When Ari reached the gallery overlooking the main hall, he stopped to catch his breath. Even the short walk tired him more than it should have. What’s wrong with me?
Leaning against the cold marble balustrade, he watched the hum of activity below. About a dozen groups of recruits in their black cloaks strolled through the large rectangular hall. The platform and the benches from the inauguration were gone, and the now clearly visible red-white checkered floor somehow reminded him of blood. Rows of white ornamented columns were set close to the sides of the hall, supporting the gallery. His teammates were grouped between two of them as they pointed at the board with the ranking hanging high on the stone wall.
Ari glanced at the grand staircase and sighed before slowly walking toward it. Each step sent jolts of pain shooting through his weakened body. After what felt like ages, he finally reached the bottom and approached his teammates.
When the raven-haired woman noticed him, she frowned and wanted to say something. But she stopped when two recruits walked by their group, glancing at the state of their clothes and all the blood covering them. “You don’t look too well,” Tasia said a moment later when they were far enough.
“I’m fine. Just tired from healing and all the walking,” Ari said.
She nodded, but her expression said she wasn’t convinced he was fine in the slightest. “Look, we’re already on the ranking and at the top of it,” she said and pointed at the left top corner of the white board.
- Team 63 - 31 points
- Team 42 - 22 points
- Team 2 - 19 points
Ari stared at the list for a few longs seconds — it seemed that the dungeon they cleared was worth way more points. But then he noticed something weird at the bottom of the ranking as two team names there were written in red color. “Uhm, what does a red name mean?” he asked, though he feared he already knew the answer.
“It means they died.” A hoarse voice sounded somewhere in the hall.
A tall figure approached them, and a chill ran down Ari’s spine. The man’s shaggy blonde hair hung loose, covering one of his eyes. His hooked nose had been broken so often it veered to one side across the left cheek. On the black cloak he wore, there were two marks embroidered — one was the golden snake Ari was familiar with, but the second reminded him of a noose hanging from a tree branch.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ari noticed that Elijah tried to hide behind Killian, who was oblivious to what was happening as he still was turned toward the board. Even Tasia, who always seemed to be in control paled and visibly tensed.
The Hunter looked at them and laughed. “Oh, it’s you two. I’m again sorry for the mess we made in your room. Mistakes happen, but let bygones be bygones, right?” He reached out his hand toward Ari, who shook it after a moment of hesitation.
“See? That was easy. My mother always taught me to forgive and forget, and grudges aren’t worth holding onto. I’m glad that you feel the same,” The Hunter said, flashing a toothy grin. Then he glanced at the ranking and frowned. “Crap. Skyla won’t be happy someone surpassed her already.” He saw the expression Ari made and added, “Don’t tell me... What’s your team number?”
“Uhm, sixty-three,” Ari replied.
The shaggy Hunter stared at him, and his eyelid twitched. Then, he slapped his thighs and laughed heartily. “Oh, this is just too good. But if I were in your place, I would run from here as fast you can. Trust me, you don’t—” The man paused and glanced over his shoulder. Ari could hear him gulping, and he looked past the scared Hunter.
Two women wearing the Order’s clothes sauntered down the stairs. One was Skyla, the young rusty-haired girl, who ranked first among all the recruits. The other was the Hunter they met a few days ago. She slid a band off her wrist and tugged her apple-colored hair back to gather it into a low ponytail. The two women appeared to be deep in a conversation before they laughed like a pair of mischievous children. They sounded so alike, and Ari’s mouth fell open.
The female Hunter noticed the shaggy man and waved at him. He cursed under his breath and walked to meet the two women. They talked for a few seconds, and he made gestures toward the double doors leading to the yard, mentioning something about supper. Meanwhile, with a smug smile plastered on her face, Skyla approached the board. Suddenly she faltered and the smile vanished from her lips as it was replaced by a venomous snarl. “Erin!” she hissed.
The redhead turned her attention away from her companion, and a frown appeared on her forehead as she walked over to Skyla. The shaggy man gave Ari an apologetic smile and joined her. “What’s going on?” the woman asked.
Skyla pointed at the ranking. “Someone cheated. Find out whose team it is.”
The female Hunter glanced at Ari and his teammates as they tried to discreetly move away. Her eyes widened slightly when she noticed him, but she recovered and said, “Will do, sis. Now let’s go. Uncle Kieran is treating us to supper.”
“Really? He never does that,” Skyla asked suspiciously.
“Maybe he had a change of heart.”
“He doesn’t even have one,” Skyla sighed. “Promise you will take care of them.”
The redhead nodded, and they started walking toward the exit. But Skyla came to a halt after about a dozen steps and looked straight at Elijah, who till now managed to hide behind his teammates. She narrowed her eyes at him and said through clenched teeth, “You! It’s your team.”
