For what was not the first time and what was certainly not the last time, Tanya wished she had the authority to force Kazuma's party to undergo military training. It was a vain hope that she had looked into actually doing – even as Governor, she didn't have that authority unless there was some kind of existential threat to the village, and while the vague definition of what constituted an 'existential threat' might normally allow her to get away with abusing her power, Darkness's aristocratic ties meant she could definitely get her friends exempted.
Despite knowing she couldn't, that knowledge didn't really mean that much in the face of just how grating they could be.
"Why does he get to sit pretty while we march around! Give us a break already, dammit!"
Of course, all things considered…
"I understand the desire to get home, but there's only so much we can do to speed up… and besides, don't you think you're enabling him?"
…Darkness certainly wouldn't want to get out of whatever training she could put her through.
She glanced back at Megumin. "I'm sorry, I hadn't realized you wanted to carry him around so much. I guess you must feel indebted for all those times he carried you around," she commented, trying her best not to let them realize just how annoying they were.
Any visible success would just encourage them to keep dragging their feet.
Megumin glanced back over her shoulder. "Hey, Darkness! I think trying him up and dragging him along would be easier, don't you?"
Tanya didn't have to glance back to know how Darkness probably felt – appalled at the very idea she'd do something like that to her friend, which would coincidentally make the exertion of carrying around Kazuma all the less strenuous.
Of course, he'd protested – why should he consent to getting carried around like a piece of luggage when there wasn't a need to?
She didn't particularly care that he didn't feel a pressing need, because she certainly did. She'd even proven just how much she felt they needed to get there by using Sleep on him.
Darkness had leapt at the idea of carrying him however many miles it was to get back to Axel, or to somewhere in between Axel and Alcanretia where they would stop for the night. He wasn't exactly a light load, especially with the supplies he was carrying.
The other two hadn't bothered to put up any resistance… not by demanding they stay or anything like that.
No. Instead, they had been complaining constantly.
She shook her head and did her best to tune out their incessant rambling – hopefully Kazuma would wake up soon and keep them distracted. Her gaze, set on the road ahead of them, occasionally flickered towards…
In one of the pockets of her bag were two additional rings. They… were far less necessary than the ring that was keeping her mind free from the Type 95's influence, especially since the reason she'd wanted a ring to help with blood loss was to avert the worst of the periods she would no longer be having.
Tanya breathed in deeply as she looked across the snow-swept plains around them. Perhaps they could serve a different purpose. A more symbolic purpose.
And, well, Viktoriya had been adamant that they weren't hiding their relationship, for personal reasons that were reinforced by the logical arguments in favor of such a course. When to give Viktoriya her's was weighing on her…
As was the thought of other ways to reinforce their relationship – though it hardly needed reinforcing!
Tanya felt her cheeks heating up and fought the urge to smile. Tanya didn't particularly care, one way or the other, if their commitment to their relationship in the long term was official. Who cared what the world thought about their relationship?
On the other hand, getting dressed up for her birthday had not been… entirely unbearable, and if Viktoriya wanted to make things official, well, Tanya didn't have any qualms with such a thing. Besides, those rings really would make wonderful wedding rings.
Plus… well, she felt, just as every day she survived did, that throwing a big party to celebrate her relationship would certainly stick it to Being X. She had made it to adulthood and was in… love, despite how much she had changed and the mistakes she had made and Being X's machinations…
Slowly, she let her happiness and pride drift away as she thought of Being X and, more specifically, of what she should do with her most immediate goal achieved and the direction of her relationship getting better every day.
The contract and her wish. Those were her foremost concerns for the future.
It had been around five and a half months since she had arrived, and she needed to decide whether to fulfill the contract, or whether someone in her situation would be better served joining the Demon King. Someone in her situation needed to decide eventually.
She tapped her chin, focused less on what she would wish for and wondering whether Belzerg could even win.
Although… no, with the technology she could construct, it was doubtful the side she didn't pick could lose, barring some major interference from Heaven, or perhaps a country that was outside of Belzerg's immediate neighborhood.
Then, had she been thinking about things the wrong way? The best case scenario would be one where she killed the Demon King and got that wish and used it to end Being X. Maximizing the value of her effort was straightforward.
