Donghae sat amongst the roaches and rats, the smell of burning trash familiar and smoky in his nostrils. The rotting moss was soft and damp beneath him, staining the seat of his pants with green streaks, but it would go unnoticed amongst the collage of stains beside it. He’d had those same pants for a year and not a pair besides, but they were short in the legs and ripped at the knees. Six months before, he’d had his first growth spurt since his Rise Up but still remained a good foot shorter than the other boys his age. His face was childlike as well and they said he looked too much like a girl, that he couldn’t possibly have Risen. They’d taunted him and called him a liar and shamed him in front of his family before his father decided enough was enough and yanked his trousers down for all to lay eyes on the proof of his sex.
No one had called him a liar after that.
The stream was constantly icy cold, but fourteen years of bathing in it had numbed him to its temperature. He was sitting on the mossy bank, his feet in the water. The streams were shallow puddles that came just above his ankles and ran the length of the Lower City Gutter like a single vein. It was the only source of water they had available to them, but his people used it strictly for washing. He scrubbed his legs hard, scratching at them with short, bitten nails. Mother had told him that if he rubbed them hard enough it would help the hairs grow and then he’d be more masculine. Donghae wasn’t sure if he believed her, but he scrubbed and scratched them red anyway.
“Morla’s sick,” a voice said beside him and Donghae stopped his washing long enough to look up and see who it was.
His brother, Donghwa, was older than him and nearing manhood. He never said anything about how the other kids made fun of Donghae for being small and called him names. Sometimes, Donghae would go to him and ask if he’d been just as small, if the kids had made fun of him, too. His brother had looked at him and ruffled his hair and said,
“One day, all these other kids will stop growing and when they’re sitting, stuck in the moss, you’ll still be rising high.”
“Will they have to look up to see me?” Donghae had asked him.
“Not only that,” his brother had said, “they’ll have to shout for you to hear them.”
They’d laughed and hugged and Donghae had never brought the subject up again. But now, his brother wasn’t laughing and Donghae was looking up to see him.
“They say she’ll die before the light shines through the cracks.”
Morla was going to be Donghwa’s Chosen as soon as he had his Kojazi ceremony. For weeks Donghae’s brother had done nothing but talk about the children she would bear him and the names they’d picked. Never had his brother looked as happy as he did when he spoke those names. But women in Lower City didn’t live long and those from the Gutter had even less of a chance. Women are like flowers, his father had told him the night of his Rise Up. More than love they need fresh air and sunlight or they’ll wither away to nothing. Donghae had never seen a flower, but he’d heard enough stories to understand his meaning. Morla was withering. The old people said she was plagued with rot, but the young people said that was just another way of saying she would die a whore. Donghwa didn’t like it when he heard that. He’d gotten so mad the first time, he uplifted a trash fire and dumped its burning contents directly on top of the man who’d said it. Regardless, their father had insisted on dragging his oldest son to a cleansing and having him purified, just in case.
“We’ll not have it spread, whatever it is,” he’d told Donghwa as he pulled him by the collar to the southern stream. “I’d cut your rotting prick off before I’d let you stab it in some healthy girl.”
Donghae had never been to a cleansing, but Donghwa wouldn’t tell him about it, not even when he begged and pleaded until dark. He’d just hit Donghae so hard he’d fallen and said that if he was so curious, he could fuck a whore and then find out himself.
“Brother,” Donghae said, his quiet voice hiding behind the gurgle of the stream and the scurry of the rats.
He reached out and took Donghwa’s hand, giving it a squeeze. He wasn’t sure what you were supposed to say when someone was dying, but he thought that maybe it would be okay if he didn’t say anything at all. In the end, his brother didn’t seem to mind.
It wasn’t unheard of for Higher City Ipsuren to travel to Lower City, especially when it was their only available source of remaining humans. The few humans that survived the Senbelzhan had been given two choices: convert or be pushed into poverty. Most had converted and out of the thousand that didn’t only half of them managed to stay alive in Lower City and the Gutter. If the plague and famine didn’t kill them, the darkness did. They were trapped beneath the city layers on the lowest plate and the gutter wasn’t on a plate at all. The upper City covered the sky and blocked the sun, the only effective way of telling night from day was through the cracks in the plates and city walls. Darkness was all Donghae knew. He’d been born in the Gutter and never seen the sky or the sun or the moon or the stars, but the old people liked to talk about them.
