Khun would be a liar if he said he weren't a little daunted at the idea of facing the White Steel Eel. It was intimidating. Still, the more he observed his surroundings, the more he found solutions to the problem. They were risky solutions, but if Khun played his cards right, then he would come out of this alive.
Resolutely striding forward, Khun made to hasten his pace. Movement in his peripheral vision caused him to stumble to a halt right as Headon placed his staff in front of him.
Khun narrowed his eyes. "What? I am ready to take the test."
Headon chuckled, amused. "This test is not for you." He lowered his staff. "Though I am impressed at your determination to so quickly throw away your life."
"I am not throwing away my life," Khun countered. He had too much at stake to be so reckless. He thought of a small boy with golden eyes waiting for him, and he merely trembled at the thought of Bam alone once more.
Headon smiled, his sharp teeth baring in the dim lighting. Wariness crept down Khun's neck, and he clenched his fists. His hands yearned for the comfort of a dagger, yet he dared not make any risky movements in the presence of a powerful being.
"This test is reserved for those born outside of the Tower," Headon stated. "You are not one of them."
Outsiders. Like Bam. Khun thought of Enryu's words and not for the first time did he wonder what the Irregular had planned for the young boy. Was this Enryu's intention? To force him to leave Bam while he climbed the Tower?
It was one thing to internally debate whether or not Bam was also an Irregular, but Headon's words confirmed Khun's suspicions. They had both been cast outside of the Tower. But whereas Khun had been sent to the outside, Bam was born outside. The presence of an Irregular was dangerous, yet Bam did not have the courage to so much as hurt a fly.
"But I do have a proposition," Headon continued languidly.
Khun raised an eyebrow, deigning not to say anything. Still, the wariness grew and he hoped it did not show on his face.
"Since you have so much at stake," Headon continued, "and your current situation is interesting, I will give you a little bit of help."
Khun bit back the abrupt reply that any further help from a guardian would seem suspicious. But analyzing the rest of Headon's statement, and the wariness he felt warped into full blown suspicion. What made his situation so interesting to this powerful being? Could the interest Headon was referring to be Bam? If so, what did he know? Possible questions and scenarios swarmed his head and he tried to piece it all together into a cohesive pile.
Instead, Khun cocked his head with a lazy grin. "Oh? What kind of help?"
Headon's staff tapping against the stone floor echoed throughout the room. Khun tensed, watching the shadows for anything that might move and pose as a threat.
"Your climb up the Tower will be very interesting to watch." Headon's voice faded away, even though he was a mere few feet away from Khun.
His vision was flooded with multiple colors, the backdrop was darker than the cave. Disoriented, Khun could not tell what was up or down, though his footing remained solid as if his feet had never left the ground.
He must have closed his eyes because he was now opening them to a blue sky. Sitting upright, he glanced around the gold field of wheat. Slowly standing up, he noticed the presence of other Regulars in the field. He tensed, listening to the instructions. Kill 200 Regulars to pass the test.
How brutal. It was his family all over again.
"Ah, sorry, sorry Regulars. This is your Test Administrator Quant speaking. I was thinking, instead of the usual 'kill 200 Regulars,' why don't we change things up a bit?"
Khun's eyes narrowed. Worry formed in the pit of his stomach. If Bam were to come to this particular test, would he survive? Khun had taught him how to wield a knife and defend himself, but Bam had never killed anyone. No, he would most likely be slaughtered during this brutal test.
"Let's do a free for all! Kill at your leisure and stay alive until the time runs out. Those remaining after the timer goes off pass!"
No, this was bad. If Bam were to be thrust in this type of environment, he would die. And Khun was not there to protect him.
Gritting his teeth, Khun's irritation rose when a looming shadow of a beast charged at him, and he slashed out with his knife. "Move," he hissed, his dagger dripping with blood.
He didn't have time for this. He needed to gather as many allies as he could before this bloodbath was over. It would have been easier if he had his father's bag with him, but he had left it in the cave with Bam.
