The Selection

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Chapter 73 - Inteiru Expota - Warning

“We need to move!” I exclaim. If they’re declaring something like that, it’ll obviously be something flashy, like an all-out assault. I didn’t think it would be this soon when they mentioned at the auction that their names would be known by the end of the Inteiru Expota. On the other hand, an attack doesn’t make complete sense because the strongest military forces on Sholoth are gathered in Syrina. The circumstances are not in their favor now compared to back then.

“No. We’re not leaving without Aisha!” Ada exclaims while pulling on the unbreakable chains.

Aisha frowns and lowers her eyes. “I won’t blame you if you leave me. The city is more important right now.”

“You’re more important to us,” Irwin says.

“We’re not abandoning you, Aisha,” Melody says.

“As your leader, I want—“

“Shut up. We came to rescue you, and we’re not leaving without you. I don’t care what you want,” Deniz says.

I don’t blame them. I’d probably do the same thing in their shoes. It’s not like we have to choose one or the other anyway.

“Guys, we can do both,” I say. “You guys stay here and help Aisha escape while the rest of us return to Syrina. We’ll meet you there.”

“Roger that,” Deniz says.

I nod and then run back the way we came from, with Hina and her team following behind. “Ruby, Marin, we’re headed back to the city!”

“’Kay!”

“Wait!” Hina exclaims as we turn into the corridor that we arrived from.

I stop and turn around. “What’s wrong, Pearl?”

She turns her head toward the caged monsters, supposedly Aerkins. It can’t be that she wants to save them in some way in this exact moment, right?

“We can’t just leave those Aerkins trapped in those cages,” Hina says.

I knew it. I want to tell her that she’s stupid and unreasonable at this very moment, only I can’t. I walk up to her and put an arm around her. “I know how you feel, but we don’t have time for this. They could be arriving in Syrina at any moment.”

“You said you didn’t know how you could help me. This could be how.”

We’re going to do this now?

“Hina, what’re you talking about?” Luke asks. “Help you with what?”

“Her goal to give monsters rights,” I clarify.

Luke knits his eyebrows, scrunches his nose, and twists his lips upward.

Hina never told him? So, none of her team members know about her aspirations… Taking advantage of Hina’s hesitation to answer, I smile, careful not to appear disingenuous or sarcastic. I continue, “You know. Mass feed them and cease hunting them.”

“Not all monsters, you know that, Darling. Only the good monsters, as you call them. The ones that can make decisions, like Splinter.”

“Thanks for the correction, Pearl,” I say. “That’s basically it, Luke. She has a very ambitious, benevolent mission.”

Luke repeatedly nods his head slowly, still looking at us like we’re crazy. Simon and Dennis give a similar reaction. Luke says, “Hina, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but warning the city about the group who attacked our city and killed two of our friends is more important than freeing the monsters from their cages.”

“We’re not goin’ to free them yet. Give us a few minutes to try talkin’ to them to see if they can be reasoned with. It’s all I ask,” Hina says.

“Pearl, I doubt these monsters are the good monsters that you want to save. We heard it from Cascabel themselves,” I say while imprinting that name into my head. I’ll never forget it. “They used a new method to tame the Aerkins—the Slave Collar and Slave Remote, no doubt. That’s probably why they appear docile.”

“We don’t know for sure,” Hina says.

“What we do know is that the masked men will appear in Syrina, so let’s go!” Luke exclaims.

“Pearl, we can come back for them later as soon as we deal with the impending threat at the city,” I say.

“Fine.”

“We’ve already wasted a lot of time. I say we go full-speed with Enhancement magic,” Luke suggests.

“Agreed,” I say.

“Can everyone keep up?” Luke asks, glancing over to Marin and Ruby.

“You don’t need to worry about them,” I say. “Lead the way.”

“Try not to lose your footing. It’s slippery,” he says and runs toward the exit.

The rest of us follow him. We progress through the forest and back into Syrina through the Human entrance. Our pace slows because the streets are too crowded to continue at full speed. There’s no panic, so Cascabel probably hasn’t made their first move yet. They’re definitely here somewhere. Just a little further to the plaza.

When I think about revealing to General Nero that I’ve disobeyed his orders, I feel uneasy. In general, I’ve grown more lenient toward not following orders to a T recently, especially when Captain Albius told me a while back that I only received that punishment following the Ragnar incident because the General didn’t like me. There was nothing wrong I did. It wasn’t my fault.

What should matter are results. Although I broke orders, I discovered something crucial about the masked men’s identity and their next move. General Nero should understand and value that, so there won’t be a punishment. Worst case, he could take away my promotion.

We reach the plaza, leaving only a straight path to the castle at the end. No doubt we have the attention of everyone present in the area, which includes soldiers from every kingdom. Jetia and the others not taking part in our side objective still diligently standing where we left him.

