Back in the busy, crowded streets of the city, Luke made sure to stay extremely close to Thuektze, holding Alarich’s reins tightly all the while. The Clakis were so fast; he couldn’t get over that. He heard a couple of them talking about him and wanted to retort but he knew to keep quiet. Such arrogant, rude and curious people they were. Others though, were just like Thuektze—quiet, respectful and always watching.
They were coming up on a station where a lot of Clakis were boarding a platform attached to railroad tracks. Luke watched the engineer check to see if everyone was safely on board, then he turned back around to the standalone control panel, pressed a button to lock the gate and announced takeoff. Just like that, with a simple pull on the lever, they started moving faster than anything Luke had ever seen before. That was the taxi. It looked big enough to have him, Thuektze, Alarich and a few more Clakis on it. Another one of those platforms rode up and the engineer looked around at the next group of Clakis wanting to board it. Thuektze raised his hand and everybody was already fixated on him, Luke and Alarich—the three stood out like a sore thumb. He walked through the crowd over to the engineer and explained they needed to get to the south end of the city immediately. He also had to explain who Luke was to him. From what Luke could see, it was aggravating the engineer and other Clakis too.
Finally, finally the engineer agreed and told everyone they will have to wait for the next taxi. It caused a lot of the people to start arguing and throw fits. Some of them left the station. Luke felt bad that he was responsible for this. He almost apologized but he remembered they don’t tolerate apologies here. Again, he kept his mouth shut and only listened.
Thuektze pressed him along and the engineer helped them walk Alarich up onto the platform. It was a little difficult because he was nervous. While they were boarding the taxi, Luke examined the mechanics of it and wondered how they built it.
“Is everyone secure?” The engineer asked.
“We are.” Thuektze answered. The engineered nodded, pressed the button for the gate and said, “Ready for takeoff.” He pulled the lever and they rode up the tracks. Luke held onto Alarich as he watched with large eyes all the Clakis walking in the streets, doing different things with one another. His stomach was knotting; this felt so weird! At the same time though, it was a real thrill! He started to laugh faintly to himself as the breeze blew his hair back.
They passed the real estate office building, the courthouse and a hospital. Luke asked about the courthouse.
“On most occasions, Clakis visit the courthouse because they have committed a felony. And, we have business treaties with other lands. I cannot tell you which ones.” Thuektze said. There was someone else out there with this kind of technology...? What was Luke missing? Was it just his village that lacked these things or what? Tanimil had some interesting wares itself...
Luke knew what a courthouse was, but he thought since these people are way more advanced, how much different would their ideas and laws be? Well no, they were not all that different. Everything was so fascinating here. Everything was so well put together–economically and structurally.
The next thing they passed was the water facility; there was a wall around the few buildings and a huge tank in the center of it all. The tank was made of bright blue crystal. Luke’s mouth was watering to the thought of how the water would taste–then he remembered it’s not exactly sterile. What would Mom, Dad and Esmé say about all this? Mom would be cautious, Dad would be questioning everything and Esmé would be taking notes. Luke turned his head, about to say something as if she was there with him but then he frowned when he saw she wasn’t. He was so used to having her around. He really missed them... his family... He held his bag closer and stared down at the floor for the rest of the ride. It didn’t seem fair he was seeing all these amazing things while his parents were suffering and his sister was pretty much making hard decisions by herself.
Soon they met the other taxi station and Alarich couldn’t have been readier to get off. Luke was still frowning.
Thuektze paid the engineer and motioned Luke to follow him away from the station. They went up the road and Luke did his best to shake off his sadness. This end of the city was quieter; less people around. He wondered where the palace and nursery was. Maybe they were far off on the east or west side of the city–or better yet, his common sense told him they were probably just outside the city, still underground though, of course.
There was a hill on this end too, just like at the entrance. They walked up the hill and every few minutes, Luke looked back at the Clakis and the buildings slowly disappearing from his sight. While he didn’t quite feel accepted here, he knew he at least had one friend–and that was Thuektze. He would love to return to this place one day with his family.
