Someone inside the village had noticed the flares that Dippo launched at the beginning of the ambush and notified the guards. By the time their company made it to the scene, Clemen had long been dead, so they could not help in the slightest. However, there was a thing that they could help with, a reckless leader that launched herself into the fray.
While the guards helped to clear the path, Kanai and Tiana took a horse and dashed forward. They made it in time to buy the few precious minutes that Marina needed for the guards to reach the spot. Among their party was a skilled healer that saved Marina and Orisa.
Two squads combined helped Dippo finish off the twice evolved wolf that led the ambush. In the end, the Beast tried to escape, but they predicted its tactic and surrounded the place beforehand. A twice evolved core crowned their victory but couldn't help the mood at all.
Dippo organized a camp right on the spot, letting some people rest while others were gathering spoils of war. That's were Orisa found herself when she woke up. She was listening to Kanai's report with a blank expression, Tiana's touch over her palm no longer felt calming and soothing.
"I know what you are thinking now. It's not your fault," Kanai concluded the report.
"It isn't. Or maybe it is?" Orisa's blank expression was supported by a lifeless voice.
"Or maybe it's everyone's fault? We can't see the future or simulate different outcomes. Maybe it was the only way?" Kanai crawled closer and took Orisa's other hand. He turned and pointed at Marina, who was sleeping peacefully a few meters away from them. "You'll feel like shit, I know. We all will feel the same. There is no helping it. But this girl over there is alive because of you."
"You two saved us, so no point in shifting your achievements on me," Orisa squeezed Kanai's and Tiana's hands. "Thank you."
"Orisa, you are always welcome," the girl smiled warmly, "but I hope this was the last time you put yourself in mortal danger."
"You wish," Kanai chuckled.
Orisa sat with her friends for several minutes before springing back on her feet. The guilt forced her to move, to do at least something. She didn't know how to feel or what to think. Clemen wasn't her best friend by any means, but he entrusted his life to her command, he believed in Orisa. And he was a nice kid of whom she knew almost nothing except his name-giving quirk.
Orisa wasn't sure of her decisions but saw no obvious flaws or mistakes in the plan she used. When she jumped towards Marina, the situation was mostly under control: she took care of the last wolf, and most enemies were already dead as well. Except for putting herself in danger, Orisa saw nothing wrong with her actions. Because of that, it was hard for her to feel genuinely guilty; that, in turn, produced another type of guilt which wormed her insides with the thought 'You are not normal. You should feel guilt and shame. Are you a psycho?' These mixed feelings forced her to move and start doing something. There was only one thought that repeatedly echoed in her head, 'Was there something I could do?'
While looking around the camp, Orisa's gaze stumbled over Onuki and Iten. Their healer looked shaken, and Iten was slowly talking to her, whispering something with a firm expression. At first, Orisa jolted to help Onuki but immediately stopped herself. A sudden wave of anxiety hit her, and fearing another failure, another misstep Orisa turned and walked away. 'Iten has everything under control. I'm sure they'll be fine,' she kept repeating on the inside.
Wandering around the camp aimlessly, urged by her wriggling conscience and mutated guilt to move at least somehow and somewhere, she finally stumbled over Dippo who sat on rags that were his leather jacket just this morning. He looked beaten up; hands and torso covered in small bruises and cuts, remnants of the gear bloodied and tattered; he looked exhausted. Upon noticing Orisa, he clapped on the ground by his side, inviting her to take a seat.
"You look like shit, sir," she said after taking a seat.
"And you feel like shit, girlie," he chuckled tiredly. They sat quietly for a few minutes, observing the camp. The guards that helped them were still there, working on the Beasts' corpses. Dippo traded some of the spoils for five horses and added some cores as personal gratitude. "Drowning in guilt?"
"I’m drowning in a feeling that I should feel guilty."
"Oh, you absolutely should. It's your damn fault, right?"
"Yes. I know that it's my fault, but I don't know what I could have done better or differently to save them."
"Are you retarded? Honestly, now I'm starting to think it might have been a mistake to make you into a leader," Dippo looked at Orisa angrily, and fear and despair clutched her insides. She bit own palm in frustration, not knowing what to do or what to think. Looking at that, Dippo only shook his head in disappointment. "You have only one problem, but that problem will lead you to ruin. Everyone already knows about, and you know as well."
"Of course you do, stupid! You are always trying to do everything yourself. You don't trust anyone with anything, how the fuck are you supposed to lead people? And answering your absurd question, you could have organized your group the same way you led them to the gorge and charged to reclaim Marina. As I see it, most Beasts were already dead, no? So it would have been quite safe to use the same fog to ride and save her using the entire squad. Honestly, I should punish you somehow for this shit."
