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The Cardinal of Sin

Chapter Text

 

The Cardinal of Sin
Prologue

-cos-

"It's still unconscious."

"Of course it is. Don't worry, the [Constraint of Umbra] will hold."

The human looked over at the prisoner. It was, as mentioned, unconscious and strapped across the saddle of one of the spare horses. It was small. It was dressed in white clothing with a red scaled undershirt. It barely looked like it needed to be contained. Face down it looked almost like a human child, except for its ears. They were long and pointed.

It was not human. It was a dark elf.

That's why there were shackles secured around its wrists. They were not iron shackles. They were almost beautiful, nearly delicate. Filigree work traced its way over the material. No one in the Slane Theocracy knew what the material was. No spell and no metallurgist could identify it. Not that it mattered. It was one of the treasures. An artefact left to them by the Six Gods. Despite being six hundred years old, the shackles were immensely powerful. They could subdue any creature.

They were not one of the greater artefacts. Those had other arcane abilities. The shackles, the [Constraint of Umbra] were functional.

"I think I should worry!" Midge Hunnisett said softly, careful not to be heard by too many of those riding with them. The [Constraint of Umbra] cut all stats by seventy five percent. It was them which was keeping the elf restrained, not anything else.

"The dragon was a pain," Kaan Utkin admitted, not caring about discretion.

Durk Esser snorted. "If the Black Scripture's Extra Seat hadn't loaned us these artefacts we wouldn't be here."

"Yeah, but we are," Kaan pointed out, brandishing an oddly shaped spear.

The Treasury Guard hadn't loaned them any of the High Artefacts. Those were not allowed to be used unless you were Godkin, or had the authority from the Cardinals and were extremely lucky. Not all the High Artefacts would work for everyone, and even if they did, what was the point of putting some of them in the hands of relative weaklings? Their effects were negligible then. But she had loaned them some of the lesser Artefacts and in some ways, those were more useful. The High Artefacts had too many conditions on them. They were costly to use. These Lesser Artefacts were more suited for every day usage.

The spear, [Frysta Javelin] had been used to bring the dragon down, shooting it out of the sky. The Windflower Scripture had then swarmed the beast. They all had their assigned tasks. Several had put it down, hacking at its throat with huge axes in an effort to ensure that it did not get up. It was not their usual play. They were usually far more discreet when they gathered information.

"We need the information this little pest has," Durk nodded to Kaan Utkin.

They both looked at the dark elf. It seemed so innocent. So small. They knew it wasn't. One of their spies in the Empire had reported on events that had somewhat lead to the battle of Katze Plain. This elf was one of the Sorcerous Kingdom's emissaries. It was far stronger than it looked. And it had to have information.

"How did it come to this?" Midge asked.

It was a rhetorical question. They knew how this had happened.

Ainz Ooal Gown. Such a being should not exist. The Undead tipped all the carefully wrought balances.

"What was that moron Jircniv thinking?" Durk Esser spat. It might seem out of place for a mere citizen of a neighbouring country to speak of the Emperor so, but the Scriptures were not mere citizens and the Windflower Scripture had access to far more information than other citizens. To them, the Emperor seemed to be just the first domino.

The Empire officially bowed to the Sorcerous Kingdom. The Re-Estize Kingdom didn't but anyone who could rub two brain cells together knew it was simply a matter of time. Even those without brain cells knew! They had been weakened by generations of war against the Empire and with the battle of Katze Plains… The Sorcerous Kingdom had not made a move towards Re-Estize. It didn't have too. All it needed to do was wait.

"He's being selfish," Kaan said, shaking his head.

"Bowing to an Undead might secure your life for a day, or a week, or even a few years but…" Esser didn't need to complete the sentence. The Undead hated those with Life. It was a fundamental truth of the Undead. It was the whole reason they were Undead!

The Empire, and their Emperor might have turned the attention of the Undead King from them but was only temporary. Eventually the blood of conflict would not be enough to sate him and he would turn atrocity against all Humans in his realm. It was only a matter of time.

The Empire would have been far better served by fighting. Yes, thousands, possibly millions would have died but they would have died fighting. Better than waiting for the slaughter the Slane Theocracy knew would eventually come.

"Has anyone heard about the Holy Kingdom?" Kaan Utkin asked, as Azra Wehner pulled her horse in close. Durk rolled his eyes. It was a transparent attempt to steer him away from his usual rant about the Empire. They'd heard it before. No doubt they'd hear it again but for the moment he was willing to be distracted.

Azra shook her head. The news isn't good. "I haven't got all the details but Jaldabaoth and the Sorcerer King fought over the South Kingdom."

They all secretly hoped the next line would be 'and wiped each other out' but this was serious and they knew they weren't that lucky.

"The Undead won," Wehner told them. "I don't know what happened to Jaldabaoth," she added quickly. "The Black Scripture's Thousand Mile Astrologer is looking into it."

There were head shakes all round. The Thousand Mile Astrologer was a long standing bone of contention between the Black and Windflower Scriptures. The Windflower Scripture was the intelligence gathering arm of the Slane Theocracy, should not they have the ultimate spy? Yet the Black Scripture insisted that the position better suited them since they needed the information on their targets. Over time, the position, or the equivalent had passed between the Scriptures and was at present with the Black Scripture.

Still, none of the Scriptures could afford to lessen their effectiveness because of petty internal rivalries, not against the strength of the Sorcerous Kingdom. All the Scriptures would have to work together.

"The Holy Kingdom?"

Azra shook her head. They knew what it meant. The Holy Kingdom had sworn loyalty to the Sorcerous Kingdom. The Paladins that once might have stood with Humanity were now in the service of the Undead. It was a travesty.

"As far as we can tell the Undead is on the way back to E-Rantel."

"We should send the Holocaust Scripture," Esser noted.

"The Black," Kaan countered. The reports from the Katze Plain Battle weren't public but the key members of each Scripture knew what they said. They knew what it meant.

The sound of another horse drawing close ceased the conversation. "Windflower Scripture," the Captain said, his voice flat.

"Sir!"

The mood became strictly proper. The Captain's eyes examined the prisoner.

"Prisoner secure, Sir," Utkin reported. He reached out, fisting his hand in the elf's hair to pull up the head.

The elf's eyes were closed. Yet even with the damage caused from capture it was still beautiful. The bone lines were delicate. Kaan let the head fall.

"Make sure it stays that way," the Captain growled. He did not appear impressed.

"How much longer to the transport point?" Durk Esser asked respectfully.

The Captain looked around. Looking for spies was ingrained in him, even when riding through open grassland. He even looked upwards. But then the Captain was still alive. Others weren't.

"Another 10 minutes."

Azra Wehner jerked slightly. They all did. That meant the schedule had been moved up. What did the Captain know that they didn't? The man glanced at the dark elf.

That made more sense. Given the events in the Holy Kingdom, the Cardinals were probably eager to glean all the information they could. Utkin looked up at the sky. The Captain wasn't the only one watching. They all were. While they had gotten the Dark Elf away from the Dragon, leaving it bleeding where it fell, it had not been an easy battle.

The element of surprise had been on their side but without the artefacts they carried, each of the Windflower Scripture knew the battle would have ended very differently. They were not weak but they did not have the overwhelming combat power of the Black Scripture. Still, the Dark Elf was strong and they had taken losses. The horse the elf was slung over was not the only one carrying such cargo. The only difference was the elf was still breathing. There were no plans to kill the elf. The Slane Theocracy could not gather information through necromancy.

"What do they think this one knows?"

The Captain shook his head. "They aren't sure. The Thousand Mile Astrologer reports that this one was one of the Undead's Ambassadors to the Empire."

"So young?"

The Theocracy had been in an ongoing scuffle with the Elves. They knew how elves aged. This one was still young. Obviously several decades old but still a child by elvish standards.

The Captain just gave Kaan a look. He should have known better. Youth was deceptive with elves. "You know what happened." He didn't specify where.

Utkin nodded gravely. He reached out and tugged on the elf's ear. The creature didn't move. It was still unconscious. They knew what had happened in the Empire but they had also subdued this elf. They had had a stroke of luck when they had shot the dragon from the sky. The elf had been momentarily stunned but the battle had still cost them members.

"We'll get answers, Sir," Kaan said solemnly.

"We will."

-cos-

"Well, you are strong, elf," Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche spat. He was annoyed for a number of reasons. Not the least of which was that the elf prisoner just glared at them. It was still shackled but had proven remarkably resistant to everything they tried.

The other was that the Black Scripture refused to use [Downfall of castle and country] on the elf. It would have broken its resistance immediately and it would have happily told them whatever they wanted to know. With Lady Kaire's death, they were still searching for someone to hold its power but the Black Scripture claimed that while the artefact would control the elf, it was better to save its power for those they could not subdue through lesser artefacts. It was frustrating but it was the truth. The ongoing skirmish against the elves had given the Theocracy a few ways of holding elves. This one, with its heterochromatic eyes was no exception, though its raw physical

strength had given them some problems.

The elf's gear had been stripped from it. It was disconcerting to realise that all the gear, down to the clothes the elf had worn were all high level. Currently it was garbed in a hessian sack. It didn't appear to notice the rough weave of the material. The equipment was still being tested but none of it was reacting to them. It was as if it was charmed to react only to the elf.

They had no idea what some of the equipment was, though it was all beautifully crafted. There was one device that seemed to contain a woman's voice. The Elf had fought hard when they had taken that. More so than anything. It was obviously its trump card. Thus far though, it hadn't done anything except tell the time. There had to be more to it than that.

Zesshi Zetsumei was standing off to the side. Her expression was blank. She was always present to ensure the elf could not escape. The shackles [Constraint of Umbra] were still there but one idiot had removed them once, thinking that such a slight creature as the elf did not need such heavy shackles. They had paid the price for their idiocy, but the Black Scripture's Extra seat had been needed to subdue the elf.

She had been excited at first, then disappointed, when she had won. Cardinal Ihre Partouche knew that no one had bothered to tell her that her victory was tainted. Every scrap of food and water the elf was begrudgingly allowed was drugged. Not enough to kill but enough to ensure the creature was subdued, even without the [Constraint of Umbra]. Zetsumei hadn't had to fight the elf at its full strength. If she read the reports available to her as the Black Scripture's Extra Seat, she'd know that. It was standard procedure when dealing with an elf.

"You are very strong," Dominic repeated.

The elf looked disinterested. It always looked disinterested.

"I doubt we will be able to physically break you," Ihre Partouche continued with a cruel smile. "But there is more than one way to break a prisoner," he continued. As he spoke the door to the small cell opened and several men walked in. They were not the usual guards, or even members of a Scripture. These men had been brought in for this specific purpose. Even in a Kingdom that upheld the law, there were always those who broke them.

The men didn't even glance at Zesshi. They knew better than that. One of their number hadn't made it past the initial screening when he'd attempted to make a pass at her. The rest had been required to clean up what was left.

When the Cardinal was sure the elf had seen and understood the unspoken message, he smiled again. "This is your last chance," he invited, almost kindly. With the garb the elf had been captured in, it had been a surprise to find that it was female. Not that this wasn't an option, it was just others would have been required if the elf had been male.

The elf's eyes flashed. The green and blue taking on a hue of deep hatred. Dominic looked on. It would probably be more effective if the elf was older but he could feel the constrained power that was there. "I will not betray my Master, the ruler of the Forty One Supreme Beings, the one who stands above them all."

Zetsumei snorted. Dominic understood. Only the Six Gods could be considered Supreme Beings.

Yet the reference was interesting. Forty One Supreme Beings? What were they? Who were they? There was no doubt that the Undead Ainz Ooal Gown was far more powerful than any undead they had seen before but to call it a Supreme Being and a ruler of others..? That was going too far.

"You will learn, young elf, that there are only six Supreme Beings. The Gods of the Slane Theocracy." Dominic said calmly.

"And you will learn that my Master is greater than them all," the elf spat back.

He recognised the tactic and smiled thinly. Many spoke with such confidence but he had learned over the years of his life that everything had a breaking point. It was just a matter of finding it.

"Well, I regret that it has come to this, young one but I have given you every chance to speak. Perhaps later you will answer my questions." Dominic shook his head piously as he turned away. "I will return tomorrow."

He ignored the way the large men grinned. They were crude, foul beasts. Their only saving grace was that they were human. If not he would have seen to their execution already. To the rest of the Slane Theocracy these men were dead but the Church could use all men, even those who were trash.

The door of the cell thudded heavily behind him. Cardinal Dominic was surprised when he realised Zesshi was standing beside the door. "You aren't going to stay?"

"She was begging," Zetsumei shrugged.

He hadn't heard anything. The question was displayed in the raise of his eyebrow.

"If she was stronger, she wouldn't need to beg," Zesshi explained.

In an odd way, Dominic understood that. All the Scriptures, those who knew the Black Scripture's Extra Seat, knew what she was like. Zetsumei only respected strength and to her, the elf was not strong. It must have been the way the elf looked at her.

"Don't let her escape," Dominic instructed.

Zetsumei rolled her eyes. He overlooked the disrespect. With the Sorcerous Kingdom gaining ground, the Black Scripture's Extra Seat might be the only hope for Humanity. He could put up with some slight impiety.

-cos-

 

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 1 Declaration of War Part 1

-cos-

Ainz sat at his desk. His bony fingers rubbed at his temple. It was meant to be easy and in theory it was. He wanted to build a Kingdom that offered citizenship to all. Such a kingdom would protect and serve those from Nazarick. That's all he really wanted, to see the NPCs his friends had created grow and thrive. To see them safe in this new world.

In practice, it was a headache, even for a being made of bones. The latest problem was integrating the former Holy Kingdom. Unlike the Empire, who had applied for vassalage, the former Holy Kingdom was his by right of conquest. And conquest had effectively wiped out the upper echelons of power. In some ways it was good. Competent people, human or otherwise, could be promoted without fear or favour of the existing establishment but it meant more work for him.

His problem today was in coming up with a new leadership for the Holy Kingdom. They served him. That went without question. But they were distant enough that he could not govern them effectively from E-Rantel. Not that he wanted to. Suzuki Satoru knew that much about running a company. A CEO set the policy. The workers made it happen. While the CEO was responsible for the governance of the company, they were not involved in the everyday nitty gritty. If he started to govern the former Holy Kingdom, he would get tied up in their issues.

That meant he needed to assign the Kingdom to an underling, but who? Cocytus was already occupied governing the Lizardmen. Albedo was needed here. Demiurge was known to the Holy Kingdom as Jaldabaoth, a demon he had defeated, but whom had been spirited away by his loyal underlings. In the confusion caused by that, the remaining nobles of the Holy Kingdom had been killed, leaving no clear line of authority.

Given his demonstrated strength, and despite the fact he was undead, the survivors had pledged their loyalty to him. He was not foolish enough to believe they had done so willingly. He was the strongest choice and they needed his protection.

Which is why he now needed to provide them with a leader. Ainz was loath to promote someone from the Holy Kingdom. He was sure they would be loyal for the moment, but they would need oversight. But who could do it?

Shalltear needed to remain here. He couldn't allow her to be seen openly until those who had brainwashed her had been dealt with, and they were remaining stubbornly hidden. Sebas had established another identity in the Re-Estize Kingdom and until they were firmly under control, Ainz couldn't risk that identity. That would happen soon, but not soon enough to change the outcome of this decision. He could hurry it along but that was not efficient.

Already, the Re-Estize Kingdom was beginning to feel his will. They were still independent, but soon their living conditions would deteriorate. Food would be the obvious short fall. When that came, they would willingly trade their independence for his protection, and the resources his small kingdom could offer. Ainz smiled, though his body face did not move. It was ironic that his resources now included those of the Empire, who had done much of the work to weaken the Re-Estize kingdom. He would reap the benefit, and their food would supplement his in feeding the Kingdom until they recovered.

And by the time they had, they would be fully integrated into his Sorcerous Kingdom.

That would leave E-Rantel bordered by two controlled nations. Only the Theocracy would then be in direct contact with his Kingdom. They were the likely candidates for having controlled Shalltear but he wanted proof before he acted. As he had explained to the guardians, it was wasteful to strike on theory, if it let the real culprit escape.

Ainz shifted his hand. Rubbing his bony finger tips against his temple had done nothing. He laid his hand on his desk and tapped. The sound was dry. The watching maid didn't even flinch at the noise. If anything she seemed slightly distressed that he was behaving as such. Immediately Ainz sat up, pulling back his hand so he could not continue to tap.

"I am just thinking," he assured Feciora. She seemed to relax, which allowed Ainz to breathe an internal sigh of relief. The maids were always with him. He did not need to worry them on top of their normal duties.

Glancing at Feciora gave him a new thought. Could he put one of the maids in charge of the Holy Kingdom?

Suzuki Satoru almost laughed. No. The answer was that simple. He couldn't even leave the task to one of the Pleiades Maids. Narberal Gamma, who could pass as human would not even do. They all held too much contempt for Humans to be able to rule them effectively. The Homunculus maids could not do it either. They were too subservient, plus it would make them unhappy to be away from Nazarick. He hadn't missed the way some of them looked around apprehensively when he was in E-Rantel. He would have to work on that.

Maybe Tsuareninya could teach them? Ainz shook his head. Maybe not. She had more experience in this new world but not the right kind of experience. Neia would be better. The name let him consider. Could she be used to rule the Holy Kingdom… No. As a Squire she simply lacked the proper training. He could compensate for power but she would not know what decisions needed to be made.

Internally Ainz grimaced. Neia was much like himself in that manner. Neia would be best set to serve the new ruler. "Maybe Mare or Aura," he murmured.

Feciora sat upright at the noise but did nothing further. He had not yet commanded.

Ainz thought further. The two Dark Elves were both young, still children by the norms of their species but they were more than old enough in Human terms. They both commanded underlings and… How would they go about ruling a Kingdom? He didn't know.

Except, they would be loyal to him and Nazarick. And they would help break the Holy Kingdom's prejudices against non-humans. Yet at the same time, being elves, they were, physically at least, close to Human and thus would make the transition easier. It was a pity he didn't have someone like Momon for the Holy Kingdom to rally around.

Wait, could Pandora's Actor be the new ruler? No… He was needed to continue the fiction of Momon. There were too many positions he needed filled, and he had too few skilled subordinates.

No. That wasn't it, Ainz corrected his thoughts. The citizens of Nazarick were skilled. They were designed to protect Nazarick. They were not designed to rule others. They were very skilled in their fields and it was he who was asking them to go beyond their programming. That wasn't an easy task and he had to support them. He had to choose carefully and make sure they knew what to do, and knew they could ask for help.

That meant his choice was easy. Mare and Aura would guide the Holy Kingdom. He would make it clear to them that they could ask Albedo, Demiurge or even himself for advice and assistance should they need it. Yes, that would get around any issues nicely. The two elves would learn, and he could learn, while allowing Albedo and Demiurge, who both understood the wider plan far better than he, to guide them all.

And it would protect his dignity as the ruler of Nazarick. Ainz nodded to himself. That was the best plan. He cast his eyes over the work waiting for him. Going to the Holy Kingdom had not lessened it. Quite the contrary. The papers appeared to have spawned. Still, this decision could not be put off. After he had set that in motion, he could deal with the backed up paperwork.

Ainz rose. Feciora immediately jumped to her feet. "We are returning to Nazarick," he announced. Feciora nodded, opening the door for him. While he could have teleported from his office, he had established several areas for this. And if he wanted the others to use them, he had to set the standard.

-cos-

Ainz frowned as he entered the Amphitheatre of Nazarick's sixth floor. Feciora trailed behind him. Albedo was standing before Mare. The Dark Elf was twisting uncomfortably.

"Albedo?" Ainz questioned lightly.

The two floor guardians started before they both turned to him and knelt. He waved away their obeisance. "What is wrong?" he asked. Albedo was meant to be overseeing Re-Estize Kingdom. That she was here meant something was wrong. He felt a slight stir of concern.

"Ano…" Mare started. His usual shyness seemed even more pronounced.

"What is it Mare?" Ainz asked gently.

The Dark Elf looked up. Ainz felt the stir of concern heighten at the way Mare's eyes were strained. "It's… Aura, Lord Ainz."

"What about Aura?" Ainz coaxed.

"Aura has not returned from delivering orders to the Empire," Albedo answered for Mare.

"She is not delayed?" Ainz asked.

"No, Lord Ainz. I have already confirmed with Demiurge that he did not ask Aura to detour," Albedo confirmed.

Mare looked back down. He tried to look smaller.

Ainz nodded slowly. Having Demiurge ask Aura to go somewhere was not out of the question. The devil had many responsibilities. He was currently scouting which country would be best for conquest next. He may need assistance in that.

"There is more?" he asked. It was one of the things he had learned as Suzuki Satoru but the new world had truly honed his ability. If he asked specific questions he often missed information. It was better to be vague and let the respondent pick out the important details. This applied to the citizens of Nazarick as well.

Albedo glanced to Mare and Ainz turned his attention to the Dark Elf. "Lord, Lord Ainz," Mare stuttered. He wanted to make it easier for Mare but Ainz sensed this was one time when he couldn't. "I've…" The Dark Elf took a deep breath. "I've tracked the dragon," Mare finished in a rush.

"The dragon?" Ainz asked. He knew Mare had two dragons as familiars. They were both level 90 and had been gained from one of the cash gambling machines in Yggdrasil.

"I've track, tracked it," Mare made himself even smaller.

"Where is it?" Ainz asked. He tried to keep his voice gentle but by the shiver that passed through Mare some of his worry must have been obvious.

"The… the…" Mare continued shivering. "The Katze Plains." The Dark Elf's breath was laboured. "It hasn't moved." That last came out as a whisper but Ainz could hear the almost plaintive cry within the elf's voice.

Ainz felt a further stab of worry. "Albedo, collect a team, immediately," he commanded. "Meet us at the surface."

The succubus nodded and hurried off. She sensed it was better not to question this.

Ainz held out his hand to Mare. "Rise," he commanded. "I am not upset with you," he assured the Dark Elf.

Mare pulled himself upwards and with a shaking hand took Ainz's skeletal hand. "Feciora, I will need you to remain in Nazarick," he commanded.

"Yes, my Lord." This was most likely going to be combat and she was not a combat maid. It was not disloyal to be dismissed in such circumstances.

With a flash of light, Ainz teleported to the surface of Nazarick, taking Mare with him. He looked at the forest the Dark Elf had made. "You do good work," he said, gesturing slightly.

Mare blushed but the colour quickly drained away.

"What is it?" Ainz asked, concerned. For the moment, they were alone. A part of him was revelling in the relative lack of eyes upon him.

"I… I can't sense the dragon," Mare admitted.

For a moment Ainz didn't understand. Then he remembered that the dragons were Mare's familiars. There was no way the Dark Elf should not be able to sense the dragon. He looked sharply at him. Mare trembled but remained firm.

"We will be there soon," Ainz assured him.

There was a noise from behind. Mare turned quickly. Ainz was slower. This was Nazarick, he was safe here and his magic had not detected anything. From the shadows, several Death Knights marched. They were accompanied by Pale Riders. Albedo, in full armour walked at the head. Ainz nodded, approving the selections Albedo had made but he wanted one more.

"Eternal Death," he said, summoning the undead. He spent some time every day making undead, though now he was focusing on creating high tier undead. Being his creations, they were completely loyal to him. One of the Eternal Deaths he had made appeared. A wave of cold passed through those still living before it controlled it's abilities.

"We are ready, my Lord," Albedo said.

"Where is it, Mare?" Ainz asked. "Direct the gate," he added, extending his power such that the Dark Elf could direct the Gate spell. He felt Mare's power mesh with his briefly and with a flare of dark light, the Gate opened.

Ainz stood to the side as several Death Knight's rushed through. This was standard procedure from Yggdrasil, when going to an unknown situation. Let the lower summons go through first. He didn't feel apprehensive about that. Several Pale Riders went through next. Ainz recognised that they had activated their abilities to be immaterial.

He maintained a link to all his summons. The actual link was generally weak, especially since he had now summoned so many but when he concentrated, Ainz could distinguish information from the individuals. Especially when he had been in close proximity to them or they were trying to tell him something. Thus he sensed that the coast was clear.

He nodded to the others. Albedo strode forth and Ainz followed in her wake, Mare trailing behind him now as Feciora had done. He didn't even notice. There were more important things to worry about.

-cos-

He smelled it before he saw it. The scent of rotting flesh was strong. A Death Knight was waiting beside the gate.

"My Lord, there is nothing here," it reported.

Ainz nodded but Mare cried out, rushing out from the gate to see his beloved dragon. Its corpse is what smelt. He felt a stir of anger in his breast. Not enough to trigger his limiter but it could quickly build. That dragon represented quite a bit of cash, and it was dead!

Except, what had brought it down?

"Mare! Information," Aniz ordered.

Mare was not a ranger like his sister but he possessed enough spells to be able to read the situation. And it would do good to take his mind off the obvious implications. Aura was not here. There were signs of a struggle. There was blood and trampled grass. Not just from the Death Knights. And even without having any super sensory abilities, Ainz could see the mangled wreck of the dragon's throat. He didn't know what had made those wounds but he knew enough to know they were fatal.

The gruesomeness of the situation didn't disturb him the way it would have if he was truly Suzuki Satoru. He had seen enough bodies and death since coming to the new world. What was disturbing him was that this was a citizen of Nazarick. It was not a floor guardian, or an area guardian. Nor was it one of the NPCs created by his friends. It was an Yggdrasil Monster that came from one of the gambling cash machines but it was still a member of Nazarick. A level 90 member and it was dead.

Something truly powerful had to have taken it out. Especially if Aura was not here. The dragon was not her familiar but she was a beast tamer. She would have worked effectively with it to fight.

Mare waved his staff. The tip glowed. Ainz waited. The dragon's body glowed and spectral images appeared. They were hard to see in the bright sunlight that marked the day's weather but the entire party saw them. Ainz felt his eyes dart through the figures until he saw the one he wanted. Aura.

The Dark Elf was staggering. The dragon beside her was frozen. Its eyes were furious but it wasn't moving. One wing was crumpled beneath its body. In the dual vision offered by the spell, Ainz could see that the wing was still crumpled.

Surrounding them both were humans. Ainz didn't recognise them but he did recognise the sigils on their tabards. The Slane Theocracy.

He looked around further, attempting to ignore the way Aura was continuing to reel. It was painful to see the young elf like that. There was a large group of Humans. They were spaced around the dragon, all keeping a safe distance. Several of the more brawny ones were coming forward but one particularly large man was staying in the background. He held an oddly shaped spear. Ainz recognised it.

"[Frysta Javelin]," he murmured. That explained the dragon. It didn't make him any happier but it explained it. The javelin had been used to freeze the dragon in flight, bringing it down. The men attacking now had killed it while it was weakened. Their axes were cutting deep into the dragon's throat. From the blood on the grass, it had bled out while being unable to move.

"My Lord?" Albedo asked.

"The [Frysta Javelin] is from Yggdrasil," Ainz explained. "It is capable of casting a temporary freeze on any animal." It was used to subdue non-humanoid summons. "But it is only effective on one creature at a time, and has a limited cast per day." Plus the item was easily destroyed. It was one of the cash items of the game.

Was there another player behind the Slane Theocracy? He had made his name known. Ainz Ooal Gown would be a name any player should recognise but maybe they couldn't contact him? Or maybe they were his enemy. Was that Player from one of the Human Only guilds? Surely they would recognise by now that such distinctions were fake…

Mentally Ainz shook his head, refocusing his attention on Aura. Mare looked stressed but he could not relieve the other elf yet.

Aura was still distressed. The fall had probably knocked her out. There were several humans approaching her now, though others were arrayed carefully. Ainz could see the flash of magic as they cast spells. Nothing would hurt Aura. While she was not capable of attacking with magic, her defence was formidable.

"Those filthy animals," Albedo snarled.

Usually he would have encouraged Albedo to a more reasonable attitude. At the moment, watching Aura be attacked, Ainz felt no need to censure the Guardian's Overseer.

He didn't recognise the humans but he could see that the gear they carried was of reasonable quality. That lent credence to the thought that a Player or more likely Players were behind the Slane Theocracy.

Ainz hissed when he saw it. Aura had driven her attackers back. He could see her whip tracing amongst the attackers. There was blood on the grass that corresponded to her efforts but one of them was getting close. The woman was quick. She did not appear to be attacking. She wasn't attacking. He recognised what she was carrying though.

So did Albedo. "Animals!" She growled.

The [Constraint of Umbra] had been something the Shitty Dev's had created about midway into Yggdrasil. As the time had gone on it had become both more difficult and easier for new players to level up when there were so many older, more experienced players around. The Shitty Dev's had made the shackles as a way for lower level players to tackle harder quests and thus level up more quickly. They blocked about seventy-five percent of the difference in power between you and your target's ability, though if someone of his level had used them, they would have done nothing.

The older players had not liked them and had retaliated by ensuring they had possession of the item. A few still went to lower level players, those who could keep their mouth shut about having them. Still, that meant it was most likely that the Player or Players in the Slane Theocracy were high level. He knew that from their supposed possession of [The Downfall of Castle and Country] but this was further confirmation.

Ainz felt his anger rise. Still the limiter didn't kick in. He'd think about what that meant later. Mare cried out when the woman got close enough to Aura. She slipped what she was carrying on to Aura's wrist. The fight was quickly over after that.

The damage Aura must have taken from the fall, combined with the effects of the [Constraint of Umbra] allowed the humans to capture her. Mare's spell faded. It had shown them enough. The Dark Elf fell to his knees. Ainz understood but he could not have mercy, not yet.

"Mare," he snapped. There was anger in his voice. The Elf reacted, as did his summons. They shuffled. Mare looked up at him, startled by the steel lacing his tone. "How long ago did this happen?" Ainz ignored Albedo's muttering. He agreed with her. The Slane Theocracy would pay for this.

"At least three days," Mare managed to say. His voice quavered but he managed not to stutter.

Ainz took a deep breath, though he didn't need to. Three days meant that the attackers were long gone. By now, they would be back in the Theocracy. This was obviously a planned attack. They would waste no time in transport. He wouldn't.

Which meant this attack happened while he was on his way back from the Holy Kingdom. Rage threatened to envelop him. He felt himself tremble. He felt sick.

Then the emotion dissipated. His limiter washed the emotion from him. Ainz didn't notice but those gathered did. They breathed a little easier once he was forcibly calmed. The wash of his aura had been powerful, and the rage potent. It was not directed to them. All of them were unsure what might happen if it was directed at them but it was a reminder that their Master was a Supreme Being.

Aura was gone. If they kept the [Constraint of Umbra] upon her then she would not be able to escape. That was not her failing but already Ainz knew that she would think it was. He dismissed that problem. It could be dealt with later. For now he had to get Aura back.

That meant he had to find her within whatever location they had taken her. Once Aura was back in Nazarick, other, more aggressive solutions for the Slane Theocracy could be applied. He was attempting to be the reasonable foil to the violence offered by Demiurge or Albedo but if this was the outcome…

Well, there had only ever been one solution when someone kidnapped one of your Guild. Ainz Ooal Gown had proven that in Yggdrasil, that one time. He would do Punitto Moe proud.

"Mare, we will get Aura back," Ainz promised the Dark Elf. "And those responsible will know that death is a mercy they do not deserve," he added, attempting to sooth Albedo's ire and his own. He supposed he should be thankful that Aura's World Item [Picture of Nature and Nation] was in Nazarick. She was meant to be in safe territory. That was an oversight which would be corrected immediately.

"Eternal Death," he issued the command. The thief type undead appeared before him. "Track them," he ordered, not needing to explain further. He needed to know where they had gone. "Take several Pale Riders with you, though they are to hang back unseen. When you find information, report through them."

The Eternal Death was silent but Ainz knew it had understood and several Pale Riders broke off from the group as the undead began circling the dragon's corpse, before heading off over the grass. He watched for a few moments before turning his attention back to the gathered party.

"Albedo, Nazarick is on alert," he said. She nodded. She knew what that meant. So did Mare. The Dark Elf trembled. Albedo didn't move. She wouldn't budge until he made to return to Nazarick, and only then would she follow his commands. Her first duty was to ensure his safety.

That left the dragon. It was not a POP summon. It would not automatically respawn. It was one of the cash summons. It was irreplaceable. He could not resurrect as he could an NPC. "Mare," he tried to be kind.

"I-I know," the Dark Elf said, anticipating what he was to say.

No! He was not going to let the Slane Theocracy have even a tiny victory.

Ainz glared at the corpse. He had not yet made undead today so he still had all his summoning ability. He could only create four upper-tier undead each day, but if he combined the summoning into two uses, he could create two level 90 undead. Thus far, they had yet to find sufficiently strong bodies for those summons to last indefinitely, like the Death Knights, but the dragon was level 90. Its corpse was stronger than a human or demihuman.

It was a risk but it was better than nothing.

"Have we gathered everything here?" He asked.

Albedo nodded, as did the remaining Pale Riders. Mare looked uncertain and flinched when he directed his gaze towards the Dark Elf. "Mare?"

"Ev… everything has b-b-been gathered," the young elf replied.

"Good, then after one more duty, we shall return to Nazarick," Ainz said. He raised one hand, sweeping back the hood of his robe. He didn't do it often. There was a dark halo like glow behind him that the robe helped hide. It wasn't that he was ashamed of it, it was more it highlighted the differences in species. If anyone was watching he wanted them to see it though. He suspected the Theocracy would be watching and after the last time, they probably knew the limit of his protection.

"I am sorry Mare, I cannot raise this dragon," he said. The elf already knew it. "But I will not let the Theocracy win," he added.

That caused Mare to tilt his head at him, quizzically. Ainz raised one ringed hand, pointing it at the dragon. "Raise upper-tier undead," he intoned, activating his ability. He pushed all four of his daily uses into the command.

For a moment he thought nothing had happened. Then black mist rose to cover the dragon. Mare gasped. He knew what was happening but had never felt his Master's magic at this strength. This was why Lord Ainz was a Supreme Being.

Even the other undead felt the power of the command. Quickly the dragon's body was covered in the black mist. Those watching could only see the outline. Ainz felt more happening within the mist. It seeped into every part of the dragon, pushing through dead scales and muscles easily. It went into the ligaments and tendons, soaked into the bones of the dragon, filling them with negative energy. He knew what he was trying to create. He let the magic flow freely from him. Usually it was a skill to create upper-tier undead. This was something more.

From within the mist, something moved. No one gasped. They knew this was his power. The dragon's body rose until it was standing once again on its four legs. The mist took on the shape of the dragon as its wings extended.

Finally a roar sounded and the mist vanished. Ainz looked up at his creation. Like all the undead he created he could feel it. The chains of command laid heavily upon it and were his to use. The dragon was changed. It looked almost like a Skeletal dragon and anyone unversed with such things would think it was. Those who were even slightly sensitive, anyone with life in their bones looking upon it would know it wasn't. It far outclassed a mere Skeletal dragon. A heavy aura hung around it. Wisps of it seems to rise from the dragon's bones making it seem as if it was steaming.

Ainz knew it wasn't. That was negative energy. It was potentially lethal to anything living it touched, and already the grass was dying around the newest undead. He smiled, looking up at it, especially as the dragon's red eyes looked down at him. It shifted, moving to bow. This sign of its obedience was pleasing.

"Mare is your Master," Ainz instructed his newest creation. "You are to treat his orders as if they were my own." Ainz was not concerned at the negative energy coming from the dragon. All of Nazarick's citizens possessed protection against Negative Energy. They had to. He wasn't the only undead in the Guild. It was the same as him keeping those items that only worked on the living.

The undead dragon nodded. If the instruction confused it, it did not display it.

"Now, let us return to Nazarick," Ainz ordered, gesturing slightly to open the portal wider. He strode forth first. He understood that even now, his underlings would want him to return to safety first.

Even so, there was a lot of work to be done.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 1 Declaration of War Part 2

-cos-

"You have found Aura?"

The statement served as a question. Rubedo wanted to answer yes, because her master, the Absolute Ruler of Nazarick deserved to have whatever he desired laid at his feet but she could not give that answer and be truthful.

"I believe so, my Lord," she replied.

"Explain?" The demand was not harsh. It was a miracle given the circumstances. Their Lord was still so understanding. It actually comforted her. If she was captured, if any of them were captured, her Lord would be feeling the same. If the perpetrators knew what was good for them, they would already be prostrating themselves.

"We have been searching for evidence of the [Downfall of Castle and Country]," Rubedo began explaining. "The Slane Theocracy is the most likely target so our efforts have been directed there. But their leadership is insular."

She sensed her master's nod. While he had promised vengeance on those who had brainwashed Shalltear Bloodfallen, her master did not let anger cloud his judgement, as it did sometimes with her elder sister, Albedo. Instead, he focused his attention. He had explained to all of Nazarick that it did no good to take action against the likely perpetrator if the real one got away. The Supreme Being had a very direct sense of justice.

"My team may all pass as human so we have been making inroads. The Theocracy is mourning the death of someone who could be connected to Shalltear's incident but I will deliver further details of that afterwards. For the last few days the regular schedules of the guards have been disrupted."

It was a flimsy piece of information but Rubedo could tell her master was interested. "Then last night, Susan got several peons drunk." Her disgust at how easy it had been to manipulate the humans was evident in the way she spat out the sentence. There was no problem with getting drunk. Nazarick had a bar which served all of its citizens. But to get drunk because some pretty girl cozened up to you and to then spill secrets? That was contemptible. Still, it served Nazarick so Rubedo calmed herself.

"The peons said that the Theocracy is questioning an elf in their secure facilities."

"How do you know it is Aura?" her Master probed. His excitement was still contained.

"We considered that it might be a regular elf, my lord," Rubedo admitted. The Slane Theocracy is engaged in a long term skirmish against the elven nation, so it was a valid concern. "But regular elf prisoners are not kept in the secure facilities. The plebs were insistent that this elf was special," she reinforced the information for her master.

"I see," the Supreme Being was accepting of her reasoning. "Did they say anything about Aura's equipment?"

Rubedo felt her eyes widen. She hadn't thought of that and the Floor Guardian was meant to have been equipped with a World Item.

"Be at ease," Lord Ainz said gently, sensing her distress. "As Aura was travelling in what was meant to be friendly territory, her World Item [Picture of Nature and Nation], is safe in Nazarick."

"I do not know where her equipment is, Master," Rubedo admitted.

"No matter," he dismissed it. "I am more concerned about Aura."

Rubedo felt her loyalty deepen. Not that her loyalty to the Absolute Ruler of Nazarick was in any question but with that statement, that he was concerned firstly about them before their equipment only reinforced it. Their Master was so gentle, so humble. She did not know how anyone, even a worthless human could not see that! They should be honoured that Lord Ainz was gracing this world with his presence. No! She quickly shunted that thought aside. If he wasn't, that would mean all the Supreme Beings had abandoned Nazarick and she could not contemplate that.

"I will send you several wraiths," Lord Ainz said, "or would a Hanzo be better?" he altered the statement to a question.

Hanzo's were level 90. They cost a lot to summon and while the wraiths were the personal summons of the Supreme Being, they were easier to replace. "Wraiths are more than sufficient," Rubedo hastened to assure her Master.

"Umhu," he accepted her words. "If you need a Hanzo, request it." There was a harsh undertone to his voice. Thankfully it was not directed against her but Rubedo knew that if her mission failed due to bad information, the Supreme Being would not be pleased.

"The wraiths will be sufficient against the Theocracy's powers of observation," Rubedo assured her Master.

"Scout everything. Find Aura. Find her equipment and then mount a rescue mission. Her equipment is secondary to Aura's safety," Lord Ainz instructed. "How long will you need?"

"We have begun mapping already. Once the Wraith's arrive, we will be able to move within twenty-four hours."

"I will have Mare waiting on the outskirts with transportation."

"Is that wise?" Rubedo gasped when she realised she'd questioned her master! How could she? The Supreme Being always thought ahead of them. While Aura being captured was not considered in his plans, once the reality was known he would have adjusted. There would be more reasons for Mare's presence that she knew.

"He will not be alone," Lord Ainz assured her. He did not appear upset at her question.

Rubedo breathed a silent sigh of relief. Demiurge had made it clear. While the operation in the Holy Kingdom had been successful, the citizens of Nazarick could not afford to disappoint their Master, lest he decide to leave like the others. She did not want to be responsible for that.

"I understand," Rubedo said. Mare would be concerned about his sister. Rubedo would be in the same position if Albedo had been taken. The Dark Elf would want to help. Lord Ainz was allowing Mare to help while still keeping him safe. It was a masterful move which only highlighted how much the Supreme Being cared.

"Good. The Wraiths will be with you by nightfall."

She nodded as the spell was released. It was only then that she allowed herself to gasp. Lord Ainz was… She didn't talk to him often. She was not a Floor Guardian or an Area Guardian. The Supreme Being had little need to speak to her but he was her ultimate Master and it almost hurt that he was so thoughtful.

Rubedo shivered. His power was indescribable. It was not of this world, so it was only proper that this world bow to him. The Slane Theocracy had made a grave mistake, and she was honoured to be the vanguard of the attack.

This mission had been difficult. Interacting with inferior humans was distasteful but it had put her in this situation. It didn't change her feelings towards the plebs but she was thankful for the opportunity to serve her Master. That was the only thing she'd thank them for.

Rubedo stretched her senses out, contacting those who had accompanied her. They needed to know their new orders. By this time, in two days, they would be back at Nazarick. They needed to do everything they could in the meantime.

-cos-

Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche ignored the glare of the elf. Hitting it had done little to correct its attitude and truthfully, unless it was someone from one of the Scriptures applying the force, it seemed to do little damage to the creature, even though it was weakened by the [Constraint of Umbra]. All that meant was that the elf was resilient but it was hurting. He could tell that much. The other means of persuasion were taking a toll on it. But for the moment it was remaining stubborn.

It was shackled with its legs spread wide, though Dominic could tell that the chains had been strained. With Zesshi watching the elf had not been able to make another escape attempt. When the Black Scripture's Extra Seat was not available, others were stationed to guard it. Its arms were above its head, wrists held together by the [Constraint of Umbra]. The hessian sack hid any bruising but given the elf's demonstrated toughness Dominic wasn't sure if there would be visible damage.

Still, he could tell it was hurting. He'd seen such defiance before. It was only a matter of time before it broke.

"We don't have to do this," Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche said gently. He said it every day, morning and night.

"I will not betray the Supreme Being," the elf hissed.

"Is it really betrayal? You haven't even heard what I want to know." The insinuation came easily with the suggestion. The process to break a prisoner required both force and understanding.

The elf snorted. That was new. "I am ashamed," it said, looking downwards.

Ihre Partouche knew better than to get close. The elf had used this ploy once before. Zesshi had been put out at having to drag what was left of the man out when the elf had bashed its head into the moron who had come too close. Even drugged and restrained, she was still physically strong. The men who had been educating the elf understood that more than others. Still they enjoyed it even when they had to have several hold the elf still so that one of them could take a turn. They were barely better than animals. Their only saving grace was that they were Human otherwise he would have executed them already.

"I cannot call myself a servant of my Master when I am this weak!" The elf seemed genuinely distressed.

"You are not weak," Cardinal Ihre Partouche assured the elf. "Your Master will understand."

"No!" The elf hissed, its defiance restored. "You are unworthy to even consider that. I am unworthy to stand in his presence, but you…" The elf spat. It didn't seem to know what it wanted to say but Dominic could see the fire in its eyes. The hatred had returned.

"I am trying to be kind. I am trying to be merciful," Dominic said. "But you are making it difficult. I do not want to know much. All you need to do to make everything stop is tell me."

"I will not betray my Master!"

Cardinal Ihre Partouche nodded sympathetically. "I understand. I will leave for now but I ask you to think. This will go on. Tonight. Tomorrow. The next day. It will go on until you are ready to speak. How long it goes on is entirely up to you." He paused, allowing the elf to think. He always paused now. "When I leave, you will be left alone for a few hours, but then they will return. I understand they have some interesting plans for tonight.

The elf glared at him. He couldn't tell what it was thinking but Dominic was surprised when its expression slowly changed. A smile slid across the elf's features. It was not a nice smile and for a moment Cardinal Ihre Partouche felt a sliver of doubt. "One day soon, you will be begging me to die," the elf announced coldly.

At that, despite the conviction in the elf's voice, he almost laughed. Most prisoners made such a pronouncement. It was simply part of the process. They were further along than he thought if it was saying that.

He returned the elf's smile, feeling reassured. The elf's expression didn't falter. "And I will say no. I won't let you die, not until you see everything you have worked to achieve destroyed. Your country will burn, your citizens will scream and you will watch on, powerless against the power of my Master."

"And you?" Zesshi asked. She actually appeared interested in the answer.

The elf glanced at her. "I will be at my Master's feet, begging his forgiveness for my weakness." There was not a moment of hesitation in the response.

Cardinal Dominic supposed that it was only natural. While the Theocracy didn't want to admit it, this Ainz Ooal Gown was one of the most powerful Undead they had ever heard of. The Undead was powerful enough to command loyalty from his followers. Dominic wasn't sure if it was fear, or if they were genuinely that loyal. The elf was one of the living though, surely it knew of the Undead's hatred?

"If you are so weak, your Master will not rescue you. Which means you will remain here until you tell me what I want to know. It is up to you, and only you. Not your Master. Not me. Not your guards. It is all your choice. I would think of that tonight, and know that you can end this whenever you want."

He turned away. Zesshi moved with him. When she wasn't here to guard - she did need some rest time - other members of the Scriptures watched over the prisoner. None of them entered the cell but the elf knew they were there. The door to the cell closed quietly behind them.

"How much longer do you think?" He asked.

Zetsumei appeared to think. "It is hard to tell," she admitted.

Dominic accepted that answer. This wasn't Zesshi's strong point. "We will apply more pressure, starting tomorrow. While we have not heard from the Undead, it will be planning something."

"The Undead won't be rescuing that elf." The way she said it made it obvious she was questioning why anyone would rescue such a weak servant. She still hadn't read the reports.

"No, it won't be," Cardinal Ihre Partouche agreed. "But it would be nice if it tried. Being able to show the elf evidence of its master's failure would help break it."

Zesshi's heterochromatic eyes, so different from the elf's looked at him carefully.

He chuckled. He'd known her for a long time. He knew what she was suggesting. "No, we will not manufacture evidence."

She snorted. She'd known him for a long time as well. She could hear the 'yet' tacked on.

"It will break soon," he said firmly. They had to break it and while others might flinch at the task, the Slane Theocracy would not. For the continued survival of Humanity, they could not.

-cos-

"This is your first night, so just stick with me, kid," Fiarce Althaus told Petru Ware. The kid was new to the guard and still had delusions of grandeur. Sure you had to have some relationship to a Godkin to be in the guard, but it didn't have to be a direct relationship. And the Six Gods knew that if Petru was Godkin, he sure as hell wouldn't be here!

He'd be with the Scriptures. And even if Ware wasn't Godkin, if he had more skill, he'd be in training. No, Petru was like him. They were members of a Godkin bloodline but they weren't in the direct line of succession and they had only gotten the diluted blood. Still, being a Guard was better than some of the alternatives. The food was good and in the capital the job was easy. Nothing ever penetrated this far into the Theocracy.

There was still a slim chance Petru would have some unknown skill. There was still training to do, and it wasn't unheard of for someone to be promoted from the Guard to the Knights. It just wasn't usual.

"So what do we do?" Ware asked.

Fiarce got the impression Petru wanted to brandish his sword with that question.

"Calm down, kid," he chuckled. "We're just the Cathedral Guards. The outside guards. All we do is make sure the drunks aren't trying to sleep in the Cathedral, and that no one makes off with the silverware."

"Oh," Petru was crestfallen.

"It's a good gig. It's better than the City Guard, or the Night Patrol."

Ware didn't look convinced.

Althaus rolled his eyes. "The Night Patrol has to slog around the city, rain, hail, snow or shine. And the Guard has to deal with anyone coming in or out of the city. Believe me, you don't want those jobs. We get to shelter in the Cathedral if things are bad, and the only people who really come here, already know where they are going. We don't have to deal with that sort of thing."

"Yeah, I suppose." Ware sounded disappointed. "But we aren't knights," he gave his reason.

"Thank the Six Gods for that," Fiarce said, loud enough to be heard.

"You might think it's all great, Ware, but have you ever tried putting on that armour? It's bloody heavy. Not to mention the Knight's just have to stand there. They guard the entries to the Catacombs. That means they remain standing there, for hour after hour. Yeah, not the sort of job I want."

