The Selection

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Chapter 65 - Inteiru Expota - Rat

“Wha-what’s going on?” I ask and turn my head to Floyd. His smirking face tells me that he set us up.

“Sorry, it’s nothing personal,” he says. The Dwarves grabs us by the arm, moving us by force. “Do what they ask, and everything will be fine. Find me in the Casino if you’re ever around again.”

“Where’re you taking us?” I ask but get no answer. “Does this have to do with us not having passes?”

“Shut yer mouff er Ay will shut it fer ya,” one of them says.

I won’t get any answers out of them, it seems. That has to be the only possibility, but it’s strange. The Dwarves at the entrance let us through pretty quickly despite not having passes. We mentioned Lotrem and Nazug, so those two are the only people that could’ve said something otherwise. We went straight to the Aerkin arena, and Floyd came talking to us shortly afterward. Considering that none of those Dwarves from the entrance followed us, there’s no way they could inform anyone of us.

There was that moment Nazug looked our way, but there was no exchange of words. Lotrem isn’t anywhere near us, and I don’t think he would put us in a situation like this. A bit of a jokester, but friendly.

With the safety regulations at the Aerkin arena nonexistent combined with the fact that this place is hidden, it’s safe to say that whatever goes on here isn’t allowed on the surface. That’s what Floyd meant by protecting this place and why I haven’t heard of the Achilles Sundance Circuit until now. But it’s impossible for this place to have stayed hidden forever. And the only way that this place exists in the first place is that it was built at the time of the city.

Doesn’t that imply Syrina was built recently? Each race could’ve been responsible for their own district. But this entrance was in the central zone. So that means every race knew about it, but then there’s no point in keeping this place a secret. There are also other entrances, as Hina suggested. I find it hard to believe that every entry could remain hidden. There’s too little to go off of right now.

Floyd said to find him at the Casino…wherever that is. Must be a unique location in this underground city. I’m not sure if we can trust him again, but he may be our only source of additional knowledge. The information he gave regarding the Achilles Sundance Circuit was right as far as I know. So, if I do what the Dwarves ask of us, they’ll let us go unharmed according to him. I’m scared about what they’ll ask, though.

They lead us into a small building. The sound of a hammer hitting metal resounds. A blacksmith inside. He turns toward us and asks, “Vanguards? Wha’ ken Ay dae fer ya?”

“We got deez rats sniffin’ ‘round whaur dae shou’ nae be. Give dem de usual,” the Dwarf next to me says.

“Wait, no,” I object. I think I know what’s going on here now. “I’m sorry we came in without passes, Lotrem didn’t tell us before he referred us here.”

“Doze lies be nae guin ter work on us. We already knoo Lotrem dint refer ya here, army dog,” a Dwarf says and shoves me forward. How’d they know that we’re from the army? The blacksmith in the shop holds onto a hot piece of metal. So blazing that it’s glowing bright red. My eyes widen.

“No no no, you’re right. I’m sorry. We lied. We’re from the Drosera army,” I say quickly. It seems like honesty is the only card we can play now. “Lotrem didn’t refer us, but we had a nice chat with him at the Icy Tavern. We only discovered this place by chance. I thought I saw a monster in the street, and I was curious where it went. That’s all. And we’re not rats. We won’t tell anyone about this place. We swear. Right, Hina?”

“Yeah,” she answers promptly.

Despite that, they push me down and put my arm on the table. “Dun worry. We be guin ter make sure o’ dat.”

They remove the arm guard on my right arm and then roll my sleeve up. I continue, “Yo-you don’t have to do this. Just give us the passes, and we won’t let this happen again.”

“Okay,” one of them says. I sigh. I managed to convince them before it was too late. But they’re not letting me go, which makes me feel uneasy.

Suddenly, something scorching burns my upper arm. I exclaim, “Fuck!

It catches me by complete surprise. The Dwarves laugh. “Dun be a baby. ’Tis nae dat bad. It ken get way hotter dan dat.”

It’s not the worst pain I’ve felt, but I wasn’t expecting it. The blacksmith pulls the hot metal away from me. The Dwarves grab me and then pull me up.

“Dare be de pass ye wanted,” one of them says.

