For a moment, silence stretched at Merlin's statement, only made worse by a feeling of anxiety that only Ainz himself could understand. Unlike his NPC's whose only experience against raid and field bosses were from the guides he hastily wrote for them, Ainz had fought against the real thing. More often than not, even Players didn't exactly live to tell the tale.

By this point, Ainz was just hoping that the raid mechanic systems of YYGDRASIL weren't implemented in the New World. Things such as large health pools and enhanced parameters to simultaneously combat the barrage of numerous Players would be impossible to defeat with just him alone. Therefore, perhaps they could be just restricted to their lore? One could hope right?

At the same time though, Ainz couldn't just make assumptions and rule the possibility out.

Within his guise as Momon, Ainz was considerably uneasy, and had to do his best not to reveal it to someone as perspective as Merlin. As far as Ainz was concerned, the less attention he drew to himself when interacting with the Camelot expansion's Grand Advisor, the better. However, he could only stay silent in 'heavy contemplation' for so long before he had to naturally jump back into the conversation.

"A bait to lure heroes?" Ainz patted himself on the back for managing to speak in such a composed manner.

The edges of Merlin's lips tugged upward, but he nodded under the gazes of all.

"Well, how should I put it in layman's terms? Ah, I've got it," Merlin said while pulling a couple mugs of beer that he'd ordered from the passing waitress and distributing them. "Where there's disaster, there are heroes. Therefore, cause disaster, then you draw the heroes in. Easy enough, right? Now come, let's drink."

"Apologies," Ainz politely declined the drink. He may have had a magic that could alter his skeletal features, but doing so under the watch of Merlin was just asking for trouble. "Alcohol is for celebration, and the mission has yet to be completed."

Merlin rolled his eyes, snorting.

"...that's a very Arturia-like answer. She's my student, you know? But the one thing I've failed to drive into her head is the ability to unwind." Saying this, Merlin turned away from Ainz and pushed a mug of ale to Shirou who deadpanned at him. Shirou would also decline the drink.

"Tch, what was I expecting? Hard asses all of you." Slowly, Merlin turned to Narberal, whose features grew somewhat flushed at his antics. "How about one for three?"

Narberal pursed her lips, not really sure what to make of this situation. As Merlin wasn't a 'bug,' she felt that she at least had to offer some smidgen of courtesy. Of course, the root of this behavior was tied to how polite Ainz was to Merlin, and the not-so-subtle tap on her side urging her not to make a scene.

To drink, or not drink?

The answer was left out of Narberal's hands when Shirou had enough and leveled a stern glare Merlin's way. Merlin paused mid-action, sighed, and then retracted the offered mugs of ale.

"For the record," Shirou suddenly spoke up while Ainz and Narberal perked their ears. "If any of you had taken a drink, you'd have found yourself with this swindler's entire tab."

Merlin made a face, but didn't deny the accusation, instead coughing and downplaying the matter.

More than anything, Ainz was both appalled and impressed with Shirou's level of courage. That was Merlin who Shirou was boldly calling a swindler, and Ainz knew that Merlin wielded magics that even he as a Player didn't know the full depth of.

Ah, the power of ignorance, and Merlin just smiled it off as if it was a joke.

Shuddering, Ainz refocused himself as Shirou had brought Merlin back to the matter at hand.

"Alright, let's talk business then. You all pay for my tab, and I'll offer a service."

Narberal snorted at the proposal. She could tell that Merlin was a Magic Caster of sorts, but so was she. What he could offer, she or Ainz should be able to execute just as effectively.

"What's your offer?" Shirou asked before Narberal could refuse such a useless transaction. She glared, but grew flustered when she remembered that Shirou was the honorary human. Her features settled on something between a pout and annoyance.

Merlin grinned, tapping the butt of his black staff on the ground and causing the space around them all to grow illusory, flower petals swirling.

"That letter specified that the capital will burn, but not which one. Therefore, as a service, I can ferry you to the correct capital under siege immediately."