"But…"

Fiarce had heard all the objections before. But the Knights got more respect. Yeah, it was nothing compared to the Scriptures. But the Knights got to see the Cardinals. Yeah, and all they did was open the doors for them. The Cardinals didn't see them. But the Knights had a cooler job. On the surface it was, but it was still a daily grind. And the risks were far higher. If anyone was going to attack, they'd bypass the guards. Anyone who could attack would be able to pass themselves off as having legitimate business within the Cathedral. Attacking a guard would just alert the Knights, so it was far safer to be a guard.

On any other night, that would have been true.

But it was not so tonight, when a squad from Nazarick was on a mission.

Both Fiarce and Petru never felt the blows that killed them. Their bodies hadn't even hit the ground when the Knights guarding the entry to the catacombs were attacked.

-cos-

Haakon Orban was a Knight of the Theocracy. In addition to meaning that he had some tenuous blood connection to the Godkin, it meant that he had some sort of talent. It was a very minor talent. Those with more developed or useful talents were taken into the Scriptures. It was one of the contradictions of the Theocracy. To be a member of a Scripture, all you needed was Talent but to be a member of the Cathedral Guards and Knights, you needed to be related to a Godkin.

Of course, to wield the truly powerful artefacts of the Six Gods, one had to be a Godkin or have an insanely powerful Talent. Nothing like the smidgen of power that the Knights carried.

In Orban's case, his Talent was perfect night vision. Which was a curse in its own way. It meant he always got the night shift. And the Commander always joked about how much money they would save when they didn't need to light the lanterns. It wasn't fair! Still, it was better than Indrek. Indrek's talent was an increased sense of smell. That really sucked, especially in the latrines. The Cathedrals had the best latrines but, there was still smell. Indrek had wanted to be trained as a tracker but there was little call for that amongst the Cathedral Knights.

Because of his talent, Haakon was stationed in one of the darker corridors. All the corridors of the catacombs were lit. Far be it for the Cardinals to stub their toes in darkness when they travelled between the Cathedrals. But the lanterns were expensive, so during periods of low activity, at night, for example, every third one was extinguished. It didn't bother Orban, he could see just fine but some of the other night shift workers had issues. Privately, Haakon thought it was the Cardinal's way of ensuring that they stayed at their post. If you couldn't see, you wouldn't move. It was a primal reaction.

But night shift was boring. At least during the day you got to see people traversing the corridors. The Cardinals used the catacombs to travel between the Cathedrals. It was safer than taking carriages. Other functionaries of the Theocracy used them too and occasionally you got to see one of the Scriptures. They never paid attention to the guards, but you could see them. Still, perhaps night shift was better. You could be more relaxed at your post. At least, that's what Haakon told himself as he stood bolt upright.

He'd been surprised earlier in the night when Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche had passed through looking like a thunder cloud. He knew what that meant. The prisoner was still resisting. It was somewhat impressive and Orban wondered how much longer the elf would hold out. It hardly mattered. The Theocracy would get the information, one way or another. They always did.

Still, Orban sometimes wondered why they needed to stand guard at night. Obviously, they needed some guards. He wasn't that stupid. But did he really have to guard a store room? Because he knew that's what he was guarding. The room beyond was small. It was magically locked. Within it, was supposedly the captured elf's equipment.

Okay, so maybe a guard was needed here, but equally they could put a reinforced guard on the entrance and leave it at that. No one would be dumb enough to attack the home of the Scriptures. That was asking for trouble.

Haakon possessed perfect night vision but even for him, the first sign of trouble came when he heard a screeching noise. It sounded like something cutting at metal. It wasn't until after he'd identified the sound that he felt pain.

It blossomed in his chest and he tasted blood. The corridor shifted and Haakon frowned as he realised he was looking up at it from the ground. There was someone standing at the door to the store room. Someone he'd never seen.

"Oh, you are still alive." The voice was beautiful, light and musical but the tone was disinterested. "I'll have to correct that."

Haakon watched as the figure raised one hand. He could see blood dripping from the claws. It was then that he knew it was his blood and that the figure standing there was not human. It turned to him. He could see breasts and then the claws flashed and he knew no more.

-cos-

Lojze Puerta saw the shadows move an instant before something slashed at where he had been standing. Sparks flew from the stonework of the wall. He drew his weapon, looking down at the corridor.

"It appears we have a vermin infestation." Burak Cucinotta murmured. He had seen the shadows move too.

They might be higher seat members from the Holocaust Scripture but they were still members of a Scripture. That meant they were far more skilled than the Cathedral Knights. And with the skill of the attackers, those Knights wouldn't have had a chance.

Several indistinct shapes separated themselves from the shadows.

"Neat trick," Lojze muttered but the bravado did not cover his concern. It was more than a neat trick, it was a powerful trick.

"While I don't like allowing dogs to live, stand aside." The voice came from everywhere. It was female but it reverberated with power. "My mission has nothing to do with you."

Burak snorted. "You want our prisoner," he snapped back, though Puerta could see how his eyes were trying to figure out which of the figures had spoken. They were still wreathed in shadow, though their general form was human. Around them other shadows seemed to flicker, as if there were more beings just waiting to step into the light.

Something flickered on the ground. Lojze stabbed his sword towards it. He felt his blade hit something but it was gone before he could properly penetrate it. He resisted the urge to spin. The thing was going into the cell.

"Focus," Cucinotta murmured.

"Stand aside," the woman's voice spoke again. There was a definite note of impatience.

"You will not take our prisoner," Lojze replied this time. He knew what Cucinotta was attempting.

So far there had been no alarm but it was only a matter of time, and anyone as skilled as these attackers were would know that. It would make getting out harder, even for them. The Catacombs were warded against teleportation, and message spells. It was the work of the Six Gods which meant it was stronger than anything a human could do.

The two figures didn't move, although the shadows surrounding them were always in motion.

Again, something flickered at the corner of his vision. This time Puerta didn't make a move towards it. Instead he kept his attention on it. It oozed through the shadows towards the invaders and seemed to stop before them. Something extra rose. Wisps of energy came off it. He didn't know what it was beyond insubstantial but it reeked of negative energy. That would make it an undead but…

It seemed to speak with the figures. The temperature in the corridor dropped. Another figure stepped out of the shadows. This time though the writhing energy fell away from their form. Puerta was left staring. A woman stood there. The most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. Lojze recognised a few things instantly. Her hair was black. Her proportions delicate but perfect. He gulped as he looked at that form, already feeling the grip on his sword weakening. How could he attack something that beautiful?

Then he looked into her eyes. For a moment he was confused. They were featureless, then they changed into burning orbs of hatred. "Collect the Lady Aura, and the meat sacks with her." It was the same voice as earlier. It was still beautiful but now it was edged with frost. Lojze was afraid to look away but he was sure if he did there would be an icy lacing on his armour.

The two figures from earlier nodded at the instruction and melted away. This time Puerta could see them move as the shadows churned. He focused on that, forcing his attention from the beauty before him. Whatever these creatures where, they weren't Human. Not even the Black Scripture could do something like this. He raised his sword, tracking the motion and stabbed towards the floor when the engorged shadow came close. The woman had remained standing in the corridor, her strange not-eyes glaring at them. It was a simple attack but it made sense. The shadow was there. It was trying to get into the cell he was guarding. He had to stop it.

There was a clang as if his sword had met another. It was oddly echoing and Lojze realised that came from the fact that Burak had also struck. Yet neither of them had hit their target.

He blinked. It made no sense. There was a delicate hand holding his sword. The fingers were wrapped around the blade but it was not cutting into the flesh.

He looked up. The woman was there. Close up he could smell her now. Her fragrance was intoxicating. It held a delicate bouquet. It reminded him of fresh grass on spring day. Her skin was flawless and he could see a delicate filigree of beadwork on her dress. The workmanship was better than anything he'd ever seen, even on the highest born women. Automatically he made to pull his sword back. It didn't move.

The hand gripping it held firm. Puerta panicked slightly. He yanked at his blade. It still didn't move.

The woman rose slightly. His sword moved with her hand. Lojze and Cucinotta rose as they struggled to maintain their grip.

"Do you know what lies beyond?" The question was whispered almost gently.

"An elf they captured," Burak replied. Puerta blinked again at his tone. It didn't sound like him. It almost sounded as if he was speaking from a long way off.

"You know what is happening?" The woman's breath puffed against his armour.

Lojze felt cold seeping into his bones. She was causing this. His fingers began to burn and he looked down at his armoured hand. There was ice on his gloves. His chest constricted. There would be ice on his breastplate as well. He focused on the woman's face. It was perfect yet he could still not discern her eyes. Up close they were almost gaping and he could imagine an ice flame where there was only darkness.

"You know what is happening?" The question was repeated. The burn in his fingers intensified.

It was only then that Puerta realised he could not hear anything else. He wanted to look at Burak but he couldn't move. He wondered at the question. What did it mean?

"It's only an elf," Cucinotta answered.

Lojze could only watch as the woman's face twisted. It was both beautiful and terrifying. All grace was lost. The woman twisted her hand. Burak was flung away. There was no room in the corridor. Puerta saw Cucinotta hit the wall. He should have crumpled and fallen. He didn't. It almost seemed to take forever yet it could only have been an instant. Lojze watched as beneath his armour Burak almost seemed to bulge. It was surreal. It was as if a force was squashing Cucinotta into the stonework. Then he knew it was simply the force of the woman's throw. For one instant Burak was deformed, and then he burst. A warm spray of blood and other substances covered the corridor. Puerta could smell nothing else. He could even taste it. The ice on his armour melted but reformed instantly, coloured red this time.

The woman was untouched. He was dripping with what remained of Burak but the woman was still pristine.

"You know what is happening?" The woman had a free hand now. It gestured towards the door the others had gone through earlier.

"I…" Lojze swallowed, trying to figure out what she meant. He knew he was standing guard over an elf. It was a high-level prisoner. The rumour was that the Windflower Scripture had captured one of the Sorcerer King's direct servants. They were questioning it. Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche was leading that process. The elf had not broken and was guarded day and night by the Scriptures. The primary guard was the Black Scripture's Extra Seat, which only reinforced to Puerta how dangerous the prisoner was. But how did that relate to the question?

Lojze felt the woman's muscles tense. The question suddenly made sense. Did he know what was happening in the cell? They were questioning the elf. The elf had been resisting so strong methods of persuasion were being employed. Those men…

Puerta gulped. He didn't want to end up like Burak. "I…" He fumbled with the word. The smell of blood was joined by other, organic smells.

"I…"

He was interrupted when the door to the cell opened. The shadowy figures reappeared. The lead was carrying the elf bridal style with a deceptive gentleness. The elf looked small. It looked delicate. There was some bruises but he could see blood stains on its legs. It's torso was wrapped in a thick blanket that he knew had not been in the cell. He never even saw the woman move. Her hand shifted to his throat. A burn of ice wrapped around his neck. His armour bent under the force of her grip. More shadowy figures stepped out of the cell. How many had entered? He'd thought only two. They were carrying the men. Lojze hoped they were dead. He knew they weren't.

"You will answer to our master." The woman hissed at him.

Lojze knew it was bad. Maybe Burak had gotten off the easiest. There was a stab of pain. Then nothing.

-cos-

[Sister,] Rubedo reached out with the Message Spell. Now that she was out of the Catacomb's and heading away from the Slane Theocracy's Capital, she could use it.

[Rubedo,] Albedo greeted her, yet the question was heavy even in her name.

[We are returning to Nazarick with Lady Aura,] Rubedo reported on her success.

She felt Albedo's relief. It reminded Rubedo that her sister didn't have that many friends within Nazarick. As the Overseer that was sort of understandable but it didn't make Rubedo happy for her elder sister. Albedo didn't have any friends outside of Nazarick either.

[But there is a complication.] She didn't want to say it but it couldn't be hidden forever.

[Complication?] There was a dark note in her sister's voice. Rubedo recognised it. It had been in her own earlier.

[Lady Aura is hurt.]

Albedo knew it wasn't a simple injury. Rubedo could feel her sister's anger. It mirrored her own.

[I don't know how badly yet,] Rubedo continued. [We are bringing several of those responsible.]

[They will be begging to tell us everything,] Albedo almost snarled. [Does Mare know?]

Rubedo hesitated before answering, feeling the dragon beneath her as it flew through the sky. Mare was in front, directing the huge animal. The rest of her team and the livestock they had captured were behind her. Aura Bella Fiora was cradled in Susan's arms. Several thick blankets had been wrapped around her. It meant Mare had yet to see the worst of the damage to his sister.

[I'm not sure,] she had to admit.

Mare had to suspect. No Floor Guardian was stupid.

[He hasn't said anything. But, Sister, it is bad.]

Rubedo felt Albedo tremble. [There are others?] Albedo demanded.

[Most likely,] Rubedo answered. [We will be there soon but you need to be ready. Our Master-] She stopped. She had no idea how the Supreme Being would take this news.

Albedo was equally unsure. Their Master would be angry. That went without saying but they had no idea what he would do. [The Slane Theocracy will drown in blood,] Albedo announced finally.

There was nothing she could say to refute that. If the Supreme Being willed it, then it would be so.

The dragon flew on.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 1 Declaration of War Part 3

-cos-

The silence in the sunlit room was broken only by the drip of the water clock. It was constant. It was persistent but no one was complaining.

"So would you like to explain to me why I have one Scripture member dead, one missing and scores of Cathedral Knights and guards, dead and dying? Just days after I have had to resurrect several members of the Windflower Scripture?" Cardinal Raymond Zarg Lauransan's voice was the very definition of mild. His gaze was anything but. And it was directed clearly at Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche.

The other Cardinals were watching. They all knew the events that had taken place but were waiting for the proper reports. The official reports that is, not the information that came from their contacts.

"You know full well why," Dominic spat.

"Yes," Raymond agreed. "The Sorcerer King's elf," he gave the name of the prisoner. At least as far as they knew. The elf hadn't even said it's name to them. "A being that was invited to the Capital without our knowledge."

"A being that could only be captured by your Scriptures," Dominic retailated. The Cardinal of Earth was the Commander of all the Scriptures. Technically this was Raymond's failure.

"On a mission I did not authorise-"

"Enough!" The Cardinal of Water, Ginedine Delan Guelfi might be old, but he was still sharp. "Right now it does not matter who authorised what. We need to deal with what has happened! An attack on the Catacombs and a dragon seen flying through the night." The way he glared made it clear that the next thing said better be answers. Ginedine might not be the most powerful Cardinal here, but his intelligence was respected.

The Cardinal of Earth sighed heavily. "Several days ago, the Windflower Scripture, aided by a couple of the lesser artefacts of the Gods, loaned to them from the Treasury by the Black Scripture's Extra Seat, brought down one of the Sorcerer King's direct servants," Raymond summarised. This was all information the Cardinals already knew. While they may not have known it at the time, since the events of last night, they had definitely learned that much.

"It was a Dark Elf female child," he gave the details. "And was imprisoned here in a high security cell. Members of the Scriptures were guarding that cell, day and night, including the Black Scripture's Extra Seat. Cardinal Partouche was in charge of questioning the elf." Raymond gave Dominic a wry smile, as if he knew how much information had been extracted. Or rather, not been extracted.

"Last night, it appears forces of the Sorcerer King mounted a punitive expedition and have rescued the elf."

"And we lost how many?" the Cardinal of Fire asked. Berenice usually gave off a gentle, matronly air. It was absent now. Her eyes were hard.

"We are still looking for body parts," Dominic used the crude statement. It wouldn't shock those Cardinals here but it would accurately highlight the brutality of the attack.

"Not that," the Cardinal of Darkness objected. While unfortunate, most of the human resources in the Catacombs could be replaced. The loss of Scripture members was worrying but there were other things there they could not replace. "What artefacts did we lose?" He probed shrewdly.

Raymond looked at Dominic, silently telling the Cardinal of Wind that he expected him to answer that question. Many of the reports had gone directly to Dominic, though Raymond had been able to glean quite a bit of information from the Scriptures. Zetsumei had been very forthcoming and the only good thing to come of this was that they had lost none of the greater artefacts. The Black Scripture's Extra seat had been in the Treasury during the attack. Protecting that was her primary duty. Raymond wasn't sure if Zesshi had remembered that, or if the attackers had just not made any attempt on the Treasury. He was still trying to find out.

"We lost all of the elf's gear, and the [Constraint of Umbra]," Dominic admitted. The loss of the elf's gear was of no concern. They hadn't been able to make any of it work. The loss of the shackles was far more concerning. It was not a greater artefact but they were powerful enough.

"And what did we gain?" the Cardinal of Darkness, Maximillian Oreio Lagier asked before the others could object. He always tried to look at all sides of a problem. It was annoying at times, but now, his legal training was coming to the fore.

Again Raymond looked at Dominic, though this time his smile could be described as being a tad more vicious. They all knew the Cardinal of Wind had taken the destruction of the Sunlight Scripture hard. It was always going to be difficult to see his former Scripture disbanded, but his unauthorised actions put them all in danger.

Dominic was silent. Raymond knew why. Zetsumei had been contemptuous of the elf's fighting ability but had to admit that it had not broken under all forms of questioning. In that way, it was quite strong. The Cardinal of Earth shook his head at the memory. He was quite sure, that in addition to the [Constraint of Umbra] the elf would have been drugged to the eyeballs. It was standard procedure. But Zesshi had never bothered reading that and apparently no one had told her.

"So," Maximillian drawled when the Cardinal of Wind didn't answer. "We have gained nothing we could not have concluded through logical determination." It was a harsh assessment. No one disputed its truth. "We know that the elf is strong but it is not too much to assume that all the Sorcerer King's servants possess a measure of strength. We know that its equipment is of a high grade-" The Cardinal of Darkness frowned suddenly. "-We at least have a catalogue?"

"Of course!" Dominic snapped.

"That's something," Maximillian murmured. His point was made though.

"We need to focus on what is to come," the Cardinal of Water said firmly before their discussion could be derailed again.

Raymond nodded. This was not something they could be divided over. If they were, humanity was already lost. "It is difficult to know how the Undead will react," he gave his assessment.

The Sorcerous King, Ainz Ooal Gown did not display the usual traits of an Undead.

"He has to respond to the implied challenge," Berenice said.

"Yes, but I doubt it will be in anger. It will be a well thought out response," Raymond replied. He held up one hand to forstall objections, glaring at Dominic who appeared to want to say something. The other Cardinals supported his motion. Dominic had done enough for now.

"While I did not authorise it, the Windflower Scripture's attack was professional. They lost several members who are already in remedial training after their resurrection," Raymond explained. "However, while we are still compiling the reports, it is clear that the Sorcerer King's forces are also disciplined. Their raid was expertly executed. This Undead may have unruly demihumans serving him, but he also has higher level beings who obey him. Those are capable of considered attacks."

He didn't need to say it. Those were the more dangerous servants.

"I would further suggest that those servants are capable of imposing order on demihuman masses."

Raymond didn't need to say how dangerous that was for them. While most humans were weaker than the average demihuman, humanity had order and discipline, which meant they could fight evenly. If the masses had that as well, it became a game of numbers, and in that game, humanity had already lost.

"Like Jaldabaoth," Ginedine said.

"Thankfully that demon is gone," Dominic spat.

"Are we sure of that?" Berenice asked. "I know what the Thousand Mile Astrologer reported but…" She paused. While the Cardinal of Fire looked to be a friendly matron, her mind was still sharp.

"You are not suggesting?"

"I'm not suggesting anything," she said. "But we are dealing with an Undead, and Jaldabaoth was a demon. We have to be sure. Is there any way you can tell for certain?" Her question was directed to the Cardinal of Light, who had yet to speak.

Yvon Jasna Dracrowa was a Divine Magic User. The Slane Theocracy specialised in identifying and training such magic users but Yvon was strong even amongst their ranks. After a moment of thought he shook his head. "Not at this distance. If I was on site I could confirm it, but I'm sure the Paladins of the Holy Kingdom already have."

Dominic gave Yvon a dark look. The Paladin's of the Holy Kingdom had also sworn their allegiance to the Sorcerer King. They had betrayed Humanity and in that betrayal, their word could not be trusted.

"You may rest assured I will be casting every spell I am capable of to confirm the Undead's demise," Yvon said. It went without saying that, if necessary, he would be casting spells to cause the Sorcerer King's demise.

"So for the moment, we wait?" Ginedine did not seem happy with that assessment.

"I would focus on the assessments from the Windflower Scripture," Yvon indicated. "Were there any survivors from last night?"

Raymond shook his head. Dominic's earlier description that they were still looking for body parts was accurate. "I have spoken with the Scripture Captains. Two of the Holocaust Scripture, who were on duty last night, guarding the prisoner are missing. One we believe was killed at his post. The other, we are not certain yet." It went without saying that he had emphasised to the Scriptures that Dominic, while an ex-member of the Sunlight Scripture and the current Cardinal of Wind, was not in their line of command. His orders had to be filtered through him.

Zetsumei had been unapologetic. He'd expected that. The Black Scripture's Extra Seat had always done as she pleased. The others, the Windflower and Holocaust Scriptures were far more controlled. Their Captains had given him their words. Dominic would not be issuing any further orders.

"So the Sorcerer King takes back his servant and takes one of ours," Berenice murmured. "We should ensure the border towns are on alert."

Ginedine nodded his agreement. "Is there any way we can shore up the Kingdom?" he asked. His voice didn't offer much hope on the question but the logic of it was obvious.

The Sorcerer Kingdom shared borders with the Slane Theocracy, the Baharuth Empire and the Re-Estize Kingdom. The Baharuth Empire was now sworn into vassalage, as was the Holy Kingdom. The Re-Estize Kingdom was still independent, and it should hate the Sorcerous Kingdom. They had been forced to cede E-Rantel to the Sorcerous King, which should only reinforce the hatred. Yet the Kingdom was weak. Generations of war against the Baharuth Empire had done damage which was further compounded by the outcome of the Battle of the Katze Plains. If they could somehow strengthen the Re-Estize Kingdom the Sorcerer King would be forced to divide his attention.

"We can offer them food," Maximillion suggested. The Kingdom still had enough food but when winter fell, the situation would be getting desperate, especially for the poor.

There were no other suggestions forthcoming. With the Kingdom being so unstable, they could not afford to offer military assistance. Food was all they could offer. Maybe it would be sufficient. They could only hope.

"Should we approach their Adventurers?"

"Do you really mean Momon?"

They weren't sure what to make of the Adventurer Momon. He had appeared out of nowhere and had quickly become Adamantite ranked through feats of superhuman ability. His abilities belonged to a Godkin but the Theocracy had no idea which of the Gods he might have been descended from.

That and he now served the Sorcerer King, acting as an emissary between the Humans of E-Rantel and the Undead.

"Perhaps," Yvon agreed. "However, I believe overtures to all the Kingdom's Adamantite Adventurers would be called for. We need to remind them that their ultimate duty is to humanity." He sighed. "Or failing that, to the living," he added. Blue Rose was known to be soft on demihumans if they had not hurt humans. They could not afford to be soft on the Undead.

The other Cardinals nodded.

"Including Momon?" Raymond asked.

Ginedine shook his head reluctantly. "No," he said firmly. "There are too many questions associated with him, and he is firmly within the Sorcerous Kingdom. If he truly serves Humanity, let him come to us."

Maximillion tapped his fingers against one of his ever present books. "Should we consider a different path?" he asked slowly. "Our current course of action is safe, but not proactive," he described it. Waiting to see what the Sorcerer King would do was the logical step but it did not address the larger issues and they were meant to be more advanced.

"What do you mean?" Berenice asked.

"The Sorcerer King must react to this. We know that. We must react as well. But perhaps we can force the reaction to be to our advantage."

"How?" Yvon was dubious. They were dealing with an Undead.

"We could send an Emissary to the Sorcerous Kingdom," Maximillian suggested, his tone already defensive.

"You mean actually treat with a demihuman? And undead?" Dominic roared. "That is a disgrace! You offend the Gods with your words! You should be cast out for suggesting such heresy!"

"Enough!" Ginedine snarled. You could tell his mind was working on the advantages and disadvantages of the Cardinal of Darkness' suggestion. Then the old Cardinal sighed. "Before this ill conceived mission, I would have accepted the suggestion," the Cardinal of Water said. "Now, sending an emissary is simply delivering the Sorcerer King a hostage."

Maximillian nodded in such a way that suggested he had already thought of that. He glared at Dominic. Protecting Humanity was good but in the face of power that the Sorcerer King represented, they could not be careless.

"For now, we must wait," Ginedine concluded, looking around at the other Cardinals. "The Undead will make another move, and we must be ready to counter it. In the meantime, we must study the information gained from the elf." He looked over at Dominic expectantly.

The Cardinal of Wind looked uncomfortable. He looked down.

"We did gain information?" Yvon pressed.

"We know what items it possessed. We know what strength it was, and we know that it is valuable enough to be rescued," Dominic announced.

"We do not know all the items," Raymond corrected. "We do not know the purpose of the elf's main item," he explained, remembering the report the Windflower Scripture had submitted to him. The Elf had fought for one of its items. A small device that had been strapped to its wrist. They had no idea what it was for.

"We will need the reports," Berenice said, though she was glaring at Dominic. It was obvious they were in this situation because of him. She took a deep breath. "For now, we tighten our defences, and see what we can do to supply food to the Re-Estize Kingdom. They have not become the bastion we hoped they would but they, like us, represent humanity."

"And they will give us more time," Maximillian gave the conclusion the Cardinal of Fire did not. She smiled thinly at him. And they would buy time.

Hopefully enough time but only time would tell.

-cos-

Ainz sat on his throne. The Guild Staff hovered beside him. He was alone. Here, in Nazarick was one of the few places he could actually be alone. Even the ever present maid was waiting outside. Suzuki Satoru was both revelling in the time alone and feeling sick over the cause.

Rubedo was due back at any moment. Aura would be with her. Then they would know exactly what had happened. It was not a nice thought. He hoped it wasn't as bad as it could be but this was the real world… Since coming here, he had learned much.

Yggdrasil had censorship. Anything overtly sexual was removed. When they looked at certain parts of their character builds, there were pixels. Even on the non human characters. And definitely on the NPCs. But he'd established that this wasn't Yggdrasil in that manner from practically the moment he had arrived here.

Albedo's breast had been so soft. And when she had sat on his knee she had been soft as well. Gently pliant and- He shunted that thought aside. Aura had been soft as well and he had made that gesture more for her, to find out how the young Dark Elves were doing in the new world.

Bukubukuchagama had made them. She had made them strong but they had definite weaknesses due to their youth. If anything truly bad had happened to Aura, how was he meant to face her? He could just imagine what the pink slime would do, and it did not end well. He'd seen what she'd do during the Minoshirokin incident.

Ainz deliberately concentrated on his hand, pushing his bony fingers out so as to relax them. That had been in Yggdrasil. It had been a long time ago. It was not now and those idiots were no longer here. This would not be a repeat of that.

The grand doors opened before his thoughts could start circling. Albedo was easily visible in her white dress. Rubedo was standing beside her. He nodded and they came walking towards him. Albedo's expression was grim. Ainz remained passive though he could feel his concern rising.

They both knelt.

"Rise," he instructed. "You have done well, Rubedo," Ainz praised once she was standing. He understood that the Guardian's thought this was necessary but sometimes he needed information more than their obeisance.

"We were not fast enough, my Lord," Albedo's sister said softly.

Unseen, Ainz frowned. He didn't like the sound of that. "You retrieved Aura, and all her equipment?"

"Yes, my Lord," Rubedo confirmed. "The dogs were also using a device from Yggdrasil to contain Lady Aura," she added, pulling out a small artefact. Ainz recognised it. He had seen it in Mare's spell.

"[Constraint of Umbra]," he muttered.

Both the ladies nodded. They recognised them. With a gesture, Ainz lifted the [Constraint of Umbra] levitating it to him. It did nothing for his temper to note the smears of blood on it. It was another set to add to the Nazarick treasury. "Continue."

"Lady Aura has been injured by the animals," Rubedo said. She was looking at the floor.

He had a bad feeling about this, and when an Overlord has a bad feeling, it usually meant pain for a lot of the living. "Tell me," Ainz instructed. He didn't bother to try to tell Rubedo it wasn't her fault. At the moment he needed more information.

She nodded but Ainz could sense her reluctance. "There are injuries from the fall," Albedo's sister began. Those injuries Ainz had expected and knew about. He felt nothing about hearing of them.

"But when we arrived, there were several men closeted with the Lady Aura."

It couldn't be seen but Ainz's eyes opened wide at the news. Before anger could overtake him, he reminded himself that it wasn't necessarily bad. The Slane Theocracy would have been wanting Aura to give them information. It made sense that there would be people with her but Rubedo's choice of words filled him with dread.

She had paused, waiting for his indication to continue. Ainz raised one hand, waved it briefly. She nodded, and Ainz was disturbed to see Rubedo take a deep breath, swallowing hard before she continued. "They were coupling with her."

It took him a moment to decipher her meaning. Then for an additional moment, he felt nothing before red descended over his vision. Ainz didn't hear the gasps from Albedo and Rubedo. He didn't see the way they fell to their knees, faces twisted in fear. All he heard was Rubedo's voice, saying that word, over and over.

And then nothing. Ainz snarled as his limiter kicked in. Unseen, he clenched his teeth when the memory threatened to spark his anger again. But apparently there were subtleties to his racial limiter that he was only now beginning to discover. It refused to let even a morsel of anger rise within him. Unfettered by anger, his thoughts raced.

"Rise," Ainz commanded. He watched quietly as the two sisters struggled to their feet. "I am not angry at you," he said firmly. He was not angry at them but his rage at the Slane Theocracy was still pushing at him. He could feel his limiter working.

"My Lord," Rubedo whispered once she was standing again.

He raised one hand. "For the moment, I do not need further details," Ainz told her. "Albedo," he said her name as an order.

"My Lord?" The beautiful succubus placed one hand over her heart as she nodded to him, awaiting instructions.

"Recall everyone," he commanded. "Even Demiurge," he added. The demon was currently scouting the neighbouring territories to determine which would be the next to fall under the banner of Nazarick. "The Emperor El Nix is to attend as well. Have Shalltear create a portal for him."

"Are you sure?" Albedo asked. He knew what she meant. He was human but at the same time she seemed unwilling to push her usual objections.

"Yes," he replied shortly. "His army may be needed."

That Albedo understood and could tolerate the human for. Far better that the humans serve as cannon fodder. They were not good for much else.

"There is only one response that can be given for this, and I intend to make sure the Slane Theocracy realises the depth of their mistake."

"My Lord!" Both of the beautiful women bowed deeply.

Ainz rose. "I will go see Aura now," he announced as he grasped the staff of Ainz Ooal Gown. "After that, I will need to speak to the Five Worst," he continued. "Rubedo, could you tell them?"

"Of course, my Lord!" Whatever her Lord required would be done. "They will be waiting for you." As was only right. All citizens of Nazarick would await their Master's pleasure. It was their place, though she wasn't sure what Ainz would want with them. If he said he needed them, then they were some essential part of his plans.

"I will make further decisions when everyone is gathered," he said, stepping down from the dias. It would not feel right to just teleport to Aura. He paused. "Rubedo," he pulled her attention to him. "You have done very well," he said, reinforcing his earlier praise. No matter how angry he was, she was not at fault. "You will be rewarded," he added, though he had no idea what he could give her. He would have to ask Albedo later if she knew, or failing that, he could always ask Rubedo. A leader had to be generous.

"No reward is necessary." He could tell from the tone of her voice she meant it. She truly believed she was not worthy of a reward given the outcome of the mission.

Ainz ignored that for the moment. Right now, he couldn't reassure her, but it was definitely true that she had rescued Aura, meaning that the Dark Elf was now safe. That alone was worthy of reward and he would educate the citizens of Nazarick about his expectations. In time.

For now though, he needed to see Aura.

-cos-

If the Thousand Mile Astrologer could pierce the defences of Nazarick, or even knew where Nazarick was, and was able to see to the sixth floor of Nazarick, she would see a very unusual sight. The huge tree, that served as Aura and Mare's home was expected. They were elves, they felt most at home in the forest. But looking into the tree house that was there, the Thousand Mile Astrologer would have seen an incongruous sight.

A powerful Undead was sitting beside a large bed where a dark elf appeared to be sleeping. Even more incongruously the Undead was gently holding the elf's hand. The skeletal bones looked wrong against the small hand but no one could deny how tender the grip was.

For Ainz it was a humbling experience. Seeing his hand holding hers, he was reminded again how small Aura and Mare really were. It felt wrong seeing Aura lying here. She was usually so full of life. Mare was standing at the door, clutching his staff.

"Mare," Ainz said gently, beckoning the other elf. His question was obvious.

Mare sniffed. Ainz waited. "I'm, I'm keeping her asleep," the Dark Elf admitted.

Ainz nodded. That explained why Aura looked so peaceful. He couldn't see any bruising on her face, and sitting on the bedside table was the watch Bukubukuchagama had made. His vision narrowed when he saw there were several small scratches on it.

Mare followed his gaze. "The retrieval team said it was like that," he said.

Ainz reached out. Mare made no move to stop him as he gently picked up the watch. It was still functional and he examined it. "Repair lesser item!" He intoned. There was a flash of light and the small scratches disappeared.

"My Lord!" Mare gasped.

"It is yet another thing the Theocracy will have to account for," Ainz assured him. Aura might wear the watch but he knew both Dark Elves valued the connection to their creator.

The Dark Elf nodded shyly. "It will comfort Aura," he said, not stuttering.

"You will also comfort Aura," Ainz instructed. "She is going to need you," he added. He had no idea what else she would need but he knew Aura would need support. He looked back at her peaceful face.

"Solution has healed all her physical wounds," Mare told him.

Ainz nodded. That would be the easy part. This isn't anything that could have happened in Yggdrasil and wounds were easy to heal there. Mental wounds though… He had no idea how to deal with them.

"And I have ordered Wanglong to protect her," Mare was still speaking firmly but Ainz could hear his distress.

"Wanglong?" Ainz asked. He'd seen Fenrir, Hejinmal and Itzamna outside. The three beasts were prowling around the base of the giant tree. They seemed distressed at their mistress' state but he had had no words to comfort them. Only Aura really could, though Mare could hopefully communicate to them that their Mistress would recover. Well, he could talk to Hejinmal but the ice dragon was too distraught.

A rumble came from outside. It was not one he had heard before. Then the light from the window dropped. Ainz looked over. Two red burning eyes looked through the window. They were surrounded by white bone. He recognised them. It was the dragon he had raised. He nodded to Wanglong. The huge head dropped again and the light returned.

"Master," Mare sniffed uncertainly. "I know you ordered Wanglong to obey me," he muttered, his earlier confidence gone.

"I did," Ainz agreed.

"I have ordered Wanglong to protect Aura," Mare exclaimed. There was almost a defiant tone in the Dark Elf's voice.

"It is well that you care for your sister," Ainz agreed. He knew that Mare would fight him on this but it was not a concern. He would have done the same. Bukubukuchagama would have as well. Any of the Guild would have.

He took a deep breath, blowing it out as he nodded to Mare. This was the time for unity and really, the dragon was meant to remain on this floor. Having it devoted to Aura's protection would not be a problem.

He put the watch back on the table, running his thumb over the soft skin of Aura's hand. He would need to speak to Solution later but for now he needed to find answers. He didn't know how this would change the elf. He only knew it would. And Aura would need help, not just the protection of Wanglong and her brother. Not just the protection of Nazarick, she would need other help. He deliberately suppressed his anger. There would be time enough later to indulge.

What Aura needed was support, and that would be best coming from someone who had gone through the same thing. Vaguely Suzuki Satoru felt sick but he forced himself to focus. Aura needed that now. That meant he couldn't think about the specifics. He had to think about how to help her.

Tsuareninya had gone through this. She might be able to help Aura. She would understand the pain. Ainz considered it, then rejected the notion. She was human. And while she was tolerated within Nazarick, there would be a swell of hatred towards humans with this event. It was better that Tsuareninya remain in E-Rantel. She'd be safer there.

Who else might be able to help? The rustle of leaves bumped his memory. There were those elves who had accompanied those Empire Workers.

"Mare?"

"Yes, Master?"

"Where are the elves I assigned to you?"

The Dark Elf didn't shudder but Ainz got the impression that he wanted to. "They are here."

"Nearby?"

"Yes."

"Could you please fetch them?" Ainz asked. He could have ordered but this was Mare's home.

"Of course!" Mare turned and rushed from the room. Ainz knew it wasn't because he was eager to leave his sister. It would be more that he was happy for something to do. Ainz could understand how powerless the Dark Elf was feeling now. He had felt the same that one time… He wouldn't be feeling that again.

A few minutes later the elf women appeared at the door. Their gaits were anxious as they filed into the room. All of them were looking down. Ainz knew technically they should bow to him. If Demiurge or Albedo were here, they would be demanding it, but he had more important things to concern him now.

"You are aware of what happened?" He asked, his thumb never stopping its motion on Aura's hand. Mare slipped back into the room.

"Yes, Great One," one of the elf women whispered.

Ainz nodded. Suzuki Satoru felt nervous at his next question. Ainz Ooal Gown had a right to know whatever he needed to know. "When you were with the Worker-" he paused slightly, fishing for the name of the man but he could not recall it. He wasn't sure if he ever knew it. "-were you ever violated?" He couldn't say the 'r' word here.

The elves shuddered. One of them shivered.

"Yes," another of the women whispered, even softer than before.

Ainz took a deep shuddering breath. At least they would understand what had happened. In that way they could assist Aura with her recovery. There were differences though. He already knew that. These elves had probably never been in a position of power, as Aura had been. The feeling of weakness she felt was going to compound the issue and it would make thi-

His thoughts crashed to a halt. Panic rose through his form. Ainz struggled to suppress it. No. No. That wasn't possible, was it? It couldn't be, could it? Nothing would do… His limiter kicked in. This time Ainz was thankful for it. He didn't take a breath this time. He didn't need to. With his panic gone, Ainz considered the problem logically. Aura was an elf. The men were human. They were not cross fertile, were they?

Damn it. He didn't know.

"When the man violated you, did you take remedies to prevent unwanted complications?" Ainz almost growled at himself. He was too vague.

The elf women seemed to understand. "Yes, Great One." The one who had answered first was firm on this.

Mare stiffened as he understood the implications. Ainz couldn't spare any attention for the Dark Elf. "Will Aura need them?"

The elf women looked at each other before one of them shook her head. "No, Great One. The Mistress will not require those."

"Why not?" He was dreading the answer.

"She is still too young."

The answer was both comforting and sickening. Ainz almost felt his gorge rise, except that was impossible. He was just bones. He had no organic functions to cause such a reaction. Mare wasn't as unencumbered and Ainz watched as the Dark Elf almost convulsed. Yet while he could not have a physical reaction of being sick, Ainz felt the information stoke his anger again.

It just highlighted that Aura was still a child. Too young for that. Too young by far. His free hand curled into a claw. "Thank you," he said, making sure he remained civil. It was not their fault. "I want you to do your best for Aura."

"Of course, Great One," the elf whispered. She obviously felt the echo of anger he felt. They all did. While Demiurge and Albedo would have had them on their knees earlier, they had fallen there now.

Ainz watched dispassionately before he looked over at Mare. "We have captured several of those responsible," he told the Dark Elf. "Every single one who touched Aura will be brought here," he continued. Ainz smiled. Even though it was unseen, it was not a nice smile. "Death will be a mercy they long for."

Mare gave him a weak smile. Ainz nodded, pushing Aura's hand back on to the bed. He patted it gently.

"You will be avenged," he assured the sleeping Elf.

There really was only one thing to do now.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 1 Declaration of War Part 4

-cos-

Ainz sat in his study in Nazarick. He had not returned to E-Rantel and had instead had the documents awaiting his attention transferred here. He was working his way through them but his attention was not on them. Albedo was overseeing the gathering troops. Shalltear was on her floor, providing the first line of defence for Nazarick. Cocytus was on his way here with a contingent of Lizardmen and Demiurge was travelling.

Mare was with Aura, who had woken up earlier in the day. The Dark Elf girl had recognised where she was. She'd then burst into tears. Mare hadn't known what to do but was comforting his sister, as were Aura's pets. He had dismissed the two of them from duty for the moment.

Sebas was standing off to to the side, awaiting orders. It was worse than one of the maids but he was dealing with it. Right now, he had to deal with it because he could feel that Nazarick was a tinder box. There was so much anger seething beneath the surface. It was anger he understood. It hadn't exploded yet because they were still gathering and the citizens knew he was working on a plan.

He was, sort of. He knew what had to be done but was still trying to work out how it should be achieved. Suzuki Satoru had heard once, that if you knew the problem, if you did not know the solution, it was best not to consciously think about it. Instead you left it in your mind and allowed your subconscious to work on it. Eventually you would then come to an answer. He was hoping that worked here.

The men who had been brought back with Aura were currently in protective custody. He had allowed no one near them. His argument had been simple. They belonged to Aura. Most of Nazarick's citizens agreed with that, though they wanted to make sure the men knew exactly how much pain they had to live through.

A knock broke into his thoughts. Ainz put the paper down as Sebas answered it. "Solution, my Lord," he introduced the maid.

The slime maid entered the room, bowing deeply to him. Ainz waved it away, gesturing for her to come closer.

"You healed Aura?" It was not much of a question. He already knew that she had.

"Yes, my Lord," Solution nodded. Her eyes were full of hatred. He recognised it. It was the dangerous kind because there was no outlet. And he was not able to make her mood any better.

"Tell me," Ainz instructed.

"My lord?" Solution questioned.

"Tell me her injuries," he clarified.

"Yes, my lord," Solution nodded. Her posture changed slightly, as she took on a stance of remembering. "There were several superficial injuries, which I believe came from the fall."

Nazarick knew how Aura had been captured. What came next was not going to be nice.

"Her wrists sustained severe lacerations from the shackles, and there was some subdermal bruising on her chest and stomach. There were burns on both ankles from the metal shackles as well as further bruising on her thighs.

"There was also evidence of extensive drug consumption. Nothing fatal but all which have an anesthetizing effect on elves."

Ainz nodded. That was all within expectation. The drugs explained the last few doubts he had about how they had been holding Aura. She would have fought them every step of the way but between the [Constraint of Umbra] and a cocktail of drugs, it was somewhat surprising that she had been awake for them to question. Yet none of that knowledge made anything easier because he knew the more difficult injuries were coming next.

"There was no evidence of oral-"

"My Lord," Sebas interrupted.

"Yes?" Ainz turned slightly to his butler.

"You do not need to-"

Ainz held up one hand. He knew what Sebas was about to say. "I do need to," he corrected Touch Me's creation. "Aura lived through this. The least I can do is know the full details," he explained.

Sebas' eyes widened slightly. So did Solution's. It was obvious they hadn't thought of it quite like that though their reasoning was different. Sebas was seeking to protect him. Solution assumed he asked so as to properly extract vengeance.

"Thus, I must know," he continued, lowering his hand back to his desk. The white of his bones was rather startling against the dark stained wood. "Solution, please continue."

She nodded. If anything her eyes were even harder now. He wondered how a slime could get that edge into her gaze when her natural form was so soft. "There was no evidence of oral penetration," Solution reported. Her voice was monotone.

"She would have bitten them," Ainz was pleased, yet dreading the news that would follow.

"She would have," Solution seemed proud of Aura. "There was no evidence of anal penetration but there is evidence of vaginal penetration, along with some tearing."

Ainz didn't have to swallow. He felt like it now. It would help suppress the sickness he felt. Instead he nodded gravely. He lifted both hands, curling them into fists as he concentrated on his non-existent breathing. Black negative energy seemed to swirl around him. Sebas and Solution held steady. They could feel their master's anger, but they knew it was not directed towards them. Ainz could feel his anger as well. Every detail he learned just made it stronger and it had not gone away, no matter how many times his limiter dulled it.

The energy vanished when his emotions were quashed. "I understand," he said.

"My Lord?" Solution's voice was timid. "I have a question."

"Yes?" Ainz prompted, stretching his hands out again on his desk. He had found that concentrating on small, meaningless gestures helped the best. They could not completely take his mind off the problem but they did help control the rage that still threatened to envelop him. With his limiter kicking in, he knew better than to let it consume him.

"How could they hold her?"

For a moment Ainz didn't understand, then he reasoned out Solution's meaning. Aura was a Floor Guardian. She was stronger than many of Nazarick's citizens yet had been held by mere humans. And humans were a species most in Nazarick held in contempt, if they didn't consider them lunch.

Ainz reached out, picking up the [Constraint of Umbra] that had been left on his desk. "This is from Yggdrasil," he explained. "Once on the target, they limit the target to about twenty five percent of their power."

Solution gasped. Sebas' reaction was more restrained but Ainz could tell the butler was surprised. "The effect varies dependent on comparative strength."

"My Lord?"

He flicked the shackles open. "If you place them on yourself, there is no effect," he explained. "If I was to place them on you, there would also be no effect, the same as if I was to place them on Sebas."

"Then why did they work on Lady Aura?"

Ainz had thought about demonstrating but that would be better for when everyone was gathered. "If you were to put them on me, then there would be an effect," he explained. "I would lose seventy five percent of the difference between our stats."

The Shitty Devs had really outdone themselves when they had created them. There was a reason 99% of the Constraints had been in the possession of the most powerful Guilds. They weren't against using them, but only for their members. For Guilds such as Ainz Ooal Gown, that meant they didn't get used. Their members were already powerful enough not to need them. That meant that the Slane Theocracy had to have had contact with one of the more powerful Guilds.

Sebas and Solution both understood his explanation. "So those dogs, who are far less powerful than Lady Aura, used them on her."

"Removing most of the difference between her power and theirs," Ainz nodded. "A fact that Aura will need made very clear to her."

Sebas nodded. Ainz was reminded that he had some experience with Tsuareninya. Perhaps he understood more than it seemed. Or… more likely his normal nature made him empathise more.

"You may also tell the rest of Nazarick," he instructed. Albedo knew what the Constraints were but not everyone had that information. It would be best if it was spread so that they knew that Aura was not weak. "Thank you for telling me, Solution."

She nodded, knowing that she was now dismissed. It was confirmed when there was another, different knock on the door. Sebas opened it. Ainz looked down as the Five Worst of Nazarick entered. Ainz tilted his head both to acknowledge them and Solution as she showed herself out.

"Thank you for coming," Ainz said.

"It is our pleasure, my Lord," Kyouhukou said, bowing.

Ainz looked towards Neuronist Painkill. "Our guests are secure?"

"They are, my Lord."

"Good," he managed to almost purr. It was the most appropriate reaction for the Ruler of the Great Tomb of Nazarick. "Gashokukochuuou, you have sufficient space?"

"I do, my Lord."

Ainz nodded again before looking at the last two of the Five Worst. "I am sorry to have called you here. I believe my questions will be most likely directed towards Neuronist Painkill."

"My Lord, it is our pleasure to serve," the tentacle monster said while the final member of the Five just nodded. Ainz returned the gesture regally. He'd practiced the motion until he'd gotten it right. From the way the Five Worst reacted, they were honoured to be in his presence, even with the circumstances.

"Neuronist," Ainz directed his gaze towards the grey corpse like being. "Your speciality is in the extraction of information." Generally he only used that information. He wasn't especially interested in the gory details of its extraction. He knew that torture was involved but it was easier to accept the information without thinking about it too hard.

"I have not been questioning those who have been brought in," she said. "But I'm sure one has the most delicious information."

"We will find out," he agreed with her. A thought occurred though, based on what he knew was to come. "Question the one Rubedo indicates was guarding the cell," he instructed. "I want to know everything they know about everything. As for the others, please leave them for Aura."

Neuronist Painkill nodded. Ainz ignored the way her eyes seemed to gleam and her claws stretched with anticipation.

"I do not need that information yet, and for now I have different concerns. Your speciality is with pain-" Ainz paused as Neuroist nodded, "-but how much of it can you heal?" he asked

She seemed taken aback. It was not the usual question. Or rather it was similar to it. Demiurge and several others had asked about her ability to heal. They also wanted to know how far she could go with her techniques and still leave no damage.

"You are not talking about our prisoners?"

"I am not."

Neuronist seemed to think for a few moments. "I am unsure, my Lord. I have never needed to try my powers on those I have not affected, so I do not know if I can heal the Lady Aura."