Well, he still had his daggers.
His feet remained firm on the ground. The clash of metal rang out in the air, the cries of the dying filling his ears. It seemed that everyone was so consumed with the idea of killing, as if they had been denied a drink and were desperate to quench their thirst.
He was cutting down the second unreasonable opponent when a voice caught his attention.
"Well, I certainly wasn't expecting a son of Khun to be here."
Khun paused, leveling his dagger between him and the newcomer. The man raised his dark hands in surrender, showing that he had no weapon. Exposing his vulnerability was a careless move because it left him open to attack. However, no one would expose themselves in such a vulnerable state without a backup plan. His hands may be empty, but Khun remained watchful for any hidden weapon.
Khun grinned, the mask of ease slipping on his face. "And why is that? Did you not think that a Khun family member would get their hands dirty?"
"No, I just wasn't expecting one to grovel in the dirt with the rest of us."
Khun raised an eyebrow. While it was true that his pristine white shirt was now stained with blood and dirt, he did not see the point of this man's statement. Was he expecting Khun to roll over and die? It should be the opposite. His family was known for their ruthlessness. This man should be wary, not making such careless comments.
Khun adjusted his bag. "Since you are the first person to speak and not raise a weapon against me, I am assuming you want to team up." The screams in the field were growing less frequent. Khun assumed that meant there were less participants in the test. Sooner or later, their time would run out. Who knows how many competitors there would be left?
The man raised an eyebrow. "Oh dear, this is really awkward." He laughed, running a hand through his short-cropped white hair. "You see, I'm not that interested in teaming up with a member of the Khun family. Besides, I've already got a teammate."
Khun shrugged. "Fair enough. But let me ask you this, where is your teammate?" He gestured to the land before them. "After this, what do you plan on doing to climb up the Tower?"
The man's eyes narrowed, if that was even possible with how he seemed to squint. "What do you have to offer that is different?"
Khun did not care if this man wanted to team up with him or not. He needed strong teammates that he could manipulate into protecting Bam. This man did not look particularly strong, but then again, neither did Khun. However, this man was the only one willing to talk in place of trading blows.
He will just see what this man had to say about his offer.
Khun grinned. "I'll carry you up the Tower. In return, you will lend me your strength."
"And how will you carry us up the Tower?"
Interesting, so he was not willing to leave behind his teammate. That loyalty was interesting. Wait, no, there was no such frivolous this as 'loyalty' in the Tower. Only people using each other before throwing each other away like a dirty cloth. So what could this man's teammate offer that makes them so valuable?
Khun smiled. "I have my ways." He held out his hand. "What do you say? I will carry you and your teammate to the top of the Tower."
The man hesitated for a short while before a slow smile spread across his face. Cocking his head back, he called out. "Hey Apple, we've got ourselves a new teammate."
Khun did not stiffen as a woman made her way through the tall grass, but he did keep his eyes trained on her. It was unsettling that he had not picked up her presence. However, the woman seemed disinterested as she gazed at him with heavily make-uped eyes. Her crimson red lips stood out against her pale skin, and here Khun thought he needed more sun.
Apple eyed him with bored interest. "This guy? Does the fact that he's a Khun mean anything?"
The man turned to look at Khun with a smile. His hand slid into Khun's in a firm shake. "Pay no attention to her. I'm Micheal. Now how are you going to get us out of here?"
Khun grinned, opening his bag. "Like I said, I have my ways."
The weight of his bag increased with two extra bodies inside, yet Khun's grip did not lessen. As the screams in the field quieted down, he checked the timer on his pocket. Perhaps he could scout out more potential allies before the game was over. But was anyone even alive? Based on the chilling silence that descended on the field, he wondered if he was the only one remaining. It would be rather pathetic if everyone had killed each other off in their bloodlust.
