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After asking pa.s.sersby, we learn that the Icy Tavern is at the heart of the city, the intersection of the four districts. That's where Humans, Elves, Dwarves, and the Xog intermingle. We'll finally be able to see the other races. I can't wait. Hina's excited too. Otherwise, her palms wouldn't be sweating. It could mean that she's nervous, but there's no reason to be.

"What're you excited more to see?" I ask. "Xog or Dwarves? Personally, I wanna see the Xog. If they're as outlandish as what the books say."

"I'd rather see a…Dwarf," Hina mutters.

A Dwarf? That's so boring. It's almost as if she's…nervous. I smile before saying, "What, the idea of meeting a Xog scares you?"

She turns her head toward me and exclaims, "O-of course not!"

"Your face's red."
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"It's cold," she answers calmly.

"If you're that cold, your fingers wouldn't be sweating," I say. Hina doesn't respond. She doesn't have an excuse for that, but the hand never lies. I don't see the big deal about Xog. From what we've read in the Academy, they can be the same size as us or as tall as a house. Some have a lot of hair, and some don't have hair at all. The description is contradicting a lot. But, when Viessa first revealed herself, it was just as the books described.

It makes me think that the books could all be right. But what kind of thing would it be like? Is Hina nervous because they could be anything?

"They can't be that scary," I say. "I mean…if Elves, Dwarves, and Humans are willing to live with them in the same city, how bad can they be?"

"I guess…" she answers with little energy.

'You wanted to be an Adventurer, but you're scared of this?"

"That's completely different, and I'm not scared. I'll admit I'm nervous, though."

So, she's willing to admit that. It's basically the same thing, but I'll let it go. "How's that any different?"

"You hunt monsters as an Adventurer. You walk into a zone filled with them expectin' to see them, and with the monster codex, you know what you're exactly walkin' into. No surprises. They're not very smart either. What's there to be scared about?"

I tighten my grip while thinking of that day. "You haven't met a real monster."

"And what's that?"

I remember it clearly. I answer, "An Albino Flying Squirrel."


"An Albino—" Hina breaks out in a cackle. "Flyin' Squirrel!"

I try to stay calm, not letting her laughs get to me. She doesn't know the destructive power that it had. "It wasn't an ordinary version of the Albino Flying Squirrel. It had red eyes."

"Red, eyes!" she exclaims and continues laughing. Suddenly, she stops and says, "Ow, you're hurtin' me."

"Oh, sorry," I apologize and let go of her hand. I clenched my hand on hers without realizing it.

"You look serious. I thought you were tryin' to be funny."

"If it were a joke, Hiro might still be alive."

"Hiro…the loud one that you mentioned died to a monster? It was to an Albino Flyin' Squirrel?"

"Yeah."

"I'm sorry for laughin'…when it was your friend who died. I take everythin' back."

"Nah, it's fine. Anyone would've laughed considering that they're normally E ranked monsters," I say.

"What were you sayin' about red eyes?"

"I asked Moria about it. He said that those with red eyes are called Anomalies. Exceedingly rare and powerful. There's no record of anyone beating one."

"Seriously?" she asks with widened eyes. "You guys managed to escape it?"

I don't like the way this conversation is heading. I'd move it along elsewhere. I can't reveal my Void magic to her after all. "Yeah, we got lucky. Hiro…took the fall for us."

"That was very brave of him. I have a lot more respect for him now."

"Yeah, well. So, there you have it. You never know when you'll meet an Anomaly, so you don't always know what you're walking into."

"You're right. I was wrong about that. But… Anomalies are exceedingly rare. Those masked attackers are scary…why? They can think, learn from mistakes, and make decisions, unlike monsters. That's what makes them really scary. You never know what they're truly thinkin'. Where they could be watchin' you or huntin' you."

"I guess I can agree with that, so how does that tie in with your nervousness with the Xog?" I ask.

"Well, they can think like us too. They're people too…or I don't know. From some of the descriptions...I picture them as upright monsters. When I think of monsters that are capable of makin' decisions and thinkin' for themselves, that's what makes me a little nervous."

Imagining a wolf walking upright on its hindlegs is a little intimidating. Especially when I think there could be an entire population of them walking in the streets. I reply, "I get it."

"Good. Can I borrow your hand? My hand's cold," Hina says and holds out her next to mine. "Try not to crush it this time."