No one from the sidelines moves as we run across the gap between the armies. Two figures from the castle’s entrance run toward us. Judging by one of their running styles, they’re Xog.

We stop as they eventually intercept us. One guy has a wolf head for a face which makes me a little uneasy even though I shouldn’t be surprised anymore. He’s definitely a Feradian. The other person has a human-looking face except with light gray fur in places where there shouldn’t be any facial hair, leaving only the area around his eyes, nose, and mouth with bare skin. Is he supposed to be a Feradian or a Dociform? I’m not sure, but I’ll assume a Dociform. Both have Titanium equipment.

Hina holds onto my arm.

“Where do you think you’re going, Humans?” the wolf Feradian asks. “Go back to your line.”

“We have important information to deliver. Let us pass,” Luke says, trembling a little.

“What information?” the wolf Dociform asks. “Why don’t you tell us, and we’ll deliver it for you.”

“There’s no time for this,” Luke says and then starts to walk past them.

The wolf Dociform steps in front of him and shoves him to the ground. “Oh? We’re not worth your time?”

Simon and Dennis help Luke back on his feet.

It doesn’t look like these Xog are going to less us pass without a good reason. Luke’s right. We don’t have that much time to waste here. We can’t afford to reveal the information here because of a possible panic. Or they won’t believe us because the world doesn’t know about the attack on our city. And Cascabel is probably already here, planning their attack. We only have one option, but it’s risky. We’re also surrounded by Xog to our left and right in this last stretch to the castle.

“What’s going on, Leon, Jasper?” Pem asks, suddenly appearing behind the two wolf Xog.

Her again.

“Pem…you didn’t have to come. It’s just a few measly Humans,” the wolf Feradian says.

“The others wanted me to check on you two and make sure you don’t get us into trouble,” Pem says.

“We’re doing our jobs properly. These Humans claim they have important information but won’t tell us. Suspicious.”

“What if they do? Do you want to be the one responsible for suppressing it?” Pem asks.

“No, but I don’t trust them. They’ll try something when we least expect it. They’re nervous.”

“Ehehe! Don’t you know that yellow-belly is among them?” Pem asks and points to me.

“Oh, he’s that one Bazaleon mentioned? Birds of a feather do flock together!”

The three of them burst out laughing.

This two-faced rat girl... I really don’t know what’s going on in her mind. First, she acted all innocent when we met, but then she spewed lies about me to the Feloidians, which nearly got me killed, though she saved me from that. It’s her fault that I met Bazaleon and got called a yellow-belly. Now she’s reveling in it. At least I’m not the only one they’re laughing at this time.

The wolf Dociform stops laughing and asks, “Who are you Humans trying to deliver the information to?”

“We need to see the king,” Luke says.

“So, you plan to intrude the Grand Hall…”

“We’ll allow the yellow-belly to enter the castle,” the wolf Feradian says. “But, you’ll have to deal with the Elves and Dwarves first. The other Humans wait outside with us.”

“I’ll tag along with him as insurance,” Pem says.

I guess that’s my queue. Hina lets go of me, and then I run past the two wolf men with Pem alongside me.

“What’re you up to?” I ask. Is it a coincidence that things at progressing in my favor? Without Pem’s interruption, we would have had trouble getting past those two Xog.

“Shut up, Human,” she answers.

I frown and cock an eyebrow. She said I was her first Human friend, but she doesn’t act like it. I can’t let my guard down around her.

Soon, we reach the entrance, where members from every race and kingdom stand guard. I’m tempted to take a deeper look at all the different types of Xog on the left side, but I only get a glimpse. I don’t dare look again. I saw a bird’s beak, a lizard’s tail, and horns. I know they’re not monsters, but my instincts want to tell me that they are.

“Halt,” an Elf says. “Declare yourself and your purpose.”

“I’m Sergeant Kai from Drosera. I have critical information to pass along to the kings,” I inform and then widen my eyes. The group of Dwarves next to the Elves are Vanguards. They don the same style of Titanium armor. I can’t tell if any of these Dwarves know me from yesterday because I don’t want any misunderstandings. There will be more of them inside, right? Proof that I’m not going to rat.

“What kind of information?” he asks.

“It concerns public safety,” I say and then feel the atmosphere around me changing the moment I do.

The Dwarves glare at me.

“This Human isn’t lying,” Pem adds. “I’ll keep an eye on him.”

“Very well. You have our permission to proceed,” the Elf says as their group steps out of the way.

“So, I’m good to go, right?” I ask, slowly walking forward. Are the Dwarves and Humans supposed to say something too? Captain Albius isn’t here, so he must be inside. Well, if they’re staying silent, it must be okay.

“Be warned, we will knoo if ye be tellin’ de troof, boy,” a Dwarf says as I pass by their group.

