Ari sat in a small cell.
Well, he called it like that, but it definitely didn’t look like any cell he had seen before. The walls were covered with wooden panels, and a thick red carpet was spread on the floor. He had a plush bed, a bookcase, and even a small bathroom, where he cleaned himself and changed the tattered clothes he wore last night.
Still, to him, it felt like a cell because he couldn’t get out. The door was locked, and there were no windows. His only source of light was a small lamp hanging beneath the ceiling.
He picked up one of the books and flipped through the pages, but it was written in a language he didn’t know. He tried a few different ones, but the result was the same. Disgruntled, he lay down on the bed and hid his head beneath a pillow.
Somehow Ari felt like he deserved to be locked up. Who knew how many people were injured or died last night. Or was it tonight? They had taken his pack, and without his watch, he didn’t even know how much time passed since. But he wasn’t hungry, which was weird — he was starving after they returned from the dungeon.
He sighed and closed his eyes to check the box that appeared in his mind the moment he woke up.
|Requirements met - Osmosis has been activated|
|Your Lesser Water Elemental learned a new spell: Water Prison|
He was happy that his spider learned its first spell and he eagerly looked forward to trying it out. What’s more, his Control Water spell leveled up. Twice. But the spell hadn’t changed, so Elijah’s theory about thresholds was wrong. Or there was something he was missing.
I fucked up, badly. There was that thought again.
He blamed himself for what happened, but deep inside, he knew it wasn’t his fault. Jonas, whoever he was, attacked his group with two teams of recruits and demolished a street and a square in the process. Well, most of the damage was done by Tasia and Elijah, but they were only defending themselves. Why would someone try to kill them for… For what exactly? For knocking someone out?
A frown appeared on Ari’s forehead. The more he thought about it, the more he realized there was something else going on.
He and Elijah had spent over a week in The Golden Goose, and not even once had they seen someone from the Order there. Also, the place was unusually crowded that day. It felt almost like everything had been staged. But on the other side, if someone wanted them dead, then a single opal was enough to kill them all. The man in a suit incapacitated the whole team without breaking a sweat. And someone killed him. But who? Who would save them? He only saw a flash of red and the man was dead. The silver-haired man was too far to do it.
Ari let out a deep, frustrated breath and started tossing a pillow in the air and catching it.
Toss. Catch. Toss. Catch.
The ginger’s boy terrified face flashed in his mind. Terrified of him. He hated using the skill his father taught him because it made him something less than human.
After eight years of training, he finally managed to learn what his father named Vedrfolnir — after a hawk from Islanders’ beliefs. It was an advanced form of Sense that required a thorough understanding of the skill and a body that could endure the strain put upon it. He hadn’t used the ability since his parents disappeared, and the difference in how it felt after his brands awakened was colossal. He could see everything, and without it, he knew he would be impaled instantly by the ice spikes. But it came at a cost. A cost he didn’t want to pay.
His father called it a gift. Ari thought more of it as a curse.
The first time he entered the state of Vedrfolnir, he nearly killed a friend. They were playing at the beach, throwing stones and trying to hit them with a stick. He had been distracted by a seagull and got hit in the forehead. His friend wanted to help him stand, but Ari broke his wrist. Like a twig. He was sure the snapping sound would remain with him forever. Thankfully, his mother was nearby, and she managed to stop him before he did something even worse.
Ari sat back up and threw the pillow at the door in frustration. A moment later, it opened, and the silver-haired council member appeared standing in the hallway. Their eyes met. Then both looked at the pillow, and the man’s hawklike brows rose slightly. Ari’s face flushed red, and he wanted to say something, but no words came out.
“Follow me, please,” the silver-haired man said.
They walked along the hallway in awkward silence; only their footsteps echoed off the stone empty walls. The silver-haired man wore his usual black suit, but today it was rumpled as if he dressed in a hurry.
The walk wasn’t long. After a minute, they stopped outside a large double door, and the silver-haired man knocked.
“Enter,” a muffled female voice said from within the room.
The man opened the door, and they stepped inside a large room. The walls were covered with paintings in heavy gilt frames and wall-to-ceiling shelves filled with books and ornaments. A large table was arranged in the middle of the room with chairs decorated with cushions along each side.
