Orisa was staring at the screen, chills running down her spine. She wasn't able to fully comprehend the situation but was sure that right now she was looking at something extremely important. 'HNG, why does it ring so many bells in my mind?'
Without a second thought, Orisa grabbed a piece of paper and copied the message word to word before swiftly retreating from the room. 'Okay, now I need to hide from Dippo, or I'll give myself away.' Orisa needed time to ponder this event; she was confused and lost since the HNG thing was bugging her, dangling in front of her gaze. It was something remarkably familiar, but the final step of understanding yet eluded her. She only needed one last push to uncover its meaning, one baby step that she couldn't make. Everything inside her agonized, itched, and wriggled to find the truth. A truly maddening state of mind.
Making a lot of noise, Orisa barged into the girl's room and dropped on her bed.
"What's up? Saw a ghost? Got hit on by a man? Kissed Dippo?"
A barrage of semi-insulating question met Orisa, supported by Onuki's questioning gaze. The girl was already in her bed with a book on crafting in her hands.
"Something like that, thank you for your care," muttered Orisa and turned face down, hiding her flustered expression with a pillow.
"Don't worry, it hurts only a few dozens of time, then you just get used to it."
"I think this conversation turned into the wrong direction somehow," she mumbled into the pillow. "Onuki, could I bother you find Kanai without raising much noise? He is in the kitchen now, but I don't want to return there just yet. Please?"
"Well, you could, but what would I get out of it?" She enjoyed Orisa's dumbstruck gaze for a few seconds before continuing, "God, I'm kidding. Did you...Oh, forget it, the joke is ruined already."
Onuki stood up with a sigh and left the room, leaving now even more exhausted Orisa. 'I don't get this girl at all.'
When Onuki opened the door two minutes later, Orisa mostly came back to her senses. Thanking Onuki, she grabbed Kanai and whispered:
"Take Iten and meet me at the Library. Don't say anything to anyone, especially to Clemen and Dippo, in case you are to meet them."
Ignoring his astonished expression, she swiftly made her way downstairs and into the basement. When the boys showed up, Orisa silently opened the door to a handy storage room and pushed reluctant Kanai and Iten inside. When Kanai opened his mouth to say something, Orisa immediately interrupted him:
"One sex joke and I'm going to murder you most brutally." Kanai gulped and nodded in confirmation. Not wasting any more time, Orisa unfolded the paper she took from the communication room and handed it to the boys. "I accidentally stumbled upon this text. It was addressed to Dippo, and he was reading it when I came to him a few minutes ago."
"Isn't it some sort of military order? Why are you so bothered?" Iten asked in confusion.
"Military orders don't go via private direct messages but through open, limited by rank channels. And that's not how orders look like, I know."
"You do now?" Kanai voiced his doubt.
"Yes, long story short, I have almost the same access to the Military messaging system as Dippo."
"My-my, should I even ask how you managed to achieve such a feat?" Kanai instantly regretted his words under Orisa’s intent gaze.
"You are positive it was a private mail?" Iten tried to return the conversation onto its tracks.
"Hundred percent sure. So the question is what's going on and who this HNG is."
"Considering the timing and the message itself, isn't it obvious?" Kanai recovered his cool and continued matter-of-factly, "I'm pretty sure that it's Hunter Nowanzi Goalo, and Dippo has some ties with him."
Orisa wanted to smack her forehead, so obvious it was. Dippo left to check on Nowa who got injured during his operation. And Nowa summoned him to get help yet again.
"But how are they connected? What type of organization is it, and what are their goals? And, most importantly, what was Dippo doing in the Capital for the entire week?"
"To find the meaning in the fragmented information or events that makes no sense, you need to look at the results and who would benefit from them." Iten looked at the piece of paper in his hand and thought for a moment. "What was the result of Dippo's venture?"
"I think we lack facts since the only result I can see is that Tiana is here." Orisa's voice was full of doubt. Kanai and Iten, however, exchanged thoughtful looks.
"What if it was their goal all along?"
"Not possible," Orisa waved Iten's guess from the get-go. "Why would Nowa attack their mansion, then? He could have accidentally hurt or even killed Tiana, right? Moreover, if his goal was to bring her here, I'm sure he could have found an easier way to do so, considering how little her father cares about her life. Besides, Nowa mentioned something about the storage and what he was able to find in there, which is completely unrelated to Tiana. And, lastly, what is the point of bringing Tiana here in the first place?"