It’s really just an unfortunate misunderstanding. I speed up to a sprint as I go through the open gates. The number of troops inside are fewer in number spread farther apart along the walls on both sides. The Grand Hall must be behind the tall double doors at the end of this short path. Captain Albius stands guard by the double doors with another Human, two Elves, and two Vanguards.

“Sergeant Kai, what brings you here?” Captain Albius asks.

“I’ve got an important message. Is this the Grand Hall?” I ask.

“You’ve come to the right place,” Captain Albius says and then approaches the double doors.

I follow closely behind. The doors creak loudly as he pushes them open. The chatter inside comes to an abrupt stop.

Over a hundred figures appear in clusters around the room. The doors close automatically behind us.

Bazaleon sticks out like a sore thumb from the Xog crowd. A cold chill goes down my spine, thinking about my close encounters with him.

“What is the meaning of this interruption?” King Diell asks.

Get a hold of yourself. I focus on the task at hand and answer, “Sergeant Kai speaking, I bring urgent news. I discovered the snake earring bandit group is the same as the white-masked group who attacked Drymo. They call themselves Cascabel and should’ve already arrived.”

What?!” the room roars.

Judging by their reaction, they’ve already been informed about the attack on the city. People murmur and shuffle around the room.

“Mobilize our units outside now!” King Diell exclaims.

Captain Albius turns around and rushes over to the door. Suddenly, a strong gust of wind blows him, Pem, and me further into the room.

“You’re going nowhere!” someone exclaims, consequently silencing the room.

I stand up and scan where I stood. Two white-masked men appear floating in the air above the exit. I widen my eyes. It’s too late; they’re here!

“No one move. Our allies outside will wreak havoc around the city should you choose to make a scene here,” one of the masked men warns.

I grit my teeth and fists, recognizing this voice. It’s him—the one who turned my life upside down.

“What do you want?” King Diell asks.

“Simple. We only have a few demands. First, you’ll cancel your reforms for coexistence.”

“Why? What do you hope to gain?” King Diell asks.

“It’s the sole purpose for our formation. We directly oppose the idea. There’s no other reason. Should you ignore our wishes, you’ll face the consequences. You wouldn’t want to have another tragedy, would you?”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a warning. Let Drymo serve as an example of what could happen if your race supports coexistence, Elves, Dwarves, and Xog. We’ll know of your decision tomorrow. Those who openly support and push for coexistence will be punished. We have a long list of individual supporters on our radar already.”

“Your second demand?” King Diell asks.

“We want some of your B-Glims.”

B-Glims…? What’s that? I thought there were only Glims and P-Glims.

No one responds. The masked man continues, “You know staying silent won’t do you any favors with your furry friends present.”

“That’s underhanded.”

“Coexistence is a pain, isn’t it? So, how about it?”

“We can’t give you those. They are our national treasures,” King Diell replies.

“You’ll be left with no choice but to hand them over if you don’t want some of your other secrets spilling into the public.”

“I do not know who told you about our treasures, but we will not hand them to you.”

“We’ll see about that. I’m looking for a book trilogy that starts with the letter ‘M.’ Do you know anything about that?”

“What game are you playing? If you want a book, go to the library.”

“Hmm… I believe the second letter is ‘W.’”

“Im-impossible…” King Diell mutters. “How do you…?”

“Third letter ‘M.’”

“Shut your mouth!” King Diell exclaims.

“Stop!” multiple individuals yell.

“Fourth—“

“I will hand you Drosera’s B-Glims!” King Ford says quickly. “Do not speak another word of this matter.”

What’s this reaction? This book trilogy has worked up three of our kings and several others. A book that starts with the letters ‘MWM?’ What sort of word is that? I still can’t wrap my head around that a type of Glim is a national treasure.

The masked man responds, “No, we want the B-Glims in this castle. You’ll give them to us tomorrow morning in front of the castle.”

Who in the world are you?” King Diell asks.

“Your nightmare. Do we have a deal?”

“What deal? You fiend,” King Diell says.

The man chuckles and then says, “My silence in exchange for your B-Glims. It’s a fair trade. Or would you prefer that I utter the book’s full name right here?”

King Diell says, “You would not dare. If you know of the book, then you must also know—“

“Shut up, you fool. You have said enough,” King Ford says.

After pondering for several seconds, King Diell replies, “Fine. You have a deal.”

“Don’t worry, we aren’t going to rob you. We only require one of each type.”

“We will have it ready for you tomorrow. How do we find you?”

“We’ll make you aware of our presence when the time comes.”

“Fine,” King Diell responds. “Is that all?”

“Not quite. This evening, we want you to make a public announcement to spread awareness of our name, Cascabel.”

“Fine.”

“That’s all. Clear the hall leading up to this room without alerting to our presence, and we’ll be on our way,” the masked man says.

King Diell signals his hand.

“Captain Albius, take care of it,” General Nero says.

“Lotrem, ye go,” the Dwarven king says.