"Fine," I respond and hold her hand. "As long as you promise you won't cry if the Xog turns out to be a little scary."

She squeezes her hand on mine instead. She smiles and says, "Admit it, you're actually scared too. I did you a favor by askin' you to hold my hand, so you wouldn't have to ask awkwardly."

You don't want to play this game with me. I gradually put more force into the grip on her hand.

"I'm sorry," she utters quickly and relaxes her hand. I loosen mine too, applying enough to still hold on to it.

Heh. I get the last laugh. The buildings up ahead are painted blue instead of the red buildings in this area. That must be the central district.

Part of me wonders how long ago the races have been living together in this city. Since the other races have their separate entrances, they must have their unique districts too. Viessa said that other races could live here or do work nearly a decade ago. So, that should've been nine years ago or three Inteiru Expota's ago.

So, was Syrina built before or after the races came together? Considering that these districts separated clearly, I can only a.s.sume that the other districts are colored differently, too. Viessa didn't mention anything about the Inteiru Expota being new, so there must have been more Inteiru Expotas in the past held here. Did the Humans here live in the other districts before the other races moved in? And if they did, were they shoved all onto this side of the city? I feel like there's more than enough s.p.a.ce, but I have so many questions.

While I'm still lost in thought, Hina raises her hand and shakes it while it's still locked with mine. "Kai, look!"

I look toward where she's pulling my hand. A fat bearded kid is walking across from us. No, that has to be a Dwarf. No way a kid's face ages like that or grows beards. So, they're like Humans but smaller in height and a bit wider…

"He's small like the books say," Hina says and then lets out a chuckle.

The Dwarf walks toward us and narrows his eyebrows. "'Ey, lewk. 'Tis a f.u.c.kin' Human. Shut yer puss, ye f.u.c.kin' flat nugget. Ma tools be big enoof ter wreck havok in yer shed. De bewks dun tell ya dat. Call me smol agin an' Ay will make ye chew ma banger."

I don't comprehend everything he said, but he definitely seems angry. Hina opens her mouth and lets out a few sounds but no words, so she probably didn't understand entirely either. Don't want him to get too close to her. I step in front to block him from her before things turn for the worst.

"Sir, I'm sorry. She didn't mean to offend you," I say.

"Oi'm nae deaf. 'Tis a wee tew late fer dat," he says. No one around us seems to care about what's happening, not even other Humans.

Wanting to defuse the situation quickly, I reach into my pocket to grab a handful of coins. I hold out my palm in front of me. It's only about ten silver coins, but that's over half of my weekly salary. "Look, we're both new here and don't know anything. Take this and let us be on our way."

He stares at me with the most menacing look for several seconds until he finally takes the coins from my palm responds, "Fine."

"Ward o' advice. Nivver call a Dwarf smol unless yer lewkin ter start a figh'. f.u.c.kin' Humans…" he scoffs and walks away.

Hina and I stand in place for a while longer until he's far from us.

"Dwarves are scary…" Hina says. "He was talkin' so fast I couldn't understand what he was sayin'. So they don't like bein' called sm..."

She looks around her before continuing in a whisper, "Small."

"Apparently not," I answer. "Let's hurry up."

Glancing around, it's still mostly Humans around. We continue our way with the directions we got earlier, eventually reaching the Icy Tavern. While we saw more Dwarves and some Elves, we didn't see anything that could be a Xog.

"What took you so long?" Ada asks as we enter the tavern. She and her team are standing by the entrance. "Where's the rest of the team?"

"We had to improvise," Hina explains. "The ministers wanted to explore the city."

"What? They're not supposed to do that. It's General Nero's orders."

"Yeah, we told them. But, they aren't fans of him so they don't wanna listen," I say. "Just the two of us for now."

"Fine, let's get started then, " Ada says and then turns to Aisha.

"Right. Let's move to the corner," Aisha says and walks toward the corner farthest from everyone else inside the tavern. It's all Dwarves, so it's a good thing that we're moving away from them. Who knows what'll happen if they mishear one of us talking and have a misunderstanding. They're a bit loud, so it's doubtful that they'll hear us anyway. The rest of us follow her.

"Logistics. We're missing about half of us, so that decreases our odds of finding anything on the first day, the most important. Our team's completely free today, but I don't know about you guys," Aisha says and turns toward Hina and me.

