The Kuwaru House had most likely, at one point, been a human place of worship. Located on the outskirts of Garahim and built against the sect’s gate, it was the one place Sungmin’s Ipsuren had left to decay. The white paint was chipping off, flakes falling from windowsills and doorways like leaves. The main body was a simple house affair, square and long in the back with a triangularly angled roof. In front, built parallel around the double doorway, clasped a buttress leading upward to tower over the main building, supporting a metal cross on the head. The tall, narrow windows, once poorly stained, were mostly smashed through and no one had swept up the glass shards on the floor. The left half of the building was black with char from a raging fire that hadn’t been enough to collapse the entire structure--just a chunk off the roof. Splinters of the collapsed wood and broken slates piled hazardously on that side of the church, having smashed the ends of rotting pews, chewed through with termites. It was an unfriendly place, dark and cold. Donghae coughed around the dust that clogged his throat when Sungmin pushed him through the entrance.
“You will be staying here,” Sungmin told him, his voice hard and emotionless.
There was very little light and the Ipsuren’s face was cast in shadow. Looking around, Hae noticed two strangers standing on either side of the double doors, arms crossed and expressions guarded. Immediately, they put Donghae on edge.
“How long?” he asked, his voice echoing off the high ceiling despite Hae’s attempts at staying quiet.
“I cannot tell you that,” Sungmin said. He motioned to the two by the doors, who remained motionless in the background. “This is Jungmo and Jay. They will be...helping you through this portion of kani. Try not to harbour ill feelings toward them, Donghae.”
Hae swallowed air and felt nauseous, his stomach dry.
“Sungmin.” Donghae tried to stay calm, but the fear was kicking in.
“You’ll be okay in the end,” was all he said before turning and leaving.
Leaving him with the dust.
Leaving him with the shadows.
Leaving him with the monsters, who were looking at each other and snickering.
Not even the darkness, so familiar, could comfort him.
“Let’s get him bathed,” the one Sungmin had referred to as Jay said to the other, Jungmo.
It seemed to Donghae that one of the requirements of their job was to be as intimidating as possible. Both of them were some of the largest Ipsuren Hae had seen thus far, standing close to eight feet. While Jay had broad shoulders, a wide chest and slim hips, Jungmo was thin and almost feminine in features. Neither of them would look at him. Donghae had bathed himself since arriving in Garahim and this would be the first time Ipsuren would see him naked. Back in the Gutter, there was no privacy. You bathed in the stream right out in front of your home, where anyone walking by could see you. But that was normal, no one looked and no one cared. The thought that these two strange, superior beings would be watching him with critical eyes, judging his pathetic body, was humiliating.
“Well, grab him,” Jay said, hands on his hips.
Jungmo looked disinterested and shook his head, causing Jay to roll his eyes and groan with irritation before grabbing Donghae’s arm roughly and hauling him down the Nave, toward the front of the room where a rusty, clawed bathtub took the place of an altar. Hae didn’t bother arguing that he would have gone of his own free will, that Jay didn’t need to grab him. When he was thrown facedown against the edge of the marble tub, Donghae realized a painful experience was what awaited him. They didn’t let him undress himself, rather tore his ragged clothes off his body and grimaced at every piece of human flesh that was revealed.
“Repulsive,” Jungmo commented of his naked form, the first word he’d said.
“Humans are disgusting,” Jay agreed.
Donghae didn’t bother pointing out that once they had been human as well. He didn’t think it would make a difference. The water they threw him in was icy cold and Hae gasped and shuddered and lost his breath as soon as he touched it. There was no easing into it, no getting used to the temperature. Strong hands pushed him under and held him submerged until he thrashed. When his movements sent water sloshing over the edge onto Jay’s boots, he grabbed a fleshy pinch of Donghae’s arm and twisted it until he screamed, about two seconds. Once Hae settled down and limply allowed them to scrub what felt like sand and shards of glass into his skin (although logically, he knew it wasn’t), they didn’t pay that much attention to him. As they worked to clean the remains of dirt and sweat from Donghae’s body, they talked together and laughed. Well, Jay did, anyway. Jungmo didn’t say much at all.
