While walking down the dimly lit hallway, Ari could still hear the spoiled boy’s shrieks as he begged for mercy. But soon, his cries were drowned by loud conversations coming from behind the door in front of him. Ari tightened his grip on the scepter and after taking a deep breath, entered into the giant hall.
The golden-haired headmistress cast a questioning glance in his direction and he barely stopped himself from gulping, before scuttling away from the platform. Ari walked near the columns on the side of the hall, ignored by most of the recruits. It wasn't surprising as the weapon he received couldn’t be compared to the ones picked by the recruits before him.
“Recruits in positions one hundred eighty-six to one hundred ninety-five, you can go now,” the headmistress said. She already sounded tired and bored.
Right away, with eager looks on their faces, the next ten figures hurried toward the armory. One of them, a short bronze-haired man, grimaced when he passed by Ari, murmuring something about taking his time. But Ari ignored him and kept walking.
When he neared the benches at the end of the hall, he found a group of recruits surrounding Elijah as he showed off his opal ranked sword. His friend's longish black hair was ruffled, and a slight blush was visible on his pudgy cheeks. The small crowd around him gasped with amazement when the weapon’s blade engulfed itself in bright red flames.
Ari sighed. While he suspected that the recruits would try to approach Elijah, they still did it faster than he expected. What was even worse, his friend was too engrossed to notice that some of them were faking their smiles. He’s too trustful. That’s another thing we need to discuss.
Ari glanced around the hall and a tall woman with her hands folded on her chest caught his attention. She stood beneath one of the columns and a huge two-handed sword leaned against the bench in front of her. She wore an expensive-looking white buttoned blouse, dark pants, and shiny brown leather shoes. Her long wavy hair flowing down her shoulders looked like a raven-black waterfall. With a disdainful frown on her lean face, she observed Elijah and the recruits around him. But after noticing Ari, she picked up the sword as if it weighed nothing and ventured deeper into the hall.
More potential enemies. Ari shook his head and approached the group. He waved to get Elijah’s attention and the man joined him after excusing himself. The group dispersed with the recruits returning to their seats.
“Took you long enough,” Elijah said with a smirk.
“There were some problems. But I’m happy with what I’ve got,” Ari replied.
They sat at the edge of their bench and started talking in hushed voices about the time spent in the armory. Of course, the first thing Elijah wanted to do, was to identify the scepter and the shield Ari received.
Half an hour later, the last group returned to the hall and the headmistress cleared her throat, which silenced all the ongoing conversations. It seemed that nobody wanted to risk rousing her ire after the previous outburst.
“I hope you’re happy with your choices,” she said and a faint smile appeared on her tired face. “Let’s proceed to the last part of the inauguration, your teams.”
When she finished talking, she glanced at the white board hanging on the wall and muttered something under her breath. The ranking vanished, only to reappear a moment later. But now, there was an extra number visible next to each recruit’s name.
182. Ari Ragnarsson - Wildcard - 63
Team sixty-three. With his heartbeat quickening, Ari looked at the top of the ranking.
3. Elijah Moore - Brawler - 63
He let out a deep breath, and from the sound coming from his right, he knew Elijah did the same.
“We prepared a training hall for each team, where in a few minutes you will be able to meet your teammates. To provide you with some privacy, each hall can be only opened by the members of the team assigned to it,” the headmistress said.
Ari grinned at the news. That was exactly what they needed. Since coming to Bourfall, he neglected his training and now that would change.
“Before you leave, there’s one more thing I would like to explain. The ranking.” She paused and all the eyes in the hall turned toward her.
“You will receive points both for clearing dungeons and for doing various missions in our region. The higher their rating, the more points they are worth. But you need to clear three dungeons without outside help before we grant you access to our mission board. The rule exists for the safety of our clients because most missions involve helping them.”
What about our safety? Ari’s knowledge about dungeons was limited, but the prospect of entering one with only four people scared him. He thought that the Order would help them, especially at the start, but it seemed he was wrong. Now I understand why a third of the recruits get killed.
“You have three months. After that period of time, you will become members of the Order and will be granted full benefits that come with that status,” the headmistress continued. “I won’t be keeping you here any longer. Please follow the hallway to your left. It will lead you to the basement, where you will find the training halls. Good luck.” She left the stand and went up the stairs with the rest of the council.
Immediately after their figures vanished on the second floor, the hall burst into chaos. A few recruits were shouting their team numbers, searching for other members. Someone complained about his position in the ranking, saying he deserved to be higher, but a girl on the other side of the hall shouted that he should stop being a crybaby, raising a few laughs.
Ari shook his head, ignoring the obscenities that followed and turned to his friend. “We should go.”
The entrance to the hallway was close to their bench and they headed there, following after a couple of other recruits who did the same. In front of the door stood a middle-aged woman with muddy blond hair and she led the small group toward the basement. After a few steps, the hallway abruptly ended with a stairway spiraling down at a steep angle.
