It was a cool summer evening, the last of the sun’s rays just barely spilled over the edge of the horizon. The deep shadows were faintly illuminated by the warm glow of the street lamps bordering a lonely pathway, and the buzzing of insects could be heard coming from the nearby wilderness. The ever-present chirping was accompanied by the sound of soft footsteps reverberating off of the cobblestone. A young man was wandering aimlessly on the path, seemingly for no reason in particular. After a few moments passed, he would mutter something nearly inaudible under his breath and began to take note of something in a heavily worn leather notebook that had certainly seen better days.
For whatever reason the young inventor, Luca, hadn’t been able to perfect the past few trial runs of his latest projects. While ruts such as these weren’t exactly an uncommon occurrence in his particular profession, he couldn’t afford to let himself get complacent while hoping that the solution would simply come to him eventually. A lesser inventor would be able to sit by idly, but under no means did he consider himself as ‘lesser.’ He’d once overheard a conversation where somebody had said fresh air was good for the mind, but he found himself having to disagree with that notion. Luca felt most comfortable in his workshop, surrounded by the steady hum of electricity and the metallic clinking of machine parts as he put them together. Although the gardens by his current residence were by no means a long distance from his place of comfort, he still couldn’t help but feel like he was cut off from the rest of the world the more he stayed out here.
Luca continued to force himself further and further down the trodden path, as the estate behind him became more obscured by greenery as he did so. He’d already lost track of his surroundings a while ago, but was unable to snap out of his current fixation despite the fact that the receding light of his surroundings made it harder to read the notes that he wrote down on the pages of his journal. His previously inaudible ramblings were becoming louder the more time passed, and eventually it reached a normal conversational volume. Normal, that is, except for the fact that there was no one in particular that he was actually speaking to.
“Could the issue be with the calibration? I’ve already adjusted it a few times, but maybe there’s something else I’m not taking into consideration here that might be throwing it off…” he trailed off as he made another hastily written note to himself. “There’s the power source, too. If something isn’t quite right with that, then the entire experiment might end up unstable.”
He continued on like that for a while longer, and in the midst of his own preoccupation he didn’t even notice when the last sliver of light already faded from the sky. Time held no particular importance to him at the moment. Even when a second, lighter set of footsteps accompanied him down the path, he didn’t even acknowledge them.
“Hey,” a soft voice drifted from behind the worrying inventor. “It’s dangerous to be out this late on your own.”
Still, Luca didn’t respond to it. It was unclear whether or not he chose to actively ignore the sudden intrusion or if he genuinely didn’t hear it. A few moments passed, and there was still no change in attitude from the inventor.
“I said, hey.” A hand briefly but firmly patted Luca on the shoulder, and it shocked him out of his worry-induced trance. “It’s rude to ignore people when they’re talking to you.”
Luca turned around to address the owner of the voice, but was confused when he realized that the man standing behind him wasn’t anyone he’d ever seen before. He’d at least expected to see one of the mansion’s servants, but this person didn’t resemble any of them in the slightest. His well-worn attire suggested a background in manual labor, a far cry from the usual well-dressed guests that Luca tended to see come and go from the estate. Why on earth was he here?
A dozen different thoughts swam in Luca’s head, but all he mustered was the question, “Who are you?”
“Huh?” The stranger seemed momentarily confused by Luca’s words, and glanced around at the surrounding scenery before he’d composed himself. “I should be asking you the same thing, y’know. Most people don’t wander the forest at night while rambling out loud to themselves like some kind of lunatic.”
“Forest? No, wait,” Luca observed his surroundings for the first time in what felt like ages, and realized with a shock that he’d strayed much farther from the grounds of the estate than he’d intended. Even the path below his feet, which he was sure was once a wide one made of stone, was now a much narrower dirt road. He found himself getting embarrassed in spite of himself, unable to meet the other man’s eyes. “I apologize, it seems that I’ve gotten myself a bit lost. I’m not sure how long I’ve been out here, actually.”
