Orisa spent the first half of the day inside the communication room, going through the reports. One after another, she gave some only a glance view while carefully reading those where victims were mentioned. After going through the numerous text, she could picture the incident more or less clearly.
According to them, somewhere during the night, hunter Nowa broke into one of the storage houses of the vas Kavenfenn mansion with an unknown goal in mind. He was, however, spotted by an untold white-armored guest of the Supreme Commander, and there happened a clash. Both sides fought on equal terms, and the fight dragged on, moving from the mansion onto the streets. With the help of the Supreme Commander and his guards, they managed to corner Nowa. Feeling desperate, he used an unrecognized spell of mass destruction and escaped during the following commotion. From that skill alone, more than ten people were killed, with at least a two dozens more perishing during the previous fight.
Orisa calmed herself down with the thought that if something had happened to Tiana, her name would have already been mentioned somewhere across the feed.
Still, she couldn't wrap her head around this occurrence. 'Why would he do that?'
To Orisa, hunter Nowa didn't look like a terrorist or a thief. He could have been a hero, a force of nature, or a herald of an apocalypse but not a petty burglar or a mindless revolutionist. But perhaps that was the whole point? Create an image and exploit it later on? Amidst these thoughts, Orisa was startled by the arrival of a worried delegation. Her entire squad minus Clemen and Shou came looking for their leader.
"And why have you holed up again, sis? And with this gloomy face to boot." Marina poked Orisa's cheek.
"Captain Dippo left in a hurry this morning," Orisa began her explanation, ignoring Marina's provocation. "The capital was under attack, presumably by hunter Nowa. Tiana's house was destroyed, among other places."
"You don't know if she was there or not," immediately blurted out Kanai, knowing where this was going.
"I hope so, too, since she wasn't mentioned among the casualties. Still, this is all too strange and smells like tuna."
"Tuna or not, you can't do anything from the headquarters, so no point in brooding over the situation. Do we know what to do now?" Onuki steered the conversation into a more productive direction.
"The captain said nothing at all. I guess we are free? But knowing Dippo, I have a task in mind."
Orisa planned to spend the rest of the day poking Jando but met an unexpected obstacle. Sean finally woke up and, after meeting and greeting his group members, caught Jando. Or it went the other way, but the result was still the same, they were both busy with each other. Orisa pondered the issue and concluded that there would be enough time for them to rekindle whatever was going between them. Her business was too important to postpone, so she mustered all her arrogance and went outside to find the pair.
The culprits were spotted near a small pond not far away from the stables. They seated themselves on a small blanket and were having a lively conversation. Orisa tried her hardest to stomp her way as loud as possible so they would spot her beforehand.
"Oh, isn't it the angel we were talking about just now?" Jando said happily. Even from afar, it was easy to spot how wide the girl’s smile was.
"Really now, isn't it great?"
Orisa had no time to inspect Sean when they were transporting him, so it was her first chance to meet him in person. Before her eyes stood a typical protagonist of some high fantasy movie; tall, but not enough to look like a skyscraper, burly without an excessive muscle mass to make him a crazy bodybuilder. His dark-brown hair was combed back and went almost to a shoulder level; a neatly trimmed beard added to the image of a thirty years old hero. Orisa could see why a girl like Jando fell head over heels. Despite her mindset towards men in general, something twitched inside Orisa in a bothersome manner while she was looking at the prince.
"Greetings to you, my savior! I'm pleased to make your acquaintance, Orisa. I'm Sean Kean." The man stretched his hand and, upon taking hold over Orisa's palm, quickly dropped on one knee and kissed her knuckle. Orisa's face immediately flushed, turning almost crimson.
"Ah, hah, oof, yes, nice to meet you too, sir," even her voice trembled from the shock. "I'm, oh, well, I'm glad you are alright now."
"All thanks to you might valkyrie. My hope was all but gone by that time, and I fully expected to embark on another journey. But here I am despite all odds. My life is yours, my Lady."
Swiftly peeking at Jando, Orisa noticed a flash of jealousy over the girl's face that quickly disappeared. 'Oh no, oh no-no-no way. Don't look at me like that!'
"I'm afraid I already need to impose on your offer, sir," muttered Orisa and tried to gather her scattered thoughts.
"Whatever it is I may help you with, I'll gladly do so without any hesitation. Ask away!"
"In fact, I need to borrow this wonderful lady over there. And it may take a while, too. Is it possible?"
Puzzled, Sean looked back at Jando who shrugged in turn with the same confused expression.
"I'm fine with that, but what is it that you need, Orisa?" she asked and came closer.
It took Orisa some time to convey everything that happened overnight since, judging by their looks, they knew nothing about the events.
"And so, I thought to retrieve the Deju and, since we'll be in the city, do some shopping."
"Shopping? I still can't see why you need me."
"Yes, I'm getting to this part, sorry. What I've been thinking about is an upgrade to my gear. I'm yet to test the gloves you made, but it feels like I could go for another tool or a weapon. That's why I wanted to borrow your time to brainstorm any ideas, see what we'd need to craft the item and make a list of purchases."
