Ari woke up screaming.
He jerked upright in his bed, drenched in sweat. His lungs burned for air. The memory of drowning lingered in his mind, and he could still feel the water’s cold grip about his body.
Ari bit into his knuckles, focusing on the prick of pain till the blood started dripping down his hand. After a few seconds, he was able to breathe normally, and he let his head hit the pillow.
“Why did you do it?”
A voice startled him, and he looked to the side. Elijah sat on his bed, legs dangling off. His eyes glistened in the moonlight spilling through the window.
“What?” Ari asked.
“You just hurt yourself. I saw you do it once already, before the evaluation.”
Ari was silent for a moment while his spell healed the wound. “I have those… Panic attacks. And pain allows me to focus and break out of them.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Do I? Ari thought. He sat up and faced his friend. He never told anyone about his childhood, and maybe it was time to change it.
“You can’t train anyone until their brands manifest,” he started. “The essence reserves are too shallow, so most don’t bother with doing anything before they appear. If they even appear, that is. There’s about a 1% chance for it.”
“But when both parents are branded, the chance for their kid to have them too increases drastically. This is why my father had high hopes and kept telling me how special I am.” Ari smiled wistfully and stared through the window at the street illuminated by green lights.
“Still, the issue of training remains because the brands seem to be random; you could waste fifteen years teaching a kid how to use a sword, only for him to receive a ranged brand.”
“How do you know all this?” Elijah asked.
“From my Mother’s journal, I found it after they disappeared.” Ari paused and gathered his thoughts. “Anyway, this leaves only a few things worth training, but there are two which seem to be the most desired: endurance and essence sensing. But both are troublesome.”
Elijah’s brows creased. “Why?”
“Training endurance revolves around wounding and healing the body. A small part of the essence used during the process strengthens the body permanently, but it only works on those without brands. Sensing is a bit more… complicated,” Ari said, recalling the days and nights he was forced to spend at the bottom of the well.
Silence filled the room, and Elijah’s expression changed. The confusion on his face was replaced by a look of disgust mixed with hatred.
“Are your parents fucking crazy?” he shouted as he jumped off the bed. He started pacing back and forth, and flames engulfed his bare arms, casting shadows on the walls. “Is this world fucking crazy?”
“The training was my father’s idea,” Ari said after a while. “My Mother… she did what she could to make it easier.”
Elijah stopped in his tracks and looked at him incredulously. “Can you even hear yourself right now? Why didn’t she stop him?”
“You haven’t met my father,” Ari replied flatly.
“Oh, If I ever meet him, I will burn his sorry ass to crisp,” Elijah seethed with anger, and the flames surrounding him brightened as if fueled by it. “Why do you even want to find them? I would be happy they are gone.”
“Don’t say that!” Ari bolted upright and a barely visible red mist surrounded his clenched fists. “I promised something to my Mother, and I will keep my word!” he shouted.
The flames surrounding Elijah’s arms vanished, and he stared at Ari with his eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” Ari blurted. He walked past his stunned friend heading for the bathroom. He locked the door behind him, without bothering to turn on the light.
Inside, Ari leaned his back against the wall and slowly sank down, sitting on the floor. He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. His fingers trembled violently, and it took him a minute to stop them from doing that.
Ari ignored the knocking on the door. He ignored everything. It was just the darkness and him. An old friend. Then, he slept.
The whole way to the outpost, Elijah repeatedly apologized for his words. And each time, Ari told him nothing happened and tried to change the topic. But no matter what, sometimes even the next minute, his friend apologized again.
“Listen, we both said too much,” Ari said when they walked through the park near the outpost, trying to hide from the drizzle falling from the sky. He stopped and reached his hand out toward Elijah. “So we’re even, okay?”
His friend shook it and said, “I’m sorry.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry,” Ari sighed with a smile.
Elijah’s lips curled upwards, and he muttered something under his breath. Then, he said out loud, “You know, back home, one of my favorite tv shows has a character saying this line. Though in different circumstances.”
