They rode for five hours without an incident and then stopped to take a short break. Under the guise of a search for a creek to grab freshwater, Orisa took Kanai and Iten with her.
"Dippo knows!" she started feverishly in a hushed voice. "He asked me if a saw a letter on the screen! Of course, I played dumb, but I'm sure he knows. Fuck-fuck-fuck, I'm dead."
"Hold up now!" Kanai grabbed her shoulders and shook slightly to get Orisa back to her senses. "Start from the very beginning and recount word to word what happened."
After calming a bit, Orisa told the boys about her morning upheaval before slumping down on the ground.
"I think we are either safe now, or we were doomed from the very beginning. This event changed nothing," Kanai pondered quietly.
"I share your thoughts as well," added Iten.
"What are you talking about?"
"He said it doesn't matter anyway, right?" excited, Kanai began his explanation. He always turned like that when there was a chance to tell somebody about his findings, which Orisa found rather cute. "So what I think is that he either planned to get rid of you from the get-go, which is highly unlikely considering everything he went through to get you into his division, or he really couldn't care less for your knowledge about his whatever it is."
"That is if we were to believe in his words. But yet again, we have no reason to doubt him, do we? If he wanted to hide something, there would be no point in talking to Orisa in the first place," Iten nodded at his own conclusion.
"Hmm, and why do you think he wouldn't care about us knowing his secret?" wondered Orisa. She had spent the entire morning fretting about Dippo, so now she was too tired to think straight.
"I would bet on the fact that you won't be able to do a single thing even if you knew," Kanai chuckled and helped Orisa up from the ground.
"Or the captain planned to let you in on this secret sooner or later, but this is an unlikely guess," Iten added reluctantly, and the trio left to look for the creek.
Kanai noticed that Orisa was still brooding over something but with a different expression.
"Are you thinking about the cave again?" he asked, gently patting her head. Orisa reluctantly nodded, understanding full well that it was unhealthy and unproductive. "Don't let it consume you, alright? We agreed on getting there, so let it go for now."
"Thank you... I know that I should, but it's so hard to get it out of my head. Sorry for bothering you."
"Idiot," Kanai chopped her forehead, "you aren't bothering. We are worried about our leader, that's all."
"Kanai is right, Orisa. You are too focused on one thing. It's dangerous. Your mind needs rest." They talked a bit more and went to find water.
One of their raid's goals became evident rather soon. Dippo took out an item from the bag that looked like a thermos for tea; it was a narrow metallic cylinder about twenty centimeters high with four crystals facing different directions around its upper part. The most prominent element of this item was a compass attached to its top. It had five arrows instead, and one of them was longer and painted red, while the other four were identically black and short.
"Alright, my pumpkins, those of you who don't know what this is, flock to your dear captain here," Dippo paused to give them time to find a spot around him and continued. "Supplementary Identifier of Retraced Impulses is a fucking chore to pronounce, so we are calling it SIRI, alright? We use it to navigate through the forests, fields, or other areas without any landmarks. Now I'll show you how it works, pay attention to the crystals."
Orisa's Seal allowed her to sense an intense flow of Mana inside the device. Ten seconds later, Dippo was done with charging, and Orisa felt an enormous amount of Mana circulate through the device. It almost made her dizzy. Dippo pushed a button on Siri's surface, and all Mana stored inside boiled momentarily, multiplied, and then pushed outside in all directions.
Orisa's body jolted as if dozens of eels wriggled inside her at the same time, turning her insides upside down. She slumped on the ground helplessly and vomited the recent lunch.
"Oopsie, I forgot how sensitive you were, sorry," muttered Dippo, scratching his head. "Anyway, while your leader is suffering, pay close attention to the crystals."
Tiana, Kanai, and Iten carried Orisa to the side and rested her on the grass. The other squad members were forced to observe Siri's work, being urged by Dippo. A dozen seconds later, four waves of Mana returned to the device with a short delay between each other, making Orisa shudder and convulse yet again.
In the meantime, Siri in Dippo's hand began to react. Crystals on its top started blinking simultaneously. They flashed twice per second, and in a few blinks stopped one after another.
"When you are using Siri to navigate, you count these blinks. Then find the dots on your map with the same number as there were blinks. For example," Dippo took out a map of the surroundings and pointed at its center, "we are somewhere here, but let's find where exactly. The first crystal to the left of the compass' arrow blinked three times, the next had four, then two, and six. So we are looking for a quadrant on the map where its vertices have the same numbers. Voila, we are here. Easy, right? Next time I'll show you how to find even more accurate location, but for now, that's enough. Moreover, our goal is complete now."
"Our goal? What are we even doing here?" muttered puzzled Shou.
"Well-well, my sweet crunchy toast, you should think of this yourself. But since you asked, we are checking if all navigational pillars are intact. If one of the crystals isn't blinking after the charge, it means the pillar is broken and needs to be repaired or replaced. That's one of our jobs as well, maintaining the navigation for the entire central region."
Dippo abruptly stood and looked around before chuckling and announcing in a carefree manner:
"By the way, Siri attracts all surrounding Beasts when it's activated. And they'll be here in ten seconds or so. Isn't it great?"
