Ari and his team sat on the leather couches in the hideout beneath the inn. Brendan roamed around the room, pulling out book after book from the shelves lining the walls. He already held a small stack in his uninjured hand, but it seemed it wasn’t enough because he continued his search.
Tasia tried to get his attention, but he was too focused on the books. Or he just didn’t want to answer her questions. While the woman didn’t make a fuss about it, Ari could tell she was annoyed.
Killian sat beside her with a quiver on his lap. It was made of dark-brown grooved leather and covered with many thousands of tiny, overlapping rings. After they arrived, the archer’s eyes widened when he noticed the quiver, and he made a beeline to the shelf where it was placed. Since then, his eyes were fixed on it, and nothing else seemed to interest him.
“How do you know this guy?” Tasia looked at Ari and asked in a hushed voice.
“I told you already, we met him a week ago.”
“See, you kept saying that” —she made a frustrated gesture with her hands— “but are you really expecting me to believe that right after your arrival, the first inn you stumbled into belongs to an emerald who knows the head of the local council? And somehow, the same man is now responsible for our safety?”
“Mhm,” Elijah said absently.
His friend had barely said anything since they left the outpost. Ari guessed it had to do something with the Founder, Lion of Lechistan, the headmistress mentioned, and he couldn’t wait to ask him about it.
Tasia’s right eyelid twitched. She looked at Elijah and tilted her head slightly to the left. “Where did you learn that weird language the hag used—”
Her teeth clattered when her mouth snapped shut.
“Don’t ever call her that,” Brendan said from the other side of the room. “If you don’t want to use her title, call her by her name instead. Alfreda.”
He started walking toward the group. When he was close, he released the bind, allowing Tasia to open her mouth again. She rubbed her jaw and glared at the stout man with hateful eyes.
Brendan ignored her, and after carefully placing the books on the table, collapsed on a nearby armchair with a sigh of relief. Then, he split the books into four stacks and pushed them toward each of the recruits. Somehow, Ari’s stack was the tallest one, and three leather-bound tomes lay in front of him now. He picked the first, and his brows rose when he read the title: Memoirs of a guild captain.
“You have three days to read them,” Brendan said. “After you’re done, we will discuss what you learned.”
“Why don’t you give us some of the artifacts instead,” Tasia said, spreading her hands and pointing at the shelves filled with various weapons and armors. “They will help us more than books.”
“Relying on items stunts your growth,” Brendan said.
Tasia’s brows furrowed. “Why? You get the same amount of essence whether you kill a monster using a spell or an item.”
“Oh? How would you know that?”
Tasia blushed and remained silent.
“You’re right that the essence isn’t affected.” Brendan let out a sigh. “Relying on higher-ranked items to clear dungeons is the fastest way to grow in power, and those who can afford it often do so. But there are consequences.”
“What consequences?” Ari asked.
“How much do you know about brand evolutions?”
Ari recalled Roisin mentioning something about it, but she didn’t tell them any details. “Nothing,” he replied after a moment.
Brendan grunted and shook his head with regret. “Your brands aren’t only the source of your powers, they also keep track of everything you do.” He paused, looking at their confused faces. Then, he balled his hand into a fist and extended his fingers out as he talked. “How you fight. How you use your spells. What or who you kill. Even the wounds you suffer. Every little detail matters. After reaching opal rank, your brands will evolve for the first time, and you will be able to choose your path.”
“Depending too much on the power that isn’t your own decreases the number of paths available to you. This is why the Order doesn’t give you any armor, and the clothes you wear are only strengthened, not enchanted.”
“But what about the items we get from the dungeons?” Elijah asked with curiosity in his voice. “Or the weapons we received during the inauguration.”
“The rewards you get for clearing a dungeon do not count, because you earned them,” Brendan replied. “As for the weapons, they are the same rank as you or one rank stronger, so they barely change anything. What I meant was going into low-ranked dungeons with full emerald or sapphire gear.”
After the man stopped talking, Killian stood up and returned the quiver to its shelf before retaking his seat. He seemed a little disappointed, but there was something in his eyes as he looked at the barkeeper. Wariness.
“Recruits do not have that kind of equipment… So how would this work?” Ari asked.
“You don’t need to join the Order to be able to enter a rift,” Brendan said.
“But isn’t that suicide?” Elijah asked. He pulled out the necklace from beneath his shirt and held it in his open palm. The gems inside the golden snake were partially filled with white fluid. “Without this, you can’t control your powers, right?”
“If you have enough orbs, you can buy anything. Including something that works like the necklace.”
