Ari looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see Brendan emerging from the kitchen. The stout barkeeper surveyed the room with his muscled arms—one heavily bandaged from wrist to shoulder—folded across a dirty white apron. What happened to him?
Brendan's eyes narrowed when he noticed Ari, and the pressure vanished a moment later. Elijah and Killian helped Tasia stand, and they retreated toward the corner of the room.
"Consider this a warning," Brendan said, turning toward the table with recruits. "If you try it one more time, you will be barred from entering my inn."
The barkeeper was about to return to the kitchen, but one of them, a short-haired ginger boy with large lips, shouted, "Wait!" His face was red from exhaustion as he leaned heavily against the table. "The crazy woman attacked us. We demand that you kick her and her friends out!"
"Crazy?" Tasia seethed with anger. She snatched a mug from another table, ignoring the protests of the owner. The ginger boy covered his face with his hands, but Ari caught her arm before she could throw it.
"See? She can't control herself," the boy said smugly.
The blonde caretaker approached Brendan and whispered something in his ear. A deep frown appeared on the barkeeper's forehead and he said, "You were the ones who accosted the young lady first. This is an inn, not a brothel." He paused as if to measure his words." You may have better luck there."
Someone on the other side of the room snorted, and a few chuckles followed. The ginger boy's face blushed, and he stammered, "We're from the Order, you should do as we say." He tried to sound tough, but couldn't keep his voice steady.
"Oh?" Brendan made an exaggerated expression and twiddled his wild mustache. "The current headmistress and I are old friends. Should I tell her how her recruits behave?"
The ginger boy faltered and cursed under his breath. He said something to his friends, and they picked the unconscious man up. His head lolled, and his hands dangled lifelessly as they carried him toward the inn's exit. The ginger boy glared venomously at Tasia one last time before slamming the door behind them.
After a few seconds of silence, heads turned away from the door, and the conversations resumed where they had been broken off.
"Why didn't you tell me the inn owner is a fucking emerald?" Tasia said in a hushed voice after the team sat back at the table.
"What? We didn't know." Ari glanced over his shoulder, but Brendan was already gone. Then he narrowed his eyes at the woman. "Why would you attack them for no reason?"
She smiled from ear to ear. "Because it sounded like fun."
Ari continued to stare at Tasia, his eyelids twitching, and his eyes narrowed to slits.
"Fine, you want to know why?" she replied with a slight irritation in her voice. "They've been eyeing me since the moment I walked in. If a normal girl was in my place, nobody here would defend her. Is that reason enough for you?"
"Just warn us next time," Ari sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.
Part of him was still angry at her, but he knew she was right. After the incident with the Hunters, he started listening to gossip around the outpost. If he were to believe what he heard, it was a common occurrence for recruits to torment non-branded people. What's worse, besides murdering someone, everything else seemed to be ignored.
Ari decided to drop the matter and looked at his companions' faces. "Where did we finish?"
"Our new spells," Elijah perked up and showed them his wrist. A rune was visible there, and Ari strained his eyes to read it, but it was upside down, and he wasn't sure what it meant.
"You awakened a second brand?" Tasia raised her brows and gave a low, wolf whistle.
Elijah nodded and answered in a very excited voice, "It means Anchor, and it gives me only a passive spell for now, but I'm still happy it appeared." He talked so fast that his words almost ran together.
Ari tried to keep his expression calm, but his mind was whirring with thoughts. It's been only a week since he arrived in our world. How? Lisa told him that Wanderers were different, and they grew stronger faster, but this... From his mother's journal, he knew brands usually appeared a few months apart. And sometimes it might take even longer for the second one to awaken.
Ari snapped out of his thoughts when Tasia waved her hand in front of his face. "Ari? You alright?"
"Huh? Sorry, I was just thinking."
"I asked what did you get," she said.
Right. Ari closed his eyes and checked the description of his new spell.
|Healing Mist - level 1|
|Create a mist around yourself that heals people who inhale it. 2 meters range.|
"A new healing spell, that allows me to heal people close to me," Ari said after a moment.
