The Selection

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Chapter 72 - Inteiru Expota - Appearance

I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead!

Pem hasn’t said anything yet, but she’s going to reveal everything any moment now.

“What about him, master?” Pem asks.

What? What the hell is going on?

“He’s suspicious. Even now, he’s the one with the most fear in this entire plaza,” Bazaleon says. “The same one from yesterday.”

“Ehehe! Yeah, he’s a scared little Human, isn’t he?”

“Examine him. If there’s anyone who can untangle the scents from the sweater, it’s you.”

“Okay, I’ll try.”

I have no idea what to make of this situation. Is this the same Pem that I met yesterday? That idiot? Even Bazaleon mentioned the sweater that Pem should’ve retrieved. She should know everything. Including the fact that I’m the one Bazaleon is looking for, but she’s not saying anything. Did she forget it all happened? She’s the one who said she wouldn’t forget me.

“Don’t move, brat,” Bazaleon says as Pem approaches me.

She has my scent memorized, so this is pointless. What’s her game? It’s clear that she’s covering for me, but why? I can’t even begin to imagine her motives. To start with, she exaggerated what happened between us. She told Bazaleon a man forced her to strip. It’s like she’s purposely incurring his anger.

Pem remains silent while sniffing me for several seconds, and then backs off. “I’m sorry, master. I can’t pick up anything.”

Bazaleon answers, “That’s fine. We’ll know soon enough if he’s the one.”

How can she spew all these lies, but Bazaleon doesn’t know a thing? Maybe she’s more formidable than what I initially gave her credit for. She’s not the empty-headed rat girl that she led me to believe. Or it means that the Xog can’t detect lies from each other somehow. I find it hard to believe that someone as naïve as Pem is capable of deceiving anybody else, let alone Bazaleon, while totally composed.

“Sir Bazaleon,” Captain Albius says as he walks toward us. He drags a man by the arm with him. “I’ve found the one you’re lookin’ for.”

Captain Albius shoves the man forward. His chest is bare with the diagonal scar across it.

Ah!” Pem interjects and points at the man. “That’s him! That’s the man who wanted to copulate with me and forced me to strip!”

What?!” Bazaleon exclaims and then grabs the man by the shoulder. His huge paw-like hand effortlessly covers the entire girth of the man’s arm. He lifts him up into the air.

The man shrieks as his bones crackle. He struggles to break free of Bazaleon’s grasp, but it’s futile. I gulp. That could’ve been me if Pem told the truth.

“Some trash like you had the nerve to violate my pupil?”

“No, that wasn’t me! Ahhh!

“Calling my pupil a liar?!”

“No! Argh! I didn’t say that!” the man exclaims and continues to scream.

“Master, you can’t kill him yet,” Pem says.

Bazaleon drops the man and says, “True. He can’t be let off that easily for the two grave sins he’s committed against us. He’ll receive a punishment twice as harsh.”

“Are you satisfied, Sir Bazaleon?” Captain Albius asks.

“Yes. Many thanks for cooperating.”

“No problem, Sir Bazaleon. What about the inspection?”

“There’s no need to continue since it turns out the two men we’re looking for is one man. The soldiers here are witness to Pem testifying that this man violated her. Inform your leader that I’ll hold up my end of the deal,” Bazaleon says. “We’ll be back before the agreed meeting time.”

“Very well,” Captain Albius answers.

Bazaleon picks up the man and rests him across his shoulders. He walks away and says, “Let’s go, Pem.”

Pem glances at me and smiles before following Bazaleon.

She has one hell of a master. I’m surprised someone as ferocious as Bazaleon would take someone like Pem for a pupil. It’s counterintuitive with their lion and rat relationship.

And I can’t believe Bazaleon would accept the first suspect he discovers with the crucial feature across the chest. Certainly, with this many people around, there could be multiple people that fit the requirement. This is what Captain Albius meant by luck. That he would accept the first one found as the culprit.

What about the two Feloidians I met? He definitely has contact with them; otherwise, there’d be no way that they know about me in the first place. Those two should remember my scent, but he didn’t bring them to the inspection.

Bazaleon had Pem examine me during the inspection. He didn’t do it himself because Pem’s sense of smell is better. It’s not that he has bad smelling abilities either. The ability to smell fear is already shocking. Then what’s the next level up from that unique to Pem?

Either way, I have to hope that the two Felodians have at best Bazaleon’s sense of smell. He’s obviously going to be bringing that man to them in the Xog district as one final check he has the right person.

“Everyone, stand by,” Captain Albius says as he walks across our line. “I’m goin’ to report to General Nero.”

I sigh. There’s no inspection, but we can’t leave yet. I suppose it would be a bit chaotic if everyone were to move at once. We still need to escort the ministers to the Grand Hall. It’s so close, yet so far.

With the other kingdoms here too, it can’t be that they were here for the inspection. It was going to immediately transition into the event, so we probably will move forward ahead of time. That would be nice because it would push our plans ahead too and arrive earlier.

Jetia snickers. He’s never going to let me live it down. Everyone must’ve heard Bazaleon and Pem’s remarks against me. Better humiliation than death.

How’s Aisha’s team holding up? Hopefully, their batch of ministers isn’t making a big deal of her absence. If their leader is missing, the higher-ups should be sniffing around if they found out.

That’s the last thing that needs to happen because then they would probably be on lockdown to find out where Aisha went. The only way they could avoid that is by throwing Aisha under the bus, which may be the sole option available. I don’t care how they do it as long as it doesn’t affect our plans.

With so many people here, it’s hard to tell who’s who. We don’t so much as know if the Neomeris government were able to find any snake earring bandits disguising themselves as Drosera soldiers in the past few weeks. At this point, they could’ve camouflaged themselves as another kingdom. They could be here this very moment, and we wouldn’t know.

The whole Floyd experience taught me that I can’t trust anyone. Not because the snake earring group could be anyone, but people with motives outside of my best interests. Who knows what they’re really planning. I won’t be fooled again. That’s why I have to be careful with Pem. It could be all part of a ploy or part of some plan to gain my trust for something bigger.

