When they returned to their room, Ari locked the door behind them and placed the chair below the knob. He knew it wouldn’t last long, but it was better than nothing.
Elijah raised his eyebrow, but didn’t comment on it and jumped on his bed. “Thank god this world has plumbing already discovered. I swear if I entered the toilet and there would be only a hole in the ground, I would drown myself there to end my misery.”
Ari ignored what the man said and sat on his bed. He decided against telling Elijah about Lisa, at least for now. He wasn’t even sure if there was anything to say, maybe the woman indeed heard his name while they were eating. But then what did she mean by taking good care of Elijah — did she knew who he was and she wanted to warn them?
“At least we learned something important, right?” Elijah said.
“Huh?” puzzled Ari as he was snapped out of his thoughts.
“It seems they can’t recognize a Wanderer, even if they come face to face with one,” Elijah chirped. “Anyway, how did you know they were from the Order?”
Ari pulled his watch from the bag and showed it to Elijah. The golden snake was etched on the top lid.
“Hey, that’s the same snake the girl had on her cloak. I knew I'd seen that symbol somewhere before.” Elijah sat up suddenly as it dawned on him, and his face turned pale. “How do you have a watch with their symbol?” he spluttered.
“My father gave it to me,” Ari said. He took a deep breath before continuing, “I owe you an apology. I haven’t told you much about the Order or why I want to join them.”
“You already know there are several different countries on this continent, but the Order isn’t associated with any of them. It’s an organization that’s above everything, and its main purpose is to defend the world from monsters, like the wolves we fought before.”
Ari heaved himself to his feet and paced across the room, staring out the window. He hid his hands and tried to keep them from trembling. “My parents were part of the Order. But they vanished along with their whole team a few years back, and nobody knows what happened to them. When their guild sent another team to their last known location, they only recovered a charred body belonging to one of the teammates.”
“One year ago, I received a letter. The person who sent it claimed that my parents were still alive, and if I wanted to find them, I should join the Order.”
“What? That’s great news!” Elijah exclaimed.
“He also wrote that I shouldn’t look for them openly because it will put me in danger.”
“Oh.” The happiness in Elijah’s voice disappeared instantly. “Do you know who sent the letter?”
Ari shook his head. “Tomorrow is the deadline for this season recruitment, and the next one will be in three months. I will help you, but—”
“Why won’t we join tomorrow?” Elijah interrupted him.
Ari spun and looked at him with eyes wide open. “Huh? What? We were lucky today, and you want to do what?”
“Hear me out.” Elijah raised his hands with his palms toward Ari and said in a calm matter, “It seems I’m stuck in this weird alternate reality or whatever it is, but I want to get back home to my family. I’ve been given these strange powers, and you said yesterday, only the Order can teach me how to control them, right?”
Ari nodded slowly, but he wasn’t sure where the man was going with this.
“See? In all the books I’ve read, when the main character finds himself in this kind of situation, a wise old mentor appears and trains him in secret. But I don’t see anyone around. It’s only you and me.”
“This is madness,” Ari said as he ran his fingers through his blonde hair.
“Since yesterday, everything has been madness to me.”
Ari thought about what Elijah said, and while there were so many things that could go wrong with his plan, he didn’t have a better one if he also wanted to search for his parents. Hiding somewhere and doing nothing wouldn’t get them anywhere. They both needed to get stronger, and there was only one way of achieving it.
Also, he owed his life to the man, and he wouldn't be able to look his Mom in the eyes if he abandoned him. She used to tell him stories about all the people she saved, and he always wanted to be like her.
“You know, there’s a saying in my world,” Elijah said, looking at the wooden ceiling. “Sometimes, there’s no better hiding place than the one in plain sight. Think about it, who would be so stupid to join the group, who wants him dead?”
Ari laughed heartily at that. “Guess that would be us. Let’s do it then. I promise I will help you find a way back home,” Ari said, extending his hand.
