"Guys, could you assist them, please?" Orisa asked her squad while being pulled into the mansion by the presumably new leader of the group.
Together with this man, Orisa went inside and straight to the kitchen. On their way they saw broken glass on the floor and a hole in the door frame. The man opened a fridge and dived into its contents, grabbing whatever food there was.
"We should probably cook something for everyone, right?" Orisa asked while observing his greedy feast.
"Oh? Huh? Yes, you should."
Something inside Orisa twitched from the way he spoke so casually, assuming his captain died recently. She could try to convince herself that the man just got used to death and became detached, but the way he behaved now and talked was far from a thick-skinned veteran. Orisa hoped to be mistaken, but at least to her, it looked like the man didn't care in the slightest. The question was, why bother to teach her something in the first place then?
"I'm Orisa, by the way." Since the man was silent, Orisa began cooking and decided to revitalize their conversation as well.
"Good for you, I guess? You can call me Ramsay. I'm the vice leader of the fourth team." He yawned of boredom and finally decided to talk business. "Alright, so about this whole deal. To put it simply, you should always have an escape plan."
His story was rather simple. Their whole group went inside a cave to clean the Beasts but got trapped between two powerful packs instead. They had to go there anyway but were too arrogant and paid the price for their lack of planning and preparation.
"Do you often have to go inside the caves?" Orisa asked, feeling rather claustrophobic.
"There aren't many holes in the first place, so nay. But it's the most troublesome thing to do, that's for sure."
They talked a little bit while Orisa was cooking a stew. The more she listened to Ramsay, the more she disliked his worldview. He talked about everything as if it had nothing to do with him at all; he appeared to be an outsider, observer. Or, how it was in Orisa's case in her past life, as a player surrounded by NPCs, whose lives were artificial, not real, thus of little concern.
During her days in this world, Orisa thought a few times about this being a computer simulation. However, she had no way of confirming the truth, so it was safer to her moral compass to treat everything as real as it seemed. The man in front of her was either the opposite of her or a plain old psychopath. Whichever it was, Orisa felt sorry for his companions. Not that they had any choice, anyway.
Next morning came like a wrecking ball. Dippo gathered everyone in the main hall and announced:
"We are going there. Don't give me these looks, idiots. We still need to clean the Beasts. You have three days to prepare."
People from the fourth team were less than happy but still nodded in understanding. They were used to such events, to their duty; Dippo was correct in saying they still had a job to do. Hectic preparation began.
Sparing no resources of her own, Orisa made her friends learn, train, and craft under the Concentration potion's effect. They used the entire bottle in three days, but Orisa deemed it an emergency and made peace with the price. She could earn back money and not her friends.
While her squad mates were busy, Orisa wasted no time in pestering Dippo on his promise to craft her some weapon.
"Damn, stop getting on my nerves, you obnoxious demon!"
"You promised me! Now is the best time. If not now, then when?" she kept pushing Dippo until he finally surrendered.
"I don't know what to make, alright? Think of something yourself, and I'll do it, gosh."
Expecting something of the sort, Orisa immediately pulled a piece of paper and shoved it Dippo in the face with a bright grin. He glanced over the note, furrowed his brow and gave it back. Under Orisa's questioning gaze, Dippo turned and shouted:
"Jando, dear, come here please right this damn moment!"
A minute later they heard footsteps, and a tall slim girl came from the third floor.
"Yes?" Her voice was calm and almost indifferent as she was already used to such treatment from the captain. Orisa noticed that the girl's eyes were slightly red. 'Was she crying just now? Or maybe it's an allergy?' Orisa mused quietly.
"Help the monster over here, or she'll eat me out alive!" Dippo said with a pleading voice.
"Don't see a problem," she turned and tried to leave.
"Ja-a-ando! You wouldn't leave your beloved captain in a pinch," he pulled a sleeve of the girl's long loose white blouse.
"I still can't find a correlation between my beloved captain and you, sir. But it seems I have no choice."
"You meanie, think about my feelings," sobbed Dippo before turning serious again. "They have some trash cores, so you can use them as you see fit."
Dippo left them alone, and Orisa shivered under a piercing gaze of the girl.
"Um, hi there, I'm Orisa. Nice to meet you, miss Jando."
"Chill, I won't bite," the girl said affably, but a hint of sadness was still present in her voice. "So, what is it you want?"
After skimming through the paper, she gave Orisa a curious but doubting look.
"You came up with that yourself? Do you even know how much Mana would it use? Also, it will slow you down, too." Observing Orisa's constant nodding, Jando shrugged. "As you wish. Bring me the cores and come back tomorrow."