The following fight was the first that Orisa missed entirely due to her Mana sickness. Coincidentally, it happened to be the first real fight their new three members partook. While their teamwork and chemistry with the rest of the squad were non-existent, they managed to hold the entire sector by themselves. The Beasts also favored the group's first fight, flowing generously but not overwhelming them. Despite Dippo's promise, there were surprisingly fewer Beasts than what was expected. By the end of the fight, Orisa was able to stand up, but it was too late to contribute to the victory.
They had spent half an hour, looking for the Beast's cores and tending to the wounded before Dippo commanded to the squad mount up.
"We are not done here." Onuki said out loud with an irritated voice.
"What is it, girlie? Are you already too tired to move?" mockingly asked Dippo.
"We need to store materials from the Beasts while we can," she replied stiffly. By her tone Orisa guessed that Onuki was extremely nervous.
"You heard the chick," grumbled Dippo and waved the squad. "I must say you aren't half-bad, girlie. Very nice, I like you."
"So what, now you would accept me as a proper member and not Orisa's useless luggage?"
"Oh, you knew? My-my, how interesting you are, cute little stinger."
Without saying a single word, Onuki went to unload dismantling supplies. Several minutes later, Orisa approached her reluctantly. Onuki turned to face her with a face overcome with frustration, lower lip bleeding from a bite, and muttered angrily:
"Don't. Say. A single. Word." She worked silently for some time, spraying an anti-dissolving agent over the dismantled parts other squad mates were bringing her. "You thought I was so clueless and stupid? Of course, I know how useless I am now and was even more so. That's why I was so bothered by all the preparations. I can't fail the only thing I was entrusted."
"You won't," said Orisa firmly and stood up.
After wandering around the place, Orisa stumbled over Tiana. She was now looking at the girl in awe, observing her dismantling skills. Tiana wielded a knife on an entirely different level; separating only needed parts, she swiftly cleaned them of excessive flesh or bones and put into a container.
'My little Tiana is the best,' akin to a parent, Orisa's felt joy while observing the girl. The fact that she had absolutely nothing to do with Tiana's skills didn't bother her in the slightest.
Several hours later, they came out of a small forest, and a mountain range opened up in front of their eyes. This time it was a proper set of mountains, not those fake hills they saw during Sean's reclamation raid.
"Are we going to hike?" Clemen voiced everyone's horror.
"Oya, are you afraid of heights? Well, not exactly. There is a village there inside one of the gorges, and we'll spend the night there."
"Isn't it too early?" Orisa said doubtingly.
"Oh, don't worry, I have plans for your lot. Also, there is a hot spring there. Not that it was the main reason for our visit or anything."
"Hot spring?!" Orisa and Kanai exclaimed in unison. For some reason, their Japanese souls longed for this place without their owners realizing it. Excitement filled their eyes.
On their way, the squad passed through numerous fields with crops, and it made Orisa curious again:
"Captain, how do we grow crops when there are Beasts everywhere? And besides, is it even possible for a village to exist outside sturdy castle walls?"
"Good question, dear. There is a trick to it. First of all, it's way harder to sense Mana through the stone, which makes a village inside a mountain range a rather safe place. The Beasts rarely wander up high, so a regular fence is enough to buy time for the guards to gather and round the intruders. As for the field, the Beasts have no interest in the grass. When the need to tend to the crops arises, people gather, pick up guards, and work on one spot before moving to the next. They stay grouped, attracting attention from a lesser range; and, of course, it's easier to defend them as well."
The path to the village was tortuous, turning left and right inside a narrow gorge. During the ride, Orisa was throwing glances upward from time to time; the feeling of constant danger to be crushed by falling rocks pressured her.
"Do not fear, Orisa," Tiana turned to the girl with an encouraging smile. "This is no ordinary rock but an ore. You'd need to put a considerable effort to break them, which means the danger of a landslide or a rock fall is almost non-existent."
"An ore, huh? Do people, by chance, mine it?"
"A little, I think. There are better materials both for Mana crafting and for common metalwork."
"Don't tell me you are knowledgeable in metals, too?"
"It's important to have at least a vague understanding of various topics to become a decent head of the House," Tiana muttered with a visible blush on her cheeks.
'My-my, aren't you an adorable little head of the House?' Orisa's heart melted once more.
The path opened up, revealing what Orisa described later as a volcanic crater. A giant space around one kilometer wide housed a town made of the same dark stone as the surrounding mountains. Even if it was a volcano, it died centuries ago since now a narrow river was flowing amidst the town, with occasional patches of grass on its banks. There were even trees planted inside neat pots all over the place.
Looking back at the narrow entrance of the valley, Orisa spotted two balconies dug inside the walls, and guards watching over their group. One of the archers noticed her and waved his hand; Orisa waved back and turned to face the approaching city.
It was surrounded by a not so high stone wall which probably served more as the borderline than anything else. As Orisa predicted, the city wasn't flat and followed the craters curve; the buildings grew like mushrooms even on the walls, making the entire city look like a giant glowing beehive. The streets were well illuminated, and there was some light still coming from the sky as well since it wasn’t nighttime yet.
