The Selection

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Chapter 66 - Inteiru Expota - Inequality

I reach the inn and go inside. There’s one thing we forgot to do before we left. Purchase the available rooms for the next few days. Worst case, we only need a few for the ministers, and the rest of us will have to make do without one.

Apparently, the Neomeris government has already reserved twenty rooms for us. I show the receptionist my army ID card, and then he hands me a key. Makes sense to do it this way to avoid overcrowding of the representatives of the Inteiru Expota into one location. They must’ve met and planned this.

I head upstairs and then find my room. I close the door and lock the door before taking off everything.

Crap. I don’t know how good their nose is, but couldn’t they track my scent to this room? I walk over to the window and then open it. Well, this should do fine. I take off my sweatshirt, rolling it into a ball. Don’t want to be seen doing this. I hide around the edge of the window and crouch. Then, I toss out my shirt before closing the window. It’s in clear view in the middle of the street with a couple of confused bystanders.

I strip the remainder of my clothes before hopping into the shower. The blood is a problem. I might have to find a clinic with a healer to quickly close the wound. They might be able to track me that way. It’s not that much, though. Should be enough to wash it off.

I finish with the shower and then dress my lower half. I shiver. It’s a little cold coming right out of the bathroom. I wrap myself with a towel in the bathroom. It doesn’t really help, but it’s something.

Now, I just have to wait for Hina to arrive with my surprise. I unlock the door and leave it slightly open. I lay across the bed while I’m waiting.

There’s some faint communication going on in the lobby area. Then footsteps coming up the stairs. Hina’s here already?

I sit up and then open the door. I hold my breath, realizing that this isn’t Hina. It’s a young girl with short white hair. Big round white ears with a pink center on the top of her head. Two teeth are sticking out of her mouth, just like a rat. Unless it’s all a prop, this has to be another one of the Xog. But, the skin on her face is white and hairless. The rest of her facial features are like a Human’s. Same goes for the rest of the body, including the hands. Except for the furless tail protruding from the back end of her clothes.

With her eyes still closed, she wiggles her nose while leaning closer to me. Her nose has to be different because there’s no way to wiggle the nose left and right otherwise. Has she not noticed me yet? I feel like it isn’t a coincidence that a rat girl showed up at my door. I’m not sure what to make of this situation.

She definitely tracked my scent here, but with what lead? Is this the white rat that I captured? Somehow it turned into a normal-sized Human with rat features. God. This doesn’t make any sense. What do I do?

She suddenly opens her eyes and asks, “Are you who the Feloidians are looking for?”

“Uhhh…” I interject to stall for time. I’m certain that I’m the one she’s looking for, but I can’t get caught now. My heart is pounding. What would a normal person say in this situation? “Who’re you?”

“Oh, excuse my manners,” she says and bows her head before looking up again. “I’m Pem.”

“Kai,” I introduce and hold out my hand. I’m afraid she might notice that I’m nervous, but I’m trying to stay as calm as one can be in this situation. “Nice to meet you.”

She smiles and grabs my hand, but instead of shaking it, she lowers her head toward it.

I pull my arm back before she makes contact and ask, “What’re you doing?”

Pem gives me a look of confusion for several seconds and then says, “Oh, I’m sorry. Humans don’t do that?”

“No…” I answer, not sure what she was planning to do. I figure she might have never seen a simple handshake. It might not exist in Xog culture. “Grab my hand with yours.”

She reaches out and grabs onto my hand. I continue, “Now we tighten our grasps a little and move it up and down a little. This is called a handshake. It’s our common greeting for meeting new people. Well, I’m sure Dwarves and Elves do it too, but I can’t say for sure.”

“Oh, I see. Thank you for teaching me!” she exclaims.

She’s still holding onto my arm while going through the up and down motion. I say, “No problem. You’re only supposed to do it for a few seconds tops. You can let go now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I need to check something. Can I come in?” Pem asks.

She’s going to be suspicious if I reject her. But, what if she figures out that I’m the one she wants?

She walks closer to me and sniffs. Her cheery and calm demeanor is suddenly broken when she asks, “Are you hiding something?”

