Mar woke an instant later, or perhaps he had never gone unconscious, for he was still kneeling by Alden, and the stranger was still lying beside them, but the kitchen was gone. They were lying in the middle of a totally foreign street, with tall stone buildings rising gloomily on either side, harsh grey in the late afternoon shadows. Silence covered the scene like a blanket, but for the rasp of Alden’s breath and the attacker’s low ragged moaning, and Mar’s heart, beating so hard. Alden looked around, evidently unsurprised, and held out a hand.
“Help me up, Mar,” he said roughly. Mar numbly gave him a hand and Alden pulled himself onto his good leg, leaning on the wall for support, and stared down at the man on the ground, who was still bleeding from the gash in his belly. “We have to get out of here,” Alden said, grabbing Mar’s shoulder in his left hand, as he swayed. Mar couldn’t help but cringe as blood ran down his shirt, blood from the man who’d attacked them. “Don’t give out on me, boy,” Alden growled. “You have to help me.”
Mar averted his eyes from the mess on the ground and nodded. He didn’t trust himself to speak. Alden gently pushed Mar away and slowly they walked up the mysterious street. The street was completely empty of people, cars, buses; and the houses on either side gazed blankly down at them with dark closed windows. They were strange houses, similar to those Mar had seen on a trip to England once, only they looked newer. The fall air, crisper and colder than the air at home, quickly chilled him through his thin shirt. Leaves from the trees that lined the street blew by, rattling on the stone street.
“Where are we?” he asked, proud that his voice barely shook.
“Never mind,” Alden grunted.
Mar glanced over and saw that his uncle’s face was white and shone with sweat. His long brown hair, which had been pulled back into a neat ponytail, now hung in wild strands across his face and neck. His clothes were splattered with blood. Mar didn’t say anything more.
Three blocks later, Alden turned down a narrow side street and stopped in front of a brick, three-story house. A small wrought iron balcony hung out over the front door. Alden struggled up the stairs to the door, leaning heavily on Mar. He stopped at the top, weary and out of breath, and knocked. It opened almost immediately, and a tall, handsome woman with pitch-black hair looked out at them. Her eyes raked Alden, paused on his blood-soaked leg, turned to examine Mar.
“Come in, before you fall down. You too,” she added, gesturing toward Mar. By the tone of her voice she received bleeding visitors every day. Alden staggered inside, and Mar followed, closing the door behind him. The hall inside was dark. On the floor lay a carpet the color of night, and the walls were painted dark grey. Mar blinked, trying to adjust, and saw that Alden and the woman were already halfway down the hall, heading for the door at the other end. He followed quickly, and found himself in a large room with ornate mahogany furniture and a huge fireplace, the logs glimmering with a drowsy fire. Wide bay windows opened out onto a garden, the first splash of color Mar had seen in this place. The room was dark, and the woman went around lighting candles, while Alden sat down heavily on a chair, staring stupidly at the bloodstains he was leaving on the floor. The woman bustled around, her lips pursed, gathering cloths and water and a sewing kit. “You,” she said, gesturing at Mar. “Come help.”
He came and helped her cut Alden’s pant leg free of the wound, which ran from the back of his knee to his ankle, deep enough in places that Mar could see the bone. Mar’s hands shook and he was forced to stop and take a few deep breaths before he could help the woman wash the cut. She didn’t seem unsympathetic, to Mar at least, though she ignored Alden’s complaints that his leg hurt, damn it!, and why did she have to rub so hard?
“It needs to be cleaned properly,” she said, dropping the blood-soaked rag back into the basin of water. She pulled out a needle and thread, and Alden groaned and tipped his head back, his face going even whiter, if that was possible. The woman gave him a thoughtful look, then turned to Mar.
“Go get that bottle,” she told him, indicating a table near the corner of the room, where a large crystal bottle sat, half full of some amber liquid. Mar carried it over, catching a definite whiff of whiskey, and Alden gulped down a mouthful. He gasped and coughed and the woman neatly sewed up the gash. Then she wrapped it in clean white cloth and stood. Alden took another swig and lay his head back again.
“Thanks, Lexis,” he whispered.
