Authors note: little longer for this chapter than I was hoping, life is throwing me curveballs called the economy sucks, but the chapter is here and that is what is important!

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And now the story, hope you like it, and don't worry, things won't stay calm for long XD

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The Fortress cities of the Seven Shields alliance where all apparently known for particular things. Ansur was known for being the base of the vaunted Dawn Templars and of the strongest martial family in the lands, the Levantine's, while Thorn was of course known as the seat of the Goddess reborn and the Church.

Rad was a city of innovation, Ken was known as a hub of mercenaries and violence, Geofu was a cultural melting pot, Ur was the oldest fortress in the entire lands with an equally old political base for its nobility, and Feoh was a sort of second city to Ur. This was information easily learned as he traveled, but Ainz quickly realized that such simple information did not do justice to what a city of innovation actually meant in the regards to the land of Eos.

He and his allies had just crossed over a hill, and the sight before him had made him stop and pause, taking in the sight before him. Rolling hills that made way to a great mountain spire seemingly alone in the foothills that surrounded it on all sides. And around the mountain was a great fortress and city. Unlike Ansur and thorn, the walls of this fortress were a dark gray with blazing blue runes carved into the crenellations. Towers of stone and bronze rose up past the walls spewing smoke and steam out of pipes and chimney's, and even the wall had pipes coming in and out of them in sections. Even from a distance Ainz could tell that the walls were covered in what he could actually consider proper defenses, and while most looked like Catapults or Ballista, he did notice that some seemed to be made of dark metal and shaped vaguely like tubes.

The City of Rad was not just a city of innovation; it looked like a Steampunk city.

"Is something wrong?" amrita asked as she stepped up beside Ainz.

"No, far from it," Ainz replied. "I was simply enjoying the view. Rad looks quite different than Ansur or Thorn. It is, refreshing."

"How can it be refreshing? All I smell is smoke," flora said with a grumble from behind, seeming to have no interest in the city of Rad whatsoever.

"It's not wood smoke," Hara said as she sniffed the air. "I smelt it a bit earlier, but I'm pretty sure its smoke from forges and he like. Smells a bit off."

"Rad is known as the city of innovation and Alchemy for a reason, that is likely why it smells strange," Amrita said with a shake of her head. "Have neither of you ever seen Rad before?"

"I was turned into an elf and spent most of my time in forests, and trying to avoid people, what do you think?" Flora replied sarcastically.

Hara on the other hand simply stared at Amrita for a moment.

"Right, I apologize," Amrita said as she looked to Ainz, who still seemed to simply stare at the city ahead of them. "Is something wrong?"

"No, I was just considering various things, let us be off," Ainz declared as he began walking toward the city, the three woman following along just a bare step behind. "Tell me, Rad even from this distance appears drastically different than Ansur or Thorn, are the other fortresses similarly different?"

"No, not really," Amrita replied as she noticed that both Flora and Hara were also listening raptly. "They all share the same architecture and design essentially. The only one that doesn't is UR, due to its age."

"Hmmm, so it is the people then that may make them different, something to remember," Ainz mused as the group approached the city. Something the guards of the city seemed to notice as they quickly by the motion on the walls and before the gate. "Should we be expecting greetings like the one we received in Ansur?"

"I would not think so unless we were expected," Amrita said simply. "And I would not expect any sort of immediate distrust, just curiosity."

"Curiosity?"

"Halflings, and their smaller gnomish cousins, are a very curious peoples," flora spoke up this time. "The love to explore and discover new things, as well as have a respect for creation. Smithing, alchemy, the arts, those sorts of things," she said as she gestured a glove covered hand toward the walls. "I have heard as they are the primary inhabitants of Rad that it is through their work that the city has become known as it is, yes?"

"That is correct," Amrita confirmed with a nod as the group got closer to the walls gate and could see a couple Halflings standing before it, seemingly waiting on them, but looking unworried and in o hurry to dash toward them with swords drawn.

A welcome change.

"And, what may I ask is the difference between Halflings and Gnomes in these lands?" Ainz asked simply, having not seen a gnome as of yet.