"When you put it like this, it's hard to argue, Orisa. But if you think about it from the strategist's point of view, it makes sense to hide their goal by making distractions, sub-goals, or irrelevant things." Kanai looked Orisa in the eyes and saw even more doubt. "You are, however, right about the storage; there was no point in mentioning it in a private letter unless they were planning for you to discover it. But that's just stretching the whole theory too far, I guess."
"We should wrap our discussion for the night. It's getting late," Iten stood up after looking at his wristwatch. "You look like you have something else in mind, Orisa."
"Uh? Um, well, yeah, but it's nothing important, don't worry."
"Really? Certainly doesn't look like that to me," Kanai laughed and pinched Orisa's cheek lightly. "Come on, what is it? Are you still thinking about that cave or something?"
"How did you know?" Orisa blinked in surprise. She hung her head and said while looking at the floor, "I'm sure it's something important. Honestly, I can't stop thinking about the cave and what was behind those rocks. It's bugging me. Guys, I'm telling you this spot is something relevant to our goal. I don't know why, but I'm sure of it."
"Doesn't look like you at all," muttered Kanai.
"Please, remember to stay calm. We'll do something with the cave in due time. Don't let it turn into an obsession, okay?" Iten said all that and stood to leave.
Orisa opened the storage's door only to stumble over Jando who was carrying a box meant to be stored inside that room. The girl gave them a puzzled look, but then her cheeks turned red from embarrassment:
"Uh, sorry, I didn't mean to sneak on your, um, ahem, pastime."
"Huh? What are you talking about, Jando?" Orisa couldn't understand the girl's point. Today wasn’t her sharpest day, and after this HNG letter incident, she felt even dumber.
"Oh, don't worry! Aha-ha, yes, um, I mean, I won't tell anyone. And I'm not judging or anything!"
"Listen, Miss Jay, or whatever it is," began Kanai in a tired voice. "You are getting it all wrong. But I'm honestly too damn tired to clear this stupid cliché misunderstanding, and these two are not in shape to get what you are saying. We were having a private chat, that's it, alright? Gosh, it's as if I'm a character from a reverse harem manga or something," saying that, Kanai tiredly walked away. His last phrase finally made Orisa understand the situation, and she turned to face Jando, all flushed:
"Um, yeah, it’s just what Kanai said now. We aren't in that kind of relationship, really."
"Well, if you say so," still in doubt, Jando shrugged and went inside the storage room.
Earlier next morning, Dippo called Orisa to make an announcement:
"Okay, I think it's time for some hiking, don't you think so? We'll leave tomorrow morning, so gather your darlings and start getting ready for several nights in the field."
Without wasting any time, Orisa called for her squad members and began the briefing:
"We are departing on the first long patrol tomorrow morning. Dippo will go with us, too. I don't know the exact duration but assume it would take around four nights or so. We have the rest of the day to prepare. Questions?"
"Where are we going?" Shou asked unhappily.
"Our dear captain failed to inform me on this regard. And any other regard as well. He's probably testing our skills at preparing for any occasion."
"Do we have a checklist of necessities? I'm ashamed to say, but I lack in understanding what it is that we might need on such raid," flustered Tiana voiced her concern.
"Yes. I'm in charge of common items and consumables. And I can also oversee your preparations if you'd like," a slightly hesitant answer came from Onuki. During the past day, she became a little friendlier towards Tiana after seeing how nice of a person the girl was.
"Thank you, Onuki. I will be in your care."
"Guess I'll check on these oafs then," mumbled Shou and looked at vi Durek siblings. Orisa still couldn't understand the relationship these three shared.
"With that being sorted out, there is also one thing we need to clear," Orisa looked at the last three members of her squad. "To a certain extent, I know your fighting capabilities now, but there is another side to the raiding. Everyone in the group is taking care of something like cooking, setting up a camp, repairs, and so on. I'd like to know your skills in the non-combat field."
"Hmph! It's not like we need something besides fighting," Ramulie started whining, fondling with her curly hair. "But just for the record, I'm well-versed in sewing."
"Just as my dear sister said. I have no plans to cater to your needs, but I can repair my own gear just fine," her brother added.
Things were one percent better than Orisa expected but well in the range of her prediction. She turned to Tiana, and the girl uncomfortably shuffled:
"I'm not exactly sure of the level of my skills, but to a certain extent, I can sew and smith, cook basic dishes, gather herbs and roots usable in crafting. Also, I practiced in repairs, Mana engineering, Mana crafting, and pulse navigation. I hope I won't be a bother to you during the expedition. In the worst-case scenario, I would tend to horses."
At this very moment, the strongest earthquake in the history of Lazra was registered, produced by a simultaneous hit on the floor by seven jaws. Orisa's squad minus vi Durek siblings were staring at Tiana in disbelief.
