Ari woke to the sound of intermittent creaking and the smell of burning wood. He opened his eyes slowly and stared at a nearby fire. Looking around, he found his bag laid on the ground near his head and he wondered how he had gotten back to his camp.
He sat up quickly — too quickly. The pain in his head and back ripped a gasp from his lips, forcing him to sink back down.
“Easy, easy. You’re safe,” Elijah said from the opposite side of the fire, his large eyes reflecting the flames. He removed his weird cap and raked his fingers through his black hair. They were far longer than Ari thought at first.
“At least I hope so,” Elijah muttered under his breath. He stood up, approached Ari and passed a canteen to him.
“Thank you,” Ari said, his voice hoarse. Ignoring the pain, he sat up carefully this time and took a sip. “How long was I asleep?”
The man looked at the bright, starry sky. “Not sure. Few hours, maybe?”
“You don’t have a watch?”
“Uhm, no. My cell phone died, and I can’t turn it… Wait a minute, a watch?” Elijah asked incredulously.
“You don’t know what a watch is?” Ari raised his eyebrows. He reached into his bag, pulled the pocket watch and tossed it to the man. Everything was still a bit blurry, so he wouldn’t be able to check the hour even if he wanted.
Elijah opened the watch, and numbers started hovering above it.
“What the fuck? How is this possible?” He rose suddenly, nearly dropping it and started pacing nervously around the fire. He looked at Ari, then at the device again and shook his head. A moment later he asked in an accusatory tone, “Why do you wear these kinds of clothes if you have access to stuff like that?”
“What's wrong with them?” Ari looked down at his white linen tunic and gray trousers. He groaned when he noticed dark stains on the white material.
“In my world, people wore this”— he pointed his trembling finger at Ari — “like a thousand years ago. But that fucking watch looks more advanced than whatever we have...”
In his world? Elijah kept talking, but Ari zoned out. That would explain a lot of things. His Mother used to tell him stories about people from other worlds, and there was something important about them, but he couldn’t recall what it was. Argh, stupid wolves. I can’t think straight yet.
Elijah snapped his fingers in front of Ari’s eyes, breaking his concentration. “Hey, are you listening to me? Earth to erm.” He paused for a second, “I don’t even know your name.”
“Ari. My name is Ari. And what is this Earth?”
Elijah slumped back on the ground and took a few deep breaths. “That’s the name of my world. I had a few hours to think about everything, and this”— he opened his hand and flames started dancing on his palm —”is proof enough I’m not home anymore.”
After a few moments of silence, interrupted by crackling and popping of the wood, the man spread his hands and added, “There are books in my world about this kind of situation, you know?”
“Being transported to another world with monsters, given magical powers and sent on a quest to save everyone.” The man sighed. He looked closely at the watch. “Usually, the place you end up in is some kind of a medieval shithole, and you look exactly like a person from those times. But this kind of technology changes everything. People would kill for it where I’m from.”
Kill for it. Blood drained from Ari’s face. He tried to stand up, and he staggered, nearly falling into the fire, but Elijah was by his side in an instant and caught him. What? How is he so fast? He was just sitting on the ground.
Breathing hard, Ari said, “Burn your clothes and change into this.” He rummaged through his bag and gave the man his spare cloak and tunic. “The tunic will be tight, but that’s all I’ve got.”
“What’s wrong? Why do I need to burn my clothes?”
“Because they will come for you.”
“Hunters.” Ari leaned on a nearby tree. He still wasn’t strong enough to stand by himself. “My Mom told me stories about Wanderers, people like you, who appear in our world. Some are dangerous and the Order is hunting and killing every one of them.”
“What? Hunters? Order? Are you sure you’re feeling alright? That cut on your—”
“Shut up,” Ari said through clenched teeth. “Change your clothes, and we need to move.”
When he noticed that Elijah still hadn’t moved, he shouted, “Now!”
This got his attention and the man started undressing. He looked with sentiment at the weird, red jacket and threw it into the fire, the matching cap and his shirt followed a moment later. Next, he put on the clothes Ari gave him. The tunic was way too small for him, but the cloak fit nicely, covering the rest of his clothing.
Meanwhile, Ari sent tendrils of essence around him to gather all the water from the ground and doused the fire. He didn’t know why, but while his other spells required essence to cast, Control Water could always be used, as long as there was water in his vicinity. Still, it was mostly useless and he hated it.
Elijah stared with his eyes wide at the floating droplets of water.
“We need to cover the campfire, help me with the leaves,” Ari said as he turned toward him.
They used both ground and leaves to hide their camp as best they could, and after a few minutes, Ari nodded slowly and said, “Good, now we need to go.” He picked up his bag and started walking towards the road, leaning hard on his stave.
“Go where?” Elijah asked. The confidence in his voice vanished; he sounded now disoriented and scared.
“To the closest town, Bourfall. It should be somewhere near, and we can get different clothes for you there.”
