Normally, an adventurer did not write reports about their quests before they were finished, whether they ended in success or failure. In fact, the vast majority of quests did not have reports written about them. If they were, the report was written by the receptionist who gave out the reward for the quest.

Actively hunting a General of the Demon King was not a normal quest by any stretch of the imagination.

The daily reports that Tanya received from Kazuma about his party's progress in searching for Wolbach were short and to the point.

They hiked through the forest Wolbach had fled into for almost twelve hours a day, battled a few monsters, and didn't find anything.

That was all he wrote… if he wrote that much. He'd written 'same as yesterday' for one of them.

'Short and to the point' was one way to describe them. Tanya preferred the words 'vague' and 'unhelpful.'

Tanya needed to go to the capital anyway; it stood to reason that if he wanted to buy the materials to make synthetic condoms, then the capital would have a far larger variety than Axel. He had stopped at Axel's guild before heading out and requested to see documents to corroborate Kazuma's lack of progress. An hour later, he had received copies of Axel's copies of important quests that had been completed there.

By contrast, his subsequent request to the Capital's guild for documents related to the area had only taken a few minutes for him to be showered in both official reports and tales of woe from the few adventurers in the guild at such an early hour.

All of it outlined the reason Kazuma likely hadn't found anything and also gave a possible reason he hadn't said more than a sentence.

The Boglade Forest was, in the mind of the average adventurer, a terrifying place only slightly scarier than facing the Demon King's army. It was large enough that there were swamps and lakes contained within it that couldn't be reached without traversing through miles of woodland, and numerous strong monsters called the place home. There were known to be three dungeons within it, with more suspected but not confirmed.

It was generally advised that one did not enter the Boglade Forest unless they were level forty or higher and in a party with three others at the same level. According to the knights' intelligence, that hadn't been such a high requirement before the war, which necessitated that most adventurers of such a high level be paid to man the frontlines.

Among the rumors, tragedies, and reports from the adventurers, one fact most agreed on was that the level requirement had grown by at least ten levels; without adventurers regularly coming in to kill monsters and take their experience for themselves, the strength of the place had steadily grown.

The lack of adventurers keeping the monster population down also meant that the few routes that had once been relatively safe to travel – with powerful help – were long gone. The maps of the place were decades out of date.

The fact that it was winter didn't help much. The total number of monsters around was lower, sure, but those that were still out and about skewed stronger than average.

With all of that in mind, as well as the fact that Wolbach was one of the Demon King's Generals, very few were doing what Kazuma's party was. The Capital had elected to send letters to the cities and towns that sat around the forest with updated information for Wolbach's wanted poster, while the adventurers and knights sent to search did not let the edge of the forest leave their sight.

Really, Tanya was honestly surprised that Kazuma's party was still alive, let alone searching.

Normally, Tanya would have been content to wait to ask Kazuma and Aqua his questions. They would either give up soon, or Megumin would persist for a week and he would intervene as he had promised Kazuma.

This wasn't a normal situation, however. The questions Tanya needed to ask them, while not particularly time sensitive, were very important to the war, and since he was working with Belzerg, he would rather ask now instead of waiting.

It hadn't taken too long to find them traipsing through the forest – they had simply waited for Tanya and Viktoriya to get a hit on their Observation spells that matched Megumin or Aqua's mana signature. The latter showed up, and they sped off, arriving to find…

"Oh wicked dark tangle of roots, turn to ash beneath the overwhelming strength of my-"

"Light of Saber!"

"Kyaa! To- search for the gaps in my armor to sink your teeth into, you must-"

"Kazuma, these thing won't stop, how are we going to-"

"Snipe! Snipe! Darkness, use Decoy already you useless-"

…About what they were expecting.

All five of them were surrounded by a group of at least thirty snarling White Wolves. A part of Tanya honestly wanted to see how well they did on their own, because they'd survived on their own for two days at this point and he was curious how they were managing it – he suspected it involved Aqua buffing everyone and Yunyun's Advanced magic – but he was on a time limit due to how many meetings he needed to get through.

"Enchant Bullet: Artillery Shot."

His opening spell wiped out the group nearing Aqua and Megumin, while Viktoriya and Lorelei touched down next to Yunyun and quickly dispatched the three facing her.

The remaining monsters fought for another five minutes before the survivors decided to call it quits and retreated – though the ones trying to carry off a nearly unresisting Darkness had to be killed before they turned her into a chew toy.

"To leave me at the mercy of those mongrels for so long, truly you are deserving of your noble appellation-"

"You're welcome, of course." Tanya cut her off, though he was looking at the leader of the party rather than Darkness. Kazuma nodded in thanks.

Now that he took a better look at them…

Well, they certainly looked like they'd been spending almost every waking minute searching the forest. They all had bags under their eyes and looked like they hadn't been bathing. The holes and cuts in their clothing were causing all of them to shiver, even with all the fighting they'd been doing.

Only Aqua looked relatively pristine, and even she was showing signs of her fatigue – small but still noticeable bags were under her eyes, and rather than filling the air with a nondescript floral, riverine smell, the only thing Tanya could smell at the moment was the sting of salt water.

Tanya ignored all of it and smiled widely. "Well, now I think I know why your reports about your progress to the guild were so lackluster. I'll explain it to the guild and make sure they know you're doing your best."

Kazuma's breath had hitched when he'd started his sentence and released by its end – not that he was actually there to audit him. Luna had explained that the five of them had been extended some leeway given the situation they were in.

Still. He needed to talk to him and Aqua alone, which meant manufacturing some goodwill would probably help expedite things. Maybe he should come up with a codeword to get Kazuma to move things along faster in these situations?

Though, if he just told his teammates the truth, then there wouldn't be a need to get him alone.

"Now," Tanya continued, "I figured I should help for a few hours at least. No one else in Belzerg has access to the magic we have, after all."

