A/N: In the last chapter we saw the paladins of the Roble Kingdom—lead by the fearless Damian, a presumed shoo-in to become the kingdom's next grandmaster, and his tactful advisor Claudius—embark on a perilous expedition to reclaim their nation's fallen capitalcity from the clutches of the Sorcer King's undead. Success would mean a glorious victory for their people and the actualization of Damian's ambitions—defeat, or even a pyrrhic victory, was not an option.

Luckily for them however, Suzuki had already cleaned house by the time they got there :p, leaving only a dagger with a peculiar inscription for the baffled paladins to discover and theorize about its origin.

But something peculiar, something sinister, did happen. A dark and recondite secret, as old as time itself, buried deep within Damian, stirred in response to Suzuki's proximity. The Sorcerer King himself noticed it as well, but elected to keep his distance despite his intrigue: a decision that was greatly appreciated by a pair of prescient onlookers above...

Chapter 29

"Tour de Force"

"..?"

At the zenith of the sun, in a space that was both real and imagined, stable and entropic, as small as a mote of dust and as expansive as the universe itself, a celestial being leaned forward in its starlit throne as it felt a disturbing resonance, cold and cruel, echoing from the mortal plane below.

"My lord…" the incorporeal ball of light floating at its side, a Star Sentinel, whispered in a troubled tone.

"Indeed, it seems it has stirred yet again," the throne-seated being—who for all intents and purposes, and with what by pure coincidence most mortals would construe as a masculine stature, shall be referred to as 'he' henceforth—hummed insouciantly.

"It's become increasingly restless over the centuries. Not even twenty years have passed since it was transposed to its current host, and already the binding seal has become so weak…" the sentinel warned, its voice oozing with contempt.

The lord smiled slightly: he could not help but find his subordinate's atavistic reaction amusing. The inevitability of the manifestation of animosity between emotionally capable antitheses always fascinated him, as someone who was far beyond the fallibility of emotions—though nigh omnipotence still allowed him to understand and, on the rare occasions when such a thing was required, emulate them.

The lord rose from his throne and stepped down onto the surface of the sun: its molten surface rippled and acquiesced to his ethereal footfall. He clenched his eyes shut, peering through his self-contained aether until he was able to conjure forth a bird's eye view of the entire Roble Kingdom within his mind.

"There doesn't seem to be another being, human or otherwise, fit to become the Hollow's host. A transfer is not possible at the moment," he explained matter-of-factly, and his pupil-less eyes flashed open.

The sentinel stirred anxiously in place, its light swelling and waning erratically.

"If transfer to another host is impossible, then—"

"Then we do nothing. The world remains in balance: we've no right to interfere," the lord cut his creation off, dispelling what he was sure would've been an illogical suggestion.

Were it not for a lack of countenance, the star would've donned a deep frown.

"It's only a matter of time, m'lord. If that thing escapes and makes its way back to the misbegotten, then…" it trailed off, knowing that it was pointless to finish the thought. The lord was fully aware of that possible outcome.

"We do not force, impose, or control balance—and certainly not preemptively. We can only help facilitate it, and only if it becomes threatened by an otherworldly force equal to yourself. Should the world become imbalanced and naturally self-destruct on its own, so be it," the lord reminded as he made his way back to his throne: "You'd do well to remember that everything has an end, just as everything has a beginning. Nothing is infinite: not this world, not this timeline, not you, nor I—"

"Not even you..?" the star interjected dubiously.

"Not even I, my dear little star," he confirmed with a smile as he sat back down.

The star twitched and stuttered uneasily at the implications of Creation's end, as if trying to physically shake itself free from the thought.

"..."

The sentinel quietly looked back to the New World.

From up here, the world seemed so small: it seemed inevitable that the daemon would cross paths with that anomalous being again.

The lord, with his peerless intuition, followed his subordinate's worried gaze and nodded sympathetically.

"Ah, yes, the Sorcerer King. Ainz Ooal Gown, or rather Suzuki Satoru," he hummed with a hint of amusement.

The sentinel looked to its master bemusedly.

"H-has he caught your eye as well, m'lord? It's rare for you to commit a mortal's name to memory".

Creation waved his hand dismissively.

"What a ridiculous question," he berated, though there was no emotion to his voice: "of course he caught my eye. He's the first entity in quite some time to elude the clairvoyance of my [Foresight]".

The star flinched incredulously.

"I-is that so..? So he truly is an otherworldly variable, then..?"

The lord could not even bring himself to humour such a redundant question with a verbal response, leaving the star to awkwardly return its attention to the world below.

"A complete unknown…" it muttered to itself as it watched the Sorcerer King galloping across the verdant plains of the roble kingdom on horseback: "just like those other eight, and the six before them…"

Creation nodded perfunctorily.

