Ari wanted to talk to Brendan, but he couldn’t find him in the common room. When he asked about the stout barkeeper’s whereabouts, he learned that both the man and the mouthy cook left the town for a few days. Dejected, Ari went back upstairs and woke Elijah up.
Thankfully, his friend behaved today like his old self. The sulky mood that overtook him after he almost killed their new teammate was gone. He even apologized for his careless behavior and promised to be more careful around strangers from now on. Still, the man avoided the topic of the sparring match and only said he got scared and let his instinct take over. For now, Ari reluctantly accepted this explanation, not wanting to dwell on that subject before their first dungeon attempt.
While they still had a few hours before they were supposed to meet with the rest of the team, they needed to visit the quartermaster beforehand. But first, they changed into the set of clothes they received from the Order — a shirt with golden buttons that had the snake etched on them, simple trousers and a hooded cloak with the same mark embroidered on the front. All in black color, obviously.
They tried to identify the clothes, but no information appeared in their minds, which was weird, because they sensed essence imbued into the fabric. Elijah even prodded the cloak with his sword, and it did nothing, so it was at least strengthened to resist light attacks.
Ari looked at his reflection in the mirror, and he realized he hadn't shaved for a few days. Dark stubble covered his chin and cheeks, which contrasted with his disheveled blonde hair. He smiled with satisfaction because both the stubble and the new clothes made him look more mature. But there was another reason for the smile. After nearly a year of waiting, he finally joined the Order and, by doing it, took the first step toward finding his parents. But he knew he needed to get stronger, much stronger to achieve his dream.
After breakfast, they ventured forth toward the outpost. The weather today turned sour as rain fell in a cold and lazy drizzle, wreathing the town in a mist that clung to everything. Hid beneath their hoods, the two men observed their surroundings as they walked in silence — without the ward, it was too risky to talk in public. Despite the rain, the sodden streets bustled with activity as pedestrians jostled for space on the sidewalks, and the pair had to navigate their way through them carefully.
To pass the time, Ari sent essence around himself, trying to catch the raindrops before they fell on his head. While at the start, most eluded the invisible tendrils of essence, soon a small cloud hovered above him, and he stared at it smiling wide. But then he bumped into someone and stumbled back.
“Watch where you’re going!” snarled an older man, wearing one of the fancy dark-green gentleman’s suits. He hadn’t even bothered to look behind as he hurried toward a carriage parked beside the sidewalk.
The water cloud still floated forward for a few seconds, before Ari lost control and it fell behind the suited man’s collar.
“Arghhhh. What the fuck,” the man shouted as he shivered from the cold water flowing down his back. This time he turned toward the pair, his face burning red with anger; the large glasses he wore made his eyes even more prominent. “You little…” He started, but then his mouth froze mid-sentence as he stared at Ari’s cloak and the weapons he and Elijah carried.
He stammered, flustered, “I’m sorry, I’m old and clumsy. I hadn’t seen you there.”
Before Ari was able to respond that it was his fault, the man continued, “Are you going to the outpost? Why don’t you join me? The weather is awful, and I'm heading in that direction myself.” While he still glanced at the duo nervously, his voice stopped trembling.
Ari stood dumbfounded; he hadn’t expected the man to react this way. “It’s close. We can—”
“Nonsense, it’s the least I can do for you,” the older man interrupted him. He opened the carriage door and made an inviting gesture with his hand.
Ari and Elijah looked at each other. Usually, the suited men treated them either like air or something beneath a bug. Is the Order that feared? Ari thought.
The older man was adamant about giving them a ride, and already a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, so they relented and entered the carriage. Sitting on the cushioned seats, Ari felt like he was back in bed. The insides of the vehicle were lined with blue velvet, heavily embroidered with gold thread. Even the wood was polished to a smooth, shiny finish. No wonder they travel like that all the time.
The ride lasted only a few minutes, and the older man tried not to make eye contact, nor engage in a conversation, but that was fine with Ari since he wasn’t in the mood. When they arrived at the outpost, he dropped them off right at the gate. Before the carriage left, Ari noticed that the older man wiped his forehead with a piece of cloth as if he was relieved about getting rid of them.
As their mentor said, they quickly found the quartermaster on the second floor and now both carried backpacks full of supplies — canteen filled with water, enough jerky beef to last for a few days, and various essence fueled tools like a stick, that could glow in the darkness. They knew what it was because Elijah used one right away, which got them a talking-to about wasting precious Order resources. But that wasn’t the worst. When they mentioned Roisin, the ancient-looking quartermaster’s face turned furious, and he demanded that they pay her debts. It took a few minutes before they were able to calm the man down enough for him to let them go.
While passing through the hall where they had their inauguration, they noticed that the wall-mounted white board’s content changed. Instead of the recruits ranking, now it showed the list of teams. While most still had zero points, there was a single one with twenty of them.
“Someone already cleared a dungeon? But when?” Elijah asked, dumbfounded.
“It seems so. I wonder whose team did it,” Ari said. The new ranking only showed the team’s number — forty-two.
“And we thought our mentor was crazy. Wait, she can...,” Elijah said as he nervously glanced around the hall.
“If she were here, you would have a knife sticking out of your leg or something,” Ari laughed. He was certain that the woman loved to use her invisibility spell to spy on people.
“Very funny, she gives me the creeps,” the chubby man said. Someone slammed a door shut behind them, startling him as he jumped in surprise.