"Oh, that's what it is? Well, I sure don't mind. It sounds fun, especially because it involves you."
"But I must say," Sean suddenly interrupted them, "this tragedy is all but too strange. I know hunter Nowa in person. He had never made me doubt his motives or allegiance."
"My thoughts exactly, sir. I know Nowa in person, too, and it does look weird."
"Oh, you do? The more I'm getting to know you, the more I'm amazed by your persona."
"Please, don't say that. It's one coincidence after another, and I can't take credit for that."
"Whatever you say," Sean chuckled and stepped back. "Alright, I'm ready to let you both go. Please, excuse my talkativeness."
After a few more pleasantries, Orisa and Jando moved in the direction of the mansion, leaving Sean behind to do some more pond gazing.
"So-o-o?" Orisa said slowly and elbowed the girl to her right.
"Aren't you far too perceptive, oh little valkyrie schemer?" Jando giggled completely out of character. "Well, I just thought that there might be no third chance, seeing how things are. Despite you claiming it to be a fluke, it was a miracle all the same. So I confessed, and he accepted. Said he wanted the same but was too afraid to ruin our friendship."
"Wow, that's awesome! I'm so happy for you two."
"Yes, who would have thought that to start moving forward, you need first to go through such an experience."
They spent the rest of the day around a drawing board, going through various ideas again and again before finally deciding on one schematic that Orisa deemed 'freaking awesome.'
Their journey to retrieve the Deju began the next morning. Before departure, Orisa checked the communication device once more and found nothing new or particularly noteworthy in the endless stream of orders and reports. Still a little bit on edge, she commenced their first operation. Seven horsemen moved out.
"Guys, who else can drive the car? I mean, if someone were to snatch mighty MK, what would we do?" Clemen raised a question while lazily poking his nose.
"Mighty MK? Who's that?" puzzled Kanai looked around, searching for something closely resembling M and K with plenty of might.
"Te-he-he, that's me, I guess?”
"Spot on, MK! I guess you are smarter than you look, that's cool." Blessed in his ignorance, Clemen failed to notice a dangerous glint in Marina's eyes.
"I guess Shou can drive," Orisa pointed out a rather obvious thing.
"Te-he, oh yes he can, but it's better to avoid him on the driver's seat. You'll die of old age or vibration!" After basking in their puzzled gazes for a few seconds, Marina continued. "He turns all stiff and nervous while driving and starts shaking from the tension. And I don't even want to talk about the speed; it's faster to go on foot."
"Shut up, you crazy gorilla! It's not my fault that you have zero value for your own life."
"I can drive, too. Well, at least I could," said Kanai reluctantly.
"Same here," both Orisa and Iten raised their hands.
"Doesn't it bother you how casually we are talking about the scenario where one of us is dead? Is it just me, or you people kind of gone mad?" Onuki's brow questioningly rose up.
"Another sane person here, what a surprise," added Shou.
In the end, they met little trouble on their way to the city. As Orisa expected, the Deju was parked at the same spot, keys inside. Either it was the emblem of their division that scared people away or the captain's reputation but all the same, the car was intact. Orisa took out the keys and turned to her squad:
"What do you say about a little tour over the city?"
"Yahho! Let's get the party started!"
They spent most of the day dashing between shops, cafes, and markets.
'Should I even be surprised?' thought Orisa in amazement while looking at bags of new clothes that Onuki bought using most of her first week's salary.
Other squad members limited their purchases to a minimum. Orisa had a hard time finding some of the items from her shopping list, but the help came from an unexpected source:
"Let me see," muttered Shou and took the list out of Orisa's hand. "You won't find it on sale. Too uncommon for a shop to sell; ought to look among the workshops."
Without further explanations, Shou turned around and started walking. They wandered through numerous back alleys and narrow streets for at least fifteen minutes before arriving at a door indistinguishable from dozens of similar-looking entrances. Shou calmly opened it without a knock and went inside. The squad followed him with a mixture of anticipation and puzzlement. They followed the boy through several barely lit corridors and open doors before he started descending the narrow staircase.
"Huh, isn't it Master Shou? I almost forgot your face by now. What brings you here?"
They ended up in an underground workshop. The room was wide and well illuminated; the left side of the room took shelves and boxes, while the other side housed various machine tools and instruments.
The squad was greeted by a man in a thick leather apron, chainmail gloves, and a protective mask.
"Greetings, Alfredo. I'm just passing by, excuse my uninvited trespassing."
"I'm always glad to see young master Todo here, so pay it no mind. So how can I help you and your friends?"
He removed the mask, revealing a person mid-fifties with patches of grey hair here and there. A warm smile over his face made all the wrinkles more visible, adding at least ten more years to his image.
"Do you have items unchecked on this list?"
"Let me see... Hmm-hmm, I see. Oh, that as well? Hmm-hmm. Well, I think we'll find most materials you need, and if you don't mind waiting a bit, I'll craft the remaining right away."