The crafting, however, was not the end of Orisa's assault on Dippo. She also nudged him to observe her training and advise on new spells and moves. Disregarding her doubts, Dippo made Orisa learn only two new skills. As a side quest, she practiced to produce both a Lesser and Major version of Status and Condition spells.
And like that, the three days of the preparation flew by in a blink of an eye. In the last evening, Orisa came to visit Jando, and the tall girl presented her a pair of thick red gloves.
"I replaced a few of the things you wanted with other Seals and added one more on top," Jando began with a hint of excitement in her voice. Orisa was glad to see the girl less depressed, but her eyes were red all the same. "On the inside of the right one, you'll find the Seal of Empowerment as your main tool. On the outside, I put the Seal of Mana Flow. As for the left, inside is the Steel Skin as you wished."
"Sounds awesome, but what about the outside? I don't recognize this one," Orisa muttered, looking at an unknown form.
"That's because you skipped all the active Seals and only looked at empowering once, right?" Jando gave Orisa a knowing look. "I asked the captain about you and thought that you'd need it. So the last one is the Seal of Regeneration. Sure, it is quite ineffective in terms of Mana churn rate and provides less compared to full-blown healers, but its effect is based on the quality of cores and materials, so you won't have to bother with your stats to cast the spell. Having something to patch you up in a dire situation is way better than having nothing, believe me."
Orisa thanked the girl, and they talked some more. Jando was twenty-five and transferred to The Hounds four years ago. She specialized in an interception and impairing spells; speaking broadly, Jando was a battle caster with fewer offensive but more weakening and controlling spells. Her second profession was, as became evident, a magic gear crafting, one of the branches of the same path that Iten picked for himself.
"Considering this perverted geezer handpicked you, I'm hoping to see great things from you, junior," Jando said at the end of their conversation and ruffled Orisa's hair.
Using the list Dippo gave her, Orisa gathered her squad and packed things for their first raid. Marina and Shou had some prior experience in this matter, so Orisa listened to their advice. Onuki paid close attention to everything since she was in charge of the squad’s preparations. Even Shou, seeing how inevitable his departure was, helped them a little. It was important to pack as much as they could even for a short raid but keep the luggage as small as possible to reduce the burden on the horses or in case they would travel on foot. Dippo gifted them traveling backpacks enchanted to be sturdier; there even was an option to spend Mana and lessen their weight for a short period.
In total, they had seven days of riding lessons. While it was enough to teach them basics, Orisa still felt uncomfortable on the horse. Regardless, they stood there in a semicircle, the lair of The Hounds behind them and their captain Dippo in front. The morning was still chilly in the central region despite the end of spring.
"We need to clean it up. That's our job, my darlings. Let's try not to get sidetracked on our way there, alright? Any questions?"
"Is it okay to leave our base empty?" a question slipped through Orisa mouth despite her resolution to keep quiet.
"Are you afraid that somebody would steal my silk panties?" Dippo laughed and turned his horse. "Move out."
The moment these words left Dippo's mouth, a familiar non-corporeal sensation passed through them all. The Wave.
"A good sign," someone chuckled.
They moved in pairs, forming a long chain. Orisa rode side by side with Iten; their pair was second from the end.
The trip was not supposed to be a long one since the place they were planning to visit was only a few hours ride from the mansion. A small mountain range, more like a group of tall hills was their destination; coincidentally this place was one of these five spots where the Beasts gathered for no apparent reason. As Orisa managed to fathom from the conversation surrounding her, Dippo's presence gave everyone a moderate reassurance, but the trip still posed a significant threat.
Their first encounter happened an hour later. One by one, the Beasts started attacking them, and they were fighting a constant stream of enemies twenty minutes later. To Orisa's shock, they fought without slowing down or dismounting.
Only once they had to stop and clean the place when the road became blocked by a giant turtle. The group first had to fight the turtle itself, defending against its never-ending stream of water and ice attacks, and in the meantime, more Beasts followed the trend. In the end, they lost almost three hours dealing with the threat, dismantling them for cores, and tending injuries.
Orisa felt sick when one of the attacks shaved off both frontal legs of the horse. Even more sickening was the fact that they healed it back and made the poor animal carry someone again. While the horse was still under the restoration spell, Dippo ordered them to take a break and eat lunch. No delay went unused.
In this manner, they have been traveling for seven hours before the group finally arrived at their destination. As Orisa expected, this was no mountain range, a mere group of overgrown hills instead. The highest of them stood no taller than fifty meters by her rough estimation. The hills were partially covered with trees but riddled with cracks and caverns in other places.