Just before they arrived at the great wall, Luke stopped in front of Thuektze and looked up into his big ant eyes. “Thuektze... I have a request.” Thuektze tilted his head curiously, then brought his hands up a little and fiddled with his fingers, “What is it Luke?”
“If you don’t mind, I would like to come back here one day, with my family so you could meet them.”
“Well... it isn’t everyday I’m admired by humans. I would gladly accept your company.” What an odd, yet heartwarming thing to hear. Luke took his hands and shook them once and firmly, “It’s been a real pleasure meeting you Thuektze. A real honor.” The ant man flinched a bit at his actions. Luke let go. “Sor- Ahem.”
Thuektze then waved his arm toward the wall. “Yes, yes thank you... I must say the feeling is mutual... Now, Tanimil awaits you Luke.” He walked to it and opened a door for him and Alarich. Luke squinted at the daylight coming in, raising an arm over his eyes, “Wow, that’s so bright!” He looked closer and saw this exit led out into some mountains. “Yes it is. Remember what I told you about your watch and your armor. No one can know about them.”
“I will remember.”
“Mount your steed Adventurer. Save your family. Go through the mountains and you should soon find a road leading to a human village; just past that is the direct way to Tanimil.” Luke knew the path was straight on from here, but he didn’t know about the village; it wasn’t on the map. He gave him a gratified expression and mounted Alarich, who was impatiently stamping his hooves and making little huffing noises.
Humans... That was nice to hear; that was something he knew. Hopefully they will be kind and welcoming. Hopefully he can pass through with no problems.
Thuektze stepped back and put his hands together, “I look forward to your return. Thank you for joining me last night.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for your hospitality and all your advice.” Luke gently kicked Alarich’s sides, “Until next time!” Thuektze bowed his head slowly. “Until next time. Be safe, my friend.” What a wonderful person he is...
As Luke left the underground city and rode on through the fairly narrow mountain pass where a small part of a river was channeled down into the city, he kept a strong, brave look on his face. It was interesting that near the city, the channel split off in two parts and went through the great south end wall. It made sense though. What if the river ever overflowed? This must be the reason why it was built like that. How these people have everything worked out truly amazed him.
Thuektze gave him more confidence than anyone else he’s met so far. The armor made him feel like a real warrior too... and this watch... How can he keep these secrets from his family? Esmé was already special; would it be alright for her to know? He couldn’t see why not...
It was a great thing it was daytime; these mountains had the worst sounds he’s ever heard. What’s worse was reminiscing what happened the last time he ventured through a mountain pass. He’s never seen or heard of those kinds of creatures before. They were indigenous to that environment; he figured that much by judging how they knew exactly where they were going. After all that fear and running, he could start to understand this.
He looked up at a buzzard circling an area not far from here. That meant something either died from exhaustion or another creature killed it. A breeze blew past him and nearly chilled him to the bone. He looked up again, and around him, a shivering exhale slipping past his lips. That was strange. A sudden gust of wind? It was weird and suspicious. But there weren’t any other sounds besides Alarich’s footfalls, a few rocks falling and some far off screeching noises that hopefully were coming from birds. He saw a few insects walking around and that buzzard wasn’t too concerned up there either. He gave this some thought. These are mountains. There can be trapped air in different areas. Well, maybe he was worrying too much...
Feeling a little more reassured, he lightly patted Alarich’s neck. “Don’t mind me. I guess I just got a little used to being in Clakiwen.” Alarich didn’t react.
They kept walking. Luke had it in his mind that as long as they followed the water, everything would be alright. Surely, it’d lead them out of this place, and they’d be on their way in no time. It seemed that way, too, for a while—until they had reached a dead end and the river went behind a place in the mountain they couldn’t access.
