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Ailsa ripped the Teleport scroll, her field of view shifting in a flash from the inside of a dorm's common room, to the office of a very annoyed Archmage occupied with an entire pile of paperwork.

"How many times have I told you people, no Teleporting into my- Oh." Karl looked up, a certain sense of danger causing the scales on the back of his neck to tingle. Before he could say anything else, the Dwarf Shaman slammed her hand against his face with all the STR she could muster.

WHAP!

Karl toppled out of his chair, hitting the ground with a resounding THUD.

"Ye schemin', scaley, manipulative-"

Lilian stepped forward to gently lay her hand on the Bronzen's wrist, stopping her from hitting the Archmage again. "I am sorry I have to stop you, Mrs. Reid. He surely deserves worse, but you will be in trouble if you persist. Even as his close friend."

Ailsa flexed her hand, her knuckles aching from hitting a Rank A Dragon with her Rank B fist. Karl, meanwhile, rubbed his jaw and slowly clambered back into his seat as he cast an accusatory glare toward his own shadow. "Not going to protect me, Haze?"

Haze: "..."

"He ain't gonna save ye from me wrath when it's what ye deserve, ye git!" Ailsa slammed her hands down on the desk, sending piles of paper flying. Lilian nodded, making no move to catch the flyaway documents.

"Mrs. Reid is correct, Sir Karl. Haze cannot defend you against righteous retribution."

"You too, Lilian?"

"Yer half-assed 【 Disguise 】 spell don't even hide her base stats! Anyone rude enough ta just Scan the kid will realize somethin's up, and the moment she formed a Team? In a school where ye learn ta fight and safely scour Dungeons and Gates and Shards? What are ye playin' at?!"

Karl sighed, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. "I called in my favor to have you teach her precisely because once you realized she was the Human the Council was looking for, you'd take care to help her form a Team with trustworthy allies. And because I could trust you not to turn her over immediately to which ever seat on the Council offered the most favorable terms."

"I got me complaints about that, but we'll put it aside fer now. The half-assed 【 Disguise 】?"

"Oh, I want her to be found."

Ailsa slammed her hands against the desk again, knocking over an inkwell with the forceful vibrations. "Explain yerself, Karl! Explain before I have ta get me Pappy involved!"

Lilian stepped forward, cleaning the ink with a cloth that soaked it up from the pages without smearing anything previously written. "Mrs. Reid, an orphaned child of an age to Attune their System is no longer considered a child under the law in this country. We are taught to watch over and protect our children as a culture, but the law is defended as giving them a method to support themselves as an adult should they find themselves in a situation without guardianship.

"On the surface it allows victims of horrible atrocities to join the community. Children whose villages have been destroyed, their support network lost. In truth it forces children into the workforce before they are ready, taking advantage of their trauma and inexperience in the world to underpay and devalue their effort. There are exceptions, of course, people who are kind to these disadvantaged children and give them actual opportunities. But those people are just that, exceptions."

Karl looked up, meeting Ailsa's furious silver glare with his own calm emerald gaze. "You've met her yourself. Is she ready to live on her own? She acts much younger than she is-"

"She went through a bunch of trauma, ye great scaley ass!"

"My point exactly, Ailsa! I want people looking for her to know she's under my protection. She's not a bargaining chip to gain favor from Human Clans, she's a helpless kid who needs help adjusting to our world and ways."

"Helpless ain't how I'd put it, but go on."

"Within the Human Clans, she'd be yanked around until pledging allegiance to one. Then they'd use her as a figurehead, taking her Enliss knowledge and using it to empower their own Clan, upsetting the delicate balance they've maintained between themselves for centuries. Humans belonging to a fractured set of Clans have kept the other Beings safe. A lord of a city might ally with a distant Clan, keeping nearby Clans from advancing on their territory or contesting Gates and Dungeons due to political shenanigans.

"Can you imagine the chaos if the Human Clans managed to unite under a single banner? They wouldn't have to do anything else, and the rest of the world would take up arms in so-called 'self-defense'. It would become an Us versus Them situation, and Kira's way too young to navigate the political minefield they'd lay before her. She'd be protected, safe, yes. Much as a child emperor was protected and safe within their palace, while everyone else fought for the real power behind the scenes. She'd be used and betrayed, over and over."

"So yer using her instead?"