A looming shadow towered over him. Khun gazed up at the Regular with a bored stare. Intimidation was not what he felt when he saw this massive opponent. Even the sharp-bared red teeth did nothing to dissuade Khun. However, it was the massive pull of energy, the violent shinsu that lurked about ready to strike, that gave him pause.
He raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Are you here to challenge me?"
Bared teeth split apart as the head angled down towards him. "Headon sent me."
Khun tilted his head. "Really?" So Headon was serious about that offer. Was it a good thing to have a Guardian helping a Regular? What did Headon want from him?
"I am to remain by your side."
"For what purpose?" Khun placed his hand on his hip, the other clutching his bag. "What does Headon want from me?" He narrowed his eyes. "What exactly are you?"
The air stirred, as if it waited in anticipation for the answer. "I am Akryung."
A chill, unlike the ice at the main estate of the Khun household, ran down his spine with long claws at the utterance of the name. Evil Spirit.
"And what sort of help are you offering me?"
The man said nothing.
"If it is for protection, then don't bother." Khun brushed past him, though he remained alert should the man attack him. "I wouldn't trust anyone with my life."
Movement from the field caught his attention. Khun barely had a chance to glance up until Akryung moved swiftly.
Blood splattered on Khun's face as a body was crushed. Blinking, Khun stared at the pulp that remained of the Regular that had attempted to attack him. The shinsu around him crackled with violent energy that it made Khun's hair stand on end, like his father's energy.
"I will follow you," Akryung stated, his weapon dripping with blood. "Headon has ordered it."
Khun narrowed his eyes. Well, he was not being followed for protection. He had offered nothing to Headon for this, so what was he expecting to get in return?
Akryung, this ghost, was going to become a nuisance.
"Time's up! All Regulars who are still fighting will immediately be disqualified. For the next test, create a team before the timer goes off. Good luck!"
Khun frowned. Create a team? He would be surprised if there was anyone still left. He would have to team up with Akryung, and if he needed to, he could use someone from his bag. But how many bodies did one need to create a team?
"Hey blue-hair, you're a son of Khun aren't you?"
Khun turned and saw a hooded woman. The red clip of Jahad held her hair back and her smile was devious, almost like his sister's.
Khun glanced around the blood soaked field. "Well, it looks like you've eliminated any potential allies in this test." He fixed his gaze on the girl. "What do you say, princess? Want to team up?" He was prepared for defiance, a tough front and even a protest, though he knew she would have to join them. There was no one else in this field. They had killed everyone.
Teaming up with a princess would prove to be interesting, if not a bit troubling. He knew them to be difficult and prideful women. However, he could not deny the merits of having one on his team.
The princess smiled. "Team up with a Khun? Might as well make a deal with the Devil." Her smile was devious. "I'm in." Her hand slid into his, a dagger in a sheath.
Khun had no illusions of having a princess remain by her side, but if he could create an ally, perhaps even blackmail her, then it would be one more advantage for Bam. The possibility almost made him smirk with anticipation.
"And what shall I call you, princess?"
Amusement glittered in her golden depths, sharp like a cat. "Endorsi, though you shouldn't expect anything more to come from this mutual relationship."
Khun could only grin. "I hold no such illusions. As you had said, this relationship is mutually beneficial." As were all his relationships, save for one.
Based on his teammates, Khun could wager that they were pretty strong. Not only did they have a princess of Jahad on their side, but Akryung also emanated a mysterious, dangerous energy. Khun felt weary of him and he did not turn his back on the creature. He had never felt this uneasy towards anyone, not even to members of his own family. Cautious, yes, because you never trust a Khun, but wary to the point where you could sense the malevolent energy that was waiting to snap and consume you? No, never that.
His teammates were unpredictable, but that also meant they were unpredictable towards the enemy. As long as that would not become a hindrance to him, then he would be fine. Besides, if he needed to, he could always call on Micheal and Apple, but he would like to save them for later. If possible, he would prefer to keep them as a hidden card up his sleeve until later, but it was important that he examine all the cards in his deck.