"I wouldn't count on it. There're eight of us here. We can split into pairs of two, and with the entire day ahead of us, I'm sure we'll find something," I say.

"Groups of two…we talked about this. It covers more ground, but it's riskier. Especially since half of us here are less effective in close-quarters where we'd be likely to be investigating. We don't have much of a choice now, so I'll agree. On one condition, everyone's only to do light scouting and investigating. Don't go too deep by yourself. So regarding the sewers topic, you're only to look for the entrance. We'll reconvene here in two hours to see if anyone has found any leads. Then we'll go as a bigger team to investigate the noteworthy ones," Aisha says.

"Sounds good," I say. "So, which pair's taking which district? If we wanna be efficient. There're five districts while there're only eight of us."

I already know which three Hina doesn't want to be in.

"Actually…about that," Aisha says. "Someone recommended that we don't go into the Xog district."

I knit my eyebrows. If the races are living together in the city, it would be weird that if we're not allowed in the other districts. The ministers wanted to explore the Elven district too. They should know whether or not that was possible before deciding that. I ask, "What do you mean? It's not allowed?"

"It's allowed, but no one recommended it. It's not a highly regulated area, and it's not safe. Everywhere else is fine, though."

"Who told you that?" I ask." That sounds like the perfect place for the masked men to hide. They could've been the ones to tell everyone to keep out."

"It's possible they're operating there, but I think we should avoid that area for now. We double-checked the information with practically everyone on the street. They all say the same thing. It's doubtful that everyone's working with the masked men," Aisha says.

"Okay, well, that simplifies things. Four districts and four pairs," I say. If we can't go to the Xog district, there's only one other district I would prefer. I'd better speak up before Hina takes the lead and makes it impossible for me to disagree. I smile. The same goes for her. "We prefer to stray in the central district. Pearl's dying to see one of the Xog for herself. Shame that we're keeping the Xog district out of limits for now."

Hina gives me a nasty look for a moment, but it transforms into a smile. We have to play the role of a happy couple in the end, or our cover is blown. I've figured out that I can control our actions more or less by having the first say. But she's probably realized that too. She says, "You took the words right out of my mouth, Darling. That's why I love you. You always know what I want."

I'm the only one who knows her smile is not an innocent one. But hey, we're convincing them that we're a true couple. They've been skeptical of us lately. I did her a favor by playing into both of our interests.

"We'll let you two stay here then. Ada will go with me to the Elven district, Melody go with Deniz to the Dwarven District, and Doris with Irwin in the Human district," Aisha says. "Remember to tread lightly. This is our first round of investigations. Anyone have concerns?"

No one speaks. Aisha turns toward Hina and me. "Well, we'll see you back here in two hours."

Hina and I nod. The six of them leave the tavern. Hina squeezes my hand and says, "Darling, I think we need to have a discussion."

"You don't wanna play this game with me again," I say and clutch my hand tighter around hers. She stops trying to out squeeze my hand and frowns. "Besides, with the number of times you've screwed with me, you deserve it. Also, I saved you from the Dwarf earlier."

"I could've handled him myself."

Liar. You looked like you were about to wet your pants. Admitted you were scared too.

"'Ey," a Dwarf suddenly says behind us. This guy is a bit taller than the other guy and his beard braided. There's so much grime on his face that it looks like he hasn't bathed in weeks. It's obvious by his stench too. I want to get out of here. "Ye juss gonnae stand dare er sit down an' order somethin'? Ye Humans always be rude usin' ma business fer meetin' an' nothin' else."

d.a.m.n. We should've left with Aisha and the others when we had the chance. I have a feeling that it would be better to oblige than to walk away at this point. It might be insulting to them to refuse, or maybe we've already made a bad impression. It's not like they're going to chase us down and try to kill us, but this could be a good chance to learn more about them.

"Of course, we're sitting down to eat something," I respond. I'm a bit hungry anyway. We haven't had anything to eat since we've arrived. Hina looks at me with a confused expression. I lead her to the nearest table and sit down.

"Dun be shy. Sit closer wiff de rest o' us. We dun bite," he says and points with his hand to a table next to a group of Dwarves.

Reluctantly, I stand back up and sit down where he indicates. Hina follows my lead.

"So, wha' will ye have?" he asks. He asks that as if I know what's there to be offered.

"Just get me some soup if you have some," I say, wanting to get it over with.

