They arrived near the Order’s outpost a good half hour before midday when the inauguration was supposed to start. Before leaving the inn, they agreed to not talk in public about anything related to Elijah being a Wanderer. Without the silencing ward, it would be too risky.
The streets were unusually crowded today, and all the vacant parking spots around the large park were filled with several dozens of carriages. That was another new phrase Ari learned from his friend after he asked about the weird white marked places near the sidewalks.
"Did they all come here for the inauguration?" Elijah asked, scratching his head. “Last night you said this was just a small town on the edge of the kingdom.”
“I would like to know that too. They assigned numbers to us during the evaluation and mine was something around four hundred. Still, I thought commoners are joining the Order more often than the nobility,” Ari replied. A frown appeared on his forehead when he noticed that the carriages were different from the ones he usually saw. Not only were they decorated heavily with gold and essence, but also all of them had the metal horses in front of them, some even more than one.
Something else was going on, but Ari didn’t know what and it worried him. From his Mom’s stories, he knew the evaluation happened every three months because the Order always needed recruits, but she never mentioned that it was such a grand event.
After approaching the gate, they found a stream of people pouring through it into the yard. They joined at the end of the group and Ari carefully observed the people in front of him. Most were around his age, although several seemed to be in their early teens, and a few looked even older than him. They were all dressed in elegant suits or robes, and Ari felt out of place with his traveling gear. What did we get ourselves into?
When they visited the outpost yesterday, there were only a handful of people inside, but now the whole yard was filled with Order’s members in their distinguishable black clothing. Some even approached the people in the group, wishing them good luck and hoping they would be placed high in the ranking.
Due to this, they moved slowly and after what it felt like ages, they reached the main building and Ari looked in awe at it. Up close, the red-bricked walls were even more impressive and he couldn't see the roof from where he stood. He sensed various essence patterns imbued into the bricks and he was curious about their purpose. They were different from the ones he saw in the basement — their complexity and the amount of essence inside of them was staggering.
Someone snickered nearby and he realized he was gawking with a stupid expression. Instantly, his cheeks burned red with embarrassment. He glanced at Elijah, whose sharp eyes were instead focused on the people around. His friend muttered something under his breath but too quiet for Ari to hear. It’s strange. Whenever he’s around other people, his behavior changes.
As they entered the building, the big wooden doors swung shut behind them and Ari flinched at the sound. He sighed at his reaction and looked around in amazement. Beams of sunlight streamed through the rounded windows, basking the giant rectangular hall in a warm glow. The air inside smelled faintly of flowers, but Ari couldn't see any vases or decorations and he wondered where the scent was coming from. Pillars were lined at the sides of the room, supporting the upper floor and he saw dark clothed figures leaning on the balustrades above him. The red and white checkered floor was filled with rows and rows of benches, most of them already full of people. Only the two last ones were empty and they headed there with the rest of their group.
A grand staircase leading up to the higher floors was visible ahead of them. A wooden platform was raised at the foot of the steps. Five ornamented chairs were placed on it, and the middle one was not only bigger but also more richly adorned than the rest.
While Ari and Elijah gawked around the hall in silence, it was bustling with conversations, but they all came to an abrupt halt when five figures appeared on the stairs. They all wore identical black robes and among them, Ari recognized the silver-haired man from his evaluation. At the head walked a stern-looking woman in her late fifties with golden hair fixed into a tight bun. While she approached a small wooden stand, the remaining four took their seats on the chairs behind her.
She nodded with approval and said in a silvery voice, “Thank you all for coming today. Some of you may know me, but for those who don’t, my name is Alfreda Algere, and I’m the head of the Bourfall’s Order council. I can see that you’re all eager to learn your ranking position and the teams you will belong to, but I would like to discuss a few things before that.”
“Today marks the 200th anniversary of Cwenthryth death. She was one of the Founders of our Order, and nearly a thousand years ago, she fought in the Great War against Thalethians. Without her, humanity would perish in this strange world.” She paused for a second before shouting, “To Cwenthryth!”