"And I only got a lame passive this time," Tasia grumbled. "What's your rank anyway?"
"Aren't we all unranked—" Elijah started, but she cut him off.
"I meant how far you are from opal. I'm at 54%," Tasia said proudly, holding her head high.
"38%," Ari said after he closed his eyes to check.
"44%," Killian added. He picked one of the small tomatoes from the tray and threw it into his mouth.
"Uhm, 51%," Elijah stammered.
What? Ari's breath caught in his throat and couldn't control himself anymore as he stared incredulously at his friend.
"You're that high, and your second brand only now awakened? That's unusual," Tasia mused.
"The brands work differently for Islanders," Ari interjected before Elijah was able to respond. He cleared his throat and decided to change the topic before she could start asking more questions. "So, what's the plan for tomorrow?"
They talked for three more hours or so. After tomorrow's training, they wanted to convince Roisin to let them enter another dungeon as soon as possible. This would allow them to start doing missions that were far more lucrative. They also agreed on buying a void ring for everyone before going back to clearing dungeons — the benefits of that item were worth its steep cost.
"I think I have enough of your company for one day," Tasia said with a smile. She yawned noisily while stretching her arms over her head. Most of the patrons already left the inn or retreated to their rooms, and they were one of the last groups still present.
"I will be going too," Killian said. They stood up and started donning their cloaks.
Ari checked his watch and frowned. "It's not that late." But then a thought appeared in his mind, and he added, "I think a walk will do me good after all that I ate. How far is your inn?"
"Maybe ten minutes away from here, why?" Tasia answered with a shrug.
"Great! Just give me a moment," Ari said, ignoring the questioning look Elijah gave him.
Ari went back to their room to grab their cloaks. He also stored his scepter and Elijah's sword inside the ring. "Better safe than sorry," he muttered before going back downstairs.
They left the inn together soon after. Stars gleamed on the dark sky, and a chill wind cut out of the south, forcing them to pull their cloaks close against it. Green lanterns scattered the darkness casting their long shadows on the nearby buildings.
The streets were nearly deserted, and their voices echoed in the emptiness. As they walked, Ari barely talked and focused instead on spreading his Sense in all directions. But besides other small groups returning to their homes or guards patrolling the streets, he hadn't found anyone suspicious. Still, he had a feeling someone was watching him as if touching the back of his neck with cold fingers. Maybe I'm becoming too paranoid.
Killian lived in a small house a street from where Tasia was staying, but he insisted on accompanying them instead. When they reached her inn, called The Ashamed Meerkat, the woman turned toward the rest of the team and said, "I can take care of myself, you know? If those assholes tried anything, I would beat them all even without my weapon."
"We just wanted to get some fresh air," Ari said.
"Liar." She shook her head and waved them goodbye.
"You think they will try something now?" Elijah asked when the door closed behind her.
"They probably wanted to go after Tasia, she humiliated them, not us." He rubbed his hands to warm them. It was getting colder and colder with each passing day, even though autumn barely started. "I bet they don't know the Reading skill, and for them, we're just regular people, so who knows."
"Do you want to stay the night at my house?" Killian asked.
"Thanks, but we will be fine," Ari said. "I Read them before they left the inn, and they're far weaker than us. If anything happens, we can always run or call for help."
The archer nodded, but he didn't look convinced. They returned to his house, and Killian said his goodbyes. Green lights blazed from inside the large window on the first floor, and Ari saw two fleeting silhouettes moving behind the glass.
"Are you sure this is a good idea? There's only two of us," Elijah said. "And we don't even have our weapons."
Ari extended his hand, and the sword in red scabbard appeared in it. He tossed the weapon to his friend and he strapped it to his belt. Next, he retrieved his scepter and did the same.
"I feel safer already," Elijah said.
