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Tensei Shitara Slime Datta Ken (LN) - Volume 14 - Chapter 4




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Chapter 4: The Red Purge 

The Armed Nation of Dwargon’s east city was currently weathering a blockade of up to sixty thousand people. But it was all a cover. Beneath the surface, both sides had made it clear that they were allied, the commanders all taking great pains to ensure that no unfortunate accidents took place.

With that in mind, the mood among the lower-ranked soldiers was light. Camping tents had been set up across the area, each filled with idle chatter—but there was still a modicum of tension shared by everyone, even the rank and file. That indicated the surprisingly high level of training every member of the army had received.

It was no wonder that morale was high. After all, their superiors were currently engaged in their final meeting—one where the dream of overthrowing the Empire and building a new nation would come to a head.

Everyone was looking forward to it, and everyone had their eyes on the capital in anticipation. That was why most of them noticed it at the same time.

“It’s red…”

“Is the capital aflame?”

“What happened? Wait—did they find out?!”

On this most critical of days, something was happening over in the imperial capital, and nobody thought it was a coincidence. Everyone knew that something had happened to their leaders.

“Should we send out a recon team?”

“No, we need to organize our troops and march.”

“Don’t be stupid! If we do that, it’ll completely expose us as traitors!”

Having all their superiors away from the force meant there was no one to take command. The Composite Division, already derided as a motley crew in the best of times, quickly lost cohesion. The one who finally brought them back in order was a person who had silently closed his eyes before then. His name was Zero, a man Yuuki named as corps vice commander, and he was the highest-ranked person on the field.

“Silence! I will not allow anyone to act without permission! We will stay here and wait for Sir Yuuki and the others to return. That will remain our policy.”

With Zero’s declaration, those wavering in their opinions fell back in line. Nobody knew what the right answer was, so for now, they decided to follow orders. But not even that could alleviate the anxiety… And those anxieties came true in the worst possible fashion.

“Good evening, you oblivious fools. I know it’s a lovely night tonight, but that doesn’t mean you should all get too excited.”

The woman walked along the street totally carefree, with the ease of a vacationing tourist. It was Velgrynd, her blue hair as beautiful as always.

“Wha…? Who are you?”

The soldiers on the far edges of the street shouted at her. If she was calling out to uniformed soldiers, she couldn’t have been an innocent civilian—and even before that, anyone who didn’t recognize Velgrynd’s utterly unusual presence could never survive in the Composite Division.

So they began confirming her identity, sending messages out to their superiors, as they moved to surround her. One soldier, a man with decent confidence in his fighting skill, stepped forward.

“Whoa there, lady. I don’t know who you are, but I wouldn’t be picking a fight with this many people if I were you. We may not look all fancy, but we’re in the Composite Division, the strongest army of the Empire—”

“It really is funny, isn’t it, the weak calling themselves the strongest? I was willing to let it slide if it kept morale high, but perhaps we should’ve stopped allowing it at the division level.”

“What?!”

Velgrynd’s words were those of someone at the highest reaches of society—someone giving orders from far above anyone else in the military hierarchy. It was more than enough for even the raw recruits to know they were dealing with someone dangerous. Zero, as vice commander, was no exception. When he heard this intruder was alone, he shipped himself over to see who it was—and once he heard the subsequent reports, he upped his pace toward the scene. Now Velgrynd was before him.

“M-Marshal…”

He had never seen the Marshal’s face, but the presence she exuded was undoubtedly that of the overwhelming figure seated on the other side of the curtain.

“Ah, so there are some more intelligent ones among you as well? Good. I was told not to kill all of you, but just to have some fun until Kondo and the others arrive.”

With that signal, the tragedy began.

Gazel was having a depressing day. The war was still dragging along, which was a headache by itself. But more than that, Jaine’s report made him feel like his stomach was going to rupture.

Making true demon lords out of those serving him… What could possibly have gotten into Rimuru?!

He heaved a heavy sigh.

Calling them true demon lords was something of a misnomer. Demon lord was a title, not a species, and it literally meant a lord who ruled over monsters within a set territory. True demon lord, however, described the status of a monster, one awakened and evolved into that state. The threat they posed would be on the upper end of Disaster class, but it wouldn’t rate a Calamity.

…Not that there are enough Disaster-class threats to merit dividing them into “upper” or “lower” classes…, thought Gazel.

The Disaster class was essentially reserved for demon lords, so right now it consisted of only eight known examples. Now, however, Rimuru had people working for him who were at least as powerful as those high-end menaces. Just thinking about it gave the Heroic King a headache.

For now, Gazel sent a griping missive to Elmesia about it. He couldn’t stand to be the only one suffering, so he decided to have her share in the distress a bit. That—and his government decided to continue observing Rimuru and his band until further problems arose. It was just kicking the ball down the road, he knew, but there was nothing else they could do. If “further problems” ever came up, it’d be the beginning of a war for the survival of humanity.

“And I truly don’t want that.” Gazel sighed.

But the bad news wouldn’t stop coming.

“Urgent news, Your Majesty! The Composite Division is on the move! They’re engaged in battle with an unknown enemy.”

The voice was calm, but Gazel sensed a panic atypical of his dark agents. Before more details came in, he immediately sent out word to assemble Dolph and the rest of his advisers. A few minutes later:

“No doubt about it. That enemy’s nothing regular people can handle. It’s a monster, an unimaginable monster who could even take down demon lords.”

“A True Dragon?”

“Yeah. I’ve never seen one before. She took the form of a person, but there’s no doubting her identity as Velgrynd.”

Gazel was on a magical call to Vaughn, admiral paladin and supreme commander of Dwargon’s military, who was currently stationed by the east city. He had him send visuals so everyone could grasp the situation.

The worst-case scenario always happens when you least expect it—a fact Gazel was all too aware of now. The sky was burning. There was a woman, a cold beauty, and crowds of powerful soldiers fallen around her. The flames were mesmerizing but also vigorous enough to awe everyone who saw them.

But the true horror only came after that. Velgrynd, visible through the surveillance crystal ball, looked over at Gazel and his team. He thought it was a coincidence at first, but the moment he did, the crystal ball shattered.

“She was watching us, too…?”

“I—I can’t believe it. How is that possible…?”

“You’re kidding! How far away do you think we are from there?”

“It’s the truth. She must have sensed the magic and traced it back to the caster, but it’s incredible to see her impacting the magic’s destination as well. It’d be impossible for me or any other humanoid.”

Gazel listened to his advisers in silence. Based on this, they were clearly dealing with an enemy. But who? He couldn’t possibly hear her, but it was like she was whispering No, don’t you peep on me into his ear.

A True Dragon? More like true monster.

Now Gazel knew what the word strongest really meant.

He was familiar with the rumors of a connection between the Empire and Velgrynd. They had no way to confirm them, but he had played through a lot of scenarios in his mind so that they’d be able to withstand attack. Now, however, Gazel realized it was all just an illusion.

It was unclear why the Empire had sent Velgrynd on the move at this point. Gazel thought and thought, but he couldn’t understand what Emperor Ludora was thinking. There was only one thing he could do.

“I’m going into battle as well.”

“Your Majesty,” bellowed Dolph, “it’s too unsafe!”

“But there is no other choice,” replied Jaine. “Abandoning Vaughn right now will do nothing to save Dwargon. You will need to prepare yourself, too, Dolph.”

There was little Dolph could say in return. He had no intention of just letting Vaughn die, and as he now realized, admonishing Gazel would do nothing to change the situation.

“I will make preparations to leave as soon as possible,” said Dolph.

“Very good.”

Gazel gravely nodded and closed his eyes. They had a lot of work to do. All their allied nations would need to be informed, and they’d have to give instructions on what to do with the remaining citizens in the area. If Gazel and his men were victorious, then great—but if they were defeated, what then? There was nowhere else for people to run to, no way of survival except to become imperial vassals. It meant the fall of the nation of Dwargon, and if Gazel wanted to avoid that, he couldn’t afford to lose.

“The east city will not have enough room for our entire army, I imagine. I’ll let the old guard handle command while the rest of the army marches on the ground. See to that for me, Jaine.”

“Very well. But what do you intend to do, King Gazel?”

“I’m going on ahead. If you’re late to this, don’t expect a place at the table.”

Gazel revealed a bold smile, playing the role of a strong king to ease everyone’s anxiety. The army was to be mobilized as quickly as possible, but Gazel’s group wouldn’t wait for them. Dolph and his Pegasus Knights would be the king’s only companions.

As Gazel flew across the sky, a thought occurred to him.

Is this why Rimuru gave his underlings all that power? So they could survive this? If so, I have to say he’s as naive as ever.

He laughed at this revelation, thinking about the ex-training partner that couldn’t throw away his ideals. His smile was nothing he could hold back.

“Is something wrong, my lord?”

“No, just a passing fantasy.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Heh-heh! Now, of all times, I started thinking about Rimuru. It made me wonder if things could work out this time, too.”

Gazel laughed. He thought he was being overly optimistic, but it beat the opposite end of the spectrum.

“Indeed.” Dolph smiled back. “It was the case with Charybdis as well. Lord Rimuru can simply boggle the mind at times. I was amazed at the connection he had with the demon lord Milim.”

“Well, if you’re going to bring that up, you should also mention the hardships I’ve faced monitoring him. People assuming that everything I report back to them is a lie is growing tiresome.”

Henrietta usually kept her mouth shut, but even she had some sass in her at times. Gazel and Dolph couldn’t hide their surprise.

“Hee-hee-hee! Sorry. I’ll try to avoid assuming that next time.”

“Even you have some complaints about your job, eh, Henrietta?”

“Of course I do!”

“Wah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! In that case, Henrietta, tell Rimuru that next time you see him. Why, he’s a pain to me as well! I trust you two firmly, but Rimuru’s behavior is simply too asinine to believe. When I heard the report from Jaine, I began to question her sanity.”

“Ha-ha… It was one fearsome report, yes.”

“Normally, I’m the one giving those reports, so it was nice seeing it unfold as a spectator this time.”

The venom Henrietta was spitting made both Gazel and Dolph laugh, their voices echoing through the sky.

“I will mention that I’ve sent a report of our activities to Lord Rimuru…along with some measured complaining.”

“Did you?”

Gazel nodded and turned his head forward. The anxiety was gone now, replaced with his usual heroic flair as he flew toward the battleground.

Going back in time a little bit…

It was the day after Elmesia’s and my little drinking party, and the sun was already way up in the sky.

“Up early, aren’t you, Sir Rimuru?”

“I’m sorry.”

Shuna’s so scary when she’s smiling. I decided to beat her to the punch with an apology. First I get drunk, then I enjoy a little nap—I worked hard to regain those luxuries, so I don’t see why I have to be yelled at about it.

“So did you come to a conclusion?” she asked, staring at me as she sighed.

“Um, about what?”

“You were troubled about it last night as well, weren’t you? I am worried you’re about to do something rash again, and I’m far from the only one.”

When she said that, I couldn’t help but feel a little jittery. Don’t worry. I’m not doing anything rash here. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll run, and then I’ll bitch at Guy and make him do something about it. First, though, I had to try a little.

“Hey, we’ll figure it out, okay? I’ll be safe with it like I always am.”

My cheerful reply didn’t remove Shuna’s anxious expression. It’s hard to fool her, what with her unique skill Parser and all—or maybe it was too obvious to even require that.

I mean, you know, I didn’t really want to do anything dangerous. I was taking a “safety first” approach, but we had no idea about our enemy’s strength. Lieutenant Kondo, Velgrynd, and Emperor Ludora were fearsome opponents, no matter how you sliced it. Winning may not be a possibility—and for all I know, I might even be killed on the spot. I was trying to think of ways to avoid that outcome, but not even Raphael had an answer this time.

If we don’t know, though, we’ll just go for it. My only choice was to throw in the maximum amount of warpower I had and reduce the danger as much as possible. And so…

“You know, I deliberated a lot over who I’d take with me. This time around, I’m going with my A team only. I’m sorry to say this, but if you don’t have enough strength to pitch in, I think you’re just gonna slow us down.”

“…All right. My brother’s been bragging all morning about how he’s going with you.”

I suppose my thoughts were obvious from the start. I had been engaged with Elmesia since the previous morning, so I didn’t tell everyone about my conversation with Guy yet—but Shuna’s smile seemed to indicate that she understood it all. I smiled back, realizing how there was never any tricking her. Then she gave me her report in her usual, natural voice.

