Morning came, but Orisa still felt conflicted. She woke up half an hour ago and was lazily laying on the sofa all this time, thinking back on Rita's so-called revelation. It was not like what Rita told was not useful. Quite the opposite, in fact; but it still left an underwhelming feeling inside.
Imagine someone got top marks for all their tests. They called home to notify parents who in turn said that there will be a big present waiting back at home. The person felt excitement and anticipation when they got home. But the big surprise ended up being their distant relatives visiting at the same time. It was not like that person disliked their relatives, but was merely expecting something more surprising and exciting, related to their achievement instead?
That's how Orisa felt after getting a useful but severely unexciting tool:
"Um, can you repeat once again? It looks like I misheard something when you were talking about the source of POWER and KNOWLEDGE just now," Orisa's voice was oozing with sarcasm.
"It's perfectly normal to be skeptical, especially if your own experience could only compare to a toddler at best."
"Hey!? That's mean."
"Don't treat me like some crazy old hag that was about to teach you how to wipe your nose," Rita scoffed back. "If I say it's important, then it's god damn important."
"Rita..." Orisa sounded both mildly surprised and puzzled. "You know that the way you talk to me has changed in the last few days?"
"I... Oh, dear, I'm sorry. I-"
"That's okay. You are better that way. Wanted to let you know just in case something was off."
They fell silent for a moment, sitting atop the same watchtower. Rita let out a long sigh and spoke in a worn-out voice:
"By now you probably already know that I'm not exactly of an idle mentality. These past years of serving here helped me to recover. But at the same time, I was sensing an evident degradation inside. I'm not talking about combat skills as it is apparent already; what I mean is my mind, my sharpness, and willpower." She took a close look at Orisa, gauging her reaction. "Being docile here was relaxing and comfortable. It felt as a quicksand slowly but steadily sucking me in without any clear way out."
"Talking to you, teaching you, and going on a hunt made me feel like my old self. These past days felt the same as the time with TanYan, the time of sharpness, and the time of discovery. It reminded me of what I was and showed me what I became. You can't even imagine how much it means to me, Orisa. I don't want to return into that swamp again. Thank you for getting me out."
"I'm really glad you feel that way because I need you, Rita. I need you now and probably would need you much more in the future." Orisa gently squeezed the woman's hand while smiling brightly. "And you should step up with your training, too."
"I will, so you don't have to worry." She cleared her throat and forcefully made a stern expression on her smiling face. "Back to the topic, my cocky student. As I said already, the marvelous tool that helped me discover and understand many things was inspection magic. You probably already know about both Status and Condition spells."
"At the basic level, they both provide information on the target's well-being. What magical effects there are, what is broken or hurt, and so on. That's why people rarely use anything above Lesser tier. However, the implications are far wider than that."
To sum her lecture up, it was possible to gain in-depth information on the target, make assumptions on its skills and behavior based on that. One could even learn spells with a neatly timed Status spell. Another implication that became obvious when you thought about it was that you could use these spells on items. Again, people used Lesser Status to determine the item's effects, but it was possible to learn much more with a high tier spell. For example, one could fathom how the item was made, or what hidden properties one could activate, and other useful things.
As Rita stated, at least one-third of her Sealcasting repertoire came from inspecting various spells, materials, and even the Beasts. Orisa made a mental note to learn both skills, but there were more crucial things at the moment.
She met Rita an hour later inside the fort's dining room. After having a quick breakfast, they moved outside to practice. Orisa had diligently practiced depicting the Seal Rita gave her for the rest of yesterday's evening, drawing and redrawing it for hours. Orisa's drawing skills were persistently horrible, but at least she could now recall the Seal's structure.
"As far as I can imagine, there are two ways to conjure the Seals," Rita began her lecture. "The first I use myself, and it is similar to metalworking. Have you ever seen how a liquid metal is filling the mould?"
"Not in person, but I get the idea," Orisa said, remembering Lord of the Rings. 'One Seal to Seal them all, hehe.'