Hearing a familiar name, I look over and see two familiar faces. Lotrem and Nazug with the Dwarven crowd that only number ten heads including the king. Hold on a second. They’ve all got Mithril armor. Are they above the Vanguards?

“Shadow,” the Elven king says.

Captain Albius, Lotrem, and an Elf walk toward the only exit to the room.

So, Lotrem and Nazug have control over the Vanguards, who can only be elite national guards at this point. When the Vanguards told me not to rat, did the order come from them or someone higher up? I thought it was Floyd, but what if it was Nazug? I know they’ve got a long-range communication tool. They went through a lot of trouble silencing me. What did they want to keep secret? Is it still the Aerkin arena, or is it because someone high up the Dwarven ladder is participating in illegal activities?

The doors creak open as Captain Albius pulls them open. Lotrem and an Elf following closely behind.

That reminds me. Why weren’t there any Xog in that hall? I didn’t get a good look before, but several other menacing Xog stand beside Bazaleon. The three to the right of Bazaleon look equally as dangerous, not losing at all in physical size. They’re all decked out in Mithril armor too.

The first one with a bull’s head is the tallest of them all. He’s got two curved horns on top of his head, hooves for feet, brown hair covering his body, and a tail. Of course, he probably has an appropriately sized weapon on his back.

The next Xog has the thickest frame, and he’s a tad taller than Bazaleon. A bear’s head rests on his shoulders. White fur covers his body.

The third one gives me a chill not because of his size but his appearance. He looks like some sort of lizard beast, but he also has a pair of wings. Scales cover his entire body outside his armor, including his head, arms, legs, wings, and tail. He has spines around his body with clusters of them on top of the head and along the tail.

The Xog after that has much bigger wings, but that’s expected of someone with an eagle’s head. Compared to the four to his left, he doesn’t look as intimidating. That giant bow he’s got resting on his back seems interesting, though.

Hmm? A rabbit girl? Other than a small pink triangular-shaped nose and two long, thin ears on top of her head, she looks like a Human girl. Strangely enough, I find her a little cute. It’s too bad her assets are covered by her armor. Actually, nevermind. Her disproportionate thick legs ruin her otherwise great feminine appearance. Or maybe it’s really fluffy white fur. She would’ve been like a cuter version of Pem.

I thought Bazaleon said only the strong should rule. That explains why they opt to have no extra guards because their decision-makers are the most powerful. But is this girl supposed to be one of those people?

It’s hard to see how many they have because of the bigger types blocking my view. I know of the Felodians and Muriforms, but I don’t know how many more types there are. I presume they have one representative of each kind. Could this girl be the representative for the Muriforms? I think Pem mentioned that included rabbits. Or is she considered a Feradian because of her legs, making her something else?

Speaking of which, where’s Pem? She’s not where I thought she landed after the knockback. I glance around the room without any luck. And then a thought comes to mind. She can’t possibly be thinking about attacking the masked men before they leave… She should be smart enough to know that provoking them here might result in their comrades attacking the city.

The doors open again.

Captain Albius enters the room and informs, “It’s clear.”

He keeps one of the doors open while Lotrem holds the other one.

“Don’t forget about your end of the bargain,” the masked man says, slowly descending to the ground. A wall of Scrap Mana appears behind them as they walk out. One more footstep resounds and then silence. The layer of Scrap Mana disappears within a second, but both are already gone by that time.

How?

Captain Albius and Lotrem return to their original positions. The room remains silent for a few more seconds.

The moment both doors close, King Diell exclaims, “Xog! Are you toying with us? Why did you not inform us of their presence?”

Bazaleon laughs before replying, “You’re so quick to pin the blame on us, aren’t you, Human?”

“You put great pride in your superior sensory system, but you are telling me that you did not hear or smell them before they appeared?” King Diell asks.

“It’s good enough that I could smell you and the other Human kings’ fear the moment the man spoke of that book. It’s laughable coming from the race telling other races to be transparent. Do you have something you’d like to share with the rest of us?”

“Do not change the topic,” King Diell says.

“We would relish knowing as well,” the Elven king says. “What is so paramount about a book that simply learning the name is perilous enough for you to warrant giving away your national grade treasures to gangsters?”

“Those men didn’t have an odor before they appeared, and I assure you that they didn’t make a sound either,” Bazaleon informs.

“Before? So you could track them now?” King Diell asks.

“No, they’ve covered themselves in an offensive foul-smelling odor. Pem, perhaps you can explain better now that they’re gone,” Bazaleon says.

Pem walks out from behind Bazaleon with her nose pinched closed. So that’s where she was. She lets go of her nose, takes a sniff, and then gags.

“I’m sorry,” Pem says, keeping her nose pinched. “The smell is still in the room.”

“Pem’s one of our best scent trackers in the kingdom. We have no one more qualified than her,” Bazaleon informs.