There were grateful thank yous all around – delivered drenched in snark and wit as always – and they searched for an hour while only encountering a few relatively weak monsters, and Tanya found out how they'd survived.

Kazuma's Enemy Detection skill would pick up on trace amounts of killing intent, at which point Aqua would buff him with Blessing and he would use Lurk. They were able to wait out most of the monsters they encountered that way.

Kazuma explained that if they ran into something they couldn't shake – like the large group of White Wolves – he would have Darkness tank the damage while Aqua Healed her, use his own skills to trip or wound them, while Yunyun fired off large spells at enemies that grouped up or finished off the ones he hurt.

Even Megumin was helping – her spell could wipe out anything the rest of them didn't couldn't damage enough, obviously, but she was surprisingly quick on her feet and provided another set of eyes and ears. More than that, Megumin bragged about her and Yunyun's mental acumen being able to devise the strategy of any monster they came up against.

The fact that Kazuma had come up with all of that and more with only a modicum of effort once again spoke to either the potential he was wasting or the usefulness of however many hours he'd spent playing video games.

Tanya and Viktoriya's flight helped in the search – the frozen branches of the trees did little to impede an Active Barrier, and their Observation Spells reached much farther than the naked human eye. Tanya even remembered a few of the tactics he'd deployed against the 203rd during its training and relayed them to the others.

Unfortunately, they weren't getting any returns on their spells, which meant Wolbach was either not in this area or was refraining from using her magic. Tracking her on foot wasn't going especially well – Kazuma had learned a Tracking skill and put as many Skill Points as he could into it, but the light snow that had powdered the area every night since they'd started meant that Wolbach's trail was nearly non-existent.

Admittedly, the constant looks he and Viktoriya had been passing each other were certainly distracting them from the task in front of them. However, considering Wolbach could Teleport the moment she had enough mana, very few thought she was actually still in the forest, including Tanya and Viktoriya.

From what he could see, the party's morale reflected how little chance there was that Wolbach was still there. Aqua was more vocal about it than Kazuma or Darkness, but all three had little hope. He wasn't sure if Megumin or Yunyun actually thought they still had a chance to find Chomusuke and Wolbach, but he doubted they would keep looking for the entire week.

It did look like they'd keep going for the rest of today at the very least, which meant Tanya needed to talk with Kazuma and Aqua now.

Precisely after an hour passed since they arrived, Tanya and Viktoriya nodded to each other and landed. "Kazuma. I just remembered that I needed to ask you something. Privately. Concerning your merchandise at Wiz's shop."

He looked faintly surprised. "I thought you said you'd get Wiz to sell whatever I made?"

Tanya waved away his concern. "Of course. But if I'm going to do that, then I want to ensure we don't lose too much, so we need to talk shop. What are you making, where are you getting the materials, how much are you expecting to make."

"Tanya, we need to keep-"

Tanya glanced at Megumin and raised an eyebrow. "I am perfectly willing to help you in this… endeavor," he replied, ignoring the dark look that flashed across the girl's face, "but if you're going to be doing this for the foreseeable future, then I need to talk with him and Aqua. Now."

Megumin's expression, now carefully neutral, latched onto his words. "Then why do you need to talk with Aqua?"

Tanya nearly let his panic show on his face – he hadn't considered that – but Viktoriya came to the rescue. "Well, he and Kazuma both came from Japan. She must have a few good ideas, right?"

"Hey, what was with your tone? Of course I have a few good-"

"Wonderful!" Tanya said, "Then you two wouldn't mind walking this way with me? Excellent!"

As he dragged them away – easily in Kazuma's case and with a small amount of difficulty in Aqua's – he heard Lorelei begin speaking. "Well, what do we do if Chomusuke manages to get away from Wolbach? Does he have a favorite food?"

"'He?' Chomusuke is not a guy! What gave you that idea?"

"Well, I couldn't exactly tell with a name like that…"

-OxOxO-

The voices of their and Tanya's party began to fade away. Aqua looked relatively attentive, while Kazuma's face was plastered with suspicion. He couldn't help it – even if Tanya had given pretty good responses to their questions, something felt… fake about this situation.

He voiced his suspicion "Is this really about the shop?"

Tanya raised an eyebrow. "Of course not. You can work that out with Wiz the next time you visit." A brief look of… something flashed across Tanya's face, and then it was gone as he continued talking.

"Instead," he continued, "I want to ask the two of you a question. Do you remember the day we met?"

Kazuma nodded slowly. Of course he remembered almost getting shot – the number of near-death situations he'd been in had gone from zero to way too many since he'd come to Belzerg, but at least none of them involved guns.

"Oh yeah!" Aqua said. "Kazuma called you a loli and a trap a whole bunch."

For some reason, Tanya's neutral expression hadn't changed, though Kazuma felt the barest hint of killing intent for a moment. He gulped. "Yes. Do you remember why I confronted the two of you?"

"Uh… you were pissed at the Windbag?"

Kazuma didn't get a chance to ask if 'Windbag' meant Being X, though it was safe to assume it did, as Tanya sighed. "I was worried, because of how strong your mana signature was when you got sent down, that you might pose a threat to me. Neither of you did."

Aqua chuckled nervously, while Kazuma held up his hands. "So… what? That hasn't changed in the slightest. We're smarter- sorry, I'm smarter than that-"

"You stupid HikiNEET, do not dirty the name of Aqua, most beautiful Goddess in all-"

He frowned at Aqua and opened his mouth. He'd-

Tanya cleared his throat, a carefully straight smile on his face to hide whatever annoyance Kazuma was sure he was feeling. "I really am busy today, so I'll cut to the chase. Aqua, I didn't decide whether or not to kill you that day because I wasn't sure whether I would be killing the Demon King at all. I have decided I'm going to do that."