“That fishy little sneak Laplace slinked in here last night. He said he had a message for you, but he gave us no advance warning, so we’ve been keeping him waiting for the time being.”

Rather abrupt change of subject there. But it didn’t seem like anything too important to me. If it was a real emergency, Gadora or someone would’ve contacted me. Probably a message from Yuuki, but what could it be?

“I guess I’ll see him, although I’m not crazy about the idea.”

“I’d much prefer to shoo him away, but he is an ally, more or less. I’ll show him to a reception room.”

Shuna wasn’t a fan of Laplace, either, it looked like. That was rare for her; she wasn’t one to be so frank about her likes and dislikes, but clearly those clowns irked her. I guessed she couldn’t ever truly forgive Laplace and his crew for destroying their ogre homeland. He and I were allies, but I’d need to keep that in mind.

“While I’m talking to Laplace,” I ordered Shuna, “I’d like you to summon all the cabinet staff who’re awake to our meeting hall.” I had a lot of things to think about, but I could worry about them all after our war with the Empire was over. Banishing all doubt from my mind, I decided to take care of the immediate problem first.

Twenty people, including myself, were gathered in the meeting hall. There was Rigurd and the four elders beneath him—Rugurd, Regurd, Rogurd, and Lilina. I also had Kaijin, Vester, and Mjöllmile in here. Representing the Twelve Lordly Guardians were Benimaru, Shion, Diablo, Gabil, Testarossa, Ultima, and Carrera. Soei, Hakuro, Gobta, and (for good measure) Gadora rounded out the pack.

I planned to ask Gadora to guide me around the Empire. Even I had to admit it wasn’t gonna be an easy job, but honestly, he’d be the least affected out of us all if something went wrong, so I wanted him to play his part. Speaking of which, Bernie volunteered to guide us as well, but I rejected the offer. He had lost all his powers, and he’d be nothing but a liability to us. Gadora alone would do.

Anyway.

Feels like I was just having meetings all the time, but no point complaining about that now. Our country had grown too big for me to call all the shots myself. Of course, as I say that, this meeting’s mainly about me dictating to everyone what I’ve decided to do, but still.

As usual, Shuna served tea to everyone. Once she quietly left the room, I began speaking.

“I’ve called all of you in today to inform you about my decisions for the final battle against the Empire. Before that, though… Come on in.”

I already decided who I’d be taking with me, so there was no point hurrying this. Instead, I decided to introduce Laplace, our messenger, to everyone.

As expected, Laplace had news concerning our plans to fight together. The army blockading Dwargon’s east city would be attacking the imperial capital soon, and they wanted us to join them, basically. Guy had already told me about that, and I had no objections—but the conclusion I came to was that this would be a war between the elites on both sides, not a war of armies. I didn’t want to see any civilian casualties, so in the end, I decided I had to discuss the details with Yuuki first. That’s why I chose to bring the clown into this meeting on short notice.

I had already spoken with Yuuki via Laplace. The date had been set for the following afternoon. This I explained to everyone in the room—I really wish Laplace could’ve done that for me, but people had a lot of trust problems with him, so I rejected the idea. Trust, I was reminded all over again, really is important.

“Hello, hello! My name’s Laplace, and I’m the vice president of a group of, ah, helpful ladies ’n’ gents we like to call the Moderate Jesters. I’m here today ’cause Yuuki sent me, y’see.”

Oh, man. Is it impossible for him not to act suspicious? And why did he choose this moment to dance a little jig to himself? But he was still here as a messenger, so I couldn’t just boot him out.

I wasn’t the only one annoyed by this, either. Soei looked like he was about to kill him. I know how he feels, but he’ll have to be patient.

“Soei, put that kunai blade away, please.”

“…Yes, sir.”

Gotta be careful with him, too, I see. He meekly sat back down for me, but I couldn’t let my guard down yet. Let’s just get this intro over with.

“Yeah, so Mr. Laplace here is our point of contact for Yuuki at the moment.”

“Just Laplace is fine, y’know.”

“Oh, is it? Then, great. Anyway, we’ve set up a meeting with Yuuki for tomorrow. It’s a bit of a rush, I know, but Laplace is apparently gonna transport me over there, so we don’t have to worry about travel time. The main question at hand is: Who’s going with me?”

Finally, I got down to business.

“Mm-hmm. So I can only carry up to six people in all. Assumin’ that you and I are must-haves, d’you mind tellin’ me the other four you’ll bring, Lord Rimuru?”

I wanted to deploy as much force as I possibly could, but even in the best case, I wouldn’t have all my top people on hand. Ranga was still asleep in my shadow, and Geld had yet to wake up as well. The labyrinth gang—Kumara, Zegion, and Adalmann—had reportedly all holed up in their respective domains, showing no sign of stirring. The length of everyone’s evolutionary slumber seemed to vary a lot; I guess that’s just how the cookie crumbles. So I looked over who was available one more time.

“Benimaru, I’d like you to come with me, but how’re you feeling?”

“What, does he have a cold or somethin’?” Laplace asked, a wary look in his eyes. I’m sure he’ll find out soon enough anyway, but I wasn’t feeling nice enough to explain it all for him.

“I’m feeling fine. Best shape of my life, actually.”

Benimaru flashed a heroic smile, retaining his coolness and completely ignoring Laplace. He’s much more capable than I’ll ever be, a fact that occasionally amazes me at times like this.

I gave him a closer look as I internally praised him—only to find that he had changed species while I wasn’t paying attention. He must’ve worked things out with Momiji and Alvis, so to speak, and now the evolution was complete. In fact, according to what I heard later, Benimaru had spent two nights with each of his new wives in turn. I don’t know if I should congratulate him on weathering that…or just sit here, seething in all my jealousy.

Now he had abandoned his physical body, only to reincarnate and become a fully spiritual life-form. The name of his species was Flamesoul Ogre, a type of elemental soul. Like True Dragons, he retained both the holy and evil attributes, making him something like a chaos elemental, a stripped-down version of a True Dragon.

Both True Dragons and chaos elementals could take the form of various attributes, with “flame” being an upgraded version of “fire.”

The natural family of elements consists of earth, water, fire, wind, and space—the five major attributes, as they’re called. The rule of thumb is that fire beats earth, water beats fire, wind beats water, space beats wind, and earth beats space. Picture it as fire scorching earth, water extinguishing fire, wind scattering water, space blockading wind, and earth occupying space, and there you have the conflicts in a nutshell.

In addition to these five major attributes, you also have the two opposing attributes of light and darkness—as well as “time,” which exists over all the other ones and cannot be restrained by any of them.

Elemental spirits like Ifrit are bound by these physical laws… Or to put it another way, they’re the embodiments of the laws governing the world, and apparently there are eight types of these embodiments. The light and dark attributes are somewhat special, with light being derived from angels—and darkness from demons. The angels and demons I know of so far could be called elemental spirits, technically, if you trace their roots. Someone like Diablo could tell me more if I asked, but I’m not that interested, and it’s not like I could do much with the knowledge anyway.

The key takeaway here is that there are eight kinds of elemental souls, each higher up than elemental spirits. The highest ranked among them are the True Dragons, and currently, only four are known to exist. Veldanava, the Star-King Dragon, is probably associated with the space and earth elements, judging by the name, and maybe more as well. Velzard the Ice Dragon is likely water-based; Velgrynd the Flame Dragon is almost certainly fire-based; and our own Veldora rules over not just water and wind, but space as well—a pretty big deal, despite how he acts.

So the True Dragons stand at the pinnacle of all elemental souls, and it’s safe to say that Benimaru had evolved into a similar existence. Flamesoul Ogres are spiritual life-forms, but they also have physical bodies that let them properly interact with the material world. With their infinite life span, calling people like him god-ogres wouldn’t be pushing it at all.

It’s a very special evolution that Benimaru pulled off, and I was impressed. His magicule count received a major boost as well—it was now several times what Carillon boasted, I think. It probably wouldn’t max out quite at Luminus’s level, but I still thought Benimaru was decent competition. At this rate, I was reasonably sure he could fight the Single Digits at an even keel—or maybe better.

“All right! In that case, Benimaru, you’re my first choice. As for person number two…”

Gadora was already on the list, so I had two picks left. I was planning to take Shion and Diablo as well, which brought me very neatly up to four.

“…I’m going to have Gadora serve as our guide, and after that, I’ll bring my secretaries Shion and Diablo.”

So Laplace would be taking me, Gadora, Benimaru, Shion, and Diablo.

“You can count on me, Sir Rimuru! You will be completely safe and sound around me!”

Shion was beaming. I’m not so sure about the “safe and sound” part. I had a lot of concerns, in fact, but Shion’s a bodyguard I knew I could rely on. She defeated a superior opponent in Razul, and when it came to battle, I couldn’t leave her off the list.

“Keh-heh-heh-heh-heh… I don’t know what kind of scheme Guy may be hatching, but putting you through all this hardship is simply outrageous. With you by my side, I assure you that I will put an end to all your worries!”

Confident as always. But I saw no reason not to hold him up to that. Diablo’s good at his job, and it’s times like these that I want to rely on him.

We might be an elite team on this mission, but we couldn’t rest on our laurels. The others here would be following soon; I’d have them join us in the Empire later on. But before I could outline all that, one attendee was already expressing her dissatisfaction.

“If you could, Sir Rimuru, I humbly suggest that I would be better suited to serve as a guide. I hope you’ll consider having me accompany you.”

It was Testarossa. She was born in the Empire, I suppose, and she probably knew a lot about its geography. She was proving to be a talented diplomatic officer, gifted in negotiation, and there was certainly no complaining about her fighting strength—hell, she might even have been stronger than me. The only real advantage Gadora had over her is his acquaintance with Yuuki, so if you think about it, I could probably get along without him. Gadora’s pretty strong (especially for his age), but he couldn’t hold a candle to Testarossa—and I still had a slight nagging fear that he wouldn’t think twice about double-crossing us.

With that in mind, I didn’t want to have any regrets no matter what I decided on, but at the same time, I did feel a little bad for her. Maybe I should take the hint.

“All right. In that case, maybe I should replace Gadora with you, then?”

“It would truly be an honor.”

Testarossa gave me a beautiful, almost blinding smile. Gadora didn’t seem to mind either way, fortunately, so let’s go with that.

“Righto,” interjected Laplace. “Looks like you’ve made up your mind, so I’m gonna go prep. Lemme know when you’re all set.”

“Sure, but what are you prepping for?”

Laplace gave me an awkward look.

“Well, um, you know…”

“He’s prepping for a trip to our hot spring. He’s been going between there and our dining hall since yesterday, using our recreational facilities like they belong to him.”

Soei sounded pretty pissed about it. Good thing I was having Laplace surveilled.

“Ha-ha-ha! You got me, I guess. Don’t be such a stick in the mud, Soei!”

As if we’d never notice. He really does have a lot of guts, doesn’t he?

“You were paying the bills for that, right?”

“Hey, I’m a guest here, ya know? I’ll pay you back with the work I’ll be doing for y’all, so how ’bout we treat it as on the house for now?”

“Guts” ain’t the half of it.

“Laplace…”

“Hey, hey, hey, it’s not my fault this country’s such a charmer from start to finish! It’s the most advanced in the world, no two ways about it! Paradise, even. Who wouldn’t wanna kick back and relax while they’re here?!”

Now he was laying it on thick about how great Tempest was. Receiving such effusive praise wasn’t exactly off-putting, no. I figured maybe Laplace wasn’t so bad, after all.

“He’s distracting you, Sir Rimuru!”

“Don’t worry, Benimaru. He might try to put one over on Sir Rimuru, but I’m keeping a careful watch over him at all times.”

Oops.

Benimaru and Shion snapped me out of it. I cleared my throat.

“Well, keep it in moderation, all right?”

“Oh, of course, of course! So yeah, I’ll see you guys in a bit, okay?”

Then Laplace gleefully skipped out of the meeting hall. What a free spirit, I thought as we moved on to the next topic.

“If it’ll be only five of you in enemy territory, don’t you think that’s a little too dangerous?”

“I firmly agree. If anything happens to Sir Rimuru, we would never recover, no matter how many battles we win.”

“Indeed. I certainly understand that a vast army isn’t what we need in this final clash, but if things go awry, someone needs to serve as a shield for Sir Rimuru.”

Soei, Gabil, and Hakuro, in that order, all expressed their opposition to my plans. They discreetly kept quiet about it while Laplace was around, but now they made their grievances clear with me.