That’s the pass? It’s not an actual pass? He reattaches the arm guard.

“Nigh fer de girl,” one of them says and pushes Hina onto the table as they did with me.

I can only watch. Fighting them would be impossible, given that we’re in their territory. We wouldn’t be able to escape, assuming we get past these capable warriors. The blacksmith called them Vanguards. They must be powerful. Hina whimpers weakly as they brand her arm the same, pulling her up afterward.

“Dat be embarassin’. Yer lady friend been quieter dan ya.”

She knew what was coming. I keep my thoughts to myself. On the bright side, we got the passes we needed to get out of here without wasting time. We were just on our way out, so this works for us.

“Nigh yer comin’ wiff us, boy,” one of them says and the two of the others tag along. They grab me as before.

“Kai, they’re separatin’ us!” Hina exclaims. I resist their pulls and turn around. She struggles to break free, but the two Dwarves restrain her and drag her toward the backroom.

“Wait, what’re you doing?!” I exclaim. My heart pounds rapidly as possibilities course through my mind. Is this the moment to fight back? Hina chose to tag along, but it’s still my fault she’s in this mess. This is my responsibility. I can’t let anything happen, but… I bite my lip. We could break free from this current situation, but we would alert everyone nearby. That wouldn’t be good for us, and we don’t know how to leave this place either. It’s a death wish.

“Juss shut up an’ walk. Dae wha’ we say, an’ we’ll return de girl alive,” one of them says as he yanks me arm forward.

“Kai!” Hina cries out.

“Don’t worry!” I exclaim, but they’re empty words to make her feel better. Though I’m fearful of what happens next, I want to say something else to follow up. I open my mouth, but no words come out. Something like, We’ll find a way out of here, seems like it would make the situation seem more hopeless.

Hina doesn’t say anything more. I don’t know of my meaningless words reassured her that it would be fine, if they shut her mouth, or something else. It’s better that she’s alive than dead.

I think back to my careless actions half a year ago. My stupid, selfish decisions that endangered everyone. It feels the same now as it did then. All the negative thoughts fill my head. What if we never make it out of this situation? What if it’s my fault something happens to Hina? It would be all my fault. I haven’t learned anything from my mistakes. Orders are everything, and I’m breaking them.

But it’s necessary to achieve my ultimate goal of finding those masked men… And things are different this time. I tried to do everything alone back then. Now, I have the support of everyone. Well, almost everyone. I should focus on what the Dwarves want me to do instead of the potential consequences if I fail. It’s not over until it’s over. I won’t let this result in another negative outcome like that day with General Nero again.

The Dwarves continue to pull me through these underground streets. The passersby give me long stares like I’m some kind of spectacle, be it a Human or Dwarf. If this was on the surface and roles were reversed, there’d be a very different reaction. Like how a war almost broke out when Elf slaves were discovered in the city.

Eventually, there’s a huge door ahead. Like the entrance I first came through, but at a different location. It’s strange how there’s no one guarding it, considering how much trouble they go through to make sure no one speaks of this place. You’d think they’d bother to station some guards.

They could be beyond the door next to the gate. That’s where the guards from the initial entrance went after they let us in. But, there’s no openings or windows along the wall. There’s no way for them to see us. It was like that at the entrance too.

As we approach the gate, the door next to it opens. A Dwarf emerges and asks, “Vanguards? What be guin on?”

Who are these guys? Everyone recognizes them by sight.

“Takin’ care o’ a high-risk rat. Let us through.”

“Roight away, sir,” he says and goes back into the door. He comes out less than a minute later. “All good ter go.”

What does he mean by high-risk? Because we’re from the army? Or because we didn’t have the pass? I’d ask them, but they wouldn’t answer.

He goes back into the door, closing it behind him. Two of the Dwarves pull the gate open. We go through the gate, which leads to a similar looking passage, except that it’s illuminated. So mysterious. A part of the wall sticks out like a rectangle at the end. The ceiling underneath is shorter than a standard room. At the end, there’s a ladder leading up. The closing of the doors behind us resound.

“Dun think abart runnin’. Ye knoo wha’ will happen ter yer friend, if ye dae.”

