They continued their journey, but Roisin ignored any questions related to dungeons. When they asked why she was so cryptic, she only mentioned something about tradition.
Half an hour later, after they climbed up a steep hill, Elijah started wheezing and panting, and he bent over, trying to catch his breath. Tasia looked over her shoulder at the chubby man and shook her head with disappointment, but at least she hadn’t said anything as she kept walking down the hill.
“Are you alright?” Ari leaned beside him and whispered. “Let me help you—”
“I’m fine.” Elijah interrupted him. “I… Just need a minute,” he added wearily, as he plopped down on a nearby log. He found his canteen and gulped down some water before splashing it on his face.
While his friend was resting, Ari observed the landscape around them. In the distance, he could make out the dim outlines of the mountains, which looked like shadows on the horizon. But much closer than that stood a wall of giant trees with gold and red tops, and the cobbled road vanished between them. The forest was so vast, he couldn’t even see the other end of it from where he stood. The wind that blew from the trees screamed at him with a freezing voice, and he pulled his cloak tightly around himself.
“Hold on! Five minutes break, gather on me,” Roisin shouted. She rode back up the hill and looked at Elijah with a hint of sympathy in her eyes. “Now you know why I did it.”
“Since we need to wait, I can teach you something,” Roisin said as she dismounted from the horse and tied its reins to a tree. Killian approached the animal and pulled an apple from his backpack. After taking a bite, he fed the rest of the fruit to the horse and started caressing its mane. The rest sat near Elijah, who already began to breathe normally, and color returned to his face. Even Tasia looked eagerly at Roisin, waiting for the woman to finally start acting like a mentor.
Roisin leaned against a tree and started playing with her knife, throwing the deadly-looking weapon upwards and catching it by the blade. “Inside a dungeon, you won’t stumble upon creatures much stronger than its rank, but the world outside is a different matter. Yesterday I’ve told you a story about the murderous rabbit and how the team thought it was a normal animal. Let’s say if they knew what I’m about to teach you, they would still be alive.”
“Normally that’s something only opal rank members need, but in recent years there were far more accidents in our region and—”
Tasia interrupted her. “What kind of accidents?”
Roisin answered, her face serious, “About 10% of recruits die during the initiation period, but here it’s closer to 30%. Whole teams vanish along with their mentors... The Order even sent emerald and sapphire ranked members to scour the area looking for any aberrant monsters, but they returned empty-handed.”
Nobody said anything for a minute, and finally, Roisin continued. “Look at the bright side, you will learn something new, right?” She forced a smile, but the recruits just stared at her, and she sighed. “Anyway, the skill is called Aura Reading, and some of you might have already used it instinctively. To understand what it does, you need to know that most living creatures emit an aura because essence is always escaping their bodies.”
“And it’s pretty simple to use — all you need to do is cover your eyes in essence, then look around. The color of the aura and its intensity will tell you how screwed you are,” the blonde-haired girl explained further.
Ari did what the woman said, and the world lost its colors. Everything around him became black and white - the grass, the trees, even the birds flying high in the sky. He looked at Elijah, and a dark-gray always moving cloud surrounded his friend. Killian’s aura was similar to Elijah’s, maybe only a bit clearer. Yet of all his teammates, Tasia’s aura was the purest as he could see white wisps floating lazily inside her cloud. Then, Ari turned toward their mentor, and he was blinded by an explosion of white color, forcing him to close his eyes and release the essence from them. Tears ran down his cheeks, and he hurried to wipe them with his sleeve.
“Yeah, you shouldn’t have done that,” she said with a smirk. “Anything with different shades of gray you can handle, because that’s your rank. You probably would survive a battle with a low opal ranked monster, but killing it—”
“What are the other colors?” Ari interrupted her. He knew far too little about ranks, and if the woman was eager to share her knowledge, he had to make use of it.
“Opal is white, emerald is green, and sapphire is blue. If you see any other ones, you won’t live long enough to think about it either way.” She shrugged, then approached her horse to mount up. “Break is over. We already lost too much daylight.”
This time nobody groaned or complained, and they followed after her, lost in thoughts about what they learned.
A few minutes later, they entered the vast forest, and the trees blanked out much of the sun, only letting precious rays of light filter through them. It was quiet here, eerily so. Ari couldn’t hear birds, squirrels, or any other animals for that matter. Something was wrong with this place, and a shiver ran through his back. He gripped his scepter tightly, and he noticed that the rest of the recruits did the same with their weapons. Even their mentor observed their surroundings closely with a focused face, her eyes darting left and right.
She told them to stop the next time she looked at the essence compass. After, she tied the horse’s reins to a nearby tree and pointed to a narrow path meandering through the trees on their right. Killian asked to give him a minute. He retrieved a bow stringer from his bag and strung his bow, lifted it, and pulled back an arrow so that its red feathers were under his ear. The green runes on the bow became brighter, and they started to bleed essence. Satisfied with the results, he nodded, and they ventured forth.
The path was narrow, and they made slow progress. It was overgrown with under bushes and weird pulsating green moss, so they had to carefully place their feet around it. Twenty minutes into the woods, Ari heard the sound of running water, and soon, they came out of the trees and stopped in front of a sparkling creek. Instantly, he blinked and recoiled as a pungent odor struck him forcibly. Dozens of dead fish were strung all along its banks, and more of them floated on their sides. The trees across the creek looked withered with their barks black and leafless branches. They reached out toward them like claws ready to snatch anyone who dared to approach.
“What happened here?” Tasia whispered, her usual arrogant tone gone as she observed the area.