Aqua was stock still for a moment, and then she breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh, that's good. Even if you aren't a match for me, it'd be a pretty tough battle-"

Kazuma had said nothing, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"You misunderstand me, Aqua. Now that I've decided to fight the Demon King and get the wish, a question I have to contemplate is whether you are more useful directly fighting the Demon King, or if it would be better if heaven was able to reincarnate more people."

"Uh… eh? Yo- You're threatening to kill-"

"No! Of course not. I'd just get Kazuma to renounce his contract," Tanya replied quickly, and Kazuma breathed a sigh of relief as the beginning of Aqua's blubbering disappeared in an instant.

Tanya cleared his throat. "No. I just wanted to discuss the possibility with you. Would it be a better idea to have you down here, or to send you back and bring more Reincarnates in?"

Aqua blinked owlishly. "You're… asking me for my opinion?"

"Maybe getting married is turning him crazy," Kazuma jabbed. Tanya rolled his eyes. "Yes yes, haha. But really, if Aqua isn't going to help with the Demon King, then of course sending her back up would be a better idea."

Aqua scratched her chin. "Well, I guess I wouldn't mind going back, and there's plenty of stuff I miss back in Heaven…" she counted on her fingers.

Then her gaze flicked over Kazuma's shoulder. He turned to look but didn't see anything. "But there's a bunch of stuff I can do down here that I can't do in Heaven," she finished with a flourish.

Tanya's neutral expression was showing some annoyance now. "Right. I meant in battle. The way I figure," he began, "While there are some things that can mimic your unique skills – enough manatite could substitute your 'limitless' mana, Necromancy could ensure someone could come back to life as much as they wanted, and your high level skills could be achieved by other Archpriests – all of those options have severe drawbacks."

"You really like hearing yourself talk, huh?"

The flow Tanya had been getting into was interrupted, and Kazuma snickered at his irate expression, which disappeared after a moment. "The ability to give presentations is something adults gain quickly while working, if they didn't acquire it in school."

His glare kept Kazuma from sniping back. "Regardless. Unless Aqua knows of skills or tools that can do more than she can in the fight against the Demon King, I think she'd be better off staying in Belzerg, especially considering the statistics regarding the survivability of Hero Candidates."

Kazuma felt confused as Tanya shook his head. "Did you know that at least a fifth of the people you send down get killed in their first month of fighting? Another fifth die in their first year. Of the remainder, half are about as powerful as the average noble, while the other half are stronger."

Tanya snorted. "Who knew sending untrained teenagers from Japan into battle might end up with a lot of them dead?"

"And you didn't mention any of that?" Kazuma said. Aqua waved away their words, while Kazuma glanced at her. "Well, I'm not so sure you're right. You don't have to live with her. She cleans toilets well, but otherwise she's a giant pain in the-"

"I'll curse you if you finish that statement, you Hiki-"

"If that's all?" Tanya said. Kazuma almost nodded his head.

"Wait," he said, "I just remembered. Aqua can dispel the barrier around the Demon King's castle even if two or three of them are still alive."

Tanya blinked. "Really? Since when?"

"Um, I don't remember-"

Kazuma cut Aqua off. "When we found out Wiz was a Lich, she figured out Aqua was a Goddess, and she said Aqua can do it."

Tanya didn't say anything at first, standing stock still before nodding slowly. "I… had forgotten that I would have needed to…"

He shrugged again and turned towards where the others had walked off to. "Just another reason to keep you around. Aqua," he said, drawing her attention, "whenever Kazuma says you're useless, remind him of this conversation."

Kazuma regretted needling Tanya so much as Aqua's face lit up happily. He sighed tiredly as she began to hum to herself.

"And anyway, didn't you wonder if breaking my contract would even work?" Kazuma called after him.

Tanya's stride didn't change in the slightest. "Well, if that didn't work, I'd just kill Aqua."

Kazuma and Aqua stopped in their tracks. "Eh?"

Tanya, his back still turned, answered their implied question. "Well, of course. I'd make it as painless as possible, but if the arithmetic said Aqua had to go back to heaven, then I'd send her there to start receiving reinforcements."

Aqua chuckled nervously. "We- well, I don't know if I'd respawn, or if I even have a soul as a Goddess, so maybe that wouldn't-"

"That's troubling… though, if you died, I guess the contract that gave you the job of sending people down wouldn't apply, so Reincarnates would get sent down," Tanya continued musing as Aqua and Kazuma's steps became smaller and smaller. "Though I suppose it's a moot point – if you wouldn't respawn, I'm sure Being X would intervene and muck things up."

"And Kazuma?" he said, causing Kazuma to look towards the back of Tanya's head, his back straight as a board. "I am getting that wish. If you require assurances or payment to be convinced not to land the killing blow, I'll give them. If you try to steal it from me at the last moment, I will kill you to make sure I get it."

Tanya's stride picked back up, and the walk back remained fairly quiet, barring one question Aqua posed to Kazuma when they thought Tanya was out of earshot.

"Maybe we should go on quests more often? I am a Goddess, after all, and protecting my flock is important."

Kazuma elected not to mock her for her change in heart – Tanya made it easy to forget how ruthless he could be when he wanted.

-OxOxO-

When they rejoined the others, Megumin was firmly focused on the frozen forest around them, Yunyun was vibrating in place, and the others were staring at her in mild amusement. Tanya's face mirrored everyone else's as Yunyun jumped forward.

"V- Viktoriya said that you had an idea for how I could get friends?" Yunyun said, her nervousness and excitement warring as she continued vibrating. Tanya nodded.

"I'll admit, it isn't exactly conventional, but I'm certain it will work," he said.

"A- anything! I've read every book in the Crimson Demon Village about making friends, I read at least one book on it in every town I went through while getting the skill points for Advanced Magic, and over a dozen books on the subject in Axel! The- The looks I get from the librarian here made me feel bad, but if you've got a way to get me friends, I'll hear you out!"

They all stared at Yunyun in amazement – reading books on making friends? – except for Megumin, who kept her gaze fixed on their surroundings.

