*A/N: Greetings folks~! I hope the New Year's treating you all well enough. Anywho, before the chapter starts I wanted to remind those who may have forgotten (or totally overlooked) last chapter's Author's Notes. Since NW canon characters are dwindling, expect more OCs to appear. Again, this shouldn't be a surprise, as Kugane Maruyama is ending Overlord in just two Light Novel volumes. The result? I'm literally exhausting available canon characters to use in ways that make narrative sense. Even characters mentioned but never shown (i.e. Optics, Luisenberg Alberion, etc.) are running out. Leaving fanfic authors like me in the lurch when required world-building and/or story progression NEEDS to happen in a worldwide setting. So if the number of OCs bothers anyone, I can only offer my apologies, and point out that's just how the LN cookie is crumbling. Despite the LNs' setting being in the New World, characters actually FROM the NW are, oddly enough, not quite as numerous. Forcing new blood to be written-in to fulfill certain roles. My thanks in advance for understanding and now, on to the chapter...*
CHAPTER 23- MAPPING THE GARDEN 3
It was mid-morning as the sun shined unobstructed on a singular mountain that towered all above others by at least 100-meters. However, while this mountain located near the continent's center was impressive to behold from the outside, the inside it held a secret: it was the fortress abode of the Dragon Kingdom's founder the Brightness Dragon Lord, Brelzronth Oriculus.
Inside the mountain's middle-top, the Dragon Lord assumed a hybrid dragon-humanoid transformation with long golden-blond hair flowing down to his waist, draconic slitted golden-colored eyes, toned physique with a balanced mixture of smooth vanilla skin and golden-colored scales outlining a 7-foot frame. True to his moniker, his scales were a dazzling sight, shining with even the smallest light source.
A pair of shining golden-colored wings upon his back folded over his shoulders like an opulent cloak as he leaned back upon a cushioned red and gold-colored throne-like seat. The only article of clothing he wore were loose-fitting, white silken slacks as he held a golden jeweled goblet containing a steaming purple liquid in his left-hand, and a marble tablet with tightly packed papers held within a three-ring binder in his right.
The chamber he occupied was of polished white-marble construction, the quality and artistry of which easily matching, if not exceeding that of human royality, having blue-velvet curtains adorning them. This matched carpeting of same make and color, with floor cushions possessing a silver trim.
He was at the head of a large rectangular, jade-colored table with silver trim to his front. Its top was positively covered with neatly arranged stacks of tomes, scrolls, and binders. While the breadth of documents would have made most dizzy, it didn't seem to faze his handsome features. As he looked around smiling in satisfaction, marble-white draconic fangs peeked out from his mouth's edges at the sight before him.
Surrounding the table, sitting upon blue-velvet floor-cushions with backrests were four of ten females of his personal harem. They stood out from the simple concubines used as mere outlets for his or his guards' lusts, or the experimental subjects for his breeding experiments. Each were his beautiful prized possessions, special in their own ways. Dragons always loved treasure, and as one who long ago embraced the pleasures of the flesh, what better description could apply than his treasures?
"Hu~fufufu... My lord, if you could please focus upon the task at hand~?"
A seductive, amused chuckle was heard to his right as his second-in-command and de-facto leader of his harem smiled at him.
'Ah, she could always stir my loins to action with that smile of hers.' He thought to himself with a toothy grin.
Her name was Ing'borga Dakuna, and he always marveled at the grace of movement in her four arms as she sorted the table's papers. As a Sacian, she and her people were distant cousins to the Magelos in the south, while having more human-like features. Particularly for her in her shapely, voluptuous frame that could stoke the lusts of men with little to no effort. Especially so as a tall, 6-foot woman.
This was even more true wherever she wore her favorite white dress outlining her form perfectly, accentuating her generous, round, and firm bosom. Her exotic looks were enhanced further by the fact that her people possessed bluish skin tones due to their environment. She was no different with sky-blue skin, bright navy-blue hair, and icy-blue eyes that seem to always shine and pulsate with power.
She was the wise and pragmatic one, possessing a grace, maturity, and cool demeanor allowing her to make the absolute best decisions in a given situation. And it was why she was his second-in-command. In his eyes, her judgement was rarely incorrect. Her special and unique magical abilities only increased her value to him...
"Do not worry, my dear Ing'borga. It is my intention to complete these odious tasks as quickly as possible, so we can enjoy ourselves without reserve after midday meals." Brelzronth said in a licentious manner, looking over his shoulder to a luxurious canopy bed twice the size of a king-sized.
"Now, now, my lord. Business must be concluded before partaking in pleasure... Here you are, Ophelia~. I've reviewed your latest personnel assignments." She replied in amusement, levitating a folder to her front with a bluish aura.
"Why thank you, dear sister. Tell me, were there any issues~?" A seductive voice asked as a slender, neon-blue scaled hand received it.
"Ah, not at all. As usual, your managerial skills in the placement of our people is most excellent." Ing'borga replied in a pleased, yet businesslike tone.
As Brelzronth finished his goblet's beverage, perusing his own binder's contents, he smiled at their interactions as his golden tail leisurely swayed side-to-side behind him. Luscious, full, pink lips smiled at him whilst his vision trailed up an hourglass figure in a red silken two-piece "bikini" as called by Players, holding in place a generous bosom, and an additional robe of almost transparent red silk completing her attire's extent.
She was all-the-more exotic by the fact nearly half her figure was covered in scales of neon-blue upon her back and sides. This outlined smooth, bright, healthy skin possessing nary a blemish. Hands of reptilian and humanoid features daintily transcribed upon a nearby parchment, showing "fingernails" that likewise looked like reptilian claws, painted in a creamy-red color.
Her face likewise had a dual appearance with skin outlined by neon-blue scales, a gold-colored reptilian right-eye, with her left an icy-blue color with slitted pupil. Long flowing hair the same color of her scales stopped at her waist, with a tail extending from the small of her back gingerly swaying as she completed her own tasks with a seductive smile, contrasted by an unbending focus.
Ophelia was the successful product of a past experiment to crossbreed a human with a lizardman using [Wild Magic]. Practically raised within Brelzronth's "Citadel", she possessed exemplary skills as spymaster. Combined with skills of a Bard, an empathic [Talent] allowing her to "read" the feelings and mindsets of living subjects, and her cunning and intelligence, as a manager of personnel her skills were nearly unrivaled.
"And? Will the people I asked for be available for tomorrow's magical experiments?" A monotoned, emotionless female voice asked Ophelia to Ing'borga's right.
"Indeed they will, dear sister Sana. Rest assured, the magical experiments you and Ing'borga have planned will be able to continue unabated." Ophelia replied with a friendly smile.
"Hm. Good then. 'Twould be most unfortunate if all the progress we made yesterday went to waste." A dispassionate reply came as shuffling papers were heard.
An amused smirk formed upon Brelzronth's lips as he watched Ophelia's brief exchange with the Forest Elf, Sana. She possessed a slim yet shapely form that was sadly covered by extremely high-quality magic caster robes of white, green, and orange with mythril trim. Long flowing hair of bright-pink flowed down her middle-back, with a white patch of bangs covering her forehead, settling between her neon-green eyes.
White highlights blended into her hair's left-side as she moved it behind her long slender ear, all the while her expression remained blank and emotionless. If one did not know any better, they could confuse her with an automaton. Of course, this emotionless exterior would break down once in the throes of ecstasy, and it was then she truly expressed herself. Something Brelzronth loved about her.
Mentally putting that aside, he also appreciated how her mental state gave her clarity of focus of his Citadel's administration. She can swiftly shift from assisting either Ing'borga or Ophelia during the course of their respective duties without so much as a deficit in her capabilities. The same went with magical research projects conducted with Ing'borga, since Sana was a master practitioner of the most hated [Tier Magic].
If he had to be honest, as much as he hated Players and the infernal magic they brought with them, he was forced to admit over time that it had its uses. So he was glad that he found her so long ago. Especially when she held an extremely rare [Talent] allowing her to copy nearly any spell for use once. Even [Wild Magic] spells could be used!
He knew of a vampiric girl from the "Thirteen Heroes" who possessed the same [Talent], but lost interest due to her being an undead. Frankly speaking, he found undead like Vampires and Dullahan unattractive prospects for copulation, and bore them little worth except as guards, soldiers, and agents.
'Hmm... Perhaps in that regard she'd be of worth, but as an old associate of Platinum, it likely wouldn't be worth the trouble...' Brightness Dragon Lord mused to himself as an abrasive female voice chimed in beside Ophelia's left.
"Shalt I assume selfsame canst be said for the newly acquired workers I requested for processing newly harvested crops?"