Shit. Did she figure it out? No matter, I’ll keep on playing the ignorance card. “I don’t know what you’re referring to, but you’re free to come in.”

I gulp as she accepts my invitation to come in. For the first time, I notice that she has two weapons attached to her Titanium belt. The hilt style reminds me of a rapier, but it isn’t one. There isn’t any blade for that matter. It looks almost as if the belt is the weapon. That would make more sense than the concept of a metal belt.

She narrows her eyebrows and paces around me. Pem says, “Let me see your chest.”

That’s what she’s going for. That scratch the tiger guy managed to get on me?

“What are you waiting for? Take off the towel,” she demands.

My palms sweat, and my heart beats faster. I respond, “No, I’m not gonna show you my chest for no reason.”

“So you are hiding something…” she says and wiggles her nose. “You can’t fool me. I smell your fear.”

What?! She can do that?! What do I do now? Fight her? My weapons are too far out of my reach. There has to be another way out of this. Wait. Fear… Monsters…

“So-sorry…” I mutter with a trembling voice. I make and break eye contact several times. “I didn’t want you to know because it’s a little embarrassing… I’m kinda scared by you.”

Her expression loosens up. She bows her head again and says, “Oh, no. I should apologize!”

I cock an eyebrow. I really don’t know what to make of this situation. Her attitude changes so easily.

Pem continues, “It’s your first time seeing one of us Xog, right?”

“Yeah,” I answer. “I’m not from around here.”

“Same here. What a coincidence,” she says and then laughs. When she’s not giving me a death stare, she seems like an ordinary nice girl…with a few extra features. If it weren’t for those front teeth bulging out of her mouth, she’d be quite attractive. “I didn’t know Humans were frightened so easily… I think you’ll cry when you’re in the presence of Feradians.”

Cry?” I ask and then crack a skeptical smile. I quickly drop it, realizing I’m supposed to be scared. “Maybe…if they’re really that scary… What’re they?”

“I’ll tell you a few things for free to show that you don’t have to be scared of me. I’m not going to eat you,” she says with a grin while patting me on the head. I don’t like how she’s looking down on me, but that’s a good thing in this case. “We Xog are the most diverse race on this planet. We’re split into two categories. The Dociforms, who exhibit less beast-like characteristics, and the Feradians, who are the opposite. They look more like beasts, but none of us are what other races call monsters.”

“Who’re the Feloidians then?” I ask, remembering that she mentioned it earlier.

“There’s a second way we’re categorized. By our physical features. The Feloidians are the feline beasts, and I’m a Muriform, a family of mostly rodents. Particularly, I’m a rat type, but you can’t really tell most of us apart by glance. We all look similar other than rabbits or those who exhibit more beast traits.”

“Oh,” I interject. Should I ask more questions? Something more specific as to why those Felodians are looking for me. There’s no mistake that those tiger guys I ran into were part of that group. But, I can’t let her show any more nervousness. She’s going to be suspicious, and I can’t keep playing the scared card. Hina, hurry up! She’s the only one that can get me out of this situation.

“Want to see something cool?” She asks with a grin. It seems like she’s the one who wants to show me something, if anything. Before I can answer, she exclaims, “Look!”

She raises her hand in front of her and then something crackles within it. Her wrist and fingers pop out of their sockets and bend in impossible ways. I blurt out, “What the hell?!”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you!” she exclaims and returns her hand to normal somehow. “I wanted to show you my special ability to soften and harden my bones. It pretty much allows me to dislocate my bones without any consequence. Cool, right?”

“Yeah…that’s interesting,” I reply. I guess she only looks similar to us., Like Dwarves, Xog may have their own special adaptations that are unique to them. She mentioned that there were different types of Xog. It’s a fair assumption to conclude that they have a variety of different features. If she can do this to her bones, she can essentially bend her body in any way she wants. I can’t imagine what it would be like to fight someone like that in combat.

“So, what special powers do Humans have?” she asks with sparkling eyes.

