It had been several days since they started their journey and Serena was in a pleasant mood. Kakane’s boasting did get on her nerves sometimes, but where was the fun in adventuring if the hard times weren’t as numerous as the good times? Serena and Kakane had traveled over small rolling hills and deep gorges, and thanks to Kakane’s self-proclaimed superb sense of direction, they were only three days away from Samsara. That was, according to Kakane.
“See? That line over there is the horizon, where there is water! Water means we are near Samsara, Serena! There was no need to doubt me, a king,” Kakane smirked.
“I never did,” Serena said, pursing her lips.
Now that he was free from working on REAN for the time being, Kakane’s thoughts had drifted elsewhere, that mostly being his kingship and himself. The number of times Serena had heard him boast was enough to drive anyone mad. Fortunately, Serena had picked up the skill of blocking out disturbing noises thanks to the elder’s daily, meaningless speeches.
Soon, a dirt road came into view. Several hooded caravans pulled by horses or running on steam slowly rumbled forward, with their owners walking alongside them. As she curiously peered into one of the caravans, Serena saw many chests and bags. Inside of a spilled sack, she noticed intricate glass items, such as goblets and plates. Wondering if there was anything else the merchants had on hand gave Serena an idea.
“We should see if they’re willing to loan us a map,” Serena suggested.
“What? Do you not trust me or something? I told you, I know where I’m going!” Kakane huffed. “This hurts my kingly pride!”
“Well, I’ve never been outside of my village before, so I’d like to get a sense of Eyuth’s geography,” Serena reminded him. If she could read something new and relevant while Kakane rambled on about himself, it would make his speeches a bit more bearable. “Besides, it’ll be a good back-up for if we do end up lost.”
As Kakane fumed over her last remark, Serena walked up to a rotund middle-aged woman and politely asked for a map she could take with her on her travels. Kakane watched with mild interest as the plump lady began rummaging around a trunk. He kept an eye on the road, however, as it split up ahead. One path headed to the left and the other to the right. Kakane and Serena needed to go left, so if the caravans were going the other direction, Kakane was going to pull Serena away regardless of whether she got her stupid map or not. He was honestly insulted that she thought she even needed a map in the first place.
Ahead, another group of people was approaching from the right split of the road. They were many in number, marching in formation at the sides of their wagon. Marching in front atop a grey stallion was an aging man wearing heavy armor. On his back was an equally heavy armored lance. Soldiers, then, perhaps from Aegyptus, the southern deserts to the south, or Andhara, the dark island kingdom to the north. But when he saw the flag waving atop their carriage, Kakane’s blood ran cold.
These weren’t just any soldiers.
They were part of the Doryokan army.
They belonged to the empire of Doryoku.
Kakane’s sworn enemy.
It was as if Kakane’s blood had turned to ice. He looked around frantically, finally locating Serena in the middle of the procession. It seemed she had gotten her coveted map. Shoving aside numerous people and earning himself murderous stares from the merchants around him, Kakane caught up to Serena, nearly toppling her over in the process.
“Let’s go,” he said frantically, grabbing Serena’s arm.
Kakane gave no answer as he wove in and out of the people around them. He tried to act as discreetly as possible, casually steering towards the left path, while the soldiers went down the route they came. He was just another traveler, heading down this road as travelers did. There was no reason for any attention to come to him, no reason at all.
Unfortunately, in his haste, Kakane failed to notice a sharp point of wood jutting out from one of the caravans. It seemed a part of it broke while on the road. Serena opened her mouth in warning, but it was too late. His right arm was stabbed by the spike, making a strange clanging noise rather than the squelch of marred flesh. Kakane had gone stiff, and he let go of Serena’s arm in the process. It seemed he was not injured, as no blood came out, but the look of horror and utter terror in his eyes told Serena that something was very, very wrong. She looked down at his arm, where a strange red crystal had revealed itself. A small portion of it was cracked and broken, emitting strange green sparks.
Serena blinked wildly in surprise as two ram-like horns appeared on Kakane’s head, slowly becoming visible as if an invisible curtain had been sheared off. They curled inwards with a thin streak of gold adorning them in a spiral pattern following the contours. There were also several reptilian scales running along his neck, cheeks, and parts of his collarbone, all colored red, black, or gold. Kakane’s crimson eyes had gone wide with panic and he hastily ripped a portion of his cloak to cover his head. But everyone, including the soldiers from Doryoku, had already seen him.
