The whole team stared in disbelief at the petite blonde-haired woman, but she just smirked at them.
“What? Did you come to join the Order for fun or to grow stronger? Because if it’s the latter, the sooner you clear three dungeons the faster you can climb up the ranking.” She paused to take a healthy bite of the apple. ”Coffafds arfe, mmph, ufeffless.” she said with her mouth full and they barely understood her.
Meanwhile, Killian approached Tasia and held his hand out. She stared at him for a few long seconds, before accepting his help. A part of her brand was revealed when her sleeve slightly rolled-up, and Ari glanced at it with curiosity. While his brands were made out of runes from Islander’s language, hers was more like a painting wrapped around her wrist. But she covered it too quickly for him to take a better look.
While the blonde-haired woman was wolfing down the fruit, Elijah joined Ari and whispered into his ear, unable to keep the disbelief out of his voice, “She’s our mentor?”
Ari glanced at his friend and wanted to ask him what the hell just happened, but he knew it wasn’t the time nor place. He felt different during the fight.
“I, mmph, heard that!” the blonde-haired woman said. She swallowed the last bite of the apple and looked wistfully at the leftover core, before throwing it behind the couch. Then, she used a piece of cloth to clean the knife’s edge and Ari gawked at the weapon. Wait a minute, that’s the same one. He turned, only to find the knife gone from the floor. But when?
“I didn’t mean—” Elijah stammered.
But she tsked and waggled her knife at the chubby man. “You just made the same mistake as her.” She pointed the weapon at Tasia, who cast a sidelong glance at Elijah. “Never underestimate your enemy. Had she fought seriously from the start, you wouldn’t even last five seconds.”
The knife vanished from her hand and she spread her arms across the back of the couch. She sighed and looked at the ceiling, the relaxed smile on her face made her seem as if she had recalled some pleasant memories “You know, once my team had to hunt a rabbit, which killed a bunch of recruits. The silly sods thought it was cute and ignored the rodent, even though it was brimming with essence. The bloodthirsty beast bit their heads off, would you believe that? Trust me, that’s a look you will never forget.”
Elijah turned green when the women started describing with gruesome details what the monster did to that team, but Ari stopped listening.
Something was off about the whole situation. During the evaluation, the silver-haired man mentioned that the teams were created based on their strengths and weaknesses. But what if he hadn’t meant only their brands, but also characters? Tasia probably acted in the same arrogant way when they were evaluating her skills. If she was here from the start.
“You were testing us,” Ari said suddenly.
She looked at him with a questioning look in her eyes. So did the rest of his new teammates.
“You knew Tasia would clash with someone and you wanted to see how we will act if the fight got out of control,” Ari continued. “And we failed, miserably.”
“Well, well,” she said with a wide grin. “Looks like the old bastard was right yet again.”
“Huh? What’s going on here?” Tasia said confused.
“I would let your team captain explain, but there’s a small chance he will fuck it up too,” the blonde-haired woman said as she stood from the couch.
Something changed in her. The cheerful face vanished, replaced by stern look and Ari sensed the essence boiling inside of her.
“T… Team captain?” Ari stammered.
“As Ari said, all of you failed.” She turned toward Tasia. “You let your arrogance get the better of you, but that wasn’t the worst. Had I not intervened, you would have killed him.” She paused for a second. “Oh, and I dare you to call me lazy again.”
Tasia’s face flushed red and Elijah stared at the raven-haired woman with horror.
“And you.” The blonde-haired woman pointed her finger angrily at the chubby man, who recoiled and tried to move away from her. “Attacked with intent to kill during training. Even if Tasia broke the rules, her spells, unlike yours, were defensive in nature.”
Then she looked at the archer who was hiding behind the group and she pouted her lips. “Don’t act so innocent! Another second and you would have loosened that arrow, aiming for his head instead of trying to knock him down. And I know you can do that too.”
“And last but not least, our fearless captain,” she said mockingly as she approached Ari. She was a full head smaller than him, but he suddenly felt as if he stood in front of his furious father. “You knew what would happen next and yet, you did nothing. Was it because he’s your friend? Or because you’re scared to use your powers to their full extent?”
What? Ari wanted to ask what she meant, but something flickered inside her eyes and his voice died in his throat.
“Sit,” she said finally, but none of them were brave enough to move. “I said sit!”
This time they listened, scampering toward the couch. It wasn’t large enough to fit four people and they had to squeeze in, but no one dared to complain. Elijah fiddled his fingers nervously and tried leaning as much as he could on Ari because Tasia sat on his other side, looking as uncomfortable as him.
“Good, good.” The blonde-haired woman nodded, enjoying the sight of four scared glassies. “Now that we have this behind us, let me properly introduce myself. My name is Roisin Ainsleys and I will be your mentor for the next three months.”