It seems like she’s genuinely interested, but only disappointment awaits her. We can’t see in the dark, we can’t melt rocks, and we can’t do things like dislocating our bones. There’s nothing special about us. We’re weak and pitiful creatures unable to do anything right no matter how hard we try. It’s so unfair, but we lost the game of life. I respond, “Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

“Oh, come on. There has to be something! After all, you’re different than other Humans.”

I knit my eyebrows. “What do you mean? I’m the same as everyone else.”

“No, you’re different,” she says and sniffs me. “You smell different. You’re different than the other Humans out there.”

I instantly think about my Mana. That’s the only thing I know that’s different than anyone else. I’m the only one with this Mana. Is that what she’s referring to? How can she tell that by smelling, though? I can’t afford to show her my Mana, so that’s another thing I’ll have to hide from her… The ignorance card is all I have. Hopefully, she can’t smell lies. Otherwise, I’m screwed.

“There must be a mistake. I don’t know what could be different about me, if there is.”

She pouts and answers, “That’s boring. If you let me inspect you, I might be able to tell you. You’ll have to show me your chest first.”

“I assure you there’s nothing special about my chest.”

“Show me! I need to see it.”

“Why do you wanna see my chest so badly…?” I ask, feeling like I might be treading into dangerous territory. She’s going to notice that my concern increases after asking that question.

“I’m sorry for being rude all this time. I haven’t told you anything,” she says and bows her head. “I received orders from my boss to find the Human male with a diagonal scar across his chest. They gave me a small piece of his clothing I used to track here. So, can you show me now?”

Shit, shit, shit. That’s definitely me. If I show her, it’s over. If I don’t show her, she’s going to suspect something too. I think of something that might work, but I don’t know. What other options do I have? None. She’s probably already smelling the fear from me now. I need an explanation, fast.

“No, look. There’s something you don’t understand. I don’t know if it’s because it’s normal in your culture, but…we Humans don’t show each other our bare skins that easily,” I say. The fact that it’s in the winter plays to my advantage. No one’s walking around bare-chested in this weather. If this is her first time here, she hasn’t seen that and has no reference. I continue, “We need a certain level of intimacy and trust first, you know?”

“Hmm… I understand. Will you feel more comfortable if I bare my chest first?” Pem asks. She starts undressing her top.

Oh, no. What have I done? I can’t tell if this girl is seriously sheltered or if Xog’s values and common sense are that much different than ours. I could tell her to stop, but she might take offense to it. It doesn’t make any sense as to why it might offend her, but at this point, I have no idea what to think.

In no time, she takes off her bra, revealing small but round and full breasts. I gulp as my lower half becomes quite excited despite those hideous teeth. Her face isn’t red at all. It makes me think that she does this sort of thing all the time with her own race.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she exclaims and bows her head. What’s going on now? I’ve gotten used to her apologetic behavior. “My master taught me not to allow weaker males to copulate with me. If you want to do that, you’ll have to beat me in a duel first.”

“Pardon?” I mutter and cock an eyebrow. Did she just…?

“Oh, I’m sorry. I also forgot to mention there are laws preventing us from copulating with other races. So, don’t get your hopes up,” she says with a grin. “I fear you might die trying otherwise. I wouldn’t want to accidentally kill you for nothing, ehehe. I would get into big trouble for that. Besides, I want to be friends with other races! That means you too!”

I sigh and palm my face. I can’t believe I was scared of this girl. At this point, it’s easy to see that she’s just a naïve idiot. If I wanted to, I could convince her to…no, no, no. I have Marin.

“What’s wrong?” Pem asks. “Are you going to show me your chest now?”

“No, look. What I really mean was that when we lay ourselves bare, we plan to have sex.”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” she exclaims and hurriedly dresses. “That’s why you got excited. I’m sorry for confusing you. I can’t do that with you. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, it’s okay. So, that’s why I can’t show you my chest,” I say.

“Don’t worry, I understand,” she says. She tilts her head. “That puts me in quite a pickle, though…”

“That window over there was open when I got here,” I say and nudge my head in that direction. “Maybe the guy you’re looking for went out there?”