“I won’t,” I answer.

“Good.”

“Are you gonna tell me what you want me to do yet?”

“We juss need yer help wiff a wee somethin’.”

I don’t like the sound of that. If it’s only a little help, they won’t bother going through all this trouble. We reach the end of the room. There’s a small circular opening in the ceiling in front of the ladder. I could probably climb this without the ladder, though it would be tiresome. Darkness fills the void above the ladder. There’s also a narrow hallway to the left of the ladder and the right.

“Climb de ladder an’ wait fer us at de top.”

I do as he says and climb the ladder. Something rumbles from under us. I ignore it and continue my way up, eventually reaching in a tiny room enclosed by four solid wooden walls. The three Dwarves shortly arrive.

“Alright, take aff yer armor an’ remove yer weapons.”

“Uh, why?” I ask, feeling suspicious.

“Juss dae it er we will dae it fer ya.”

“Fine,” I concede and begin by unclipping my scabbards off my belt. Afterward, I take off my arm guards and then my chest plate. They’re not going to ask me to take off my clothes next, right?

Before I know it, they’re spread around the room. One on each side of the room. Each of them are looking through a small gap in the wall. I swear those holes weren’t there before.

“Clear dis side,” one of them says. I turn to him, who slides a part of the wall back that closes the small opening. “Take aff dat red waist cape. It sticks art loike a sore dumb. Ye will thank me later.”

I sigh as I loosen my belt momentarily to remove my waist cape without questioning him. He then presses a camouflaged button on the wall. A way out appears on the same side. He looks at me and continues, “Ya first.”

Beyond the door is a restaurant. The Dwarves around the room give me nothing but a glance. My eyes linger on a Dwarf with long hair. It reminds me what’s been bothering me. I haven’t seen any Dwarven women. And it can’t be that there aren’t any…but every Dwarf I’ve seen today had a beard.

If only this Dwarf was seated toward me instead of the other way. Then I could get a good look at the chest region to know for sure. I curl my lips inward. I’m not sure I want to imagine that. I don’t have anything against them but…they’re not my type.

“Get movin,” one of the Vanguards says and shoves me forward. He exerts too much force, and my face meets the ground. He gloats.

Shit. These bastards are making a fool of me, and I can’t do anything about it. I stand up and leave the building. This must be the Dwarven district. Seeing how there’s any direction I could go, I ask, “Where to now?”

“Dis way,” one of them says and walks in a direction. I follow him. It’s a little cold without my armor warmers. Hina and I are unquestionably going to be late to our agreed meetup time at the Icy Tavern. This is taking forever, and I still don’t know what they want me to do. It could take even longer. What will the others think?

We end up in an alleyway, but this one is different somehow. There’s a tall fence-like divider on one side. The city continues on the other side, so it must be another district.

“So haur be de ding. We have an escaped Aerkin who jumped de fence. We need ya ter go owor dare an’ find him. He does nae loike people, so he be probably hidin’ somewhere. Catch him an’ bring him back.”

“What’s the catch…? I ask skeptically. “Why can’t you do it instead? Why me?”

“’Tis nae a secret dat ‘tis de Xog district owor dare. Dae dun loike oder races walking in dare, so we be nae takin’ dat risk. Ye be instead. Dun be seen an’ ye will be fine.”

“Okay,” I respond. It’s not like I have much of a choice. With my armor off, it’ll be easier to scale this wall. “What’s this Aerkin look like?”

“’Tis a rat. Sin’ yer a rat, ya shou’ knoo wha’ dat looks loike. Let a rat catch a rat,” one of them says. They all laugh. “Get guin. We will be roight haur if ye need us.”

I don’t know how I’m going to find a rat…but there’s nothing to do but scale this wall first.

“Almost forgot. Ye will need dis,” one of them says and pulls out something from his shirt pocket. He tosses it to me without delay. “We dun want ya ter be seen. Dis be insurance.”

It’s a black balaclava with only the eye holes. Usually good for keeping the head warm, but could also be used for anonymity. I put it over my head and then adjust it to position the holes to be over my eyes. The mask obstructs my vision a bit that would be annoying if I had to fight with it on, but to catch a rat shouldn’t be a problem. I walk over to the wall while moving Scrap Mana to my legs with immediate activation, instructing them to strengthen my leg muscles for several seconds.