"Among several others, but yes, those were the most disruptive. They were not a part of this world; not a part of this Order. They are transient visitors from a different universe, wholly unknowable, one that was already consumed by the Hollow, and that put them—and now him—in a unique position. That is to say, Suzuki Satoru holds a terrifying sway over the fate of your world, Solis: a veritable wildcard, completely unforeseeable, unpredictable. For now, he possesses incontestable power, but when the Hollow Daemon, that foul herald, worms its way back to the underworld—and I assure you, it will, though I cannot tell exactly when, for its fate is intertwined with the unknown—but when it does, and shatters the barrier between worlds, Nazarick shall be your planet's first and last line of defense".

!

The star was consumed by a hapless panic and instinctively looked down to the New World, its beloved domain. It was but another small speck upon the cosmic canvas of infinity, but to the sentinel, it was everything.

"So it's hopeless, then..? This world is destined, inexorably, to be lost as well... and all I can do is sit here and watch? What is even the point of my existence? Why was I created, and anointed life-guardian of this world?! Why—?!"

Creation waved its hand, sealing the star's ability to speak. He had heard this spiel a thousand, no, a million times too many.

"Do not worry, Solis. You will soon be permitted to act in favor of your world's preservation, but only once the Hollow has implicated itself directly. Be patient. A wrong must first be made before it can be righted, and vice versa: that is the entropic law and order which has governed the multiverse for nearly fourteen billion years".

"... I understand, m'lord," the sentinel capitulated with a bow, trying its best to keep its frustration from creeping into its tone: "if you would humour just one more question, gnawing at the back of this foolish subordinate's mind…" it implored in a voice quavering with toady desperation.

"I've never been one to condemn an inquisitive mind".

"You have my gratitude," it thanked, pausing for a moment, reconsidering if perhaps its question would be best left unanswered.

"…Do you believe the Sorcerer King has what it takes to become this world's champion..?"

Creation regarded the star with an empty smile and whispered in a deadpan tone:

"To whom the Light is bestowed upon is entirely your decision when the time is right. I shan't influence your judgment. Now, I must be off. I've other places and times to be in. Do not worry: though I depart, I'll be keeping a close eye on you and your world"

It was as much a warning as it was a reassurance, Solis realized. Before the star could say anything, however, the lord raised his hand and conjured a rift in the blank space above them, an opening to the interstitial aether, a cosmic slipstream between dimensions only he and his aspects could utilize.

"Te potest bestehen est in alrasid et chowa," (May you persist in balance and harmony) he called out to the awe-struck star in formal cosmic tongue.

"Et tu aussi," the star whispered the appropriate response—but the lord was already long gone, perhaps already on the other side of this universe or the next.

...

Wuuuuuong!

Zanac was in his personal quarters writing a letter when he felt it: a peculiar vibration. He didn't even have enough time to process whether or not he was imagining the sensation before—

Krakoom!

The slight tremble suddenly crescendoed into an explosion, as though the full force of a high-magnitude earthquake had been condensed, amplified, and unleashed in an instant. It was so powerful that the chair he sat upon, despite its own sturdiness and his own weight, caught air and tipped, depositing the soon-to-be king unceremoniously on his back. The wind was knocked out of him for a moment, and he stared up at the ceiling, at the chandelier that was swinging wildly every which way and creaking horrendously, such that it seemed inevitable to Zanac that it would break loose from its anchorage and crush him at any moment. He scrambled out from beneath it on all fours before attempting to stand up. Just as his knees left the ground, however, another explosion, just as fierce and with comical timing, sent him careening into his desk, which he clung to for support and clenched his eyes shut, not daring to try and stand up again.

A few moments passed, and he could hear it now: the frantic shouts, footsteps, and metallic rustling of soldiers thundering past his chambers.

The prince looked around his room, now in complete and utter disarray, and gritted his teeth.

"What the hell is going on out there?!" he roared while struggling to rise to his feet, his legs quivering gelatinously.

Suddenly, someone burst into his room—perhaps the last person he was expecting

"Onisan!" Renner cried with a panicked expression: "are you alright?!" she asked, noticing how he was bracing himself unsteadily against his desk.

"I-I'm fine!" he shouted embarrassedly, forcing himself upright. Though his knees threatened to buckle, he managed somehow.

"What's going on, Renner!? Are we under attack?" he snapped.

But before the princess could reply, a soldier suddenly appeared in the open doorway behind her.

"Zanac-sama! Someone, something, in the courtyard..!" he stammered with breathless incoherence, a moment after which he realized his own incomprehensibility and tried again, this time uttering what was possibly the most bone-chilling string of words ever to reach Zanac's ears: "Th-the Sorcerer King is here, and demands to speak with you!"

...

Why me specifically? What could that monster possibly want with me..? Zanac thought to himself as he followed the guard towards the castle's rear.

Has the day of his kingdom's ruination finally come..?

He looked over his shoulder at Renner who was trailing close behind him.

"Sister, you've no need to follow me, really. If you'd rather try to find Climb and escape, I wouldn't hold it against you. I'll try to buy you as much time as I can and—"

She shook her head adamantly.