She looked at them expectantly, but none of them said anything. Ari raised his hand.
“Yes? This isn’t a school, even if you act like brats. If you have anything to say, do it like a man,” Roisin said.
Brats? Ari thought. She doesn’t look much older than us.
He cleared his throat, “Since we all failed, why do you want to send us into a dungeon tomorrow?”
“Good question,” she answered with a smile. “Because bonds are forged in battle. This is something that can’t be taught in a training room, and even if you spend a month locked here, you could still fail.”
“But there’s another reason.” Roisin paced with her hands behind her back. “It usually takes around two or three months to reach opal rank and any day wasted puts you at a disadvantage.”
“Only two?” Tasia asked.
Roisin nodded. “It slows down after that, but yes.” Another apple appeared in her hand, followed by a glint of hunger in her eyes. But then she put the apple against her forehead in an exaggerated manner. “Silly me, I almost forgot. Also, if you won’t meet the deadline, the Order will take the necklaces back.”
“What?” Ari and Tasia asked incredulously at the same time, and the raven-haired woman narrowed her eyes at him.
“Every three months, across the whole continent, tens of thousands of recruits join the Order.” Roisin shrugged as she hid the apple in her pocket. “Why waste resources on someone who can’t be bothered to put even a bit of effort into the job?”
Tens of thousands. Ari couldn't even imagine so many people in one place, the continent was far larger than he thought. They all sat silent, with gloomy faces and the woman clapped her hands together to get their attention back.
“But this won’t happen to you because your mentor is one of the rising stars in the town,” the petite blonde woman said proudly while pointing with her thumb at her chest.
Somehow I doubt that, Ari thought, but he dared not to say it out loud.
“But enough about me. We’ve got work to do and the first point on the list is to introduce yourself. And I don’t mean the crap you did before with exchanging your names, that won't do,” she said while shaking her head. ”State your role and explain what your spells can do. You first, roasty” she pointed at Elijah.
His face turned red and he tried to hide behind his dark hair. “I’m a Brawler. I can… burn things, but my spell has a short-range, so I need to be close to the enemy.”
Roisin turned her head toward the other woman. Tasia cleared her throat and said, “My role is the one of Defender, and I can create barriers of various sizes and shapes. But I fight using two-handed weapons, as they give me more reach. I don't... really like using traditional shields.” She looked with disgust at the round shield lying on the table.
Next was Killian, who shrugged his arms. “Striker. I shoot things until they die,” he deadpanned.
Elijah snorted, barely containing his laughter, and Roisin glared at them, but she sighed and looked at Ari, “Captain?”
“Stop calling me that,” Ari complained. “I’m a Wildcard. I can summon creatures. Well, one creature for now. Also, I can heal and control water. But I suck at it.” He whispered the last sentence.
“You’re the captain, nothing you can do about it,” Roisin said dismissively. “Both Elijah and Tasia will spend most of the fight in close combat and they will be too occupied to lead the team. And Killian has as much charisma as cold fish. So you’re all that’s left.”
The archer didn't seem concerned by her words as he kept glancing around the room.
“But—” Ari said.
“No more buts.” She wagged her finger at him. “It’s getting late and we still have two things to discuss. First, attributes.”
This got his attention and Ari glanced at the other recruits. Elijah looked as excited as him, but Tasia leaned against the couch, seemingly bored. Killian did nothing, but that was his default face and it was hard to say what was going on in his head. Ari turned his focus back to their mentor.
“To understand how they work, you need to know something about essence,” Roisin said. “Whenever you kill a monster, you absorb part of its essence and it strengthens you. But some of it just floats inside of you, doing nothing. This is where the attributes come into play.”
“They allow you to use the leftover essence to either fix the shortcomings of your brands or to make them stronger.” A weird curved yellow fruit appeared in her hand, and she started peeling it while explaining. “Investing in body will make you faster, stronger and more resistant against physical attacks. While increasing mind attribute will deepen your essence reserves, so you can cast more spells, but it will also guard you better against magical attacks.”
“Then there’s spirit, which boosts your natural essence recovery and...” She took a bite out of the fruit and continued while chewing. “...inffeass tfhe fonftrol, mmph.”
Ari groaned because he couldn't understand a word she was saying. Roisin saw the expression he made, gulped another bite and looked sheepishly at him. “Where was I? Ah, yes. Spirit also increases your control over essence, but besides brands who specialize in it, like healing ones, this is used mostly in warding and enchanting.” When she finished speaking, she threw the leftover yellow skin behind the couch and Ari had to duck to avoid getting hit. He glared at the woman, but she continued as if nothing happened.
“Still, for now, I suggest spreading your points evenly between them, just to lay a good foundation. When you reach opal rank and your brands will be close to advancing, then you can focus on the two attributes that they give you bonuses to.”