A long silence filled the room until Tasia finally spoke, “How?”
Brendan sighed again and leaned heavily back against his armchair. “The Order isn’t what it used to be. After most of the Founders died, the organization changed. While closing rifts is the top priority, making as many orbs as possible is a close second now.”
“Most?” Elijah asked. “Wasn’t the war a thousand years ago, so how are some still alive?”
“Age works differently for the branded. Reach opal rank, and you’ve just added thirty years to your lifespan. And emeralds live a hundred years longer than the average human. If you don’t get killed along the way, that is. Because you have to face bigger threats to rank up, but most people are content with reaching emerald.”
“How old are you, then?” Tasia asked.
“Old enough to ignore such questions,” Brendan answered, and the woman scowled at him.
“Why has nobody told us anything about it?” Ari asked. “If we knew about the brands and how they work then—”
“Then what? What would you do differently?” Brendan interrupted him. “The Order expects the recruits to follow the rules without asking questions. Only those with enough influence or wealth are treated differently, and they need to pay for every little piece of information. This brings us to the topic of the shitstorm you four muppets caused.”
“What’s a muppet?” Tasia interjected. “You used that word already, but I don’t know what it means.”
“It’s a kind of annoying puppet, just like some of your questions,” Brendan grumbled and narrowed his eyes at the woman. “You don’t seem bothered at all by the fact you killed four people.”
“They deserved it.”
“They did, but have you thought about why they attacked your team in the first place?”
“The incident in the inn,” Tasia said.
“No,” Brendan shook his head. “It started way before that when you returned from the dungeon and clashed with Skyla.”
“Skyla? But why?” Ari’s forehead creased. He recalled the rusty-haired girl and how she accused them of cheating after they cleared the higher-ranked dungeon.
“Alfreda used the commotion you caused to push back on the Hunters. They arrived a few days earlier and overstayed their welcome in her town. But most of the recruits saw it differently. They thought she was defending you, and the rumors started spreading.”
“You have to understand one thing. The headmistress position allows Alfreda to control the whole region, including the distribution of the Order’s resources. Someone is trying to undermine her authority and force her to resign. And since they can’t go directly after her...” Brendan looked expectantly at the recruits.
“They go after whoever is supporting her.” Tasia finished for him.
“Exactly,” Brendan said. “There’s been a dozen accidents in the last few years. People close to Alfreda turned their backs on her, vanished, or even died. And whoever is after the position thought you were her favorites in the competition and decided to act before you grew strong enough to be a threat.”
“But if she knew about this, why didn’t she help us? Or warn us?” Tasia asked.
“After she learned about the rumors, she assigned one of her agents to watch over you. But even then, she hadn’t expected anyone to act so soon,” Brendan said.
Tasia and Ari exchanged confused glances. “Agent? What happened to him?” she asked.
“He got attacked when you returned to the town. They found him alive, but he doesn’t remember anything.”
Tangible silence filled the room once again. The recruits’ faces were clouded with worry, and similar thoughts appeared in their minds, but it was Tasia who dared to say it out loud. “We’re so fucked.”
Brendan shook his head. “Removing your team from the organization was their goal, but they should be happy even if you were not kicked out. It will be hard for you to catch up with the top teams. And I doubt they wanted to kill you. They had not expected you to fight back so fiercely,” he chuckled.
“So, what do we do now?” Ari asked.
“You try to keep your heads low and focus on reaching opal rank. But be wary of other recruits. Lord Winthrope will seek revenge for his son’s death, but he won’t attack you directly. Still, accidents during missions happen all the time.”
“But we didn’t kill his son,” Ari said.
“What do you mean?”
“Someone else did,” Tasia replied even before Ari could open his mouth to speak. “He saved Jonas and then incapacitated us. He was an opal, and we couldn’t do anything against him. But then someone else appeared and killed him.”
Brendan’s eyebrows met in the middle as his forehead creased. “Have you told Alfreda about it?” When they shook their heads, he let out a drawn out breath, as though pondering. “It won’t change anything because they would still blame you, but we know someone else is involved. The question is who would risk saving you… Follow me, I want to show you something.”
Brendan led the group toward the door on the far side of the room. When he opened them, the noise of weapons clashing against each other filled the air.
They stood in the doorway of a room that looked nearly identical to their training hall, down to the wardrobes and the leather couch standing in the corner.
And it wasn’t empty.
Lisa, the blonde-haired waitress, fought against two creatures that looked like humans but made out of wood. The woman wore short white pants and a matching shirt as if she didn’t care about getting hit. She danced between the creatures, whirling her steel staff and blocking their attacks. Two more of them already lay unmoving on the floor.