"Nonsense! As if I could ever live with myself if I just abandoned you like that!"

Zanac squinted his eyes, unable to judge the sincerity of her words.

"Besides, dear brother," she began again, this time in a much lower tone so the guard ahead of them wouldn't hear: "you're the only one who can assure me and Climb have a future together. If you're to die, then I might as well die with you. Rather than try and run away, I'd prefer to spend my final moments participating in a most interesting parley," she explained in a calculated tone.

Zanac nodded and swallowed hard. Strangely, he felt relieved by such a genuine response.

"I see… well, let's hope it doesn't come to that," he whispered back.

Renner smiled sweetly, and Zanac shuddered, imagining for a moment countless rows of impossibly sharp fangs behind her dainty lips.

Finally, the three of them rounded a corner and the open archway that led to the castle gardens came into view.

"Hmm?" Zanac hummed in confusion, for the outside looked impossibly dark for this time of day. There hadn't been a single cloud in the sky when Zanac had last looked outside his bedroom window, no more than ten minutes ago. Had it really become so overcast this quickly?

The closer he got to the outside, the tighter the knot of dread in his stomach became. The weakness of his knees, which had just started to subside, came back in full force, and the prince's legs buckled slightly with each step.

"Z-zanac-sama, Renner-sama…" a guard flanking the door whispered as the two of them approached, and the almost guilty hopelessness of his voice was enough to freeze Zanac where he stood.

"I'm right here with you, Onisan!" Renner whispered reassuringly, and Zanac found the sincerity of her voice so sickeningly contrived and repulsive that he was spurred forward, if only to get himself farther away from her.

I step away from one monster, and closer to another… the prince thought to himself bitterly as he stepped outside, feeling at once the cool bite of winter, only exacerbated by the lack of sunlight.

He stepped down the short flight of stairs that led to the grassy terrain out from beneath the overhanging roof…

And his blood froze.

The sun was indeed blotted out, but not by clouds. The sky remained an immaculate canvas of uninterrupted blue.

It was something else, something huge. A massive boulder from which four other jagged pillars of stone jutted out. Even as he craned his neck back and squinted his eyes, he could barely discern the monolithic structure's peak. It was taller than the castle itself.

"What in the..?" The prince began, suddenly noticing that dozens of knights were circling the two pillars that grounded the strange edifice.

I don't understand, where's the Sorcerer King? How the hell did this thing get here..?"

Before he could give voice to his confusion, a voice suddenly cried out:

"Renner-samaaaaaa!"

The two royals whirled around in tandem towards the source, who was running at breakneck speed towards them having just come around the side of the castle.

Renner's face lit up in an instant and she clapped her hands together.

"Climb-kun, you came for me!" she cheered.

But Zanac was much happier to see the man who Climb was with.

"Brain Unglaus," he said with a smile as the knights came to a stop in front of them: "I'm glad you're here".

The rugged soldier, never one for formalities, nodded his head towards the veritable mountain in the garden.

"So I'm guessing that's the thing that caused the tremors earlier?" he supposed, resting one hand lazily on the hilt of his sheathed blade.

"It would appear so," Zanac confirmed, stepping away from his sister and her doting knight to stand side by side with Brain, his unofficial warrior captain: "though I've no idea what it is, exactly. I was informed that the Sorcerer King was here and wished to speak with me, but when I came out, this strange rock formation was the only thing to greet me," Zanac explained.

"Th-the Sorcerer King is here?!" Climb exclaimed suddenly, taking a protective step forward to stand in front of Renner.

Zanac looked to the guard who had escorted him here.

"You there, what's going on?"

But the knight didn't respond—didn't seem to offer any indication that the prince's words had even registered.

Zanac furrowed his brow and was about to reiterate when suddenly he heard a commotion of panicked cries and discordant clangs. He whirled back around.

!

"My God… that thing is…" Brain Unglaus muttered incredulously behind him.

"...Moving…" Zanac finished for him, his mouth agape in awed horror.

All the knights that had gathered in the garden, now seeming as little more than toothpick-wielding ants, began to scatter in disarray as one of the massive stone pillars shifted, lurched forward several metres before slamming back down, sinking deep into the grassy terrain with tremendous force.

Zanac raised an arm to shield himself from the barrage of grassy clods which spewed out from the impact and staggered back from the resultant shockwave.

"Renner-sama, are you alright?!" Climb called out worriedly as the princess stumbled forward into his back.

"C-climb!" she sputtered, wrapping her arms around his sides, evincing a helpless fragility so convincing that even Zanac almost believed it.

Poor boy, he thought briefly as he watched Climb's face turn as red as a tomato.

The prince turned back and gritted his teeth—and that's when he became acutely aware of the fact that the sky was getting even darker and darker. He looked up in horror as his instinct compelled him, and immediately his legs gave out. He crumpled to the ground, felt the air leave his lungs, and wholly forgot how to draw it back in.

