They had to push two tables together because even the largest one wasn’t big enough for everyone to fit around. Only Royce helped the newcomers and shook hands with them; his teammates hadn’t even moved from their seats. Now, the two teams sat at the opposite ends of the table, exchanging furtive glances but nothing more.
There was a tangible tension in the air between them, even though their mentors were chatting as if they hadn’t seen each other in years. They stood at the counter while they ordered drinks and food, and from time to time, they would burst out laughing. A minute later, the innkeeper pointed somewhere behind him, and Roisin vanished into a room at the back of the inn.
Selner, who meanwhile had returned to the table, stared at the recruits, and a frown creased his forehead. “You all look like a Gloomling ate your families,’ he said before taking his seat.
“You didn’t say they would be our partners,” Luka grumbled. The large double-headed axe lay on the burly blonde man’s lap, and he continuously tapped his finger at its pommel. He turned his head to look at the mentor, revealing a pale scar running across his left cheek from lip to ear.
“They?” Tasia interjected with a growl.
Ari laid his hand on the woman’s arm. She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, but thankfully didn’t say anything else. The last thing they needed right now was to antagonize another group of recruits. Well, antagonize even further because it seemed they already had some issues with Ari’s team.
“See Luka? That’s how a captain should behave,” Selner said with a smile. “Still, I’ve told Surma about them, so I’m not sure what’s your problem.”
Luka shot a questioning gaze at the lean man, who led Ari and his team to the inn. His amber eyes flicked to the ceiling, and he hid behind a large mug, not wanting to meet his teammate’s eyes. Ari caught a whiff of something herbal in the steam wafting from the mug.
“Surma, how many times do I have to repeat myself?” Selner let out a sigh. ”You need to talk with your teammates.”
Surma nodded but hadn’t said anything and stared at his mug instead.
Selner put his chin in his hands and sighed again. This time even louder. “Well, it seems my team lost their manners, so let me introduce them. The grumbling man is Luka, our Defender, and team captain. And you’ve already met Surma and his dust bunnies. He’s a Master-Evoker Wildcard.”
Luka nodded at Ari and his teammates. He forced a smile, and his eyes remained hard. Surma ignored them and took a sip from his mug.
Selner rolled his eyes and continued, “The big guy at the back of the table is Royce, our Mender with a golden heart.”
“We’ve met already. Nice to see you again, Ari, Elijah,” Royce said. “And it’s nice to finally meet your teammates.” He nodded toward Tasia and Killian, and they returned the gesture.
Similar to Elijah, Royce had lost some weight since the last time Ari saw him, but not as much, and he was still a giant among men. Even while sitting, he towered a full head above all the other recruits.
Beside him sat a woman in her early twenties. She was also tall and dark, her skin the color of well-polished dark wood with slight gold undertones. Chestnut, shoulder-length hair almost fully covered her delicate, radiant face. Marks, in the form of two red stripes, ran from beneath her hazel-green eyes to the bottom of the cheeks.
“Ekene,” the woman said and nodded curtly. “I’m the team’s Evoker specializing in earth magic. Pleased to meet you.” She spoke with an accent, a strange accent that Ari had never heard before.
“There’s one more member missing, but she should be back by now,” Selner said and glanced over his shoulder at the door, looking worried.
“One more?” Ari asked. Five people sat at the table with them, four recruits, and the mentor, so that should be it.
“We’re a team of five,” Luka answered with a shrug.
“Sometimes when a team falls apart, recruits who still want to stay in the Order join another one,” Selner explained and turned toward Ari. “Your turn.”
Ari nodded and let his teammates introduce themselves. After they finished, Roisin returned and sat beside the other mentor.
“What did I miss?” she asked.
“Nothing much,” Selner replied and exchanged glances with the woman. Their smiles vanished abruptly, and their manners became stern. “Now that you know each other, let’s talk about your mission.”
That got their attention. An anxious silence settled at the table, and the recruits’ eyes turned toward the red-haired man.
Selner retrieved a small rectangular item from his pocket and held it between his fingers. “This is a mission token. Whoever posted the request has an identical one. That way, you know that you found the right person, but also after the mission is done, you will receive his token and get paid back at the outpost.”
“From this moment till the mission is over, we’re no longer your mentors, and we won’t help you in any way,” Roisin said. “We will act as observers, nothing more. If we are forced to intervene, we will remove some of the points or fail you altogether, depending on how much you mess up.”
