When Ian stepped outside, his spirits sank upon realizing night had already fallen. The streetlights illuminated the area with pure white light. A few people walked to and fro. However, he found himself in a quandary. Where should he make camp? Of course, he could walk back inside in order to ask Aria where the best place to camp would be, but how could he just waltz back inside after leaving in such a manner?
Sighing in resignation, he muttered, “Pride won’t put food in my stomach.”
This time, when he entered the building, he saw Aria set down a book behind the counter. Being able to read while working sounded rather nice.
“You again?” Aria said, grinning. “I think you just broke the record for the fastest return time.”
“Haaah… yeah. I forgot how late it was. Is there somewhere in the city I could set up a tent?”
Placing a finger to her lips, Aria thought for a moment. Then, her eyes flickered and she answered, “There is a campsite for travelers down the road from here. Take care not to get robbed or anything, though.”
“And here I thought the city seemed like such a nice place.”
“Well, there’s no such thing as a perfect city,” Aria retorted while shrugging.
“I guess I’ll actually head out, then,” Ian said, resigning himself to a chilly night’s sleep. Then, out of genuine curiosity, he inquired, “How late do you stay open?”
“As long as I feel like. Why?”
Ian had no words. Why would someone willingly work overtime? Once again, he sighed and bid farewell to this incomprehensible woman.
“Are you sure you won’t just come back ten seconds from now?” she asked, grinning cheekily.
“Yes,” Ian affirmed while opening the door.
“See you later, then,” Aria called out as Ian closed the door behind him.
From there, he followed the road until he reached a bridge crossing over a small river. On the opposite side, he saw several tents and wagons surrounding a small pond connected to the river. Considering the number of well-kept trees and shrubs, the area looked more like a park than a campsite.
As Ian approached the campsite, he heard men singing. A chorus of deep voices melded together, composing a somber yet pleasant melody. Past a line of trees along the edge of the road, he found a stone path leading to the main camping area. In the center, a few people sat around a fire. They sang their hearts out, the only instruments their tankards and the crackling flames.
One of the men facing Ian stopped singing in order to observe him. Well, he could certainly be called a man, but his stature leaned more on the short and stocky side. Thick muscles bulged against his clothes. His beard dripped with ale. The other three also ceased their singing to look at Ian.
Are they dwarves? Ian wondered.
“Welcome, lad! How’s about ya join us by the fire?” the first man heartily exclaimed.
“Aye!” the others followed suit, raising their tankards into the air. All of them had similar physiques and comparatively brown and bushy beards.
In answer, Ian said, “I’d be happy to join you after I get my tent set up.”
“No problem, lad,” the first man said, leading the others back into song.
From there, Ian searched out some thicker bushes and set up his emergency tent behind them, all the while wondering if the men might actually be Dwarves. Would it be rude to ask?
Afterward, he returned to the fire pit with a thermos of water and some jerky. When he sat down on one of the many logs near the fire, they ceased their song once more.
“So, lad, what brings ye to the city?” the oldest-looking of the bunch asked.
“Hoping to become a blacksmith,” Ian answered while nibbling on his jerky.
“Oh? A future smith in the making! What’s yer name, lad?”
“I’m Rogar. These fools are Voldak, Darrak, and Bennar,” the man said, gesturing to each of his friends in turn.
“Nice to meet you,” Ian said, nodding, though he knew he would forget at least one of their names.
“Aye. How about some ale to celebrate our meeting?” Rogar asked, smiling from ear to ear.
“Would it be rude to decline?” Ian asked in return.
“Ye don’ drink, boy?!” Darrak exclaimed in surprise.
“Shush. Some people don’t,” Rogar said. “Must have your reasons, but if you ever visit Bolcan, drink anyway.”
“Where is that?” Ian asked.
“It’s our Capital,” Rogar answered, following up with a swig of ale.
Tilting his head, Ian asked, “I hope I’m not being rude, but are you Dwarves?”
“Aye!” They all said in unison, each following up by gulping down their tankards of ale.
“I figger’d you wouldn’ know since you didn’ even know the name of our Capital,” Rogar said while holding his tankard out for the youngest-looking dwarf, Bennar, to refill it.
Excitement welled in Ian’s chest. Sitting beside a fire with actual Dwarves truly made him realize how different this world actually was.