"I am not concerned about physical damage," Ainz told Nazarick's torturer. "Solution has already healed that. I am more concerned with how to ensure Aura heals mentally. As such, while your skills lie in causing pain, both mental and physical, I would appreciate if you have any suggestions to help."

"My Lord?" Neuronist questioned.

"Much healing must be done by Aura," Ainz outlined. "However, we must support her, and I am well aware that a gesture, a soft spoken word, or even a look may impact upon her. If you have any suggestions about what would help, if any of you do, then I would appreciate that you share them with Nazarick. Aura needs our support."

"Well, it is for Lady Aura," Neuronist muttered, "not the Ugly Pumpkin or the Brat."

Ainz chose to ignore that statement.

"We will do what we can to help, my Lord. It is the duty of any man to ensure the health of a Lady," Kyouhukou replied for them all with a small bow.

"There is one suggestion I may make immediately, my Lord," Neuronist said.

"What is it?"

The gray being looked thoughtful for a moment. Her claws rubbed at her face. "Much of the time, our beliefs are reinforced by our environment. That is why the Room of Truth is set up the way it is. Those who are invited there expect such an environment. It gives them warning, yes, but it preys on their mind as well. The reverse is also true. Lady Aura will be within a comforting, familiar environment so that will help her recovery. However, positive reinforcement will also be necessary. Everyone must assure her that the events were not under her control. More so than that, they must believe it."

"She will doubt, that is why it will be up to everyone else to reassure her."

Ainz nodded. He could see what Neuronist was saying. He could also see how it applied to her speciality. Those she questioned were in an unfamiliar environment. They were uncomfortable and the gray being reinforced that. Or sometimes, she might even tell her subject that they desired her attentions. Psychology was a subtle thing but if it helped Aura he'd use it however he could.

"I would appreciate further suggestions to be presented at the upcoming meeting." All of Nazarick knew there was a gathering coming. His orders had to be dispersed to them all. It was expected. Ainz raised one hand, forming a fist. "This will be a difficult time for Nazarick and particularly for Aura, but she will heal," he spoke confidently. "With all our help."

"Yes, my Lord," the Five agreed.

"Thank you for coming," Ainz dismissed them. "Please give your suggestions to Albedo, or Sebas. I will see that they are distributed." He was not blind to some of the petty rivalries within Nazarick. He was also not above using his status as a Supreme Being to help him. Having him distribute those suggestions would ensure they would be obeyed.

They filed out. When the door shut, Ainz looked again at the paperwork. He hissed softly. Even with all his magic, all the spells that he had learned, he could not just heal Aura. He could make her forget everything but that was not healthy. But he could not just heal her. Those spells did not exist in Yggdrasil. There was no need for them. He had no idea if they existed here. Even if they did, he was sure they would belong to those who were light aligned. He most definitely wasn't.

He resisted the urge to tremble but shook his head at his thoughts. He wanted to meet another Player from Yggdrasil and now, while it looked like the Slane Theocracy had a connection to at least one, he no longer wanted them to be there. Not now, not when they had done this. Because, there was only one response to this attack and he would show no mercy.

-cos-

Emperor Jircniv Rune Farlord El Nix had told his trusted Knights that there were many forms of Vassalage. The Empire had not been a vassal of the Sorcerous Kingdom for long but it had progressed roughly as he had envisaged. He was still in charge and the Sorcerous Kingdom did not demand much in the way of tax. The day to day lives of those in the Empire had not changed.

He had a sinking feeling that it was about to change. A summons had arrived for him, along with a portal. He could not refuse, which meant that it was Leinas Rockbruise accompanying him as a bodyguard. That was unfortunate. It was not that he did not trust Leinas' skills. He did but he knew her. It was far more likely that someone in the Sorcerous Kingdom would know how to cure her curse, than there was within the Empire. Especially now that Fluder had betrayed them.

Jircniv looked at the blonde. Her expression was blank. His remained stable. He didn't think she yet had any information the Sorcerous Kingdom would consider valuable enough to betray him but he couldn't be sure. He was used to this type of doubt. It was different from the overwhelming pressure he felt when dealing with the Sorcerous King. This was normal. This was the pressure of ruling and that was comforting in its familiarity.

Leinas would be loyal for now.

When they had emerged from the portal into a room that would put any from the Palace to shame, they were both given rings and told not to take them off. The rings were rather plain but he couldn't tell what they were made of. They had been told they were for protection from negative energy. Then they were escorted by Death Knights to the Throne Room.

Along the way, the Emperor had seen many others. None were human but many were also wearing such rings. He resisted the urge to touch his to ensure it was still secure.

Fluder, that traitor, had explained at least that much to him about magic. Living beings emitted positive energy. The undead emitted negative energy and for them it was the energy that strengthened them. In low amounts it was not damaging to the living. Their own natural positive energy nullified the effects. If he required protection, then the amounts were not low.

He was standing surrounded by others but there was a boundary around him. Jircniv knew it wasn't due to respect for his position. He was not sensitive to magic but even he could feel the hostility in the air. Every single being gathered in the throne room seemed to be on the verge of murder.

"Stay close, your Majesty," Leinas murmured to him. She could see the boundary as well. The fact that she used an honorific towards him highlighted the hostility. It was not towards him alone. If he had to say anything, he would say it was towards humans in general.

He nodded, though Jircniv was well aware that if the Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown wanted him dead, then there was little he could do to stop him. The undead was… The undead was that most dangerous of foes, one that had brains to accompany brawn and one that was unafraid to use those brains. The gathering of so many powerful creatures only confirmed that.

"Do you know what these things are?" He murmured. Leinas had made a name for herself killing demihumans, surely she had to recognise some.

"No," Leinas whispered.

When he had visited before, while some of the creatures gathered for that meeting were obviously not human, for the most part, they had at least been humanoid. Today that was not the case. Everywhere Jircniv looked he could see a new form or shape of some fantastical beast. There were tall things and short things. Some that skittered through the darkness. Some that looked like huge bugs, clothed in rich attire. Their eyes, where he could identify their eyes, burned with hatred and they were eerily silent. If they had of been human there would have been some conversation. The silence was disturbing.

"All kneel in the presence of our Master, the Supreme Being Ainz Ooal Gown." A woman's voice cried out.

The assembly all dropped. Those without knees lowered themselves. For one instant Jircniv was childishly tempted not to kneel but the feeling in the room was enough to tell him this was one time when it was better to go along with it. A moment later, he was thankful that he had. Accompanying the footsteps was an oppressive feeling. It was as if all the light in the world had been sucked out and Jircniv was almost positive the magical lights in the grand throne room dimmed. He swallowed hard, focusing on his breathing. But such focus and oppression meant his senses were on fire. He heard footsteps, much the same as when he had first met the undead King but this time, they were not accompanied by a tap. Did that mean the undead was not carrying his staff?

Several moments passed. He studied the ground.

"You may rise," the Sorcerer King's rich voice sounded. Jircniv remained kneeling for a moment longer until the other creatures began moving, then he rose.

The Throne Room of the Sorcerer King was designed to draw the eye towards the Throne and the being sitting there. Jircniv blinked, certain he hadn't seen the image correctly. Yet it did not change.

The Sorcerer King was sitting upon his throne, a beautiful woman wearing a white dress accentuated by black feathers at the waist standing beside him. That was what he expected to see. What he did not expect was that the undead was cradling a dark elf. It took him a moment to realise that he had seen the elf before. It was one of the children who had visited him previously, just recently to deliver dispatches. By the Four Gods, what had happened?

The burning eyes of the undead raked across those gathered. Jircniv fought a shiver.

"Most of you are aware of the events of the past few days," the undead announced.

Jircniv wasn't and he silently cursed his spies for not at least warning him of something. If the event had been that big, he should have known something. The elf had been in Empire territory! He should have known!

"The Slane Theocracy-" Mentally Jircniv heaved a sigh of relief. It was not the Empire and events in the Theocracy could be annoyingly difficult to decipher. For him. His traitorous mind said. To the undead King they were most likely transparent. "-has decided to declare war."

What? Jircniv retained enough composure not to shout. It didn't matter how bad his spies were, that news should have been reported to him.

"With their unprovoked attack on Aura Bella Fiora."

Ah, at that explanation Jircniv felt his racing heart calm slightly. Attacks on individuals he could understand. And the Slane Theocracy were known for it.

"Their assault on Aura was not merely a military attack. It was designed to break her. A child." The undead actually seemed to tremble. Jircniv trembled with it, feeling as if he was going to be smothered. He could well imagine what the Theocracy had done to the Elf. He couldn't say he wouldn't have done the same if it served his interests. It was a surprise to see the undead King be so upset about it. It was a weakness Jircniv had not expected. "Such an act is unforgivable and they will pay for it with their lives… Eventually."

Around him the monsters seemed to cheer at that statement. It wasn't anything Jircniv could not see coming. He wondered if the Theocracy had properly thought this through, but then he mentally shrugged. That was their problem. One of the things he had learned early was that it was best to focus on his own problems. He didn't need to borrow those of other countries. Except when he was causing them.

"I have no interest in the lesser peons but their leaders have led them into destruction. As such, our retaliation will be swift and brutal, so they truly understand the difference between us."

"But retaliation is not my primary concern."

The Emperor wondered what Ainz Ooal Gown was talking about. How could the undead not be thinking of retribution?

"I have three priorities now in regards to this incident. The first is Aura's health. Physically she is healed but there is a long road ahead until she is truly whole, and I am sure that everyone here will work together to ensure Aura's recovery is swift."

At that Jircniv was surprised when several of the monsters seemed to nod. These were creatures of darkness, of evil, why did they care? Yet even though the movement was not coming from a human, it seemed to be genuine. There was a fat, gray being nearby with long claws that almost growled an agreement with the undead.

"My second concern is to ensure that this does not happen again. Unfortunately with those who brainwashed Shalltear still at large, while I doubt they will try the same plot, there is still room for grief. For all of those who are to leave Nazarick, you must be on guard."

Most of the beings here would be killed on sight if they left Nazarick. Jircniv could imagine the panic that would grip most settlements if one of them was to appear. It was probably best that they remained here.

"And finally my third priority is to ensure we capture everyone who did this alive." For a moment the undead looked thoughtful. "Death is a mercy they will come to long for with every fibre of their being."

No one seemed surprised at that statement but Jircniv got the impression that Ainz Ooal Gown had just thought of something. "Shalltear," he said the name he'd mentioned earlier, looking towards one of his servants. It was a young girl. She was pale skinned but beautiful. "I apologise but should the Slane Theocracy be responsible for brainwashing you, you may have to share your vengeance with Aura."

The young girl nodded, curtseying towards the undead. "My Lord, given the circumstances, I will gladly share the maggots with Aura."

"Very good," Ainz Ooal Gown seemed relieved at something and Jircniv watched as the undead looked down at the elf. While the skeletal face had no expression it appeared to be a tender gesture. It made him sick. He felt his stomach clench. It was not at the gesture. He had seen people look at their loved ones all the time. It was the fact that the undead felt confident enough to display such weakness here. It meant he trusted all those present. Jircniv knew he was not trusted. That only meant one thing. He was controlled.

He did not need another reminder of how superior the Sorcerer King was. He suppressed a grimace.

"Jircniv," the empty gaze of the skeleton turned to him. "Recall your Legions to your capital."

The Emperor was proud that he managed not to tremble. He had met the gaze of the Sorcerer King before but somehow the red lights this time were more intense. Yet he couldn't understand the order. Winter was coming on. With the Legions at the Capital they would not be able to make an assault on the Theocracy.

"My Lord?"

Jircniv recognised the Toadman Bard the Sorcerer King had assigned to be a diplomat. Previously the humanoid's expression had been superiorly amused. Now it was deathly serious. The Sorcerer King turned to his underling.

"Your troops are capable, Demiurge" the skeleton admitted, "but are scattered and just coming off a campaign. I would show the Theocracy a familiar face in a guise they cannot fight."

The Emperor had no idea what that meant. Oh, he understood the surface meaning. The Legions would be used to attack the Theocracy, though how they would do that from the Capital was news to him. The deeper meaning was hidden. The Toadman had troops and they had been in a war? But he was aware of no war. Even accounting for the troops to be non-human there was still no campaign. The Dragon Kingdom was fighting demihumans but they had been for years, long before Ainz Ooal Gown appeared. Or was that part of their longer term strategy? Were the demihumans really subject to the Sorcerer Kingdom's orders… Their opening strike as it were.

There were always too many possibilities when he was dealing with Ainz Ooal Gown!

"My Lord is of course correct, but should we not contact the Elves of the Great Southern Forest? The Theocracy has been in a war with them and since the Theocracy will not last much longer-" The Toadman didn't finish. His tail lashed as he gave a shrug to conclude his sentence.

"A very good suggestion. It will be done." The Toadman bowed, obviously pleased at his master's praise.

The skeletal eyes turned back to Jircniv. "When will your Legions be gathered?"

"There are always two Legions at the capital," Jircniv announced while he thought furiously. "At a hard march it will take the other six approximately two weeks to gather."

"Gather them." It was impossible to tell if Ainz Ooal Gown was disappointed. "The delay will provide time to ensure we identify all those of interest and to prepare a proper declaration of war."

The Emperor knew he didn't want to know the details of that.

"Those who have dared to raise their hand against Nazarick will know the futility of their actions. They will know my wrath for the pain they have caused Aura, for the pain they have caused us all!"

The monsters cheered. Ainz Ooal Gown let it go on for a few moments before he rose. That signalled the end of the noise and most of those gathered knelt again. It was incongruous that the undead was still holding the elf. Jircniv could see that the girl was swathed in black fabric. Her face was pale but unmarked. The Emperor could see the way the skeleton's hands were gentle in his grip as he descended the stairs. The beautiful woman followed him closely and as Ainz Ooal Gown began walking down the pathway, Jircniv could see the second elf move to be in close attendance. He supposed that was natural. The elf would want to protect her sister.

It was a regal procession and while the undead was encumbered by the elf, it in no way made him seem weak. Actually… Jircniv realised, none of the gestures Ainz had made tonight made him seem weak. If anything, they offered a view into the depths of such a complex creature. He was not a mere undead. That made him all the more frightening.

Jircniv watched as Ainz swept past him. The feeling of cold oppression that permeated the Throne Room peaked when the undead was near. He almost shivered when the skeleton paused. His red eyes almost seemed to narrow and the Emperor could feel the harsh smile. "Nasty curse there," he muttered. He seemed almost to be curious about it but Jircniv could tell it was only passing interest.

It might only be a passing interest to the undead, but he knew what it meant for him. If Leinas thought the Sorcerer King could heal her… Would she even return to the Empire?

"My Lord," the beautiful woman leaned forward to address Ainz Ooal Gown.

"Ah, yes," he nodded and continued walking.

The Emperor turned slightly, his gaze examining Leinas. She appeared shocked. Jircniv could see her trembling. Yet she didn't make a sound. After a moment of thought he understood why. The distance. The cold. The absolute menagerie of beings here. None of them looked upon a human favourably. He wasn't sensitive, yet he could feel the oppression. Leinas was sensitive. She did not have any magical skill but her warrior skills let her at least feel that much. Standing here would have been worse for her.

And it was only about to get worse, he realised when Ainz Ooal Gown disappeared. Jircniv leant in close to Leinas. "I'll send an official inquiry to him via Loune Vermillion as to what the Sorcerer King meant," he whispered to her. While he was sure she would accompany him back to the capital, he was equally sure that once there she would devise some scheme. This at least bought him time. That was a familiar game.

Leinas nodded shallowly and Jircniv felt a small kernel of relief. He wasn't going to lose his Knight today. Probably tomorrow… Again his traitorous mind stabbed at him. Once more it connected to his stomach and he suppressed a wince of pain.

"We must go," Jircniv announced louder so that the monsters surrounding him could hear. Their attention was already on him. "I need to gather the Legions." Reinforcing their Master's orders meant that most simply nodded and turned away. He knew they didn't trust him but as he was subservient, they didn't seem bothered.

Jircniv headed to the door. Leinas hurried after him. She said nothing. He said nothing. While it was understood that if the Sorcerer King would heal her, Leinas would serve him, for the moment, they were in the same situation. Two humans against the minions of the Sorcerer King.

It was best to retreat.

The Emperor winced. That wasn't an option for the Theocracy. He hoped they knew what they were doing but somehow… he knew they didn't.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 1 Declaration of War Part 5

-cos-

Lojze Puerta had never known fear such as this in his entire life. He'd long ago concluded that Burak Cucinotta had gotten off easy. He was dead. That was an ending. At first, it hadn't been too bad. It had simply been cold. He was a member of the Holocaust Scripture. He was trained to fight whatever threatened the Slane Theocracy. He didn't have the special training of the Sunlight Scripture, who faced demihumans but he was strong. At least compared to most other Humans he knew he was strong.

Against the monsters he faced now, that strength meant nothing. The ones who had made the assault had been human shaped. The ones now… They were every shape but human. He didn't even know what a lot of them were. While the Holocaust Scripture didn't specialise in demihumans their knowledge was meant to be good. He was lost.

The cold hadn't been too bad. Demihumans had visited them. Some cursed them but none touched them. They seemed to take delight in telling the captives that their fate was in the elf's hands. Yet he'd never even seen the elf. Since getting here… wherever here was, he had not seen the elf.

Then one day he had been dragged away from the cold. The room had been warmer and made of stone. It was almost comforting that way. Then a new creature had appeared.

The best description he could give was that it was gray and fat. Beyond that he didn't know. It had several long tentacles and long red claws. He'd never really known demihumans dressed but the creature was clothed in lingerie. It was disgusting. He felt sick just looking at it but he wasn't given much choice.

The creature had introduced itself. And then it had asked questions. It had asked so many questions. Lojze hadn't intended to answer. At first he'd resisted. The creature had seemed pleased at that. And then the pain had begun. So very much pain. It was an ocean. It went on for days.

He knew about torture. He knew how it prayed upon the mind. This was beyond that. He'd seen what the Theocracy could do. This creature was worse. He'd wept as he'd answered the questions.

But for every question he'd answered, more had followed. The creature was patient, it just kept asking. And with the memory of pain, he'd answered. He always answered and thought nothing of the shame he should have felt.

It had left him alone for a while then. He was grateful for the relief. The pain had faded slightly, never completely but enough that he had fallen into a kind of stupor.

Something had changed though. The creature was in front of him again. But this time it was not alone. He felt surprise. Lojze thought it was because he could not feel further fear. However, when he looked upon the face of the new monster, and actually felt it, he knew he had not yet truly experienced fear.

The monster was a lich. He recognised that much at least. Knowledge did not dull his fear. This was like no lich he had ever heard of. It radiated negative energy. Red fire burned in its eyes. It exuded a regal air and despite the fear, Lojze couldn't help but notice the sheer quality of its gear. Each of its skeletal fingers bore a ring. It was just looking at him, with tiny red flames burning in each, otherwise empty, eye socket.

Lojze felt like a bug. The lich turned to the gray creature. "It was not involved?" The question was direct. Apparently the lich felt no need for small talk.

"It was only guarding the cell," the gray creature confirmed.

He hadn't even objected to being called an 'it'. It was all he deserved. Fear didn't allow for any other reaction. He couldn't even sob the confirmation that guarding the cell was all he had been doing. Lojze already knew if he'd been doing more, things would be so much worse.

The skeleton nodded. "You have everything?"

"Yes, my Lord," the gray creature returned the nod.

It was then that Lojze realised who the skeleton was. The Sorcerer King. Every member of every Scripture knew of it. This was the Undead King who had taken E-Rantel so forcefully. His fear redoubled. The only reason he didn't piss himself was that there was nothing there to lose.

"Then it will do nicely," the undead king announced.

Everything went black. Lojze welcomed it.

-cos-

"-I believe that covers everything," Ainz concluded. While he had told all of Nazarick the general plan earlier today, it was necessary to refine things with the Floor Guardians. With the exceptions of Mare, Aura and Gargantua, they were all present, along with Sebas and Rubedo.

Like him, they were trembling with rage.

"I will learn everything I can from the Empire," Demiurge assured him.

Sebas would act as an Ambassador to the Elves of the Great Southern Forest. Under normal circumstances he would have sent Aura or Mare. These were not normal circumstances. Demiurge would go to the Empire to supervise Jircniv and learn everything he could from the Empire's spies. It would supplement the information Nazarick collected to ensure that they captured everyone of importance. Ainz was well aware that sometimes those who were important would escape the view of those he sent to spy. One human was very much like another, after all.

He rose. The guardians froze. "I will see Aura now," he told them, walking towards the door. They would have things to discuss amongst themselves.

"Oh," Ainz paused. "Demiurge."

"My Lord?"

"I'm sure you could come up with a far more devious plan for the Theocracy," Ainz said with a slight nod of his head towards the demon. "I do not want devious," his voice was firm. It burned with uncharacteristic passion. "I want to crush them. There is no plan within this plan. This is not like that. This is simply power, and the application of it. Nothing more."

It seemed as if Ainz smiled, a vicious, sharp expression. "Given the difference in power, it's almost unfair," he chuckled wickedly before he continued walking.

When the door closed behind him, there was a collective sigh.

"Every time," Demiurge muttered. "Every time," he repeated with a sigh and a slight chuckle.

"Demiurge?" Cocytus rumbled.

"Our Master's power," the demon explained. "Every time I am surprised by the sheer depth of it, and how thoroughly he considers even the smallest event."

"With respect, Demiurge, this is not a small event," Rubedo pointed out.

"True," Demiurge nodded. "Yet he still considers things so deeply. And his power…" The demon didn't finish that sentence. They had all felt it. It threatened to drive them into the floor. The only reason it hadn't was that his anger was not directed at them, and they shared in that rage.

Albedo smiled. It was tinged with superiority. This was the man she loved and who would one day only have eyes for her. Not that he currently had eyes for anyone, so that was something. "The Slane Theocracy will not exist much longer," she announced.

"True," Shalltear agreed. "Though… Old hag, why are you so calm?"

Albedo glanced towards the vampire. She snorted. It was not her usual graceful expression. The others braced themselves for an explosion. Now that Shalltear had pointed out the obvious, they were also curious. Albedo was jealous of any woman who caught their master's eye, even those from Nazarick, or perhaps, especially those from Nazarick. And earlier today Ainz had been carrying Aura.

"Fool," the Guardian overseer snapped. "I am not so petty as to deny Aura our Master's attention when it is clear she so desperately needs it." Albedo's voice held a superior note, as if questioning Shalltear's known friendship with Aura.

"Why you!"

"Enough!" Cocytus growled before the usual fight could start. "We. Have. Other. Things. To. Attend. To."

Both Shalltear and Albedo sniffed, turning away from the other. It was almost amusing that their reactions were so similar.

Rubedo chuckled softly, as if she knew something.

"Rubedo?" Sebas asked her.

The other woman rolled her eyes, glancing at her sister. "Ah," Sebas murmured, nodding as he understood what she was trying to say. Demiurge saw the gesture and smirked. He understood as well but he quickly sobered. This was not the time for levity.

"This is very much like that time," he said to the others.

"Like what time?" Albedo asked.

"I only know about it because the Supreme Beings discussed it a few times," he said. "They called it the Minoshirokin Incident."

Sebas nodded. "Lord Touch Me was very upset about it," he confirmed.

"What was it?" Shalltear asked with a small frown. She'd never heard of this event but anything with the Supreme Beings was of interest.

"Kcirazan no tluassa eht erofeb morf saw ti [It was from before the assault on Nazarick]," Victim said. It was easy to forget that the Eighth Floor Guardian was still present. The pink foetus hung in the air but somehow the air it gave out was sad. The other floor Guardians looked at Victim. The Assault on Nazarick had been stopped at the Eighth floor. That meant Victim knew exactly what had occurred. The Supreme Beings sometimes laughed about it but they never gave out details.

"Lady Yamaiko was targeted," Sebas explained. The Guardians looked towards him and Demiurge as the ones who knew the most about this incident.

They both had far away expressions as they remembered. "One of the other groups within Yggdrasil kidnapped Lady Yamaiko," Demiurge said. "It was because she was one of those who conquered Nazarick when it was just a tomb. They wanted information."

"For the assault we now know they were planning," Sebas finished.

"What. Was. The. Outcome?" Cocytus asked.

Demiurge shook his head. "I'm not sure. Lady Yamaiko was retrieved obviously," he indicated. "And the other group did not gain much information. What I remember is a discussion between Lord Ulbert Alain Odle, Lady Bukubukuchagama and Lord Touch Me."

Sebas seemed surprised. Lord Ainz Ooal Gown had mentioned that Lord Touch Me and Lord Ulbert Alain Odle did not always get along. He had some memories of them vigorously discussing things but Demiurge's words indicated that this was a much more amicable conversation.

"They were discussing why Lord Momonga was their leader," Demiurge said.

That got the attention of all the Floor Guardians. They had been listening attentively. Any discussion about the Supreme Beings would ensure they were attentive but this was new information. Demiurge's smile indicated he knew that.

"Lord Ulbert indicated that the Minoshirokin Incident was the only time he had been scared of Lord Momonga."

"Lord Ulbert?"

Demiurge nodded seriously. All the Supreme Beings were well… Supreme. It was odd that any of them would admit to fear, especially about one of their own.

"Lady Bukubukuchagama agreed with Lord Ulbert but it was Lord Touch Me who explained why. I believe he shared that fear but said it was also the reason he had agreed that Lord Momonga should take over the leadership of Ainz Ooal Gown."

"What did he say?" Sebas all but demanded. He knew the Minoshirokin incident but not the full details of this part of it and he was, like all of the Nazarick NPCs eager to hear of information about his creator.

"Lord Momonga is not the strongest of the Supreme Beings," Demiurge held up his hands before anyone could object. "In physical combat, both Lord Touch Me or Lord Ulbert were superior warriors," he pointed out.

The other Guardians had to concede the point on that. Most likely Lord Momonga would also agree with that assessment. But the Supreme Beings were all adaptable. While they had their strengths and weaknesses, they were able to compensate for them in various ways and they were supreme. That had been proven when Lord Momonga had defeated Shalltear. He could see other possibilities and ensure he could carry them out.

"Lord Touch Me indicated that while Lord Momonga was not the strongest of the Supreme Beings he was the one that would go the furthest for any one of Ainz Ooal Gown." Demiurge looked at the ground as he recalled the words. "'Lord Momonga is a leader who understands that leadership is to serve. He will go to the ends of Yggdrasil for us, and that is why I wanted him to take over as Guild Master.'"

Albedo shook her head. "It is our place to serve Lord Ainz," she said. "And we will go to the ends of this world for him. It is only right that he rules." She said it firmly.

Demiurge nodded. He wasn't going to fight her on this but he noticed the way Sebas looked grave at his words. It was harder to tell what Victim or Cocytus' reaction was but he thought they also understood what Lord Touch Me had meant.

"Of course," Demiurge soothed Albedo. "This world belongs to our Lord and it should be honoured that he wishes to rule it. The Minoshirokin Incident was in the past, but we would do well to remember it. Our Lord remembers it, and he will not allow similar events to come to pass."

Sebas closed his eyes briefly. Albedo didn't understand what Lord Touch Me had been trying to say. At least she didn't seem to but he was sure she understood in her heart. "Lord Momonga was very protective of Ainz Ooal Gown," he murmured. That was understood by all the citizens of Nazarick. Lord Momonga was a Supreme Being who ruled over Supreme Beings but the fact that he cared for and protected the others was evident in the way he remained behind. He was always willing to assist them when they returned to Yggdrasil. "I am humbled beyond words that he views us the same way."

"'But we cannot displease him," Demiurge added the addendum.

"We will not," Albedo growled. "These pissant human scum will be begging for our Master's mercy. They should already be on their knees to show their gratitude that he is in this world."

"They will be brought low," Shalltear agreed with Albedo. Aura was her best friend, she would more than willingly torture any human who had dared to touch the elf. If Aura needed anything Shalltear would be more than happy to supply it. She might have a reputation for only being good at destroying enemies but that was exactly what was called for here. This assault did not require a subtle response.

"They will be," Demiurge seconded Shalltear's assessment. "I will gather information from the Empire but I would request that the rest of you ensure that our Lord does not go anywhere unattended."

"You don't think he'd make the assault himself?"

"No," Demiurge was quick to reassure them. "But I believe he may push himself too hard. He is very angry over these events. We all are but we must protect him." It seemed odd that the demon would say that but they could feel Demiurge's concern.

"The dogs will learn that they should never have crossed our merciful Master," Albedo said.

Cocytus nodded, thumping his spear against the floor softly. "They. Will. Pay. For. Hurting. Aura."

Demiurge smiled. The Guardians were in agreement. He had not anticipated this event but it would simply be a stepping stone to ensure Nazarick's greatness. He had been planning on turning his attention to the Theocracy only once the Re-Estize Kingdom was also in vassalage to Nazarick but if they were impatient, then, who was he to deny them. And no matter what his Master said, he was sure he would learn something new.

"They will, and they will also learn that Lord Ainz is greater than any being they could even comprehend." He was a Supreme Being, and the Theocracy would come to know that even their Six Gods would have bowed to him.

-cos-

Ainz stood hesitantly at the entrance to Aura's room. He could hear that Mare was already in there. Aura was awake. She was crying. While he would support Aura in any way that he could, he had no idea how to deal with this. Suzuki Satoru's life experience could not offer any assistance either. He didn't have to deal with children… and he hadn't dealt that much with women, not outside of a work environment anyway.

Unseen he swallowed hard. Maybe it would be better if he gave Aura more time. Except, in his heart, he knew that would accomplish nothing. It was the same as another thought he'd had. If he could have he would have kept Aura asleep until she healed from this… She'd sleep for a very long time because sleeping would not deal with the issues that had to be addressed.

"Aura," he heard Mare. "Please Aura, even our Master is worried."

Silently, he cursed, and then berated himself for that reaction. Mare was worried. He was worried. He stepped into the room.

Aura turned to him. He winced. Her eyes were bloodshot and her cheeks were tearstained. This was not how Aura was meant to be. The anger he thought he had under control rose. Every detail he noted on her just spurred it higher.

Not even the way both dark elves gasped did anything to help him control it. The Theocracy had caused this. He could remember Yamaiko looking similar. She had recovered though. Nothing had happened to her. Sure the morons had held her but they had only asked questions. They had stolen her equipment.

Ainz Ooal Gown had gotten it back. Ainz Ooal Gown had then proceeded to kill the morons. Not just once or twice. They'd done it again and again until the players had simply stopped regenerating. Of course, that wasn't the case, the players had been reduced to level 1 and most quit. Then the vindictive bastards had gone on to give what little information they had about The Great Tomb of Nazarick to the raiders.

Suzuki Satoru had read some forums. They had bragged how they would help to take down Ainz Ooal Gown. He almost laughed at the memory. That hadn't happened. The attack had been stopped on the Eighth Floor and while he hadn't posted anything… Well, they hadn't needed to. The entire game had gotten the message. You didn't mess with Ainz Ooal Gown, not if you wanted to play Yggdrasil.

This was not the same. He knew that. Aura was not going to recover that easily.

"Master!" She gasped. The word focused his attention as his limiter kicked in, subduing his rage. He winced when he saw the relief in the expression of the two elves. He had to control himself better.

"I am sorry, Aura, Mare. You are not at fault," he apologised for his anger. They should not be feeling it. The Theocracy should. If there was such a thing as regeneration in this world he would stand at the respawn point and kill the Theocracy as many times as it took.

"No, Master! It is my fault. I was too weak."

Ainz held up one hand. He couldn't help the burst of energy that accompanied the gesture. Almost all of Nazarick was seething in negative energy. For those of the living it would be uncomfortable if they were not protected. Still even though most of Nazarick's members were living, they were made to be tolerant to negative energy. It came with their karma.

"You are not weak."

For a moment Ainz thought Aura hadn't heard him. Then her heterochromatic eyes widened and she once again burst into tears. Her hands rose to cover her face. He stared.

He looked to Mare. The other elf looked as confused as he felt. What had he said?

"Aura!" Ainz stepped forward, discarding the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown at the door. "Aura, please," he said desperately. What had he said that affected her so badly? "You are not weak," he murmured coming closer.

"No! Stay away! Master, please do not come any closer."

He froze.

"Aura!" That was Mare. The other elf was distressed. Usually it was Aura berating him for not properly greeting their Master.

"It's alright, Mare," Ainz assured the elf. He'd been warned that something like this could happen. It was just distressing. He hadn't thought it would affect him this badly. He felt unclean. He felt as if he was the one who'd done it. He trembled. The Theocracy had a lot to answer for.

"Aura," he said as gently as he could. "I won't come closer." He took a step backwards to reinforce his words. "I do not want to hurt you, but I do not want you calling yourself weak."

"But I am!" She cried.

Ainz sighed internally. He had to deal with this. "You are not weak," he said it again, though somehow the sentence was linked to her distress. "The Slane Theocracy's attack was very well thought out," he explained. He couldn't tell if she was listening but decided to continue. No one could tell him if giving Aura these details now would be for the best or not. He resolved that it was better for her to know the truth.

"They used a [Frysta Javelin] on Wanglong," he told her.

Aura was silent but her shoulders weren't shaking as hard. Ainz felt a small kernel of relief to know that she was listening. If she wasn't listening to them, that would make her recovery all the more difficult. "What is that, Master?" Mare asked. There was not even a tremble in his voice.

"It is a weapon that works on non-humanoid creatures. It allows them to be frozen." He turned back to Aura. "Wanglong could not fight that attack," he told the beast tamer. Ainz could almost sense her come to the realisation of what happened. That was equally good. It meant she was still thinking.

"Then they used a [Constraint of Umbra] on you," he added.

Aura shook her head. He took that to mean she didn't know what they were. Yggdrasil had possessed so many devices. That was because players could make devices, which meant it was impossible to have a complete catalogue of what was available. Both the [Frysta Javelin] and [Constraint of Umbra] were official ingame devices, made by the Shitty Devs. The [Constraint of Umbra] had been made after the raid on Nazarick but the [Frysta Javelin] was earlier. He was surprised they didn't know about it. Still, there was little need for them to know of it.

"They are from Yggdrasil," Ainz told them. "When applied to a powerful being, they remove seventy five percent of the difference between your stats and the one who put them on you." He kept his explanation clinical. "It is estimated that your attacker was at approximately level 8, maybe 10," he explained. That would have reduced your abilities to level 31."

Compared to most people in this new world, level 31 was still powerful but Ainz knew that the Slane Theocracy had planned this attack well. While it was possible that none of the attackers were at that level, they were skilled with working together. That had accounted for the differences in their individual powers. And Aura had been stunned from the fall, which had allowed them to use the constraints.

"It was not your fault, Aura."

"I failed you, Master."

"You did not fail me!" Ainz was quick to reassure her. "You did not know the attack was coming and you were in friendly territory. If anything I should be thanking you for leaving the [Picture of Nation and Nature] within Nazarick."

"But I lost everything else! Including the watch Lady Bukubukuchagama left you!"

Unseen, Ainz frowned. The watch had been retrieved with the rest of Aura's gear. He looked towards Mare. The other elf shook his head and then jerked his chin towards the bedside table. The watch was still there.

"Aura," Ainz said gently. "The watch is there," he pointed out.

She turned slowly and he watched as her eyes widened. "Master!"

"You don't think I would let the Theocracy keep any part of Nazarick?" he asked her as she cradled the watch. "And even if they had, there would be a recovery mission."

"As there was for you!" Mare told his sister.

She looked stricken, and then the expression vanished. Ainz felt his non existent heart clench. Aura was displaying no emotion. It was not right. It had only been for an instant but already he preferred her crying.

"Will… will there be an a-a-attack on the Theocracy?" He was surprised by the way Aura stumbled over the words. This was not the vivacious child she was meant to be.

That realisation just stirred his anger again. He was not becoming tired of that feeling, but he was becoming tired of the way it affected those in Nazarick. They froze when it flared, and then his limiter suppressed it. There had to be a better way but he didn't have time to worry about it. At least those in Nazarick knew that it was not directed towards them

"There will be," he assured her. He almost wished she was angry. That would be easier to deal with. Shalltear was ashamed of failing him but the vampire was also angry. Her anger was directed to those who had brainwashed her. It would be easier if Aura was angry towards those who had attacked her. He was sure there was some anger there somewhere, but her pain was blocking it out. Pain and shame.

Neuronist Painkill had explained some of the possible reactions Aura would have. As had the worker elves. Ainz hadn't liked any of them. They were not things Aura should have to go through and the Theocracy would pay for the reality she was experiencing. He wanted to say that they would fix it but… how did one fix this? The most he could offer was vengeance.

"You do not need to worry about that though," he told her. "Those responsible will be brought here, and then you may decide what to do with them."

He meant it to comfort her. Shalltear had positively glowed when he told her she could have those who had brainwashed her. He knew the vampire was working on all sorts of plans. Aura just burst into tears. Even though he was standing at a distance, Ainz felt himself take another step back.

Mare rushed forward with a cry, moving to embrace his sister. Aura leaned into his embrace, pressing her face into his chest. Ainz felt uncomfortable. It was not the emotion. He was pleased that they so obviously loved each other. It was because he'd caused her tears. What could he say? What could he do?

"Aur-" Ainz stopped when Mare held out one hand.

The dark elf looked up at him. Aura didn't. "I'm sorry, my Lord," Mare apologised.

"No, Mare," he dismissed the words as gently as he could. "There is nothing you need to apologise for. There is nothing Aura needs to apologise for," he added. "The Slane Theocracy will be apologising with blood," he announced.

There was no reaction.

Internally Ainz felt a stab of pain. Yet another thing the Theocracy would pay for. "In the meantime Mare, please look after your sister. If she needs anything, it will be provided."

"Thank you, my Lord," Mare said as he left.

The Theocracy had a lot to answer for.

-cos-

The Capital of the Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, was a large city. It was also a religious city given that the six Cathedrals were located there. On most days each of the Cathedrals held services. They did so at different times of the day to ensure that they did not overlap. That way the devoted may pray to each of the Six Gods each day. It was only on the Six Holy Days that five of the Cathedrals would not hold service. On the day of their God, that Cathedral was the only one to hold services.

The day that the Sorcerer Kingdom's Declaration of War was delivered to the Slane Theocracy was not a Holy Day. It was a regular day. The people of the capital were going about their business as usual. Even in a holy city, the bakers were amongst the first to rise, always before the dawn. But they worked in their bakeries. They noticed nothing wrong.

The next were the poor. The beggars of the city. They rose with the dawn light to claim the best positions to beg for the day. They did not notice anything wrong. They did not go into the main square of the city. If they tried to, the City Guard would eject them. The Theocracy liked the illusion that there were no beggars in their realm.

No, the first to notice the Sorcerer King's declaration was the City Guard. It was the first patrol of the day, the dawn patrol. In the dim light they noticed what seemed to be a new statue in the main square. It was unusual because the only statues allowed in the main square were those of the Six Gods. They were arranged to form the corners of a hexagon. If you stood before any one of the statues and looked down the boulevard beyond, you would see the God's Cathedral.

This new statue was in the direct centre of the main square. As befitting the capital of a powerful nation, it was a large square, at least 200m on each side. It served as a meeting place for the well off and a gathering place for large public gatherings when the Cardinals wished to make announcements. Today, in the dim light of the morning the guard moved close. It wasn't until the sun rose that they got a better view.

For the rest of their lives, they wished they hadn't.

The statue was of a human. At least, that's what they originally thought. It was only when the light grew stronger that they realised it actually was a human. By then several of the guards had noticed the wetness underfoot. They looked down to see blood. It was coming from the statue. It covered the stones of the square, running through the cracks and joins. There was far too much to have come from one body and it was still spreading.

Others of the guard were transfixed by what they were seeing. It was the type of thing you wanted to look away from, but couldn't. The figure was human but the face was stretched into a rictus of pain. The agony was inhuman but most sickening was that the eyes were still moving. They silently screamed.

The rest of the body was twisted. Bones were visible, thrusting out from the limbs. They oozed further blood. Entrails were visible. They were draped over the body, lovingly twisted around each of the protruding bones like some obscene spiders web. There was no question that the body should be dead. That's what made everything all the more horrific. It was still alive.

A sickly breath rasped through the figure's lips. It hissed out of exposed lungs but still the figure breathed.

As the light grew stronger the guard could see the remains of the clothes the figure was dressed in. Several lost what little content was in their stomachs. It added to the stench. The clothes were tattered but clearly visible on what was left of the chest was the sigil of the Slane Theocracy. Armour pieces were pierced into the figure. It took a while for them to be recognised but the guard eventually saw that it was the armour of the Holocaust Scripture.

This was one of their own.

The Leader of the Patrol stumbled close. His hands trembled. He'd seen something at the base of the statue. There, miraculously clean was white parchment. He plucked it out. It was folded and sealed in wax. He recognised the symbol only because all the commanders had been required to learn it. It was the symbol of the Sorcerous Kingdom.

His hands shook. He ignored the way the figure seemed to beg. The mouth moved. There was no breath to speak but he knew what it was saying. 'Kill me'. Except if it was not dead yet, he had no idea how to kill it.

He focused on the parchment. It was not addressed. He broke the seal and was thrown back. They were all thrown back at the power that was unleashed. Things raced out of the parchment. He didn't recognise them. They screamed as they streamed into the sky. The guard looked up at the things. The guards didn't know what they were but they seemed to form the shape of a skull when they spoke.

The entire city of Kami Miyako heard, though many were jolted awake. The scream was that of the dead. It was the noise of a million souls raging against their fate yet chained to it. Everyone heard and everyone understood.

"The Sorcerous Kingdom, and all allies hereby declare war on the Slane Theocracy and all allies known and unknown. Mercy will be granted if those responsible for the unprovoked assault on Aura Bella Fiora are surrendered within one week. Beyond that, there will be no quarter given and no terms offered for it is only with the destruction of the Slane Theocracy that the insult to the Sorcerous Kingdom can be forgiven."

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 1

-cos-

E-Rantel, Adventurer's Guild

The first sign that Pluton Ainzach had that anything was wrong was when the Guild Secretary told him that the Adamantite Adventurer Momon was waiting in his office. The second sign was evident when he entered to find Momon sitting at his desk, armored fingers tapping heavily against the wood. There was an air around Momon, one that spoke of quiet anger mixed with despair. It was an air that scared Ainzach.

"Momon?" he greeted the Adventurer carefully. Pluton had never been Adamantite Ranked but he well knew you did not startle high level Adventurers.

"Ainzach," the black armored man said, turning to greet him. The tone of his voice only made it clearer to Ainzach that something was very wrong.

He moved around his desk as his mind raced. Should he ask? Should he wait for Momon to volunteer the information? What was wrong? Where was Nabe? Was there something wrong with… where did he start on that list?

"Is there-"

Momon held up one hand, forestalling the question.

"There is something wrong," the Adventurer said, shaking his head. "But there is nothing you can do about it," he added. "There's nothing I can do about it either." That last was spoken softly, almost regretfully.

Ainzach sat down before he looked over to the window. "Should I get us a drink?" he offered. He'd never seen Momon drink but if something was this wrong, then maybe the Adamantite Adventurer would need it. He would probably need it before the end of the conversation. While Momon might say that there was nothing that could be done, he'd obviously come here to tell him.

"No, but you go ahead," Momon indicated.

The Guild Master nodded, and rose again, using the time to calm his beating heart as he poured a drink before returning to his seat. He poured one for Momon anyway and placed it before the Adventurer.

"What has happened?" He asked seriously, not yet touching his drink. Something had happened. That had been obvious for the past few days. There had been a cold air displayed by many of the demihumans in E-Rantel and no one had seen the Sorcerer King or his direct servants in that time. Ainzach just assumed the undead was still attending to the disposition of the Holy Kingdom. It could not be easy to take over a Country.

"The Theocracy," Momon spat. There was uncharacteristic venom in the Adventurer's voice. Momon leaned forward, holding his head in both hands. "Up until now, he hasn't acted like an undead."

It took Ainzach a moment to realise who Momon was talking about. That was stupid really. There was only one undead of note in E-Rantel. Then his mind caught up with what Momon had said and he acknowledged the truth of the statement. The Sorcerer King did not act like a usual undead. He displayed no overt hatred towards the living. Pluton felt his stomach tighten with worry. Momon's statement was…

"The Theocracy is about to see that he really is an undead."

"How?" Ainzach asked, almost breathless.

Momon took a deep breath, blowing it out heavily before he looked up. His expression was grim but his eyes were hard. Pluton didn't understand the emotion there. Usually Momon was more controlled. Now he seemed on the verge of hatred.

"Or maybe why would be a better question," Ainzach corrected.

"It is," Momon agreed. "The Theocracy is going to see how far Ainz Ooal Gown will go to protect his people."

Ainzach blinked. He didn't really understand that. The question showed, even to an Adventurer who was still looking at his desk.

"I've learned a great deal about the undead since he came to E-Rantel," Momon admitted. "Obviously Ainz Ooal Gown is a very high level undead. He is nothing like the skeletons and others that Adventurer's usually encounter."

Pluton nodded. That much was obvious. "His Majesty indicated he was an Overlord type of undead," Ainzach murmured. "I have never heard of them but as you say, he is very high level."

"Yes, and very long lived," Momon added. Pluton wasn't sure what that had to do with things. The undead didn't die which meant they could be of great age but how did that tie into the events he was learning of now. "People always believe that dragons are possessive," Momon almost laughed the sentence.

That was true. While the highest level Adventurers wanted to slay a dragon to prove their strength, most who attempted such a feat were killed. Yet it was well known that dragons protected hoards of valuable items. They were possessive but only of things that were worth their time.

"Ainz Ooal Gown is also possessive," Momon explained. "I do not know if it is a trait of all high level undead, or just him but he is possessive. He likes things to be stable. A certain amount of change is necessary, where he knows what the changes will be but beyond that, he likes stability."

Pluton frowned, trying to understand what Momon was saying. "So changes like having the Adventurer's Guild as part of the Kingdom?"

"And training everyone," Momon nodded. "Yes, those changes are necessary. They do not affect his sense of stability or possessiveness. However, other things aren't as welcomed by him."

"So changes he suggests are okay?" Ainzach tried to clarify.

"No," Momon shook his head, sitting upright. "Other things are okay," the Adamantite Adventurer said. "If the Sorcerer King was that sensitive to change he wouldn't be that powerful," Momon didn't make the statement a joke but Ainzach could well see the slight amusement that came from the thought. Even the undead had to change in this world, no matter how powerful they were.

"What I mean is that he has certain expectations. The Slane Theocracy have violated them."

"What do you mean?"

"Ainz Ooal Gown is a very powerful undead," Momon said. It was almost an absurd statement. The entire world knew the Spell Caster Ainz Ooal Gown was powerful. He could kill with a wave of his hand. "Death is nothing new to him. Combat is just the price one has to pay to conquer. He has no problems with that."

Ainzach couldn't help the look he directed at Momon. The Adventurer was talking about a Spell Caster that had, for all intents and purposes, single handedly defeated the Kingdom's Army. And still had time to duel Gazef Stronoff, the Kingdom's strongest warrior. Of course the Spell Caster had no problems with combat.

"I know, I'm not making sense. The point is, the Sorcerer King does have problems with other types of attacks."

Again Pluton was lost.

"One of his servants was attacked by the Slane Theocracy," Momon explained. "They were captured, and-" The black armored Adventurer paused. Pluton could actually hear his armor trembling. Momon sighed. "She was raped," he said finally.

"What?" Ainzach couldn't believe it. The rape bit he understood. It was an unfortunate reality that many women, and even some men had to endure, but how did the Slane Theocracy even capture one of the Sorcerer King's servants? "How did they?" he moved quickly to clarify his question.

No wonder Momon was so disturbed by this. The Sorcerer King was likely to be… Ainzach didn't want to consider it. The undead would be livid. And when a being as rational as the Sorcerer King was angry… That would be bad.

Momon tilted his head at Ainzarch as if asking why he was even asking when the answer was obvious. "Us Adventurers use enchanted equipment," the black armored man said. "My swords, a few other odds and ends that I have. Even Gazef Stronoff used enchanted equipment." The Former Warrior Captain's equipment were some of the National Treasurers of the Re-Estize Kingdom, yet they hadn't stopped the Sorcerer King.

"So the Theocracy used-"

"Several items," Momon confirmed. "At least I believe so. As you can imagine the Sorcerer King isn't saying much."

Yes, he probably didn't want the knowledge of such items spreading too far.