Instead, which option would result in the greatest loss? Dying in battle without getting that wish, leaving her at the Being X's mercy was just about the worst thing that could happen…
Her eyes flicked from the road ahead of them to focus on Viktoriya.
…Though there were clearly worse things that could happen.
She scowled. Besides, there was no guarantee that Being X wouldn't just step in and void her contract once she did his dirty work for him, even if the contract claimed her wish couldn't be voided without heaven facing serious consequences.
Again, her gaze lingered on Visha, drawn to the supplies she was carrying and the weapons they both wielded.
At the end of the day, for all of her desire to find out if there was anything more to this war than it being some sort of a proxy conflict between heaven and hell, as her meeting with Verdia and her letters with the Demon King had implied, killing the Demon King offered her the possibility of ending her feud with Being X.
Realistically, it was not a large possibility, but unless the Demon King could offer the same or a greater possibility, she would side with Belzerg.
She nodded to herself, the weight of her indecision slowly fading away. She'd talk it over with Viktoriya and Lorelei and then, assuming they agreed with her decision, work to distance herself from the Demon King. She doubted he would take it very well… though she had one or two ideas of how to mollify him and hopefully buy his silence for long enough for her efforts to win the war to ensure that if he did try to blackmail her or ruin her reputation, she could ignore his attempts.
He was, after all, the ruler of his nation, and she doubted he appreciated attempts to usurp his rule any more than human rulers did.
As Wolbach heard the latest report from her lieutenants and resisted the urge to flip the table their map of Axel was laid on, she could not help but wonder where the hell Degurechaff was!
Maybe she should have let someone contact her after all? Considering the casualties she was suffering, everything would have been over faster, at least.
The latest wrinkle in her plan was that monsters were beginning to flood out of a dungeon some distance from the town. Normally, the adventurer's guild would send someone to investigate, and also normally, her forces could withstand that kind of assault or even convince the monsters to join them.
These were not normal monsters.
No, they were, in fact, dolls, wearing half white, half black masks that would jump onto someone and then explode, costing them the usage of their limb if it didn't take off the limb or kill them outright.
The few human farmers they targeted were nothing compared to the number of her soldiers that were becoming injured. The Demon King had exactly one Priest under his employ, and the potions that could recreate higher-quality healing magic were extremely expensive.
Of course, the threat to their lives did not terrify her troops more than the person those dolls appeared to be.
Who couldn't recognize those dolls as his work? He'd used those golems from time to time to reap what shame and disappointment he could from the Demon King's forces by playing pranks, when he didn't feel like using his foresight or divination.
Unfortunately, she wasn't sure there was much she could do about it. She might have been a Fallen Goddess, but Vanir was a Duke of Hell. His may have been focused on an esoteric skill set as opposed to pure combat, but he could predict the future and read minds. She would be hard pressed to beat him, even at her full power. Even if she did manage to kill him – to be the first to manage such a feat against him in his million years of life – he undoubtedly had dozens, if not hundreds, of extra lives.
Her lieutenants quaked as she glared down at the map once more. How the hell was she supposed to stop him from weakening the siege? Her troops were terrified and thought that destroying the hunks of dirt would bring his wrath down on him. Her attempts to blow away over a hundred had been met with shrugs – they were both Generals of the Demon King, so of course she could get away with it. As if he cared about such a thing.
She eyed the marks on the map denoting encounters with the dolls and the higher concentration of them in one of the more distant forests from Axel. Perhaps she could convince him to stop… whatever he was doing using words alone? He might be a General in name only, but he still wasn't supposed to interfere in the operations of the Demon King… anymore than he had as a full-time General, anyway. Bombing her troops was certainly a step up from pranking them to get emotions.
She sighed as she eyed Axel on the map once more. If they realized just how poorly she had been faring, they might try something… though she doubted they liked having two Demon King's Generals much more than they liked having one around-
The opening to her meeting tent was thrown open. "Lady Wolbach! Humans from the town have come to our camp. They desire an end to the attacks!"
If he sounded relieved, none of her officers acknowledged it, in the same way they didn't acknowledge Wolbach's relieved sigh.
"I will hear their proposal," she said. She might have been the Goddess of Sloth, but her inability to do anything but sit around and wait for Degurechaff to get back was making her like trying to embody her more violent side. A bunch of Vanir's lifeless dolls seemed like the perfect way to blow off some steam.
