancelled, or Joonmyun turned off his alarm to let him sleep off the exhaustion. Zitao didn't know how to explain it without revealing his own involvement, and began to fumble with words when something sharp pierced the muscles joining his neck and shoulders. His legs buckled; he'd have struck his chin on the windowsill if hands didn't pull him backwards.

"Bottoms up, Taozi." Plastic crinkled, and the lip of a water bottle pressed against his bottom lip. As it was tilted back, he smelled blood and tried to shy away.

"Hold still!" Hands held him firm. He quickly lost the strength to even hold himself upright. Thick, lukewarm fluid poured into his mouth, and then the bottle was gone. Hands pinched his nose closed and held his mouth shut, forcing him to swallow. They repeated the cycle twice more before the bottle was empty and the hands left his body.

His head felt fuzzy. Everything duplicated before his eyes, tripping forward and falling back, as if rocking at intermittent intervals and making his stomach feel like it was dropped and tossed up again. His heels thudded down the stairs behind his dragged body, and he'd resent the treatment if he knew what was happening.

Outside, the sun glared bright and relentless. Zitao dropped his chin to his chest, squeezing his eyes shut with a whine. The light hurt; his arms were too heavy to lift, and he was so tired.

"Now what?" Kyungsoo asked.

"We wait for him to wake up, so we can get paid and get out of here."

"Oh, that's a great plan. I have the greatest confidence in it."

"Shut up, Do."

"Everyone! Hello; I wasn't aware we were having a meeting. I'd've brought some tea."

"Why're you here, Minseok?"

"A little birdy told me some players were going off-script."

"Lu Han, you tattletale!" The teacher shrugged, a serene smile making him appear angelic.

The ground rumbled beneath them. Trees fell, and a giant, golden Elder Bairn stepped over the trees, crushing the shrine's old shed beneath a heavy paw. Minseok tucked his hands into his pockets. "It's unavoidable, I suppose. Since we're all here, I suppose we should have that meeting." He stood beside Zitao, making no move to help him to his feet. "Do you remember where we first met?"

Patent leather shoes, still shiny in the sun under the dust. Coils of rope around his arms. Red tubing on the floor. Sharp stings in his muscles.

"You took my blood." His voice was barely a whisper, more a drunken mumble.

"It's not that I didn't trust you, but I had to be sure everyone stayed safe. You would never have met with me, otherwise." Minseok smiled softly, almost kind, and crouched beside him. “Remember, Taozi? I promised that if you won our wager, I’d make it so you could kill humans.”

"And my Contract?&ququot; Minseok tilted his head curiously. "The Elder Bairn said I had to obey the Contract. What is it?"

"Ah, yes. That. That little agreement is the whole reason we are here, today." Minseok shifted on his feet. "Many many years ago, Elder Bairn terrorised humanity much worse than now. They were ruthless and devoured anyone they could. Somehow, they made an agreement with the humans. A sporting chance, I suppose—no one really knows, because records were so poor. A warrior would be born, mixed human and Elder Bairn blood, and his purpose was to protect humans."

His mouth dried; Zitao tried to swallow. "Me?"

"You. I watched you fight, Zitao. Almost a year ago to the day, I watched you destroy an entire army without killing a single man, because this Contract you were born into prevented it, but you fought to survive. You were so beautiful, covered in blood that matched your red eyes.... You are Elder Bairn, though. Your base instinct is to kill, man or monster. Your other instinct is to not lose, which is why you agreed to our bet."

Zitao swallowed his heart and shook his head. Impossible. He'd never wish for that. He didn't understand what was going on. Nothing made sense. "Where's hyung? Joonmyun hyung?"

"I'm here, Zitao." His brother stepped up beside Minseok, a bit of blood on his cheek and scrapes on his hands.

"I don't understand—"

"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Baekhyun groaned and threw his arm out, gesturing to the sky or town or simply windmilling a sore shoulder out of boredom. "All this was an elaborate play, okay? A scheme. A joke." He crossed his arms over his chest. "None of it was real."

"You really think no class on weekends and these fugly uniforms could be real?" Jongdae sneered.

None of it was real.

"But I saw you die..."

"You saw an illusion. A mannequin and fake blood. Now, those other students and people in town? They actually died, but that's because they weren't a main player. Except for Yixing hyung, but I think the guilt got to him, so it was like suicide. Whatever." Baekhyun flapped his hand. "Not important."

Zitao thought he was going to be sick.

The shrine. "Hyung, you're a priest."

Joonmyun smiled. "I was."

"Okay, this is some real sentimental bullcrap, but are we done, now? Can I get paid and go home?" Kyungsoo crossed his arms over his chest. He glared at Zitao. "I'm sick of looking at it."