And then what? Ari wondered.
“Should be? You’re not from around here?”
They reached the road and Ari held up one finger to his mouth. “Quiet now.”
Hidden in the bush, he listened for a while, but he didn’t hear anything besides the usual forest life — crickets chirping, leaves rustling in the wind and owls hooting somewhere in the distance.
“No. I just arrived today,” Ari said a moment later and started following the road. “I came here to join the Order.”
“What?” Elijah asked in a high pitched voice.
Ari narrowed his eyes at him.
“Sorry,” Elijah murmured. He continued in a quieter voice. “Join the group who wants me dead? Are you crazy?”
“The Hunters are only a small part of the Order,” Ari said. His stomach growled. He pulled out two apples from his bag and threw one to Elijah.
“You probably noticed already that you can only see your spells, and everything else is scrambled. The Order can teach you how to control your essence. Without them, you will be forever stuck with what you got,” Ari continued.
Elijah hadn’t responded and they kept walking in silence, gnawing at the apples. They left the forest behind and grassy wields surrounded them from both sides. Without the cover of the trees, cold wind forced them to wrap their cloaks tightly around themselves. Soon, they started climbing up another hill, probably the steepest one yet, and Ari groaned. Few hills my ass.
“Why are you helping me?” Elijah asked suddenly.
“You saved my life.” Ari looked up as milky speckles twirled along the sky and noticed a bright red star flying across it. “And because it is the right thing to do.”
“Thank you,” the man said. A moment later, he added, “Hey, something has been bugging me for a while. Why are we speaking the same language—”
Elijah stopped talking when they reached the top of the hill. Not even a kilometer away, numerous buildings stretched into the distance. Both of them stood there, their mouths hung open, marveling at the sight.
The town was surrounded by an enormous wall, flanked with round towers, and topped with battlements. The ashen stonework of the wall appeared to glow in a deep green-blue color as the light of the moon touched it. Everything behind the wall was wreathed in a mist, and countless pale green lights glowed through it, giving the town an eerie look. Hundreds, if not thousands of buildings were visible inside, thin smoke wafting from their chimneys. While most of the structures were two or three stories high, some shot much higher in the sky.
With this many buildings, there had to be thousands of people living here. Ari’s mind boggled at the thought. He visited several villages and towns during his journey across the sea, but this one looked like it could fit all of them inside, and there still would be space for more.
“Wow,” Elijah broke the silence. “What are those green lights? Electricity?”
“I don’t know that word.” Ari shook his head. “Those are essence powered lamps. We had them too in my village, but only the wealthy could afford one, and there are thousands of them here.”
“Essence? What is it?”
Ari pulled the canteen from his bag and poured out the rest of the water over his head; he shivered as the cold fluid streamed down his neck. He used his tunic to clean the dried blood and quickly changed into his last spare one.
“It’s everywhere around, but also inside us and every living creature,” Ari said. “When you killed the last wolf, what did you feel?”
Elijah didn’t answer right away, as if he tried to recall that moment. “I’m not sure… My mind became clearer, and the fatigue I felt vanished in an instant, but I thought it was just an adrenaline rush.”
“You absorbed part of its essence and it made you stronger. Those wolves weren’t normal animals either. They must have killed a lot of other creatures because they too had spells.”
“So, you must kill monsters to get stronger?” Elijah paused as if he thought about what he heard. “Wait, spells?”
“Yes. The stronger the monster, the more essence you gain from killing it, but also the risk is higher because the essence changes them.”
“Man, that’s not fair. Freaking evolving monsters,” Elijah complained.
The headache was gone now, so Ari tried to concentrate the essence on his wounded head and cast Mend. The wound sizzled and stung a little, but the pain vanished instantly after.
Elijah cocked his head. “What was that?”
“I healed my wounds. It's one of my spells.”
“Really? Why didn’t you do it before? You would have saved yourself a lot of pain.”
Air shook his head again and explained, “I couldn’t. I used most of my essence during the fight.”
He noticed the man looked at him with a vacant expression in his eyes.
Ari sighed. “Your essence pool is limited; if you use all of it, then you need to wait for it to restore slowly over time.”
The man wanted to ask another question, but Ari waved him off and marched down the hill. “We can talk about this later. First, we need to enter the town.”
They slowly approached the gatehouse and the closer they got the more imposing it looked. The wall was at least five meters tall and two lofty towers flanked the town entrance, multiple windows and arrow slits were cut into the stone. A thick metal grate was lowered and there was no one in front of it. Ari moved closer to check if there was someone inside, but it was too dark to see anything. Looking around, he frowned when he noticed a strange fat winged worm carved into the gatehouse arch. What is this creature?
The distinct sound of a bow being drawn reached his ears, which made his blood run cold.
“Not one more step or the string will sing tango,” a high pitched shriek followed a moment later from somewhere inside the gatehouse.