*This continues the story of a character in The Secret of the Garden. It is not necessary to read that before this, but it may be helpful in understanding the world/context.*
*For those coming from TSOTG, this chapter is just extra 6 reworked slightly to be the beginning of this story.*
Sophianos knew he didn't have much time left.
He was currently camping out in a dense, humid forest in South Carolina. The tent he’d recently had to buy to replace his last one – ripped to pieces along with all of his clothes save what was already on him – smelled of cheap plastic. But it kept out the rain and most of the bigger bugs, so he was content, if a little cold. He hadn’t had enough money to buy more clothes, or more blankets, so he laid fully clothed, curled up on the tarp bottom of the tent, trying to ignore the lumps under him of tree roots, pinecones, and rocks.
He was as content as he could be knowing that he would only be able to rest for an hour, two at most, before he was found again. And Sophianos would really like to keep this tent intact, so he had to be awake with enough time to put it away before –
A great crash broke the song of crickets and frogs in the night. There was creaking, the sound of splintering wood, and then the impact of something heavy crashing to the forest floor. It was unmistakably the sound of a tree falling.
Anyone else might think someone was out cutting wood, even if it was the middle of the night. Or they might think it had simply rotted through and fallen on its own.
Sophianos knew better. He bolted up and got to work, unzipping the tent and pulling out the pegs at corners with lightning speed.
The sound of another tree falling came again, closer this time.
Fuck. He was pissed.
Not that that was anything knew. That man was always angry. And he never caught Sophianos long enough to vent that anger. But most of the time, he was sneakier. Sophianos usually didn’t get this much warning, which told Sophianos that he better get the hell out of dodge before it was him that was ripped to pieces this time instead of his clothes.
However, thanks to that warning, Sophianos was able to pack up the tent, sling it on his back, and high tail it before two more trees were felled.
Perhaps he would blend into a nearby city for today. It was harder for him to find Sophianos in urban spaces. There were more places to hide, more people to cover him in a crowd. He wouldn’t be able to afford a hotel room, and someone would call the police if he were to set up his tent in public. But it was fine. He could occupy himself with something for a day.
The nearest city wasn’t very large. Half rural, surrounded by fields, but it had an industrial district that brought in a more urban feel, and a larger population. Sophianos walked the streets, sticking to dark corners and alleys, ignoring the strange looks he was getting as morning rolled around. He was used to those looks. He hadn’t shaved in a few days, his last shower was two days ago, his clothes were worn, and he was carrying a tent on his back. He looked homeless, and the longer he went without food and sleep, the more deranged he seemed.
He had long stopped minding the looks. Minding the many discomforts he had to deal with. A long time ago – a very long time ago – life was different. It was comfortable. Luxurious, even. He had once been a scholar. A teacher. Students fought each for the honor of being under his tutelage. Families paid exorbitant prices – bribes – to get a spot, but Sophianos never took money. He chose his students based on aptitude, potential. The regional government paid his wages. He had no need for money.
He was a kind teacher. Generous and magnanimous. He held equal regard for all his students, gave them the instruction they would need to achieve high military or government positions, regardless of their family background.
There was only one student he’d wronged in his entire career. It was a grievous enough betrayal that his student had killed him for it. Hunted him for thousands of years for it.
Sophianos had killed him first, so fair was fair. Except his student ensured he would come back just like he had.
Anyone else seeking revenge would probably torture him until they were satisfied and kill him. Wipe their hands clean of him.
Killing him was revenge. Bringing him back was obsession.
When Sophianos’ reminiscing faded, he found himself standing in front of a bakery, staring blankly at the breads and sweets on display, every mouthful of slightly chilled morning air filled with the fresh scent of dough. Sophianos’ stomach clenched around nothing, but he had enough experience with starvation that it made no noise. He blinked hard and turned reluctantly to go. He had only a few dollars with him. Not enough to buy anything more than a croissant, which would be heaven in the moment, but he would regret wasting his money on it an hour later when his stomach started protesting again.
The door to the bakery opened as he was forcing himself to leave, sending out a fresh wave of tantalizing scents. He swallowed hard but started walking faster. No need to torture himself like this.
However, a voice called out to him before he could go too far. He looked over his shoulder. It was an older woman, perhaps in her early fifties. She was the one who’d come out of the bakery.
“Excuse me, sir!” she called. Sophianos nodded to her. She held out a brown paper bag. “For you.”
Sophianos hurriedly shook his head. “No, I can’t afford – ”
“It’s been paid for, dear. A nice young man inside saw you drooling over the display. Come on, take it.”
Sophianos took the bag, peeking in the shop window again, trying to see who had been so generous, but beyond the display it was too dark to see more than shapes. He thought briefly about going in to thank the kind person, but he backed out in the end, simply nodding at the woman and walking away, hands clenching so tightly around the warm bag that it nearly tore under his fingers.
Once he was a couple blocks away, he found a small park that was still relatively empty. Only a few people walking dogs or jogging populated the clean pathways. He sat on a bench, finally feeling slightly dizzy, and opened the bag to enjoy the pity meal he’d gotten. There were certain benefits to looking so disheveled. He knew that. It wasn’t his first time getting food or money from people. He had even begged before. Perhaps a thousand years ago he would have been embarrassed, even outraged to receive handouts. Now he was just glad to get a meal.
He opened the bag and froze. A minute tremble started in his fingertips.
Perhaps it was a cosmic accident that the nice man who’d taken pity on him somehow picked out all his favorite items. Perhaps Sophianos had been unconsciously eying them in the display and he had picked up on it.
Two croissants. A jelly donut, powdered. A small, soft baguette. He hadn’t had these kinds of foods when he was alive. They hadn’t existed. These were things he’d grown to like over his time running. They were his favorites. There was even a point in his life where he’d managed to take up a part time job in a bakery in France. That was one of the longest times he’d been able to live peacefully without being found.
Sophianos was still staring into the bag, paused in time, knowing he needed to run, too dizzy to get to his feet.
Then Sophianos noticed the hands. Two hands appeared on either side of him, gripping the back of the bench. He could see them out of the corners of his eyes, could feel hot breath on the top of his head. As he watched, those hands clenched down, veins popping up angrily. The bench screamed, metal bending like putty.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to.
Sophianos knew what he wanted.
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