Ultimately, their march towards the Deju and Dippo didn't amount to much. Indeed, they met some Beasts on their way, and her friends fought them as Orisa wanted. There were even significant injuries despite them using the Lantern. But in the end, they made it to the crash site.
By the time they arrived to Deju and Dippo, he was almost done with the repairs. Near his feet lay a nice pile of glimmering Mana cores, and Orisa slapped her forehead in despair.
"Captain, I'm tremendously sorry, but we forgot to look for the cores inside the Beasts we fought on our way here."
"It's not you who forgot," grumbled Dippo while wiping his hands stained in Mana-ink, "it's this fine gentleman who forgot. I've never taught you how to look for the cores, right?"
"Well, yes, but it still didn't cross my mind," despite Dippo's reassurance, Orisa still felt guilty.
"Are you one of these people who can't be happy until they are punished?"
"I see, sir. No, sir. Thank you, sir!"
"That aside, if we won't waste more time here, we'll still be able to find they corpses before they dissolve. So come help me, guilty leader."
On the way back they managed to salvage twelve Mana cores, and Dippo gave them to Orisa for the crafting purpose. Because of all the distractions on their route, the group arrived at the mansion by the dusk. Orisa quickly went to check on Marina, but the girl was still sleeping. At the very least, she looked healthy.
Orisa had so many questions, so after eating together with her squad, she apologized to her friends and left after Dippo. He sat on the third floor's balcony and skimmed through some papers while lazily sipping a glass of wine.
"Time for another interrogation?" he asked in a tired but positive voice.
"Looks like you know me well, captain." Orisa took a chair from the nearest room and got back to Dippo. While on her way, she also took out a notepad and a pen. "Wouldn't it be easier for you to make an introductory lecture about the, ahem, Lair and everything?"
"Aren't you one nosy little thing?" he said, thoughtfully looking at the night sky. A few minutes later, Dippo began with the tale.
This mansion was something from the dark past. The Hounds occupied it centuries ago, even the founders of the group used it as their base. Origin of this building was unknown, but it was far from being unique as there were tens of similar mansions scattered across the continent. They were mostly intact due to the Seals placed inside their walls, repairing them by absorbing Mana from the air; these Seals helped keep at least the structure of the buildings intact through the years. Refurbishment, however, was beyond the Seal's power.
There were now seven groups operating under the Hounds' emblem, and one of them was scheduled to return in a few days. The usual composition was around ten to fifteen people, so Orisa's party was understaffed. Dippo was working on this issue but so far without any success. However, judging by his words, it was of little concern since they still could operate on a lower scale. For example, Shou was here for three weeks while Marina sat on the bench for two months, and they nevertheless went on patrols with Dippo or other squads while waiting for their group to form up.
"Who's cooking, by the way?" Orisa inquired one of the little questions.
"Huh? Well, honey, it could be me, it could be you. Usually, the ones who are here decide on their own."
"Okay, the last three questions for now," Orisa softly chuckled from Dippo's relieved sigh and continued. "What about my third condition?"
"Any time, sweety, any time. But I suggest you first to get used to this place and your routine."
"Right. Well, the hard one now. What's wrong with Shou?"
"Oh, don't mind him. This dummy is a spoiled kid who thinks that acting like an asshole would change the world."
"Well, I kind of made out that much already, but what is his agenda?"
"How should I know? He blurted a few times something about the rotten world, political structure, unfair and idiotic system and such."
"Oh, so he is mum's revolutionist? How troublesome." Orisa sighed tiredly and stared in the sky for some time. "So, what about Marina?"
"Oya, she is a brilliant girl, but I won't spoil you the fun of discovering it yourself!"
"Urgh, it makes me nervous for some reason. What about her pill addiction?"
"Slap the girl a few times, and she would probably stop. She just wants to be praised and recognized, I guess?" Dippo shrugged and finished his glass of wine.
"Another person who didn't get enough head pats from her daddy? Okay, not as bad as I expected. And the last question about the squad leader."
"Want me to make a public announcement or something, dear?"
"That would help a lot, sir."
The rest of the evening passed without any events. The next morning began with a loud voice:
"Yahho, girls! It's morning, wakey-wakey."
Marina finally got back on her feet and was seemingly full of energy. Judging by her look, she had already taken a shower and changed the clothes. Her new look was as revealing as the last one but colored red instead of the previous light-gray.