"I gave her a Gold Scholarship so she'd have full access to the Academia's facilities, including the list of top-tier mentors when learning combat. A General admission student with a Gold Scholarship would raise many eyebrows. People would investigate eventually, but she'd be saved from casual priers by their own politeness and the thin veneer of Demi-Elf glamour to excuse her high MP and HP. They'd consider their information about a Drakke who entered the city with a Human, one who is now attending the Academia with a suspiciously familiar Demi-Elf, both of whom have a Gold Scholarship. They'd look up the origin of the scholarship. They'd find me.

"They will assume she is already under my control and that I am bargaining with a Clan as we speak. Thus, their attention will be on me and what moves I make. Some may attempt to snatch her, but the Academia Shard belongs to me and I have the child under supervision by my Shadow Guard. If someone manages to take her away from them, I can check the Hub records to see who's responsible, and take action appropriately.

"Those old Council fogies are so busy trying to foil each other, covering up tracks and disseminating false leads and fake information about her and the Drakke girl's looks. They've unintentionally helped me buy more time! Meanwhile, I can prepare her for the world and challenges ahead by creating a support network. The Shadow Guard unit protecting her in secret, some trustworthy friends hand-picked by a trustworthy mentor who knows about her circumstances. Why do you think I confessed about her background so fast?"

"Cuz yer scared of me."

Karl coughed, gesturing with his hands to continue the conversation while avoiding the Dwarf's stare. "The Clans won't know about her yet, and once they do, she'll be safely and happily attending my Academia. They'll have to go through me to even approach her. Now she has a safe place to sleep, good food to eat, access to resources and knowledge, a generous allowance to buy HP or MP potions, clothes, games, whatever else she may want in the meantime."

"Ye great clumsy idiot, ye don't get it." Ailsa sighed, sitting heavily in one of the chairs facing Karl's desk.

"Don't get what?"

Ailsa held up a finger, tilting her head back to glare down her nose at the Dragon. "One, yer manipulatin' her just as bad as the people ye think yer protectin' her from, not explainin' or even gettin' her input about anythin'. Ye seem ta think yer doin' it fer her own good, but have ye even asked what she wants? Sounds ta me like yer keepin' her here cuz ye want her Enliss skills yerself, and don't wanna deal with the Humans usin' her fer their own purposes. How's that make ye any better than, or even different from, the Clans or Council? Oh wait, ye ARE on the Council. So yer just as bad as them no matter how ye dress it up, usin' her while makin' yer reasons sound all pretty, like."

Karl flinched, but remained silent as Ailsa held up another finger. "Two, the trauma I mentioned ain't the one about losin' her family and essentially findin' herself in a new world. That's trauma itself, aye, but it ain't the one makin' her... Like that."

"Oh?"

"It ain't me place ta tell ye what happened ta her. But ye better talk ta her, explain yerself a bit so she knows what ta expect. She ain't too stupid ta understand yer reasonin', she's just sufferin' regression and delayed mental development. See it all the time with me wife's patients... Yet another reason ye called in yer favor with me instead of, say, with Charlie or Oda, aye? Fer me emotion-sensin' spirit ability? Damned schemin' reptile..."

"Hey, watch your language!"

"Am I wrong?"

"About my scheming, no. But you know how I feel about the 'R' word!"

"Then don't act like an 'R' word! Yer usin' the kid, plain and simple. Usin' her, usin' that Drakke lass, usin' me. Ye make bein' yer friend real hard sometimes, Karl."

Karl groaned, dropping his head to the desk and resting his hands on the back of his neck. "Ugh, I know. I really do want to help her, though! Not just for me or my Fixation. She's a good kid. Broke out of my aura suppression effect when we first met to stand up for her friend! Granted, she probably had no idea I was a Dragon at the time, but that still took courage."

"In three days, I'm askin' Kira if ye had a good chat with her. If not, I'll tell yer sister.'"

Karl's head snapped up, the color draining from his entire body until he resembled a washed-out gray husk. "What!? Ailsa, no!"

"Ah, look how pale ye got. So ye do know what yer doin' is wrong, then?"

"Ailsa, please-"

"What a pity it would be if yer sister found out that her brother is such a schemin' pile of reptilian disgrace."

"Ailsa-"

"Remind me again which Goddess yer sister is a Paladin of? What was it... Goodness, wasn't it Maat? Virtue, honor, morality..."

