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"Kai, wait—" Luna's words are cut short. I make my way to the Residential District. Nostalgia hits me as I find myself in a familiar place. I smile.
The Green Boar…huh. I walk into the establishment and then look around. The place is packed. I recall the memories I made here with Emdos. Emdos isn't too far from here. Maybe I should go visit him later.
"Kai, over here," Hina says from the corner of the room. She's sitting at a table for two drinking something. I walk over and then sit across from her. "You're late."
"Sorry, I forgot. Can you make it quick? I have a mission soon…"
She sighs before saying, "Well, I'll make it quick. I take it you didn't figure out anythin'…"
I put a hand behind my head and laugh hesitantly. "I asked Moria later that day for descriptions of those five referees that were supposed to be there instead of the five that appeared."
I stop smiling and narrow my eyes. She continues, "I went to the Adventurer's District and asked everyone if they've seen anyone like that. No leads there. I followed-up with people who were already on missions when they came back. Still nothing."
"Maybe they went to another Kingdom for their mission?"
"Maybe, but I don't think so. Moria said these five came to him saying that they needed some quick money. They couldn't find any other jobs and went to him. Apparently the emergency stand-ins said those five found a better paying job."
I know what she's insinuating. "That's not enough evidence to make a conclusion."
"I know. That's why I didn't set up this meetin' until a few days ago. Someone told me that they saw someone that resembles that Gudar referee. I didn't tell him anything other than some of his physical traits.
I gulp as she pauses for a second. "They said one of three executives of an outlaw group in Neomeris has brown slicked back hair and a golden nose ring. All the members have snake earrings coiled around the left ear."
I knit my eyebrows as I think back to the referees. "I don't remember any of them wearing a snake earring."
"True, but this is still something. It can't be a coincidence."
It's true that those referees weren't very professional…
"What exactly happened to you during the tournament?"
"Huh? Oh…" I mutter, remembering my close encounter with death. I pause for several seconds and look away. "Nothing, really. There were just some traps that were unavoidable, so I took a couple of hits."
"Hmm…" Hina stares at me with a frown. "Are you hidin' some kind of secret?"
My face grows hot, and then I gulp. "Wh-what do you mean?"
"Like, are your parents famous or somethin'? If those referees are really from this outlaw group…they might have a grudge against you."
"I don't know anything about my parents…"
"I see," she says and relaxes her facial expressions. "Well, if you do see them again, I would be careful."
"Alright, I will. You too," I say and then head for the exit.
"Sir, did you want to order anything? We've been busy as you can see…" a waiter asks.
"No, I'm on my way out," I inform and then leave. I start walking back to the dormitory. I recall the moments those referees smiled in my direction. Do they really have a grudge against me…? Maybe I should ask Emdos about this…
I run back to the dormitory. I knit my eyebrows at the guards, who are shuffling about the Academy. I open the door to my home.
"Kai's back!" Luna exclaims and then runs into Marin's room. "Marin~! Let's go!"
"Kai, you are going to be the reason all of us are late. Where the h.e.l.l did you go?" Sitos asks with a frown.
"I told you, I had to go run an errand…"
"Could it not have waited? I am blaming you if they penalize us for tardiness."
"Sitoster, it should be fine. We still have plenty of time to walk over to your place if we leave now," Drugo notes.
Sitos smiles and then informs, "I will be waiting outside."
"I need to use the toilet really fast! I'll meet you guys outside," I say as I run into my room and then into the bathroom. I relieve myself and then go back into my room. I knit my eyebrows. Huh? I thought I left my weapons on the bed before I left to meet Hina…
I search under the bed, in the closet, in the drawers, and then the storage chest. I slam the chest shut. s.h.i.t!
I run into the main room. Hiro leaves his room with his hammer in hand. I open one of the storage chests in this room but still find nothing.
Hiro laughs and then says, "Ya misplaced your weapons right before the mission? How careless!"
