Brendan’s words echoed in Ari’s mind as he walked toward his room.
The more he learned about the Order, the more he hated it. Ari thought it was a tradition that they were thrown into a dungeon without proper training, but the truth was far worse. The organization didn’t care about the recruits’ lives because thousands could take the place of those who died. And now this — hunting unfortunate people who appeared in this world for the knowledge they possessed.
Elijah’s world was far more advanced than this. Numerous times he compared things he saw here to what he had back home. Like the lamps or the doors in the training hall that opened without being touched. Everything here ran on essence, instead of electricity — whatever that was — but if Ari were to believe his friend’s stories, the similarities between the worlds were staggering.
And now he knew why.
Ari stopped at the top of the stairs, and held tight to the wooden railing, turning his knuckles white. His mind whirled in a cacophony of thoughts and images that blurred together. He felt like he was losing control. All he wanted to do was to help people and find the truth about his parents’ disappearance. But last night he nearly killed someone. Because of what? Because someone thought his team was a threat? And now he was in the middle of a conflict he didn’t even understand.
What have I gotten myself into?
It took Ari a minute to calm himself down. Thankfully, nobody appeared on the stairs during the time he stood there, lost in his thoughts. He glanced around the empty hallway and took one last deep breath before he entered his room.
Elijah lay on his bed, reading one of the books Brendan gave them. When he noticed Ari, he put the book on the bed stand and sat up. “We need to talk.”
Ari threw his coat on the table and collapsed on the plush chair before saying, “We do.”
“Something is really really wrong with this world,” Elijah said. “Remember when I told you the nations here are similar to the ones in my world?”
Ari nodded but remained silent.
Elijah started counting on his fingers. “Mercia, Rome, Babylonia and now Lechistan. Those are kingdoms or countries that long ago perished in my world and were replaced by others. At first, I thought that this world here is a weird alternate version of mine, but what if it’s not?”
“What do you mean?”
“A thousand years ago there was a war, right? And the Order was created after it ended by the Founders. I know them.”
“Know them how?” Ari’s brows rose, and he leaned forward on the chair.
“My uncle is from a different country, and this is why I know the weird language the headmistress used. He loved to talk about his ancestors, and when I was a kid, we spent a lot of time together because my parents were always working.” Elijah smiled, and there was a faint reminiscent expression in his eyes. But it vanished right away, and his face hardened. “But what’s important is that The Lion of Lechistan is a famous person in my world. It’s a nickname of John III Sobieski, a Polish king.”
“Are you trying to say that he was a Wanderer?”
“I don’t know. We need to find a book about the Founders, but it’s the same thing with Cwenthryth. I knew that name sounded familiar, but only now I’ve recalled where I’ve heard it last. She’s also from my world, and she got famous because of a tv series I loved. But they changed her name slightly, and this is why Igotconfusedand...” Elijah started talking faster, and his words ran together.
“Slow down, I can barely understand you.”
Elijah raked his fingers through his hair and sighed. “Sorry, I do that when I’m too excited. Do Islanders have a Founder?”
“I don’t know.”
“If not a Founder, then maybe a figure from your legends?”
“We do,” Ari replied flatly. His jaw started to twitch, and his eyes suddenly looked empty, almost lifeless. “There was a person who united the Islands and is revered on par with our gods. His name was Ragnar Lothrbok, and my father is named after him.”
“Uhm…” Elijah stammered. “He’s from my world too.”
Ari stared at him incredulously. “Are you trying to say the Founders are Wanderers? How is this possible?”
“I would like to know that too.” Elijah let out a long breath and rose from the bed. “But what I do know is that I need a drink. Want one too?” He approached the liquor cabinet and removed one of the colorful bottles.
Ari nodded. He felt like he needed more than one after everything that happened yesterday. “I know why the Order hunts people like you,” he said suddenly.
Elijah started pouring the second glass but took that moment to look up and spilled some on the cabinet. “Damn it.” He wiped it with a piece of cloth before passing one of the glasses to Ari. Then he sat in the chair opposite him and placed his on the table between them. “Why?” he asked.
Ari took a sip of this brownish liquor, wincing as it burned his throat. “It’s not only about Wanderers being stronger than normal people but about the knowledge you possess.”