“Master Hakuro’s right, y’know. And if push comes to shove, I’m prepared to take the heat for Sir Rimuru, too. I’d kinda be a meat shield, y’know?”

“Gobta.”

“Ah!”

A meat shield? I couldn’t help but imagine that in action. I really wish I didn’t.

“Hakuro, stop teaching stuff like that to Gobta.”

“Of course. I just thought, though, it is quite important to teach him how to prepare for such eventualities.”

I understood what Hakuro was getting at. It was just that my heart didn’t agree with it.

“I mean, I’m glad all of you are concerned for me, but you’re all really important to me, too. I don’t want to kick this off with a strategy that assumes we’ll have to take casualties. If we want to avoid that, I think we should pool all our resources together for this effort.”

“Quite true. Perhaps we are a little ahead of ourselves.”

I’m not sure I was convincing too many people. Even Benimaru and the rest seem to be on Hakuro’s side. If I were them, maybe I’d feel the same way. Still, though… I appreciate the thought, but I still don’t want anyone to die here. Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I want to put my own feelings first.

“Anyway, I’m not gonna run a strategy that demands any loss of life. Let’s stick with that assumption as we discuss the final stages of our war against the Empire.”

Everyone nodded at my words. They seemed ready to participate in this discussion, regardless of their personal feelings.

“If I could begin, Sir Rimuru…”

“Yes, Soei?”

“I have a Replication of mine undercover within the Empire. There’s been a number of obstacles preventing me from reaching the capital just yet. But it does seem that their security network is looser than usual. I was thinking of using Shadow Motion to meet with you once Laplace organizes the transport. Would that be all right?”

I see. That’s reassuring, actually. Soei always serves me well as my shadow, and that really hits home with situations like this. He’s a great fighter, too, and taking a closer look at him, he went and evolved on me as well.

No longer an oni, he was now a species known as Darksoul Ogre; apparently it was a blessing he received in conjunction with Benimaru’s evolution. He was raised as Benimaru’s shadow back in their ogre homelands, the yin to his yang, and while there was a definite hierarchy to their relationship, they were still fast friends. A natural counterpart to Benimaru, in other words, and that was why Benimaru’s awakening affected him so much. The system behind this evolution must’ve seen Soei as his subordinate, but that wasn’t a problem—they still treated each other the same.

Darksoul Ogres are chaos elementals bearing the darkness attribute. Just like Benimaru, Soei was now a spiritual life-form with a physical body. Kind of a servant deity for Benimaru, then? His magicule count was medium-size, not colossally high; it was nothing compared to Benimaru’s but still higher than Clayman’s in his half-awakened state. That’s enough strength for me, and I was sure he could be a good match for ex–demon lords like Carillon or Frey.

Maybe that boost in strength was what allowed him to skirt the Empire’s security so far? Well, either way, fine by me. I was just glad to have Soei along—but that also brought Masayuki’s protection into question.

“That’s a very reassuring offer, Soei. But what about Masayuki?”

“I will have a Replication of mine continue monitoring him. If something happens, I think I can handle it well enough.”

He sounded confident.

“In that case,” added Diablo, “perhaps I could install Venom as a companion for Masayuki? If we keep it a secret from the boy, I think Venom could play the role of a monitor and bodyguard at the same time. That would lighten Soei’s load, and it’d also provide some extra insurance.”

Ooh, good idea. Venom had a very sensible, un-demonlike personality, and he’d been getting along strength-wise, too. I felt like he and Masayuki would get along well—maybe they could even become good friends. It sounded like a real neat idea.

“That means your second-in-command would be unavailable, keep in mind.”

“Keh-heh-heh-heh-heh… That will not be a problem. With Testarossa and the others around, my own work will not be affected at all.”

Sounds great, then.

“Are you good with that, Soei?”

“It would be more certain, perhaps, to provide a visible bodyguard rather than monitor him from the shadows. I would be able to save the energy that Replication consumes as well.”

Excellent. Let’s do it.

“All right, let’s go in that direction, then.”

“Yes, my lord!”

“I’ll get on it right away.”

So Venom would be Masayuki’s escort, and Soei would instead join us on-site. The only thing left to decide is whether to deploy our army—and how.

“Now, as we fight alongside Dwargon, do you think we’d need a show of force for the Empire?”

Our First and Third Army Corps returned home with us once they finished retrieving all the bodies. Their full manpower was stationed here in Rimuru, our capital city. The Second Army Corps, meanwhile, couldn’t be deployed because Geld, their leader, was still taking his evolution nap. Which meant…

“Sir Rimuru, is this where we may come in?”

“Whoa, wait a sec! We’re shipping out first!”

Gabil I expected, but it was rare to see Gobta so enthusiastic about stuff like this. But unlike last time, I felt like relying on strength in numbers was too risky. If we were fighting a massive army, I wouldn’t attempt a large assault that’d get too many of my allies involved, but this time, we were a bit like a SWAT team. They might decide to carpet-bomb us with nuclear magic or expose us to even more drastic measures. Armies waging magic battle tend to rely on the power of their legion magic, with teams of elites slinging attacks before that magic’s broken—but if the opponent’s above a certain level of strength, the soldiers at the end of the line are just dead weight.

“What do you think, Hakuro?”

“Hoh-hoh-hoh! I know exactly what you’re thinking, Sir Rimuru, and I see it as the right thing to think.”

“Okay. No novices, then. And we shouldn’t take any low-ranking soldiers in either?”

“I believe that’s best for minimizing casualties, yes.”

“And so…”

“So it’ll just be the Goblin Riders from my corps?”

“And Team Hiryu from mine will be readied for combat!”

Sounds like it. The Goblin Riders ranked an A for their overall teamwork. They served as excellent decoys in the war so far, and I didn’t think anyone could beat them that easily. When it came to fleeing, they were all but unbeatable, so I didn’t see any issues there. Also, following Gabil’s awakening, every member of Team Hiryu was now past A in rank. I’m a little concerned about the control they had over their powers, but—ah, they oughtta be okay.

“All right. Gobta and Gabil, I want you to start prepping along those lines… Oh, wait a second.”

I was about to set it in stone when I remembered something else important.

“Gobta, can you guys call upon your starwolf partners right now?”

“Huh?”

“Like, Ranga hasn’t finished the awakening process yet, so all the other wolves under him are still sleeping, too, right?”

“Ohhh!”

Guess that’s a no, then.

“Right. You’ll stay here on standby, then.”

“B-but…”

“Don’t tell me you aren’t aware of your limitations, Gobta.”

“…Sorry.”

Gobta was visibly mopey about this, but I couldn’t do much about it, sadly. The Goblin Riders’ main advantages stemmed from the high mobility of their starwolf mounts. Each Rider may have ranked an A-plus no problem, but I still couldn’t afford to take them along on this.

“Hey, it’s not your fault. Hook up with Rigur and focus on security within our own borders, all right?”

“Yes, sir!”

So with some regrets, Gobta’s army had to stay here. Which meant our only other deployable troops were…

“How’s Team Kurenai doing, Benimaru?”

“No problems there. Every one of them’s achieved a rank of A.”

Perfect. They had an excellent commander in Gobwa, and some of them had even evolved into ogre mages during the blessing process. They ought to be reliable enough if we send them out.

“Soei, how about Team Kurayami?”

“They are deployed across the land, gathering intelligence and gauging the enemy. I can call them back if necessary…”

“No, keep them working behind the scenes.”

“Very well.”

No need to demand them back here. The importance of their intelligence ops went without question, so let’s have them keep that up.

“That just leaves Team Reborn…”

“I’d love to deploy them, Sir Rimuru! They’re ready and willing to play a more active role at any moment!”

“Hmm, yeah…”

Shion’s awakening brought about no special changes in her, but Team Reborn’s fighting power had grown a lot, with some members achieving an A rank. They were hard to kill, which was a big advantage, so I figured they’d be okay in this battle—but Team Reborn was at its most effective only when Shion was with them. If nobody was around to command them, they’d be rudderless. It’d be less risky, I thought, to keep them back home like Gobta’s force.

“…Nah, I think we’ll leave them.”

“Oh no!”

“Team Reborn’s more of a bodyguard force than an army, you know? I’d feel safer if you’re with me instead, Shion.”

“Ah, I see!”

Shion readily accepted that.

So now we had our deployment fully worked out. Team Hiryu had a hundred members—Team Kurenai, three hundred. That was four hundred people ranked A or higher in all, making for an excellent little fighting division. They may not have been the largest, but no one would ever doubt their battle skill.

Still, this wasn’t quite enough to reassure me.

“Now, Ultima and Carrera, I have a job for you two.”

“Oh, absolutely! Anything you like!”

“What is it, my lord?”

“Ultima, I want you to continue accompanying Gabil’s force as an intelligence officer. Carrera, I’ll be assigning you support duty for Gobwa this time, not Geld.”

“Oh… The lizards again?”

“Understood. I’ll try to be as discreet as possible in my post.”

Their replies weren’t exactly filling me with confidence. Ultima seemed to have a beef or two with Gabil, and frankly, I didn’t believe Carrera could keep a low profile doing much of anything.

“Heavens, Ultima! Do you have some issues with my force, perhaps?”

“Yes! Lots of them! Like, the way you guys act creeps me out. It’s kind of hard to figure out what makes you tick, from a commonsense perspective.”

“Ha-ha-ha! No need to worry about that! When it comes to battle, we always take things fully seriously!”

“And you call experimenting with the hostile fire of enemies in the middle of war being serious?”

“Don’t be silly! It’s wise to try every possible tactic in order to gain an advantage in battle. Experimentation is part of that, and it’s something all of us should take seriously, I think!”

“No, it’s something you should finish up before battle begins! Why do I even have to lecture you about this?!”

I suppose having a beef or two with him is understandable. From what I was hearing, Ultima seemed to be in the right, too.

“I’m sorry, but do you think you could put up with it this time, at least?”

“If those are your orders, Sir Rimuru, I’ll do my best with them! I was thinking that I’d need to teach them a lot of things anyway, so I’ll try to see this as a good opportunity and stuff.”

Even with that resentful glare, Ultima was as cute as always as she evaluated Gabil. They may not get along well, but I felt like I could leave Gabil in her care.

“And, Carrera, well, you don’t have to worry about keeping a low profile too much.”

“Oh?”

She was bound to start bashing heads in battle anyway, so trying to be “discreet” here seemed pretty absurd to me. Instead, I just wanted Carrera to think a little more about the right time and place for that kinda thing.

“The number one rule I want you to remember is to keep your allies safe from damage. Beyond that, just keep quiet until the fighting starts, all right?”

“Sure! That sounds simple enough!”

Is it?

I wouldn’t make any more demands, I promised her, as long as she absolutely abided by that one. Hopefully this would help everything work out, but…

“Hakuro, could you accompany Gobwa as well?”

“Certainly.”

“Try to rein in Carrera for me, okay?”

Hakuro nodded, sniggering a bit.

We had our deployment all sorted out—or so I thought, before Gadora raised his hand.

“Sir Rimuru, if I may be so bold, I’d like to discuss something else with you.”

“What’s that?”

“I think it might be a good idea to include the Demon Colossus in this war.”

Aha.

Getting it out of the labyrinth is a bit of a problem, but even if it breaks, it won’t lead to any human casualties. With Gadora taking control of it, I was sure he could get out safely if need be. He had both a Resurrection Bracelet and an emergency-return spell in his arsenal, after all. No matter what kind of raging battlefield we threw him into, we wouldn’t need to worry about him, which was a big advantage. But did we really want to reveal the Colossus’s combat capabilities to the world?

“Vester, what do you think?”

I asked Vester for his opinion. He replied with a defiant grin as he pushed his glasses up his nose.

“It might be the perfect occasion for the big unveiling, actually. I’ve already given a detailed report on it to King Gazel, and he’s been eager to see it in action for a while. I’d like to collect data from it in all kinds of conditions, so it’d be interesting for me to see how it performs on an actual battlefield.”

Vester really is a scientist, isn’t he? The value of a weapon is determined by how powerful it is—you gotta fire it off in public sometime, even if it’s just for a show of force. From that standpoint, maybe this battle would be a nice place for a demonstration. That’s what Vester thinks, I presume.