Baekhyun scoffed. "What are you even complaining about? We had to be his friends and actually touch him and stuff."

"Any 'stuff' you did was voluntary."

"Blow it out your ass!"

"Children," Minseok sighed and scratched his bottom lip with his thumbnail as he stood. "If the players don't want to play anymore, then they should leave the stage." He looked to the giant Elder Bairn and raised a hand. The creature turned its massive head, lip curling in a snarl, and unfolded an ear to reveal a hand and arm-like appendage.

Kyungsoo stared at the lion-like Elder Bairn with wider than usual eyes, sweat gathering on his forehead. "Minseok, you wouldn't—" The creature roared, throwing out its arm-ear, and grabbed the boy around his throat.

"I would, and you'll be excited to know that those charms will no longer protect you."

The Elder Bairn squeezed so tight the vertebrae separated, and Kyungsoo's head popped off his body.

Zitao heard Baekhyun and Jongdae scream. Someone ran into him, knocking him over. He laid in the dust and watched the end of his world from a skewed, unreal angle. The ground rattled, split, crumbled. Gigantic paws smashed bodies, lifting bloody pulp to its mouth. Jongdae shoved Baekhyun aside, racing for the trees. He tripped as a large hand grasped his ankle, dragging him back and lifting him, screaming and struggling, into the air just to slam him back to the earth.

Baekhyun took the opportunity to try his luck inside the remnants of the shrine. He made it to the steps and slipped on blood, striking his chin and driving his teeth through his tongue.

Minseok's shoes remained beside him, one leg cocked as he stood with angled hips. "It really is a good thing no one actually lives here." He pulled a cellphone from his pants pocket, flipping up a thick antennae and punching in a series of numbers. "Cleanup would be a real bitch... Han. We're about ready here. Go ahead." He flipped the antennae down and dropped the phone back in his pocket, slipping his other hand into his pocket as well, the very image of relaxed as he observed the carnage.

Zitao struggled to sit up. His friends—his not-friends?—were dying. Baekhyun's still kicking while the Elder Bairn swallows him whole. What's left of Kyungsoo squishes up between the toes of the creature's forepaw; half of Jongdae hung from its bottom teeth.

And Chanyeol...Chanyeol hid somewhere. Zitao didn't see him die; he had to be alive.

He rolled onto his knees and tore at the rope around his wrist with his teeth. His sword was in the ruins of the shrine, but anything sharp should kill it, or he'll just use his bare hands.

Zitao shoved Minseok aside and ran towards the Elder Bairn. Approaching head-on was never a good idea, but sometimes the direct approach would be the least expected.

It also distracted the plated creature and gave Chanyeol opportunity to make a break for the trees.

Unfortunately, the creature had echolocation or sensors in its butt. The ear-arms reached behind it while Zitao occupied its face and paws, snatching Chanyeol clean off his feet. It didn't even care that Zitao was attacking its front; it tilted its head back to drop Chanyeol down its gullet. "Tao! Help me!"

Zitao rolled away from a stomping paw and watched the ear-arm with grim determination. Chanyeol put up as much of a fight as he could, lanky legs kicking and flopping like a fish in a bear's claws. If Zitao couldn't do anything from where he was, he'd just have to get up close and personal.

Rubble and debris laid across the whole clearing, splintered wood and busted metal pipes offering a plethora of weaponry but nothing as good as his trusty sword.

With a long pipe clenched in his fist, Zitao leapt onto a plated foreleg and climbed to its shoulder, whacking at the opposite ear-arm as it reached for him. Chanyeol stopped struggling, staring his imminent death in its literal face with too many teeth and not enough distance between him and them. He screamed as he was dropped between the waiting jaws; Zitao kicked the ear-arm aside and dove in alongside Chanyeol.

"What are you doing?!"

Zitao planted his hands on the ridged roof of the Elder Bairn's mouth and kicked Chanyeol's butt, shoving him out of the creature's mouth. The saliva helped him slide out, and he immediately scrambled to his feet.

The plating along the creature's back was too thick and sturdy to pierce, even with a sword. The most vulnerable spot was right behind him.

He pulled his arms to himself, and the jaws snapped shut. If he was lucky, he wouldn't be chewed to pieces.

Outside, Minseok watched with a sort of disappointed grimace as Zitao was swallowed. Chanyeol had run away, screaming and crying towards town. He may be surprised once he reached Cafe Kim.

The Elder Bairn growled, a wheezy sort of sound that rose to a whimper of pain. It lowered its chest to the ground, shaking, and it lurched, as if about to vomit. It coughed, flecks of blood splattering across the dirt.

When it finally fell, Minseok heard the roar of trucks from the north, driving passed his cafe.

