Ari barely slept that night. Thoughts of Elijah’s words and worries about the future whirled endlessly in his mind. As soon as the first rays of sunlight crept through the window, he got up, dressed in the spare Order’s clothes, and went downstairs. He decided eating something would help his headache and speed up the recovery of his injured arm. While it looked better than yesterday, it still felt thinner and sluggish compared to the other one.
The common room was empty of patrons, the chairs were pushed into tables, and everything looked spotless. A lean young man, wearing a plain white shirt, stood behind the counter, painstakingly slicing a fresh tomato. He had wavy blonde hair and rings around his eyes. When he heard Ari walking down the stairs, he forced a smile onto his face. “Morning. What can I do for you?”
“Two breakfast plates, please,” Ari said as he approached him. “Any news about Brendan?”
The man shook his head. “Grandpa hadn’t sent any messages yet. But he should be back by the end of the week.”
Grandpa? Ari thought, dumbfounded. The man in front of him was maybe twenty years old, and the barkeeper looked like he was in his late thirties.
When he noticed Ari’s expression, he smiled a toothy smile and pointed the knife at him. “Oh, I get that look a lot, but you’re from the Order, so you should know how this works. Branded age slower than normal people, something to do with the essence,” he said and tossed the sliced tomato into a bowl.
Ari stood motionless for a few long seconds, processing in his mind what he just heard. “Uhm, right,” he stammered.
The man cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “I need ten minutes to prepare the plates, so please wait or come back later.” He took the bowl and vanished in the kitchen behind him.
Ari sat near the nearly spent fireplace as he suddenly felt weary. While he suspected the barkeeper was a member of the organization, he was confident the man retired recently due to an injury as he saw him limping. Now that he thought of it, his parents’ appearance barely changed during his childhood; same with their teammates who sometimes visited the small island where Ari lived. A shiver ran down his spine. How old were they? He shook his head. Are. They are alive.
Soon, the caretaker returned with the food, and Ari took it upstairs to their room. There, he placed it on a large wooden table and woke Elijah up. After a minute of grumbling, they sat opposite each other, and while his friend devoured the fresh bread and vegetables, Ari shared what he learned.
“Really? Then why do the headmistress and the quartermaster look so old?” Elijah asked, wagging his fork through the air.
That’s a good question. “I’m not sure. Maybe it stops working after a certain point?” Ari said.
“Maybe,” Elijah shrugged. “Anyway, do you know what rank your parents are?”
Ari shook his head as he chewed and swallowed a bite before answering. “They never mentioned it, and the first time I saw the Order’s necklace was here. But, when I was allowed to observe their sparring sessions they moved slower than you or Tasia.”
Elijah’s forehead creased. “You think they were pretending?”
“Yeah,” Ari replied flatly.
They ate in silence after that. A few minutes later, Elijah sat back on his chair and patted his belly. “I’m stuffed.”
“You look leaner than a few days ago.”
“You noticed?” Elijah smiled from ear to ear. “I never looked so good since… Well, since ever honestly. I’ve been putting most of my points in body, so it’s probably thanks to it.”
“Why? Roisin said to split them evenly.” Ari gave him a questioning look.
“All my spells get stronger with that attribute. In my world, there are things called video games, and in most, investing heavily in one pays off in the long run.”
Ari sighed, but before he could say anything, Elijah growled. “I know you hate it whenever I mention my world, but I need to make those comparisons, or I will go crazy.”
“I don’t,” Ari said, raising his voice more than he intended. “Our worlds are different, and whether you like it or not, you have to adjust to how things work here.”
Elijah hadn’t replied as he stared at the empty plate. He looked… sad, and Ari felt bad about what he said, even though he meant every word. “What about leaving earlier to test our new spells?”
“Oh, great idea!” Elijah chirped, and the sadness surrounding him disappeared as if it wasn’t even there.
They left the inn shortly after, wrapping their cloaks tightly around them against the morning chill. Dried, fallen leaves were scattered on the streets, and some of the trees along the sidewalk were already partially bare. Their branches hovered over them like claws, and Ari shuddered as this reminded him of the rift and its influence.
They walked the same route as every day, and he felt better as they didn’t need to make any stops yet. After reaching the section of the town with the fancy mansions, they found a group of people standing on the sidewalk in front of one. The group wasn’t large, but it sure was loud, and Ari edged closer to see what was going on. Most of them were men wearing dirty boiler suits and work clothes, and they held hand-painted wooden signs with phrases like People first, You can’t replace skill, or We have families to feed.