Ari eyed the narrow steps with caution, but the blonde-haired woman wasn’t bothered by the deadly looking trap and keeping up with her wasn't easy. The cold air smelled damp and he shivered, pulling his cloak tightly around his body as he made his way down. The stone stairway was amazingly long and it appeared to wind its way deep into the ground. When they finally reached the bottom and stepped off into another hallway, Ari let out his breath in relief.
The stone room in front of them was lit by chandeliers hanging high on the ceiling. A thick red carpet covered the floor, and as soon as Ari set his feet on it, the intense cold was replaced by cozy warmth. He felt warm air coming from beneath the carpet and wondered how it was possible. The walls were lined with wooden floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with books and devices of all kinds. At the other end of the room was one door, and two more were placed on the sides.
Their guide came to a halt in the middle of the carpet and turned towards them. Then she said in a toneless voice, “This is your library. The books here contain knowledge about essence uses, dungeons, and monsters you can encounter within them, but they’re limited to opal rank. While you can take them to your rooms, they have to be returned to the shelves before you leave the basement.”
“The recruits training halls are located in the hallway to your left, just look for the door with the same number as your team. To open it, you will need to press your necklace to the Order’s crest etched on the wall beside. Your mentors should join you shortly, so wait inside till they arrive.” She sounded bored like she had to explain the same thing over and over again.
At the mention of mentors, the recruits started whispering among themselves and when none of them moved, the woman’s brows furrowed. “Off you go. There’s more of you coming and we won’t fit all here.”
This got them moving and the group walked into a narrow, long hallway. It was well lit, with doors located intermittently on both sides. Ari squinted his eyes when he noticed that none of them had a handle, nor a lock for that matter. But he became even more confused when one of the recruits tried to enter his training hall. Right after he pressed his necklace against the Order’s crest, the door flung open without the boy touching it.
“What was that?” Ari whispered to Elijah, who stared at the door with his mouth hung open. His friend wanted to reply, but then he just shook his head with an apologizing smile.
Something from his world again, Ari thought. I will have to ask about it later.
After what felt like minutes, they finally reached the door with their team number and Ari pressed his necklace against the crest, just like the other recruits did.
With a click sound, the door opened ajar and they stepped into a large room, their shoes echoing on the dark wooden floor. While it looked polished Ari could still make out some scuff marks and scrapes here and there.
Three stone dummies stood along the right wall, next to them was a rack filled with wooden weapons. In the corner on his left, Ari sensed water from the two large barrels placed there. At the back end of the room, there was a slightly elevated section. It contained a large comfy looking leather couch, a low table, and four wardrobes made out of black wood.
“Wow. Is this all ours?” Ari said. He couldn’t hide his astonishment.
Elijah gulped next to him. “I wonder what’s inside,” he said and pointed at the wardrobes.
Ari wasn’t used to carrying a shield, so he left it together with the scepter on the table and approached the wardrobes. Up close, he noticed that each of the top drawers had a number painted on it, and two of them matched their positions in the ranking — three and one hundred eighty-two. But when he saw the other ones a scowl appeared in his face. Thirty-eight and sixty-five. I’m the lowest-ranked recruit in the team, just great.
Even what they found inside wasn’t enough to cheer him up. Each wardrobe contained four identical sets of clothes — shirt, trousers and cloak with a golden snake embroidered on it. All in black, as it always was the case with everything related to Order.
Ari picked one of the shirts and frowned. Not only he sensed essence from the piece of clothing, but it seemed like it would fit him perfectly. He looked over Elijah’s shoulder and the man’s clothes were bigger as if they were made for him.
“But how is it possible?” Elijah said.
Both of them turned around when they heard the clicking sound again. The door flung open and the woman Ari saw in the great hall marched into the room, her curly black hair flowing behind her. Now that she was closer, he could see that she was in her early twenties and her skin was tanned like she spent a lot of time outside.
She rested the large sword on her shoulder and a cruel-looking smirk appeared on her lips. While she only cast a dismissive glance in Ari’s direction, she looked Elijah up and down with her penetrating blue eyes.
“Well, well. Isn’t that mister third place? Just out of curiosity, what’s a Babylonian doing here? Were you too scared to join the outpost in your fiery desert?” she said. Her voice was crisp and vibrant, but she spoke with a slight accent like the universal language wasn’t the first one she learned.
Elijah looked at her, his mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. After a moment, he shook his head and stammered, “N… No. I’m an Islander.”
The woman brows drew together and she said, “You? With your skin color? Did your—”
Before she was able to finish, the door opened again with a click and a hooded man entered the room. Slung over his shoulder was a large white bow with glistening green runes. He removed the hood and nodded in their direction. He was probably the youngest of them all and taller than the woman and Elijah, but not as tall as Ari. His unruly brown hair matched his eyes and there was a slight stubble visible on his boyish face.
The awkward silence that followed was broken by Ari. “Since we’re all here, why don’t we introduce ourselves? I’m Ari and this is Elijah,” he said and pointed at his friend.
The archer leaned against the wall and said in a soft voice, “Killian.”