“Oh don’t tell me...” Luke took the map out, feeling like a total idiot. This path was veering off from where he needed to go! He couldn’t recognize where he was. His heart was sinking. He lowered his hands, looking dead ahead. “Please... no...” he turned around and thought about how long it took them to get this far. If they went back the way they came, what a big mistake that would be. There wasn’t any time for this! While looking at the map again, he frowned deeply in frustration. There were all sorts of twists and turns in the mountains and the only way out sure seemed a little far from where they were at the moment. He dismounted Alarich and slowly sat down, laying the map out in front of him and tracing his finger from Clakiwen, through the mountains, to Tanimil. All the different ways they could go. He was quiet for a few minutes and Alarich stood by watching curiously. It was a maze. A big, crazy maze. “Ohh Alarich... what would Esmé do? What would she say?” She would be so much better at this than him—he was sure of that...
But Finally... after searching and searching, he realized there was a way out. It was close, and it didn’t appear to be that difficult to get through. The only hard part about it was leaving this particular area. He looked up at Alarich with a confident growing smile. “We’re getting out of here right now.” He stood up and folded the map again, putting it in his pocket. Alarich shook off as the young man mounted him and gently flicked the reins. They turned around and walked out of the closed off area through a small opening in the rocks that led uphill. Alarich made a strange noise as if he was unsure about this, and Luke caught that. “You don’t trust me?” he said. The horse didn’t reply. Luke had almost expected him to grunt or something.
Yet again, he took the map out and shook it to unfold it. “We have to go up to go down. Make sense? I thought so.” He held it in place on his lap. “Then, we turn left, and after that... we will be on an actual trail.” He sighed to himself and made a slight annoyed expression. The noises in these mountains were so disturbing, he really couldn’t get over it. No matter how many times he tried to drown them out with his thoughts, it just wasn’t working. Except, then his stomach growled.
A few hours later, they had finally found the way out of the mountains and got on a dirt road. Luke put the map away for a while, feeling comfortable enough about the path they were on this time. A snack along the way made a big difference in how he felt too. He was more concentrated and confident.
He started thinking to himself; before anything happened to his parents, when things were innocent and good, he imagined all these different cities, villages and so on would be closer to each other. He never expected it to look quite like this.
He looked to the sky, squinting. Then he remembered his watch and took it out of his pocket. While staring at it, he realized Thuektze never did tell him how it works. Perhaps he thought the boy was already smart enough. It was ticking and the stick was moving slightly on the dial, pointing completely to the right. The day was almost halfway over. Well, maybe he was smart enough after all. It was just the ticking that made him feel a little intimidated.
He raised his hand over his eyes as he looked ahead. There was a person out there on a horse riding toward him. It appeared to be human, but he couldn’t be sure. The thought of needing to hide the watch came to mind. He quickly put it back in his pocket and stiffened his posture. This would be the first time he came across another rider in the middle of practically nowhere. Alarich didn’t seem to mind. Why did Luke wonder about what this horse thought in times like these...?
As they were getting closer, the other rider was slowing down. They were behaving as if they were stunned to see Luke.
“You there...!” It was a man. Luke lowered his head a little, curious, and guarded. They rode up to each other and stopped. The man had a black hood with a mask over his nose and mouth, and he wore a dark blue cape. His eyes were hazelnut and his brows were black. He had a large scratch over his eye. It was a scar.
The man said, “You look like a kid. What’s a kid doing in the Hundrah Mountains? You have any clue how dangerous it is in there, boy?”
“...I made it... I’m not a kid either.” Luke replied. The rider looked him up and down. “You sure did. Good to see another human soul out here. Where you headed?”
“How are you so sure I’m human?”
“I’m an adventurer. I’ve seen a lot in my day.” The rider waved his hand impatiently at him, “Where are you headed kid?” Luke was surprised at how curious and forward this man was, and also astounded to have met a real adventurer outside of home. He stuttered; “W- well I’m trying to get to the nearest human village. I’m also... an adventurer.” He briefly smiled. The rider leaned back and tilted his head. “Huh!” he placed his hand on his leg, “Is that so?” Luke’s brows furrowed. “Well, yes.”
“Well kid, you better have something good to offer if you want them to let you in.”
“Something good to offer?” Luke started thinking about the things he had in his bag. Was this man serious? None of the villages or even Thuektze wanted anything from him.