Something felt off. The longer Orisa was looking at the scenery, the more she felt something bug her. Back in the old world, she was never a complete shut-in but had little experience going outside as well, especially into the wilds. The only gateway to nature was Satoru's grandparent's house; this, however, was tens of years ago, so Orisa had a hard time remembering the scenery. Despite that, the hills in front of her looked oddly unnatural.
"We'll go on foot from this point. Be ready to guard the horses and yourself and expect more Beasts," Dippo announced to the group, but Orisa felt the phrase was mostly addressed to her squad. "Gather eight of the most loaded horses. This little chipmunk will cover them."
Everyone turned their heads towards Orisa, making her shiver from the gazes filled with expectations and doubts. Her friends also gave Orisa puzzled looks, and only Kanai shrugged and proceeded to buff her. When two people tied the reins of the horses together and took their spots in front and behind Orisa, she spread her hands wide and used the first new spell:
Two beams of blue Mana shot out of her palms; as if struck an invisible wall, they stopped a few meters away and spread around, forming two wide hemispheres of protective field. The shield wasn't large enough to cover everything, so the space above their heads was unshielded, but it was still way better than nothing.
Unlike Nene's Asylum, which blocked everything the girl deemed harmful, Orisa's field would stop only projectiles and spells. She pulled a lot of hair while learning the spell since it was her first time working not just with the Friend-or-Foe system that was extremely hard by itself but with object-oriented magic which turned to be even harder. Keeping in mind conditions and types of attacks while forming two Mana layers into streams of energy that also harbored intent to form a shield-like shape was way beyond Orisa's expertise. But the result was a stronger barrier that could withstand more damage than normal, fully protective shield. Indeed, it could only help against ranged attacks, but these were the most dangerous anyway.
On a bright side, Orisa didn't need the Concentration potion to cast the barrier.
Other members around her also used shields and buffs; casters hid behind shield-wielding combatants; the only shooter in their group, Ramsay, walked by Dippo's side. They both were either good at dodging attacks or straight up suicidal. In this manner, their raid began.
A mere ten minutes later, the Beasts attacked. As if reminding Orisa of the first episode of the famous space saga, she heard a banging sound and saw ripples on her right shield. One, two, five, ten; the barrage of ranged attacks grew in intensity, straining Orisa's Mana layer in charge of the barrier's Mana supply. A few moments later, a return fire followed as well as a brutal melee.
Wounded members were brought inside the shield, treated with healing spells, and sent back. At one moment, Orisa's heart sunk when she saw Kanai covered in blood being carried inside. To her greatest relief, the boy only took several cuts that made his condition look severe but was, in fact, more or less well.
The stream of the Beasts grew stronger or weaker from time to time but never stopped. When the group finally made it to the designated cave, Orisa's hands were shaking mad, and her Mana pool dropped to the third of its size. Experienced fighters blocked the entrance with their shields, making a chokepoint against the Beasts, so the moment she felt they were out of danger, Orisa fell on the ground like a tree trunk. Her hands had never hurt that much in both her lives. Walking for half an hour on uneven terrain with arms raised and strained from the Mana flow was a feat she never hoped nor wanted to achieve.
Someone's strong hands took Orisa and carried her to the side.
"Say a-a-ah!" a familiar voice commanded. Orisa opened her mouth without a second thought, and the same hand immediately shoved there a pill. "Now chew and then drink some water."
Satisfied with her work, Marina tapped Orisa on the shoulder and left. On the other hand, Orisa felt better almost immediately. Her fatigue, if not gone, now at least was dampened; she could move her hands again if only not as nimbly. Five minutes of their break flew by in an instant, and they stood up.
The rear group was still fighting with the Beasts. The stream of attackers, however, grew thin and weak, at least for now. The group slowly walked into the cave.
It was more of a giant crack than a cave. The only difference was a surprisingly even, almost artificial floor. While keeping occasional Beasts from the outside at bay, the group slowly moved deeper. The cave was rather spacious, more than twenty meters wide and at least three-story-tall. They illuminated the space with the same floating light that Dippo used during their forest fight and kept moving forward.
The signs of past combat were evident; here and there Orisa saw piles of rubble, spots of the collapsed ceiling, crashed boulder, and so on. She was walking along the left wall and had to sidestep numerous obstacles left after the previous fight of the retreating group. Among the rubble, Orisa could also see occasional specks of dried blood.
"We are getting closer to the spot," said Ramsay, and people around him gripped their weapons tighter and renewed their buffs.