"Hmpf. So my rival is scheming and trying to trick Yunyun into thinking she can make friends? I expect nothing less from one so treacherous as you."

The stares of amazement only glanced at Megumin before turning back to Tanya. "Well, you said you wanted to hear? I had the idea when I visited the Crimson Demon Village-"

"The answer was at home this whole time?! How could I have been so blind-"

Tanya gave her a patient look. Yunyun interrupted herself and became utterly silent as Tanya began to explain.

"Well, one of the trials I was subjected to was fighting against some monsters. They were dragged over using the Paralysis spell," Tanya began. Yunyun's eyes widened. "You were shown our Cultivation technique?"

After a moment, Tanya nodded. "Cultivation is what it's called? Huh. Anyway, the idea I had was doing some Cultivation in tandem with a Level-Reset potion in order to get more skill points faster, but that part mostly applies to Adventurers like Viktoriya and I. Though it may be dangerous for us to constantly reset our level and try to level up again on our own, as long as we had help…" Tanya trailed off, allowing Yunyun to fill in the gaps.

"M… Me? I could help people level up quickly, and then they'd… want to be my friend?"

"Of course," Tanya replied. "You're already a fairly strong Archmage. Helping other people, especially in a way that contributes to their survival, will make people flock to you like moths to a flame."

Yunyun's face began to light up, her curiosity shifting into happiness-

"Hah! Getting used by those around you due to your naivety again, Yunyun? When will you learn from your mistakes!"

Attention again turned to Megumin. "Firstly, that potion she mentioned is illegal! Meanwhile, the people who would flock to you would not care about being your friend, but just for using you for what you can provide to them!"

Reactions were mixed. Yunyun deflated immediately, while-

"Well, that's what friendship is, isn't it?"

Attention swerved to Tanya, who looked around, seemingly genuinely confused, and then-

"I kid. Partially. Of course there will be people like that, who will see the service you offer as purely transactional-" Tanya began.

"But," Viktoriya interjected, "you should be able to figure out who's only using you and keep them at an arm's length while getting closer to those who genuinely see you as someone they like spending time with-"

"Yunyun wouldn't know the difference between a kidnapper and her best friend until she woke up tied to a chair," Megumin said. Her voice was tinged with a small amount of snark, but most of the emotion in it was undeniably pity.

Viktoriya opened her mouth to defend Yunyun…

Only to remember how exactly she'd met Yunyun.

Right.

"Well, if you did have trouble telling the difference, you should just come to us and ask for advice. That's what friends are for after all."

"F- Friend? You're my friend?"

Viktoriya stared at the girl, struggling to keep her exasperation at the girl's lack of confidence from becoming visible. "Of course."

"Yunyun, if these idiots are my friends, then you certainly count," Tanya replied. The other four called him names, while Lorelei shrugged. "You seem cool. Maybe if we go shopping together-"

Yunyun's eyes somehow grew even wider, and-

"Of course they aren't! As my rival, they seek only to tear you away from my side to use you in our eternal competition for supremacy!" Megumin declared, her gaze finally torn away from their surroundings.

A half-dozen head shakes at Megumin's Chuuni were had as Yunyun internally deliberated. "Well, I… I'm not entirely sure that it would work. What if they think I'm too high a level for them and get scared off-"

Kazuma scoffed this time. "As long as the rewards are high enough, they'll ignore whatever misgivings they feel, right? Especially if you gave them all the rewards for taking down the monsters. They might feel weird, but if you're upfront, then whatever."

"How eloquent," Tanya commented. "Regardless, I'll have some quests put up for captured monsters to illustrate the idea to people at the guild… though maybe I'll hold off until Spring arrives and there are weaker monsters around. Anyway, I think you should give it a try, at least."

Yunyun started to reply again-

"Let's stop standing around! Every moment we spend speaking is another moment Wolbach has to escape with Chomusuke. Kazuma! Keep tracking!"

He rolled his eyes as he walked towards the front with her. They dispersed, with Yunyun promising she'd give it a try, and spent another half an hour searching for Wolbach. That was when Tanya and Viktoriya ran out of time and gave their farewells as they left for the Teleporter in the Capital, with Lorelei promising to head back once they were done for the night.

-OxOxO-

Tanya could honestly say that he'd missed the taste of Giant Frog leg.

For the first few bites.

After that, the aftertaste began to build up and he remembered why it was one of the cheapest things you could normally get. Considering the weather and the lack of any Giant Frogs, it had gotten about as expensive as chicken, meaning you couldn't even justify choosing it as a meal based on price.

"Thank you again for telling me your side of the fight with the Mobile Fortress Destroyer."

"No problem. With the other two out shopping, it isn't like I had anything better going on."

"You didn't want to go with them?"

"Would you want to go shopping with two female Japanese teenagers with a penchant for spending other people's money?"

"Hmm. Perhaps I should see if Lorelei would like to shop with them."

They lapsed into silence, and Tanya spent the moment Takashi took to bite into his own Frog Leg to look down at the book he'd been reading before his food had arrived. It…

He almost couldn't believe that the person who'd made the technologically advanced stuff in the Crimson Demon Village was the creator of the Mobile Fortress Destroyer… except no, he could totally believe that and really wanted to figure out what the hell else he'd made.

Maybe Litet could tell him? He'd mentioned the Mobile Fortress Destroyer being made to protect Norse at one point in time, so perhaps he could fill in some holes.

"There was… one other thing," Takashi said as he finished up. Tanya raised an eyebrow at the conflicted look on his face. "You know the Hero Candidate with the silver armor? He's a pretty strong adventurer and cut off one of the Mobile Fortress Destroyer's legs."

Tanya's raised eyebrow rose further. "Mitsurugi? What about him?"

Takashi snapped his fingers. "That's right. I never seem to be able to remember his name. Anyway, he got to the book first, and he said he couldn't read it and handed it to me."