Most adventurers did not have a lot to do, with Wolbach besieging the town. Most had taken to training for the inevitable clash between her forces and the town.
That went doubly true for Kyouya. Though Aigis's complaining had mercifully decreased after their fight against the Mobile Fortress Destroyer, it was as chatty as ever about the women.
The fact that it had bemoaned the fact that Wolbach was an 'eleven out of ten,' several times, in several ways, in fairly public spaces, had finally grated on him too much.
He'd decided to don his adamantite armor and to leave Aigis back in Axel for this latest adventure, holed up in his room with a fresh set of manga. He'd thanked Kyouya for the gift and remarked that maybe they weren't so different after all. He'd smiled through the pain of receiving a compliment like that from Aigis and set out for the quest he'd been asked to help complete.
He was aware of just how dangerous leaving behind Aigis might be today.
Though no one from Axel seemed to recognize the form of these dolls, he certainly did. The police lady who had recruited him had confided in him that reports on the location of Vanir, the Duke of Hell, had become sporadic before the siege began. She and other higher ups believed it was possible he'd finally shown up again.
He'd agonized over leaving Vanir behind, especially considering he would have to work with Wolbach's forces while traveling to possibly meet Vanir.
On the other hand…
He looked around. His teammates, Sena, and many other adventurers crowded around him. He didn't recognize at least half of them, but he supposed they were probably people from the refugee camp desperate to earn money.
Beyond his allies were a contingent of the Demon King's troops. Monsters, undead, and demons, many of which he recognized the species as being difficult for him to take down efficiently. They were led by Wolbach herself, while Wiz had been released from her 'house arrest' and was ahead of them all, pushing towards Keele's Dungeon with an icy determination.
She seemed quite… unhappy about their current quest. He hadn't the foggiest idea as to why, though perhaps she had done battle with Vanir in the past?
He glanced towards where Wolbach stood, flanked by two enormous, hulking Demons. One of the Generals was right there, almost within distance. She was even an Archmage – it would hurt, but he might be able to strike her down…
But he silenced the thought. She was willing to allow, and even assist, them in their quest to stop whoever was summoning these monsters. If it really was Vanir, it was possible there was a rift between them.
As they pressed forward, the sheer number of dolls facing them prevented Wiz from pushing forward all by herself. She called out for them to stop and erected an icy barrier between them and the oncoming dolls. Adventurers and monsters alike began to fan out while Wiz pulled back.
He, Sena, Wiz, and Wolbach stood and watched the adventurers go to work, for a moment. The crouched behind the low wall of ice, which hadn't even cracked despite the explosions. The adventurers behind the wall would occasionally strike out with their swords whenever one got too close.
The monsters were fairly passive and wouldn't attack unless you got too close or tried to attack them first. The wall was eventually clear, with only the occasional explosion sounding.
They turned their attention back to each other and began to converse.
"The last group to go into this dungeon was a combined force of Kazuma and the Governess's parties," she began. "They found an undiscovered room with treasure inside. We think it is possible that they might have unknowingly unlocked some kind of summoning spell, or that someone has decided to take up residence in the dungeon."
The possible presence of Vanir went unmentioned – the adventurers fighting a dozen feet away didn't know it might be a General they were up against, rather than some nefarious Mage.
"Ah… is sealing the dungeon not an option?" Wiz asked, eyeing the entrance visible in the distance. There seemed to be complex emotions brewing underneath her exterior.
Wolbach chuckled, while Sena shook her head. "No matter how you look at it, these monsters are not spawning naturally. Whoever is summoning the monsters must be powerful to summon so many. If they can use Teleport, sealing the dungeon would simply allow them to escape."
She handed a piece of paper to Kyouya. "Hero Candidate Mitsurugi, please take this talisman."
His eyebrows shot up to his hairline. The sealing magic imbued in this talisman the most powerful sealing spell he knew of! He couldn't think of any spell that wouldn't get shut down by it. She was willing to part with it?
…Well, he supposed that if it wasn't Vanir inside, but someone summoning monsters that just looked like him, it would be useful. Still, to go to such lengths to sell the ruse that they didn't have any clue who could be summoning the monsters to the other adventurers…
Keeping his suspicions to himself, he simply nodded. "Not to worry, Sena. I swear, we shall defeat the one who's summoning these monsters!"