The creature's head shifted, eyes glassy, and a slimy, blood-covered hand clawed at the teeth, punching them out when the death-seized jaws wouldn't give. Zitao hauled himself out of the Elder Bairn's mouth and sat on its nose, chest heaving. He lifted his head to glare at Minseok, and the man felt a shiver run down his spine.

"There you are, beautiful."

Zitao's eyes practically shone in the dying sunlight, red as the blood that covered him head to toe.

Men in tactical gear swarmed up the hill on all sides. Their guns sat against their shoulders, sweeping in measured paces across the clearing and debris. Zitao raised his hands when prompted, sliding to his knees in a pool of pink saliva.

Joonmyun pivoted fast, throwing the heel of his palm into a guard's throat, damaging his windpipe. He yanked the rifle from slack fingers but didn't even level it with his shoulder when a shiny barrel appeared between his eyes and fired.

Blood, tangy and hot, poured from the back of his head, drenching his neck and back. It seeped into the dirt among fragments of skull and pieces of brain.

"By the way, Taozi," Minseok commented, waving the mercenary away. "You asked me, once, what made those delicious marshmallows so pink." He tapped the toe of his shoe in a puddle of blood, making a light smeck sound.

Zitao was sick, then, pitching forward and vomitting between his hands as he struggled to hold himself upright.

"Every Elder Bairn you killed provided me with the means to keep you alive and playing along. That coffee you liked so much? I soaked the beans in Elder Bairn blood beforehand; that's why you had your very own, personal menu. I enjoyed finding ways to make healthy treats for you. I'll miss it."

The boy breathed heavily, staring at the spill of bile and vomit oozing towards his fingers, and swallowed the lump of disappointment and betrayal in his throat. "You really get off on jerking people around, huh?"

"You just don't understand, because you can't remember." Minseok crouched beside him, rubbing his back in what was supposed to be a comforting gesture but just made all the hairs on Zitao's body stand up and hiss. "I guess my drugs work better than expected. This was all for you, Zitao, and it hurts that it has to end like this."

"Yeah." Zitao dropped his shoulder and tucked it under Minseok's arm, pushing him back and snapping his legs out like springs to lunge at the man. His fingers curled around Minseok's throat, tighter and tighter until it would surely bruise, unable to squeeze any further. Something in him, something deeper than instinct, held him back. He snarled in Minseok's face.

"I may not be able to kill you, but I can hurt you." There's a flicker of something in Minseok's eyes, nothing close to fear, and he shifted his head back so Zitao's palm pressed tighter against his jugular. He wanted to see more of the old Zitao, the monster who could pass for a man when not showered in blood and primal instinct. It's close, lurking behind rust-coloured irises.

Zitao's thrown aside, tucking and rolling to land upright in a crouch. Lu Han hauled Minseok to his feet and helped him walk to the waiting military vehicle. Masked guards started shooting at Zitao, making him leap and roll further and further from Minseok and retreat to the rubble of the shrine.

By the time the shooting let up, everyone had piled into the armoured vehicles and tore off down the main road, heading towards the outskirts of town Zitao had never really explored.

He still felt Minseok's pulse, excited but controlled, in his hand and clenched his fist over a chunk of broken concrete.

The scream shook his heart more than his eardrums, a deep bass drawl of delight echoed and replied to tenfold. Zitao shoved bits of debris aside until he found where the shrine had stood, and he rooted around until he found the sword. It was a bit bent and nowhere near as attractive, but it settled with a familiar weight in his hand, and nothing could dull its blade, so it would take off Minseok's head nicely.

Disregarding the corpses littering the place he once called home, Zitao skidded down the hillside on a piece of siding and took off running. He saw the small convoy of vehicles; they appeared to be heading for the school building.

In-between him and his prey, however, stood dozens—if not hundreds—of enormous bipedal Elder Bairn. They delightedly traipse through the town, breaking apart shops and houses to collect the innocent humans like a person would collect berries off a wild bush. Some were impaled on skewer-like fingers; others were dropped into a pouch formed from an arm, shaken with such vigourous movements that legs and spines snapped; and still others were trampled by fellow humans, scared witless and screaming for help that wouldn't come.

For their size, they fell easily to Zitao's sword, although he quickly realised that just because they fell did not mean they died. The more he sliced through, the more they multiplied. Even without being touched, they split themselves like mitosis.

Zitao ignored them, then, and tuned out the swan song of screams, focusing on the greatest energy.

His head jerked right, where an even larger Elder Bairn hunched over a pile of corpses, picking through them and tossing rejects aside for its brethren to devour. Zitao charged, bending his knees and launching himself into the air. He tucked his feet up to avoid a swiping paw, pushing off of it and propelling himself higher and further.

