Harkwei loved to chatter—Nisa figured out that much as they traveled with him. There was no more room in his wagon, so they walked beside him while his beast dragged the wagon behind him at a slow pace down the road to the town he called Sorpa. From what he told them, it was a medium sized town, but full of lively people. They were preparing for an annual festival called The Festival of Candles. Nisa found herself wanting to learn more, so she planned to ask him about it later. For now, they just listen to him prattle on about random topics, half of which Nisa didn’t fully understand since it pertained to this world. She did listen to try to learn what she could.
Sorpa’s walls shined in the sun, glistening in the distant horizon as they approached. Nisa stared at it awe and imagined that some of earth’s ancient cities might have looked similar. At the gates, they were stopped by two large rock… men—Nisa truly had no word to describe them.
The first rock being bellowed in their strange language.
Harkwei responded and gestured to his wagon, eyes lit up in excitement. Nisa guessed he was probably speaking about his goods and how he intended to sell them.
The rock being stomped off to the left, which gave them room to walk toward the metal gate. It glistened bright orange, matching some of the stones interlaid with the white stonework of the walls. As they walked up to stand in front of the gate, it slowly rose, which made room for them to finally enter the city.
The gate opened up into a wide street. People meandered in slow paces, most of them without carts or anything. A few wagons and other carts were being dragged down the street that branched off to the right. To the left, the city wall towered above them. Then, the street continued straight in front of them. Bordering it on the left was a huge building that sat on the corner of both the straight street and the road that turned to their right.
“This way,” Harkwei murmured. He snapped his reigns and the beast bellowed but lumbered forward. Nisa, Bea, Susie, Chris, and Oliver trailed behind him. “There’s a warehouse up ahead where we’ll unload my cargo. I sell it to a merchant here in the city for a good price. After we unload, I’ll take you to an inn nearby. Sound good?”
Nisa pursed her lips but nodded. “Yeah, that’s fine.”
“The architecture…” Chris murmured, staring up at the buildings. Each one was circular in shape with dome ceilings. All of them stretched up higher than two stories—some even four stories or more. Most of the domes also had spikes or other decorations on the top. As they came to the edge of this street, it branched up a hill on the left or back down to the right. Nisa realized that the street to the right of the gate had simply branched around the building, but either one still led to this point. Directly in front of them, where their current road ended, was a high wall that lifted up a street above them. The curved hill-street to their left followed the wall and led up to the streets on top.
Harkwei led his wagon up the hill and the beast had little trouble with it, other than the sharper curve at the very top. The wagon didn’t look like it would fully complete the turn in time, so Nisa held her breath, but it finally turned and slipped onto the street above.
Nisa gasped. She and Oliver came to stand at the edge of the street as it met the open area at the top. From here, the rest of the city blanketed the ground as far as she could see. “You said this is actually medium sized?” she asked Harkwei.
He glanced over his shoulder at her with a firm nod. “Indeed.”
“Whoa…” Nisa forced her gaze from the scenery and turned back to the top street. It wasn’t really a street per-se, but instead was more of an open area. The smooth stones beneath their feet formed a semi-circle that curved toward the edge, where the wall dropped off to border the street below. At the straight side of the semi-circle, towered several buildings, each one a mixture of red, orange, white, or cream colored stones. Cloths that Nisa suspected were flags hung on signs in front of the buildings and each “flag” had a different symbol on it.
“What are those?” Nisa pointed.
“Those tell what stores they are. This is one of the many merchant areas in Sorpa.” Harkwei snapped the reigns and the beast tugged his wagon forward, to a street in between the buildings. “We’re going to a warehouse in the back of one of them. Come on.”
It took every ounce of will Nisa had to tear herself away from the sight. Chris, Susie, and Bea seemed to be doing no better than she. They complied, and followed closely behind Harkwei’s wagon. The street they entered was far narrower and for a moment, Nisa didn’t think his wagon would fit. It somehow made it and he took a sharp left turn to the back of one of the buildings.
“Open those doors there, would you?” Harkwei asked.
Chris and Oliver nodded and shoved open two large wooden sliding doors at the back of the building. Harkwei pulled his wagon inside and the rest of them followed suit.