Eventually, the line in front starts to move. Captain Albius comes back and informs us that we will be bringing the ministers to the entrance of the Grand Hall in an orderly fashion.

We are to be ready to escort them back two hours before dusk. A few of us should be stationed outside at all times for safety measures. I’ll leave that to the ones not participating in our plans. Jetia will accept that with no issues.

After escorting the ministers to the building, we regroup at the Icy Tavern. Irwin and Deniz take a little longer because they have to get the pass again.

We go on ahead to the entrance of the underground city. There must be a lot of people attending the auction because we aren’t the only ones going down the hatch. A person is ahead of us, so we keep our distance.

I’d expect more people pouring in here since the auction should be starting soon. There must be a more popular entrance we don’t know about but still hidden.

The big door to the underground city remains open at the bottom with a surplus of stationed guards. We show them our passes as we move along.

Our first stop is the Casino because Ada and her team want to check if Aisha is back. We arrive, but the place is locked, and no one is answering. We aren’t getting any answers.

I wouldn’t expect Floyd to be here after his apparent interest in the auction starting soon. We might run into him there, and then ask him what’s up with Aisha.

Ada doesn’t make too much of a fuss, and Hina’s team lead us to the mask shop.

Surprisingly, it isn’t too crowded. There is an assortment of masks with over a hundred different designs. Most of them have a white base.

Yesterday during the game against Floyd, he made it seem like he was one of the masked men because he knew that the masks were white; nevertheless, it was just a guess. Hina was right.

“Darling, what do you think about this one?” Hina asks. She’s wearing a rat mask. The entirety of it is the face of a rodent.

She’s never going to stop making references. I sigh before answering, “It’s perfect for you.”

“No way!” Ada suddenly exclaims.

What happened? She’s pointing at something.

I drop my jaws. It’s a white mask with a black snake on it. The tail is next to the mouth, curls around the cheek, and the head is situated on the bottom of the forehead with the tongue sticking out. There’s no doubt about it. This is what the masked men wore.

“Wha’ be wrong, dear customers?” a Dwarf asks.

“Nothing,” I respond, not wanting to cause a scene. Having found the masks here, it makes me inclined to believe that the masked men are here. We don’t want any attention drawn to us because of our interest in this mask.

Ada takes one of the snake masks and then holds it in front of the Dwarf. “Have you seen anyone with this?!”

“Ay cou’ have seen a few people, yeah.”

“Where?! Where are they now? How long ago was this?”

“Calm yer tits. Hoo be Ay supposed ter knoo de answer ter all deez questions? Ye be interested in purchasin’ dis mask er nae?”

This girl doesn’t have any discretion. Without Aisha around to keep her restrained, she is a liability. Someone needs to make sure she doesn’t screw us over. Clearly, Aisha was the one holding this team together.

“Sir,” I say, stepping in front of Ada before she has a chance to reply. “We’re interested in buying other masks, but we were just wondering... Do you remember selling this mask to any Humans recently?”

“Ay dun knoo. Maybe. Maybe nae.”

I take out my pouch of coins, shaking the contents in front of him. Money never fails to be a persuasive incentive.

“Hmm… Oi’m startin’ ter remember somedin. Dare been a strange lad who bought a bulk o’ deez masks a year ago. Nodin’ sin’ den.”

“Were they wearing snake earrings?”

“Ay dun dink so. Oi’m guin ter need ya ter buy somedin’ nigh.”

“Okay, ummm…” I interject and look around. We should all buy the same disguise, so it’ll be easier to identify each other. And definitely not the same one that they use. Hina already has a mask picked out, so it’ll be easier to use that one, much to my dismay. At least we won’t confuse one of us for a stranger. No one else would be willing to put those over their faces. Reluctantly, I take it from her and continue, “We’ll take twelve of these.”

“Dat will be one gold an’ sixty silver.”

“One gold and sixty silver?!” I exclaim. That’s a total scam I can’t afford.

“Dat guin ter be a problem? Ten silver each fer de masks an’ forty fer yer question.”

It’s either pay him, or we can’t go into the auction. I doubt there’s going to be another place to buy these masks, and if there were, it wouldn’t be any cheaper. All these merchants are taking advantage of the Inteiru Expota.

I hand him my pouch and respond, “This is one gold and fifteen silver.”

“Here’s a gold coin,” Hina says and hands him the coin.

“Ay will be back wiff yer change,” he says and walks away.

“You should’ve pushed for more information,” Ada says, glaring. “Forty silver coins for nothing.”

“Hey, if I didn’t interrupt you, you would’ve gotten us all kicked out. Anyone could’ve seen his patience was running thin,” I reply quietly.

“To top it all off, you couldn’t keep your rat fetish in check.”

“It doesn’t matter what mask we go with. As long as we have the same one,” Hina says.

“Says the one who picked out the mask. Kai should’ve picked this instead to blend in with them,” Ada says.

“That would’ve been a terrible idea,” I say.

“Well, I don’t think so. We should’ve voted on it,” Ada says.

Deniz puts a hand on her shoulder and says, “It’s done. Let’s move on.”

“Fine.”

The Dwarf comes back and gives me what he owes me. Each of us takes a duplicate of the rat mask.

Our next stop is the marketplace. Before that, we have a much-needed team meeting to review our next step. We talked through a few scenarios last night but only about the general actions we would take. I need to make sure Ada and everyone else has their emotions and priorities in check.

Since we didn’t find Aisha at the Casino, she might be somewhere in the bazaar or the auction. We don’t know, but if we do see her, we can’t make a scene about it. The auction is the worst place to cause trouble, and it could endanger all of our lives. I make Ada promise she won’t do anything rash no matter what happens.

Floyd is a sketchy character, but from what he said, Aisha would return alive. I believe that, though, I don’t need a vivid imagination to know what she would be going through. Everyone is aware of this, and we can’t help her with any of it. She’s in this situation because we don’t have enough money to pay off her debts.

So, despite that she is openly humiliated, we won’t do a thing. Finding leads on the masked men and snake earring group is our main priority. That’s what Aisha would want too.

After a short discussion, we put on our masks and head into the marketplace in pairs. Covers more ground during the limited time we have. We will meet back at the entrance after exploring a bit.