“It’s impossible. I could only smell the awful stench around their bodies,” Pem says.

“There you have it,” Bazaleon says.

“Could you not track the origin of this foul odor?” King Diell asks.

“Your enemies aren’t stupid. If they’ve prepared this trick for us, they’re aware of our weaknesses. They’ll have a way to remove it and misdirect us,” Bazaleon says.

“Weaknesses? I never thought I would hear that word from your mouth,” King Diell says.

Bazaleon growls and then says, “Don’t get the wrong idea. You’ve allowed them to bend you over while having to fancy their every demand. If this was in our territory, we would rip them to shreds. They would not dare pull this stunt with us. I’ve answered your question. Now it’s your turn.”

King Diell exchanges a few glances with the other Human kings before responding, “We cannot tell you anything about the book. This is secret knowledge passed down from one generation to the next that only a few select people from each kingdom are allowed to know at any one point. I have not read the book, so I do not know why it is forbidden. It is a tradition held strict by our ancestors.”

“That is quite a predicament if Cascabel holds this awareness now. So, you will grant them whatever they optate every single time they come before you in order to preserve your secret?” the Elven king asks.

“No, we will think of something in the future. We only comply now to keep our residents safe. We need to figure out how the information leaked first.”

“Our kind would be glad to help you figure out the traitor if you give us enough incentive,” Bazaleon says.

“No, we will do our own investigation,” King Diell answers.

“Suit yourself.”

The doors burst open. Several of the Xog I saw at the entrance run into the room. They exclaim, “Sir!”

Is there something going on outside? A stream of Humans, Elves, and Dwarves are approaching from behind them.

“Is everything fine in here?” the wolf Feradian asks.

“We had two unexpected guests, but they’re gone now,” Bazaleon informs. “Is there any abnormality outside?”

“We’re sorry, sir. Everything was normal until this odor appeared,” the wolf Feradian informs. “Give us the order, and we’ll look for the intruders.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Bazaleon says. “Go back to your station.”

“Understood,” he says and then leaves.

Silence fills the room again as the doors slowly come to a close.

“Earlier, we denoted that we are partial in pursuing coexistence. However, in light of the incipient situation, I believe it is in our best interest to no longer be involved with your business,” the Elven king declares.

“What? We have not even begun negotiating,” King Diell says.

“Give us an equal amount of B-Glims that you plan to give to Cascabel, and we will remain interested,” the Elven king says.

“Do not be unreasonable…we do not have that many to spare. They are not useful to you if you do not know what they are.”

“Then tell us what they are utilized for.”

“Unfortunately, that is classified information. Even among us, there are not many who know of their purpose or existence.”

“Everything is a secret with you, Humans. Regardless, I insist that you provide us with B-Glims and their intended purport.”

“If they are what you want, then it is only fair that we demand something of equal value from you,” King Diell says.

“Then we are finished here,” the Elven king says. “We will be departing first.”

“Wait a moment,” King Ford says. “I am willing to put some of Drosera’s B-Glims on the table for negotiations. Please, consider it. How about we adjourn the meeting for today and continue our discussions tomorrow?”

“That is fine. We will consider it. Shadow, prepare our units outside,” the Elven king says. The Elf from earlier walks to the exit.

King Diell turns to me and asks, “Sergeant Kai, is it? Which kingdom are you affiliated with?”

“Drosera, sir,” I respond.

“I appreciate you making an attempt to come here and warn us about Cascabel, but how did you come to learn of this information?” King Diell asks.

General Nero’s gaze falls onto me. I have everyone’s attention. I hoped this situation would never arrive. What do I say? Even though it was too late to be of any use, it seems like he views it as a good thing. Do I claim the credit or give it to General Nero?

I know the Dwarves told me not to rat, and I don’t know precisely what they’re referring to anymore. If I give my story, I would have to at least include the part where we went to the auction and followed a lead from there. Based on the discussion, we’re in a poor negotiating position, so if I tell the higher-ups that the Dwarves sold Cascabel weapons, that could be a good thing.

The Vanguards called me an army dog, so I can’t give General Nero credit. If they think I was taking orders from someone higher up, who knows how they’ll react. I have to take full responsibility. I can’t lie anyway with the Xog present in the room. Though I can’t tell the whole truth either, so lying is inevitable. It shouldn’t concern them enough for any of them to get involved in our Human business, I’d have to hope.

I need to go with something because they can smell my fear and hear my pounding heart. I can’t wait too long.

“I’m sorry to interject, King Diell, but he was acting under my orders,” General Nero says before I have a chance to respond.

What’s he doing? Bazaleon and the other Xog seem to have no reaction. Neither do the Dwarves.

“Oh, is that so?” King Diell asks. “The orders where you told him to go back to the inn and stay there until this morning?”