Upon reaching the wall, I jump, easily reaching the top of the barrier. The other side isn’t too different from the Dwarven side because it’s another alley. Luckily for me, this place is quiet, which means that the main street isn’t near here.

Wait a minute… How’d a rat escape that underground place? Those heavy doors blocked anything going in or out. Does that mean there are small holes in the ceiling or walls that lead to the surface? I imagine there would have to be ventilation holes present for oxygen. Breathing down there wasn’t so much different than in the city.

Still, I find it hard to believe a rat managed to run away. And how am I going to know if I catch the right rat? They could be everywhere…especially in a filthy place like this. Is that a food trail?

There are these thin, long brown things on the ground. They’re a tad bit bulkier than a rice grain. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say that’s poop. Rat poop.

Strange how I would stumble upon this as soon as jumping over the fence the Dwarves told me to, but I have no choice but to follow their orders. They can’t blame me if I bring back the wrong rat. They weren’t very specific in their instructions. They’re probably doing this for someone else, anyway. It’s likely that the Dwarves don’t know what this rat looks like either, so any rat should work.

I should be satisfied with that, but I’m not. If the rat escaped through an opening in the wall or ceiling, there’s no way for the Dwarves to track it. Let alone know that the rat traveled to the Xog district.

I remember how I saw a monster run in the city. The rat must’ve been the same. Brought from the outside. It was a little disobedient, escaped the owner, and climbed this wall. Yeah. That’s it.

I follow the feces trail to a connecting path. I continue, peeking my head out first to make sure it’s clear. I resume tracking the rat. Speaking of which, I haven’t seen a rat use any magic even though all living things have Mana. They aren’t exactly hostile creatures, though. I’ve noticed that docile animals don’t use magic. It makes me wonder what the owner was thinking of making a rat an Aerkin. The small size of the creature wouldn’t be any good for fighting. Even without magic, a larger beast could step on it with some force to end its life.

Small rustling resounds near a trash can. A long-tail connected to some white fur is visible near the end of it. I can’t tell if that’s a rat, but I’ll find out after I grab it. I haven’t seen a white rat before, but this could be why the owner decided to make this an Aerkin for good luck of sorts.

I don’t want the critter to run away. It would be troublesome if it did. If it retreated into a small hole, I’d be at a loss. And if its fast, so the chances of running into a Xog would increase.

I’ll have to be quick…or use Void magic. Using Void magic to catch a rat. I laugh to myself. Hina’s life is on the line, so I can’t take any chances.

I bond my Mana with Void Affinity, write the instructions, and send out my charged Mana. One quick movement is all I need. It will only stay active for two seconds – more than enough time. I raise my right arm and bend it in a 90-degree angle in front of my chest. The Mana activates upon reaching the destination. A circular portal appears right behind the rat. The other one is facing the tips of my fingers. The size of the gate is wider than it needs to be, but it allows some room for error in case the rat bends its body toward the edges of the portal.

I lunge my right arm into the portal and grab the white creature, careful not to use too much pressure. I quickly pull my arm back in the same motion. My magic disappears without a trace. The rat squeaks and tries to break free of my grasp. I bring it in front of my face and then stare into its black eyes.

It stops struggling for a moment and centers its head on me, staring right back. It stops squeaking too. Such a tiny creature. I almost want to let it go, but I need to return it to have Hina released unharmed. Sorry, bud. You’re going to have to come with me.

Suddenly, it escapes my grasp and leaps toward me. Before I know it, it leaps off the front of my body. My right hand lunges toward it before it’s too late. I’m sure I grasp onto it, but it slips away anyway. Oh, no!

I chase after it. Luckily it’s going on a straight path instead of climbing a wall or going into a hole. Some sort of thick liquid coats my right hand. It’s a bit gross. I wipe it onto my pants. The rat must have released it somehow to make it impossible for me to grab onto it. How am I supposed to catch it now? I should’ve put him in a box instead of carrying him. I was careless.