"Ugh, Marina, dear, do you want to end your life right now in a most horrible way?" grumbled Orisa while slowly getting up from the bed. She could use another hour of sleep.
"Kyaah, demon! You are a demon, sis!"
"Orisa, would you testify that twenty-nine stab wounds were in self-defense?" Onuki's intent look made Marina shiver and jump to the other side of the room.
"Is that how you select squad members? If they are demons like you, then they pass? I wonder how the boys are doing," with that, she turned around and skipped to the door. A few seconds later, a cheerful "Yahho!" could be heard over the other side of the wall. Orisa groaned and turned to her neighbor:
"Good morning, Onuki. How are you?"
"I'm fine, so you don't need to play an older sister with me," she answered calmly and stood up.
"I'm not playing, alright? I just feel off from this migration; everything's new, unknown. It makes me uneasy, so I thought to check on you as well," Orisa said with a hint of grievance in her voice.
"Um, right, sorry. I'm okay, but it is, indeed, a slightly daunting change," quickly apologized Onuki.
They sat at the kitchen table twenty minutes later, waiting for Dippo to finish cooking breakfast. Orisa was in high spirits since it felt great to sit like that with everyone; she remembered lonely breakfasts and dinners back at her old world and shivered.
"My dear puppies, let's talk about important things first," Dippo began while still handling the pan. "There are seven of you which is not enough but more or less okay for the patrol of the surroundings. That's why we'll focus on a quick crash course, alright?"
"Before that, let's clarify one thing, my darlings," he continued while unloading cute octopus-cut sausages with fried vegetables on their plates. "Every squad needs a leader, and after skimming through your lists once again as well as observing your characters, I decided on this cute little girl here. These people are used to following her, but you two should start doing so as well."
"Tch. Another crazy hag," muttered Shou and looked away.
"Awesome! Sis is so cool, te-he-he!" Marina jumped from her seat and hugged Orisa, rubbing her cheek all over Orisa's face.
"Thank you, sir," she muttered while pushing away a hugging monster. "I hope to perform well. Let all of us be good squadmates, partners, and, if possible, friends."
"Cheers!" yelled Marina with her cup of tea.
Her old squad members clapped with warm smiles on their faces. Even Onuki was genuinely happy.
"Glory to our Supreme Demon Leader Dark Overlord Commander Captain Orisa!" shouted Clemen and pressed his right fist to the heart. Poor Shou choked on his drink and looked at her with a shocked expression and fear in the eyes.
Among other things, Dippo explained their schedule. Ultimately, they'll have a five-day week of various tasks, with the sixth day solely for the practice of crafting skills or new techniques. The last day was their free time. Once per month, unless they were on a long patrol, they'd get a three-day weekend for whatever they wanted to do.
And the first thing Dippo had them to learn was horse riding. Back in her old world, Orisa was scared of horses to a certain extent, and the reason for this was quite eccentric. Her imaginative mind drew vivid pictures of a horse, suddenly biting off Orisa's fingers. The fear was still there, but at least there were people around her who could heal the fingers back. Probably.
Both Marina and Shou were already more or less proficient in this field, so Dippo had them do other tasks and chores in the meantime. By the end of the first day, everyone's bottoms were so sore that they ate while standing.
Besides riding, they also kept their crafting sessions as well as learning new techniques or mastering those previously learned. The Lair's territory was vast and housed various other facilities - stables, workshops, warehouses, and such.
Dippo also showed them a Library in the basement of the mansion, and it was huge, indeed, at least four times larger than that of the training camp. Sadly, the friends were too tired to dig into the Waves, but Orisa still took the book on the Seals to her room and made it her night read.
"Sis, aren't you studying too much? Next thing you know, you are an old virgin maiden who saw nothing except books in her life. Let's have some fun!"
From their temporary rooms, Dippo moved the squad members into two bigger apartments on the second floor; one for the boys, which made Shou grumble endlessly, and another for girls. Marina, on the other hand, was ecstatic and tried to chat with them every spare moment.
"I really need to learn some more Seals, Marina," Orisa let out a sigh and put away her book. "What do you want? I mean, what's fun there is to do in the first place?"
"I-don't-know," she said slowly, then jumped up and in one swift motion ended up on Orisa's bed. "Tell me about yourself, then!"
Onuki gave Orisa a doubtful and a wary look, implying that she has no desire to talk her share again.