“I heard Hyuk’s taken a liking to this one,” Jay said.
Curiously, Jungmo looked at Hae’s chest before pinching both his nipples. A shaky scream tossed itself from his throat. Jungmo shook his head again, this time out of bewilderment.
“He looks weak.” Jay lifted Donghae’s arm, rubbed more of the painful scrub into the hollow of his armpit.
“He’ll probably die,” Jungmo’s voice was quietly casual.
Death was not something Hae had considered in this. Sungmin had hinted at there being pain, both emotional and physical, but never had Donghae thought of the possibility that he could actually die. Doubt had been knawing at him, for the first time twisting inside him, roping around his heart and pulling tight. Tears were threatening to fall, once his face even screwed up with agony and grief, but he refused to sob before his garrolers. He knew, logically, they could not rape him. Shindong had said that sex with a human meant death and surely Sungmin had not sent him to the house to be murdered. Why bathe him if they were only going to kill him? No, they would keep him alive as long as they could, but being a human taken from unsanitary, cruel conditions, he was prone to sickness. And besides, hadn’t Eunhyuk said he was dying?
After the bath, Jay threw him a towel. To Donghae’s complete and utter despair, he realized it was pink and smelled of Sungmin. Of Eunhyuk. Unable to control himself, distraught and degraded, he collapsed on the steps and buried himself in the cruel comfort. Defeated, the tears came. Howls and snorts and gasps of emotion broke free from his chest and throat, his still-wet body dripping and shivering in the cold. With a tsk and groan, someone took the towel from him and roughly rubbed him dry. He realized it was Jungmo when Jay knelt before him and pried his chin up, forcing Hae to open his eyes. The dark haired Ipsuren held a cup to his lips, pressing it hard against his teeth.
“Drink this, damn you,” he said.
Hae didn’t want to drink, didn’t want their poison, didn’t want the death that would inevitably follow it. Unrelenting, Jay pushed his cheeks together until Donghae’s mouth was forced to open and poured a thick, herbal liquid down his throat that stung like alcohol. When they released him, Donghae fell again to the floor. Dizzy and light from the potion, he shut his eyes to the sparks that popped and spun in his vision, listening for the sound of the double doors closing. What came to him moments later wasn’t death, but sleep, mercifully painless and heavy.
That day, the first day of kani, passed slowly. He spent it alone and naked, forbidden food. Every once in a while either Jay or Jungmo would come to him and force him to drink more of their drug. Each time he felt more and more lightheaded until he was sure he could float. The room moved even when he sat stationary. While he knew he was covered in bruises from the rough, early morning treatment, he felt less and less pain with every cup. No one visited him. His guards rarely even came to him and when they did they did not speak. Jay proved himself to be the more talkative of the two, while Jungmo kept his head down and made noises of displeasure whenever he was forced to look upon the human body. Donghae, while he was left to think, wondered what he’d done to make them despise him so. He spent his time in naive ignorance, thinking of Eunhyuk.
Had he left? Was he worried about him? Was he with Sungmin? Did Eunhyuk know what was happening to him? If he did, would he care? Donghae daydreamed that the double doors would burst open and there he’d be in all his masculine beauty. He’d open his arms and Hae would run into them.
“Let’s go,” he’d say. “I’m taking you with me. We’re running away together.”
Alas, the first day dragged on in silence. There was nothing for Hae to do but worry and stare at the kaleidoscope before his eyes. Occasionally, he slept. Often, he cried. Always, he felt alone.
On the second day, Sungmin appeared, bringing a new drink and clothes. He was clean and smelled of perfume and fragrant smoke. A thin, grey tank top hung low to mid-thigh; around his neck was a long, chandelier necklace with silver and gold ornaments and matching bracelets that clinked when he moved. His boots were hard on the creaking, wooden floor. His white smile was a welcome source of light in a dark place. Donghae, still naked and tear stained, felt humiliated by him.