There, looming over him over fifty feet above, was a face of craggy stone, staring down at him with blood-red eyes, each one bigger than his head, boring into him.

Brain clicked his tongue and drew his blade. For a moment it looked like he was going to assume a combative stance, but then he paused, let out a sigh, and consigned his blade to rest on his shoulder.

"You've gotta be shittin' me," he muttered in exasperation: "Now how is anyone supposed to fight a thing like that?" he reasoned rhetorically.

"B-brain!" Zanac pleaded, scrambling back on his rump as far as he could, until his back hit the foot of stone stairs, wholly unscalable to him in his current state, as the giant face drew closer and closer.

Th-this is ridiculous..!

Krakoom! Krakoom!

Two more explosion's blasted out as the golem slammed its fists into the ground and continued to teeter forward.

I-it's going to crush us..! Zanac realized horrifically.

And there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. How do you stop a mountain from collapsing?

There was no time for any of them to get out of its path. There wasn't even time to speak.

The prince clenched his leaking eyes shut and waited for death.

He waited. And waited. And waited, until the ground became still and quiet again, and only then did he risk opening an eye, thinking that perhaps his death had been so instant and painless that he was already in the afterlife.

But he was not dead: and if the sound of his heart drumming in his ears wasn't enough proof of that, then the sight of the same gargantuous face, staring down at him with those soulless eyes, certainly was. It was so close now, in fact, that Zanac could only look into one of its eyes at a time.

He reluctantly rose to his knees and looked to Brain in surprise:

"D-did you stop it..?" he sputtered.

Brain let out a nervous laugh.

"Just what do you take me for? It just stopped, all on its own".

Zanac could only stare at him in disbelief.

"I-it's a golem or some other such automaton… maybe it just ran out of magical energy and—"Zanac began to reason hopefully, but Brain quickly cut him off.

"Do you really think we're that lucky, or that the Sorcerer King would accidentally send a golem with no juice? Nah, the only reason it stopped was because whoever that is—" Brain paused, nodding upwards as he squinted his eyes: "—told it to stop".

"H-huh..?" Zanac gasped and snapped his head back.

!

Yes, now that the golem was hunched over, he could see now: a humanoid figure standing atop its head, though the sun at its back made it impossible to discern any features.

"Climb... is that..?" Brain suddenly muttered, very quietly, as though he didn't believe his own words. He took a measured step forward and his sword-arm drooped limply at his side.

"H-hah," Climb grunted in tentative agreement, squinting up as well.

"I… I think it is, Brain-dono!" he cried out, smiling peculiarly. He pulled away from Renner, much to her dismay, and stepped down next to Unglaus.

"What? What is it? Who is that? Is it the Sorcerer King?" Zanac sputtered frantically, unable to tear his eyes away from the shadowy figure. His heart was pounding furiously, circulating a potent fear through his veins with each pump, taking over his body.

I… I have to get out of here..! He thought to himself desperately, though he could not move his legs. He blinked to stave off a growing accumulation of tears, and when he opened his eyes a fraction of a second later, the figure was gone.

Tap tap!

Before he could even fully process the being's disappearance, Zanac's head snapped down to the sound of something gently touching down in front of him: a man, tall and muscular, with arms folded neatly behind his back. He had distinct features, the countenance of a wisened king, but the mismatched attire of a high-class butler.

"W-who..?" Zanac began to ask, only now realizing that he must have been the one who stood atop the massive golem just moments ago—but Brain cut him off with a low whistle

"Well, I'll be…" he trailed off with a crooked grin, sheathing his sword.

"Sebas-dono, it's really you!" Climb exclaimed relievedly, carelessly running up to the man as though he was an old friend.

S-sebas-dono..? Zanac thought, feeling wholly overwhelmed and out of the loop. Though at least now his fear was slowly being supplanted by confusion. He looked to Renner for elaboration, but she seemed just as lost as he did.

Unable to move or speak, the two of them could only watch the scene unfold.

"Ah, Climb, what a pleasant surprise," the old man greeted mellifluously before his discerning gaze shifted to Brain: " it's good to see you two again. I trust you've been doing well?"

"Eh, same old, same old. Can't complain, I guess," Unglaus explained with a shrug: "This one's been a pain in the ass though, always wanting to train and whatnot," he grumbled while reaching out to roughly ruffling Climb's hair.

"Hai!" Climb exclaimed enthusiastically, as though he was proud to be a nuisance: "I've been training hard every day, honing the skills you taught me, Sebas-dono!"

The ruler of Nazarick smiled warmly, causing the corners of his eyes crinkle disarmingly: "I see… yes, I can tell you've gotten stronger since the last time I saw you, no doubt about it," he judged with a nod of approval, sizing up the young knight before him.

"Really?!" Climb exclaimed excitedly, looking himself over too as if he would somehow be able to see perceptible evidence of his supposed improvement.

"Oi, don't get the kid's hopes up. He's still woefully mediocre as far as I'm concerned," Brain snorted demeaningly.