"I see. Well, it's the same here; you need to imagine the form of the Seal first, and then slowly pour your Mana inside. Like this," She extended her hand with her palm facing upward. Orisa was barely able to notice a translucent form hovering over Rita's palm, but the moment Mana started to fill it up was quite evident, and it looked exactly like what Rita described. When she finished pouring Mana inside the Seal, it blinked for a moment.
"Saw that glow in the end? It means that the Seal is functional. Now, for the second method to make the Seals, that one was used by TanYan." She paused for a moment to get her feelings under control. "I can't show you the process for an obvious reason. He only said that imagined a stamp-seal that his father has been using every evening to stamp his documents. Something about making a mental image and then splashing Mana all over it. Or something like that."
"How curious. I'll probably try both methods to see which one is easier for me," Orisa replied thoughtfully and sat down on the ground.
"Before that, let's decide on your train. There is that one you used last time at seven in the evening. But the trains are going every four hours, so if you'd like, there is one at three or at eleven."
It was a tough question, indeed. On the one hand, Orisa wanted to spend as much time with Rita as possible. But on the other, she wanted to get back and use the time remaining of this vacation to tend to other matters as well. Judging by the time she got from the train, the trip was around six hours or so, and if she were to use the earlier one, she would be able to get to the camp before midnight.
"I think it would be better to use the three o'clock train..." She said uncertainly.
"That's what I thought," Rita met her answer with a sad smile. "I'll leave you here for the time being and go prepare for a trip to the station."
"By the way, I want to ask while I still remember," Orisa almost smacked herself on the forehead. "How do I travel from the station to my camp?"
"Find a stable or courier service; you'll be able to rent a horse or ride a cart."
Rita left her on that note, and Orisa returned to her practice. She moved back and forth between the two methods mentioned by Rita but made little progress. Together with Rita, they left the fort two hours later, making their way towards the station atop one horse.
"Rita, I'm sorry, but the fuck is this?" Orisa said with a hint of resentment in her voice.
They sat inside a small cafe an hour later, having late lunch after Rita came back from her business. She had left Orisa inside said cafe, disappeared for half an hour and returned with a massive suitcase that she handed to Orisa.
Inside that sturdy-looking container, Orisa found a potion maker toolkit with a pack of various ingredients, a set of expensive-looking brushes and tools for Mana-engineering, and four Concentration Potions. There also was a pouch that made a metallic sound when she shook it, so Orisa guessed its contents even without opening the bag. By a rough estimation, the gift's cost was at least a six-month salary.
"Leave me out of this humility scene, please," Rita quickly retorted with an annoyed look. A few seconds later, her expression softened a bit. "Dear, nothing is too good for you. I promised to help you with everything I can. You'd never ask me for a material aid as you are too good-natured and humble for that. And we both know that you'd get a great boost from these items."
They sat in tense silence for some time before Rita added with a mischievous grin:
"As my acquaintance said before, I have nowhere to spend this money anyway."
"You can't use my own words against me!" It was a checkmate, so Orisa gave up. "Thank you, Rita. I can't imagine my life without you."
"I love you too, dear." She smiled warmly and went to order her food.
The train was due in twenty minutes, so they sat on a bench at the station, talking.
"Do you think it's safe to use the Military mail to communicate?" Orisa asked a question that was bothering her for some time.
"They are screening all parcels and letters, of course, but very briefly. If we will use some light code, everything should be okay. Considering alternatives we don't have a choice anyway."
"Okay, I'll come up with something, then," she paused, looking at her mentor intently. "Rita, I don't mean to be nagging but wanted to stress it once more. Please, step up with your training. In the worst case scenario, we might have to storm that tower or whatever, I guess."
"You don't need to worry, dear," Rita gently ruffled Orisa's hair, "It feels so nice to be alive again, so I won't stop even if you'd ask me to."
"There is another thing, by the way. And sorry for bossing around, I-"
"You are not bossing, Orisa, since we are together deep in this... mess. Don't worry, stop apologizing, and act as you see fit."