A wide smile appeared on Elijah’s face as he shook Ari’s hand vigorously. “And I promise to help you find whatever happened to your parents.”
For the first time in over a year, Ari’s smile was genuine. It felt great, finally being able to speak with someone about everything that’s been weighing on his mind. Still, he knew it was only the beginning, so he calmed himself and started thinking about their next steps. They couldn't leave the inn today, because it would look suspicious. Tomorrow we will look for another one, but today there's something else we need to take care of.
“Let’s go over your story a few more times. Also, there are still more things you should know about the Islanders in case they ask.”
Elijah groaned so loud, Ari was sure they heard him back down in the common room.
They spent the remainder of the day locked inside their room, discussing all the things Ari thought were important. Elijah complained about skipping supper, and when he gave him the last remaining apple, the man looked at him like it was a bad joke. Still, Ari had to commend him because most of the time, he only had to explain something once or twice, and the man would remember it.
Later that evening, Elijah told him a few stories about his world, and he listened to his every word, absorbed and astonished by its wonders. One thing mainly stuck in his mind — some kind of metal carriages which not only were much faster than the ones here but also no horses were needed for it to work. They talked for about an hour about differences between their worlds, but soon fatigue won, and they both fell asleep.
When morning came, they headed downstairs to the empty common room. Ari hoped he would be able to talk to Lisa, but to his disappointment, a boy with a goofy smile brought them food instead. While Ari ate his scrambled eggs apathetically, Elijah gobbled his portion in an instant and eyed the leftovers hungrily. With a sigh, he gave him his plate and went to the bar, where the stout man was cleaning the counter.
“Can I ask you something?” Ari said.
“Shoot,” the man responded without looking at him.
“Do you know where we can find the Order outpost?”
The barkeeper’s hands visibly tensed, but he replied calmly, “Sure, it’s the big walled building near the town center. You just have to go north from here, and you will find it, it’s pretty hard to miss.”
He thanked the barkeeper and returned to his table, only to find Elijah looking at him sheepishly — he was already done with the second plate. Ari just shook his head, and they both left the inn soon after.
After the dimly lit interior, the bright sunlight blinded them both for a moment. The streets weren’t as noisy as yesterday, but they still were packed with people going through their morning routine. Elijah gawked at everything and everyone, even more than Ari did. A few minutes later, they approached one of the carriages parked near the sidewalk. Elijah wanted to touch the steel animal, but its owner left the shop before he was able to and chased them away with his cane.
After some time, the narrow streets of the town’s outskirts began to grow wider, a sign they were getting closer to its center. The crowds were thinner, and there were fewer shops here. Instead, bigger houses with gardens hidden behind tall fences started appearing more often. Some of them had armed guards posted in front of the gates. But they seemed bored and didn’t pay any attention to anything even if both Ari and Elijah gaped with curiosity at the lush gardens inside.
It wasn't long before they reached a large square, with what Ari assumed a small forest in the middle, and he wondered why those people would plant so many trees in the center of the town. He gazed straight ahead as if seeing something beyond the patch of trees. Towers.
The two men exchanged glances and quickened their pace. After entering the weird forest, they followed a tiled stone path that meandered between the trees. Soon, they were out of them on the other side, and Ari was awestruck at the sight before him.
While the stone wall was only about two meters tall, what lay behind it was anything but ordinary. The main building rose at least six floors above the ground; two even taller towers flanked it. The massive structure was made out of red bricks with tall, rounded windows placed in a reasonably symmetrical pattern along its walls. The roof was high, triangular, but one side was longer than the other, and it was covered with black tiles. There were other buildings visible beyond the wall, and while they were built in a similar style, they were much smaller.
“Hey, are you alright?” Elijah said.
“Sorry, that’s the largest building I’ve ever seen, and I got overwhelmed,” Ari replied.
“Yeah, it does look nice, but it’s nothing compared to what we have in my world,” Elijah whispered, after making sure there wasn’t anyone near them.