He spun around and began to organize the adventurers, splitting them into two groups. Most of the ones he didn't recognize elected to stay behind. Wolbach had also begun to pick out some of her own forces to take down into the dungeon. Kyouya scowled.
"What, you didn't think I'd be going down there alone, did you?" she asked him mockingly. He turned away and prepared himself for their task. The dolls might have been relatively easy to fight, but there was no telling what other horrors waited for them inside.
The fight to the depths of the dungeon was, in a word, anticlimactic. The darkness pervading the structure was easily solved by his downing of a Night-sight potion. The dolls were dangerous to most, but his adamantite armor held up excellently against their explosions, and the short things didn't have any sense of tactics. All of them tried to jump at him, and he cut through them with ease.
They encountered no other monsters.
Wiz and Wolbach seemed to be competing, using a variety of spells to take down the dolls at range, while the other adventurers – and the monsters that Wolbach had brought along – held their flanks and rear.
It was painstaking, making sure there weren't any hiding behind false floor tiles, but they did eventually reach the end of the dungeon to find…
A man, seated on the ground, his legs crossed. His suit, while impeccable, did not match the aesthetic of the dungeon in the slightest. His black hair was slicked back and equally impeccable. Between his legs was a mound of earth he was shaping to look like a facsimile of himself.
Most striking, of course, was the eyeless white and black mask he wore.
Kyouya stepped forward, covering the Archmages, just in case. "Vanir," he spat. "So you are the one behind the monsters attacking people."
Finally, the demon looked up, the false eyes of his monochrome mask glowing an eerie red as he smirked. "Ohhh… I didn't expect anyone to be able to-"
He cut himself off upon glancing over Kyouya's shoulders to see Wolbach and Wiz, and Kyouya took his turn to smirk. He seemed especially nervous about Wiz, if the guarded way he stood up was anything to go by.
Good. Kyouya had never fought this General in battle, but Reincarnates often traded stories – bragged – about the foes they'd fought, and a number claimed to have faced Vanir before… though those with sense spoke of him with no small amount of frustration and dread – it took a minimum of five Hero Candidates and their parties to even attempt to fight him, and a full twenty Hero Candidates to guarantee his retreat from the field of battle.
Vanir's gaze drifted back towards the adventurers behind them, who were slowly coming to realize just who they were facing. He didn't have to turn around to know they were probably terrified.
Vanir's smirk returned.
"Adventurers, welcome to my dungeon! Moi art the source and the origin of all evil! Moi art a General of the Demon King's army, the Duke of Hell that commands untold numbers of Demons! The arch devil who can see through anything in the world, Vanir!"
Kyouya held his stance steady, glancing backwards for a moment to take stock of the morale of the forces arrayed against Vanir.
A dozen of Axel's best adventurers, who were terrified; a dozen soldiers from the Demon King's army, who wouldn't dare touch a hair on Vanir's head; Wolbach, who seemed pensive; and Wiz… who appeared to be growing angry-
He blinked in shock. Were those… tears?
He turned back around. What had happened between them? More importantly, was she going to do something rash and bring the dungeon down on them?
He opened his mouth to introduce himself, but he found himself cut off.
"Vanir, what the hell are you doing?! Your stupid dolls are attacking my forces camping around Axel!"
The tension in the room began to bleed away.
"Fallen Goddess who has no reliable followers, have thou considered not potentially killing humans? Their emotions are so delectable, and reducing their population-"
"Not my problem if they can't get food. Anyway, quit attacking my troops! You're not supposed to be interfering in our operations!"
"Half-a-Goddess who thinks achieving her full power will make up for getting sealed away… moi had not realized the useless monsters inside this dungeon were already exterminated. Then, moi supposes it is time to stop production of Vanir dolls and begin the next phase," he said gleefully.
Kyouya filed away the information he had revealed and cut off an agitated Wolbach. "What vile plans are you carrying out, Demon King General?" he demanded.
Vanir's gaze snapped to him as the half-finished doll on the ground crumbled into dust. "It is rude to call my plans vile, obsessive pretty boy who has let his mask become his face. I have a grand dream and have come to this place to fulfill it," he began. Kyouya didn't flinch at the words, though he did think of his disappointment in finding either an Archmage or a boyfriend to simulate the emotions Vanir was after.
The words of a demon were never to be trusted.