"Ah, but of course~. Worry not dear sister. We are all aware that it takes more than simple golems and undead to tend to the Citadel's foodstuffs." Ophelia replied with a friendly, understanding smile.
"Hmph~! Good. 'Twould be such a bother if all that work was for naught."
"Hu~huhuhu. That's our dear harem sister Rhitta for you. Always trying to find fault with anything in which to grouse and complain." Ing'borga good-naturedly chuckled with a knowing smile.
"Aye. Especially when it's clear she really does care about her job." Sana stoically added with head-tilt and subtle smirk on her lips.
"Hrm~! My 'sisters' really need to find other ways to placate mine grumbles than through bedtime activities."
"Oh, do not worry, Rhitta. Sana and I have already tended to that. You shall find your treasured desert sealed and ready in your private quarters. Although given the richness, 'tis a pity that we won't be able to share it with you without risk of perishing." Ing'borga said in a teasing manner.
"Hrumph~! 'Tis no fault of mine that you humanoids have such weak constitutions..."
Brelzronth Oriculus watched with a warm smile as the table's last occupant huffed and sharply turned her head with an embarrassed blush on her cheeks still visible. Much like himself, Rhitta Daeghys was a dragon taking a hybrid form, with emerald-green scales, short-cut black hair going just past her neckline, draconic orange-sapphire eyes, elf-like ears covered in scales, and horns sweeping back from the top-side of her head.
Although in her case, her present shape was due to a lack of skill in shape-shifting arts when compared to him. His present form was taken simply because he found it to be the most pleasurable. He could perfectly take any humanoid form he wished due to his mastery over the art, and none would be the wiser.
Still, he was just glad she got along so well with the other women of his personal harem, forming wonderful friendships with them. Out of all of them, he knew her to be the least loyal, although it sadly could not be helped. He knew the day he found her that she had to be his. After all, it wasn't every day a Green Dragon capable of using a druidic variant of [Wild Magic] was found.
When he found her, she was using those powers to restore lands that were barren from wars, strife, and other such disasters. However, much like the Sea Dragon in the western seas, she did not have hubris enough to call herself a "Dragon Lord", just for being able to use [Wild Magic]. She knew she was neither old enough, nor strong enough to truly claim such a title.
Such humility and sensibility was truly rare among most dragonkind, only adding to her value. But unlike the rest of her "harem sisters" who became his through various means of deal-making, coercion, gratitude and rewards, he had to force her to join. Conflict was not his preferred means to an end and rather disliked it, but saw no other way to have her become his. Even if it was how dragons often secured potential mates.
One example in his mind was that Frost Dragon brat Olasird'arc Haylilyal in the Azerlisia Mountains. He who dared call himself "White Dragon Lord" despite not cultivating [Wild Magic], or possessing other qualities required of the title. He was so weak, Rhitta could easily take him, but Brelzronth shook his mind from such things. Even if he knew that Olasird'arc's grandsire would be turning in his grave over that foolish affront.
He came to greatly appreciate Rhitta's skills and talents outside of a bedchamber, even if after all these years she was still abrasive, regardless of her moods. Her druidic powers allowed for rapid crop growth, with fullness and richness putting to shame most other foodstuffs on the continent, and at a pace that could rival most city-states.
Since his Citadel was akin to a "city in a bottle" in terms of size, scale, and function, her value only increased over time. Outside of golems and undead used for labor and fodder for his private forces, he literally had thousands of mouths to feed. Not to mention the daily administration of his Citadel's functions. In this his abode was actually similar to the "guildbases" those damnable Players would often come into this world with.
Brelzronth then frowned slightly, being reminded again of how his abode came to be. It was during the Evil Deities' rampages when he gained the opportunity to examine one such abandoned base. It was smaller than the accursed Eight Greed Kings' castle that Platinum now occupied, but it gave him ideas enough to build on top of what he learned from his research. In the end, he emulated it on a much larger scale, then becoming the Citadel he had today.
It had multiple floors, each with its own functions, possessing a veritable gauntlet of defenses in guards of various races equipped with a plethora of magic items, as well as golems and undead. That was before all of the magical traps constructed over the last two centuries was counted, both inside and outside. The result was, he felt confident that most intruders, even thrice-damned Players, wouldn't be able to invade...
Suddenly, Brelzronth dropped his binder and shot up from his seat, towering over his women. His eyes widened to extreme proportions as his golden slitted eyes became more pronounced. The four members of his personal harem each reacted in their own ways to this sudden outburst.
Ophelia's eyes narrowed upon him with a calm yet expectant expression, since her [Talent] gave her some forewarning. Rhitta grit her teeth, growling aggressively at his sudden, inexplicable actions. Sana simply tilted her head questioningly with a blank expression, whilst Ing'borga bore a pensive look as she looked past her to their right. As if sensing the cause of his actions.
"This isn't possible...! Only those well-versed in [Wild Magic] could do this... Meaning..."
Brelzronth's words trailed off as he looked directly at Ing'borga. They silently exchanged understanding looks and nods as the latter stood up. All four of her hands gracefully moved about in circular motions, chanting a spell as her eyes and form shined with a bright, brilliant blue aura.
This summoned a moderate-sized, rectangular-shaped "window", remotely showing all present what was happening on the outside, and worked to focus its point-of-view on the area that she and their master sensed. Despite how unnerved the Brightness Dragon Lord was at the moment, a soothing calm washed over him as he watched her use her unique magical arts.
Long ago, her ancestors aided a wounded Dragon Lord that managed to escape the Eight Greed Kings' purges. As thanks for helping it, he or she taught her people all it knew of [Wild Magic]. Since her people were relatively isolated, [Tier Magic] hadn't reached them. It was why when she chanted the spell, she used a version of ancient draconic to invoke it.
Since they were naturally predisposed towards Spiritual-type magicks, they were able to adapt that Dragon Lord's teachings. This gave birth to an entirely new art akin to [Wild Magic] that, while not as powerful and lacking many of its advantages, was free of many of the risks inherent to true [Wild Magic]. Who this Dragon Lord was remains a mystery to this day, but suspected this to be by design, since it was still hunted by the Eight Greed Kings then.
Ing'borga was especially adept in this divergent art that so strongly resonated with him and other [Wild Magic] users. She even possessed a [Talent] that allowed her to use true [Wild Magic] spells, so long as she was close to and bound to a Dragon Lord like himself via their magical covenant. Something she willingly accepted when he approached her in her wonderings, as she left her home in search of knowledge of the wider-world outside of her people's rather stifling, isolationist ways...
These fond memories Brelzronth had to push aside, as the images before him came into focus, shocked by what was displayed. Namely, those of the Swordmaster Dragon Lord, Vampiric Dragon Lord, and the Deep Darkness Dragon Lord, with the former two being in their transformed states. If this was not enough, they saw the image of an unfamiliar human male riding atop Dy'vom!
The human in question somehow stood ramrod-straight upon Dy'vom's back with arms folded, and shining-red eyes with three unusual dot-like patterns focused ahead on his mountain Citadel. His dark-black hair complimented his disciplined countenance that transmitted to him a sense of fearlessness, confidence, and power. Even without the company he kept, he could tell at a glance that this was no ordinary human.
Just then, his peers flew to the back side of the mountain's top, where an illusion spell used on that section dispelled, revealing a smooth stone "landing pad" as it's called. It led to the Aery's top where he would either receive draconic guests, or for he and Rhitta to use to take wing and depart in their true forms.
Once there, Dy'vom landed and sat up upon it, with the unknown human jumping down to his front with arms still folded. The Vampiric and Swordmaster Dragon Lords joined the human with the former to his right, and the latter to his left. Thus situated, silently they stood-by in wait. Brelzronth huffed, knowing what this meant; they were here for an audience with him.
An audible draconic growl escaped his lips at this audacious intrusion into his domain, but at the same time he had to admit to some curiosity. What could compel some of his brethren to seek him out? Even the Vampiric Dragon Lord Aithusa, whom he did not particularly care for and she him, was among them. A few possibilities sprung to mind, but there was only one way to find out...
"Ing'borga. Continue to watch things unfold from here. I shall go meet my fellows and get to the heart of this matter."
"Hm... Understood. Be safe." She replied in a straight tone.
He could tell from the brief pause that she and the others were worried, even as Sana and Ophelia silently nodded in acknowledgement, and Rhitta dismissively turned her head away. They each knew of these Dragon Lords from him, and to see them all in one place was certainly shocking.
Especially when they knew that the Brightness Dragon Lord was essentially a pariah amongst his own kind for various reasons. A sly, almost imperceptible smirk then spread to a corner of Rhitta's lips as she and her "sisters" watched Brelzronth teleport into the Aery in a flash of golden light, and focused their attention on the magical display...