Confusion descended on Tanya's features. "What? That doesn't make any sense. I know he's from Japan."

"That's what I thought, but I'm sure that's what he said. If he didn't feel like reading it, he could have just said so, but to claim he couldn't read it…"

"Maybe it was a slip of the tongue?" Tanya posited. Takashi shrugged helplessly. "Maybe. I just… I've been getting odd vibes from him over the past week. Be careful."

Tanya nodded slowly. Takashi had a copy of Tanya's memories to draw on in addition to his own life. If he was bringing this up, he felt it was important.

"Will do. Speaking of, do you know where he is? I have some other questions to ask him," Tanya was wondering if he might help with his plan to introduce the Crimson Demon Cultivation technique to Axel.

Takashi shook his head as he got up. "Not a clue. Haven't seen him today. Not that that's abnormal, but…"

He trailed off with a shrug and left Tanya with a wave while he pondered. Tanya wasn't close enough to Mitsurugi to know if something was off with him. Maybe he should ask his teammates, then?

He finished his meal quickly and pocketed the book while walking towards the reception desk. "Luna," he stated.

The woman looked as harried as ever, and the long sigh she took was as tired as ever too. Tanya resolved to force her to take a vacation soon.

Luna gave him an update on how things with the guild were going. Nothing much was going on, especially with winter in full swing, but she still found her schedule full. The durian quests were still low, while adventurers got up to trouble, even with the freezing cold weather. It seemed their portion of their earnings from the Mobile Fortress Destroyer had only emboldened them to cause trouble – Luna couldn't threaten them with probation to get them to behave.

"Which is why," she finished, some measure of relief creeping into her voice, "I'm so glad the Arena is almost finished. I had to move around some funds to get it completed so quickly, but if it stops adventurers from causing more trouble, it'll be worth it."

Tanya grinned. It was shaping up wonderfully, though the building for the arena being built to the left of the guild looked much more like the medieval architecture of Axel than the romanesque colosseum he'd fought Mitsurugi in in the capital.

"There's a thought. Luna, do you know where Mitsurugi is?" he asked. Luna blinked at the non sequitur. "Er, he said he was traveling south. There was a quest begging for aid in fighting the crime flourishing there."

Tanya raised an eyebrow. "Crime? Not banditry, right?"

"Heavens no," Luna replied immediately. She took a moment to look to the side, behind the counter. "Not banditry, of course, but almost anything and everything else you could think of. Corruption. Tax dodging. Fraud. Grifting. Racketeering."

Tanya's eyebrows rose. "Are things that bad down there?"

"Well," she began, "they must be, with all of this going on. With how far they are from the capital, is it any wonder?"

Tanya's brows furrowed, and then he dismissed the problem. "Well, as long as they aren't in Axel, I suppose. I wanted to ask him a few questions, as well as if he'd participate in an… experiment I'd like to run."

Luna's face drained of color, and Tanya waved away Luna's concern. "Relax, would you? It might even decrease the trouble around here." Eventually. Or maybe it would make things worse.

Tanya wasn't honestly sure. "I'll fill you in later – just tell him I want to talk when he gets back."

She nodded, and Tanya looked down at his watch. "Ah, I've got a meeting with Walter to attend to. Thank you, as always, for keeping me abreast of things here, Luna. See you around."

She smiled and bid Tanya farewell, and Tanya headed for Walter's house. He'd sent her a missive claiming he'd finished looking into the trouble in the Eris Cult without having to run Axel in the middle of a siege, and he was looking forward to it.

Apparently, things weren't well in the cult. It was enough to make him smile, despite the chill.

-OxOxO-

The voice in his head had been quiet for a while now. It had been saying a lot of things he hadn't really liked, but when he'd arrived in Fikkis and begun searching for the criminal group, it had mostly gone away.

Mitsurugi was all the happier for it as he stood, silently and motionlessly, waiting in the dimly lit alley he'd been told to wait in. It was cold, especially wearing Orichalum armor, but he stood there anyway.

Patiently.

He took another glance around – what was happening to him, why was he so paranoid – and got a look at the buildings peeking into the alley he'd sequestered himself in.

If Mitsurugi had visited Fikkis before, he didn't remember.

Considering just how different it was from Axel, he doubted it.

Fikkis was larger than Axel, and there were few patches of grass or cheery dirt roads to be found within its center. Disorderly cobblestone paved the streets and crept up buildings made of some kind of dark wood, while the roofs were much higher than the ones in Axel, making them seem stretched. Despite their height, they seemed more inclined to lean over the streets and roads that crisscrossed the city than reach towards the overcast sky.

Trash piled along the streets, gathering in heaps around sewage grates, while people glanced at each and every person who passed them by. Few people offered smiles and friendly waves as they did, worried about attracting the wrong kind of attention.

The wrong kind of attention existed everywhere here. Were you gripping your coin bag to your chest, smuggling some product outlawed in Belzerg from the east or from the cities along the southern coast? Were you wringing your hands, nervous about failing to pass information on some noble or official to their opponents? Were you keeping a hand on your sword, sure that the guild might send for the police to apprehend you for falsifying results on your card?

Or were you working for them?

Mitsurugi tapped a foot on the pavement. He hated waiting. It almost made him wish for someone to talk to.

But his teammates were in Axel, training, and he was there, waiting to be contacted.

Alone.

He hadn't had much information, when he'd made his way to Heya in the northern part of the Krasin River system. Nothing more than a plea for help in fighting the influence of a 'criminal organization' he hadn't known the name of until he'd arrived in Heya.

The Yatagarasu.

He'd been confused when he'd heard the name. He wasn't a scholar of Shintoism by any stretch of the imagination, but even he recognized the name of the famous three-legged crow. As he'd come closer to Fikkis and the power of the group had grown, he'd learned more about them.

