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Conner led the party to a camp situated at the back of the ring of camps that surrounded the gates of the dungeon. This was the spot that the Crimson Menace’s party had chosen to camp at, and as they approached the camp, Kayden could make out a large hexagonal tent surrounded by five smaller ones. At a glance, one could just tell how well-off they were as adventurers.

“The large one in the middle is where we store our equipment, as well as where we discuss things,” Conner explained. “A war room, if you will.”

“And those smaller tents?” Cathy asked curiously.

“Our bedrooms. You’re free to join me if you’re so curious.” Conner winked at her.

‘Oh boy…' Kayden thought. He knew what was gonna happen next. Mess with the chick and you get the hen.

Alice promptly stood in front of Cathy in a protective manner and swung her staff viciously. The metallic black staff cut through the air with a satisfying whoosh, but it was easily sidestepped by the tattooed rogue.

‘He’s lucky… I got hit by that staff before and it really hurts.’

He immediately raised his arms in surrender and hopped a few steps back.

“Woah there! It’s just a joke! No one can beat the party leader as the number one girl in my heart anyway.”

The situation got tense, and Kayden was forced to step in. He was pretty much the intermediary of the two parties, after all.

“Okay. Let’s break it up. We can voice our complaints once we’ve reached our destination.” He stood in between them, preventing Alice from setting fire to Conner.

“H-hey! Are you on his or our side?”

“A-alice! It’s fine! He said it was just a joke.” Cathy stuttered.

“Hah?” Alice looked to be in disbelief, “You really believe this—"

“Stop.”

Everyone looked over at the source of the voice. It was Ezekiel, with a calm and collected expression as usual, and he put his finger to his lips in a silencing gesture.

“Nothing good will come if we start fighting. The people who would benefit the most from this would be the other adventurers, as us getting hurt means lesser competition.”

Hearing the logical explanation, Alice began to calm down. Conner gave another quick apology and continued to lead the way.

‘Leave it to Ezekiel to be the one that settles everything. Even if I’m the intermediary, no one is more influential than the party leader. Well, not the official one anyway.’

Louis only chuckled when he heard the ‘joke’, contributing absolutely nothing to the situation. Thankfully, Alice was a little too hot-headed at the time and didn’t manage to hear it. If she had, Kayden dreaded to think of the consequences.

‘Well, that’s an exaggeration. She seems thorny on the outside, but she just cares a little too much for Cathy. That’s all. Not a bad trait by any means.’

Kayden recalled a story that his master had told him, about how her old party fell apart after the leader died. He hadn’t really understood how that would happen back then, but now he could clearly see it. If Ezekiel were to leave the party, there wouldn’t even be a party in the first place.

‘I wonder if that is a good thing. Being the glue that ties people together sounds great, but not only does it place a huge responsibility on your shoulders, it also prevents the other members from truly bonding. Just like his master’s party, if the team cannot work well with just one person missing, they would fall apart like dominoes.’

“Well, no point in thinking too much.” He looked to the two girls, “Let’s go.”

Tolerance. That was the word that currently described Alice’s state of mind. Throughout their entire journey to Aisha’s camp, she had been glaring non-stop at Conner. Not wanting this situation to blow up again, Kayden made use of a little illusion magic and adjusted Alice’s face to show a neutral expression.

He got a look from Ezekiel when he did that.

“…What?”

“Nothing. Look, we’re here.”

And indeed they had. Now that they were closer, Kayden could observe more details from the camp. Like he had seen before, there was the large central tent surrounded by five smaller tents, presumably the same number of party members they had. He could tell that the central tent was well-lit from the inside from the orange glow that peeked under the folds, as well as some horses that had been tied to a post by the side.

“There—”

“Not a word about the horses, Kayden. Not a word or you’re carrying everything on the journey back.”

Upon hearing Ezekiel’s warning, he immediately shut his mouth. He could see Cathy giggle a bit from the corner of his eye.

Conner was already at the central tent’s entrance and proceeded to lift the flap. He performed a brief ‘come in’ gesture, before entering the tent himself. The party all looked at each other silently for a short period before following the man in.

Stepping inside, the party found themselves blinded by the drastic shift in lighting. Inside the tent held many different things, from stray equipment, spare clothing, and crates of potions. But by far the most eye-catching thing was the massive rectangular table placed right in the middle of the room. Maps, stacks of papers, books, a candelabra, and what looked like chess pieces lay on top of the table, and Kayden couldn’t figure out what they could possibly be used for.

Looking away from the table, Kayden could appreciate the whole place. It was far larger than the small tent that he had slept in the past few days and the ceiling was tall enough that even with his height, he couldn’t scrape it with the top of his head if he jumped.

“How did you even bring this all here?” Kayden asked absentmindedly.

“I can answer that!” A familiar voice called out, followed by the sounds of clacking footsteps. From behind them, four people strolled confidently into the tent and leading the group was a familiar face.

“Aisha! It’s been a while!” He looked over at the two new faces, a mousey brown-haired girl, and a curvy purple-haired woman. “Glad to see you replaced those two.”

The two that he was referring to was, of course, Brandon and Ryan, who he had enmity with. They had originally met in Aisha’s party, but they were no longer here.

‘Hah! Serves them right!’

Aisha scratched her head cutely, “Right, I never got to apologize for that. Sorry—”

“Eeekkk!”

All eyes were drawn to the noise, and what they saw was Alice desperately covering Cathy’s eyes.

“C-can’t you dress a little more appropriately? You’re being really indecent! I mean, look at yourself!”

