Roisin told them to be ready to leave at dawn to make the most of the daylight. They spoke with Brendan about the mission, and the man agreed that leaving the town for a few days was a good idea.
Ari was used to getting up early, as his training with his father usually started at six in the morning. But he had to force Elijah out of bed. His friend groaned and grumbled, and only when Ari splashed water on his face, he admitted defeat. Last night, Elijah was excited about leaving Bourfall, and he couldn’t sleep. Instead, he stayed up late, reading the books Brendan gave them, but it seemed he overdid it. Ari guessed the whiskey had something to do with that too.
When they finally went downstairs, Tasia and Killian were already sitting at the table close to the fireplace, eating breakfast without enthusiasm. Besides them, there wasn’t a soul around in the common room. When Ari and Elijah joined their table, the pair nodded but didn’t utter a word. They too looked sleepy; their shadowed eyes were flat and lifeless.
Ari ate with his eyes closed, slowly chewing each small bite until the food was nearly dissolved. He wasn’t hungry, but he ate anyway. He knew he would need all his strength once they reached the village where the mission would take place. Their first mission. They pestered Roisin about it, but she told them to rest, and that she would explain everything tomorrow. Neither begging nor threatening the woman helped. Ari sighed and focused on his eggs and bacon.
Not even five minutes later, the door to the inn slammed, flew open and slammed again. Roisin strolled inside, her face flushed, hair wet, and cloak dripping with water.
“Good morning!” she shouted. When nobody responded, her brows knitted together. “No one? You’re going on your first mission! You should be excited about it. I’ve told you, auntie will not let anyone harm you again.”
Ari opened his mouth to respond, but he closed it right away. The headmistress was keeping an eye on them even before that and yet they nearly got killed. But he didn’t want to argue about this again.
“You should have told us earlier that the headmistress is your aunt,” Tasia grumbled. She grabbed her mug and took a large gulp.
Ari let out another sigh — that was what he wanted to avoid. “We already spoke about it last night. Let’s focus on what’s in front of us, okay?”
Tasia stared at him with her penetrating blue eyes before nodding. “Fine.”
Roisin ignored the exchange and snatched a small tomato from one of the plates. While she chewed, she passed a hand over the lower half of her face, obscuring her mouth. When she lowered it, Ari saw she was smiling ever so slightly.
“Grab your things,” Roisin said, and the smile vanished right away. “The other team left the town yesterday, and I don’t like the advantage they get by being there first.”
The carriage waited on them outside the inn. The weather was awful again — it was still dark and raining heavily. Ari had to squint his eyes to see the coated person sitting atop the vehicle. While they hurried toward the cabin, he tried to stop the rain from drenching them by controlling the droplets, but some managed to avoid his attention.
When the door closed behind Ari, he muttered, “Why is it always raining?”
“That’s how autumn is in Mercia. In time, you’ll get used to it,” Roisin replied with a shrug. “Abingdon is near the border, nearly two hours away, so you can take a nap. I will wake you up when we’re close.”
Nobody opposed the idea. It wasn’t long before the soothing sounds of the rain splashing against the roof, and the motion of the rocking carriage, lulled the group into semi-consciousness.
Ari closed his eyes, and his head lolled back, but sleep never came. He was too worried and too excited — worried because of the attack but excited about the mission. His teammates seemed to not have the same problem, and soon soft, snoring noises filled the cabin. Dejected, he rested his forehead against the cold glass and stared out of the window at the ever-changing scenery.
The green plains surrounding the town were quickly left far behind. The carriage passed through vast forests, meadows, and farms surrounded by wooden walls. The trees were no longer green, but they appeared to be of drab color, with bare branches or dead leaves. The change happened way faster than Ari expected. Not even a week ago, most of the trees were still covered in green leaves, but now… The continent was way different from his Islands, and he knew he had to get used to it.
When the carriage emerged from yet another forest, the scenery changed again. With a slight ‘wow’ escaping Ari’s lips, he stared at an enormous lake and the mountains beyond it. They were strangely barren and gray like heaps of ashes dumped from the sky, but their peaks were white and covered in snow. The rain had stopped falling some time ago, and the lake’s surface was not stirred by the least ripple. A waterfall was visible across it, with two giant stone sculptures shaped like owls on each side. They glistened in the rays of the rising sun, poking through the clouds.