They'd started out as a small racketeering group in a small town south of Fikkis, where they'd first built up their power. Slowly, they'd expanded into other illegal or semi-illegal areas and actually offered services to their 'customers' – smuggling contraband, helping falsify documents, acting as loan sharks, kidnapping, and more.

They would have been just another two-bit crime organization in an area already filled to the brim, except for two things that made them distinct. The first was the branding – few other groups or gangs were as brazen or as unified as the Yatagarasu were.

Regardless of what else they wore, their known members wore jackets – made of a black leather that reminded him of biker jackets from home – or simple shirts with a three-legged crow in flight stitched into the back in various colors he had learned told of their rank. The head of the crow was replaced with a simple red circle that resembled the one on Japan's flag.

Anywhere under their 'protection' has a piece of paper or a ceramic tile shown somewhere on their storefront with a similar sigil on it – the same crow in flight, rendered in a blue-black color, except the crow had an actual head and the red sun was behind it.

The second thing that set them apart was that most of the people who led it were actually decently strong. Mitsurugi could wipe the floor with them if he ever managed to get into a room with them, obviously, but few places this far from the frontlines had adventurers much stronger than level twenty or thirty. Those that were strong enough were focused on keeping monsters at bay.

He suspected that at least one of the higher ups was from Japan. Their branding all but guaranteed it, really, though it was possible they'd taken the idea from a Hero Candidate who was uninvolved.

Regardless, their branding and their relative strength had allowed them to grow and grow until they controlled almost all organized crime in the north and center of the Krasin River system. He'd heard they were working on moving south and taking over everything in Vergisbire and Farasbire, close to the mouth of the river.

"Alright, let's go."

He didn't react to the voice – he hadn't known whoever it was even there, but he wouldn't let them know that – and turned down the alley.

"I'll be honest, it's hard to believe you are who you are, even now. It seems…"

"After what I told you is happening?"

"Well…"

He ignored what the man said and the feeling burning in his stomach.

Just like he had before.

Just like he did whenever he heard the voice.

Just like he did every time he was told a story by a nervous citizen or a dismal police officer or a scarred housewife and then lied to their face that he was going to put an end to them.

Though, was it really a lie? He'd take them down after the Nazi was dead.

Listen to the feeling! This is wrong!

"What was that?"

"Nothing."

Maybe the voice wasn't entirely gone yet.

They soon ducked into an abandoned building's basement, and Mitsurugi crossed his arms as the man in the parody of a business suit sat in the only available chair in the room strewn with broken crates, bottles, and more.

"So?"

The man – a lieutenant to one of the members of the Yatagarasu's Pantheon – smiled widely. "They didn't believe a word of it."

He resisted the urge to snarl. "You explained everything? What she's going to do? The people she's going to kill?"

The man rolled his eyes. "And we have only you to believe, and you admitted to knowing how outlandish your claims sound. It all sounds incredibly… well, noncredible."

He did snarl this time. "I told the truth-"

"As you perceive it-"

"It's the truth! I know it's the goddamn-"

The lieutenant's eyes narrowed.

"Cool it. I can leave right now and forget we ever met."

Mitsurugi bit down on his tongue and glared, and the man continued. "Thank you."

He cleared his throat. "Now. Everyone in the Pantheon is worried about going anywhere near Axel. Ignis is feared by the enemies and criminals of Belzerg for very good reasons, the seven mysteries of Axel make anyone with sense nervous for very good reasons, and Degurechaff is the complete opposite of Alderp, in that she is not very corrupt and has the power to kill fucking Vanir."

He didn't stop. "Kami," he said reverentially, despite the leader of the Yatagarasu not being anywhere near their meeting room in the basement of a derelict restaurant, "was especially adamant that we not go near the place. They suggested that the whole of the Hydraic River and its tributaries be added to the northern exclusion zone."

Mitsurugi's brows furrowed. "The what?"

The lieutenant sighed. "Right. We don't go anywhere near the north – the Axis Cult treats criminals very harshly if they don't convert, it looks down on people who lie about converting even more, the Crimson Demons are incorruptible in all things not involving smuggling the things Belzerg has outlawed that they make, and the monsters that far north make doing our kind of business very difficult over the distances involved, to say nothing of the horrors lurking in the Northern Breadth."

"But she's-"

"Degurechaff has the power to do just about whatever she wants to whoever she wants if she can beat Vanir. She made Wolbach run with her tail between her legs and wiped out half of the army on her own," he said, a sardonic smile creeping onto his face, "She can fly, like a fucking Angel. Did you hear she even beat the Mobile Fortress Destroyer?"

Mitsurugi felt an eye twitch. "Half of that is overblown-"

"And while you and I know that, anyone who's heard of her has heard even taller tales. Few people with sense want to fight someone like that."

Mitsurugi ignored the implication that he didn't have sense and resisted the urge to draw his sword and strike the man down. He was risking his reputation with these people and he wasn't even going to get-

"Kami," he started again, "was not able to convince the others to leave the whole area alone, but the Pantheon did pass a specific ban on going near Axel. However," he said, raising a hand to forestall Mitsurugi's anger, "the Pantheon is not a monolith. Three others approached my own employer and pledged their support for your attempt to kill her."

Mitsurugi almost couldn't believe it as the man smiled. "In return for your money, as well as a promise of future cooperation, we will provide you with men and whatever else you need."

Mitsurugi gulped and dared to let a small grin form on his face. He knew, if they didn't really believe his words, that they were only really helping him out of their own interest, but he didn't care.

It didn't matter.

Tanya von Degurechaff would die.

-OxOxO-

Tanya sipped the tea Walter had provided. He disliked coffee – apparently, you do learn something new every day – and without Viktoriya to prepare some, Tanya had decided that things would go faster if he just drank the tea and didn't tip Walter off about it and cause him to spiral into apologizing repeatedly.

Even if he didn't prefer tea to coffee, he definitely didn't hate it. At the very least, it took his mind off of the raving lunatic he'd run into upon returning to Axel – some Axis Cultist artist who'd been looking for Megumin so he could see her use Explosion.

