Ari entered the inn and was greeted by a hubbub of noise. His brows rose when he saw that nearly all the tables were occupied by people talking and laughing raucously. Even the music played louder than usual. Why are there so many people here today?
He glanced around the common room and found Elijah sitting in one of the corners, close to the fireplace. When he noticed Ari, he waved at him with his greasy hand holding a chicken wing. Ari sighed and came across the chaotic room to join him.
The table in front of Elijah was filled with half a dozen plates, some were already empty. He eats for two after every dungeon, Ari thought as he sat opposite of him.
“So, what was this about?” Elijah asked while chewing. When he noticed Ari cautiously glancing at the pair of older men hunched over their mugs at the table beside them, he added, “There’s a ward in place already, so we can speak freely.”
“It was the person from headquarters Roisin was talking about. She questioned me about the Wanderer,” Ari answered. His stomach rumbled in response to the sight and smell of the delicious food, reminding him he hadn’t eaten today yet. He nabbed a crusty chip from one of the plates and devoured it instantly.
“I know, the woman came to the training hall to check us too. And she wasn’t gentle while she did it.” Elijah shuddered, but then he squinted his eyes and added, “But why would she meet with you alone?”
On the way to the inn, Ari had time to weigh the pros and cons of telling his friend about his parents. Last time he revealed something about his past, they jumped at each other’s throats, but his gut told him he had to at least trust him.
“She knew my parents,” Ari said finally.
“Really?” Elijah’s eyes widened, and he placed the piece of chicken he was gnawing at his plate. He used a piece of cloth to wipe his hands and hid them beneath the table. “What did you find about them?” he said as he leaned closer.
Ari explained what he learned about his parents’ rank and the guild they were part of. After he finished, Elijah downed a mug of ale and placed it a little too hard on the table.
He made a thoughtful face and said. “Man, your parents are messed up.”
Ari narrowed his eyes at him and wanted to protest, but Elijah raised his hands with palms toward him and said, “Sorry, but this is the truth. I thought about the training they forced you to suffer, and I admit I overacted back then. Hell, I would be worried if people in this world hadn’t come out with a way to use the system to their advantage.”
“But the training is one thing,” he continued. “Lying about everything is something far worse. Why would they even do it? It only created this kind of issue now that you learned the truth about them. Maybe we can talk to someone—”
“No, this will stay between us only,” Ari interrupted him. The fewer people know about any of this, the better. And he wasn’t sure if he learned the truth because Herena might have lied about part of it. Or everything. Ari sighed and rubbed his temples. He could already feel a headache coming on.
“Right,” Elijah said. “If you’re going to steal my chips, then eat the whole plate.” A smile crept on his face, and he pushed the plate towards Ari before turning his attention to the leftover chicken in front of him.
“Thanks,” Ari said and started devouring the chips and the fish that came along with them.
“Oh, Tasia and Killian will be here at seven,” Elijah said a few minutes later. “Roisin didn’t want to join, said she was meeting someone already. I wonder who...” His voice trailed off.
Ari retrieved his watch from the pack and checked the hour. “So we still have six hours till then,” he said and glanced toward the counter. The blonde-haired caretaker stood there yet again. He wanted to talk to Brandan, but he was still absent. It's been nearly a week already, what is he doing for so long?
“After we’re done eating, let’s train in our room. Can you teach me how to place the silencing ward?” Ari asked.
“No problem.” Elijah clasped his left hand around his fist and stared at Ari intently. “But only if you call me sensei from now on.”
“What?” Ari brows creased.
Elijah sighed. “Sorry, I always wanted to say it.”
Back in their room, they cleaned themselves from all the blood and changed into their normal clothes. While most of the regular patrons knew they were from the Order, some of the new ones cast unfriendly glances at them while they ate.
Learning the silencing ward took far longer than Ari anticipated. What was even worse, Elijah’s advice did more harm than good. Somehow his friend could learn the ward instinctively, and he claimed he needed only an hour to do it. Probably it had something to do with him being a Wanderer.