“Oh…” she mutters and walks over to the window. “The smell does seem to lead here.”

Pem opens the window and sticks her head out the window. She leans back inside moments later. “I’m sorry, but I have to return to work.”

“That’s totally fine,” I answer. Please leave.

She walks up to me and leans into my personal space. I don’t move and try to keep calm as she sniffs me all over from head to toe without explanation.

“Okay, I’ve memorized your scent. I’ll remember you as my first Human friend. Kai, right?”

“Yeah…and you’re Pem,” I respond. I feel a bit honored that she’d call me her first Human friend when all I’ve done is mislead her.

“Yep. Thanks for showing me that Humans aren’t as wicked as they say,” she says with a smile. “I’ll come to say hi when I’m not busy. Bye, and I’m sorry!”

She dives out the window. What’s she sorry for this time? Wait… If she’s looking for the scent, the shirt I threw is literally right there. I run to the window and look down. Pem is gone, and so is the shirt I threw.

The shirt is in her possession, and she memorized my scent. It won’t take long at all for a nose of her caliber to figure out that it’s been me all along. But isn’t that why she apologized again? She already knows? This situation can’t be any worse than it is. I sigh.

“What’re you sighin’ for?” Hina asks. What timing she has. She’s at the door with a white thing in her hand, presumably my replacement attire. “We’re you talkin’ to someone?

“Yeah, I’ll have to catch you up again.”

“Nevermind that for now. Check this out,” she says and tosses me the white clothing.

That’s when it’s evident that Hina bought something new for herself too. A black sweatshirt with the image of a slice of cheese in the middle. Mine has a black rat in the middle. Seriously? I’ve had enough rats for one day.

“I had a hard time decidin’, but I figure we should have matchin’ tops, so people don’t grow suspicious of us, you know?”

“You could’ve chosen something better…”

“Come on, there’s nothin’ better than this,” she says and giggles. “With everythin’ that’s happened.”

I grimace and shake my head before putting it on. At least it’s warm. I replay the events that happened while Hina was on her shopping trip as I equip everything back on.

She looks at me like I’m hopeless and says, “I can’t believe you took advantage of that poor rat girl and made her strip. As expected of the lady killer.”

I can’t believe that nickname has been spreading throughout the Castle. I swear, I’m going to kill Jetia one of these days.“That’s all you have to say? I didn’t make her strip. There’re more important things we need to worry about here.”

“We don’t have time to fancy your rat fetish,” Hina says. I stare at her blankly. “I’m kiddin’, okay? So serious…”

“Gee, I don’t know. It’s not because of a bunch of intelligible upright monsters with superpowers are all looking for me, and Pem has strong evidence that it was me. Her smell’s so powerful that she can tell if I’m scared or even excited. And it’s not because we’re extremely late for our team meeting. Now, let’s leave,” I say and walk out the door.

Hina follows and says, “Well, to be fair. You don’t need a superpower to tell if a man has a boner.”

I pretend that she didn’t say that and move on. We eventually arrive at the Icy Tavern.

Ada and the others are practically scowling at us the moment we walk inside. They’re at the same table as before. Lotrem and the Dwarves with him are gone.

“You’re late,” Ada says and pounds the table with her palms. “All because you guys decided to go on a date? Have you forgotten our objective?”

This doesn’t look good from our end. I understand their frustration, and I’m not sure how to start explaining how we got ourselves in this situation. It first requires confessing that we broke the ground rules.

“It’s not what it looks like,” Hina initiates as we pull up a chair and sit down. “We got here as soon as we could.”

Well, that’s not exactly accurate, but I don’t want to waste any more time messing around. I’ll let her tell the story, only filling in the blanks when I need to. She’ll probably need me to do that a lot, actually, considering her inability to comprehend the Dwarves. Then there’s my personal account of my encounter with the Xog.

So, we tell them everything that we learned from Lotrem, to the underground city, to my meetings with the Feloidians and Pem.

“And here we are,” I conclude. They didn’t interrupt us once during our story, despite revealing that we broke the ground rules. And now, they aren’t saying anything. It’s a lot to take in.