Nearly everyone here has their masks on. From what I can tell, most of these people are probably Humans based on their height. It would be easy to know if someone was an Elf or Xog because masks can’t hide their unique features.

I wish I had more money. Some of these items look interesting. Things that must be rare because I’ve never seen before. Though there are some everyday things that I could buy anywhere too. Your usual stock of Mana Crystals, Affinity Crystals, and low tiered weapons and armor.

Oh. And then there are girls with their tits hanging out. They’re cute, but the thing on their necks is more interesting. I know I’ve seen that before. If I’m not wrong, that’s the same metal collar I saw that day when she…

Hina pulls my ear and says, “Don’t get distracted.”

I turn toward her and answer, “I’m focused. It’s just—“

Someone suddenly pulls me the other way. I interject, “What—“

I cut myself short as the bare back of a purple-haired girl comes into view. Aisha?

She drags me into a large tent. As the flaps of the entrance glide over my mask, she turns around, confirming that it’s her. She has quite a rack. Way bigger than Hina’s and Marin’s for sure.

Hina enters the tent, not long after me. “Aisha?“

“Yeah. Sorry to drag you in so suddenly,” Aisha says.

“How’d you know it was us?” Hina asks.

“Hard to confuse the blue pigtails and red waist cape with anyone else.”

“Fair,” Hina answers.

“What do the others know?” Aisha asks.

“Floyd took another interest in you and was offerin’ a new deal to settle the twenty gold coin debt. You didn’t hesitate to agree before he changed his mind.”

“I see…”

Hina squeezes my hand and asks, “How long are you goin’ to stare, Darling?”

“I wasn’t—where else am I supposed to look?”

They’re here,” Aisha says suddenly.

“What?” both Hina and I interject simultaneously.

“Which one?” I ask.

“The snake earring group.”

“Where?” I ask. I have so many questions.

Here. They told me to stay here five minutes ago. I don’t know when they’re returning.”

“Wait…they told you to stay put?” I ask. That would mean that she had direct contact with them as a client. Here. Right on top of that dirty mattress?

“They appeared a few hours after you left yesterday. I don’t know if it was lucky or unlucky…but I caught their interest.”

“They bought you? Hina asks.

“Yes. Two days for seventy gold coins.”

That’s a lot of gold. Exactly enough to pay off her debt with Floyd, but who would be willing to pay that price for one girl? I don’t know the usual price for this sort of thing, but that’s outrageous. Floyd said to be careful. It makes me uneasy if this is related to that.

“I’m sorry, Aisha... That’s… After they come back, they’ll be resumin’ their activities with you. I wish we could help,” Hina says.

“Oh, no. They haven’t done anything to me yet.”

“Why?” I ask. “What’s the point if they‘re not getting the best bang for their buck?”

Aisha doesn’t answer. What I said might’ve been insensitive. I continue, “I mean. It’s good that they haven’t, but seventy gold coins is a lot.”

“They’re going to bring me to a different location first,” Aisha says.

I widen my eyes. “You mean…like their hideout?”

“Yes, I think so,” Aisha says, shivering. “They said they were going to have a marathon with me.”

“We won’t let that happen. We’ll save you before they do anythin’.”

“I was hoping you would say that, but I can’t come with you now. They didn’t put restraints on me because they know that I can’t run. Not until the deal with Floyd is fulfilled. Otherwise, they’ll go after my family.”

“So, we follow them back to their base and then save you,” I say. “They can’t complain if they’re dead. Floyd’s already received his payment.”

“Yes, but I don’t expect you to barge in at that moment. It’s too dangerous.”

“What do you expect us to do then? Go back for reinforcements?” Hina asks.

“That would be safest.”

“By that time, you’ll be…” Hina mutters.

“I’ll live.”

I say, “That’s not gonna work. The snake earring group isn’t important enough to be on anyone’s radar during the Inteiru Expota. They wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice defenses at Syrina for the raid. We’ll be under General Nero’s scrutiny too because he’ll find out that we disobeyed orders. So, even if we got reinforcements, the only way it would be worthwhile is if we found evidence linking this bandit group to the masked men. If we wanted to avoid danger, we wouldn’t be here, now would we?”

“Darling’s right. We signed up for this knowin’ the dangers, so we won’t leave you in there.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank us yet. We still need to figure out how to tail them without getting caught.”

“I’ll trust the specifics to you. You live up to your reputation.”

“What? No, I’m not trying to make a move on you.”

“Your Academy reputation.”

“Oh…” I interject. That’s a little awkward. Considering my current reputation and the couple’s fight Aisha witnessed yesterday.

A short silence follows before Hina says, “Well, we should gather the others.”

“Good call. One of us should stay here to keep watch,” I say.

“It’s more appropriate if I take that role,” Hina says. “You get the others.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea. What if the snake earring guys come back while you’re still here? You have no good excuse for being in a tent with Aisha.”

“And you do?” Hina asks, but then curls her lips inward and shakes her head, apparently answering her own question. “I’ll watch from a distance.”

“Yeah. You’ll only be the only girl with flashy blue pigtails wearing a laughable rat mask conspicuously standing there in a fast-moving market.”

“Darling, if you really want to be the one to stay, you can. I know the real reason why you’re insistin’ on stayin’.”

Oh, no… Nothing good ever follows this. She’s got that look in her eyes.

She holds a hand to her chest. “I know I’m lackin’ in this department, and it makes me insecure because we’re not doin’ so good. As long as you don’t break up with me, okay? Do whatever you want.”

She turns around and leaves the tent without another word, leaving me in this awkward position. Damn you, Hina.

Aisha doesn’t cover herself in any way despite what she witnessed. She asks, “How much money do you have?”

“Fifty-five silver coins.”

“Good. So, you will have that excuse. That’s around the price for the working girls around here,” Aisha says and then looks straight at me. “I’m tired of not having any choice in these matters, so I’m going to make one of my own before it’s too late. I won’t tell anyone if you play along.”