The three of them shared a laugh.

"..."

Zanac swallowed gravely, utterly flummoxed by their nonsensical familiarity.

"And you must be Zanac-dono".

!

The prince's heart skipped a dreadful beat at the sound of his own name, and before he even had the chance to look up, a gloved hand reached down and plucked him effortlessly off the ground.

How did he move so quickly..?

"It's a pleasure to meet you," the old man continued, cupping a hand over his heart in a cordial gesture: "My name is Sebas tien. You'll have to excuse me and my subordinate here: Gargantua's not known for its subtlety. I'd be happy to reimburse you for any damage your garden incurred as a result of our carelessness," he added, looking knowingly to Renner.

The princess flinched under his soft gaze for only a moment before reciprocating his sincerity with one of her renowned smiles.

"We can sort that out later if need be, Sebas-dono".

"I am grateful for your understanding, ojou-sama," the iron butler thanked, dipping his head appreciatively before turning back to the prince.

"Zanac-dono, there is a great deal I wish to discuss with you on behalf of the Sorcerous Kingdom," he explained, helping the prince to his feet.

"Y-you work for the Sorcerous King, Sebas-dono?" Climb interjected in disbelief.

Sebas shot him an innocent look.

"Ah. did I neglect to mention my affiliations before now?"

Brain shook his head, smiling in a resigned way that seemed to say, playfully, 'you sneaky son of a bitch'. Since learning of his own insignificance, he no longer became surprised by such developments. No, in fact, maybe, a part of his subconscious had already suspected Sebas' loyalties.

The leader of the Pleiades thoughtfully stroked his beard once, then again, before smiling lamely a moment later.

"Ah, well, that's my mistake then. I hope you can forgive me".

"We might be able to," Brain went on tiredly: "depending on the reason for and outcome of your visit today, which I assume wasn't just to trample the princess' petunias".

Sebas chuckled dryly.

"The reason for my visit is simple," the butler began, his head swivelling languidly to look at Zanac: "but it's not something to be discussed out here in the open".

"Yes, of course," Renner was the first to nod in understanding: "this way, Sebas-dono. Let us head upstairs, where we can discuss matters privately".

"Splendid," Sebas agreed, stepping past Zanac to follow the princess inside.

"Climb-kun, you come as well!" she called out over her shoulder.

The boy looked to Brain, who could only shrug disinterestedly, and then to Zanac.

"If my sister doesn't have an issue with you being present during our meeting, then I won't make a big deal out of it," he snorted: "Now go on, be a good lapdog".

Climb nodded resolutely, unfazed by the prince's demeaning comment, and took off jogging up the stairs.

"Brain, I'd like you to join us as well," Zanac requested as soon as Climb was out of sight.

Unglaus frowned.

"Is that an order?"

"It is if it has to be".

Brain sighed: "Alright then, I s'ppose I got nothing better to do anyway. After you, m'lord," he offered, motioning up the stairs.

The prince nodded gratefully, took a single step, but then paused, quickly checked his surroundings to make sure that nobody was in earshot, before leaning towards Unglaus.

"Before we go, I need to know how you became acquainted with this Sebas fellow," he demanded in a hushed tone.

Brain shrugged.

"We ran into him during our mission to raid the Eight Fingers' brothel. He was there, searching for some woman they had kidnapped. He singlehandedly wiped out five members of the Six Arms, including the head honcho Zero, practically at the same time. Climb and I probably wouldn't be alive right now if it wasn't for him".

Zanac nodded slowly and clicked his tongue in disgust. To his knowledge, each of the six arms was about equal to your average adamantite-ranked adventurer. To have been able to defeat five of them all by himself…

"So he's yet another monster, huh…"

Suddenly though, Brain unglaus broke into ruckus laughter, startling the prince from his thoughts.

"W-what is it?"

"You don't get it all, do you?," Brain cackled almost deliriously, finding the prince's calculative expression—as though he were thinking of potential ways to defeat Sebas—far too amusing: "he didn't just beat them, he massacred them: took the full brunt of Zero's strongest attack like it was nothing, then killed him in a single strike! It terrified me as much as it impressed me. You'd be a fool to think you could evaluate the depths of his power based on what I told you. The best way I can think of putting it is he's as proficient a warrior as the Sorcerer King is as a mage".

Zanac shuddered at the thought, recoiling slightly from Brain's almost maniacal expression.

"I-I see, well that does certainly put things into perspective, thank you…"

"Great, so now is this depressing little interrogation over, right?"

"One more question," Zanac insisted: "if we have no hope of defeating him should he decide to attack, there's something I must know: is he Trustworthy, Brain?"

A disconcerting silence ensued as Brain scratched the back of his head.

"Yeah, I think so," he eventually muttered.

"You think so," Zanac muttered dubiously as he turned and began waddling up the steps.