A man and a woman stood on a balcony overlooking them. The woman waved down at Harkwei. “Back again, Harkie? Good to see you!”
Harkwei laughed. “Ah, you too, Ri’ka.”
The warehouse had stacks of spherical and cylinder shaped crates, each made with a hardened material similar to plastic, but tougher than it, from what she felt.
Chris’ eyes widened and he gazed around the room in awe.
Nisa’s own gaze stayed on the two above them; each had white hair with multiple colors streaked in it, eyes with no pupils, and oddly shaped ears—narrower and more pointed than human ears.
Human. This is insane, Nisa. How could another world and other races be real? she mentally asked, but she had no rational answers or explanations for herself.
Harkwei leapt off his wagon and gestured to the crates inside it. Most of them were cylinder shaped, just like the others in here, but Harkwei had a few bags too.
Nisa and Susie hopped in the back of the wagon and started grabbing stuff. Using her arms and hip, Nisa slid one of the cylinders over to the edge, where Oliver grabbed it and sat it on the floor of the warehouse. Bea hopped up there with the two women while Harkwei joined Oliver and Chris on the floor. With all six of them working together, it only took about half an hour to unload his wagon. Nisa checked her phone to see the time, but service still didn’t work. Not that that surprised her, but she still couldn’t help checking. Her battery was already half drained, so it would probably be dead later that night, without her charger. Or a plug in, if this world even had electricity.
Panting, Nisa leapt out of the wagon and leaned against one of the wooden pillars holding up the room. Oliver and Bea rested against the side of the wagon and Chris simply folded his arms, on the opposite side of Susie.
“Well, I never would have gotten this unloaded as fast without your help.” Harkwei patted his leg. “Thank you. I’ll take you to an inn, but before I go, here…” He reached into one of the cylinders and held out a spherical device and handed it to Nisa. “Slide your hands along the top and it will translate languages for you—yours and other peoples’. It’s a magical device and a lot people here use ‘em to keep from having to learn anyone else’s. Thought you’d find it useful.”
Nisa gasped. “I’m guessing this is quite expensive?”
Harkwei chuckled with a nod. “Indeed. Call us even. Now, time to get you folks to the inn. This way.” He glanced up at the people on top of the balcony. “Ri’ka? Will you keep an eye on Naroom and the wagon for me, love?”
Ri’ka smiled at him. “Of course. Anything for you, Harkie.”
Harkwei’s cheeks turned pink, but he shook his head and gestured to the warehouse doors. Oliver and Chris shoved them open and then the group followed behind him back outside.
This time, he took them to a building across the street from the back of the warehouse. It was squeezed next to several other buildings, but this one was taller, with a high-domed ceiling and more red stones than white, other than the occasional window, which Nisa mentally noted did have glass in them.
Harkwei shoved open the front doors. Inside, the floor was covered with a smooth, glistening purple and green flooring—the closest word Nisa had to describe it would have been tile, but it was still slightly different than that. Two benches lined the wall on the right side, while the left had a bar with a large woman standing behind it. Her hair was bright cobalt blue, but her skin was as dark as night, which oddly complimented the other. It was her eyes that almost scared Nisa, bright crimson with no pupil. Her ears, however, were differently shaped than the people before and two leather wings sprouted from her back.
“How can I help ye?” she asked, tongue sliding over large teeth in the front. Something about the woman reminded Nisa of a vampire, but that was impossible, too.
Harkwei placed a handful of metal bars on the table. “These folks are gonna need a room with at least three beds for one night and a meal for supper and the morning.”
The woman gazed at the metal bars with a huff. “You’re asking too much for three ikrii, sir.”
Harkwei licked his lips. “Alright, well what will this buy them?”
The woman crossed her arms—all four of them.
Nisa fought back a gasp but settled for clenching Oliver’s arm as tightly as she could instead.
“For three ikrii… one room. Two beds. No meals.”
Harkwei glanced back at Nisa and his gaze trailed over Susie, Bea, Chris, and Oliver, but finally turned back to the woman with a nod. “Fair enough. What if they helped you get this place ready for the festival in exchange for a few meals? You look like you could use the help. You do celebrate the Festival of Candles, right?”