Narberal wasn't overly impressed.

Wasn't that just a Gate spell? Her Lord could do that too.

However, Ainz was different. Unlike Narberal, he was trying to read into the implications of Merlin's words and realized something that stunned him.

To know exactly where and when to ferry them to their destination, he'd have to be able to monitor every kingdom's capital…simultaneously. The scope of Merlin's perception was wider than Ainz had ever imagined.

To quote in game lore, 'wherever the flowers grow, he watches from a distant utopia…'

Once Merlin put his mind into gathering information about something, there was no secret the Wizard could not discover. Perhaps, even including Ainz's own?

Ainz cleared his throat. He had to refuse now.

If he didn't, Merlin's constant watch would severely inhibit his movements. Let alone get in contact with Demiurge or return to Nazarick, he and Narberal would be stuck here until Merlin spirited them off. By then it would be too late to wrap his mind around Demiurge's intentions, and he may effectively stir a hornet's nest!

"Fine. I'll pay the tab."

Shirou loosened the strings of the money pouch Nero had given them and paid off Merlin's entire tab when the barmaid passed by.

A grin adorned Merlin's face.

"Pleasure doing business with you friend. For the next week, let me accompany you all."

Ainz's head thudded against the table.

Nani the fuck?


-Near the Capital Re-Estize.

.

.

.

How did things come to this?

It was just too difficult to understand let alone comprehend how everything had just seemed to fall apart all at once. His perception of the world had been shattered on that fateful night, and now the pride and arrogance that had allowed him to trek aloofly across the lands was no more.

Monsters, true Monsters existed in this world, and Brain Unglaus had experienced it first-hand.

Even now, the desperation and terror he'd felt while fleeing the bandit encampment he'd been hired to help protect, lingered within him. It was a primal sort of fear born from the difference of what was humanly possible, and a threshold far beyond that.

No one that Brain could think of could possibly surpass or equal the threshold he'd seen. No one.

Running a hand through his messy purple hair, Brain soon bit down on the nail of his thumb, features skittish. He was still constantly looking over his shoulder to see if he was being pursued, and had yet to even get a single good-night's rest as of late.

As a result, he looked utterly haggard. The simple dark shirt and baggy pants that he wore were so smeared with dirt and grime that one could hardly make out any details as to its former appearance. The only thing of note about him was the katana he had sheathed around his waist; the weapon that had played a role in his greatest aspirations, now left unused.

When he understood that the fruits of his labor and training couldn't even clip the nail of that True Vampire, everything about his life suddenly just seemed so meaningless.

'Wielding my sword, is my life.'

For better or for worse, Brain's sense of purpose and efforts were all gone, leaving him a husk of his former self.

If not for the two swordsmen that had decided to tag along with him, he may as well have given up on everything for all he cared.

Why were these two even following him anyway? He'd met them in the midst of fleeing, and by then, neither of the two seemed to share his urgency to escape. They still didn't.

One was a man named Sasaki Kojiro, and the other a woman going by Musashi Miyamoto.

Both were driving him crazy either from Sasaki's nonchalance about adversities being nothing more than swallows, big or small, and then there was Musashi's incessant attempts to provoke a fight.

Brain was sick of it. Sick of these two!

How could they all have fled from the same place, but be so different in outlook?

Hell, while Brain was all grungy and mud tattered, Sasaki and Musashi appeared unaffected.

They're traveling had finally led them back into the capital of Re-Estize, but not without comfort.

Here they were, the three of them squatting in an alley by the distant roadside because none of them had brought any money whatsoever. Brain felt he could be excused as he'd been running for his life against that True Vampire, but the other two were just broke as could be. Then again, Musashi did call herself a vagrant sellsword, but Sasaki looked like some noble from a distant land with his regal purples and chiseled aesthetics. Surely, he must have had something of value when the man's idea of relaxing was eating rice crackers and drinking tea while staring at the moon. That sounded like a noble's hobby.