“So, basically…You guys found nothing,” Ada breaks the silence.

I cock an eyebrow and say, “No, did you hear a word we—”

“We heard everything. I don’t need to know about your attraction to rats. Clearly, you’ve forgotten our main objective.”

True, it did leave my mind for a bit because I was more concerned with matters closely tied to our lives. I don’t want her to feel like she’s won this conversation. I reply, “No, we haven’t. The underground area could be a potential base of operations for the masked men. They already have the Aerkin arena, which probably isn’t allowed up here, so that means there could be more illegal dealings down there.”

“He has a point, Ada,” Aisha says.

“Tch. I didn’t say there wasn’t a possibility there. He went on too many tangents talking about the Dwarves and the Xog. That stuff doesn’t matter to us now. I don’t care if Humans built the underground area or the Dwarves did. I don’t care when it was built. He’s already wasted two of our hours. The least he could do was cut the filler when he briefed us.”

Even though Ada has stopped coming after my throat, it doesn’t mean she’s stopped being less of a bitch. I can’t believe no one was interested in the Achilles Sundance Circuit or that the other races have special abilities. It almost makes me feel stupid for not going along with Hina’s antics. These people are too serious.

“Well, I’m glad that he didn’t,” Aisha says.

“Why are you on his side?” Ada asks.

“I’m not on anyone’s side, but what they discovered could be of great use to us. The other races could very well be involved with the attack on our city as long as there exist members of other races with animosity toward races not their own,” Aisha says. Ada stays sighs and says nothing more. The power dynamics in their group are too uneven. Either that or only Aisha wants to talk over Ada.

Aisha continues, “From what Ada and I have observed in the Elven District, Elves treat Humans with prejudice. Deniz and Melody were mistreated by Dwarves in a restaurant in the Dwarven district. Humans are guilty of this too. We don’t treat each other equally. It’s going to be hard to achieve coexistence when we don’t respect everyone the same in our own society. We learned that first-hand as female members of the army.”

That goes along with my discussion with Hina, Marin, and Ruby the other day. How there are rumors about how all the high ranked females in the army slept their way up the ladder. In either case, it seems like women have the unfair advantage. Because there are more of them at the top of the ladder than at the bottom.

But many people look down on females that learn the art of melee weaponry. Though, it’s true that they tend to gravitate toward Archer and Mage positions as I’ve observed in adventurer groups. It was the same for us too.

Is that problem truly one and the same as pursuing friendly relations with other races? I’m not sure. It’s not as if there aren’t any friendly Dwarves, Elves, or Xog. I don’t know if Pem means good at this point, considering the situation. But Lotrem seemed welcoming. And Viessa is trying to push for coexistence. Our initial encounter was a bit rough, but that quickly changed.

Well, if we mistreat females from other races as we do in our own population, that might be seen as something much more because they’re not Human on top of it. It depends mainly on how they treat each other and what’s normal.

There’s one thing I have to make certain. I say, “Before you guys tell us what you’ve found, promise me that you’re not gonna tell anyone about the Aerkin arena underground.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Aisha says. “We already know about it.”

“Pardon?”

“More accurately, we know about the Achilles Sundance Circuit, but not the Aerkin arena. The same general rules applied for Drymo, though. If you try to report it to the authorities, successful or not, you’ll be hunted down by all sorts of people,” Aisha informs.

“Did you live in the Royal District?” Hina asks. “I didn’t expect that out of you.”

“I didn’t want people treating me differently, so I didn’t make it obvious. I purposely dressed in commoner clothes,” Aisha says.

“We’ve always known that Aisha was something special since day one. That’s why none of us raised a fuss when Aisha made herself the leader,” Deniz says.

Everyone snortles. Even Ada joins. Aisha blushes and says, “Don’t talk about the past. I’m embarrassed thinking about my entitlement and immaturity from those days.”

I scoff. I’m a little irritated by their tangent. Ada’s the one who was going off on me about filler, and here we are. All eyes are suddenly on me, but I don’t know what to say. “Ahem…so how’d you learn about Aerkins?”