“Ye seem like a good lad, Ian,” Rogar said. “How’s about I sell you something at a discount?”
“Sorry, I’m a bit broke right now,” Ian replied while scratching his head.
“Ah, ‘tis a pity,” Rogar muttered, gulping down more ale. “Well, good luck to ya with learning to smith, then.”
“Do ya happen to know any Dwarven folk songs?” Rogar asked, changing the subject.
“Would ya like to learn one?”
Ian’s lips curled into an excited grin as he answered, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”
“Alrighty then!” Rogar exclaimed, raising his tankard into the air, prompting the other three to do the same. “It goes like this…”
Wielding a sword like a mountain strong,
Hraevis the Bold took up his arms.
In spite of his strength, he did not live long,
For in battle he fell to old man Death’s charms.
Led his people he did, against all great foes.
His enemies quaked in their final throws.
A legacy he left, for all to adhere,
Never fall back, nor fall to fear.
Aye! Aye! Let all proclaim!
Hraevis the Bold did not die in vain!
Curious about the origin of the song, Ian asked, “Who was Hraevis the Bold?”
“Ah, it’s an old folktale about the first Dwarven King. Legends say he lost his life in a great battle thousands of years ago,” Rogar explained. “The history doesn’t really matter. Let the Whitebeards worry about history. However, a song and drinking to his memory? That matters!”
Shrugging, Ian tried to join in the next time they sang but failed miserably. All the Dwarves broke into uproarious laughter to the point that a merchant peeked out from his tent nearby to angrily request they shut their pint-sized lips. The insult took Ian by surprise, but the Dwarves only laughed more at the man who retreated back inside his tent, all the while grumbling about the noisy midgets.
Curious about the man’s insults, Ian asked, “Are Dwarves not well-liked here?”
“Wouldn’ say we’re disliked here, unlike the Daemonkin,” Rogar answered, shrugging. “But, you’ll meet people like that where’er ya go.”
“Daemonkin?” Ian asked.
“Ne’er met one?” Rogar asked. “Not surprising, I s’pose. Probably best you don’t meet any. No good when Humans and Daemonkin meet.”
“Why is that?”
“You live under a rock, lad?” Darrak asked, his cheeks now rosy from the alcohol.
“Yer bein’ rude again, Darrak,” Rogar chided. “Your turn, Voldak.”
“My pleasure, boss,” Voldak, the shortest of the group, replied. He proceeded to grab a large barrel with one hand and poured the contents, likely water, over Darrak’s head, thoroughly soaking his entire body. The now soggy Dwarf instantly sobered up. Then, Voldak tossed the barrel to Bennar, who brought it over to the pond to refill it. Apparently, he held the role of gopher in the group.
“Kid’s my great grand-nephew,” Rogar explained, chuckling. “Teaching him the ways of the world one barrel at a time.”
While the young Dwarf filled the barrel, Ian noticed a well-armed group walking down the road. Immediately, he recognized them as the ones he met previously. As a bonus, he saw a bloodied werewolf corpse draped over the arms of the man in front.
What was that guy’s name again? Ian pondered.
“Ya know ‘em?” Rogar asked, noticing Ian’s gaze.
“Sort of. Met them in the woods earlier. They inadvertently prevented my becoming that werewolf’s dinner.”
“Oh? Yer quite the lucky lad!” Rogar exclaimed, patting Ian on the back. The impact nearly knocked the wind out of him.
For another hour or so, Ian spent his time laughing and singing with the Dwarves. By the end of the night, he learned three Dwarven folk songs and more than a handful of short person jokes. Apparently, their people enjoyed poking fun at their own stature.
Later, Rogar and Voldak dragged a drunken Darrak to their tent. A large peddler wagon was parked right next to it. It certainly explained why Rogar offered to sell him something.
“See you in the mornin’, lad,” Rogar said just before entering his tent.
“G’night,” Ian replied.
In order to stay warm for a little longer, he remained seated by the fire for a few minutes. Sighing, he gazed into the night sky. No familiar constellations, two moons…
“No wonder it seemed brighter than normal,” he muttered. Once he felt relaxed, he returned to his tent, retrieved his emergency blanket, and fell asleep.
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.