But, if he gave him what he wanted, he wouldn't look any deeper.
This, really, was the main reason Kyouya – and, he suspected, many other Reincarnates – had not sought out a fight with this General in particular. The chance Vanir would reveal details of a person's personal life, resulting in shame and embarrassment at minimum, or a blow to their prestige and social standing or even legal trouble at maximum, ensured few wanted to tangle with him.
Kyouya warred, internally, over what to do. Since this really was Vanir, he doubted they could take him on as they were – Wolbach was the Demon's ally, even if they seemed at odds. Wiz would be a great help…
Having Aqua and her party around would increase their odds and… as much as he hated to admit it, Degurechaff might come in useful. Hopefully they'd end up killing each other, even.
"What is your dream." Wiz demanded the answer from him, and he even looked a bit nervous. His gaze drifted back to the woman – was she really strong enough to make a Duke of Hell nervous?
He explained. "For moi who has existed for near eternity… I've been harboring the urge to go out with a bang for quite some time now- and that's to pass on elegantly after dining on the finest negative emotions. I've been thinking for so long that I don't even remember when I first had this thought. I had been thinking, what do I need to do to dine on the negative emotion I'm most fond of," he started, and Kyouya couldn't help but admit that he was waiting with bated breath.
"I've found the best idea. First, I'll obtain a dungeon. Next, I'll dispatch my evil minions to standby in each room, setting grueling traps in them! Powerful veteran adventurers will then come forth to challenge themselves! After experiencing numerous challenges, someone will finally make it to my residence in the depths of the dungeon!"
The melancholy that had pervaded his words when he had been asked the question had disappeared, replaced with excitement and anticipation. "And waiting in the depths of the dungeon will of course, be moi! I'll then say, 'It was impressive for you to make your way here, adventurers! Come, great fortune awaits if you can defeat moi…!' After my opening speech comes the final battle! After a fierce fight, the adventurers will finally defeat moi. In the end, a treasure chest with heavy seals will appear behind my tattered body. As I start to lose consciousness, the adventurers who overcame immense hardships will open the treasure chest before my eyes…!"
He paused for effect. Wiz had remained completely still, while a glance backwards over his shoulder told him the other adventurers were still terrified… while Wolbach seemed quite bored.
"…Inside the box will be a piece of paper saying, 'Thank you for your patronage!' The adventurers will then look at this paper with a blank face. That's the scene I want to see as I head towards my demise."
The adventurers behind him began to mutter about the indignity of such an outcome, and he couldn't help but agree. Wiz remained silent, while-
"Just keep away from our operation," Wolbach finally said as she turned to leave. With this, Wolbach's minions began to get ready to head back out, and Kyouya began to back away from the General. The other adventurers had no desire to fight a General, and Kyouya wasn't exactly looking forward to it either.
He looked at Wiz's stance. She had not shifted an inch, and Kyouya looked between the two. He hadn't noticed it before, but now that he was not focusing all of his attention on preparing for an inevitable attack… his speech had seemed to be aimed at her rather than the crowd.
"Wiz," he began, "I mean no disrespect to your abilities, but I do not believe we could face Vanir and expect victory-"
"I don't either. I have things to… discuss with him," she said, and the mirth that had built up in the Duke of Hell began to leak out again.
Kyouya turned to look at the backs of their fellows to find Wolbach smirking towards them, and Kyouya just shook his head. "I suppose, if you feel it necessary, I will take my leave."
He did turn to leave, but was stopped by the Demon's voice and looked back.
"Moi has but one question, running boy for the adventurer's guild. Moi may be the root of all evil… but even a Demon of my own caliber cannot breach the magic circle set up in that room back there. Would you happen to know who set it?"
His mind raced back to what Sena had said earlier, and he felt a small trill of vindication. Aqua could take him-
His eyes widened.
The General stood stock still, for a moment, peering back into Kyouya's past.
Kyouya raised his blade once more, a skill on his lips. If he struck now-
But Vanir danced away from his blow before he'd even begun it, placing Wiz in his path. "Mwahahaha… hahahahaha! Should I say this is expected or unexpected?! The magic circle that's troubling me was set by such a woman! Could it be that that Archpriest is…?"
He shouted down the corridor. "Oh, Wolbach!"
She seemed shocked by his apparent glee.
