A vast ocean of darkness spread out as far as the eye could see. Absurd levels of pressure condensed against his skin. Wading through proved incredibly difficult. One step here, one step there, yet not getting anywhere.
Where was this place?
Surely, he would find no living thing in this place. Simply existing there filled him with dread. In spite of it, he waded on.
Onward he trudged through the ocean of darkness. Onward, onward, always onward.
In the distance, he noticed two olive-shaped mounds even darker than darkness itself.
Stop, he did. Stare, he did.
The two objects simply floated, unmoving, like stones in the sea.
Curiosity led him closer. He needed to know what existed in this ocean of darkness.
Stare, he did. Wonder, he did…
Only to regret he ever traversed this plane.
Slits cracked across the two objects, splitting them across the middle. They slowly pulled back to reveal eyes, irises red like hellflame rounding harsh, reptilian pupils. The eyes gazed hungrily upon him.
Regret, he did. Fear, he did.
A dark miasma closed in like a fog, increasing the surrounding pressure tenfold. His heart raced as it sank into a pool of dread.
Ian jolted from his slumber with a start, brushing his head against the tent roof in the process. Beads of sweat trickled down his face with reckless abandon. Worry seeped into his heart. Dizziness swarmed his vision. Groaning, he wiped his face using his shirt, only to realize it was already drenched with sweat. On top of all that, his throat was parched.
“What… a nightmare…” he grumbled, panting unsteadily between words. The image of two fiery eyes was burned into his memory. “It… was just… a dream… haaah…”
Sighing, he crawled outside in order to refill his water bottles at the pond. The sun barely peeked over the city wall in the distance, casting shadows across most of the campsite. Birds chirped in the branches overhead.
Seems peaceful… he thought while hoping to forget last night’s nightmare.
At the waterside, he knelt. The dewy grass dampened his knees. He scooped the cold water with cupped hands and splashed it on his face. Afterward, he stared at his reflection which bobbed and waved on the surface. It felt as though he was looking at his inner self that wavered with the flow around it even when he put on a confident front to make others think nothing bothered him.
Clicking his tongue, he lamented the fact that a werewolf or nightmare so easily threw his heart into disarray. Once more he splashed water over his face. Living in this place provided an opportunity to overcome negative emotions pumped into him over the years by others and himself.
“Didn’ sleep well, lad?” Rogar asked from behind.
Startled, Ian looked over his shoulder and replied, “Man, don’t sneak up on people like that.”
Rogar shrugged and chuckled. “Ye look like ye’ve seen a ghost.”
Ian stiffened. The statement hit close to home due to the nightmare.
“Had a bad dream, did ya?” Rogar asked.
“Something like that,” Ian answered while filling his water bottles.
Rogar plopped down on the grass beside Ian and said, “Some people would probably tell ya it’s a bad omen.”
“But not you?”
“Aye. Not me. No such thing as omens. Jus’ a world filled wit’ people suffering from consequences of choices, whether it be theirs’ or another’s.”
“Interesting take on life,” Ian muttered. To be honest, he could not help but agree to an extent.
“I s’pose. So, where’d ye get those containers?” Rogar asked, changing the subject.
“My hometown,” Ian swiftly replied.
“Nice craftsmanship. Ne’er seen such a material. How’s it made?”
“Dunno. All I did was buy it,” Ian answered.
“Shame. Woulda’ been nice if I could get me hands on some. They’d probably sell quite well.”
“Maybe I’ll be able to get you some next time, then,” Ian replied.
“Oh? If ye can, I’d appreciate it. Could strike a deal with ya then. If yer hometown has anything else like that, I bet you an’ I could make a fancy fortune. Anyway, we’re gon’ be leavin’ right quick. Thought I’d also remind ya to buy from me when I come back during the harvest season.”
“Heh. Sure, as long as I’ve got money,” Ian replied, grinning at the cheeky old dwarf.
Rogar stood and leaned back into a stretch. Then, he said, “Was nice to meet a friendly lad right ‘fore leavin’ the Human Capital. Try not to turn into a beast’s dinner before the next time I see ya, Ian.”
“I’ll certainly try. See you later, Rogar.”
While sauntering toward his wagon, Rogar muttered, “All we can ever do, I s’pose. Tryin’ to live.”
Once the merry party of dwarves left, including an incredibly hungover Darrak, Ian returned to his tent. Talking to Rogar helped calm his nerves somewhat. Smiling, he stretched and yawned before hastily packing his tent away. For some reason, it did not fit as well as before, but he forced it into the pack anyway. Next stop: finding a place to take him as an apprentice.
* * * * *
About an hour later, Ian stood in front of the first of the two main smithies Aria had circled on the map. Standing at least five stories tall, its size dwarfed the surrounding buildings, most of which stood only one or two stories tall. Smoke wafted from metal smokestacks on the roof. Busy-looking people flurried in and out of the large double doorway. The doors themselves were propped open with stone doorstops. Most of the buildings were made of stone but enormous logs braced the corners and individual floors in a perpendicular fashion. Only the top and ground floors had windows, including a display window to the right of the door. All in all, the place exuded an air of manliness.