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry I'm sorry! I get your point! What I did was wrong! Please don't tell on me!"

"What ye did ain't entirely wrong, Karl! It's how ye went about it!" Ailsa sighed, rapping her knuckles in the desk. "What ye did will help protect the lass, right. Fer now. Regardless of yer selfish motivations and intent, it'll get the job done. Someday she'll be strong enough in heart, mind, and body ta decide fer herself what she wants, and where she'll go from there. Until then, ye need ta start considerin' her as a person and not just a walkin' dictionary ye gotta feed! Or I swear on me Pappy's hammer I'll send an essay ta Naomi with bullet points and footnotes ta put ye so deep in yer grave ye'll be findin' yer ancestor's fossils! Understood?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Feh..." Ailsa grunted. She turned to raise her eyebrows at Lilian, who nodded briefly.

"Yes, Mrs. Reid. I will be sure to remind Sir Karl of his responsibilities regarding Kira."

"Good enough." Nodding, Ailsa stood and withdrew a sheaf of papers from her inventory, slapping it onto Karl's desk. "No doubt this be included as part of yer schemin', but... I'm reportin' ta ye as Council member Archmage Karl DuFeu that I be filin' fer official legal mentor status of one Kira Hawthorne. I'm beyond high enough level and rank, with an appropriate matching class type. She'll be me official disciple and I'll be checkin' in on her at yer Academia ta take personal charge of her combat trainin'. Included be the request ta exempt her from public combat classes since I want ta oversee her development personally.

"That ought ta help some with keepin' them Clans at bay, aye? She's past the age fer legal guardianship ta be a passable claim, but an official mentor's close enough, and we can finally put me fame ta good use. Thanks to me popularity, I got enough clout ta fill the blanks where yer own background and resources won't cover. Got her signature, mine, and two from the wee lassies she Teamed up with as witnesses, now it just needs yers. "

"Yes, ma'am." The pale Karl DuFeu nodded listlessly, rubbing his cheek against the desk still supporting his head. He weakly lifted his hand, allowing Lilian to place a quill in his fingers so he could sign the appropriate papers. She also produced his official Council stamp to seal the document, then took it to make copies in another room.



Kira laid on Brigit's bed, hugging an oversized round plush slime with a cute little face. "It's different," she muttered, squeezing the slime toy tight.

Brigit, peeling ingredients at the little counter in her kitchen, paused the motion of her knife to glance up at the sound of her soft voice. "What is?"

"Dungeons. I used to play... Do you still have video games?"

"Yeah."

"Good, I want to get some, see how they've changed. Anyway, I used to play games before the... Proclamation thing? Before Gates and Dungeons and magic. In my favorite game I was a healer, and directed the party on how to fight the enemies while keeping them alive in big boss battles. And when I found myself in a Gate, my first thought was 'This is just like a game!' and it was so exciting! I tried to do magic for like, at least an hour! Until a blue wolf-looking thing tried to eat my face. Then I realized it's not a game at all. One wrong move, and I would die forever.

"I always thought it was weird, how in games killing is immediately made acceptable to the player. Most of the time, you start off fighting a low-level monster of some sort to learn the battle system, so you're immediately expected to fight and kill and feel rewarded with EXP and loot when you win, despite the fact you just killed something for your own benefit.

"Facing off against a monster that only wanted to eat my face and wouldn't back down when it was injured, really drove home how different things were going to be. For me, for my reality, for the way I looked at the world. It was really scary, especially coming from a world where most people weren't expected to kill anything. Ever. No amount of new System screens and inventory magic could change the fact that I was suddenly forced to defend myself or die. Kill or be killed."

"Eh? You didn't have the System at all?" Ribbon chimed in, from where she was quietly sitting at the foot of the bed leafing through Kira's photo wallet. She glanced up in surprise, mouth hanging open. "Not even the profile screen? And no monsters?"

"Yeah, back then the System and monsters didn't exist at all. Our world just had beasts and humans to start with. It was really weird getting used to the minimap and everything, just suddenly having stuff in my field of vision all the time, learning how to move it around..."

"That's so weird! A whole world of just Humans and animals... Wasn't it lonely by yourselves?"

"We had enough trouble just getting along with each other, to be honest. There were tons of civil wars and countries fighting all the time."