The Brightness Dragon Lord materialized in the Aery which allowed for up to seven fully grown dragons. As he did, Brelzronth's form morphed into his shining golden true form. Spreading his wings out in a grand, majestic display he was equal to Dy'vom's size possessing a firm, yet leaner physique by comparison. If one were to use adventurer parlance, Brelzronth was the magic caster to Dy'vom's muscular brawler.
Looking upon his fellow Dragon Lords with a straight, dignified expression he suppressed growls of anger and annoyance bubbling underneath the surface as Aithusa smirked in contempt and amusement. Dy'vom maintained a stoic and dignified presence, while Arimour had a relaxed, neutral air about himself.
However, it was the human that immediately drew his attention. It became clear from their body-language that they treated him with a surprising amount of deference. It was this realization that perplexed him, until his gaze met the man himself, and it was then that he felt it; power. Not just strength of authority, will, and confidence but absolute raw power. Of a type and quality he never felt before in his many long years.
As a Dragon Lord valuing biological specimens as much as, if not more than material treasures, he gained a keen sense for the worth of an individual being. Right now, he felt this man to be on par with, if not exceeding his fellow Dragon Lords! That notion was absurd in the extreme, yet he could not deny what his finely honed senses told him; this humanoid was a peerless existance.
Even the Players he encountered over the centuries paled in comparison to this man, whose enormous presence filled the Aery. He was so small in comparison to the dragons at his sides, but projected an unearthly presence. It was so alien to him that in that moment, he knew he was neither a Player of YGGDRASIL, nor a native to this world...
It was then a wave of oppressive heat, followed by a tidal wave of viscous air, exploded forth from the man, exuding power of such quantity and quality that defied all logic that it came from a human. It's dimension was so different from what he's experienced before, and for the first time in centuries, fear bristled within his now rapidly beating heart.
Yet despite this, he stood his ground, spurred on by not only his pride as a Dragon Lord, but also the rational part of his mind that understood that his fellows came with this absurdly powerful human for a purpose. Thus remaining firm, that oppressive sensation subsided as the human spoke in a firm, stoic tone.
"Umu... It seems your senses are better than what I have been led to believe, Brightness Dragon Lord. This should make our discussions that much more efficient."
"Grmph! I see. That was a test. Who are you?" Brelzronth asked with an incensed growl.
"My name is Madara Uchiha. If you're half-as-observant as I'm now inclined to believe, then you have likely come to the conclusion that I am neither of this world, nor am I one of these 'Players of YGGDRASIL' as your kind calls them. Your fellow Dragon Lords follow me due to not only the power you sensed, but of the goals we share in preserving this world from forces that unbalance it, and to bring order to the chaos filling it."
Brelzronth's mind was in a whirlwind as he barely maintained his composure with a mix of anger, fear, and confusion sweeping over him. What was this nonsense that suddenly came to his doorstep?! Although, what immediately sprung to mind was the feeling that the scales of this world was indeed out-of-balance. Something that Ing'borga, Rhitta, and himself had begun sensing with constant regularity now...
"Hmph. What's the matter, Brightness? Goblin got your tongue~? Or have your greater senses dulled from years in excessive indulgence?" Aithusa mocked, forcing Brelzronth from his train-of-thought with indignant growls.
"Hold you tongue, undead witch."
"Ah, yes. That's right... You see no 'value' in anyone if they're not capable of bearing you any children. Or anything outside this domain you've carved out for yourself. It's a wonder you care about anything. Why, even that Kingdom you created is under seige, yet you don't move to act. Forcing others to wipe your ass for you..." Aithusa mockingly continued with an undercurrent of contempt, then silenced by Brelzronth's wrathful roar.
"GRAAAAAAAH! I SAID HOLD YOUR TONGUE, WITCH!"
"Hrmph... Or what?!"
Aithusa's tone was filled with venom and spite as her body tensed like a coiled serpent primed to strike, with crimson lightning flashing about her form. Likewise, Brelzronth's body similarly tensed as small gouts of golden-colored flames licked at the edges of his maw and snout whilst growling in anger.
Meanwhile, Dy'vom sighed wearily as Arimour chuckled in amusement at their hostility being on open display. Madara was less than amused. Before their belligerence could take form, his [Eternal Mangekyō Sharingan] flaired as he forced his Chakra into the Brightness Dragon Lord's brain via a Dōjutsu-based Genjutsu. As this world's beings did not naturally possess Chakra, it was the only way to affect Genjutsu use.
Simultaneously, he once again projected his presence, but instead of filling the room, he focused its magnitude entirely upon Aithusa's form. This snapped her out of her truculent mindset, almost cowing her to a knee as she stumbled to once again regain her bearings.
Despite her mastery over [Blood Magic] allowing her to store vast quantities of lifeforce energy, gaining an increased resistance to anti-undead methods, the sheer weight and volume of Madara's Chakra was still too much for her completely resist. Especially whilst in her humanoid form.
Brelzronth meanwhile was locked in a stunned stupor, laboring to comprehend precisely what just happened. He felt a fog weigh his consciousness down as he looked about, perceiving great stone columns planted squarely upon his wings, limbs, back, and tail. His body felt paralyzed even as he moved his head and eyes to assess his situation.
'H-How can this be? I cannot move... Wait... Those eyes of his. They transformed, and in that very moment I looked into them, this happened. Can it be...?'
Despite the situation, as a scholar and researcher he could not help but be fascinated by his situation. He felt the man's foreign power wrap around his consciousness like tendrils restraining its prey, and all at once he understood that it was no mere optical illusion. No, this was something that directly affected the mind by injecting one's power into the target's brain.
'It's reminiscent of something I encountered in the south over a century ago. A fair lass with raven-black hair that could use something she called "Mental Magic" to get away from me. A shame, but I ensured I could deal with something like it later...'
Suddenly, a luminous golden aura enveloped the Dragon Lord's form. A few seconds later his mind was his own again as [Wild Magic] energies flooded his mind, bringing him back to full lucidity. Shaking his head, he recovered to find Aithusa's head sharply turned away from both him and Madara as beads of sweat made her humanoid form glisten.
Clearly, Madara did something to subdue her, just as he had used his powers to do the same to him. Thus did Brelzronth make it a point to not look this Madara directly in his eyes. As if anticipating this, Madara smirked in satisfaction, speaking in a stoic yet pleased tone.
"Very good, Dragon Lord. If you hadn't broken free of something of that level on your own, recruiting you would not be worth my time. Now, put aside your petty quarrels with Aithusa and answer the question she broached; have you sensed of what I speak?"
"Hrmph. Indeed, I have." Brelzronth replied with a perked brow.
"Good. That indeed saves on time. Now, the question of why you haven't moved to help the Kingdom you founded can be tabled for another time. Despite Aithusa's rather crass phrasing, I've indeed set plans in motion to save it from its more immediate threats. In that regard, it means you're already in my debt. However, one as intelligent as yourself should have already realized the situation. Your fellows here have already pledged their services to me, so what will you do?" Madara plainly asked with an almost bored tone.
Indeed, Brelzronth soon grasped his situation, and cursed not moving to help his great-granddaughter's Kingdom when he learned of its plight. In truth, he did not do so for the simple reason he did not care to. After all, if his experiment couldn't find the strength to save itself, then it was not worth the effort. A bit of short-sightedness that now came back to haunt him, as this "Madara" so bluntly laid out.
In truth, his long-term plan was to retreat from the world entirely as soon as the more subterranean levels of his Citadel were completed, and additional powerful individuals had been produced to guard it. Once that was completed, the rest of the outside world could burn and it wouldn't affect him. But this Madara did not need to know that. Still, that left the matter of the forces arrayed against him now.
Even if Madara himself didn't fight him directly, his fellow Dragon Lords were a problem. It was common-knowledge for their kind that battles between Dragon Lords were more than just physical in nature, but battles of their raw spiritual power in [Wild Magic], and it was a common rule that the greater power would be triumphant. It was why despite his anger and hatred for the Dragon Emperor, he also feared that vile monster.
Due to his research, he concluded the Dragon Emperor could not be beaten by normal means, having transcended the normal limits of their kind, or even that of Players. So it was a measure of relief that he decided to retreat from the world himself, never to be seen again. The latter action he wanted to emulate in a sense, but now that was no longer possible.
Before Aithusa's involuntary transformation into the what she was now, originally she was an elementalist with an affinity for Wind/Lightning-Elements. Despite abandoning [Wild Magic] to cultivate alternative sources of power, she was still formidible, both at range and close-quarters. Still, for 200-years he's been developing countermeasures to deal with undead like her and the one responsible for her change, so it was still doable.