Pluton picked up his drink and took a large mouthful. He swallowed hard, feeling the burn of the liquid all the way down. "So what happens now?" He couldn't do anything to change what had happened. He had to deal with the fall out. As did Momon, which was probably why the Adventurer was here.

Momon took another deep breath, sighing heavily. "It means war, and I can't stop it."

It was Pluton's turn to look incredulous towards Momon. The man was a great Adventurer but this was not his fault. But that lead to a new thought. The Adventurer's Guild was a part of the Sorcerous Kingdom. They could be considered soldiers. "Does his Majesty require the Guild's assistance?"

Momon shook his head. "No. At least not now." The black armored man turned his head to the window where late autumn sun was streaming in. "I came to tell you because I don't know where I will be."

"He's not calling on you to fight, is he?" Ainzach was surprised. The Sorcerer King had many powerful minions. He didn't need to call upon Momon.

"I don't know," Momon admitted. "Maybe. But it's not that. This is going to be a bloody war. And the Theocracy will lose. It would have been better for them if they had killed her. Ainz Ooal Gown would have… He wouldn't have forgiven it, but it wouldn't have been as bad for the Theocracy as this is going to be."

The way Momon said the statement made it clear that he had no doubt as to the outcome. Ainzach wondered again, not for the first time, what Momon had seen to make him so certain. What had the man encountered which made him so strong, yet hadn't taken his humanity? That was Momon's greatest strength. "And you are concerned they will try to use the citizens of E-Rantel?"

"Yes."

Pluton nodded. That was so like Momon. He was concerned about others before himself. He had been concerned about this from the moment the Sorcerer King had taken possession of E-Rantel. He had warned the citizens to not be taken in by the Theocracy. Had he seen this happening? Or something similar.

"I'll let everyone know," Ainzach assured Momon. He downed the rest of his drink. "As you say, his Majesty is not a normal undead. He has not treated us badly." The undead had actually been a far more understanding ruler than anyone had anticipated. It was true that E-Rantel was undergoing changes and that there were other undead patrolling the streets and demihumans walked amongst them but those weren't necessarily bad changes. They weren't being slaughtered as the Theocracy would have had them believe. They were just living differently now. That wasn't a bad thing.

Especially for the Adventurer's guild. The labyrinth his Majesty had promised for training was still under construction but Pluton had seen it. He'd seen how it could be adjusted to cater for different training levels. Having the backing of a powerful man, or undead in this case, was going to make all the difference.

"Thank you," Momon said, nodding towards him. "I'll let you know what else I can discover but-" he didn't finish the answer.

Ainzach understood. Momon was still the chief liaison between E-Rantel and the Sorcerer King. He would be essential in making sure that everything went smoothly and that meant staying with the undead. "We'll get through this," he assured the other man. Somehow, they would have to get through it.

"I know," Momon said, rising. "Just make sure that everyone knows that the Sorcerer King is very angry at the moment. He's not likely to be forgiving, of anything. And his direct servants are going to be worse."

"We'll keep our heads down."

Momon nodded, moving to the door.

"Momon," Ainzach called, just as the black armored adventurer reached it. A tilt of the head was the acknowledgement of his call. "Thank you."

Pluton wasn't sure what response he expected to that. Momon merely raised his armored hand, waving slightly without even turning as he continued out of the office.

Ainzach took a deep breath when Momon was gone. He raised one hand, unsurprised to see it trembling. They'd get through this but… he had no idea how many would die in the Theocracy. He didn't want to know. All he knew was that once again he was truly thankful that the Adventurer Momon had chosen E-Rantel. He didn't know where they would be without the man.

-cos-

Ashurbanipal, Great Tomb of Nazarick

Because of his age and single minded dedication to magic, some thought Fluder Paradyne was a bit of a vague old man. Those people were mostly in the Empire, and now they cursed his name as that of a traitor.

The people he associated with now, those of the Sorcerous Kingdom, saw him as just a human. Something disposable, or a pet their Master had picked up. They tolerated him, nothing more.

Fluder didn't care about that. All he cared about was the Great Library of Ashurbanipal and the information it contained. To him, it was the library of the Gods. It was beautiful and more richly appointed than the Palace of the Empire. Everywhere in the Great Tomb of Nazarick was more richly appointed than anywhere Fluder had ever seen.

Ever since he had arrived, he had been focused on combat magic. The books in the Great Library held a wealth of information. Some of it was too advanced. He didn't mind that. It actually comforted him to know that they existed. They spoke of the levels of magic he knew of but couldn't use. Others just never made sense but then that just told him he had much to learn. But for the first time in his life he had a guide.

He shook his head as he made his way towards the Library. How much time could he have saved if he'd have known of the existence of Ainz Ooal Gown in his youth? The undead sorcerer had not been active in the world then, but if even a whisper of his existence had made it to Fluder's ears, he would have dedicated some time to finding the Magic Caster. And then… what would he know now?

There was no point in regretting the past. Fluder sighed, all he could do now was move forward so that he might peer into the Abyss of Magic. With that in mind, he had thought of a new line to his research and was approaching the Library even now.

The Great Tomb of Nazarick was about to wage war on the Slane Theocracy. He expected it to be a short battle, even in winter. The Cardinals had no idea of the power the undead represented. They were, he chuckled to himself, they were thinking in mere human terms.

He entered the Library, pausing on the threshold for a moment to admire it. There were thousands of books here. All neatly arranged. It was beautiful and every time he entered it he gave thanks to see it.

"Ah, Lord Titus," Fluder said.

The Skeletal Mage was in charge of the Library. He had been very useful in directing Fluder's previous searches for information.

"Fluder," the skeletal mage greeted him.

Previously he might have feared the undead but now he just viewed them as helpers. It seemed much of what he'd learned over the years about undead was false. Well, not false. The undead were usually uncontrolled, life hating masses of negative energy. But with the guidance and control of a superior undead, they were most helpful.

"I was wondering if you might help me," Fluder nodded to the skeletal mage.

"A new search?"

"Yes. This time, I think something on mental magic," Fluder specified the terms.

The undead gave him an odd look. The movement caught the light on the jewel the undead wore. It made the red of his robe all the more rich. "Interesting," Titus murmured.

"My mind is still sharp but in the past I have heard of spells that can serve to further sharpen it. While I may not be capable of casting them, like all magic, I desire the knowledge of it." Fluder explained. That was part of his reason. It was not the whole reason. He had hopes of finding something specific. If he found it, then it was likely the Sorcerer King could be persuaded to grant him further boons.

"I can suggest several titles," the undead said, waving one ringed hand. A number of books floated down from the shelves, arranging themselves in a neat pile on one of the tables.

"I am indebted," Fluder said with a nod to the undead.

The undead waved off the praise. It was his job and he turned away. He had other duties to the Library.

Fluder reached for the books. He knew the way Titus worked. These titles would be introductory. They would guide him to further works. It was those works he was interested in. If anything would, they would contain the information he desired. He smiled, sitting down at the desk. There was much work to be done.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Emperor's Office

"Your Majesty?"

Jircniv looked up from his desk. Work in the Empire never ended, not even with vassalage. In some ways that had just made his work harder. Especially with the Toadman Bard here. Thankfully that servant of the Sorcerer King was content with speaking to the Empire's spies. He was gathering all the information he could on the Slane Theocracy. It only served to remind Jircniv how sheltered the Sorcerous Kingdom was in some ways. Powerful yes, but lacking understanding of this world. It just made him hate the Toadman even more. That being never seemed to doubt and the way it smiled… It always looked like it knew his innermost thoughts. He hated that feeling.

"Natel," he greeted the General of the Second Legion of Knights.

Leinas stood beside the man. She had insisted on being Jircniv's personal guard since they had returned from Nazarick. She'd even overseen the fact that he had sent a message to Vermillion, just the way he had promised. Jircniv wasn't sure what she wanted. He hoped that she had been intimidated by the monsters that owed the Sorcerer King their loyalty but he knew better than to count on it.

"General," he greeted the man. "How may I help you?" He had learned young that soldiers had little use for mindless pleasantries. That included Natel. He might have been a member of the peerage but he was a General first. It was one of the things that had allowed him to win the Legion's loyalty.

"The Legions are gathering, Your Majesty."

"Good. How much longer?" He had given the Sorcerer King an estimate of two weeks and already a week and a half had passed. It took time to gather the army of the Empire.

"We will be ready in time," Natel assured him.

Jircniv nodded. That was good news but he could tell from Natel's tone that it was not what he wished to speak about. He gave the older man a look, one that indicated he could go ahead with his question.

Natel sighed heavily. Jircniv felt his stomach clench at the noise. He swallowed hard. After he signed the vassalage treaty he had felt relaxed. It was freeing in that manner to know that he had been defeated - at least that much. But there were other problems which still drained him. This was likely to be one.

The General of the Second Legion looked slightly apologetic. "Some of the Knights have expressed concerns, Your Majesty."

"About?" Jircniv had a sinking suspicion he knew what they were concerned about. After the Battle of Katze Plains, many of the Knights had implored him to do whatever it took to ensure the Empire never went to war against the Magic Caster Ainz Ooal Gown. With the Empire becoming a vassal state, they had been somewhat relieved, yet now they were gathering to fight on behalf of the Sorcerous Kingdom.

"They are concerned about what their duties might entail," Natel was rather diplomatic when he said that. It was a surprise to the Emperor. He was more familiar with them being rather bluntly spoken. Even the Generals of the Legions.

He gave Natel a questioning look.

"They are not concerned about fighting," Natel was quick to reassure him. "Rather they are worried about any potential interaction with the Sorcerer King's minions."

Jircniv frowned. This was not what he anticipated. That sounded like the Command group did not want to … But that was impossible. "I had thought to once again ask Nimble to be an intermediary," he said. During the events of the Katze Plains, his Knight had done an admirable job in ensuring that the Magic Caster's ire did not turn to the Empire.

Natel looked at him almost sadly. It told Jircniv what he needed to know. Nimble didn't want to deal with the undead's minions. In truth, the Emperor could not blame him. They scared him as well. Right down to his soul but Nimble was one of the best Knights in the Empire, it would be an insult to the Sorcerer King if Jircniv did not put someone of that seniority in the position of emissary.

"I'll do it!"

Natel was about as surprised as him at the cry. It came from Leinas. She smiled at them both. Even with half her face hidden, it transformed her into a beautiful woman.

"Leinas?" Jircniv questioned. This was not what he expected. Or maybe it was. He considered her statement further. While acting as the point of contact between the Empire's Legions and the Sorcerer King's forces, she would be loyal to the Empire, it gave her more exposure to the Sorcerous Kingdom. It potentially gave her privacy to conclude any agreement she wanted with them.

His mouth pursed at the thought. He didn't like the suggestion but he was hard pressed to come up with another. While usually he would assign one of the Legion Generals to such a position if they were going into actual combat, then they would need to focus on the deployment of their men. The two choices then became someone from his personal Knights. Nazami was dead, which left Nimble or Baziwood. Since Nimble had done it before, that had been his plan.

Until now.

Leinas snorted at him. No doubt she could deduce his thoughts. She'd never made any secret of where her ultimate loyalty lay. He had never made any secret that where their interests clashed he would chose his own over hers. That was their deal. They both knew the limits of it. This was now beyond it.

"There is no proof that the Sorcerer King can cure me," she said with a shrug. "And believe me, after seeing that… I'm not going anywhere near that kingdom unless they can guarantee it."

Jircniv took a deep breath. That was a reasonable assessment.

If Nimble had arranged to have Natel bring this message then… He sighed internally, letting his breath out as normal. Sometimes it was best not to force people. And this was logical and would give him the opportunity to have Leinas watched. If she did then betray him, this would be the least damaging. After all, the Empire was a part of the Sorcerer Kingdom. It may even be possible for her to be healed without needing to betray him.

"I will allow it," he said, waving one hand magnanimously. It would be the most controlled option.

"Very well, Your Majesty," Natel nodded.

"Send Nimble in to take Leinas' place," Jircniv ordered Natel as the man saluted and withdrew. He turned his gaze towards Leinas. "Then you had best report to Lord Demiurge," he instructed her. It would only be polite to have her introduce herself to the Toadman.

"Yes, Your Majesty," she saluted as well. "Have they indicated what forces the Sorcerous Kingdom will be supplying?" she asked curiously. The entire army knew what forces Ainz Ooal Gown had used at the Katze Plains. Even if those forces had never seen combat, they were powerful soldiers.

"Not yet," Jircniv told her. "I do not even know how they plan to move the Legions."

Leinas laughed again. "We travelled to the Katze Plains and back in one day and you ask how they plan to move the Legions?" she asked him with a mocking tone.

He was about to say that it was impossible, that using magic to move small groups was one thing but larger groups was impossible, then he remembered the reports from Nimble and Natel at the Katze Plains. The Magic Caster had moved his undead hordes to the Plains via transport spells. There were only five hundred of them but it was the principle. Ainz Ooal Gown could move sufficient forces with magic when the need arose. No wonder he was not concerned about fighting with winter coming on. There would be no forced marches in too cold conditions. No fighting while half starved. He made a mental note to ensure that that was in the Sorcerer King's plans. He would supply his Legions but the Sorcerer King would have to move those supplies.

"It is as you say." This time he sighed.

"Do not worry," she comforted him, "it will be a short war."

"That it will," Jircniv again agreed with her. "But that will not remove my paperwork," he added.

She nodded. "It is as you say," Leinas agreed, parroting his words.

Jircniv turned back to his work. He wondered if Ainz Ooal Gown had this problem. Maybe one day he'd ask. Just not today.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Sacred Room of the Gods

The piece of white paper sat on the table. Those gathered glared at it but it remained unchanging. There were creases on it but the penmanship of the lettering was excellent and the seal, while broken was recognisable as belonging to the Sorcerous Kingdom. It should have been stained red. The guard who had opened the letter had dropped it into blood but it remained pristinely white. There was magic at work here.

"A formal declaration of war," Berenice murmured.

"It will give us a chance to deal with this Undead once and for all," Dominic almost laughed.

The Cardinals were seated. The Captains of each of the Scriptures were standing. Select members of the Scriptures, the Godkin were also present. These were the people who would bear the brunt of any conflict.

"Are we ready for it?" the Cardinal of Light asked. He had been badly shaken by the Sorcerous Kingdom's declaration of war. It was not so much the declaration itself that disturbed him but the being that had been left in the central square. It had been identified as Lojze Puerta, the missing member of the Holocaust Scripture.

He had been barely identifiable. A twisted mangled wreck of a body that should have been dead, but wasn't. It had taken the work of several divine magic casters, working in unison to kill it and for a while there they were afraid that Lojze had been turned into something beyond their abilities to dispatch. They weren't sure what had been done to him. He had been turned into a zombie but it was far more than that.

Yvon didn't want to think that the Sorcerer King could do worse but he knew he could not discount the possibility.

"Heresy!" Dominic growled.

"A fair question," Raymond countered. "Are we ready for it?" He was deathly afraid, that even with the Scriptures gathered, the answer was no. The type of evil the Sorcerer King represented was… Godly. He didn't want to think that but couldn't help it. And it seemed they had forgotten that one of the Six Gods had been undead. Surshanna had not hated the living. Could this Sorcerer King be similar? Those were all thoughts Raymond knew he shouldn't be entertaining but couldn't stop himself from thinking. Should they have approached this entire situation differently? 'Almost certainly' was the answer to that one but it was too late now.

"We will have to be," Ginedine responded, glaring at Dominic to keep the other Cardinal silent. "Unless we want to buy time by handing over those responsible," he added suggestively.

"No!" Dominic growled. "That is admitting our fault."

"Oh, so now you admit we are at fault?" Maximillian questioned acerbically. "We still have several disposable questioners though," he gave his back handed agreement with Ginedine's assessment. "Do not let emotion get involved with this decision," he added, pausing to allow them all to think.

"It would potentially give us the opportunity to strike directly at the Sorcerer King," the Cardinal of Darkness gave the obvious conclusion.

"He wouldn't allow it," Yvon objected. "Even if he does, can we effectively do anything?"

That was a sobering thought.

Raymond shook his head. The Cardinal of Earth wrapped his hand on the table before anyone else could say anything. "We have to assume we can. If we believe that we can't, we should surrender immediately," he told them all.

Zetsumei snorted. "The elf was nothing special," she muttered.

"We do not know the strength of his servants," Berenice reminded them. "The elf may indeed have been nothing special but is excuse enough for this war. Even if we were to hand over the disposables, there is no guarantee the undead would accept or call off an assault."

"We have time," the Captain of the Holocaust Scripture said gently. His Scripture wasn't as strong as the Black Scripture but they were all respected. And they were mostly deployed against the Elf Country but with winter coming on they were being recalled. "We are late into the Autumn (Fall), even for an Undead, Winter is not a good season for warfare."

"The Thousand Mile Astrologer indicates that the Baharuth Emperor was called for some meeting and has issued orders to gather his legions at Arwintar," the Captain of the Black Scripture summarised for those who had not yet seen those reports.

"Even at a forced march it will be very difficult for them to attack in this season."

"So we are fighting?" Raymond asked.

"Of course we are fighting!" Dominic snarled. "You seem to think we have a choice, that Humanity has a choice! There is no choice! We cannot rest until that undead is destroyed. That is our sacred duty, that the Six Great God's demand of us."

"Maybe there will be something worth fighting in his forces," Zesshi murmured.

Most of those present ignored her. While she was the secret weapon of the Theocracy and would no doubt see combat against the Sorcerous Kingdom's forces, they were used to her desires. Her scythe was leaning against the wall. While it was an instrument of war, it gave many present a sense of peace to know it was wielded for them.

"Handing over select individuals would do nothing but buy us time," Berenice indicated.

Ginedine nodded his agreement. Maximillian was thoughtful but also agreed.

"We cannot bow to an undead," Yvon said softly. "But the cost of this conflict will be great," he added. "We must be prepared for that. We must not falter in the wake of the deaths we know will come. This is a reality we must be aware of now, and we must begin preparing the Theocracy for it while we have the season of winter." The Cardinal of Light was somber and he took a deep, shuddering breath.

The other Cardinal's looked at him sharply.

He nodded. "I will prepare for Gisei."

"You believe it will go that badly?" Raymond asked softly, waving for Dominic to be silent.

The Scripture Captains and the Godkin looked confused. The Captain of the Black Scripture shook his head subtly to indicate that he did not know what Gisei was. Even for those who were well ranked, there were things only known to Cardinals.

"I would rather prepare it, and not need it," Yvon indicated sadly.

Dominic nodded, though much of his fire seemed subdued. Only divine magic users could understand the full details of Gisei but all the Cardinals knew it required sacrifice.

"So are we fighting or what?" Zetsumei interrupted.

"We are fighting, my child," Raymond assured her. "To do anything less would be to abandon humanity and we are its guardians. We must send word to our border towns. They are to fortify over the winter, for when the roads clear, we can expect the Empire to come calling."

"The traitors," Dominic spat. No one disputed his assessment.

"We must expect the undead to supplement the Empire's Legions," Berenice said.

"I'm not sure that he will," Ginedine disagreed. "It would be like an undead to create despair by making us fight those we would protect." Unspoken was the thought that the undead would enjoy causing the deaths of the living.

"Yet we cannot discount the possibility that the Legions will be riddled with other undead."

"He would destroy their morale!" The Captain of the Holocaust Scripture objected.

They all knew what the man spoke of. It was impossible for high level undead to co-exist with the living. The undead held too much hatred. Their negative energy would eat away at the strength of the living. Skeleton undead were low level but they all knew the Sorcerer King would not send them.

"The Thousand Mile Astrologer is going to be busy," Berenice said with a wry smile towards the Captain of the Black Scripture.

He bowed his head in response. The Thousand Mile Astrologer would not be the only one busy. Any magic user capable of scrying would be pressed into service.

"So, do we respond?" Maximillian asked, gesturing towards the paper that was still sitting on the table. They had all studied the words, trying to divine any further information. Various spells had been cast on the paper, attempting to determine how the spirits had been imprisoned within it. To magic senses it now appeared as nothing more than paper.

Ginedine snorted. The old man was amused. "This Undead gave us a week but neglected to leave any way of contacting him. He anticipated that we would not surrender anyone."

"Arrogant."

"Yes, but smart," Ginedine allowed. "We must be equally smart in matching the challenge." He reached out, picking up the paper between two fingers. Then he flung it away. "This requires no reply. The undead does not expect it, and I would wager, does not want it. Instead, we must use the time it had given us to prepare.

"When the battle is joined, we must be ready to kill it."

"We will kill it!" Dominic growled his agreement. "Humanity demands it."

"The Six Great Gods demand it," Yvon agreed. "The price will be high but we must pay it. For the good of Humanity, we can accept nothing less." Of all of them, the zombie thing that had been Lojze Puerta, had shown him how expensive this battle was going to be. They needed allies but there were none. The Empire was gone. The Kingdom was less than useless and any other potential ally was an enemy.

He couldn't help the thought that they were approaching the problem of the Sorcerous Kingdom in the wrong way. It was not humanity against the undead. It couldn't be. Against the undead, especially one of this power, it had to be the living against the dead. Their survival depended upon it but until the others realised that, the Theocracy would hold firm. Yvon firmed his heart against the death he knew was to follow.

The Cardinals nodded. "For the good of Humanity," they all intoned as they turned to the statues of the Six Gods before lowering their heads in prayer.

They knew where their future lay.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 2

-cos-

Palace, Re-Estize Kingdom, Princess Renner's Quarters

"You are concerned?" the Golden Princess looked over at her friend.

"I am, Your Highness," Lakyus replied. She was dressed as a noble's daughter. In an off the shoulder pink dress, no one would expect she was the leader of one of the country's Adamantite Adventurer group. Especially with the way she sipped at her tea.

"What is it?" Princess Renner was genuinely distressed.

Lakyus sighed. "I've been thinking about our attack on the Eight Fingers."

Renner looked slightly confused. "Jaldabaoth was driven off," she said. "And we have word that the Demon has been defeated by the Sorcerer King."

The Leader of the Blue Roses nodded. "Which is good news for us all," she allowed, even though it was an undead who had done the deed. "But that wasn't what I was thinking of."

"So what is it?" Renner asked.

"The Eight Fingers," Lakyus said earnestly. "What happened to them?" she looked rather grim as she asked the question. "Climb reported that Sir Sebas and Sir Unglaus took out the Six Arms but what of their masters?" She shuddered. "We have that thing, Cocco Doll, but where are the others?"

The Golden Princess looked at her friend quizzically. They had discussed this before. While their plan had been to capture either documents or the heads of the Eight Finger's criminal organisation, they had been distracted when the Demon Jaldabaoth had attacked. Between the Demon's attack and theirs, the Eight Fingers groups had lost much prestige.

It was not an optimal outcome but it had bought them time. With their resources diminished, Renner had suggested that the best thing they could do now was to wait. When the Eight Fingers leaders showed their heads, then would be the time to put them down once and for all. No one liked the Princess' suggestion but they acknowledged that it was the most realistic. The events at Katze Plains had then driven all thoughts of the Eight Fingers from their mind.

"Maybe they were weakened more than we realised?" Princess Renner suggested.

"Maybe," Lakyus agreed. "I just think that with what we are facing, we will be seeing them again."

"That is possible," Renner said seriously. She looked sad.

"Then we will strike," Lakyus assured her, attempting to reassure the Princess.

"I just hope it won't be too late."

Lakyus nodded. Times would get harder for the Re-Estize Kingdom before they got better. They were still in autumn but this winter would be hard. And once they got through the winter, there was still the spring planting to be done, and almost no one to do it. The yearly wars against the Baharuth Empire had been damaging, coming as they had during the Harvest. But at least the workforce had been alive to plant the next year's crop and to glean what they could from the fields they had not been able to reap.

"That is why I'm concerned," the Leader of Blue Rose said. "This is an almost perfect environment for them but they have not yet made a move."

"This is why I have that orphanage," Renner smiled.

Lakyus smiled in return. She understood the Princess' efforts there. "You can't save them all but, at least some can be shown the right way. Sometimes that's all that's needed." She took a sip of tea.

"Let's talk of something else," Renner urged. "If the Eight Fingers show their faces again, I will employ you to capture them," she said with a smile. "And it might be that they were too weakened by those attacks."

"We can hope for that," Lakyus agreed. "What would you like to speak of?"

"Your adventures!" Renner answered immediately. It was a light hearted answer, as expected of a Princess who only worked for the betterment of everyone.

Lakyus chuckled. "It's been quiet lately," she said. "Guard this caravan. Protect this citizen. Nothing special. Which is a bit of a relief."

"Everyone is back to normal?" It was a coded question. Had Tia and Gagaran recovered from their resurrection?

"The quiet has helped us train," Lakyus replied. That was true. Tia and Gagaran had trained with them until their levels had been recovered. They both had felt the loss keenly and wanted to avenge their loss as fast as possible. Hearing that the Demon had been defeated by the Sorcerer King was good news for them even if it meant they'd never have the chance to try. They were both realistic about their chances. "And Evileye is still besotted."

"Oh?" Renner's eyes went ingeniously wide. "Tell me more!" she ordered with an excited chirp to her tone.

"Gagaran would be able to tell you more," Lakyus admitted. Blue Rose's main muscle hadn't accompanied her today. "But Evileye is still Momon this and Momon that," she explained happily.

Renner gave a little laugh. "And she hasn't told him?"

"It's been a bit difficult," Lakyus said. "She wants to but at the same time, I don't know. We can't just visit the Sorcerous Kingdom."

"Why not?" Renner's question was innocent.

"It could easily be misconstrued as an attack," she replied. "We have no legitimate business in E-Rantel. That's Momon's territory."

"Even if you declared yourselves to the border forces?"

"Ah," Lakyus said. "I don't think that option's occurred to Evileye."

Renner chuckled this time. Evileye could be very direct at times, overlooking more sensible options.

"I'll let you know if anything changes,' Lakyus promised.

"Please," Renner grinned briefly before sipping at her tea. The Kingdom had a myriad of problems facing it, but for now she would enjoy the moment.

-cos-

Nazarick, Floor Six, Gigantic Tree, Aura's Residence

Mare shook Aura carefully. His sister shouldn't be sleeping this much but… Internally he sighed. It was easier this way.

A stab of guilt pierced him.

Mare suppressed it. It was easier for Aura! Not him. She didn't have to think about what had happened. Physically she was fine but mentally… All Mare could feel was a vast sadness within him at his sister. She shouldn't be this way. Even her familiars were noticing. He'd allowed Fenny into her room and the great wolf had curled up around Aura. She'd snuggled into his fur.

"Aura, wake up," Mare said gently.

"Don wanna," her voice was slurred with sleep.

He didn't mind. The tone was normal. It was only when she woke up properly that she would remember. Mare swallowed. This time the guilt stayed. Waking Aura would mean she remembered. And this time, he wanted her to remember.

Neuronist Painkill had rather patiently explained that Aura couldn't heal if she didn't remember. She had to process the events. If she just suppressed them, then they could come back to haunt them all at inconvenient times. It wasn't that Mare didn't believe Neuronist. The grey brain eater was an expert on this sort of thing. He just didn't want to do this to Aura.

But they had to. Eventually. He wanted to put that off for now. But if he put it off now, it would be easy to put it off tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, and it would never happen.

Besides, Lord Ainz had given him a special tool. It hadn't been in the Treasury, but rather in his personal artefacts. That made it even more special. This was something Lord Ainz owned personally. He said it wasn't anything special. That's why it wasn't in the Treasury but Lord Ainz had some odd views that way. It befitted him as a Supreme Being. His values were different and the citizens of Nazarick could only strive to understand their greatness.

The device captured images. Lord Ainz had called it a camera and said they they were nothing special. Of course the camera couldn't capture images straight out of Aura's mind. Instead Mare had to use a spell on Aura, one that would take the image of her memory and put it on the mirror he had set up for this purpose. Then, one of the Homunculus Maids, Feciora would use the device. The maid was honoured to simply be touching the device. She wouldn't make a mistake.

"Please, Aura. I need you to wake up," Mare begged. She needed him to be strong so he couldn't be hesitant in the way he had been and they were alone now. There was nothing to be nervous about.

Fenny licked at Aura's face, both to comfort her and to wake her up. Mare felt a moment of sheer happiness when Aura giggled but he saw the exact moment she woke properly. The giggle froze and her eyes sharpened. She looked around frantically.

"You aren't there," Mare said quickly. He knew what she was going through. "You aren't there. They aren't here."

Aura turned to him, her eyes clinging to his presence and Mare could see the way her fists gripped Fenrir's fur. The wolf was good to take such things without snapping. Aura made a noise between a gasp and a sob.

"You are not there," Mare moved forward, putting his staff down so he could take Aura's hand. "I won't ever let you go there again," he promised. He always promised that. It hurt that she didn't believe him.

Neuronist had explained that to him as well. The brain eater had been firm in her assurances that it wasn't that Aura didn't believe him. She didn't believe in herself. It still bothered him.

Aura took a deep breath. Mare felt slightly better. It might be one of the better days. She wasn't crying. Then he remembered what he had to ask today. It wasn't going to be a good day. He just knew it. Mare sat more comfortably on the bed. Fenny looked at him but didn't object to his presence.

"Do you want some breakfast?" Mare offered. Making Aura eat had been difficult and she was looking thinner. "I'll get you a burger?" It wasn't breakfast food but it was something Aura liked so that was more important.

"I'm not hungry," she said softly.

"You have to eat something," Mare reminded her. Gashokukochuuou had suggested options in the event Aura wouldn't eat but Mare didn't want to use them. It wasn't that they were painful, it was just that it would mean Aura wasn't recovering. So far, those options hadn't been necessary but he would use them if he needed to but magicing food and water directly into Aura's stomach seemed to be cheating. Gashokukochuuou indicated that sometimes he had to use such measures on his residences. "Just something little?" Mare coaxed.

He could tell Aura was about to object but her stomach grumbled loudly. "Something little," Aura agreed.

Feciora didn't need prompting and quickly left to get something for Aura. Everyone in Nazarick was going out of their way to be so nice. Mare was touched. He was sure Aura would be touched as soon as she could focus on something other than her pain.

"Lord Ainz has issued a declaration of war," Mare told her.

"War?"

"Against the Theocracy," Mare explained. He didn't have to say it was because of what they had done to her and Wanglong.

He wasn't sure if Aura was happy about the news. He thought she'd accept it. Mare hadn't expected Aura to burst into tears again. "That just proves I'm weak!" she howled.

"You are not weak!" Mare snapped back. She needed him to be strong so he would be strong for her.

"I am! I wasn't strong enough to escape."

"Lord Ainz explained what happened," Mare reminded her. "He doesn't think you are weak! He thinks the Theocracy is," the dark elf emphasised.

"Then I should have fought them off! And they killed Wanglong!" Aura turned her face back to Fenrir as Mare heard Feciora came back in, carrying a small tray.

He wasn't sure what he could say to that. The Theocracy had killed Wanglong but Lord Ainz had resurrected the Dragon. Not resurrected but reanimated as an undead dragon lich. The dragon was completely loyal and even now Mare could feel it wrapped around their tree.

"You think that was a problem for our Lord?" Mare asked Aura. Lord Ainz was the master of death.

"But W-w-wanglong wasn't a NPC or a p-p-POP," Aura objected. NPC's could be resurrected. POPs would just regenerate. It was odd that she was the one stuttering. To the watching maid, Feciora, it just highlighted how wrong this situation was. It was one of the reasons all of Nazarick would seek vengeance for Aura.

"As if that matters!" Mare scoffed before giving out a whistle.

Wanglong heard and almost instantly the light from the window was darkened as the huge dragon head filled it. Glowing red eyes looked into the room and Wanglong seemed reassured that Aura and Mare were both there.

"What?" Aura asked. Mare was happy for the question.

"Lord Ainz reanimated Wanglong," Mare explained. "He's now a dragon lich."

Aura frowned. "They d-d-didn't exist."

"Not in Yggdrasil," Mare nodded. "But here? It was a trifling matter for our Master."

"He shouldn't have," Aura whispered.

"He said he'd do it again," Mare assured her. "You can ask him yourself if you want," he added.

"No! I can't see him when I am this weak!"

"You are not weak," the response was automatic by now.

"Then why am I doing nothing but sitting here?"

"Because you have to heal!" Mare said.

Aura didn't look convinced. Feciora moved forward, bringing the tray and Mare identified a small bowl of oatmeal, liberally laced with honey and some raisins. It would be filling and sweet for Aura. The maid offered it to the Dark elf who took it slowly and under Mare's watchful eyes began to eat. About half way through the bowl she put the spoon down.

Mare suppressed a sigh. That was all Aura would eat for now. He supposed it was a good effort. "There is one thing you can do to help," he said softly. He felt bad for bringing it up now, while Feciora took the tray again.

"What? How?" Aura seemed almost eager.

This was another thing Neuroist had explained. Aura would want distractions. Anything to help her forget. Some were good but they could not go on if she was to heal.

"We captured some of the idiots," Mare began explaining, "but with the declaration of war, we want to make sure we get them all."

Aura just stared at him for a moment. Mare rubbed his fingers against her hand. "Lord Ainz wants to give them to you, just as soon as we capture them. Though… if they are also the ones who brainwashed Shalltear, you may have to share."

He waited while Aura remained silent.

"You want me to remember?" She whispered.

"We need to know who to target," Mare clarified.

Aura blinked. For a moment Mare thought she'd agree. "No," she hissed.

"Aura," he begged.

"No!" Her voice was firmer. Mare could hear anger entering her tone. This was new. "I won't let you think me weak!"

"I don't think you are weak!"

"No, I'm not going to do this," Aura didn't even listen to him.

"Aura, please! We have to know!"

"No!"

Mare felt himself adrift. He had no idea what to do. They needed to know but he can't force Aura to agree. He can't force her to remember. He doesn't want to use Lord Ainz's name. That would be cheating. It would be a low blow. Yet… what if it's the only way. "Please?"

Aura didn't reply. Mare met her eyes. They were burning. He could see the green and blue orbs screaming at him. "Get out!" she snapped.

"What?"

"Get out!"

"Aura!"

"No, get out now!"

Mare gasped and he shook his head. "Aura, please."

"Get out," she growled. Fenrir reacted. The wolf was confused but he knew his mistress. He wouldn't bite Mare but the dark elf could see the wolf watching him.

Kyouhukou had said this might happen. As had the elf women Lord Ainz had left in their care. They had actually confirmed a lot of what the Five Worst had said. It didn't make it hurt less though.

"I'll be back," Mare promised, reluctantly releasing Aura's hand as he took up his staff again.

She didn't say anything. Instead, he saw her turn to Fenrir, wrapping her arms around the wolf.

"Just rest for now," he added, resisting the urge to snort. All she'd been doing was rest.

When would she begin to heal? It hurt that he didn't know when.

No one did.

-cos-

Palace, Re-Estize Kingdom, Princess Renner's Quarters

"Brother!"

To anyone listening, Princess Renner was joyously greeting her elder brother. No one would guess it was an act. Even Prince Zanac had to remind himself that his younger, half sister had a hidden side.

"Sister," he said with a smile.

"Would you like tea?" She offered, gesturing for him to sit.

He didn't like it but he drank it when he saw her. "Please," he agreed.

She smiled at him and leaned forward to pour tea from what he suspected was an ever ready teapot. "Climb," Renner looked over her shoulder, her blue eyes wide, after the tea was poured.

"Of course," he replied anticipating her request. With her brother here, she didn't need protection or a chaperone. "Your Highness," Climb said, bowing his head.

Prince Zanac didn't respond to the low born. Instead he reached out and put sugar in his tea. He liked it far sweeter than Renner. "He has no idea," he murmured once the young man was out of the room.

"Of course not," Renner replied with remarkable candor. "I'll let him know when it makes sense."

He shook his head. His sister's obsession didn't make any sense to him. Why was his sister obsessed with such a low born boy? And how had she hidden it for so long? If he thought about it, that was what truly scared him. He pushed that thought from his mind. Renner knew where her interests lay. That's what was important. She knew he was one of the only people who could help her keep her obsession.

"What did you want to discuss?" She asked, taking a delicate sip of her tea.

Zanac sighed. "Father is still being-" he didn't finish.

Their Father should have abdicated years ago. He hadn't then because he knew the chaos that would follow. Prince Zanac wanted the throne, as did Prince Barbro. Of course, now that Prince Barbro was missing, there was no reason to delay, except… Their father still held on to the throne.

"I believe he is wanting some stability," Princess Renner said. "But you are the only candidate," she added.

"Or could he be lost in grief?" That was Zanac's theory. The Battle of Katze Plains had been a disaster for the Kingdom. The Nobles were still screaming about it and as the food situation became worse, they would only scream more. They conveniently forgot their part in those actions.

But while they had lost the strength of the Kingdom, and many of the nobles had lost their heirs, the Kingdom had lost Gazef Stronoff as well. While Brain Unglaus was a formidable replacement, the man was still searching for someone to train.

"That is possible," Renner admitted.

"All the more reason he shou-" Zanac fell silent when Renner held up one slim hand. She had a slight smile on her features and the Prince had learned to dread that smile. It meant his sister was about to say something that would shake up his world.

"I agree," she told him. "But our honoured Father may also be considering other alternatives."

Prince Zanac frowned. He didn't like the sound of that.

"The Sorcerer Kingdom," Renner hinted.

He wanted to demand, 'what about them' but knew he should first think for himself. They had sent a diplomat. The beautiful Prime Minister Albedo. She had made a favourable impression and had then left. He had been relieved when that happened. At least she hadn't made any threats. He'd thought that a good thing but now… did that mean she hadn't felt the need to? He didn't like that thought. "He wouldn't!" Zanac gasped.

Renner smiled. It wasn't the innocent expression most would see. This was one of calculation. "No, most likely not," she agreed. It was easy to hear what she wasn't saying. Their father wasn't considering it, but he definitely should.

"I have to be King first," Zanac reminded her.

"You will be," Renner assured him. "You are the only candidate," she repeated.

"So why hasn't he?" That was the core of Prince Zanac's frustration. Why hadn't their Father abdicated in his favour, especially now that his elder brother was no longer around to confuse the issue.

"For the Kingdom," Renner said quickly. "We are in a time of weakness. If Father was to abdicate, it would mean all would see the beginning of your reign as a time of weakness."

"So he's trying to protect me?" Zanac didn't believe it.

He didn't think Renner believed it either.

"How would you solve the Kingdom's problems?" she asked, her voice suddenly sharp.

He hadn't expected the question. How would he do it? They were a myriad. The Sorcerous Kingdom was just one problem. And really, it was one of the more esoteric question. More important was the food problem. And the problem the nobles represented, especially as there had been rumours of a third faction forming. They did not need more division in the Kingdom but there seemed to be little they could do to stop it.

"We need time," he began.

Renner looked amused. "We don't have time," she told him.

Zanac wanted to argue but he knew he couldn't. They didn't have time. "The Theocracy said they would help with food," he sought to remind her.

Renner waved one perfectly manicured hand. "The Theocracy's promises are hollow," she said coldly. "We need that food now. They should already be shipping it, yet they aren't."

He sighed. That was the truth. "Maybe it will come," he added.

"In winter?" Renner laughed. "Even I know the roads are far more difficult then and besides, they have other problems," she said.

"Other problems?" Zanac frowned. He hadn't heard about anything.

She looked at him and he fought the feeling that he was being stupid. "You need to listen to the Ambassadors more," she informed him.

"What has happened?" He asked, his voice resigned.

"The Sorcerous Kingdom has declared war on the Theocracy."

"They've what?" Why hadn't he heard of this? His contacts weren't that badly placed.

Renner continued to give him a look. Again it questioned why he wasn't thinking for himself.

"So the Theocracy will not be able to help at all," Zanac drew the obvious conclusion. Even he could see that. Which meant that the problems with food were going to get worse before they got better.

"There is a potential solution for food," Renner announced.

"There is?" Zanac frowned. What solution could that be? They didn't have enough and it wasn't like they could buy it from the Empire. The Theocracy wouldn't be in a position to trade if they were fighting with the Sorcerous Kingdom either. And their other neighbours had their own issues. It was the Re-Estize Kingdom that was the food producer in the area, and the Empire had disrupted that. And now… he didn't know. They might be able to get through the winter on their reserves but he already knew the next few years were going to be lean. Even if the weather was perfect, even if they didn't have that yearly war with the Empire, there was just no workers to plant and tend the fields. That was the reality.

"I'll tell you later," she said and he knew from her tone that she'd say no more on that.

Zanac gave her a look. He'd remember that. "I was hoping that the lack of food would help to bring the Kingdom together." It was a rather disgusting thing to admit but they had been playing politics for so long. The crisis would forcefully bring the Kingdom together. Or break it completely.

Renner gave a thoughtful nod. "A tricky proposition but one that is possible. I will help, if you want," she said, "but I will need something for it, brother," she added with a smile.

"Something?" Prince Zanac questioned. As far as he knew, in return for supporting him to be the new King his sister was already getting everything she wanted. It was one of the reasons he hated talking to her. She was so content… and with her friendship with the Adamantite Adventure Group, The Blue Roses, she had a military presence he didn't like.

"My betrothal," Renner said seriously.

It took Zanac a moment to remember. It had been part of Renner's price for supporting him. Marquis Raeven had been present then. The Marquis had remained on his estate since the disaster at Katze Plains. There had been no communication. But Renner had demanded that she be betrothed to his son. It would be a marriage in name only. Renner would then be able to have children with Climb who would be seen as legitimate while Marquis Raeven's son could sire children with whomever he pleased. It was not unheard of in noble circles, so long as no one complained, everyone pretended and looked the other way.

"What about it? The Marquis' son is still very young."

Renner shrugged at that. She knew that detail. "I will need the betrothal soon," she pressed.

"But Marquis Raeven hasn't been-"

"I will need the betrothal soon," Renner interrupted.

That made it clear what she expected. He was meant to contact the Marquis to remind him. It wouldn't matter if he didn't return, so long as the betrothal went through.

Prince Zanac sighed heavily. "I'll contact him," he said. It would actually be a good reason to send a letter to the man. Others would understand him doing that on Renner's behalf.

She smiled. It was radiant. In moments like this Prince Zanac doubted her nature. But then the smile changed. It became twisted, more calculating, hungry. With that expression he could no longer doubt Renner's true nature.

"Good. I'll see what I can suggest to Father," she said magnanimously.

"If he'd even acknowledge that Barbro is gone…" That would make him a step closer to inheriting.

"Yes, there must be stability," she agreed.

"And the food?"

Renner drained the last of her tea. "In good time," she assured him.

Zanac translated. When I'm betrothed. He'd better send that letter, before the roads became impassable with the winter rains. "Then I will ask," he said to her as he rose. "Have a good day, sister."

She smiled again. "You too, brother," Renner said happily, her mask returning again as he moved to the door.

It was only once he was back in the corridor and the door safely closed that Prince Zanac shook his head. He hated dealing with her!

-cos-

Nazarick, Fifth Floor, Frozen Area

"Mare?" The voice was uncertain. Not at the identification, that was sure, but the uncertainty carried the question as to if the Dark Elf wished to acknowledge the speaker.

Mare sniffed heavily, looking up as he wiped his eyes. He was on the fifth floor of Nazarick and this was Cocytus' territory. He should acknowledge the Floor Guardian here. He nodded with a wan smile.

The tall Floor Guardian just looked at him.

"It's Aura," Mare responded to the unspoken question. He wondered why Cocytus was still here. Of late the Fifth Floor Guardian had been working with the Lizardmen. There were several standing at a respectful distance.

"What. Is. The. Problem?" Cocytus asked. One arm brandished his spear. Mare knew, if he could the Ruler of the Frozen Glacier would be wielding that spear to cut down those responsible for Aura's pain.

The question reflected that. Mare knew it wasn't simply a direct question.

Mare swallowed hard, pushing down his tears. Aura was crying. Mare was crying too. He'd never cried this much in the past but no one was suggesting weakness from it. If anything the citizens of Nazarick were getting more creative in their plans for vengeance. Lord Ainz had made it very clear that the humans who had been brought back were to be untouched, though he assured everyone that vengeance would come.

Maybe that's why Cocytus was still here. The humans were confined on this floor. The Floor Guardian would not allow any harm to come to them until Lord Ainz allowed it.

"It's Aura," Mare repeated. "She won't let me take images."

He could feel Cocytus' frown.

"Rubedo indicated that she brought those who were with Aura, but that there were likely to be more." Mare didn't like to explain. He kept the words short.

Cocytus understood and there was a blast of icy air from him.

"We need to capture them," Mare continued, "which means I need the images from Aura."

The Floor Guardian nodded slightly. "She. Is. Afraid." The statement was simple. It had many reasons and there was no accusation there.

Mare nodded. Aura was afraid. With good reason. "I don't know how much longer I can-" Mare didn't finish.

Cocytus moved close. For such a large being he was silent when he wanted to be. Mare was startled when he felt one hand on his shoulder, patting gently. "It. Will. Take. Time."

The Dark Elf wanted to agree but he couldn't. "We need the images to plan the assault," he said.

The Guardian said nothing.

"Lord Ainz hasn't asked for them," Mare told Cocytus. "Our Master is very patient."

"Lord. Ainz. Is. A. Great. Man."

Mare sniffed again. "I know."

"He. Understands."

"I know, but-" Mare sighed. It was difficult to explain. "Aura can't deny this," he said finally.

Cocytus nodded. "There. Is. Time. Yet."

Mare shook his head. There was time but the declaration of war had been sent. Any delay in executing that declaration after the week their Lord had given the Theocracy would just make Nazarick seem weak. As a Floor Guardian, Mare could not allow that. Aura would think the same as well, at least she would if she was thinking clearly. He couldn't bring himself to blame her that she wasn't.

"Have. You. Considered. Alternatives?"

"Alternatives?" Mare didn't know what Cocytus was suggesting.

"Aura. Is. Scared. She. Needs. Comfort."

Mare thought. He still didn't get it. He shook his head.

"Lady. Bukubukuchagama. Would. Be. A. Comfort."

The Dark Elf felt his eyes open wide. Of course, Lady Bukubukuchagama would be a comfort to Aura but that Supreme Being was not here. Lord Ainz was doing all he could but Aura was not as accepting of it. At least she hadn't demanded all males be removed from her presence. That was a possibility Mare was grateful hadn't occurred. It would have been difficult.

"How?" Mare asked. Cocytus wouldn't have said this unless he had something else in mind.

"Pandora's. Actor." The Floor Guardian simply said the Area Guardian's name.

For a moment, Mare was further confused, then he remembered what Pandora's Actor was. A Greater Doppelganger. Pandora could appear as Lady Bukubukuchagama. But was that right? Aura would respond to the Doppelganger but would she be angry when she realised she had been tricked? He didn't know. His doubt must have shown.

"You. Could. Make. It. Be. A. Dream."

Mare's eyes widened. The suggestion was not like Cocytus and he forced himself to examine the ice Vermin Lord carefully. His question was obvious. Cocytus was usually far more honourable. He did not like trickery.

"It. Is. For. Aura's. Health."

The answer was simple. Mare nodded reluctantly. It appeared everyone in Nazarick would do everything they could for Aura, even if it was against their usual natures. And if Cocytus was suggesting this then… Mare didn't know what to think. Did the Floor Guardian know something he didn't.

"I don't want her to suffer," he whispered.

"This. Is. Necessary." Cocytus reminded him.

Others in Nazarick would be more than happy to obliterate every human to seek justice for Aura. Cocytus was more refined. Sebas would be the same, Mare knew. And he… The humans had caused Aura pain, but it was not all of them. Obviously those responsible had to pay and those who hadn't… He didn't really care about. They were weak but even weak creatures had some uses.

"I will ask Pandora," Mare decided. Hopefully the Doppelganger would agree to the deception and if… when Aura noted, he'd apologise profusely.

Cocytus nodded and moved off.

Mare still felt bad but this was something to try. In that way it made him feel better. All he wanted was for Aura to recover but he knew sometimes you had to be cruel to be kind. Just why did it have to be him? And why did it have to be her?

His finger's tightened on his staff. The Theocracy had a lot to answer for, and fortunately, all of Nazarick would help extract the price of vengeance.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 3

-cos-

Outskirts of the Great Southern Forest, Elf Kingdom

Sebas tugged at his lapels, settling his suit after he walked out of the [Gate]. The temperature here was warmer than up north but not so much that he would consider changing his attire. Besides, the shade from the trees was rather soothing. A soft smile creased his features as he looked around, breathing deeply of the crisp, clear air.