Ari looked expectantly at the woman and she clicked her tongue. “My name is Tasia.” She threw her weapon on the table and it landed with a loud clang. Then she approached the rack and picked a wooden sword. After a few testing swings, she pointed it at Elijah. “Since our lazy mentor isn’t here yet, what about a little sparring? Let’s see what the third-ranked recruit is made of.”
Elijah paled and stammered, “I… I’m not so—”
But Tasia interrupted him and her voice grew cold. “If we are supposed to be a team, we need to know what we’re all capable of. Maybe you’re highly ranked, but looking at the amount of fat on you and the constant stuttering I’m starting to doubt the evaluation process here.” She paused, to let her words sink in. “Only wooden weapons, without spells. Don't worry, I won't kill you,” she added and her lips curled in a wolfish smile.
Ari whispered, “You can refuse. The mentor should be here any moment now.”
Elijah shook his head and glanced at the woman. “I don’t want to feel useless. Not anymore.”
Ari was surprised by his friend’s answer and looked at him with concern, but the man already moved toward the rack.
While Ari didn’t agree with the woman’s methods, she was right. They were a team now and in a dungeon, they would be able to count only on themselves. Still, he was afraid Elijah stood no chance. While the man told him a few stories from his world, he never mentioned anything about fighting.
Ari glanced at the archer, who looked disinterested in the sparring match as he started rummaging through his wardrobe.
Elijah picked a sword that was similar in size to the one he received and approached the center of the room, where Tasia was already waiting. She held her sword casually on her side and looked at the chubby man with a doubtful smile. Elijah stood a few meters from her and held his weapon with both hands, its tip aimed at the woman’s chest. Even though he gripped the sword tightly, the wooden blade still trembled. His eyes darted left and right as if searching for a way to escape.
Weird, I never saw a stance like that. Ari always watched his parents spar and his father loved to show off the new fighting styles he learned during his travels.
Tasia shook her head and advanced steadily toward the man. When she was in his reach, she swung her weapon lazily, trying to knock aside his trembling blade. But at that moment, panic vanished from Elijah’s eyes and it was replaced by a harsh, feral, protective glare.
He flicked his wrist, effortlessly avoiding the attack, as her blade passed below his. Instantly, he lunged forward, thrusting his weapon straight at Tasia’s surprised face. Her eyes bulged. She knew it was too late to block the attack and she tried to scramble back. Just before the sword was about to connect, it suddenly stopped mid-air with a loud clunk.
A frown appeared on Ari’s forehead and he strained his eyes. Something shimmered in front of the woman. That’s… A barrier!
Elijah stepped backward, eyeing the woman with confusion. For a few long seconds, they stared at each other before Tasia threw her head back and laughed. “Oh, you got me good with that useless fool act.” She paused and her smile vanished. “But playtime’s over.”
“What was that?” Elijah asked, his voice distant.
Tasia circled around him, carefully planting her feet as she swung her sword in a circular motion using her wrist. “My spell.”
“You broke our agreement,” Elijah said flatly. He took the same stance as before and kept turning in place, trying to always have the woman in front.
She shrugged and opened her mouth as if she wanted to respond, then dashed forward in a blur, swinging her sword in a wide arc. Splinters flew as their weapons clacked together, wood grinding as both of them refused to pull away. Tasia gritted her teeth, drawing her sword back and she feinted another swing, but Elijah retreated, not falling for it.
He stretched his left hand out, and a small black-red flame appeared on his palm. Tasia scampered back with a pale face, and more barriers shimmered into existence between them.
Don’t do it, Ari thought, panicked. The two water-filled barrels started trembling as his strands of essence surrounded them, but when he was about to lift them, he froze.
With a malicious grin, Elijah clenched his hand into a fist and a thick stream of sizzling fire shot out of it toward the woman. The flame burned through barrier after barrier, each exploding into tiny glittering pieces. At the last moment, Tasia ducked and the fire raged above her head as one of her barriers managed to hold it back. A second later, the flame vanished and only an acrid stench remained.
The archer, Killian, had his teeth clenched while he aimed at Elijah. The arrow’s tip glowed blue and the air around it rippled with essence.
Tasia sat on the floor, breathing hard and looking with her eyes wide at Elijah. Her sword lay some distance away and she glanced at it. But instead of reaching for the weapon, she held her hands together and Ari noticed she caressed a plain-looking silver ring. A look full of determination appeared on her face and she muttered something under her breath.
Ari wanted to interrupt the fight, but before he could move, a large knife slammed into the floor between the fighting pair.
“I think that’s enough,” a calm soft voice came from behind him.
Ari snapped his head back and stared at a petite woman who sat casually on the couch. She wore the usual Order’s clothing and her long blonde hair flowed across her shoulders. An apple and a knife appeared out of nowhere in her hands.
The woman looked straight into Ari’s worried eyes and smiled broadly.
“I’m really glad that you’re so eager to fight,” she remarked as she started peeling the red fruit. “Because tomorrow you’re going to enter your first dungeon.”