In any case, Musashi's beauty shone through even when blemished by dirt accumulated through her wandering. Brain didn't know how to describe Musashi's attire, but it was similar in aesthetic style to Sasaki's, only the way she wore it gave a more roguish feel. It was a mix of bluish purples and reds all clumped together in a weird robe-like design. It was a way of dress that Brain just wasn't familiar with, so he didn't bother thinking about it too much.

Her features were what drew attention. She was captivating with wide playful eyes, messy long hair tied up into a knot over her head, and with a smile that practically lit up her entire face.

Now if only her looks matched with her brusk personality.

"What I'd give for some thick rice udon and soy sauce right now," Musashi mouthed, nose wrinkling as she picked at her ear. "Oh, or maybe some good old dango!" She licked her lips, a hand incessantly slapping Sasaki on the back.

Brain wasn't surprised. Musashi was likely trying to rile Sasaki into a duel with her actions. It wasn't the first time he'd seen her attempts. However, Sasaki was nothing if not patient.

"You're drooling." Sasaki neatly pulled out a handkerchief and offered it to a suddenly bashful Musashi. "A lady should know how to uphold their image," he chastised.

"Yeah, so?" Musashi still mouthed a thank you, and hastily wiped her mouth with the handkerchief. "If you say that, then a man should accept a challenge when given."

"Not when so horribly goaded."

"Does that mean you'd agree if I said please?"

Sasaki rolled his eyes and repositioned himself. Part of the reason he kept turning Musashi down, was that he intuitively knew that a duel between them would turn into a deathmatch if they got too into it.

"Shouldn't you focus on your imaginary udon?"

Musashi grunted, redirecting her attention. "Is that a challenge? I'll just have to show you my superior panhandling skills. We'll be having udon in no time!"

That wasn't something to be proud about.

Brain felt like he was developing an aneurysm just listening to the two.

It was like being chased by a True Vampire didn't affect them at all. Or maybe they just didn't experience the same despair as Brain did in trying to confront that Monster?

Regardless, Brain shuffled away from the two vagrant swordsmen before their lunacy could distract him from his moping.

The distant sound of people walking in the open street, echoed in Brain's ears, but for the most part, he'd largely habituated himself to them. Most people turn a blind eye to those out of sight, and Brain didn't expect anyone to really care for what he and two other swordsmen were doing starving in a back alley.

Letting himself slump on the ground, Brain closed his eyes and tried to mute everything out.

He was just so done with everything, but at the same time, it didn't seem as if the world would let him just waste away.

Without even opening his eyes, Brain could hear the sound of footsteps approaching him and coming to a stop beside him.

"Is that you, Unglaus?"

A familiar voice?

Opening his eyes, Brain opened his eyes and came face to face with a man that he'd once strove to defeat as his strongest competitor.

The name gradually left his lips.

"Stronoff?"

/-/

A warm-lit restaurant within the capital of Re-Estize that was normally filled with diners and guests was strangely devoid of patrons in one corner of the establishment. Only four people were seated in the area, two per adjacent table, and everyone else just seemed to give these four people wide berth.

Of course, a reason for this sort of treatment could be due to one of the four people being Gazef Stronoff, or it could be due to how unruly it was on the table that Gazef and Brain weren't seated on.

"It's not udon, but this is just fine!"

The clacking of plates and utensils resounded while Musashi stuffed her mouth with roasted meat and mashed potatoes before burping and reaching out for more beer. The process would repeat, and was made to look even worse as Musashi ate with one leg up and was constantly reaching over the table.

Sasaki shook his head from across Musashi. He could opt to remind Musashi about proper table manners, but he already knew it was a lost cause from the moment she'd met him and decided to be his shadow. Besides, he was too busy batting away Musashi's hands from steeling his portion of the food. This was a spectacle in of itself as their hands were practically blurred to the untrained eye.

Brain's brows knit together before he grunted at the way Gazef was staring at him.

