An irritatingly high-pitched ring pierced Ian’s eardrums, waking him from a peaceful dream. Mind still enfolded in a haze of tiredness, he questioned his sanity for choosing such a terrible alarm. He groaned and rolled over to grab the phone from the charging station on his nightstand. After what seemed like seven thousand attempts at hitting the snooze button, he finally succeeded and the room fell silent.
I need to get up… but it’s so~ warm… Ian thought as the warm quilt wrapped around his body did its best to seduce him into falling back asleep. Unfortunately, he had been late for work the last time he gave in to temptation. Therefore, he decided to deny the irresistibility of the quilt’s embrace and to force himself out of bed… after five more minutes of rest.
Half an hour later, his bloodshot eyes opened wide in panic. Not fully aware of himself, he looked around in a daze until he realized where he was.
Ugh… what time is it? He thought while grabbing his phone. When he saw the time, he bounded from his bed and sprinted to the bathroom across the hall.
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After brushing his teeth and using the toilet at the same time, he darted back to his bedroom and haphazardly threw on his security uniform. Obviously, there was no need to take any clothes off since he had not been wearing any in the first place. Who sleeps with clothes on, anyway?
While pulling his pants up, he grabbed his phone, keys, and wallet. He slipped all three into different pockets with one hand while tightening his belt with the other. Although his preparations were hardly satisfactory, he sprinted to the front door of his apartment and hastily threw on his steel-toe boots.
“Ah, forgot my ID badge,” Ian muttered. Cursing himself for nearly forgetting the most important item, he removed his boots again and ran back to his bedroom. When he stepped through the door, he turned toward a table below the window. On top of the wooden surface lay his badge.
How did I forget to grab it when it was right next to my wallet and keys? He asked himself while trotting toward the table.
Right when he reached out to grab the badge, everything turned dark. The table no longer stood in front of him. The carpet no longer tickled his feet. The drop ceiling no longer hung overhead. Everything disappeared.
“What in the world?”
Ian looked around, but saw nothing. He lifted his hand in front of his face, but could barely even see the outline of it. The air felt stuffy, stale, and cold enough to chill him to the bone. Baffled by the unforeseen situation, he stood completely still.
While trying to make sense of the situation, he heard a drop of water splash into a puddle. Multiple echoes reverberated around him, making the sound seem louder than it truly was.
“Ah, my phone.” He reminded himself. Upon realizing he had a source of light, he pulled his smartphone out of his pocket. “It might be old, but it works.”
When he unlocked the screen with his fingerprint, the sudden brightness emanating from the screen caused him to squint. As usual, he closed the alarm clock app but then pulled up the flashlight button. Immediately, a light on the back of the phone illuminated his surroundings.
“My God…” Ian muttered. “This is totally a cave.” The fact was solidified in his mind by the slight echo of his voice.
Out of curiosity, he slowly moved the light from left to right, taking in the entire scene before him. From what he could tell, he stood in a cavernous chamber of sorts. The chamber looked fairly open, save for the stalagmites and stalactites sprouting from the ground and ceiling. At the other end of the chamber, he noticed a crawlspace. Perhaps it led to another part of the cave.
All of the stone around him was reddish brown and reminded him of the rocky surfaces of the Grand Canyon. Wondering what it felt like, he knelt and rubbed his fingers against the stone floor. It felt smooth yet wavy.
Another water droplet fell nearby, plunking into a small puddle. Ian looked at it, mesmerized by the ripples.
Did I get teleported or something? He asked himself, not that he knew the answer.
Then, an idea suddenly popped into his head. He spun around and shone his phone’s light in the direction he had come from only to find himself face to face with a stone wall.
Is it… rippling?
Furrowing his brow, he closely examined the wall. To his surprise, a large, oval-shaped portion of it looked like fog swaying in the breeze or perhaps like a miniature ocean with gentle waves.
“This is the place I just came from, right? Hmm… I wonder if I can go back through.”
With that thought in mind, he reached out with his right hand. Just before touching the surface, he hesitated. If he stuck his hand through, then the possibility of a dangerous outcome existed. He retracted his dominant right hand and instead reached out with his left.
Better safe than sorry, he thought.
When his middle finger touched the wavy haze, the tip of it vanished before his eyes. Startled by the sudden change, he winced but felt no pain. For a moment, he stood still, unsure if he wanted to pull out or push through. However, he decided there was no point hesitating and moved his arm forward until his entire hand disappeared. Then, he pulled it back out, half-expecting it to be missing. But, it was still attached. Full of mixed emotions, he opened and closed his fingers.