Roisin stirred in the seat beside him and gazed out of the window. “Damn, I’ve overslept,” she muttered. A watch appeared in her hand, and she frowned at the numbers floating in the air. “Wake up, we have a few things to discuss!”
When everyone opened their eyes, the woman continued, “The moment we set foot in the town, I won’t be able to help you in any way. Those are the rules, and while I did break a few of them already, this time, there will be another mentor there, so my hands will be tied. But if something happens, you can use the necklace to call for help.”
“How?” Elijah asked. He retrieved his necklace from beneath his shirt and held it up, inspecting it.
“It’s enchanted to alert others whenever you’re gravely wounded, but there’s a way to call for help before that happens. You need to press both gems inward, and everyone with a necklace in a five-kilometer radius will be alerted.”
When Elijah touched the gems, Roisin swatted his hand away. “Don’t do it now, you fool!”
Elijah grumbled something under his breath and hid the necklace.
“Earlier you mentioned something about the other team having an advantage?” Tasia asked.
Roisin nodded. “You’re working with them, but it’s still a competition. The team that performs better will earn double the amount of points.”
“And who’s going to decide that?” Ari asked.
“The other mentor, the village chief, and me. But don’t think I will blindly take your side. If you mess up, then say goodbye to the points.” Roisin paused to make sure she had their attention. “So don’t mess up.”
A silence fell between them, and the recruits nodded at each other. They knew that this was just a competition. There were far more important things going on, and even their lives were at stake. Still, the competition was something they understood, and they wanted to show whoever framed them that they had made a mistake.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” Roisin said, breaking the silence. She rummaged through her pockets, pulled out something, and held out her palm. Three plain silver rings lay on it. “Auntie told me to give these to you.”
“She did?” Elijah asked incredulously and took one of the rings. His face brightened instantly after he identified it.
“Well, not really” —Roisin grinned broadly and passed the other two rings to Tasia and Killian— “but I told her you deserve something more than a lousy apology, so she had no choice.” Then she turned toward Ari and added, “I know you already have a void ring, so you will receive something else once we return to Bourfall.”
Ari nodded and smiled. He didn’t mind; on the contrary, he was happy for his teammates. They could store their weapons and part of the supplies inside the void rings, which would allow them to travel lighter and not worry about their packs so much. They planned to use the orbs to buy the rings first, but now they could spend them in other ways. Still, he wasn’t sure what they would buy next, considering what they learned about items and their impact on brands.
While his teammates were occupied with their rings, Ari looked out of the window. The road continued along the lake, and in the distance, not far away from the waterfall, he saw the village. It was larger than he expected with perhaps as many as hundred houses and surrounded on three sides by a palisade of heavy, sharp-ended logs. The fourth side bordered the lake, and there he saw half a dozen small fishing boats casting their fishnets into the water.
A few minutes later, the carriage pulled up in front of the gate, flanked by two stubby towers with flat tops. They were at least five meters tall, and a pair of archers stood on each, with their bows aimed at the carriage. The gate itself was a three-meter tall wooden double door, backed with steel plates, and a large owl was carved into them.
After a few seconds, a broken-nosed face with a large ginger beard appeared atop the gate. “What’s your business in Abingdon?” the guard asked with little enthusiasm.
“I’m transporting a team from the Order,” a familiar calm voice replied.
“In a civilian carriage?”
The silence stretched out; finally, Roisin sighed before leaving the cabin. “Order’s business, let us through!” she shouted when she was outside.
The guard paled when he noticed the woman in her distinct black clothes. “Yes Sir… Erm… Ma’am!” Then he turned and shouted, “Oi, Joseph, open the bloody gate!”
Roisin returned to the cabin, muttering under her breath, “Damn Raphael.”
Shortly after, they could hear the slow unbolting of the gate and the lifting of wooden bars, and the gate creaked reluctantly open. They passed through and stopped right behind the wall, beside another carriage — it was black, and the golden snake eating its own tail was painted on the door.
They exited the cabin, and Roisin approached the driver standing near the pair of metal horses attached to the front. A slight smirk was plastered on the white-haired man’s face.
“You’re lucky those aren’t the real ones. Otherwise, I would force you to sleep with them in the stable,” Roisin said.