I scream inside my head. I don’t know how to respond. Why would Aisha ask me to do that after everything that’s happened? Obviously, a quick refusal would be my preferred answer, but it wouldn’t look good considering recent events.

For all Aisha knows, I’m a scumbag who only lusts after Hina’s body. If I’m suddenly out of character, she’ll be suspicious of what happened yesterday. And one realization might lead to another, which could reveal that the whole thing is a sham.

I can’t believe I would ever think this, but I hope those snake earring guys interrupt us. These are dangerous waters. Stalling for time is my only option now.

Luckily I’m wearing a mask because I can’t keep a straight face. “I do, but…there’s not enough time to do much. If Ada catches us during…well…our activities. It’s not gonna be good. Not to mention, it would be awkward if those snake earring guys come back too.”

“Hina won’t be coming back for a while. I can tell you that much. It’ll take a while to gather everyone. If the snake earring men come back, it’ll be stranger if you weren’t doing anything to me. That’s why you’re here, and Hina’s out there, right?” she asks.

“Right,” I answer promptly.

She lies flat on the mattress, putting her hands above her head.

I would be lying to myself if I said it doesn’t excite me. Any guy would be right now.

Aisha quirks an eyebrow as I climb on top of her. She asks, “Do you usually do this with all your equipment on?”

“No, but I’m usually not forced to keep a mask on. I’ll take it off once I’m ready,” I say. I slowly reach for her breast, still ambivalent about everything.

I gulp. This will be my first experience with large breasts. Something I’ve been curious about, although never having the opportunity. I never thought it would be like this.

Her face flinches a little as I give it a squeeze. The softness is incredible. It’s like a sponge.

But, an uneasiness lurks within me. Like I’ve felt this sensation before, but that’s impossible. Yet, I’m trying to understand why I’m feeling this way.

“Is something wrong?” Aisha asks.

I’m still holding onto her boob. “No, it’s just um…Hina’s a lot smaller, and I never felt one this big, you know? I’m still processing it.”

I grasp her breasts in different ways while still trying to figure out this puzzle.

Footsteps approach, and someone exclaims, “Hey!”

Two men with smiley face masks appear in the tent. They’ve got armor and weapons. Most importantly, one of them has a green thing around his left ear. It’s hard to see if it’s a snake earring, but it’s probably them.

“Whatcha think you’re doing?” one of them asks menacingly.

“I have money. What’s the problem?” I ask while standing up and taking out my pouch of coins.

One of them snatches it from me and then takes a peek inside. “Less than a gold coin in here. It’s not enough for her.”

“Fine. I’ll leave,” I say and reach for my coins, but he doesn’t let me take it.

“Still gotta pay for your time.”

“Come on. I barely did anything,” I say, wishing that I could have my money back. This mission is killing my wallet.

“Piss off.”

I don’t push the matter anymore and leave the tent, though I stick around to eavesdrop. I still have a trick up my sleeve if they catch me snooping.

“Bitch, you that impatient to get some action? I oughta shag you right now. See if you’re really worth the price tag.”

“Boss’s gonna be pissed if you touch her now.”

“Yeah, but shit. Why drop seventy gold coins on a whore?”

“Questioning the boss? Come on. We’re already late because you forgot to buy masks. Whole crew’s waiting.”

“Tch. Bitch, get up.”

I walk away before they see me. These two members don’t know why Aisha was bought for that absurd amount either. At least I know where they’re headed next.

I go back to the entrance, where Hina’s still waiting for the others to loop around. I tell her what developed after leaving me in there with that exit speech. She gloats at me as usual.

Later, everyone comes back. Unsurprisingly, no one else discovers much. I twist my story a little bit to avoid some trouble, and we go to the auction together.

I recognize one of the Dwarves standing guard by the entrance as a member of the Vanguards. These masks won’t conceal from their eyes if even Aisha could identify us. He looks toward us and snickers but says nothing.

We wait in line. All the rules of the auction are written on signs posted on the wall. Nothing we didn’t already know except for no drawing of weapons. Eventually, we reach the receptionist.

“Hoo big be yer party?”

“Twelve,” I answer.

“Hoo much gold dae ye have?”

“A few,” I respond, though I’m only estimating what the other two teams have.

“A few?! Ye be flat broke! Ye canna buy anydin’ wiff dat. Go straight ahead wiff de rest o’ de observers,” he says and points to the passage behind him.

Stairs are leading up to the left and right of the door.

Ahead, we arrive in a spacious room with a crowd of people in front of the stage. Dwarven guards are standing all over the edges of the room. More members of the Vanguards too. The security of this place is no joke.

On all sides except the front of the room are platforms extending from the wall on five different levels. Over half of them are occupied with at least one person on each one. This place is built to accommodate a lot of people. The snake earring group could be anywhere.

We find an empty place to stand on the left side of the room. None of us see Aisha, so I’m not sure how we’re supposed to follow her after this. The best we can do is find one of their members. A large group of them should be here.

Some time passes, and a Dwarf walks onto the stage. He holds something next to his mouth. I suspect it’s the sound-amplifying magic item I saw before. “Welcome ter de first day o’ de auction! Our featured item o’ de hour be a Miffril great sword forged by Vozek, one o’ de finest Dwarven blacksmiths exported roight from Khuldan! Dis be de first o’ many Miffril products ter be sold outside o’ Dwarven territory.”

Another Dwarf walks onto the stage, holding a large blade of deep blue color. I know that’s Mithril now. I’ve always wondered about the weapons we found under the Academy. Instructor Fulharm took it off us, but we never bothered to find anything more about it. How much is it worth? Why isn’t it sold anywhere? I guess now I know that it was only sold in the Dwarven kingdoms, but then why was it in those ruins?

“De bid will start at twenty-five gold coins!”

I gape. What the?! Twenty-five gold coins? That’s insane! And I thought Titanium was expensive. Something of that size would be around five gold coins.

“Twenty-five gold!” someone exclaims above me in one of the platforms.

“Thirty gold!”

“Thirty-one gold!”

“Thirty-three!”

Chaos erupts from the entire room. The price continues to rise. If people are paying this much for a Mithril weapon, does that mean we missed our chance of getting rich? Back when we discovered those weapons under the Academy?