"Halflings look like human children and can breed with any race, the child being the same race as the same sex parent so long as it is not a monster," Amrita answered simply. "They also have lifespans longer than most races, easily as long as most elves."

"And Gnomes?"

"Gnomes are more like spirits that gather near industry and joy," Flora answered this time. "In the past they only hung around elven and Halfling settlements and they are most seen there. They are even smaller than Halflings, only about two feet tall."

"Ah, so they are more similar to local spirits of the land or home then?"

"Yes," Flora said with a nod. "They like natural places, but also places of happiness and joy, which is why they are often found in Halfling settlements"

"Hmm I suppose we shall see many within Rad," Ainz mused as they reached the gate.

"Ho there," one of the Halflings stepped forward and Ainz felt himself almost gag. She looked as if a child yet was wearing what were barely shorts and a tube top over her flat chest alongside a helmet and metal plates hanging off a tight belt. "You would be Sir Ainz Ooal Gown and his traveling companions, right?"

"They are my allies, yes.

"Good, I am Hina, Guard captain of Rad under Princess Knight Luu-luu. It shall be my privilege to escort you into Rad if you will allow it?"

"If we allow it?" Ainz asked in surprise at the childlike Halfling woman's choice of words.

"Not all people would wish to be directly escorted into the city," Hina said with a shrug of her shoulders. "If that is the case, then I would simply direct you to an inn, and the palace."

"You would not fear for what might be done by someone unescorted?" Ainz asked, noting that the other guard by the gate, who wore only slightly more clothing but not by much, did not even flinch at his words.

"We Halflings are rather durable, and all of us know how to protect ourselves. If anyone willingly tried to commit violence against another in Rad it would be swiftly dealt with," Hina said simply as she half turned to the Gate. "Lady Luu-luu would like to speak to you though, so shall we?"

Ainz nodded. "Very well, please lead the way."

"Of Course please follow me," Hina said as she walked through the gate, the group following as the gate guard bid them a friendly wave.

"If I may, how did Lady Luu-luu know of our arrival?" Amrita asked as the group went under the gatehouse and went the city off Rad itself. The first thing around them was a small town square sort of are with a nice looking fountain in the center. The streets were made of smooth stone brick the color of limestone, and all of the buildings they could see had prominent pipes, chimneys and in some cases large gears sticking out of them. There were many people, primarily Halflings with a spattering of a few dwarves and humans around on the streets, but most did not give them even a passing glance as they went about their business.

"We have a number of the towers on the cities wall equipped with long range sight enhancing devices. That, combined with our communication tube array's along the walls means that information about those approaching is transferred rater quickly, Miss Inquisitor."

". . . You know?" amrita asked in mild surprise.

"Your gait is pretty clear if you look hard enough, and I used to have a friend who was an inquisitor."

"Ah," amrita said in a suddenly sullen tone. "Hildir,"

"Yep."

Silence fell over the group, giving Ainz a chance to glance around as they all walked. Unlike Thorn or Ansur where the streets were wide and excessively clean, the road of Rad were not. They were still clean, but not so immaculately spotless that it was uncomfortable, and the streets were narrower, enough so that two wagons could pass each other and little else. Many of the buildings were also very large, not merely two story building, but four and five story building with stairways on the outside to reach the higher floors, likely homes by the simplistic look of many and the potted plants in many windows. Brass pipes travelled between houses at thee rears, visible down the alleyways from the main street. The more squat buildings, many forges or similar craftsman buildings, seemed to have the same pipes going into them, but also had gears and other pieces of machinery obviously visible.

"Hmm, tell me, the pipes between the buildings. They are moving, what precisely?"

"Heat," Hina said as the group walked. "The excess heat from all of the forges, furnaces and other buildings in the city is pumped through them to heat the whole city."

"Why though?" Hara asked as she glanced around. "Wouldn't it be easier for each family to just have a fireplace like normal houses?"

"Well, there wouldn't be enough wood," Hina said simply.

"Huh?"

"Our city has hundreds of forges, craftswomen and the like. Foundries to make steel, forges to turn the steel into items, crafters that use the steep to make items to make other items, such as the tools that alchemist and herbalists use if everyone used the wood for heating, there wouldn't be enough for our industry."