"But it would make you feel better, so to hell with this. I need you to suffer, which would make you remember. But I'd be damned if next time you do something like that, I'll surely demote you. No shit, got it?"
They sat in silence for some more time, looking at the bustling camp, and then Orisa let out a long sigh and said:
"I don't know what's wrong with me. I know I should feel guilty, but I just... Am I some kind of senseless monster?"
“Sure as hell you are. But just like that we are all the same, aren't we?" Suddenly Dippo patted her head twice. "It's easy to send people to their death when you don't care. And that's horrible. But even easier and worse it is to hesitate and lose moment thanks to caring too much as well."
"I know all that. It's just that I don't understand why I feel that way. I mean, Clemen was a little troublesome but still freaking fun guy. Why do I feel so distant then?" she looked at Dippo with pleading eyes, asking for something. Yearning for something she couldn't even formulate inside her head. But Dippo only stared at her quietly, so she started talking again. "I barely knew him, too. He appeared so suddenly and unexpectedly, exploded like a hurricane. The first time he called me 'Lord General Lady Orisa Sir Ma’am' I almost died on the spot. He spewed crap like that nonchalantly all the time, and his straight face made everything so hilarious. As if in his own world, he didn't care what others thought or how he looked. Just went so casually and freely..."
Only then Orisa understood that she started crying. Tears rolled slowly and quietly; her words made her realize everything. She understood not only with her mind but with the heart as well, it finally hit her.
They made a small grave by the road, but Dippo said it was only to bury the body since the real farewell they'll say back at the headquarters.
Orisa was the last to move, standing by the grave until everyone moved away.
"Thank you for guarding them. Thank you for following me. I wish I knew you more. Forgive your Demon General, Clemen. I won't let your efforts go to waste, you'll be the first and the last one, I promise."
They made it to the headquarters, and Dippo gathered the squad half an hour later. He walked the group to the backside of the mansions, to the part where there were no windows or doors, only a wide wall. It was hard to see in the dark, but when Orisa got closer, she understood. The wall was riddled with names. There were hundreds of them, maybe even thousands.
Dippo took out an instrument that looked like a metal pen and inserted a crystal into its head. When the pen began to glow red, Dippo started carving another name on the wall's surface.
"What is this tool, sir?"
"Don't know its name. Only know that if I use it, the building's Seals would recognize the change in the wall and forever preserve it as if it was the part of the mansion from the beginning."
When he was done, another name appeared in the last row:
--- Clemen Tinn ---
All of a sudden, Dippo smacked his fist into the wall, leaving a bloodied mark over the freshly added line, and said:
"I did not want to add your name."
When the squad members began to leave the place after a few minutes of silence, Orisa pulled Kanai and Tiana to the side.
"I know it's an inappropriate time to do so, but I'm too afraid to get lost in all the tasks and happenings and forget about what's important," Orisa began while fidgeting slightly. Indeed, it was time to mourn and stay silent, but a few events of the past week made her more hesitant to leave things for another day. Still in doubt, she continued all the same, "I had no chance to thank you for what you did..."
"Orisa, there is no-," Tiana tried to reply, but Orisa grabbed them both in a tight embrace:
"Thank you so much! If not for you, there would be two more names on the wall. Thank you for saving us!"
"Orisa, you don't need to say it like that. Everyone would do the same," Tiana finally said.
"No, you don't get it. This idiot here thinks only she can help people or save them. But when someone else does the same, it's something out of the ordinary for her, a grand shock."
"Screw you, jerk," Orisa muttered quietly. Kanai's words hit the spot.
"There, there, don't act all tsundere," to Orisa's embarrassment, Kanai patted her on the head. "We are always here for you the same way as you are there for us. And... I’m sorry that we couldn't help Clemen."
"It's no one's fault!"
"I wish you would honestly think the same," Tiana added quietly.
They stayed like that for some time before Orisa let go of her friends and went to look for Marina. The girl had been silent for the whole day, and she was worried about her.
As was expected, Orisa found Marina in her hideout on the far side for the mansion, atop the warehouse roof. The girl lay on the couch motionless, staring into the distance with a blank expression.
Orisa sat on the floor right in front of Marina's face and began to stroke the girl's head, her palm slowly moving over Marina's hair and cheek.
"It was tough," Orisa said while caressing the girl.
Finally, Marina's gaze focused on Orisa, and she said with a hollow voice:
"I thought I was ready. When I landed on the ground and lay powerless on the road, I thought it was okay, that I had my share of fun and it was time to pay the bill. But then you came and shown me that I was not alone anymore..."