I can’t help but feel bitter. Did Instructor Fulharm know the value of the weapons and scammed us? It doesn’t matter now that he’s dead. But the weapons we didn’t take should still be down there. A part of me wants to go back down there to take more of the Mithril weapons, despite the presence of those ominous blue slimes.

The bid for the sword ends at seventy-two gold coins. That’s over nine times my current yearly salary. Imagine how much money I could make just by collecting those weapons down there. How different would things have turned out if we didn’t tell the teachers anything about what happened? We could’ve been practically swimming in silver coins.

The atmosphere suddenly changes as a man with a smiley mask walks past us. He has the snake earring, and brown slicked back hair. It matches one of the descriptions of one of those referees that could be linked to the snake earring group. Is it him?

He steps onto the stage and hands the Dwarf a bag of coins. After counting the money, the other Dwarf gives the masked man the Mithril great sword.

The masked man takes the same path off the stage. He stops in front of us for some reason and snickers. The amount of killing intent he directs toward me puts me on edge.

I instinctively grab onto my weapons, but I can’t cause a scene and get into trouble with the Vanguards.

“Rats… If yer not careful, you’ll be swallowed whole,” he says before continuing his way past us.

Why’d he say that to us? Snakes prey on rodents. I don’t know if he’s just playing around because we happen to be wearing rat masks or if that was some sort of warning that he knows we’re digging into them.

I bite my lip. We shouldn’t have been grouped together. Those two must’ve found me suspicious despite my excuse with Aisha. Now they’ve made an association and found all of us shady. They could take precautions now.

Hina stops me from following him, and no one else takes interest despite that we spent so long investigating them. Everyone’s focus is on Aisha. I get it, though. If someone I cared about was in her position, I’d prioritize her too. We already have a way to get into their hideout through Aisha, so letting this opportunity go is fine. It might be glaring to tail him in this environment anyway. Only those with money are located on the platforms. The rest of his party should be there.

“Next, we have our most anticipated seller o’ de day. De mysterious group wiff de new generation of Aerkins!”

Someone with the smiley mask walks onto the stage. The snake earring group are the ones with the new batch of Aerkins? With Floyd’s interest in the circuit, this could be the reason why he knows about the group.

“I’m sure many of you are lookin’ forward to obtainin’ one of Aerkins we tamed usin’ a new method, though we won’t sell any today. I know there are still skeptics that doubt the validity of our claim. We’ll set that straight with a demonstration and the technology that makes this possible,” the man says while holding a sound amplifier to his mouth.

I raise my eyebrows as another smiley masked man steps onto the stage, holding onto that metal collar above him.

“You might’ve seen this before as we’ve already had many clients take an interest. This is a Slave Collar. We’ve brought a batch of ‘em fitted for Humans, Elves, and Dwarves. Put this around their necks, and they’ll be under your control, regardless of fightin’ expertise. Even the toughest badass will be subjected to your mercy. How? The Slave Collar prevents the user from usin’ magic. The method is a trade secret.”

I gasp. Stop someone from using magic? How can that be possible?

“The fun doesn’t stop there. Each collar is paired with a unique Slave Remote that helps you bend their will to do your biddin’ with a little negative reinforcement. The remote can make ’em squirm in pain. It has other fun features too.”

Another smiley masked man drags two naked women into view from the backstage area. They have Slave Collars. Most importantly, they have pointy ears; they’re Elves. The man shoves them to the floor.

Shit. I look around. These are Elven slaves, no matter how I see it. A war almost broke out because they were discovered in Syrina eight months ago. Viessa suspected that it was the snake earring group that planted them in a noble’s home, but that might not be entirely true. The crowd murmurs.

“Are you tired of beatin’ your slaves into submission, accidentally killin’ ‘em in the process? How about the trouble of keepin’ ‘em on suicide watch? Runnin’ away? Retaliation? All of your problems are solved with the Slave Collar. They’re sealed with a unique key, and they’re made of the highest quality ingredients. As you’ve noticed, it’s made out of Titanium, so it’s quite sturdy.

“These two Elven beauties have already been subdued into submission through the pain inflicted through the Slave Remote. You’ll never have to worry about excessiveness either. They submit because the pain will never be enough to kill ’em. Even the most prideful Elves crumble,” the man says and picks up one of the Elves by her hair. She doesn’t struggle at all.

He tosses her aside and then says, “Go play with your friend over there.”

The Elf crawls over to the other one, and then they kiss. Deep kisses. Audible enough to her all their slobber. They both get into it and touch each other intimately.

The man laughs. “See? Once they’ve been trained, you’ll rarely need to reinforce ‘em usin’ the Slave Remote. You know the best thing about Elven babes other than their tight pussy? They’re low maintenance. Tie ’em to a tree and give ’em water. Use ’em when you need ’em.

“This brings us to our Aerkins. As you may have guessed, we put Slave Collars on ‘em. Custom fitted for different sizes and shapes. It’s far more effective and efficient than usin’ drugs to control ‘em. They can’t harm you so long as you’re holdin’ the connected Slave Remote. It’s as safe as trainin’ ‘em naturally, and turnin’ ‘em into killin’ machines is one click away.

“We’ve brought ten sets of new Slave Collars and Slave Remotes. Each pair startin’ at ten gold coins. The Elves will be sold first with the Slave Collar, and Slave Remote included. Each one startin’ at fifty gold coins, now.”

The room goes crazy with bids. Everyone here is a bunch of perverts. The starting bid for the Elves is twice as much compared to that Mithril great sword. That goes to show the rarity and high demand for Elven slaves. No one would be bold enough to risk capturing one for themselves.

But, Aisha’s buying price was seventy gold coins. She’s just an ordinary Human. Does that mean they value her higher than the Elven slaves? If not for the Slave Collar, the starting bid would only be forty gold coins.

Everything that happened was because of the Slave Collar. Because there’s no way she would do those things otherwise. I can’t even begin to imagine how those Slave Collars and Slave Remotes work. They can stop someone from using magic, so does that mean they can’t manipulate Mana either? Not even magic can do something like that. I’m not ready to believe their other claims, either. This could all be a marketing scam, though I can’t discredit it because of my personal experience with it.