Ari had to do everything step by step. Even the Sensing skill that allowed him to see the patterns inside the ward wasn’t much of a help. After five hours of tiresome work, he let out a deep breath of relief when the runes inside the ward flared, and it finally worked.
They still had some time before the rest of the team showed up, and Ari looked through the book the barkeeper gave him for any other wards that may be useful to them. Sadly, either they were too complicated or totally useless in a dungeon, like a ward that keeps food fresh.
Dejected Ari threw the book on the table and turned his attention toward the void ring. He retrieved the items placed inside, and now two weird sets of clothing lay spread out on his bed, together with some sort of sandwiches wrapped in rustling gray material.
He picked one of them, some kind of washed-out red blouse with three stripes embroidered across the back of it. There was also a word beneath them, but only the last three letters were readable: das. Ari frowned and tried to identify the piece of clothing, but then the door to the bathroom opened, and broken glass clattered across the floor.
Ari spun and found Elijah staring at him with his mouth wide open. His friend crossed the distance between them in a stride and snatched the blouse out of his hands.
“Where did you find it?” Elijah stammered, but then he noticed the rest of the clothes. “Fuck me.” He rummaged through them, swearing under his breath.
“What’s going on?” Ari asked.
“Those clothes are from my world,” Elijah said as he sat on the bed and angrily threw some light-blue pants on the heap beside him.
“But how? You said your world doesn’t have monsters or magic?”
“I don’t know… Maybe it’s another similar one to mine? It’s possible, right?” Elijah turned toward him.
“Yeah,” Ari said, staring at the weird clothes.
“You’re terrible at comforting, you know?” Elijah shook his head. “What will we do with them? If the Hunters find them we’re screwed.”
He’s right, they’re still in the town. Ari heard the other recruits talking about the Hunters visiting the outpost daily.
“I will keep them in the ring for now, and we will burn them in the training hall tomorrow,” Ari said and started storing the items back in the ring. “Let’s wait downstairs for the others. We still have some time, but I’m starving already.”
“Give me five minutes, and we can go.” Elijah glanced at the clothes one last time before he walked to the bathroom, and Ari was sure he saw fear in his friend’s eyes just before he looked away.
The smell of food, the warmth of the fire, and the sound of music mixed with laughter swamped Ari when he and Elijah reached the bottom floor. The inn was packed, and every table beside the one in the corner was occupied. Before leaving, Ari asked the caretaker to keep it empty for them, and he was happy he did it.
Ari strode through the crowded room, while his eyes scanned it and landed on a group of four young men wearing Order’s clothing. They sat two tables away from the corner and seemed drunker than the others, speaking loudly to make themselves heard above the rest. One of them, a dark-haired man with a narrow face and pointed nose bragged about killing monsters and being one of the best among recruits. They were oblivious to hostile gazes of the other patrons, or they just didn’t care.
When a waiter approached Ari, he ordered some food, a large jug of ale, and four mugs. After the man left, Elijah started muttering something, but Ari interrupted him.
“Don’t place it.”
“Why?” Elijah asked.
“It will look suspicious with them being here,” Ari said and nodded towards the other recruits. “Besides, it’s too damn loud to overhear anything, even if we speak normally.”
Maybe fifteen minutes later, the door to the inn swung open, letting in a blast of cold wind. Tasia and Killian walked through it, and they took off their cloaks as they looked around. Underneath, they wore civilian clothes, but even then, the raven-haired woman stood out with her pristine white buttoned shirt with long sleeves and dark-blue pants. The archer, by comparison, was clothed in an unassuming, simple brown shirt and trousers as if he wanted to blend in with the surroundings. Both of them were unarmed. Elijah stood up and waved toward the pair. Tasia said something to Killian, and they crossed the room to join them.