“Yes, sir. I could not be specific because it was not a private conversation. My original orders for Sergeant Kai and Sergeant Hina’s team were to investigate, so that’s what I meant when I said my orders would not change. Our king’s friend was part of the conspiracy to attack our city, so forgive me for not sharing this information before. We didn’t know who we could trust. We had reason to believe they would be at the Inteiru Expota because Sergeant Kai encountered them during the Rising Champions. Specifically, I wanted Sergeant Kai and Sergeant Hina to investigate the Dwarven hub underneath Syrina.”

Damn, did Captain Albius tell General Nero that I got the pass and intentionally broke orders? I’m screwed in so many ways. Though, I’m concerned more about the Dwarves right now. General Nero has painted a target on my back whether or not he realizes it. I don’t want them throwing me at Xog, especially after…wait a minute.

Bazaleon already found the supposed perpetrator of that whole mess about the man with the diagonal scar across his chest. Even if they told the Xog that it was me all along, who are they going to believe? Pem, his trusted pupil or bunch of Dwarves? Especially if it’s after I speak poorly about them. Anything they might say about me after the fact would be passed off as a grudge.

“I see. Perhaps Sergeant Kai can fill us in on the details of his investigation. What did you discover down there?” King Diell asks.

The atmosphere thickens. I know the Dwarves are sending me death stares right now, and I don’t want to make any eye contact with them. Especially not after my response.

“We attended some black market auction sponsored by the Dwarves in the underground city earlier this morning thinking that Cascabel could make an appearance there. The Dwarves sold a large Mithril sword to someone with snake earrings, and since we didn’t have a lot of leads, we ended up tailing them to their hideout.”

King Diell knits his eyebrows. “You found the elusive snake earring bandits’ hideout? How did you manage to accomplish that?”

“We had a few of our allies camped outside the city. We were told there was a secret entrance to the underground city, so some of us waited in case suspicious people came through. They tailed them to note the location before coming back and leading us there.”

“You remained undetected?”

“Yes, until we decided to raid the place. Unfortunately, only the lower-ranked members were there by the time we arrived. That’s where we recognized the familiar white masks stashed in one of the rooms. We ran back as soon as we could.”

“I will commend you for your bravery, showing no hesitation to rush into a dangerous situation. We need more soldiers like you, however, I advise you to avoid being reckless in the future. We cannot afford to lose any more exceptional soldiers.”

“Thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind,” I respond.

King Diell turns his head toward the Dwarves. “King Grossel, so you have sold Mithril weapons sooner to Cascabel than to us?”

“Ay be nae in charge o’ dat, but we did nae knoo dat been Cascabel. We be nae breakin’ any rules we have set.”

“Sergeant Kai, was there anything else you wanted to mention in your sightings underneath the city?”

“Well, there is one more thing…” I say. The Elves will be outraged.

“Choose yer words carefully, boy,” King Grossel warns.

I don’t plan to say anything about the Aerkin arena. That’s a one-way ticket of getting permanently blacklisted by the Dwarves.

“Let the boy speak.”

“Cascabel were selling Slave Collars, Slave Remotes, and…well…two female Elves at the auction.”

Gasps resound from the Humans and Elves.

“Is your intention to instigate a war with us, King Grossel?!” the Elven king exclaims. “You neglected to mention these details in your report.”

“Dis be new ter me tew,” King Grossel says. “Ay dun oversee de auction directly.”

“Ludicrous. Your underlings run the auction.”

“Ma officers be nae required ter report every wee din’ ter me. three o’ dem runs the de auction, and it juss happened dis morn.”

“So, after learning of this, you still believe it is something to make light of?”

“Basically. Wha’ be de big deal? We weor nae de ones sellin’ de slaves.”

“That is impertinent. Officers under your supervision sanctioned the sale to occur. King Diell, you side with the Dwarves on this? I thought we reached a mutual understanding eight months ago.”

“Dun be cryin’ ter de Humans nigh. Dae have known abart Human slave trade an’ have nae made a fuss abart it. I guess ye Elves be special.”

“Do not think you are special. It is pellucid as day that you have blackmailed the Humans. Why else do you not trade Mithril with them, albeit they had favored you greatly when the races converged here a decennium ago? You are the only race to receive particularly favored treatment and receive an exclusive underground territory.”

“Dare be nae blackmail. We juss have a mutual understandin’, dats all. We traded wiff de Xog ‘cuz we share de same philosophy: only the strong shou’ rule,” King Grossel says and then laughs. “If ya want ter talk abart blackmail, be dat nae wha’ ye be doin’ roight nigh by referrin’ ter eight monfs ago?”

“Yes, about that,” King Diell says. “We compensated you and fulfilled your requests, but as you can see now, it was never our doing. It has been Cascabel all along. Do you not think an apology is in order?”

“We have done nothing erroneous to verbalize any apologies. Cascabel has always been your muddle to handle that has gotten out of control. They only exist because you commenced the coexistence movement.”