When he was a few meters away from the group, he saw something weird to his right and looked through the metal fence. Inside the spacious garden filled with neatly trimmed bushes and trees, a couple of tall, metal-clad figures carried huge marble boulders over their helmeted heads. Two others were cutting large wooden beams into smaller pieces using a buzzing saw-like device, sending wood shavings flying everywhere.
Their armor was black and robust, and it glistened as the sun’s rays reflected off the metal. Large green gems were attached to their backs, filled with some kind of fluid similar to the pure essence Ari and his team gathered in the dungeon.
At first, he thought those were armored men, but when he looked closer, he noticed their movement was stiff and unnatural. Then one of them dropped off the boulder near the mansion, and its torso spun around before it started walking in the opposite direction. What the hell?
“Seeing them for the first time?”
A quiet voice sounded behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder. It came from the rotund man towering over him, and Ari had to look up to see his deeply set green eyes. He wore the Order’s cloak, and the hood was up as if he tried to hide his face.
“Roy, was it?” Ari asked. If he remembered right, the man was one of the top five recruits.
The man nodded and removed the hood, revealing his thick, curly brown hair. He had a round face with pudgy cheeks and a smile to go with it. Then, he held his hand out, and Ari shook it. “And you’re Ari,” he said, and the calm voice didn’t match his imposing appearance at all.
Next, he shook Elijah’s hand and nodded at him. “Nice to see you again.”
“How do you know my name?” Ari asked.
“Oh, everyone’s been talking about the headmistress defending your team from Skyla and Hunters.”
Ari and Elijah exchanged incredulous looks with each other
“W… What? It wasn’t like that,” Elijah stammered.
“No?” Roy blushed and held his large hands up in apology. “My teammate saw the whole thing, and she couldn’t close her mouth for the whole evening.”
Ari sighed. He couldn’t blame them — to others, the incident might have looked exactly like he described it.
“It was a misunderstanding,” Ari said with a smile and decided to change the topic. “Do you know what those things are?” He pointed at the armored workers.
Roy was silent for a few seconds as he gazed over their heads with a wistful longing look in his eyes. “I don’t know much,” he said as he clenched his hands into fists. “They are called essence golems, and the Order invented them. And now, they are replacing hard-working folk like my pa or them.” He nodded toward the group with the signs.
“True that! It’s good to know some people in the Order still have brains between their ears,” shouted a bald man standing closest to them. “They should have named them essence wankers, not golems.” He spat on the fence, which brought a few laughs from the other workers.
“What is your father doing now?” Elijah asked.
Roy looked down and shuffled his feet a bit, cleared his throat nervously, and said, “Nothing much… I forgot, I have to buy some food. Take care.” After donning his hood, he wandered off to the sidewalk on the other side of the street.
“You shouldn’t have asked about this,” Ari said a moment later.
Ari was about to say in my world, but at the last moment, he stopped himself. “A lot of people on the continent lose their relatives to monsters and other things. It’s a delicate subject.”
Elijah hadn’t said anything after that, and the rest of the walk was silent but filled with Ari thinking about what he just saw. He couldn't understand why someone would choose between normal workers and golems if they could work alongside. Back home, everyone looked out for each other, but here it was different and he wondered why.
Thankfully, this early the outpost was mostly empty, and they managed to enter the basement without anyone bothering them. When Ari opened the door to their training hall, he was surprised to find both Killian and Tasia already inside, sparring using wooden swords. Sweat poured down their faces and dripped all over the white shirts they wore. But the archer seemed worse as his brown hair was plastered to his head, and his clothes drenched.
They stopped their bout, and the raven-haired woman leaned against her beat-up weapon. Her eyes filled with glee, and a sinister smile crept across her lips. “Slept well, sleepyheads? I hope you have some answers for me,” she said. Then, she approached the barrels standing in the corner, cupped some water in her hands, and drank. Killian wiped the sweat from his eyes and nodded at them, then joined her and stuck his whole head in another barrel, spraying water as he pulled away.
Without a word, Ari and Elijah entered the room, closing the door behind them. They took off their cloaks, and Ari winced in pain from the movement. His friend sat on the leather couch and put his sword on the table in front of him, where their companions’ weapons already lay.