“Glad you came,” Ari said with a smile after they sat at their table.
Tasia nodded and said, “We nearly got lost a few times.” She snatched the jug and poured two mugs. She passed one to Killian, took a tentative sip from hers, and made a face. “Could have been worse. So, who did you meet earlier today?”
Ari knew she would ask the question, and he said calmly, “The same woman you did. She wanted to talk to me about the thing I saw and warned me to stay quiet about it.”
“Only that?” Tasia’s brows rose.
“She knew my parents and wanted to express her condolences,” Ari replied.
“Why would she—” Tasia paused, and her face turned crimson with embarrassment. She tried to hide behind her mug, but it was too small and only covered part of it. “Oh… I’m sorry,” she stammered from behind it.
“It happened a long time ago.” Ari waved his hands dismissively. “We need to focus on what’s in front of us. So, what did we learn after the last dungeon?”
“Wait for the stupid boxes to appear before celebrating,” Elijah grumbled.
Ari nodded. “That too, but we also need to know more about the monsters we can face in unranked dungeons. Elijah loves to read, and he knows a lot about them already, so we should listen to his advice.”
His friend stared at him dumbfounded and opened his mouth to protest, but Ari kicked him into his shin. “Right. I will try to borrow some books from the library to learn more about the monsters we can meet inside the unranked dungeons,” he said.
“What else?” Ari asked.
“We need a scout,” Tasia said. The blush had already vanished and her tough-girl smirk was back on her face. “We could have avoided the horde of undead in the cemetery if we had one.”
“I think I can fill the role now,” Killian said in a calm voice. “The dungeon gave me two new skills. One makes me and people close to me move faster, and the other hides my presence, but it’s not as good as Roisin’s invisibility.”
“That’s great!” Ari grinned. “And thank you for today. You saved me from the gargoyle, and the trap killed most of the draugr.”
Killian returned the smile and took a gulp from his mug.
“I also got something new,” Elijah said and started rolling up his sleeve. “It’s—”
“Hey, girl!” A shout interrupted him—a shout that came from the table occupied by the recruits. One of them, a boy with a narrow face stood up and pointed his mug at Tasia. “What are you doing with those scrappy losers? Come join us, we’re monster hunters!” He laughed, and his companions laughed with him.
“Ignore them, they’re drunk,” Ari sighed.
But Tasia ignored him instead, and a devious smile appeared on her face as she swaggered toward the other table. “You’re right, I shouldn’t waste my time with them. You look like better men than they ever will be,” she purred in a sweet voice.
What is she up to? Ari stared at the woman with his mouth hanging open. Killian stirred in the chair beside him and clutched his mug so hard that his knuckles went white. This won’t end well. Ari floated the ale from his mug and formed it into a small ball. It was harder to do than with clean water, but possible.
After approaching the recruits, Tasia picked up the jug from their table and asked, “Who needs a refill?”
The narrow-faced boy smiled and made an inviting gesture. “Me. You can sit on my lap and—”
Her face twisted and she rammed the jug against the back of his head. It shattered, spewing ale all over him.
“What the…” he shouted and wanted to stand, but Tasia grabbed him by his hair and smashed his head against the table. Once, twice. After the second time, he let out a yelp, and his body went limp.
The music kept going, but the conversations stopped immediately. The patrons froze and stared at the woman with terrified looks on their faces. Even the downed recruit’s companions were shocked, but they shook out of it and jolted upwards with weapons in their hands. Elijah and Killian were already on their feet and they rushed toward the table with mugs in their hands.
Ari was about to launch the water projectile at the man closest to him, but a terrible pressure descended upon the common room, bringing the recruits from both teams to their knees. They clutched at their throats, gasping for air. Ari stood a few meters away from them, but even from such distance, he felt the thick layer of essence surrounding the area around the table.
“What brainless muppets want to start a brawl in my inn?” An angry voice drowned the music and startled the occupants of the room.