The Elder Bairn ducked, throwing off Zitao's aim of its neck, and caught him in its mouth. Zitao wedged his foot into the creature's bottom teeth and his sword between top teeth. Nearly eaten twice in one day was not a record he wanted to keep.

Flipping the sword onto its side, Zitao let the jaws fall together slightly, just to relieve the tension, and drove the blade through its palate. Maybe he punctured the brain, maybe not, but Zitao firmly believed in double-tapping. Digging his heels into the Elder Bairn's bottom teeth, he pulled the sword back until it broke free from its face. For good measure, he hauled himself into the fissure of its face and chopped at its head until it split in two like a melon. It gurgled, tried to roar, and fell.

Its split-offspring collapsed, leaving a small fraction of the town population alive.

The soft brain tissue cushioned Zitao's landing, and he scraped grey matter from his shoe before taking off after the vehicle escort. He passed corpses riddled with bullets and felt another surge of rage. Everything was ringed with red and blurred, narrowing his vision to a tunnel before him.

A whir and fwup fwup fwup sounded from the top of the school, the tallest building in town. A helicopter began to lift from the roof, and Zitao howled at the sky. The toe of his shoe caught the chainlink fence, and he ran up to the broken razor wire. A dark radio tower tossed him higher into the wind. He was close enough to see the pilot inside. He could catch the helicopter; he'd jam its tail rotors and drop it into the water.

Lu Han leaned out, gun levelled, and pulled the trigger. Travelling at 2,500 feet per second, the bullet tore through Zitao's eye and blasted free behind his ear.

He fell.

Minseok grabbed Lu Han's arm, standing behind the man with a frown. "That was unnecessary, Han."

"For how long I've had to wait, I wasn't about to let him kill you. Or me, for that matter. I'm sick and tired of him messing up our plans." Lu Han crawled back to his seat and returned the weapon to its owner, who watched silently with a nervous sweat over his upper lip. "You're welcome, now sit down."

Minseok watched Zitao's body, a speck on the water spreading brown like oil, until it was just a memory. He tucked his pistol back into the waistband of his pants and sat beside Lu Han, buckling his seatbelt and donning a headset for the flight home.

Far behind, Zitao floated with the tiny waves of the ocean. He didn't remember the last time he swam. Half of his frontal lobe was destroyed, bits of his temporal lobe sinking to the ocean floor and taking his hearing and emotions with it. His one good eye stared at the sun, unblinking. Maybe he'd die, lulled to some senseless sleep by the lurching water.

Maybe that would be best.

Seoul glittered in the night, lit up bright and lively as though it were the centre of the world. Zitao stared at the subway car window rather than through it, watching an advertisement behind him for the movie premiere starring the "surprising Chinese rookie actor" Lu Han. The production company, Xiu Min Kim Studios, would host the event in three days.

And Zitao would kill Kim Minseok.

First, he had a stop to make.

An automated voice chirped a name Zitao remembered from a dream, a time before the constant nightmares, and he slipped through the crowd of people surging into the car to jog up concrete subway steps and out into the open city air.

It smelled awful. Pollution, B.O., cigarettes, overcooked food, car exhaust, and a disgusting cocktail of things Zitao couldn't be bothered to care about. He wouldn't be in the city all that long, anyway. No one spared him a glance as he stalked down the sidewalk; everyone was too lost in their own problems.

He didn't know where he was going, but his feet kept walking, so he watched the sidewalk until his feet stopped at the break in a wooden fence.

Looking up, it's obvious that the fence did not belong in the city. Not outside an alley, at least, and the traditional-style house set back on a sizeable lot matched even less with the smog and skyscrapers of Seoul. He shrugged his bag onto his shoulder again and stepped onto the uneven walkway leading to the open porch. The main door slid open, and three sets of curious eyes gaze at him.

A trio of children—sporting pale blonde, honey-brown, and toffee-coloured curls—ran down the walkway towards him. The two blondes grabbed his hands while the third pushed at his back, giggling. "Nini! Nini, a customer!"

"A boy with scary eyes!"

"Scary eyes!" They yipped and hollered like excited puppies, and they didn't mean any harm, but Zitao was glad when they released him and scampered back onto the porch to cling to a sleepy-eyed boy about Zitao's age. He shushed the kids' excited chatter. A golden poodle nestled in his arm, watching Zitao with friendly familiarity, and hopped to the floorboards to disappear around the corner.

"It's been a while since I've seen the old Zitao. Welcome."

Zitao skipped pleasantries, growling, "I need a sword."

The kids clung to the shop keeper's legs and neck with wide eyes, more excited than afraid by Zitao's request. "What kind of sword?"

"One that can kill humans."

Jongin smiled. "I have the perfect sword, then."