The [Gate] closed behind him and Sebas looked around, assessing his position. Finding reliable information about a country so far from the Great Tomb of Nazarick had proven difficult so Shalltear had just done her best. Their Master wouldn't mind. There was no time frame on this mission but Sebas would like to conclude it as soon as possible. Arriving back at Nazarick with the Elves onside would give him the opportunity to participate in the assault on the Slane Theocracy.

Usually Sebas wasn't bloodthirsty. Of all the citizens of Nazarick he knew he was one of the ones with the highest sense of justice. It was the way he had been made, and it pleased him to know that there were times when Lord Ainz also displayed that same sense of justice. However, what the Theocracy had done was unforgivable. There was no justifying their actions and he would like to be included in the attack group.

He wasn't sure what Lord Ainz had planned, only that with the memory of the Minoshirokin Incident it would be dreadful. But necessary. He'd feel no remorse from the events.

He was currently in a forest. The sunlight shone through the red leaves of the autumn giving a pink hue to everything. There was a soft carpet of leaves covering the ground and he could hear small animals scampering through the foliage. Birds tweeted in the distance. They were all normal sounds. Sebas' expression darkened. Aura would love this.

Nazarick's butler pushed that thought away. Aura could see this later. For now he had a mission. He cast one eye towards the sun and turned slightly before he began walking. The Elves would be in this direction.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Black Scripture Quarters

Most people thought divination was simply staring into crystal balls. The Thousand Mile Astrologer of the Black Scripture of the Slane Theocracy knew better. Some divination was done by staring into a crystal ball. The type that charlatans on the street used to liberate cash from unwary passersby. Though their balls were usually glass, it was cheaper than crystal.

Wassa Knoll's divination was far more refined. She could detect illusions and she shared a skill with the traitor to Humanity, Fluder Paradyne in that she could judge the strength of someone she met, not just their physical strength but the depth of their magical potential as well. Wassa couldn't tell what skills they had, but she knew the upper tier of magic they would be capable of. More importantly she could see far events as they happened.

With a certain ceremony Wassa could peer into the recent past but not into the future. That was the Six Gods Domain and she had no right to tread there. Her skills though were enough to gain her the rank of 11th Seat of the Black Scripture. It was not a combat role, which is why the Clearwater Scripture always claimed she would be better off in their ranks, but she was necessary to the success of the Black Scripture. Without accurate information you could not fight.

That's why Wassa was currently cloistered in her room, scrying for as long as her power held. There were several scribes with her. They were noting down what she said so that all her power could be devoted to scrying.

As a child, in a poor farming village in the Theocracy, if anyone had told her she would have had servants waiting on her she would have laughed. Now, she thought nothing of it, though she did remember to thank them.

Except Wassa wasn't seeing as much as she used to. Nothing had dulled her powers, it was simply that something was blocking them. She'd seen this before and she didn't like it. When the Sunlight Scripture had been sent to assassinate Gazef Stronoff, she had been employed to ensure the deed was done. Wassa regretted the need to kill such a skilled human but understood the necessity.

Except when Nigun Grid Luin had gotten Gazef cornered, something had blocked her power. Wassa had attributed that to an item Gazef had been equipped with, now she knew that wasn't the case. She had other examples to work with.

E-Rantel had disappeared from her field of vision the same day the Undead King had claimed it. But there were other times when she could see into E-Rantel. That had been a sobering experience, for several reasons. The first was obvious. The Undead King was the source blocking her scrying. Something about him, or some device that he carried meant she could not see the area around him. The second was less so. Wassa had seen E-Rantel before the reports from the on the ground spies had come in. She'd seen the Elder Liches, the Death Knights and the Soul Eaters acting as if they had every right to be there, fully controlled doing nothing more than administration, police and pulling wagons. A single one of them could have destroyed E-Rantel. Now they were working within the city.

Of course, from that experience, Wassa realised that in theory, if she needed to track the Undead King, all she needed to do was look for a place she couldn't see. It wasn't that simple in practice. There was a lot of area out there. And the ability to block her vision seemed to be something he could turn on and off.

She had seen the Katze Plains and the Undead King had been there. Wassa had reported all of this of course. The instructions from Cardinal Raymond was to simply do her best. Even knowing the area the Sorcerer King was in was better than no information at all.

Except no information was what Wassa was currently working with. For a woman who was used to being able to peer at will anywhere, the blockages were quite frustrating.

E-Rantel had completely vanished from her vision. There was now simply no time when it was visible. The effect extended some way onto the Katze Plains. The Undead King was there, she knew it but she had no idea what forces he was mustering. Was he slaughtering the innocents of the city in obscene rituals to raise more of his kind? She wished she knew.

Most in the Theocracy blamed the citizens of E-Rantel for staying there. Wassa knew better. Sure, some of those who were better off had evacuated before the arrival of the Sorcerer King but most would have lacked the means. It was not their fault. If blame had to be assigned… She trembled. It was a toss up between the Re-Estize Kingdom and the Baharuth Empire.

In the wake of the Katze Plains disaster, the Kingdom had no choice but to cede the city to the Undead, but they could have taken its people. They needed the labour. And the Baharuth Empire was to blame for their support of the Undead in the first place!

There was also, curiously a large area, not connected to E-Rantel but still on the Katze Plains that was lost to her sight. Wassa believed that was where the Undead was staging his forces but there were no tracks or trails between E-Rantel and there. And there was never any mobile patch of blankness. Did that mean that there were tunnels? She'd never heard of tunnels being there, but she had seen dwarves in E-Rantel and those particular demihumans were known for their mining ability. Wassa had reported it all. No one was sure what it meant.

So she'd been focused on the Holy Kingdom and the Baharuth Empire. The newly conquered Holy Kingdom did not appear to be preparing for war but she knew, with so many dead, and orphaned, it would be a prime area to harvest humans from. Wassa hated the realities she was forced to know but it was a fact that the Re-Estize Kingdom had only been able to retrieve the important bodies from the Katze Plains. A part of that was simply the problem of identification but more, she suspected the Undead King had claimed them.

No doubt, to raise more undead.

The Baharuth Empire had been easy for her to scry. The Emperor was gathering his Legions, no doubt at the order of his liege Lord, the Undead. Wassa trembled, before forcing herself to calm down. Jircniv would be facing human justice for his choices. The Legions were gathering at the capital, Arwintar. That made sense.

The Re-Estize Kingdom had always gathered their army at E-Rantel because the city was provisioned and had been prepared to feed that many extra mouths. Arwintar would be the best placed city within the Baharuth Empire to feed the Legions. There were only ten thousand men per Legion but there were also horses and other support personnel and camp followers. The resources of the capital made sense.

What didn't make sense was the fact that it was quickly becoming winter. The first snows had yet to fall but it would be soon. And despite thoroughly searching, Wassa could not detect stockpiles of resources being made along the roads to the Empire's border with the Theocracy. To move the Legions those would be necessary, unless they were planning to carry all their supplies?

Wassa didn't know much about warfare. As a girl she'd known how to milk a cow and could tend to chickens and pigs. She knew when to plant and when to harvest and while she had been too small to participate in those activities, she had worked to glean the fields with her other siblings. And to keep the the growing crop free of weeds. But since coming to the capital, Kami Miyako, when her gifts were discovered, she had learned a lot more. And she had participated in actions with the Black Scripture. Even they required a lot of kit to move and they often lived off the land!

There was no way the Legions could be moved from the Empire's Capital. But maybe that was the point. They were to be gathered there and the stockpiles put in place over winter to allow a spring campaign?

Wassa didn't know. Neither did the best military minds of the Slane Theocracy that she reported to. It was possible that the gathering of the Legions was meant to be a distraction. Something to keep her eyes occupied, but it was an expensive distraction. Provisioning the Legions over winter in the capital was costly. But did the Undead even have knowledge of economics? It didn't need to eat or sleep, so would it care? And it was the Baharuth Empire bearing the expense.

That's why she was looking for evidence of other troops. The growing consensus in the Slane Theocracy was that the Undead would simply let the deadline pass, and would then attack in spring, using the winter to gather forces. Except now, Wassa wasn't so sure. To start her day scrying she always looked towards E-Rantel. It wasn't visible. Then she checked Arwintar and the progress of the Legions. The last few were marching in. The roads around Arwintar were good after all.

Except today, she couldn't see Arwintar. It was a familiar feeling. If she looked at the world from above, it was like there was a dense fog cloud over the Baharuth Empire's capital. Wassa poked the edges of it lightly. It didn't move. That too was expected. It never had in the past.

She sighed as she pulled her mind back. There were two types of blockage to her eyes. The first was sharp, the type she'd seen when watching the Sunlight Scripture fail to take down Gazef Stronoff. That she realised was a personal blockage. Then there was this. It was fuzzier. Still impenetrable but softer and it wasn't tied to retaliation. She had no idea if it could be, so she was always careful. It wasn't mere illusion though. She could see through those. It was true blockage, magic cast deliberately to block the eyes of those who would be scrying.

Wassa opened her eyes, looking towards the scribe who was on duty. She shook her head. He knew what it meant when she got up and stretched.

There was more bad news.

-cos-

Re-Estize Kingdom, Minor Nobleman's Estate

"...you will be marrying her at mid-winter."

Wait, what? Philip's mind pulled up short as he stared at his father. He had long ago mastered the art of appearing to listen without actually taking in the words. Except these ones had penetrated.

"But she's-"

He paused at the dangerous light in his father's eyes. "She's?" The man asked, head cocking to the side slightly as if awaiting his challenge.

Old Colin stood behind his father, his expression as severe as always but Philip wondered if there wasn't the slightest trace of… He didn't recognise the emotion lurking in the man's eyes but he didn't like it.

"She is a long way distant," Philip managed to say diplomatically. It wasn't what he wanted to say. Gemma Inabil Yuce Nabol was his brother's wife! They'd been married last summer though she hadn't gotten pregnant, which was, frankly far better for him! A child would have confused inheritance and it was possible he'd have been stuck playing footman to the brat until it came of age.

"She is but the roads will be passable," his father agreed. "Frankly we should be honoured that the House of Nabol is still happy to continue our alliance." There was no hiding the glare in his father's gaze.

"As you have told me," Philip said, grinding his teeth as he kept his voice calm, "all the estates will need each other to get through the hard times that are to come." He didn't see why. He would be happy asking for aid from the Sorcerous Kingdom. Sure, he knew he'd have to swear loyalty to them but between a weak, ineffectual King and a ruler who actually had power, that wasn't much of a choice.

And Albedo would see to it that they got a fair deal. The woman was- Philip deliberately dragged his mind away from thoughts of that beauty. Gemma didn't compare. She wasn't even in the same league as the absolute beauty of the Sorcerous Kingdom's envoy.

"We will," his father seemed pleased that he'd remembered that. "But the Count is wise and has determined that our estates have become too fractured," the man continued.

Philip listened. This did not sound good. "That's why we will be merging several estates," his father continued.

"What? No!" Philip couldn't help the outburst. "I won't be disinherited!"

"Shut up!" His father's shout was strong but at the same time, he seemed to understand Philip's distress. It was a central part of all nobles that their land was theirs. Being asked to give it away, even by their faction leader was too much. "The Count isn't like that. He thinks in the long term. The estates will be merged over the next few generations," his father explained.

Philip blinked, still not liking the suggestion but seeing a few new opportunities. "So Gemma's estate?" he asked tentatively.

"Yes, now you get the idea," his father grumbled. "The heir you sire on Gemma will inherit both estates, bringing them together to be more self sufficient, more profitable and more powerful."

He nodded. Merging of the estates made sense but he still didn't like the thought of marrying Gemma. Marrying her wasn't too bad but sleeping with her… he could already feel that his dick wasn't interested. Why should it be? She was nothing and she wasn't even a virgin. His brother would have seen to that, and so now he got the leftovers. He didn't want to marry Gemma.

Something must have shown in his expression.

"By the Four Gods, what did I do to deserve such a fool to be sired by my loins!" His father snapped.

Philip winced. He used to be more careful. Colin looked slightly interested. The man's usually stoic face was actually displaying some emotion. Philip still didn't recognise it.

"You will marry Gemma Inabil Yuce Nabol," his father was shouting, his face red with rage, "and you will sire children on her. Whatever besotted fantasies you have in your head mean nothing!"

"Father, I just believe in this current climate, I can aim a little higher," Philip retorted. He knew better than to mention Albedo. "There are many estates without a male heir," he added, hinting as to what his father should be thinking of. Usually he'd hate this. It was his idea, and now, when his father finally got it through his slave head, he would take the credit but in this case, Philip would make an exception.

"The merging of the estates is far more important," his father rejoined immediately.

Philip didn't shake his head. His father truly was a slave to the Count.

"And you have not thought. We are just one of many with male heirs still, and nothing special in our estate to attract propositions," his father continued. "I know about your little friends. They are-" The man shook his head.

Silently Philip agreed. They were not much, but they represented the beginnings of power, and his Father, trapped by his usual fate at the tail end of their faction didn't have the courage or the foresight to see it. He had expressed his disappointment in them to Hilma but the landlady had soothed his fears in her latest letter. She had explained that the creation of a new faction took time. He had shown himself to be a leader, but as of yet, there was no reason for any of them to follow.

Hilma had assured him that the troubles facing the Kingdom, the shortage of food, the shortage of manpower and the shortage of order would have those who had attended the ball looking for strong leadership. At that point in time, they would remember him, and remember how decisive he was. They would form a faction then. Philip had been comforted by her explanation. It made sense, especially with the post script. The landlady had reminded him that there was no profit to her if he simply faded into obscurity and so that would not happen because she was looking forward to wearing that jewelled necklace he had promised her.

"No, you will be marrying Gemma at mid-winter, and that is the end of the matter."

But he didn't want to marry Gemma. She represented an end to his… His brother's former wife wouldn't stop his ambition but he knew better than to make overtures towards the Lady Albedo. It would be an insult to the Sorcerer Kingdom's emissary to offer her any position less than a wife. Why couldn't Gemma be his mistress? Her estate would then come to him. Which is what the Count wanted. Why couldn't he do that?

What were these people thinking? No, Philip concluded to himself. They weren't thinking. Or maybe the Count was, but that man was only thinking of how to consolidate his own power and his father was playing right into it.

"What if I can find someone of better standing?" Philip countered. He had planned on making his estate rich, then making an overture to the Lady Albedo but if his father was going to saddle him with a wife now, then he had to do something.

"You stupid moron! Who? None of those you played with are of any consequence. None of the larger estates will look at you because our estate means nothing to them! You will marry Gemma or I will have you whipped and turned out. Then Colin will marry Gemma, by the Four Gods, he will do his duty to his family!"

"Of course, my Lord Brother."

Philip felt his blood run cold. Colin had always stood beside his father without expression, without emotion, ceaselessly toiling for the estate and now… Colin was his uncle? Colin was in the position he would have found himself in if his eldest brother had survived the Katze Plains… And it was a darn sight better position than Philip would have found himself in if his second eldest brother had survived that illness.

He recognised the emotion on Colin's features now. It wasn't lust. It wasn't hope. It was satisfaction. Philip knew it because he'd felt it himself. First it had been small, that had been when his second eldest brother had died. Then it had been huge, when the news came of his eldest brother's fate. Colin was in the same position now, the estate, which had been denied to him for so long was now within his grasp and Philip was the only one standing in the way. The cold glint in Colin's eyes was so much sharper today.

He took a deep breath. He couldn't be turned out. That would mean everything he'd worked towards would be as nothing and he had no doubt his Father would do it. Philip reminded himself that there were many things that might happen between now and midwinter. Even after his marriage, Gemma could easily die in childbirth. That happened all the time to women. She could sicken and die, especially in the hardships that were to come. Either event would again leave the coast clear for him to propose to Albedo.

"I will marry Gemma Inabil Yuce Nabol," Philip said softly, eyes glaring at Colin. He was the heir, not some uncle who had been relegated to being a butler. Colin had lost his chance.

The man's expression did not change. He was too skilled for that but Philip reminded himself that he would have to turn Colin out at the first opportunity. He was a liability, one that was far more dangerous now.

"You would do best to remember that you are not yet the Heir," his father told him coldly.

I should be! Philip raged in his heart. Outwardly he gave no sign. "Yes, Father," he acknowledged the man, his voice full of respect. It would be difficult but not impossible for his father to oust him and with the coming troubles, what was one more difficulty and certainly one less mouth?

His father stared at him for a few more moments before moving away, muttering under his breath. Philip stood where he was, keeping the glare from his vision. He'd marry this woman but she'd better do her duty by him or the instant he inherited his uncle might not be alone.

-cos-

Re-Estize Kingdom, Capital Re-Estize, Hilma Cygnaeus' Residence

Hilma sat back after reading the message. She blew out a long breath. At least this news might serve to keep that idiot alive a bit longer. She hated working with morons!

She looked back at the paper. Philip is to marry Gemma Inabil Yuce Nabol. The message was quite simple and had only been forwarded to her because the rest of the Eight Fingers knew he was involved. Actually Philip was lucky he was dealing with her. The others probably would have had him dead within two days. She was quite tolerant.

Still, perhaps this marriage would… Oh, who was she kidding? He was still third rate at best, but at least being married should mean he'd stop suggesting dangerous things. Surely not even he could be stupid enough to consider asking Lady Albedo to be his mistress! If he did… well Hilma knew she wouldn't need to raise a finger. And whatever happened to him would make what Nazarick had done to her and the other leaders of the Eight Fingers seem like paradise.

She shuddered at the involuntary memory. Philip would deserve it. But if that happened, well she wasn't sure if they could fulfil the plan Nazarick want- Eh, what did it matter? If they couldn't use that plan, Hilma was sure they'd come up with something else.

And it wasn't like Nazarick couldn't invade. That was always an option, but Hilma thought that they wished to avoid that for some reason. Still, it might be the most efficient manner. The message that had been intercepted was from the Anti-Royal faction. While the losses of the war had gained the Royal Loyalists some time, the Anti-Royals were once again on the move. They were organising. There were marriages in the works and when that happened there were usually assassinations.

It would only bother her if one of those was Philip but the message seemed to confirm that despite his attempts to create another faction, those of the Anti-Royal Faction weren't taking him seriously. That was good for her. It meant less work in picking out another patsy.

She blew out her breath. These things were sent to try her but at least… actually she didn't know if there was a good point to this. She was still working with the idiot but so long as he didn't die before his job was done, perhaps she could have the fun of killing him.

That sounded nice.

-cos-

Great Southern Forest, Elf Kingdom

Sebas felt the sentinels of the Elf Kingdom long before they saw him. It was something of a comfort as it confirmed he had headed in the correct direct. They knew there was a Kingdom here but in a forest elves could be quite illusive. Even with their pale outfits both Mare and Aura could blend with trees as if they were part dryad.

He knew he was standing out with his black suit but that was all to the good. The sentinels could not claim that he was attempting to infiltrate by stealth. As he moved closer, into what he judged was their observational range, Sebas let several footfalls be heard. He deliberately crunched the dropped red leaves.

Nothing happened. The sentinels didn't move. Sebas frowned internally and moved forward, crunching further leaves with an absent minded air. In any other situation he might look like an old man out for a simple walk through a treed area, except of course the nearest human village was miles from here, and the nearest city, the only place someone dressed as he was would fit in was even further.

Eventually Sebas felt them notice him. The reaction, that of an arrow, was not unexpected. He looked human and the Elves were engaged in a war against the Slane Theocracy. Besides, the arrow wasn't aimed at him. It was a warning. It thudded into the tree he'd just passed.

Sebas turned towards the archer as several others moved into position. They were reasonably quiet but could not hold a candle to Mare or Aura. The archer was well concealed but Sebas' sharp eyes could see them clearly. Their figure was androgynous, but Sebas thought they might be female. He wasn't certain.

"Greetings," he said politely, bowing his head.

Another arrow was shot. Sebas caught it allowing his expression to darken slightly. He could feel the shock from the sentinels. It was a simple trick. "I am an envoy from the Sorcerous Kingdom. I bring greetings from my Master, His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown." Sebas cast his voice so that all the sentinels would hear.

"We don't like humans here." The words were spat and the speaker was to his right.

Sebas didn't turn. "I am not from the Slane Theocracy," he assured them.

"We don't like humans here." Again the words were spat. There was considerable venom in them.

Sebas could hear several bows straining and knew their owners wanted to release their arrows. He sighed. So impolite. He shook his head and sighed again before allowing his form to shift slightly. Usually he didn't do this but it was the most efficient way of convincing them that he was not human.

Though it did give rise to an interesting observation. None of the citizens of Nazarick were fully human, yet most had a humanoid form. Only some of the Supreme Beings didn't. He didn't know if that meant anything and certainly human form had some advantages.

He tilted his head so that the scales forming on his face reflected the light available. His nails shifted into retractable claws. Lord Touch Me had wanted his hands to be usable in all forms and had ensured that his dragonoid form had claws like a cat. The Supreme Beings were thoughtful like that. His muscles bulged and he felt his suit stretch and was careful to keep his change contained. He could get another outfit but it was wasteful.

There was silence from the elves and this time Sebas allowed his gaze to shift, fixing his grey eyes on the speaker. They yelped as if hit.

"I am an envoy from the Sorcerous Kingdom," Sebas introduced himself again. "My name is Sebas Tian and I bear greetings from my Master, His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown."

More silence from the elves but this time he got the impression they were considering what to do. Sebas let his transformation fade and again tugged at his lapels.

"Where?" The question came from his left, and Sebas turned slightly as the leaves rustled.

He turned, bowing slightly as an elf emerged. He thought this one was male. They had long white blond hair that was confined to a long plait down his back. His clothes were mottled red, mimicking the tones of the forest and Sebas watched as the elf slung his bow over his shoulder.

"I am from the Sorcerous Kingdom," Sebas explained again. "A domain that lies to the north of the Slane Theocracy."

The elf examined him, their expression neutral. It was odd. Sebas was used to the animated expressions Aura and Mare displayed. "I've heard of it. The humans were complaining."

Sebas let one eyebrow rise to indicate his question.

"Your master apparently killed thousands." The elf left the statement at that.

It could mean many things. The elf might approve. They were at war and they were humans who were killed. Or the elf might disapprove. It was an unavoidable fact that thousands had been killed by the Supreme Being's spell.

"The battle was ended in a decisive manner," Sebas replied.

He could almost feel that several of the elves wanted to laugh.

"Is it true your Master is an undead?"

"It is," Sebas said. There was no point in trying to deny that. "His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown desires to create a kingdom where all species may live in peace. The city of E-Rantel was claimed as a result of that battle and serves as a proving ground for his ideals."

Another elf emerged from the undergrowth and Sebas watched as the two who had come forward shared a long look.

"So why are you here?" The second elf demanded. "The Sorcerous Kingdom is a long way from here."

Sebas didn't smile. It was the usual justification for such a question. "Events have transpired that we believe we will soon be neighbours," he replied.

"What?" It wasn't just the two elves before him who gasped the question. Sebas heard the leaves around him rustle as the others jerked in surprise.

This time he did allow himself to smile. "The Slane Theocracy has offered insult to my Master," he told them briefly. "I would be more than happy to share further details but I think this is not the appropriate environment."

Again the two visible elves shared a look. "You are correct," the first one said with a gracious nod. "I bid you welcome to Elf Country, Envoy of the Sorcerous Kingdom."

Sebas inclined his head. "Thank you."

"If you could accompany us, we will guide you to a more appropriate setting, and inform those who should know that we have an important guest," the elf continued.

He approved of the security. While they were polite the lack of specifics spoke well. It meant that he could not glean information without further inquiry. That was a good sign but it was one which told him how desperate their war was most likely becoming. Well, it would be over soon so that was something.

"I thank you for your consideration," Sebas said carefully. "On behalf of the Sorcerous Kingdom, I am honoured."

The elves nodded, before gesturing and walking through the trees. Sebas returned the nod and followed them after flicking the arrow he had caught earlier into the dirt. He ignored the gasps from those elves who were still hidden. The arrow had penetrated to the fletching. It was a subtle warning to them all not to underestimate Nazarick's strength because Sebas felt that despite how amiable the opening greeting had been, there would be problems to come. He could feel it.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 4

-cos-

Fifth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Prisoner Area

Nurasyl Zorlawsi still remembered the day the law enforcement strongmen of the Theocracy had appeared at his home. He'd known then that the jig was up but he'd been pissed. They had come to his home. That wasn't right. They could have picked him up anywhere. He hadn't cared about his bitch of a wife knowing. It was her fault anyway. After their second child was born she'd refused sex. He'd forced her once or twice but all she'd done was lie there. It was boring! She could have shown some spirit. So he'd turned his attention outwards.

He couldn't afford a slave and while he could have probably scraped the money together to visit Flower Street, the thought repulsed him. Sure the women would have been willing but every other dick had dipped them. So he'd found another source. He was always careful to pick girls who'd just come in from the country. They had no contacts and if no one heard from them again, then there was always a doubt as to whether they'd made it to the city. Even in the Theocracy there were bandits, and demihumans.

Nurasyl didn't know what he'd done carelessly, but when the law enforcement strongmen of the Theocracy appeared, he knew he'd been caught. He would have bragged to his wife, but his kids were there. And while his wife deserved to know, they didn't, so he'd gone with them quietly.

He'd expected the noose. The Theocracy was not that kind. Or rather, it was then that he learned the Theocracy's Church had its darkside the same way everything else did. It wasn't that the work wasn't pleasurable, watching what the Cardinals called dissenters squirm beneath him was quite fun but the periodic reports they insisted on giving him were the worst. They told him how his wife had remarried. The traitorous bitch! They told him how she was pregnant again. They told him how his son had found a reasonable job, and how his daughter, Chouko, was currently being courted by several young men, none of whom were suitable for her. All they did really was torment him. Which he suspected was the point. If he'd have been there, those young morons would have run for the hills if they knew what was good for them.

It was hell.

At least, that's what Nurasyl had thought then. He knew differently now. He knew what hell was now.

Hell wasn't some perpetually burning field. It was ice cold. It was filled with creatures that weren't human. All of them radiated a sense of controlled menace. All of them stared at him with eyes that reflected hatred. At least those of them who had eyes did. He wasn't sure what some of them had. It didn't change their power. They all said how much they wanted to hurt him and the others.

Yet, not one of them touched him. None of the creatures made so much as a move towards any of them, despite the fact that Zorlawsi could feel their desire. It had taken him a while to understand why. He hadn't liked the reason he came up with.

They weren't touching him or the others because the creatures had been told not to. He'd heard some of them whispering at times, about their Master and he couldn't help but wonder what type of monster that being was to be able to control such others. He didn't really want to find out but he had a feeling, as the days went on, that he was going to find out.

And there was nothing he could do about that but wait.

-cos-

Sixth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Gigantic Tree, Aura's Residence

"Aura."

The Dark Elf smiled at the voice. It was soft and melodious. It was familiar.

"Aura."

She smiled again. It was a voice she couldn't be unhappy about hearing. "Hmm?" She questioned sleepily. It was so hard to wake up sometimes.

"Sleepy head!" the voice teased with a chuckle. "You are exactly as I thought you'd be."

That statement caused a flush of excitement to jolt Aura. She opened her eyes and looked around. There was sunlight streaming in the window. It wasn't really sun, not on the Sixth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick but it was enough like it that Aura didn't mind. Instead she looked around her bedroom.

There. Her eyes widened and all vestiges of sleep left her. In a patch of sun was someone Aura would never ever mistake. The Supreme Being Lady Bukubukuchagama!

"My Lady!" Aura scrambled out from the blankets. In her panic, they tangled and Aura fell with a complete lack of coordination.

The pink slime laughed.

Aura gasped. The laugh was not at her. Even if it was, she wouldn't mind but the Dark Elf could tell that Lady Bukubukuchagama simply found the situation funny. It was! Aura knew she had been designed with a high agility factor yet before her creator she was fumbling around. She laughed even as she knelt before the slime.

"You don't need to do that," Bukubukuchagama said softly.

Aura shook her head. Of course she needed to do that. This was her creator! How could she not show respect? If anything she should be on her belly and … Aura froze.

"Aura?" the pink slime sounded concerned.

The Dark Elf shook her head. How could she say she had been so weak?

"Aura, what is it?" Lady Bukubukechagama pressed.

Aura shook her head again, this time feeling tears forming in her eyes. She was usually so much more controlled. What was it about being before the Supreme Being that made her so- It wasn't weakness but why was she so open with her emotion?

"I failed you, and Lord-" Aura hesitated for a moment. Lord Momonga had instructed them to call him Ainz Ooal Gown so as to spread the name of the greatest group of Supreme Beings but to Lady Bukubukuchagama he had not been named that. "Lord Momonga," she said softly.

Even though Lady Bukubukuchagama was a slime, Aura could tell that she had stiffened somehow at the words. "You cannot fail me," she said.

Why were the Supreme Beings so nice? Lord Ainz had said much the same. They were too understanding. She had failed. Her job was to serve them and she couldn't even do that properly.

"I have failed you," Aura repeated.

Lady Bukubukuchagama moved closer, and Aura could feel the slime moving around her. It was comforting with the way it supported her. "You cannot fail me," the Supreme Being repeated. "You have been serving Lord Momonga and he is pleased, yes? How is that failure?"

For a moment, Aura wanted to tell Lady Bukubukuchagama everything but how could she? Then her creator would know how weak she was… But she had asked and Aura had to obey. What did she do? Tears leaked from her eyes.

"There, there," Lady Bukubukuchagama moved closer. "Don't cry," she soothed.

She couldn't even obey that. The tears kept streaming down her cheeks. Aura saw a flicker of distress from her creator. The soft pink glow that emanated from her darkened. "Tell me?" The slime moved, scooping her up and Aura felt warm as her creator engulfed her. It wasn't sticky but was instead comforting. The Dark Elf held back her grief only because she knew that it would displease her creator.

"I can't."

"Tell me," Lady Bukubukuchagama's voice was patient. It made Aura feel worse. She was so weak. "It will make you feel better."

Aura wasn't sure what to say to that. Maybe it would. Maybe it wouldn't. But this was her creator, she had a duty. She nodded, feeling her muscles stiffen with the motion. Lady Bukubukuchagama felt it as well and the slime pressed tighter to her. It wasn't confining. Aura knew she could move at any time but it felt nice.

She took a deep breath. It was Lady Bukubukuchagama she had to answer, no matter how much she didn't want to. But how to explain the changes that had happened? No, she didn't need to. Her creator was a Supreme Being, she would know already.

"I was running a message for Lord Momonga," Aura began explaining. "Something knocked me and Wanglong out of the sky."

"A [Frysta Javelin]," Lady Bukubukuchagama murmured.

"Yes," Aura nodded. That's what Lord Momonga had called it. "There were these humans. They put some sort of device on me," she continued. "I tried to fight them. I killed some but there were too many."

Somehow, this time when Lady Bukubukuchagama darkened, Aura felt it was with the same anger she had felt in Lord Momonga. It made her feel ashamed and she wondered what her creator would feel like when she got to the bad bit. Lord Momonga's anger had been almost incandescent before it had dulled to nothing. But he was like that. Aura knew that. The Supreme Being who had stayed with them until the end felt emotions but did not let them rule him. She knew he was still angry even if he couldn't show it. Lady Bukubukuchagama- What would she feel?

"They wanted to know about Nazarick," Aura told her creator. "I told them nothing," she proclaimed.

Around her the slime's grip tightened. It was slightly uncomfortable but Aura didn't care. It was simply her creator's way of showing her care. "Like the Minoshirokin Incident," Lady Bukubukuchagama muttered.

Aura didn't know what that was but from the darkening of her creator's colour the Supreme Being was remembering something that had happened in the past. It must have been during their time in Yggdrasil. "You were very brave."

She trembled. Lady Bukubukuchagama didn't know everything. "They asked so many questions," she emphasised. "But I told them nothing."

While her creator did not have eyes, Aura got the impression she was being examined and there was a question in that gaze. Why was she here? If she told them nothing, why was she not at Lord Momonga's side planning retribution? Aura shivered. She couldn't say that. She couldn't explain more but Lady Bukubukuchagama deserved the truth. Her creator had to know.

"I'm sorry," Aura cried. "I'm so sorry."

"There is nothing to be sorry for," the Supreme Being said as if she knew what Aura was trying to tell her. But she couldn't. Lady Bukubukuchagama was intelligent but she couldn't know this.

"No, I failed you," Aura told her. She could not allow her creator to have misconceptions.

"You could not fail me," came the assurance again.

"They raped me!" Aura spat the words out quickly.

This time the grip from the slime was constricting. Aura didn't fight it. The tightness was comforting this time. It wasn't like the men who held her down. They had only gripped her arms and legs. They had hit her. This was all over. The Lady Bukubukuchagama enveloped her but there was a sense that she was being rubbed soothingly despite the tightness of the grip.

"They did what?" Every word was hissed and Aura could feel the hatred lacing her creator's tone. It was the same as Lord Momonga's had been. There was not the slightest trace of doubt or accusation there. There was nothing directed towards her but the genuine anger on her behalf and the thought of pain that should be inflicted. Lady Bukubukuchagama, like Lord Momonga just wanted her to heal. She could feel that clearly through the way the pink slime supported her.

Aura felt Lady Bukubukuchagama shift her attention slightly, looking towards the door. She looked over there herself. Mare was standing there, tentatively peering around it.

"Have they been captured?" the Supreme Being demanded the information from Mare.

Aura watched her brother flinch. She felt a flash of anger. It was normal. Mare was always like that, but with the Supreme Beings, Mare should be far more confident. "Mare!" she growled.

Mare flinched again at the words but moved into the room.

"Not all of them, Lady Bukubukuchagama," Mare replied going to one knee.

A tendril rose from the slime, waving slightly. The meaning was clear. Mare did not have to do that. The Supreme Beings were so… Did they not understand that to the citizens of Nazarick they were their creators? They were beyond the mere concept of god. Kneeling was all the NPCs could do to display their respect and so they would. That, and they would serve until the last breath in their bodies. There was no higher honour.

"Not all of them?" Lady Bukubukuchagama was not pleased. "What is Momonga doing!?" she growled.

"Lord Momonga is making plans to invade," Aura told her creator. An odd feeling took her. She didn't want Lady Bukubukuchagama saying anything bad towards Lord Momonga because he had stayed with them until they were allowed to gain true life but at the same time… this was her creator. She wasn't sure what she should feel. Lying within her creator, Aura could almost forget everything that had happened. She felt like she could sleep peacefully.

"Not to capture?" Lady Bukubukuchagama asked.

Mare looked uncomfortable. "We aren't sure of their identities," he whispered.

"Mare!" Aura snapped. It was reflex. Mare should be more confident.

Their creator laughed. She seemed amused, and the tentacle gestured towards Mare. He got up and walked forward. With the movement Aura felt Lady Bukubukuchagama focus once more and she felt a pang that the amusement was suppressed. Her creator should only have things that pleased her. "Why?" she asked.

Mare looked to the ground. Aura saw the way he gulped and his knuckles tightened on his staff. He glanced at her and Aura could see the apology in his eyes. She felt cold with that look because she knew what it meant. "We need Aura to give us the identities," Mare said.

She shook her head. She couldn't do that. Not with Lady Bukubukuchagama here. How could she let her creator know of her weakness? It was bad enough that she had told her! She couldn't do more.

"Aura?" The Supreme Being's voice was still soft, it wasn't demanding. There was a question there.

"No," the Dark Elf whispered. "Please, Mistress, no!"

Lady Bukubukuchagama seemed distressed by her begging. "Aura," she soothed.

It made her feel even worse. Her creator shouldn't be distressed. Her creator did not deserve that and she had failed as a creation if she was the cause of it.

"No, I've failed."

"You have not failed," Lady Bukubukuchagama retorted immediately. "You can tell me though," she soothed. "You can always tell me because I love you."

That made Aura freeze. Love..? Her creator loved her? All of Nazarick's NPC's hoped it was so but to have it confirmed. And she had been so weak. She didn't deserve that love. Aura shook her head, struggling slightly to free herself from Lady Bukubukuchagama's grasp.

"Shhh! Shh!" The slime comforted her again. Why was the Supreme Being so nice? Why couldn't they understand, she had failed? "You can tell me," her creator said. "And they will never touch you again!"

Aura didn't doubt that. If Lady Bukubukuchagama could reach out through time and space, Aura felt that the men would already be screaming. "I don't want you to know how weak I am," she objected.

"Aura Bella Fiora!" Her creator's voice was strong. The phrase told her that she'd better listen. Even Mare stiffened at the words. "You are not weak, and you are incapable of disappointing me. But you have been hurt! And I will not stand for that. In order to show those miserable degenerates my displeasure, I have to know who they are. You can have what is left but they will never be touching another female again."

She stiffened with the words, almost bursting into tears at the strength of the emotion she could feel coming from Lady Bukubukuchagama. Her creator was angry but not at her. There was a desire for vengeance and it would be fulfilled. And if it was for Lady Bukubukuchagama maybe she could remember. "All right," she whispered.

"Good," her creator purred and the expression reverberated into her slime form. The massage felt good against Aura's skin. "Mare?" Lady Bukubukuchagama instructed and Aura saw her brother pull out the mirror he had hauled in for that purpose earlier.

She took a deep breath, steeling herself against the memories she didn't want to recall but for Lady Bukubukuchagama, she would. It had hurt so much. Not physically. They weren't strong enough for that, not even with the restraints she'd been wearing. But, it had hurt. Especially when that other elf just watched. That had made her feel sick.

Aura closed her eyes and felt Mare's magic wash over her. In the link to her brother she could feel his concern. He was sick with worry. She felt a stab of guilt over that. He wasn't meant to worry over her.

"That's good," Lady Bukubukuchagama murmured. "Just relax. Your brother wants to help you," the Supreme Being said. Aura felt a frown form at that. "Little brothers should obey their big sisters," her creator said, "but big sisters need to help their little brothers," she added. Of course she would help Mare! She loved Mare but Mare was so concerned. Aura shook her head. Another thing she had failed out.

"You have not failed!" This time it was Mare saying that. The usual shyness in his voice lost in his sincerity.

"Shh, shh," Lady Bukubukuchagama whispered. "Just remember slowly, we'll take care of the rest," she assured Aura.

The Dark Elf nodded slowly. She didn't want to remember but this was for her creator. "I don't remember those who captured me," she said. That was the easiest way to begin. "They called themselves the Windflower Scripture."

If Aura had of been looking, the mirror flashed a myriad of faces. There were so many of them and Mare held back his voice from a cry of dismay when he realised they weren't going to be able to capture so many images. But that didn't matter. This was a group. They could capture that group.

"I don't know where they took me," Aura continued. "It was dark and I felt so weak."

"That was the [Constraint of Umbra]," Lady Bukubukuchagama assured her.

"They hit me. They tried other things. They asked questions."

On the mirror a new face appeared. Mare looked at it, his eyes burning. This was the man who had questioned Aura. He was well dressed, clean shaven and well fed if the slight paunch was anything to go by. His robes were clean and well made. This was probably one of the Cardinals. Mare hadn't had much opportunity to learn about their target but he knew that much. He watched as Lady Bukubukuchagama's tentacles rose up, and manipulated the camera to capture the image of the man.

"He came everyday," Aura explained. That was probably why the image of him was so clear. She had seen him a lot, she had time to recall the details. "And there was always another one there."

The mirror went fuzzy before a new image appeared. Mare felt his eyes widen. That was an elf! She had heterochromatic eyes like them but they were silver and black and the colour split was not just in their eyes, but seemed to define their entire being. "She called me weak!"

Aura felt a surge of hatred from both Lady Bukubukuchagama and her brother. In another time and place it might have made her feel comforted but she knew what she had to say next, so any feeling was lost in that gathering dread. She felt sick. It was a good thing she hadn't eaten much because she felt like she had to throw up. She swallowed hard, pushing the feeling down. "They said it was because I hadn't told them anything that they brought in the others," Aura whispered.

"It was because they are sicko's," Lady Bukubukuchagama murmured fiercely.

Aura didn't laugh. She couldn't. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying not to remember but now that she had begun, she couldn't stop. "The first ones thought I was weak. I showed them." She remembered that. They'd hit her. She'd felt nothing. Then one of them had come close. She'd kicked him. Her foot hadn't just impacted him but had gone through and there'd been the stench of blood in the cell. The others had been surprised. They'd fled.

The elf had returned then. She'd hit her. That had hurt but not enough to make her forget or obey. They'd forced further chains on to her then. She struggled but combined, they were stronger than her. "They tried to…" Aura's hands went to her mouth as she remembered.

They'd tried to push their things into there. She hadn't let them.

Lady Bukubukuchagama gripped her tighter, it was a comfort. Even Mare's expression turned murderous. It was not like her brother. The image stabilised. For a few moments there, they had seen everything as Aura had. He glared at the new image. That man… That dog wasn't going to be a man by the time he was through. Mare knew he wasn't as vicious as some of the other members of Nazarick. That was going to change. For Aura.

"But I couldn't stop them!" Aura cried. Mare felt sick. How much worse must it be for Aura? "There were too many of them."

"Shh, shh," Lady Bukubukuchagama soothed. "I know this is hard," she murmured. "And you are doing so well. Just a little more. I need you to remember just a little more."

Mare watched as the image stabilised again. He didn't recognise the face, therefore it wasn't one of those they had captured. That didn't matter. Nazarick would capture them all and these animals had lost their right to live. They were worse than… he had no comparison. An animal would attack if it was hungry or afraid. It did not do so in malice. It was something he could comprehend. This was… To call them animals was to insult animals but Mare had no other word.

Aura began squirming within Lady Bukubukuchagama's grip. "They were on me!" she cried. "They were in me!" she gasped.

There was a stream of images on the mirror. Lady Bukubukuchagama didn't hesitate, making sure the camera captured each one. The feeling from the slime became grim. It mirrored the feeling Lord Momonga gave out. Mare was reminded of the words Lord Ainz had used in the declaration of war. No quarter asked, and no quarter shown. This new world was going to find out what it meant when Ainz Ooal Gown made that declaration.

But… The Dark Elf stared at the mirror as his sister burrowed further into Lady Bukubukuchagama's comforting presence. There were so many faces. No wonder Aura didn't want to remember. He felt sick because he'd asked her to but he felt sick because he remembered what Neuronist Painkill had said. Aura had to remember if she was to recover. She had to go through this? Again and again… Would it ever end?

"Is that all of them?" Lady Bukubukuchagama asked finally once the clicking noise from the camera stopped. It was a gentle question.

Aura was shivering. Mare could see the way her eyes were squeezed shut. She didn't want to open them, even in the presence of her creator. "Yes," she whispered but it was a trembling noise.

"Are you sure?"

Mare was surprised that Lady Bukubukuchagama could ask that.

Aura seemed surprised as well. She shivered some more and the motion made the slime seem to shake. In another circumstance it might have been funny. "Yes," Aura mouthed the word.

"Good," the Supreme Being said. "Now I know who needs to be rounded up. I'll make sure Momonga knows exactly how important it is to get all of them." There was a cold note in her voice that left no doubt as to what she expected would happen then. No doubt Lord Momonga would be more than happy to comply.

The slime shifted slightly, supporting Aura. "You have been so brave," Lady Bukubukuchagama whispered. "So, so brave. I am so proud of you."

Aura said nothing. Her eyes were red rimmed and she was trembling. "You sleep now," the Supreme Being said. There was no spell or power in her voice, it was just deep concern that Aura responded to. Her eyes grew heavy and she nodded slowly before settling herself more comfortably and Mare could feel when his sister fell asleep.

Lady Bukubukuchagama shifted, oozing over to the bed and pushing herself up on to it. The blankets turned back and Aura was placed gently there. She murmured in her sleep when their creator drew back. The blankets moved to cover her. Aura had a soft restful expression on her face. Mare was pleased to see it as the Supreme Being drew back and slipped out of the door.

Mare took a deep breath. This was the bit he didn't like. He waved his staff at the mirror. It vanished. Aura didn't need that reminder. Then he whistled softly. Fenrir bounded through the door and didn't need to be told to settle on bed around Aura. Mare then sat in the seat beside the bed. He reached out and gently took Aura's hand.

Just in time. She stirred. Since she'd been brought back Mare had become familiar with all of Aura's stages of sleep. He stroked her hand.

"Hmm," Aura murmured sleepily as her eyes opened. She looked over to her brother. "I had the nicest dream," she said.

"Did you?" he asked. It was always nice when she didn't wake up remembering.

Aura pulled her hand away to push her hair back and to pat Fenny. The huge wolf licked at her and she giggled. It was almost as if she was normal.

Mare liked that thought but knew that it was just an illusion.

"It was so nice but… no!" Aura whispered at the end.

The Dark Elf knew what it meant. It meant she had remembered. "Aura," Mare breathed, almost begging.

"Please go away," she replied.

He sighed heavily but got up from the chair. "If you need anything," Mare said.

"Just go," Aura was on the verge of crying.

Mare sighed. "I'll be back later." That was all he could say. It's what he'd said every other time.

-cos-

Ninth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ainz's Office

Ainz looked up when Mare was shown into his study. The young Dark Elf had aged in the last few days. He didn't look like he was sleeping or eating right. The crisp dress Bukubukuchagama had dressed him in looked rumpled. It wasn't of course. Mare wouldn't allow himself to come before him like that but it was the feeling.

He was a bit surprised when Pandora's Actor followed.

"Mare, Pandora," he greeted them.

The two NPC's knelt. Ainz sighed. He realised Pandora was kneeling because while Ainz had told his NPC he could be more casual, the Doppelganger never did so in front of the other NPCs.

"Rise," he instructed. "I think for the moment, we should dispense with that," Ainz added, looking at them both seriously. He didn't let either reply. "Have you got them?" The question was directed towards Mare.

He was surprised when the Dark Elf looked uncomfortable but then he realised what it would mean. Ainz allowed himself to take a sharp intake of breath. "I am-"

"No," Pandora interrupted, interpreting what he was about to say. "We have them." The Doppelganger help up a sheaf of papers. His long fingers were almost completely wrapped around the images. Mare moved forward, and placed the camera on his desk.

"We?" Ainz questioned.

"I am sorry, my Lord," Pandora said, lowering his head. "We had to-"

While Ainz might not be the most intelligent of the guild members of Ainz Ooal Gown he was intelligent enough. He realised what they had done. "You appeared as Bukubukuchagama," he stated.

"Yes, my Lord."

Ainz sighed again. "She will take it badly," he said. Over the past few days, while thinking about how best to assault the Theocracy he had taken several books from the library. They were not the easiest reading but they were things he had to know. It was easier when he read them alone. Then he could pretend it was an academic interest. The books, and other information told him that Aura would not like the deception. As difficult as it was for everyone, she had to recover in her own time. They could not rush it.

"We made it seem to be a dream," Mare said tentatively.

"Umhu," Ainz mused. "I suppose that will help," he agreed slowly. Something had to give with Aura he just didn't know what.

Mare looked to the ground, as Ainz reached out to take the papers from Pandora. He flicked through the images. They were all just men. Some were brutish but others appeared more… well, he wasn't sure what he'd been expecting from men who would rape a child elf.

An unseen frown appeared on his features when he finished looking at them. There were two that didn't fit. One was an elfish face and the other was older.

"These two?" he asked, holding up the images. He didn't know how much Aura had told them but now was the time to find out.

"We are not sure, my Lord. Aura indicated that the elf," Pandora said, gesturing towards the image, "called her weak."

Ainz looked at the image. The woman had one silver eye and one black. The colour was almost the same as her hair. He didn't like it. Unlike Aura and Mare's eyes, the woman looked smug. She was too… He wasn't sure what it was exactly. She seemed pompous, and he didn't like it.

"And this one?" He prompted, putting down the woman's image.

"That one asked the questions," Mare answered this time.

Ainz looked at the image. "This is the important one," he said. "Of course, Aura may have them all but this is the one who knows what is going on," he concluded.

"I will take the images to Demiurge."

"Of course, my Lord," Pandora sounded calm but Ainz noticed that Mare was trembling.

"Mare?" He asked gently. He had gotten better at controlling his anger in the last few days. He was still angry about what had happened to Aura, but with the declaration of war, he was funneling the emotion into those plans. The Theocracy would be obliterated, very soon. That was a comfort.

"It's Aura, my Lord," the young dark elf told him.

"She may have any of the Theocracy," Ainz assured him. "I will not tolerate their actions."

