The land was littered with hills and sharp cliffs that cut through the forest of giant trees. Everything seemed peaceful, but some sporadic roars and grunts offered clear hints that there was much more going on behind the thick trunks. Our road led downhill, constantly meandering through the complex landscape. We had passed a large boulder when the forest finally opened. What fell into our view was a huge circular crater, surrounded by layers of steep sharp walls - and the city inside.
Mae and I were practically glued to the window, unable to avert our gazes. The crater was split in half by a large sparkling river that flowed through the city. It entered with raging waterfalls that dwarfed any nearby buildings and left as a broad calm stream which slowly carved its way through a valley. The crater’s dark walls were shaped like giant stairs in some places, creating natural terraces around the center. It almost looked as if the land itself had broken down into a mosaic of massive puzzle pieces. The outer areas were occupied by large fields of lush green whereas the smaller ones closer to the city carried majestic manors and estates.
“It’s a caldera created by an extinct ancient volcano.” Evelyn informed us, only fueling our excitement even more. We now followed a large soft curve that led directly down to the city and passed over a small bridge. Underneath were a few construction workers. Mae waved at them but they were too busy hammering bolts into a path of metallic bars which rested on a foundation of stones and wood. I had never seen anything like it.
“Nathan, look! They’re building the biggest marble run!”
“That would need some huge marbles though.”
“Ah, I think it has something to do with steam,” Evelyn pointed out.
Mae leaned back and looked at her mother with squeezed eyes as if she had just said something completely absurd. “Why would you want steaming marbles, mom?”
We reached a large gate consisting of multiple rows of pillars made out of black marble. On top of them kneeled the giant statue of a white, human shaped person, but without any facial elements and with a perforated frame - more like a structure of branches than a compact body. Behind this imposing entrance rose high houses made of white stone and with shining black roofs. Many facades were supported by similar black pillars, offering shadowy walkways for the masses of busy pedestrians. The dark tiled streets weren’t filled with just ox-beasts, but with horses and even other bizarre looking creatures. We were driving behind a mail coach when a navy blue hybrid of a bat and reptile nearly crashed into our ox-beasts, giving them a good scare. An evil snarl escaped the beast’s strong jaws, then it walked away on its long thin limbs that were connected by a delicate skin. The owner cursed his monster and some of the people around him, including us. We took a few more turns until our carter dropped us off close to the caldera’s edges.
Our apartment - or rather palace - was located on one of the terraces. It wasn’t able to fully hold itself compared to some of the other estates nearby, but it was nonetheless bigger and more luxurious than anything I had experienced before, especially since I had expected something much more...subtle. One quick look at Alan and Evelyn told me that they were perhaps even more caught off-guard than I was, seeing as their mouths gaped wide open. The mansion was similar to most of the other buildings we had seen so far - black pillars, white facade and a black roof. A woman leaned against the massive wooden door.
I have nearly forgotten that she would be here too.
“Heya!” Rika waved at us in an exaggerated manner, her mouth stretched into a wide cheeky grin. She also introduced us to two housekeepers - Livien and Thomas. I hadn’t noticed them at first. They helped us carry our luggage to the corresponding rooms, then Rika proceeded to give us a little tour.
The estate stretched even beyond the two storied building. A rather spacious garden covered the area in the back. Behind some manicured shrubs and small ponds surrounding a pavilion arose another, smaller terrace. Rika guided us up the stairs onto the platform. It was basically one large grassy square - roughly fifty yards wide, surrounded by a path of the omnipresent black stone. Rika laid her arm over my shoulder.
“We will spend a lot~ of time here over the year, Nate.” She giggled.
The first thing we did after the little tour was to assign rooms. It was obvious that Evelyn and Alan would take the large bedroom. Mae and I inspected the other chambers on the second floor. There was another large bedroom, one for guests and one more narrow room with just a locker and bed below a window. Mae instantly prepared to occupy and defend the large room but to her surprise, I volunteered for the smaller one anyway.
Once we had settled in, Rika handed the keys over and left for her own apartment which apparently was close-by.
“We will have our first session tomorrow Nate, right after sunrise,” were the words she left me with.
There was specifically one thing during the tour that attracted my attention - the bathroom! Back in the orphanage and even in Evelyn’s apartment, there were only showers. But this room had a bathtub large enough that even an ox-beat could fit in. A small transparent spiral staircase led down under the first floor. The entire bathroom was carved out of the dark volcanic stone. Large mirrors created the illusion of an enormous cavern and a pleasant light fell through a window that was cut into the ceiling, diffusing into multiple beams. I turned on the tap. Hot water began to drizzle from above into the stoney tub. It was a small trickle at first but quickly turned into a thunderous rain. I hung my clothes over a bar and stepped into the steaming water. The sensation of my first bath ever was mesmerizing as I laid down and dropped myself deeper until I was just barely able to keep breathing. Tiny waves tickled my hair and the skin of my cheeks while the water made my body feel lighter***
A knock on the door woke me up. “Nathan, you good there? Dinner is ready.” Evelyn’s voice sounded from behind the door.
“Oh, I’m coming! Give me a second.”
The water had cooled down to room temperature when I stepped out. For how long have I been in here, I wondered.
I joined the others for dinner - pulled pork, salad and a spicy soup.
“To think one could spend so much time in a bathroom - Mae was afraid you could have drowned,” Alan noted with a cheeky smile.
“I wasn’t dad, stop lying! But that bathtub looked really deep and dangerous!” Mae poked her father between the ribs, but he struggled more with the intractable fit of laughter that his visibly embarrassed daughter provided him with.
“Be careful with your training tomorrow, Nate. And tell Rika if she is overdoing it.” Evelyn eyed me nervously. Clenching my wrist under the table, I searched for words.
“Don’t worry honey, I’m sure Rika’s gonna teach him well,” Alan responded in my place.
“He is still only eleven! And knowing Rika, she won’t be easy on him despite his age.”
It touched something within me knowing that she thought about it that way, but I didn't want to worry her.
“Everything will be fine, Evelyn.” I assured her and attempted to put a smile on my face.
Evelyn answered me with what I read as a pained expression until her lips curled into a dim smile that didn’t quite reach her cheeks.
The thin chain of my pocket watch hung loosely between my fingers as I let the silver clock hover a few inches above my face. After finishing dinner, I had gone straight up to my room. Oddly enough, I realized that this whole task of counting was an effective method for relaxing myself, almost as if I could reach a state of trance. I counted the last remaining seconds, then laid awake for a couple more minutes thinking I needed more books to read.