However, with every step he took forward, he felt like he was leaving something important behind.
That semblance followed him even when he tried to break away from his teammates for a little while. Akryung stepped forward to follow him, only for Khun to shoot him down with an annoyed glare. "Are you going to follow me to the bathroom to hold my hand?" He turned on his heel without waiting for a response, noting that Akryung had in fact stayed behind.
The weight leaving his bag was refreshing. No longer carrying two beings around, Khun left Apple and Micheal with swift instructions. He could not let them out to roam around. Two additional Regulars in the room would be noticeable, but after he had given them instructions on what he expected of them, he felt satisfied as they re-emerged into his bag.
In the empty waiting room, gazing up at the fake shinsu sky, Khun could not help but wonder how Bam would feel if he were to see the sky for the first time. Just thinking of him alone in that cave, abandoned once more, made his heart clench. He would have closed his eyes to gather his emotions, but he did not trust the princess or Akryung to do that just yet. He could not hear the big man, even when he moved. It was unnerving, like he was a ghost.
"Well, it's like a ghost-town in here." The princess leaned against the wall. "It's not as exciting when there's no one to challenge."
Khun grinned. "Well, that eliminates the competition for us. Passing should be relatively easy."
The princess matched his grin. "Until we have to compete against each other."
"You are so confident you will win?"
"I'm a princess. Let that do the explaining."
"True," he agreed. "However, consider this for yourself. What was the point of creating teams in the first place? Moreover, a team of three? Was it because everyone else was killed?"
Now the princess was frowning. "Why would there have to be a reason for meaningless things like that?"
"The Tower rarely leaves anything to chance," Khun stated, standing up with a stretch. His joints popped, his muscles relaxing. He said nothing more, not about his suspicions about there being a hidden chess-player. The appearance of Akryung already told him that Headon was involved in the game. It would be foolish to consider that no one else was involved. Now that he thought about it, perhaps it was better that Bam was not with him and was in the safety of his cave, hidden away from those backstabbers.
"I apologize for the wait," a smooth honeyed voice rang out. A small dainty man stepped from the shadows, and Khun wondered if the man had been present all along, silently watching their actions. "Thank you so much for your patience. I am Hansung. As of now, because of this unique situation, we have decided to move you all along to another testing area. You will all participate in the Crown Game."
Khun blinked. "What's the meaning of the sudden change?"
"No reason in particular, it would just be tiresome to test one team when we could group you all up into one large test."
Khun frowned. Instead of conducting more tests, they were being thrust into a competition? His gaze slid over to look at Akryung, but he thought against the giant having any involvement in the situation. Most likely, it had to do with the fact that there were only three Regulars who had passed. Two if the extra beings in his bag were to be counted.
"You will all be transported to different cells with the rest of the Regulars," Hansung continued. He smiled. "Good luck."
With each uncertainty, Khun felt the weight of his bag. As they were moved to their cells, Khun managed to break away from them once more to let the occupants out of his bag. He did not know if he needed to use their help just yet, but with the recent turn of events, it was better to not get caught with them.
"But everyone is in a team of three," Micheal protested. "Won't it disqualify us if we are caught as a team of two?"
Khun fixed him with a stare. "Our section of the test did not state that there needed to be a team of three. The rules from the previous tests do not apply to us. I doubt there will be an issue."
Micheal still looked uncertain, but Apple rested a calm hand on his shoulder. "He's a Khun," she stated, as if that solved everything, as if the blood in his veins was all the answer they needed. "He's got everything sorted out." With that, she pulled up her hood and stepped into her cell. Micheal had no choice but to follow her.
Listening to the administrator explain the rules, Khun sat on one of the benches. He waited, listening to the chattering Regulars, most pompous and confident, others cautious and watchful.
"What do you say?" Endorsi asked, also watching the Regulars as the countdown began. "Should we jump in?"
Khun leaned back. "On the first round? No. The strongest opponents will make themselves known in the second round. Let's watch for a bit and pick apart our opponents."