The runes on her staff glowed purple, and a purple light shot from the weapon’s end. It struck one of the creatures straight into its chest, and it was flung back against the wall. Rather than crash to the floor, it stuck there as if held by something. The creature struggled to break free, and Ari couldn’t see why it couldn’t move. Only when he covered his eyes with essence he noticed the purple light glistening all over its body.
The second creature used this moment to launch a small fireball, but Lisa ducked, narrowly avoiding it. The staff whirled in her hands, and she viciously clubbed her opponent’s head. The cracking and splintering of wood filled the air as it crumbled to the ground and stopped moving.
Lisa ran a hand through her blonde hair, breathing heavily. Sweat coated her palm, and she wiped it down her pants. The staff whirled in her hands one more time, before vanishing. Then, she started walking toward the group standing in the doorway.
Ari used this moment to Read her aura. She was close to the opal rank as only a few strands of gray were visible in the cloud surrounding her. There was something different about it, but Ari wasn’t sure what. Then he Read the aura of the wooden creatures, and his eyes widened when he noticed they were even stronger than her — a few green wisps of essence were visible in their pure white clouds.
“Long time no see, Ari,” Lisa said after she stopped in front of the group. She stared at Ari with her pale purple eyes. “You’ve grown stronger.”
Brendan cleared his throat. “That’s Lisa, she will handle your afternoon’s training. You will spend your mornings in the outpost and train with your mentor. We don’t want to raise too much suspicion—”
“Who the fuck are you?” Tasia cut him off. “You have a hideout covered in wards rivaling those found around the outpost. Your shelves are filled with opal and emerald ranked equipment. And let’s not forget about the four freaking adaptive dummies.” She finished her rant and pointed at the wooden creatures.
“Oh? You even know about them?” Brendan folded his arms on his chest.
“Don’t change the topic,” Tasia said.
“She’s annoying. Can I smack her?” Lisa asked.
Brendan raised his hand to stop her. “I’m doing the headmistress a favor because she feels responsible for what happened to your team. If you don’t want my help, you can always return to your inn, and constantly look over your shoulder. Maybe they won’t come for you tonight or the next day. But someday they will. Trust me. And if you’re not ready, then you will die.”
Tasia’s mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water, gasping silently. “I’m sorry,” she said finally. She shuffled her feet and watched them intently to hide her blush.
Brendan sighed. He reached out and laid a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. A lot has happened since last night. Why don’t you rest and we can start tomorrow? It’s already late.”
Tasia nodded, but she hadn’t raised her head and still looked at her feet.
“Show them their rooms,” Brendan said after he turned toward Lisa.
When the group was close to the shimmering wall that separated the hideout from the basement, Ari said to his teammates, “I will join you in a minute.”
Tasia and Killian nodded, but Elijah looked at him with questioning eyes. Ari mouthed the word later, and his friend left with the rest, leaving him and Brendan alone in the hideout.
“What happened to your arm?” Ari said after a moment.
“A disagreement between two friends.”
“Can I try healing it?”
“I fear it’s too early for you to heal this kind of wound, but be my guest,” Brendan chuckled.
Ari approached the man and placed his hands over the bandaged arm. He closed his eyes and sent strands of his essence into his body. But they were swallowed instantly, and he felt something reaching out for him from within the wound. He recoiled and stared at the arm.
“What is that?” Ari asked after he managed to calm himself.
“It’s an essence wound. Some spells don’t attack the flesh, but the essence itself. The bandages keep it from spreading until my body manages to remove the tainted essence.”
“And a friend did it to you?”
Brendan shrugged. “Sometimes our friends are those of whom we need to be most wary of.”
Ari waited for the man to explain what he meant, but when he remained silent, he decided to ask another question.
“Why did you help Elijah and me?”
“Because what the Order does to Wanderers is not fair. Especially those coming from Earth.”
“You know about it?”
“A bit. I know it’s a world with nearly no essence, and people transported from it always start at unranked. Yet Order still hunts them.”
“But if the dungeons are so dangerous, why doesn’t the Order use Wanderers to clear them? They are stronger than us. I can already see it looking at Elijah with the progress he has made, and he’s only been in our world for a week.”
Brendan hadn’t responded and stared instead at a painting hanging on the wall. It portrayed a young woman with long auburn hair sitting in a hammock that was strung between two trees.
“It’s the knowledge,” he said after a while and looked straight into Ari’s eyes. “They hunt them for the knowledge they possess.”