Ari walked into a surprisingly spacious room with a high ceiling supported by hardwood beams. Rows of small lamps were attached to them, and with shutters closed tightly over the windows, they were the only source of light. His nose wrinkled at a pungent smell of smoke filling the air, which grew stronger as he made his way further into the room, the wooden floor creaking under his every step.
A set of four training dummies stood along the left pure white wall. Each of them made out of a different kind of material. The first two were wooden, one light, another dark. The third one looked like it was cut out of some sort of stone, and the last was covered in glistening black metal. A rack filled with various weapons was placed nearby — swords, axes, maces, bows, and others he couldn’t even name.
Three people — two men and a woman — sat behind a large black desk placed under the wall in front of him and they looked at Ari with impatience in their eyes. Well, two of them did. The person on the right was stretched out with his head against the back of his chair and feet placed on the table. Ari couldn't see his face as a brown leather hat covered it. At first, he thought the man was asleep, but a cloud of gray smoke surrounded his head, and more of it wafted from beneath the hat.
A young woman occupied the left side of the desk; her golden, curly hair was clumsily hanging over her full, warm face. Two stitched marks were visible on her dark green robe: the golden snake Ari knew already and a white book. Stacks of papers and some weird looking tools filled the desk in front of her. She tapped her fingers impatiently on a small blue box and after seeing Ari approaching the desk, she picked up a pen and clicked the end of it.
Between them sat a silver-haired man, wearing a black as night gentleman suit. The man’s face was long and narrow. His amber eyes were intense in their deep sockets under heavy hawklike brows. He fished something out of his pocket, a round piece of glass hanging on a thin golden chain, and put it to his eye. Ari wondered if his glasses broke and he was left with only a part of them.
The silver-haired man nodded to the woman. She touched the blue box and a ding sound echoed in the room. After it died down, he cleared his throat and said in a toneless voice, “Autumn evaluation, year 942. Recruit number three hundred and sixty-four” — he paused, gazing at a piece of paper in his hand and raised his eyebrow — “Ari Ragnarsson.”
He looked at Ari and continued, “There are two things you should know before we proceed.” He raised a finger pointing upward. “First, after joining the Order, you will be bound to serve for five years. During that time, 15% of every mission reward you earn will be kept by us, but in return, you will be provided with resources and training to speed up your development. After that you can decide to stay or leave, it’s your choice. But if you try to leave the Order before the five year period is over, you will be hunted and killed.”
Chill ran down Ari’s back when he heard the last part, but he managed to keep his face straight.
The man raised his second finger. “Two, at least a third of the recruits die during the first three months. We won’t lie, there are risks involved in joining the Order, but that’s the cost of progress.”
A third? Ari barely kept his calm. His Mother never mentioned anything like that.
The man observed Ari closely. After a few seconds, he nodded as if satisfied by his lack of visible reaction. “Do you still want to join?”
Ari gathered himself and answered, “Yes, I do. Helping others is worth—”
Loud snoring interrupted him, drowning his voice. The silver-haired man looked at his companion with disdain, but he didn’t say anything.
He was asleep all this time! Ari couldn’t control his emotions any longer, and his eyes widened in shock.
The woman broke the awkward silence that followed, her voice smooth and melodic. “Come forward and put this on.”
Ari approached the desk, cautiously reaching out his hand when he was close enough and she placed a strange-looking necklace on his palm. The pendant was shaped like the Order’s mark, but there were two transparent gems placed inside the golden snake. The piece of jewelry was masterfully crafted as no seams were visible between the snake and the gems. But instead of being surprised, Ari’s brows furrowed, and he tried to understand why they gave him this.
“You probably think what does it do. Just try it on and see for yourself,” the woman said.
Ari reluctantly placed the necklace around his neck, but nothing happened. “How does it work?”
“Close your eyes and pour your essence into the necklace,” she replied, looking eagerly at him.
Ari closed his eyes and sent a strand of it into the necklace. Instantly, all the essence inside his body churned and rushed through his veins like a violent storm. He gritted his teeth, readying himself for the pain, but it never came. Till today, the essence inside him reminded him of the sea — it was constantly moving, like the waves on the wind. But now it was still, nearly lifeless as if waiting for his commands. Suddenly filled with hope, he reached for the essence, and it responded. Letters and numbers appeared in his vision, and he marveled at what he saw.
|Rank: None||Progress: 16%||Affinity: Nature|
|Attributes (15 unspent points)|
|Body: 6||Mind: 7||Spirit (+20%): 12 (10)|
|Rune of Summoning
|Summon Lesser Water Elemental - level 4||Osmosis|
|Summoner's Bond - level 4|
|Rune of Spring|
|Mend - level 2||Fast Recovery - level 2|
|Control Water - level 1|
Woah. Ari looked in amazement at the amount of information he was able to access, even if he wasn’t sure what most of it meant. Rank, affinity, attributes. Besides his runes and spells, everything was new. He forgot where he was; all he wanted was to submerge himself into his essence and learn more about his brands.
“You will have enough time later to go over all of it.”