After a few minutes of walking, Ari paused when he heard the click of footsteps echoing down the empty street behind him. He looked over his shoulder but could see little in the gloom. He even sent his Sense in that direction, but it too found nothing.
"What is it?" Elijah whispered.
"Someone is following us," Ari whispered back.
They walked on, straining their ears and sure enough, Ari could hear the footsteps clicking behind them again. When they stopped, they stopped too.
"Fuck it, let them come," Elijah said through clenched teeth. He wanted to remove his sword from the scabbard, but Ari stopped him.
"No, we're close to the inn."
Elijah nodded, but his hand still hovered above the pommel of his sword. They increased their pace, and the footsteps behind them could be heard clearly now. Whoever was following them abandoned subtlety as he tried to keep up.
Cold sweat started dripping down Ari's back, and he gripped the steel pommel of his scepter tighter. He kept glancing over his shoulder nervously, but he still couldn't see or Sense anything. As if the person wanted to be heard, but nothing besides that.
One more turn and we will be safe, Ari thought, but his eyes began to fill with fear when he saw a large shadow moving slowly across the wall in a side alley to his left.
The sound of dragged footsteps echoed from around the corner. The stone wall was too thick, and he couldn't Sense who or what was there.
Ari stopped and pointed his scepter at the mouth of the alley. The gem at the top of it flared with blue light instantly. With a swish, Elijah's sword appeared in his hands, and flames engulfed the weapon.
Ari swallowed the phlegm in his throat as the sounds grew louder, and the shadow drew closer. His hand trembled and he poured even more essence into the scepter.
Ari held his breath as he waited. A moment later, from around the corner emerged a dark-haired man in a suit of old clothes too ragged to wear. He stared at them, blinked, stared again, pointed with an unsteady finger, and slurred, "Whaddaya pointin those glovvy shhticks at?"
Ari lowered his scepter and let out a sigh of relief.
"Fuck. I nearly pissed myself," Elijah said.
The drunkard looked down at his tattered trousers. "I did pisssh myshelf..." His shoulders slumped when he realized what he just said. "Fuck." Then he stumbled back into the alley, swearing, and whatnot.
Ari and Elijah stared at each other like two bumbling idiots. And Ari felt like one too. He nearly blasted the man for no reason, but there was more to it than that. The fear. Something was wrong about it. He didn't get so scared even when facing monsters.
Ari thought he heard footsteps behind. He spun around, raising his scepter again, but he stopped himself when he saw two guards in black leather armor, strolling through the middle of the sidewalk.
"Don't be so twitchy, lad," one of them said and laughed.
Ari smiled and waited for them to pass them. Then he whispered to Elijah, "They seem to be heading toward the inn."
His friend nodded, and they followed closely after the guards. Not even a minute later, they reached the inn, and only when the door closed behind them, Ari felt safe. In the common room, they found the caretaker, but he was too occupied with cleaning the tables and didn’t pay them any attention. Ari wanted to talk to Brendan, now that the barkeeper was back, but after what happened on the streets, he felt too shaken to do it today.
Inside their room, Elijah threw his cloak and sword on the table and groaned, "Who the hell was following us? You didn't see anything?"
"Nothing. He or she was out of the range of my Sense too."
Elijah said nothing for a while as he stared out of the window at the empty street below. "You think those were the recruits?"
"They would attack rather than try to scare us," Ari said. He sat down in the plush leather chair, and his head wearily drooped on to his hand. "Did you feel it too? The fear?"
"I did, and I was terrified. I thought a monster would jump out of the alley," Elijah shuddered. "Is there a spell that does that?”
The feeling reminded Arii of the curse they felt inside the dungeon earlier today, but while the skeleton made him more fatigued this one seemed to focus on trying to scare him.
"I don't know," he said flatly.
"Maybe it was one of the Hunters?"
"They're emeralds, so it's possible. But if they wanted we wouldn't be able to see them at all. If Roisin can hide her presence and she’s only an opal...” Ari said and his voice trailed off. “No, there's something else going on."