Arimour was the more troublesome one in, despite his dual application of [Wild Magic] and [Martial Arts] incurring a drain on his vitality and stamina, was extremely powerful with the highest damage output in exceptional offense, with formidable defense. For a magic caster archetype like himself, he was the worst possible match-up.
Then there was Dy'vom; a Dark-Element and Ancient [Wild Magic] user, specializing in hexing and debilitating living foes and draining their lifeforce. His offense and defense was considered perfect, and was more than capable of attacking at range and in close-quarters akin to a brawler. Individually they were a problem, so acting against them as a group was absolutely out of the question.
Then there was this Madara himself, who somehow managed to cow each of them into his service. Dy'vom and Arimour seemed the most likely candidates where the use of force was all-but-certain, leaving Aithusa as the sole exception to have likely been coerced, and/or bribed into service.
Any of them would have been impressive by themselves but all three? As bothersome as this was, Brelzronth got the distinct impression that refusing what was shaping up to be a formidable confluence of powers was not an option. Even if it was, it wouldn't do well to be left behind in whatever Madara was planning. And if he had to be honest, his fascination and curiosity was getting the better of him...
"Hmph! I shall admit Uchiha, your puissance is extraordinary, and I would be the King of Fools to refuse you. But the same could be said if I simply agreed without some manner of due compensation." Brelzronth matter-of-factly stated.
"Umu... I thought as much. Even Aithusa said much the same. Knowing what I do from your peers, you are likely not seeking monetary compensation." Madare replied, with that same unmoved tone and expression.
"Correct. If I am to follow your lead like the others, what I shall require in exchange is knowledge. For it is clear that the outside world still holds mysteries, both wondrous and terrifying."
Indeed, Brelzronth was being truthful in wanting knowledge. It was why he maintained a network of spies, having one of his concubines be in-charge of such efforts. But the true motivation was knowledge of Madara himself and this new, mysterious power he wields as effortlessly as breathing. Though it would not do being too upfront in his desires and intentions, and kept it as ambiguous as possible.
"Hmph... A simple enough boon to grant, provided it's earned in time. But before that..."
As before with Dy'vom and Arimour, Madara then conjured the Summoning Scroll for Brelzronth to sign. He immediately understood it to be a "contract" between them, in a similar fashion he magically bound the members of his harem to him. Although it wasn't as binding, he greatly disliked the idea of being at someone else's beck and call. An irony he did not fail to appreciate.
Once Madara dismissed the scroll with a hand-wave, Brelzronth huffed at Aithusa's overly amused smirk at his discomfort as he plainly spoke up.
"So, do I assume correctly when I say that you aim to 'recruit' more of my fellows to the cause of safeguarding this fragile world?"
"Hm. You assume correctly, Dragon Lord. We shall all leave at once to do so..."
As Madara stoically spoke, he leapt upon Dy'vom's back with arms folded, and then addressed the Deep Darkness Dragon Lord with the same tone.
"...Have you located our next target?"
"Hrmph. I have. One of my Avatars has already done so. But given his massive size and disposition, I recommend our approach be made with everyone in their true forms." Dy'vom replied with a cautious to his voice.
As Madara acknowledged Dy'vom's recommendation, he briefly glanced at Aithusa and Arimour, which was enough of a signal for them to retake their true forms, and their massive frames filling up the Aery's entrance.
"...Now then, let us be off. Oh, and Brelzronth?" Madara said looking over his shoulder to Brightness Dragon Lord, who merely perked a brow at being addressed.
"Do not think me ignorant of your true intentions. Knowing my power will not help you re-create it. Nor will I allow such a thing to happen. As for your 'proclivities', I merely tolerate your distasteful lifestyle because your peers say you can be useful. Stray outside of what you already possess however, and you will find me to be less-than-tolerant."
As Madara spoke with a deathly finality, his eyes morphed into the [Rinnegan] as he glared the Brightness Dragon Lord down. Brelzronth simply nodded in understanding as he cursed himself for letting his true intentions be ascertained. It became clear that Madara was a sharp individual, which in an odd way set him at ease since that meant this human wasn't the type to let his power cloud his judgement.
Too many times in the past had he encountered those who let their vaunted strength go to their heads, himself included. A powerful leader without arrogance was actually quite the boon when one thought rationally. Additionally, Brelzronth learned that Madara's eyes had a unique transformation ability, noting his dramatic power increase when they did. Again, useful information.
"Well, now that has been settled, take us to our next destination, Dy'vom." Madara said in his usual stoic tone as his eyes returned to normal.
As the group of Dragon Lords teleported away with Madara, the four women in Ophelia, Sana, Rhitta Daeghys, and Ing'borga Dakuna watched the entire scene on the conjured magical display. Ing'borga bore a pensive expression as she waved it away, as Ophelia bore a worried countenance as she sat down.
Sana seemed as to be as calm and logical as ever with a blank, unemotional exterior, but even Ing'borga noticed through slight twitches in her brow that she was perturbed. For Rhitta, there was a pleased smirk she didn't fail to catch from the Green Dragon's hybrid form. Anyone else in their master's harem likely would have missed it, but not her.
It was understandable, since out of all of them, her presence in the harem wasn't exactly voluntary. So seeing the Brightness Dragon Lord humbled so, was likely a great source of catharsis for her. The only question now was whether or not she would turn against any of them...
"So, what do we do now?"
Ophelia's tone bore an urgent undercurrent, despite remaining composed. Even from their location they felt a sliver of Madara's presence reach them, thanks to their finely honed senses, their "link" with Brelzronth, and the magical display relaying everything from sights, sounds, and even feelings. It was any wonder their master had agreed to join what was becoming a new, powerful coalition.
Ing'borga took a deep breath as she then resolved to keep their own house in order, and spoke with focused discipline and determination.
"Recall the others immediately. They will need to know what has transpired here. We must ensure that order is maintained within the Citadel during the master's absence, and that it functions as normally as possible."
"Hm. Agreed. It would not do well for our home to sink into chaos right now." Ophelia said in agreement whilst hurriedly jotting down notes.
"Ophelia, have your spies not detected anything regarding this 'Madara' or the other Dragon Lords being on the move?" Sana stoically asked.
"No, this was completely unexpected, but my reach is limited by the number of people I actually have command over, versus the size of the continent..."
It was then that Ophelia's speech was cut off by Ing'borga's multiple hands clapping all at once.
"We can worry about such details after we've ensured our home's continued operations and have prepared for whatever comes next. However, we've all known about how the world's balance has been upset, so it was only a matter of time before a force of some kind moved. Although I never imagined in my wildest dreams that a human no matter how powerful, could have earned the services of mulitple Dragon Lords, 'tis a puzzle to ponder over later. For now, let us do what we can."
There were no objections to her words as the other three women nodded in agreement, then leaving to conduct their tasks. Ing'borga herself teleported out of the chamber as the others hurriedly walked out, all the while Rhitta bore a cunning smile. After all, an opportunity had arisen, and she would not fail to seize it when the time came...
An excited voice rang out into the clear-blue skies as a trio of wyverns seemingly roared in response. Vigorously flapping their wings, each wyvern possessed a rider holding the reins, a passenger sitting upon a secondary saddle, and behind them sizable saddlebags containing their possessions.
"HELLS YEAH! THIS'S GREAT!"
"Argh! Enough Denys! We're to land soon!"
"What?! I can't hear ya'!"
"Uugh... Don't bother, Suvi. He's doing that on purpose."
"Hmph! You're probably right about that, Nigel."
The passengers on the wyvern trio were none-other-than the human members of Unity Four, even as Denys Shkoda excitedly exclaimed at the thrill of soaring through the skies upon wyvern-back, and the Tvenstrup siblings sighing in annoyance at his overexuberant enthusiasm. Although truth be told, they could hardly blame him. It wasn't everyday one could travel like this.
It spoke volumes of the expenses that the Fire-Leaf Concern was willing to make for the Dragon Kingdom's defense, whose capital-city of Brilho Taoul quickly became visible on the horizon. It was a well known fact that taming wyverns for use as mounts was an expensive and time consuming affair, with only the Wyvern Rider Territories' tribes mastering them to a great extent. And they were riding upon three of them!
Soon the wyverns began their descent as their handlers pulled slightly on the reins while making clicking noises, with the draconic mounts coming into a steady glide. Even the previously exuberant Denys grew silent in awe at such a smooth and graceful display. The mounts soon flew over the city walls, and they were given their first look upon one of the Kingdom's oldest cities.
Built upon the bones of another failed civilization, Brilho Taoul was considered the birth-place of the Dragon Kingdom itself. Taking its name from a combination of both ancient draconic and the common tongue, from a distance the city looked large and exceedingly grand. Upon closer scrutiny however, the Kingdom's true state of affairs became clear.