"Ignore those two. I don't even know why they're following me. Your loss for assuming they were with me and offering them a treat." Brain snorted before he cut off a sizable chunk of steak and stuffed it into his mouth, savoring the oils and fats that graced his taste buds.

"Right," Gazeff hummed without much thought. Money wasn't really much of a problem for him as the King was his direct employer.

Brain leaned back in his chair and absently chewed before pointing a fork at Gazef. "So, you were saying that there's trouble in the kingdom?" He inquired.

Gazef took his gaze away from Sasaki and Musashi's show of dexterity and refocused on what mattered. "It's only speculation at this point, but the crown has received a written threat regarding the capital."

"About?" Brain pierced his fork into a sausage, dipped it in heavy gravy, and ate it in the same motion.

"A supposed Demon. Likely a number of them if they intend to strike the capital."

Brain's chewing slowed to a crawl before he flat out paused over his meal, a shudder traveling down his back. His gaze wandered up to Gazef who still hadn't noted the sudden heaviness around Brain.

"How about it? Do you want a job?" Gazef proposed, leaning his body forward. "It really took me aback to see someone of your calibre wasting away in a capital back alley of all places. Didn't you go off to hone your sword and be a mercenary?"

Brain didn't deny the words as they were true.

"You don't understand Stronoff, our understanding of the pinnacle of strength is nothing compared to true monsters," Brain swallowed, recalling his encounter with the True Vampire, Shalltear Bloodfallen. "If a real Demon is really trying to raze the capital, what's to say our sword would be able to even chip their nails?" Brain laughed depreciatingly.

"Aren't your words the same as giving up before even trying?"

"Not trying? Tch," Brain sneered, grabbed a beer, and emptied the entire mug in a single drink. "It's because I have tried that I know how useless it is. Now just let me eat."

Gazef took in a breath and decided to stop pressing. "Even if you refuse now, I'll let you know that the offer does still stand. You know, Unglaus, if you have no where to go, I have an at empty house near here. You can stay there until you can get a hold of yourself."

Brain didn't answer, not knowing what to say. Therefore, he remained silent all the way up until everyone finished their meals and were on their way out of the restaurant.

Brain and Gazef soon found themselves standing at the front of the establishment with Sasaki and Musashi off to the side while the two continued talking.

"Again, I don't know what happened to you, but I do know the kind of person you are," Gazef gruffly nodded his head. "Please feel free to use the house. It's a bit away from here, but you should be able to find it. If anything else-"

Gazef and Brain's ears perked up simultaneously.

Ordinary people wouldn't have been able to hear it but, but the two of them had noticed a silent scream echoing from somewhere in the back alleys where Gazef had noticed Brain in the first place.

At the sound, Brain paled, wondering if Shalltear had come to finish him off. However, on second thought, it probably would have been him screaming if she came after him. Therefore, it must have been someone else.

Regardless, Gazef signaled to Brain with his eyes. Neither man could pretend to have not heard the scream, but Brain was of the opinion to not get involved. Underground dealings and criminal syndicates were well known to be active in this part of Re-Estize, especially near taverns or the slum districts.

Be that as it may, Gazef was still Gazef, a man of principle.

Without hesitation, Gazef was already striding back towards the alleys.

"Dammit Stronoff," Brain grimaced, but inwardly convinced himself that he was following Gazef along for the sake of paying back meal and board.

Noting Brain trailing behind him, a small smile played on Gazef's lips that irked Brain to no end.

"I'll take this alley," Brain pointed to the right of two adjacent building, and then he pointed to the left nearest to Brain. "You check the one on the right."

"Whatever," Brain glowered. The sooner he got this over with, the better.

Waving Gazef off, Brain proceeded towards the left alley, a hand placed tentatively on his sword's sheath.

The alley was dim lit, the only light coming from distant torches that lit up the main streets.

Brain wasn't too perturbed. Having trained in darker conditions, his eyes were adjusted to take in details even in low lighting. Perhaps this was both a blessing, and a curse.