"I mean, if you had asked me even just ten minutes ago, I'd've told you I trusted Sebas-dono with my life," he paused as they reached the top of the steps and rounded a corner: "—and I know Climb would've said the same," Brain elaborated, following behind the prince: "But that was before I found out he worked for the Sorcerer King. Now I'm not so sure… at the very least though, I know for a fact that he's not an 'evil' guy".

"How reassuring: perhaps we'll survive this encounter after all," Zanac noted sardonically, his voice lowering instinctively as they rounded another corner and the door to his sister's room came into view.

Though Brain's assessment of Sebas did somewhat allay his fears, he still had to be careful. One small slip up could spell the unmitigatable destruction of the entire kingdom—a catastrophe that Gargantua's presence confirmed was well within the realm of possibility. He was already berating himself for having acted so foolishly and pathetically in the gardens, but he had been too emotionally compromised to maintain a cordial composure. He hoped to make a much better second impression.

Zanac glanced briefly at Brain, exhaled sharply through his nose, and swallowed, before swinging the door open with a pleasant smile.

"So sorry to have kept you waiting, Sebas-dono. Brain and I were simply admiring your golem. I've very little arcane knowledge, but even I can easily admire such peerless craftsmanship. I trust my sister kept you in good company?" he asked sycophantically.

"It's not a problem," Sebas, sitting cross-legged at the head of the conference table, assured as he lowered a teacup from his lips: "And yes, I've quite enjoyed your sister's hospitality".

Zanac nodded enthusiastically, before lowering himself into the seat opposite of Sebas. Renner sat off to the right, closer to Sebas' side of the table than his own, which he found to be a bit bizarre but there was no helping it now. He glanced at Climb, standing dutifully behind her chair with an expression that suggested he was concentrating on being as stoic and still as possible.

Unglaus on the other hand did not abide by such rigidities, and instead opted to take a seat to Zanac's left, plooping himself down and leaning against the back of it with his arms crossed over his chest. A moment later he yawned prodigiously, much to Zanac's horror, who frantically glanced at Sebas—if the Sorcerer King's ambassador was feeling insulted, he didn't show it.

He nudged Brain's outstretched boot under the table, and the warrior shot him a perplexed look.

"Now then," Sebas suddenly broke the silence, setting his teacup down on the desk: "let's begin".

Before anyone else could say anything, in one fluid motion, he reached into his suit, withdrew a thin dossier, and slid it across the fifteen-foot desk at such a speed that Zanac, eyes wide, barely managed to intercept it before it flew off his end of the table.

Gulp.

He wasted no time in flipping it open, having been imbued with a sense of urgency by the projectile-like speed with which it had been given to him.

"And this is..?" he asked with contrived composure as he began scanning the first lines.

"A proposition for you, Zanac-dono. Its terms are non-negotioable," Sebas said in a measured tone that the prince was not especially fond of as he reclaimed his teacup and took a small sip.

The room went quiet for a while as Zanac read, and with each passing second, the prince's unease was becoming more and more palpable, his forehead creasing. Unglaus, with only one eye open, frowned and glanced at Sebas.

"This Oolong tea really is quite lovely," Sebas commented: "though I feel it could've been even better if it had been steeped in a smaller volume of water for slightly less time. That would enhance the nutty aftertaste without making the overall flavour too overbearing," he prattled on.

Ironically—though perhaps intentionally—the innocent lightheartedness of his words only served to unnerve Zanac even more and exacerbate the tension.

"Ah, you have very discerning tastes, Sebas-dono!" Renner beamed: "I'll be sure to pass your wisdom onto the maids as soon as we're done here".

Her personal servant waiting by the entrance nodded resolutely and slunk out of the room.

Zanac wiped at his perspiring brow, wondering if his sister would've been able to muster the same nonchalance if she had just read what he had.

What am I missing here..?

After re-reading it for the fifth time, Zanac had to acknowledge the only feasible explanation: this whole thing had to be a joke. It made no sense. The Sorcerer King must have been feeling especially bored today, and in his pursuit of a modicum of entertainment, sent one of subordinates with one of the most nonsensical proposals ever conceived. Yes, perhaps the Sorcerer King was watching them at this very moment through some unseen magical medium, and laughing at his sweat-slicked pallor.

Surely..?

He closed the dossier and set it down carefully, as though it were an explosive.

"May I take a look?" Renner asked, though she leaned over to claim it before the prince could answer. Probably for the best, since Zanac was too distracted by his own thoughts to offer a response anyway.

"Sebas-dono…" he began measuredly: "just what exactly does the Sorcerer King hope to gain from this..?"

"Hope to gain..?" Sebas parroted incredulously: "why, peace of course. Mutually-beneficial coexistence is all we seek to establish".

"Er, yes, so it would seem on paper, but… well forgive me, but I have trouble understanding why you would make this proposal. By 'mutually beneficial coexistence', you really mean our immediate surrender and vassalization, correct..?" Zanac clarified, almost optimistically—at least then it would make some sense.