It scurries away while squeaking. It sounds more panic-stricken this time as if it’s crying for help. Worst case, I’ll have a rat swarm to deal with…but wait. That’s actually a good thing. I only need to bring back a rat. But for now, I need to make sure this rat doesn’t sway too far from this alley.

I grab onto a nearby trash can while running toward the rat. It’s not too fast, so I’m not worried about it straying too far. I dump the contents of the trash toward my left side. A whole bunch of junk falls to the ground. I’m careful not to trip on a random object. Soon, I catch up to the rat and slam the top side of the trash on it. Damn rat giving me so much trouble.

I retrace my steps a little to retrieve the garbage can lid. I’ll need it to keep the rat inside. I return to the trash can, the rat still squeaking pointlessly. No other rats have come to its aid.

Now, I need to scoop it into the empty trash can. If I’m not careful, I’ll have to repeat the entire process. I slowly lift one side of the trash can and put my head on the ground, so I can see through the small crack. There it is.

I raise the garbage can up and simultaneously use the lid to smack the rat inside like a ball. I return the trash can to a vertical position and close the lid. Can’t escape now even if you’re slippery. I turn back and begin retracing my steps.

It hasn’t even been a minute, but a bad feeling creeps down my spine. Then a quiet sound behind me. I turn around and find a monster in the air coming my way. I widen my eyes.

But it’s not like any monster I’ve seen. It’s too late to do any evasive maneuvers. It slams into the trash can. I hold onto the garbage can tightly. I can’t afford to lose the rat after coming this far. The blow is powerful, and I fall through the air backward, eventually sliding aross the ground. As I come to a stop, the lid pops off. No!

The rat jumps out, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I toss the can aside now that it serves no purpose. It gives me full view of this thing in front of me. It’s standing upright. An upright monster… There’s only one thing that it could be. Xog.

The clothing choice makes it clear that this one’s a girl. The fur on her face is colored like that of a tiger, mostly orange with some white and black. The head isn’t like a Dwarf, Human, or Elf but that of an animal. It bulges out with a pink nose in front and white whiskers protruding from the sides of the face.

I don’t know if the fur extends throughout her body under those clothes, but they do cover all four paws. Long claws extend from each of them. Her orange tail with black stripes wags slowly as she stares at me silently with her golden eyes. It sends a chill down my spine.

I…I need to get out of here! The Xog hasn’t moved yet, so it gives me time to move Scrap Mana into my legs. I’ll get up and dash for it at the same moment.

Now! I activate my magic and kick off the ground. The moment I turn around, another one of them is running toward me. The same fur and golden eyes but different clothes, I think he’s a dude. His steps are entirely silent. I can’t stop my sprint at this point, so I swerve to the side. There’s no space in this damn alley. The random obstacles like trash cans and boxes don’t help. My heart skips a beat as he extends his claws right at the moment I pass him.

I dive forward along the side of the wall, but I’m still within his range. I grit my teeth as his claws swipe across my chest. I crash into several trash cans. With no time to lose, I get up and continue running without looking back.

He ripped off a large portion of my sweatshirt. He barely scratched the surface of my skin enough to draw trace amounts of blood. Good that it wasn’t deep.

Since their footsteps are silent, I don’t know if they’re chasing me. I hope they don’t have more friends nearby.

Suddenly, a stone wall erupts in front of me right before the intersection, leaving not even a sliver of space on the sides. I don’t see a way through the top either, which leaves me one choice. I move Rich Mana into my right palm and then exclaim, “Fireball! Fireball! Fireball!

Balls of fire fly toward the center of the wall. I don’t know what kind of Mana they’ve utilized, so it’s hard to tell how much Durability it has. I can only hope that three of my fireballs will be enough to leave an opening big enough for me to leap through.

My magic collides with the wall and rips a hole through it with only the first one, so it was probably made of Scrap Mana. Since an actual wall was right in front of the magic wall, my balls of fire burst into nothing soon after. It returns my Fire Affinity immediately, so I can create a larger opening for myself before I reach the wall.

Fireball! Fireball!” I exclaim and point them at different points near the first hole.