Certainly, the Demon Colossus was best suited for close-up warfare. It wasn’t a weapon of mass destruction that way, but it’d be killer for intimidating opponents, sapping their will to fight. If I was letting the three demonesses out on the battlefield, it’d be morally wrong for me to turn this down.

“But if the enemy seized it from us, wouldn’t that be a serious technology leak?”

“Oh, I promise we won’t make that mistake!”

“Well, if that happens, we’ll just develop an even better golem next time. There’s no single endpoint to technology, after all. Still, just in case, it has been equipped with a self-destruct mechanism, so there’s no need to worry about any leaks.”

Hold on. He was making this out to be a nice, happy story, but there was one part of it I couldn’t ignore.

“A self-destruct mechanism?”

“That’s right. Sir Veldora was quite insistent on having one in there. I thought he was joking at first, but I have to hand it to him—he must have anticipated a situation like that.”

No. He definitely didn’t. I had a feeling Veldora was behind it; it was the kind of harebrained thing either he or Ramiris would come up with, given all the manga I’ve been feeding them. I really wish they’d stop obsessing over useless crap like this. Still, better to have it than not, at least.

“All right. In that case, I don’t care too much if it breaks down or falls into enemy hands, but don’t be reckless with it, all right?”

“So we can bring it out?!”

“Yep, you’re clear to go. And Gadora, we may or may not need you in battle, but I’d still like you on hand in case of emergency.”

“By all means, Sir Rimuru. And personally, I don’t want to be too cruel toward my former colleagues. The way I see it, the Demon Colossus will come into play only if they break out some new weapon we’re not aware of!”

Sounds safe enough to leave to him, then. Gadora’s quick on his feet, so he might decide to switch sides again if defeat starts looking inevitable for us. Maybe he was angling to position himself outside our labyrinth just in case it came to that—that seemed plausible to me, but it wouldn’t be right to voice that yet. We needed to be optimistic for now and keep Gadora away from any second thoughts. In other words, all we needed was an undeniable, overwhelming victory against the Empire, and we were good.

So the final lineup, with Gadora included after all, was now set in place.

It was evening by the time the meeting ended. Once it adjourned, each of us began to prepare for tomorrow… Although for me, that meant relaxing a bit in our dining hall.

Tomorrow I’d be giving a pep talk for my personal entourage in the morning, and then we’d all head off via the transport spell. In the afternoon, I’d confer with Yuuki; Laplace was going to take me to him, so we’d have plenty of time to spare. This would just be a day trip for me, so I didn’t have a whole lot to prep for. I certainly didn’t need to bring a gift for Yuuki or whatnot; I figured we should keep things casual.

“Are you sure you should be so blithe about this?”

“Ahhh, I bet it’s fine. And what about you? You sure you should be leaving Momiji and Alvis alone right now?”

Benimaru was with me in the dining hall. Being a newlywed and all, I wanted him to have as much relaxing home time as possible. That was why I asked about his wives, but Benimaru just chuckled at me.

“They told me they’re taking a cooking lesson from Shuna today. I heard they have an informal agreement not to try to one-up each other, but thanks to that, they’ve shooed me away from the house for now…”

Whoa. Not exactly the happiest, most carefree way to kick off a marriage, is it? I wondered if they could keep things up like that, but it’s not on me to comment on other people’s family lives.

“I—I see,” I said, sagely nodding in agreement as Diablo excitedly brought a meal over to us—like a real butler, for a change. I mean, it still felt weird having a Primal demon serving as my butler, but he seemed to enjoy every minute of it, and I wasn’t about to shoot him down. I was used to this treatment now, besides, and I wasn’t about to change my mind.

“Thank you very much.”

“No, no, this is part of my job as well, so…”

You think so, huh? Well, if you’re happy, I’m happy.

“I have this as well for you, Sir Rimuru.”

Shion was there, pouring me a glass of wine. She didn’t make it herself, of course, so it was perfectly safe and nonlethal to drink, but something about her presence made me really uncomfortable. This was a simple meal of fried pork cutlets and rice, after all, so I really didn’t need this five-star service. Having Diablo and Shion standing behind me just added to my fatigue.

“Here, why don’t you guys sit down and eat with us?”

“What a kind thing to say.”

“Oh, no, I’m already full, so don’t worry about me!”

“Yes, Shion’s been sampling the wares in the kitchen, after all.”

“Damn you, Diablo!”

Eesh. They were at each other’s throats over every little thing. It seemed pointless to give them any more attention, so Benimaru and I let them be and enjoyed our meal.

“So do you intend to fully trust Yuuki, then?”

“Not from the heart, no. That’s kind of asking a lot. But right now, I kind of have to, you know? And I want to, also.”

“Then I will follow your lead, Sir Rimuru. Our entire strategy, after all, assumes that we can trust him.”

“And what if he turns traitor?”

“That would be…trouble. But we can manage, I imagine.”

“Mmm. Well, sorry for the trouble in advance.”

“I’m always ready and willing.”

Something about Benimaru’s smile really encourages me. In war, you always have to trust your allies—your friends. Let any doubt seep into your mind, and that throws your chances of success at any operation into uncertainty. If Yuuki betrays us, we’d pay an enormous toll for that, so it’s certainly a difficult choice I’m being forced to make. But I decided to trust Yuuki, and now that I made that decision, there was no point worrying over it.

“I was wondering, by the way… Do you even need to eat now?”

I posed the question to Benimaru, who was tucking into his meal right alongside me.

“In terms of ‘need,’ the answer is no.”

“Ah. I thought so.”

“But the same applies to you, doesn’t it, Rimuru? I’m just glad I didn’t lose my sense of taste.”

“Oh, I hear you. When I lost the three main desires all human beings have, I thought the world was gonna end, honestly. I went through a lot of hard work to regain my appetite and need to sleep, so I’m really enjoying every day now.”

“I’m sure. I was worried about the possibility as well, but I’m the same as always on that front, so I can’t complain.”

We nodded at each other. Then something occurred to me.

“Oh, so all three of your major needs are still there?”

“Yes, fortunately. All of them.”

“Even sleep?”

“I don’t need to sleep, but meditation puts me in a sleep state. It still helps me recover from fatigue as well.”

Wow. So I had to go through all that work in order to sleep, but he gets to keep that from the start? And it even gives him a lot of benefits I don’t get to enjoy. But what I was even more interested in…

“And your sex drive?”

I lowered my voice as I asked it. Benimaru nodded back, looking a little embarrassed.

“Aw, what the hell? I thought you couldn’t evolve because you won’t be able to have children then.”

“That’s right. But both Momiji and Alvis are pregnant right now.”

“Well, congratulations—but wait, did you keep your sex drive after the evolution?!”

“I assumed it would disappear as well, but whether I’m fertile or not, it’s still there, yes. Looks like I won’t be leaving them lonely, after all.”

I was just too jealous. Keeping functionality I never had in the first place… Talk about a perfect evolution. God dammit, why can’t I have that…?

“Gee, that’s greeeeeeat.”

“Yes… Hey, why are you taking my food?!”

“Shut up, you traitor!”

My jealousy finally ignited as I took Benimaru’s dish away.

All I got left to enjoy is food, but look at you, you bastard!

Could anyone have faulted me for thinking that way?

Anyway, we continued to enjoy ourselves well into the night—the usual scene, kind of. But all that was about to end abruptly.

“H-holy smokes! Guys! Somethin’ really awful’s happened, apparently, so I gotta get back, like, right now!”

Laplace was shouting as he stormed into the dining hall. He wasn’t alone.

“Bad news, Sir Rimuru! We just received a call in the name of King Gazel. It informed us that Velgrynd has appeared before the Composite Force, and they’re requesting immediate support!”

Vester’s eyes were bloodshot. Surprised, I rose from my seat.

“Okay, assemble the group I’m leaving with ASAP!”

“Right away.”

Benimaru promptly sprang into action. They’d all be here in short order.

“Laplace, give me just a little bit. We’ll join you.”

“W-well, if ya want, but…”

I wondered if Laplace’s panic was just an act—some scheme to lure us in and trap us. But upon hearing Vester’s report, I saw that it wasn’t the case. Something major was going down in the Empire, something not even Laplace was informed of. It was important to stay calm.

“I know this is a big deal, but don’t panic. We’re in an alliance, remember. You’d be a lot more useful bringing all of us than going back alone, won’t you?”

“Useful?”

If the enemy’s strongest fighter is right in front of the Composite Division, maybe we could consider this an opportunity. Reportedly someone attacked Yuuki as well, but if we can beat all of them now, it’d give us a decisive advantage in our negotiations. With that in mind, I decided to ask Laplace for more details.

“So what happened, exactly?”

After a few moments of hesitation, Laplace answered me.

“Well, Teare reached out to me. She said our team’s president, Lady Kagali, was callin’ for me, ’cause Kondo and his team were attacking them.”

Ah, Lieutenant Kondo. One of the guys on my “watch out for” list. Probably good to team up with Laplace and beat him up now. But what I wondered about is whether Yuuki’s force wasn’t able to fend these guys off—and why.

“What’s Yuuki doing, then? Did he lose, too?”

“Well, it sounds like Damrada’s takin’ him on.”

“Damrada? The Cerberus leader who’s actually vice commander of the Imperial Guardians, right? So he turned traitor on Yuuki?”

I was under the impression he was on Yuuki’s side. But he’s not? I’ve never met him, so I can’t guess at his motivations.

“That I don’t know. Teare and Footman keep on changin’ their stories. But for now, it’s clear he was fightin’ the boss.”

Hmm. Hard to say much. But one thing’s for sure—a lot of enemies are on the field, and they’re dispersed all over the place. Job one was to gain an accurate bead on the situation. Not wanting to waste any time, I deployed Argos, the Eye of God, on the spot. We already had the coordinates, giving me a pinpoint view of the Composite Division’s encampment. I projected it on the dining hall wall.

“Wow,” muttered someone in the room.

There we saw a beautiful woman, a lustrous smile. Her most notable trait was her blue hair, tied up in buns on top of her head. She had on a dress I’d describe as similar to a qipao, plus a military jacket draped over her shoulders. She was standing alone, as if strolling through an empty field, except there was a large army of sixty thousand troops behind her—or at least, the vestiges of an army. Those were dead bodies in the air, huh?

We could see pillars of crimson connecting heaven and earth—a high-gravity force field.

“Gravity Collapse, huh? What a drag, stealing my greatest trick like that.”

Carrera was taking this pretty lightly, but her expression was dead serious. I could see why. The magic this woman, presumably Velgrynd, had broken out was even more precise than the spell Carrera cast. She perfectly specified the range of it, keeping it at bay and under control. There were no other traces of destruction in the area, showing that her spell affected the gravity and nothing else.

“So she used gravity to send the troops flying without damaging anything else?”

“That’s right, my lord. And even more vexing to me, there’s not even a single grain of sand caught up in it. The only thing it’s blowing into the sky are whoever she sees as an enemy.”

Is that possible? I guess it must be. We were seeing it happen here, so there was no point doubting it.

“We’re going to fight her?”

“Keh-heh-heh-heh-heh… She is every bit the elder sister of Sir Veldora, is she not? How fascinating. I’ve always wanted to have a serious fight with one of them.”

Diablo was bold as always, but honestly, I didn’t see any way that he’d win.

Negative. If we challenge her with all our strength, we have a chance to win.

Great to hear, but the all-hands-on-deck approach was a nonstarter for me. There’d definitely be casualties then, so I’d prefer to avoid battle if I could. So would going after Emperor Ludora be a better bet than Velgrynd? If I could have Guy and Ludora settle their game, we could bring this battle to an end and avoid any unnecessary sacrifice.

“But I don’t understand. Why isn’t she completing the spell fully?”

“Perhaps she doesn’t like destroying nature, unlike us.”

“I doubt it. Look at that. There’s a pile of corpses with the blood all drained from them.”

Testarossa pointed at one corner of the screen. She was right—we could see multiple corpses in a pile. I used a split screen effect to focus on the spot, and there, near the pile, we saw a man in a military outfit and a woman I was familiar with.

“…Is that Kagali? Yuuki’s secretary?”

“She’s the head of the Moderate Jesters. She created us. God dammit! I don’t wanna believe it, but it’s true. Footman ’n’ Teare told me as much through Telepathy, but I guess Kondo really was controlling Lady Kagali.”

“Controlling? You mean mind control?”

“Yeah. And worst of all, Teare and Footman can’t defy Lady Kagali’s orders at all. Our Telepathy got cut off a bit ago, and I bet it’s ’cause she ordered them to stop.”

