“You did what?” Ari asked, a bit louder than he intended. A tall man in a brown suit walking beside looked at him with an expression full of contempt.
“I've melted a hole in the metal dummy,” Elijah answered with a shrug, and the suited man scampered away, nearly losing his hat in the process. “But only after I picked up a weapon. I have a passive skill, which increases my spell damage if I channel the essence through a sword.”
Ari shook his head in disbelief. His summon did nothing to the stone dummy, but Elijah somehow managed to damage the metal one, just like the bearded man did.
“I hope this won’t place you high in the ranking,” Ari said.
“They seemed disappointed that I only have one brand with a single spell, so I doubt it. Speaking of brands, when will the second one appear?” Elijah asked with curiosity in his voice.
“I don’t know, mine did a few months after the first one,” Ari said.
“Man, a few months?” Elijah grumbled.
They headed back to The Golden Goose, but Elijah insisted on taking a longer route so that he could see more of the town. When they were passing through a park, Ari noticed a small gathering near a pond. Elijah explained to him the purpose of planting trees inside the town, and it seemed ‘park’ was the name for it. “Let’s check out what’s going on.” He pointed at the group, and both the man approached it.
Around a dozen kids sat on the ground in front of a clumsily painted wooden box, watching it closely and not daring to make a sound. A few adults stood around, but they seemed not interested in what was happening. Puppet show! Ari thought excitedly. He saw one only once when the circus visited his small island ten years ago. Still, even today, he remembered the story shown by the puppeteer — brave adventurers from the Order saving a town from an enormous wolf-like creature.
This show seemed similar, but instead of a wolf, the group was hunting a red dragon. From what it looked like, the show was coming to its end and Ari sighed with disappointment. The group already found the cave and placed a few sheep filled with poison in front of it. Now they were hiding in a nearby bush, arguing whether the plan would work. Even Ari wondered how a poisoned sheep could hurt a dragon. But the team captain, pictured as a black-red puppet with a sword, was adamant and told his group to wait. Soon, the monster left its cave, and the kids started pointing eagerly at it, trying to warn the small wooden adventurers.
“I told you to fuck off from my park with your damn puppets.” A wheezy voice sounded from somewhere behind Ari.
He turned around just in time to avoid a plump man in a white suit who was approaching the group, swinging his cane wildly. Two men armed with swords flanked him. The man stopped near the kids, who looked at him in horror. He was breathing hard, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, he pulled a white piece of cloth and wiped his sweaty brow with it. He shooed the kids out of his way with his cane, but a little girl was too slow to move, and she was hit by the tip of the cane. Immediately, tears appeared on her freckled cheeks, and she held her injured hand to her chest.
Ari’s eyes narrowed. He regretted not having his stave by his side, but he looked around and noticed the pond. Maybe… He sent a strand of essence and started gathering as much water as he could.
Meanwhile, the plump man stood in front of the wooden box, shouting obscenities and flailing with his hands. One of the puppets turned towards him, brandishing its sword and shouted in a fruity voice, “To me, courageous Order warriors! Another monster came to help the dragon, the greedy and menacing warthog!”
All the kids burst out laughing hearing that, even the freckled girl smiled through her tears. The white-suited man’s face turned red, and he swung his cane at the box, but it bounced off the wood, barely doing anything. So he tried something different and grabbed the box, tilting it left and right. “Come out of the damn thing!” he shouted through his gritted teeth.
I need to help him. The water was already beside him, and he readied himself to throw it at the man, but he felt someone tugging at his sleeve and he turned to the side. Elijah shook his head and opened his mouth to say something, but a loud crash drowned his voice. Both of them turned their heads toward the source of it and gawked at what they saw. The box lay broken on the ground, and beside the puppets, who stood now on top of it, there was nobody there. But… How did the puppets move? Ari thought, dumbfounded.
“The warthog is powerful indeed! But have no fear kids, the Order will save you!” shouted the same puppet as before, and the kids started laughing again.
Suddenly, all four puppets jumped on the white-suited man’s head and started hitting him with their small wooden weapons. Even the dragon was flying over his head, breathing fire at the man’s hair. He cried out in pain, swinging his cane wildly. One of his guards tried to help him, but he was hit straight in the face and blood gushed from the man’s broken nose as he fell to the ground. The plump man ran off, shouting toward the trees, the puppets still riding his head, striking him in unison. The kids cheered whenever he squalled in pain. The other guard stood with his face hung open, but after a moment, he rushed after his employer, both of them vanishing between the trees.
“What the hell just happened?” Elijah asked.
“I would like to know that too,” Ari said. He released the water when the puppets attacked and now he approached the little freckled girl. While the other kids were already leaving, she still sat on the ground, whimpering softly and holding her injured hand.
“I can help you with the pain,” he said after he sat near her. When she looked at him with distrust, he showed her his watch and the girl’s eye widened. “Don’t worry, I’m from the Order.”
The girl nodded eagerly and he placed his hand over hers, casting Mend right away. The swelling vanished, and she stretched out her hand, looking at it with curiosity. A wide smile appeared on her face and she jumped on Ari, hugging him with all the strength she could muster.
“Thank you,” she whispered and started running after the other kids, shouting to wait for her.