Ari’s eyes darted left and right, scanning their surroundings to check if someone was close enough to overhear them. Elijah grinned when he saw Ari’s reaction and put his hands up, palms toward him. “Relax, I’ve placed a silencing ward around us.”
“Uhm, I couldn’t sleep last night, so I started reading the book the barkeeper gave us. It was actually pretty easy to learn.” Elijah smiled smugly.
A man wearing a dark blue suit came from around a corner and walked down the path where they stood. His face paled when he noticed them, and he turned on his heel, hurrying off in the opposite direction. He even forgot to lean on his cane while he did it.
“It’s a weird feeling how those people react to us now,” Elijah said.
Ari nodded. “We should go, we’re already late.”
When they entered the training hall, Tasia and Killian just finished their sparring match. The raven-haired woman was smiling as she pointed her wooden sword at the archer’s throat. He sat on the ground, breathing hard, and a sword and a dagger lay near his hands. Even their mentor was already here; she occupied the couch, her face calm and eyes closed.
“Finally,” Roisin said and stood up, but then she glanced at the sweat-drenched pair and frowned. She sank back onto the couch and put her feet on the table in front, nearly pushing off the weapons laying there. “Today I’m the one sitting.”
Tasia helped Killian get up, and they started cleaning themselves near the barrels. In the meantime, Ari approached the new dummy. While the old ones were made out of stone, the new one was covered in glistening black metal. It reminded him of the armor the essence golems were made off.
“I want to see him trying to destroy,” Tasia smirked over her shoulder as she wiped her face with a towel. “The dummy can withstand attacks up to emerald rank. You can thank Roisin for convincing the quartermaster to give it to us for free.”
Roisin waved her hand dismissively. “I told you before, you were lucky to get the best mentor in town. But gather up, we have things to discuss.”
When they approached the table and stood around it, she continued, “During the evaluation, each of you has been assigned a role according to your brands and spells. But it means something more than that. Your role describes what you’re responsible for in a dungeon.”
She turned toward Tasia. “As a Defender your task is to distract the monsters, while offensive roles focus on killing them. And in case of your team, you have a balanced setup with a Brawler and a Striker.” She glanced at Elijah and Killian. “But the most important role belongs to you, Ari.”
“Because I can heal,” he said.
Roisin nodded. “A Mender is the lynchpin of any team, as long as he is alive, the party can survive the dungeon. You’re not a Mender, but as a Wildcard with this subrole, it’s your responsibility.”
“Protect Ari at all costs. Even if it means you will risk your own life while doing it. Or die saving him.” Her hazel eyes looked serious —angry almost— as she stared at them for a few long seconds. Then, she let out a long breath of relief and added, “Well, that would be all for today.”
“What?” Tasia and Elijah shouted at the same time.
Roisin’s face brightened and she grinned. “Got you.” She jumped off the couch and headed toward the door. “Gather your things, time to get some fresh air.”
The rain had stopped, and the sun was now poking through the scattered clouds hurrying across the sky. Roisin led the recruits through the northern gate, and down the main cobbled road for maybe ten minutes before they turned into a narrow muddy path meandering through the fields of grass.
Ari enjoyed the warmth of the sun on his face. How good to be outside again, he thought as he breathed in the fresh air filled with the scent of damp earth after the rain. After a short walk, they reached a small grove with a stream of water flowing beside, and that’s where Roisin told them to stop.
The woman took off her cloak and hung it on a nearby tree. Then she started stretching in a weird routine, but her moves were fluent and practiced. Her black shirt seemed different from those Ari and the other recruits wore. The material looked thicker, and he sensed various runes embroidered in it.
“So, what are we doing here?” Tasia asked.
“We are gonna have some fun,” Roisin said, and four wooden swords fell on the grass in front of her.
Where did she hide those? Ari saw several times already as various items appeared in people’s hands seemingly out of nowhere, but usually, their size was small.
“Uhm, how did you do that?” he asked.
“You don’t know what void jewelry is?” Roisin raised an eyebrow, and seeing his expression, continued, “They have an enchantment which allows you to store items inside. The cheapest ones cost fifty opal orbs or so. I suggest saving your earnings for them. Trust me, they are worth it.”
