“Haaah… glad that’s done and over with,” Ian muttered while sporting an exasperated expression. That blasted landlord raised the late fee again because of the neighbor who never paid on time. Finishing the process wasted a good hour of adventuring time. Unfortunately, letting go of the apartment could be disastrous since a portal now resided there. No, his portal resided there. Letting others find out about it or use it would irritate him to no end. After all, it would be like sharing a fifty dollar steak with someone. It wasn’t going to happen… probably.
With the annoying chore out of the way, Ian stood on a flat section of the mountainside, scouting for a good route to take down the slope. Heading in the right direction would not pose any problems thanks to his superb sense of direction. Therefore, the only issue would be unforeseen obstacles.
“Well, can’t stand around all day,” he said, taking his first true step of adventure.
At first, he kept to a slow pace in order to admire the scenery and avoid tripping. Falling down a steep slope was, most assuredly, not on his to-do list.
Every once in a while, he used the Bowie knife to carve arrow-shaped markings in the trees. Only a few minutes into his travels and he was already getting use out of the wonderful tool.
Birds chirped overhead. Wind whistled through the branches and leaves. Natural smells of dirt and moss tickled his nose. Yes, this was adventure.
Although I want to take all this in, I might not make it to the city at this rate, Ian thought. As such, he decided to try something he had not done since his senior trip in high school, downhill running. Although not particularly safe, he felt confident he could maintain it for a little while without trouble. With a preposterous grin spread across his lips, he grasped the handles of his backpack and dashed down the slope, flitting between trees and deftly vaulting over a few streams and even a boulder. Of course, such a thing had its dangers, but the rush of adrenaline wiped away any hesitation. After a few years of motionless security work and grueling training needed to keep the job, he had forgotten how much he loved doing crazy stunts like this. Laughter erupted from his belly. How could he have gone so long without this?
Beads of sweat began to trickle from his pores. His breaths became sharp and shallow, burning his lungs. Out of necessity, he gradually came to a stop and rested his hands on his head, breathing heavily. Perhaps he was not as in shape as he thought.
A twig cracked nearby, startling him. Immediately, he spun around. A black bear sniffed the dirt near the area he just ran through. It looked at him. Ian’s mind whirled in a frenzy as he tried to recall what to do in case of a bear encounter.
The bear snorted and wandered off as though Ian did not even register on its radar. A sigh of relief slipped from his lips. For a few moments, he trained his gaze in the direction of the bear. However, it did not seem like it would return. That being said, he resumed his journey at a slower pace.
Around noon, he could no longer see the city in the distance due to the forest canopy. Either he had arrived at the bottom of the mountainside or did not have far to travel before reaching it. Before going any further, he ate a few granola bars and downed half a thermos of water.
For the next several hours, he trekked through the woods at a decent pace, hoping to arrive at the city before nightfall. Making camp in the woods would likely suffice, but after running into that bear, he had his misgivings about doing so. Admiring nature would have to wait.
The journey began to feel monotonous by the time evening rolled around. However, as the sun began to set, he would realize monotony was a good thing.
In the corner of his peripheral vision, brisk movement caught his attention. Consequently, he spun about to find out what it might be but immediately regretted his decision. A wolf-like creature standing on its hind legs approached from the trees. Brown fur, matted with blood, covered its stocky frame from head to hind paw. Sharp, bloodied claws protruded from its hands and feet. Pointy ears twitched at irregular intervals on its head. Dark, semi-intelligent yet bloodthirsty eyes examined Ian as though trying to decide which limb to devour first, all the while licking its bloodstained fangs.
Werewolf? Ian asked himself as his fingers tightened around the handle of his Bowie knife. Hopefully, he would be able to maintain his grip in spite of his sweaty palms.
The werewolf stepped toward him with a menacing gait, only to halt a few meters away. Its ears twitched wildly as it turned its gaze to Ian’s left. For a moment, the werewolf stood still but then scurried away on all fours into the woods.
Finally realizing he had been holding his breath, he exhaled sharply and slumped to the ground. He sat there, trembling until his body relaxed a little.
I think I almost died just now…
A minute later, he found out why the beast fled. Voices yelled from the direction the werewolf looked at right before leaving.