That sucks. I think it’s awful to take away a person’s free will like that… But that’s not the pressing issue. We’re in serious trouble.

“So how far does Kagali’s thrall or whatever extend if she’s being mind-controlled? Are you all right?”

I couldn’t really tell since he was wearing a mask, but Laplace really did look frustrated. If he was as helpless as Teare and Footman against his leader’s orders, that was a major problem.

“Nah, I’m fine. Lady Kagali created me, it’s true, but I’m the only one who ain’t obliged to follow her orders. The bigger deal right now is that most of the folks Yuuki’s gathered have a locking curse on ’em. Their top leaders are gonna be the main problem in that case, but judgin’ by how the army’s lookin’ right now, I don’t see much point worrying about ’em.”

Yeah, it looked like Yuuki’s force was done for. Even if there were survivors, none of them could ever escape that magic. It seemed like a few people were still safely outside its influence, but after seeing this tragedy unfold, they’d mostly lost their will to fight. Locking curse or not, I doubted we could count on them for much. Given all that, Laplace’s safety was actually pretty darn good news.

“Well, I’m glad you’re okay, at least.”

“Ah, don’t bother. This is it for all our friends.”

He sounded unaffected, his voice flat, but I doubted he was too serene. Watching his friends get manipulated like this had to be infuriating. That much, I’m sure, was genuine.

Instead of saying anything, I patted Laplace on the shoulder. He gave me a surprised look.

“But isn’t it too early to give up?” I asked, trying to sound naturally cheerful. “Kagali’s not dead or anything. If that guy Kondo is controlling her, we can just defeat the source to bring her back to normal. I’m sure Yuuki’s still fighting, too, so let’s get over there and help them rise back up.”

Some of it might’ve been empty consolation, but it beats being all pessimistic about this. We can always wallow in despair later. What can we do right now? That’s what’s important.

“You’re a funny guy, ya know that? Sayin’ the same kinda things my boss does. It’s humans who persecuted and exiled us, and now it’s humans who’re gonna help us, huh? …What a pain.”

I thought I could detect Laplace smiling beneath his mask. I am a monster, you know… But yeah, slime or not, I used to be human. Maybe it’s not worth bringing up, but…

“Hey, mind if I ask ya something?”

“What is it?”

“What do you wanna do as a demon lord?”

Oh, that? Well, my answer’s been the same for a while. Ever since I was reincarnated into this world, I’ve only had one ambition.

“I’m gonna make it so we can all live happily together. That’s why I’ve created this town, this nation, and built relationships with all these other nations. Beyond that, I’d like to value diversity and get along with everyone who shares in my tastes and interests.”

“Yer not thinkin’ about takin’ over the world or whatever?”

“Huh? Nah. Too much work.”

“What?! But if you conquer the world, you can do whatever ya want with it!”

“Yeah, but I’d get all bored, y’know? The more ideas you come up with, the more possibilities that’ll open up—and the more fun you’ll have creating fun stuff you never thought possible. Right?”

Laplace puzzled over my impassioned plea. Then he started waving his hands, as if in panic.

“That’s crazy, man! What d’you mean, ‘fun stuff’? I wasn’t talkin’ about that. I was talkin’ about you takin’ over the world!”

He doesn’t get it, does he?

“Well, what, if I got to do whatever I wanted, does that mean it’s okay for me to execute mind control on people? Or do you think it’s better to be controlled like Kagali is right now?”

“N-no, but…”

“I think it’s important that we preserve the rights to free speech, thought, and expression. That connects to respect for basic human rights overall. It creates diversity, and it’s the driving force for all kinds of cultural development.”

“Huh?! That’s just gonna create more selfish bastards, ain’t it? You can’t get people on the same page that way. How’re you s’posed to steer a country like that?”

He had a point. The greatest weakness of democracy, I think, lies in how to separate national interests from the feelings of individuals. But that counts as diversity, too.

“It’s fine. We can figure out how to do it together later. I’m basically a selfish bastard, too, and I sure don’t want this nation to go in a direction I’m not on board for.”

I’m perfectly fine being a big talker and nothing else. “Reign, do not rule,” as the saying goes. I’ll do what I’ve always done, and luckily for me, I have a lot of role models in this world. Luminus’s way of using religion as a cover for her rule and Elmesia’s positioning herself as absolute ruler up top were both helpful references… Still, I have a long way to go, so I didn’t need to decide who I’d be right this minute.

“But that’s why political issues and stuff can wait. Right now, what’s more important is cultural development. Entertainment, you see? Without that, developing this country is pointless.”

This was a really key point, one I hoped would show up on the exams in our future history classes. If I wanted people to lead interesting lives, we needed to produce a ton of entertainment. That’s why I didn’t want any restrictions on people’s ideas or speech.

Laplace stared at me in puzzlement as I explained this. “I don’t get it. It’s beyond my understanding. He… I mean, the boss… He promised me he’d conquer the world and make it a good place to live. That’s why I believed in ’im… In Yuuki. But what the hell’s up with you?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re just mockin’ him, ain’t ya? With that namby-pamby stuff.”

“I’m not mocking him, dude. I’m just saying that world domination doesn’t sound as fun as you think… And it’s a lot harder than you think, too.”

That finally silenced Laplace for a bit. Then:

“…Yeah. I know that.”

He sat limply on the floor, his head turned toward the magical screen. There we saw that pile of bodies, Kagali standing in front of it.

“You asked what we were doin’ over there earlier, huh? Well, I’ll tell ya. The biggest secret out there, but I’ll tell ya. I think you know that we’re all walking dead, but I’m gonna tell you about how she’s gonna increase our numbers.”

Oh? Wait, this does sound important.

“Whoa, calm down. This isn’t something you should be talking about in our dining hall, is it?”

“Ah, who cares? Now ain’t the time for that. Y’see, we were created by Lady Kagali’s hand. That’s what she was capable of as Curse Lord—gatherin’ up the corpses of the dead and their lingering grudges to create a powerful magic-born. It’s called Dead Birthday, a kinda forbidden curse magic.”

We call it a dining hall, but technically it’s reserved for cabinet-class officials. No civilians were in here, though I have to say, Laplace was really taking the plunge, huh? Revealing classified secrets in a place like this. The only people left were Benimaru (back from delivering orders), Soei, Diablo, Shion, Hakuro, the three demonesses, and Vester, who had been watching the video feed with us. Gabil had also returned from giving orders at some point. This was serious stuff, but fortunately nobody was here who I didn’t want listening in on it.

“Oh my, that spell name certainly brings back memories.”

“You know it, Diablo?”

It was useful having such a magic nerd like Diablo around. Good thing he was familiar with this.

“The body I received from you, Sir Rimuru, was forged through an application of Dead Birthday. In my case, the body didn’t come with a soul, but it was perfect for incarnating myself within. The original intent of the spell is to take at least ten thousand corpses, join them together, and take their powers for yourself.”

It was an inhumane kind of dark magic, a forbidden curse if I ever saw one. Of course, I’m kind of a serial soul stealer myself, but let’s ignore that for now.

“So if Kagali here is trying to make their power her own, does she want to imbue the resulting body with the will of someone in particular?”

“It depends, but I think it’s safe to assume so.”

“Yeah, Diablo’s right. Footman, Teare, and Clayman are all survivors from where Sir Kazalim came from. Once they lost their homeland, they resorted to these forbidden arts so they’d never forget the humiliation.”

Sounds like my hunch was correct, then. Which means that if they complete this spell, it’d be a pretty bad scene.

“There are, or were, around sixty thousand people in the Composite Force. If ya got that much material to work with, y’know, you could probably create at least ten walking dead at Clayman’s level.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa…”

“And what’s more, those sixty thousand contain a lot of really strong folks. And unlike Footman ’n’ Teare, they’re gonna offer just a ton of easily controllable power, y’know?”

I asked Laplace to expand on that, which he did with visible disgust. As he put it, Footman and Teare were still emotionally immature because they were swallowed up by the vast amounts of power running through them. When Kazalim created his first walking dead, he wasn’t too adept at allocating the right amount of power and souls to the right target. As a result, he gave those two far more power than they could hope to withstand. Then, learning from his mistakes, Kazalim created Clayman, which became a resounding success.

That being said, Teare and Footman weren’t exactly failures. Their immature minds led to some delays in intellectual growth, but they still wielded a lot of power. In fact, the pre-evolved Geld would probably have his work cut out for him against Footman. In light of that, in terms of fighting ability alone, they were an even greater success than Clayman himself.

If you were to create power-oriented walking dead from a group of sixty thousand corpses, Laplace estimated, the results would be condensed down to six or seven people. This is an Empire that didn’t bat an eye at sacrificing a million troops to create even one awakened person; I’m sure they lost no sleep at all over doing this.

“…Man, we were all kids back then, y’know? And Teare still is a kid, pretty much, and that goes without sayin’ for Footman, too. Only Clayman ever really grew up, but then he went ’n’ got himself killed through his own stupid antics. Still, though, I don’t think we did you guys wrong at all, huh? Survival of the fittest, ’n’ all that. Only natural to wanna test someone out if you don’t trust ’em, and we sure don’t give a crap about sacrificin’ others if it’ll expand our own powers. That’s how I see it anyway. So ya still wanna join forces with me?”

He didn’t have to tell me any of this, but he did. There was no point trying to deliberately agitate us with this—in fact, it’d be a really bad move. But if he was going through with this anyway…

“Don’t kid yourself. I will never forgive you for inciting the orcs and destroying our orcish homeland. But Sir Rimuru has decided to join forces with you, and I am in no position to refuse it.”

“Benimaru is right. Just thinking about what happened to everyone in our homeland breaks my heart. But there is nothing I could do to you that would make me feel better. Only when we have a world where everyone can live in happiness—the world Sir Rimuru desires—will I lose my regrets.”

“Heh. I’m sure you’re trying to monopolize all the blame so we can take out our frustrations on you alone, but don’t kid yourself. We’ll need more than that to erase our anger. It’s nothing small enough to be alleviated through torturing the likes of you.”

“Yes, quite so. As you say, survival of the fittest is all that matters—and our inexperience at the time, most of all, was the culprit. I’m sure you’ve cried over your own inexperience at times, haven’t you? And if you have, I’m sure you understand how we feel.”

Benimaru, Shion, Soei, and Hakuro—the four of them loathed Laplace and his band, but they were still swallowing their pride so we could all fight together. It’s just that they couldn’t forgive Laplace’s gang for what they did, but they’re trying to work through it. These ogres sure can be generous sometimes—I noticed that back when Geld first joined us, and I’m seeing it now.

“All right? We haven’t forgiven you, and I sure don’t trust you completely, either, but for now we’re allies. So let’s forget our differences and just fight together, okay?”

“…Yeah. And you too, right? I wanna save the boss and my president. So lend me a hand, won’t ya?”

Laplace bowed his head deeply. For once, he was being sincere, not at all his usual aloof self. If this was an act, I’d lose faith in other people for good. For now, at least, I wanted to trust him.

Laplace’s request was met with nods of approval from Benimaru and the others. His gestures toward us all were so determined, I suppose it tugged at our heartstrings.

“Right. Then we’ll head over with the six of us as planned and rescue Yuuki.”

“Sounds good. Let’s save that bum so he can give us a proper apology.”

Benimaru was certainly motivated.

Of course, this is Yuuki we’re talking about. Knowing him, I’m pretty confident he’d beat Damrada and emerge without even a scratch. The real problem is how to deal with Velgrynd, though. But just as I was about to offer some instructions about that, Shion surprised me.

“So this Kondo man is the mastermind behind all this? If he’s capable of controlling the likes of Kagali, then perhaps Clayman was being controlled, too.”

“““…”””

We all fell silent. Benimaru was frozen in surprise, while Laplace just muttered, “The hell?”

“Keh… Keh-heh-heh… The first secretary says some rather interesting things…”

Diablo could try laughing it off as much as he wanted, but—perhaps remembering how things were back then—realized there was nothing inherently wrong with what she said. “It’s possible,” Hakuro even added.

No, guys, it’s definitely more natural to believe that. According to Laplace, Yuuki had given orders to Clayman to lie low and not cause trouble. The whole bit with the orcs was one thing, but Clayman’s descent into insanity after that wasn’t at all what Yuuki wanted from him.

