Ari stared at the dark-skinned woman with a blank look on his face, trying to process the words he just heard. My Mother?
She walked briskly across the room and held out her hand. Her eyebrow rose slightly when Ari did nothing but continue staring at her.
“Sorry,” he stammered, trying to cover his confusion. “We just left a dungeon, and I’m still—”
“Don’t worry about it,” the woman cut him off. She paused, and her smile widened as he squeezed her hand. “You have her eyes. You rarely see such pale gray color anywhere around.”
Before he was able to reply, she continued in her melodic voice, “But where are my manners. My name’s Herena. Your mother and I were part of the same guild back in the capital.” She gestured toward the two identical leather armchairs, and Ari sat tentatively.
Herena sat facing him and crossed her long legs, careful not to kick the table between them. “Tea?” she said, pouring the hot liquid into two cups.
“Please,” Ari said, and she handed the drink to him.
“The room is warded, so we can talk freely here,” she said. The smile on her face vanished, replaced by a deep sadness in her amber eyes. “I’m so sorry about what has happened to your parents.” She waited for Ari to say something, but he remained silent.
“Sigrun was the most cheerful person I’ve ever known, and she loved to talk about you. Even our guild leader was forced to listen to the stories about her sweet baby,” she chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.
Ari stared at the smoke lazily wafting from his teacup, recalling his Mother’s contagious laughter. She was the only thing that allowed him to endure the training. If not for her… No, I can’t think about it now.
“... the funds we send?”
Ari caught only the last few words Herena said. Funds? What funds?
Seeing his confused expression, she stopped the cup halfway to her mouth, and her forehead creased. “When they died, our guild pooled some funds and sent them through the Order’s envoy that was supposed to take care of you. It’s what we always do for the family when something bad happens to one of us.”
Ari had no idea what she was talking about. After his parents vanished, he lost his house because they had unpaid debts, and the Order seized it with everything he had. After that, he was forced to live with another family in the village and earn his keep.
He even forfeited his plans to join the organization, but everything changed when he received the mysterious letter a year ago. It contained the message about his parents not being dead, and clues where to find his Mother’s journal.
Ari explained what happened, but he left out the part about the letter. Gradually, the woman’s expression changed from disbelief to stony rage. When he finished, her half-full cup clattered to the table, spilling the tea everywhere.
“Motherfuckers!” Herena swore. She stood up and started pacing up and down the room. After a few seconds, a dark shadow clouded his face. “I don’t know who did this, but I promise you, I will find out. Your parents were one of the wealthiest members in our guild, and the part about them having debt is pure bullshit.”
They were? Their house didn’t look different from all other ones on the island; only its location was more remote. They certainly didn’t flaunt the wealth the woman was talking about. Besides the training, Ari was raised like any other Islander.
Herena sat back in the armchair and picked up one of the cookies from the tray. She ate in silence, and after swallowing the last bite, she said, “Sadly, this is not why I am here. A few days ago, your mentor reported that you saw a ruby Wanderer inside a dungeon.”
Ari nodded. “I only saw it for a split of a second after my team left the world. It spoke to me, and then the blood-red aura flared around it, but I managed to stumble into the portal in time.”
“Do you feel weaker since then?”
“Any dizziness, nausea, or headaches?”
“Uhm. I’ve been wounded in the dungeon, and I’m still recovering, but nothing so serious.”
“Show me,” Herena commanded, suddenly looking serious.
Ari took off his cloak and winced while he did it. After, he rolled up his sleeve and extended his arm toward her. It already looked the same as the uninjured one, but it still hurt.
The woman placed her hands on his arm and closed her eyes. A blue mist surrounded it, and Ari felt a tingling sensation that seemed to radiate from the limb. It didn’t stop until a sudden jolt sent a nauseating wave of pain through the rest of his body, but he gritted his teeth and withstood it.
Herena raised an eyebrow and let go of his arm.
“What was this about?” Ari rubbed his injured limb.
“Had to be sure the Wanderer hadn’t marked you.”
“They do it sometimes. It helps them in finding new worlds to visit.”
“What would happen if I had the mark?” Ari asked.
“Removing it is possible but painful.” Herena shuddered. She stood up, and a long white coat with black buttons appeared in her hand. While she dressed up, Ari couldn’t help himself and Read her aura.
It was different from all the ones he saw until now. Instead of looking like a cloud surrounding her body, it silently clung to her skin, and he had to squeeze his eyes to see its azure blue color. She’s a sapphire. Why does it feel like she’s weaker than opals and emeralds? He thought, dumbfounded.
“You know, it’s considered rude to read someone’s Aura without asking,” Herena said harshly as she pulled the collar of her coat up, but then she sighed and rubbed her eyes wearily. “Sorry, what you told me is disturbing, and I will need to report it to the guild master. Don’t mention this to anyone else, okay?”
