“Land ho! Land ho!” A muffled shout reached Ari’s ears, followed by the shuffling and rumbling of heavy footsteps somewhere above him.
Ari jumped out of his berth and groaned as his stiff muscles protested against the sudden movement. The ship was caught in a violent storm, confining the passengers to their cabins for the last two days of their voyage. Only recently the sea calmed enough, allowing Ari to eat something without throwing up a moment later. He looked in disgust at a bucket standing in the opposite corner, picked up his bag and stave, and left the cabin. Need fresh air now.
Wood creaked under his feet as he made his way towards the deck. The hallway was partially shrouded in darkness and all the other cabins were still closed, snoring noises coming from behind their doors. At the end of it, he passed by a crew member who cursed under his breath as he mopped someone’s vomit from the wooden floor.
The sun blinded him as he finally reached the deck, but he welcomed its warmth. A flock of seagulls soared high in the clear sky, their cheerful screeching reminding him of his village. He waved at them and after taking another deep breath, looked around the port.
One of the docked ships instantly drew his attention, and he frowned, trying to understand how it was able to stay afloat.
It looked like someone took an enormous block of cheese, painted it black, and threw it into the water to see what would happen. A glistening metal covered every part of its hull and deck, but the weirdest thing about the ship was the lack of masts, sails or oars.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” a hoarse voice sounded somewhere nearby, startling Ari.
He turned around, finding a lanky sailor standing behind him.
“What is this thing? How does it even sail?” Ari asked. There were far more questions roaming around his head right now, but he didn’t want to scare the man. He’s been avoiding both the crew and other passengers during the whole trip, and now he was happy to talk to someone.
“It’s not a thing,” the man retorted. He stared at the ship, his eyes glittering. “She’s an Order vessel, and no sail is needed as she’s running on essence absorbed from the sea itself.”
“Really?” Ari chirped. He shielded his eyes so he could take a better look. “Have you sailed on one?”
“Ordinary folk like us can only dream about—”
The man paused suddenly, and Ari turned his head around. The sailor stared at a bracelet, which was now visible on Ari’s wrist. Fuck.
He scowled, and his voice turned cold. “You’re one of them.”
“Them?” Ari took a step back, tightening his grip on his stave.
“One of the Seidr,” the man said and spat on the deck. “The essence should be left to the mainlanders. If this was my ship, I would throw you—”
“But it’s not,” another voice interrupted. “Leave the boy alone and get back to work.”
The sailor stood there, his jaw clenched, and glared at Ari. After a few seconds, he scampered away, muttering under his breath, “Aye, captain.”
The captain walked over and placed his hand on Ari’s shoulder. He was a rotund man in his late fifties; a big bushy beard rested on his belly.
“I don’t get it. He was talking about the ship with such passion and yet…” Ari whispered.
“Some grudges run deeper than others, and Islanders hold them better than most. You of all people should know that,” the captain said, his fingers fumbling in his beard.
“How about you?”
The captain gave him a toothy grin. “You don’t have to hide this anymore once you leave this ship. But be careful kid, there are far more dangerous things here.”
He patted Ari’s head and walked below the deck, shouting orders to the crew, his voice echoing throughout the ship.
“I know,” Ari whispered, pulling his cloak tight against the wind.
It seemed the lanky sailor shared his suspicions with the rest of the crew as Ari caught them, casting nervous glances at him. He knew they wouldn’t attack him on the ship, but out there… I should have held my mouth shut. He let out a deep breath and while waiting for their ship’s turn to dock, tried to enjoy the view.
A palisade surrounded the port, which was much smaller than Ari expected. He counted at most a hundred buildings, about a third of them were warehouses. A group of people hauling cargo towards one of the bigger ones caught his attention. Among them, he noticed some tall, metal-clad figures carrying boxes as large as him, but they soon vanished inside the stone building.
It took more than half an hour before they were able to disembark, but to his disappointment, the strange haulers never reappeared. Finally, out of the ship, he set off, his heart filled with excitement.
The port’s cobbled streets were lined with food stalls and Ari was assaulted by a barrage of smells as he hurried towards the gate — both new and familiar foods, but mostly unwashed people combined with weird flowery scents, which made his nose wrinkle.
He jostled his way through the crowds and noticed there were quite a few Islanders among them. They stood out with their colorful tunics, matching cloaks, and long knotted beards. In contrast to them, the local’s unfamiliar clothing was dominated by black and brown colors. They also all wore some funny looking tall black hats, and Ari wondered how practical they were during lousy weather.
His stomach growled when he passed a bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread lingered in the air, but he knew he needed to leave, so he forced himself to ignore it. Still, he bought a few apples from one of the stalls and asked the owner for directions to Bourfall, which apparently was only a few hills away from the port. That was the closest town with an Order's outpost, and he still had a few days before the current recruit evaluation ends.
He opened his pocket watch, and bright green numbers appeared in the air. There were several hours left in the day — and not even one cloud was visible in the sky — so the worst that could happen was a night spent outside.
The guards at the gate waved him off when he approached them, but those who wanted to enter the port had to pay a fee, especially if they were carrying any goods. He noticed one of the merchants paid with some strange white coins instead of the bronze and silver ones he owned.
He left the brimming with life port behind him and soon entered a small forest. The leaves already changed colors, lining the trees with speckles of orange, red, and yellow.