“If that’s how it is…” he muttered. Lifting his gaze, he stared at the haze. “Is it a portal or something?”
With a shrug, he suppressed his fears and jumped through, only to find himself back in his living room. Looking backward, he saw a similar oval-shaped haze in front of his wooden table. It floated in the air like steam above a hot spring.
“Hah… Hahaha… HAHAHA! AWESOME! A portal. I have a portal in my room. Oh my God… there’s a portal. In. My. Room.” Ian could have sworn he was losing his mind. He shook his head in disbelief, not knowing what to make of the situation. However, he did know one thing. “Looks like I have the flu. Yeah. Better call in sick.” Not even considering any of the ramifications, he called the security company that employed him to call off work.
Without further ado, he retrieved an old backpack from his closet. Since it sat unused for a few years, a few cobwebs coated the surface. After brushing them off half-heartedly, he tossed the pack onto his bed and proceeded to rummage through his closet for supplies. Finally, he had found an opportunity to use some of the survival gear he had obtained from his park ranger training. Of course, he quit that particular job after a harsh pay cut two weeks in, but now he felt thankful for the tools that came along with it. A pocketknife, a lighter, matches, an LED flashlight, an emergency tent, an emergency blanket, non-perishable food, portable cooking utensils; anything useful got stuffed into the pockets.
Once he felt satisfied with the items in his pack, he quickly changed into khaki-colored cargo pants and a gray t-shirt. Of course, he packed two extra sets of the same outfit just in case. He then sauntered to the front door and threw on his steel-toe boots. Putting the boot on his right foot made his knee feel uncomfortable as usual.
Then, he grabbed three water thermoses from the kitchen and filled them with ice water. Using carabiners, he hooked them onto one of the straps on the pack. Wondering whether or not there were any other items he could bring, he scratched his head while staring absentmindedly at the bulging travel pack.
“Oh, right. The bowie knife,” Ian said, clapping his fist into the palm of his other hand. Cursing himself for almost forgetting about it, he reached toward the top shelf in the closet and grabbed the knife. Although he had purchased the knife on a whim at a flea market, he never found an actual use for it until now. With a silly grin on his face, he strapped the sheath to his belt at his left hip, making him feel even more adventurous.
Now he felt ready to explore beyond the strange portal. Filled with eager expectation, he threw the now fifteen-kilogram pack over his shoulders and practically skipped through the portal. Without a second thought, he left behind the dreary and lonely bedroom to be greeted by the dark, stuffy cavern.
Before going anywhere, he turned on the LED flashlight, illuminating the cavern. Compared to the phone, which only lit a limited area, the flashlight allowed him to see the entirety of the chamber.
Watching his step on the uneven ground, he sauntered toward the crawlspace at the opposite end of the chamber, crouched, and shone the light into it. It certainly looked safe enough. Shrugging, he held the flashlight between his teeth and began crawling through. Even though his adventure was just kicking off, a childish excitement bubbled within him. How long had it been since he felt such a thing? Looking back, it must have been at least eight years, considering he could not recall embarking on an exciting adventure since high school.
The floor felt rough and damp. A few water droplets dampened his hair and back. Sometimes the tunnel widened enough to give him room to stretch. Sometimes it closed in until he had barely enough room to squeeze through. Along the way, he wondered if he should turn on some music to stave off the unnerving quietness. Then again, it could also be a bad idea.
Several minutes later, he thought, Oh, is that the end of the tunnel?
Curious about what lay before him, he crawled onward, the tunnel widening as he went, until he reached an edge overlooking a larger cave that led both right and left. Since the drop looked no more than a meter, he hopped down. As soon as his feet touched the floor, he stood straight and stretched his arms into the air, brushing his fingers against the stone ceiling in the process. An involuntary groan of pleasure slipped through his lips. Nothing beat a good stretch, except things that beat a good stretch, of course.
After stretching out, he shone his flashlight in both directions in an attempt to investigate the two paths he could take. One snaked downward in a serpentine fashion until it curved off to the right several meters ahead. The opposite direction curved off to the left with a gradual incline. After some careful consideration, he decided to shut off his flashlight. Slowly, his eyes adjusted to the darkness. Lo and behold, he began to make out the shape of the rocks, which meant a source of light existed nearby. Although he could by no means consider himself a professional spelunker, he decided the uphill path led toward the light source. Even if his conclusion turned out to be wrong, he could always turn around.