"Thank you for your time, Alfredo."
"While I'm working on the list, why don't you introduce your friends? It's so rare to see master Shou in a company that I can't pass on the opportunity, if you pardon my meddling."
"They are not friends. We serve in the same division."
"But you brought them here none the less. And, if I'm not entirely wrong, the list is not for you, young master?"
Light chuckles followed this exchange, making Shou grumble once more. An uncomfortable silence filled the room shortly after. Even Orisa felt too out of place to speak, so they stood for another fifteen minutes, quietly observing the work.
'Huh, another lonely noble kid? Is this some kind of custom or a curse?' Orisa couldn't help but wonder, seeing the same pattern for the second time already. In this regard, Shou appeared the same as Tiana, lonely and friendless.
"And it's done," finally said Alfredo, content with his work. Seeing a bag in his hands, Orisa took a few steps forward and bowed.
"Thank you so much for your assistance, Sir Alfredo."
"Oh, don't worry, young lady. It's my pleasure to assist master Shou's friends."
"I assume you might want to decline, but I must insist on paying at least for the materials," Orisa said after taking the bag.
"Hoh? Well, if you insist. Can't say no to the coin in this day and age."
On their way back home, Orisa decided to risk her mood and step into the swamp:
"Shou, it's of course not my business, but what was that just now? Who was that gentleman, and how are you two related?"
"My ex-mentor. Alfredo had been overseeing my education until a few years ago. Then my father decided the old man was influencing me in the wrong direction and threw him away."
"And the wrong direction is something about people being equal despite their birthplace and lineage?"
"Who told you that? Dippo?" scoffed Shou.
"Nobody, of course. It was just my guess." Orisa was silent for several seconds, and then went to add some more anchors and connections towards Shou, "you navigated the streets quite well. Do you have some kind of hidden talent in spatial awareness?"
"Huh?" Shou gave her a perplexed gaze. "I've lived in this city my whole life. My family owns it."
A few more days passed without any news. Everything mostly calmed down over the Military network. No words, however, had mentioned Tiana, Dippo, or even hunter Nowa.
Orisa whipped the squad to do daily workouts and skill practice, spending her own time in mastering the spells she learned with Dippo and constructing new skills as well. Her gear wasn't ready yet since Jando had been preoccupied with the company of her lovely knight, but the girl promised to finish the crafting soon.
Deciding there shouldn't be much harm, Orisa exchanged several letters with Rita regarding hunter Nowa and the whole situation:
"While I've never met him in person, there is no reason for me not to believe in your judgment, Orisa. If everything is as you've described, the situation does make little sense, indeed. What to make of it I can't say as well since we lack information, facts with proofs. But the air feels tense now if you know what I mean. Proceed with caution.
As for our project, I can give you a small piece of information. It might be useless, but we never know what could help. As you already know, the Beasts move away from the Epicenter and also gather around certain fixed spots if they end up nearby. What piqued my interest though was the fact to which I gave almost no consideration before. After a thorough investigation and compilation of a heat map, I came to an obvious conclusion. There are also places which are rarely attacked. They correspond to the cities that were founded on top or near the ruins of the pre-Cataclysm settlements. At least that is what I was able to dig from archived history books.
On the one hand, it adds to some global picture of the Cataclysm. On the other hand, the picture itself is rather unclear. So I'm counting on you to connect the dots.
Take care, Rita."
Indeed, Orisa could see some connections between these facts, but a bigger picture eluded her. How could it help their cause? It's not like these places were completely safe, the Beasts were merely avoiding them, but not ignoring completely.
Deciding it was time to do some patrolling, Orisa launched a small expedition. She guessed that they were not yet ready for a night in the field, so they made a day-long round across the neighboring area.
To Orisa's great pleasure, the expedition had shown how much they all had grown in the past ten days. They were now confidently battling small groups of unevolved Beasts. Although it was under the Lantern, and they luckily avoided any encounters with evolved Wavespawn, it still inspired her squad mates to double their exercises and training. Even a new period, despite the cramps and all the hassle with pads, couldn’t ruin Orisa’s mood.
It was exactly one week since Dippo's departure when the mansion's light signaled the arrival of someone from the division. Orisa dashed downstairs from the communication room right on time to see the door open. Dippo stood in the door frame, glaring daggers at her.
"Let me assume it was your bright idea to take the car back, right?" After Orisa's reluctant nod, Dippo smacked his face. "Gosh, why am I not surprised like AT ALL?!"
The staring contest went on for several seconds, and then Dippo let out a long tired sigh and stepped inside:
"Anyhow, while I was doing my things, the opportunity presented itself, and I snatched us a few more members. So, dear leader, meet your last squad mates."
Dippo began to clap slowly, probably praising himself. Accompanied by his performance, one after another through the door frame passed Bassa vi Durek, Ramulie vi Durek, and Tiana vas Kavenfenn.