There before Brain's eyes was nothing short of a monster.

Infernal wings jutted out from a scaled back, tufts of fur lining the arms and chest, while the legs were the colour and appearance of blackened ash. The face was mix of burning eyes, serrated teeth, and worm-like protrusions that jutted out around the neck and chin like some kind of nightmarish beard.

If Ainz was around, he would have been able to recognize the adversary before Brain as one of Demiurge's followers and servants.

Nevertheless, even if the monster before Brain's eyes wasn't on Demiurge's level, it was an existence far above the level of a standard Death Knight.

Even before confrontation, the pressure of it's stare alone was draining Brain's complexion into a pale pallor.

Grasped in the thing's hand was the corpse of some prostitute that patrolled the back alleys. Her neck had been snapped, but everything else was pristine as if the thing was harvesting ingredients and couldn't overtly damage them.

Brain took a step back, then another when the thing narrowed its bloodshot eyes on him.

W-What is that?

It wasn't just some Eight-Finger operative, or lowlife, but a-

Demon.

The name came to mind while recalling the speculations Gazef had just told him prior.

It was real, and it was coming right at him.

Through muscle memory, his body entered a combat stance; time dilating and slowing to a crawl as a field of white emerged within Brain's view.

His Martial Art Skill, Field was used, allowing him to perceive every detail within a three-meter diameter.

The hand over the hilt of his sword was grasped tightly into a quick draw, and without even thinking, he moved the moment the Demon entered his range.

The clang of steel resounded, his sword whipping out of his sheath so fast, it was practically invisible. However, so what?

Clang!

Brain's sword trembled against rippling flesh, utterly unable to cut.

His prided martial art didn't even leave a scratch on the Demon's robust body.

"H-Hehe, as expected," Brain despaired, watching the Demon wind up a punch that would surely put an end to his life.

As the end drew near, Brain felt his body slackening in bitter acceptance.

"-Hidden Technique."

Time seemed to freeze, whipping wind pushing back locks of Brain's hair before all sound seemed to fade into the twilight.

A blade would sing, speaking of the realm beyond human swordsmanship- the pinnacle of all sword technique that cuts the way into legend.

"Swallow Reversal." / "Void Form: First step."

Blood splattered across Brain's face, but he hardly even registered it in the instant a blur of steel blinded his eyes. In the instant his sight was blocked out, the very skills unleashed before him was lost from any sort of view.

Only the sound of flesh and spurting blood splattering over the ground echoed in his ears.

Clearing away the red from his face, there standing before Brain were Sasaki and Musashi, flicking the blood off their swords before deftly sheathing them.

At their feet, was the dismembered corpse of the Demon.

Brain's mouth opened and closed, staring at the two before him.

Just as the Demon had seen Brain as nothing more than a nuisance, the same could be said for Sasaki and Musashi.

A gleam glinted off of Musashi's features as she nudged Sasaki on the side, mirth in the wide grin that stretched across her face.

"I killed it."

"Must everything be a competition with you?"

Brain felt his mouth dry at the same time that the fires of his spirit abruptly rekindled from the feats of his fellow humans.

Perhaps they represented the peak above his current peak?

"You mad, pretty boy? Finally want to test this steel?"

"Hn…I struck it first. It was dead before your graceless sword touched it."

A Hidden Technique?

A new series of Martial Art?

"Oh hoho, now look who's talking bullshit!"

Brain found himself drifting in thought as he drowned out the din of Musashi and Sasaki's banter, but in the end, he couldn't remain downtrodden forever.

Balling his hands into fists, the aspirations of the past began to return.

If Demons truly were planning to lay siege to the capital, then the real battle would begin seven days from now.

He had to get stronger.

The strive for better motivated him to no end.

On this day, he vowed that a finger nail would never be his sword's match again.

'Just you wait, Shalltear Bloodfallen...Your nail is mine to clip!'


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