"That makes sense, and the forests nearby are not very large either," Flora mused. "Is the city the reason why?"

"Yep. All the old growth forest near Rad are long gone, the ones nearby are ones that were replanted years ago to help the local animal populations, otherwise the city would starve. Nowadays we use charcoal, or coal from a mine to power all of the forges, and the excess heat is transferred down the pipes into the whole city."

"How do you move hot air though?" Hara asked as the group entered a much larger square area. There were no fountains, but a number of merchants stalls and market stalls marking the square as likely a market area for the city.

"By using great fans I would presume," Ainz said as he noticed Hina look at him in surprise. "You use fans turned by the heat of the forges to make the fans move via the gears in some buildings."

"Y-yes," Hina said in clear shock, so much so that he actually stopped and was staring at Ainz. "How, how do you know that?"

"The lands I hail from have a variety of technologies, one of which is a similar creation called a steam engine. It is of a similar concept."

Hina stared at Ainz for a whole minute more before breaking into a massive smile that, on anyone who did not have a body like a child's, would seem evil. On her though it merely looked like she had an idea. "I see. A steam engine, rather than using the ambient heat, you use water, interesting. No wonder Lady Luu-luu wishes to speak to you."

"I guarantee you that that is not why she is wishing to speak to me," Ainz said as he looked up the road. The city just seemed to go up right against the mountain. "The castle of this city. It is built inside of the mountain, is it not?"

"Yes, don't worry, we'll be there soon," Hina said as she turned and began walking once more, heading down the city's main road, right toward the mountain that rose out the back of the city like an ominous tower.

As they walked Ainz let his mind wander. He hoped that Luu-luu would have the information that Celestine said she might, but he did not have his hopes set that high. Honestly he expected some form of problem to get in the way, or for him to have to do something to get the information.

Like a bloody fetch quest chain IRL.

It only took a few more minute for the group to arrive at the castle. There was no grand staircase, there was no huge entryway or gate, it was simply a reasonable double doored entrance into the mountain itself, and upon entering it was little different. The hall of the castle was not excessively large; barely seven meters tall to the ceiling, while the smooth stone floors were covered in simple dark green carpets. The walls had tapestries hanging from them to likely limit the amount of echo within the hall, and the room was illuminated by a number of glowing crystals that were set into the walls at regular intervals.

And standing in the middle of the hall in front of them, was none other than Princess Knight Luu-luu herself in all of her exhibitionist glory.

"I figured you would be waiting in a throne room or the like," Ainz said simply as he stepped toward Luu-luu.

"I would need a throne for that," Luu-luu said with a smirk before looking at Hina. "Thanks, head back to your post after a break."

Hina simply nodded and left, leaving the group in the room before the princess knight who merely motioned for them all to follow her as she turned and walked over to a stairway at the back of the hall.

"You seem much less serious than the other Princess Knights," Ainz commented.

"Well, longer lifespans do that," Luu-luu said simply as she walked up the stairs, giving a lovely view of her butt as she did. Something Ainz found absurd and horrifying considering how she looked. Seeing her pathetic failure of an excuse for clothing was just insulting in a way. "We Halflings have a pretty strong work ethic as long as its work we chose though, so there's not much need for overview."

"And the lack of throne room?"

"I'm not ruling over this city, I'm just governing it and helping everyone live their lives," Luu-luu said as she reached the top of the stairs and turned down the hall. "Halflings do not do well with excessive authority, and there no need for it. We follow those who are best suited for a position, and who we respect."

"Is that why this place seems so empty?" Hara asked offhandedly as the group followed Luu-luu down a hall.

"The castle is used for military affairs primarily. There are only a few others who live here like I do," Luu-luu said as she turned and entered a room that, upon immediate view appeared to be a meeting room with a long table n benches, both rather lower than most would be. "Close the door behind you all and we can speak in private."

Flora, who was the last in, closed the door to the room, and as soon as the door was closed it felt very claustrophobic; the ceiling was almost touching Ainz's head and the room just seemed terribly small and stuffy.