“If you didn’t keep getting yourself hurt, I wouldn’t have to sew you up so often,” Lexis snapped, but she didn’t look truly angry.
Alden managed the ghost of a smile. “Listen to her, Mar. It’s good advice, even if I never seem to be able to follow it.”
Mar just stared at them both, feeling numb.
“You’d better sit down,” Lexis told him kindly. “You look like you’re about to faint.” She turned to Alden. “I’m going to go get you some food, and send a message to Unicorn. Meanwhile, you can try to explain to this poor boy what is going on.” She strode out of the room, closing the door behind her. Mar sat gingerly on the edge of a chair, the arms of which had been carved into an intricate feather-like pattern. He looked intently at his uncle, waiting. For a long time Alden stared at the floor. At last he looked up.
“I imagine you’re rather confused,” he said. “I’ll start by telling you that we are not on Earth anymore. We are in a world called Mirkan. This world does not have the same rules as Earth. Magic exists here, and dragons, and other creatures that on Earth are mere myth. Mirkan doesn't have cars, or airplanes, or TVs, or any other technology. It’s smaller than Earth, just one country about the size of Texas. This city is the capitol, Rengons.” He paused, as though wondering what all to say. Mar felt as though he was caught in a dream. He wasn’t sure if it was a nightmare or not, but he thought it probably was.
“I have been coming here for five years, and have worked for Unicorn for three of those years. So this is where I’ve been those times I was gone. There are several of us, Travelers, we’re called, who stay mostly on Earth and only come here occasionally - like that man I talked to this morning. Our job is to keep an eye out for men like the one who attacked us. They work for the Rogue.”
“Who’s the Rogue?” Mar asked, when it seemed likely Alden wasn’t going to go on.
“He is Unicorn‘s enemy, and he has an army of men who try to fight Unicorn‘s men.” Again Alden stopped. His face was ashen, and he took another drink of whiskey. Mar stayed silent. He wondered who, or what, this unicorn was; but wasn’t sure if he should ask.
Lexis returned, carrying a tray of food. She set it on the table, and handed them each a plate. Mar wasn’t hungry, but he nibbled on the buttered bread, glad to have something to distract himself. Alden ate ravenously, and Lexis sat on a couch across from them and watched.
“Did you contact Unicorn?” Alden asked, and she nodded. “He’s coming in an hour.”
Alden glanced over at Mar. “Unicorn’s a bit daunting, the first time you meet him, but don’t worry, he’s not as fierce as he looks.”
Mar just nodded, and looked out the window. A patch of creamy roses near the window began to shake, in the---wind?. But then he noticed a small black cat folding a pair of resplendent silver wings across its back. Mar blinked, disbelieving, and the cat vanished in the flowers. Mar returned his attention to his plate of food.
The hour passed slowly, mostly in silence. Alden dozed off in his chair, his face drawn with pain even in sleep. Lexis cleared away the food and went outside, and Mar saw her kneeling in the garden, pulling weeds and petting the winged cat, which rubbed around her ankles like a normal cat, then flew into an apple tree and chased birds. Mar wandered around the foreboding room, staring at strange little sculptures of various unnatural creatures. One was the winged cat, and the plaque beneath it said ‘Huwë Kao.’ “Hooway Cow,” Mar murmured, not sure if he was pronouncing it correctly. He wondered what language it was. He liked languages, and knew French, Spanish, and Chinese, along with English, but these words seemed entirely different from anything he’d seen. He found a dusty leather-bound volume resting on a shelf and gently lifted its cover. The entire left side of the page was covered with words in the same language that was on the plaque, but on the opposite side they were written in English. It seemed to be about some sort of animal called a ‘Krokuir,’ which Mar gathered was large and dangerous and liked the water. He set the book down and returned to his chair. It suddenly struck him how utterly removed he was from his normal life. And he longed to go home. His mother must be frantic. Her kitchen was covered with blood, and her son and her brother had vanished mysteriously. He glanced over and saw Alden watching him.
“When can I go home?” he asked. “My mother’s probably really worried.”
Alden shook his head. “It’s too dangerous. It’s possible the man who attacked us didn’t have time to tell the Rogue where he’d found us, but we can’t count on it. It would be safer for you to remain here until we’re sure it’s secure at home.”