Elijah opened his mouth, trying to deny it, but before he did, essence flared around the young girl, and a sordid smell filled the air. The checkered floor stone tiles beneath her feet started shaking as fractures appeared on them. But suddenly, both Hunters laid their hands on the girl’s shoulders, and her essence was cut off.
“Huh?” Skyla gawked at the pair. “Why did you stop me? They are cheaters, and you always tell me such people need to be punished.”
While the girl fumed at the Hunters, Ari couldn’t resist his curiosity and covered his eyes in essence. Skyla’s aura was nearly white, and only a few gray strands were visible floating around. But he gulped when he looked at the pair behind her — the clouds surrounding them were pure green as treetops in the summer. Emeralds, they’re fucking emeralds, he thought, panicking.
“What is the meaning of this?” A female voice came from somewhere to Ari’s right, and he looked in that direction.
Another green cloud hovered above the stairs, but the color was deeper, and hundreds of blue wisps floated lazily on its edges. Ari removed the essence from his eyes and found the elderly headmistress standing at the top of the grand staircase. He was surprised to see that today she wore a simple white robe covered with multiple colorful stains, and her golden hair was in disarray as they fell around her shoulders.
Skyla pointed at Elijah and shouted, “Someone helped them. No way such weaklings cleared a dungeon close to opal rank.”
The headmistress frowned and stared at Ari, and his knees felt like they would buckle anytime from the essence he sensed around him. But the pressure vanished a moment later, and her face brightened. “They had not cheated. I have personally verified their holder, and it was not tainted by essence of someone with a higher rank.”
Skyla’s mouth opened and closed, like a floundering fish out of the water, then she harrumphed and stormed out of the hall. The pair of Hunters exchanged glances, but before they could move, two large steel bars dropped with loud thuds into the brackets on either side of the double doors.
“Dear Hunters. Please stay for a moment,” the headmistress said, as she slowly descended the stairs.
The redhead’s expression hardened, and her face flushed the color of her hair. Her companion said something, but she growled at him and marched through the middle of the hall toward the stairs. He sighed and followed suit.
The remaining people in the hall scampered beneath the columns and observed with wide eyes what was going on, not daring to make even the slightest of sounds. Ari felt a tug on his cloak, and a moment later, Tasia whispered to his ear, “What have you gotten us into?”
Ari hadn’t responded because the headmistress already reached the bottom of the stairs, and the Hunters stood a few meters away from her. The elderly woman faced them with a calm expression, her body still and straight, her hands clasped and held out in front of her. Which looked silly, considering the state of her clothing, but there was something about her that made him wary. “Please forward my request to your captain. I would like to see him at his earliest convenience,” she said a moment later.
“You forget yourself, old hag.” The redhead seethed in white-hot anger. “We can do whatever—”
A terrifying pressure descended upon the hall, and she fell to her knees, clutching at her throat and gagging for breath. Even Ari, who stood a fair distance away, saw the blue-green essence waves spreading from the headmistress.
“No one gave you permission to speak,” she said in a hard voice and looked at the other Hunter. “Will you abide by my request?”
He met her gaze and nodded.
“Good. You may leave.” She waved her hand dismissively and started walking up the stairs. At the same time, the steel bars floated away from the doors, unblocking them.
When the headmistress was halfway up, the pressure vanished, and the red-haired Hunter was able to breathe again. Her companion tried to help her stand, but she pushed him away and snarled, “Do not touch me!” After a few seconds, she got up from her knees and straightened her cloak before she strode toward the exit. The doors slammed so hard behind her that the whole wall quivered.
The Hunter scratched the back of his head and sighed wearily. He looked around the hall and saw that all eyes were on him. A smile appeared on his face, and he said, “Show’s over kids. Get back to doing whatever glassies like you do best, that is dying.” Then, he marched out of the room, but when he was close to the doors, he cast one last glance at Ari’s group, and there was a dangerous gleam in his eyes.
Immediately after he left, the hall started buzzing with excited conversations as all the recruits who appeared later wanted to know what just happened
Suddenly, someone flipped Ari around and pinned him against the wall, which took his breath away. He tried to break free from Tasia’s grip, but he stiffened beneath her icy glare. “If you two idiots won’t explain right now how you know those fucking Hunters, I will kill you myself and drop your bodies at their doorstep,” she said.
“Uhm, they mistook us for someone else,” Ari stammered.
She stared at him incredulously, her lips slightly parted. “I heard that when he said it. But” —she braced her hands more firmly against Ari’s chest and pinned him harder against the wall— “Hunters don’t make mistakes, so try again.”
Killian approached them and said in a hushed voice, “Let him go, you’re making an even bigger scene.” The archer looked like he might collapse at any moment. They all did, the dungeon took its toll on them.
Tasia glanced over her shoulder, and Ari followed her gaze. All the recruits in the hall stared in their direction, whispering among themselves. She cursed and said, “Move your asses to the basement.”
“Not gonna happen,” Roisin said sharply as she appeared beside them, which brought another wave of gasps and murmurs. “Go home, clean yourself, rest, eat something. Meet me tomorrow at midday in the training room, and we will discuss our next steps.”
