“What was that thing?” Tasia blurted. There was a note of mild panic in her voice.
“It looked like a lizard,” Killian said solemnly.
The woman stared at him incredulously. “No shit?” she said and punched him into his arm. “Next time I will allow the monster to take a bite out of your—”
“Quiet!” Ari cut her off and added in a hushed voice, “There could be more of the spiders hiding in the shadows.”
Tasia closed her mouth, clamping it shut, but her eyes flashed with anger.
Elijah stared at the webs hanging from the ceiling and gulped. “Those were lizardmen,” he whispered, and the group focused their eyes on him. “I read about them, but the book didn’t mention that they could talk.”
“Well, this one could, and it even knew our fucking language,” Tasia said, raising her voice at the end of the sentence. Ari narrowed his eyes at her, and a blush spread across her face. “Right, sorry.”
“The fungus worked in a similar way to our archway,” Killian said. “And I saw a bog on the other side of the portal.”
A bog? Ari frowned. He couldn’t see anything because ripples spread across the surface of the portal. How good is his eyesight?
“Wanderers?” Elijah interjected.
“Maybe,” Tasia said. “But I Read their aura before they vanished, and they were barely stronger than us.”
Ari knew that Reading someone’s aura wouldn’t expose them if they were a Wanderer, but he kept that information for himself.
“Whatever they were, they are gone now,” he said. “But maybe they left something behind.”
The group left their hiding spot and walked over to the altar, where the fungus vanished just a moment ago. The fire was spreading eagerly as flames jumped from web to web, and Ari knew they didn’t have much time left. His nose stung, his eyes burned, and the smoke made it hard to breathe.
“There’s something here,” Tasia pointed eagerly at a spot behind the spider’s body. She walked over and picked something up.
It was a small chest, eerily similar to the one that appeared after they cleared the previous dungeons. But there was one thing that made it different — the crest on the brass plate. Instead of the familiar tree with the pickaxe lodged into its trunk, this one was a giant egg with a partially cracked shell.
Tasia’s initial excitement faded away into a sinking disappointment after she opened the lid. “The freaks took whatever was there,” she grumbled and threw the box back on the altar.
“They are like us,” Elijah said after a moment. His eyelids twitched as he stared at the chest. “Us but with tails.”
“What?” Tasia asked and turned toward Ari while shaking her head. “Did you not heal him completely? He’s talking nonsense.”
“Don’t you see it?” Elijah began, gesturing with his hands. “It was a team of three, and they received the loot after killing the boss. And then they vanished in a portal. Just like we do.”
Nobody said anything, but they all looked at each other, raising their eyebrows.
“He’s got a point,” Ari said, breaking the silence. What Elijah said made sense, but he knew there was something missing. Still, the fire was spreading faster now, and they were out of time. “We can talk about it back home.”
He retrieved the holder from his pack and activated it. Please work, please work.
Nothing happened for a few long seconds, and they all stared at the item in his hands, but then the fluid inside of it flashed. The archway appeared a moment later, and Ari breathed with relief. He waited for his teammates to step into the portal before following them, and they left the burning garden behind.
It was dark when they appeared.
The air still reeked of rot, but a slight breeze brought a whiff of something fresh-smelling to Ari’s nostrils. He lifted his head, and confusion dimmed his eyes. The stars shone brightly down on him, and the moon’s pale crescent glimmered from behind the sparse clouds.
“Night? Why is it night already?” Tasia said beside him. “It was morning when we entered the rift.”
“Everything is messed up today,” Elijah grumbled. “That’s why.”
She smiled and nodded. “At last we agree on something.”
Ari glanced over his shoulder at the last remaining tendrils as they vanished in the collapsing rift. Lizardmen. What else is there? He thought and shook his head.
“I hope Roisin didn’t leave us here...” Elijah’s voice trailed off.
The group left the dead zone and followed the narrow path back to the cobbled road. To their relief, the carriage still stood where they left it this morning.
A cloaked figure sat atop of it with legs dangling off the side. After noticing the approaching group, it jumped to the ground and removed the hood, revealing long blonde hair and a broad smile plastered on a youthful face.
“You’re late, but this sometimes happens in the rift,” Roisin said. “Raphael wanted to return to the town ten times already, but I’ve convinced him that he can’t leave a lady here alone.” She paused, and her eyes sparkled. “I think I’m going to keep him.”
“Who is Raphael?” Tasia asked, dumbfounded.