Whenever Higher City Ipsuren were seen, they were always in raid parties, sent by gangs to scout for possible recruits or slaves. If it was rumored that an Ipsuren was coming down the Ladder, desperate parents would scrub their children and dress them in the best clothes they had available to try and sell them off as recruits. At least that way they’d have a fighting chance at survival and a better life. Parents would use it as a threat to get their children to behave, filling their heads with Ipsuren horror stories and threatening to give them up to a raider. Donghae once asked his parents if they’d ever sell him off, but it was known that Ipsuren never entered the Gutter.
At least, until he came.
He came alone and without warning. It was the first time any Ipsuren had traveled alone and no one knew how to handle him. They’d been having the service for Morla and Donghae was clutching his brother’s hand. No one had come to pay their respects besides her parents, who were crying deeply, and the two boys. The stench of burning human assaulted their nostrils and it made Donghae sick. Twice Donghwa had gone off a few feet from them to vomit, the wretching sounds he made whispers amongst the crackle of the flames and her mother’s loud sobs. When Donghae’s father called for them, doubled over as he tried to catch his breath from running, Donghae was as relieved as he was worried.
“Boys,” he said. “Quickly now.”
“What is it?” Donghwa was quick to ask as they approached him, upset at his mourning being cut short.
“Ipsuren. In the Gutter.”
Donghae’s stomach turned to stone inside him, his heartbeat stalling before picking up speed. Soon, he felt as if he would vomit himself, heave his racing heart out onto the pavement. He was scared, of course. All his life he’d been told how horrible the Ipsuren were. They were merciless, bloodthirsty warriors without discipline. Gang members who raided and pillaged and raped. Donghae had heard terrifying tales of how frightful they were to look upon, with long tongues split in half and eyes like fireballs that burned red as embers. Some said they were giants, towering as high as ten feet tall. He’d heard that their nails were double the size of their fingers and that they used them to rip the eyes from small children and hang them around their necks to wear as jewelry. Others said they took no women and bore no children, preferring to lay only with each other in a gruesome, unnatural pantomime of consummation. There were those that said that was impossible, for they had no manhoods, only extra hands with nails as sharp as knives, or snakes with poisonous fangs that would kill a human slowly and painfully over the course of three days.
During the Senbelzhan, it was said they’d hang women and children alive over doorways, their stomachs ripped open so their entrails would hang from their bodies. Stories of how they’d open pregnant mother’s wombs and eat the unborn fetuses while the woman watched in agony were common. These stories were all Donghae knew of the elusive and mysterious Ipsuren, who were something other than human, something evil and monstrous. The Gutter had always been safe. There was nothing down below the Ladder that a greedy Ipsuren would want; there was nothing down there at all. Everything they had was sent to them in care packages on a monthly basis from Lower City. Everything they had could be found there.
“Are you going to sell us, father?” Donghwa asked, stopping in his tracks.
Donghae stopped next to him, fear causing the expression on his face to crumble.
“No, son,” their father said, a sad note in his voice. “You’re going back home, with your mother.”
Donghae instantly sighed with relief, his entire body relaxing, only to stiffen up again when Donghwa questioned, “You’re?”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to go find out what it wants.”
What it wants? What could it possibly want? Next to him, his brother was clenching his fists and Donghae could see his knuckles go white as the blood fled them.
“I’ll go with you, I’m almost a man.”
For a moment, it seemed as if their father would hit him, his face contorting with rage or frustration, or both. “You will stay behind and take care of your brother and mother. There’s only one of them and many of us. It’s outnumbered. Nothing will happen.”
“Take me with you, then!” Donghae shouted.
Both of their eyes were on him then and Donghae was wondering where that outburst came from. He didn’t really want to see the monster, did he? A part of him had to admit that maybe he did. He was curious, or some of him was, anyway.
“Don’t be an idiot, Hae,” his brother yelled at him. “If anyone should go with father it should be me! I’m the oldest.”
“Neither of you are going!” Their father’s voice boomed, spittle flying from his tightly pursed lips as they tried to form words around his anger. “Is that understood?”