“Well, my family’s actually the one sponsoring most of the battles that take place in Drymo. We have an underground arena of our own under our home. I’ve watched a lot of the battles for fun before enrolling in the Academy. It’s a little embarrassing, but I wanted only wanted to attend because, in the legend, Achilles was an adventurer too. I wanted to train a companion of my own one day,” Aisha explains.

Doris and Melody laugh. “She forced Melody and me into learning archery because she wanted to practice training us. She was already good because of tutoring lessons by a pro.”

“Enough about the past. Before we move on to our discoveries, there’s something you two should know about the pass you received from the Dwarves,” Aisha says.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Don’t let anyone from the army or any government official see you have the marking,” she warns.

I gulp and then ask, “What happens if someone does?”

“I have no clue. They crack down on this sort of thing a lot because of the dangers it presents to the population, if a monster escaped into the city or went berserk at the wrong place. They’re willing to punish anyone who is known to have any connections to the sport. I haven’t heard back from those who’ve been caught.”

“Who takes them? The army?” Hina asks.

“Yes. That’s why you should get the mark removed as soon as possible. The consequences could extend to your entire platoon.”

“Well, we still need it, for now, so we’ll be careful,” I say and then turn to Ada. “Don’t even think about turning me in. Or I’ll feed them Aisha too. And her family.”

Ada scowls and answers, “I wouldn’t do that.”

“Now, now. Let’s be nice,” Aisha says and then turns to Doris. “Moving on. Why don’t you start, Doris? With your big discovery. “

Doris nods and then says, “Well, Irwin and I found two suspicious men. After eavesdropping, we found out that they’re keeping someone in a dark place where no one can hear his screams. They’re planning to go back later to torture him. It was going to be the last time, so they plan to kill him.”

That does sound dubious. I ask, “Who do they have?”

“Some guy named Porters,” Irwin answers. “They used some very vivid descriptions for the few words we caught. Their plans for their victim were progressively more intense than the previous. To summarize what they said, they we’re going to start mild by dripping hot wax onto him. Then, simultaneously choke and, ‘beat the shit out of him.’ Later, cutting him slowly with a dull knife. Finally, in the most sickening voice, ’Show no mercy.’”

“Is Porters someone important?” I ask. “Why’d they target him?”

“We don’t know. No one knows anything about him that we asked,” Doris says. “But they don’t need a reason. Remember the Underground under the Academy?”

True. It’s like that one guy we encountered. Putting himself at risk to have a little fun. But I’m skeptical. They wouldn’t get discovered this easily. “Are you sure it was them? Were they well-built?”

“Not really,” Irwin responds. “They didn’t look like fighters, but you never know. Their specialty could be magic. But they spoke with such enthusiasm and power when they were talking about their plan. It sounded heinous. Worst case, we might discover what hidden place they’re talking about.”

“They were suspicious, so it’s worth checking out. They looked around in paranoia, careful about who was listening,” Doris adds.

“Not careful enough, apparently,” Hina says. “It sounds like a trap.”

“Yes, that’s why we’ll only go with our full group. They plan on meeting back at the same bar after collecting supplies,” Aisha says.

“If you guys took any longer, we would’ve missed the opportunity completely,” Ada says. “We need to go back to that location before we miss them.”

“You mean, you don’t know when they’re gonna return? We should head there now,” I say and stand up. A part of me is worried about the Xog situation, but the Human district should be the safest place for me right now, though it doesn’t seem like it stops Xog from coming in there. Pem went there without a problem, though she wasn’t a Feradian.

Doris and Irwin lead us to the place they found the suspicious pair. On the way, they told us a few other trivial details about them. We also start planning on our strategies for engaging them after they lead us to their hideout.

We reach the restaurant where the two men agreed to meet up. No current signs of them. The eight of us split up and blend in the area around the perimeter.

Nearly an hour passes, and still nothing, We don’t know if they’ve already left, but we’ve agreed to camp it out for a maximum of three hours before moving onto the other leads we have.

On top being on the lookout for the two men, I keep my eyes peeled for any Xog in the area. The fact that I haven’t seen a single one eases my anxiety.