They wrinkled their noses at the slightly soured air as they beheld a city in the throes of disrepair. The streets were a mix of dirt and uneven cobblestones, and even buildings that were clearly for those of higher classes showed signs of neglect and lacking proper maintenance. Truly, if even the city's noble quarter looked rundown, then the nation's dire circumstances were not understated.
'We were told that this nation's financial duress has forced them to make certain sacrifices in the name of defense, but this level of frugality is far and away worse than what I was expecting.' Nigel stated in shock via his [Ninshu] link with the others.
'Ya' ain't kiddin', leader. It says somethin' if even their capital wasn't spared. O' course, wealth won't mean nothin' if the beastmen getta hold o' this country. It's any wonder they've been pinching their coppers.' Denys replied in rare seriousness.
'Hm... Truly, it breaks the heart to see this. More than that, you can just feel how dour the mood is in the air. Without question, these people have been pushed to the brink. More than ever I'm glad we accepted the Concern's commission.'
The trio nodded in unison at Suvi's earnest statement. They initially had their doubts to this quest, but those doubts disappeared upon seeing the condition of their hosts' capital. Although as soon as they began reaching the city's outer edges, curiously it was in better shape than others, with signs of new construction and maintenance.
"Oi! We're nearin' our destination, so hold tight!"
The lead-rider shouted through his lacquer helm, which they thought to be enchanted in some way for his voice to carry in such a manner through full-helm. Indeed, the closer they came to the Fire-Leaf Concern's headquarters, the newer and better maintained the buildings became. Conditions that were spreading outward as they saw work-crews busy on not only the city's fortifications, but living quarters and shops as well.
Once again, they were shown the financial strength the Concern brought to bear for the beleaguered Kingdom, making them wonder how they managed such a feat in a country that seemed all-too-ready to financially collapse. Thoughts they set aside as they began their descent to an extremely large open area behind an equally large building that they assumed to be the Concern's mount stables.
As they landed, the wyverns became unusually docile and in control as an average-sized man stepped out from one of the large, open stables snapping his fingers. It was like the wyverns were responding to a superior as this man of average build, short-cut black hair, left black eye wearing a gray patch over his right, and wearing plain black and dark navy-blue garments.
Once the wyverns settled down in a line, their handlers slid down as their passengers did the same. Almost on cue, six men of various heights, builds, and ages ranging from 18-to-30 began to hurriedly yet smoothly unload the saddlebags. The lead rider then approached the man in a friendly yet professional tone.
"My thanks, stable-master. Truly, your skills with these majestic beasts is unriveled."
"Hmm... It's all in establishing who is the leader of their pack. Once that is done, then it becomes a matter of training. Now then, are these the Concern's latest arrivals?"
"Ah, yes indeed. We were able to bring them hither ahead of schedule thanks to some unusually fine weather."
"That's good to hear. The stable-hands can take it from here. You and the mounts must rest before heading out again."
"Understood, stable-master. Welp, you heard 'em, adventurers! These lads will take you and your things to your quarters which've already been pre-arranged. A representative from the Concern will be along later to help you find your way around and to meet with Lady Gilmore later." The lead rider announced as he concluded his conversation.
"We'll be in your care then. My thanks good sir." Nigel said in an appreciative tone as he and his team did brief head-bows in unison.
"Oh, think nothin' of it. It's we who should be thankin' you for comin' here to help out in our country's defense. So we'll do all that we can to help make ya'll feel welcome. Good day." The lead rider said good-naturedly as he waved, entering a nearby building with the other riders.
"Please, follow us, adventurers. We'll take good care of your belongings." One of the older stable-hands said.
"No problem. Please lead the way."
As Nigel replied, they followed after the six men as he and his team saw from the corners of their eyes the "stable-master" repeatedly click his tongue and snap his fingers to prompt the three wyverns in following him into large enclosures. There he uncovered sizeable troughs of food and water for them to partake in with movements of practiced ease that impressed them.
'Hey, leader? Have we met that guy somewhere before?' Denys asked via their link in uncertainty.
'No, I don't think so. Why would you ask such a thing?' Nigel replied in curiosity.
'Ah, it's nothin'. Just somethin' in the way he moves that seemed familiar is all.'
'Are you sure it's just not a case of letting your imagination get away from you?' Suvi dismissively interjected.
'Oi, don't be like that. I'm being serious here.' Denys groused with a pouting expression.
'Ahem! Well, I wouldn't worry about it for now. We're in a new area, so our focus should be on that for now. Still, if you notice anything else, don't hesitate to let us know.' Nigel matter-of-factly replied.
'Will do, leader. Although I'm still wonderin' when Mortis will be joining us.'
'He did say that he had some personal business to attend to before coming here. If he follows the same travel arrangements as we did in the Concern's instructions, there should be no reason to assume that he won't meet back up with us later.' Suvi plainly said.
'Precisely. So let's just worry about our own end of things for the time being.'
As Nigel's teammates mentally acknowledged him, little did they know they were being watched by the "stable-master", whose sole uncovered eye briefly morphed into the [Sharingan]. This man was in actuality, one of Madara's clones, disguised via [Henge no Jutsu] to watch over their Dragon Kingdom operations, and to tend to the various mounts and beasts the Fire-Leaf Concern were using.
'Hmph... Denys seemed to somewhat pick up on my being more than I appeared after seeing my body-language and mannerisims. Although he didn't seem to be fully aware of that. Hm... They are growing nicely. This war will truly help them blossom.'
As Clone-Madara mentally noted their progression, on the stable's other side another arrival was being attended by one of the native assistants the Concern hired. A middle-aged man that was gruff and lacking social graces, but was nonetheless good at what he did, directed a landing griffin to the side in much the same way he did the wyverns.
Dismounting from the passenger saddle and wearing brown and navy-blue light leather garments with brown cloak was none-other-than the 7th-Generation Martial Lord, Kullervo Palantynen (A/N:CH18). Much like Unity Four, his personal effects were taken by a team of stable-hands to his quarters as he silently followed behind.
Although in this case, it was more of a struggle for them to handle his heavier and more robust luggage. As Clone-Madara noted his arrival, he regarded the man himself with a modicum of interest.
'Hilma did well to recruit a man such as him. I will be curious to see if she will live to see through her machinations... I suppose it will be a simple enough matter to use [Edo Tensei] on her should the woman's schemes backfire on her...'
Dismissing such idle thoughts with a huff, Clone-Madara continued to play out his tasks and charade as the Concern's "stable-master", while constantly monitoring their operations within the Kingdom.
As Kullervo Palantynen silently trailed behind the stable-hands leading him to what would be his quarters, he begrudgingly had admitted that this operation was impressive. He did not expect the Concern to be actively building new/improved infrastructure, nor did he expect them to be employing wyverns and griffins of all things as mounts.
It showed just how serious they were. Or rather, how seriously that woman was. And as that thought crossed his mind, the stable-hands knocked on a large door at the end of a hallway of smooth, finely crafted wood and stone contruction.
A calm, almost stoic female voice answered from the other side as the team of five opened the door and with great effort heaved his belongings inside. Following them, he entered a finely furnished common-area that would not have been out-of-place in a high-class inn, or his own personal mansion for that matter.
As the help went behind an entry-way at the fall wall, he noted a finely crafted marble fireplace crackling with a small, still active flame to provide warmth and a comforting atmosphere. To its front was an oval-shaped table between a set of luxurious red-colored sofas. Hanging from the ceiling was a gleeming chandelier, which he easily deduced to be a magic item despite it not being active.
The red carpet was so soft it felt as if one could sink into it as he noted the well-stocked mini-bar to his right. To the left of that was an item he had seen before called an "ice-box" that stored drinks and foodstuffs at low temperatures. His manor had something similar, although this version looked newer but still as luxurious, as a well-polished dining table to the left completed the lavish room's furnishings.
Of course as impressive as the décor was, he was equally surprised by the four beautiful women spread throughout the room. They looked upon him with eyes of admiration in various ways, which did not surprise him. Even when he was unseated as Martial Lord, no end of admirers flocked to him despite his loss.
One of the women who sat at the dining table awoke herself from her admiring stupor as she approached with an outstretched hand. She wore priestess garb of white and red that clung to her athletically built body, outlining a fit and very feminine figure. She had long black hair framing her face and trailing down to her waist as he looked upon him to sparking blue eyes. Relaxing his posture, he lightly shook her hand.
"Greetings. I take it that you ladies are the Workers I'll be teamed up with?"
"T-That's right. We are Empire Worker Team, 'Scarlet Lilies'. Each of us is considered to be about equal with Orichalcum-ranked Adventurers. I am Tessania Wyliea Gushmond, and I'm the team's healer and melee fighter." She replied with a courtesy, obviously holding in her excitement to be meeting him.