The price seemed steep to Ari, but if he could store water inside, he already saw the huge benefits of having such an item.
“Now, back to having fun.” Roisin’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “Pick a sword and follow me. I like those trees, and I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to them.”
She led them to a meadow, overgrown with long grass and wildflowers, about fifty meters away from the grove. Ari intentionally walked a fair distance away from the group, closer to the stream.
“Stop there,” she said over her shoulder as she kept walking. “You can use your spells. If you hit me even once, you win.”
“Why do we need wooden swords if we can use spells?” Tasia asked. She looked doubtfully at the weapon.
“Oh, because your own weapons would give too much of an advantage” —Roisin suddenly turned to face them, essence flared around her small figure, and a sinister smile curved her lips— “to me.”
Then, she vanished and reappeared right in front of Tasia, and threw a punch at her. The raven-haired woman scampered backward, and a barrier shimmered between them. But Roisin fist shattered it as if it wasn’t even there, and punched Tasia square in the gut. She flew through the air, hitting the ground hard a few meters away and rolled before stopping.
Killian and Elijah burst into motion, and they rushed at their mentor. While running, Elijah pointed his sword at her, and a black-red stream of fire shot out of it. But the woman simply sidestepped the spell without even looking in his direction.
The moment Ari sensed the change in Roisin’s aura before she even attacked Tasia, he started whispering the summoning incantation, and now he was nearly done. “Vatna, hear my summons and—”
A cry of pain left his throat when something smashed into his shoulder, interrupting him and spinning him around. He almost fell but managed to hold his balance.
Ari touched the wound to heal it, and a small bloodied metal ball fell on his palm. But he wasted no time thinking about it and turned toward his teammates.
Killian already squirmed on the ground, and Elijah fought their mentor alone. His flaming whip repeatedly swished through the air, but not even once it hit Roisin. She stood with an amused look on her face a few meters away from him, barely moving, yet somehow, she narrowly avoided each attack.
Water started floating away from the stream behind Ari. His scepter was still strapped to his belt, and he caressed the handle softly. We just need to hit her, summoning the spider was a stupid idea.
After fifteen seconds, he gathered enough and ran toward the fighting pair, trying to control a large bubble hovering over his head. When he was closer, he separated it into hundreds of smaller drops, spreading them as far as he could. He practiced this yesterday, but with far less water, so he wasn’t sure if it would work, but he had to try.
Roisin cocked her head slightly when she noticed him. Just before the flaming whip was about to hit her, she vanished again. A second later, she slammed her knee into Elijah’s stomach, making him gag as he sunk to the ground. Right after, something smashed into Ari’s other shoulder, but he ignored the pain and focused on the woman rushing at him.
Clenching his teeth, he activated the scepter’s enchantment, and at the same time, launched the water at her. Blue brightness surrounded him, and all the drops froze before crashing into the ground, obscuring his view.
Did I get her?
Cold steel touched his throat, and he didn’t dare to swallow.
“Well, I didn’t expect that.” Roisin’s calm voice came from behind him, and she removed her knife. “The attack would barely hurt even the weakest monster, but I guess I told you to hit me, not kill me. Go heal them, then we can talk.”
A few minutes later, they sat on the ground on the edge of the grove. Beside Roisin, who seemed satisfied with herself as she munched on another apple, Ari and his teammates had sullen faces and glared at her with unconcealed hostility.
“So,” Roisin began.” You lost, even though I attacked you in the wrong order. The monsters you will meet later won’t be so stupid.” She paused to let her words sink in.
“We lost because you’re much stronger,” Tasia sassed.
“I am, but that wasn’t the point of the lessons,” Roisin said. “You need to always be ready, searching for any changes in essence around you. Out of you four, only Ari is doing that.”
The group looked at him with curiosity. In Elijah’s eyes, there was something else, but Ari wasn’t sure what.
“That is the skill I want to teach you today. It’s called Sensing,” Roisin continued. “The problem is, you need to be at least opal rank to make good use of it, but it won’t hurt to start learning it earlier.”