Granted that might've been because it seemed designed for Halflings, with its table and bench's much lower to the ground.

"Now then, Sir Gown, you can take the mask off, Celestine already told me," Luu-luu said, before adding more. "I'm the only Princess Knight she told the truth too, and down worry, I don't plan on sharing it, hence why we are here."

"Ah, so we are just giving away secrets now?" Ainz asked as he stepped to the end of the table closest to the door while Luu-luu walked over to the opposite side. "And what exactly do I get from giving away secrets, hmm?"

"Hardly a secret when I have been told already, no?" Luu-luu asked as she leaned on the table with her elbows, making her cape spread a bit and almost reveal too much. "Besides, I just want to see the truth."

"Lady Luu-luu, do you believe you are ready for the truth?" Amrita asked seriously.

"Few are, but they get it regardless," Luu-luu said with a smirk as she reached under the table and pulled out a small stack of parchment. "I just want to see proof that you are what Celestine thinks of you."

"And in return I get, that?" Ainz asked, his tone somewhere between amused and annoyed.

"No, you get it regardless," Luu-luu said with a shrug, "It's just information, even if it is strange."

"Strange?"

In response Luu-luu flicked the paper across the table, it being caught by Ainz's armored finger before he opened it up and began looking over it even as Luu-luu spoke. "It's the report from the people I had looking into you claim. There were Dark elves where you figured they were, but unfortunately my people lost their trail, though it had been going in this direction oddly."

"Interesting," Ainz said as he put down the paper and then lifted a hand to his mask, removing it as he spoke, his jaw barely moving as his tone came forth. "This direction as in Rad, or as in simply Westward?"

"My people claim they were coming towards Rad, but personally I think they must have merely been skirting the dead zone between our territory, and that of the Dark Queen's," Luu-luu said before staring at Ainz for a moment and smirking. "Quiet the visage. Just how sharp were your features before?"

"Nothing of note," Ainz said as he noticed Amrita and Hara paying rapt attention to the conversation now that dark elves had been mentioned. "Your people believe the dark elves in question did as I suspected?"

"And intentionally lit the fields as a silent way to warn of the demons arrival?" Luu-luu asked with a knowing smile before promptly nodding. "They do, yes. It confuses them greatly."

"It would yes," Ain said simply. "Tell me, what is the history of the Dark elves in these lands?"

"Bloody, violent, hidden and unfair," Luu-luu said sourly with a shake of her head. "Even I don't know that much, but what I do know from being told by Celestin is that the church removed most of the wrongdoing toward them from the histories, so that their current actions are more of what people react to. The crimes done to them have been stamped out for most people, but slavery, abuse, and genocide are what Celestine alluded to happening to them. She would never tell me more. I think she was ashamed of what happened to them even if she did not have a direct say in it."

"How convenient," Ainz said simply, making Luu-luu glare at him. "Are there any cave systems known to exist in these lands?"

"You mean mines?"

"No, but that does answer my question," Ainz said with a sigh as he picked p the paper and held it out towards Amrita, who took it and then began reading it over herself. "Is the anything else of note I should be aware of?"

"No but. . . . You sure you should be trusting an inquisitor?" Luu-luu asked as she looked to Hara and Flora. "And . . . . Whatever these two are? Are they demons?"

"No."

"Well?"

"It is their choice to reveal such a thing, not mine."

"Even though you are their boss?"

Ainz let out an almost dark sounding chuckle. "Is that what you consider yourself? Is that what the Princess Knights consider themselves?"

"Of course, we are the protectors and leaders of our cities and-"

"I see. Then that alone explains much," Ainz said as he stood up from his chair and picked up his mask. "If there is nothing else you have to give me, we shall be leaving."

"So soon?" Luu-luu asked, looking almost upset, like how a child would.

"There is nothing in Rad that I came for aside form meeting you for what information you have. We have no reason to stay longer than necessary."

Luu-luu looked conflicted for a moment before sighing. "Alright, I don't have anything I need done anyway I suppose. Not that you could help with at least," Luu-luu said as she bounded out of her seat, making her cape bounce around as well.