Mare shook his head, his ears seeming to droop even more than usual. "It's not that, my Lord. It's Aura," he said softly, swallowing hard. "She is not getting better," he finished in a rush.

Ainz nodded but looked towards Pandora. The doppelganger nodded. It was difficult to tell with his face but he looked sad. "She must recover in her own time," Ainz repeated one of the lines he had read in the book. It was similar to what Neuronist Painkill had also told him.

"But when will that be?" Mare cried before gasping, as if realising who he was speaking too.

"Mare," Ainz said gently, "we must be patient. I know it is difficult but we must support Aura and when she is ready, she will begin to heal. I will support whatever decision she makes about the Theocracy. I have considered other options," Ainz continued. "And if I could use [Make a Wish] I would be chanting the spell already."

"My Lord!" Mare felt his eyes widen as he looked up, staring at his Master.

[Make a Wish] was super tier magic that converted the caster's experience into power. That the Supreme Being was willing to go that far was too much for them.

"I have not used it because there is no wish that would cure Aura," Ainz explained. There was a tiny possibility in this new world new wishes would be available but he was not sure. He had researched every wish available in Yggdrasil and none of them were suitable.

Mare felt his heart clench. Their Lord was so understanding. It was more than he could ever have expected.

"Though, Mare, you aren't stuttering?" Ainz noted.

The Dark Elf recognised an attempt to change the topic but he couldn't appreciate it. At the moment, all topics lead towards Aura. "I can't, my Lord. Aura needs me to be strong."

The Supreme Being nodded. "It will not be a short path to recovery," he said, "but you are doing the right thing," he assured the Dark Elf. "You both did," he said.

The two NPCs nodded and Ainz dismissed them.

This was not easy on any of them.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 5

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace

Ainz wasn't sure what type of reception he would receive when he stepped through the portal. He'd visited Arwintar before, twice. Once in the guise of Momon, and once as the Sorcerer King but that visit was unofficial. This was his first official visit, and his first visit as the Overlord of the Empire. Jircniv was still Emperor, but he was their Supreme Leader.

Logically that meant there would be some sort of formal evening reception for him. He wasn't looking forward to that. He didn't know any of the required protocols but at least they would know better than to expect him to eat, so maybe that part would be forgone. But he had not expected the reception that was waiting at the portal.

He had expected Demiurge, or one of the maids assigned to him to meet him there. The citizens of Nazarick would never let him be here unescorted. The Eight Edge Assassins were good but, he had detected a definite preference for one of their own. Even now, CZ2128 Delta was following him, carrying a sheaf of print outs from his camera.

He had not expected the ranks and ranks of soldiers. Their armor was highly polished. It gleamed in the late autumn sun that was also reflected from their drawn swords. These were the knights of the Empire. Further back were those that were mounted and their horses' hides had been brushed until they gleamed. Above flew gryphons and Ainz could see pennants trailing from their spears. It gave the entire spectacle a festive feel.

Still he was glad his expression did not move. He wasn't sure if he'd be mortified or staring like a loon. Probably mortified but Suzuki Satoru had gotten much better at acting and this was to be expected for the ruler of these lands. It would be the greeting they gave to Jircniv after all.

Ainz moved forward, using the regal stride he had practiced. He was very glad now that he had stopped to change, letting Foss dress him in something appropriate for this. Except something appropriate was a brilliant red robe, hemmed with thick bands of gold. There were tiny gem chips stitched into the gold so that it reflected the autumn light. A wide gold sash held the robe close at his waist and that was stitched with further gem chips. A cape and cowl completed the outfit. In his hand he clasped the staff of Ainz Ooal Gown. It tapped on the ground as he walked.

Thankfully standing near the portal was Demiurge and a group of humans he assumed were those the demon had been working with. He had specifically indicated that the Emperor was not required to meet him in an effort to keep this sort of ceremony to a minimum. It appeared the Empire was compensating.

"Present arms!" Some soldier bellowed. They had a good set of lungs because Ainz could see that even the gryphon riders stiffened at the order.

There was a shing as the weapons were brandished. Ainz simply nodded slightly, especially when Demiurge and the group waiting for him knelt. The knights remained standing, but with exposed steel, he'd prefer that.

"Rise," Ainz commanded as he come to the group. Internally he could feel Suzuki Satoru cringing. It was one thing for the NPCs of Nazarick to display such obeisance but it was rather frightening for others. It reminded him how many lives he now had control over.

The humans waited for a moment or two after Demiurge and the others from Nazarick had risen at his command. The knights sheathed their weapons and remained standing at alert. Ainz assumed someone would order them to leave after he was safely sequestered somewhere.

"Demiurge," he said the name in greeting. Thankfully Demiurge was more than intelligent enough to know what Ainz was asking. The demon moved to stand at his site. It was a clear indication to the humans as to who held rank. Those who had accompanied him through the [Gate] stood at the ready. CZ2128 Delta was holding the documents but Ainz had allowed Loune Vermillion to accompany him to report directly to the Emperor. He had considered asking Fluder to come but realised there was no need to test the fictions Jircniv had spun about that Magic Caster.

"Master, may I introduce Field Marshal Taalay Marijn Ayodele Ozols of the Empire's First Legion," Demiurge gestured towards the man.

The man saluted. He was an older gentlemen, and obviously a career soldier but one who must be loyal to the Empire, given the Emperor's epithet. Taalay was impeccably dressed but Ainz noted the wear on the hilt of his sword. This was not a man who spent all his time in the command tent. While that was pleasing, Ainz felt a cold shiver go down his spine. No doubt the command staff expected him to be some sort of super-general, and he was well aware of his abilities there. Punitto Moe could out plan him any day of the week, which was why he had been Ainz Ooal Gown's strategist.

Still, Ainz reminded himself. He had no intention of this being a fair battle so that would compensate somewhat.

"I look forward to working with you, Field Marshal," Ainz said.

Taalay flinched in surprise but Ainz ignored it. "General Natel Inyem Dale Carvain, I have met before," he continued, turning to the man who had been present at the Katze Plains. He'd checked the man's full name before coming through the portal.

The General nodded more informally. Ainz motioned to Demiurge that it was acceptable. "It is good to see Your Majesty again," the General said amicably. The noble turned soldier appeared friendly but he was almost certain there was the slightest trace of fear in the man's tone. The slightly mocking crease on Demiurge's lips seemed to suggest it.

"And the General of the Third Legion, Simaa Yount," Demiurge introduced the next human.

Ainz nodded to the woman. She had jet black hair over hard brown eyes. While he had seen many women warriors since coming to the new world, no doubt she had had to work hard to attain her position in the Imperial Army. Jircniv was not one to tolerate those without skills.

"Your Majesty," Simaa saluted. She wore full plate armor on her chest, though her extremities were more lightly armored. He knew better than to underestimate her.

He turned to the next figure, another woman, one he had seen before. She had accompanied Jircniv to Nazarick. "Your Majesty," she said, nodding deeply. "I am one of the Emperor's Four Knights, Leinas Rockbruise. I have been assigned to be your personal envoy for the duration of these events."

"Umhu, I must thank Jircniv for his thoughtfulness," Ainz intoned after a moment of thought. The woman was athletic and if she was one of the Emperor's personal Knights, she would be very strong.

"It is an honour, Your Majesty," Lainas said.

"And I think now I should introduce the Empire's Head of Intelligence," Demiurge interrupted before any further conversation. The demon stepped forward again as he gestured to someone else. Ainz was slightly relieved. He didn't need to meet everyone here at the moment and there were still quite a few people with a military bearing standing with the Generals. "This is Kulap Erckens."

Ainz thought the Head of Intelligence was male but upon closer examination he realised he wasn't sure. He took note from the way Demiurge said the name. The demon's voice held its usual mocking tone but Ainz had gown adept at interpreting it since coming to this world. It was the same as Demiurge's creator, Ulbert Alain Odle. He said one thing, but he meant something very different.

"Your Majesty," Kulap bowed.

"I believe we have much to discuss," Ainz replied to the greeting.

"My resources are yours to command," came the reply without hesitation. A good answer, and one that was true. Even if the spy wanted to keep back secrets, this was too important to allow such games.

"And finally Master, the Head of the Empire's Magic Casters, Ithai Amato Rubem Turchi."

Ainz looked over. The Head of the Empire's Magic Casters was staring at him, his face pale. "A recent appointment," Ainz said, allowing a smile to form unseen on his features.

Demiurge's expression changed for an instant, the demon's face forming a large smile before settling into a more suitable expression.

Apparently Ithai saw both expressions as his face went whiter. It was an impressive feat. His face looked like a white dot floating over his dark robes. "I hesitate to call myself a Magic Caster in the face of His Majesty's skill."

Ainz was mildly impressed Ithai managed to say that without stuttering. "There is no end to the road all magic casters walk," he replied.

"Ah, Your Majesty refers to the Abyss of Magic?" The Magic Caster was still pale but seemed eager for an answer.

Was Ithai one of Fluder's students? He would have to ask the man when he returned to Nazarick.

"No," he dismissed the question, watching as Ithai seemed to deflate slightly. "I merely refer to the fact that there are always new facets of magic to examine, even in the areas one knows intimately."

Ithai blinked, obviously trying to work out what he meant but the man was skilled enough to give a gracious nod, despite his still evident fear.

"This way, Master," Demiurge indicated towards one of the nearby buildings.

"Just a moment," Ainz said, stepping away slightly towards the Knights. Demiurge lowered his head briefly in understanding. "Knights of the Empire!" Ainz proclaimed loudly. "You have been gathered to fight against a vile country, one that hides its profanity behind religious dogma, one that finds satisfaction in the rape of children!

"As such, I do not intend for this battle to be protracted. I intend for it to be decisive, so that you might swiftly return to your duties. You need not fear for your lives for they are not to be squandered. The full might of the Sorcerous Kingdom will march with you into battle so that those who have hidden for so long, protected by their doctrine, shall know that all beings find their acts abhorrent!"

Ainz swept the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown before him with his final words, letting the wisps of dark magic trail after it, as he turned. He did not expect a cheer from the Knights because they did not yet fully understand what this war would represent. He intended for his words to be a comfort. With the battle of Katze Plains at the forefront of their minds, they would know what he meant when he promised the might of the Sorcerous Kingdom was on their side.

He had expected at least some response but all he got was dead silence. Internally Ainz sighed. The Empire didn't make sense to him! They hadn't cheered him when he won against the Martial Lord and now… Maybe he needed to work on his oration?

"A fine speech, my Lord," Demiurge praised him as Ainz allowed himself to be lead away.

He gave the demon a look but could detect no insincerity in his voice. "They are not yet familiar with how things will be," he allowed, ignoring the way the Generals breathed a sigh of relief. No doubt they had been concerned he would be insulted. "They will learn," Ainz said, looking up at the sky. The gryphons had cleared away leaving only those who were patrolling in neat, ordered patterns.

"They will," Demiurge agreed with him, but it was unclear who he was referring to.

Ainz didn't pursue it.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace, Conference Room

"Your Majesty, if I may be blunt," the Field Marshal of the Imperial Legions said in as diplomatic tone as could be mustered given the words. "While we have gathered, we are unfamiliar with your desired strategy."

They were gathered in a conference room. In some ways it was similar to the Round Table area used by Ainz Ooal Gown but far less plushly appointed. Ainz was seated at the head of the table. CZ2128 Delta was standing behind and to the side of his chair, standing guard over both him and the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown. The Generals had been somewhat surprised to see it float in position. Certainly Ithai had been, and was spending most of his time staring at it. It was a magical item, of course it was going to float!

Demiurge was beside him, ready to do his bidding. The Generals had taken seats only after he was settled.

"I understand," Ainz allowed graciously. "Winter is a miserable time to fight. But before I can properly outline an offensive plan, I find it best to fully understand the enemy. As such I have several individuals I wish to know more about before I make decisions."

Punitto Moe had made it very clear what happens when you engage without proper knowledge. He was not going to allow that to happen to him here. This would be an attack planned to the order of their retribution for the Minoshirokin Incident. No stone would be left unturned to find those responsible but those stones would be turned before the true attack. Which is why Demiurge was here and why he had come, to collect information from the Empire before they engaged in more direct spying. After all, one must properly and effectively use one's resources.

The Generals nodded but looked towards Kulap.

The Head of Intelligence bowed his head before he frowned looking around at the windows of the room. The blinds were open letting in the thin light that was available. "Forgive my impertinence, Your Majesty, but are we free to speak openly?"

It took Ainz a moment to realise what Kulap was asking. He allowed himself an indulgent smile. "The entire city and its surroundings are being shielded from magical prying," he assured the man. He was leaning towards Kulap being male at the moment but one who was like Mare, in that if he dressed as a woman, it would be difficult to determine true gender. "The Theocracy knows the Legions are gathered here, but that is all," he added.

Field Marshal Ozols glanced towards the Magic Caster. Ithai gave a small shake of his head. Ainz was reminded once again how limited magic was in this world. No, that wasn't right, magic wasn't limited, it was that the humans had no idea how to use it. He reminded himself not to get complacent. Eventually, and possibly even now, there were opponents who could wield the same magic he did.

"You may test it at your leisure but to the Theocracy we are invisible," Ainz assured them. "So yes, Lord Erckens, we may speak freely."

The Head of Intelligence smiled. It was one of those approving smiles. This man knew security. "If you are sure," he said, looking significantly at CZ2128.

"Umhu?" Ainz murmured tilting his head to indicate his question.

Kulap looked uncomfortable for a moment. "With the greatest respect, Your Majesty, while many of the details of the conflict in the Holy Kingdom are unclear, your victory over the Demon Jaldabaoth is well documented, as is your-" here the man paused, visibly searching for the right words, "-acquisition of the maids seen during the conflict in the Re-Estize Kingdom."

Ainz was grateful his expression couldn't change. This man was very well informed. Maybe too well informed, though Demiurge seemed relaxed. He would discuss this with the demon later.

"And you are saying?" Ainz asked, when it became clear Kulap wasn't going to continue.

"I believe the maid accompanying you today is one of those freed," he said. "Is it prudent to discuss sensitive information with one so newly enlightened present?"

Kulap knew too much but he also knew how to diplomatically phrase things. Ainz raised one hand slightly, motioning to CZ2128 that she should remain calm. Such a question was normal though he could well imagine the killing rage that most of Nazarick would display on being questioned about their loyalty. CZ2128 was more calm but he had no doubt she felt it.

"CZ2128 Delta is loyal," he assured the man. "As you say, upon Jaldabaoth's defeat, she, and the others swore their loyalty to me. Until someone defeats me, her loyalty is to me alone."

CZ2128 nodded once.

Ainz could sense they didn't believe him. He allowed himself to blow out a soft sigh. It was time to pull the 'ancient' undead act. "There was a reason I was interested in those maids," he explained. "I recognised their description from some of my texts. Once you win their loyalty, it is unquestionable," he announced.

The Generals weren't sure what to think of that. Ithai was interested despite his fear. No doubt the Magic Caster was thinking, at least on some level, if Fluder had been right to abandon everything.

"I thought it fitting that they serve me," he concluded.

"I am certain we do not need to be concerned with the loyalty of His Majesty's attendants," Field Marshal Ozols said. His voice had a note of finality in it, telling Kulap to leave the topic.

The man was wise enough to nod shallowly to acknowledge the rebuke before he turned his attention back to Ainz.

"Who amongst the Theocracy do you wish information on, Your Majesty? I have already begun briefing Lord Demiurge."

Ainz lifted one hand, gesturing to CZ2128. The maid stepped forward to place the sheaf of papers on the table. Deftly Ainz flipped through them, pulling out the two images he had highlighted earlier. He held them up. "I wish to know the identity of these two."

Demiurge was looking at the papers curiously. This was the first time he had seen them as well but Ainz knew he would correctly conclude what the images represented. He would have to have a word with the demon to reinforce that they must be taken alive, for Aura's sake.

"My compliments to your artist, Your Majesty," Kulap gushed. "Those are remarkable likenesses!"

Mentally Ainz frowned. The images were taken with his camera, there was nothing special about them. The hardest thing had been reproducing them on the paper of this wor- Ah, they didn't have camera technology. No doubt they were used to illusions cast by magicians but unless the magician had seen the individual, they would be guessing as to what they looked like.

"It is an invention of Nazarick," he stated. "One that I hope to make available within all my domains in due course."

Kulap nodded. "The man is Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche," he said, his voice serious. "He is the Cardinal of the Wind, and a former member of the Sunlight Scripture."

"And the woman?" Ainz prompted. Thankfully Kulap seemed to instinctively know that he did not need the full details of Cardinal Ihre Partouche's life at the moment.

The Head of Intelligence peered intently at the image. Eventually he shook his head. "I am sorry, Your Majesty, I do not know that individual," he admitted, looking around at the table.

The gathered Generals also shook their heads.

"A guess?" Ainz invited into the silence.

No one said anything. Perhaps they needed further context. He steeled his heart. He did not want to discuss this but it was necessary. "After delivering a message to your Emperor, my servant, Aura Bella Fiora was attacked. Her dragon was knocked from the sky and killed, and she was subdued. This individual," he said, shaking the image slightly, "was present at every session where Aura was questioned." He paused, taking a deep breath to settle his anger. "And every session where she was raped."

There wasn't the slightest movement at the table.

"I understand that by Human standards, Aura is old enough to be a great-grandmother. By elfin standards, she is a child, not yet mature enough for reproduction. I find the fact that the Slane Theocracy supports such means repugnant in the extreme. I do not tolerate such acts."

"Any civilised being would find it abhorrent," General Natel agreed with him, consciously using Ainz's earlier terminology.

"Then, Your Majesty, I would suggest that the woman is a member of one of the Scriptures," Kulap indicated. "Despite the Empire's best efforts, we are unsure of the identity of many Scripture members."

"Then it is time to drag them into the light," Ainz announced. He spread the pictures out over the table. "I wish every individual within these images to be captured alive to face the justice of the Sorcerous Kingdom."

The General's looked concerned. No doubt they were thinking about how difficult it would be.

"You do not need to concern yourselves. I believe they are in Kami Miyako but they will all be properly identified long before any battle is commenced."

He sensed the Generals were wondering how any battle would be fought in winter. Only General Natel seemed to be calm. He was obviously remembering the [Gate] that had brought Ainz's army to the field on the Katze Plains.

"Now, there is still much work to be done before deciding on a final plan of attack," Ainz gestured at everyone present before he cast one eye towards Demiurge, "please summarise what you have learned of the border towns."

The demon nodded and Ainz braced himself. This could take a while but it was necessary and for Aura, he'd sit through many more such meetings.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace, Corridor

Ainz allowed himself to be guided down the corridor by the Imperial Knight Leinas. The woman moved with remarkable grace and was silent. Ainz wasn't sure if that was a testament to her skill, or to some enhancement effect on her armour. CZ2128 Delta was following him, while Demiurge had remained with the Generals, studying the images of the groups who now needed to be captured. No doubt the demon would have some plan by this evening, if he didn't already.

"Your Majesty," Leinas said suddenly coming to a halt.

CZ2128 Delta was immediately on guard. Ainz was as well. There was no one else present.

The woman knelt. That wasn't a usual feint but he remained wary, as did CZ2128.

"I beg your indulgence to ask a personal question," she said.

Ainz felt himself tense. A personal question? What did she want to know!? How did he say no? Before he could answer, Leinas plowed onwards.

"Do you possess the skill to cure my curse?"

As a skeleton he couldn't blink but Ainz definitely felt as if he had. He peered at her, and then he remembered. She had been in the Throne Room accompanying Jircniv. As he was passing he'd seen her curse and commented simply because it was not of Nazarick.

"Rise," he commanded, giving CZ2128 Delta a signal to indicate that she could relax. The maid did slightly but she was not going to be taken unawares.

Leinas rose and lifted her head, defiantly staring at him. Ainz reached out, putting one finger under the curtain of hair that covered half her face as he lifted it away. He examined the curse. It was manifesting itself as a weeping, pus filled wound. He tilted his head before releasing the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown to raise his other hand.

"[Identify Middle Curse]," he intoned. The slightest brush of magic left his finger, moving towards Leinas. She stiffened slightly as she felt it but it caused no pain. This was merely identification magic. Almost anyone could cast it.

"Umhu."

"You know what it is?" Leinas demanded.

CZ2128 Delta took a step forward but the Knight was bold. Or desparate.

"I can cure it," Ainz told the Knight. "But you will not like the consequences," he added. It was a simple enough curse, though as he was coming to fully understand, far beyond the means of most in this world.

"I'll take them!" Leinas declared. "Whatever the consequences are, if I can be free of this curse, I will take them!"

"Do not be so hasty," Ainz admonished. "You may not survive the cure," he told her.

"I'll take that risk," she hissed. "I made a vow that I would do anything, anything at all to have this curse cured. If that means risking my life, then I will do that but only if you can promise me it will be cured."

CZ2128 Delta hissed. The usually stoic automatum almost seemed to want to growl at the Emperor's Knight.

"I can cure it," Ainz stated. "But I cannot guarantee you would survive the cure."

"Your Majesty, if you can cure it, I will survive and my sword is yours to command," Leinas announced before she looked to the ground. "As is my body," she added.

"I am undead," Ainz half sighed. "I have no desire for your body," he explained. Why were so many women willing to offer themselves? It was just as well Albedo wasn't here! "If you are that desperate," he added, "then I will consider curing it, after the campaign."

She might be human but she was strong, and he had use for strong humans. And if she did survive, well, her loyalty would be assured. He had not been lying about the consequences of this cure.

"Then, Your Majesty, I find myself desirous of the Slane Theocracy's swift fall."

Ainz grasped the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown again. "Oh, I can attest that it will be swift," he muttered as Leinas once again led the way down the corridor.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace

Jircniv looked at his gathered Generals. Baziwood and Nimble stood behind him. Leinas was seated with them. The room was well lit, though outside night had fallen.

"Well?" He made the question generic. It also told them without words that they should not stand on formality. He needed answers.

Taalay and Natel shared a long look. "His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown has not yet specified a plan of attack," Natel told him. "Instead, he had several requests today for information."

"We've already been informing that Toadman of everything," Jircniv noted.

Taalay nodded. "These were more directed questions," he said.

"Just show him," Leinas interrupted, pushing a sheaf of paper towards Jircniv. "His Majesty wished to know who these people were."

Jircniv took the papers and looked at them. He felt his eyes widen before they narrowed as he studied the images. He couldn't see any lines from the artist. He then ran his finger tips over the surface. He couldn't feel any paint or pencil. It was a flat smooth surface. The likenesses were incredibly good. "What are these?" He asked.

"His Majesty called them photographs," Ithai said, though Jircniv already knew the Magic Caster had no real idea what that actually meant.

"Did he say were he got them from?" Jircniv didn't like the implications these images represented.

"Just that they came from a technology his domain has developed but not yet spread," Leinas said.

Jircniv felt his stomach ache. Again! The Sorcerer King had done it again! How many steps ahead had the undead planned for? How many moves and preparations had it made before it came into the open? His head ached in sympathy with his stomach.

"So, we already know the Sorcerer King cannot be challenged magically," he said to the room. No one disagreed. "Or militarily," he added. Natel and Nimble both remembered the warriors Ainz Ooal Gown had brought to the Katze Plains. They may not have seen service but they were aware of how dangerous they were. So was Ithai. The Magic Caster was now responsible for the Death Knight confined under the city.

"Is this evidence of technological superiority as well?" he asked.

No one answered. He suspected no one could answer. These were Generals, they already knew they were defeated if they had to fight the Sorcerer King.

"We are now part of His Majesty's domain," Kulap pointed out. "Perhaps he would be willing to share some trifles with us," the spy suggested.

Jircniv nodded. He would ask, though he rather suspected the Sorcerer King had already thought of an answer for that. He sighed. "How many?" he asked.

"Your Majesty?" Taalay sought clarification.

"How many Knights will this campaign cost?"

"With His Majesty not specifying a definite plan of attack, that is uncertain," Simaa responded. "However, if we do have, as His Majesty promised, the full support of his Kingdom, then our losses, barring accident or the normal winter problems, could be quite small."

Jircniv hadn't heard this. He looked at the General of the Third Legion sharply.

"His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown made a short speech to the gathered troops," Taalay explained. "He assured them that his full strength would be behind their efforts."

The Emperor wasn't sure that made him feel better. A glance at Nimble and Natel confirmed that those words did not comfort them. The full support of an undead like Ainz Ooal Gown could mean they would be overseeing the complete depopulation of the Slane Theocracy. Thousands, millions of lives would be in their hands, and given to the Undead.

"What were they thinking?" Jircniv exploded, slamming one hand down on the table. It caused the papers to jump slightly and they shifted. He recognised one of them. "Dominic?" He murmured, pulling the image out from the others.

"His Majesty seemed very interested in the identities of those pictured," Kulap returned to the images. "However we are only able to identify the Cardinal," he added.

"The other Cardinals aren't pictured here?" Jircniv asked, quickly leafing through the images. He didn't recognise the men.

"No, Your Majesty," Natel replied.

"So?" Jircniv murmured, thinking hard as he put the papers down again. "Dominic is definitely involved," he said, trying to remember what he knew of the Cardinal of the Wind.

"He was a former member of the Sunlight Scripture," Kulap reminded him. "It is possible that the Theocracy's action was dictated by him alone in retaliation for the destruction of his former Scripture."

The Emperor felt a wan smile stretch his features. He knew what his reaction would be if that was the explanation. He'd been in the situation before. He'd given the Undead Count Femel's head. If the Theocracy knew what was good for them, they would have given the Undead Dominic's head but… He already knew they wouldn't do that.

"They don't know what they are facing," he said.

"No, Your Majesty," Natel agreed. The Theocracy should know. The events on the Katze Plains were on record.

"It is possible they cannot know," Ithai suggested.

"What do you mean?"

"His Majesty indicated that Arwintar was now protected against scrying from the Theocracy," the Magic Caster explained.

Jircniv frowned. What did that mean?

Kulap nodded his agreement with the Magic Caster. "He said that the entire city and its surroundings were being shielded from magical prying but that the Theocracy knew that the Legions had gathered."

"Who cast it?"

The room looked surprised. "Find out," Jircniv instructed. He lifted one hand to his mouth, chewing nervously at a nail as he thought aloud. "If he allowed the Theocracy to know the Legions are gathered, then it is a new protection. But why allow the Theocracy to see them?"

"As a distraction," Simaa said firmly.

"All eight legions?" Taalay almost shouted.

"The first rule of any campaign is misdirection," she replied. "Gather the Legions here, and the Theocracy has to watch Arwintar," she continued. "Then they aren't watching other places. And if you then shield Arwintar, they will become convinced that there is something important here."

"His Majesty is here." The statement was rather bland and no doubt the Theocracy was keeping track of the Sorcerer King.

"Which just proves my point," Simaa smiled with satisfaction. "He is not hiding his visit, and in fact, I'd say he may be disappointed that there is no welcoming function," she added. "That would confirm beyond all doubt for the Theocracy's spies that the Undead King is here, so whatever campaign he plans must be coming from here. Then," she shrugged, not needing to continue.

"He is free to attack from elsewhere," Baziwood concluded.

It was a simple enough plan but sometimes the simple plans were the most devastating. And while the Emperor was not an expert on military campaigns he understood that for a military distraction to be effective, it had to have a chance of succeeding. That is, to make a feint, the amount of force used had to be sufficient to convince the enemy that you were truly attacking.

Gathering the Legions would convince the Theocracy the Sorcerous Kingdom would attack via the Empire. And even if Ainz Ooal Gown didn't, the Theocracy could not ignore the might of the eight Legions.

Simple but… Jircniv could feel the undead's skeletal hands all over it. And he was sure there were depths and layers to the plan that he would not see until they were revealed. The Sorcerer King was like that.

"Keep me informed about what he wants," Jircniv said, while mentally he grumbled. Was there nothing this Ainz Ooal Gown did not possess extreme power in? Intelligence, magical ability and now military matters. The Empire was now protected and the treaty was fair but… That is what worried him.

Ainz Ooal Gown was a man who could appear to give you everything even while you danced to his tune and with an undead, Jircniv knew that was the last thing he wanted. But defiance was also the last thing he could do and the Theocracy, which had been his hope to free the Empire from this mess was about to get dragged in.

From the way his stomach clenched, he knew, they were about to be defeated.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 6

-cos-

Fifth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, the Room of Truth

"Well, isn't this nice?"

Gawal didn't want to listen to the voice but nothing he did could block it out.

"I think it's nice. I am finally allowed to question you."

The words were being spoken by a fat grey thing. It looked like a bloated corpse but it wasn't human. It had two long tentacles that hung down from its face, almost like some absurdly long mustache. Several more seemed to form its hair, going down its back and there was one that it kept pushing back over one shoulder in some parody of a fringe. What it called hands seemed to be webbed with inch long claws atop each finger.

"Not that I question the Supreme Being! I would never do that! But it is nice that I am allowed to question you."

It was rambling. When they'd first been moved from the frozen rooms they had been stashed in, Gawal had thought it had just been a monster, one of the many escorting them. It's talking then was just rambling. Now he knew it was intelligent, so its rambling probably made sense to it. It didn't to him.

A glance around told him that it didn't make any sense to the others either.

Debile was pretending to be disinterested. Gawal could see the signs of strain on the man. It had been their turn with the elf when… well, he hadn't even seen it! The others said it was all black and claws and they shuddered with the memory. All he knew was that as per normal, he'd been struggling to hold the elf still while Borin took his turn, then everything went black.

He'd woken up cold. The others had been with him, as had several monsters. They'd been staring at him. Only Lutoj had tried to make a run for it. Gawal shuddered. No one else had.

"I'm not going to ask you much today," the grey thing was saying. It was fiddling with some sort of tool. The claws didn't help it. "I just want to know who these people are," it added.

A light appeared. Gawal wished it hadn't. It meant he could see the grey thing better. The light was not a benefit to it. It didn't seem to notice. Instead, with its free hand it was gesturing towards the far wall. There were images there. They weren't paintings but something else. Several had marks on them. He jerked when he realised one of the marked images was of him. He knew what that meant.

They were all being hunted.

"Ah zercori'z thees? (What sorcery is this)?" Debile gasped. His eyes were staring at his image.

"It's a picture," the grey thing said. It walked… more wallowed over to the wall. Gawal watched as the gray thing stroked at their images. It was almost loving. "These are you. We need to know who the others are. That's all you need to tell me today. Who are they? I want names."

"Isa tha aul? (Is that all?)"

Gawal wondered who spoke for a moment, before he realised he had. His eyes widened when the grey thing looked at him.

"That is all," it agreed. It seemed to be smiling at him.

"Eew ca't toll it! (You can't tell it!)" That was Lutoj.

"Wie na? (Why not?)" He spat back. What did he owe the others? What did he owe the Theocracy? He would have thought Lutoj understood. He'd tried to run. Sure the monsters had healed him but… they had all heard his screams.

"Ook mun, E niver bliev tha praests. Sill na eur E da, (Look man, I never believed the priests. Still not sure I do,)" Lutoj said. "Et thas thangs en't uman, n evur f eurthang lse tha praests ay iz liaes, tha mach iz trea, uganst tha thangs ve uve ta steec tagathar. (But these things aren't human, and even if everything else the priests say is lies, this much is true, against these things we have to stick together.)"

"'N dou wah? (And do what?)" Gawal returned. Did no one think? He shook his head. He already knew the answer to that. It was one of the reasons he'd been there. No one in his village had ever thought. They had simply gone along with what the Priest said. Every time. He had too until…

It was kind of embarrassing. He'd met her. She'd had milk white skin and pale blue eyes. The daughter of the local copper. He'd made approaches to her father, as was right but the man had rejected him outright. Him! There had been nothing wrong with his suit. It wasn't until later that he learned why. The Priest. The Priest had already made suit and … Except, no one looked at the Priest. No one else seemed to notice how the Priest made suit with almost every young woman of the village. Things had not ended well.

Lutoj thankfully hadn't tried to answer. The man already knew the answer. They were trapped here, surrounded by monsters. Even the light wasn't normal. The one illuminating them now was magic. That meant they were trapped by something far more powerful than they could imagine, far more powerful than the Theocracy imagined because even in those caves where the Cardinals were, they used normal lanterns, not magic. This place seemed to have magic to spare and that meant wealth.

It didn't matter what background they all had, they knew what wealth meant. It meant you got what you want over the objections of anyone else.

"Itch nomes da ya ent? (Which names do you want?)" Gawal offered.

The grey thing seemed happy. It almost skipped over to him. Its claws stroked at his face. He was surprised when they didn't cut him but it obviously knew its strength.

"All of them," it told him as its other hand swept over all the pictures. "But one at a time now, I don't want to miss any names!"

"Triata! (Traitor!)" Lutoj snarled but it wasn't as if the man could stop him. They were all chained securely.

Gawal looked at the pictures again. He nodded to himself. He knew most of them. Maybe that would be enough to get him back to the ice. That would be good, better than here, better than being with that thing… And he never thought he'd think that.

"So, tell me?"

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace

Ainz looked over at Demiurge from his seat in the quarters Jircniv had made available. They were plushly appointed but nothing on Nazarick. At least this meant he wasn't attending some interminable welcome reception feast.

"I'm surprised they couldn't identify this one," he murmured, holding up the picture of the elf woman.

The demon nodded. "They were telling the truth," he assured his Master.

"Yes, which means she must be something hidden," he concluded. "Or an identity like Momon," he added the possibility.

"She is most likely one of the more powerful members of a Scripture," Demiurge told him. "The Empire strives to identify those individuals but admits to having trouble with it." The demon had been talking to the Empire's intelligence division and military commanders, preparing them for the short war that was to come. This would be, to use an old quote, a short victorious war for Nazarick. "Though it is odd," he mused.

"Odd?" Ainz prompted.

"The image has elfin features and the Theocracy do not tolerate non-humans."

"A halfling perhaps?" He suggested. "Aura was very clear that the images are correct."

"Then that makes the likelihood of this woman being a Scripture member higher," the demon allowed. "Like most humans they will compromise for strength."

"And would explain why the Empire does not know her. The Theocracy will be ashamed of her presence. Though we can supplement the Empire's resources," he suggested.

Demiurge smiled at he nodded. No doubt the demon had already started that. "What are your plans, Master?" He gestured towards the short table that was in the room and from the shadows one of his servants emerged.

Ainz watched as the imp touched the table and the surface reformed. Parts rose and fell and amusingly, small patches of water appeared in some areas, while others became green.

"Usprymac has been feeling the land of the new world," Demiurge explained.

He had heard of this. Some, mostly spiritual beings, could feel the earth and from there could replicate what they felt in small scale making a perfect map. It was not a talent to be taken lightly. "I thank you for your efforts," Ainz complimented the imp, making sure he nodded regally at it.

It seemed embarrassed and quickly bowed before disappearing. He cast a significant eye towards Demiurge and the demon nodded again. He would see that Usprymac was rewarded.

"You have already perceived my plans, Demiurge," Ainz said, allowing himself to smile. "We will launch an assault with the Legions against some border city and while the Theocracy responds, the Great Tomb of Nazarick will take their capital."

The demon nodded. Ainz had not been lying when he indicated there would be no subtlety with this attack. He wanted to overwhelm the Theocracy in such a way that all knew there had never been any question as to the outcome. He understood that it was traditional to conquer a country by taking territory until you had all the land but that was inefficient and Ainz knew what Punitto Moe would be advising if you were capable of running multiple teams towards the same objective.

There was no kill like overkill. Aura deserved nothing less.

Demiurge grinned. "While the Empire's intelligence has been of use, they have not been able to identify all our required targets," he informed Ainz. He gestured at the table. Several points of light appeared. "These are the likely border outposts to be taken," he indicated.

Ainz waved one hand. "If one is related to any of our persons of interest, we will take it, otherwise they are all much alike. Unless the Generals have a preference?"

"Synoro is highly fortified," Demiurge told him, flicking his fingers towards the light point. An illusion appeared. Even though Ainz wasn't an expert on town fortifications he could see the similarities to E-Rantel.

He chuckled. The General's didn't want to take it for the losses but the loss of a such a secure town would strike at the Theocracy nicely. "Is there a reason for the fortifications?" E-Rantel was fortified because of its proximity to the Katze Planes. Synoro seemed too distant for that to be the reason.

"Relations between the three countries have not always been cordial," Demiurge told him.

He nodded, before looking towards another part of the map. Kami Miyako.

Demiurge followed his gaze and gestured again. A new illusion formed. Ainz frowned as he looked at it. There was a large disk and many buildings upon it but underneath the disk representing the ground of the Theocracy's capital there was evidence of other rooms. He knew there were some. Most of the larger state buildings had a basement but this seemed to be extensive.

"They are called the Catacombs," Demiurge told him, rotating the illusion so he could see them better. "The entrances are at each of the Cathedrals, and we would imagine there are other entrances we do not know about."

That was a reasonable assumption. One area was highlighted. "This is the area they were holding Aura," Demiurge told him. "Rubedo's forces have mapped it extensively."

"There were other areas they did not focus on," Ainz said.

"Yes, and I have been focused on them," the demon agreed. "But they are quite extensive."

There was an unfamiliar note in the demon's voice. Unseen, Ainz frowned as he thought about it, then he realised what Demiurge was saying by not saying anything. It was similar to business negotiations. To make an admission would be considered weakness but to hint was acceptable. "They are larger than anticipated," Ainz murmured, looking at where the illusion displayed corridors leading into nothingness.

"They are, Master," Demiurge agreed.

"We can delay slightly," Ainz allowed. "I want to positively identify all of those responsible before we move," he offered the excuse.

The demon nodded. He fully understood the reasoning behind that action.

"I will assign you more wraiths until that map is complete," Ainz continued. "Or would it benefit from the use of a Hanzo or something similar?" They were harder to summon but information was the most precious resource.

"We may need several," Demiurge admitted after a few moments of thought. "The Theocracy is adept at discovering undead spies."

"There are more than enough corpses," Ainz reminded him. The demon already knew that but Nazarick's NPCs were always reluctant to sacrifice his summons, even when that's why he created them! They were meant to be sacrificed and it was far better that they be destroyed over the NPCs. He could resurrect the NPCs but that cost further resources. Losing undead spies that he created was far more efficient.

The Hanzos could be more problematic, except Nazarick had made some gains recently. The raid on the Re-Estize Kingdom had netted them a nice amount, which was supplemented by payments from the Eight Fingers. Plus, Jircniv had paid some tribute. They had enough finances for the summonings and it was for Aura. He'd find a way to make the necessary payment.

"I would also like to find their Treasury," the demon said.

For a moment Ainz wondered what he was talking about then he felt stupid. Once again he was thankful that his face displayed nothing. He should have been thinking about that as well but Yggdrasil did not work that way. Only Guild Bases had treasuries and dungeons did not. Ainz Ooal Gown did not typically raid other Guild Bases. They preferred to attack when their targets were isolated.

Even without thinking of that, he should have been considering that the Theocracy's national treasures would be located there. If they had brainwashed Shalltear, the [Downfall of Castle and Country] would be located in their Treasury. As would other items from Yggdrasil, and he knew they had some.

"We must determine what items they have from Yggdrasil either in their Treasury or with the Scriptures or their army." There was some chance items would be scattered throughout the country as they prepared for war. Ainz leaned forward slightly, looking at the illusion. Unseen he frowned before reaching out to take control of the image.

He rotated it slightly. As Demiurge had indicated there were many connections to the underground city from each of the Cathedrals but that wasn't what he was looking at. There was something familiar with the arrangement. "That looks…" he murmured, wracking his brains for the information.

"Master?"

Ainz didn't reply. Instead he highlighted the area Aura had been kept in. It was part of a complex and there were several larger open areas underground. Rubedo's group had not mapped them. He kept rotating the image.

"The layout looks familiar," Ainz said slowly.

Demiurge was surprised for a moment but then he looked at the illusion that had been developed from the spying efforts.

"Nazarick's fifth floor," the demon murmured, seeing the same connection Ainz had.

"The Frozen Prison," Ainz honed in on the area. He lifted one hand to rub at his temples. The motion released control of the illusion. It settled back into displaying the entire city. "We are going to need far better maps, and all of their documents," he said.

Demiurge didn't seem surprised. "I will put a trace on Cardinal Ihre Partouche, and see where he leads us."

Ainz nodded, still thinking. They had known that there was a connection between this world and Yggdrasil and now there was a direct one between the Theocracy and Nazarick. He sighed heavily before looking back at Demiurge. It was time to tell the demon a bit more history.

"We, Ainz Ooal Gown, were not the first to find the Great Tomb of Nazarick," he said.

Demiurge looked at him. The demon's expression was intensely interested. Ainz could feel that CZ2128 Delta was also intently listening. Anything he said about the guild was something they would pay attention to. "Other groups had attempted to conquer it before we did. We were just the first to conquer the Tomb," he indicated. "It was originally only six levels deep and was a simultaneous attack dungeon.

"We expanded it after we decided to make it our base," Ainz explained. Those had been good times. The entire guild had been active then. "That's when we created you," he added.

Demiurge didn't interrupt.

"There are two options as to why the Theocracy would have an underground area that looks like the Frozen Prison. Three if I allow for coincidence," he corrected himself.

"That is very unlikely," Demiurge indicated. He gestured towards another part of the illusion, making it larger. "We do not have all the records for here but now that I see the connection, it looks like an area of the third floor."

Ainz nodded. "If there are no areas resembling anything higher than the fifth floor, then the Theocracy's connection to Yggdrasil knew the Great Tomb of Nazarick before we took it for our own. But if there are areas that look like anything deeper than the sixth floor-" here Ainz cast a significant gaze towards Demiurge. The demon's domain was on the seventh floor. "-then they know of Nazarick through other means, fair or foul." There was only one foul attempt that had gotten that deep, only to be stopped on the Eighth floor but there had sometimes been guests allowed into Nazarick.

He wasn't sure what to think of them.

"I will keep looking."

"I am unsure which the answer will be," Ainz indicated. "And I am unsure which I prefer it to be," he added. It all depended on if there were areas higher than the sixth floor emulated in the Theocracy.

"In the end, it is another question they must answer," Demiurge said for him.

Ainz smiled. "Indeed," he agreed, looking back towards the illusion map. "They have a lot to answer for."

-cos-

Fifth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, the Room of Truth

"E dan't kna! (I don't know!)," Gawal sobbed.

He had been right. Telling the grey thing the names had gotten him something. But it wasn't back to the ice dungeons. It had gotten him tortured last.

He'd known most of the names. The few he didn't the others had, except for one. None of them knew who she was.

"Plase, (Please,)" he gasped. He didn't want to look at what the grey thing was doing. It would only exacerbate the pain. "Ze wa ulwas tha, ut, E jast dan't no er nam. (She was always there, but I just don't know her name.)"

The grey thing didn't care. "Tell me what else you know about her," it said.

Gawal nodded, trying to marshall his thoughts. What else did he know? "Ze's stong, (She's strong)," he said. "Stonga tha ma (Stronger than me)," he gave the comparison.

The grey thing lifted one hand.

Gawal bit down on a scream, forcing his tongue to speak faster despite his gasping, faltering breath. "Tha wez ne tim (There was one time,)" he gasped a few more shallow breaths. He didn't like the smell here. Blood was the nicest of the aromas permeating the room. "Tha efl ga luse. E thank Bafre endad tha kufs un er. (The elf got loose. I think Bafre undid the cuffs on her.)"

"And Bafre is dead," the grey thing seemed pleased at that recollection.

"Bafre iz daed, (Bafre is dead,)" Gawal repeated, using the time to suck down more air. "Tha efl kild im. (The elf killed him.)" He shuddered at the memory. It turned on some of the men to know they were forcing such a strong being. He wasn't sure, not after seeing the mess that was Bafre. "Than se thraw tha est of ewes eff n rin. (Then she threw the rest of us off and ran.)" He paused then, trying to remember. He hadn't been there then. He'd been one of the ones called to clean up but he'd heard what had happened.

"Than, (Then,)" he gulped. There was an ominous feel in the air. "Than tha wamn az thar, (Then that woman was there,)" he explained. "Ze dad semethang, n hald tha efl dun. Than ze eld un eff ewes ta eit ta kufs eck on. (She did something, and held the elf down. Then she told one of us to put the cuffs back on.)"

That bit he was sure of. Those who had been there had told them that because it was weird. Apparently the woman said the cuffs would do nothing if she put them back on, so they had. Quite a few of the men got damaged by the elf… Gawal frowned, but the woman hadn't?

The grey thing looked at him. "Is that all?"

He didn't like that question. It said that the grey thing doubted him and that wasn't something he wanted. "E sear ta tha Ex Geds tha iz oul E kna, (I swear to the Six Gods that is all I know,)" he managed the sentence in one go.

The grey thing chuckled. It seemed to be examining its claws. "We do not swear to your Six Godlings here. They are nothing before the majesty that is the Supreme Being Ainz Ooal Gown. A being you would do well to worship because it is only by his grace you are alive."

Gawal didn't know if to nod or shake his head. He could tell from the involuntary trembling of the other men that they had the same problem. Was it really worship if… This Ainz Ooal Gown must be a monster amongst monsters if he could control all of these to such an extent that they considered him supreme. He settled for a nod when it seemed as if the grey thing wanted a response.

"I think that's enough for now."

Gawal almost sobbed at the words. Debile did, though he had been muttering incoherent prayers for a while.

"We will return you to the cells where someone will heal you, but," the grey thing paused. For something so repulsive it had a fine command of oration and language. It knew what tones gave the best effect. "Think on this, eventually the others will be captured, and then you will be given to Aura. Our master has already said she may do what she will and I will be offering her my services."

He knew he didn't want to know. He knew he shouldn't ask. He couldn't help it. "Wo iz Aura? (Who is Aura?)" The question tumbled from his cracked and bleeding lips.

Everyone froze. Even the grey thing froze. Then its claws seemed to grow longer. It seemed to radiate a dark magic. "Who is Aura?" the words were whispered. Gawal knew this was bad. "Who is Aura?"

He didn't see it move and despite the pain racking his body he felt the prick of claws at his throat. Gawal felt his pulse in his throat. He could feel the way the artery was being pressed down by the claws. He couldn't even swallow for relief.

"It is the will of the Supreme Being that you do not die yet. It is his will that restrains us from showing you the full hospitality of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, but do not presume that the Supreme Being's mercy is infinite."

"Em erry, (I'm sorry,)" he managed to whisper, feeling blood trace its way down his throat. "Em erry. (I'm sorry.)"

The grey being stepped back. It seemed to take a moment to compose itself before its dark eyes glared into his. "Not yet, you aren't. You aren't sorry yet," it hissed.

Gawal shuddered.

It seemed to grin. "But you will be."

The words followed him into darkness.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Catacombs

Midge Hunnisett stabbed her spear at the shadow. It writhed, giving a muffled scream as thick black liquid oozed down the shaft. Before the liquid could reach her hands she turned and a quick burst of fire took care of the ooze. She winced at the long protracted groan it gave before vanishing.

She glared at the caster. It wasn't her fault but she understood the expression. Besides Azra was looking tired as well.

"This isn't what I trained for!" Midge growled. She was trained to collect information, and using a spear felt unwieldy. She was far better with her bow.

Azra just gave her a look. Firing off half formed fireballs wasn't what she'd trained for as well. But firing off half formed fireballs was something even the lowest level magic caster could do. It was a bastardisation of the fire spell, something that just produced fire without direction. You learned it on the way to forming a fireball.

"Yeah, not what you were here for either," Midge answered for Azra who was saving her breath.

They were both members of the Windflower Scripture. With a few notable exceptions, they did not customarily go into combat. Their job was to get information without needing such crudities as knives and swords. When they did it right, those they serviced didn't even know they'd been serviced. That didn't mean they couldn't fight, and couldn't fight well when needed to. They were part of the Slane Theocracy's Scriptures, that meant they were stronger than average humans. They were talented and the Theocracy made it its business to find talented youngsters and train them.

This, killing shadows in the corridors was not what they were meant to be doing.

"Just keep stabbing," Kaan Utkin interrupted, shoving his spear under Azra's nose. It was practically caked with the ooze. She glared but flamed it off.

These were not their usual weapons. They were cheap, disposable spears. The type you gave to… well a good army wouldn't even give them to the new recruits but they were the type demihumans often carried. Cheap but functional. For this type of work, they didn't need to be any better.

"But there is no end to them," Azra gasped. Midge offered her a canteen of water. She took it and sipped before handing it back.