Tasia frowned and opened her mouth to object, but their petite mentor wagged her finger at her. “Don’t. I’m not in the mood for discussions.”
“Fine,” Tasia said. “But, I want to hear some answers tomorrow, from both of you.”
Roisin glanced at Ari and nodded. “Off you go,” she said, and the group reluctantly dispersed.
Ari and Elijah headed straight to The Golden Goose, but the walk took them twice as long because Ari needed to take a break every few minutes. A couple of times, he tried to initiate a conversation, but his friend hardly responded. There was a thoughtful expression in Elijah’s eyes that had not been there before, and for the first time since they met, he wasn’t talking much.
Before they reached the southern parts of the town, it already grew dark, with lights appearing in the houses and shops along the streets. When they stepped into the inn, the conversations at the tables ceased abruptly as all eyes turned their way. Only the lively music still played as if the musicians didn’t care about the two bloodied men. Ari sighed and approached the stairs, but he could feel the gazes on his back.
Finally, inside their room, they took off their clothes and threw them into one of the corners. Elijah went straight to the bathroom, locking the door behind him. While waiting for his turn, Ari sat in one of the plush leather chairs and checked his essence sheet. It seemed that most of his skills leveled up, and he couldn’t wait to see the new fire summon. He tried to cast the spell, but nothing happened. I guess it’s the same as with the other one, and I need fire to summon it. But when he focused on it, the incantation appeared in his mind, so at least he knew its name — Hyrr.
Ari also had fifteen more points he could spend on attributes, but this part was easy. He agreed with their mentor’s reasoning after surviving the first dungeon — he needed to get stronger in all aspects before focusing on spirit as he planned to do. After distributing the points equally between the three attributes, Ari looked again at his essence sheet.
|Rank: None||Progress: 31%||Affinity: Nature|
|Attributes (0 unspent points)|
|Body: 17||Mind: 17||Spirit (+20%): 23 (19)|
|Rune of Summoning
|Summon Lesser Water Elemental - level 6||Osmosis|
|Summon Lesser Fire Elemental - level 1||Summoner's Bond - level 6|
|Mental Link - level 1|
|Rune of Spring|
|Healing Touch - level 6||Fast Recovery - level 5|
|Control Water - level 5|
The sound of the door opening brought Ari back to reality. Elijah entered the room, wearing only his underwear. Ari noticed that he was leaner than a few days ago, and there was less fat on his face. He walked to the edge of his bed and took a seat, sinking down into the mattress. His eyes glazed over. "I nearly died today," Elijah said after a while.
“We all did,” Ari replied. “But I overheard Roisin saying our dungeon was way stronger than it should have been, and the next ones will be easier.”
“Nothing will be easier. The stronger we get, the stronger the monsters we will have to fight. Those are your words.” Elijah let out a deep breath and then lay down. He crossed his hands behind his head and looked up at the wooden ceiling. “But at least the Hunters will leave us alone.”
“What?” Ari looked at him incredulously. “No, there was something wrong about the situation today. The shaggy Hunter didn’t sound sincere.”
“You’re overthinking it. They don’t have anything and let us go. Police officers in my world act the same.”
Ari didn’t know what a police officer was, but he had enough of those comparisons. “How can you be so naive? This isn’t your world and—”
“That’s exactly the problem!” Elijah interrupted him as he sat up abruptly, and Ari flinched from the sudden outburst.
Elijah's face was twisted in a feral snarl, and his eyes were cold, devoid of recognition. He gripped the bed’s rail so hard, his knuckles turned white and cracks appeared in the wood. “I need to return to my world, to my family. I thought I knew what to expect after reading all the books, but now they seem like a fairy tale compared to” —he pointed at the heap of bloodied clothes— “this.”
Ari’s heartbeat quickened, and his whole body broke out in a sweat. Somehow he felt as if he was back in the dungeon, and there was a dangerous monster in front of him.
Silence filled the room. A silence that was broken only by the subtle buzzing of the essence lamps hanging on the walls.
“Sorry, I’m just tired.” Elijah sighed and his face returned to normal. “And hungry, but I’m not going back down there tonight.”
Ari gulped, but he had to ask the question that’s been on his mind for a few days now. “Yeah, I get it. Listen...” He tried to find the best words to describe it, but he couldn’t, so he settled for the simple truth. ”Just now, you felt different. The same thing happened during the duel, and when we were inside the dungeon.”
After a few long seconds, Elijah said quietly, “It feels like something takes over and does things I’m too scared to do or say.” He paused and stared at his hands as black-red fire engulfed them. The lamps dimmed and the flames grew brighter, becoming the only source of light. “And since coming here, I’m scared most of the time. I don’t know why they picked me, but I will do everything I can to return to my world.”
He clenched his hands into fists, extinguishing the fire, and darkness enveloped the room.