"Hm. A pleasure. And since we'll be working together from now on, you can drop any sort of appellations and simply address me by my given name. I trust that won't be an issue?" He stoically asked.
"O-Oh~! Not at all, Kullervo." She replied with slightly reddened cheeks.
He resisted the urge to sigh at her behavior, noting that her "admiration" might run a bit deeper than he expected. This didn't surprise him, as he seen many a fair maiden swoon at his combination of ruggedly handsome looks and powerful figure. Ignoring it for now, he opted to move things along before it got more awkward.
"And? Care to introduce to the rest of the team?"
"O-Of course~! Forgive me my rudeness. First, I would introduce you to our group's leader and strategist, Demoya Nadia Ferec." Tessania said as she motioned to a hooded figure on one of the sofas.
"Hm. It is likewise a pleasure, Kullervo..." She replied in a stoic voice he recognized as the one that answered the door.
As the hooded figure lifted her head a bit more, it gave him a better look at her features. She wore a neutral, calm countenance with gray eyes possessing a focused glint. Pulling back on her hood, it gave full view of her light-chestnut colored hair that was in a bob-cut style, with only a few bangs over her forehead. A silver-colored circlet magic item covered her brow with a blue jeweled, "third-eye" design.
"...Although, now that you're here, it does call into question whether or not I will remain as the team's leader." Demoya dispassionately added as the five stable-hands quietly excused themselves from the room, with Tessania giving them a silver each as a tip.
"Oh? Hmm... I see."
The former Martial Lord then realized what she implied. After all, most would assume the strongest in the group to assume the leadership position, and his senses indicated that he was stronger than all four of these women combined. Especially if they were truly considered to be on par with Orichalcum-ranked Adventurers.
"You can be at ease, Demoya. I won't be taking your place as team-leader." Kullervo frankly stated.
"Is that so? Could you explain your reasoning?" Demoya asked with perked brow as her calm, stoic exterior not once breaking beyond his initial entry.
"It's obvious to my eyes that you lot have been admirers of my time in the Grand Arena, so you all should know that I've been a solo fighter and gladiator throughout that entire time. I am... unused working in a team such as this, having focused my efforts upon improving only myself. If we're to see through the end of this war, it's plain that the best way moving forward is to keep the structure you lot already have, and simply integrate me into the team. Agreed?"
"Hm. Yes, we are agreed. My thanks for your understanding. I am sure we will be able to work well together."
Demoya's stoic countenance broke as a small yet charming smile creased her soft-pink lips, and for a moment, the former Martial Lord had to admit that she was quite fetching in her own way. Even through her loose-fitting attire common to magic casters, he could tell that she possessed a slim yet toned physique indicating that she took care of herself.
"Welp, looks like you onced again called it, Demoya~!" One of the two hooded women at the mini-bar in rogue's attire jovially exclaimed as she downed a sizable goblet in one gulp.
"But of course. There was only a 12% chance of a differing outcome." Demoya stoically replied.
"Ahem~! Kullervo, may I present to you the rogue and 'ears' of our team, Fendra Rae." Tessania quickly interjected.
"A pleasure to finally make your acquaintance my fine man. And you are most definitely fine.~" Fendra said with a flirtatious smile and tone as she extended her hand.
"Huh. Likewise." Kullervo Palantynen said with an amused chuckle as he shook her hand.
As they staired each other down for a moment, he noted that despite her rogue-like attire, she had the presence and feel of an assassin. Something he could not mistake as he has put down assassination attempts upon his person before. Attempts to try rigging betting in the arena, or retribution for losses incurred in said bets.
Fendra Rae herself seemed an overly friendly sort, with little in the way of inhibitions or filters. A fact made all the more obvious as she all but declaired her approval of and attraction to him. Although this went at odds with the brutal X-shape scar over her entire face that he easily concluded was the result of a vicious fight for her life against humanoid foes.
Rather than detract from her beauty, this only seemed to enhance it in his eyes, as her sun-kissed skin was framed by long dark-purple hair held in a single pony-tail. Her ruby-colored eyes shined like the actual gemstones as the sun's rays filtered in through the windows and upon her visage. An effect making him question whether or not it was her natural eye-color. As expected, her frame was fit and lithe as a rogue-cum-assassin...
"Oi~! Y'all done done starin' inta' each o'ter's eyes yet? I'm still needin' an intro too ya' kno'~!" A youthful yet crass female voice chimed in from behind Fendra.
"Now, now~. Don't be so cross, halfling. Not my fault you hesitated to jump in front of the que." Fendra sarcastically replied with a playful smile whilst turning around.
"How many times I've told ya' ta' stop callin' me dat~?!"
"Meh. I've lost count."
As Fendra nonchalantly shrugged, the others chuckled at their banter, telling him that this was hardly a rare occurance. Kullervo was left stunned for a different reason, for as he beheld their last member, he was frankly unprepared for the fact that she looked like a 4½-foot tall adolescent! Confusion clearly painted his features until she pulled back on her hood to reveal pointed ears.
"Hehe... Ahem... Kullervo Palantynen, may I present the 'eyes' of our team and its final member, Pana Liliel. To clear up any confusion, she is actually a half-elf, born from the union between a dwarf and an elf." Tessania said as she recomposed herself from her fits of chuckling.
"Aye, when our team first got together, 'twas I that first started callin' her that. I mean, it was just too funny not to..." Fendra began, covering her mouth to hold back fits of laughter as Pana glared daggers into her.
"Indeed. Thanks to her lineage, despite being an adult woman grown, she still possesses the youthful looks and stature of a girl of maybe 15-years at most. Needless to say, she has a bit of a complex about it. Making it easy to tease her." Demoya plainly states whilst leisurely reading a red-colored tome in hand with draconic designs that Kullervo thought to be a magic item.
"Ooof~! Y'all ar' jus' impossible!" Pana exclaimed in frustration, then sighing in defeat.
As this happened, Kullervo could only smile at this display of camaraderie. As someone who has spent most of his life as a loner, it was something that he had to admit was refreshing in a way. Still, wishing to move things along, he opted to change the subject.
"Am I assuming correctly that by your epithets of 'eyes' and 'ears', that you two handle the team's reconnaissance on missions?"
"I... Hmph... Yeah, that's right. I'mma ranger an' archer by trade, while Fendra 'ere is more 'bout 'close-encounters'. She's lik'a wizard wit' daggers. Most marks ar' dead 'fore they even kno' what hap'en." Pana replied with an embarrassed blush.
"And with your arrival, our team now has a frontline fighter. Once you've settled in, we can begin proper discussions and training sessions to sync up our teamwork and rhythm before the Concern begins sending us out on missions." Demoya analytically states whilst using a quill to write into her tome.
"Hm. Yes, that sounds reasonable moving forward. Do we have any notion as to when they'll begin sending us out on missions?" Kullervo contemplatively asks.
"By estimates, it should be approximately one week from now."
"Oh? I was expecting it to be sooner."
"As were we, but it seems that there were some unspecified delays, and we were given instructions to rest and prepare ourselves for when that time comes." Tessania matter-of-factly replied.
"If the delays were unspecified, how can you say with any confidence that we will see any action within a week?" Kullervo sceptically asked.
"Well, that's our leader's specialty you see. Give her even a little bit of information, and she can calculate the odds to within a reasonable degree of accuracy." Tessania proudly declared of her teammate.
"Aye, she hasn't let us down yet~! It's why she's our leader, strategist, and magic caster. She's the brain of this outfit." Fendra smugly added with smile and folded arms.
"Yea', she may seem cold ta' everyone else, but that's just 'ow she is. Calm no matter wut, an' figurin' the best path ta' victory." Pana likewise added with pride.
"Hm. My thanks everyone. I simply believe emotion can cloud one's judgement. A fault that most sentient species always fail to learn from." Demoya plainly said with a somber undercurrent, continuing to write into her tome.
Kullervo nodded in silent approval as he came to learn and understand more of Demoya and her outlook. Although he still struggled with the beast of his own inner emotions at times, he was glad to have such a cool-headed individual in their team. It seemed that despite his lack of trust towards that Shauna Gilmore woman, she had an eye for talent and how compatiable said talent should be when working together.
"I'm convinced, and look forward to working with you all. Now, if you'll excuse me, I will get settled in." Kullervo cordially stated with head-nod.
"That is fine. Walk behind the far wall, and you'll find that all our basic needs have been provided. The sleeping quarters will be the third door on the left, with cabinets and drawers for normal clothing having already been provided. The middle door is our own personal armory where we may secure our magic items and panoplies. The door on the right has the toilet and bathing facilities." Demoya succinctly added whilst still writing in her tome.