He decided against joining Elijah and started slowly stretching the aching limb. Sitting now would make him feel like he was back home, whenever his father forced him to kneel on the floor and explain why he got in another fight. He smiled at the bittersweet memory and readied himself for the conversation.
Killian sat on the other end of the couch, picked up his bow, and started cleaning it with a piece of cloth. Tasia stopped in her tracks when she approached them and frowned as she noticed Ari standing beside the table. She folded her hands over her chest and looked expectantly at him.
“So… About the Hunters—” Ari began, but she interrupted him.
“Wait,” Tasia said.
The woman narrowed her eyes and glanced around the room. Then, she pouted her lips and picked her two-handed sword and started swinging randomly. They looked at her like she had gone crazy, but then it dawned on him she’s been checking if the invisible mentor wasn’t around like last time.
“Start with what you overheard,” she said after a minute when she placed her sword on the table.
Ari explained what he learned about the ‘broken’ detector, and that both their mentor and the quartermaster knew about the monster with the red aura.
“That’s all?” Tasia said, sounding disappointed, and Ari nodded.
“So, at least we know the stupid boar was too strong for us, but we survived, somehow.” She glanced at Ari’s injured arm. There was something in her eyes he never expected to see — guilt. But it vanished as soon as it appeared and she continued in her usual tone, “Now, the Hunters.”
“There isn’t much to say. We arrived on the night of the rainbow storm. You know what it is?” Ari said.
“A summoning storm, but for humans, not dungeons,” Killian said.
Ari nodded. “Apparently they couldn’t find the thing that appeared and started checking the people who entered the town after the storm ended. Since we were among them, they demolished our room while we were here for the evaluation. And that’s everything.”
Nobody said anything for a minute or so, as Tasia was glancing back and forth between Ari and Elijah. “Your skin is awfully dark for an Islander,” she said finally.
“Uhm, my father was from here, but he couldn’t stay on the Islands because of the curse, and my mother raised me by herself,” Elijah said while fidgeting his fingers against the buckle of his belt.
“What curse?” the woman asked.
“No outsider can stay on the Islands for longer than a few weeks,” Ari interjected. “If they try, they get sick and die soon after.”
Tasia and Killian gawked at him in wide-eyed disbelief.
“You made the whole situation worse with your outburst and now everyone is talking about us. We're a team and we need to act like one or the next dungeon will be our last one,” Ari said in a hard voice and Tasia blushed.
Then, he turned toward Elijah. “Can you do the thing with your hands?”
His friend looked at him, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, right.” He stretched his hands out, and fire engulfed them.
Ari focused on his essence and whispered the incantation, “Hyrr, hear my summons and obey.”
Some of the flames floated away from Elijah’s hands and danced in the air, creating patterns that shaped itself into a form with horn-like ears and a curly tail.
A moment later, a red-furred squirrel, the size of a small dog, appeared on the table and sniffed the air. The summon looked at Ari and wagged its large, made out of white ever-burning fire, tail. Flames whirled inside its curious eyes, and there were darker markings around them. They reminded him of runes from his language.
Tasia’s lips curled into a smile, and she said mockingly, “What are you going to do with it? Show to children in the park for chips?”
Ari let out a groan. She's hopeless. Why can't she just keep her mouth shut for a minute...
The squirrel turned toward Tasia, tilting its head slightly to the side. It chittered angrily, and a black acorn materialized in its paws. Then, with a sizzling sound, flames enveloped the acorn’s cup and the creature threw it at the woman.
“What the!” Tasia shouted and ducked, barely avoiding the fiery projectile.
At the same time, the door behind her opened with a click. Their mentor appeared in the doorway, yawning and stretching her arms up into the air, oblivious that something flew straight at her. When the acorn was about to hit the woman, a barrier as large as her shimmered in the air, blocking it in a bright flash. The whole room trembled and a cloud of thick black smoke obscured the view.
Elijah and Killian jumped off the couch and joined Ari. He immediately sent tendrils of essence to gather water from the barrels and used it to put out the burning floor.
They stared in horror at the smoke, but soon a retching cough broke the silence, and a small figure strode through, parting it. Roisin’s face and hands were blackened, but besides that, she seemed unharmed. She stopped after a few steps and narrowed her eyes at them.
“What did I do to deserve such a warm welcome?”