The longer they walked, the fewer Beasts followed them. At the same time, the stronger grew a strange pressure inside Orisa. Her left side was itching way more than it should, and the deeper they got into the cave, the more uncomfortable she felt.
They passed by a large cave-in that blocked almost half of the cave. The spot was especially bloodied. The signs of intense combat were visible everywhere; burnt walls, cracked ground, shattered rocks, and signs of acid splashes as well. Before their departure, Dippo explained in great detail what kind of Beasts were evolved snakes, so Orisa was expecting this much.
They walked a few more minutes before Orisa realized something. She no longer felt itchy on her left side. This strange and uncomfortable sensation left her almost completely, and she barely felt anything at all. Despite feeling better, it was strange and unnerving. Orisa stopped and tried to make sense of this face.
"What's wrong?" asked one of the rear guards after stumbling over the reluctant girl. She signaled him to wait and focused on her senses yet again. Seeing something was wrong, the guard said loud, "group, halt. Captain, sir, come here."
Both Dippo and Ramsay approached them. They looked equally puzzled and unhappy by an unforeseen and unplanned stop.
"What's going on, girl?" their captain demanded.
"I know it sounds strange, I do, but none the less I think we need to backtrack." Orisa looked around and saw all faces turned to her. Some looked doubtful, while others displayed irritation. Dippo furrowed his brows even deeper. "I know how it sounds. I honestly can't explain, but I feel like we missed something. Something important."
They stood there in complete silence. Twenty seconds later, Dippo psyched up by slapping his cheeks and turned to the group:
"Alright, reverse the formation. We are going back to the entrance. If there is nothing there, we'll take a break and continue inside."
On their way back, Dippo walked by Orisa's side, observing her expression. The girl in question kept furrowing since the uncomfortable feeling was gradually coming back, this time over her right side. They passed a familiar landmark of a giant cave-in and followed further towards the exit when Orisa suddenly said out loud:
"Wait! I feel like we missed it again." She turned around and ran back, curses following her from behind.
Orisa stopped by the giant pile of boulders that blocked half of the path and looked up. It was too dark to see the ceiling, so she asked them to light it up. Under the illumination, it became evident that the cave-in was artificial; the ceiling was riddled with blackened marks of explosions.
"I think we need to clear these boulders," she said thoughtfully.
"Can you imagine how much time would it take to move these giant boulders? And for what exactly?" asked one of the group members.
"That's easy, step aside," Marina spoke suddenly and moved closer to the rocks. After a few seconds of examination, she turned around and moved a few meters back. Without further explanation, the girl jumped in the air:
With a loud noise, the biggest and closest to the wall boulder cracked and fell apart, turning into a pile of rubble. Despite said pile still blocking a significant part of the space, a crack in the wall now became visible. Without additional light, it was hard to see far, but the path looked wide enough to pass.
One of the casters conjured a semi-translucent glowing sphere that flew into the crack while the group was clearing the remaining rocks. A few moments later, the same man fell on his knees and said with a shaking voice:
"It's... I see Sean's body there. The crack goes wider some ten meters further from here, and there is an opening. Kind of like a room."
Everyone looked at the man with shocked expressions and then turned their eyes towards Orisa. She was the first to dive into the crack, crawling all the way towards the opening in a few seconds. The same blue sphere hovered there, giving enough light to see a body leaning over the wall. There was an open backpack by his side and various items scattered all over the place. Orisa came closer to inspect the scene when suddenly the body jolted and released a series of coughs.
Screaming like a little girl, Orisa dashed away only to smack into another person crawling through the crack.
"The hell are you doing, you idiot?!" grumbled Dippo while rubbing his injured forehead.
"The corpse! It moved!"
While Orisa shook from horror, Dippo pushed her to the side and leaned closer to the body:
Cursing out loud, Dippo pulled a few pills and stuffed them inside the man's mouth before pouring water as well as casting a basic healing set. He then turned around and yelled back into the crack:
"He is alive! Bring Tessa here right now!"
A thoroughly shocked Orisa crawled to the other side of the room to free the path. She leaned on the rocks that were blocking the other side of the opening. An indescribable hurricane of emotions boiled inside, and she was too shaken to think straight.
Five minutes later, the group slowly pulled their leader's weakened body through the crack. As the last person left the opening, Orisa let out a tired sigh. With them gone, it was time to crawl back. But something felt wrong. She leaned back on a cold stone that was blocking the crack's other side and tried to concentrate.
Everyone except her already left the room where Sean was hiding, but the strange sensation that brought Orisa here in the first place was still present.
And it was coming from behind the boulders she was leaning onto right now.