A voice brought him back from his thoughts, and Ari pried his eyes open with regret. He would have never guessed that an item could grant such control over his essence. Looking with curiosity at the necklace, he noticed a few barely visible white wisps of essence floating inside the gems. What are those? They weren’t there before.
“Seems you noticed it already. The gems respond to your essence, and they will change color according to your rank,” the woman explained. She smiled at him, her eyes glinting. “After both of them are filled with white color, you will officially reach the opal rank.”
The silver-haired man covered his mouth with a piece of cloth and cleared his throat.
The woman's round cheeks flushed red. “Right, sorry. You will have to answer a few questions about your essence, so we can properly evaluate your skills. First, what affinity do you have?”
Ari tried to recall what his affinity was, but he wasn’t sure. He closed his eyes for a second, and the information appeared before his eyes instantly. “Nature affinity.”
The man on the right stirred on his seat and raised his hat slightly, looking Ari up and down with his pale blue eyes. A black beard covered most of his face as thick as a boar's hairbrush. He removed his feet from the table and put out the cigarette on his chair’s armrest, which earned him another look from the silver haired-man.
“That’s unusual,” the woman said after a moment of silence, cocking her head slightly.
“Why is that?” Ari asked.
“Because it’s an advanced affinity,” said the bearded man. His voice was gruff as though he hadn't spoken since yesterday. “Glassies usually have only one of the basic affinities, like fire or water. Only with time, it can evolve into one of the advanced ones, like nature.”
“Glassies?” Ari raised his brow.
“It’s what we call unranked people,” — he paused, looking straight into Ari’s eyes — “Because you break as easily as glass.” The man chuckled and hit the desk with his hand as if he said a great joke.
“Let’s continue,” the woman said sternly. “Please name your brands and the spells you have available.”
Ari did as she asked. He noticed the woman wasn’t noting down anything. Instead, she was twirling the pen between her fingers as she listened.
“Interesting combination,” she said silently. “It's time for a more practical test. Let’s start with your summoning spell.”
Ari didn’t see any source of water in the room, and he looked sheepishly at the woman. “Uhm, to summon my spider, I need to have water available near me.”
Before she was able to reply, the bearded man burst out laughing. “I knew there had to be something. An advanced affinity on a glassie, it was too good to be true.”
“Please give us a moment,” the woman said. She muttered something, and the laugh was cut abruptly. She turned to the bearded man and started shouting at him, gesturing with her hands. Ari couldn’t hear anything, but looking at the bearded man grim face, he didn’t envy him. The silver-haired man simply ignored both of them as he was focused on cleaning his single piece of glass.
“Sorry for my colleague, he sometimes lacks the proper manners,” the woman said after a moment, wiping her forehead with a piece of cloth. “Someone will bring a barrel in a second. In the meantime, please show us your Mend spell. Cassius here wanted to volunteer for the demonstration, right?” She turned towards the bearded men.
Cassius gulped and nodded. After he approached Ari, a small knife appeared in his hand out of nowhere. He pulled up his sleeve and cut into his forearm; blood started dripping slowly from the wound. Ari focused on his essence, and it instantly listened to him. All he had to do was think the spell name, Mend, and place his hand over the wound; it closed immediately, even the blood vanished. Before, he had to lead the essence to his hand first and force it outside, but now everything was much easier. He was astonished by the difference the necklace made.
Cassius nodded. “Let’s try something more severe.” He gritted his teeth and cut along his forearm. The wound not only was more extensive but also deeper, blood gushed out of it and Ari hurried to cast Mend. It took more essence, but the wound closed nearly in an instant. “Fast and efficient. But I guess touch is required for your spell to work?” he asked.
“Yes, I need to put my hand over the wound,” Ari replied.
Cassius pulled his sleeve down and returned to his seat. Meanwhile, the door opened, and a boy carrying a barrel full of water that was as big as he entered the room. He placed it nearly effortlessly near Ari, flashed him a smile, and left right after. Ari gulped at the size of the barrel, it must have weighed at least a hundred kilograms, and he carried it like it was nothing.
“Vatna, hear my summons and obey.” He closed his eyes and sent a surge of essence towards the barrel.
The water inside stirred, some of it even splashed out of the barrel’s edges. A moment later, a big translucent spider jumped out of it and turned towards Ari, its fangs clattering as if it was happy. Ari frowned because the creature looked different from the last time he summoned it. Not only was it bigger, rivaling the wolves he fought a few days ago, but also all its legs were twice as thick as before, and strange runes appeared on its abdomen. Another difference he noticed was the water inside of the spider — it was as still as the essence inside of him.
“Command your summon to attack the dummies, starting from the wooden one to the left,” said the silver-haired man as he observed the spider with curiosity.
“Attack.” Ari pointed at the dummy and the spider instantly jumped in that direction. Woah, it’s much faster than before. Before he was able to blink, the head of the dummy was already bitten off and the creature prodded the wooden body with one of his legs as if it was confused by something.
