Ari stood knee-deep in cold, foul water. When he tried to move, the chains bounding his hands and feet rattled. He looked around, blinking in confusion. Even though only a single ray of light shone through the plate high above him, he recognized the place instantly — he was back at the bottom of the well. No no no, this can't be real. Panic settled into the fringes of his mind, and black dots danced before his eyes. Then, Ari screamed at the top of his lungs.
"He's waking up!"
"Not possible, it's been only a minute."
As Ari drifted back out of his memories, he heard voices above him and began to wake. The heart pounding in his chest slowed down. Why now? When he opened his eyes again, the first thing he saw was the blood-smeared face of Tasia, looming above him. Her wavy black hair touched his nose, and he barely stopped himself from sneezing.
"How are you alive?" she asked, staring at him with her big unblinking blue eyes.
Ari sat up and shivered. His shirt and cloak hung in tatters, and part of his arm looked like raw meat. With every passing second, his healing spell repaired the damage the fire made, but the hand looked thinner and weaker.
"Hey, did the fire fry your ears too?" The woman pouted her lips and waved in front of his eyes.
"I'm fine," Ari said as he pushed her hand away.
Elijah and Killian stood beside, both staring at his injuries. Sweat dripped down the chubby man's pale face, and his longish dark hair hung wet as they were covered with blood. He touched the spot on his chest, where a large hole was visible in his black shirt and gulped. Then, he shook his head and asked in a breaking voice, "Did some weird boxes appear in your minds too?"
Tasia nodded. "Killing a dungeon boss grants a lot of essence. At our rank, this usually means new spells." She closed her eyes; a moment later, her brows creased and she muttered, "But it still looks like too much."
"Can you come with me?" Elijah asked as he turned toward Killian. He removed his sword from the blood-red sheath strapped to his belt. "I want to try something." The archer nodded, and both men walked away.
Tasia looked straight into Ari's eyes. "Are you crazy? Why didn't you dodge? The fire could have killed you," she fumed.
"I suffered worse," Ari shrugged, but a shaft of pain shot through his back and he regretted it instantly. "This was our best chance, and what matters is that it worked."
"You're joking, right?" Tasia whispered.
"Guys, come check this out." Elijah's voice interrupted their conversation. Ari reached out with his left arm, and Tasia sighed but helped him stand up. The injured one already looked normal, but he wasn't going to push his luck.
They found their teammates standing beside a crude-looking wooden chest with brass fittings. It was small, less than thirty centimeters across with no lock or latch. Ari picked up the box and examined it carefully. The only discernible marking he found was a brass plate on the lid. There was something inscribed on the plate — a tree with a pickaxe logged into its trunk.
When he touched the inscription, it began to glow, and he heard a clicking sound. Ari slowly lifted the lid. Inside he found a sheathed dagger with a black-green pommel. Next to it lay a silver ring adorned with a small red gem.
They gawked at the items, and it was Elijah who broke the silence. "How is this possible? Items don't just appear out of thin air."
"And dungeons do?" Tasia smirked.
The chubby man wanted to say something, but he shook his head instead.
"It's a tradition for the captain to identify the loot and decide what to do with it," Tasia said after a moment.
"How do you know that?" Ari lifted an eyebrow.
The woman shrugged, "It's common knowledge." She paused, and her cheeks flushed. "I will go get our packs."
Ari turned his attention back to the chest. He reached for the dagger and identified it.
||Rank: Unranked 3|
|Passive: 10% chance on attack to poison the target.|
|Active: Coats the weapon in poison. The next three attacks are guaranteed to apply it.|
It doesn’t even say what the poison does. No one in the team used daggers, so he felt it was useless. Next, he picked up the ring.
|Fiery Ring of Protection|
||Rank: Unranked 1|
|Active: Deflects the next harmful fire spell. Has no effect on opal and higher rank spells. 3/3 charges left.|
Ari groaned. If he had it just a few minutes ago, the boar's fire attack would do nothing. But the charges part made him wonder what would happen with the ring after they are used up. Meanwhile, Killian picked the dagger, unsheathed it, and started checking the blade.
"What is it?" Tasia asked. The woman already returned and threw their packs on the ground.
Ari passed the ring to her and said, "Check for yourself."
She closed her eyes and gave a long low whistle of surprise. "You could sell it for a hefty amount of orbs, but I think you should keep it. Fire spells are pretty common, and it seems you love the smell of your own burning flesh."