"Oh, Ay wou' nae recommend any food fer ya, sir. Ye knoo hoo it goes. Stick ter de drinks."

I don't know what he means by that. Is he saying that I can't finish it? Seeing how Dwarves are a bit plumper than us, maybe the food portions are a lot bigger too. "Whatever, just get me the soup. I'll eat anything you give me."

"Sir, Ay dun think ye understand. Ye must be new 'round haur."

The group of Dwarves next to us laugh. One of them exclaims, "Boss, wha' be de big deal? Let deez Humans have dare soup."

"Aye yai yai…two rock soups fer de Humans comin' roight up," the server says and walks away.

Rock soups…? He's not being literal, right? Rocks aren't edible. Must be a metaphor for something else like how 'on the rocks' mean ice. They're named the 'Icy Tavern,' after all.

"What about my order? I didn't say I wanted soup…" Hina mutters and then whispers. "What're we stickin' around for?"

I whisper back, "Well, I was hungry. And you owed me some money for making that other Dwarf go away. I had to act fast before you decided to handle him yourself. Running away could have p.i.s.sed them off resulting in them chasing you down."

"Yo-you're right…" she mutters with widened eyes while looking down at the table. Good thing I acted fast. Seems like she was actually thinking about bolting. She's really easy to manipulate right now, though. Heh. I'll find her other weaknesses, so she'll never mess with me again.

"Bahaha!" multiple Dwarves laugh at the table next to us. They've been rowdy since we walked in here. What's so funny? "Drink up, drink up! 'Tis a celebration!"

Another Dwarf chugs a stein. The entire group cheers him on and explode into laughter after he slams it back onto the table. Your usual antiques of a drunk crowd.

"Listen, ye may have beaten me dis time, but a new shipment o' Aerkins be comin' in. Ay will bet dat one o' them will finally beat ya," one of them says.

"Nae way. Ye will have ter start trainin' one fer yerself if ye want a chance against me," another answers. "Ay dint get dis far by chance."

"Bahaha! Ay know, Nazug. Oi'm givin' ya a heads up. Dis new shipment Ayve heard rumors abart be on an entirely different level. Ye best be prepared. Ay dun want ter see the current champion go down so easily."

"Thanks fer de warnin', friend. Ayve got ter battle anoder challenger soon," Nazug says and stands up from his seat. "Ay will see ya later."

"See ya later. May de spirit o' Achilles be wiff ya."

Our server's walking toward us, holding onto two big bowls, one on top of each hand. What kind of soup is it going to be?

"Lotrem, ye be sure we ken trust them?" one of the Dwarves next to us asks.

"Relax, brahder. We'll figure it art later. Drink! We still have ter celebrate Nazug's win streak!" Lotrem exclaims. "More beer, boss!"

"Oi'm workin' as fast as possible hold yer horses. Two rock soups fer de Humans," the server says.

"Oh, dis will be good," Lotrem snorts. The two other Dwarves with him snicker too.

The Dwarf sets down the bowls in front of us. He didn't provide us with any spoons which I find strange. What's stranger is inside the bowl. Several different colored roughed objects are inside. Some are about the size of an apricot, while others are like grapes. If I didn't know any better, those were rocks, but that can't be it. I lift up the bowl seeing how I have no spoon. The bowl is pretty heavy for this little amount of food, which indicates to me that these might literally be rocks.

I lift the bowl toward my mouth to sip this strange liquid. With one small sip, I knit my eyebrows. This isn't water or anything I've tasted before. It does a burning feeling down my throat, so I figure this was a type of alcohol. The taste isn't reminiscent of what soups should taste like.

The only thing left to try is these colored rock-like objects. It's not very sanitary to reach into the bowl with my hands, but there's no other option. I take one of the smaller ones. Maybe these will melt in my mouth like candy. I carefully pop it into my mouth and suck on it, as if it was hard candy.

Initially, only the taste of the clear liquid is distinguishable. Afterward, the only way I can describe the flavor is like that of a metal; a bit of a sour aftertaste. I don't think that's the right method of eating it either. The only other possibility is if there's something soft inside this hard sh.e.l.l. I bang it against the table in which a high pitched thump resounds. Yep, one hundred percent rock. All of them are rocks.

The Dwarves next to us are grinning, and it looks like they're trying to keep themselves from breaking into a cackle. Unless their teeth are somehow made of something much harder than rock, I don't see how anyone would eat this.