“The basic idea behind Sensing is simple: you have to separate a part of your essence and expel it from your body. Then, spread it around as far as you can without breaking the connection.”
She got up from the ground and stood some distance away from the group. “Use Aura Reading. I will expel more essence than is needed, but that’s the only way for you to see it.”
The world turned gray, and Roisin shone with her pure white aura as if she was the sun. After a few seconds, small white specks separated from her body and started floating around her forming some kind of ever-moving mist.
“That’s the basic form of this skill. Whenever a monster, object, or a spell enters the mist, you will know it right away. And this is how it looks at my current limit,” Roisin said.
The mist expanded, and thousands of specks appeared around Roisin, dancing in the air. “That’s ten meters. But at your rank, you will be able to expand it to two or three at most, and Sense only incoming spells.”
“How far does Ari’s mist reach?” Tasia asked.
“It has at least the same range as mine. I've Sensed his essence reacting to me using a spell during the fight,” Roisin answered.
Tasia stared at Ari, “But how?”
“It’s not for me to say,” Roisin said with a sad smile. “Now, get up and start practicing. Try to keep some distance away from each other, it will make things easier.” When none of them moved, she made a shoo shoo gesture with her hands. “Move your asses.”
A few minutes later, Elijah joined Ari near the stream while Roisin instructed their teammates near the trees.
Elijah placed a silencing ward around them and asked, “How far does your Sense reach?”
Before answering, Ari looked at the clouds traveling lazily across the sky. “Five years ago, when my father measured it last time, I could Sense things from twenty-six meters away, but only if I fully focused on the skill. Now, I’m not sure.”
Elijah gulped beside him. “When did your first brand appear?”
“Four months ago. Why?”
“Just asking.” Elijah paused and shoved his black hair back away from his face as he glanced over his shoulder. Ari noticed that his friend’s hand trembled during the motion. “They are staring at us, we can talk about it later.”
They trained the Sense skill for a few more hours before Roisin headed back to the town. She said she had other matters to attend, and they should stay here and train till evening.
After she left, Ari sat under a tree, leaning against the trunk and drunk from his canteen. His squirrel jumped from branch to branch above him, as it chased a blue flying bug. But the thing was faster than his summon, and Ari could feel the growing frustration in it. He smiled and turned his attention toward his teammates.
Elijah kept swinging his whip at Tasia, and she tried dodging it. Still, in most cases, she had to resort to saving herself with her barriers. Killian stood a fair distance away from the pair as he threw stones at his trap - he spent the last hour springing it and controlling the erupting lightning.
Ari tried to find a way for them to fight a fast, teleporting enemy like their mentor, who could simply jump at him, but he kept drawing a blank. Then he noticed Tasia using her new spell, and an idea formed in his mind.
“Hey, come here. I want to try something,” Ari shouted.
“You did it too fast! The spell isn’t instant like the barriers,” Tasia groaned.
“Not my fault. I’ve had enough of being zapped,” Elijah said as he shivered.
Killian shot him a glance that dared him to complain again.
“It was a close one,” Ari said calmly, and he commanded his spider to join him. “Let’s try one more time.”
They nodded and took their positions across the meadow.
Ari smiled when he thought about the progress they made in the last four days. They spent the mornings on training their Sense and being beaten up by Roisin. The rest of the day, they sparred with each other, and tried to make what Elijah called a combined attack work. Mostly it didn’t, but they all saw the potential in it.
“Ready?” Ari said.
“Stop,” Roisin shouted as she appeared near the grove. “Gather on me.”
They joined the woman, who today wore casual clothes instead of the Order’s ones, and Ari had trouble adjusting to seeing her in simple gray trousers and matching long-sleeve shirt. Even her usually loosely hanging hair was pulled into a neat braid.
“After doing nothing for nearly a week, from the top of the ranking you’ve fallen close to the bottom. As your mentor I must say I’m disappointed,” she said and paused, looking at them. When no one said anything, a smile crept on her face. “Tomorrow, you will have a chance to amend that and test what you learned in another dungeon.”
“Make me proud.”