The stranger just tilted his head in response. “You’re awfully calm for someone who has no idea where they are, then.”
“Well, erm,” Luca fumbled for some sort of reply, “It’s not too much of an issue, is it? I’ll just retrace my steps.”
In order to demonstrate his point, Luca walked past the stranger in what he assumed to be the direction he came from. He decided to shut his journal for the time being as well, even though it strained him to suddenly shift all of his focus onto another task. There would be plenty of time to continue his work once he made his way back to his workshop, in any case.
The stranger quickly turned on his heel and made his way back in front of Luca in an attempt to stop him in his path. “That isn’t really what I meant. There are a lot worse things to be concerned about right now.”
“Such as?” Confusion seeped into his voice as Luca stopped in his tracks. He hadn’t heard of any wild animal attacks, nor of any deaths or mysterious disappearances. Wandering off of the paths would surely pose some sort of threat, but Luca just couldn’t think of any reason why simply being out at a certain time of day would pose any genuine threat.
“You’re seriously going to ask me that, even when I look like this?” The man sighed and rested his hand on the crook of his neck. “Who are you, seriously?”
“Luca Balsa, student of the inventor Alva Lawrence, at your service!” He didn’t miss a beat as he recited an introduction that he’d grown used to saying many times before. He also took a moment as he better studied some of the features of the man across from him, trying to pinpoint anything out of place. Most of his facial features were obscured by the shadow cast by the brim of his hat, but Luca just barely made out a jagged scar covering the left side of his face. It resembled a burn scar, but there really was no way to know for sure. His skin had a bit of an ashen color to it as well, but it was impossible for Luca to tell if that was just from the admittedly poor lighting.
Luca realized that the other man was still waiting for something and he quickly added, “I don’t really care much about appearances, so you really don’t have to worry about that. I apologize if I came off as rude, but can I get your name as well?”
There was some slight hesitation from the man, but he replied “Wanderer.”
“That’s a pretty unique name,” Luca replied. “Sorry, you probably have to hear that a lot.”
Wanderer’s mouth slightly upturned at the edges. “A lot less often than you’d think, actually.”
“Well, I really should get going back now before someone notices that I’m not back in my workshop.” He tucked his journal under his arm and extended a hand towards Wanderer. “It was a pleasure to meet you, though, and thank you for the help!”
Wanderer hesitated yet again before he lightly gripped onto Luca’s hand and shook it. There was a mildly confused expression on his face as he stated, “I don’t think I did anything particularly worthy of your thanks, but you’re welcome.”
“Nonsense! If you hadn’t called out to me, then who knows how long I would be walking around out here.” It seemed like an overstatement, but Luca knew just how truthful he was being. He was often criticized by his mentor for becoming too deeply involved in certain tasks and failing to respond to any kind of external stimuli. He’d slightly hoped that this man, Wanderer, hadn’t thought Luca was making light of his help.
“Alright, fine, I think I get it.” Wanderer lowered his hands into his pockets and glanced around one last time. “It seriously is dangerous out here, though. How about I at least walk you back to your house?”
As much as he didn’t want to impose on the other man’s generosity, he couldn’t help but think it would be even more rude of him to turn down his offer. “If you truly don’t mind, I would be grateful for the assistance!”
A soft chuckle escaped past Wanderer’s lips, and he turned his back towards Luca. “You said it was this direction, right? Just follow me.”
Luca nodded despite the fact that Wanderer was no longer looking at him. He hastily followed after him once he began walking, trying to keep a similar pace while looking for any recognizable landmarks.
It appeared that Luca was much, much further than he’d originally assumed as it felt like a couple dozen minutes had passed by in silence before he recognized the orange glow of the mansion’s windows cutting through the hanging darkness. He offered one last word of thanks before heading inside, not even noticing the gaze that lingered on him until the moment he shut the door behind him.