Another hour passes, but then someone shows up. The physical description matches what Irwin and Doris told us. He’s wearing a black hooded mantle and carries a massive bag. All his torture devices are probably in there. Not too long passes when the other guy shows up dressed up the same. He also has a similarly sized bag with him.

We follow them with some distance between us. We don’t want them to know that we’re stalking them. It’s quite easy to track them. They take the most direct paths without going into alleys. It’s easy to blend in with the crowd.

The two men stop at the front entrance of a medium-sized house. Not too long after, they open the door and shut it behind them. The secret place they were talking about was a simple house? That can’t be right. But then it hits me. What if there’s a secret passage in there? That’s one thing we’ll never be able to check under normal circumstances. There are thousands of houses throughout this city, and we can’t check every unit.

I regroup with the others at the front of the house. Since this is off the main street, we can’t do anything conspicuous or out of the ordinary. Eight people crowding in front of a home would be stupid. Ada’s the closest one to the door, so she’s the first one to walk up to the door. Moments later, she turns back and then shakes her head. So the door’s locked. No one’s stupid enough to keep the door unlocked when they’re about to torture someone. We’ll have to find another way in.

We could easily break in, but that attracts too much attention. It would also alert those inside. I’m the closest to the right side of the place, so I survey that edge. Windows on the first and second floor, but they’re all closed. I don’t expect them to be open in the middle of the center. The best we can hope for is that they’re unlocked.

I doubt anyone’s going to pay attention to what happens on the side here, so I walk up to the closest window and then try sliding it in various ways. Seems locked. The curtains are blocking the view inside too.

The backside of the house is a side street with fewer people, which makes things easier for us, but still not convenient. We don’t know who could be watching. The houses lined up in front, or anyone walking by. One stupid mistake could lead to someone reporting us that could make its way up to General Nero.

The window situation looks the same here too, and there’s no backdoor. We have no way in from the ground…but there’s a chimney on the roof. It would be inefficient for all of us to go down that chimney and would attract some attention. One of us needs to take the risk and then unlock some of the windows for the rest of us to enter.

Ada meets up with me from the left side of the house. If anyone can do it, it’s her. She’s got Wind magic, though her equipment may make it more difficult. I whisper, “I have an idea if you’re up for it.”

“Spit it out.”

“Do you think you can get onto the roof somehow and go down the chimney? Then, you’d be able to unlock the windows and door for us from the inside. I don’t know if you’d be able to do that without getting caught.”

She looks at the ground for a few seconds in thought before replying, “I can do it, but it’ll be safer if I take off my armor for this one. It’s a stealth mission. I’m going to find somewhere nearby to store my equipment and then come back. Tell the others.”

“Hurry. Time’s ticking for our victim inside,” I say.

She nods and runs off. And I rejoin the others huddled together on the other side. I let them know what Ada is planning to do, so we should situate ourselves at various entrances and enter when she’s completed the task. If any one of us hears anything that indicates Ada is in trouble, we’ll all bust in. It might create a scene, but our lives come first.

After we see Ada on the roof about fifteen minutes later, we move into our positions. We haven’t heard any screams yet despite being close to the windows. Could it be an underground passage after all?

Ada moves the curtains aside and then unlocks the window from my side. While it does cross my mind it might raise a few eyebrows, but I quickly discard all thoughts of worry from my mind. I slide the window and hop inside. Afterward, I shut and lock the windows behind me. Finally, moving the curtains back into place.

It’s quiet. Too quiet. The inside looks like an ordinary home. I slowly walk around. Several of the others are already at the entrance. Soon enough, everyone is here.

We don’t say much and only nod in agreement. Deniz, Ada, and I lead since our weapons are the most suitable for this environment. I follow Ada through the house, eventually arriving at the stairs to the lower level. Luckily, the steps are made of stone, so it doesn’t make any noise as we go down.

There are faint noises in the distance, but they’re strange. They’re not the ear-piercing screams I was expecting. But, my intuition still tells me that there’s something wrong here. We get to the generic basement underneath. There’s an unnatural hole in the ground here. That’s where the noises originate.