“To Cwenthryth!” The whole room responded.
A glass of water appeared in the woman’s hand, and she took a sip from it before continuing. “Cwenthryth was a Mercian, and she was born in a small village not far from here. To celebrate her merits to the Order, the headquarters decided to make the autumn evaluations special in our region, and they changed the rewards structure.”
A low murmur spread through the hall and the woman waited for it to stop, impatiently tapping her fingers on the stand. The story of Cwenthryth and the Thalethians was new to Ari, but he already wanted to know more about her life and he made a mental note to visit the library.
When the hall went quiet again, the woman said, “In three months, all members of the top five teams will receive a weapon of their choosing with a low emerald ranked enchantment.”
The murmurs were much louder this time, drowning the woman’s voice, and she shouted, “Quiet!”
A wave of essence spread from the stand, so thick it ripped the air out of Ari’s lungs. He couldn’t breathe, but the pressure vanished right after and he gasped for air. Elijah took it a bit worse, as he fell to his knees, but Ari helped him sit back up. Thankfully, they weren’t the only ones who reacted like this. Most of the people around him looked distressed and some even fell to the ground losing their consciousness. Only one girl in his vicinity sat straight as if nothing happened. She was younger than Ari, her rusty hair cut short and a wolfish smile was visible on her lean face.
The woman on the stand cleared her throat and went on. “The next person who opens their mouth will be expelled both from this hall and the Order.” She paused, letting her words sink in. “Furthermore, there will be an extra reward for the top team. They will receive guidance from a sapphire ranked member.”
The whole hall went so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
Ari looked around in confusion and wherever he turned his head, he saw people with their mouths hanging open. Even the rusty-haired girl who withstood the essence wave stared with her eyes bulging at the stand, her smile gone.
He only heard about the opal rank during his evaluation and the guard at the gates mentioned emeralds coming to investigate the rainbow storm, but sapphire was something new. Maybe it’s above those two ranks? He didn't have one yet, but even he could see the benefits of talking to someone who was three ranks ahead of him.
A smirk appeared on the stern woman’s face and she continued, “Now that we’re done with the announcements, it’s time to reveal the ranking.”
She nodded to another Order member, who stood near the wall on her left side. The man pulled a lever and the ceiling above him opened with a low pitched creak. An empty white board descended from the narrow opening and after it was fully visible, the man pulled the lever again, halting it in place. Then, the ceiling closed with a muffled thud.
Ari looked at the board, cocking his head. But before he could even think why it was empty, he gasped when black numbers and letters started appearing on the white background. After about a minute, the whole board was filled with rows and columns with names and he searched eagerly for his own — starting from the bottom right corner, where the number three hundred and ninety-five closed the ranking.
When he passed the 200th place without finding it he let out the breath he was holding. If he was ranked higher than half of all the recruits, then his evaluation didn’t go as bad as he thought. But his happiness didn’t last long because he found his name in the next column.
182. Ari Ragnarsson - Wildcard
It could have been much better, but I can’t complain. Wait a minute. While searching, he forgot about everything else, even about Elijah, but he was sure the man’s name hadn't appeared on the spots below him. His eyes hurt from scanning the board and he turned to his friend to ask about his placement. But to his surprise, Elijah still stared at the board, his eyelids twitching. Ari waved his hand in front of his face, but the man’s expression didn't change. He frowned and turned his attention back to the board, straining his eyes.
His frown deepened slightly when he hadn’t found his friend’s name before reaching the top hundred recruits. When there were only fifty places left, he felt cold sweat running down his back. Only one column remained and he started reading it hastily, his hands shaking. When he reached the 10th place, terror overtook his face.
Maybe they had found out he’s a Wanderer and removed him from the ranking. He shook his head. No, that’s not possible. He forced himself to read further and finally he reached the top five. Compared to all the other names, they were written in bigger letters dwarfing the rest of the list.