Ari looked at him wide-eyed. “You didn’t mention anything like that last night. You need to tell me more about it later.”
Elijah smiled and nodded.
“Are you sure about this? We can still find another way,” Ari asked a moment later. His palms were sweaty, and he wasn’t sure if he was more scared or excited. After almost a year of waiting, he was about to join the Order. But on the other side, he was worried about Elijah.
“We need to try. That’s our best chance.” Elijah looked with determination at the building in front of him. He seemed different today, and Ari didn’t know what changed since last night. Not only did he sound more confident, he even stood straighter and taller.
“Remember the plan; don’t show everything you got during the evaluation. We don’t want to bring unwanted attention to ourselves right from the start,” Ari said. He knew anyone with a brand could join the Order, no matter their strength.
Elijah nodded, and after making sure no carriages were going to trample them, they crossed the road and approached the black, wrought iron gate, decorated with the golden snake. A lone guard stood behind it, armed with a sword. She wore similar black leather armor to the guard at the town’s gate, but in place of the green crest, she had the snake embroidered on her chest.
“What business do you have with the Order?” she asked when they were a few steps away from the gate.
“We’re here for the evaluation,” Ari replied.
She nodded and replied in a tired tone, “Just follow the path. When you reach the fountain, turn right and head straight towards the building there.” She slid open the gates and let them into the yard.
Besides the paved path, everything behind the wall was covered in neatly cut grass, with trees appearing here and there. The closer to the fountain they got, the more people they passed. A few dozen of them were scattered across the yard. They sat either beneath the trees or on steel benches placed along the path. Ari noticed that they wore two types of clothing — either simple long, black robes, or black tunic with matching trousers. Some looked at Ari and Elijah with curiosity, but most didn’t bother with them, too focused on their conversations.
After approaching the building at the end of the path, they found the door wide open, and they entered into a spacious hall. It was warm and light inside, with sunshine streaming through the large round windows. The room was filled with wooden benches, but most of them were empty. Behind a massive black desk, standing along one of the walls, sat a heavyset woman with a cheerful face, and she smiled at them, gesturing with her hand to come forward.
“Go first,” Elijah whispered to Ari, and he rested on the closest bench.
Ari approached the desk after a moment of hesitation.
The woman looked him up and down. “What’s your name, sweety?” she asked in a gentle voice as she picked a piece of paper from a stack on the side of the desk. Next, she placed it inside a shallow pit in the countertop, where it fit perfectly.
“Another Islander? What’s going on this year, are your people getting bored on the islands?” she chuckled and scribbled something on the paper with a white pen.
Ari just smiled because he wasn’t sure what to say. He only knew about one person from his village, who left it in recent years to join the Order.
“How many brands have you awakened?”
The woman nodded and scribbled something again. “Have a seat. They will call you soon.” She smiled and looked past him, towards Elijah. “Come, sweety. It’s your turn.”
They passed each other and exchanged smiles, but before Ari was able to sit, a metallic voice sounded across the hall. “Ari Ragnarsson, please enter evaluation room B.”
Ari looked around, searching for the source of the voice. But besides the woman and the people sitting on the benches, the room was empty. What’s worse, he didn’t see anyone else approaching the large desk, and he was curious how the woman had passed his name to someone outside this room.
“Ari Ragnarsson, please enter evaluation room B.” The strange voice spoke again.
“Go on, sweety, they aren’t the patient sort and trust me, you don’t want to keep them waiting,” the woman said. She pointed towards the other side of the room, where three doors were visible.
Ari hastily approached the door with a big letter B painted on them. His heart raced, and he found it difficult to breathe. He barely stopped himself from slapping his cheeks. Instead, he pinched his forearm several times until he felt something wet and warm under his fingers. A moment later, he was finally able to breathe normally. He sent a strand of essence to the wound, healing it instantly and cursed himself for this moment of weakness. After taking a deep breath, he reached for the doorknob.