"Say the word, and moi shall aid thou in battle against the adventurers of the town!"
Kyouya felt a hole opening up in his stomach. No, it couldn't-
"What about your policy towards humans? Why help us? And how should I contact you?" she asked, apparently skeptical.
Vanir chuckled once more. "Moi's reasons are moi's own. Moi shant kill any humans, as always. As for how…" he trailed off and bent down, taking the dirt into his hands once more and quickly fashioning another doll. He tossed it towards her.
"Simply relay your request to that doll, and moi shall appear!" he declared. "Now, leave this place! Moi must discuss things with this former adventurer."
Kyouya hardly noticed the trip back out – if he hadn't been there, Vanir never would have found out that Aqua was there. Even if he had looked into another's mind, only he and the other Reincarnates knew the truth, and they weren't on this quest. No one else in town took her claims seriously…
As they marched through the dungeon, he resolved himself. He… would have to work with Degurechaff, directly, in order to face them.
No, in order to just have a chance against them, now that Vanir knew of Aqua.
On the bright side, it would give him more information on her abilities and how she fought. Though he had learned a few tidbits during his fight with her and by hanging around the other reincarnates in town, it was nowhere close to a full picture. The murmurs in his dreams spoke of needing to prepare for a fight the likes of which he'd never seen. Would… would he have to throw away his honor after all?
With a shake of his head, he prayed to Eris that she would hurry back. After tonight, he had a week before his deal with Aigis was done.
Hagen had thought his days of campaigning were long behind him, with the official retirement of his liege. His daughter was growing up to be one of the strongest warriors he had ever seen, and while her choice of job was… not ideal, it shouldn't have required him to pick up his blade once more.
Well, those days were not nearly as long behind him as he had thought. Ignis had been all for going out and trying to beat Wolbach himself, until the ever-pragmatic Gerrard had advised him against it. Now, they were going for something much more subtle.
His wife would have been proud.
He and the other 'adventurers' assigned to this mission looked to Sena as they stood watch. Some were others in the employ of Lord Dustiness, while others were picked from the guards by Sena. Regardless, they had all been given their orders by Ignis personally.
He took another look at the monsters surrounding them. They were varied, but Wolbach had taken most of the stronger ones into the dungeon – Kyouya Mitsurugi and Wiz were both powerful, requiring strong soldiers to stay their hand from finishing her outright.
Axel and the lands that were the siege were currently hanging on a precipice, kept there on the whim of this General of the Demon King.
Ignis knew it was important to find out if it was indeed Vanir in the dungeon, or if it was someone pretending to be him by constructing those dolls. Getting it to stop was also important.
But Ignis had explained to them that his forces had observed the dolls doing plenty of damage to Wolbach's forces – by putting themselves between the monsters and Axel, they were certainly taking more damage than Axel was.
With the 'siege' barely doing anything to them with the sudden appearance of tokoroten slime – it wasn't healthy to eat in the quantities needed to stave off starvation and would provide next to no experience, but that kind of death would take much longer than starvation – Ignis had proposed a quest to take care of Vanir knowing she would have to take it if she wanted to keep any semblance of the siege going.
That was where he and his 'newbie adventurers' came in. When the ability for the Demon King's forces to fight was at their weakest, they would stage a breakout. Groups of four would head out in every direction, with one for each cardinal direction and an additional two west towards the capital. Upon reaching the first town outside of Wolbach's net, they had letters bearing the Dustiness family seal.
He glanced around once more. There was a lull, with most of the nearby monsters dead and the dungeon failing to spit out anymore. From within a pocket, he withdrew his smoking pipe, as he had done several times that night.
This time, he burned himself on his match and cursed loudly. He heard one of the monsters snicker at him, but he hardly cared. His compatriots had undoubtedly gotten his signal.
While some began to continue their aimless walking, one of the manservants of Lord Ignis approached Sena and began to converse. "Sena, I must thank you once more for allowing such inexperienced adventurers as us to come on this quest," he began.
Sena nodded. "Of course," she said stiffly. Hagen cursed internally at her reply – Sena had sworn she could act the part they required!
Still, her partner did not falter. "I… if there's anything you require of me, please, don't hesitate-"
"Anything?" she asked. The monsters surrounding them began to chuckle at the pair. Hagen smirked to himself as he saw one begin to wolf-whistle.