Affirmative. Based on the newly obtained information, I have redefined the situation as this: The subject Clayman exhibited some unexplainable behavior, but if he was being influenced by Kondo and other people, it begins to make more sense. The clear answer is that the Empire stood to gain the most from him.

Yeah, that’s what I’m thinking.

“…So you’re saying that we had to go through that stuff with Clayman because of Kondo’s intentions?”

“Shit.”

“Watch your mouth, Benimaru, or else I’ll tell Shuna.”

“I will. So don’t, okay?”

Ignoring Benimaru and Shion’s back-and-forth…

“I hate to say it, but I have to agree with Shion. I tried to perform an analysis of his criminal psychology, but there was something unclear about Clayman’s behavior. I saw signs that he was in a hurry to move his forces for some reason, even though he should have acted more cautiously. I, at first, thought it was merely his stupidity in action, but it would make sense if there was a third party intervening.”

Whoa. Diablo’s got the same opinion as Raphael. Guess there’s no doubting it now.

“I don’t know what the truth is, but let’s assume Kondo controlled Clayman and act based on that. If you’re paired up with Kondo, be aware of the possibility that he’ll try to take over your mind!”

“““Yes, Sir Rimuru!”””

I might be wasting my time with that warning, but it’s better than saying nothing.

Anyway, we really do need to watch for this Kondo guy. If we’re not careful, he might be an even greater threat than Velgrynd. So I had everyone keep Kondo in mind so we were all prepared.

Now, let’s summarize our plan.

“Gabil, I want you and your team to answer King Gazel’s request for help. Don’t try fighting Velgrynd, though. She’s enough of a danger for you and the other leaders, but she’ll massacre your soldiers, probably.”

“That is very clear to me, my lord. Not even I would ever dare to challenge a True Dragon.”

“Hoh-hoh-hoh! No, we’re no match for her.”

Gabil and Hakuro seemed to understand that well enough. The purpose of sending their reinforcements was mainly to buy time; once we rescued Yuuki, we’d then be handling Velgrynd ourselves.

“But should we leave them to that ceremony?” Ultima asked. She was referring to the Dead Birthday thing Kagali was working on, I supposed.

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Diablo informed me. “It takes a great deal of time before that forbidden spell is triggered, at least two hours per walking dead created—and more than that if you are stuffing more energy into it.”

It hadn’t even been an hour since the ritual began. We’d first have to meet with Yuuki, then beat Emperor Ludora, and then if we hurried back…

“Uh-uh. Diablo’s right if we’re talkin’ about the usual procedure, but Lady Kagali’s usin’ a kind of workaround.”

“A workaround… Wait! Ah, right, Velgrynd is helping her.”

Diablo seemed to get what this meant. But no one else did, and we really didn’t have time for long-winded explanations any longer.

“Okay, so how much time do we have?”

“Keh-heh-heh-heh-heh… At worst, they could create several walking dead in two hours.”

Two hours, huh? Could we defeat Emperor Ludora in just that amount of time? …Ah, no point worrying over it. We just have to do it, and that’s that.

I looked toward Laplace.

“And you’re the strongest of her creations so far, right? Better than Clayman anyway. And despite the others being geared for strength or whatever, you sure seem stronger than them.”

“Well, I was specially made, y’see.”

“Okay. Well, my group’s ignoring Kagali’s spell, then.”

“Ah… Are you sure about that?”

Gabil seemed surprised.

“Yeah. Think about it, Gabil. Laplace is pretty strong, but he’s not an insurmountable opponent. The other two, I’m sure all of you could beat easily.”

That was how I saw it. Laplace may be hiding his strength, but he can’t fool my eyes. Basically, it didn’t feel to me that he had awakened to an ultimate skill. Gabil would have a tough time, but I think Soei’s an even match for him. So if Kagali could create walking dead as good as Laplace, that’d be a drag, but anything less than that seemed pretty manageable to me. We can’t just leave them be—they could become a threat if left to grow up—but I don’t see this as something I absolutely had to intervene in.

“If Velgrynd is contributing to this spell, then all the better for us. If possible, try to prod her so she can’t concentrate on it. If you can’t, then you can just leave her. I mean, no point stirring up that hornet’s nest.”

Gabil and Hakuro exchanged a glance, then nodded, seemingly convinced. And also, just in case:

“If she decides to turn on you guys or King Gazel, then I want Ultima and Carrera to take her on.”

I figured as the most powerful of all my staff, Ultima and Carrera could buy time even against someone like Velgrynd. I could ignore whatever happened with Kagali’s ritual, but if Velgrynd makes a move, the whole army would be decimated. I had to avoid that, so that’s why I gave the order.

“Aw, thanks for counting on us! Sir Veldora’s sister or not, I’m not gonna give her any quarter!”

“Yeah. We’ll see if we can win once we feel her out. I got one heck of a winning streak going, you know, so I’m gonna get as much enjoyment out of this as I can.”

It sounded like I could count on Ultima and Carrera for this. I’ll just pretend that I didn’t hear about the loss to Zegion.

So I thought we had a plan, but:

“One moment, please. I think Ultima and Carrera alone will not be enough against Lady Velgrynd. I know this is rude of me after offering to guide you, but I was wondering if I could tackle her as well.”

Now Testarossa was throwing her hat into the ring. This was a bit troublesome to me. It was an appealing proposal, but if we were striking the core of the imperial capital, I wanted to attempt it with as much firepower as I could gather. This was an emperor even Guy recognized as a worthy rival, and he had at least four Single Digits guarding him. If we were taking on someone that high up, I really didn’t want to lose Testarossa. At the same time, though, if she could buy some time with Velgrynd for us, that’d be pretty helpful as well.

So maybe I should take Gadora, then—

“Allow me to take her place, if you could. It will help us buy at least a little bit of time, and I think it would improve our chances.”

That was Soei making the offer, and it sounded like a reasonable one. At the very least, it seemed better than taking Gadora. With Benimaru, Shion, Soei, and Diablo, I felt decently sure we could take on pretty much anybody.

“Okay, let’s go with that. Don’t disappoint me, Soei.”

“Yes, my lord!”

The main purpose of Gabil’s team was to buy time and, if possible, eliminate enemy forces, Kondo included. If things went really awry, that was where the demonesses came in. That, I thought, was about the best we could do.

“Right. That settles it, then. And again, Gabil, don’t have your team get killed before we get back.”

“““Yes, sir!”””

And so our policy was somewhat hurriedly decided upon.

It was at this moment that Vester, who had been watching the screen the whole time, hoarsely shouted out:

“Whoa! King Gazel has arrived, it looks like!”

I looked myself, and there I saw the Pegasus Knights flying in from up high.

“Let’s hurry. Rendezvous with Gazel’s team before they take damage and tell them about our strategy!”

“Leave it to me! I promise you that I, Gabil, will perform this lofty task with sheerly the utmost of brilliance!!”

“Great. Now, everybody, let’s get moving!”

I gave out the order—and then one long, long night began for us.

After teleporting Gabil’s group away, we joined Laplace on our way to the imperial capital. I would be taking human form from the start, so I could deal with whatever came our way.

“Okay, we’re here. This is our secret base over in— Ah, where’s this?”

It was magic that took us here, but Laplace immediately began acting strange. Even at this point, I was having a terribly bad premonition.

Looking around, I found ourselves in a vast hall, like none in my own nation. It was lined with intricately carved columns and covered with expensive-looking carpet. I could almost mistake it for a royal audience chamber in an imperial castle, but there was something not quite right about it.

“Dude…”

“W-wait! No! Usually, when I do this thing, it always takes me to the right place! This ain’t never happened before!”

Laplace looked pretty panicky as I glared at him. He didn’t seem to be lying, but if he wasn’t, what the hell was going on here?

After a few more swivels of my head, I saw a raised platform about fifty yards away. Something resembling a king’s throne was on it, so I guessed it really was some royal chamber. An important-looking person was seated on the chair, and next to him was a beautiful blue-haired woman. There was no mistaking the distinctive buns her hair was tied into. It had to be Velgrynd herself.

“Velgrynd?! Wait, wasn’t she on the battlefield just now? She can’t be here, too, can she?”

“Teleportation could get her here in time, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Benimaru looked just as confused as I was, and Soei and Shion weren’t much different.

“Are we surrounded, then? It appears to be a trap.”

Diablo broke the bad news to us. I noticed it about the same time he did—dozens of other people were in this chamber, and they all seemed powerful to me.

“Damn you, Laplace, you were trying ensnare us the whole time—”

Soei wasted no time confronting our would-be traitor, but he was the last thing on Laplace’s mind.

“That’s loony. You interfered with my spell?! That’s… How’s that even possible…?”

Laplace was completely befuddled. Guess he wasn’t expecting this either; this didn’t strike me as a trap on his part.

As we warily eyed the circumstances we were in, a man approached us.

“Hey, Laplace! Thanks so much for coming. I couldn’t be happier to see you tricking the demon lord Rimuru and his friends like this.”

It was Yuuki, dressed in his imperial military uniform and smiling.

“B-Boss?! Wait, wait, wait. What’s goin’ on?”

“Ah-ha-ha! You can quit the act now. Once we get rid of the demon lord in here, we win, right?”

Yuuki’s words instantly enraged Shion and Soei—but Benimaru, and surprisingly Diablo as well, remained calm as they listened to him and Laplace speak. It was impressive to see, actually.

(You guys believed Laplace, too?)

(Oh, er, no. I was thinking of running him through once those two let their guards down.)

(Hey!)

(Keh-heh-heh-heh-heh… Well said, Sir Benimaru. Kill before you show any external sign of it. The classic rule.)

What kind of mafia gang am I running here?! There’s no “classic rule” like that in my country!

Dumbfounded, I persuaded them to wait and see how things unfolded. At the same time, I tried to appease Soei and Shion, who were practically oozing with murderous rage. In the meantime, the argument between Yuuki and Laplace had grown rather heated. Laplace was all but begging for his life, swearing up and down that he meant none of this.

“Please believe me, guys! This time, I promise, I didn’t mean to do nothin’ against any of you!”

The more desperate he got, of course, the more suspicious it made him look. Yuuki really painted him into a corner here, I had to admit. Feeling sorry for Laplace, I decided to end this charade.

“Hey, calm down,” I said, patting him on the shoulder a couple times. “That guy’s Yuuki, but he’s also not Yuuki, is he?”

“Huh?”

“Unfortunately, I have to assume that Kondo’s controlling him.”

Maybe Damrada beat him; maybe Kondo sneaked up on him during the fight. Either way, having a mind-control expert among the enemy was really starting to make things complicated. If I didn’t believe that, we would’ve been stabbing at each other’s throats by now.

“Ohhh! Right, yeah! Like, it’s fun to fool other folks, but when I’m the fool, man, does it grind my gears!”

Gotta love that personality. Finding out I trusted him pepped him right up, it looked like. But it didn’t improve our predicament at all. We were still surrounded, and we were still in crisis mode.

“Tsh… Didn’t expect you to see through it that easily. Here I was hoping you’d be so lost and confused that you’d turn your blades on each other.”

Brainwashed or not, Yuuki was just as mean-spirited as ever. I’m sure that’s how he is at the core, and I like to think I’m mature enough to not let it bother me.

“Your Majesty, I regret to inform you that my strategy has failed.”

“Ahhh, it was just a silly sideshow anyway. Very good. Now, before battle begins, I was hoping we could have a little chat.”

Once Yuuki addressed the person sitting on the platform, the figure stood up and began to walk. Yuuki meekly moved to the side to clear the way for him—clearly he was now a loyal vassal of Emperor Ludora. I couldn’t completely dismiss the idea that it was all an act, but I’d better not be too optimistic about that.

Velgrynd followed Ludora, as if accompanying him. She looked like a normal human being, apart from her sheer beauty, but clearly that was for camouflage purposes. Myself, I could see it. She had encased herself and the man in front of her in a thin barrier that shut off all possible interaction with the other side.

“What intimidation. I highly doubt she’s a fake.”

“I agree. Up close, it’s amazing just looking at her,” Benimaru replied, nodding at my words.

But not everyone reacted like us.

“You think so? I’ve trained with Sir Veldora often, so the feeling’s familiar to me. Not that I’ve ever defeated him…”

Shion… You’ve been training with him, too? And by “training,” she must mean actual battle in the labyrinth. If they were fighting to the death in there, I could only hope she got some good results from it. But if you can’t win, it’s kind of meaningless, isn’t it? It wasn’t really a boast, but it wasn’t her being a sore loser, either.