"Te...he-he...I guess we are fine now," muttered Marina.
"Yes, we should be fine," added Orisa, still in shock. She knew how diligent Tiana was but didn't expect her to be this capable. Even if all her skills would end up being at the most basic level, it was still admirable and praiseworthy. "By the way, could someone explain what this pulse navigation is?"
"Oh, I know that!" Kanai almost jumped on his seat. "You wouldn't believe, but I asked Dippo exactly this very question after it occurred to me that there is no GPS in this world."
"What's the geepee ass?" Shou furrowed his brow.
"Nah, irrelevant. So, the pulse navigation is like sonar made of magic. There are pillars made of some kind of metal buried every five kilometers all over the continent. You use some kind of beacon or whatever it is called to release a pulse of Mana that interacts with these pillars and returns to you. Based on the amount of reaction, you can find your rough location between four closest pillars."
"Thank you very much, great teacher Kanai," Orisa bowed, very pleased by his speech for some reason.
They chatted a bit, discussing the upcoming raid before Orisa wrapped things up:
"Alright, guys, here is what we are going to do. First, we pack personal belongings and gear according to Onuki's list. Before lunch, we gather in this room for Onuki to check everything. After lunch, we'd help her collect and pack common inventory. Questions?"
"Why do I have to check everyone's bags?" Onuki groaned, already tired from just imagining the process.
They met three hours later, and despite Orisa's expectations, the situation ended up not as bad she predicted:
"No, you shouldn't take three dresses or any amount of dresses at all. In the first place, you should wear something suited for a trip," Onuki was arguing with Ramulie now, and the girl was either clueless or completely stupid. In her case, probably both.
"And why is that? What's wrong with wearing something appropriate and not garbage that you people call clothes?"
"Nothing wrong with wearing something appropriate," Onuki repeated the phrase word to word, her voice filled with acid. "You know what, I don't care. If you are so set on making yourself suffer, be my guest."
It was the only problem they encountered during the first stage, while Orisa was expecting things to end up worse, more troublesome.
As for the second phase of their preparations, Onuki made them carry various goods to the stables and shelve them for tomorrow's packing. Tents, sleeping bags, cooking utensils, and crafting tools. Provision was also packed and stored by the mansion's exit. She triple-checked everything but was still nervous.
"Onuki, chill," Orisa said gently, patting her back. The girl was past her initial stage of Orisa-phobia and could permit a short contact. After grabbing her attention, Orisa continued with a smile, "you are doing great; I can see how smoothly everything is going thanks to your diligence. Don't worry. I'm sure we'll end up forgetting something because that's how it is and always will be that way with every type of preparation."
"You aren't helping in a slightest, you know?"
"Just relax, you are fine. Nobody would blame you, I promise."
"We'll get back to this talk when you find yourself in the wilderness without a toilet paper or salt."
"You can always use leaves, so that won't be a problem. As for the salt, just remind me about the lack of coca-cola in this world, and I'll make enough salt to feed the squad."
They finished gathering and packing and even recounted everything on Onuki's insistence. Dismissing the squad for the rest of the evening, Orisa settled in the hall to read a book about the Beasts from The Hound's archive. The read was getting progressively more boring, and Orisa began to yawn. She sensed someone approaching her from behind thanks to her Seal and tensed. Hot breath tickled Orisa's ear, and she heard a familiar voice:
"Hey, sis, how about we relax a little before going to bed?"
They were loading the supplies onto the horses the next morning when Orisa noticed an intense gaze on her back. She looked around and found Dippo staring at her, deep in thought.
"What's up, sir?" Orisa came closer and asked while bending down to tie her loose shoelaces.
"I was just wondering, my honeybee if you saw the letter or not?"
Orisa forced her body to keep moving despite the shock that went through her body. Her only saving grace was that she was looking down when he asked the question, or he would have read her expression easily. Orisa's control over herself was not among her best traits. Done with tying, she stood back and tried to sound as clueless as possible.
"What letter, sir? Something urgent?"
"Hmm? Well, I guess it doesn't matter either way," he muttered and slowly walked away.
Sweat was dripping from Orisa's forehead as if she was under a rain right now. 'He knows. He absolutely knows. He totally knows. I'm fucked.'
Half an hour later, eleven riders departed from the mansion. Jando and Sean came to see them off and were waving cheerfully, wishing luck and safe trip. Dippo was riding in the first pair, together with Clemen. The Captain looked back and said cheerfully:
"So, my melons, are you pumped up? Are you ecstatic to embark on your first real mission? My-my, I am sure excited!"
A chill ran down Orisa's back.