A small round item appeared in her hand, and she threw it to Ari.
“That’s a communication token to my guild. Each outpost has a device that can send messages over long distances. Show this token to someone in the council, and they will allow you to use it.” She paused as if looking for the right words. “If something happens, please let me know.”
Then she started walking toward the door. It was the first time Ari met someone who knew his parents, and now he had a chance to learn something about them.
“Wait,” he said suddenly.” Was my Mother stronger than you?”
Herena paused with her hand on the doorknob. She slowly turned to stare at him.
“You don’t know? Why wouldn’t they tell you…” she hesitated and sadness clouded her features as if she realized something. “Sigrun was one of the four commanders in our guild. A position that can only be achieved after advancing to ruby rank. “
Ari gulped. “What about my father?”
“He was a rank below her. Same as everyone in her team.”
He was weaker than her? He stared dumbfounded at the dark-skinned woman. His heart started racing, and his hands trembled, but he clenched them into fists and hid them beneath the table. Focus!
“How did they die?” Ari said, trying to keep his voice under control.
“Have you heard about the incursion in the deserts far north? A ruby Wanderer appeared there, and your parent’s team was the first to respond. They were supposed to stall the Wanderer and wait for backup, but...”
But they died. Or vanished if he were to believe what the author of the letter claimed.
Someone knocked at the door, and she sighed. “I’m sorry. I have to go. You can stay here as long as you need it. Remember what I told you and be careful.”
Ari hadn’t responded and sat staring at the table in front of him. The door closed behind Herena, and he was left alone in the room.
His mind reeled, turning wildly at all those new pieces of information. The woman could have lied, but why would she do it? Everyone believed his parents were dead. But if what she told him was true, then it meant they hid more things from him, which was even worse.
The problem was Ari already knew his parents lied about many things. Well, not precisely lied. But they barely told him anything, and whenever he asked about something, he always heard the same answer: ‘soon, focus on your training.’
Training, training, it was always about training. Ari hated every second of it, but he endured everything because he promised it to his Mother. And now… If she was stronger than his father, then why wouldn’t she stop him?
His parents' faces flashed in his mind.
His Mother always had a smile stuck on her lips as she tried to make him laugh after a bad day.
His father always frowned because Ari failed to uphold the high standards he had set for his son.
How could my own family do this to me?
There was also the issue with the ‘fund’ Herena mentioned. Why would the Order take everything away? Ari wasn’t allowed to keep anything, and he snuck into his house after the people who brought him the news about his parents left their Island. The house was empty. Every item, every piece of furniture was taken away.
Ari felt like a fly caught in a sticky web of lies. He was spun round and round in them, getting wrapped in a cocoon. And from every direction, fat spiders approached trying to eat him as he sat alone in the center of the web.
Not alone. He couldn’t trust his parents. He couldn’t trust the Order. But he had his teammates. Elijah, Tasia, and Killian. They too had their secrets, but he had to trust someone. If there was one thing he learned after coming to the continent, it was the necessity of having allies. Friends. Having friends.
“Why?” Ari whispered and hid his face in his hands. His conflicting thoughts crashed around his head like waves trapped in a gully. And he knew only two people who had the answers he needed to make them stop.
“Father, mother. I will find you and force the truth out of you two,” he said finally in a cold voice. A voice cold as the dead. If any other situation, he would be scared of himself, but now he felt empty inside and didn’t care.
Something sucked the heat out of the air, and the temperature dropped rapidly. The tea spilled on the table froze and cracks appeared on the porcelain teapot.
“Huh?” Ari blinked in confusion as he glanced around the room.
Ari waited for the frozen tea to return to liquid form before he left the room. He wondered why it froze in the first place. The scepter was strapped to his belt, but the enchantment was active and ready to use, so it wasn’t that.
He already talked to Elijah about using his spell to freeze the water without the need for the weapon, but nothing he tried seemed to work. Now, he allowed anger to overtake his thoughts, and it happened spontaneously. At least I know it’s possible. He sighed, picked up his things, and opened the door. The guards were gone, and the silver-haired council member was nowhere to be seen as well.
Ari went down to the training hall, but he hadn’t found his teammates there. What he did find was a note left by Elijah. Apparently, Roisin gave them the rest of the day off, and he went back to the inn. Ari wanted to stay and try his theory about Osmosis, but he was too tired, and his mind wasn’t there. Before leaving the outpost, he searched for his friend in the main hall and outside in the yard, but he really didn’t wait for him.
Disappointed, Ari pulled his hood up, dug his hands into his pockets, and headed toward the inn. Even though it was still early, the streets were packed with noisy, bustling crowds. He walked through the middle of the sidewalk, and people seeing his Order’s clothing gave him a wide berth, but he didn’t mind. Not today. Too much happened for him to care about them.