"—Because otherwise, this proposal is incomprehensibly lopsided in our favour. The Sorcerous Kingom has absolutely nothing to gain from a 'mutually-beneficial' coexistence, as it stands to be stipulated in that document".

"[...] the Re-estize Kingdom shall retain its national sovereignty and remain an independent state [...] a separate entity from the Sorcerous Kingdom," Renner read aloud, following her brother's cue.

"Despite the fact that you could annihilate us at any time using only a fraction of your military force," Zanac continued: " you instead offer us food, land, manpower, protection—and all you would ask for in return is 'peace', something which, to begin with, is a complete non-factor for you since we pose absolutely no threat to you whatsoever! And so the only thing I'm left to consider is that this whole thing is either a blatant mockery or some elaborate ploy, a subterfuge to… to..!" he waved his hands in wild little circles before throwing them up into the air defeatedly: "I don't even know! Because like I said, there isn't even a need for such tactics! So why, then..?"

He hadn't meant to speak so vehemently, but he had just been overwhelmed by the infuriating sensation that he was being played and taken for a fool. He was just about at his wit's end to begin with, as the stress of his impending coronation and the kingdom's volatile socio-political climate, which he would soon be forced to commandeer, took its toll; the omnipresent threat of both the Sorcerous Kingdom and the Baharuth Empire from beyond the borders, and bitter anti-royalist nobles from within; the devastating food crisis caused by an unsolvable shortage of manpower this harvesting season, having lost about 100,000 men just months prior at the Katze plains. And now today, after nearly being crushed by a hundred-foot golem, he was here, in a meeting, forced to consider a too-good-to-be-true contracted alliance with the Sorcerous Kingdom.

"Forgive me, Sebas-dono, I just… don't understand," he apologized breathlessly.

To his surprise, the butler merely sighed and shook his head.

"Atonement," Sebas confessed plainly.

Zanac blinked.

"C-come again..?"

"That, though you may not understand, is another thing the Sorcerous Kingdom—rather, the Sorcerer King—has to gain from this proposal. You may find it difficult, or even impossible, to understand—but the Sorcerous King, the venerable Ainz Ooal Gown, has been deeply troubled and burdened by guilt as of late. So much so, in fact, that he's temporarily stepped down as the Ruler of Nazarick to reevaluate himself and his decisions. As I'm sure you may have heard, he recently concocted a spell to revert his undeath; and in taking a human form, he's realized the reprehensibility of his actions as an undead," he paused for a moment, pursing his lips thoughtfully: "I guess you could say he's gotten in touch with his humanity. Now, as an all-powerful being, he wishes only to change the world for good, much like many other powerful historical figures of your past—the thirteen heroes, the six great Gods of the Slane Theocracy, the Greed Kings... Ainz-sama is determined to guide this world towards a brighter future"

"..."

Zanac struggled to reconcile what he was hearing with what he knew about the Sorcerer King.

"T-that's a lot to unpack, Sebas-dono…" he admitted with a nervous laugh.

That undead monster, the same one who massacred tens of thousands of people with a single spell, is in the midst of a moral dilemma..?

That was perhaps the most unbelievable thing he had ever heard. It was taking all of his willpower to keep a laugh from trickling out of his open mouth, which he could not for the life of him manage to close.

"I see you're still unconvinced—perhaps you even find the concept of a remorseful undead humorous, even," Sebas accused knowingly.

"N-no, I would nev—"

"But no matter what you think, the truth remains as I said. No strings attached, no ulterior motives. You are free to decline this proposal if you wish; there will be no immediate repercussions. But your people will continue to starve, and you shall live out your days in perpetual unease and regret. Know as well that if you decline now, there will be no second chance, and that although you are the first nation we've reached out to, the Sorcerous Kingdom will soon be extending similar offers to other nations as well, including the Baharuth Empire. You may soon find yourself in the unfortunate position of being surrounded by a foreign alliance, having missed out on a most lucrative opportunity," he explained: "and if any of our allied nations were to decide one day to take over your kingdom, we would not be obligated to intervene. Ah, but don't misunderstand: that is not a threat of any kind. Merely something to consider".

A heavy silence befell the room, save for the quiet trickling of tea from a pot as, at Renner's behest, a servant refilled Sebas' teacup.

"Ah, thank you very much," the butler nodded appreciatively before taking a sip: "Mm, and it seems you've competently followed my advice, well done," he commented.

"You humble me with your praise, Sebas-dono," the servant said with a bow before being signalled by Renner's nod of approval to leave.

"So, Zanac-dono. What will you do?" Sebas suddenly asked: "Gargantua's not known for its patience: if I linger much longer, it may become restless".

Zanac shifted uncomfortably in his chair.

'E-even if you say that, I don't have the authority to make such a decision, I would need to consult my father, and the rest of—"

"And yet here I am, now, and only right now. I need a commitment, Zanac-dono. When you become King, will you or will you not unite our kingdoms?" Sebas insisted.

"..."

"Oh come now brother," Renner suddenly cut in: "I think at this point it's clear that you should accept the proposal. Why dither?"

