TL note: heartfelt thanks to Tentacle Daddy, who donated twenty euros for this series!

The Water Cave and the Shadow chaser’s negotiation

Rigel, Lia and McKinley departed to North with Aileen, who had been convinced by Dick. Their destination was the Water Cave.

The closer they got to it, the more the temperature dropped, and after an hour of travel by horse, the air started to chill steadily.
Still, they didn’t feel much of it, since rather than worrying about melting perennial ice in order to drink it, they had improved their resistance to cold.

Rigel’s team heard that the temperature from the second floor of the Water Cave was so low that water couldn’t be found in liquid form, so they prepared in advance and wore a thick coat over their equipment.

“Guys, dress warmly and try not to catch a cold.”
“Okay, Miss Aileen. I’m quite resistant when it comes to cold, though.”
“Is that so, Lia? By the way, did you hear about the tiger-race’s village from Dick?”
“Yes, I did. That is actually my birthplace. I own Sir Dick another favor now.”

Compared to the Lia that Dick met when he first helped Timis, the current one smiled much more often. She respected Aileen as a warrior, and whenever her party members looked at their interactions, it was like they were watching a teacher interacting with her pupil.

“Sis, we wanna see Bro’s good points too!”
“You’re never afraid to speak your mind, huh, Rigel… I told you to stop calling Miss Aileen ‘Sis’.”
“Hahaha… Maybe being Dick’s sister would’ve been better. If I was his only one, I feel like he’d have been sweeter with me.”

This wasn’t the first time that Aileen joined a Silver Aquarius’ team of adventurers.

When she was part of the expedition party, not every member in the team knew how to polish their strength, but Dick’s suggestions—summarized in ‘improving by acting alongside a stronger adventurer’—made the weaker members’ growth rate spike quickly.

Applying that method, in a few days of adventure they were now five times stronger than before, and getting stronger wasn’t an easy task for an adventurer.
Rigel’s team knew how valuable was Aileen’s presence in their party.

“If we get any closer to the Water Cave, it will be too cold for the horses. Should we tie them around here?”
“Yes, let’s cense them to keep beasts away. Guys, you wait here.”

Horses were terrified by the smell of tiger demi-humans, but Lia managed to build a relationship of mutual trust and understanding with hers, which she got while working with Timis.

Lia was a bit worried to leave them in the woods, but Dick had prepared a powerful ‘defensive smell’ that could null the horses’ entirely, making them unapproachable for beasts.

“Bro is amazing. He always has a lot of stuff, doesn’t he? If he makes this many things by himself, including that incense, when the heck does he sleep?”
“Dick’s good, but his friend Duke’s even better than him. He knows a lot of things and he even seized a fire dragon without breaking a sweat.”
“Speaking of Mister Duke, it’s said that recently he’s been seen in the Magic Academy. If I see him, I’ll ask him to be my teacher.”

Aileen burst into laughter seeing their expressions filled with devotion.

Dick was obsessed to never be the center of attention, so he created this mysterious figure called Duke Solver. A part of Aileen wanted to tell them the truth, but she was extremely careful not to.

Those who understood Dick’s secrecy policy were protected by him… and Aileen actually wanted to make him dry and comb her hair at least once in two weeks, so her lips were sealed.

Thinking about him, the image of last night—where she had been seen naked by him—flashed through her mind, and she couldn’t help but blush furiously up to her ears.

“Wow Sis, are you hot? I’m all dressed up and still shaking like a leaf.”
“N-No, don’t worry. I’m just not used to wear this kind of clothes, but the Water Cave will help me chill, so it’s fi…”

Aileen’s voice trailed off. If they were to follow the road, they’d reach their destination, but she could hear someone fighting in the distance.

Metallic sounds, something zipping through the air and some men’s screams. It sounded like several people were fighting, so Rigel’s party fell silent and its members nodded to each other.

They hid their presence, took cover and got ready to act if something bad was to happen. Aileen preceded them but could only see the results of the battle.

In front of the Water Cave’s huge white entrance, there were a lot of armed adventurers sprawled on the ground. Only one was still standing among them—Aileen guessed that he had knocked all the others out alone.

The man wore a hard leather armor, had bluish black hair and gripped a throwing weapon in his hand: a ring-shaped blade with smaller blades stuck on it—a slicer.

And yet, the adventurers on the ground didn’t show injuries on their body. That was proof of his overwhelming power, which showed by defeating them without even breaking a sweat.

“…Are you Zect? You came to greet our guild, right?”
“You mean Silver Aquarius or some other guild…? Seems like your ears don’t work. None of theirs did too.”

He was visibility annoyed, but he didn’t raise his voice. Aileen thought that maybe fighting him would have been better than arguing with him.

The only thing that was holding her back were Dick’s words: don’t fight him. But facing a foe that strong after so long made her clench her fists.

“That’s the face of someone fond of battles. I heard that the demon tribe has that proclivity, but does that come without exceptions?”
“Nah, there are plenty of people who don’t care about fighting. I’m just particular. Are you going to enter the Water Cave? We have business in there too.”
“…This has nothing to do with you. If you don’t want to end up like these guys, don’t do anything unnecessary.”
“I’d like to say I won’t, but let me ask this first—what will you do when you find the ice fox?”