I c.o.c.k an eyebrow and then look at Hiro. "Why're ya lookin' at me? I'll be outside…"
"Wait," I say and then shut the chest. Hiro freezes in place as I walk over to him. "How'd you know I misplaced my weapons?"
"We-well…be-because…" I glare at him and squeeze the side of his neck with my hand. "Ow, ow! I gi-give up!"
I let go of him and then say, "Give them back to me."
"Hurry up!" Hiro drops his weapon, runs into his room, and then comes out with both of my weapons. I pull them away from his grip forcibly and then clip them on my belt. "We're already cutting it close on time here. Unbelievable."
I lock the door after both of us leave. "So, why the h.e.l.l did you think it would be a good idea to hide my swords?"
"Be-because…I thought it would be funny."
"Well, I'm not laughing." Hiro frowns the entire way to the exit.
"Where've you two been? We need to leave now!" Luna exclaims.
"Sorry, Hiro thought it would be funny to hide my weapons."
Sitos clicks his tongue and then says, "I am disappointed in you, Hiro."
"Uhh…" Hiro makes a small sound and looks down. One of the guards shuffling around approaches us.
"Hey, are you 5th year Academy students?" he asks.
"We are. Why?" Luna asks.
"You students should be careful. We've received reports about missing female 4th and 5th year Academy students from Neomeris, Elbar, and Xantho. Don't stray from the group and don't follow any suspicious characters," he says and then leaves.
"Missing? That sounds scary!" Luna exclaims.
"Yeah…" Marin says.
"We don't have to worry because Kai will protect us! Right, Kai?"
"Ye-yeah! I won't let anything bad happen to you guys!"
"I will protect you too!" Sitos exclaims with widened eyes.
Luna looks at Sitos for a moment and then says, "Okay."
A short silence follows before Drugo says, "All of us will protect you two. We really should get going."
With that, we make our way toward Sitos' home in the Royal District. The usual caravan is parked at the front. Alios is standing next to it.
"What're we doing today?" I ask.
"A compet.i.tor in the market suddenly appeared and bought out all the Gue, an agent used to make a numbing medicine," Alios informs. "The client wants you to collect it and bring it back here. An observer will be joining you."
I c.o.c.k an eyebrow. The caravan door opens, and then an old man with a long beard walks out. He strokes his beard and says, "Don't mind me. I'm just here to watch."
He turns to Alios and asks, "Which one is the one you spoke of?"
Alios points his finger at me and then says, "This child here."
The old man walks up to me while continuing to stroke his beard. "Hmm… So you're the one Alios has spoken so highly of."
I force a smile, unsure of what to say. Sitos is looking away toward Hiro next to him. "What's your name?"
"I see, I see…" he mutters and then walks into the caravan.
What a weird old man…
Alios holds a backpack in front of him. "Take this. It contains a sample of the Gue you are to collect and fill the entire backpack with. The driver will take you to the cave. I expect to see you back here in a few hours."
After I take the backpack, Alios smiles and then walks away into the mansion. We all get into the caravan and then it starts moving shortly afterward. Our banter along the way is not lively as usual. I figure the presence of the observer is the reason. I opt to take this chance and take a nap.
I wake up when my body rolls slightly toward the front. The caravan has stopped. The driver says, "We're here. Your destination's in a cave up ahead."
Sitos takes the backpack, we go outside, and then we find a cave on the base of a hill nearby. Sitos opens the backpack and then takes out some of the product. He lays it out on a hand for us to see. The two of them look like mushrooms. The white stem at the base is short and thick. It's connected to a red rugged dome-shaped head.
"Let me take one of those for reference," I say. I quirk an eyebrow as Sitos closes his palm and then stores both of the mushrooms into the backpack.
"No, I am going to keep it in the backpack to be on the safe side," he replies and then puts on the backpack. "Marin, make us a torch."
"Sure," Marin answers and then creates a piece of wood suitable to carry around. Luna takes it and then lights the top on fire. Sitos takes it while holding a sword in the other hand and then goes into the cave. We follow behind him, the observer furthest behind. Bats squeal and fly past us as we venture deeper in. They are not hostile.