"How much do you think it's worth?" Ari asked.
She shrugged and returned the ring to him. "Thirty opal orbs, maybe more."
Thirty? Ari stared at the small piece of metal. After paying for the room and clothing, all he had to his name was one opal orb and a couple of chips. And it took him a few months to earn the Islander coins he used to exchange for the local currency.
When she saw his expression, she added, "What? Did you think people are joining the Order out of the goodness of their hearts? Sure, it's a dangerous trade, but during the initial five-year contract, you can earn enough to be set for life."
While she talked, she started rummaging through Ari's pack. "Aha! Found it," she said after a few seconds when she retrieved the essence holder their mentor gave them. But now, the spherical item looked different as it was full of thick gray-white fluid.
"What's that inside?" Elijah asked and held his hands out, palms up.
"I don't know." Tasia eyed the holder with curiosity and passed it to Elijah. Still, before she placed it in his hands, she said sternly, "Don't drop it."
While his friend inspected the item, Ari noticed the archer looking at him expectantly as he held the dagger close to his chest. Ari smiled and said, "It's yours if you want it."
"Thank you." Killian smiled and strapped the weapon to his belt.
Ari hid the silver ring in his pocket. He wasn't sure if he should keep it or sell and split the orbs. Then, he looked around the cavern. "Did we miss anything? Nobody answered, so he added, "Gather on me and let's return to our world."
Elijah gave him the essence holder back, and Ari stared at fluid inside. After a few seconds of silence, he said sheepishly, "Uhm, does anyone know how to use it?"
"Give me that," Tasia scowled. She snatched the holder from his hands and touched one of the plates, which had a slightly different color.
The air shimmered, and a structure started emerging from the ground a few steps away. After a few seconds, a three-meter high archway made out of pure white stone stood in front of them. Two square pillars, covered with thick, forest green ivy supported it and the same tree mark as on the chest, was etched onto a semi-circular arch. Through the archway, Ari could see the dead forest and Roisin sitting on one of the stumps as she ate another of those weird curvy yellow fruits.
Ari gawked at the structure, but Tasia's voice brought him back to reality. "We need to move, it won't last forever." When she stepped into the archway, the image began to ripple like water, and she vanished.
"I hope we won't vomit again" Elijah murmured and followed her. So did the archer, leaving Ari alone in the cavern.
He glanced one last time at the bodies sprawled on the ground everywhere around and shuddered. This could be us. We need to prepare better for the next dungeon.
Ari sensed a faint presence above him. He looked up, but it was too dark to see anything, so he covered his eyes in essence and tried again. He noticed a distorted human shape hanging upside down from the ceiling. Ari could barely distinguish it from the gray static backdrop, but he was sure there was something there. Suddenly, two yellow, cat-like eyes appeared in the darkness and stared back at him, followed by a smile full of white, spikey teeth.
"Oh? You made a mistake, little human."
The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. The aura around the thing flared in blood-red color, and an insuperable terror overtook Ari as he staggered back into the archway.
When he emerged on the other side, he was drenched in sweat, and he felt weaker than he ever had. His knees gave out, and he fell on the dead ground. Roisin appeared by his side in an instant, and she was saying something, but her voice was distant, so he couldn't focus on it.
"Ari, what's wrong? What happened?" Their mentor's voice finally reached him.
"There... There was something inside the cavern," Ari stammered. He could breathe again, and as he looked around, he saw his teammates worried faces as they stood around him and their mentor.
"Nonsense. We received the message about clearing the dungeon," Tasia said dismissively. "The damage you took—"
"Shut up," snapped Roisin. She took Ari's jaw in her hand and looked him into his eyes. "Tell me what you saw."
He explained what happened, but when he described the blood-red aura and what he felt, Roisin tensed and stood up. She stared at the rift, which was already vanishing.
"What does the color mean?" Ari asked.
"It means we need to go. It isn't safe here."
Roisin told them to run all the way back to the main road, even though Ari was barely able to keep up. Only when they reached it, and she found her horse, the woman relaxed a bit. Still, she ignored all their questions and forbade them to speak to anyone about what happened in the dungeon. But at least she gave Ari her spare cloak, so he could cover his partially bare chest, saying something about his lack of decency among ladies.
