Har'eln had been trained to be calm under all circumstances. Like his comrades-in-arms, he was a born fighter. In fact, he was considered one of the best, if his status as one of the Bloodhounds was any indication. He, and the four other brothers that made up this elite group of hunters, had been searching for their quarry for two years without success. Their prey was very resourceful indeed, having lost the hunters early in the chase. However, to return without their prey would mean the loss of their status and possibly their exile from the province of Alkonia.
Despite the possible consequences, Har'eln would much rather return now empty-handed and face the consequences. He had a feeling of unease that could not quite be explained. However, to mention it to his half-brother Ku'rint, the one who was truly in charge, would be embarrassing at least. 'Feelings,' were not encouraged amongst the ranks of the Alkonia elite soldiers.
"Hail, stranger," a voice called from behind him. Har'eln gave a start and reached for his sword. He whirled around to find no one. The dark, mysterious forest remained ominously silent, refusing to reveal its secrets to the Bloodhound. His breath echoed loudly in his ears, accompanied by the frenzied beat of his heart. He drew his sword, if only to hear the familiar ring above the sounds of his fear. The shrill noise cut through the silence of the forest, but when the echoes faded away, silence reigned once more.
"Well..." the voice began again from another direction; he spun againonly to find darkness. Now the voice seemed to emanate from all around him. "I suppose we really aren't strangers. You know, I am impressed with your performance. You alone managed to notice my presence. It is almost a pity you must die. Your brothers will join you soon; do not worry."
He trembled with fear; such was the influence this mysterious voice had over him. He kept on spinning, trying to catch an impossible glimpse of the owner of the voice. Had it not been the deepest hour of night, he might have stood a chance at this nearly impossible task.
The voice chuckled. "Do not seek to find me. I have become shadow itself. Your hunt has pushed its prey to turn to the only ones ever to best your kind. And now... the prey becomes the hunter; the hunter becomes the hunted."
There was an artificial breeze and a soft rustling, barely audible above his frightened breathing. He could feel the tip of the predator's sword against the back of his neck. He felt sudden anger flare up within himself. He could not lose! He was a Bloodhound! He had the chance to best his brothers and be named their father's heir! He could not die now!
With a roar, he brought his blade to bear on his invisible foe, spinning around with adrenaline-boosted speed. There was no one there.
"Stop running and face me!" he shouted bravely.
"As you wish," the voice replied from straight in front of him.
He brought his blade up to defend himself, but lacking the ability to see his foe, he could do nothing to prevent the blow aimed straight for his heart...
Drey'ana woke with a start her breathing quick and her heart beating frantically, just like Har'eln's had been. She gulped in the dusty air of the caverns gratefully, glad that she was still able to breathe at all... unlike Har'eln. She opened her eyes, to find herself staring into a face nearly identical to hers.
"That was a bad one, Drey," was all Ke'lal said, her face reflecting concern in the light of the small fire granted them for warmth and light.
"Har'eln of Alkonia. Dead."
"Alkonia?!" Ke'lal exclaimed in a harsh whisper. "Who would dare?"
"I... I don't know." Drey'ana levered herself up into a sitting position and put her head in her hands. "Someone... someone they were hunting."
"They were offered the highest positions in Alkonia to kill this person."
Ke'lal gave herself a moment to digest the information. She glanced around the crowded sleeping space to make sure that everyone else was still asleep. She was not disappointed. Content that their conversation was still private, she proceeded with another question. "There was more than one?"
"Yes, the Bloodhounds. Now, it's likely they're all dead."
"I can't imagine anyone being that good."
"It... it was frightening... I didn't stand a chance..."
"Drey'ana! That wasn't you! You're still here. You're my sister, not some dead Alkonian!"
"Thanks, Ke'lal..." Drey'ana looked around at the slumbering forms of the other slaves. "We should get to sleep. Don't want to be useless tomorrow."
"Right," Ke'lal replied, lying down on the cold stone beside her twin. She emptied her mind as had become her tradition and promptly fell asleep.
Chink. Chink. It was the sound that Ke'lal had become used to over the years she had worked in the mine. As she wrenched her pickaxe free of the rock face, she heard her sister hiss, "Watch it!" Looking over, she saw that a shard of rock had grazed her arm, leaving a red gash. Ke'lal shrugged and went back to the task at hand. After a minute or so, Ke'lal felt something graze her own arm. "Watch it yourself!" she retorted angrily. They glared at each other for a moment before returning to their labour with anger-inspired vigor.
Something out of the corner of her eye caught Ke'lal's attention. She turned to see Drey'ana staring open-mouthed at a scene unfolding at the entrance to their tunnel. Three slave masters were escorting a new slave. Three, when one should have been enough. The slave was a woman who was probably a few years older than them and with a complexion of the Southlands of Ulekah. However, she was much too tall. Never before had Ke'lal felt short. The girl had long, black, plaited hair; the true mark of a seasoned slave.
Then there were her eyes. They were a shade of blue so light they might have been comparable to deep ice. They swept the room, taking in anything and everything. No one was left unmeasured. The face that those cold eyes were set in was a proud one. High cheekbones and a prominent nose played key roles in giving her a strange, out of place look of nobility.
Without warning, one of the slavers brought down his metal rod on her back. She stumbled a step from the force, but was not bowed by the blow. Drey'ana's nails bit into her sister's arm as the rod was raised again. It smashed against the side of the girl's head with a resounding THUD.