"There is," Kaan said, gesturing behind them.

Behind them was a veritable flood of light. Magical lights. They were set in scones all the way around the door so that anyone passing through would not cast a shadow. And not so incidentally the shadow things they were killing could not get past it either.

Kaan stabbed at another. They ignored its scream. He didn't bother to get Azra to clean his spear yet.

"What I don't get," Midge said, "is why they keep coming?" She stabbed at another shadow.

She felt the looks from her companions.

"No, no," she corrected herself quickly. "I know why they are coming. That undead declared war, and it obviously wants information," she explained. Since the declaration which shook the capital awake, they had been finding more and more creepy crawlies in the Catacombs. At first, they'd shrugged it off, but the Cardinal of Light had realised what they were when he'd seen one destroy itself on one of the magical barriers within the Catacombs.

That barrier was one left by the Six Gods. It was around Surshanna's first follower. It was obvious they couldn't reproduce that. And they couldn't properly put barriers on the entire complex. But they could fill it with light.

The undead hated the light. Lesser undead did. They'd all been briefed on the likely abilities of the Sorcerer King and he had been documented walking in full sun. Apparently the more powerful the undead, the less light aversion they had.

She stabbed at another shadow. This time the scream seemed particularly mournful. These weren't powerful undead. They weren't even sure if they were undead or something else. But they couldn't tolerate light so the Theocracy had filled the tunnels with light. At least at strategic areas.

For those areas that weren't eye wateringly bright, the most powerful knights, those who were likely to be promoted to a scripture, and the scriptures themselves were hunting down these things.

"But why do they keep coming?" Midge asked again. "They are being suicidally stupid!" She added when Kaan stabbed another.

For a moment, neither of her companions replied. "This is why I always feel a bit sorry for demihumans," Azra whispered as if telling them a secret. "They have no choice but to obey their leaders, no matter how dumb the orders are. Humans are different. We can tell if an order is stupid. If it's going to lead to certain death, then we don't do it."

"These things aren't demihuman," Kaan pointed out.

"No, they are probably thralls," Azra said. "Minor undead that are bound to obey their creator, no matter what it orders."

"So we should feel sorry for these things?"

"Not at all," Azra snapped, firing off a burst of flame to clean their spears again. "These things are even less than demihumans."

"But they are still coming," Midge said, gesturing towards the shadows further down the corridor. They were out of reach but still writhing. How many of these things had the undead sent? How many did it have?

"I know," Kaan said. "Isn't it great?" He loved killing these things. Most people looked at Kaan and wondered why he wasn't with the Sunlight or Black Scriptures. He wasn't the usual member of the Windflower Scripture but Kaan had a good gift which made him perfect for their work. He was strong and well muscled and looked like he should have been in one of the dives that were in the Theocracy. Kaan's greatest ability was to keep his mouth shut and his ears open. He infiltrated the poor quarters when they needed that information.

"You'd think the undead would have learned that we aren't going to make it easy," Azra said, though there was a note of contemplation in her voice.

"Hmm?" Midge prompted, as she reached forward, poking one of the shadows that came too close. It almost seemed to yelp and retreated further into the darkness. It would be back.

"This is boring, but it's not that dangerous," she explained. "And we have been doing it since the declaration. The undead isn't going to learn what is here."

"We only need to make one mistake," Kaan reminded her. One mistimed light spell or something else going wrong and the shadow things would swarm inside. They were fairly sure these things couldn't hurt them but they weren't here to attack them. Even though they had killed hundreds, many thousands of the things, not one person had been attacked. The shadow things just wanted to move through the Catacombs.

"Please! I'm not Durk!" Midge growled, swinging her spear almost wildly.

The other two chuckled. Durk had been a little too enthusiastic at their new duties and had accidentally stabbed his companion. It wasn't bad but had required a minor healing spell. They'd kept the light up enough so that the shadow things couldn't get through. Still it had illustrated the potential issues.

They worked in silence, well silence except for the death screams of the shadows, for a while. There were echos coming from the corridors that indicated the other groups were working.

"So, what do you think it will do?" Azra asked, taking another sip of water.

"The undead?" Kaan asked.

"Yeah."

"No idea," he replied. "We know it gathered the Empire's Legions but they are in Arwintar, and this is Kami Miyako. They just can't get here. Even if it was high summer and the roads were good!"

"You know that's just a distraction," Midge told him.

"Yeah, but for what?" Kaan snorted as he stabbed at another shadow thing. "Or is it just its way of showing strength? Or appeasing it's followers?"

The declaration of war had mentioned a name. Aura Bella Fiora. Amongst those who didn't know, speculation was reigning supreme as to who or what that was. They knew. They knew it was the elf they had captured. Kaan though, was of the firm view that the undead didn't really care for the elf, this was just its way of pretending to care to keep the loyalty of its followers. It would mesh with what the undead had been doing in E-Rantel but they all knew it was only a matter of time and opportunity before the undead displayed its true nature.

"It never said it would attack in a week," Midge reminded him. "Maybe it has a really bad grasp of war? It's undead and has been hidden for only the Six God's know how long! I bet it's forgotten that there are seasons."

They chuckled at that but there was some truth in her words. The declaration of war had been examined carefully both by physical and magical means. The words had been considered for every possible nuance of meaning. As the week had gone by, and it was fully up tomorrow, and no motion had been seen on the border or by the Legions at Arwintar, though rumour had it that the Thousand Mile Astrologer couldn't see Arwintar, the realisation had come that the declaration had not specified an attack time.

It wasn't the same as the declarations the Baharuth Empire made to the Re-Estize Kingdom. Those had been almost formulaic. This was more generic. It was meant to create fear, and the priests' sermons had concentrated on reminding the citizens of Kami Miyako that they were in the heart of the Theocracy. They were safe.

The undead possessed some truly terrifying magic. No one was denying that, but it wasn't here to use it. And even if it was, one of the information brokers, from the Baharuth Empire, one who had been pretty reliable in the past, was insisting that the Undead King couldn't cast the spell he had at the Katze Plains again. Not for another ten years. That piece of information wasn't being spread beyond the Scriptures, who were still looking into the truth but Midge thought the truth would be that they just weren't sure. They weren't even sure what the spell had been!

Even Surshanna's first follower hadn't known but had said that such a spell would have many restrictions.

"It will come in the spring," Kaan said with certainty. "We'll see the Legions moving."

"This is just what it wants," Azra muttered. "Humans fighting humans." She held up one hand to forestall Kaan's objections. "The Empire have been idiots for falling into the undead's trap but they are still human. The undead wants us to fight so that it may feast on the death," she reminded him.

"So you want to hand yourself over?" He scoffed at the question.

"Of course not!"

"Then we are just going to have to show the undead, that while we might not have its magic or anything like that, we are living, and human, and that is advantage enough," Kaan replied triumphantly.

He seemed certain.

Midge only wished she shared his conviction. A glance at Arza displayed the same. Still, there was nothing they could do for the moment but prepare, and that meant killing these shadow things, whatever they were.

She sighed, and stabbed her spear at another shadow.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 2 Preparation for War Part 7

-cos-

Great Southern Forest, Elf Kingdom

Sebas sipped at his tea before returning the cup to the table. It was a beautiful cup, serving a quite refreshing tea but it was not what he was here for. Several elves were sitting on the other side of the table. The tea was to be shared to indicate good intentions.

"Lord Sebas," one of the elves began. "We are honoured by your presence," he said but Sebas could see that he was uncomfortable. "Yet there are several anomalies."

"Such as, Lord Tuhinga?" Sebas asked with an inviting nod. Lord Ainz had indicated he was to be understanding with these elves. The Supreme Being wanted to give a good impression.

"You are alone," one of the other elfs spoke. She was female and quite old. Ancient in fact. Her hair was silver with age and incongruously, this almost seemed to give an impression of more colour than the other white blondes that were present. Yet her eyes were still sharp if somewhat pinched. Sebas guessed she was in pain.

He allowed himself to give a slight smile. "I was sent alone, yes," he agreed. "Because of your ongoing war with the Theocracy, it was deemed best that the Sorcerous Kingdom send a small party. We did not wish to be detected," he gave the diplomatic reason, "and we did not wish to strain your resources," he added, giving a more pragmatic reason.

Elven hospitality had been impeccable. The room he had been given was not large but was well appointed and on the whole they had been polite, especially after the scouts had explained that he was not human. It was a good thing Tsuare was not here, but she was still stationed in E-Rantel. Still… it seemed odd that she was not close.

He had hoped to give the reasons softly but several of the elves stiffened. Most would have missed the reaction but he knew.

"I apologise, I have given insult," he said swiftly. "It was not my intention."

"There is no insult, Lord Sebas," the elf woman said. She made a slight movement. Sebas couldn't see it but he heard the soft thump indicating that she had hit something. One of the elves that had stiffened flinched.

There was a definite power play here.

"Lady Ailapha, as the first non-human nation who will soon become our neighbour, my Master deemed it best to send an emissary," Sebas started again. "Candour compels me to admit I was not his first choice."

"So who was?" The elf that had stiffened demanded.

Both Ailapha and Tuhinga glared. There was another hit. This time the elf didn't back down. He hissed something in the elven tongue.

Sebas sat still. Lord Ainz had given him a ring of translation before he left. He knew exactly what the elves were saying.

"/How do we know this is an emissary?/" The elf had hissed. He had been introduced as Lord Karanxohol, who was in charge of the war effort. Lord Karanxohol seemed young, even for a species that aged gracefully. He was also nervous. Sebas didn't know why.

"/Can you not feel his power?/" Ailapha countered. She had the good grace to look slightly apologetic towards Sebas.

"/That woman was powerful as well, and was human!/"

Sebas displayed no reaction. Which woman was this? Given the Elves relationship with Humans, it was almost certain she was part of the Theocracy. He needed more information. Was the woman contemporary? Were they going to face off against her?

"/He is not human!/" Tuhinga said. "/My scouts would not make that mistake./"

"/He's not anything we know. And how do we know he comes from this so called Sorcerous Kingdom? I've never heard of a country called that./"

"Apologies, Lord Sebas," Ailapha said firmly as if the conversation in elven was over. He knew it wasn't. By the glare Karanxohol was giving the elf woman, he didn't think it was over either. And truly the young elf did make some pertinent points.

"My Master's first choice as emissary would have been another elf," Sebas answered the question as if they had not been discussing him. "Unfortunately she was detained by the Slane Theocracy," he said sadly.

"My condolences for your loss," Tuhinga sounded genuinely saddened.

Sebas shook his head. "My Master is not one to let his servants be taken. Lady Aura was rescued," he informed them, not bothering to suppress the cold note of anger that laced his tone.

The elves jerked back.

"/Okay, he's not human,/" Karanxohol relented on that point.

Sebas got the impression that the elf wanted to swallow hard but was suppressing that reaction.

"Your Master is the Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown. Is this the same Ainz Ooal Gown who was present at the battle of Katze Plains?"

"He is," Sebas agreed. He had already confirmed this for the Scouts. "My Master, His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown desires to create a kingdom where all species may live in peace. Within the Baharuth Empire for example the keeping of slaves has been outlawed and all elf slaves have been freed by his order."

Lady Ailapha nodded. There had been several elves who had returned to the kingdom bearing wild stories of a powerful undead who had subjugated the human forces. And now the undead had turned its eyes towards them.

"In capturing the Lady Aura, and in retribution for her torment, the Slane Theocracy has caused the Sorcerous Kingdom to declare war upon them."

"Was it really so terrible? As you say, many elves were slaves within the Empire until your Master took over."

Sebas felt his eyes harden at the question. "Lady Aura is only seventy eight," he said. He didn't want to spread around what had happened to her but it appeared he had no choice.

Lady Ailapha's eyes took on a hard gleam, similar to his own. Even without being told she understood. "Enough," she said. "Your master is compassionate," she declared.

Sebas nodded at her words. "My Master does not abandon his followers," he said softly, recalling what he had told his Lord when they had first arrived in this world.

"Lord Sebas," Ailapha said, "I will be blunt. Are you to be an emissary, or are you the offer of something more?"

"/What?/" Karanxohol demanded at her question. This time, Sebas thought Tuhinga might agree with the other elf man.

"/It costs us nothing to find out his stated purpose,/" Ailapha countered. Tuhinga accepted that. Karanxohol looked like he wanted to fight further but knew it wasn't the place.

"Something more," Sebas replied. In due course the Elf Kingdom would fall under the control of Nazarick but that did not necessarily mean war. He raised one hand. "For the moment, my Master wishes for nothing more than cordial relations. He hopes that the Sorcerous Kingdom and the Elf Kingdom can develop a deep friendship over time."

"/Friendship before the undead stabs us in the back,/" Karanxohol muttered.

Sebas couldn't let that pass. He glared. The young elf seemed surprised after his previous obliviousness on the earlier conversations in elven.

"Please forgive our muttering," Ailapha said, giving another shove towards Karanxohol. This time the elf actually looked slightly contrite.

Sebas lifted his hands, and pulled on his lapels before he shifted his gaze to Ailapha. "I suggest you watch the events in the Slane Theocracy closely, to understand what happens to those who offer insult to my Master."

Ailapha paled slightly understanding that with his words he had understood their muttering and not knowing if they had just closed negotiations before they could even start. Sebas could see when she decided to plow onwards anyway. She did want what was best for her people but he was well aware that she was not their King.

"I'm sure they will be educational," she agreed, "and I am equally sure, that in time, we will look upon this day as the beginning of a strong friendship."

Sebas smiled again. It was colder this time. "That is our hope," he confirmed.

"I will pass your request for an audience to our King," Ailapha indicated.

"I would be honoured," Sebas replied.

For her sake, he hoped the Elven King was more sensible. It would be nice if Aura and Mare could make some new elf friends.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace

Ainz looked at the table. Around him the Generals were discussing with Demiurge the best point of attack. At the moment it was just white noise to him. Usually he'd be more attentive but his attention was on the reports that had come in just before dawn.

"With respect, Lord Demiurge," Field Marshal Taalay was saying, "Grancia is a far better target."

Ainz stopped listening. The spies in Kami Miyako had found a wealth of information. Including it. The [Downfall of Castle and Country.] The world item was in a secure area, one they had had trouble finding and accessing. One the Theocracy had hidden.

The spies who had found it were on their way out of the city now. Their preliminary reports had been given but it was now more important that they report in person. The extra details they could add to the growing map of the Theocracy's Catacombs was invaluable. As soon as they reached a safe distance, Shalltear would open a [Gate] for them…

Shalltear… Ainz froze, though with his current inattention that lack of continued motion was not noticed. He had to tell Shalltear. The Vampire was already upset at Aura's attack. This was not going to help. It hadn't helped him. His limiter had already kicked in to subdue his emotions. He was getting better at avoiding it but… the thought of what had happened to Aura still made his non-existent blood boil. This had not helped the simmer he had managed to maintain.

Forcibly Ainz brought his mind to the meeting taking place in front of him. On the table there was a map. Little statues representing the Legions had been placed on it. Demiurge and the Generals kept moving them between the border towns of the Theocracy, arguing over which would be the best to conquer.

He rose. Silence fell.

"You will be taking Synoro," he told them.

General Natal simply nodded. Field Marshal Taalay looked horrified. "With the greatest of respect, Your Majesty, I feel we can take Gracia at a fraction of the cost and it is a similar sized town."

His gaze shifted. The Field Marshal trembled under the force of his vision. "You will be taking Synoro," he repeated.

"Your Majesty," Taalay said firmly. "If you wish the Legions to take Synoro, we will," he continued. "But I anticipate our forces will be weakened for a significant time after. We may not be able to continue the campaign."

For a moment Ainz didn't know why the man was continuing to object. The Field Marshal was brave to question him but there was a limit and he could see that Demiurge was fast approaching it. Then things fell into place in his mind. Taalay didn't want to sacrifice the Legions but at least was tactful enough to phrase it in such a way that made it seem as if he was eager to serve, even when he was lying.

Ainz kept his gaze on the Field Marshal for a few more moments. The man trembled but held firm. Jircniv had chosen well. The disobedience would have normally stoked his already flaring anger but this pleased him. Somewhat. He did not need stupid people serving him. "Very well, I will send a squad of Death Cavaliers and Death Knights to clear out the defence," he informed the Generals. "I trust you will then be able to hold the city."

General Natal paled and looked sick. Taalay nodded but swallowed hard as he made the gesture. He recognised an insult when he heard it but was thankful he was still breathing. "That will help, Your Majesty," he confirmed.

"Good. Demiurge, oversee the plans. I must speak with Shalltear," Ainz said, raising one hand to create a portal before he stepped through it. CZ2128 Delta followed on his heels before it closed.

The room remained silent.

Demiurge stepped into the void left by his Master. "Synoro," he said with a smile, moving the tokens representing the Legions on the map.

"Double walled, with a good garrison," General Simaa indicated. "While they aren't that close to the Katze Plains it isn't unheard of for the odd undead to show up in their proximity. Plus with our recent activities towards the Re-Estize Kingdom, the Theocracy has kept up the defences." She said the last with a straight face, referring to the yearly wars the Baharuth Empire had engaged in. There would be no further wars.

"With the assistance of His Majesty's troops, I'm thinking a frontal assault is far more feasible," she summarised, looking towards Demiurge.

Natel muttered something but it was too soft to hear. Demiurge smiled. Too soft for human hearing was not too soft for him. They would be the clean up crew, and they would obey. That's all that really mattered.

-cos-

Great Tomb of Nazarick

Once through the portal Ainz paused. He had to tell Shalltear but what exactly was he going to tell her? The Vampire was going to be rightfully angry and he didn't need her going off on her own. He didn't think she would but… It was best to be sure.

"CZ2128, please have Shalltear meet me at the base of the Gigantic Tree in about an hour," he instructed.

The automaton nodded and hurried off. Within Nazarick, Ainz had some relative freedom and not being watched every hour was one of the ones he enjoyed the most. He teleported to the eighth floor, outside Aureole Omega's area. When not using the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown, she was its keeper. It was best to have it safely away before anything else.

Once the staff was deposited, Ainz made his way to his office. [Master,] the word was spoken deferentially via a Message Spell. He raised one hand to where his ear would be as he answered.

[Yes?]

[We are at the transportation site,] came the clipped response. No one was wasting any words.

[A moment,] Ainz replied as he concentrated. Being the Master of The Great Tomb of Nazarick and possessing the Ring of Ainz Ooal Gown meant he could open a portal directly into his office. It was a weakness in the Guild base system and… well any guild could be taken down by a traitor.

The spies that had been in the Slane Theocracy stepped through and the portal shut. They immediately knelt in his presence.

"Rise," Ainz instructed. He had offered Demiurge several Hanzo's and a whole brace of Wraiths. While he had created so many undead since coming to this world that he couldn't properly feel them, he had felt that most of the Wraiths created for this venture had been destroyed. Still, they had fulfilled their purpose.

The miscellaneous group of creatures rose. It felt odd to be in his office with them alone. They were loyal but he did not have one of his more powerful servants here. Ainz resolved not to tell them of this event. Even within Nazarick they'd probably make a roster so that he was never alone again. That would drive him mad.

"Report," he instructed.

One of the Hanzo's stepped forward. "We have mapped the majority of the underground complex," it reported. "There are a few tunnels remaining, but they are leading away from the city and we presume they are emergency exits."

Ainz nodded. That was reasonable but Punitto Moe would not accept that lack of information.

"There are several wraiths still tracking those corridors," the Hanzo seemed to sense that he would want to know everything before the attack.

"The complexes are concentrated under each Cathedral and most have several entries in the basement of their Cathedral. There are connecting corridors, which are mined to collapse from either end."

That was sensible. Whoever had designed this complex had at least thought about security.

"Where is the Treasury?" Ainz asked.

"It is separate," the Hanzo said. "It is near the centre of the city and is accessed by one tunnel. However the entrance to that tunnel is accessible from all six Cathedrals." The summoned creature paused. "If I might sketch?" it asked respectfully, gesturing towards the paper that was still on his desk. It was left over from printing the images taken from Aura's mind.

Ainz pushed it towards the summon along with a pen. He watched as the Hanzo drew with swift sure lines the basic outlay of the Treasury. The Cathedrals were marked with rectangles and from each of them a line was drawn. They intersected at one point and another line was drawn to a new square. The Treasury.

"What is there?"

"I am sorry Summoner, I did not recognise everything present. The item you instructed us to look for was there but there were others which from their display seem to hold equal importance."

Ainz stiffened. Did that mean the Slane Theocracy had multiple world items? They couldn't have! No. He forced that thought away. They could have. It was just more convenient for him if they did not. Still, he wished he could remember which of the Guilds had possession of [Downfall of Castle and Country]. Ainz Ooal Gown had kept track of it, but as the members had retired, they had gathered less and less intelligence. And after the failed raid on the Great Tomb of Nazarick, most players had concluded the only way to break into the Tomb would be to use a world item on a member of the Guild.

There had been some attempts but they were by morons. Those new to Yggdrasil, seeking to make a name for themselves. They'd been dealt with swiftly.

He was regretting now that the guild had voted down Punitto Moe's proposal to capture the [Downfall of Castle and Country]. At the time it hadn't seemed important… now…

There was no time for regrets. He pushed it away. He knew where it was now.

"You can describe the other items in depth later," Ainz indicated. He would identify them then. "Did you find the administrative offices?"

"Yes, Summoner," the Hanzo nodded. "Each Cardinal has an office attached to their Cathedral," it said.

"Did you see any old documents or manuscripts there? Or in the Treasury?" The Slane Theocracy had a connection with Yggdrasil. They had a connection with Nazarick. He had to figure out what.

A different Hanzo stepped forward. "Yes Summoner. They all had old documents."

Ainz frowned. He didn't have time to go through reams and reams of documents. "I want things that are truly old," he said, "and written in a language similar to this-" He pulled the paper back, and scribbled a few quick kanji before holding it up.

"I think I saw some," the Hanzo said.

He waved his hand. "They will be the focus," Ainz said. He hadn't told the Hanzo's exactly what he was looking for so he couldn't be disappointed if they hadn't focused on them. "Was there anything else?"

The Hanzos seemed uncomfortable. "There was one area we could not access."

"Too many guards?"

"No, Summoner. There was a barrier. It was strong, we estimate about level sixty."

Ainz frowned slightly. Hanzos were above level eighty but they could have problems with lower level barriers.

"We deemed it best to scout the area but not break the barrier."

That was sensible. "Document the area. We will have to determine what is there before we break the barrier." Or they could ask the Cardinals. They would be eager to answer questions soon enough. He would also have to make tracking spells for the Treasury items. He should have already given the Hanzo's the spells so they could slap them on the treasures but that was something forgotten for now. There were so many details to remember. "That's enough for now," he added, looking at the time. "Please make a catalogue of the items in the Treasury," he instructed. "I have to know what we are dealing with."

The Hanzo's nodded and followed him from his office. They bowed and disappeared once in the corridor, as did the wraiths - though they couldn't bow.

Ainz sighed. There was always more work to do, he thought as he teleported to the base of the Gigantic Tree.

"Shalltear," he greeting the vampire who was waiting for him. "Have you been here long?"

"No, Master."

Ainz suspected that was a lie. The vampire had probably been waiting here since the moment CZ2128 had delivered his message. He chose to ignore it.

"I thank you for letting me visit Aura," she continued.

"You are her friend," Ainz replied, "but you must remember, she is still very weak. Her body has recovered but her mind-" he didn't finish.

He could see the way Shalltear's eyes flashed. There was almost a moment of double vision when the vampire appeared in her true form. Just a moment before she flexed her fingers, her nails growing longer. "They are going to wish-" she hissed.

"They are going to be wishing for many things," Ainz agreed darkly. "Now, let us go see Aura," he added, deliberately sounding more hopeful as he lead the way onto the stairs circling the tree.

-cos-

Sixth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Gigantic Tree, Aura's Residence

"Aura," Mare said brightly. "Look who has come to visit," he added, almost as if he was speaking to a child.

The dark elf didn't even look over. She remained lying in Fenrir's embrace as Shalltear entered. She had a smile on her face. It looked out of place but she was determined to be happy for Aura. The smile faltered immediately.

"By Lord Peroroncino," the vampire whispered.

Mare looked over sadly before moving to pat Shalltear's hand lightly. "I'll give you some time," he said solemnly. "She does want you here but she is still hurting," he explained.

Shalltear's already white face seemed to pale further. "I won't…" she stumbled over the words, her eyes still looking at Aura. "I won't hurt her," she promised.

"I know," Mare agreed before slipping out. Lord Ainz was waiting and would want an update.

Shalltear didn't know what to do. The elf before her was Aura, but at the same time, it wasn't Aura. Her friend was not this timid thing that just sat motionless with her wolf. This wasn't right. Her unbeating heart clenched and it was all Shalltear could do to keep from clutching at her chest. Her friend was meant to be motion and light and… Not this. Anything but this.

She teased Aura and Aura teased her back but that was just the way it was. There wasn't any malice in those words.

"Aura," Shalltear said. "It's me, Shalltear." It felt odd to say that but she didn't know what else to say.

The dark elf said nothing. She kept looking off into the distance.

"Aura," Shalltear tried again. She had thought nothing could hurt worse than the knowledge that she had betrayed her Master… this was a similar feeling. Shalltear moved to sit on the edge of the bed. "Aura. I won't come any closer but could you please say something?" She almost begged.

"I know you are there," the Dark Elf said finally. Shalltear only heard because she had enhanced hearing. "I'm not blind."

The vampire jerked back slightly at the venom in Aura's voice. "I'm sorry," Shalltear said softly.

Aura turned to her. The elf's heterochromatic eyes were burning. "You're sorry. Mare's sorry. Albedo's sorry. Neuronist Painkill is sorry. The women outside are sorry. Everyone is sorry! I don't need sorry!" She cried.

Shalltear didn't know what to do. The cry was more animated, more like Aura was meant to be but the words were wrong. They weren't something Aura should be saying.

"Then what do you want?" Shalltear asked and knew immediately it was the wrong thing to say, but deep down, she had the feeling that anything would have been the wrong thing to say.

"I just want to be left alone. You are here. My brother is here. Those elf women are here, even our Master is here but I just want you all to go! I want to be alone!"

Shalltear gasped. She couldn't believe that. Aura couldn't want their Master to go. The Dark Elf couldn't know what she was saying. "Aura," Shalltear whispered carefully. "You don't mean that."

"I do mean that! I want you to all go away!" Aura shouted. "Why is it so hard to understand that I just want to be alone!"

"And what about what I want?" Shalltear countered. This was not Aura. Aura didn't mean it, she told herself. "Did you ever think that maybe I want to be here, that maybe I want to help you?"

"I don't want you to!" Aura screamed. Fenrir jumped and growled.

Shalltear's red eyes widened at the wolf. It couldn't take her on. It knew that but it was still growling at her.

"Just go away," Aura pleaded, her voice barely a murmur. "Just go away," she added.

The vampire steeled herself. She'd been warned what Aura might be like. Seeing it was so much worse. "I'll come back," she said. "And I will make sure there is blood," she added, turning away and walking back towards the door. "And they won't ever hurt you again," Shalltear growled, feeling her form shift slightly.

"I just want to be alone," Aura breathed turning back to Fenrir as the wolf settled again.

-cos-

Sixth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Gigantic Tree

Shalltear took several deep breaths as the door closed behind her. She didn't need to breathe but she needed the motion to calm down. She felt her form shift back to its human one. Her teeth receded and her nails shrunk.

"I'm sorry," Mare said from beside her. The young dark elf looked haunted.

Shalltear wanted to say it wasn't his fault. It wasn't her fault either. It wasn't Aura's fault… Then who's fault was it? The men. The one's Rubedo had captured, they were at fault but she knew they hadn't ordered the attack.

She smiled at him. "If you need anything," she said suggestively, not sexually but with the suggestion of pain. "Anything at all or if Aura does-" She didn't need to finish.

Mare nodded. "Thank you," he whispered. "It's just going to take time," he told her.

The vampire thought he was trying to convince himself of that. If he said it enough he'd believe it, and then maybe Aura would believe it. If that worked, well she'd believe it as well.

Shalltear looked over towards their Master. He was speaking softly with the elves who had been captured with that Worker team. One of them appeared to be explaining things to him but by the dark energy Shalltear could feel coming off him, he wasn't pleased. Equally though, she knew it wasn't the elf causing that effect, or she would already be offering to drain every last drop of blood from the woman. No it was something else, and Shalltear thought it might be the condition of the Dark Elf in the room.

Lord Ainz would be kept informed of every change.

"I am sorry, Shalltear, apparently it is a bad day for her," Lord Ainz said after he waved one hand at the elf woman in dismissal.

Shalltear felt her red eyes widen. "No, My Lord!" She gasped instinctively. The Supreme Being should never apologise. She couldn't say it wasn't his fault. It wasn't but to even say it would be to suggest that she had entertained the thought that it might be.

"Aura will recover," he said gently. Unlike Mare, it did not sound like Lord Ainz was attempting to convince himself. He knew what he said was true. "But it will take time, and it is not going to be easy," he added. "For any of us."

Mare nodded. Shalltear felt sorry for him, having to see his sister go through this. It wasn't fair. It wasn't right! There had to be something they could do?

"And I am sorry, Shalltear," Lord Ainz continued. She shook her head instinctively. Why did he keep apologising. "You are going to have to share your vengeance with Aura."

Shalltear blinked. Lord Ainz had said that earlier. No… that wasn't right, he said that there might be the possibility that she would have to share. This was confirmation.

"My Lord?" she gasped.

"The Hanzos have found the [Downfall of Castle and Country]," he explained.

For one long moment all Shalltear saw was red. The Slane Theocracy had caused her to betray her Master, had caused her to attack him! There was nothing they could do to apologise for that. They would all burn and she would bathe in their blood…

Then she recovered. The Slane Theocracy had hurt Aura. They had caused her vibrant friend to be nothing more than a husk. They had caused her Master further pain because she knew that Lord Ainz was hurting seeing Aura like this. She was hurting. All of Nazarick was hurting.

This was no longer about her.

"Those responsible will be delivered to you," Lord Ainz promised her again.

Shalltear shook her head. "No, my Lord. I mean, yes My Lord. I still want them. They will be begging me to die, just as they will be begging Aura to die," she added.

The Supreme Being seemed slightly relieved at her words. "I will make sure you have sufficient time," he told her.

She gasped at his words. The Supreme Being was too generous. That meant he'd put off his plans to accommodate her desires. "My Lord, you do not have to-" Shalltear stopped when one bony had was raised.

"I want to," Lord Ainz said firmly. She felt his contained rage in those words.

Shalltear nodded. She would not question him. It was his choice and as the Absolute Ruler of Nazarick any choice he made was correct. "I will gladly share them with Aura," she confirmed again for him.

"But My Lord, this is causing us all pain," Shalltear gestured towards the door to Aura's room.

"It is," Lord Ainz agreed.

"My Lord, I will gladly share those responsible with Aura, and I would even share some of those who bear a lesser responsibility with all of Nazarick, except their fragile forms would not survive that," Shalltear said.

She watched as her Master seemed to tilt his head questioningly. He was wondering where she was going with her statement. Mare was as well but the elf was more constrained.

"I will gladly hurt those who have caused me to betray you, who caused you pain. I will gladly hurt those who have done this to Aura but… they will not know our pain. They will not know our anguish and that is not right."

"That is true," Lord Ainz allowed. "They cannot know our pain."

"But they should!" Shalltear cried. "They should," she repeated slightly more restrained. "I want them to know our pain. I want them to cry, to feel the anguish I feel now. I don't just want to hurt them," she hissed. "I want them to suffer."

Her Master was silent for a few moments. "I will not ask anyone from Nazarick to-"

"No!" Shalltear held up one white hand. She'd learned a lot about her Master during the trip through the Dwarf Caves. He really was as magnanimous as he appeared, and he was always willing to listen to them. He was truly worthy of the title of Supreme Being. "I would not ask anyone to sully themselves in that way," she agreed with him, though many in Nazarick would be more than willing to do it anyway. They would not consider it sullying.

"What I suggest is more simple. So that they might know our pain, we should gather those they care for. They can then watch and be as helpless as we are."

"I will not ask anyone from Nazarick to rape another," Lord Ainz said it firmly. The Absolute Ruler of Nazarick had a very direct sense of justice. Those these thugs cared for had not done anything wrong but be related. He would not wish to cause those unrelated undue pain. He was merciful that way. A true Supreme Being.

"My Lord," Shalltear shook her head. "It does not have to be that," she told him. "There are many forms of anguish. In fact," she gave him a vicious smile, "once the idiots know we have those they care for, even if we do nothing, they will think we are. That will be enough in many cases."

Lord Ainz was quiet for a few moments, obviously thinking. "It will be done," he decided finally, just as Shalltear was beginning to get worried. "And Shalltear, you will be in charge of that operation."

She felt her red eyes open. She could feel Mare staring at her as well. This was not her usual style of mission.

"You have learned a lot," he said, and Shalltear could hear the smile in her Lord's voice. "Before you make any move, I wish to know how many there will be, but you will extend an invitation to them to come to Nazarick," Lord Ainz added.

Shalltear knelt. She couldn't do anything but kneel before the faith her Lord displayed in her abilities.

"They will be unharmed," she promised.

"Please rise. I will give you several Hanzos, and more wraiths so that you may determine your targets. You will have to move fast, Shalltear, and it will be a strain as I will be relying on you to aide in shifting the Legions, but I think you can do it."

"I will not fail you!" Shalltear pledged, her voice sounding on the verge of tears.

"I know you won't."

Those were the greatest words she had ever heard, and in the silence of her unbeating heart, Shalltear Bloodfallen once again proclaimed her undying and eternal loyalty to the Supreme Being, Ainz Ooal Gown.

She would not fail.

-cos-

End Chapter 2, Preparation Of War

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Intermission, Consequence of War

-cos-

Dragon Kingdom, Throne Room

Draudillon Oriculus looked at the emissary. The man was well dressed and came with all the papers proclaiming him to be from the Sorcerous Kingdom. She supposed that made sense. The Baharuth Empire, which like the Slane Theocracy sent the Dragon Kingdom aid in their battle against the Beastman Country, was now a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom. They would want to know the true state of affairs.

Though with the announcement just made by the emissary, that state of affairs was grim. Her eyes went wide and she swallowed hard. She almost lost control of her form. Vittorino, one of her advisors spoke for her. All she thought was that this couldn't be happening.

"What is the meaning of this?" Vittorino asked.

"The meaning is quite clear, Honoured Advisor," the emissary said. He seemed slightly smug but she couldn't say anything about that. He was sharply dressed in a red pinstripe suit and had a pair of round glasses on his nose. His face was very angular and he had several silver rings and bands on his left ear. His hands were gloved. The attire made it very clear he was not from the Empire. She didn't know what the traditional garb of the Sorcerous Kingdom was but it was not the same as the Baharuth Empire. The emissary was perfectly polite but Draudillon thought he knew more than he was willing to say.

There was nothing but genuine regret on the emissary's face.

Draudillon swallowed hard, her mind was already trying to determine the consequences. It meant she was going to have to speak to Cerabrate and hire him and the rest of Crystal Tear. And if the Adventurer knew that the Baharuth Empire was not sending aide, his price would be astronomical, regardless of his foul desire for the prepubescent form she used when speaking to that disgusting Lolicon.

But it also meant hundreds, maybe thousands more would die this winter. Unless the Slane Theocracy could be persuaded to be generous with their forces. That would wipe out what little remained in the treasury.

"Might one ask why?" Vittorino inquired.

The emissary nodded. "As you may be aware, the Baharuth Empire has recently become a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom."

She nodded briefly at that. The news had been almost as surprising as today's announcement. She had no idea how it had happened, and hadn't thought that Emperor Jircniv would bow to anyone. Draudillon needed more information, but for the most part, all intelligence gathering activities in the Dragon Kingdom focused on trying to find any advantage over the Beastmen. What they had discovered recently was that there appeared to be fewer Beastmen than normal but no one knew why.

There were rumours that the Beastmen had assaulted the Holy Kingdom and had been killed but she couldn't rely on that.

"His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown requires the use of the Legions," the emissary said.

"All of them?" Draudillon asked. Usually Emperor Jircniv would only send one Legion. The fighting force was enough to drive away the Beastmen. They were that skilled. She had never heard the name of the ruler of the Sorcerous Kingdom but surmised it had to be this Ainz Ooal Gown. It was odd that he named himself a King with dominion over an Emperor.

"For the insult offered to the Sorcerous Kingdom by the Slane Theocracy, war has been declared. All the Legions will be engaged."

Draudillon felt her eyes widen. Vittorino coughed to cover his surprise. The Empire was fighting the Theocracy? How? Why? Those two were not on the best of terms but the Theocracy at least engaged in extensive diplomacy when it came to Human Nations. They did not fight them. What had happened for the Empire to now be fighting the Theocracy?

She took a deep breath. "I'm afraid you have me at a loss," she said diplomatically. "This one has not heard of these events."

The emissary nodded. "It has happened quite recently," the man admitted. "One of His Majesty's servants, Lady Aura Bella Fiora, after having delivered a message to Emperor Jircniv, was attacked without warning or reason by the Slane Theocracy. Her dragon was killed, and she was captured."

"Her what?" Vittorino couldn't help but gasp the question.

"Her dragon," the emissary repeated. "Lady Aura was traversing the distance between Arwintar and E-Rantel by dragon flight." The emissary didn't seem to think anything was wrong with his statement.

Except no one tamed a dragon… and to use one for transport was unheard of! It was barely possible that a dragon might consent to carry a passenger but it would have to be very familiar with the being. It was not something that happened every day… and then there was the fact that the emissary was implying that whoever this Lady Aura was, she owned the dragon. That was even more impossible.

But wait… Wasn't E-Rantel part of the Re-Estize Kingdom? This didn't make sense… Had the Re-Estize Kingdom changed their name… and their capital, and their King? No, that wasn't possible. What was happening out there?

"It would be a very rare dragon that consents to carry a passenger," Draudillon murmured.

"The dragon was one of Lady Aura's Brother's familiars," the emissary explained.

"One of?"

"Yes," the emissary nodded but did not elaborate further. "Lady Aura was then subdued, and taken to Kami Miyako where she was assaulted before being rescued. As this was an unprovoked attack on His Majesty's servant, he has declared war. As a vassal state, the Empire's Legions have been gathered for that purpose."

Draudillon nodded. She couldn't do anything but nod even if nothing was making sense. If the Empire and the Theocracy were fighting then neither of them would be willing to aid them… That would mean… She didn't want to think what that would mean. It made her sick. There would be so many lost and she couldn't raise the magic required to protect them. The Beastmen would destroy her kingdom but using her magic would also do that. Wild Magic required sacrifice but if the outcome was the same, she couldn't condone using it.

The emissary bowed to her and made to leave.

"Wait," Draudillon called. "Would the Sorcerous Kingdom accept a petition from the Dragon Kingdom?" She asked.

The emissary looked thoughtful for a few moments. He was completely polite. "I am authorised to speak in a limited manner on His Majesty's behalf," the man said.

That made sense. Draudillon understood that anything the emissary agreed to would have to be authorised by his Master. Emissaries were given limited power. She hoped what she was about to ask was within this one's power. She took a deep breath to steady herself, gesturing to Vittorino to remain silent.

"As you may be aware," she said with a soft smile. "Each year, the Dragon Kingdom is assaulted by the Beastman Kingdom. They are demihumans who view the citizens of my country as nothing more than food."

The emissary nodded to indicate he was still listening.

"We fight them but we no longer have the strength to drive them back. Thus, my Kingdom is forced to use other alternatives."

The emissary's eyes seemed to narrow. "Could Your Majesty not use wild magic?" he asked.

Draudillon didn't gasp. The fact that she could use wild magic was not a state secret but it was interesting that the emissary of the Sorcerous Kingdom knew of that. He had done his research.

"It is not that simple," she temporised, again motioning to Vittorino to remain silent. "Previously I have paid for-" Draudillon hesitated. If the Sorcerous Kingdom was at war with the Slane Theocracy, they probably didn't want to hear about them but the Baharuth Empire knew what she had been doing. It was not a secret. "I have paid for forces from the Slane Theocracy to assist us, and have petitioned Emperor Jircniv for assistance from the Legions. Their assistance is why our Kingdom still exists as a buffer between the Beastman Kingdom and the Human nations."

She took a deep breath. The emissary looked to be human but suddenly she wasn't sure if he was. He was slightly too thin.

His expression told her he was thinking of a map. She thought of one as well. If the Sorcerous Kingdom possessed E-Rantel, then the Draconic Kingdom was also buffering them. The Katze Plains were in between. The emissary seemed to realise that as well.

"I would therefore like to petition the Sorcerous Kingdom for aid in keeping the Beastman Kingdom from overwhelming my forces." While she was looking down to the emissary she attempted to ensure her expression was not superior, but still maintained an appropriate amount of dignity.

Vittorino seemed shocked. This was the only option which made sense. If the beastmen overran them, they would all be nothing more than food. If she used wild magic, the required sacrifice would mean her kingdom was dead. This was the only way to remain living.

The emissary took a deep breath. He exhaled audibly before taking another breath as he thought. "With respect, Your Majesty, I do not believe the Sorcerous Kingdom will be able to spare any military personnel for the next few months," he said.

She felt cold.

"However," the emissary held up one gloved hand, "might I be so bold as to offer an alternative?"

She nodded. At the moment any alternative would be good. "While the Sorcerous Kingdom cannot offer military aid, I am prepared to illustrate to the Dragon Kingdom the protection the Sorcerous Kingdom offers all its states and citizens."

"I do not quite understand your alternative," she said diplomatically. What did demonstration of protection truly mean?

The emissary seemed to sense her confusion. "For one season, in sympathy for your plight which has been further aggravated by the Slane Theocracy's thoughtless actions, the Sorcerous Kingdom will ensure that the Beastmen do not attack the Dragon Kingdom." It took Draudillon a moment to comprehend what the emissary was saying. Vittorino understood as well. The man trembled as he tried to hold back his splutters.

"But you said there would be no military aid?" Draudillon murmured her question.

The emissary smiled at her. It was indescribably smug but completely polite. It felt like he was mocking her. "The Sorcerous Kingdom will ensure that the Beastmen do not attack the Dragon Kingdom," he repeated. "If the Dragon Kingdom accepts this service, and the beastmen do not attack, at the end of winter, the Dragon Kingdom may petition for the protection to be permanent."

That she did understand and if this Sorcerous Kingdom had existed for long, she would have suspected it was blackmail, that they were behind the Beastmen. As it was, the emissary seemed completely genuine. Vittorino was stunned into silence. Draudilllon wasn't sure what she could say, except she knew she had to speak.

It was a terrible choice. It would be the end of her Kingdom because she knew what the emissary meant by petition. The Dragon Kingdom would become a vassal state. The once proud line would bow to another, someone she knew nothing about. Who was this Ainz Ooal Gown?

But… the emissary had to know that making such a statement was dangerous for him as well. If the Beastmen attacked, then the word of the Sorcerous Kingdom meant nothing. Her thoughts were racing but were not coherent. They would not form a single line. Could the Sorcerous Kingdom hold back the Beastmen… but how? If not militarily?

She needed time but she did not have time! The emissary had indicated he was here as a courtesy but not permanently assigned as an Ambassador. She was forced to wonder how much power this Ainz Ooal Gown gave his emissaries, if it could make a suggestion like this. Yet, Draudillon calmed her racing heart, the emissary hadn't demanded anything, he'd merely hinted and if the Beastmen did attack…

Draudillon nodded, sharing a glance with Vittorino. He was still angry but he was prideful. For the sake of her people, she could not be prideful. That's why she took on that hated loli form to deal with Cerabrate. For her people, she could have no pride. The Sorcerous Kingdom had done nothing yet, they might do nothing. These could simply be the words of an emissary stretching too far.

But if they could, somehow hold off the Beastmen, then… She took a deep breath. The Baharuth Empire was now a vassal state. She had no idea how that had happened but she knew, for all his arrogance, Jircniv would not have bowed to an inferior ruler, nor would he abandon his people.

"How?" Draudillon demanded. There was no need to clarify. How was this Sorcerous Kingdom going to hold off the Beastmen? If they were not going to use military force then how was it even possible?

The emissary's smile changed. He had been smiling almost the entire time he had been standing there. It had been polite but did display his mastery of the situation. It remained polite now but he seemed to display a slight sense of insult. She understood. It was not diplomatic to question his words, even if she was the Queen and he was an emissary but she had to know.

"The Sorcerous Kingdom has a number of effective strategies," the emissary said. "I offer this service, for the season of winter, as a favour, to display that the Sorcerous Kingdom sympathises with your plight that has been worsened by the Slane Theocracy's thoughtless actions. And, as a gift from one Magic Caster to another."

It still didn't tell her how.

"His Majesty is a Magic Caster?" Vittorino asked on her behalf.

The emissary nodded. "Of the highest order. I believe it would distress my Master to see another Magic Caster in such peril due to the thoughtless actions of his enemies."

Draudillon forced herself to acknowledge that statement as a new thought occurred to her. This magic caster probably wanted to know about wild magic. They all did. It was not something she could easily explain. It just was. But she ignored that. Those were thoughts she had experienced many times. She had to be more pragmatic. The situation was dire but if this emissary could do something to hold back the Beastmen then their circumstances would be different.

And if he couldn't… the situation was the same as it was now. There was no help coming from the Slane Theocracy or the Baharuth Empire. This was a possibility but it was one that came with a steep price. Yet it was a price that didn't have to be paid unless it was delivered. In the past, there had been advisors who had suggested she petition the Theocracy or the Empire for permanent protection by becoming a vassal of them. This was no different, except the Sorcerous Kingdom had broached the possibility. If they could keep the beastmen off, it might be what was best for her people.

Nothing was yet set in stone. "I am interested in seeing what this protection the Sorcerous Kingdom offers all its citizens is," she told the emissary. "Without the ability to hold off the Beastmen, it is only a matter of time before they ravage the Sorcerous Kingdom," she added. Let the emissary think on that. It was in its interests to save her country. That's the main reason the Slane Theocracy and the Baharuth Empire bothered. It was political, all to keep the buffer.

Vittorino looked horrified. His pride was blinding him to the requirements of the Dragon Kingdom's people. She didn't have that luxury.

The emissary nodded to her. "Then it will be my pleasure for the season of winter, to see that the Sorcerous Kingdom's protection is extended to the Dragon Kingdom," he said.

And she would still have to gather military forces in the event the emissary was overreaching his ability. But she was going to have to do that anyway.

The emissary's smile changed again. It was pleased this time. Still smug but definitely pleased and hinting that he was anticipating something. "I look forward to returning in the Spring to discuss your petition," he pronounced.

"I look forward to meeting such a generous fellow Magic Caster," she replied, realising it was true. She wanted to know more about this Ainz Ooal Gown. "I hope that this is the foundation of a beneficial friendship between the Dragon Kingdom and yours."

"I'm sure, that is my Master's hope as well," the emissary agreed with her, as he used two gloved fingers to push his glasses back into position. "And I'm sure, it will be."

-cos-

A Day Later

Demiurge looked at the Beastman. It was supposedly their King. It was a nothing. He allowed his tail to lash behind him. The Beastmen had been clear that the only reason they hadn't eaten him was that he wasn't human. As if they had the strength for that!

He had not intended to make the offer to the Dragon Queen but it made sense. It wasn't in the plan, but as he had learned from the Supreme Being, plans had to be amended. The Queen of the Dragon Kingdom was a very interesting being. Originally he had planned for the Beastmen to overwhelm the Kingdom. With the Re-Estize Kingdom, the Baharuth Empire, the Holy Kingdom and now the Slane Theocracy falling to the Sorcerous Kingdom, that was enough humans. The fact that the Re-Estize Kingdom and Slane Theocracy had not yet sworn their allegiance was of no moment. It was simply a matter of time.

As such, the small Dragon Kingdom was not a priority but he had discovered a little more about them from the Baharuth Empire. The Kingdom had been founded by a Dragon and the Royal Family was descended from that Dragon. The possibility of having a hybrid was too much for him to pass up. He wanted to know about her powers because she wasn't just any hybrid, she was, according to all the information the Baharuth Empire could provide him with, a dragon human hybrid. The juxtaposition of having one of the most powerful species breeding with one of the weakest was fascinating. He had to know more!