Sitos' acting strange today… There isn't anything around at first sight, let alone mushrooms. About two minutes into the cave, we find a small patch of mushrooms. Sitos runs over and then puts down his weapon. He plucks the mushrooms out without a second thought. They look like the Gue we need, but I'm not sure. I ask, "Can you take out one of the mushrooms for reference?
"No need. I know this is the same mushroom," he says.
I laugh a little before saying, "Well, you need to open up that backpack to put them in. Why not just take one out for reference before mixing them all up?"
Sitos looks at me for several seconds before sighing. He takes out one mushroom from the backpack and then sets it next to one that he plucked. They look nearly identical except for the length of the stem. I note, "The reference mushroom has a shorter stem."
"Big whoop." Sitos cuts the mushroom with the longer stem with the sword and then responds, "Now you cannot tell the difference, right?"
"Hmm… Why would they cut off a part of the Gue? Something's off here," I note.
"We do not have time to be sitting here thinking up bulls.h.i.t reasons why that is," Sitos says as he puts all the mushrooms into the backpack. I take the reference mushroom on the ground before he stores it. He glares at me. I smile.
"It shouldn't be a problem if I lose this one mushroom now that you have all of those, right?"
"Whatever." Sitos stands up and then begins to walk further into the cave. My eyes wander around the area he plucked the mushrooms from. I light a fire from my forehead using Sc.r.a.p Mana as Sitos' torch drifts farther away.
"Kai, what're you doing?" Luna asks as the rest of the group stops except for Sitos.
"Look," I say. "There're some small skeletal remains here. They look small enough to be some kinda small animal."
"Oh, you're right."
"So what? We're gonna lose sight of Sitos," Hiro says.
"I just thought it was strange."
"What are you idiots still doing back there?!" Sitos exclaims. "There is a huge patch of mushrooms over yonder!"
Footsteps resound rapidly deeper into the cave. I stand up and then run after him. "Wait up, Sitos!"
Along the way, I run around random holes on the ground. The dirt on the ground is uneven. I stop again when I find a small patch of mushrooms. I squat down and then pluck one of them from the ground. The stem is longer on this one too.
"Kai, what're ya doin'! I can't see unless you're lightin' the way!" Hiro exclaims. "Forget it! Luna, lead the way!"
"I'm gonna stay with Kai," Luna says and squats down next to me.
"Hiroster, don't go too far by yourself!" Drugo warns as he walks closer to me along with Marin.
I knit my eyebrows at the bottom of the mushroom. There's a black circle on the bottom of the reference mushroom, but there isn't one on the base of the one I just plucked. I take out one of my swords and then cut off a part of the base from the reference mushroom. A purple liquid oozes out from the center of the stem. It's a slimy substance. I hold it up for everyone to see.
"Gross… The mushroom is sick!" Luna exclaims.
I turn to the old man who isn't saying anything.
"Let me see that mushroom," Luna requests. I hand it to her. She squeezes the head which causes more of the substance to flow out. She throws it at my face.
"What the?!" I rear back as the mushroom hits my face, and then I fall on my bottom. Some of the mystery substance sticks to my cheek. Luna points at me and laughs. I frown and grit my teeth.
"Luna…that's going too far…" Marin mutters. I relax my facial expressions and then knit my eyebrows as a weird sensation develops on my cheek. I use a hand to wipe off the substance off my face and then poke the area where it contacted. It feels slightly numb.
"Hey, I don't think there was a mistake with that reference mushroom… Sitos' dad said the Gue was used to make a numbing medicine, right? My cheek is a little numb now…and I'm starting to feel something on my hand too."
"Oh, so the mushroom wasn't sick?"
"I guess not. Or it wasn't a mushroom." I pick up the mushroom and then hold it up toward the old man. I ask, "Hey old man! Is this a mushroom?"
"I'm just an observer."
I frown. Figures…
"Hey y'all!" Hiro exclaims. "There's this mushroom all by itself! I'm gonna grab it really fast!"