“It’s the dungeon influence. It feeds on the essence around it. If it’s not closed in time, then this” — Roisin spread her hands, motioning at everything around her — “will keep expanding. And it’s only an unranked one which appeared a little over a week ago.”
Ari gulped. If one of the weakest dungeons could do something like this, then what about the higher-ranked ones?
They carefully approached the creek and crossed it, jumping on smooth stones scattered in the water. They were slippery, but thankfully none of them fell inside even though Elijah was close, but Tasia caught him by his bag in the last second. He wanted to thank her, but she just waved him off.
On the other side, Ari crouched near the water and whispered, “Vatna, hear my summons and obey.” A moment later, a wolf-sized translucent spider jumped out of the creek. Islander runes glowed on its large, fluid-filled abdomen, and its thick legs flailed lively as if it was happy to be summoned again.
Ari wanted to stand up, but he sensed something above and raised his head, only to find Killian looming over him. The brown-haired boy looked at the spider with curiosity in his eyes. “Can I pet it?”
“Sure,” Ari replied dumbfounded. That was the first time he saw any emotions from the stoic archer. But he was surprised even more by how the man moved. The ground was strewn with fallen, dead leaves, and he hadn’t heard anything.
When Killian approached the spider, the creature looked at him cautiously. Still, it didn’t mind when the archer caressed its abdomen. It even looked happy while he did it.
“We don’t have time for this,” Tasia said in an impatient tone. A grimace was painted on her face.
“I agree. The dungeon is not far from here,” Roisin concurred, and she headed toward the line of dead trees.
The archer looked dejected, and he patted the spider one more time before he followed after the women. When he was passing by Ari, he nodded toward him.
Elijah joined Ari and whispered to his ear, “Why didn’t you tell me that your summon is a spider?” He looked askance at the watery creature standing beside.
Ari shrugged, “You never asked. Why does it matter?”
“I saw it in the forest, you know when.” The chubby man gave Ari a knowing look. “And I thought I was going crazy. Ever since, I have been seeing spiders, different sizes, and shapes. They hide in the shadows as if waiting...” He shook his head and shivered.
Ari wanted to inquire further about it, but Roisin’s stern voice interrupted him. “Move your asses!”
“We can talk later about this,” Ari said, and Elijah nodded. While they walked, the man tried to keep his distance from the spider.
The group approached the trees, and from up close, the claw-like branches looked even scarier. The ground cracked with every step, and the heavy air smelled of rotting things and sickness and worse. Ari’s stomach squirmed nauseatingly, and he had to force himself to keep moving forward. The only consolation was that everyone reacted like this as they covered their noses with pieces of cloths.
Not even thirty steps into the dead zone, Ari finally saw it - a faint shimmering just above the ground. The black trees behind it were distorted as if he looked at them through thick glass. He covered his eyes in essence and a rift suddenly appeared in the air, its hourglass shape swelling in the center. The anomaly was made of deep nothingness crackling with lightning, and many sickly colorful tendrils swirled on its edges. Ari's heartbeat quickened, and his legs started shaking due to the pressure coming from inside of the rift. He panicked, and released the essence from his eyes, hoping it would help. But besides their mentor, everyone around him already fell to their knees. Even the spider lay on its back, legs squirming in the air. Ari wanted to run. He needed to run. Or else...
Suddenly, a warm feeling spread through his body. He saw a pure white aura surrounding Roisin’s still standing figure, even though he wasn’t trying to Read her. The tendrils retreated to the rift as if they were burned by the aura, and the fear that almost overtook Ari vanished, allowing him to breathe normally. His teammates managed to stand up, but their faces were pale. Tasia breathed hard, and she looked at Ari with her eyes wide as if she couldn’t believe he was the only one who resisted the rift’s calling.
“This is what we’re fighting against,” Roisin said. Her voice grave. “The Order is all that stands between that” — she pointed at the rift — “and humanity.”
“And you must close the dungeon on the other side, by killing all the monsters and the boss inside,” she continued as she turned towards them. Then, she rummaged through her pack and retrieved a small apple-sized spherical item. It was made out of metal, but some parts were transparent, allowing Ari to see the currently empty insides. “This is an essence holder. It will gather the leftover essence from the monsters you kill and when it’s full, it will allow you to travel back to our world. At your current rank, you will be left stranded there without it. “
“So. Do. Not. Lose. The. Holder,” she added as she gave the device to Ari, who carefully placed it in his pack. “This is your last chance to resign. You just need to return the necklaces, and your contract with Order will be voided, without any repercussions.”
She looked solemnly at the group, but they all remained silent.
“Good, good,” she said as she nodded thoughtfully. A shadow of a smile was visible on her face. “In that case, this will be your first dungeon. May Cwenthryth’s blessing be upon you.”
They carefully approached the rift, but thanks to their mentor’s aura, it wasn’t affecting them in any way. When they were few meters away from it, Ari turned toward his companions and said, “We will make it back, all of us.”
They nodded, determination filling their eyes. Weapons ready, they ventured forth toward the unknown.
“And let’s hope it won’t be the last one…” Roisin whispered behind them, but her words became stretched out as if they were coming from very far away.
Time seemed to speed up, and with a single step, Ari crossed the remaining distance and entered the rift. The air around him shimmered as essence flowed over his skin, raising his hair in a cloud. A new kind of pain filled his burning insides. An ill, disturbed pain, which felt worse than anything he suffered till now. He tried to scream, but he couldn’t even open his mouth.
Then, the world he knew vanished.