All the two boys could do was agree and allow themselves to be led back to their hovel. The entire Gutter seemed vacant. Not a single human was seen on the streets or by the stream, although scared and hooded faces peeked out from broken and boarded windows and doorways. Word had gotten out about the intruder and the alarm was raised. The air was heavy with fear, hesitation and uncertainty hovering around them like ghosts, unseen. Trash fires had been put out and the smoke floated above their heads, curling and furling in dark blue and grey plumes. Far off, the soft echoes of crying could be heard, although the source was uncertain. Donghae wrapped his arms around him and tried not to think about what was out there in the darkness.
Their hovel was small, but sturdy. Made from the scraps of metal passed down to them from Lower City, it stood like a stack of cards, leaning slightly on the left side and unevenly built. The doorway was a gash-like mouth without a door and unlike some other shelters, it lacked windows or a chimney. At night it got cold and the frozen walls offered no warmth, but the ground was soft with moss and mixed fabric carpeting. The boys found their mother waiting for them by the door, sawing through a rock-hard loaf of bread. The scraping sounds the knife made as it ground against the unrelenting loaf sounded too loud to Donghae’s frazzled nerves, but he said nothing. She didn’t welcome them with a hello or wish her husband luck when he left them. All she did was saw, every ounce of her attention on the warring chunk of bread. Wordlessly, Donghae sat down beside her.
“Aren’t you going to sit, brother?” Donghae asked the older boy, standing in the doorway.
At first, Donghwa didn’t answer him, just stared out at the empty streets with his head down. The scrapescrapescrape of their mother’s knife filling the silence, full of suspense. Finally, his brother spoke.
Their mother paid them no mind, if she even heard them at all. Her attention was consumed elsewhere. Donghae jumped up, mind made up.
“If you’re going, I’m going.”
For once, his brother didn’t fight him.
It didn’t take long to reach the crowd. The Gutter was small and narrow, all they had to do was walk along the stream, following the sounds of shouting. When finally they came upon them, all they saw was a wall of human men. Together they tried to push through the body of people, but Donghwa was bigger and stronger than he was and soon they got separated. Frustrated, Donghae gave up and tried to find another way of seeing into the center of the ring. Close and to the side, a shelter hung low to the ground with hanging pieces of metal siding peeling off precariously. Determined, Donghae climbed to the roof. Once he’d managed to sit on top, he had an unobscured view of the entire scene before him and it didn’t take him long to determine which of the men was the Ipsuren.
To say Donghae was surprised wouldn’t be inaccurate, but he was also slightly disappointed. For the first time he realized how exaggerated the tales he’d heard all his life had been. The “creature” he saw had no claws, no fangs, no tail or horns. He looked as any man, but also very different. For one, he was a good foot taller than the others, and bigger of stature with large, rounded shoulders and a broad chest. Unlike the men of the Gutter, he was clean and put together, with clothes made of the black leather his father had brought back from Lower City one year as a gift. He wore shoes with metal toes and jewelry glittered in his ear and on his fingers when he moved. Around his neck lay a thick linked chain, but no children’s eyes that he could see. He was the most attractive, majestic thing Donghae had ever seen. Coming from a world full of dirt and rags and darkness, it wouldn’t be hard to understand why.
Around him, men were holding out what appeared to be offerings of cloth and a few precious items they must have been holding onto as family heirlooms or prized possessions. The Ipsuren looked bored with all of it, his arms crossed and his face showing no signs of emotion whatsoever. Then, his head turned to the side, then back, as if he was looking for something. When he looked up, Donghae’s heart stopped in his chest.
He was looking directly at Donghae.
The young boy felt unable to move, although he could feel his heart picking up its pace in his ribcage as if it was throwing itself against it, wanting out. Never had anyone looked at him the way the Ipsuren was looking at him, with hard, knowing eyes. And then it smiled. Just a small smile, but an expression of emotion nevertheless. As fast as his heartbeat, he launched off the roof of the hovel and ran, ignoring the throbbing in the soles of his feet from the fall, ignoring the fact that his brother would be left behind. His legs pumped, his bare feet slapping the ground hard.
Later, while trying to sleep, he’d remember that smile and feel his heartbeat race once more.