Ainz tried, but was unable to hold himself back from groaning, though it came out as a grumble.

"Something wrong?"

"No, just a child wearing fetish gear," Ainz said as he turned toward the door. We shall be staying the night then departing in the morning."

"Alright, I'll send a messenger if something comes up," Ainz did not respond as he left the room, quickly followed by Amrita and Hara with flora trailing behind and leaving Luu-luu alone. After a few moments she let out a breath of annoyance. "Haaa, well, I guess I can't hold it off any longer. Back to hunting down that thief!"

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In the depths of ancient ruins that had long lost their purpose the Flayer Ahriman worked.

These ruins were just one of many that were scattered across the entirety of Eostia, though more of them existed in the northern lands controlled by the dark Queen. Finding the one he had had been a blessing, but also a curse. It allowed him to work at his own pace and not fear interruption, but it also allowed his mind to wander.

What were these ruins? They were ruins of course, or civilization old and forgotten, but why? Had the civilization that created them destroyed itself? Had it been destroyed by others? What was the purpose of building such grand facilities and structures under the earth? Had they perhaps sunk into the earth over time? Were they exiled to such a place by the gods that were said to reside elsewhere? What knowledge and information could hide in such a-

Ahriman shook his head, tentacle waving angrily around as he moved the thoughts from his mind.

"It seems freedom comes with its own issues," he mused as he turned away from the desk of stone that he had a number of ancient scrolls and parchments spread across. They were all so worn and aged that they were barely legible, but he had managed to make sense of a few small words.

War, gods, chosen, corruption, evil, freedom. Some words rang true in his mind, while other rang hollow.

"So many questions, yet so few answers," He again mused a walked from the room and into a shot hall. "Regardless, I shall find them," He said as he entered the adjacent main room of the ruin he had claimed as his own.

The dull grey stone of the ruin was cracked and marred, yet in the center of the room stood his current project. A mass of flesh constructing a great vessel, organic glass holding his project within the depths of bubbling pink, black, purple and blue bile and fluids most would sigh away from.

His kind, Flayers, or corrupters as the dark elves called them, were known as evil being who tormented and turned other being into either mindless husks by eating their consciousness's or for corrupting them into horrible slavering monsters. The dark queen did not let them do this often as such beings were horrendously hard to control, but now, with his mind free for the first time in what felt like an aeon, Ahriman had realize that what people, the dark queen, all of Eostia thought of his kind was wrong.

Yes, he could eat a beings mind to enhance his own, but such a thing was an act that could only be done so many times before the amount gained was negligible. No. what others considered corruption was the fallacy, a mere manipulation of the dark queen herself. With their minds held in check by another's power he could not have used his abilities properly, could not have learned of them and truly indulged in the possibilities.

And that possibility was that of evolution. Corruption was considered a destructive force, something that ultimately could not create, only change what was, and even then anything corrupted would eventually fall.

Evolution though, evolution meant something changing, but not reaching a mere end. If something changed, but did not die, or end up lesser than it was, was improved, was that not evolution?

"What will you think? Is this an evolution for you, or mere corruption to your form?" Ahriman asked as he placed a hand against the pulsing flesh of his construct and looked up and within at the woman he had taken as his first subject.

Her frail human form had been repaired; the wounds that had once scarred and marred her body a mere thing of the past. And while he could not say anything just yet of her mind, her body's evolution had gone forward well thus far. Her legs had grown, shifted in shape to be more proper for advancing upon ones foes, while her arms had gained wondrous additions of natural armor that looked anything but out of place. Bulbous fleshy growths were inflating out of her backside around her shoulders and rear as the beginnings of yet more wondrous additions, and the starting of small horns could be seen protruding from her forehead the side of her head where her useless hair was falling out and already being replaced by material much superior.

"No," Ahriman suddenly said as he waked around the fleshy vat of perfection and climbed its backside with practiced ease. "You shall know of your superiority; it is not something that can be left to chance," He spoke as he let his own tendrils squirm into the water, and touch his first masterpieces head. "Your body moves forward perfectly, so let us now, reawaken your mind in preparation for you rebirth, my child."