"Anything," he replied. Hagen began to turn before the words had even left his mouth.
"INCREASE STRENGTH! IMPROVE SPEED!"
He relayed his orders in a moment as everyone completed their opening salvo. "West!"
They moved as one, heading towards an unimpressive looking Undead Knight. Perhaps they were a challenge for an inexperienced party or an equal match for a living knight, but against the weight of twenty men and women? He was bowled over and purified in quick order.
Hagen waved them forward, deflecting the blade of a nearby demon. It seemed they were in the clear-
His eyes widened. Two of them had been killed by wary archers, but across from their breakout, he saw a Demon preparing a spell. A Fireball, at least, if not something even more.
Hagen steeled himself. His one-time Resurrection had been used over a decade ago. He stepped forward, raising his blade and-
But Sena jumped in front instead. The few genuine adventurers began to realize they were under attack and move to attack the monsters around them. Hagen prayed for Sena and ran off into the forest.
He had a job to do.
When Wiz finally got out of the dungeon, making sure to keep her emotions hidden because you never knew when someone was looking and then her secret would get out, she found that no one would have realized a thing with the chaos going on.
Some were crowded around a group of wounded, while she noticed a few others holding a vigil near what had to be corpses. Most had their weapons out and were either gathering supplies or facing towards the path they'd take to reach the Dungeon.
Mitsurugi was standing at the ready, while Wolbach and her forces were heading back, not even bothering to guard them anymore.
He answered her unasked question. "Some of the adventurers made a break for it. They've gone to warn the world."
Tanya was, eventually, convinced to stop for lunch. Kazuma took the opportunity to claim his 'pride as a man' couldn't take being carried around anymore and began walking himself for the next few hours until they stopped for dinner and set up camp.
It was cold and miserable… for everyone besides Viktoriya and Tanya, since they had spells that could keep them warm.
The next day proceeded much as the previous one had. They ate and started walking towards Axel. Kazuma had the admittedly clever idea of fueling warming spells for all of them by transferring mana from Aqua to Tanya and Viktoriya using Drain Touch, though Tanya did insist that they conserve their energy after lunch. Even if Aqua couldn't run out of mana, using skills and spells intermittently for several hours straight was mentally taxing, especially since neither he nor Viktoriya were used to using their spells for so long on so many people.
To pass the time, he'd opened up the question of what to call the 'railgun (fake)' before swiftly closing the question once again when no one took it seriously. Of course, his pronouncement that he'd call it 'Impedance' for short started an argument with Megumin because her suggestion of Impresser was superior to Darkness's Impedance suggestion.
Additionally, Tanya had something more important to say concerning names following the final death of the argument about her newest weapon.
"In light of me undoing part of Sanzai Ektsu's curse, I'd prefer if you referred to me as 'he' and 'him' from now on," she said conversationally.
"You're not changing your name back to what it was?" Viktoriya asked.
He shook his head. "At the end of the day, it certainly isn't the worst name in the world. Perhaps when I get the rest of my body back I'll reassess things," he added, not mentioning that he really liked the way Visha said Tanya.
None of the others made a fuss, and Tanya released a sigh of relief internally. There were a few friends and acquaintances he'd need to tell in Axel, but overall, he didn't think any of them would care overmuch-
"Do you think he'll chill out now that he won't have any periods?" Kazuma whispered conspiratorially to his partymates. Tanya just rolled his eyes when two of them smacked him in the back of the head-
"What's a period?"
Only for the brewing bickering to be halted in its tracks.
Well, no, if she didn't have those parts, then that made sense-
But surely one or her followers had bitched to her about-
"Kazuma, as her caretaker, it falls to you to explain-"
"HELL NO! One of you explain it! I don't know jack shit about what goes on besides the basics-"
Tanya closed his eyes and shook his head. Well, if they wanted to argue until they reached the border outposts-
His eyes snapped open and scanned their surroundings, only to find a group waving to them off in the distance. He grinned as they rushed forward, shouting about not going any further.
It seemed that the assessment of Axel's situation in Alcanretia was not nearly as bad as he'd been led to believe.
And then the group of four began to explain themselves. And the situation in Axel. And then Tanya concluded that the situation wasn't as bad as he'd been led to believe.
It was worse.