The carriage door opened behind her, and a man’s hatless head appeared. His white, perfectly groomed hair was neatly coiffed to reveal a strong, tense face. Small green eyes, set gracefully within their sockets, were narrowed down at Roisin’s back.
“How many times do I have to repeat myself. I serve Lord Acker,” the man said in a low, yet perfectly articulate tone. “And I’m not your pet, so please treat me with all due respect.”
“That’s Raphael.” Roisin pointed her thumb over her shoulder. “He talks weirdly, but I like him. He’s more fun than my last ten drivers.”
Raphael glared at her, and wrinkles deepened around his eyes, but he hadn’t said anything and closed the door. After a moment, they opened again, and he got out wearing his coat and tophat. “Please get in. We are leaving,” he said, trying but failing to hide the disdain on his face.
When the group was inside the carriage, and the sound of hooves clattering on the cobbled road filled the cabin, Roisin asked. “So, what happened?”
Killian wadded up his cloak and used it as a pillow. He stuck it between his head and the window and closed his eyes.
Tasia stared at him, and her brows rose. But she shook her head and said, “A damn lizard happened.” Then, she started explaining what they saw in the dungeon.
Roisin was listening and nodding while she chomped down an apple. Even when Tasia mentioned the lizards, she didn’t react in any way. Ari frowned because he thought this would rattle their mentor, but nothing like that happened.
“So, you’ve met the lacertans,” Roisin mused after Tasia finished. She opened the window and threw the core away. “Most don’t until they’re at least opal rank.”
“Who?” Elijah asked.
“Lacertans,” Roisin said. “You didn’t think we’re alone, did you? You’re traveling to other worlds, but they’re not filled with monsters only. There are sentient races out there” —she pointed at the ceiling—”who deal with the rifts in their worlds. Just like we do in ours.”
There was a long silence while they pondered what they heard. The red-scaled lizard flashed in Ari’s mind. There was something about him, or her, that made him wary. If those lacertans were able to clear a rift only as a team of three, then it meant they must be stronger than humans.
“But why were they in our rift?” Ari said.
“We took too long to clear it, and its influence spread to another world,” Roisin replied. “This is why we ignore some of the lower-ranked rifts and focus only on those who are an immediate threat. Sadly, there are too many rifts and not enough branded to clear them all.”
Not enough? Ari thought, confused. He recalled Roisin saying that every three months, tens of thousands of recruits joined the Order. That number still boggled his mind, but if it wasn’t enough to cover all the appearing rifts… Just how many worlds are out there?
“Can they travel to our world?” Elijah asked. There was a hint of excitement in his voice.
“No,” Roisin shook her head. “Your essence holder is anchored to our world, and the same thing with their mushroom or whatever they use.”
“But what would happen if one of them entered our portal?” Tasia asked.
“Why would they even do that?” Roisin stared at her incredulously.
“Nobody tried it before?”
“I don’t know,” Roisin replied. “They stick to their world and we to ours. That’s how it has always been.”
The rest of the way to the town, they barely talked. It was almost midnight when they returned. The sleepy-eyed guards at the gate let their carriage in without any problems, but Ari caught a glimpse of a hooded man trying to hide in the shadows of the guardhouse. When he noticed Ari staring at him, he jumped on a horse and vanished in a nearby alley. What was that about?
The streets were empty and quiet, and not a soul walked the cobblestone sidewalks. The steel horse’s hoofs echoed loudly off the buildings. When the carriage stopped at the Order’s outpost, Roisin took the essence holder and told them to come later tomorrow. The group waved her goodbye before they headed toward the south part of town, where their inns were located.
Water gathered in the dips of the streets. The large puddles reflected both the moonlight and the green lanterns. Luckily, there was no wind today, but even then, the air was cold enough to numb their fingers. They were tired, cold, and really really hungry. To make things worse, Elijah’s stomach rumbled so loud they all heard it, and it only made them hungrier.
Even though they spent merely an hour inside a dungeon, their bodies adjusted to the difference after they arrived back in their world. When they asked Roisin about it, she only shrugged and told them it happened because the rift led to a place far away.
“That’s our turn,” Tasia said a few minutes later, pointing at a street to their right.
“Wait, we can walk with you,” Ari said. He hadn’t told her or Killian about the person who followed them last night because he wasn’t sure if this was related to the incident in the inn or Elijah being a Wanderer.
Tasia narrowed her eyes at him and said flatly, “No.”