Once more, he turned the flashlight on and headed off. Along the way, he saw water dribbling down the walls in places as well as a white material that looked like salt, not that he felt like taste-testing it or anything.
While meandering through the cave passage, he noticed that the surrounding air began to feel heavy and thick, as though pressing against him. Sure, it felt odd, but it caused him no pain. That being said, he ignored it for the time being. Instead, he focused on the fact that he could see a lot better now. He was definitely approaching the light source. In fact, he could probably turn off his flashlight without worries, which he did in order to save battery.
After rounding a few more bends in the passage, the ground gradually turned to clay, then dirt, and finally grass. Although he felt slightly disappointed at the ease of navigating the simple cave, he stood triumphantly in the exit. However, the sight before his eyes blew him away. Speechless, he gaped at the scenery.
He stood on a mountainside overlooking a grand forest. Trees jutted out in groves anywhere the ground was flat enough to support their growth. Miles of bountiful forest spread outward as far as the eye could see, bathed in morning light. Pines, birches, maples, and many other trees he did not recognize littered the woods. Further in the distance, he could see a clearing containing a walled city.
Taking a deep breath, he smelled seawater. Perhaps an ocean could be found on the other side of the mountain. Out of curiosity, he looked upward, only to be amazed by the height of the mountain. Just based on his own experience, it would be hard to judge the height, but he guessed that the peak probably reached at least two thousand meters above sea level.
For a while, he remained silent, taking in the sights. Eventually, though, he said to himself, “Yeah, this has to be a different world. There aren’t places like this on Earth anymore.”
A cheesy grin spread across his lips. An entire land to explore. The world at his fingertips. How could he not be excited?
However, his high spirits did not last long, for the surrounding air pressed even harder against his skin at a disturbing pace. Within seconds, he fell to his knees, vision swimming violently as a sharp pain pierced into his brain. Little by little, the pain seared through his entire body, forcing him to the ground. Grunts of agony escaped his lips. It felt like getting run over by a truck.
Something in the air was trying to invade every pore of his body. He curled into a fetal position. He clutched his head. Eyes shut tight, he gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. His body’s natural reaction to reject the invasive influence created a whirlwind of confusion within his body and mind.
What felt like hours passed while he struggled to breathe or even stay conscious. Bright white light prevented him from even opening his eyes.
Am I going to die?!
The sudden thought frightened him to his very core. Sure, his life hadn’t been a bed of roses, but he definitely did not want to throw it away, especially after finding a door to a new path in life.
Then, amidst the constant stream of blinding whiteness, a barely noticeable black speck flashed into existence but just as quickly flickered out. Due to the searing pain, Ian thought he was losing his mind as several more black specks flickered in and out of existence, darting around with random trajectories. Before long, a blizzard of dark particles clouded his vision even though his eyes remained shut. As more and more particles appeared, the pain throughout his body began to die down.
Strangely enough, the dark particles gave off the feeling of a child desiring to play freely on an open playground. Upon thinking such a thing, a pleasant sensation coursed through him, and the dark particles raced toward him in tandem. Although he had no idea what was happening, something about the flashing particles simply felt right, as though they had always belonged with him. At the same time, the white light backed off, almost like it willingly made way for the little black particles.
A moment later, Ian’s eyelids shot open. Carefully, he pushed himself into a cross-legged sitting position. Something felt unquestionably… different. Looking at his sweaty palms, he could tell something about his body had changed. No, something now existed within him that he could move around at will. Immediately, he tried moving it, but a vision-splitting headache surged into his brain.
“Haaaaaah… better leave it alone for now. Definitely going to have to figure it out later, though. But, man, this really weird,” Ian said, shaking his head once the pain dissipated. “Guess I should head for that city first.”
Sighing, he stood and looked toward the city.
“A new path in life, was it?” Ian muttered, recalling the heavy thought from the absurd experience just now. He lowered his gaze and looked at the trees swaying gently in the breeze. If he could find something to help him find some fulfillment in life to leave behind his measly history, what might it be? Perhaps some sort of adventure or mercenary guild existed, but the thought of joining one did not really appeal to him. Either way, he would need to travel to that city to figure out his options.
With his destination settled, Ian set his sights on the walled city in the distance. It was time to start moving forward.
“Ah! I forgot to pay rent yesterday!”