From the way these guys presented, they must be the inventors of these devices. They did mention they sold it to other people already. Could the masked men be one of them? Or are they the same group?

Both Elves end up getting bought for two hundred gold coins. Completely outrageous. How do these people have so much money?

The bigger question is how they plan on smuggling these Elves out of here without running into authority. All hell would break loose if that were to happen. The Dwarves know all about these Elven slaves. Who’s to think that they won’t divulge that all this is happening? Strangely, the Dwarves were apathetic when they mentioned the Slave Collars could be put on them too.

Then there are the Xog who are out for blood for the smallest grievances. Something doesn’t add up. It’s not like the Dwarves are all chummy with us.

What Floyd said continues to bother me. His mention that his hands are tied must mean there’s a power at play that he can’t fight. Could the snake earring group be that power? It would explain the way the Dwarves are acting now too. That or they’re paying off the Dwarves. Considering that they take an interest in us when money is involved makes that more believable. There’s no way that the snake earring group has power over an entire race.

All the Slave Collars and Slave Remotes are sold for at least fifty gold coins each. The snake earring group has made over a thousand gold coins in less than an hour. That’s more money I’ll make in a lifetime in the army.

“Splendid. Today is only a premiere of what’s to come. Soon, we’ll be tradin’ everythin’ on the underground market, includin’ the Aerkins. If you’re interested in our products, seek us out. By the end of the Inteiru Expota, you’ll know our name,” the smiley masked man says before leaving the stage.

Sounds like they’re planning to do something within a few days. They won’t have a chance after we raid their hideout. Their defense could be lax because they haven’t been discovered yet. That weakness will be the key to taking them out. No one else has been lucky enough to have this opportunity.

We still haven’t figured out how to tail them without getting caught. They’re probably going to use another exit than we know of out of this place. I only hope that there’s a steady stream of people leaving; otherwise, we mind as well announce ourselves to them. If we’re too far, they’ll be long gone by the time we reach the surface.

There’s no time to plan. If they’re on the move, we need to be too. We hurry out of the auction. I make the suggestion that we ditch our masks to blend in better with our surroundings. They could be vigilant regarding anyone with this rat mask. It’s a shame we spent over a gold coin of these disguises that only ended up discarded in less than a day. We won’t be able to come back to the auction.

We take various positions around the building in pairs of two. Soon enough, the guy who bought the Mithril blade walks out the main entrance alone. Just him? There has to be more.

Several large convoy transportations pull into view in front of the man. He opens the door and then goes inside one. We don’t know if Aisha is in there, but we can’t miss an opportunity to track them back to their hideout. They’re leaving. It’s now or never.

There’s only one place where they’ll go next, and we can’t follow them. That guarded secret entrance the others found has to be the exit they’ll utilize.

What can we do? Run around the perimeter of the city and hope to find the other end of the tunnel? If we find the right place, we might be able to pick up their trail. Otherwise, our pursuit will be thrown off by random markings on the ground left by other transports.

That Dwarf by the exit we left by owes us a favor. Maybe he can help us out. We make haste there as we’re on the clock.

“Ya agin. Danks fer last time. De Vanguards bought de story. Passage be clear, go ahead.” the Dwarf says.

“We’re here to collect on that favor,” I say.

“Sure. Wha’ dae ye need?”

“We know there’s a secret entrance where wagons pass through. We need to pass through.”

He crosses his arms and says, “Dats one din’ Ay canna dae.”

“Why not?”

“Dats a restricted entrance reserved fer merchants intendin’ ter sell in de marketplace er auction. Ye need ter explain wha’ product yer bringin’ several hours in advance ter get it approved. Only den, ye will receive an audorization token dat allows ya ter use dat passage.”

“Or we can steal one. Let’s go back to the marketplace. Hurry!” Ada exclaims.

“Calm yer tits. Wha’ be so urgent?” the Dwarf asks.

“We’re chasing someone who recently left,” I inform.

“Okay, Ay ken help ya wiff dat. Ye will have ter find it yerself, but de entrance ye speak o’ leads ter a grotto at de base o’ a mound located in de woods. ‘Tis somewhere betweun de Dwarven district an’ Human district entrances frum outside de city.”

We thank him and make no hesitation in leaving the underground city to find that mound. There’s a lot of ground to cover between the two entrances to Syrina. Not to mention roaming through snow takes more time.

Eventually, we locate it, but it’s been too long. By now, they could’ve reached their hideout. There’s a visible trail to follow thanks to the snow. One problem, it also includes all the other merchants that came to sell something at the marketplace. How can we know we’re following the right trail?

“Hey! I found something!” Ada exclaims. We regroup around her. She points to a purple substance that has melted through the snow. “It’s Aisha. She’s left us clues to follow.”

Aisha was the only one out of all the working girls I saw in the marketplace that didn’t have a Slave Collar attached to her neck. She said it was because she couldn’t run anyway because of what they’ll do to her family. That’s good for us because she was able to leave these traces of magic.

Still, that’s really careless of that group who has had a flawless record of staying hidden up until now. Wouldn’t they have considered the possibility that Aisha would use magic to leave behind a trail?

“She’s not our leader for nothing. Let’s not keep her waiting too long,” Deniz says.

I keep my thoughts to myself for now as I don’t think Aisha’s team will pay mind to my worries. We search for the nearest remnant of Dark magic from the first one Ada found. Repeating this, we eventually read the end of a trail.

A small cave rests at the bottom of a cliff. The entrance is unconcealed. This is supposed to be the hideout of the snake earring group? When I heard that one of their shelters could be inside of a lake, I expected something more than this. If this is the definition of well hidden, a bunch of incompetent people searched for their base of operations.

We’re still a bit far out from the entrance, but we can’t get any closer without risk of detection. One person is standing next to the cave. The convoy transports don’t seem to be in sight.

“What are we waiting for?” Ada asks. “There’s only one guy. Let’s rush in and take him out.”

“No, we should think about this more carefully,” I say.

“We can’t wait anymore. Aisha’s in there. She could be in trouble this very moment,” Ada says.