Elijah’s brow arched in sudden confusion before realization dawned on his face. “This is why our worlds look so alike… Fuck, I should have guessed that was the case.” He paused, tapping his fingers on the glass he held. “But there’s a problem. I’m just a kid, I don’t know how most of the inventions from my world work. Sure, I can describe what they do, but I don’t know what makes them tick.”
“Maybe it’s enough for them? Everything here revolves around essence anyway.”
“Maybe… Humans are the same everywhere,” Elijah sighed and shook his head. “I want to ask about something else. What happened to you during the fight with the recruits?”
While he was locked in the cell, Ari thought about everything that happened, and what to tell Elijah because he knew his friend would ask about it. And he decided to stop keeping things from him.
“It’s a skill my father taught me. It’s an advanced form of Sensing that allows me to see more, but there’s a cost attached to it, and that is why I don’t like using it…” Ari’s voice trailed off.
“Yeah, you nearly went murderhobo on the ginger boy,” Elijah chuckled.
“I did what?”
“It’s just a term from the books I’ve read. Don’t worry about it.” Elijah paused. “Can you teach the skill to others?”
Ari shook his head. “I wouldn’t even know where to begin. I know it’s related to the training I’ve undergone.”
“Oh… That’s a shame.” Elijah looked dejected, and his shoulders sagged visibly.
Someone knocked at the door, so hard and with such violence that the sound echoed in the room. The two men looked at each other. Ari got up and slowly approached the door and turned the knob. The door opened, revealing Tasia and Killian standing in the hallway.
“We need to talk,” the woman said.
“I think I heard that line already today,” Ari muttered under his breath, and let his two teammates in before locking the door.
Tasia looked around and said, “Your room is nicer than mine.” Then she noticed the liquor cabinet, and her face brightened. “And you even have free whiskey!” She walked over to the cabinet and started rummaging through the bottles.
Killian silently took his seat at the table and nodded toward Ari and Elijah. The boy’s face revealed emotions for once. He appeared agitated, a sharp worry was visible in his eyes.
“You alright?” Ari asked.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Killian answered with a forced smile.
Tasia joined them a moment later. She brought a bottle along with two glasses, and after pouring them, she pushed one toward Killian. He raised his glass and took a sip while the woman gulped down hers in two large swallows and refilled it right away. The three men gawked at her with their eyes slightly widened in disbelief.
“What?” Tasia said when she noticed their gazes. “We’re alive. That’s a good reason to celebrate, don’t you think?” She raised her glass in their direction, then spoke, “To still breathing. For god knows how long, but it’s better than the alternative.”
The glasses clinked, and everyone drank. Silence followed. They just sat there, staring at their glasses and the brown fluid inside of them. Ari’s shoulders tensed as the silence continued to grow, and he wanted to say something, but he couldn’t find the right words.
“I’m sorry for causing all this mess,” Tasia said suddenly.
What? She’s apologizing? Ari tried to hide his surprise and shook his head. “That wasn’t your fault.”
Tasia slammed her glass down on the table, spilling some whiskey as she did so. “It was! If I only listened to you and ignored that idiot… Now, we can say goodbye to our lives if the barkeeper told the truth.” There was regret in her voice as she looked up at him with troubled eyes.
“I don’t trust him, but we need all the help we can get to survive,” Killian said. “We are in the middle of a conflict between the headmistress, the local lords, and the Hunters.”
“Losing our points in the competition seems meaningless looking at everything else that’s going on,” Tasia said and gulped down another glass. “But I think he was right and we should focus on getting stronger. This way—”
“No.” Ari cut her off. “This is what they wanted to achieve. If we give up now, we let them win.”
“But how do you want to do it? We’re at minus fifty points right now, and last time I checked, Skyla’s team had over one hundred and forty.”
“She’s got that many points already?” Elijah interjected.
Tasia nodded. “Her team was the first to clear the three dungeons. The second was the local noble boy who was behind her in the recruit’s ranking — Conall, or whatever. I forgot his name.” She waved her glass in the air with irritation.
“Does anyone know how the mission board works?” Ari asked.
Tasia and Elijah shook their heads, but Killian let out a sigh and said, “I do. I’ve snuck into the room with them once.”