“Yes, a very impressive barrier. But like Shion said, I don’t see that much of a difference between her and Sir Veldora.”

Diablo’s opinion seemed closer to Shion’s. Did this mean they thought Velgrynd wasn’t anything special, or was Veldora actually a lot more impressive than I believed? I wasn’t sure, but even the normally confident Diablo couldn’t guarantee a victory for us. That was important. Diablo, despite it all, never lied to me, so he wouldn’t claim he could do something that he can’t—and I knew what that meant.

“I’m sure this wasn’t quite in your plans, but I thought a meeting between two heads of state would prove rather interesting.”

Ludora smiled as he addressed me. Wow, he really is Masayuki’s lost twin. His hair was an almost shining blond, though, and he styled it a bit differently. That—and he had blue eyes versus Masayuki’s brown. Actually, there were a lot of little differences, but somehow, the two of them projected the exact same vibe.

And actually, I recalled something odd Masayuki said recently.

“I’ve been worried about my hair lately.”

“What, are you balding?”

“Yeah, the stress and all… No, of course not! I’ve been noticing that my hair’s getting lighter in color lately. It’s gone from black to more brownish.”

“Hmm. Maybe you’re losing melanin or something?”

“You think so? I hope I’m not worrying about it too much…”

You know, the sort of self-image problem every young man goes through. Or that was how I saw it, but for some reason, it popped back into my mind right then. It was a concern, but not one I should’ve been thinking about immediately.

Ludora was now right in front of me.

“You’re right. We weren’t planning to come out here. But there is something I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Wonderful. Why don’t you have a seat?”

Ludora waved his hand. Two chairs appeared before us. Some kind of magic trick? I don’t know how it worked, but it didn’t seem like a chintzy trap or whatever. Atmosphere was key here, so I sat down without hesitation, Benimaru standing by my right side and Diablo insisting on the left. Shion swiftly took her place right behind me, and Soei was next to her. Laplace, now seeming very out of place, looked around a little before sliding into a spot to Shion’s left.

Once everyone took their locations, we were greeted by Velgrynd’s teasing voice.

“Oh, you’re sitting down first? Rather questionable manners.”

Manners? I don’t know jack about those. He told me to sit down, so I did.

“No need for that, Velgrynd. He didn’t do anything wrong. If he’s a demon lord, then he, too, has a land he rules over. He and I are equals, I think.”

That’s a real-life emperor for you. He sounded like he meant it, too. How generous.

“Well, if you’re fine with it, I have no complaints.”

Velgrynd also seemed rather easily convinced. I guess she didn’t really care much. I wish she’d stop threatening me like that.

So Ludora sat on the opposite chair, Velgrynd casually standing to his right. Behind him were four guards lined in a row, armed with God-class gear—the Four Knights Bernie told me about, I assumed. Finally, standing to Ludora’s left was a man dressed in an all-black uniform. He didn’t look Japanese to me, so I guessed he was Damrada. Yuuki had the nerve to stand next to him, making his position in this hierarchy clear. I had no hesitation considering him an enemy now.

Still, this meant that all the Empire’s top people except Kondo were here. I brought all my high-ranking officials as well, but we were at a serious numerical disadvantage right now. The Empire had several dozen top-ranking members of the Imperial Guardians here, including five Single Digits, and even Velgrynd was on hand. To be honest, I had serious doubts about our chances in a fight. Plus, they even had Yuuki. It’s no exaggeration to say this was a crisis like none before.

I guessed from Ludora’s words that this state of affairs wasn’t Laplace’s fault; it had all been a setup from the beginning. Funny to think how unnerving it is to have everything go your enemy’s way like this… But I kept up my bold demeanor, not revealing what I felt inside.

“Well, guess you got one up on me today, huh? I considered the possibility that people would be expecting us, but I didn’t quite anticipate this.”

That was a lie. We were aiming for a surprise attack on their elite forces, so I thought we were about to seize the initiative here.

“Ha-ha-ha! No need to be so modest. It was just as unexpected for me. I thought the Armored Division I sent would be defeated, but the fact that there were no survivors and no awakened stemming from it was beyond any of my estimations.”

Well, there was one, but Diablo killed him. I wasn’t about to tell him that, but really, whoever devised that plan was a real genius, in my opinion. Pretty inhumane, maybe, but still.

“So who came up with that strategy anyway?” I lightly asked, not expecting an answer. But then, rather surprisingly, Ludora told me everything out of his own mouth.

As he explained, the plan was drawn up by Lieutenant Kondo. That I expected. But it turned out the plan was a lot crazier than I thought:

• First, they’d awaken a few people from the invasion forces; after that, they would pretend to back away in defeat.

• If we gave chase, the Composite Division would intercept us. However, since there was a possibility this division had already turned traitor to the Empire, they would be treated as an enemy force as well.

• Once they were certain about the betrayal, everyone would be eliminated all at once. The Marshal would take on that role.

However, that plan kind of fell apart on step one, so Kondo made some major alterations:

• Ensnare and capture Yuuki’s group, after letting them run free for so long. Even based on what they knew from the demon lord Clayman, Yuuki’s betrayal was pretty much confirmed by this point.

• Kill off Yuuki’s group, confirm what he was scheming to do, and make final adjustments based on that.

• That left sixty thousand people in the gathered Composite Division, who would then be sacrificed to produce magic-born.

• At this point, the Marshal would go into battle and make a flashy display to attract the attention of Guy and the rest.

• Any would-be troublemakers would be rounded up and killed all at once. That’s why they needed to concentrate their forces on that one point.

• The advantage of such flashy moves was that it’d make the imperial capital look thinly guarded. Someone was bound to try attacking it, and it’d undoubtedly be an elite force as well. They needed to be hit with maximum strength.

• The most important part: Chances are the monster nation is running short on firepower by now, so the Marshal, the greatest force in the Empire, would take them on. While Guy’s eyes were pointed elsewhere, they would take the Storm Dragon, the strongest pawn of all, for themselves.

That was the long and short of it.

If they were gaining intelligence from the demon lord Clayman, it was safe to assume that he was under Kondo’s control as well. I only had my suspicions before, but now it was crystal clear.

That wasn’t even the important thing, though. I was shocked he revealed all that information, but let’s not worry about that. There was a certain point he brought up, one that sent a shiver down my spine. Whoa, I thought, wait a minute. How many Marshals—or Velgrynds—would they need to carry out this plan?

That’s right. I always did find it strange that Velgrynd was unleashed on the east city of the Dwarven Kingdom, where the current battle was raging. So who’s this woman in front of me…?

…! Detected. Her ultimate skill grants her the ability to create multiple identical existences of herself. It is called…

“…Parallel Existence…?”

I spoke the words Raphael gave me, although I wished they were wrong. But reality was merciless as always.

“Oh, you’re aware of it? How clever of you.”

Velgrynd’s smile was as beautiful as it was terrifying. The more you want to be wrong about something, the more correct you turn out to be, huh?

My unvarnished take on this was: How the hell am I gonna beat that?! No wonder Testarossa was sure she couldn’t pull it off. I was so comfortable with this before because I figured I could call on Veldora here to even the odds. Now, though, I understand that I can’t even count on that.

According to Raphael, Parallel Existence is an extremely dangerous power. To the uninformed, it may not seem much different from Soei’s Replications. In his case, he can control several Replications at the same time. It’s impossible to tell who’s the “real” one, and no matter how many Replications you beat down, that’ll never hurt Soei himself. He could also keep churning them out as long as he had enough magicules, which kind of seemed like cheating to me. That’s because there’s no difference in physical ability between Soei and his Replications, so it really is like having multiple Soeis on the field.

But let’s take a peek behind the curtain.

Controlling multiple Replications at once is actually pretty tricky. The skill doesn’t split his consciousness at all; instead, he uses Thought Communication to operate the copies of himself without a time lag. He also uses Mind Accelerate to adjust his reaction times, so it only looks like they’re all moving independently without any issues. I don’t use Replications too often myself, because this is really an incredibly difficult trick to pull off. Soei, meanwhile, is a true master of his game and one of the most thoughtful people I know; an amateur like me could never handle it as well as him.

And one other thing; the Replications’ physical abilities match the caster’s body, but their magical abilities always lose out by comparison. The copied bodies don’t have full access to the caster’s skills. That’s why Soei’s Replications can only use skills that don’t consume much magic power—and that’s why, if you knew that little secret, it wasn’t too hard to tell which Replication is actually the real thing. If you’re defeated, of course, your Replications instantly disappear as well, so it’s definitely not an invincibility code or anything.

Meanwhile, with the Parallel Existence skill Velgrynd had, she could divide bits of her consciousness into every copy. “Copy” wasn’t even the right term any longer—it was simply like having multiple versions of your “real” self. It meant that even if you killed one of them, as long as there’s at least one other “alternate” of hers left, that could serve as her main one. Plus, she didn’t have to split up her magic force at all. Every “alternate” was connected with the main body, so she could replenish as much magic power as she wanted on any version of herself.

There’s a limit, of course, to how much magic she has overall, so the more bodies she has out, the more that reduces the maximum magic each individual one can tap. Normally, you’d see that as a weakness to leverage, but this was a True Dragon, notorious for having scads of magicules. She could replenish her alternates faster than they could use up magic, so even a modicum of usage wouldn’t mean much.

Frankly, I have no idea how to defeat her. I’m not Testarossa, but I can’t blame her for publicly avowing that she couldn’t win.

I returned Velgrynd’s gaze, giving as arrogant a smile as I could.

“Well, thank you. I’ve got a really talented partner, you know, and when it comes to smarts, he’s tough to beat. So I guess you think you’ve trapped us, but can you tell us what you want?”

In situations like these, bluffing is about all I got left. I had to make them think I knew exactly what they were up to; if it put them off guard enough to fear me, I had it made. But it was clearly not gonna work out that way.

“Aren’t you rather confident? The way you refuse to admit defeat reminds me so much of my brother.”

Meaning Veldora, I imagine. Having a sister like this must’ve been a real pain to him. Do you see now, Rimuru?! I thought I heard him say, but Ludora was talking, so I had to pay attention.

“What I want? Well, if you’re that convinced of your intelligence, I don’t think I need to tell you, do I?”

That’s not really helpful, you know. If they wanted to rub us out, they’d be fighting by now. If they instead set up a roundtable of sorts, that meant there was room for negotiation. I think the answer here might just be that they’re trying to win us over to their side?

Affirmative. This is believed to be correct. However, they may also be stalling for time. In that case, they may be attempting to defeat the subject Veldora Tempest and add him to their fold.

Hey, I did pretty good there, didn’t I? I’m half right, at least.

Certainly, in Kondo’s plans, “Marshal” Velgrynd would be taking control of Veldora. I didn’t pay it much attention because I assumed it was impossible at this juncture—but if she had a Parallel Existence running around, was Velgrynd on her way to storm the labyrinth right this minute?

It was now an urgent question, so I contacted Veldora through our soul corridor.

(Hey, how’s it going?)

(You fool! Now is not the time for casual greetings! Things are, um, rather hectic in here! My sister… My sister is pursuing me! She is outside the labyrinth right now, but at this rate, she is going to storm inside!!)

Yep. Sounds pretty busy.

(You gonna be okay?)

(I will have to come out for her. That would beat her laying waste to the labyrinth to reach me.)

Parallel Existence or not, I really didn’t think Veldora would lose. So I decided to give him permission to exercise his full force.

(All right. I’ll take full responsibility for the fallout, so just do something about Velgrynd for me. Can you do that?)

(Oh-ho? Well, in that case, allow me to handle everything for you! Kwah-ha-ha-ha!!)

(Great!)

I ended the call, now much relieved. Leave it to Veldora, and I’ve got nothing to be concerned about. That—and I now understood what Ludora’s plan was. Time to return to the bargaining table.

“Your mission right now is to try winning us over. And also, you’re trying to buy time with this meeting so we won’t interfere with your fight against Veldora, right?”

I tried to look as smug as possible as I laid it on them. Ludora gave this an elated smile.

“Ahhh, you’re such an entertaining person. It’d be fun to have you match wits with Tatsuya, but there’s no time for more diversions right now. If you already know that much, then I don’t need to explain matters further, do I? I want you to join us and serve under me. Do it, and I’ll guarantee your sovereignty and grant you the title of archduke.”

“Ludora! If you appoint a non–blood relative archduke, you know the nobles will wail over it.”