“I agree with Darling,” Hina says. “We don’t know how many of them are in the cave. Goin’ in blind would give the lookout a chance to alert everyone inside.”

“Ada, we all want to save Aisha as soon as possible, but we can’t afford to be careless,” Deniz says. “We should approach this wisely. We need a way to take out the guard quietly from a distance.”

Magic isn’t going to be a good contender for that. Fire magic doesn’t kill instantly, and the guy will be prone to making a ruckus while he’s burning. Earth magic could work, but it has to be done delicately, so it doesn’t create any vibrations. It would be hard to write the instructions from this distance.

This would be trivial with Void magic, but I can’t do that with everyone watching.

“Melody, Doris, can either one of you make the shot?” Ada asks.

“I can’t see the distance, but this looks at least 150 feet away,” Doris says. “It’s too far.”

“I agree,” Melody says. “Aisha is the best of us, and she can only hit bullseyes at eighty feet.”

“I-I can do it,” Marin says.

“You don’t sound sure. You heard Melody and Doris. It’s too far,” Ada says.

“No, I’m sure I can do it.”

“You couldn’t land a simple shot during the mock battle we had, how can I trust you to make this one? If you miss, we lose our preemptive strike.”

“Trust her on this,” I say. “I’ve never seen Marin do the whole run and shoot thing, but I know accuracy’s her strongest strength.”

“We’re a team. If Marin says she can do it, I trust her,” Hina says. “Does anyone have a better plan?”

Following the silence of everyone else, I say, “I don’t have a better plan, but I wanna make sure everyone understands that this plan could fail even if Marin shoots the perfect shot. If I was standing over there, it wouldn’t matter if the arrow comes out of nowhere. I’d react. This plan’s only guaranteed to succeed if the guard isn’t that skilled. We have to assume that they’re as good as we are or better. Don’t blame Marin if it doesn’t go as planned is what I’m saying.”

“I know. I won’t,” Ada says.

“Whenever you’re ready, Marin,” Hina says.

“I want to move to a different spot. He’s less likely to see my arrow coming from another angle. Kai, can you come with me?” Marin asks.

“Uh, sure,” I respond.

“We’ll all come with. We should stick together,” Deniz suggests.

“No, just Kai’s enough,” Marin says.

“Do you have an idea? Share with us,” Deniz says.

“I’m just there in case something happens,” I say. From the looks of it, Marin has a plan. This isn’t the time or place for a romantic getaway, so it must have to do with my Void magic. I’ll make up some excuse for her. “If we’re all moving together, we’ll have a higher chance of being spotted.”

“Alright,” Deniz answers.

“Can I come too?” Ruby asks.

“No, stay here with everyone else. We won’t be gone long,” I say.

“Fine.”

I sneak with Marin along the trees. When we’re far enough from the others, I ask, “So, what do you need me for?”

“I want to try something with your Void magic.”

Unquestionably, she knows that I can’t afford to let anyone see it, so I have no clue what she has in mind. It can’t possibly be another one of her experiments. We’ve done them whenever time allows for both of us to better understand Void magic. That time has decreased since the whole pretend act with Hina. “Explain.”

“Do you remember that one time you put a portal on a wall in two different ways?”

Here we go. That was a strange day. The first time I created a portal on the wall, it wasn’t really on it. We broke the boundary rule while inside the portal, which should’ve put us inside the wall. Instead, it relocated our position somewhere else in the room. It had no pattern. We found that if two objects try to occupy the same space as a result of the portal, the object in the portal is relocated somewhere nearby at random.

The second time I managed to cover the surface of the wall with Void magic, almost like Intermediate Enhancement magic. We couldn’t break the boundary rule no matter what we tried, though I’m sure something weird would happen if we broke the wall, we would get into some trouble with that. I answer, “Yeah.”

“I want you to try doing the same thing to the tip of my arrow. What do you think would happen if I shoot my arrow with your magic attached?”

What? Her intention is to put a one-sided portal facing the arrow with the connected one-sided portal somewhere else. The result would make the projectile invisible from the front, making it impossible for the guard to react because he sees nothing. My issue with the idea isn’t what happens in flight, but when it hits the target.

“I have no idea. I know what you’re going for, but we have no idea what’ll happen when the arrow pierces him. Or will it even do that? Who knows if something weird happens and the arrow relocates somewhere else. Now’s not the time to do experiments.”

“How about this? Deactivate your portal before it hits him. He’ll have less time to react proportionally to how late you do it.”

“That could work, but there’s one other problem. If anyone from our team can track the arrow, they might notice something purple attached to it as it passes their view.”

“That’s easy. Just make another pair of one-sided portals to hide it from them.”

I pause for several seconds before replying, “You want me to make one of my portals invisible by using another one-sided portal?”

“Yeah, why not? You made your Fire magic invisible, right?”

“Fine, but let’s test it out before doing it for real,” I respond. It’s a good plan if it works. I thought it would be enough if the shot came from his side rather than the front, but it’s still not a guaranteed hit. Invisibility increases our chances.

We reach Marin’s ideal shooting spot. I test out a few things to make sure our assumptions about the scenario aligns with reality. It turns out that I can make the portals invisible with another portal and keep it connected. I’m able to attach the one-sided portal to the tip of the arrow too, and it moves with the portal. The projectile is also invisible from the front. I’m sure Marin is ecstatic about the results.

So, I prepare my magic for the real thing. I attach a one-sided portal at the tip of the arrow facing us. Just round and large enough to cloak the arrow from the bandit. The connected one-sided portal next to us. I have to get used to using just enough Void magic to conserve my Mana.

The next step is trickier because I can’t create the second portal with the first portal already inside of it. It has to start outside and then move into it. Only then, binding itself to the first portal. I do just that with a one-sided rectangular-shaped portal perpendicular to the first portal. The height is set to the same as the other portal and length generous to cover the arrow’s length. Its paired portal is also next to us.

Now, viewing the arrow from the side shields the appearance from the portal, providing invisibility. There’s no way anyone would see what happened. The arrow itself is still visible from the side too, so there’s nothing suspicious.