“I think it went this way!” A man exclaimed right before bursting into the small clearing where Ian sat. Behind him, four more people cantered into the clearing. The first guy wore silver plate armor with a bear sigil on the chest. Two others wore steel plate armor. Another wore leather armor. The last wore an attention-grabbing white robe embroidered with golden silk. They all looked around the age of twenty-five.
The man looked at Ian. Ian stared back.
“A traveler?” the armored man asked, his concerned expression visible beneath his helm. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
In response, Ian shrugged and said, “Not quite.”
“Was it a werewolf?”
“Yeah. It went that way,” Ian answered, pointing into the woods.
“Thanks. Name’s Blake, by the way.”
“Take care on your way to Concinnata, Ian. We need to hurry and kill that thing before it murders anyone else,” Blake said, saluting briefly before leading his group after the werewolf. Each person nodded to Ian as they left.
Once the people were out of sight, Ian muttered, “Good people… I guess the city is called Conncinnata, then. Hopefully the people there are all decent like them.” Sighing, Ian gathered his confidence and stood. “Oh, just realized we speak the same language. Nice. Would be nice if the written language is similar as well, though I don’t expect much.”
From there, he resumed his trek toward Conncinnata, all the while praying to avoid any more dangerous creatures along the way.
* * * * *
“Hey, Blake, where do you think that guy was from?” the girl in the white robe asked while struggling to keep up, blond hair and robe fluttering in the wind as she ran. “His clothes were really clean and a little strange.”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Blake replied. “Not my business, and he looked capable enough to travel without problems, so I’m not worried about it.”
“What about you, Trevin?” the girl asked, unsatisfied with Blake’s answer.
Shrugging, the stout rogue answered, “Love at first sight, Blanca?”
“Eh? No. Was just curious,” Blanca answered. Can’t deny he was a little attractive, but he seemed a little weak. Besides… she gazed at Blake’s back.
“Save your breath, Blanca,” Blake said. “Let’s just focus on finding and killing the werewolf before there are any more victims.”
In response, the others nodded.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, Ian sauntered toward the city gate, eyes fixed on the enormous wall. Standing at least twenty meters high at the lowest section, it exhibited strength. Battlements rose from the wall at regular intervals. Outside the walls, a moat the size of a river bordered the city, leaving only a sturdy, cobblestone bridge connecting the city to the outside world.
As Ian crossed the bridge, the sky began to turn purple, signifying late evening. Many people, from beggars to merchants, crossed as well. On the other hand, hardly anyone left the city.
When Ian arrived at the gate, he stopped, awestruck by the sheer size of it. Shaking his head, he moved on. People were giving him the ‘oh, a tourist’ look. Contrary to his expectations, nobody needed to go through security detail, though a number of soldiers in plate armor stood guard. Was this land so safe that security checks were deemed unnecessary? Either way, Ian needed some questions answered.
Although the guards maintained stern expressions that made them feel standoffish, he knew such a thing was necessary since he had been a security officer himself until now. When he approached the nearest guard, a young man who could barely be considered an adult, the guy stiffened nervously but did not look overly wary. That was a good sign.
“Excuse me, sir,” Ian asked, adopting a polite tone one might use when speaking to a superior, “is there a place I could find info about the city?”
In response to Ian’s polite approach, the young guard visibly relaxed and answered, “For sure. We get quite a few travelers such as yourself, so there’s a tourist building just past the gate. Never been there myself, but it should have what you need. Oh, and I heard it’s pretty much all free thanks to funding from the Crown, may the king live forever. You’ll know it’s the right place since there’s a sign over the door with a scroll design. There are words there, too, but I can’t read, so I ain’t got any idea what it says. Place shouldn’t be hard to find. It’s only a stone’s throw away.”
This kid talks a lot… Ian observed. However, he maintained a polite expression, nodding the entire time. Once the kid finished speaking, Ian said, “Okay, got it. Thanks for the info.”
“No problem, mate. Hope you find Conncinnata to your liking,” the young guard replied with a friendly grin. Then, he added, “If you see the beauty that works there, please tell her Sam said hello.”