As Kullervo casually strode into the area described, with the exception of Demoya the rest of "Scarlet Lilies" had uncertain looks upon their faces. Demoya herself looked calm as ever as she flipped through her tome, but then suddenly began counting down to herself.
Before she could count down to "0", Kullervo returned with a look of bewilderment as he spoke.
"What is going on?"
"Of what do you speak?" Demoya calmly asked, never once looking away from her tome.
"I speak of us all seemingly using the same sleep area. That mine bed is a more than King-sized, while your bunks are small. Even if our frames are a match for them, the sleeping arrangements are disproportionately uneven. Is there a reason why you forgot to mention such poor arrangements to me, Demoya?"
"Oi~! Aren't ya' makin' a big deal outta nothin'?" Pana nonchalantly asked.
"In any other circumstance, perhaps you'd be correct. However, as fighters who've accepted a life-and-death contract, I find it even more perplexing that you do not find the insult in this uneven arrangement. Most importantly of all, I don't trust that Shauna Gilmore woman, and this only raises my suspicions further..."
As Kullervo ceased speaking, his patience began to sharply decline, as the sheer weight of his presence and budding hostility began to make everyone present break out into a cold sweat. There was no doubt in their minds that he could take them all on without his full gear, even if they were fully equipped themselves.
Despite this tense atmosphere however, there was a brief smile on Demoya's lips before her countenance straightened and then spoke in her usual calm, nearly emotionless tone.
"As expected of the former Martial Lord. You are possessed of both might and wits to match. You're no one's fool, so before I answer your question I must ask after the details of your contract."
"Hrm... I'll remind you that patience is not among my talents, so I'd advise that you to stop dancing around my question..." Kullervo stated with deathly seriousness as he narrowed his vision upon her.
"I am not avoiding your query. Rather, I wish to confirm whether or not you possess all the facts." Demoya plainly stated as she calmly met the weight of his gaze.
"Hmph... Very well. I'll humor you."
With that curt reply, Kullervo reached into an inner coat pocket, and retrieved a neatly folded parchment which he proceeded to hand to Demoya. Unfurling the paper, her eyes quickly scanned over its contents, and within a minute sighed wearily.
"As expected... The contract you received is slightly different than ours, using a bit more nebulous, vague statements. In particular this passage saying, 'whatever it is you might require, all your needs will be met'. Leaves a great deal to your own whimsey, does it not?"
"And? What does that have to do with our sleeping arrangements?" Kullervo asked in thinning patience.
"Perhaps if you read a copy of our contract as your support team, it will all become clear..." Demoya stoically states whilst handing him a folded document similar to his.
"Oi! That really a good idea, Demoya?" Fendra hurriedly asked as Kullervo ignores her and began reading the document.
"Yes. It is best that we are completely upfront and honest about our situation from the outset. Any attempts at subterfuge on our part will result in a 96% chance of ending very badly for us."
As Kullervo perked a brow at that statement, he skimmed through their contract making a mental note of how nervous they appeared. Why were they so concerned, that they felt the need to skirt the issue? This only served to escalate his distrust of that Shauna woman further...
Suddenly, Kullervo's eyes shot wide as the whites of his sclera rapidly turned reddish, and restrained rage was clear to see upon his features. His fist closed so tightly around the contract that the cracking of his bones and cartilage in his hand audibly echoed thought their quarters.
Dropping the crumpled parchment, Kullervo marked to the door, and upon opening it spoke with a deathly seriously edge.
"Come, Demoya. You will guide me to that woman's office."
Closing her tome, she simply nodded as she stood up and complied. His tone brooked no argument, thus did she calmly acquiesce to his demand, leaving her teammates behind. After the pair departed, the remaining trio of workers gasped for air as if they had been suffocating.
"Gods! T-That was intense. There's no doubt that he's stronger now than when he was still Martial Lord." Tessania said through labored breaths.
"N-No shit! But wut ar' we gonna do?! He's liable o' killin' our employer at 'dis rate! And afta' we finally scored a such great contract too!" Pana exclaimed in panic.
"Heh. Aye, halfing's got the right of it. Our piss-poor fortunes finally turned a corner, and it turns out our idol's got some kinda honor code." Fendra added with ironic humor.
"Y-Yes. 'Tis most unexpected, and while that makes me happy, I doubt very much we'll be able to stay here if he kills our employer in his rage... Gods be good." Tessania said with worry.
"Oi~! Forget da' gods! Ar' we jus' gonna stand 'round wit' our thumbs up our bits, or ar' we gonna go afta' 'dem?!"
"Uh-huh. And do what pray tell?" Fendra sardonically asked.
"Hells if I kno'! Maybe our bein' ther' will show that we ain't for 'dis. Or maybe us bein' ther' might help him change 'is mind. But we can't just stay 'ere!"
"Pffft~! Shockingly, I find myself agreeing with halfling. Even if we can't physically stop him, we won't know what'll happen if we're not there to see it." Fendra wearily said with a shrug.
"Oh, fine. I can only hope the gods grant us some boon from this mess."
Tessania shook herself from her stupor she nodded in agreement with her comrades, quickly collecting themselves as they hurriedly followed after them. They could only hope that the situation was somehow salvageable...
Elsewhere, Hilma Cygnaeus under her "Shauna Gilmore" guise stood beside her desk as she read various reports collected in a tome of how the Fire-Leaf Concern's operations were progressing. A soft smile spread over her lips as she closed it, sighing in satisfaction at how well things proceeded.
Behind her Edström in her "Allura" guise chuckled at the reaction as she handed her unlikely friend a small glass with amber-colored alcoholic spirits with a cube of ice in it as she casually spoke.
"So, I take it that things have been going well?"
"Oh, yes. Quite well in fact. It's most fortuitous that the master teleported us back here when he did. With all the jobs we've been creating and all the goods we've brought in, all our efforts to revitalize this area will soon bear fruit." The disguised Hilma replied in a pleased tone as she took the glass and began sipping the contents.
"Speaking of goods, how's that alchemist girl we brought in to handle our potion and magic item production?" Edström asked in curiosity.
"Ah, yes. That eccentric Sophie Noia girl. According to this it seems that while she was less than pleased to be saddled with 'mundane' work, she was more than happy to be furnished with a fully equipped laboratory, complete with full-time staff, so she could concentrate on her research, per our original agreement. Truly, I am happy we followed those rumors about her in Arwinter.~" Hilma positively purred in pride.
"And what of the rest of our forces? Especially those... like me?" Edström asked with hesitation.
"Hm? There have been some delays there. It seems that whatever endeavor the master is currently on is taking up the lion's share of his attention. So while we wait for him to locate the last of the 'heroes', Benkei and the rest shall prepare and formulate their team-battle plans. Including our former... associates." She replied with ironic humor.
"I see... Then what of me? Will I not also be going out to the field?"
"Not at present, no. I asked the master if you could remain at my side as my trusted bodyguard and he agreed to my request."
"Really? I'm... surprised that he agreed."
"You mean you're surprised that I requested you in particular, don't you?" Hilma asked in humor as she smiled.
"Hmph... Well, that too I suppose." Edström replied with a relaxed smile.
"It shouldn't be that surprising. We've accomplished something we would have thought impossible in our past lives; we came to an understanding. Truly, you are one of the few that I can say that I wholeheartedly trust, and we owe it all to our master."
Yes, that was most certainly true, and Edström could not refute that in the least. It was certainly a strange turn there fates had made. All it took was her dying, and Hilma having the realization that they were little fish in a pond filled with gods and monsters...
Suddenly and without warning, Hilma's office door burst open. Edström moved instantly to defend her charge, but the shock and surprise at the intruder's identity had dulled her response. Resulting in her being a fraction of a second too late in stopping Kullervo from swatting her aside like a bothersome fly, and wrapping his right-hand around Hilma's throat.
Edström was truly at a loss. She never once let her guard down, and yet did not sense the former Martial Lord's approach. Nor did she sense his rage filled aura until it was too late. And despite being an Edo Tensei, his speed and strength beggared belief. Edström clearly felt that in a match with this man, he could destroy her ten-times over before his fatigue would catch up with him enough for her to put him down.
Of course, the disguised Hilma would be dead long before then. As Edström locked eyes with Kullervo, his intense gaze alone told her not to make any sudden moves as he lifted Hilma off her feet in his hand. Despite boring his gaze into his captive, Edström sensed that his attention still lingered on her, so any misstep on her part would not be missed.
Despite this however, just as she was about to make some kind of move to at least cripple Kullervo's hold on her, Hilma herself used her [Link-Pearl] to send a mental signal to Edström...
[Don't move, Edström!]
[Let me handle this! You yourself said that he's stronger than you. We can't risk a fight breaking out here and your nature being discovered!]