"Are you looking forward to meeting Ignis?"

Tanya nodded. "Yes. The letter he sent back was pretty understanding. He said he didn't mind waiting the four days. I'm glad we've got a boss like him instead of someone like Alderp."

Walter nodded and sipped on his own tea. "Of course. And when did you decide to have your wedding?" he asked, somewhat nervously.

Tanya resisted the urge to sigh – Walter had become quite a bit more nervous since he'd talked to him about handing the artillery piece over to the Mithril Foundation. "Don't worry, we're going to invite you. We decided on having it in seventeen days."

He raised an eyebrow. "A winter wedding? Are you sure you shouldn't-"

"Yes."

He had become well aware it was unlucky to have a wedding in winter – the moment he'd openly broached the idea with Viktoriya, their Luck had taken a turn for the worse. Of course, the more specific they'd gotten with when they wanted it, the worse their Luck had gotten, until they'd sworn that they'd have it in seventeen days and not even Eris could stop them, at which point it had all stopped.

Tanya was considering it a win over the goddess who'd tanked his Luck so badly.

"Speaking of unlucky things, you said you'd finished looking into what's going on with the Eris Cult?"

Walter nodded. "Yes. The situation is most… perplexing. Apparently, the clergy is arguing."

Tanya waited a few moments for him to continue, but he seemed taken aback by his lack of reaction. "And that is… unusual?"

Walter seemed taken aback. "Wh… Well, yes! Of course it is."

Tanya wasn't sure why. No group was a monolith, regardless of if the group in question was a culture, an ideology, or even a religion. Maybe it was just Walter?

They remained sitting in silence for moments more.

…Well, probably not, if he found Tanya's reaction odd. "Why is it unusual?" he finally asked.

Walter blinked owlishly at him. "Uhm… isn't it obvious? If the clergy are having an argument, then Eris should just tell people what is right and what is not."

Tanya blinked. Right. That was an option here. "And it is expected of her to do that?"

"Of course?" he half asked, confusion and skepticism in his voice. "Is this another test-"

"No, not at all," he replied immediately. "It is a novel experience, as far as I am concerned."

Walter opened his mouth, closed it, and then started again. "Well… if you say so. In that case, I will explain. You often say that conflict is a waste of resources. Eris and Aqua usually seem to agree – I heard that only a few weeks ago there was a disagreement going on in the Axis Cult because of a revelation in Alcanretia, only for it to disappear over the course of a week. Clearly, Aqua corrected them. That Eris hasn't in this case is… concerning."

Tanya couldn't exactly change that in the slightest. "What are they disagreeing about?" Tanya asked.

Walter went down the list. The view of the church towards monsters. The amount of money to be collected from the faithful. The inclusion of Thieves, Rangers, Merchants, and other Luck-based jobs in the church's affairs. How the church should interact with the poor. The structure of the church. The church's relationship with Belzerg.

There were apparently even debates going on about the nature of the Luck Eris granted her followers, and the two sides were apparently polar opposites.

"That… is quite a lot to disagree about."

Walter nodded. "Indeed. It is concerning that Eris hasn't yet declared who is right, and I am… afraid that some may soon come to blows over the situation."

Tanya frowned. He hated religion, of course, but it did serve a purpose in this era and people put a lot of stock into it. Curbing the influence of any church was a good idea in his view, but the last thing he wanted right now was riots breaking out.

"Keep an eye on how things develop, and if you have any ideas on how Axel might help fix it, submit a proposal," he said. At the end of the day, if Tanya did somehow help fix things, his reputation would grow, making his plans for the future all the easier. Propping up the Eris Cult for a bit in service of that goal was an easy call to make.

Walter nodded, seemingly relieved, and they spent the rest of the meeting discussing the rebuilding of Axel, his wedding, and the war.

Tanya knew he had a few more meetings to attend over the next few days, but he was hoping, with most of the most pressing ones over with, he could focus on the wedding. It had to be perfect, or as perfect as he and Viktoriya could make it, anyway.

Once it was over, they would have a lot of work to do before spring arrived.

-OxOxO-

Hans was absolutely furious. He hated a lot of things – the Axis Cult was at the top of his list, them and their soap and their stupid fucking papers and their – and one of the things he hated was being woken up early.

As it was, he already disliked that the Demon King was forcing them to attend daily meetings in the morning so that they could ensure nothing about the ritual went poorly, but being woken up early so he could attend one?

It made him want to eat the bastard.

He was happy that he wasn't at the Axis Cult anymore, so maybe it wasn't too bad-

"Alright, why the hell did you make me get out of bed even earlier-"

Hans stopped what he was about to say.

Nothing about the walls of the room were different – the window at the top of one wall of the spacious room was still there, and the star chart on the opposite wall was still pristine and immaculate. He could even see that the planets around the sun were almost in alignment.

No, what was different was the furniture. The usual table was gone, and the center of the room had been turned into a trial chamber.

The fact that Hans didn't know this was happening was a bad sign. The fact that every chair around the Demon King was filled was an even worse sign.

The presence of the Demon King's bodyguards in the corners of the room and that Mammon had just grabbed Hans's right arm was the worst sign.

"What's going on?" he asked carefully. He chanced a look to his immediate right-

Mammon's gaze was steely as he manhandled Hans into the empty chair in the middle of the room. The high, dark stone table that the Demon King sat at, with his daughter, Celestina, Sylvia, Verdia, and even the sniveling Ragcraft, loomed over him.

"Hans the Deadly Poison Slime, one of the Eight Generals of the Demon King. You stand before I, your king, and your peers, accused of enacting plans to destroy the world and usurp me."

Hans gulped. He wasn't being given a chance to declare he wasn't guilty, which meant they were nearly positive he was guilty. How in Hell had they found out about his plans?