“I’ll live. That’s how worth it he is to me, if he cooperates.”

So not just a duke, but an archduke? I think you’re supposed to be in the emperor’s bloodline, and the title dies with you, and stuff like that? And Ludora’s promised to let me have that. From the Empire’s perspective, this must be an unprecedented offer. After all this talk about how they never offered surrender to their foes, too! And how they always subjugated and colonized the nations they conquered! This Empire that’s expanded through countless wars of aggression was about to give me one of the best deals possible. Honestly, they were rating me a lot higher than I ever thought they would.

But sadly, I already had my answer.

“Well, I know that’s an excellent offer you’re giving me, but the answer is no. But here’s a proposal for you: How about we just call it quits here? I don’t need reparations or anything, but I’d like us to sign a nonaggression treaty with each other.”

Judging how nobody here gave a second thought to the sacrifices they demanded from those who served them, it’d be nothing short of suicidal for me to give in. If I kidded myself into thinking I’d be the first exception in the Empire’s long history, it’d be my one-way ticket to ruin.

So I firmly refused Ludora’s offer. What’s more, since I had the chance and all, I expressed my own request to him. Personally, we hadn’t suffered any damage, so I wasn’t gonna ask for an apology or anything. As long as they swear not to mess with us any longer, I’m willing to just sweep this invasion under the rug. I’m sure some people would complain about that, but if we can settle this without any more bloodshed, I think that’s the best approach.

I know I was going too easy on them, and I know I couldn’t rely much on promises. If we don’t trust each other, they’re bound to break the treaty at some point. But the most important thing right now is to buy time. By making peace here, we’d have more time to get to know each other. There was hope, I felt, that more time to deepen our mutual understanding could lead to a future where war could be avoided. If we kept fighting like this, we’d have no choice but to take it all the way to the end—and if that’s how it was, I still wanted to take a chance on this possibility, however small.

But Ludora answered with a cold smile.

“Ah, I see you are not so fit to serve as a ruler, after all. You fail to see my mercy for what it is, and you spin a web of nonsense instead.”

“So cocky. Ludora’s made every possible concession for you, and you’ve thrown it all away.”

They reacted like they had the absolute advantage here, despite having just lost an army of one million. They don’t really feel, deep down, that they’ve lost at all. All the soldiers and officers who perished thanks to his orders were no great shakes. Something about that really frightened me.

“I believe that human beings are creatures who can learn to understand each other. That, over time, they will organize themselves into a single will and work together to create a better world. But to achieve that, it is first essential to unify the world through overwhelming military force.”

Ludora’s words might seem like the kind of ideals I go on about. But there was a major gap between us, one that would prove hard to fill. It was so frustrating. We both started at the same point, but he reached the exact opposite conclusion—I now had all the proof I needed of that. I wondered for a moment if he was even more of an idealist than I was. But he wasn’t. He claims that only his own righteousness can bring about true justice; he’s a dictatorial thinker who refuses to accept the ideas of anyone else.

Just as I thought, it’s unlikely that we’d ever be compatible. And if we were this far apart in our arguments, it’d likely be impossible to find a compromise through discussion.

“Humans are creatures with free will, you know. There’s no such thing as unchanging justice in this world—there are so many ways people can think about matters. And don’t you think refusing to acknowledge this will only sow more seeds of conflict?”

“How foolish of you. My way of thinking is supreme—supremely just. If you keep catering to the selfish whims of the idiotic masses, you know you’ll never reach that ideal world of yours.”

“But people make mistakes, don’t they?!”

“That I cannot deny. I do listen to the voices of my most trusted advisers. But I can’t listen to all the voices from the people below me. If I did that, we’d be in constant turmoil.”

Mmph. He might be right about that, yeah…

I feel like I’m gonna be losing the verbal argument soon, too. I hated to admit it, but Ludora had been pursuing his career as a ruler for far longer than I.

“Well, I don’t see the point in further argument. What we want is your loyalty to us. Demon lord Rimuru, abandon your friendship with Guy and come to our side.”

There’s that offer again. No doubt trying to place the pressure on Guy. If I decided to give in to Ludora, I was sure that was gonna tip the scales. That, I suppose, is why we’ve been kept alive up to this point. Still, though, my answer was the same as before.

Now that negotiations have broken down, it seemed like a fight was inevitable. Perhaps reading my thoughts, Velgrynd smiled coldly and gracefully waved her index finger at me—two light wags. Then a video image appeared in empty space, the same kind of principle as my Eye of God. It showed the current state of battle.

What I saw there was shocking. Testarossa, Ultima, and Carrera had all fallen in front of Velgrynd. The three demonesses, the best fighting force our nation enjoyed, had just been defeated by one person.

“No way!” I muttered to myself.

In the video, I could see the three of them standing up again. They hadn’t lost the will to fight yet, but they were struggling against an insurmountable difference in ability. They couldn’t hold out much longer; that much was clear.

“Do you see how your faithful Primals perform before me? I’d suggest you think carefully. Someone as smart as you should understand that I’m still going easy on them.”

She didn’t need to go into detail. This was a threat. If Velgrynd wanted to, she could easily hurt more than just these three. I don’t know what’s motivating them, but Ludora’s team has made every concession they could for my sake.

Now I could see that Gabil’s forces didn’t have any time to help the three demonesses. Airships littered the skies above the battlefield, imperial troops swarming down from them. Kondo’s forces were on the ground as well. Yuuki’s former comrades—with the exception of Kagali, who was continuing on with the ritual—were fighting with them against the Dwarven army.

“Teare?! And Footman, too!”

Laplace’s shout made me notice those masked annoyances fighting for the enemy as well. It was a chaotic scene, and it didn’t look very good for my side.

We had hit rock bottom. I could feel Benimaru’s concern for me. But I just couldn’t give in.

“I know what you’re trying to do. If you could rope me in, that’d be a much easier way to recruit Veldora, after all. He’s a real free spirit, as you know, so no way he’d take orders from higher-ups like you.”

He tends to (mostly) listen to me these days, but still, he loses his temper a lot. Maybe he has trouble dealing with me or something; I dunno.

Anyway, that’s probably why Ludora wants me so bad. After some consideration, I decided to throw the invitation back in his face. Then I tried to find another way out, but:

“I am not interested in negotiation. Give me a yes or a no.”

Now I was confronted with a choice. If I refused, I’d be plunged into a battle I had little chance of winning. But if I accepted, it’d be throwing myself into a fight I didn’t want. I’d be following the will of someone else instead of my own, and it could lead to all kinds of losses later.

“You know, you say that we can all unite into one and create a better world that way, but is that a world where everyone can be happy?”

“What?”

“Whether war and hunger are eradicated or not, if your free will’s taken from you, then what’s the point of living? What you’re trying to do is take away the potential of all the world’s people! Have you ever thought about that?!”

“Their potential? There’s no need for that. Give people freedom, and it could lead them down the path to ruin. It’s not what I want, and it’s far from what Guy wants as well. So it’s only natural that someone must manage them so they don’t stray from the correct path, isn’t it?”

“I understand that to a certain extent. I won’t deny it at all. But are you going to find happiness there?!”

I suppose that, in the big picture, what I’m trying to do is essentially manage humanity. But I still think that, to some extent, you have to leave things to the will of the people. If you’re too overprotective, you’ll rob them of any opportunity to grow. People are stronger than we think, and I really don’t feel we need to control them every step of the way.

“Happiness? What kind of naive nonsense is that? No matter how much sacrifice it takes, it must be made for the sake of everlasting peace. You don’t need the permission of people who fail to understand even that. A little patience is necessary, after all, for the great joy coming for all of us.”

I could see his point, but I still couldn’t agree with it. Ludora was trying to turn his eyes away from the individuals who make up a society. That just didn’t seem right to me at all.

“Well, I can’t abide by that. I feel like what you’re aiming at will just create more misery for everyone, and I can’t accept that.”

“Then you are a fool not to take my hand.”

“Fine with me. Look, what are you even sitting here being a king for? Is it because you want to act all fancy or have a bunch of toys to play with?”

“What are you talking about? It’s for the people, of course.”

“Yeah, right! I like to think I became a demon lord for the sake of all my people, too, but I still want more people than that to have a happy life. There’s gonna be sacrifices, of course, but I’m working myself hard to keep them to as few as possible. I can’t just make myself as cutthroat as you are about it!”

I’d love to make the world a better place without sacrifice, but that’s not possible. Look at all the people who died to make me a demon lord, for one. It’s not that I regret what I did—I still think they had it coming—but I’m not sure the victims’ relatives would be too convinced by my argument. That’s the cross I bear, and at the same time, Ludora has his own crimes he shouldn’t take so lightly.

When he heard my words, he stared at me for a moment, eyes burning. But he immediately regained his composure.

“How young,” he muttered, “and how naive.”

“Ludora?”

“Don’t worry, Velgrynd. It’s just been so long since I’ve been so passionate about anything. I’ve failed to persuade you, perhaps, but you seem far too talented to be destroyed by us.”

“That’s a bad habit you’re developing, Ludora. It was the same with Yuuki over there, wasn’t it? Your odd hoarding habit as of late confuses me.”

Quit treating us like toys, I wanted to shout, but I stopped myself. Negotiation was a nonstarter now, so it was time to prepare for battle. I looked over at my friends; they all looked ready to go. They had been doing their jobs during our conversation, which I was glad to see.

We had to beat Ludora here. I made up my mind. So I opened my mouth. But:

“But it’s too bad we failed to convince the demon lord Rimuru. His friend’s getting stronger than I thought, you know. He just refuses to listen to me, though, so I thought I’d punish him a little. I won’t strike enough of a presence if I leave Parallel Existence on, so how about I break out my full powers for the first time in a while?”

“Oh? He’s not listening either?”

“He never did heed a word I said. That’s exactly like him, but…”

I couldn’t help but turn my attention back toward Velgrynd. Veldora was on my mind. I didn’t think the invincible Storm Dragon could ever be defeated, but this was just an unimaginable monster here. There was no telling what would happen next, and out of nowhere, I was in a state of deep concern.

“Oh, are you worried about him? Then I’d suggest taking Ludora’s hand while you can. Then I won’t have to torment my little brother any further.”

Velgrynd brought up another screen. This showed Veldora in dragon form, wounded and fighting frantically.

“I’ve been meaning to ask you, but how did you ever tame him in the first place?”

“What?”

“I said, how did you get Veldora to listen to you?”

I didn’t, really.

“Veldora and I are friends. That’s all there is to it.”

“Oh? So you won’t tell me, then? That’s too bad.” Velgrynd exhaled, visibly disappointed. “In that case, I’m afraid I can’t go easy on him. In terms of magicules, at least, he’s even above me.”

Then Velgrynd disappeared.

This was surprising and upsetting in equal measures. We knew that Ludora’s goal was to stall long enough to defeat and subdue Veldora. I went along with that, because we were buying time for ourselves as well. Velgrynd’s Parallel Existence might be nearly invincible, but it has one drawback—rapid energy depletion. If you eliminate each individual body, you can also deplete the magicules divided between them. Those can’t be recovered immediately, so keep it up, and you can weaken her on an overall basis. The fewer magicules divvied up, the less often she can use her most powerful moves.

That was why I thought Veldora had an advantage… But looking at the screen, even one of Velgrynd’s Parallel Existences was a bit too much for Veldora to fully defeat. In fact, I could tell through our soul corridor that Veldora was growing flustered.

On that screen floating in midair, I saw the Velgrynd that was engaged with Testarossa’s group disappear. The three demonesses did their best to buy us time, but it was all for nothing. Not good, I thought. Velgrynd’s power was even beyond my expectations. So they had seen through our intentions…and just used them to ridicule us instead?

“Curious, I imagine? Well, I’ll give you one more chance after this battle is over. Perhaps you’ll change your mind once you see the error of your ways.”

Ludora’s voice seemed far away to me. It was awful, but there was nothing I could do. Now that Velgrynd was gone, I really should’ve tried defeating Ludora there, but for some reason, I had a bad feeling it wouldn’t work out. So I decided to watch Veldora fight.

In the second screen Velgrynd left for us, a crimson dragon roared. It was the clash of the century, a bout between two True Dragons—and it was about to get even more extreme.





COMMENTS

2 Comments

2 Weeks, 3 Days ago

Dude thats too op

3 Weeks, 6 Days ago

Rimuru had better get an upgrade for this velgrynd because this is so suffocating to read right now

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