I lunge through the opening head first with my arms extended forward. After going through and before I hit the ground, I launch myself back into an upright position by pushing my arms into the ground. I make a quick turn to my left. With the corner of my eye, I notice that they’re still coming for me, though they are lagging behind. I don’t linger a moment and maintain my rush forward.

I come to a stop in front of the barrier between the Xog district and the Dwarven district. It’s not exactly where I initially vaulted over the wall, but I want to lose my pursuers. I clear the wall. The Dwarves are no longe stationed where I left them. I don’t know if those tiger guys are going to keep chasing me, but I don’t waste any time standing still.

It doesn’t take long before I reach the main street filled with Dwarves. They’re probably giving me strange glances, but I don’t care. I’m used to it by this point. The only place I know where those Vanguards could be is that restaurant I came through when we left the underground area.

The Vanguards are waiting outside my destination. Those Xog aren’t chasing me.

“Relax. Dae be nae guin ter come haur,” one of the Vanguards says. None of them look surprised that I got attacked.

I look down, regretting I was careless the first time I caught the rat. If it weren’t for that, I’d have accomplished the task. Now, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ll be honest. It’s worked out for me so far. They could give me another opportunity to accomplish the task. I inform, “I didn’t get the rat. It got away.”

“’Tis all good. Come haur,” one of them says and points to the space between the restaurant and the building next door.

Are they going to kill me where there aren’t any prying eyes? I walk there as instructed. Worst comes to worst, I’ll fight back. Then break into the underground place with everyone to break Hina out.

“Listen, ye did well an’ accomplished de main goal. We will let de girl go,” one of them says.

I smile for a moment but then frown and knit my eyebrows. “What do you mean I did well? I didn’t get back the Aerkin.”

They snicker. “Dare been nivver an escaped Aerkin, boy.”

I was set up…? I grab one of them and exclaim, “Wha-what do you mean?!”

He shoves me away and answers, “Get yer hands aff me. Yer lucky we left both o’ ya alive. Be thankful fer dat.”

I grimace, not knowing what they really wanted from me. Did they want to give me a scare? Or did they just want me to wander into the Xog district? As far as I know, it’s not illegal to go there, just frowned upon. There shouldn’t be a problem.

“O’im guin ter contact de oders,” one of them says. The other two nod their head. He walks away, presumably back into the restaurant.

“Ward o’ advice, boy. Ye shou’ ditch yer shirt an’ replace it as soon as possible,” one of the two remaining Vanguards says. He walks over to me and takes my mask off. “Ay will take dat aff yer hands too.”

He’s obviously saying this in case those two tiger humanoids come looking for me. I ask, “Why’re you giving me advice? If you think I’m gonna be a problem.”

“We be only wha’ be necessary ter ensure secrecy. Dun confuse us fer ruthless barbarians. We cou’ have easily slaughtered ya underground wiffout anyone ever findin’ art.”

“You could at least tell me what’s gonna happen next,” I say. This is all strange to me. “How’re you gonna ensure that I don’t rat after you leave?”

The other Dwarf returns. “De oders be on dare way. Seems loike we have a chatty one, dun we.”

Somehow, they have a way to contact people long-distance. That’s confirmed now. The same way we got caught earlier not too long after entering the underground place. They contacted Nazug somehow to verify the information. Now, that’s two magic items they have that I’ve never heard of.

“We cou’ tell ya, but dat ruins de fun. Dae ye want ter ruin de fun?” one of them asks.

“Yes,” I respond. I’m not trying to have fun here, especially when it regards my safety.

He lets out a drawn out sigh. “Haur be wha’ Ay will tell ya. Dun let dem find ya, er ’tis curtains fer ya. Dats all ye need ter knoo. Dun get caught.”

So he’s still not going to tell me straight up. They’ve only told me what I already know. I sigh. Now it’s a waiting game for Hina.

I think back to my encounter with the Xog. How’d they discover me in the first place? I couldn’t hear their approach at all. Was it the rat? The Vanguards told me that there never was an escaped Aerkin, but a conveniently placed rat right there can’t be a coincidence. That must’ve been how they discovered me. An incredibly good sense of hearing. If that’s true…they should also a great sense of smell.