The downward passage doesn’t take us too far until there’s a crudely crafted door at the end of it. The noises from earlier have become high pitched. Then they suddenly stop.

“End it... End it, Reaves,” someone says.

Uh, oh. We have to hurry! They’re planning to kill him now! The same thoughts go through Ada as she opens and then busts the door open.

She tackles the naked guy on the left. The remaining two are without clothes too. The guy on all four looks to be the victim. Without overthinking, I kick the guy on the right hunched him. He lets out a grunt as he’s knocked back. It was at this moment I realize these guys aren’t any real threat, but we should help this chained up guy, who I assume is Porters. He is blindfolded, has his hands tied behind his back, and feet chained to the wall. He also has small paper cuts throughout his body and areas with solidified wax. He gags.

“I’m sorry, don’t kill me!” the guy Ada tackled yells.

The smell of the room hits me. It smells like a certain kind of man stink. But that’s not what causes me to narrow my eyebrows, scrunch my nose, and frown with an open mouth. I would free Porters, but a familiar thick liquid covers his back where his hands reside. The part that confuses me the most is that he has an erection too. Someone forced into this situation wouldn’t have that at all.

“Shut up and don’t move or I’ll kill you!” Ada exclaims.

“Reaves? Jon? What’s going on?!” Porters exclaims. The tone of his voice confirms my suspicions. He knows these two men. And it doesn’t sound like he was about to be killed at all.

“Please!” the guy I kicked pleads to Ada. “I know I disobeyed my father’s wishes, but you don’t need to kill us! At least let Reaves live!”

Ada stands up without a word. The two men embrace each other. It was at this moment she must’ve realized what was going on too.

“You sick fucks!” Ada exclaims and then spits on them. She clenches onto her weapons. “You’re better off dead!”

“No, please!” they scream.

“Whoa!” I interject and step in between Ada and the two men. I don’t know what she’s thinking in this kind of situation. They’re into some weird shit, but it doesn’t mean they should die. The others stare in disgust from the back of the room. “We don’t have time for this. Let’s get out of here and move onto our next lead.”

Deniz grabs onto Ada, who thankfully backs off without causing more of a scene. She’s got some bit of some white dripping down her armor. I can’t help myself but let out chuckle and smile, but quickly return to a neutral expression. As everyone leaves the room, I follow. Everyone seems to abandon stealth as they all walk out the front door as if nothing happened.

“I’m getting my equipment back,” Ada says with little energy. “See you back at the tavern.”

The rest of us gather in the area between the two streets nearby. I sigh, turn to Irwin and Doris, and then ask, “So…which one of you guys wanna explain to me what just happened?”

“We’re sorry…” they say in unison with their heads down.

That aside, I’m confused why they spoke about their activities in the way that they did. I say, “It’s alright. No one would’ve guessed that they were into that sort of thing.”

“No, it’s something we considered, but didn’t think it would end up to be true,” Irwin says. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s a stigma surrounding homosexuality. The rest of society shuns them if it’s known, so they go through additional measures to avoid discovery.”

I can relate to that with my fake relationship with Hina and my secret relationship with Marin. It’s hard keeping up the façade sometimes. I can’t believe people make such a big deal over something so trivial. Why can’t everyone get along? It’s not like they’re harming anyone else.

“Unfortunately, Ada is one of the extremists with views believing that they’re better off dead, so that their kids, should they have any, aren’t gay either. Eventually removing them from the entire population.”

I never knew about this issue. It makes me think that coexistence may be harder to achieve than I initially thought. I wonder if any other groups are not accepted in our society.

On the one hand, we may have wasted a few hours with this lead, but I never would’ve learned about unseen inequality in our kingdoms otherwise. There’s also the issue with secret passages. We didn’t find one in this case, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility. If I recall, Sitos’ place had a place like that. And Aisha’s place did too… It’s a common pattern for mansions to have underground passages, so it might be helpful to check some in the area in Syrina. For now, we all head back to the Icy Tavern.

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