They booked a whole floor of a three-story inn, and Dippo gathered them inside the most spacious room.
"Before we go to the main event, I have another piece of information to share with you, my little cubs. And you should listen very carefully, alrightie? Today we'll talk about healing."
Dippo's lecture was focused on the difference between tiers of healing spells and why it was mandatory to know about the injury before healing it. While Greater and Calamity tiers of direct healing spells could heal anything, lower tiers were not fit to handle serious cases. For example, while Lesser Mend could be used to close deep tissue tears and cracked bones, it shouldn't be applied to broken bones and severe internal damage.
The reason for that was simple. The spell will heal whatever it can, leaving broken and crushed parts in the same state. This improper state, in turn, will lower the chances of a proper treatment later on, or even make the damage permanent since magic will treat the damage as normal state of the body.
"What I mean is that you shouldn't throw healing left and right without first inspecting the patient or you risk leaving a permanent injury. Durational, reverse, and source healing is the other deal entirely. They are situational, weak, but could be used freely whenever and however you want without any risks because they work on a different level."
"What kind of injury shouldn't be treated with Lesser or Major Mend?" Orisa asked worriedly.
"Spinal cord, brain damage, severe internal injuries, bones shattered to pieces. Another thing, my precious flowers, is that you shouldn't heal severed parts. Stop the blood flow and wait for help; if you heal the wound instead, it won't be possible to attach the severed part back. Only do it when you are absolutely sure there won't be any chance to treat it properly."
On such grime note, their lecture was over, and squad members spread over their respective rooms to prepare for the hot spring visit. Clothed in long towels alone, the girls went into the women's shower. Indeed, to Onuki's relief, this inn was big and expensive enough to allow a luxury of separate showers and basins for men and women. Despite Tiana's insistence, Ramulie shot down the idea of the hot spring, so there were only four of them.
"Te-he-he, sis, your skin is so smooth. What cream do you use to keep it fresh?" Marina shamelessly touched Tiana's side while they were showering.
"Cream? I'm sorry, but I don't know anything about it," Tiana muttered apologetically. She honestly thought that it was improper not to know something, especially considering her position as a future House head.
"Oh, you don't? Gee, it's so nice to be young," Marina almost broke down crying, but Orisa quickly got her back to her senses with a painful pinch on the thigh.
"Granny, you shouldn't bother younglings. Let them have their fun and don't spoil the joy of youth with your elderly complaints!" she grumbled jokingly and pulled Marina away from puzzled Tiana.
"Pay no heed to these idiots," said Onuki and let out a tired sigh. "Do you need help with your back?"
"I would love to, thank you!"
Ten minutes and some more laughs later, the girls entered the hot spring. Unlike the traditional Japanese basins, this local variant was with a continuous flow, adding a light massaging effect from a swiftly moving stream. Since the spring's water was too hot, a stream of cold river water was added, creating a mixed flow. Depending on own position inside the basin it was possible to get hotter or colder water. Even from the look alone, Orisa already took a liking to this place.
Dropping their towels, Tiana and Marina went inside, walking around the basin and studying the temperature. Orisa paused for a moment, looking at the girls thoughtfully when Onuki asked her in a hushed voice:
"Does Tiana know? I mean, about you."
"She thinks I'm a lesbian, that's it."
"Hmm, I see. And you have no plans to enlighten the poor girl, I assume?"
"At least not while I'm her only friend and mental support," Orisa answered with a tensed expression.
"Oh, how noble of you. I wonder how much of it is true, though," Onuki's voice was full of doubt.
"It's obvious that I want to be her friend and stay by her side. But I can't even begin to imagine the horror, pain, and anguish she would go through if she were to learn the truth."
"You haven't thought about the same thing before telling me back then, right?"
"Wrong. I did. And a lot, to boot. And I still think it was the right thing to do. Although, I might have pulled it in a better way, regrettably."
"Yeah, you probably could. Regrettably," Onuki said absentmindedly and went into the pool, leaving her towel behind. Enjoying for a moment the curves she almost forgot the look of, Orisa followed Onuki’s example.
Two hours later, clean, fed and refreshed Orisa stood on the roof of the inn which served as an improvised balcony. A small crowd gathered at one side of the roof, looking in the direction of the crater's entrance, the gorge. After straining her eyes, Orisa was able to discern that some commotion was happening there; people with magical lights, lanterns, and torches were moving back and forth between watcher's spots and the city.
"What happened there?" Orisa asked with an uneasy premonition wriggling inside.
"A few dem Beasts showed up," answered an old plump man wearing a dirty white apron, a head chef's hat wriggled in his hands.
"Is that a problem? They are all dead already, aren't they?" she was still puzzled, looking at the chief with a questioning expression.
"That they are, indeed. Dat's not what's on my mind, lil' miss. Dat's not it at all," the man muttered worriedly.
"Then what's the matter, sir? If you don't mind me prying."
"I don' like where dis is goin', smells like trouble if I'd say so myself. I've been choppin' beef in dis kitchen for fifty long years now, and last time dem Beasts set they cursed foot inside dis lovely place was some thirty years ago, if not more."