“You must hate me,” Sungmin said, kneeling before him and handing him the beverage. “Drink this.”
“Another drug?” Hae asked, suspicious even through the grogginess.
“This one will wake you up. I need you alert.”
Reluctantly, Donghae drank it. It was bitter and thin. Once he managed to swallow it, it left a buggy aftertaste. Sungmin laughed at the face he made and Hae almost hated him.
“Come, get dressed. I made you clothes. These will look better than the ones Shindong picked out last time.”
It was true, they did. A low-collared, short sleeve shirt and soft leather pants that fit him.
“You can sew?”
Sungmin nodded. “I used to make clothes as a human. It wasn’t a job or anything, I just liked altering the hideous monstrosities my parents bought me.”
It was the first time Donghae had heard Sungmin talk about his life prior to kani. Already the drink had kicked in, for he was able to process feelings of surprise and admiration. Had Sungmin suffered as he was? He must have.
“How old were you? When you...converted.”
“There will be time for stories.” Sungmin dodged the question effortlessly and with grace. “Actually, you have a visitor coming today to talk your ear off.”
A visitor? Yes, Donghae recalled Eunhyuk mentioning someone of high caste, who would teach him things.
Sungmin raked Hae’s hair with his fingers, pulling it away from his face. “Yes. His name is Heechul. He should be here soon. He’s a very important person from up the Ladder, so be respectful.”
Heechul. The name was familiar, but the face wasn’t. He came alone, about an hour after Sungmin had left, dressed in brightly colored sweaters and capes of different lengths that draped around his slight frame. He was tall, but surprisingly thin. He didn’t seem at all muscular, but his legs looked strong under the shiny black leather encasing them. His hair was bright orange, shaggy and literally shone red, casting a halo of light around his head. When he approached Donghae, the temperature in the room seemed to increase. Unlike Jay and Jungmo, Heechul didn’t seem afraid to touch him. The first thing he did was place his palm against Hae’s cheek.
“Feel how warm it is?” was the first thing he said. “It’s nice, right? Especially in this cold ass church. Do you want to know why it’s warm? Because I’m second level Isuda, Isai’i. Isuda is middle caste, Isai is the second level. The level of fire. Okji who are of this caste level are called Isai’i. Are you listening?”
Donghae was listening, but he understood none of it. Heechul laughed at the look of obvious confusion on his face and his laugh was harsh, every snort and hiccup made louder by the building’s acoustics.
“I’m Heechul. When I had my kani I was older than you by maybe two years and cocky. I’ll tell you, they didn’t change me in a church. They did it in the bathroom of a bar, a little larger than the space between these pews. They beat the ego out of me with whips and metal rods. You are one lucky bastard. Be happy things have progressed in the last thirty years.”
Out of all the things Donghae imagined his first words to be, those were not them. Immediately after saying them he wished he hadn’t. Again, Heechul laughed and some of Hae’s anxiety eased.
“In human years I’d be fourty-six,” was his response once he’d stopped. “Thankfully, age doesn’t work like that for us. In case you haven’t noticed, I have the body of a twenty-six year old.”
“So how does age work, then?” Donghae asked, eager to learn more about the life that awaited him.
“There will be time for easy answers. Right now, I want you to tell me what you think Ipsuren are.”
What did Donghae think? Once again, they were asking his opinions on a subject he knew close to nothing about. His opinions were based almost entirely on what had proven to be lies and myth. At least, as far as he had seen.
“I,” he started. “Don’t know.”
“Come on, you’re not stupid,” Heechul chided him. “You have eyes, don’t you? You’re capable of forming opinions, yes? Tell me what they are.”
“Well, I really only know what I was told growing up. That Ipsuren started as a gang of kids and grew into something...else.”
“That’s based off of some truth, yes,” Heechul admitted. “I will tell you what we really are, Donghae. And I will tell you that everything you’ve heard about us is a lie.”