I c.o.c.k an eyebrow and then stand up. I face Hiro's direction. There's a lone mushroom surrounded by several skeletal remains like before. I raise my eyebrows and then run after him. "Hiro, stop!"
He grabs the mushroom and then tugs on it, but it doesn't come out. He uses both hands and then pulls on it again. The ground around it shakes. "This stupid mushroom is stuck!"
"Hiro, you idiot! Let go of that monster!" I exclaim as I grab onto my weapons.
"Monster…? What're ya—" The thing Hiro pulled on finally comes out of the ground. Some worm-like creature comes out with its mouth open. Razor sharp teeth close in on Hiro's arms as he falls on his bottom. I slash the monster starting the opening of its mouth down its tail. The top half of the monster falls down next to Hiro. Blood oozes out of it forming a puddle next to Hiro. Hiro is frozen in place on the ground, still holding onto the false mushroom. It's connected to the bottom half of the worm.
"Oh, it was actually pretty delicate," I say. The others run over to me.
"This is why I told you not wander off by yourself. You're lucky Kaister figured it out."
"Well, that's one mystery solved. I guess we need to hunt more of these things," I say and then cut off the false mushroom. A familiar purple substance oozes out from the bottom. I raise my eyebrows. "Oh, let me see that a sec."
I sheathe my weapons and then take the false mushroom from Hiro's hands. There isn't much resistance. I hold it up and point one of my fingers at the opening at the bottom. I cauterize the opening using the flames of my Fire magic. The bottom blackens, and it stops oozing out liquid. I put it back in Hiro's hands which haven't moved. "You can have this back."
"Hey…" Marin mutters. "What's Sitos doing right now?"
I knit my eyebrows as I think about it for several seconds. I turn toward the direction SItos went in before exclaiming, "Oh, s.h.i.t. We should go after him now!"
I run after Sitos. "Y'all gotta wait for me! I'm still shocked from the worm!"
We find ourselves at the top of a cliff after a short distance of running. Sitos is at the bottom knelt down picking up mushrooms. I shout, "Sitos, stop what you're doing right now!"
Sitos looks up and then says, "It is too late for that now, fool. I have almost completely filled this backpack while you were doing nothing."
"Huh? What're you talking about? Anyway, we figured out the puzzle behind the mushrooms! Those mushrooms aren't the ones we're supposed to collect!" Sitos ignores me and continues to pluck the mushrooms. His hand reaches a mushroom that doesn't come out immediately. "Get back! That's a monster!"
"I have no idea what you are talking about. Are you spewing nonsense to stop me from getting all the credit?" I click my tongue and look around. There is a ramp leading down to where Sitos is, but it's a long way down. I make posthaste and run down. Sitos is still tugging on the same mushroom. The ground shakes.
I'm not gonna make it! The worm monster comes out of the ground like before. Sitos falls backward, and his arm is completely vulnerable. An arrow pierces the top of the worm to the ground. Sitos pulls back his arms before the monster closes its mouth. He scampers backward, speechless. The worm opens and closes its mouth repeatedly while twitching its body around.
Nice save, Marin! I make my way to Sitos and then ask, "Are you alright?"
"Ye-yes…" he says as he stares at the worm squirming on the ground. The worm doesn't have any eyes.
"Get back. I'll extract the product from it."
"Ri-right…" he mutters, stands up, and then moves back. I unsheathe a sword and then cut the worm in half down the middle. Both of its pieces wiggle for a while longer before it stops. I grimace as I lift up the top of its mouth. I proceed to cut it horizontally, being extra careful not to cut the false mushroom. I hold the false mushroom up as I cut it off. A familiar purple fluid oozes out from the bottom. I cauterize it with my magic as before.
"Dump out everything in that backpack and put this in," I say as I toss the false mushroom toward Sitos. He stares at it for several seconds before following my instructions. The others join us.
"Sorry… I got too excited…" Sitos looks down and says in a demoralized voice.