"That's even weirder! Humans stick to their packs even more fiercely than Therians, but they used to fight each other?!"

"Yeah. I think the System must have been a huge help for them, probably. There were a lot of tooltips at first giving instructions on what to do and when. Magic was probably a big distraction, and invasions of monsters might have helped people get along more? I hope so, at least. Eventually those tooltips helped me learn to hide really well. I think it noticed I was having trouble running away from monsters, and I got 【 Trifling Presence 】 which helps me go unnoticed."

"It's easier to just, uh, kill them, isn't it? Hiding is hard, so many monsters have skills and abilities for finding prey. And you're so strong, too!"

"It took a long time to get 【 Throw Rock 】 high enough to be powerful and I only sometimes fought monsters in the Gate for parts to sell, and I used traps like pitfalls to help. Mostly I picked flowers, herbs, and fruits, selling those when I needed things like toilet paper which I could only get from the System's base shop. Killing things... Like I said, it wasn't something we grew up expecting to do. It was hard for me, even monsters. I didn't like it. Still don't, really..."

"Didn't you want to level up?" Brigit asked, reaching for a bowl of washed vegetables. "Getting stronger would have helped with the monster issue, they rarely pick fights with people they can sense are stronger. Fighting more monsters in the short term can help avoid fights in the long run."

"I thought about that at first, but... The monsters in the Gate didn't give EXP. No matter how many I fought or how well I did, I got no EXP from anything."

Ribbon winced. "Oof, that sounds rough... Kind of the opposite of what you mentioned? With rewarding for killing. In that case, you weren't being rewarded at all, huh?"

"Yeah, I was really frustrated in the beginning. I got used to it eventually though... Getting a Class helped, and learning my first spell, but then it stagnated since I never got EXP. Then yesterday I went in a Dungeon for the first time, and I started feeling like it might be a game again? With patrolling mobs and potential hidden treasure chests and a boss room. Only games had those kind of things back then, you know? They didn't exist in real life up to that point."

"So weird..."

"Weird was when Ailsa explained how the System lets you summon a temporary portable lavatory as long as you're in a Sanctuary! Almost suspiciously convenient. You even get consolation prizes for taking too long, it's really..." Kira squished the slime plush in her hands as though through it, she could express her suspicions and displeasure regarding the mysterious Dungeon God.

"Well yeah, can you imagine being stuck in a Dungeon and having to potty? You can't leave a Dungeon without a Floor Token, unless you die, and that's the worst way out. And lower floors have consolation prizes mainly for people using them to level!"

"Yeah, but that's a really convenient thing to be considering, you know? So it started feeling like a game again. Where there'd be a room before a boss that just so happens to have a save point, refills on ammo or potions, stuff like that. Only for reality to smack me in the face, uh, metaphorically, with the fact that it's still not a game at all no matter how neat or convenient some things are. There's blood and gore and gross smells and the feeling of squishy bits on your hands and..."

CHOP!

Brigit exerted a bit of force to snap a red carrot in half, the dull thudding noise interrupting the sudden uncomfortable silence as Ribbon and Kira both made disgusted faces. "Er, sorry." She blushed while the other two laughed at her obvious embarrassment at the unintentional comedic timing.

"Ugh. Even with the number sheets, and leveling up, and an inventory, and everything else that makes it game-like on the surface, when fighting and killing things yourself, it's... It's different. I can't just let a friend stand in the fire and die like I would in a game to punish them for being dumb and not listening to orders. Having sucky teammates means more than paying for repairs after a wipe and losing some loot, it's literally life or death."

Brigit chuckled softly and shook her head. She was glad Kira opened up enough to talk more, but at the same time her head hurt trying to figure out how any of what the Human said was game-like. She looked down at her hands, where the System was laying out detailed instructions thanks to her high rank Cooking skill, showing where to peel or chop vegetables, monitoring the soup's temperature, suggesting spice combinations. Monsters and Systems only existing in fiction, what a strange concept!

At least Kira talking also helped Ribbon get over her initial stammering shyness too. The Drakke smiled warmly at both of them before dumping all the vegetables in a pot of soup stock to boil. "That's just how life in general is for us. Always has been, from our perspective at least. At any given time an undiscovered Dungeon might break, or a Shard's entrance might appear in the middle of town, or a wave of monsters could build up and flow through a village without any notice or warning. Maybe a particularly nasty Wyvern decides your town looks like a lovely place to have lunch, and you look like a great appetizer. Everyone has to be ready to fight and possibly die at a moment's notice. We all grow up with the knowledge that plenty of things in the world will actively try to kill us if given an opportunity."