"Hm, but would it be alright to kill them?" Her eyes sparkled with an intense inferno, yet her grin was lazy.
Khun raised an eyebrow. "If you are so keen to follow the rules of others, be my guest."
Khun and Endorsi continued their intense staredown, even when the first round was done. The second round began, the administrator beginning his countdown, and Khun had no interest in joining this round.
Khun's sharp gaze snapped up, sweeping the view for the owner of the voice. "Bam?" His tone was hoarse with disbelief, eyes wide at the possibility that Bam could be here.
"Aguero! It's me!" The desperate cries were now joyful. "I'm here!"
Khun found himself in front of the bars of his team's room. There, across the stadium, he could see Bam desperately reaching through the bars, his smiling eyes shimmering with unshed tears of relief.
"Oh? Does that boy know you?" Endorsi came to stand right beside him, her face curious yet alight with glee. A new form of entertainment, a new piece of the puzzle to her companion.
He had never expected, or planned, to see Bam here at the same time and place. To witness him taking the test, to participate in this ruthless environment...he should be there in that cell with Bam as his teammate. He should be there, protecting and aiding Bam.
He shoved those selfish thoughts away. No, he had to think about the logical situation. Why was Bam here at the same time as he? Why were they all moved into the same vicinity? Once again, he thought of Headon and his 'babysitter.'
Khun stopped at the startled thought. He could feel Akryung's presence and he resisted the urge to turn and face him.
Khun knew that there was a possibility that he and Bam would find each other. Both of them would be called to climb the Tower. Both of them were determined to reunite. Enryu had sent him to watch and protect Bam, to watch after the lonely boy in the cave. With no further instructions, Khun had been left to do as he pleased. He had nurtured the boy, taught him, and grown to care for him. He had experienced a tenderness he was unfamiliar with, and Bam had shown him how to care. How to love. Through it all, Enryu had never made another appearance, showing no further interest in Bam.
The vessel of vengeance.
Khun's fist tightened. Well, he was going to disrupt everyone's plans. The Tower's, Enryu, Headon. Everyone.
"Princess," Khun answered, not taking his gaze off of Bam. "Will you allow me to take control of this game when the time is right?" Regardless of her answer, he would manipulate the situation to his favor.
Endorsi cocked her head. "You mean you want to join in the game?" Her smile was excited. "Alright. I suppose I should be getting ready for the next round."
Khun surveyed Bam's teammates. He did not know what to make of the stoic swordsman, but the alligator seemed impulsive and Khun was surprised, but grateful, that Bam's team had not joined in the next round. This would give him ample time to create a successful plan that would help Bam.
He would protect him, no longer as a request from Enryu, but for Khun's own selfish reasons. He wanted Bam safe. At the moment, what was best for Bam was for him to leave this floor as fast as possible, with or without Khun.
He gripped the bars of his cell as he saw the lizard girl storm into Bam's cell. He could not hear what was going on, but he caught a glimpse of Bam's distressed face. His golden eyes flickered around wildly as the lizard girl approached him.
"What is she doing?" he hissed, knuckles white as they tightened on the bars. "She's breaking the rules!" His emotions, tasting the air of freedom, emerged beneath his stoic facade.
"Oh, calm down," Endorsi crooned. "I think the administrator has it handled."
Khun bit back a retort. Smoothing his features down, he ran his fingers through his hair. "Yeah, seems like it." He had a choice at the moment. Fingering his bandanna, he let his hand drop to his side. No, he would rather handle this himself rather than let his backup plan take care of the situation.
He watched as Bam's team was forced to participate. The rules of the deal were set, and the odds were stacked against them. Standing apart in the middle of the arena, Khun realized just how small Bam really was.
The countdown began. Bam worriedly looked around, his gaze falling on Khun. Khun could not help but smile. "Let's join in." His hand pressed the buzzer, the cell bars lifting.
