The forest spread before Ran, merciless in its endless immensity, dark and forboding. High canopies blocked direct sunlight, casting a dim, warmthless light across the path laid out for Ran by a desperate fear of a violent death. To the north Ran headed, for to the north lay salvation. Salvation, in that it was not south: to the south was ruin. To the south was screaming rage and smiling murder, the sickening sound of metal ripping through flesh and crushing through bone, a wet and nauseating sound.
Ran had to stop. He leaned against a tree trunk, not feeling the rough bark scratching his hand as he clutched at it, and heaved as he vomited. He threw up until only a stream of murky, yellow bile stretched slowly from his open mouth, until a rough hand grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him around to face the hardset eyes of an Eyropan Empire’s soldier. It took Ran a few seconds to remember the soldier’s name: Eikos.
Eikos was a big man, tall and wide, and Ran had to crane his neck to look at his face. A strong, pale face, set in a stoic expression of grim determination, expressed most poignantly through his pale blue eyes—Ran violently shoved Eikos off, but being much smaller than the heavily built soldier, he fell to the ground. The young alchemist coughed as he picked himself up, and in his eyes there was a fierceness but also a kind of gratitude.
“Are you done?” Eikos’ voice was filled with contempt, but solemn; Ran knew that the soldier’s words were not meant to barb but to inspire, but the alchemist felt shame at his own cowardice and expressed it in defiance instead.
“Yes, I’m done,” Ran replied coldly, then began a fit of coughing when a drop of acidic bile retreated into his asophagus. When he regained his bearings, Eikos’ eyes had softened up a bit. Ran saw something else there too, through a soldier’s practiced stoicism; fear. Ran felt a little better, and he muttered an apology to Eikos.
“Not a problem. Let’s get moving, alchemist—we are almost at the edge of the forest. Once we make it to the plains, we’ll make good time to the northern trade route.”
Ran had hated Eikos. It was not that Eikos was malicious or cruel. Yet neither did he possess compassion and empathy. In the five years that Eikos had been assigned to shepard around the alchemists of Hamil Kha on their forced soujourn, the soldier had taken his duty of guarding and controlling the desert alchemists seriously.
A year ago in a small hamlet west of Keltaris, the longing had taken hold of Ran—in the brothel, there was a young girl with dark skin and darker hair, with an air about her that reminded Ran of a desert’s night sky. The young alchemist visited her almost every night while they stayed in the area, gathering the spikes of wild artichoke which stood triumphant over the dried and whithered husk of its brothers. Ran almost ran his small reserve of bishani dry seeing the girl, and he dismayed when it was made known that the alchemists would soon leave the area.
Ran stormed out of the camp and found the young whore, begged her to come with him, to run with him back to his tribe on the southern edges of the Empire, where he was the prince of Hamil Kha and he would crown her his queen—thick with an exotic accent, green eyes flashing with the grips of his passion, he convinced her.
They were caught, minutes after leaving the brothel, and Ran was given the standard punishment of fifteen lashes for disobedience and it was Eikos who delivered the blows. How Ran had thought he suffered then, how he struggled and cursed the soldier and his fellow Hamil Kha alchemists, in the common tongue and in his native language. Afterward, as Ran lay on the ground with hot tears of rage in his eyes, Oruhan came to him—ever the wise one, his uncle and his kin amongst kin—and sternly but kindly repproached him, soothed him while warning him not to again displease their imperial masters. Of course Ran knew that his uncle was right, and he knew Eikos was not being cruel but simply obeying the rules his own masters had set for him; the young alchemist had felt it in the successively weakening blows of Eikos’ lash, a certain lack of malice and a noticeable distaste for the physical punishment. Ran understood all this because he was a Hamil Kha alchemist, a practitioner of anu hikhna, “Great Wisdom”, an interpreter of the world’s stories because everything in life is but a story to be told. But he was a young man, a captive and a slave, defiant and angry and despairing over his captivity.
For a brief period after the lashings, Ran hated everything: his own powerlessness, Eikos and all the other soldiers who kept guard over them. Even his beloved uncle Oruhan he mockingly called arnahvet, a helpless rabbit of the desert which ran at the first sight of danger, and would sometimes die of fright at its own shadow. Kind and wise Oruhan, once the leader of the Hamil Kha and then the leader of the displaced alchemists, who was definitely not a coward and who never once ran from his enslavement in the arms of bitter rage.
Ran felt a second wave of nausea wrench him from his reverie as his thoughts turned to Oruhan’s dark, wrinkled skin, yellow-green eyes with specks Ran knew by heart. Those eyes which kept him sane during the past nine years of forced research by the Eyropan Empire, staring back with surprise and fear—yes, fear from the eyes which always had placated Ran’s myriad of private horrors, and this shook the young man deeply—as a bandit’s axe blade smashed the back of his skull and Ran felt his stomach heave—
No, not again. Not now. I’m stronger than that.
Ran swallowed, slowly, an immense dark ball of despair retreating to his stomach—for now. The alchemist looked at Eikos, who was watching him with equal parts impatience and worry, and it was strange but he felt glad that the hulking soldier was there and understood—great wisdom indeed—understood that Eikos felt the same. The two were bonded through survival, and if they lived through this ordeal they would be more than a slave and a guard dog, but all that would come later, if they had a later; “Let’s go then,” said Ran.
The two soon found the end of the forest, levelling out to a great plane of rolling hills, and thus continued the hunt.
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