Oh, the town itself was mostly fine. It hadn't been touched by the Mobile Fortress Destroyer or by Wolbach's forces. Even with the massive number of refugees the Mobile Fortress Destroyer had created, there was enough food to go around thanks to the sudden appearance of an absolutely massive quantity of Tokoroten slime courtesy of the new head of Axel's Axis Cult. Other supplies were obtained using the adamantite harvested from the Mobile Fortress Destroyer, though the prices that Wolbach's forces demanded were exorbitant.
Unfortunately, while the town was fine, things were looking much worse for Tanya.
His mansion, and nearly everything inside of it, had been destroyed by the Coronatite that Wiz and Wolbach had Teleported out of the Mobile Fortress Destroyer. Tens of millions of Eris of stuff lost in an instant, along with Alderp, whose knowledge was worth an appreciable fraction of that.
Clearly, this was the fault of either Being X or Eris. The chances of that hunk of Coronatite landing in any one specific place, considering just how many places one could theoretically anchor their Teleport spell to, were so astronomically small as to be basically impossible.
And yet, the only worse place for it to possibly land was in his lap.
Was this the 'consequences; they had threatened and relayed through Kazuma?
Regardless, his plans for the future had immediately evaporated, and then the plans he had begun making had changed, again, when they revealed that Wolbach was there and had been waiting for Tanya, specifically. No one had realized earlier because no one but Wiz had recognized her, and by then she'd kidnapped everyone who was capable of using Teleport besides Wiz.
And, to top it all off, another General of the Demon King was also there, relayed to them through smoke signals after the conclusion of their breakout attempt. Any attempts to communicate more information beyond his presence using those same smoke signals were frustrated by wind magic, decoy smoke signals, and flying monsters.
The group's goal was to reach Alcanretia and to send word to the capital, in case any of the other groups had been intercepted. Additionally, since they were headed along the same path Tanya would be taking to get back…
Tanya glared down at the misshapen piece of metal that had once been his Mithril lockbox, as well as his relics, as pristine as always. He hadn't heard so much as a peep since he'd put on his new ring.
Of course, there was a problem with asking the capital for additional troops. Wolbach's ability to Teleport was notorious, and while she couldn't do something as ridiculous as Teleport her entire army in one go, the numerous Demons and monsters capable of using magic under her employ that were capable of using the spell ensured that any forces sent to Axel would have to stay there until they were sure Wolbach's forces no longer had an anchor there.
Any forces sent would likely be tied up for a long while. Lord Dustiness apparently had favors he could burn, but all it took was a single Mage with a single anchor and a lot of back and forth teleporting to get the whole army redeployed.
All of this, of course, reflected poorly on his ability to provide one of the most basic promises any state endeavored to uphold: security. Keeping his job as Governor wasn't required for his eventual success, but he needed time, space, and resources in order to build up anything like a modern army capable of easily destroying the Demon King's army. Keeping his Governorship would certainly help in those regards.
The blow to his reputation for failing to defend the town certainly wouldn't lend credence to his radical ideas on how to end the war either.
Moreover, the fact that Wolbach was sieging the town to ensure he, specifically, showed up, would invite people to ask a lot of questions whose answers would reflect even more poorly on him.
If anyone found out he had told the Demon King, who had clearly told Wolbach, that Chomusuke was here… or, honestly, if they found out just how close he was to switching sides, he'd be screwed. Killed? Certainly not. Potentially stripped of his freedoms and/or sent to the frontlines? Certainly not out of the question.
He had plans for averting any accusations of treason – that he had been gathering information was even true – but he needed a bit of time for his ideas to gain enough steam for an accusation as steep as treason to be outright ignored.
He stood up from where he'd been sitting and stretched as he pocketed his relics – still nothing. Sitting back and relying on Ignis's plan was too risky for him, which meant he needed to come up with a plan of his own to defeat Wolbach, her army, and Vanir.
All of that, hopefully, before Viktoriya's birthday tomorrow.
As he began to bark out orders to the people around him, he wondered, briefly, if the Demon King could give him a better chance at ending Being X's interference in his life.
…Well, that was a thought for later. For now, it was time to figure out just how he'd get himself out of this mess.
A/N 1: If you'd like to donate to support me monetarily, search for Sugarcane Soldier on the website of the Patrons.
A/N 2: Thank you to WarmasterOku and Afforess for supporting this story and everything else I write.