“Do not forget that we started it, together with the Dwarves and Xog. I only took the first step. You share some of the responsibilities as soon as you agreed. Regardless of our deal with the Dwarves, you are still benefitting from the movement, are you not?”

“It is as you verbalize, but we cannot ignore the fact that the Dwarves are utilizing the space you granted them to green-light the sale of Elven slaves.”

“Let go o’ dis already, wou’ ye?”

“You would not be so nonchalant about this if someone was selling your kind.”

“Who says dat nae one sells Dwarven slaves? It happens all de time. We dun have a problem wiff dat.”

“Oh, really? Your women are… Who would?”

“Our women be what? Ye skin color changin’ freak.”

“Let us not resort to insults, shall we? Let us have a civil discussion,” King Diell says.

“It be hard ter stay civil when King Cornaiff be baitin’ me wiff false assumptions.”

“What is erroneous? Enlighten us. How much would someone pay for a night with one of your women?”

“Ye assume dat all slaves be female. Male Dwarven slaves be high in demand ‘cuz we have superior innate strengff an’ stamina compared ter Humans an’ Elves. Ye wou’ nae buy an Elf fer labor work.”

The door opens. Shadow says, “We are ready.”

“Hmm. Give us a moment. Something has come up.”

“As you wish, we will be waiting,” Shadow says and then closes the door.

“King Grossel, I admit I made a misguided postulation, so I will be straight with you. Outlaw Elven slave trade entirely. Do not sanction the transactions to occur in your underground market. In exchange, I will no longer pry into your deal with the Humans.”

“Dats a problem fer us. If we start crackin’ down on wha’ be allowed, we will lose attraction. People come ter us ‘cuz dae have de comfort knowin’ dat dae have complete freedom on wha’ dae ken buy an’ sell.”

“So making a profit is of more preponderant concern?” King Cornaith asks.

“By creatin’ a market free o’ discrimination, people bring all sorts o’ items ter sell. Sometimes we take interest an’ participate in de trade directly. We put alerts on materials dae we need an’ short circuit de process entirely. We buy it befer it hits de market. Ye canna dae dat in a public market governed by independent traders.”

“Be that as it may, prohibiting Elven slave trade cannot possibly harm you to the point that it ruins your orchestration to engender a rigged market.”

“It makes nae sense ter outlaw only Elven slave trade, considerin’ dat we be movin’ toward coexistence. Dats racist.”

“Hmph. Verbalizing that it is racist only when it suits you. Coexistence does not mean we have to achieve consummate parity. I surmise we can both concur on that. We have an extravagant quantity of underlying differences.”

“Yis.”

“How about ostracizing slave trade entirely?” King Cornaith suggests.

“Nae, slavery be necessary. Oderwise, dare be nae way ter collect payment frum doze tew broke ter pay. Some be willin’ ter become a slave ter meet dat end. Oders risk slavery ter make a profit.”

“Who is disposed to become a slave? To be mistreated and desecrated until death?”

“Dare be a proper procedure fer all dis. We allow slavery in our country, an’ we provide certain basic roights. First, dare be a contract an’ understandin’ betweun de master an’ de slave. Dis includes de nature o’ work an’ duration o’ time served fer de slave. It be a crime ter go beyon’ de rules set forff by de contract er ter intentionally hurt de slave.”

“I guarantee malefactors do not care about this felicitous practice you speak of. I am certain Elves do not appreciate abduction and rape.”

“Ay be juss sayin’ it be nae sensible ter ban slavery ’cuz people abuse it. Dare will always be doze who dae nae follow de law. Why dun ye ban all weapons ’cuz dare be doze who dare use it fer murder.”

“The Elves are simply looking for a resolution,” King Diell says. “Do you have another suggestion since prohibiting slavery is not an option?”

“King Cornaiff, outlawin’ slavery be nae wha’ ye want. If we dae dat de slave traders will simply go ter a different location fer dare transaction. Dis way, ye knoo whaur dae be likely ter make an appearance.”

“So, you will notify us whenever Elven slaves come into sight?”

“Yis, we cou’ dae dat, but dae wou’ catch on sooner er later an’ it wou’ be nae different dan bannin’ it.”

“Get to the point. What is your proposition?”

“Ye cou’ be present fer de auction an’ play by de bewk.”

“You are suggesting that we purchase our own brethren back? That is glorified extortion in disguise.”

“Nae one wou’ disapprove if dat be yer approach. Dare have been disputes in de past ‘cuz o’ upset folk dat loses a bid. As long as dae be settlin’ dare feud outside de city, dare be nae issue wiff us. Each person be responsible fer dare own safety an’ if dae meet dare demise by anoder party later down de road, it be nae our problem.”

“Hmm…” King Cornaith interjects.