The woman laughed. “We Traimen don’t need to light magical candles to protect us. You humans say you believe in the One God, yet you use magic to protect yourselves.”
Harkwei waved off her comment. “You have a point, ma’am, but think of the customer’s you would draw in. Travelers come to this city for the festival and if you offered your own lighting ceremony, they’d be more likely to stay here than the other inns next door where they’d have to leave to go to the square or any one of the other lightings.”
The woman sighed. “You have a point. As long as they work hard.”
Harkwei winked. “Trust me. They will.”
Nisa stared at her pocket in awe, where the translation device sat with her cell phone. Even through her clothing, their words repeated perfectly in English and the other seemed just as surprised as she did at how wonderfully it worked. Better than Google Translate, in any case.
Harkwei turned toward them. “You’ll have to help her ready the inn for the ceremony. She’ll tell you what you need to do. Besides, she’s less scary than she looks. Traimen are passive—they don’t believe in warfare, fighting, magic, or anything other than the Creator. Sometimes, I think they’re more devoted to Him than most humans here. Anyway, I have to be going now. No time to waste.”
“Thank you for all your help.” Oliver held out his hand.
Harkwei stared blankly at it and then blinked. “Oh, I sense that you want me to shake it.”
Oliver nodded. “Yeah… Guess it’s a tradition from our… world.”
“Thank you for helping us, Harkwei,” Nisa said. He turned toward the door, but she caught his arm. “Do you have any idea how we’d be able to get home? The place we came in at didn’t seem to have any way back through.”
Harkwei shook his head. “No, I don’t, but you might try the village Sage tomorrow. When the festival is over, he should help you. Biggest tower in the middle of the city, you can’t miss it. Though, you might have to make an appointment. Creator guide you!”
As Harkwei left, the woman emerged from behind the counter and gestured for them to follow her. Along the back wall stood ten ladders and the woman climbed up the ladder on the far left. Nisa, Bea, Susie, Oliver, and Chris each took one. At the top, the ladders opened up into a small lounge room, but the woman led them passsed that and into the three-way split hallway behind it. She opened up the first door on the left and gestured for them to go inside. “Here ye go. Two beds, extra blankets in the closet. The communal baths are at the end of the hall—there’s only one here, but we divide the male from the female sides with a curtain. Or there’s the private one for married couples. But before you can use it, you have to provide your Bond.”
Nisa exchanged a glance with Oliver and her cheeks heated up. “Bond? What’s that?”
The woman blinked at her. “Ye don’t know what a Bond is?”
Nisa shook her head.
“When you pledge your life to a man, or a man pledges his life to a woman. A Bond is created between them—like a connection. That connection is so strong, it creates a physical manifestation in this realm.”
Nisa still didn’t quite understand, but she nodded her head anyway. “So, how can we help you with the Festival of Candles? And when is supper time?”
The woman shook her head with a sigh. “Not for another two hours, which should give us enough time to get ready. Come back down and wait for me in the entrance hall.”
“I’m starting to think this world is real,” Chris murmured after the woman left the room.
Nisa nodded, rubbing her eyes. “I know. Me too. I just can’t figure out how it’s all supposed to work. I mean, I… this isn’t me! Just believing magic and other worlds can be real. What even got us here? A magical portal of some kind?”
“It had to have been the artifact you put in the wall.” Susie crossed her arms.
Nisa glanced at the ground, stomach twisting. They were trapped here and it was all because of her.
Oliver placed his hands on her shoulders and forced her gaze back toward his. “If you hadn’t, we would have died down there or we would have been found by Callahan’s men. Don’t worry.”
Bea nodded eagerly, lips turning up into a huge grin. “I’m cataloguing everything we’re learning here. Even when our phones die, we can still charge them once we’re back home and think of all the evidence we’ll have!”
Chris chuckled. “It’ll be the discovery of a lifetime.”
“Maybe Callahan knew and that’s why he was willing to go so far to keep you in the dark,” Susie suggested with a shrug.
Oliver gently squeezed Nisa’s shoulders. “For now, we’ll help her so we can get a meal, and then tomorrow, we’ll go see this Sage and see if he can help us get home.”