"It's fine! Anyone could've made that mistake," I say. "Besides we still need to get a lot more of that before the backpack is full. We should split into two groups and collect them now that we know where to get them."
"Oh, I wanna be the person that kills the worm!" Hiro exclaims. "Kai, you hold the mushroom this time, and I'll kill it!"
I grimace, remembering the bird incident from last year. "No thanks. I'll just do it myself."
"What! That's not fair…"
"I'll hold it for you," Marin says.
"Oh, Marin! I knew I could count on you!"
"Marin, I don't recommend that…" I warn.
"It's fine. I'm sure Hiro won't let the worm eat me. I want to contribute something too."
With that, we split into three groups. I'm by myself while Marin pairs with Hiro. Sitos gives Marin the torch for the light source. We decide that the most efficient way to kill the worm is by pulling it out as Hiro and Sitos have done and then killing it.
I go around pulling on various mushrooms until one doesn't come out. I pull harder with my sword ready in my other hand. As the worm reveals itself, I cut it in half. After that, extract the false mushroom and then cauterize it as before.
We regroup after collecting a good amount. We fill up the backpack entirely and then head back to the caravan. I figure we spent over an hour in the cave. Marin is covered in blood and her hands covered in purple fluid. Her eyebrows are pointed downward, and she's frowning. I twist one side of my lips upward. I warned her…
The driver takes us back to the Royal District. Alios is waiting for us at the front. The old man takes the backpack filled with the product and then hands it to him. Alios asks, "So, what did you think of them, Zarus?"
Alios opens up the backpack and then examines the false mushrooms. "Kai is as good as you've said. He's the one who figured out the true ident.i.ty of those mushrooms… He covered up the mistakes of your son, who jumped to conclusions too soon. Your son seemed too focused on individual contribution than working as a team."
"That is not surprising to hear. Sitos has always been the type to seek attention at the cost of everything else," Alios says as he continues to review the contents of the backpack.
I look over to Sitos, who is looking down and frowning. His fists are clenched. "Quite frankly, he has disappointed me the—"
"That's not true!" I exclaim. "Sitos always works like a team! He's done a lot more work than you give him credit for!"
"Kai…" Sitos mutters.
"Hmm… If you say so, I will not give him a punishment this time," Alios says.
Alios closes the backpack and then says, "Good work on collecting the product. The client will be pleased to receive this. Next, he wants you to check out what the new buyers are up to. You are to find out what they are using the Gue for. The client should be here soon to fill you in on the remaining details."
"Well, thanks for the opportunity on for letting me observe the seeds of the next generation," the old man says as he walks away. "I'll be heading back now."
"You are welcome to come back anytime," Alios says. Later, the client appears and leads us to the Adventurer's District. He instructs us to follow the three men that will come buy the product after he gives us the signal. In the meantime, we idle next to a wall. It's been nearly half an hour. I yawn.
I notice Luna has not moved her head for several minutes. I look in her direction. I don't see anything particularly interesting. There are two girls holding hands simply standing there. One is clearly older than the other. Other than that, the crowds of people are constantly moving about.
"Do you know them?" I ask.
"Huh? What're you talking about?"
"Never mind." Another fifteen minutes pa.s.s. I think about the distance from here to Emdos' place. I figure it won't take me long to get there. "Hey, guys. I've been thinking about visiting Emdos for a while now…and—"
"Go ahead," Sitos says and then smiles. "You did a lot today. We can take it from here. I am sure no one here minds."
"Actually, I—bleh!" Sitos elbows Hiro in the stomach. Marin and Luna smile.
"Thanks, guys! Drugo, you know where to find me, right?"
"Yup, I'll find you if we need you." With that, I run toward Emdos' place. I reach it in less than ten minutes. I smile, standing in front of the door with my heart pounding hard.
It's been over four years since I last saw Emdos… How should I act…? I stand there, thinking about everything I want to ask and say to him. I zone out for a while and then snap back to reality when I realize I can say what comes to mind when I see him, letting it come naturally. I put my hand on the doork.n.o.b and turn it. The door is unlocked. I'm about to push it open when a voice resounds.