“You’re broke, aren’t you?”
Luke looked up at him again with sad eyes. The man watched him and then sighed, “You’re not that far from it. I’ll take you there.” He turned his horse around and made a clicking noise with his teeth. Luke never asked for help... but after the fact, it made him secretly smile. He was grateful.
“So kid... where are you from?”
“My name is Luke. Luke Pane.”
“Great, and mine’s Beatle Snub.”
“I’m joking with you! Gosh, can’t anyone take a joke!”
“Sorry... But what is your name?”
“Daniel Short. But everyone calls me Sly Fox.” That made Luke laugh under his breath.
“The question, kid—where are you from?”
Luke thought about that. This was an adventurer. He wanted to be an adventurer. Maybe if he told Daniel the truth, he would see how far he’s gone already. The instant respect the boy would gain made his heart rush with excitement.
He smiled, “I’m from Arkenshire Village. It’s in the Bellumal Highlands.” Daniel turned his head slightly. Luke inspected his profile intently, searching for any sign of admiration on the man’s face. It was hard to tell past the hood and mask though.
“I lived there too kid. You’ve come a long way. Good job.” He turned back. Luke’s eyebrows shot up immediately. “You’re from my village? Wait, do I know you?”
“I don’t think so. I moved away when I was a small child.”
“Oh... What happened?” Luke rode up next to him. Daniel looked at him and seemed to be smiling. “You think I’m going to tell you?” Luke pursed his lips and his eyes dropped, then he looked ahead again. “Sorry.”
Things got quiet after that.
As they rode together in silence, Luke continued to glance at him, wondering what at all he’s been through. The wrinkling around his eyes made him look every bit of forty years old. Maybe a little younger. Either that... or he lived a rather hard life. All the things he must have seen so far had to be really fascinating and extraordinary.
Daniel almost caught him looking one time. Luke casually averted his eyes and looked at Alarich. He didn’t seem to like Daniel’s’ horse. He wouldn’t look at it. It was almost like he felt above it, or they were completely different from each other. But Daniel’s horse didn’t appear to mind. Alarich was certainly one of a kind, and... perhaps he knew that too.
“You came all the way from Arkenshire seeking Stone Hill village?” Luke looked at Daniel again. Stone Hill village? That must be the place. The rider was eyeing him with a strange curiosity. Luke wasn’t sure if he was suspicious of him or not, given that particular expression he was making. While Luke wanted to get to know this man more, he also had the voice in the back of his mind telling him not to reveal the true reason for his journeying away from home. He needed to give a different reason... One that would make enough sense and not get him into trouble.
He smiled some, “I’m an adventurer too. I have family there. My friends and family back home didn’t agree too much with me leaving, but I really wanted to see my aunts and uncles. It’s been a long time.” Daniel’s gaze fell slightly in thought, then he nodded. “I see... Leaving home for the first time is never really an easy thing for anyone. How long has it been?”
“...Since I was five.”
“Long time kid.”
“Yeah, yeah...” Luke chuckled a little.
Daniel noticed something in Luke’s pocket, bulging out a bit. He remembered seeing him putting whatever it was away from afar. It was making a strange clicking noise. Daniel was sure it was the cause for those sounds. He pretended not to notice it. And he also saw a piece of paper peeking out of that same pocket.
Pointing with his chin, Daniel said, “That a map?”
“Hm? Yeah,” Luke pushed it farther down into his pocket, having a kind, innocent expression.
“Good thing you came along prepared. That bag you carry looks pretty heavy as well.”
“I brought a lot of food.” Luke said somewhat bashfully.
“I’ve never seen a man like you; all suited up in armor as strange as that, and so young too. You’re unique kid.”
“You’re welcome.” Daniel kept his eyes on him. Luke did the same to him, but soon felt a little uneasy and had to look away. The rider never moved.
“Do you hear a ticking noise?”
Luke slowly glanced at him out of the corner of his eye. Daniel had that amused glint again.
Luke made a confused face and shook his head. “No. What are you talking about?”
