Both Ari and Elijah balked at the command, not daring to move. A few seconds later, a sound similar to someone kicking a metal bucket interrupted the silence, followed by a string of curses and shouts.
“You brainless muppet. I told you to stop playing around with that thing,” a muffled voice reached them from inside the gatehouse. “I can’t even leave you alone for five minutes without you fucking something up.”
“B… But Sir, the storm and the orders,” the high pitched voice owner stammered.
“Do they look like bloody monsters to you?”
A head appeared in one of the windows a moment later. “I’m sorry for my colleague. He’s new, and as you may have noticed, not too bright.” Each word was articulated clearly and there was no trace of anger they heard the moment before.
Ari was dumbstruck, but then he composed himself and said, “Uh, no problem at all. It’s late, and mistakes happen.”
“Indeed, it is. Why are you lads strolling outside the walls in the middle of the night?” the guard asked with a hint of curiosity in his voice.
“We’re here for the Order’s recruitment evaluation. Our ship was delayed and we hurried so we could make it before tomorrow’s deadline,” Ari said, trying to act confident.
“The deadline is in two days, not tomorrow.”
“Really?” Ari sounded surprised. He turned towards Elijah and shoved him lightly. “I told you we still had time, but no. We had to walk through that creepy forest because you were so stubborn.”
Elijah looked at him wide-eyed, but a spark of understanding appeared in them instantly, and he muttered, “I’m sorry.”
“Eh, kids these days,” the guard said. ”I hope you weren’t stupid enough to walk during the storm?”
Ari shook his head. “We left the port right after.”
“So you have at least a bit of common sense,” the guard said. “Have you seen anything suspicious on your way here? Or something out of place?”
A chill ran down Ari’s spine and he tried to keep the fear out of his voice. “No, the road was empty. Why? Did anything happen?”
“Damn Islanders and their blissful ignorance. It was a summoning storm — and a nasty one, at that.” The guard paused for a second. “Wait down there, lads. I will get the gate open for you.”
After his head vanished inside the window, they heard a muffled shout. “Put the damn bow down, or I swear by all that's holy, you will spend the next week cleaning shit in the barracks.”
Ari and Elijah looked at each other and waited in silence.
Soon, the chains clanked as the gate began to rise. It stopped after it rose two meters into the air, and they passed cautiously beneath the steel teeth. After they entered a small courtyard, the gate was lowered back into its place with a loud thud, and Ari looked around. The empty space they were in now was walled too, with only two doors visible in their near vicinity. On the other side of the courtyard, there was another arched gate with lampposts on either side — thankfully it was open. Ari noticed numerous arrow slits on both sides of the wall and he barely stopped himself from panicking. This looks like a trap.
One of the doors flung open and an unarmed man holding a green lamp walked briskly towards them. He was probably in his forties as grey strands of hair were already visible in his neatly trimmed beard. The leather clothes he wore were black with green additions, and Ari noticed the same fat worm embroidered on his chest.
He stopped a few steps away, eyeing them suspiciously, but he glanced to the side and relaxed momentarily. “Ah, now we can talk without shouting. Name’s Matthew.” He held out his hand, and both of them shook it.
“I’m Ari, and this is Elijah. You were saying something about the storms before. How are they different here?”
“You came to join the Order without knowing what summoning storms are?” the guard said, raising his eyebrows.
Ari gave him a sheepish smile.
“Ah, screw it. With the little dickhead up there, I won’t be able to sleep at all, so you boys are in luck,” he said. He scratched his beard and continued, “Those kinds of storms appear every time a new dungeon is born, and the color of the lightning shows the strength of the monsters inside. Around here, we mostly get white and green ones, but the latter is much rarer.”
“But the one we saw was different. The sky changed colors constantly,” Ari said.
The guard nodded thoughtfully. “A rainbow storm, as we call them here, means a human invasion from another world. We only have a few emeralds in the town, so we called for help from Marlow and they should arrive here before dawn.”
Ari wasn’t sure what a dungeon was or who were the emeralds the man was talking about, but it wasn’t the time to ask further questions.
The man turned towards Elijah. “Are you alright, lad? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Y... yes, I’m just tired from all this walking,” Elijah said.
“You will need to work on your condition if you want to survive in the Order,” the guard mused, looking him up and down. “You don’t look like an Islander, like your friend here. Where are you from?”
Fuck, I didn’t tell him anything about our world. Ari frantically thought what to say, but his mind was blank.
“I… Umm—” Elijah stammered and his pudgy cheeks trembled a little.
“Captain, riders! Half a dozen of them,” a shout came from the gatehouse, interrupting him.
The guard looked up and shouted back, “So soon?” After, the man started marching away, waving over his shoulder. “Sorry lads, duty calls. Good luck with your evaluation.”
Ari wanted to run from here as fast as he could and he knew they were lucky just now, but one thing has been bothering him all this time.