5. Royce Harding - Mender
4. Felicia Arquetius - Evoker
3. Elijah Moore - Brawler
2. Conall Jewelle - Stalker
1. Skyla Tholdana - Master
But how? He only has a single brand. Ari gulped hard and looked with his eyes wide at Elijah.
The man ruffled his hand through his hair and a goofy smile appeared on his face. “I guess this world feels like a book after all.”
Ari couldn’t understand why he was laughing. They were supposed to keep their heads down, but now... This was the reason why he hadn’t shared the information he learned about Wanderers and their strength with him. It wasn’t the first time Elijah mentioned the books from his world and it worried Ari that he would think that he's special, growing careless in the process. I need to speak to him when we’re back. This isn’t a book. Our lives are at stake here.
Ari wanted to scold him for mentioning his world again, but the woman’s voice resounded through the hall, drowning all conversations. “Top five recruits, please come forward,” she said.
When I thought things couldn't get any worse.
The smile vanished from Elijah’s face, replaced by a tight-lipped grimace. After taking a deep breath, he stood up and slowly made his way toward the platform. To Ari’s right, the strange red-haired girl also left her bench and followed after Elijah. The whole hall observed the five figures approaching the platform, some with curiosity, but Ari mostly noticed hostility in the eyes of the people around him.
Even though Ari was annoyed by his friend’s behavior, there was nothing he could do about it anymore. Instead, he too focused on the five people who already reached the platform and the woman shuffled them around in what Ari assumed was their placement in the ranking.
The man who stood at the far right side was the tallest of them all, but also the most overweight. His clothing was not only weathered but also horribly mismatched and the white loose shirt he wore barely covered his rotund belly. He looked like he was afraid of something, his deeply set eyes darting left and right while he tried to hide behind his thick, curly, brown hair that reminded Ari of a bale of hay.
The fair-skinned woman beside him looked askance at the heavy-set man as she brushed away her black, wavy hair from her chiseled face. Her white loose dress touched the floor and a red shawl was thrown over her shoulder. I never saw this type of clothing before. She’s not from Mercia, Ari thought before moving his eyes to the next person.
Elijah was placed in the middle of the group and while he tried to look casual, Ari noticed a glimpse of fear in his eyes. Even if he knew the man only for a few days, he could still see through his act as he held his hands behind his back, so others wouldn't notice that they were trembling.
Next to him stood a short, feminine looking man. He was handsome, with golden, curling hair and eyelashes any woman would kill for. The dark-brown suit he wore was adorned with golden ornaments, matching his hair color. He approached all the other recruits, smiling from ear to ear and exchanging handshakes, but there was something off about that man.
The rusty-haired girl closed the line. She couldn't be older than eighteen and Ari wondered how powerful she must be if she held the first place in the ranking despite her age. Her black, simple clothes were similar to the ones wore by Order members, the only difference being the lack of the golden mark. A wide smile was plastered on her face, but it hadn’t reached her black shark-like eyes and when he looked into them, a shiver ran down his back. She reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t place her, his mind drawing a blank.
The stern-looking woman returned to the stand and raised her hand. It was enough to quiet all the conversations that erupted after the top recruits were revealed. “Those five recruits have a bright future ahead of them and you need to work hard if you want to catch up.”
“Before we reveal your teams, there’s one more thing left. As it is our tradition, every new recruit will be able to pick a weapon for himself. While most of you will be limited to an unranked enchantment, the top five can choose a weapon from low opal rank,” she continued.
An enchanted weapon? Ari’s heartbeat quickened with excitement. The Hunters broke his stave and he felt naked without a weapon. He planned to buy something after the inauguration — both for himself and Elijah — but it seemed he would be able to save his dwindling purse.
Finally a bit of good news, he thought as he waited for the woman to continue her speech.