"Are you really going to do it?" I push open the door and then go in.
"Emdos?" I call his name and close the door behind me. I walk down the hallway in front of me, heading toward the living room on the left side of the hallway. I find Emdos standing there facing the closet. He turns around.
"Oh! Is that you, Kai? You've grown!"
"Yeah!" I exclaim and then hug him. "Who were you talking to?"
"I was talking to someone? You might've been hearing things."
I c.o.c.k an eyebrow. My eyes focus on the closet he was looking at just now. I smile. "How gullible do you think I am?"
I walk over to the closet, preparing to open it. "Wait, don't open that!"
"Let's see what you're hiding!" I declare and then open the closet. A mountain of clothes falls and pushes me down. There's no one in the closet. I knit my eyebrows as I look around. The windows are shut, and I didn't hear them open after I entered the house. Was it really my imagination?
"I warned you… I bought a bit too much," Emdos explains as he picks up the clothes and then shoves them back into the closet. "What brings you here, Kai?"
"I was on a mission, but my friends can finish the job, so I came here to visit." The book I lost lurks at the back of my mind. I want to tell him, but I can't bring myself to.
My heart skips a beat when he suddenly asks, "Have you been keeping up with the book I left you with?"
I don't answer immediately. I only stare at his back while he puts his clothes back into the closet. "Yeah…actually, I have something to tell you."
My heart beats progressively faster. "I…"
Drugo and Hiro?
Emdos shuts the closet door and then says, "It sounds like your friends are calling for you."
"Yeah, I'm gonna go check it out," I say and then open the front door.
"Kaister, there you are! It's an emergency!" Drugo exclaims. I quirk an eyebrow.
"We'll explain on the way, but we have to go now! Luna and Sitos got captured!"
"Is that Emdos behind you?" Emdos is looking over my shoulder.
"That would be me indeed. So you're one of Kai's friends?"
"Yup, but now's not the time! Could you come with us?"
"I don't mind… Kai are you okay with that?"
If we bring Emdos along, we would definitely rescue Luna and Sitos…but then what was the point of going to the Academy? I figure the situation is serious based on Drugo's facial expression. I rarely find him in this panicked state. I sigh before answering, "No, I don't want you to come with us. I'm gonna show you that I've grown since then."
Emdos smiles. "I'll be waiting for you to come back with all your friends."
"Kaister, are you sure about this? These people might be the kidnappers the guards were talking about earlier…" Drugo mentions.
I widen my eyes and then say, "Seriously?" This situation might be direr than I thought…
"Hey!" Hiro yells from close by. He's running toward us with Marin and a few guards. "I got some help from some guards who caught interest. Let's go back!"
"I'll be back later Emdos!" I exclaim and then run alongside the others. "Can you fill me in on what happened?"
"Yeh, those buyers came right after you left. We followed them here in the Residential District. They went into this alleyway in the slums. There was some kinda warehouse buildin' in there. We heard them talkin' about using these b.a.l.l.s to kidnap people when they noticed us. We ran immediately, but some gas came out of a ball they threw out. Luna got caught in it and fell down. She wouldn't respond after that," Hiro explains.
"What?!" I grit my teeth. After I told her I would protect her… Why did I decide to visit Emdos at that moment? It's all my fault…
"Sitoster went in after we saw Luna go down. When he reached the gas, he went down too without a sound," Drugo explains. A few minutes later, we arrive at our destination. There are double doors leading to a building inside the alleyway.
"You students wait here. We'll go inside first," one of the guards instructs. "Be ready when we give the signal to go in."
We nod our heads and let them go in first. Several minutes pa.s.s with no signs of anything happening inside. No noises at all resound.
"It's too quiet… Should we go in?" I ask and then yawn.
Drugo yawns and then says, "No, we let's wait a while longer."
Something resounds behind me. It was the sound of Hiro and Marin falling to the ground. My vision blurs as my strength leaves me. I fall on the ground too and then pa.s.s out.