Taking a deep breath, Ian prepared himself to enter. He took a step toward the building… and bumped into a man passing by.
“Ah, sorry,” Ian apologized, only to realize the man kept walking without really noticing him. Ian sighed. Navigating through a crowd was certainly not his strong point, considering most people back home used airborne transportation like hover cars and public transportation like suspended magnetrains for commuting, whereas he walked everywhere.
He took another step… and bumped into another person. Bumping into others every few seconds certainly felt jarring. On the other hand, everyone around him seemed to be accustomed to it. However, he eventually stumbled through the front door to the smithy, all the while mentally thanking Aria for the map. Without it, finding his way through the crowded streets would have been a nightmare.
Inside, more than a hundred people lined up for multiple venues, perhaps for differing products. Voices could be heard throughout the building saying things like:
“I need a new sword! The last one I bought shattered in my last battle!”
Or, “My friend told me I could get quality armor here. Do you do fittings?”
Or even, “Could you make me a silver necklace with a diamond-shaped pendant, please?”
Based on the snippets of conversation Ian heard while meandering around the shop, this particular smithy seemed to have a mixed but mostly positive reputation. Such a thing was probably given considering the size of the establishment.
Unfortunately, he had no idea where to go. If possible, he needed to find a free attendant, apprentice, or someone similar in order to ask about a possible apprenticeship.
After wandering around aimlessly for a few minutes, a middle-aged woman walked up to him. Although she looked rather plain, her apron indicated her position as an attendant of sorts.
“Hello, sir. Do you need help finding anything?” she asked courteously. An air of professionalism surrounded her demeanor. It felt rather scripted. Perhaps Aria’s spontaneity could be considered unusual. As annoying as Ian thought it was at the time, he preferred it to the almost robotic attitude of the woman currently speaking to him.
“No, thank you,” Ian answered, “but I was hoping to find out if I would be able to become an apprentice here.”
The woman’s face softened as she replied, “I see. I will take you to see Master Smithson then.”
Even before she finished speaking, she gestured for Ian to follow and proceeded to lead him through a door behind the venues. Although they garnered a few glances, it seemed that bringing someone to the back happened often based on the lack of reaction.
As soon as the woman opened the door, a blast of hot air rushed past. To Ian’s surprise, the door led directly to the smithing area. The breathing of bellows and clanging of hammers resounded throughout the massive space. Countless forges lined the wall. The heat they generated almost felt palpable. Numerous vents built into the walls allowed some of it to escape but the room still crackled from the sweltering heat.
Not giving him any time to adjust to the sudden rise in temperature, the attendant led Ian all the way to the rear end of the room. Without even needing to be told, he immediately figured out who this “Smithson” person was.
Standing over an anvil and swinging a hammer with nigh inhuman precision, a ridiculously muscular man that would make professional basketball players look like twigs worked away. His short, messy blond hair and tanned skin glistened in the light of the flames due to an abundance of perspiration. His blue eyes, brimming with vitality, focused on the metal like a starving man to food. A large pointed nose noticeably poked out of his face, making one wonder if he would be able to see anything if he crossed his eyes.
With each swing of the hammer, the man’s sweat-soaked cloth shirt wrinkled and stuck to his skin. Some of the leather straps that took the place of buttons had been undone, exposing a forest of dark blonde chest hair. The man also wore brown pants that fit tightly around his thighs, only giving breathing room to his calves. His leather boots looked enormous, at least US size 15, possibly bigger. Ian nodded to himself and decided the man was basically a blond version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The attendant woman held a hand in front of Ian, indicating for him to stop. Several minutes passed while they waited for the man to finish his task. Eventually, he inspected his handwork and set it on a nearby table. Then, he hung up his tools on hooks while approaching his visitors.
“So, what might we have here, Linda? Someone get bad equipment?” The burly guy asked loudly in order to be heard over the din of hammering, sizzling, and other sounds. His deep voice resonated with Ian, though, oddly enough, his speech contained a hint of a Russian accent. Perhaps it was an accent unique to this world that only sounded similar to Russian.
Linda, the attendant, answered, “This young man wishes to become an apprentice.”
“Oh, I see! Good, good. It is always good to have more people interested in our craft!” the big guy exclaimed with a wide smile. Then, he abruptly stuck his hand out toward Ian and said, “My name’s Allon Smithson. Nice to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise. I’m Ian Hayes,” Ian replied while grabbing Allon’s beefy hand. It felt like his own would be completely engulfed, not to mention Allon began squeezing harder than normal for a greeting. In response, Ian put more strength into his handshake. After all, what kind of man would he be if he got overwhelmed in a handshake?
“HAHAHAHAHA! Good man!” Allon enthusiastically exclaimed while releasing his grip. “Alright. I’m willing to take you in. The initial training fee is thirty silver. Initial commision is thirty percent, though it will increase as your skill increases.”