The force of the blow knocked the woman unconscious and sent her limp form flying. She hit the wall and crumpled bonelessly to the ground. With a sneer, one of the slaver masters grabbed her by her perfect plait and hauled her over to their chain. The unconscious woman was then locked into the iron cuffs that had belonged to many slaves before her.
Ke'lal didn't see the slavers leave, instead remembering the one who had occupied that spot most recently. He had only died a few shifts before, having lasted not very long at all. It was strange, though, that this odd woman had ended up with them. It felt almost as if destiny had intervened to bring them together, even though there was no reason to think so. Still, Ke'lal felt a strange kinship with this woman she had never even met.
Drey'ana's presence at her shoulder pulled the green eyed twin's attention away from the girl. "Ke'lal... she looks like a Southerner... but not quite. I've never seen eyes that colour before."
"Or anyone that tall," Ke'lal added quietly. "But we need to get back to work."
The five conscious members on the chain went back to work diligently, only casting the occasional glance at their new companion.
When the end of their shift arrived, the new woman still hadn't woken up. The slave masters began setting about with their vicious iron rods. One approached them as they stood around, contemplating what to do about their unconscious companion. Drey'ana, being the closest, was the first target. Ke'lal was paying attention and had just enough time to shove her sister out of the way, taking the beating herself.
While the twins were preoccupied, Kalen, who was on the other side of the woman, picked her up with only a little difficulty- the few weeks he had been in the mines had helped his physique as it had the others'. The fact that his feet and hers were chained together made things significantly difficult, however, and Jeken ended up lending a hand, as did Ke'lal as soon as the slave master was convinced that they were sufficiently motivated and found a better target for his aggression.
The five of them grouped together to facilitate movement as a whole and, watching their feet to make sure none of them tripped with the weighty restraints binding them together, made their way towards the surface.
They would never make it to the surface this way, but the feeling of going up was always a relief. To some it gave the illusion that if they could go up just a little bit more, they would be outside.
The slope was not easy to navigate with three of them burdened and when Ke'lal tripped, it was only a firm hand on her shoulder from Da'erin that kept her on her feet. She flashed him a grateful smile and they continued up the steep slope.
With no less than two more close calls, both caught by the watchful and unburdened man, they made it to the cavernous sleeping room.
The only nice thing to be said about the room was that it was large and that it always had a large fire in it. It was very strange that they were allowed the fire and the pile of rotted wood to feed it. It provided them with light, which all of them were grateful for, but with dozens of bodies sleeping in that room, it also made it uncomfortably warm most of the time.
Having been one of the slower chains this time, the only spots left for them were by the fire. Even so, they tried to get themselves as far away from it as they could. Though they were slow, they were not the slowest, and there would be at least two chains condemned to sleep closer to the fire.
Space claimed, Kalen and Ke'lal laid out their new companion between them. They always slept in order; they had to. Da'erin, Jeken, Kalen, the new woman, Ke'lal, and then Drey'ana all arranged themselves so they took up as little space as possible. The men went right to sleep and Ke'lal looked to follow suit when Drey'ana stopped her.
"How bad?" she asked softly.
Ke'lal muttered, "I'm fine," but her sister was having none of that. Ke'lal's arm was yanked none-too-lightly towards her sister and she scowled, trying to pull back.
"I'm glad you protected yourself," Drey'ana muttered darkly, noting that red welts had faded to livid bruises on Ke'lal's non-dominant arm.
"I know better than to let them get my head. I'd have been out like her. Then there'd have been two of us to carry."
Drey'ana's gaze strayed towards the new addition. She leaned even closer to her sister, returning the arm she had been appraising. She clearly did not want anyone to hear what she had to say next. "I've seen her before."
Ke'lal bit back a gasp. She, too, cast a glance over at the unconscious woman. Swallowing nervously, she whispered conspiratorially, "You've seen her?"
"I don't know where, but I recognize her. I must have seen her."
Drey'ana rolled her eyes at her sister, not even deigning to respond to the unfinished question. "I'm going to sleep," she murmured and lay back down.
Ke'lal was not done, however. She leaned over the unconscious woman and grabbed the left sleeve of her tattered shirt. With an intake in breath, she pushed it up, revealing a very telling brand.
Excitement shining in her eyes, Ke'lal shook her sister's shoulder until Drey'ana swatted her away. "What?" she snarled.
Ke'lal would not be deterred, however. "Look!" she hissed.
The mark was clear, though stretched, indicating she had lived with it since she was a young child. Crossed swords dipping into a sea of red was Alkonia's symbol.
"Go to sleep, Ke'lal," Drey'ana commanded in a choked voice.
Drey'ana grabbed her sister's shoulders and forced her down roughly. Those around them who were still awake looked up at the sudden sound and muttered disapprovingly. Drey'ana didn't spare them a glance. "Go to sleep. Tomorrow it begins."
Ke'lal's eyes went wide as she stared up at her twin's strangely contorted features. When Drey'ana released her and lay back, Ke'lal released the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. She looked over tentatively, only to find that she was now the only one on the chain still awake.
"Drey?" she probed quietly, just to make sure. The blue-eyed woman didn't stir and Ke'lal sighed. Staring blankly up at the ceiling, she whispered at a barely audible volume, "That was you, wasn't it, Kail? Can't you just tell me what I'm supposed to do?"
When no answer was forthcoming, the green-eyed woman huffed and rolled onto her side, cushioning her temple with her forearm. She attempted to empty her mind, as had become her tradition, but even failing that, she was soon asleep.