After a few minutes, the peaceful melody of waves crashing against rocks died down, replaced by the rustling of leaves and birds chirps. The sea accompanied him through all his life, and the sudden lack of its sound filled his heart with fear. The blood pounded in his ears and his breathing became more rapid, more shallow. No no no. Not again...
Suddenly, he slapped his cheeks so hard the sound echoed across the forest. Stop it. You need to find them. After a moment, he pulled himself together and kept walking, trying to ignore his stinging face.
The cobbled road was wide enough for ten people to walk side by side and after walking for a while, he knelt and touched the stone, checking if it was real. In his village, only the chief had a house made out of stone; the rest of them lived in wooden ones. Why are they wasting so much of it on a simple road?
“Move yer ass boy!” a shout came from behind.
Ari turned his head around and gazed straight into a pair of white, glowing eyes closing fast on him. Purely out of instinct, he jumped to the side. Not even a second later, a steel monster rushed past him. There was a closed carriage attached to its back, and a man sat on top of it.
Ari breathed hard, trying to understand what that thing was. It reminded him of a horse with its four slender legs, long thick neck, and large head. The problem was it didn’t look alive. The more he thought about it, the more similarities he saw between the weird ship and metal the ‘horse’ was made of.
He picked up his things and continued his journey, but now he used the edge of the road. While he would love to take a better look at the steel animal, the last encounter was too close to his liking.
After two days of being stuck in his cabin, he welcomed the change of scenery. The road meandered through grassy hills and patches of trees, with farms appearing more frequently the longer he traveled. He was surprised there were wooden walls built around them, with guards patrolling the terrain.
Ari stopped several times to ask how much further it was to Bourfall, and each time the guards told him it was just around the next few hills. After climbing like ten hills since he left the port, he wondered whether the people here had a different definition of the word ‘few.’
After he had climbed the biggest hill yet, he let out a deep, defeated sigh when he noticed another one sprawling before him. The sun was setting, and the thought of using the road at night made him shudder, so he decided to spend the night in the nearby forest.
Other carriages passed him, and while he was excited to see more of those strange metal horses, some of the coachmen believed the road belonged to them, taking pride in trying to trample him.
The forest hummed with life all around him as he made his way through the trees. He found a suitable spot not far from the road and started gathering some deadwood. Soon, a fire crackled in the middle of his small camp, the flames licking eagerly at the wood.
Let’s try again.
Ari sat cross-legged and focused all his attention inward, searching for the essence flowing inside his body. A moment later, it started forming into letters and numbers inside his head, but most of it was scrambled, so he could only read his skills.
|Rune of Spring|
|Control Water <unreadable>|
|Rune of Summoning|
|Summon Lesser Water Elemental <unreadable>|
Nothing new. I thought coming here would change something. He groaned. I guess I’m not as talented as Mom was. Still, he knew his brands awakened only a few months ago, and he needed to give them more time to develop.
A sudden gust of wind ripped his hood away, breaking his concentration. The stars in the sky vanished, every part of it blanketed by dark, ragged clouds. The first crack of lightning tore across the sky, followed immediately by ear-shattering thunder. Soon the rain fell and Ari hid beneath the closest tree. Where did that come from?
The storm raged above the forest, growing louder with each passing second. The lightning regularly changed its color, and Ari wondered if that was normal here. Then, a blinding multicolored beam appeared in the sky and something crashed deeper into the forest. He stumbled as a wave of powerful essence passed through him, but a wide grin appeared on his face a second later. An artifact!
He heard about them from his parents. Born from essence, artifacts appeared whenever there was too much of it gathered in one place. Lucky me, first day here and already got a chance to get one. His spirits raised, he picked up his stave and moved cautiously in the direction of the crash site. Going deeper into the forest was a bad idea, but an artifact was worth the risk.
The lightning brightened the sky less often now, but the rain hadn’t stopped — heavy raindrops battered the ground, the tree crowns overpowered by the amount of water. It was so dark Ari was barely able to see where he was going, but he followed the scent of the essence. The trees grew wilder here and some were densely packed together, leaving him just enough space to maneuver through.
He knew he was getting closer when he noticed the first uprooted tree. Ari gulped at the size of it. The tree was at least a few hundred years old, yet now it lay broken like a twig. An artifact wouldn’t be able to do that.
“Vatna, hear my summons and obey,” he closed his eyes and whispered.
A surge of essence escaped his body, and all the raindrops in his near vicinity started merging into one being. Moments later, a translucent spider, about the size of a large dog appeared on a nearby tree. He summoned the creature dozens of times already, but it still amazed him every single time.
“Follow me,” Ari whispered again and kept walking. The spider skittered silently behind him.
He considered retreating, but curiosity won, and he followed the path made out of broken trees. With each step, the air grew thicker, and Ari’s breath soon turned ragged.
A minute later, he entered a clearing. Steam rose from the ground and everything in at least a thirty-meter radius was destroyed, not even a stump survived. There was a crater in the center of it, but he couldn’t see what was inside.
The instant he set foot on the scorched ground, the pressure he felt till now vanished and he was able to breathe normally. Even the rain turned into a drizzle, the storm losing its strength.
He carefully examined his surroundings and finding nothing suspicious, slowly approached the crater. At the bottom of it, a man lay sprawled on his back. The clothes he wore looked odd, reminding Ari of a jester who visited his village a few years ago.
Suddenly, the man sat up and looked straight at the spider, blinking constantly. “Uhm, not again,” he groaned, and a moment later, his head hit the ground with a thud.