A smile appeared on Ari’s face and he pointed at the second dummy. Its head was torn off a second after the spider landed on its back. The summon is also much stronger. His smile widened and he commanded the creature to attack the next target, but the stone proved to be too tough — the spider barely made any scratch on it after biting for half a minute.
“Please command the creature to use its skills only.” The silver-haired man’s voice reached Ari, and he looked at him, confused.
“Erm, my summon doesn’t have any skills.” Ari’s smile faded right away.
Cassius smirked, but he remained silent and only glowered at the woman. The silver-haired man drew his hawklike brows together and said, “Are you sure about this? Summons always start with at least three skills. They can’t get more, but the ones they do have can change with time.”
Ari closed his eyes and looked into his essence, but he hadn’t found anything about skills when he focused on his spell. Only a short description appeared in his mind.
|Summon Lesser Water Elemental - level 4
|You summon a lesser elemental, which fights alongside you and obeys your commands until it is destroyed or dismissed.|
“Yes, there’s nothing about skills,” Ari said dejectedly.
“I understand,” the man said. “The last spell then, Control Water. Use it to attack the dummies.” He touched something on the desk, and the sound of chains clanking filled the room. The floor around the two destroyed dummies started lowering down, and soon, the remains vanished from his sight. A moment later, two brand new ones emerged, and the clanking sound died down. What was that? Ari couldn’t understand what just happened. The sound reminded him of the gate being raised, but they were inside a room, and he wondered how did it work.
“Continue please,” the silver man said, with a hint of impatience in his voice.
Ari dismissed his spider. After that, he sent a strand of his essence toward the barrel and gathered as much water as he could — maybe a bucket worth of it — and threw it at the dummy. The water just splashed over the wood without doing any harm.
The room went silent for a few long seconds, and Cassius asked, barely containing his laughter, “That was it?”
“The spell is useless.” Ari pouted his lips.
Cassius stood from behind the desk and approached Ari. “Nothing is useless” — his face and tone suddenly became serious — “You just haven’t learned how to use it properly.”
He waved his hand, and Ari felt a soft breeze against his face. “My affinity is wind, and I have a similar spell to yours,” Cassius said. “I can change the flow of the wind or its shape in any way I want. But also I can make it do this!” He shouted the last word and brought his hand straight down at the metallic dummy. Nothing happened for a second. Then, a long slit appeared in the center of the dummy, and it was split into two identical parts as if an invisible blade cut it. They crashed down, destroying the wooden floor beneath. Chill ran down Ari’s back, and he stared at what was left of the dummy with his mouth wide open.
“Spells aren’t set in stone. The more you use them, the more you can learn, and in time, you can even change the spell itself. Remember that next time you call something useless,” Cassius said, and he returned to his seat.
“I think we’ve seen enough,” the silver-haired man said. “Please, give us a minute to discuss a few more things.” He nodded at the woman, and she again whispered something, blocking their voices from reaching Ari.
Ari looked with newfound respect at Cassius. He always dismissed the spell as totally useless, and instead, he focused on his summon and healing. But after seeing what the man was able to do with the wind, he knew he needed to train more with his spell.
“We’ve reached a decision,” the silver-haired man said. “Your summon offensive power is certainly lacking, and without any skills, you don’t meet the requirements to be classified as a Master. Same with your healing, while it’s potent, you need to be close to use your spell, and this is not always possible in dungeons, so you can’t be a Mender. Hence we decided to classify you as Wildcard. It’s a role that can fill at least two different ones, but it doesn’t excel at either of them.”
Master, Mender, Wildcard. Ari wasn’t sure what the man was talking about, but he nodded as if he agreed with his reasoning.
“There’s one more thing left. We will be creating teams made out of four recruits, taking into consideration their strengths, weaknesses, and potential synergy. If you joined with a friend, do let us know his name. We can try to put you on the same team, but only if this won’t affect its overall performance.”
That was another new piece of information. Ari's parents were part of the same team, but he didn’t know that the Order was the one who put them together. Last night, while speaking with Elijah, they assumed they would just join the same team no matter what, but it looked like this wasn’t as simple as he thought.
“Elijah Moore,” Ari said after a moment.
“Thank you, that will be all for today. Please come back here tomorrow at midday. You will meet your new teammates, and also your rank will be revealed there.”
“Rank?” Ari inquired.
“Yes, after evaluating all the recruits, we create a ranking based on your skills and potential. All the details will be revealed tomorrow,” the silver-haired man said and waved him off.
Ari’s mind was on the verge of exploding with all the new stuff he learned. He left the room in a hurry to share what happened with Elijah and saw his friend outside, sitting on one of the benches.
“Man, took you long enough. I’ve been waiting here for at least ten minutes already,” Elijah said when Ari sat next to him.
“What? You’re already done with your evaluation?” Ari asked, dumbfounded.
“Yeah, apparently, I’m something called a Brawler.” A smirk appeared on Elijah’s face when he put his fists together. “That’s a fine name, suits me.”
Ari let out a deep breath and shook his head. “That stupid plan worked. Let’s go. We can talk about everything on the way back.”