Aisha looked down at her own body. Like the last time Kayden saw her, she was dressed skimpily in a bikini and several pieces of armor that did not look like they did much protecting. Noticing Alice’s source of distress, she instantly blushed and tried to apologize, “Well, sorry—”

“Do not worry, party leader!” A man with many strings of beads hanging all around his body stepped up. “No need to apologize. They won’t understand. They never do.”

“I see…?” Aisha sounded unsure.

Alice’s eyes grew fierce. “What do you mean by that?”

“Heh. All I’m saying is that you C ranks could never comprehend—”

“Alright alright. We’re straying off in a terrible direction right from the start. Let’s just all take a deep breath and take a step back, alright?” Conner raised his voice, trying to defuse the bomb in the room.

Alice yelled back in response, her hands still firmly pressed on Cathy’s eyes. “I’ll back down if she puts on some clothing! Kayden, this the kind of woman you hang out with?”

“Well, that was an unnecessary jab at my character, but calm down. I can fix this.” Kayden waved a hand and Aisha was instantly fully clothed. He wasn’t feeling particularly creative this late at night, so he just chose a female outfit from within this room. As he was doing this to appease Alice, he figured that she wouldn’t consider her own outfit revealing and simply duplicated it onto Aisha.

“There. That won’t cause any problems now.”

Aisha twirled around in her new outfit, examining herself slowly. Despite being an illusion, the clothes still flowed freely with the physics of actual cloth, a testament to Kayden’s abilities. After a short while, she gave a cute smile and nodded, before turning to Kayden.

“That was really handy! How come you’ve never done this before? It must have been really awkward, seeing me in my outfit all the time, right? I’ve seen you looking away multiple times.”

“Ah…haha…” Kayden could no longer withstand the looks and pressure coming from the women in the room. Even the beaded man was glaring at him. He returned the innocent smile that Aisha was giving him and said, “I just never thought of it! Silly me!”

Kayden robotically marched to the other side of the tent and clapped his hands together. “Come on! Let’s introduce the two parties! No time to waste!’”

Aisha shrugged. “Let’s do that, then. Since we invited them here, they are our guests. Do your best to get along!”

With that, everyone present began to crowd around the large, central table. On the left side, we have Kayden’s party, consisting of Ezekiel, Louis, Cathy, Alice, and himself. On the right side, we have Aisha, Conner, and three others. They introduced themselves as San, the man with many beads and the B ranked support of the party, Lizza, the newly added C ranked mage with purple hair, and Bell, the newly added C ranked support with brown hair.

Perhaps Kayden should have used more distinct traits to describe those two C ranks, but he was too tired to do his usual close observation of people. Maybe he should do a System appraisal and be done with it?

‘No no no. These are powerful B-ranked adventurers. They won’t take kindly to this. The System has already caused enough trouble for me as is.’

The round of introductions was quick, perhaps because of the tension earlier. After everyone’s name was dropped, Aisha immediately got to the point.

“You might already know this, but the reason why I’ve invited you here right now has to do with the barrier. As of right now, all the adventurers are at a stalemate. No one has found a way to break into the barrier, and we need to do so soon.”

“Why?” Ezekiel questioned. “What’s the rush? From what I’ve seen, the adventurers closest to the gate are much better equipped than the ones further away, yet they still can’t break through the barrier. It can’t be that you’re afraid of more competition pouring in by the time a solution if found.”

“Astute observation, Mr. Azykill, but you’re wrong. The adventurers in the innermost rings have a head start if the barrier breaks, and they consist of either the early comers or the most powerful. However, it does end up as a double-edged sword. Due to the death mana in the environment, skeletons periodically spawn from the gates, and it falls to them to first defeat the undead. We’re afraid that as time goes on, the frontlines could no longer hold out, rendering this entire dungeon raid a lost cause.

“Oh yeah, our party moved to the back and sacrificed our head start in an attempt to preserve our stamina.” She added.

“Alright then… What about the adventurers trying to drill a new entrance into the dungeon? Are they not done yet?”

“Ah, that… well, there was an attempt. It was supposed to be a secret mission that we and another party worked together on, but it was all for nothing. The barrier extends to the entire dungeon exterior, we think. It seems that word has gotten around… how embarrassing.”

Ezekiel went silent after that and started signaling to Kayden with his eyebrows.

‘What is he doing? Is he frowning at me? I didn’t do anything!’

Ezekiel wiggled his eyebrows some more, signaling at Cathy this time.

‘What’s his problem?’

“… Kayden, I think he wants you to bring up the idea of using my ability. Oh, I’m speaking to you with my telepathy, so don’t freak out, okay?”

‘Oh. How was I supposed to know that? An eyebrow wiggle doesn’t tell me much… Wait, how did you know that?’

“Um… he had been hinting it to you since the start. Remember when he tasked you to smooth things over? And don’t you have an appraisal ability?”

Kayden felt wronged and thought that the expectations placed on him by Ezekiel were a little too high. Just because he had an appraisal ability doesn’t mean that he could read people's minds.

“Um… Let me say something.” Kayden awkwardly inserted himself into the conversation. “You see, Cathy here has the ability to dispel magical effects. Maybe she could help us get in? I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot.”

Aisha’s crimson red eyes lit up. She turned to look at Cathy with reverence as if she was a messenger of the gods.

“Oh my! Really? Are you sure?”

“Y-yes,” Cathy spoke up for the first time since coming into the tent. “But I need to test it out first. The barrier might be too powerful for my ability to work.”

“Test it out? Indeed. Hmm…” Aisha began pacing around the tent with a thoughtful expression. “Okay… Adventurers might see… less competition… only if she succeeds…”

She suddenly stopped at where she stood before. “Alright, I have an idea.”

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Kageko

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