The final step is execution. One way we could approach this is by putting a deactivation timer to my Mana at the moment Marin makes her shot to about three-quarters of a second. She thinks that it’ll be at most one second for the arrow to hit the target.

I’ll leave the timing to Marin. I move some Mana to the portals on the arrow, instructing it to deactivate in ten seconds. I give Marin the countdown as she prepares her shot atop a branch. She said she’d be able to achieve a faster speed this way.

Marin draws her bow back gradually to full draw as my countdown reaches five. Moments after it reaches one, the bowstring snaps, propelling the arrow through the trees and branches ahead. The guard might hear it, but we should be far enough for that to not matter. Worst case, he turns his head but sees nothing. It’s not unusual for random sounds to occur in the forest.

Her aim is perfect. The arrow pierces through the lookout’s skull, and he collapses. A lot of effort went into this single shot, which may have been unnecessary if he was on the same level as Soldiers in the army.

I would be a goner too in his shoes. Really goes to show how fragile life is. I’m starting to understand why Emdos wanted me to keep a low profile with my abilities. It’s too powerful. I can’t help but wonder if this has to do with my parents’ death. Emdos said they weren’t killed out of hate, but maybe related to their Void magic abilities. After all, it’s not even a known magic type. Makes me wonder if I’m the only one with a unique talent or if there are any other people out there with Void magic.

We regroup with the others at the entrance of the cave. From here, we discover that the guard had Titanium equipment. No way a simple underling has that type of equipment. I’m tempted to loot him and turn his gear into a new set of armor for me, but we don’t have time for that. There’s a half-smoked cigar next to his body.

“Great shot, Marin. Sorry for believing in you,” Ada says.

Everyone briefly praises Marin. It’s nice to see because she’s rarely acknowledged for her skills. She’s not the type to show off. This will give her more confidence.

We advance into the dimly lit cave, though it’s not really a cave. It looks like someone dug out the wall. A doorway is in sight ahead. Ada leads the way because her weapons will be least restricted in these narrow spaces. I haven’t taken the time to practice fighting in this type of environment. I’m used to an open field.

“Jonah, pass me a smoke too, wouldja?” someone asks from a room nearby. He must’ve heard the clattering of our armor and weapons. It’s not something we can avoid.

The moment he walks into the hallway, Ada slices his throat before he can say anything. He’s unarmed.

A high pitched scream resounds in the distance. Expectedly, Ada disregards all stealth and rushes in. Reprimanding her would only draw attention to us, so the rest of us follow her lead. Thankfully, the ground is dirt, so our footsteps don’t make too much noise.

“I’ll cover the left side,” I say while chasing after Ada. I can’t look both ways to make sure we don’t leave someone behind.

All the rooms so far are empty, but there are some connected corridors that we can’t check. The hideout is more expansive than I thought. It gives me the impression that they have over a hundred members in their group, considering that they have multiple shelters.

Right now, the place is practically empty. Combined with the fact that their transportation is nowhere in sight, this dwelling could’ve been a detour. This is a dilemma. Our planned depended on wiping their entire group out in one go. That’s how we could safely extract Aisha from the clutches of the snake earring group without backlash from Floyd. We don’t know when they’ll be back.

“Intru—“ someone exclaims behind, followed by a grunt.

At the end of the hallway opposite the entrance is a room bigger than the rest. If I didn’t know better, inside are cages with monsters inside. The rumored Aerkins?

More screams resound from the right. They’re close and increase in number.

Along the way, I find several dead bodies. These guys have Iron weapons and armor. If Ada can kill them before they can draw their weapons, the level of these guys isn’t high. Viessa spoke as if their lower-ranked were skilled, so this doesn’t make sense. They can’t be any better than the foot soldiers of the army. The guy Marin took out must’ve been the only threatening force present.

Flash!” Ada exclaims. A bright light illuminates the room up ahead for a few seconds, groans following.

Finally, Ada is in sight. Just in time to see her pierce a man’s neck with her dagger. She took out three men by herself.

“Aisha!” she exclaims and runs into the adjacent space.

I chase after her, finding Aisha suspended in the air with every limb shackled by a chain. They put a Slave Collar on her.

“Aisha, it’s me, Ada!”

Aisha doesn’t respond. Her head lowered, eyes red, and fresh tears drop from her face. Combined with the piss puddle under her, she probably endured some torture. Was it the Slave Remote? She doesn’t have any external injuries.

Ada puts her finger on Aisha’s wrist. “She’s still alive.”

Getting her out of these restrains is going to be problematic. They’re made of Titanium, like the Slave Collar. We can’t brute force it with these weapons.

“I’m gonna see if I can find a key off one of the three guys,” I say and go back to the other room. By this time, the others have caught up. Everyone seems unharmed. I inform, “Aisha’s safe. She’s in the room back there.”

“Thank God!” Deniz exclaims. The rest of Ada’s team grin, and they rush into the backroom.

I search the bodies in the room for the keys.

“Darling, what’re you lookin’ for?” Hina asks, crouching down to one of the bodies.

“Keys. Aisha’s got a Slave Collar and several chains binding her.”

Neither of us finds anything. Everyone suddenly calls out Aisha’s name in the backroom. Did she wake up?

Marin and Ruby guard our flank while the rest of us flood into the backroom, a piece of cloth now covering Aisha’s body.

“You guys have to go back…” Aisha mutters, her voice hoarse.

“Aisha, what are you talking about? We’re not leaving you here,” Ada says.

“Ye—“

“No! They—” Aisha suddenly exclaims and then coughs.

“Calm down, Aisha. Talk slower,” Deniz says.

Aisha takes several deep breaths before trying to talk again. “They’re headed to Syrina. They plan on making a public appearance. It’s them. The masked men and snake earring bandits are the same group. I saw them put on the masks.”

I widen my eyes. I’ve always considered the possibility, but hearing the truth is still shocking. Now, there’s a chance for one or all of those strange referees to be a part of the masked men. It makes sense if I assume they were mapping out the area.

Aisha continues, “I heard them say, ‘Today, the world shall know our name, Cascabel.’ You have to go back and warn them!”

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