Elijah laughed and patted Killian on his back. “A few days with an invisibility spell, and you’re already behaving like Roisin.”
Killian narrowed his eyes at the man. “I was just curious…”
“Give him a break,” Ari said to Elijah. Then he turned toward the archer. “Please, tell us what you saw.”
Killian looked away for a moment, obviously gathering the courage to speak. “There are multiple boards. They are split based on the rank required to undertake the mission, and most of them are meant for unranked, or opal ranked members. The board for emeralds only had one mission.”
“No wonder. The region is one of the weakest in the kingdom, so there are not many monsters above opal rank. The Gloomlings are the only exception,” Tasia said and shuddered.
“Didn’t you say last time they are opal ranked monsters?” Elijah asked.
“The young ones yeah, but the adults are an emerald ranked threat,” Tasia replied, and Elijah nearly choked on his whiskey.
“Let’s focus on the mission board, please,” Ari said. While he was curious about the monsters, now wasn’t the time to discuss them. “Killian, go on.”
“There are various mission types, ranging from simple escort missions to hunting aberrant monsters. What’s more, each mission has a difficulty score attached, and it affects the number of points and orbs you get for completing it.” Killian finished talking and took another sip from his glass.
“What’s the point difference between the missions?” Elijah asked.
“Escort missions are worth a couple of points only. Hunting monsters vary, and they give you anywhere between ten and fifty. There were other types of missions too, but I focused only on those two,” Killian replied.
Elijah let out a low whistle. “Fifty? That’s a lot! We could try doing harder missions to catch up. Four of them and we would have more points than the top team.”
“It’s not that simple.” Killian shook his head. “There’s a reason why they are worth much more. You need to find the monster first, and this usually takes time. I overheard someone complaining that last time it took his team a week to finish a monster hunt mission.”
“Oh...” Elijah faltered.
“We could also continue to do dungeons. They are worth twenty points each, right?” Ari asked.
“Not for long. Soon we’ll be all above the halfway mark to opal rank, and this means we will need to tackle harder dungeons to still earn points for completing them. Probably even as hard as the one with the boar,” Tasia said.
Silence filled the room again. Ari rubbed his injured arm, recalling the boss who nearly killed them. The limb still ached, but it was slowly recovering.
“We have no other choice. After we finish the joint mission, we will have to risk it,” he said, and a smile curled his lips. “And we have one advantage over the other teams.”
“What kind of advantage?” Elijah asked.
“Killian,” Ari replied. “He can track the monsters using his brands, and this should allow us to find them easier.”
“Right, I forgot about it,” Elijah said and raised his glass. “To Killian, our key to victory!”
Killian blushed, and the rest of the group raised their glasses, but someone knocked on the door before they were able to toast.
“Are you expecting anyone?” Tasia turned to Ari. When he shook his head, she added, “I will check who it is.”
She approached the door and carefully opened it. Roisin appeared in the doorway — her blonde hair was a disheveled mess, her eyes stark with worry, her skin pale and covered in sweat, as if she had just finished a long, frantic run. When she saw Tasia, her whole demeanor changed in an instant. The biggest smile crossed her face, and the tears began to fall. Then she practically tackled the other woman, hugging her fiercely.
“You’re alive! You’re alive!” Roisin shouted. “They didn’t want to tell me anything, and only now, auntie took pity and told me where to find you.” She spoke quickly, and words were tumbling from her mouth.
Tasia looked uncomfortable, but she returned the hug and said, “A few assholes are not enough to kill us.”
Roisin let go of the woman after a few seconds and looked past her at the rest of the team. Her smile faded, and she said, “I’m sorry… I failed you as a mentor. I shouldn’t have let you go alone and—”
“We brought that on ourselves,” Ari said, interrupting her.
“But the competition… You lost your points, and your hard work was all for naught.”
“We won’t lie down and give up,” Tasia said. “We will win the stupid competition no matter what!”
Roisin studied Tasia’s expression. “You’re serious?” When the woman nodded, she smiled again and said, “I’m glad I didn’t postpone tomorrow’s mission then.”
“Who’s your aunt anyway?” Elijah interjected.
“Oh, right...” Roisin said and shuffled her feet. “It’s the headmistress.”