“I can see that,” Ari chuckled. He pulled out his watch, and he paled when the green numbers flickered in the air. “We should go, there’s only half an hour left, and we need to reach the north gate.”
Shortly after they departed from the outpost, the rain stopped, and the solid overcast of the sky began to break up, letting patches of sunlight sift through. The further north they ventured, the more the town changed. The streets were narrower and dirtier, and people began to look shoddily dressed. Even the multistory stone buildings were replaced by smaller ones made mostly out of wood. Beggars and hawkers accosted whoever they could, but when some of them got too close to Ari and Elijah, fear appeared in their eyes, and they quickly scampered away. Ari hadn’t seen any men wearing gentlemen's suits or their carriages around as if there was nothing here that could interest them. The contrast between the south and northern parts of the town was staggering, and he wondered what was the reason behind it.
Ari was checking the watch nervously every few minutes, but when he saw the massive stone wall looming beyond the buildings, he breathed a sigh of relief. After they approached the area near the gate, they didn’t find any of their teammates around. Nor their mentor, but the invisible woman could be hiding somewhere, so they waited in silence, watching the steady stream of people entering and leaving the town. Essence filled coins exchanged hands whenever the guards halted someone carrying any goods, but nobody protested, and it seemed the people were used to paying.
A few minutes later, they noticed the raven-haired Tasia as she jostled her way through the crowd. Her two-handed sword was visible above everyone else. Today she wore the Order’s clothes, but there was a plain-looking coat of mail visible beneath the cloak. When she approached them, she cast an annoying glance at Elijah and leaned against the wall, ignoring the pair. The man’s face burned red, and he made a step toward the woman, but he sighed and backed out. At least he feels some remorse about what he did, Ari thought, smiling.
The last member of their team, Killian, joined them right after Tasia. In his right hand, he casually held the white, rune-marked bow, its string missing. A quiver full of colorful arrows was slung across his back. His brown hair was as unruly as if he didn’t care at all about his looks. He at least greeted them when he got closer, but after that, he hadn’t muttered a single word.
The passing merchants and townsfolk glanced nervously at the silent black-clad group, giving them a wide berth. Why are they reacting like that? Ari always thought that while the Order was powerful, its primary purpose was to protect everyone, but it seemed both common folk and the rich suited men feared the organization.
Elijah’s voice broke him out of his thoughts, and Ari looked at him. “Eh?”
His friend pointed at the crowd and whispered, “She’s here.”
Ari followed the man’s finger and quickly spotted their mentor. The petite blonde-haired woman rode a tall, brown horse, and the townsfolk moved out of her way as fast as they could.
Roisin greeted them when she arrived at the gate. “I’m glad you came on time—”
But Tasia interrupted her, “Why do you have a horse, and we don’t?”
Roisin gently stroked the horse's dark mane. “Well, some of you are not up to Order standards concerning physical condition,” she answered with a smug smile on her face.
Tasia glared at Elijah, who tried to hide behind Ari, probably wishing he too could turn invisible.
“Like I said yesterday, you’re a team now, so both rewards and punishments will be applied to each member.” Roisin shrugged. She retrieved a silver item from her pocket. It looked like the device the ship’s captain used to navigate during Ari’s travels to the continent. But it was slightly bigger, and the Order’s snake was engraved on its back.
“What’s that?” Ari asked.
Roisin glanced around the crowd and hid the item. “I will tell you once we leave the town.” She pulled the reins, and the horse trotted through the gate. The group looked at each other before they followed after the clatter of horseshoes on cobbles.
The air outside the walls was crisp, carrying the fresh and moist smell of grass. The road north of the town lay in a small valley, between two massive rolling green hills, both scattered with patches of trees. Oh, how I missed that, Ari thought. He spent most of his life outdoors, and the town made him feel like he was in a cage.
Roisin stopped her horse when there weren’t any people around anymore, and she turned toward them with the silver compass in her hand. “This device can sense fluctuations of essence, and we use it to find dungeons.”
Tasia and Killian nodded as if they understood what the woman said. Even Elijah made a thoughtful face.
“Fluc-what?” Ari asked.
Tasia looked at him incredulously. “It means that whenever a dungeon is formed, there’s essence flowing out of it, and the device can help you find its location.” She spoke to him as if he was a child that needed to be educated.
“But I heard dungeons appear only during storms, so why would you need it?” Ari asked again.
“It’s not that simple,” Roisin interjected. “Only opal and higher ranked dungeons are strong enough to attract a storm, but even then, the area could be too large to find it in time. As for unranked ones, they’re far too weak and common, hence the device. Look.”
She opened the compass, and a map made out of green lines and dots in various shades of gray appeared in the air. “Each gray dot represents an unranked dungeon and its strength — the closer to pure white color the dot is, the more essence is escaping from it and…” Roisin looked at Ari as if expecting him to finish the sentence.
He sighed and indulged her. “The stronger it is. I understand.”
“Exactly!” Roisin said with a smile. “And today we’re looking for a dungeon somewhere in the middle of the power scale. I know you will be able to handle it.” She winked at them.
She focused on the device, and whenever she pinched her fingers over the map, the lines and dots got bigger. “Hmm… Got one and it’s not even an hour away from here. Onwards, to adventure!” She prodded the horse forward, ignoring the groans that followed.