“No buts,” she cut him off. “I’m tired and hungry, so don’t try arguing with me right now, because it won’t end well for you. And I don’t need a babysitter.” Then she stormed off, leaving the three men staring at her back.
“I will keep an eye on her,” Killian said after a moment and ran after the woman.
Ari sighed, and he and Elijah resumed the walk toward their inn. Sending his Sense in every direction became a habit of Ari, and it was becoming less straining on his essence reserve. He was thinking about his teammates. He cared about them more than he wanted to admit. Even if he found Tasia’s behavior insufferable—to put it mildly—she and the rest of the group were his only friends now.
Another rumble brought him out of his thoughts. “Elijah…” Ari said in an annoyed voice.
“It wasn’t me this time!” Elijah protested.
Ari shook his head, not believing him. A minute later, the rumbling noise appeared again. But before Ari was able to say anything, he Sensed a presence, and his head turned toward an alley to his right.
“Took you long enough to close the bloody rift,” a familiar voice said.
A moment later, a group of four men in Order’s clothing emerged from the shadows of the alley. At their head walked the ginger boy they met last night. He was armed with a gnarly staff, on top of which sat a blue gem.
His companions’ faces weren’t visible because hoods covered them completely. The smallest of the three drew to a halt near the mouth of the alley and knocked an arrow on his black longbow. The other two walked past the ginger boy and stopped maybe ten meters away from Ari and Elijah, blocking the sidewalk.
The one on the left held a two-handed warhammer loosely in one hand. He was one of the largest men Ari ever saw, but he moved with a grace and surety of motion. The tall, lean man beside him was armed with a sword and dagger. A nearby lantern revealed a cruel smirk twisting his lips, but then he turned his head slightly to the side to hide his face.
Ari Read them — they were unranked, like him, but a bit stronger as multiple white wisps were visible in the clouds surrounding them. He glanced in panic at the houses on the sides of the streets, but there were no lights in their windows. His pulse quickened, and sweat beaded his palms.
“Guess having a recruit from the top five really means nothing,” the giant with the warhammer said. His voice was low and hoarse.
The rumbling sound echoed again in the not-so-empty street now.
“You hear that?” The ginger boy put his hand behind his ear and squinted his eyes in a look of concentration. “That’s Jonas. He is with your friend right now, and he’s making her pay for the humiliation he suffered. You won’t recognize her after...”
Ari’s mind reeled. He stared at the boy’s moving lips, but his voice was drowned by Ari’s heartbeat thudding in his ears. He made a mistake. He shouldn’t let them go alone. They were his responsibility, and he messed up.
Tasia’s smirking face flashed in his mind, followed by Killian’s innocent smile as he played with his summons.
I need to save them, but how?
He knew how, but...
Ari gritted his teeth, and blood mixed with essence started rushing through his veins. He was hot, then cold. It was a familiar feeling, and he promised himself to never rely on it again. But his friends needed him right now, and he had no other choice. Father, I hate you.
Clenching his fists, he started to whisper, and a cold vapor flew from his mouth with each word. At the same time, essence poured out of his body, forming cascading waves at his feet.
Elijah glanced nervously at Ari. His Sense probably told him that something was wrong, but Ari didn’t care.
“Are you praying already?” The ginger boy beamed, showing his crooked teeth, and his companions laughed with him. “Your Islanders gods won’t help you. Nobody will.”
The air around Ari grew colder and colder. His heartbeat slowed to a crawl and fell in heavy thuds. The archer at the back of the group must have felt something was wrong as he raised his bow.
But it was too late.
Retrieve, Ari thought while focusing on his ring. At the same time, he shouted the last words of the incantation he was whispering, “...and obey!”
A wooden barrel appeared right in front of him. The lid atop of it shattered into pieces as water gushed out. Ari formed it into a large sphere, before raising his hand and pushing it away from himself.
The bulging projectile whizzed past the recruits, and a sudden gust of wind ripped the hoods from their heads, revealing their surprised faces.
The archer screamed when he noticed that the sphere was flying at him, but before he was able to dodge, eight spindly legs burst out of it and wrapped around him. He and the spider tumbled back into the alley, and his cries for help were cut short a moment later.
A look of pure terror gripped the features of the remaining recruits.
“Elijah,“ Ari said in a voice devoid of any emotion. Wisps of white essence poured out of his eyes and something dangerous flashed inside them. “Don’t hold back. They need us.”