"Then here is a quick fact for you before we proceed," Orisa made a dramatic pause, then swiftly hugged Rita. "You are awesome, and I love you so much!"
They laughed merrily together. Both girls tried their hardest not to think about an imminent parting; otherwise, they would ruin this wonderful moment.
"Okay, so here is the last thing I wanted to ask of you," Orisa distanced herself, still holding Rita's hands. "If possible, dig something both on the history of the Cataclysm and any plans the Military is cooking now."
"That's it?" She sounded disappointed. "You don't need to say obvious things, Orisa, I'm not that stupid, alright?"
"Sorry, just an old habit of keeping everything in check."
They had been talking the rest of the time until the train finally arrived.
"I hope that we will meet again soon, my dear."
"Me too, Rita. I hope so!"
Despite all their effort, the parting still turned a bit teary. Everything inside Orisa ached and pleaded to stay with Rita but she, of course, couldn't do it. The same thing was happening with Rita as well. But they had to let go of each other.
Her train trip was uneventful and unproductive. She practiced both Seal-conjuring methods, but it felt like they both were ill suited to her. She was either doing something wrong or had to find her own solution.
Orisa finally arrived at the dorm by eleven in the evening. Despite the late time, she felt great and was full of energy after taking a short nap inside the train. She slowly opened the door to their room in case Onuki was already sleeping, but the nightlight at the corner alerted her that this was not the case.
"Orisa? You are back, that's nice," said the girl in question. She was reading something in her bed a moment ago but now stood up to greet her only roommate.
"I'm glad to be back and also happy to see you are well. You are well, right?" Orisa dropped her bags near her bed and came closer to Onuki.
"Yes, I'm alright, thank you," she answered and hugged Orisa briefly in a friend-like manner. Despite that, even a fleeting contact made Orisa remember the piercing episode and everything she felt that day, so her cheeks reddened slightly. To her shame, Onuki noticed that as well.
"How was your vacation? Were you able to hang out with our boys?" Orisa sat down on her bed and tried to hide her embarrassment by switching the topic.
Onuki landed on her bed right in front of Orisa. The space between the beds was narrow, so their legs came in contact with each other. While Orisa was still in her trousers, Onuki had nothing but panties below her waist, so she was sensing Onuki's skin even through the fabric. Her thin shirt was also skin-tight, highlighting female parts of her upper body.
"Why would I hang out with them?" she answered calmly, slowly and almost nonchalantly moving her legs and rubbing them against Orisa's ankles. "My vacation was great, thanks to you. Now that I don't have to worry about the future, I was able to relax. Study a bit, read various things, and have a good old lone time on my own."
"Haven't you felt lonely?"
"Perhaps," she replied shortly, tilted her head and lightly bit her lower lip. "By the way, I mean it. Thank you for letting me to join your group. I owe you now, so ask me anything."
She put too much emphasis on the word 'anything,' but Orisa already understood the implications without additional pressure.
"I'll hold you to that without a doubt. And I'm honestly glad that you are with us, Onuki."
"Are you now?" She chuckled softly and leaned forward. Her voice now sounded a little provocative. "It certainly wasn't like that before. At least if we are talking about the way you behaved."
"Look, we both know you are wrong," Orisa let out a long sigh. "It's complicated, trust me. You are a great girl, and I like both your character and appearance. And it's not that I disliked like the things you did to me, quite the opposite in fact. It's just that we would regret it greatly, both of us would."
Orisa could not understand how everything happened. One moment she blinked her eyes, and next moment Onuki was sitting on top of her, pressing Orisa's shoulders down to the bed with both hands and leaning very close. She whispered directly into Orisa's ear with a hot and sweet voice:
"I don't care..."
"Please, stop, or I won't be able to resist. Listen to me, Onuki. We will regret it, believe me! Please, I honestly can't hold much longer-"
"Isn't that great?"
And she greedily pressed her lips, now hot and red from burning passion, against Orisa's lips.