“What will happen if we fail?” Royce asked with worry in his voice.
“You will be kicked out from the Order.”
Several gulps sounded around the table. The recruits stared incredulously at the pair of mentors before Luka broke the silence. “That’s not fair! I trust my own teammates, but—”
“But what?” Selner cut him off. “If you plan to stay in the Order, you need to learn how to cooperate with other teams. There are harder missions that require more than four people, and the one you have been assigned to is a good example.”
“What’s our mission?” Ari asked the question on everyone’s minds.
“You’re going to hunt an aberrant monster that torments this village,” Roisin replied. “I trust you all know what this means?”
The worry that suddenly crossed the recruits’ faces was proof enough that they knew. Ari’s mind raced. He recalled the story Roisin told about the aberrant monster that attacked her team and the Wanderer who saved them. The nervous excitement he felt before was instantly replaced by feelings of stress and fear.
Ari saw something flying through the air toward him, and he barely caught it. He looked at the small item lying on his palm — it was the token the mentor showed them. There were some weird numbers imprinted on it along with something akin to runes. He cast a questioning gaze at the man.
“Luka and Ari will go and speak with the village chief. That’s how every mission starts,” Selner said. He threw a couple of keys at the table, and they clattered as they landed. “While waiting for them, grab your things, and make yourself comfortable. The whole third floor belongs to us.”
Roisin snatched one of the keys and smiled at Tasia. “We will stay together.” The other woman scowled but remained silent.
“Where can we find the chief?” Luka asked. The man rose from his seat, and the axe vanished from his hands.
“Somewhere near the north gate,” Selner replied.
Luka nodded and walked toward the door, not waiting for Ari. He sighed and followed. Once outside, they headed north. They walked through the bustling square and along the muddy streets in silence. The people they passed eyed them warily and hid in the side alleys whenever the pair of recruits got too close.
A couple of minutes later, when there wasn’t anyone near them, Luka spun, grabbed Ari by his shirt and pinned him against a nearby wall.
Ari let out a surprised yelp and said, “Let go of me!”
“Not until we have a talk.” Luka brought his face towards Ari, and he could smell the ale on his breath. “Of all teams, we had to be paired with you. Murderers,” he said through his clenched teeth and spat on the wall beside Ari’s head.
Ari had enough of people treating him like they could do whatever they wanted. And he saw in the man’s eyes that there was no reasoning with him. He crossed his arms on his chest and grabbed Luka’s wrists in a steel hold. Then, he slightly bent his knees, and the seemingly small downward motion twisted the other man’s wrists at an uncomfortable angle. Even though he was slightly larger than Ari and probably stronger, there was nothing he could do.
“Let go of me,” Ari said quietly and without emotion, while slowly applying pressure. “Or I’ll break your fucking wrists.”
They stared deep into each other’s eyes, unblinking. Ari’s pulse began to beat a nervous pattern. He didn’t want to hurt him, but if he had no choice... After a few seconds of struggling against his hold, Luka’s face twisted in pain, and he let go of him before retreating a few steps.
“Fuck. You’re even crazier than they say,” Luka said while rubbing his wrists.
Well, that didn’t go as planned, Ari thought. He realized they made another mistake — it was far too late to keep their heads down. The news about the ambush must have spread already, and every recruit knew what happened. Or at least they knew part of the story, but it didn’t matter.
The continent was way different from his home, but one thing stood out above everything else. People here, especially those in the Order, treated you like shit if they thought they knew they could get away with it.
But every human felt fear.
And that was what he planned to use from now on.
“If you want to talk, we can talk,” Ari said. “But if you ever lay a hand on me again, or my teammates, you will regret it.”
Luka’s eyes widened with both fear and wariness before he slowly nodded.
Then, from somewhere not far off, Ari heard a muffled shout. Followed by another a second later. The two recruits looked at each other, and without a moment’s hesitation, they started running toward the sounds. Ari unstrapped the scepter from his belt. Luka spread out his hands, and the axe along with a large metal shield appeared in them.
They ran through narrow streets, splashing through muddy puddles the rain had left on the ground. People were running in the opposite direction, and they had to fight their way forwards.
Then another shout broke the air, this one much closer to them, but it was cut off short. A moment later, they rounded a corner and nearly bumped into a guard staggering towards them. His mail and clothes underneath were torn to shreds, and his arm was slit halfway, bleeding badly.