Marina looked Orisa in the eyes, and then her face distorted. She moved abruptly and stuck her head under Orisa's chin, hugging her with both hands. Orisa felt the girl's body shudder and heard her wail a moment later:
"I was so scared! I didn't want to die!"
"I know, I know," Orisa said slowly and kept caressing the girl's head. "I was scared, too. But it's okay now. We are safe, and I won't let it happen again. I promise."
Several minutes had passed before Marina stopped crying. During that time, Orisa felt how tension was gradually leaving the girl's body. She became more relaxed, her grip around Orisa softened, and Marina went limp. When she distanced herself, Orisa's shirt was all wet from tears.
"Sorry..." Marina muttered in embarrassment. Her face, albeit red, looked better. Life returned to her eyes, as well.
"There is nothing to be sorry about, Marina. You got ahead of me, but I wanted to do exactly the same," Orisa said with a gentle smile. She removed her shirt and went to hang it on the chair to dry a little.
"Liar. Can't imagine you crying, you are too cool for that."
"I'm not cool at all, and you know it. But it's easier, at least for me, I think, to shovel my problems and ignore them when helping other people."
"Come here," Marina sat up and opened her arms, inviting Orisa.
There was no need for a second invitation, and Orisa swiftly moved to the couch, letting Marina's strong arms grab her and press tighter to herself. They cuddled for some time, enjoying the calming warmth of each other's bodies before Marina spoke again:
"You know, somewhere along the line I wanted to say ‘I love you’." Orisa jolted and tried to distance herself, but Marina held her tight. "Te-he-he, don't panic, sis. Now I'm sure that's not the love I'm feeling. Sure, I like you very much. I admire your, hmm, everything, I guess? Anyway, I could go on forever about your traits or appearance, but that's not the point. What I mean is that it's great to be around you, even snuggle like that, he-he. By your side, I feel like I can achieve my goal of living a fulfilling life with no regrets. But that is not love, right?"
"Yes," mumbled a still flustered and blushing Orisa.
"But it would turn out bad if you are in love with me, sis," Marina chuckled and kissed Orisa's forehead.
"No-no, I feel exactly the same!"
"Isn't that great, huh? What we are then, I wonder. Best sisters in the world?"
"I'm not sure sisters are supposed to do the things we did a few times already," they both laughed over Orisa's comment.
"I'm sorry for Clemen," Marina said a few minutes later.
"Yes, it's..." Orisa's body tensed up inside Marina's embrace.
"If you promise me you won't blame yourself, I'll promise not to blame myself for being weak and letting that Beast throw me away."
Orisa abruptly turned her head to look at Marina. What she saw was a serious face with a hint of pain in the eyes. They looked at each other from some time, a wordless exchange going between them, and then Orisa turned away and relaxed a bit.
"Okay, I promise."
Three more days of rest and recuperation passed. Dippo gave out huge bags filled with coins, a three week's worth of salary that they skipped due to various events. The squad was gradually returning to its normal state, although the gap that Clemen left was evident.
At the evening of the third day, Dippo gathered them and announced:
"I'm leaving for some time, kids. It's OK to rest a bit more, but I need you to get back to work. Don't let what happened to drag you down. Plan another patrol or something. While Sean’s group is still here, you can team up with them, too. Alrightie? Don't sulk and prove your worth. I believe in you."
"Welcome to the capital, sir!" saluted a soldier in charge of the identity check before returning Dippo his tag. The captain nodded and walked from the underground gate, setting his feet on one of the main streets of Mitras. Breathing in a mouthful of air, Dippo grimaced in disgust. Due to the giant walls, the wind rarely found its way into the streets. Stale air always ticked Dippo off, and now it was carrying a hint of smoke as well, despite the incident being resolved two weeks ago. Rain was picking up the pace as well, a clear sign of a hateful season that would last for a month or two and cover the entire central region, slowly moving its front from north to south. He hated rainy season as much as he hated the capital.
After making a turn into a dark narrow alley, Dippo muttered under his breath:
His silhouette blurred and became almost invisible, completely indistinguishable on poorly illuminated streets leading to his destination. The safehouse he headed towards was hidden inside one of the poorest and most despised districts of the capital, which didn't add to his mood.
Dippo casually moved through the streets and dark alleys, sipping from a Mana potion from time to time. His spell worked wonders on people who couldn't sense Mana, but was useless against Beasts for an obvious reason. His former captain questioned the need to learn anti-human skills, but Dippo knew better. The spell helped him greatly even before his fated meeting with Nowa, and now it was his greatest tool.