The merchants paid him no mind, but the armored man with the soldiers dismounted his grey horse, eyeing Serena and Kakane with a surly eye. He began to stroke his short beard, which was dark grey from age. Deep wrinkles spread across his face and the scars across his cheeks told of many battles and hard-earned wins. This man was a veteran fighter and a thorough-bred knight. Something about him frightened Serena, and she moved closer to Kakane.
“So, one lives,” he rumbled in a deep voice.
Kakane recognized that voice. He hadn’t paid much attention before, but he definitely knew this man. If only he wasn’t so busy staring at the Doryokan flag! He could have seen this man and booked it as soon as he recognized him. This man was one who haunted Kakane in his nightmares, taunting him with his laughter. His roars and scowls in his dreams shook the scarred boy to his core and made him tremble in fear.
“You’re… Christophe Sakamoto, the Thunder Lion!” Kakane croaked, terror completely overtaking him. The armored old man laughed.
“I suppose your kind would recognize me. And those scales… You’re a royal, aren’t you, boy?” Kakane swallowed hard. He placed a few fingers on his scar before answering.
“What’s it to you, you murderer?” he hissed viciously.
“Nothing. I have my orders. If one of you still lives, then I will be forced to hunt you down. So, prince boy, will you come with me willingly, or must I be coerced into giving chase?”
“I will never fall to the likes of you!” Kakane howled. He grabbed Serena’s hand and ran into the grasses, heading east.
“After him, boys! He cannot be allowed to live.”
“Kakane, what did you do!?” Serena demanded. “Why is he after you?”
“No time to explain; just run!”
The soldiers had given chase; Serena and Kakane barely had a head start. Around them, the grasses gradually grew taller and taller. This made Serena realize that their only hope was to get to an area where the grass covered their heads and made them all but invisible. They ran, hand in hand, for gods know how long, never stopping. Serena could sense Kakane’s unease and absolute terror beside her. He might have been squeezing her hand so tight it was blocking circulation, but that wasn’t the only source. Serena had never seen Kakane like this. He was always so prideful and full of bravado; him being this scared was odd and it made Serena uneasy. She was beginning to get frightened as well.
They ran and ran until they could run no more, and yet they still carried on.
Serena had no idea how long they had been sprinting for, but her legs ached and her mouth was completely devoid of all moisture. Even her lungs burned as if they had been set on fire amidst a horrible drought. When she looked over at Kakane, he, too, was panting heavily, but the fervent look of fear in his eyes had yet to dissipate.
Serena opened a canteen of water, offering it to Kakane, who took a huge drink. After he was done, he began to survey the area, cautiously hopping onto a rock for a better look. Serena followed him, looking around while taking sips of water. If the soldiers were near, they would be forced to go on the move again. If they let down their guard for even a moment, there was a high chance that they would actually be caught. They were out of stamina and low on energy. There was no way they could outrun fully trained soldiers.
“I think we’ve lost them, for now.” Kakane exhaled, releasing a breath he didn’t know he’d been keeping in. Grimacing, he placed a finger on his scar, which seemed to relax him. “But we can’t stop here. Dammit, let’s keep moving.”
“I see smoke,” Serena said nervously, pointing in the distance. Kakane whirled around and squinted at the sky.
“They couldn’t have gotten that far. It’s still pretty close to us, but there’s no way. But if they did, then it’s probably a trap.”
“Should we check it out?” Serena asked. Kakane glanced nervously behind them, then back at the smoke.
“Might as well. Where else is there to go? If we’re lucky, it might be a village we can afford to rest in, if only for a little while.” Kakane leaped down from the boulder.
Serena took a pocket knife out and cut around her long dress, disposing of the fabric until her garment reached just above her knees. She then looped the cloth around Kakane’s head, adjusting the material and his hair until his horns and scales were hidden from view. He scowled at the pink color but did not object to Serena’s fussing.
“There. Can’t go walking around like that, can you? Those horns were what got us in all this trouble in the first place.” Serena laughed dryly. “Don’t worry, the length of this stupid dress was making it hard to run, anyway.”
“Thank you,” Kakane muttered.
Parting long strands of grass, Serena and Kakane slowly made their way to their salvation, or perhaps their doom.