"Wha' be wrong Human? Ye said ye would eat anythin'," Lotrem says.

"Well, then, tell me Lotrem. How would you eat this?" I ask, feeling like the Dwarves at only messing with us at this point. I'm not trying to start anything, but at the same time, I won't simply take it.

"Eavesdroppin' intae our conversation an' gettin' familiar now, are we? Well, sin' ye asked nicely, Ay will tell ya wha' Ayd dae if Ay came wiff ma lady. Ayd take one o' de medium-sized rocks ter shove in her hole, lettin' it fester inside her fer a while. Only eftor her juices thoroughly cover de rock, Ayd take it art ter dip in de soup," he replies.

Dwarves may be harder to understand, but they're still speaking mostly in the Human language. He's very clearly trying to pick a fight with us. Suggesting something like that when the whole reason we're pretending to be a couple is to help Hina with Captain Citrio making unwanted advancements on her. Now, these random Dwarves are suggesting something inappropriate to her. I won't stand for it. I stand up from my seat and ask, "What're you trying to say?"

"Oi'm only answerin' yer question. Nae need ter get worked up abart it. Dun be such an Elf."

"How exactly did you answer my question? You think I'm dumb enough to think that you were serious when you suggested I should shove some rocks between my friend's legs?"

They stare at me in silence for several seconds before bursting into laughter again.

Lotrem exclaims, "Ay won again! Next round's on ya."

"Yeah, yeah…" the Dwarf next to him says.

"Darling, let's pay and leave," Hina says quietly behind me.

That might be for the best. I wouldn't want this to turn like the first mistake I made upon joining the Army. I look toward the server in the back of the establishment and say, "Hey! How much for the two rock soups? We're out of here."

"One moment!" he exclaims, carrying an entire plate of steins.

"Hey, Lotrem. Our Human friends not be very happy. Maybe ye ought ter explain ter them wha' be guin on."

"No need. We'll leave," I say.

"Dun be loike dat. Ye moight still be able ter enjoy them if Ay shove them intae our holes instead."

I don't answer. I don't know what to think at this point. Is that something a Dwarf usually would say when they're trying to make amends?

"Brahder, ye won de bet. Stop beatin' a dead horse an' tell them already," another Dwarf says.

The server sets down the plate of drinks on Lotrem's table before turning toward us. He nervously looks down onto our unfinished bowls of soup.

"Boss, dun worry. We'll cover fer them," Lotrem says.

"You don't have to. We have enough," I answer, not wanting to owe this rude Dwarf anything.

"Dun be loike dat. Yer misunderstandin' de whole thin'. 'Tis an onguin bet we dae on unsuspectin' Humans. De hole O'im talkin' abart be roight haur," he says and points to the side of his abdomen. He lifts his shirt, revealing something disturbing.

"The f.u.c.k?!" I exclaim while taking a step back. There's a slit on the side of his belly resembling something that of the female body.

"Dats pretty rude, but Ay will let it slide. Best ya learn dis befer ya get intae a mixup wiff de wrong crowd o' Dwarves. 'Tis an outer stomach we have called a Beje. We use it ter predigest rocks loike doze in de soup. It softens de rocky material intae somethin' jelly-like wiff de acid substance inside. Each Dwarf's juices taste slightly different, so 'tis always interestin' ter utilize someone else's Beje fer a different taste," he explains.

That's super weird. I think before speaking up, "So, that's all you eat?"

"Oh, heavens nae. We cou' live aff feedin' only on rocks, but we enjoy fine cuisine tew. Dare be cheap rocks an' finer rocks. Doze in de soup be mid-tier. Probably owor ten silver coins fer de whole bowl," Lotrem informs.

"Fifteen silver coins, ter be exact," the server informs.

I widen my eyes. It was good that they stopped us from leaving. We learned something useful and got out of paying a ridiculously expensive bill for practically nothing. I thought the only thing that contrasted us was our physiques. That brings me to question what else differs, but now's not the time to learn about Dwarves. We've got to investigate leads. I say, "Well, thank you for paying for us and telling us a little about yourselves. It was helpful."

"Bahaha! Nae problem! Ay dint get yer names," Lotrem says.

"Kai, and that's Hina," I say while pointing to Hina who has been quiet this entire time. Still scared of conversing with them despite their more friendly behavior. "She's a quiet one."