When the guard noticed them, a quick flash of relief crossed his features. “Help...“ he said, but then his eyes rolled back in his head, and he lost consciousness.
Luka caught the man before he fell to the ground, and Ari instantly started healing him. While the wounds closed, he looked past him at the open area in front of the gate.
The gate was closed, and two more guards lay unmoving in puddles of blood mixed with water. Ari didn’t see anyone else. Or anything else. He frowned and covered his eyes in essence. Still, besides the two bodies on the ground, he didn’t Sense any essence anywhere.
“Do you see anything?” Luka asked in a hushed voice. His eyes darted left and right. He held his shield out in front of him, covering Ari and the guard. The axe in his other hand glowed slightly.
“Nothing,” Ari whispered back.
But then he noticed that the chest of one of the guards moved. He’s still breathing!
Ari rose and wanted to move toward the wounded guard, but Luka held his hand in front of him. “Wait.”
“He’s alive! I need to heal him before he loses too much blood,” Ari said.
“No, fool! Look closer.”
Ari squinted his eyes at the chest. It moved as if the guard was still breathing, but there was something wrong with the motion. Suddenly, the chest bulged out and exploded. Blood and tissue flew through the air, landing a few meters away, and something emerged out of the remains of the guard.
It was a small, blood-covered snake with a triangular-shaped head. A pair of wings unfurled from the creature’s sides. They looked like those of a dragonfly, but they were wider and sharper.
The snake flew one meter above the body and shook fiercely, getting rid of the blood, revealing rainbow-colored scales and large crystalline eyes. Its blue split tongue flicked and hissed at the pair of recruits.
Ari didn’t waste another moment. He gathered water from the surrounding puddles and caught the snake in a bubble. But before he managed to raise its temperature, the snake easily broke free and opened its mouth. A split second later, a semi-transparent arc whizzed out of it toward Ari.
“Watch out!” Luka shouted and jumped in front of him, blocking the attack with his shield. The arc split into two and crashed into the building behind them, leaving two large slits in the wooden wall.
Luka swung his axe downward, and a pressure descended upon the street, nearly forcing Ari to his knees. He felt as if something heavy pushed on him from above and he gritted his teeth, trying to stay on his feet.
The snake was hurled toward the ground and slammed into it with a huge crash, creating a large crater. It was held in place only for a few seconds before a rotating tip of a whirlwind rose from the crater and began inching its way up. The whirlwind shrieked as it rotated, and inside, Ari noticed the glowing purple eyes of the snake.
Luka cursed, and the pressure vanished, allowing Ari to move freely again. They stared at the snake. The snake stared back at them.
Ari pointed his scepter at the creature and discharged the weapon. But the white bolt of essence splashed against the whirlwind without doing anything.
The snake hissed again as if mocking Ari for his attempt.
Suddenly, the whirlwind vanished, and the creatures turned its head left and right in confusion. A figure appeared behind it, and a black dagger sliced through the air, cutting one of its wings off.
The snake shrieked and spun, struggling to keep flying and shot another arc. The attack cut one of the gate wings nearly in half. The figure appeared again, this time beside the creature, and sliced the second wing off. The snake spiralled down, but then wings made of air burst out of its body, and it flew toward the gate.
“Don’t let it escape!” A female voice shouted somewhere behind Ari.
He pointed his scepter at the snake and fired blast after blast at the creature. Luka did the same thing, but he shot small condensed black balls out of his extended hand.
The snake tried to avoid the barrage of spells, but some of them hit — it didn’t move as fast without its original wings. The creature hissed one more time before finally escaping through one of the holes in the gate.
The recruits stood staring at the spot where the snake vanished, waiting for it to reappear. Their breaths were ragged, and sweat poured down their faces and backs.
“Fuck. It got away,” the same female voice as before said.
A second later, a woman in her late teens appeared beside Luka. She was short and slim, and the Order’s cloak she wore nearly touched the ground. Her glossy wavy black hair was cut in a short bob, and Ari caught a glimpse of large dark brown eyes under black brows.
“What the hell was that thing?” Ari asked between breaths. “The aberrant monster?”
The woman turned to face him and shook her head. “That” —she spun her black daggers around and sheathed them on her belt in one fluid motion— “was a Gloomling.”