“Ay am sorry if dat does nae satisfy ya. Hoo abart we put Miffril on de table as well? O’ course, we will allow Elves ter enter de underground area tew, but ye will have ter follow de rules an’ get yerself a pass.”

“What is the subsisting method to obtain one of those?”

“Go ter any Dwarven blacksmiff an’ ask fer it. Dae will brand yer skin wiff a hot metal.”

“How troglodytic. We are not going to engage in that practice. What is the purport of this inane action?”

“Ter grant ya limited access.”

“Limited, for what purport? You verbalize as if it is illegal.”

“Officially, it is illegal as Humans,” King Diell adds. “This was a result of our agreement with the Dwarves a decade ago.”

“So, you invented a way for Humans to access the area, but additionally gave rise to a law that enjoins it? That is imbecilely incoherent.”

King Grossel laughs and then says, “Indeed! King Diell, dun ye agree?”

“I know where you are going with this, and you know my answer.”

“Bah. Ye have got ter be more open-minded. Lewk, we will put Miffril on de table fer ya tew. If ye agree on dis, de Elves will be satisfied regardin’ slavery, an’ we ken move on.”

“If we are going down this road, the Elves and Xog will have to agree too.”

“What is it that I am acceding to?” King Cornaith asks.

“Have ye heard o’ de Achilles Sundance Circuit?”

“Is that the savage sport where monsters fight one another?”

“Dats de one.”

“I do not mind as long as you have safety measures in place. It will only be a reason for apprehension if it becomes hazardous for my brethren. If you agree to be held culpable for the consequences that may result, I agree.”

“Wha’ abart ya, Bazaleon?”

“I don’t care as long as those Slave Collars are not involved,” Bazaleon says.

“Hoo abart it, King Diell?”

“Fine. I agree to legalize it in Syrina. However, you must construct a checkpoint outside the city for the passage of monsters. I will not allow monsters to be roaming free throughout the city. You handle what needs to be done, and as King Cornaith has said, you will be held accountable for any damages that occur.”

“Oi’m glad we came ter an agreement. In dat case, de pass will nae longer be required ter enter de underground hub. King Cornaiff, ye will also stop pryin’ intae our deal wiff de Humans, yis?”

“Yes, but we withal wish to capitalize on your black market to flag certain products.”

“Okay, we ken dae dat.”

“There is one more matter where we require some discussion. Do you condone the implementation of Slave Collars and Slave Remotes? Especially now that we are certain that Cascabel is responsible for bringing it to inception.”

“Slave Collars be a tool useful fer keepin’ slaves in line if dae be actin’ art o’ line er breakin’ de terms o’ dare contract. Loike all tools, it ken be misused.”

“I propose that we enforce this contract you speak of in all areas in Syrina outside the underground district. No man or woman shall keep a slave without the compulsory paperwork or enforce a Slave Collar unless absolutely obligatory. The Xog can assist us with their deception detecting abilities in lieu of an indited contract or circumstances with disputes,” King Cornaith suggests.

“What would we receive in return?” Bazaleon asks.

“Your race expressed revulsion when we discussed the appearance of Slave Collars and Slave Remotes in the past year. I do not believe anyone who wishes to live would enslave your kind. Still, if the Elves, Humans, or Dwarves optically discern any Xog entangled with a Slave Collar, we will notify your kind without any delay.”

“You have my approval.”

“If Bazaleon says so, Ay will agree ter yer suggestion.”

“Agreed.”

“Magnificent. Let us exhaustively talk over the specifics on how we are going to implement and enforce the terms we established at a later time. We will make our departure for the day,” King Cornaith says as he makes his way out. The dozens of Elven guards and officials follow him. “Do not misconstrue this gesture to indicate that we altered our stance on coexistence. This is a separate matter.”

“Sergeant Kai, you may leave right after the Elves. Thank you for your service. I believe you deserve some recognition for your work today despite some omitted information,” King Diell says.

Is he talking about the Aerkin arena? It did sound like he already knew but could do nothing about it without evidence. I reply, “Thank you, sir. I could not have done it without the help of Sergeant Hina’s and Sergeant Aisha’s platoon. They deserve some praise too.”

“Very well. King Ford, I am sure that you can delegate the rewards accordingly.”

Rewards? Awesome. I thought everything was all for naught when our warning was too late. If King Diell is complementing me, General Nero will be viewed in a positive light too. That means he won’t punish me for disobeying his orders.

“Yes, I will handle it,” King Ford responds.

“Good. I think we can conclude this meeting now that the Elves have left. King Ford, King Velyn, and King Carian, we should stay and confer our next steps. The ministers of each kingdom are dismissed. The Dwarves will depart after Sergeant Kai, then the Xog, and then the remaining Humans.”

“Sergeant Kai, take Dyfed, Nudd, and Guto with you,” General Nero says.

Who? The three ministers we’re in charge of separate from the Human crowd. Oh, them. I do just that and escort them outside.

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