“Captain, one more thing,” Ari said.
The man stopped and turned around.
“You opened the gate in the middle of the night and let us in without even seeing our faces. What would you do if we were one of those invaders you mentioned?” Ari continued.
“Well, this is why she’s here,” the guard said with a grin and pointed behind them.
Ari gasped when he noticed a small figure wearing a dark hooded cloak, who leaned casually on the wall behind him. Her face was hidden, but from beneath the hood, he could see a streak of blonde hair. A big knife appeared in her hand and she started peeling an apple, without even glancing in their direction. The captain laughed as he vanished inside the gatehouse, closing the doors behind him.
“We should go,” Elijah said a moment later.
Ari nodded, and they ventured forth through the arched gate, entering an empty cobbled street with small trees growing on the sidewalks. He glanced back towards the girl, but the spot where she stood a moment ago was empty. He gulped hard and quickened his pace. The darkness around them was scattered by lamps hanging on brackets attached to closely built, multistory, solid brick buildings. The pale green lights, combined with wisps of mist dancing on the street, made Ari feel like he was in a different world.
As they walked, he gawked in amazement at the wondrous assortment of items hidden behind the shop windows — weapons, armor, clothes, metal and wood figures, and many more things he couldn’t even name. In his village, they traded food for other kinds of food or favors and Ari wondered not only who made all those things, but also who was able to buy them.
“What do we do now?” Elijah’s voice brought him back to reality.
“We need to find an inn first, then we can talk freely,” Ari said.
Ari noticed his companion’s eyes wandered around the town with similar awe to his. “This should be one.” Elijah pointed at a wooden sign which hung from one of the buildings; a bed and a rooster were visible on it.
Ari shook his head and whispered, “Let’s go a bit further. If that’s the first inn we found, then whoever comes after us will probably go there too.”
When they approached the next inn, Ari heard muffled music playing from inside and his mood brightened instantly. He read stories about musicians and always wanted to see them with his own eyes, so he hurried towards the entrance. They entered from the night into the warm and noisy open space, where the pleasant aroma of meat was mixed with the smell of ale and burning wood.
The large common room was filled with over a dozen wooden tables, but only about half of them were occupied. A few of the guests cast glances at them, but they soon turned their attention back to the drinks in front of them. Ari looked around, searching for the source of the music, but besides the guests and the barkeeper, the room was empty. He frowned and made his way towards the bar. The music grew louder as he neared it, but he still couldn’t see anyone with an instrument. A large wooden box stood near the bar and it looked like the music was coming from that direction. Maybe they’re playing in another room.
Disappointed, Ari focused his attention on the person behind the counter. The barkeeper was a stout man in his late thirties with a wild black mustache. Thick muscles were visible on his bare arms, the rest hidden behind a pure white apron.
The barkeeper gave them a curious look and asked, “Welcome to The Golden Goose. What can I do for you, lads?”
“We would like to rent a small room for two,” Ari said.
“How long are you planning to stay? The rent is five opal chips per night.”
Ari looked at the man, blinking rapidly. Opal chips?
Seeing Ari’s reaction, the barkeeper sighed. “I guess you just arrived?”
He reached below the counter and retrieved something. Holding out a couple of white coins on his right palm and a small white orb on the other, he explained, “Those are opal chips, and the orb is worth a hundred of them. They are made out of essence, and it’s the main currency on the continent.” His voice was monotonous like it wasn’t the first time he had this conversation today.
“But the orb is barely larger than the chips, how can it be worth so much compared to them?” Elijah interspersed with curiosity.
“It’s not about the size,” the barkeeper replied calmly. “But about the amount of essence inside. You can condense more of it inside the orb, than in the chip.”
“I’m afraid we only have the Islanders coins…” Ari said, reaching for his pouch.
The barkeeper hid the chips and waved his hand. “No problem, lads. You won’t be able to exchange your coins at night so you can pay me tomorrow. I won’t turn away weary travelers, and you look like you need sleep, badly.”
“Thank you. We will pay you as soon as we can,” Ari said happily.
The barkeeper chuckled and threw a key on the counter, “I hope so. Your room is on the second floor.”
Ari took it and again thanked the man. The wood creaked under their feet as they walked upstairs, soon the sounds of music and conversations died down behind them. They found their room at the end of a corridor and Ari locked the door to ensure no one would bother them. After everything that had happened today, he felt exhausted, and he just glanced around the small room — besides two beds, there was only a wardrobe, a small table which stood in front of a window with a dim lamp on it and a chair.
They looked at each other, and Ari yawned. “I think it will be better to rest. We can discuss what to do next tomorrow.”
Elijah nodded and threw himself on the bed without even undressing. Ari did the same and he was asleep the moment his head hit the soft pillow.
He woke up later when he heard soft crying noises coming from Elijah’s bed, but before he could even think about it, his eyes closed again.