Brands can be advanced? While Ari was curious about this, there was another thing he needed to know.
“Uhm, if I have a 20% bonus to one attribute then what does it mean?” Ari asked.
“Well, depending on the attribute you’re either in luck or—”
“It’s spirit,” Ari interrupted her.
“Then you’re fucked,” Roisin stated flatly, her face blank.
Ari stared at her dumbfounded.
“Spirit is not that bad.” Seeing his reaction, she gave him a reassuring smile, but somehow Ari doubted its sincerity. “It’s just that unlike the other two attributes, it doesn’t help you much in combat.”
“But isn’t increased natural essence recovery a good thing?” Ari asked, filled with hope. When he tested the staff, it used a third of his essence to discharge one blast. But if he could restore his essence fast enough.
“Well, it sounds good.” She raised her right hand to her chin and rubbed it thoughtfully. “But the higher your rank, the more control you get over your essence, so you rarely need it, even inside a dungeon. And as I said earlier, killing a monster restores your essence, so.”
No wonder I’m ranked so low. Ari thought, suddenly dejected.
“But how do we increase the attributes?” Elijah asked.
“Finally a less depressing topic!” Roisin said with a smile. “It’s simple, close your eyes and focus on the essence inside of you. Start searching for something resembling a cloud and then lead it either to your heart, to increase your body attribute, head for mind or spread it around to increase your spirit. The necklace will help you in distributing the essence, so you won’t spend it all on one attribute.”
Ari closed his eyes. Now that he knew what to look for, he instantly found the cloud as the woman called it. He had 15 unspent points and decided to raise the two lowest attributes — body and mind — to 12 and put the rest into spirit. I need to find a way to make it work, a 20% boost is too much to let it go to waste. While my summons get stronger with spirit, it does nothing for me. The cloud dispersed, and he checked his updated essence sheet.
|Rank: None||Progress: 16%||Affinity: Nature|
|Attributes (0 unspent points)|
|Body: 12||Mind: 12||Spirit (+20%): 17 (14)|
|Rune of Summoning
|Summon Lesser Water Elemental - level 4||Osmosis|
|Summoner's Bond - level 4|
|Rune of Spring|
|Mend - level 2||Fast Recovery - level 3|
|Control Water - level 3|
He immediately sensed the difference in his essence reserve. It was full before he added the points to mind, but now there was an empty space inside of him, which was slowly filling up.
“I can see you’re finished too,” Roisin said.
Ari opened his eyes and nodded.
“Good. Then there’s only one thing left.” She threw four identical sheets of paper on the table. “Here’s a list of things you need to bring with you to the dungeon. While normally you have to buy them yourself, the Order waves the fee for the first three attempts. You can find our quartermaster on the second floor, he’s pretty hard to miss. Oh, and do mention my name and he will add something extra,” she said with a smile.
“Meet me tomorrow at the north gate, an hour before midday. Don’t be late,” Roisin continued as she walked toward the exit. Just before the door closed, she blocked it with her foot and said, “and take the rest of the day off, you will need to be at your full strength if you want to survive. That means no training today!”
Ari sighed because that was exactly what he planned to do.
Tasia picked one of the lists and left the room right after, but she still gave Elijah the stink eye before slamming the door behind her. Killian was the next one to leave, but he at least waved them goodbye.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, which Ari soon broke. “About that fight—”
“Can we please not talk about it now?” Elijah interrupted him. “I… I just acted on instinct.” He slumped forward and hid his face in his hands.
Ari stared at his friend without a word. He hadn’t expected him to react like this, and after a few seconds, he forced a laugh. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way. You kicked her ass!”
“Really?” Elijah asked and raised his head.
Ari nodded. “You sure did.” While he wanted to scold the man for his reckless behavior, he knew this wasn't the best place for this kind of conversation. “But we should leave, let’s take the clothes and head back to the inn. We can eat something and talk freely there.”
At the mention of food Elijah’s face brightened in an instant, and Ari barely stopped himself from rolling his eyes.
They returned to The Golden Goose half an hour later. While Ari wanted to get the things from the list, Elijah insisted that he was dying of hunger. In the end, they agreed to visit the quartermaster tomorrow.
After supper, and three refills later for Elijah, they were finally back in their room. But when Ari was about to raise the subject of the sparring match, Elijah yawned and said he wanted to sleep. Not even a minute later, the man’s loud snoring filled the room, and Ari just stood dumbfounded beside his bed. What the hell is going on with him?
Ari tried to fall asleep but tossed and turned instead - the snoring wasn’t helping. Whenever he closed his eyes, Elijah’s snarled face appeared in his mind. Finally, he had enough. With his scepter in hand, he went to the bathroom to test the ice enchantment. It was better to do it now, than during the dungeon attempt.