Only two hours passed since they entered the dungeon, and the sun was still quite high in the sky, but more clouds were beginning to fill it, some dark. Every now and then, they would obscure the sun and the land would be momentarily cloaked in shadow. Roisin started joking again, but it felt forced and Ari ignored her attempts to tease him. Instead, he tried to talk to Elijah, but his friend said he wasn't feeling well, and they walked the rest of the trip back to the town in silence.
When they approached the gate, the guards and merchants stared at the group with horrified looks in their eyes. Considering the state of their clothes and the blood splattered all over them, Ari wasn't surprised by their reaction. They entered the town and walked through the narrow, neglected streets. People there reacted even worse as they hid inside the shoddy buildings wherever the group appeared. The moment their mentor noticed one of the carriages, she stopped it and forced the driver to take them to the outpost, while she followed it on her horse. They were crammed inside and the pure white fabrics covering the seats soon turned crimson, but Ari was too tired to care about it.
Finally, they reached the Order's outpost. There, they were mostly ignored by other members, as if returning bloodied from a mission wasn't anything special. Roisin led them to the quartermaster, but before they entered his room, she told them to stay quiet and let her do the talking.
Last time Ari visited the man, he was in a hurry, so he barely looked around. Two large wooden cabinets stood on either side of the room, filled with various devices. Among them, Ari noticed the essence holder and the dungeon tracking thing their mentor used. A long counter stretched along the wall opposite to the door, and the quartermaster stood behind it. He was a tiny old man, with long, white bedraggled hair and a matching beard that hung down to his waist; this contrasted with the black Order's robes he wore.
The quartermaster's eyes twinkled when he noticed Roisin. A radiant smile appeared on his heavily wrinkled, thin face, and he said, in a croaky voice, "Well, well. Look who the cat dragged in."
"Not now, Oisen," Roisin said sternly, as she walked over to the counter and placed the full essence holder on it. "My team finished their first dungeon, please pay them."
Oisen shot a quick, assessing glance at the spherical device, and smile vanished from his face. He picked up a long, thin object and thrust it carefully into the holder. After a few seconds, green numbers appeared above it. The quartermaster inhaled sharply and stared at the team, standing near the door. "You're lying. This couldn't have been their first dungeon."
"It was," Roisin said flatly.
Oisen shook his head. "What are they feeding to the youth these days. First, the crazy scythe wielder and now this," he muttered and picked up the holder, before disappearing through a curtained doorway behind him.
"Why did—" Ari started, but a sudden pressure forced him to close his mouth. He gulped. Right, no talking.
Thankfully, the quartermaster reappeared a few seconds later and tossed a small pouch on the counter. "Twenty-two opal orbs, after the Order's cut. You brought some quality stuff," he said, and a frown appeared on his forehead. "Don't push them too hard, the ranking isn't worth it."
Ari's eyes widened when he heard the number. Even after dividing the orbs among the four of them, it still would be enough to live without any worries for a few months.
Roisin snatched the pouch and threw it over her shoulder, without bothering to look at the group. Ari barely caught it because a sharp pain ran through his injured limb from the sudden movement. Then, the woman said, "Meet me in the main hall. I still have something to do here."
The quartermaster folded his hands on his chest and said, "Oh."
Ari wanted to ask why, but he held his mouth shut and left the room together with his team. But he couldn't help it and said right after the door closed behind them, "I need to rest a bit, go ahead."
Tasia rolled her eyes at him. "You're going to eavesdrop," she sighed. "Just tell us what you learned. It would look suspicious if we all stayed here."
Then the three of them walked down the hallway toward the broad staircase, the wooden floor creaking under their feet. Ari thought Elijah would want to stay with him. Still, his friend didn't even bother to cast a glance in his direction as he followed after Tasia and Killian. Ari sighed and pressed his ear against the door, hoping the room wasn't warded.
"... here for that," Roisin said, sounding irritated. "You sold me a broken detector."
"I don't remember you paying for it in the first place," replied the quartermaster.
Their voices were muffled, but Ari could understand them without any problems.
"Stop the bullshit." Something crashed inside the room. "After they entered the rift, the reading nearly doubled. And I only found out by accident while searching for another dungeon." A pause. "I don't know how they even survived it."
"Are you sure about that?" The quartermaster sounded worried.
"There's more. After they cleared the dungeon, the team captain said he saw another one inside."
"Again? This shouldn't be possible."
Ari heard footsteps coming down the adjacent hallway. He cursed under his breath and retreated from the door. Then, he hurried after his teammates, worrying about what he just heard.