Behind it, a woman sat on a stool facing the windows, an easel in front of her. She wore a white dress, and her golden hair was pulled back into a tight bun.
“Do you need anything else?” the silver-haired man asked.
“Bring the rest,” the woman replied.
The man nodded, and the door closed behind him, leaving Ari alone with the headmistress. Last time he saw her, she incapacitated two Hunters without lifting her finger, and they were emeralds just like her. He didn’t know what to do, so he waited by the door, trying to stop his hands from trembling.
“Well, don’t just stand there. Take a seat,” the headmistress said without turning her head toward him.
Ari quickly sat down at the chair closest to the door.
The headmistress put down her paintbrush, wiped her hands on a rag, and strode toward the table. When she was close, her robe shimmered and was replaced by a black suit. Ari had to blink a few times because he couldn’t believe his eyes. How?
“You have a void ring too, you should try doing it yourself,” she said with a smile and wrinkles formed around her eye. Then, she took a seat in a larger than others high backed chair placed at the end of the table. “Though I suggest practicing with non-enchanted clothes first.”
Summoning something out of the ring was easy, but changing in the split of a second? Ari’s forehead creased. But wait, if she could do it anytime, then why...
“Why didn’t I do it then?” she asked. “Getting humiliated by an old woman in a stained robe definitely sends a stronger message, don’t you think?”
She can read my thoughts! Ari thought, and his eyes widened.
“I can’t. Your face tells what’s going inside your head,” she sighed. “Still, considering what you and your team did last night, I’m starting to wonder if there’s anything there at all.”
The headmistress folded her hands under her chin and stared at Ari. Her brown eyes were sharp. She was watching him like a cat observing a mouse before pouncing. And Ari felt like a mouse too.
“What is it with you Islanders and making a mess?” she said finally.
“Umh…” Ari stammered. He didn’t really know what to say to that.
“Soon Ari, you will have a choice to make. A choice, on which the future of your team hangs on.”
“What do—” Ari began but was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Enter,” the headmistress said.
The double doors opened, and Ari glanced over his shoulder. His teammates entered the room — Elijah, Tasia, Killian. Like him, they wore fresh clothes and seemed to be fully healed. A smile spread on Ari’s face as he hurried toward them, nearly knocking his chair over.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“We’re fine,” Tasia replied with a smile. “But they didn’t want to tell us anything.”
The headmistress cleared her throat. “Thank you, Winfred. That would be all for now. Make sure nobody interrupts us.”
The silver-haired man nodded and left the room.
“Sit,” the headmistress said.
So they did.
The headmistress sat on one end of the table, and Ari and his team on the other. The older woman observed their faces with an expression of curiosity before she lifted the top piece of paper off the small stack in front of her.
“Here’s a complaint about your team, signed by ten witnesses. It states that you provoked and assaulted Jonas Winthrope in an inn called The Golden Goose,” she said.
“This wasn’t what happened!” Tasia protested.
“So you didn’t” —the headmistress strained her eyes and trailed her finger over the words on paper— “smash his head into the table. Twice.” Her brows rose, and she looked at the raven-haired woman.
When Tasia blushed and remained silent, she picked the second piece of paper. “And here’s another one. It describes how you ambushed Jonas Winthrope, killed three members of his team and his older brother. Then, you heavily injured all members from another team that came to help them—“
“It’s bullshit!” Tasia slammed her fists down on the table and stood up.
The headmistress hadn’t raised her eyes, but a pressure descended upon the room, and Tasia was thrown back. Her head slammed into the back of the chair, knocking the air out of her lungs in a squelching gasp. The pressure vanished a moment later, and she stared wide-eyed at the older woman while clutching at her throat with shaky hands.
“In addition to that” —the headmistress continued reading the report as if nothing happened— “sixty-five civilians were injured, and part of the town will require extensive repairs. The costs of the repairs, payments to Menders for their services, and various compensations are estimated to exceed twenty-three emerald orbs.”
When she finished, there was complete silence in the room that lasted a full minute.