“It sounds like it’s coming from your pocket where that map is.”
“What? That’s odd...” Luke patted his pocket and pushed his fingers into it, looking at Daniel all the while. Daniel pulled back on his horse, scoffing and tilting his head again. Luke didn’t understand what he was doing or why he was behaving this way. Daniel mumbled something to himself, sounding like he was disgusted and it had something to do with Luke’s response earlier.
“Don’t play dumb with me kid.” The rider said while reaching around his hip and pulled out a knife with a black handle, “Come on—show me what you got in that pocket.” Luke’s eyes enlarged at the blade and then up at the rider’s face.
“Show me what it is!”
“I- I can’t!”
“I just can’t!”
Daniel lowered his head at him and looked away for a moment, then suddenly he positioned the knife in his hand and was about to throw it. Luke shouted, “NO!” flinching with his hands up. Alarich jumped up with a neigh and shook his head. Daniel started laughing and Luke quickly opened his eyes to see him pointing the knife at him and nodding. “You’re going to show me, boy... That is, if you want to live.” Luke kept his hands up. “W- why do you need to see it so bad?” Daniel gave him an entertained, disbelieving look. “Don’t you get it? Part of being an adventurer is trading with other people!”
“I have nothing to trade,” Luke said, quivering.
“Then you’re not a real adventurer.” Daniel smirked and suddenly threw the knife at him. Luke screamed as it came at him and plunged straight into his side. He clamored out in pain and fell off Alarich as the horse jumped up on his hind legs, kicking at Daniel. Daniel shouted back at the horse and grabbed more knives out of a buckle around his leg. He started throwing them at him, pulling on his own horse’s reins.
Screaming and breathing fast, Luke held the knife in his side and reached for his companion. “Alarich—KILL HIM!” Alarich looked at him, narrowing his eye as if giving a message. He kicked at Daniel and his horse again, backing up and then suddenly taking off in the direction of Stone Hill village. Daniel yelled at him again and then flung his hand. “Stupid horse!” he looked back to Luke who tried to steady his breathing as he watched Alarich run away. He was in total shock. He couldn’t believe that horse left him here to die.
His large, shaking eyes met Daniel’s again. The rider dismounted his horse and kneeled in front of him with his hands dangling off his knees. Luke blinked repeatedly at him, his body trembling and mouth hanging open. Daniel pointed at him, “You know, this could’ve been avoided had you listened.” He looked down at the knife in his side. “Tsk, tsk, tsk... well, that’s too bad.” He looked back to his face and then reached into Luke’s pocket. Luke shut his eyes, a tear riding down his cheek.
Daniel yanked the clock out and gazed at it. He was quiet as he examined every little detail. “A sundial... that ticks?” he brought it up to his ear and heard the gears moving. “That’s really interesting. Not even the people in Tanimil have stuff like this. I’m going to have to break this thing apart to understand it. The boys back home won’t believe me at first.” He shook it and leaned forward, “I’m taking this.” Luke kept his eyes shut, taking short breaths.
Daniel stood up, stuffed the clock in a saddlebag on his horse, collected all of his knives on the ground and then mounted the horse and nodded once. “It was nice to meet you Luke.” He spurred and rode on.
Luke watched him go off and slowly disappear from sight. Wincing, he carefully turned over on his back and let out a strong gasp and his breathing was short again. Moving took a lot of energy. The sun was blazing down on him and there were only a few clouds out. He touched the knife and cried out again. He let his hand fall on the ground and shut his eyes. “Esmé... mom and dad... please, forgive me...” He inhaled deeply and let it all out as he forced himself to take the pain of turning over, and then he started crawling. He cried for the gods, he shouted Alarich’s name, he snarled at himself; ‘don’t give in!’ The pain was only worsening as he pushed himself as much as he could.
He went on for a long time, determined to get to the village. He yanked the map out of his pocket and held it in his shaking hand, his teeth tightly clenched. There was a little ways to go. Not far. Not very far. He pushed it back into his pocket and groaned as he pushed himself forward. Come on Luke, you have to make it! You have to!