And the truth of the origins of Ipsuren were revealed.
Close to seventy years before, a single mother had woken up from a restless sleep, screaming. She’d been plagued with nightmares ever since giving birth to her only child, a baby boy of one year. Her son was different from other children his age, angry and dangerous. Even inside of her he had been violent, causing her constant pain and draining her of all her energy so much that she faced hospitalization and had to be sustained on life support until labor. In the year following his birth he made loving him a constant challenge, pushing away from her nipple and recoiling whenever she touched him. He aged alone after his mother emotionally abandoned him and at a surprising rate. When he was two years he looked and behaved as a four year old and when he was four he looked and behaved as if he was six. Often, when she came upon him alone, he was sitting in darkness, talking to things no one could see. When he walked into a well-lit room, the lights would splutter out. If he came near the television, the channels would change unending. When he was ten, although physically and mentally a twelve year old, the mother woke to find all of her furniture, every knick-knack and piece of jewelry, suspended in the air. Her son stood in the doorway, his eyes burning a yellow-gold so bright it lit up the room and cast horrifying shadows on his face. When she screamed, he sent the hovering objects flying in different directions, smashing against walls and ceiling, colliding and falling to the ground in pieces.
That was the last she saw of him and for a time, it was the last anyone would. For five years, the strange little boy vanished and the woman’s story turned to lies.
A body was found in an alleyway behind a club. Most of the time, cases involving the murder of prostitutes aren’t usually turned into media-frenzies. They happen almost regularly in the dark, shaded corners of cities and the bodies are methodically collected, identified and returned to their families for burial. What made the murder of that particular prostitute fifty-five years ago worth looking into was the way in which her body had decayed. Her entire vaginal cavity had been burned and eroded as if someone had injected her with an acidic substance. Her eyes had turned to jelly and dripped out of their sockets and an autopsy revealed that her brain suffered from shock enough to shut it down completely, as if it had been hit directly with lightning. Perhaps the most suspicious of all was the substance found inside her womb. When they cut her open it seeped out like molten lava and burned just as bright, causing the cold, dead flesh it dribbled over to sear open and sizzle with steam and foul-smelling smoke. For weeks after her death, the foreign liquid burned as bright as the sun and no one could look upon it for long periods of time without suffering permanent damage to their vision. They were never able to identify it.
That same year, a mere six months after the prostitute’s body was found, people started changing. How it started was never confirmed, but many theories had taken root and branched out over the decades. Perhaps some insane, delusional misfit had snuck upon the First in his sleep and, captivated by the crystal blue veins throbbing beneath paper-thin white skin had tempted the man to sink dull, human teeth into flesh and drink the red liquid that met his lips. Perhaps the First had gotten curious after a bloody fight for survival and forced a mix of blood between himself and an antagonistic human. Whatever the scenario, his blood somehow entered the system of an unsuspecting man. Experience over the years would reveal what happened during the change. Excruciating pain, definitely. Raging fever as his human blood boiled in his veins and tried to fight off the infestation. Somehow, the human changling made it through the first barbaric, primitive kani and emerged as something beautiful, powerful and terrifying. The First must have realized then that he didn’t need to live the rest of his life alone. He could get revenge on the race that had scorned him, reviled him, ostracized him as something strange and unwanted. He could surpass them.
Over the course of the next five years the First slipped out of the spotlight and allowed his army to take over. The race grew and developed as the bloodline spread. Humans were Incepted into the Ipsuren race every day and the majority of converts survived. The more populated they became, the more they forgot the First and their origins. Leaders popped up and managed to control groups and form some kind of disciplinary system, while others remained rebels and outcasts and bucked against any form of authority. After the Senbelzhan, Ipsuren came into their own and formed laws and teachings. They developed their powers and studied their abilities, refined their skills and used their bodies as weapons and their minds as tools to see into the depths of the unknown.