"On the flip side! Most people are kind because of it. Um... At least in the lower levels and ranks. Since we're all scared to die, see? At least that's what my mom always says. So we try to support each other! It's different for people who have, say, high level families and money and connections to fast track them to the top... But people who had to fight for their levels? They tend to be good people. From what I've seen anyway. Which one's this by the way?"

Looking at the silly painted face Ribbon pointed to in the long string of pictures dangling from the photo wallet, Kira smiled. "That's my brother Matt. His football team just won a big game."

"Football?"

"An athletic sport game involving way more numbers than you'd think."

"And these ones?"

"Ah, these are my sisters Michelle and Robin, and my mom, Sibyll. Michelle just decided on her name, so Sibyll had Robin fix the tattoo on her back that has all her kid's names, to cover Michelle's dead one with her new one. Robin's the one with all the colorful ink everywhere, she's a super talented tattoo artist who was pretty famous in the ink enthusiast's community. They took this picture before we celebrated."

"And this one is... Fred?"

"Yeah, that's my dad. He's posing like he caught the fish, but see that short guy there? That's Leeto, my youngest brother. He caught it with a fishing spear he made himself after watching a documentary about it, it was crazy. When it came to outdoor survival stuff, Lee could do anything. He brought home flowers all the time for Michelle to use in Sying's concert outfits."

"So your family was... Fred, Sibyll, um... Robin, Dahlia... Michelle? No wait, Matt then Michelle! Then Sying, Leeto, and you?"

"Yeah, mom and dad said they were getting up in age so I was the last one they adopted. Actually, Leeto was younger than me! But he was adopted first so I'm the younger sister, hehe. At least, as far as I know..."

Seeing Kira's expression cloud over, Ribbon hurriedly held up the photo wallet to get her attention. "Hey, you should scan these into your System! That way they'll be saved from anything bad happening, and you can pay a little fee to print copies. If you die and resurrect using a Soul Gem it still counts as a real permanent death, so you drop all the stuff in your inventory and if your Teammates don't survive to grab your goodies it'll vanish forever."

"Yikes!" Kira sat straight up, holding her hands out for the wallet. "How do I do it?!"

"Here, you open your Camera and then-"

Brigit smiled to herself, peeling a purple potato with a small knife the length of her thumb. The rind had a bitter yet pleasant smell, but she barely noticed it stinging her nostrils as she sank further and further into her own thoughts.

At first, she worried about telling Ribbon everything. Ailsa Reid had a reputation for being honest and forthright in all situations, even going so far as to forfeit in the Arena when she found out they started rigging fights to keep her winning, ruining a hot streak and losing years worth of work, sponsorship, and rewards for the sake of integrity.

Ailsa used the spirits to detect emotions, but all she could do was detect them. She didn't know the reasoning behind them, or the person's inner thoughts. Maybe Ribbon lied? Or would the spirits detect that as well? If they could, that would explain why the Dwarf trusted them both so quickly.

But seeing Ribbon crying pitifully as Kira awkwardly opened up about her horrible past, Brigit found herself feeling ashamed for suspecting the Kobold's intentions. And now the two girls were chatting like old friends, smiling and laughing like the painful conversation before was just a dream.

CHOP!

Brigit sliced a piece of meat into thin ribbons with a few graceful flicks of her knife, the silvered edge catching the light in an almost hypnotic rhythm.

One's true intentions were swiftly revealed within the depths of a Dungeon. She would take the two into a Dungeon after classes ended the next day, and as long as she sensed Ribbon's sincerity, she would do everything in her power to protect those girls and their innocent smiles.

Otherwise...

CHOP!

Brigit severed a piece of gristle and flicked it expertly toward the trash.

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About the author

Kruos

Bio: I'm an author as a hobby and write to have fun, so I hope my readers have fun too. I also have a webcomic, and I like to make metal jewelry in my spare time when I can afford the materials!

I'm a sickly person who is often stuck in bed for days at a time, so please be understanding of my sporadic update schedule. I'll do my best!

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