Zect, who had started walking toward the entrance, stopped and faced her.
The grip on his weapon tightened and she felt a vivid malice coming from him—the ice fox might have faced its doom.

“That’s bad. Garamdoor asked to bring it back alive, remember?”
“…Mind your own damn business. This is the only way I thought of to bring her back to her true form.”

Now, this is my chance!

Aileen told him everything she knew.
The ideal outcome was that Zect would tell her the connection between him and the ice fox before they ventured in the deepest layers of the Water Cave.

Given what he had just said, he knew that the ice fox was a demi-human forced in its beast form, so they probably knew each other.

She understood that he wanted to help the beast, but beating her was the only way he thought of to force the ice fox’s reversion.

I wish I could leave this brain-racking thing to Dick… I’d be happy if I could just earn my weekly rewards…

What would Dick think about that? As she racked her brain over it, her next words became hope for Zect.

“I know a way to make her shape-shift back to her demi-human form. If you let me, I can save that ice fox.”
“…Where did you find it? Did you research it in this short time…?”
“Yeah. I’ll fight her face-on and remove her collar. If you can do that, I’ll let you do it in my place and just watch from a distance, but if you still believe that beating her is the best option, I’ll surely get in your way.”

Aileen didn’t hide her killing intent. If Zect was really strong as he was supposed to be, he would’ve surely felt the difference between their level.
The next moment, thinking that he might have attacked her suddenly, she took the fundamental position of Superia’s hand-to-hand fighting style, with both her right hand and leg ahead of her.

Then, Zect imbued the slicer he was holding with power, and the blades on it moved back to their original position. The next moment, the ring circled around his waist and returned to be his belt.

“…A collar, huh? Can I believe you? If that’s the reason of her madness…”

Aileen felt relieved seeing that he didn’t know why the ice fox had lost her reason, so she kept talking.

“I don’t know if taking off her collar will make her revert to her human form, but I’m sure that is what forced her to shape-shift. My guild knows how to do its job, and I trust their research. I can’t assure they’re right, though.”
“…Thinking about it, I’m sure I saw a collar. I can’t believe that company is using magic tools for this… I believed that maybe using force was the only way to help her… how stupid of me.”

Along with his self-deprecating words, his will to fight Aileen faded.

Their competition had become a collaboration, and if there was no need to fight Zect, the only thing still left to do was to coming up with a plan to seize the ice fox.

“We don’t need to fight the ice fox. I bet you had it tough since you didn’t want too… Not like I know your story, though.”
“If possible, I don’t want to kill her. I thought that if she started to live here, some adventurer would’ve defeated her one day, so I would rather do it myself… damn, I was so off the mark about it.”
“Nah, not everyone come up with the right solution instantly, but the important thing is reaching it eventually.”

While Aileen was speaking, Rigel and the others came out from their cover. Zect looked at them and seemed to estimate their strength.

“I don’t have the right to tell you this, but don’t get noticed by the ice fox before we face her. She is too much for you guys in her current form.”
“Ouch, is that so…? Sis, is there something we can do other than that?”
“You can take care of the other monsters on our way. I’ll try to take the ice fox alive.”
“Roger that… we won’t join the battle against the fox.”
“Miss Aileen, I have a sleeping and a paralyzing dart with me. Can I help you…?”
“Thanks, McKinley, that’d be great. Go for the paralyzing one, but beware not to aim at her eyes.”
“I’d aim at an easier part of her body, like her torso. If I gulp the drink I got in the shop yesterday, my fingers won’t become too cold to bend.”

When Rigel’s party showed up in the bar last night, they found all the things they needed already prepared. Along with some milk, each of them also had some special liquor.

The one for McKinley was some dwarf fire beer, which he kept in a little bottle. He had to drink it before entering the Water Cave.

“Drinking before entering a dungeon…? What a strange guild.”
“As long as you don’t end up dead drunk, alcohol is good for your body. By the way, our Master invites you to drop by again and take a drink with us.”
“…I doubt I will. But if I can, I’d like to apologize for my impoliteness.”

Dick wished for Zect to join his guild, and Aileen noticed that maybe his hopes weren’t going to waste.

If Zect, whose strength could be perfectly used and improved by Dick, really were to join the guild, Silver Aquarius’ Guild Master would’ve had a lot less burdens on his shoulders.
Zect would’ve been an expensive mercenary, but Dick usually had so much work on his hands that Aileen ended up worrying about him.

She respected him, who didn’t feel burdens as burdens… and actually, she wanted him to take care of her hair every day. Thinking about it, once a week or two wasn’t enough in the slightest.

Aileen knew she was being too greedy, and yet, Dick seriously took on her proposal anyway, despite knowing of it.

“Okay, let’s enter the Water Cave. Are you guys ready?”

Rigel’s party answered in unison while Zect kept silent.
The five of them entered the chilling cave and made their way in there by mowing down the swarms of frozen goblins1 that kept charging at them.

1 the original obliges us to read it that way (フローズンゴブリン = furoozun goburin = frozen goblin). The goblins aren’t actually frozen, that’s just how they’re called

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