The further he dived into the slumps, the more disgusted he became. The smell got into his sensitive nose and inside his throat, making him want to throw up. While the reason for the safehouse' location was obvious, Dippo still wanted to smack Nowa's face.
He made another turn and was walking inside a narrow and almost completely dark alleyway when a muffled sobbing and whispers touched his ears. A little further into the alley, two men were raping a woman on the pile of trash, ignoring a light rain. One was holding her arms with one hand and playing with her chest with another hand, while the second man was doing the deed. As Dippo passed by them unnoticed, he saw the woman all beaten up, crying silently with a dejected look on her face. Rolling his eyes tiredly, Dippo took his dagger and made two light swings.
The woman noticed something was wrong when the pain from her lower regions subsided. Dippo ignored her and kept walking away, but a horrified scream he heard worked as a pleasant tune for his nerves. Whistling something quietly, he continued the walk. A smile touched his lips.
A matter displacement gate hid behind a heavy wardrobe inside a rented room in the basement of a run-down house. By the time Dippo had made it inside the hideout, his mood had already gone up thanks to clearing some human garbage. Inside a dusty but nicely illuminated room were several boxes and shelves filled with various items, reagents, and consumables; another door led to a shower and a toilet. In the far corner of the room on a single bed lay humanoid charcoal.
Nowanzi Goalo looked as one would imagine a human-sized kebab. His entire torso, right arm, neck, and part of the face were all charred, covered by a black crust. His entire body was constantly glowing green, a sign of healing magic. Hunter Nowa looked at his guest and put away the book he was reading.
"Drugan? How nice of you to arrive ahead of time."
"Ten minutes is not ahead of time. Nowa, dear, you look so yummy."
"A joke I was expecting, umu."
"Do you, by chance, need something? Tea, porridge, massage?"
"Nothing my summon couldn't handle, thank you."
Dippo felt a breath on his neck and shivered. Only a second later he was able to feel its presence. While curious, he decided against checking the summon's appearance and walked towards the bed. A guest chair was found by its side, so Dippo occupied it and stared at Nowa expectantly:
"So what's going on?"
"What might you mean by that question?"
"Don't play fucking dumb, okay? The hell you did to the capital and the guards? That's not what we talked about."
"Everything is according to the plan. Well, except for the burns. I hit the wall quite some time ago, but the dog keeps getting stronger and stronger."
"Is that his fancy black flame or whatever?" Dippo nodded to the blackened skin.
"Umu. No matter, I prevailed in my mission and achieved the goal, so don't let little details cloud your judgment. If it is that important for you, I haven't killed anyone. A few corpses were made by our friend's pets. The rest, I assume, were treated as witnesses and eliminated to keep the secret."
"So what's about that goal of yours?" muttered Dippo several seconds later. Despite his appearance and demeanor, he cherished the guards and other military soldiers who simply performed their duties and didn't want them to die aimlessly. While he harbored a little doubt about Nowa's words, his story was believable. With the strength that Nowa possessed, it was child's play to render the guards unconscious or avoid them altogether, so there was little incentive for Nowa to kill them.
"As I expected, the first Vault is there, its door open. However, everything inside was powered down. When I tried to turn it on, our friend appeared. You know the rest."
"What he was doing there, I wonder."
"An obvious assumption is that he was visiting the Commander. From the fact that both the Commander and his guards joined the fight against me, we can draw only one conclusion - the Military is already under his toe. An upsetting but unimportant event since the plan never depended on their participation."
"You say it's unimportant, but I find it fucking hard to ignore an army, you know?"
"Umu. Fear not, for I am sure even Commander would find it hard to explain why the Military should support the dog. The only thing the Commander can do is to postpone or block any attempts to organize the Military against our slit-eyed friend. Thus, unimportant. Everything is in accordance with the plan."
Dippo grimaced unhappily. He still couldn't completely buy Nowa's attitude. His constant 'Everything went as I planned' ticked Dippo off to an unimaginable extent, even though indeed everything proceeded as Nowa envisioned.
"On this note, it's time for you to relay how our kids are doing, Drugan."
"I hate the name, and you know it."
"Nowa, dear, sometimes my hands are itching to pick both daggers and ram them into your eyeballs."
"Oho? Well, I have grave news for you, then. One girl has already done so once, but it did not work out well. For her, of course. Also, I'm already doing you a big service by ignoring all your dear-dear-dear, so you should show some gratitude."
"Tch. Okay, fine, I got it. A lot has happened since our last meeting, but I'll tell you little details later. The most important thing is, I think she accidentally found the entrance to the third Vault."
"Hoh? That one near your base that we couldn’t locate all this time? How very amusing, I must say. Extremely wonderful, terrific. Umu!"