As for the First, it was never discovered what happened to him. Some say he died alone, some say he lies in wait, some say he walks among the Ipsuren, disguised and a spy. But all agree that he is watching his children, the heart of his race, guiding them into a better future.
When Heechul’s story was complete, they sat in silence as Donghae processed his words. After a while, the okji spoke.
“Tomorrow you will be Incepted. An okji of Nokhiri caste is coming down the Ladder to oversee it. At every Inception, a Nokhiri must be present to Incept. First, we will cut your hair. This removes human inferiority and will allow new, Ipsuren beauty to grow in its place. Then, we will induce you with a dopamine to take away the pain of Inception, which otherwise would be unbearable.” A sly smile spread across his mischevious face. “For your information, no one did that for me.”
Donghae was growing more and more uncomfortable.
“The final step is Inception itself, which you will be unconscious for, mercifully. Your wrists will be cut open, vertically. Don’t worry about there being a scar or anything, all your human imperfections will clear once you’ve completed kani. The Nokhiri will make identical cuts on his own wrists. It is very important that they are identical, this is the first of many connections you will make with your Inceptor. The second is the most important, the blood connection. The cuts will be aligned and pressed together. High caste magic will fuse your flesh together and your bloodstreams will become one. For several moments you will be of one body, one spirit, one mind. Then it will be over and the hard part will come. The week following will be for resting purposes. You will need to give your body time to adjust and change. It will be very, very painful, Donghae. But you shouldn’t worry, Sungmin and Shindong will take care of you.”
“I guess there’s no way I can back out of this now, can I?” Donghae supposed he was only half joking.
Briefly, Heechul looked concerned. Then, he rolled his eyes. “Nope, you’re stuck now, kid. Unless you want me to turn you into a frog. Or maybe you could live out the rest of your life as a fish? That might suit you better.”
Honestly, being a fish sounded pretty tempting at that moment.
Screams. Uproarious bellowing of a hundred or more voices, calling out in Taicara, a language Donghae had come to recognize but could not understand. He did not feel like himself, washed and rubbed down with oils and perfumes, painted in bright colors and dressed in soft fabrics that were light against his skin. Colorful patterns in glowing paints covered his arms, shoulders, chest and back. It had taken six hours to prepare him fully for the ceremony and the painstaking detail of those patterns were what had taken up the majority of that time. Glittering powders were dusted onto his skin and bands of every metal imaginable were wrapped around his wrists, ankles and neck. There was a ring for every finger and toe, some even wore stacked multiples. His nails had been polished and painted blue, his face powdered and sparkling gems glued to his forehead, the bridge of his nose, and the high bones in his cheeks. He felt like a god, something magical, something otherworldly. When he stepped lightly out into the flourescents and came upon the crowd of Ipsuren that cheered for him, he felt so far away from his own personal consciousness that nothing scared him.
On the altar, Heechul stood, his hair of curling fire burning, covering his eyes completely. His lips were painted red to match the long, velvet robes he wore. Sungmin met him halfway down the aisle and Donghae mistook him for a girl at first, sweet in soft, flowing pink and blue, his black hair held back with a thin wreath of small, white flowers. Only when he came close and Donghae could see the strength in his broad chest and shoulders and the familiar face behind the makeup he wore, did he recognize him. Together, they walked towards the steps of the wooden platform prepared for their ceremony. Standing above, Hae looked out at the crowd, clouded by colored and fragrant smoke. Garahim had put aside their dark colors and black leather, temporarily replacing them with silks and velvets of every color. Purple and pink flowers, blue and green streamers, red balloons, yellow rugs, orange tarps. Donghae searched the crowd, half blinded by the light of popping sparklers, the glow of multi colored lamps reflected off ornamented mirrors. He searched for Eunhyuk, tried to hear his voice in the crowd.
Heechul introduced himself, took Donghae’s right shoulder. Sungmin introduced himself, took Donghae’s left. The crowd grew silent, their anticipation stifling.