"'Tis nice meetin' ya. Have a good one. We'll probably be seein' ya 'round."

I smile before turning for the door. We've spent enough time here. Did he overhear us talking about our investigation earlier? There's no way he heard us from that distance, especially with their rowdiness. It's weird for him to think that our paths would cross again. He might've seen Ada's group escort the ministers upstairs. I guess a lot of people are here for the Inteiru Expota, so it's not unusual to a.s.sume.

"Still think Dwarves are scary?" I ask. "Those bunch seemed pretty friendly."

"Oh, yeah…" Hina mutters. Her face is red.

"What's up?" I ask.

"It-it's nothin'. Let's get movin'," she says and walks away from the Icy Tavern.

I stare before shaking my head and following. I grab onto her hand and look to the side of her face. She should be able to see my head turned, but she keeps her view straight, avoiding all eye contact. There's very clearly something. I sigh before saying, "Your face's pretty red, and don't even think about blaming it on the cold. Out with it."

She glances at me with a frown. "Fine… It's about the Dwarves."

"What about them? That Beje of their's pretty cool, right? Although, a little gross the first time you see it."

"Is that what the weird lookin' thing on the side of their body was?"

"Yeah, were you not listening?"

"I was…but…"

"But?"

"I can't understand what they're sayin', okay?" she finally admits. "It's not that they're scary anymore."

"Hmm…yeah. I had trouble following what they were saying at first too. I got used to it pretty fast. I understand most of it now."

"So, can you summarize what they said?"

If she didn't understand anything, that means she completely missed their joke about the holes… Well, talking about that isn't important. "Basically, they predigest the rocks by putting into that Beje of theirs. Some acids melt it, and it turns into jelly. They take it out, and I a.s.sume put it into their mouths afterward to eat normally. Or dipping it into that weird liquid before that."

I continue, "And before you ask, they can eat normal food too."

"That's pretty interestin'. Do you think Elves and Xog have somethin' different about them too? Viessa looked normal other than for the ears."

"Maybe, I'm sure we'll learn eventually. I have a feeling there's more to Dwarves that we don't know," I mention. Now that I think about it. They were initially talking about something. It sounded like some kind of fighting ring. The first Dwarf that left, Nazug was his name. He was undefeated, and from how their conversation ended, he's headed to another fight.

"Oh!" Hina interjects and then chuckles. "Belly jelly! That's where they got the Beje name from."

"Wow…" I mutter and palm my face. Their naming sense is very literal. "By the way, I picked up a potential lead from one of their earlier conversations."

"A lead?"

"Yeah. There was a guy named Nazug talking like he was gonna fight someone. The other Dwarf referred to him as a champion. I'll bet that there's an unofficial fighting ring somewhere."

"Light investigation only, remember? It sounds like that might be underground. We should double-check if there isn't an official one first."

"I doubt it. He was saying that he had another challenger. Sounds pretty unofficial to me."

"It's nice that we know this, but how will we find them? Knowin' does as much good as we know the masked men might utilize the sewers."

"That's true…but we can ask someone. Asking someone about wanting to spectate a fight sounds a lot less suspicious than wanting to know where the sewer entrance is," I say.

We roll with that idea, asking anyone on the street who is willing to spare a second to speak to us. We even try asking a few Dwarves since it might be a Dwarven thing much to Hina's dismay. Of course, we don't see any Xog around.

We found nothing other than that it's not an official tournament or fighting ring.

"What now?" Hina asks. "The location might be in another district or even outside the city."

"Yeah… I guess it's a dead end. Still, it's something to share with the others. I guess we'll just make a few laps around this part of the city," I say. "Might finally see one of those Xog. If you thought Dwarves were scary, imagine what a Xog will be like."

"Shut up, don't make me think about it. Are you really lookin' for suspicious people?"

"I'm doing both," I answer. A bit hard to detect any real suspicious figures. Since we haven't been in the area before, what we consider abnormal might be normal in the area. The organization of the city is different. It's like the Trade District, Residential District, and Adventurer's District from Drymo were merged into one district for every district. It's a bit chaotic.

Two hours of light investigation is a bit overkill considering the rules. We can only go into publicly crowded places, avoiding all suspicious-looking alleyways and dead zones.