I gulp and look at the damage they did to my sweatshirt. They could locate me by following my scent. That means that they could find me by following my scent. They’ve marked me. I can’t simply ditch the shirt now, or I’ll really be out of place without a shirt in the dead of winter in this city. It’s also cold. The Vanguards snort as if they know my exact thoughts.

Now I understand why they had me wear the mask and ditch my armor. Those tiger humanoids shouldn’t be able to find me once I switch outfits and put my other equipment on. The smell is the main problem. I’ll have Hina buy something for me, and I’ll return to our assigned inn for a shower.

Wait…to begin with, why am I scared that those upright monsters will come after me? They’re not going to attack me in the middle of an entire city. The same reason why I wouldn’t attack an Elf or a Dwarf, especially given that it’s the Inteiru Expota. There’s obviously something the Dwarves aren’t telling me that would certainly explain things. I’ll just have to wait and see.

Eventually, the two other Vanguards join us with Hina, along with my things.

“Kai!” Hina exclaims and runs to me. She gives me a tight hug. I hug back. “I’m glad you’re okay.”

“We will leave ya nigh. Haur be yer final warnin’. If ye er any o’ yer friends rat, we will nae hesitate ter turn ya in,” one of them says before all of them turn their backs and walk away.

Hina lets me go. I ask, “Did anything happen to you?”

“No, nothin’. They took me to a room, they didn’t do anythin’. “

Is that absolutely true, though? She could be putting up a front to avoid talking about it. I look into her eyes and ask again, “Are you sure? Nothing happened?”

Nothing happened. That’s scary thinkin’ about it for other reasons…” she mutters and shivers.

She sounds normal, so she’s telling the truth. That’s a relief.

“What about you?” she asks and looks at the scratch mark on my chest. “Showin’ off your battle scars again, I see.”

I sigh and reply, “I’m fine, but I have a lot to catch you up on. We don’t have any time to waste.”

“We’re goin’ to be so late,” Hina says.

“Mind as well be later. I’m gonna go back to the first inn. I need to shower and ditch my shirt,” I say while putting all my armor and weapons back on.

Hina looks at me with a skewed frown. “I don’t know what happened to you, but don’t you think meetin’ with the others is more important? They’re goin’ to be pissed.”

“I’d rather that they’d be pissed than total disaster taking place. The Dwarves tricked me into doing something. Well, I didn’t have a choice.”

“What happened?”

“Okay, look… The Dwarves said they needed help catching an Aerkin. Told me it was a rat, and I had to go into the Xog district for that. Didn’t specify on the rat, so I went for the first rat I saw. It was a white rat nearby. After a bit of struggle, I trapped the rat into a trash can. But then… I was attacked by a Xog.”

Hina raises her eyebrows and asks, “You saw it? What’d they look like?”

“Yeah,” I respond and then start walking toward the center of Syrina. “I don’t blame you for being scared anymore. Imagine a Human…but with the head replaced with a tiger’s head and the skin replaced with fur. That’s essentially what I saw in a nutshell. The head’s not precisely the same, but you get the point.”

“An upright monster…”

“Literally. They’ve got the senses and physical advantages of a monster too. Their paws allowed them to sneak up on me in total silence. I think they also heard the rat squeaking from far away. I know for a fact that the main street was nowhere near me at the time, so either they happen to be in the area, or they heard from afar.”

“Don’t talk about them anymore!” Hina says while pressing her palms onto her ears and grimacing with her eyes shut.

“They’ve got claws, a tail...and wore clothes,” I continue.

Hina takes her hands off her head and asks, “Clothes?”

“Yup.”

“Why? They’ve got fur.”

“Beats me. Could be to distinguish their gender? The two I encountered wore distinctively different styles of clothing. One was girly, and the other one wasn’t. I could be wrong, but it’s not like I had a whole lot of time to study them thoroughly. I was running for my life. If I had stayed any longer, more of them might’ve appeared.”

“Maybe they don’t have any fur closer to the center of their body.”

“Perhaps. Next time, I’ll ask them nicely to take off their clothes so that I can make sure. Those two I encountered weren’t very friendly, attacking me with no warning. Didn’t speak a word to me throughout the entire encounter.”