Ian’s heart practically smashed through the floor. Within his mind, he screamed, NOOOOOO!!! Why the moneyyy?! Aren’t apprenticeships supposed to be free?! Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner, Aria?!
Apparently, his feelings appeared in his expression, since Allon said, “Seems like you don’t have enough, eh? I can’t really make exceptions to the rule even though I want more apprentices here. Try doing some work somewhere for a bit and come back. I’ll be glad to have you when you do.”
It seemed Allon Smithson had already decided that Ian would join. Too bad he did not know Ian could be more stingy than a squirrel with his acorns.
“Thank you for the consideration,” Ian replied solemnly, “I will do my best to earn enough, then.” Even while speaking, his mind cried out in frustration.
“Linda, can you show him out? I need to finish this sword for Captain Ferys.”
As the woman led Ian out, Allon called out, “Don’t be a stranger, Ian my boy!”
In response, Ian gave the man a wave of farewell. Perhaps they would meet again, but first, he would attempt to try out some other smithies. Without a second glance, he exited the establishment.
“Good riddance…” Ian muttered, “Why is it necessary to pay for this? I hope it’s not like this everywhere. If it is… haaah…” His neck literally began to hurt due to the stress.
Over the next few hours, Ian experienced even worse encounters at the other smithies. The replies he got mostly consisted of…
“Well, we have no fee, but you will need some backing for us to take you in.”
“The fee is fifty silver per month.”
Or, best yet,
“No. You don’t look like Blacksmith material.”
Some of the owners did not even take a second glance at him before shooing him away like a stray dog. Perhaps some sort of god of play like Loki existed and was messing with him?
“Nah, it’s basically what Rogar said,” Ian sulked while traversing the market street. “I’ve been at the mercy of these peoples’ choices all day…”
All options exhausted, he headed back toward the Visitor Center with a sore expression. According to the map, the Visitor Center was just north of the Southern Gate. Considering the excessive height of the towering walls, finding the place would be rather simple. Along the way, he made sure to kick every pebble in his path. At least the afternoon sunlight felt pleasant. That was a plus.
Once again, he found himself in front of the blasted wooden door. This wasn’t going to be a regular thing, was it?
He sighed as he pushed open the heavy door. Lo and behold, there Aria sat behind the counter, setting down a book with one hand while brushing her bangs away from her eyes with the other. When she saw Ian, she smiled and waved.
“Welcome back,” She greeted. Honestly, Ian had no idea whether or not she was attempting to be humorous. Either way, her friendly yet cheeky smile lessened his anxiety by a small margin.
“Yeah, I’m back again,” Ian grimly replied.
Aria tilted her head and asked, “Did it not go well?”
In answer, Ian shook his head. He followed up by crossing his arms on the counter and slamming his head onto them. “You didn’t say it would cost money to get an apprenticeship.”
“You didn’t ask, not that I even knew much about blacksmith apprenticeships in the first place,” she calmly retorted.
“Haaaah… Are those all the smithies in town? I really don’t think anything else you mentioned last night would suit me.”
“Not even the brothels?”
Ian grinned slightly, though he kept his face firmly planted on his forearms. “No, not even the brothels.”
For a moment, Aria ‘hmm’d and rested her chin in her palm. After a few moments of thought, she said, “There is one more smithy run by my friend’s dad, but he never took in apprentices.”
“It’s worth a shot,” Ian replied. After all, he had nothing to lose at this point.
With her chin still resting in her right hand, she held out her left and said, “Map.”
Lifting his head from the counter, he retrieved the wrinkled, sweat-stained map from his pocket. When he handed it over, Aria held it up by the corner between her forefinger and thumb, only to raise an eyebrow at its soiled condition.
“You must have been running everywhere for it to end up like this…” Aria said.
“Pretty much,” Ian replied. He regretted the fact that no sarcastic remarks popped into his head.
“I’ll just give you a new one since the ink might smear on the old one,” Aria said.
“Not if I have to pay three shillings.”
The statement made Aria giggle for a moment until she regained her remaining professionalism, which was not actually all that much compared to most of the geezers he met earlier.
“Don’t worry,” Aria replied, smiling at the sweaty young man on the other side of the counter, “think of it as a reward for working hard or something.”
Now, it was Ian’s turn to raise a brow. This woman certainly did not seem like the type of person to give stuff away for no reason. As such, he asked, “You just don’t want to touch it, right?”
In response, Aria simply shrugged while tossing the soiled map into a trash bin. Then, she pulled out a new map of the Southern District without markings. From what he understood from his interactions over the past two days, there were two main districts, North and South. Supposedly, most of the Northern District was owned by nobles and was even home to the royal palace, the Ursa Keep. It was large enough that he could see it from almost anywhere. Overall, the city had a rather simple setup.
As soon as Aria marked the location of the smithy on the map, Ian thanked her and hurried off to give the apprenticeship thing one last shot. Perhaps he would finally spin sevens. Or it could end with him on the streets…