"Shouldn't you be the one to tell us first?" Orisa answered with a raised brow.
"No~, don't wanna~!" Marina jumped back and stopped in the middle of the room, hugging herself and swinging back and forth. "We don't know each other that well yet, so you can't ask me such personal questions."
"But you did the same!"
"I'm a special case, te-he-he."
In such a manner, they passed their evenings. Orisa finally found some time and willpower a few days later to use the third condition she agreed upon with Dippo. That one was strange and tricky, but Orisa couldn't think of anything better while not being blatant or arrogant at the same time.
The third condition she came up with was an unlimited access to Military news and channels to exchange information. Surprisingly, Dippo didn't mind in a slightest, saying that he couldn't care less about this boring flow of useless garbage. However, he added that there were different levels of access to these channels, and he would give her the same level as his minus his private mail, of course.
The device was in some ways similar to the one Orisa used to get her name and tag back at the Arrival Chamber, but this machine was a few times bigger. On one side of the device was a tablet that looked like a screen from the first generation of calculators; it could display words and numbers in ten small rows. Orisa also found a switch to tune on different channels and services. The whole machine looked quite complicated and not user-friendly in a slightest; luckily, there was a manual nearby.
It took her three evenings to get a basic grip of its functions, and she finally managed to send small letters to Rita and Tiana. An enormous amount of information passed through the Military network on a daily basis, and most of it was useless, indeed. Reports on the Waves, basic orders like waste fewer crystals or stop tarnishing gear, and such. Orisa was still going through the controls and a clunky interface of the machine to properly filter this flow. Despite a burning desire to learn the mechanics behind this machine, she had zero time to do so and only grit her teeth helplessly.
At least, Orisa got replies from Rita and Tiana. Her mentor was well, practicing and participating in the defense of their fort to keep her shape. Tiana, on the other hand, appeared to be depressed.
"Greetings, Orisa. Thank you for contacting me. I'm grateful and happy to receive a message from you. My health is good; thank you for your consideration. As for the other matters, they are not as well as I wanted them to be. Even compared to the usual I'm less welcomed in our house. Father is always busy either with the work or his new mistress. I wanted to consult him about my career choice, but he waved me away with little interest. I am at a loss of what to do next or how to proceed. There is a parade scheduled for the next week, and I am hoping for his mood to become more favorable by then.
In hopes of your situation being better, your friend Tiana."
Orisa sighed. Her heart ached from all the unfairness of Tiana's situation. In the course of their past interactions, Orisa's feelings towards Tiana shifted to something family-like; now she viewed the girl as her younger cousin or a step-sister and wanted to protect and shelter her at all costs. Orisa's hate towards the head of the vas Kavenfenn family grew like mushrooms under the rain.
On their third day of training, Dippo gathered them all during lunch and gave out small pouches with coins while making them sign some verifying paper. Their first salary raised the mood of the group, letting them dream of a way to spend their hard-earned money.
It was their fourth evening when the lights all over the mansion slowly blinked two times.
"Oh, it's an alert message. One of our parties returned," Marina said nonchalantly and raised from the bed. Orisa and Onuki followed her example. They met all other members plus Dippo at the mansion's entrance and walked outside.
One by one, figures appeared on the road. Nine riders in total slowly approached the welcoming party. Even under the scarce moonlight, Orisa could make out their appearance being quite a sight to behold. Unlike everyone she saw until that moment, these people looked like your typical fantasy adventurers; casters in white robes, fighters in leather armor, warriors clad in metal, all sorts of people.
They slowly approached and stopped then unmounted in the same daunting silence. With each passing second, Dippo's expression was turning darker. He looked back and forth between the group members and finally asked:
"Where is your leader?" The silence was his answer. "I'm asking you where is Sean?"
"A group of evolved snakes. Sean covered our retreat," said a tall black-haired man with a long rifle peeking over his shoulder.
Without anything more to say, Dippo turned around and went inside, slamming the door. A few seconds later, they heard a sound of something breaking inside and an infuriated "Shit! Fuck!" from the other side of the door.
People from the group tiredly slumped on the ground. Only the same black-haired man approached the squad and asked:
"Are you folks of the newest squad? Do you have a leader yet?"
"Yes, that would be me. Can we help somehow?" Orisa asked in a depressed voice.
"The only thing you could do is to learn. Come, let's talk. I'll tell you what happened and what we did wrong."