"I dither, dear sister," Zanac snapped back: "because there is a great deal to consider. Namely, and no offense to you, Sebas-dono, I still don't trust whatever this is".

It's just sordid dealings, he thought to himself, though he dared not say it aloud. Making a deal with a veritable devil. After all the Sorcerer King did, massacring so many of their nation's soldiers, including the proud warrior captain... he knew his father would never align himself with such a monster, and most of the nobles, even among the pro-royalists, wouldn't be too keen on it either. On a more personal level, Zanac wasn't fond of the idea of going down in history as the king whose first decree was to kowtow to an undead tyrant, because that's exactly how even the most willfully ignorant of people would view this 'mutually beneficial alliance'. Especially if it ended up backfiring after all.

Creak!

With a startling abruptness, Sebas suddenly rose from his chair.

"It's unfortunate that we couldn't come to an agreement, Zanac-dono, but I really must be off," he said as he straightened his tie and smoothed out his suit.

Everyone in the room watched incredulously as the butler took unyielding strides towards the room's exit, each step giving rise to a peculiar sense of dread in Zanac's stomach.

But he would not change his mind. Surely aligning himself and his people with such darkness could only bring misfortune in the long run. Once the Sorcerer King got over, or rather grew bored of, his humanity and this fallacial peace, he would throw it aside and crush them in an instant. Until that unavoidable day, Zanac would rather live with his reputation intact, knowing that he did not yield to their demands.

"O-onisan…" Renner whispered urgently as Sebas reached for the door handle, but Zanac brushed her off with the closing of his eyes.

He let out a sigh of relief as he heard the conference room's door open.

This is fine, Zanac thought to himself: This is in the best interest of the kingdom, definitely.

Just as he had fully come to terms with his decision, however.

"S-Sebas-dono, wait!" A tremulous voice cried out, and Zanac's eyes flashed open in surprise to fix upon the speaker. The butler paused, one foot out the door.

"I.. I mean..!" Climb sputtered embarrassedly, visibly shrinking as all eyes turned to him. But then he shook his head, straightened his back, and turned to face Zanac with a determined look in his eyes.

"Zanac-dono, I humbly implore you to reconsider!" he shouted, bowing until his upper body was parallel to the ground.

Zanac blinked in surprise, taken aback by the young man's uncharacteristic brazenness, but he quickly recovered and looked at Renner angrily.

"Sister, please reign your lapdog in. He has no idea what he's talking ab—"

"No," Renner shook her head: "because I think you're making a terribly arrogant mistake as well," she retorted.

Now Zanac was practically seething with rage. He stood up from his seat and slammed a fist down into the table.

"Do not question me, sister. I know what I'm doing!" he huffed, glaring intensely—his sister's unfazed expression only incensed him further. He was about to say something else but—

"Oi, Zanac-dono,"

Zanac whirled around to face Brain, the anger in his throat lurching and coagulating in response to the swordsman's stoic expression. He had never seen Unglaus look so serious and grim in his life.

"I know that it's not my place to speak either, and I don't know shit about politics, but I urge you to reconsider as well. I share the same feelings as Climb and Renner-sama," he revealed, glancing over at Sebas: "I may not trust the Sorcerer King, but I do trust Sebas. If he says accepting this proposal will lead to a better future, then I believe him" he added candidly, to which Climb nodded enthusiastically.

Zanac looked around at his three 'compatriots' in disbelief.

"Just whose side are you all on..?"

"The Kingdom's," Renner said, hitting Zanac like a punch to the gut: "the side you should be on, if you're to represent it with any degree of success".

And with that, Zanac slunk defeatedly into his chair, seeming almost to deflate.

"Honestly…" he muttered before glancing at Sebas, his face as red as a tomato, burning indignantly.

"..."

"Oi…" Brain grunted again after a few moments of silence, and Zanac threw his hands up in defeat.

"Alright, Alright, I understand!" He rose from his chair, straightening his robes as he coughed into his hand. If he was to save any face now, he at least had to close this meeting with confidence.

He walked up to sebas, still lingering awkwardly in the doorway with an unexpectant expression, and thrust out his hand.

"Very well, Sebas-dono. I accept your offer. Give the Sorcerer King my best regards when you return to the Sorcerous Kingdom".

Sebas regarded the hand for a moment and smiled before firmly clasping the prince's hand.

"I'm glad you have such reliable advisors, Zanac-dono. The Sorcerer King will be elated, and I'm sure I can speak for us both and say we look forward to working with you in the future. We'll be in touch soon. I bid you all farewell, and thank you again for the tea," he said, bowing his head ever-so-slightly before he released Zanac's hand. He turned to leave, but paused again, looking over his shoulder at Brain.

"I trust the outcome of my visit today was to your liking, Unglaus-san?"

Brain looked confused for a moment before it dawned on him—what he had said earlier outside.

"Yeah, we're all square Sebas-dono".