Four people. We killed four people, Ari thought. He knew the man who was attacked by his spider managed to escape. His summon was chasing after him, but it stopped and returned when it reached the range of control. This meant that Tasia and Killian killed three, and then someone killed the brother. Also, emeralds orbs? He only knew about opal orbs and chips.
“It wasn’t like that. They ambushed us,” Ari said, breaking the silence.
“I know,” the headmistress replied.
“You know?” Tasia said, trying really hard not to raise her voice. “Then why...”
“Then why did I bother with reading the report?” the headmistress said. “Because everything we do has consequences.” She sighed and started rubbing her temples with the tips of her fingers. Suddenly, she looked older. Worn out and exhausted.
“Do you know what the Order’s motto is?” the woman asked finally.
They shook their heads.
“Most don’t,” the headmistress continued. She rose and approached the windows to peer out through the curtains. “The Order has… changed, but some still remember the Founders and their ideals.”
“Chronimy tych, którzy nie potrafią obronić się sami,” she said in a weird language. “Which means—”
“We protect those who cannot protect themselves,” Elijah finished for her.
The headmistress spun and stared intently at Elijah. He raised his hands and closed his eyes, readying himself for an attack.
But it never came as the older woman simply smiled and looked at Ari. “Your team is full of surprises.” She paused and sat back in her chair.” Yes, those of the words of the Lion of Lechistan, as he called himself, who was one of twelve Founders.”
“But, let’s focus on the future.” The headmistress clasped her hands. “After an emergency council meeting, we have decided to remove the points your team had earned till now and deduct an additional fifty.”
“What?!” they shouted at the same time. Even Killian, who was staring at the paintings the whole time, shouted with them.
After clearing three dungeons, they earned around seventy points, but Ari knew the team in the first spot already had well over one hundred. He expected that they would be in trouble, but this… They already lost a few days because of the injury he suffered in the first dungeon, and now they were in even bigger trouble. And the competition will last only for another eleven weeks.
“But they attacked us! Why are we the ones who are getting punished?” Tasia protested.
“One team has been disbanded because you killed three of its members. How else do you wish to punish them?” the headmistress said sharply. “I understand you were provoked, but you left me no choice. The Winthrope family insisted that we kick you out of the Order, but considering the circumstances, point deduction will have to suffice.”
“But why? If you know the truth...” Ari said.
“Sometimes, knowing the truth is not enough.” There was something in the headmistress’s eyes. A hint of shame. But the expression flickered away, and her face hardened. “It doesn’t matter who attacked who. We can’t have recruits running around the town, trying to kill each other. We decided to punish you and the other team in the same way.”
“I understand,” Ari said dejectedly.
The headmistress smiled, but it was a smile of acknowledgment rather than happiness. “Earlier, I read another report, and it seems you have cleared your third dungeon. This means the mission board is now available to you, but on the first mission, you will be sent with another team.”
They nodded, but without enthusiasm. Roisin already told them about it, and they were looking forward to fighting alongside another team, but now...
“Good. There’s someone I want you to meet, but he seems to be late,” the headmistress said and narrowed her eyes at a clock hanging on the wall.
But not even a few seconds later, the large doors opened, and Brendan appeared in the doorway. He wore a dark-brown cloak that somehow made him look even bigger than he was, but Ari still noticed the bandages visible beneath one of his sleeves.
The stout man nodded toward the headmistress, and she said, “Meet Brendan Duncan. He’s an old friend of mine, and I will let him explain the rest. You’re free to go.”
Chairs scraped as they stood up and left the room. But before the doors closed behind them, the headmistress called, “Brendan.”
He looked at her, and his forehead creased.
“They are your responsibility now,” she said.
Brendan grunted and closed the doors. He glanced left and right, checking if they were alone in the hallway, and muttered something under his breath. Then he said, “From today, you will be living in my inn. I’ve already sent someone to grab your things.”
Tasia and Killian wanted to protest, but he raised his finger, and their mouths snapped shut so hard their teeth clattered. They stared at him with questioning eyes.
“That’s better,” Brendan said. “When we arrive at the inn, I will explain what shitstorm you have caused. And then” —he paused and twiddled his wild mustache— “we will start your real training because this is just the beginning.”