Something moves in the corner of my eye. I stop look into the nearby alley. I swear I saw something, and it wasn't an upright figure. It was something with a tail. If I didn't know any better, it might've been a monster. But that doesn't make any sense.

"Darling, what's wrong?" Hina asks.

"I thought I just saw a monster run past over there," I say, pointing into the alley. There's more connecting alleys deeper within.

"You're seein' things. How can there be any monsters in the city? Besides, we can't check over there because those were our ground rules."

That's true, but at the same time, actually witnessing something suspicious is different. If I go back and report that I saw this, it will be worth nothing. By the time we gather the group to search the area, whatever it was would be long gone. We're still in the city. Nothing terrible can seriously happen even if it's in an area with fewer or no people.

"Let's check it out. It'll be quick," I say, letting go of Hina's hand to run forward into the alley.

"Darling, wait!" she exclaims behind me.

I ignore her and continue to the intersection I saw a glimpse of the figure. I look left and right, trying to remember whether the thing came from one way or the other. The one time snow would be useful, and there isn't any. The city managed to stay clear of it despite conditions outside.

I go with my gut instinct and go right. There' a big open area up ahead. The back end of a building is on the left and the right. We're basically in between two streets.

It makes me wonder why they decided to construct the city this way. It's like they're trying to include secret pa.s.sages within the city purposely from the start. There is no other exit except continuing forward or returning back. No windows or doors present at first glance. No one around either.

"We shouldn't be here," Hina warns.

I reply, "It'll be fine. Me and you, we're strong enough to handle most encounters."

"There's nothin' here anyway. It was your imagination."

I walk around the edges of this open lot. There has to be something here. "Let's check out this area to see if there's anything fishy."

"Fine… I'll help you look," she concedes.

I can't seem to find anything. But, my gut feeling tells me that it's here somewhere. I search the entire lot with no luck. I ask, "Did you find something?"

"No, but I'll trust your intuition and try somethin'," Hina says and stands still in the middle of the lot. She places both of her palms face down with her arms fully stretched, pointing to the ground. "Might be a little cold."

Soaking us with water in this weather? What's her game plan? If she floods the area, it'll go all over the alleys. People will come if they see water coming out of nowhere. I'd like to think she has a bit of common sense so that she wouldn't do that.

A thick, flat layer of Water appears that covers the entire lot from edge to edge. It soaks my feet wet with the water level reaching all the way up to my waist. She's abusing her high Water Affinity as usual. Somehow, she manages to keep the water contained within this area so that it doesn't leak out into the narrow alley we came. Something creaks around us, though I can't pinpoint where.

"There it is," Hina says. "A hidden trapdoor."

The water disappears seconds later, but I'm still wet. Should I dry myself off with some Fire magic? I'm not sure that's possible without burning the fabric.

"It-it's co-cold…" Hina mutters. "Gi-give me o-one se-second…"

She continues a moment later, "All better. Let me get you too."

She touches me all over with her hands. I guess she needs physical contact to remove the magical water from my clothing. She manages to eliminate the water everywhere except for one place.

"You should be good," she says.

I smile and respond, "You missed a spot. If you don't mind. Try not to let your hand slip."

She blushes and answers, "In your dreams."

She reaches her hand into my pants for a moment to dry off the last piece of cloth on my body. Then, she walked the spot where the ground creaked. She crouches down and slides her hands across the ground. Seconds later, she grabs onto something and lifts it. I walk over and help her raise the door. A stairway leading down into the darkness behind it.

"Well, this is it. We'd better back off before goin' any further," Hina says.

After coming this far, I don't want to leave. "Aren't you curious what's in here, though?"

"Tread lightly. That's what we agreed on. This is too dangerous," she warns. "This pa.s.sage won't be goin' anywhere. Can't you wait an hour?"

"Ehh…"

She sighs. "It's always black and white with you. First, you don't want to investigate. Now, you want to risk everythin'."

"So, we gonna go in?" I ask.

"You're probably goin' to regardless of what I say, right? I'm not goin' to let you go alone either way."

"You know me best, Pearl, that's why I love you," I say. She rolls her eyes and shakes her head. I take a few steps into the stairway. We should keep our voices down. I whisper, "Close the door."

Hina slowly steps down while holding onto the door handle from the bottom side. She closes it completely, leaving only small traces of light piercing through the edges of the door.

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The Selection 63 Inteiru Expota - Search summary

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