“Today is a glorious day on the Ladder!” Heechul called. “The overhead lights burn bright, hot and white! The city is made of steel, powerful and strong! We are made of blood, flesh and magic! We breathe, we fight, we overcome! Together, let us welcome a new member to our brotherhood, a new soldier to our ranks! Let his mind be opened and his body challenged! Let him see as we see! Let Donghae, a human child born from the moss and damp cold of the Gutter, Incept into greatness!”
The crowd’s screams erupted and dragged on forever. No one was looking at him and Hae realized they cheered not for him, but for themselves and the egos they carried, their pride. The pride they had of their race. Of their race’s achievements. And of their power. Together, voices as one, Heechul and Sungmin chanted fluent Taicara and pushed Donghae onto his knees.
“With this blade!” Heechul’s voice was strong as it announced the milky white dagger Sungmin held out, with its hilt of deep blood red.
More Taicara. Sungmin handing the weapon to Heechul, then lifting Donghae’s hair. Cool air caused goosflesh to appear on the back of his neck, revealed and bared. As the curved blade of the knife sawed through his soft, thin locks of hair Donghae felt the first part of his humanity leaving him to flutter, like feathers, to the floor. After his hair had been cut, Heechul and Sungmin gestured to the opposite side of the platform, where someone was ascending the steps across from Donghae.
The instant he saw him, Hae knew he was Nokhiri. Perhaps it was the white light that literally radiated off his pearlescent skin. Perhaps it was how, even though he moved as fast as any okji, his gold robes and thick, black hair flowed around him as if in slow motion, unable to keep up, always drifting as if they were floating, suspended just off his person. Either way, he was unsettling. Frightening, his power causing the air around him to vaporize and shimmer like the surface of a body of water under light. His face was as perfect as cut stone, his eyes dark and unending. He pursed his lips, smiling to appease, and dimples pushed back his cheeks.
On Donghae’s left shoulder was a tight squeeze, near his ear, Sungmin gasped. Hae could feel him turning, his jewelry clinking together as he moved towards Heechul. His tone was bordering frantic when he whispered, harshly, “Him?!”
On Donghae’s other side, Heechul groaned softly. His voice solemn as it muttered, “I know,” assuring his fate.
For the rest of the ceremony, Sungmin seemed subdued, which did nothing to quiet the murmuring voices of Hae’s fears, growing louder with every second he spent in the Nokhiri’s presence.
“Young human. Welcome.”
His voice, even when softly spoken, was loud and thick with an eerie echo. Even when he spoke to him, he did not look at Donghae. It was as if he didn’t even care that he existed.
“I am Siwon.”
A name that held no meaning just then, but later, Donghae would remember.
“Do you know what is about to happen?”
Hae struggled to find the words he’d been told to say. “I do.”
“And you agree to this willingly?”
To Heechul, he instructed, “Give it to him.”
An injection, that was all it was. A strangely medical object, so out of place in such a dreamlike setting, yet stark in its oddness. Somehow, the fact that it did not belong made it more real than anything else that had happened and, as a consequence of such, Donghae was more frightened than he had ever been. When Sungmin held him and stroked the stubbly remains of his hair, Hae wanted to turn around and bury himself in his arms. As the needle came closer and Heechul held his arm, Donghae began to shake and those hands touched his face, gently, soothing. When it pricked his skin and dug deep into his vein, Donghae wanted to scream. Then, the drug took effect and the world became a blur, a collage of Siwon’s face as it hovered above him, his eyes as they looked directly at him for the first time, dark and knowing. His dimply smile and his teeth, normal teeth that in Hae’s drugged state, seemed to extend on for inches like a cage of sharp fangs.
A/N: Chapter 5 is complete! That's the first stepping stone of hopefully many for this fic and I thank everyone who has been with me through it. Five weeks. That's more than a month! And the amount of support I've received over the course of those first five weeks. Thank you, so much.
To mark the end of the first stretch of this journey and the beginning of the next, the LJ will be undergoing a few changes. Next week when you come back, things will be renovated! Please look forward to it!