“It’s strange why’d they attack you. People said bein’ in the Xog district was allowed but frowned upon. Do you think they’re goin’ to come lookin’ for you?”

“That’s what I’m worried about. That’s why I’m ditching the shirt and taking a shower.”

“But…they saw you, didn’t they?”

“Oh, right. I forgot to mention the Dwarves gave me a balaclava to wear. They definitely knew I was gonna get attacked, but they didn’t say anything. By the time I got back to them, they didn’t even care I failed to capture the rat because it wasn’t an escaped Aerkin to start with. It was all a trick.”

“All a trick...? The whole point was to get attacked by the Xog?”

“I don’t know what else it could be.”

“Hmm…so you’re concerned that they’re goin’ to sniff you out.”

“Exactly. The Dwarves mentioned that I shouldn’t get caught by the Xog.”

“What’s the worst that could happen? They wouldn’t dare attack you in the midst of the city. Too many pryin’ eyes. They wouldn’t want to start a war.”

“I don’t know. The Dwarves are hiding something important. I wish they’d tell me outright. Now, all I can do is trust their warning. I think they’re trying to be helpful in their own twisted way like suggesting I ditch the shirt. They’re just not very direct about it. Like how they’ve gone through a roundabout way of silencing us using the Xog threat. They said they’ll turn me in to them if they ever find out we tell someone about the Aerkin arena.”

“What’re we goin’ to do if we can’t disclose it to Aisha’s team? They’re goin’ to want a good explanation to why we’ve been gone so long.”

“No, I think they meant the army…or the government. They called us army dogs, remember?” I ask. I almost forgot Hina can’ t comprehend most of what they’re saying, so she might’ve not caught that. “We should be fine if we reveal everything we’ve discovered…but can we trust Ada and her team with that information? They could decide to tell someone.”

“I say we tell them. We’re goin’ to need their cooperation to continue with our investigation.”

I’m skeptical. Mainly because Ada and I used to be at each other’s throats. She’s cooperating now, but I’ll never forget how she treated me in the past. A part of me still can’t trust her fully. She could screw me at any point. At the same time, I have to take the risk. Hopefully, her team can keep her in check if she has another bout of anger. I saved her life, so unless she’s an ungrateful brat, I won’t have anything to worry about.

“Fine, we’ll tell them,” I concede. “But something still bothers me about why the Dwarves are trying so hard to keep things a secret.”

“I know what you mean. We know that their underground base must’ve been built at the same time as Syrina. I’m sure that Humans built the city considerin’ the villages in Neomeris are populated by us. It would be strange if the other races played a role in the construction of the capital.”

“Exactly…and we know Viessa told us that other races could live here or do work about three Inteiru Expotas ago. The Dwarves weren’t here until about then.”

“Don’t we already know the answer then?” Hina asks. I cock an eyebrow. “The government must already know about the underground city. They allowed the Dwarves to build it or even constructed it themselves.”

“The Humans built it…” I mutter. “Of course! It’s all for the sake of coexistence. They must’ve used the underground city as some sort of bargaining chip to convince the Dwarves to come to live here.”

“If that’s true, why would those Dwarves go through so much trouble to threaten us?”

“Yeah…that has me stumped. I find it hard to believe that they’ve managed to stop everyone from ratting for ten whole years. Why don’t we go probe for more information down there? Floyd might know more. The Casino, he said.”

“We barely got out, and you want to go back? First things first, we need to inform the others on what we’ve found.”

“Yeah, yeah. But first, buy me a replacement shirt, would you? Gonna need a new one. You have money with you?”

“I have more than enough,” Hina says with a giggle.

I cock an eyebrow and then warn, “You don’t wanna fuck with me.”

“I won’t. Anythin’ warm should be good, right?”

“Yeah. You don’t need to spend too much thought on it. We don’t have any time to spare,” I say, feeling like she’s still going to ignore that and buy something ridiculous.

“Don’t worry, Marin’s goin’ to love it,” she says with a mischievous smile.

I sigh. Well, it can’t be all that bad. My chest plate will be covering most of it. We split ways after finding our way into the Human district. I increase my pace back to The Windmill Inn.

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