“I don’t know what you are talking about. I did exactly as you instructed,” Raphael replied in a calm voice. A look full of concentration crossed his wrinkled features as if he recalled something. “Take us to Abingdon and show the guards the mark when they ask about it. Those were your words.”
“You little…” Roisin fumed, but Ari ignored her and looked around.
The cobbled road ended near the edge of the village, giving way to packed earth that stretched down before him. The rain had turned the narrow street into a slippery, muddy mess. Small, wooden houses lined both sides of the street, and their upper floors extended over it.
Besides the guards who were closing the gate, only a handful of people—all dressed in plain brown clothes—roamed around, minding their own business. Well, at least until they noticed Ari and the other recruits. Then they hurried away casting worried glances over their shoulders. It’s the same thing, no matter where we go...
Suddenly, a group of children burst from around the corner of a nearby building, chasing after things floating in the air. They were jumping and laughing, trying to catch them. Only when Ari squinted his eyes, he recognized the shapes. Those were bunnies. Bunnies made out of dust. He frowned, not knowing what to do. Were those creatures? Or some kind of toys? He wanted to open his mouth and point at the things, but then a small figure wearing Order’s clothes walked from around the same corner.
He was a lean man with small narrow-set eyes and a young and dreamy face. His slightly longer, tree-bark colored hair was mussed on one side as if he had just woken up. He observed the children and smiled a smile that ran from ear to ear. But then he spotted Ari; their eyes met, and his smile faded away. The man stood staring at the group for a few long seconds before shaking his head and approaching them.
“Ari Ragnarsson?” he said in a gentle voice. His amber eyes didn’t look at Ari. In fact, they looked everywhere but at him.
“Yes, that’s me,” Ari replied.
“Please follow me. The rest of my team is waiting at the inn.”
“Sure, let us grab our things,” Ari said and went back to the carriage to get his pack. Roisin stopped bickering with Raphael and joined them.
The man led the group deeper into the village. Soon, they arrived in the village square, where people bustled across the dirty ground hunting for goods on the market stalls while the children ran around, still chasing the bunnies. The strong scent of fish and salt filled the air, reminding Ari of his Island, and he smiled at the memory.
They crossed the square and approached a large building. The words “The Keen Owl” were painted on a large wooden sign hanging over the door. As they entered the inn, they were welcomed by aromas of roasted meats and the smell of alcohol. Large candles were lit on a dozen tables, and only the innkeeper—who was wiping the counter with a piece of cloth—occupied the inn along with a group of Order’s members sitting at the largest table in the corner of the room. Ari was happy to see a familiar face among them — it belonged to Royce, the rotund recruit he had met a few times already.
A red-haired man sat with his back turned, but when the door closed, he stood up and looked down at the newcomers, measuring them with his green eyes. He was in his late thirties, lean but powerfully built. His wild red hair was combed back from his face, revealing a long, straight nose and sharp cheekbones.
He strode purposefully toward Ari, but Roisin walked in front of the group, and the two mentors met at the center of the room. Unrelenting, they stared at each other while tension snapped in the very air between them.
“Roisin,” the man said. His voice was grim and toneless.
“Selner,” Roisin replied calmly.
“I heard what happened yesterday,” Selner said, narrowing his eyes at the woman. “Your team is as bloodthirsty as you back in the days. Is this all that you’ve taught them?”
“Certainly they are better than your lot, running around the village playing with children using dust bunnies. You’re fighting monsters with kindness, now?” A mocking smile appeared on Roisin’s face.
One of the recruits behind Selner, a burly man with short blonde hair, stood up abruptly, and a large double-edged axe appeared in his hands.
“Luka, sit,” Selner said, without glancing in his direction, and the man reluctantly sat back down.
Waves of white essence spread from both the mentors as they kept staring at each other. The flames from the fireplace and the candles flickered wildly; some even extinguished and the room darkened.
Ari gripped his scepter tighter, readying himself for anything. His friends beside him did the same with their weapons, and the recruits from the other team mirrored their behavior.
But then both Selner and Roisin snorted and burst out laughing. They threw their arms around each other and hugged. The recruits from both teams gawked dumbfounded at the pair of mentors, not knowing how to react to what just happened.
“Sorry, I couldn’t keep my face straight any longer,” Selner said, wiping the tears of joy from his eyes. Then he gestured toward Ari and his teammates. “Don’t stand there and come join us!”