Ari smiled broadly. This is why he wanted to join the Order; to help people in need. If his Mom could see him right now, he knew she would be proud of him… Still, he nearly attacked the man without thinking about the consequences. He felt it was the right thing to do, but in their current situation, it would only bring unwanted attention to them.
Elijah’s hand appeared in his vision. “Stop daydreaming.”
Ari grabbed it, and the man helped him to stand up. He approached the guard and healed his nose too. While he didn’t know what kind of person the guard was, nobody deserved to suffer for someone else’s stupidity.
He looked around, and between the trees, he noticed someone — an older man wearing a worn-out brown coat leaned casually on a tree. One of the puppets sat on his shoulder, its feet dangling happily. The strange man smiled and tipped his weathered hat at him. Ari blinked to take a better look at him, but he was already gone. He was the one controlling the puppets. But how did he do it?
“You’re daydreaming again,” Elijah sighed.
“There was someone between the trees,” Ari said and explained what he saw.
Elijah whistled softly. “Man, the essence has so many uses.”
Ari nodded. “Let’s go, we wasted too much time already.”
“Yeah, I’m getting hungry,” Elijah said and rubbed his belly.
“You’re always hungry,” Ari chuckled.
“Not my fault I burn so fast through all that I eat,” Elijah sulked, but a smile crept on his face a moment later. “Get it, burn?”
Ari rolled his eyes and they both started laughing. When they were leaving the park, a tingling sensation in his neck told him someone was observing them. He stopped himself from turning and gathered essence on his fingertips, but he frowned and dispersed it a moment later. There’s no water nearby, I can’t do shit. I need a spell that I can use whenever I want. Ari listened with half an ear as Elijah marveled at the potential uses of essence, his attention focused on the area around them, but the sensation dissipated a moment later like it wasn’t even there.
After about half an hour, Ari finally could see The Golden Goose’s wooden sign in front of them — a goose eating a golden coin. When they approached the inn, the door opened and two of the Hunters from yesterday marched out into the street. When the red-haired girl noticed them, she harrumphed through her nose and turned her head to the side. But the shaggy man just waved at them, grinning from ear to ear, “Sorry for the mess, kids.”
Both Ari and Elijah stood there dumbfounded, watching as the pair of Hunters vanished around a corner. They stared at each other with fear in their eyes. The wardrobe!
Ari rushed into the inn, Elijah followed him closely behind. The guests inside looked at them with disapproval in their eyes as they barged in, but they ignored everyone and hurried upstairs. Their heavy footsteps echoed through the room, drowning out not only the conversations but also the music. One of the guests shouted something towards them, but Ari didn’t even hear him. He reached their floor first and found the door to their room open ajar. His mind blank, he looked at them with despair. Elijah joined him a few seconds later and leaned on the wall near him, panting hard.
Ari gulped and slowly opened the door. The room was in complete disarray, both the beds knocked over and their clothes scattered on the floor. His stave was broken in two parts, each driven with force into the wall. All of the wardrobe drawers were opened, and Ari rushed towards it, only to find the bottom one empty. His face suddenly turned white, and a shiver ran down his spine — Elijah’s clothes were gone, taken by the Hunters.
“W… We’re fucked,” Elijah stammered.
“Not yet,” a female voice reached Ari’s ears and he spun towards its source, only to find Lisa standing in the door. Without the apron he usually saw on her, she looked different. She wore a red tunic with short sleeves and black trousers that ended at her calves. “Don’t say another word and follow me.”
When both of them did nothing besides staring at her, she stomped her foot and snapped, “Now!” Then she started walking down the hallway, muttering something under her breath.
They exchanged glances and Elijah whispered, “She reminds me of someone.”
“Who?” Ari scowled.
Elijah cocked his head a little to one side. “You know, nevermind. Let’s do what she said.”
Ari nodded, and they followed the blonde-haired woman. He thought the Hunters would leave them alone, but he underestimated them and now Elijah’s clothes were gone. It irked him that the woman knew more than she was saying. He didn’t trust her, but they didn’t really have a choice.
She led them downstairs back to the common room and then through the door behind the bar. A pleasant scent of cooked vegetables lingered in the kitchen, but the girl didn’t stop there. They approached another set of stairs and she pointed at the door visible at the bottom. “Go first,” she said. The expression on her face discouraged them from asking any questions, and they cautiously made their way down the narrow staircase.
Ari pulled the door open, entering into a small cellar and all his hair stood up from the cold dampness that filled the air. He looked around, but he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary — the cellar was full of casks and barrels, but beside them, it was empty. He sensed water in one of the casks, so he wasn’t defenseless if something was about to happen. Lisa advanced toward the opposite wall and pushed one of the bricks inside. Nothing happened for a few seconds, but then the whole wall shimmered, and Ari sucked in the air through his teeth after it vanished.
A spacious room was revealed before their eyes, its size much bigger than the whole inn above them. The walls were covered by bookcases and cabinets filled with various weapons and items. In the center of the room, the stout barkeeper sat comfortably in a leather armchair, an open book lay on his lap. When he noticed them, he laid it on a table in front of him and looked them up and down. Then he said in a tired voice while twiddling his wild mustache, “I thought I saw every kind of stupidity, but what you muppets did today takes the cake.”