“Uh, sure,” Ian said, giving the man the respect of a confirmatory nod as he left. Just as the young guard stated, he found the building almost instantly. Before entering, he looked around curiously at the structures and layout of the city. Everything was compact, allowing less than a meter between buildings. Most of which were built of wood and stone. On the other hand, the cobblestone street looked like it had been constructed with the size of merchant carriages in mind. Glass-topped, metal poles lined the streets, illuminating the area with bright white light to replace the lack of sunlight. Since they did not seem to contain flames, Ian wondered if they ran on magic, if such a thing existed. Truly, he felt like he had jumped back in time.
Moving on, he grasped the iron handle and creaked open the braced wooden door. Musty air slipped through the opening, causing his nostrils to flare involuntarily at the smell. Passing through the doorway, he realized the inside did not feel as large as the outer structure. Perhaps another room lay beyond the far wall behind the counter. While sauntering over to the counter, he examined the wooden shelves lining the walls. Papers and scrolls filled every shelf, but the lettering looked completely foreign. The closest thing Ian could compare it to would be the Latin characters he needed to study for a class back in university before dropping out. Consequently, a heavy sigh escaped his lips due to realizing his prior concern landed right on the money.
“Can I help you, sir?” A woman asked with a calm, soothing voice from behind the counter. Having overlooked the woman before, Ian faced her. A gentle and welcoming smile greeted him. Both her voice and face exuded a mature air even though her age could not have been more than Ian’s. Her dirty blond hair was tied into a long ponytail but left out bangs which curved over the left side of her face. Even though she wore a loose-fitting tan-colored cloth shirt and a black knee-length skirt, her modestly curvaceous figure remained visible. Her fair skin radiated youthfulness that belied her mature facial features. Although she by no means had the appearance of a model, her attractiveness possessed a simplicity that would put anyone at ease.
Ian noticed all of her features in a single glance but practically ignored her appearance in order to focus on the task at hand. As such, he approached the counter and answered, “I was hoping to get some general information about the city and possibly find work, preferably an apprenticeship.”
“I see. Are you able to read by any chance?” the woman asked while brushing her bangs away from her face.
“My own written language, yes. Seems to be different here.” Of course, he could not say he came from another world. Or perhaps doing so would be a good idea?
“You must be from an outer village, then. Corello or Rettin, perhaps?”
Ian blinked a few times at the unfamiliar names.
“I guess not,” the woman said. “Anyway, if you are interested, there are classes at the local institute for learning Common.”
So, Common is the written language. Learning it will probably have to wait for now. Ian pondered. Aloud, he replied, “Maybe another time. For now, an apprenticeship takes priority.”
In response, the woman nodded while reaching below the counter. After rummaging around for a few moments, she revealed a piece of parchment. It took Ian a minute to figure out it was a map, most likely of the city or at least a section of it. One thing of note was the fact that rather than words, only pictures marked important locations. Sliding the map toward him, the woman explained, “This is a basic map of the Southern District.” She pointed at the map with one hand while brushing her bangs away from her eyes with the other. Continuing her explanation, she said, “Most places that would be of interest to you are denoted here.”
From there, she explained which pictures signified the different types of shops and businesses. Everything from smithies and tailor shops to the Merchant Guild had its own symbol. There were even symbols for the Adventurer Guild and Mercenary guilds he assumed would exist in this world. However, adventurer-ing and mercenary-ing did not sound particularly enjoyable or stable. The thing that appealed to him the most was the smithies.
Then, noticing a symbol the woman did not explain, Ian asked, “What’s this one?”
“Oh, uh, that’s… brothels…” the woman answered, blushing slightly.
“Ah, I see. Guess I can’t work there then.”
“Pft!” The woman failed to refrain from laughing at Ian’s totally sincere comment.
It took him a bit to realize what he just said, but when he did, his face flushed bright red and he rubbed his eyebrows in embarrassment. Hoping to move on from his ignorant statement, Ian asked, “How many smithies are there?”
“You don’t want to sell yourself to the dens of iniquity?” the woman asked, smirking.
“Haaah… absolutely not. Now, smithies?”
“Sorry, sorry. Couldn’t resist. Anyway, let me mark the ones that might take you in,” the woman said while grabbing a quill pen. From there, she circled a handful of smithies on the map for him to try. On top of that, she even marked which ones focused on weapons or everyday tools or jewelry using poorly drawn symbols. During the process, she said, “There are two big ones in particular that take in apprentices, but you can try the others as well.”
Then, she slid the map toward Ian and said, “That’ll be three shillings.”
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.