He gazed at the people sitting above him. The Demon King's face was inscrutable, while his daughter and Verdia seemed pissed. Sylvia was also stone faced, but he detected a current of frustration with him.

Celestina seemed to find the situation amusing.

"At midnight, I received, by way of a courier, a letter. From Degurechaff."

Hans gulped. He'd thought the Demon had been pissed when he'd learned Wolbach had left to get her other half back, against his orders.

The tower he had leveled when he'd learned Degurechaff had managed to kill Verdia, destroy most of Wolbach's forces, and that Wolbach was missing showed Hans the true breadth of the King's rage.

Hans gulped again as a wave of killing intent radiated from the Demon King. Maybe he'd be experiencing it.

"Degurechaff expressed a number of things in that letter. He expressed that he had a conversation with Wolbach about the possibility of siding with us, and that his conversation with her confirmed that I 'can't beat the reward he will receive if he kills me.'"

Hans didn't let his confusion at Degurechaff being referred to as a he – it really didn't matter at the moment.

The killing intent began to recede. "He expressed that hopefully we could have a civil conversation before he killed me. And, in order to show that there are no hard feelings, he also had a gift delivered with the letter."

He gestured to the sole Imp in the room, who took the top off of a box he hadn't noticed the presence of. Inside was…

Some kind of contraption. It had a horn on the top, and a wooden box it sat on, in addition to a black disk that-

"It is a record player," Verdia said sharply, "it allows you to listen to recorded audio. One record contained music from around Belzerg, while the other…"

Verdia smiled malevolently down at him as the Imp started the contraption.

Hans stared. It was his own voice.

"Soap, detergent, soap, detergent, soap, detergent…"

"I can't swallow this! It would make me too clean…"

Hans's eyes widened. That was what he'd said to himself while in Alcanretia.

That was why they weren't selling poison anymore? That was why his connection was gone?

Then…

His breathing quickened.

"SOAP, DETERGENT, SOAP, DETERGENT, DAMMIT!"

"Once this place becomes a hotbed of poison, I'll use it as a hub to poison the entirety of Belzerg! I'll consume this stupid town, and then this stupid country, and then I'll eat everyone else too! Goddamn Demon King telling me not to eat people?"

Shit. Shit. Shit.

"I'm a SLIME! I eat. It's what we do. I'll see how he likes being eaten."

No. Nononononono.

He couldn't die here. He couldn't-

Flee. He had to flee. His instincts were telling him to run, to find a dark, lonely cave and hide, like a good slime should, like a good monster should-

"I am inclined to agree with her- or, him, it seems. No hard feelings."

The words hung in the air for only a moment. "What do you have to say for yourself?"

Hans licked his lips. He couldn't run. On a very good day, with a surprise attack, he might be able to beat the Demon King at the bastard's current power, but he'd be destroyed with everyone around him.

No, he had to rely on his mind.

His sentience.

A pinnacle few slimes were able to reach.

"You can't kill me."

No one said anything, and Hans continued. "Moreover, if you were going to kill me, you'd have ambushed me in my sleep."

Hans smiled desperately. "You need every one of your Generals for the Anniversary ritual to work perfectly." Hans nodded to himself.

He wasn't shaking, quivering, like jelly. He wasn't.

He was nodding his head, because he was right, he had to be.

The Demon King was probably having more people look for Wolbach that the fucking Kingdom was at this point. He needed her back, or years and years of effort would be for absolutely nothing.

"And," he continued, his voice steady despite the whirlwind within him, "the ritual will fail entirely if Wolbach and one of us aren't present. You still need me-"

Hans collapsed. His stone chair cracked under the force, and his whole body began to turn translucent as the Demon King pressed down on him with his killing intent and made his structure weaken.

It was a trick that didn't do much damage and expended a lot of mana and arcana.

But Hans was still a slime.

FLEEFLEEFLEEFLEEFLEEFLEE

Run. Run away. You can't beat that. Never, ever, you'll never overcome that. You're a slime, be a slime. Find a cave, dominate it, and hide from anything stronger.

FLEEFLEEFLEEFLEEFLEEFLEE

It took him a few moments to realize the pressure was gone. Hans took in a deep, shaky breath as he righted himself in his chair.

"I do still need you, Hans. You will be kept alive and unmolested until the Anniversary."

The Demon King's threatening laugh echoed around the room. "But the Anniversary will bring us reinforcements. So who knows? Maybe one of the new arrivals can replace you. Maybe, after that, you will be allowed to live in recognition of your service to me."

Malice burned in the Demon King's eyes as fire dripped from his palms and ate into the table. "Maybe, if you try to flee, I'll rip you to pieces after the Anniversary and ensure not an atom of your body remains. Or maybe I'll burn you to a crisp while dragging it out as long as possible. Or maybe… I'll feed you detergent until you're nothing but soap and water."

The Demon King sat back in his chair. "Your punishment for enacting plans to destroy the world and kill me will be decided at a later date. Good behavior may result in a lenient sentence, while bad behavior will result in your agonizing death."

He smashed a hand into the table and cracked it, and everyone besides Hans rose and began to file out of the room silently. "We'll skip the meeting today. I expect to see all of you at the meeting tomorrow."

Hans sat in the broken chair, trying not to shake himself apart.

The Demon King stopped next to him, and Hans froze.

He leaned down, and Hans flinched away. When nothing happened, he opened his eyes to find the Demon King frowning.

"You are right, Hans. I do still need you."

"But only for now."

-OxOxO-

A/N 1: For those who are interested, the artist Tanya mentioned is from one of the side stories, 'Explosion is art.' Unfortunately for him, Megumin wasn't around this time.

A/N 2: I'll probably turn their discussion of what day to have the wedding on into an omake eventually.

A/N 3: If you'd like to donate to support me monetarily, search for Sugarcane Soldier on the website of the Patrons.

Thank you to WarmasterOku, Afforess, and UNSC_Kawakaze for supporting this story and everything else I write.