Hilma's eyes locked with Edström's, in a bid to have her stand by. She knew if this was handled poorly, it would spiral out of control. Not to mention that she doubted that her [Viper's Tattoo] would affect a man such as him quickly enough to prevent her demise.
Despite her rather remarkably calm exterior in this situation, she was understandably rattled. Doubly so when Kullervo's gaze met hers as his grip choked the air from her throat. It was as if his sight alone sent electricity into her brain, down her spine, all the way to the tips of her toes. Despite her terror, it was also in a strange way quite the exhilarating sensation.
Holding onto his hand with both of hers, every instinct and every fiber of her being was telling her to not provoke him, and to let this situation play out. Thankfully, Edström had enough trust in those same instincts to relax her posture and allow Hilma the chance to deal with this herself. Whether or not it would result in her death however was another matter entirely.
Just then, Hilma saw the Worker Demoy Nadia Ferec behind him, bearing an apologetic expression as she closed her eyes and wearily sighed. Clearly this was not her idea...
'Aaah... I see. It's about that...'
Hilma's thoughts were abruptly interrupted as he jerked up to get her attention and he spoke with a deathly seriousness.
"Do you know why I'm here woman?"
Hilma coughed and struggled as she strained to calmly answer his query.
"Y-Yes... Ack... I've a reasonably... f-fair idea..."
"I knew that you were unscrupulous Shauna, but to bind these Workers to a contract obligating them to act as my personal harem? To 'keep Kullervo pleased by any means' is an affront to warriors who'll be risking life and limb in battle. It insults and disgusts me to no end. And now, I'm thinking I should just snap your neck like a twig and be done with it. What say you in your defense wretch?"
This development actually took Hilma by surprise. Never did she imagine him to have an honor code such as this. Perhaps she had misread him. Or perhaps she failed to take into account the core reasons why he had retreated into isolation to train himself. Clearly, he was a far more nuanced individual than she gave him credit for.
That being case, then it would behoove her to, much like in their initial meeting, remind him that she too was far more than she appeared.
"I'll not... deny... that my methods are... less than favorable to more honorable... people like yourself... But honor alone... won't save this country... I'll do... whatever it takes to save this nation... Use whatever means... to reach that end... save this place and people from destruction... Ack~! If it means... sacrificing my own life... to that cause... then... so...be... it~!"
In the moment she concluded her heartfelt speech, despite still gasping her air akin to a beached fish, she smiled, releasing her grip on his hand. She spread her arms to the side, embracing her potential death without fear or hesitation. For the first time since he had entered the room, Kullervo's anger subsided, taken completely aback by her display.
It was then that he saw it; a complete and single-minded devotion to her mission. She wholly and truly believed in her cause, and would sacrifice anything for it. Including herself. This was not something anyone could fake. His senses told him that she was being completely sincere.
From their first meeting he knew that there was more to her than met the eye, and even demonstrated considerable guts, but this was something else. There a belief here, an all-encompassing drive towards something beyond herself. Though she lacked scruples, the devotion itself was pure. It was almost akin to a mania, and he was forced to admit that it was something he knew well...
Releasing his grip upon her without preamble, the woman that called herself Shauna Gilmore fell flat on her back upon her desk gasping for air. Motioning with his head to her bodyguard Allura, she went to her side helping her to regain her bearings. Even as she massaged her own throat that already had hand-shaped bruising, Shauna kept a dignified grace to herself as Kullervo stoically spoke.
"Hmph. Seems there's more to you than greed and guts, o' thorny rose. Perhaps I have misjudged you, but if wish to maintain my services, no more tricks, no more omissions. Are we agreed?"
Coughing a few times as she cleared her breathing, she smiled as she made direct eye-contact with him, speaking in a relieved, and strangely euphoric tone.
"Aye~... We are agreed. All will be revealed in time. I trust that's... satisfactory~?"
"Hrm. For now. In the meantime, I shall prepare myself and my team for the battles ahead."
"Mm~hmm... Until then."
As Kullervo turned on his heel to leave Shauna's office, Demoya did a polite bow as she followed behind him. The 7th-Generation Martial Lord heavily yet steadily took breaths in what she and Edström recognized as calming exercises to smooth one's nerves. It was something Edström herself did out of habit and reflex despite technically not needing to.
As the pair left the office, she turned to Hilma with a deepened frown, ready to chastise her for this event when suddenly she collapsed into her arms. Who then spoke in a low, exhausted tone.
"Hehe... My apologies in causing you more trouble my friend, but I think I've reached the limits to my endurance..."
In that moment, the disguised Hilma fell into unconsciousness from the strain. Sighing in ironic humor at this, the disguised Edström lifted her up into her arms princess-carry style, and proceeded to take her into an adjacent room to rest.
"Pffft~! I swear, with a friend such as you, I don't think I need to go into the battlefield myself. You're more than enough trouble as it is..."
At the same time, as Demoya and Kullervo turned a corner in the hallway outside, they came upon the rest of their team who likely observed all that transpired. She squinted at them in mild annoyance as they chuckled awkwardly and contritely at being caught in so obvious a fashion. Words were not necessary for they who had been through thick and thin for so long.
As Kullervo observed this silent back and forth, a part of him had to admit to being a tad impressed with their camaraderie. Even more so when he was reminded that they each agreed to Shauna's ridiculous terms of their own free will. Folding his arms, he breathed through his nose whilst humming to himself in contemplation for a brief moment.
"Tell me Demoya, in your mind what were the odds that I would've ended Shauna's life not a moment ago?" Kullervo calmly asked.
"Hm. I calculated a 91% chance of that being the outcome." Demoya answered in that same dispassionate tone.
"And yet you said nothing to dissuade me on our way here. Why is that?"
"Simple. Knowing the odds and data relevant to a situation is only a part of the equation. It is how one interprets it that determines the proper course of action. I too suspected there was more to that 'Shauna Gilmore' woman, or whatever her name truly is. It's that and the sense of honor I suspected you to have that I chose to bet on, provided I did nothing to agitate you further. Any attempt on my part would have done just that."
"Still, you could not have known that I would've have spared her." Kullervo calmly insisted, turning his head toward her.
"That's true. After all, emotions are as volatile and unpredictable as lightning caught in a bottle. I simply chose to bet on the outcome I felt to be the most likely. After all, we all have watched you for years from the stands of the Empire's Grand Arena." Demoya said with an almost fond smile.
Looking back upon the rest of Scarlet Lilies, he saw that they too bore fond and friendly smiles. He could only chuckle at the absurdity of it all as he sighed, thinking that perhaps he acted foolishly. Yes, he had yet to truly master his volatile emotions. His time isolated from people had not helped in this. Nor did it help in perfecting his ability to read ever changing situations.
Indeed, he had much and more to improve upon outside of his own personal strength, skills, and power. To say nothing of the rigidity of his own personal honor code, pride, and thought processes. Realizing this, he then spoke up in a more professional, matter-of-fact tone.
"Hear me, Workers of Scarlet Lilies. I know not what circumstances forced you into this situation. Nor do I know what that 'thorny rose' took advantage of to have you agree to that contract. As you lot took it upon yourselves to follow I'll say this; I will not hold you to the same terms she did. I'm here to fight, improve myself, and in the process maybe save this country. Nothing more. Beyond that, anything else will be your choice. I'll not treat you as my personal whores, but as comrades-in-arms. Are we agreed?"
In that moment, they all positively beamed with delight upon hearing his proclamation, and each replied exuberantly in their own way.
"O-Of course~! To fight alongside the Corrosive Wolf himself? 'Tis a dream I thought would forever be just that."
"Oi~! You'll get no arguments from me!"
"Hells yeah~! That's a given."
"Mm~hmm... No question."
"Good. I'm happy to hear that. Now then, let us reconvene to our living-quarters so that we might do what we were originally planning on doing, and work out our teamwork and battle-synergy." Kullervo declared with a smile.
As the newly formed and reaffirmed team exited the hall with enthusiastic conversation and renewed morale, little did they realize that they were being watched by one of Madara's animal summons bearing the [Rinnegan], which was under the control of one of his nearby Clones...
'Hmph... It seems that woman survived her gambit. Good. My main body has more important things to attend to, and it will be interesting to see how these children develop...'
*A/N: Sorry for the long wait folks~! If you've been keeping an eye on my "Bio" Page, then you already know that IRL shenanigans have been keeping me occupied. So when will the next chapter come out? No freaking clue. I don't want to commit to an E.T.A. just in case life throws me anymore curve balls. What I can tell you is that next one will be a shorter intermissions-type chapter, and like the last one it's events will have connections to future events. Until then, y'all take care and stay safe out there~!*