No one moved, all eyes on the crown. As if a timer had gone off, all teams converged towards the throne. A mass of smoke, a shockwave, pushed back at the opponents, ending the charge.
Akryung stood before the throne, his impassive face betraying nothing.
"Well, well," Endorsi chuckled, her hood falling back. "My knight in shining armor is defending my rights to the crown! Do any of you weaklings want to challenge the big guy here for the throne?"
It seemed as if everyone had reached a consensus. Charge at Akryung or face off Endorsi to recover their pride.
With Endorsi and Akryung distracting the other opponents, Khun was able to make his move. He ran towards Bam, his gaze set on the helpless boy who was by the gator's side. In mere seconds, Khun was beside him, his arms around his friend.
"Hey Bam," he murmured before lifting him up. Bam squeaked and held on to Khun at the unexpected burst of speed. The throne was in sight, and with it, Khun's agenda.
Bam was thrust upon the throne, the crown placed on his head, and with it, the end of the game. Breathless, Bam smiled up at Khun, adjusting the large crown on his head as it slid down.
Khun grinned. "I told you we'd see each other-"
He didn't finish. Bam lunged forward and wrapped his arms around Khun in a hug. Caught off guard, Khun's eyes widened in surprise.
"I was afraid I'd never see you again," Bam murmured.
This was dangerous. He shouldn't give in to the urge to embrace Bam. He should push him away from the watchful eyes of everyone in the arena and deny having any relationship with him. He should remove any appearance of weakness, of caring for another. He could feel Akryung's hooded gaze fixated on him, even the hidden eyes of the administrator.
But Bam was relentless, tightening his hold on Khun with a strong grip.
Slowly, Khun hugged him back. "It's okay. I'm here now."
But with others watching, Khun had to make this reunion of his brief. Reluctantly, he let go and forced himself to look away from Bam's sad gaze. Yes, it was good to see each other again, but he also knew that in this moment, they had to part once more.
"Don't worry Bam," he promised. "I will make sure you win." Stepping back, he tied up his hair. Lingering a bit more so that his allies may see him and understand the signal and his intent, he rested his hand on Bam's shoulder. "Everything will work out."
He needed Bam out of here and away from this floor as fast as possible. He did not know what Akryung's main intention was, but he knew it was not in Bam's best interest. Khun understood that he was the main connection to Bam, hence why Headon had summoned him to the Irregulars test before sending him to the Tower. Someone on the Test Floor wanted to monitor and control Bam's movements. Khun would fulfill Enryu's promise and keep Bam safe. To do that, Khun needed to ensure Bam passed every single test thrown his way.
Bam grabbed his hand just as he began to pull away. "Aguero, wait." His golden eyes were so open, so honest. "This game...if we win...will I still see you again?"
Khun smiled, wooden and fake. "I hope so." He squeezed Bam's hand before he turned away, resisting the urge to look back. "Remember Bam, be careful with whom you trust."
He watched as his plan unfolded before him. Apple and Micheal defended Bam until the very end, and it was amusing to see the chaos those two created with just their presence. Khun's lips quirked upward in a faint smile until he smoothed his features into stone cold indifference. The match ended with Bam still on the throne, the fight over, and Lero-Ro announced the winners and the ultimate prize.
His plan worked, no surprise. Bam was moved away from the Administrator. It would be harder for them to find him. It worked, perfectly in fact. So why was it that he felt so empty?
Perhaps it was because he saw the shinsu rapidly teleport Bam away, or the look of shock and despair on those golden eyes as they stared back at him.
Perhaps that is why he felt so unsatisfied.
Bam had never seen Khun like this, in his element, as the backstabber, sneaky, lying bastard. Khun wondered if Bam would still look at him that way, with trust and adoration, once he saw what it meant to be a child of Eduan.
Well, he had a long way to go before they could move to the next floor. Bam may have been given a free pass, but Khun still needed to pass the tests and conquer Evankhell's hell if he were to remain by Bam's side.