And the plan was flexible enough to accommodate having another Kingdom. Besides, it gave him the opportunity to speak with these Beastmen. He had already spoken to many as Jaldaboath in the fight for the Holy Kingdom but this was new.

"So the little creature wants us to obey him?" the Beastmen's King growled.

"I do," Demiurge replied with a smile that displayed his teeth.

The Beastman laughed. So did the others. Really, they were so predictable.

Demiurge's smile didn't falter. "[Silence!]" he instructed.

The Beastman King's eyes widened as he abruptly shut up. So did the others.

The Beastman's mouth moved as he tried to speak but there was no noise.

"That's better," Demiurge said conversationally. Really the creatures of this world were so pathetically weak that it was amazing that they had survived anything.

He pointed to the so called King. "[You may speak,]" he gave permission.

The Beastman roared and charged. Demiurge sighed as he sidestepped the swipe. He chopped one hand down on the creature. It fell to the ground, allowing the Arch-Devil to lift one foot to hold it down.

"I said you may speak, not attack," Demiurge said, pressing his foot down.

The Beastman groaned and Demiurge heard the crack of bone. There was a faint smell of blood.

"You will not attack the Dragon Kingdom," Demiurge gave his order again. "Do you understand?" He added the question.

The Beastman King growled. Demiurge pressed down again. The others were held in place by the incongruous sight of their King pinned in place by a much slighter being. These were demihumans, their ranks were determined by strength and those watching already knew that they were weaker than their King. If their King could not win, then they had no hope.

"Do you understand?" Demiurge asked again, pressing his foot further down. The Beastman King growled again. The Arch-Devil sighed, and drove his foot all the way down, crushing through the ribcage of the Beastman.

The creature gurgled, and blood gushed from its mouth. Demiurge lifted his foot, flicking it to clean the blood and gore off it as he looked around for the likely successor. He picked the next largest Beastman.

"You will not attack the Dragon Kingdom," he told them, his eyes making it clear which one he was addressing. "Do you understand?"

The Beastman looked at him, and then to the cooling corpse of his former King. He nodded.

"Tell me," Demiurge instructed.

"We will not attack the Dragon Kingdom," the beastman agreed, nodding emphatically.

Demiurge smiled. "Very good," he said. "My Master is pleased by your willingness to obey," he added, allowing his wings to form.

The Beastmen scrambled back. "I will leave you now," he said, flapping his wings down once. Dust and dirt spiralled into the air. "I trust I will not need to visit again," he added.

The newly promoted Beastman nodded again. "That will not be necessary," it said.

"Good," Demiurge praised him, "though just to make sure," he added, allowing a small ball of magic to appear in his hand. He flicked it to the ground, summoning a lesser imp. It would warn him if the Beastman was going to do something unfortunate. "Naibu will keep watch over you," he said.

The small imp bowed at him before turning to the beastmen. It was somewhat incongruous. The imp was perhaps a fifth of their height but Demiurge knew his summon would be more than a match for the demihumans.

"We will not attack," the newly appointed King reaffirmed. Demiurge could tell he wasn't sure where to stare.

He nodded, before he rose upwards. No doubt he'd hear from Naibu shortly and would have to put these creatures back in their place. After that, they shouldn't attack the Dragon Kingdom, and that was all he wanted.

He looked at the sky as he flew higher. He could have just teleported but sometimes he enjoyed flying. After all, he should see the world that would belong to his Master. It would be a gem to present to the Supreme Being, and it was one Demiurge was looking forward to conquering.

For Nazarick.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 3 War on the Border Part 1

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Legion Marshalling Area

Field Marshal of the Baharuth Empire's Legions Taalay Marijn Ayodele Ozols did not like this. He did not like this at all. Oh, he understood politically that the Empire was now a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom and that the Legions could now be used by that Kingdom. That was all understood.

What he did not like was going into the unknown. The Sorcerous King was going to have them go into combat today, against a fortified border town and they were still in Arwintar. He understood that magic would take care of transport but there were still a myriad of other things that only being there could actually account for.

"You seem troubled, Field Marshal."

That was the other thing Taalay did not understand. The Sorcerer King himself. The Undead had given the Slane Theocracy a week to respond, and had honoured that week to more than the letter. It had patiently waited all through yesterday, the seventh day for any response. Not that one was expected but the Undead was willing to allow for one. Then he ordered this assault.

Of course, Taalay had known the assault was coming. The Sorcerer King had rather bluntly informed them that they would be taking Synoro the day before, then he had abruptly left. Given the oppressive air that had been radiating from him at the time, Taalay had been somewhat thankful for that. But it was just adding to the things he did not understand.

Right at the moment the Sorcerer King was exuding an air of concern. If Taalay pushed aside his natural fear of standing in the presence of such an advanced undead, he could actually believe that the undead king was genuinely concerned that he was troubled.

"It's nothing, Your Majesty," Taalay replied, attempting to remove the attention.

"Field Marshal," the undead's voice was slightly reproving. It told Taalay that the Sorcerer King did not believe him.

He sighed. "While your gates will get the Legions to Synoro, and the Death Knights will ensure that we suffer minimal losses, there are still many things I am concerned about," he answered honestly. When you were in charge of 80,000 lives there were many things you had to be concerned about. The logistics of feeding so many was just the most obvious. But there were others such as maintaining hygiene and morale that were equally important.

"While the Legions gather we have some time, what are your concerns?" The Sorcerer King asked. "Shifting an undead army is different from a living one, so I am seeking to understand the differences."

Taalay bit the inside of his lip. He shouldn't have said anything. And by the Four Gods what did the undead mean by that last line? "I do not wish to bother Your Majesty with my petty concerns, which are, after all, part of my job," he tried once again to shift attention.

"Tell me," there was a hint of steel in the undead's voice.

The Field Marshal bowed his head wishing he could pretend there was something that needed his attention, but there was nothing. As the Sorcerer King had pointed out, the Legions were moving into position in Arwintar. Then they would march through the magic portals the undead and one of his servants would create and they would be near Synoro. There was time now for discussion.

"There is the mundane problem of provisioning the Legions once Synoro is taken," Taalay told the undead. "Arwintar has reserves sufficient to feed the Legions, the border town does not, and while we could normally raid surrounding townships, that is not feasible at this time of the year."

"I see."

"There is also the fact that it is winter," Taalay said, gesturing to his breath that steamed white before him. It was four AM but it was visible because of the magic lights illuminating everything. It was just another oddity that the undead did not have such a white halo around him. "The men and horses are in their winter uniforms but the cold still causes problems and as we go further into winter those issues will become more pronounced. I am concerned about strains and other mishaps today before we even enter battle, as well as simple fatigue since we have roused the men early."

The Sorcerer King said nothing. Taalay wasn't sure what that meant. Was the undead thinking that this just proved an undead army was superior?

"These are all very routine issues, Your Majesty," he tried to downplay them. "They are those we have to deal with every winter," he added. "And they are all grown men, a little lost sleep is nothing."

"But usually the Legions are bivouacked," the Sorcerer pointed out.

"True, but we do plan for winter campaigns."

The skeleton turned his head towards the first lines of the Legions. He seemed to be thinking. "Continue, please," the undead ordered.

"Then there are concerns for Synoro," Taalay moved on with an internal sigh. "The weather in Arwintar is fine," he said, gesturing above. It was more than fine. The stars were visible, twinkling in the darkness of the night. "However if it rains or snows in Synoro that will make the campaign more difficult."

At this the Sorcerer King turned back to him. In the magical light, the red points of light that formed the undead's eyes were even more disconcerting than usual. "You need not concern yourself with the weather. I will ensure that it remains fine."

"Your Majesty?" Taalay couldn't help the question.

"I will ensure the weather remains fine."

"But that's…" The Head of the Empire's Magic Casters, Ithai Amato Rubem Turchi was standing near them and had been listening. The way he trailed off meant he realised whatever he was about to say was absurd.

"[Control Weather] is a sixth tier spell," the undead said. "It is not an issue. The weather will remain fine. Not all winter, that would unbalance the weather patterns and I do not wish to do that, but for the campaign, you may rely on good weather."

Taalay gulped. He knew Fluder Paradyne was capable of casting sixth tier spells but it was a strain for the old man. Ithai could cast fourth tier spells and with a lot of preparation a fifth tier spell. The fact that the undead referred to such things so casually only highlighted the vast gulf in ability between them.

"As for fatigue and cold weather injuries, you raise a valid point, Field Marshal," the undead said with a nod towards him. "I cannot prevent everything but I can cast a booster charm on the Legions before they set off. That will assist in preventing such things."

"A booster charm?" Taalay asked. He wasn't sure he liked the sound of this.

"A simple stat enhancer. It will increase the Legion's resistance to cold and give them some physical advantages. Nothing beyond what they are capable of. Just that for today, every man will be operating at peak efficiency."

"Every ma-"

The undead turned to Ithai and Taalay could almost feel the amusement coming from the Sorcerer King. He knew what the Head of the Magic Casters had been about to say. The Sorcerer King was going to cast this booster on every man in the Legions, some 80,000 of them… Did he have such strength?

The answer was yes. He was capable of killing 75,000 with a single spell, casting another to boost 80,000 was just a different application of magic.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Taalay said. That still left the problem of food, but there was always a problem of food and he was used to that. He looked through the magical light at the ranks and ranks of men drawn up ready to march and felt a stir of pride. Maybe they would get through this.

A runner came up. "The Legions are gathered," came the breathless report.

The Sorcerer King nodded. "Then let us begin," he said, sweeping one arm across his body to create a magic circle.

Taalay looked up at it. This is what Natal would have seen on the Katze Plains. He held back his gulp of apprehension. The Sorcerer King was not about to cast destruction magic here. It didn't calm his heart. Despite his rank he was still a soldier and he was going to see battle today. All he could do now was trust in the Four Gods that today was not his day to die. In the end, that was all any of the living could do.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Synoro

Ongsa hated morning patrol. Especially in winter. In summer, it wasn't so bad. Then the night air was cool, and it meant he was free to sleep through the hottest part of the day. In winter, it meant that the air was freezing, and even though he could sleep in the day, everyone else was confined indoors so there was too much noise. That meant he was always tired in winter. And even this early into the season, that much had already been proven to be true.

What made winter worse was that the nights were longer and the cold seeped into his bones. It wasn't that cold yet, but the sky was clear and there was a bite in the air that said it was going to be an especially cold winter.

Ongsa looked up at the stars, watching as his breath frosted in front of him, making the pin pricks of light fuzzy for a moment before it dissipated. "It's darkest before dawn," he murmured. It really was dark tonight and he, like everyone else, was meant to be on alert.

Officially they weren't. Officially the declaration of war from the Sorcerous Kingdom was the posturing of an undead. Unofficially every guard in the country knew that the undead King had given the Theocracy seven days in which to hand over those responsible. Yesterday was the seventh day so everyone was on alert.

But no one in their right mind would attack Synoro. Even an undead wouldn't attack Synoro. They weren't quite as fortified as E-Rantel but Synoro still had two walls, and the undead hadn't attacked E-Rantel. It had forced the Re-Estize Kingdom to cede the territory to it rather than attempt to conquer the city. No, even if the Empire attacked on behalf of the undead, it wouldn't be here. It would be Grancia that got attacked. He felt bad for thinking it, but that was just the way it would be.

That's why, between the cold, his fatigue, and the general belief that Synoro was safe, Ongsa could be forgiven for missing the oddly glowing lights that approached the city silently, especially as they were enveloped in their own hazy mist.

What couldn't be forgiven was the way he stared, slack jawed as the lights didn't even pause at the walls. Instead they seemed to flow up them. The ring of the alarm bell broke Ongsa out of his stupor but by then it was too late. There was something pale beside him, something that stunk of decay. He stabbed his spear at it, squinting as the shaft penetrated into the hazy light.

That's all it did though, penetrate. The light was just that, light and his spear did nothing.

Then pain blossomed through Ongsa's chest. He looked down to see a sword impaling him. That wasn't right. There was no sword here, and instinctively his eyes traced back along the blade. The hand holding it was wearing a gauntlet and his eyes travelled higher. The being was leaning down and Ongsa's eyes met those of the undead.

It shook him off the blade with a powerful flick and Ongsa watched as his spear moved through the undead. Blood pooled in his throat as his eyes shifted to the stars that were disappearing.

He heard the cries of others. There wasn't meant to be an attack here.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Synoro

Magun was the Captain of Synoro's guard. Most considered his job to be pretty easy, and most of the time it was. Relations with the Re-Estize Kingdom were fairly good, as were those with the Baharuth Empire, though of late, everything had changed. Still, until something happened, that would not change the day to day routine of his life.

He rose early, before the night patrols were over. That meant he could hear their reports directly, as well as brief the morning guard. It was a hold over from the time when Synoro got a lot more visits from the Katze Plains. The night guards often had to put down the odd skeleton. It was fairly routine but he liked to hear about it.

Magun was just settling in his office when the alarm sounded. The bell tolled two strokes before it stopped. He frowned. Then there was a hail of noise from the other alarm bells. They were all being rung frantically. Shouts sounded from the wall.

Magun grabbed his sword as a cold feeling settled into the pit of his stomach. He knew that the Sorcerous Kingdom had declared war last week. He knew that they'd given some demands that the Theocracy was ignoring. You did not give in to an undead after all and while there had been some concern, communication from the Capital indicated that the scryers had not seen the motion of any troops. The Empire's Legions were gathered at their capital, which was hundreds of miles from here.

"Sir, we are under attack!" One of the night guards shouted.

"I'm aware of that!" Magun snapped back. "Who is it?"

"I don't know. No one is reporting!"

Magun swallowed at that news. Synoro was a walled city! Nothing was meant to be able to break their fortifications that quickly! He rushed out of his office, pushing the guard aside as he stepped into the night air. His office was located within the second wall. The courtyard now blazed with light and the men and women of the guard were running back and forth.

"Form ranks!" Magun shouted. The order was familiar. It brought some sense of calm to the chaos as the guards obeyed. The lines formed were odd. People were half dressed but no one was shivering in the night air.

"Now, you are to calmly armor up," he instructed, "then I want this area fortified, and a report on what is happening."

"Sir!" the shout back was comforting and the guards moved to obey.

Magun was forced to remind himself that the only action most of them had seen was escorting some of the town drunks to the lock up. That was no substitute for an assault on the walls and the sound of the alarms indicated just that. Still, it only took a little discipline to bring order to chaos and soon the courtyard was being patrolled by fully armored guards.

"What is happening?" Magun demanded.

"Unsure, Sir!" One of the men replied. "We are not receiving signals from the first wall."

"And the second wall?" Magun asked. The courtyard was in the shadow of the second wall. If they weren't receiving signals…

"All watchtowers are reporting in," the man reported.

Magun suppressed a sigh of relief at that. If the first wall wasn't reporting in, there was something very wrong. "Keep up communication and find out what happened to the first wall!" He had a city to defend. He turned to the stairs and marched upwards.

The city was eerily quiet but he ignored that as he blinked, forcing his eyes to adjust to the relative dark as he looked out over the houses. It was still dark with the pre-dawn sun not yet risen. He wasn't sure what the quiet meant. If the first wall had been overwhelmed, then whatever had done it should be rampaging. There should be fires and screams. There was nothing. That wasn't natural.

He looked down. There was a fog gathering in the streets. It swirled, and little tendrils seemed to rise before they merged back into the whole. Light seemed to be absorbed by the mist. There wasn't meant to be a fog…

"Spears!" Magun screamed. "Get the spears now!" he roared, not caring who heard. He'd seen this type of mist before. It heralded the arrival of the undead.

As if his yell had summoned them, Magun saw movement in the fog. He stared, he wasn't the only one as a humanoid figure stumbled forward. It wore the sigil of the Theocracy. The cold of the night intensified when they saw it. It was the cold of the grave and it seemed to seep into their bones. There was other movement in the mist but it was not clear.

"Archers," Magun howled. The group ran from one of the watchtowers, taking position. He was pleased to see each carried a torch. "Use fire arrows," he ordered.

Fear gave the men speed and Magun was pleased when several arrows thudded into the humanoid figure. It screeched. The noise was terrible and he winced as its clothing caught on fire. Except while it screeched, it did not run like a man, it kept moving towards them. He could feel the heat of the flames and carried on it was the stench of burning flesh.

The creature, a zombie, fell before it reached the wall. Magun wasn't the only one already scanning the mist for more. Zombies were seldom alone. Something else moved from the mist. It was larger this time. He didn't need to order the archers to fire but this time there was a hollow ting and the thing kept coming.

"Spears ready!" Magun yelled. Lower tier undead were easy to kill but you had to keep them off you. Distance was your friend or one would catch on your sword and it would all be over. He'd seen idiots taken down like that.

More arrows were launched. The light of their flaming heads made small patches in the mist, almost as if the stars had come to the ground. Magun almost wished he couldn't see. Because the ground stars flickered as more undead charged past them.

There was a huge thing leading them. It had a shield, and that shield was studded with arrows that it took no notice of. Several had found their mark but the undead was so large that it didn't seem to notice them. In its wake, other undead followed. They were not just zombies but something else that appeared to be riding horses. In between them insubstantial things moved. Magun watched as arrows simply passed through those things to stick into the other undead.

More and more caught fire but they weren't concerned. This wasn't normal. Magun had never heard of undead who didn't run from fire.

The huge thing reached the gate. It looked like a pin cushion but it was still moving. There was a huge boom. He felt the noise in his bones. Magun realised the thing had slammed its sword into the gate. How much could the wood endure?

Not much, he decided, when the boom was repeated. This time he was sure the wall itself shook. "Retreat to the watchtowers," he ordered. "Fight to the end! Hold them off and send word to Kami Miyako!" The priest would be able to do that if given enough time to cast the spell.

Magun moved with his men. He gripped his sword, trying to ignore the cold sweat that was spreading through his gloves. He swallowed hard as the next boom was accompanied by the sound of splintering. The next boom followed faster than the others and this time, he knew the gate had collapsed.

He looked down from the walkway into the courtyard as the undead flooded in. He tried not to look at the few guards caught there. Their screams were short.

There were multiple undead but no skeletons. That was an anomaly. Magun was so used to seeing undead skeletons. It only took a moment for him to realise what that meant. These were higher level undead. He swallowed.

The huge thing was accompanied by others. They all looked the same. They all carried huge shields and wickedly curved swords. Spikes adorned their armor and Magun could feel malevolent hatred rolling off them. Their eyes burned red within rotting eye sockets. Others were better armored and appeared to be riding horses but these were not normal horses. They were masses of bone held together by mist. He felt cold just looking at them. And then there were the other things. They seemed insubstantial and almost appeared to be balls of black flame. He had no idea what they were.

The most frightening thing was the silence. Magun could hear the hoarse, heavy breathing of the men with him. He could hear his heart beat and the tingle of equipment held in shaking hands but he could not hear anything from the undead. That was not normal. Usually the undead moaned and groaned. They growled as they moved. These were utterly silent. Was that some spell? He couldn't help but wonder.

"Fo… Form lines," Magun managed to say. "Fight to the end," he ordered. He got the feeling the undead would allow nothing else. They wouldn't accept surrender and he wasn't about to give it.

He could feel the men trembling about him and they gathered close. It was probably a mistake but Magun couldn't order them to separate. The undead just looked up at them. They knew who had power here. All Magun could hope for was that the Priest had gotten off the [Message] spell. The Theocracy had to know but he had no further way of buying time.

There was some unseen signal. Magun screamed as the undead moved. He wasn't the only one. The men screamed with him as the huge undead charged up the stairs. How was it keeping its footing on the narrow ledges? It was a stupid thought.

The undead raised its sword as if it weighed nothing. Magun raised his to counter.

He never felt the shock of his arm breaking as the undead's sword mowed through his. He never felt the bite of the blade through his flesh. All Magun felt was a moment of vertigo when his torso was separated from his legs, and then he was looking into the sky.

The sun was rising.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Outside Synoro

Taalay didn't like the twist of emotion he could feel within himself. Tangled emotions could lead to bad decisions but he could see no way of sorting out his feelings. A glance around displayed that the others were in no better condition. That was a comfort but it was… definitely confusing.

The only people who appeared calm were not people at all. The undead King Ainz Ooal Gown was surrounded by flickering shadows and seemed to be conversing with them but for all the motion around him, he was calm. His attendants were standing at the ready. They were relaxed but Taalay was willing to bet that if anything came towards their master with ill intent, they would be put down swiftly.

One attendant was familiar. It was the same maid that had accompanied the Sorcerer King in Arwintar. The other was a stunningly beautiful woman. Taalay would have considered her a delicate, noble born flower, except for the fact she was wearing dark, full plate armor and was carrying a battle axe that was taller than her. Her yellow eyes were hard as she glared at everyone. The Field Marshal could tell she was hoping for a chance to use her axe. She kept her body imposed between her King and everyone else.

The Command Staff was standing with them. Most of the staff anyway. He was too experienced a commander to risk having everyone gathered while in the field. Natel Inyem Dale Carvain was with his Legion but Taalay thought the man would understand his conflict the best. Or the Emperor's Knight Nimble would but he was back in Arwintar.

Leinas Rockbruise was accompanying them to serve as the Envoy to the Sorcerer King and Taalay did not know her well enough to make a judgement on her true feelings. She was standing close to the undead King but not so close that his attendants would take issue. They were insanely protective of their liege. It was understandable. He was a magic caster and traditionally physical attacks were a weakness… except… Taalay had seen the reports from the Stadium. The Sorcerer King was no mere magic caster.

Just as he was no mere undead.

That was the conclusion which was causing the Field Marshal the most trouble.

"The garrison has been subdued at both walls," the Sorcerer King announced before Taalay could pursue his thoughts.

He gulped at the news. They'd heard screams and the alarms but the warnings had fallen silent soon afterwards. It seemed to take forever but with the sun just rising now, he knew it had been a very short battle.

"You may begin to move your Legions in to occupy the city," the Undead added.

Taalay nodded, turning towards the command staff.

"Umhu."

Taalay wasn't sure at the noise but he turned back to the undead. "It would be best to send your strongest men first," the skeletal King suggested.

It took him a moment to understand. Understanding just added to his confusion. "Yes, Your Majesty," Taalay said to indicate his acceptance of the suggestion. Thankfully the Legions did have groups which specialised in battlefield clean up. And after the Katze Plains they had a lot of experience. "Send the Fourth and Fifth Clean Up Brigades," he ordered, absently noting that Kulap Erckens was standing with Simaa Yount.

He sighed internally, almost thankful at the sight. The two had been raised to their current ranks from being commoners. They tended to stick together. It was not confusing. It was normal at a time when he needed that because nothing else was normal.

"Have the First Attack Unit accompany them," Taalay added.

A few moments later the nominated units separated from their respective Legions and gathered.

"My forces have withdrawn," the undead King told him, as if to confirm everything was safe.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Taalay said, nodding to the unit commanders with the instruction to move. They marched quickly into the city which was now visible. The morning sun hit the walls, making them almost seem to sparkle.

Taalay watched as the units entered the city. There were no shouts of challenge. From the corner of his eye he could see that the Sorcerer King was no longer surrounded by shadows. That made him feel slightly better. It was as if the sun had driven them off. Instead the undead had one hand raised to his temple and was muttering to himself. He caught a few words.

"Shalltear, be ready to move but take no risks. Put tracers on any we have to leave."

That made no sense to him and was not his concern! Taalay forcibly reminded himself to pay attention to Synoro. That was his duty. The Sorcerer King appeared determined to distract him though.

"Demiurge, just collect documents this time. I don't want to give away that we know the layout or anything about their true assets."

What was that about? Was the Sorcerer King running another mission? Where?

Taalay's attention was dragged away this time when several shouts rose from the city. They were quickly subdued but he could well imagine the clash of arms. He held steady waiting for a runner to send him information. It might not be as fast as magic but…

That thought just brought him back to his previous distraction. Not the Sorcerer King this time. He was now standing silent and almost appeared to be basking in the early morning sun. It was his previous conflict. Which was actually the Sorcerer King, not the being himself but his actions.

Taalay couldn't help but wonder if the magic caster was truly undead. He was absolutely confusing. He had roused the Legions in the dead of the morning for the assault. That much had been expected and even planned for. They had sent the Legions to bed earlier the night before. But when the potential problems to be encountered from the cold were pointed out, Ainz Ooal Gown had accepted them graciously. More than graciously. The undead had cast a charm on every man in the Legion, boosting their ability.

The Field Marshal had the reports from the Generals. Every man was well, and they were not complaining about the cold. It might be early in winter but they had all felt the effects of that charm. What kind of undead cared that much for the living?

Even if the living were obeying its command. It made no sense. And the transport to Synoro! It was far more than simple transport. The undead had cast several spells, making what it called portals that had instantaneously transported the Legions to the region around Synoro. But more than that, the undead had confirmed that he had arranged for a few other spells to be cast to ensure that the city did not notice them before they were ready.

Taalay shuddered. The thought of going to war against the Sorcerer King was terrifying. It was not the magic he possessed personally, it was the little things. Those extra spells which would make the conflict short and one sided.

As the battle for Synoro had been, Taalay's thoughts betrayed him.

He wasn't sure what he should feel about that. He knew what his men would be finding and reminded himself to ensure that the units were well compensated. But that was another thing that confused him.

His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown had announced that the Legions would take Synoro. He had objected. Grancia was a far easier target. Instead of telling him that the Legions would just have to bleed, the undead had instead told him that his forces would do the most dangerous of the jobs, actually assaulting the city walls.

And they had. Taalay had seen the troops assembled for that. He was thankful the Sorcerer King had not recalled them here. They were… they were things that he had no desire to properly examine in daylight. There had been huge, hulking beasts bearing the shape of men that carried large shields. They had been armored simply compared to the others but like all of the troops the Sorcerer King had brought their armour had been adorned with spikes and they had radiated a sense of menace.

He could remember the way the undead troop had looked at him when the Sorcerer King had given them their orders. "Take both garrison walls. Kill any who are armored and any who attack you. Do not kill the civilians."

What type of undead gave that sort of order? Do not kill the civilians? Well… Taalay knew the previous order would take precedence. If the civilians attacked, they would be cut down. He only hoped that most had been sensible enough to hide in their houses at the alarm. He'd find out soon enough.

But the orders only displayed another facet of confusion. Why was an undead, one who hated the living, so willing to let the living live? Why did His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown go out of his way to make a distinction between the soldiers and the civilians when it would be so much simpler to allow the lesser undead he had summoned to rampage through the city. It wasn't as if anyone could stop them… and then…

Well, there would be nothing left to take but Synoro would be conquered. Taalay just didn't know why the Sorcerer King seemed so reasonable. If he didn't know that the magic caster was undead, he would have said that he was a hard man, one who was akin to Emperor Jircniv.

That realisation was startling but the Field Marshal thought it was true. The Emperor truly cared for the citizens of the Baharuth Empire. He sought to protect them and improve their lives. Even the Legions. The Emperor was not afraid to use them but he made sure they were outfitted properly for the job. He gave them what protection he could.

His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown was the same. Every action he took was for the protection of his forces. But the Sorcerer King was undead. He did not, could not care about the living. There had to be another answer.

Taalay didn't really want to think about that because it only led to more confusion. Or he could well imagine the Sorcerer King looking at him and explaining. Taalay suppressed a shudder at the thought. Dead bodies decomposed. Perhaps it was simply more efficient for the undead to keep them alive until it needed them dead. He felt sick and the thought was his own. How much more terrible would the truth be?

There was a commotion from Synoro. Taalay was thankful for the distraction and he looked up. The First Attack Unit was escorting someone. He didn't recognise them but quickly realised who it must be. Probably Synoro's Mayor, if the man had survived. He tried not to look beyond but as he was facing the city it was impossible not to. He could see the Fourth and Fifth Clean Up Brigades already laying out corpses. No doubt all the Legions could.

As the Mayor was dragged before him, the Field Marshal reminded himself that this was war. It was not a conventional war. It was not a fair war but it was war. And in war, he should be thankful for everything that saved every Legionnaire.

Except… looking upon the growing ranks of the dead, standing beside a magic caster who could harm or heal with a word, Taalay couldn't help but feel conflicted. This wasn't how it was meant to be.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 3 War on the Border Part 2

-cos-

Tenth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ashurbanipal

Fluder rubbed his eyes as the words blurred. He was used to the feeling though and now when he was tired, he still had a sense of satisfaction. It was not the same as his studies in Arwintar. Then he could study through the night only for his conclusions to be incorrect.

Now, in the Great Library of Ashurbanipal his exhaustion brought contentment. It was accompanied by a sense of frustration that he did his best to push away. It was a familiar frustration. So much wasted time.

He wasn't wasting time now. Every line he read, every word he absorbed was all learning. Fluder had a clear path to study, though it wasn't always linear. His decision to look into mental magic was opening up even more paths. There was so much information contained in this library. So many aspects of magic that, until recently, he had no idea had even existed.

Even what he was looking into was new to him. He had looked into how to extend his physical life. He had never considered extending his mental capacity. Titus Annaeus Secundus had suggested several methods but that wasn't his purpose this time. He was looking for something more helpful.

He had sworn his loyalty to the Sorcerer King Ainz Ooal Gown and in return the undead had given him access to the Abyss of Magic and had set him along the path that led to the edge. Fluder knew he wasn't ready to stare into that Abyss just yet, but when he was in Ashurbanipal he felt as if he could begin to peek into its depths.

And for that he wanted to thank His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown. Yet, what did one get an undead? Especially one who was the absolute ruler of such a magnificent place and had the loyalty of servants far more powerful than him? And that was before he even considered that his resources had been curtailed. In the Empire he had had wealth and position. They meant nothing. There was nothing he could buy or create for the undead. All Fluder could offer was his time and knowledge of the countries that were near.

So that's why he was here. The Sorcerer King was upset. All of Nazarick was upset about the attack on Aura Fiora Bella. Fluder could feel it and it was only because he wore protection from the Supreme Being himself that he was safe. He knew what had happened to the elf because he knew what the Theocracy would do, and the citizens of Nazarick were discussing little else. Usually their talk was accompanied by what they would like to do to those responsible. Yet none were suggesting they do anything. Ainz Ooal Gown had promised those responsible to Aura and no one would touch those already captured without permission.

Fluder was looking into things which might help. High level clerics would cast healing magic to help the elf but one thing Fluder had understood about magic, even before he had met his Master, was that not everyone could cast every spell. At first, he had thought it was simply a matter of strength or species and that was part of it. It made sense that His Majesty, an undead, could not cast divine magic. It was magic specifically created to kill undead. But now Fluder knew there were more complex reasons for it. He had understood it, but the books in Nazarick had explained the concept of karma in a concise manner.

But the other thing the books of Ashurbanipal had shown him was that there was no restriction to magic. The undead could cast healing spells on the living. It was just a matter of knowing the right spell, because it was not the same spell as he would use.

When he had been in the Empire, he had focused too much on combat magic to see such subtlety. Combat magic did use the same spells. The fireball he cast was the same spell as His Majesty, though the power behind their casting was very different. He felt ashamed that he'd overlooked something that should have been obvious for so long.

However, now that he knew, he was determined to map the confluences. He would never be able to cast some of these spells. It had been a difficult realisation for him but Fluder knew he lacked the strength. There was a limit to human capacity and he was reaching it. But he could know of them.

He had to know them so that when the day came and he looked into the Abyss, he would understand what he saw.

Fluder rubbed at his eyes again. They felt gritty and sore. It was a sure sign he had been reading for too long. He glanced at the time piece of the Library. It was a stunningly beautiful creation that displayed a night scene or a day scene based on the hour. Apparently one of the Supreme Beings had made it. But the Supreme Beings had made most of the things in Nazarick, even choosing the books for the Library.

He finally understood what Nazarick's citizens meant now when they said that. At first he hadn't. It was absurd! The very thought that beings existed of such power who could actually create other living beings. And not just simple things like a dog or cat, but fully conscious and capable beings. It was that which had convinced him that while he might be able to understand much about magic, he would never be able to step into the realm of the gods, the Supreme Beings.

It had been a day later that Fluder realised that Nazarick's citizens referred to His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown as a Supreme Being. That had caused him to sit for several hours just staring into space. Titus had sent him back to his quarters that day, after assuring him that things would make sense in time.

That had just cemented Fluder's loyalty and that seemed like an age ago now.

He pulled his mind from the past, looking down through burning eyes at the line he'd just read, and re-read. Everything may be explained as transference, though the means can vary. For those of positive karma, the transference calls upon the Gods, hastening internal processes. Thus a healing spell does not actually remove an injury but strengthens the healing processes of the subject's body. For those of negative karma, the transference utilises other sources. The effects are the same but the means differ.

If that meant what he thought it did, then… Though he was tired, Fluder smiled. If it did mean it, then he was on the right path. He suppressed a yawn. He had heard of [Rings of Sustenance] and he was positive that Nazarick had them but he was also sure that they were being used for far more important purposes. He would have to go with the old fashioned method of resting his bones.

Fluder marked the page and the book. The librarians would not put it away while it was marked. They were very efficient. He rose, blinking his eyes as he looked up at the time piece. To call it a mere clock seemed insulting to the craftsmanship. The day scene was about to come into view which meant he had been here for a day and a night.

He needed rest. It was an old task to push aside his resentment of that statement. The Abyss of Magic could bend reality to its will but he was not there yet.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Border with Re-Estize Kingdom, Synoro

Emerens Vukoja had been asleep when the alarms sounded. He thought that fair. He was not the Captain of the Guard who got to work before dawn. He was Synoro's Mayor and he served Synoro well. From sunup to sundown he gave his time to the city. Night was his time, and even then it wasn't always his. Especially in winter, when the taverns were seeing an increase in business. Then he worked further, doing the rounds, talking to everyone to make sure they were happy. It was just part of his responsibility.

Still, when the alarm sounded he'd been asleep. Awakening had not made sense. There was the fog of sleep, the noise and the shock of the cold air on his face. But he knew his duty and he had stumbled out of bed, then his mind recognised the tone of the alarm.

Invasion.

But… that's when his mind had had problems. Synoro had two walls. No one was going to invade. And they had good relations with the countries on their borders. Sure the Sorcerous Kingdom had declared war, but they were a long way distant. He'd heard that the Baharuth Empire had recalled its Legions but again, they were in the Empire's Capital. That was weeks of marching from Synoro.

Nothing was invading.

His thought was confirmed when the alarms quickly cut off. Except, there was a cold feeling in his gut that had nothing to do with the chill in the air that would not go away.

He moved to his office in the dark. He didn't want to light a lantern. It was simply to save resources. The Guard would send a runner to give him information because even if someone was invading, they would not breach the walls. At least, that is what Emerens had thought. But as time had trickled past, and he could see the sky lightening, doubt had entered his heart, especially when no message came.

No, the guard was simply busy. That's why they had forgotten to message him. He needed to stay here so that when they remembered they could find him. Old Magun had harped on this often enough about the need to maintain clear communication lines. With the light of dawn, he'd looked through several papers but his mind wasn't on it.

The thud from his door had been startling. It had been followed by another, accompanied by shouts. Emerens had been racked by cold at that point and he knew it was too late to run. That's why he'd just stared when Empire Legionnaires entered his office. All thoughts had left him, leaching out with the cold. If the Legionnaires were here, then both walls must have fallen.

Strangely, his mind didn't have a problem with that. If the Empire's Legions had travelled the miles between their Capital and Synoro so quickly, then having them break through the walls was only a minor concern. He'd gone with them. It was when he emerged into the early morning light that he wished he hadn't.

There wasn't much damage to the houses but once the Legionnaries escorted him through them all, he could see the violence of the attack. The gates were shattered and there was blood splashed over the stones of the walls. They were also swarming with Legionnaries who were cleaning up. Emerens had heard that the Empire was efficient but this was somewhat sickening. The cold which had been filling him began to crystallize into fear when he saw the walls and the gate. It fully coalesced when he was led out of Synoro.

There, on a small rise, looking towards the city was a small group. Pennants fluttered in the weak wind but it was enough for Emerens to see the sigil. It was not the Baharuth Empire. The outline was something else, something far more sinister. The Sorcerous Kingdom.

And standing in the centre of the group was a figure that radiated darkness. Emerens had once seen one of the Scriptures summon an angel to deal with an undead that had been assaulting Synoro's city walls. The angel was a being of light and air and he had felt secure just looking at it. This was the opposite. There was a heavy, oppressive feeling when he looked at the being and he knew what it was.

Instinct took over then. The Legionnaires were ready. Even as he dug in his heels, two of them grasped his arms and pulled. These were trained soldiers, they were far stronger than him. It did nothing to quell his fear when he felt them trembling as well. At least they didn't comment on the ammonia smell he now exuded.

The Legionnaires let him go in front of the group. It wasn't respect which dropped him to his knees, rather the sheer force of oppression he could feel from the undead. He wondered how the Empire's people were standing. There was nothing left to void or he would have. He shivered instead. It was early winter, but the air wasn't that cold.

"Well, at least this dog knows to kneel in the presence of its betters," one of the women said to the undead. She was superlatively beautiful but her expression was one of haunty superiority. While she looked human, Emerens wasn't sure she was given her stature and the full plate armor she wore with a casual ease.

"Albedo," the undead chided but Emerens could hear the almost amused lilt in the skeleton's tone. The undead didn't mean any rebuke.

Emerens looked to the ground. He didn't want to look at the group here. He was just the Mayor of Synoro. He wasn't one of the Cardinals. He couldn't be involved in this.

"You may raise your head."

Emerens shook his head instead. He could hear the mockery in the undead's tone.

There was a hiss. "You dare refuse the Supreme Being? Who has graciously given you permission to lift your head?"

"Albedo," again the undead chided the woman but Emerens knew the skeleton could not mean it. "I don't enjoy speaking to those talking to the ground," the undead added.

Emerens pushed his head up. He got the impression that if he didn't the woman with the axe would use that to raise it for him.

"Better. You are the Mayor of Synoro?"

He nodded. It was easier than trying to moisten his mouth in an attempt to speak.

The undead regarded him with a steady eye. The tiny flames within its eye sockets almost didn't seem to move. Emerens felt a shiver pass down his spine that had nothing to do with the cold. Those flames were reading his soul.

"Let me be the first to welcome you to the Sorcerous Kingdom."

Emerens felt his mouth open. The undead could not be serious about his statement! The Theocracy would not just sit by and let its towns be taken. The citizens of Synoro would not just sit back and let their way of life be destroyed by this undead! The Six Gods would protect them.

"While the circumstances are unfortunate and you are no doubt thinking that the Slane Theocracy will not stand for this, I assure you, those who used to provide governing oversight to Synoro will soon have other things occupying their attention."

The undead was so casual about it that it was all Emerens could do not to shudder. He pulled his jaw back up, doing his best to school his features into a neutral expression.

"Now, to more practical things," the skeleton said, waving one hand as if to dismiss everything previously mentioned. "Due to the timing of my attack, I am aware that there are still garrison members alive. If they take up arms against the Legionnaires who will be occupying Synoro for the moment, they will be executed. However, I am generous, I have no wish to deprive anyone of work. If the former garrison members register as a guard of the city, and go through a screening, assuming they pass that screening, they will be free to take up their duties again."

"This is of course a temporary measure and a fuller plan of assimilation will be initiated in due course."

"Assimilation?" Emerens couldn't help but ask. He didn't like the sound of that word.

"Into the Sorcerous Kingdom," the skeleton told him. "Synoro is just the first township of the Theocracy to join. There will be changes, just as there have been in E-Rantel but it will take time to oversee those changes in a peaceful manner. Until the assimilation plans are ready, I will rely on the Legionnaires to ensure the peace, and see to the initial phases of re-education."

He felt like a fool and he knew he shouldn't say it but the words were spoken before he realised. "Re-education?" This was all too much. Shouldn't the undead be herding them out now to be slaughtered.

The woman in full plate armor hissed and seemed to bristle at his question. "... unworthy dog…" Emerens caught part of what she whispered. He was thankful he didn't catch the rest. The skeleton motioned to her and she settled. He could hear the plates of her armor shifting against the other as she calmed herself.

"I will speak plainly. Such was my anger with the assault upon my servant that my initial plan for the Theocracy was to kill everyone."

It wasn't just his mouth that went dry this time, it was his entire body. Emerens felt as if he'd been physically struck by the undead's words. It wasn't any comfort that those from the Baharuth Empire also looked sick at the Sorcerer King's declaration. The woman in plate armor looked disappointed, while the other woman, who was dressed as a maid was expressionless.

"However, it was pointed out to me that peons such as yourself have little say in what the Cardinals order, and thus I have amended them. Make no mistake, Mr.-" The undead paused. "What is your name?" he asked.

Emerens almost missed the question. He was too busy wondering about who or what had the guts to argue with the undead. He was a devout follower of the Six Gods. He believed in the Church but he was also realistic. There was no denying the power of this undead. The Theocracy would prevail but it would have to fight.

"Your name, you unworthy cur!" The woman snapped, brandishing her axe.

"Emerens Vuk… Vukoja." He whispered the words before her axe could move towards his neck.

"Well then, Mr Vukoja, make no mistake, those responsible for the attack on my servant will be paying the price for their offence with their miserable lives and there is nothing your Cardinals or your supposed Six Gods can do to stop me."

"They will," he whispered, looking down at the ground.

"Hmm?"

"The Cardinals may not be able to stop you," Emerens said more firmly. "They are only men but the warriors of the Six Gods will stop you," he declared.

"The warriors?" The undead seemed interested.

"The Scriptures," he proclaimed. They were the warriors of the Six Gods. They would fight this undead and with the true names of the Gods, they would prevail. He knew it in his heart.

"Ah, the vaunted Scriptures," the undead mocked. "Does this include the Sunlight Scripture who lasted a mere five minutes in combat against me?" The skeleton actually chuckled. "It is to my shame that I actually took them seriously!

"No," Ainz continued, "you had best put such hopes from your head." Once again the skeleton's gaze speared through him. "My rule is not onerous for those who realise that it is for the best but it will be quite uncomfortable for those who oppose me. I suggest, for Synoro's sake, Mr Vukoja, that you put yourself in the former group. As E-Rantel should have proven to the world, I have no desire to wantonly slaughter the living."

Emerens almost shook his head at the last. How could the undead say that when it had admitted that its original plan was just that? How could the Sorcerer King say that when there was the blood of thousands of Re-Estize Kingdom troops on his skeletal hands? The world also knew that. The fact that the undead was restraining himself in one small city meant nothing when the number of deaths were made up in other ways.

But what could he do? Emerens had never thought so clearly. The answer was not comforting. Nothing. He could do nothing against the undead. If he tried to attack, his head would be parted from his shoulders before he even rose to his feet. If his blood splashed onto the undead, no doubt it would enjoy that. So physically attacking was out. And physical attacking was what the Scriptures were for. That meant he had to be more restrained, sneakier.

Passive resistance was still resistance, and if the undead was leaving the Empire's Legions in Synoro, then it would be against humans. Surely they would understand? He'd have to think on it further when he returned to Synoro.

"You will be returned to your city now," the undead was saying. "After you change, you will explain the new order to the citizens and to the surviving members of the garrison. The Legions will be monitoring you and will ensure that your Cardinals do not interfere."

Emerens gulped and the reminder of his shame seemed to bring a cold wind that cut right through him in delicate places. He shivered again.

"My Lord," the woman in full plate armor murmured. The undead turned slightly to her. "That human Momon was very clear," she told the skeleton.

Momon? The Adamantite Ranked Adventurer Momon? Even in the Theocracy they had heard of him.

"Ah yes, he was most eloquent in arguing for mercy," the undead muttered.

Momon? It was Momon who had convinced the undead not to kill everyone? Emerens wasn't sure what that meant but he felt a stir of gratitude in his heart… It faded quickly. If the Adventurer could argue with the undead, why would he not kill it? It made no sense!

"But he was equally clear that too much mercy would be misconstrued," the undead again looked down towards him before shifting his gaze to one of the Empire's men. Emerens didn't recognise them.

"Field Marshall Ozols, I will leave Synoro to you. The slightest impertinence to the Legionnaires should be dealt with firmly. These people must understand they are no longer part of the Theocracy. But be fair," the undead raised one hand. "If the Legionnaire is in error, then I will leave it to your internal processes to ensure it is dealt with."

"Your Majesty!"

Emerens watched as the man nodded. It helped his plan and surely resisting humans could not be as hard as resisting the undead.

"Then I will leave Synoro in your hands for now," the undead king dismissed him and the town as he turned away. The skeleton paused, looking back at the Field Marshall. "I almost forgot, when I leave, the Theocracy will be able to see Synoro and the Legions."

"Through scrying?"

"Yes," the undead skeleton nodded to itself. "I want them to see what has happened here." He said nothing else but Emerens could clearly hear that the undead wanted the Theocracy to see how they had failed.

They hadn't failed yet. They would only fail when Synoro surrendered, and he hadn't surrendered. He wouldn't let the citizens surrender either. They had to remember those the undead had slaughtered. The bodies the Legions were dragging out would help but there had to be something more.

He needed time and it appeared the undead was going to give him that time if it was leaving. Emerens' heartbeat hammered in his ears and his hands were sticky. He was not a brave man but in this he had the backing of the Six Gods and they would see him through.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako

"How did this happen?" the Cardinal of the Wind yelled.

"Rather easily, I'd imagine," Berenice responded. "The Eighty thousand men of the Legions would have been more than enough to overwhelm Synoro."

"The defences are not that weak!" Dominic objected. "And the Thousand Mile Astrologer did not detect the movement of the Legions." He didn't need to say it. They all knew the Legions were meant to be in Arwintar.

Raymond drove his fists into the table. The resulting thump brought the attention of the room to him. He looked around making sure he met the eyes of all present. "This is not the time for argument," he said, speaking softly so that they had to strain to hear. "This is the time for calm and logic. Acting on emotion will only cause more grief.

"Now, it is true that the Thousand Mile Astrologer did not detect the movement of the Legions but equally, no one else did. What does that suggest?"

"We are not children, Raymond," Maximilian snapped, tapping on one of his books. "It means this will be a very costly war."

"All wars are costly," Ginedine muttered but the old Cardinal of Water knew what they were both referring to.

"The undead moved the Legions and then-" Yvon paused as he flicked through the pages of a hastily written report. "I am not a military specialist but this does not make sense," the Cardinal of Light declared. "It is too fast."

"Exactly!" Dominic was still yelling. "Synoro is fortified!"

"General," Ginedine invited one of the people standing at the end of the room.

The woman moved forward giving all the Cardinals a nod of respect. "The Cardinal of Light is correct, Synoro fell too fast, even accounting for the fact they were taken by surprise." She took a deep breath. "As a fortified town, we would expect to be seeing the Legions laying siege to it, except, according to the report, they are currently occupying the township."

The Cardinal of Wind was breathing deeply but did not interrupt. He was white with fury.

"Additionally, while it is difficult to tell, we do not believe the Legions have suffered any losses. We have asked the Thousand Mile Astrologer to check but it would mean that the Legions were transported from Arwintar and took Synoro in the space of a morning, without losses."

"That does strain belief," Berenice agreed.

"We will know for sure when they start burying the dead," the General nodded towards the Cardinal of Fire. "However we believe it was the undead who took Synoro but we have not yet determined what forces were used."

It was grim news but none of the Cardinals reacted. They were all very much aware of what the Thousand Mile Astrologer reported from the Katze Plains. In the depths of their souls they were thankful that the undead had not just slaughtered the entire city but the initial report from the Thousand Mile Astrologer was clear, most of the citizens of Synoro were alive. Scared but alive as the Legions went about their business.

Interestingly, the church had not been desecrated either. They were not sure what that meant. So far the undead had shown no interest in the church, be it the four Gods or the Six Gods. Was the undead leaving them as a trap? Or did it truly not care? Was it arrogant enough to believe that it could defeat them all?

"We have to retake Synoro!" Dominic declared. "Our armies should already be marching!" He cast a suspicious gaze at the General.

"Dominic," Raymond said gently. "We must consider what is best."

"What is best?" The Cardinal of Wind shrieked! "What is best? You dare to suggest that leaving our citizens in the hands of the undead is best! The Six Gods will strike you down for yo-"

"That's enough!" Yvon roared. The usually contained Cardinal of Light was surprisingly loud and every eye turned to him, including Dominic's. "Calm and logic," he repeated Raymond's words. "Having our army rush off to Synoro immediately would be playing to the undead's plans. We must act upon our own plan."

"And what is our plan?" Dominic hissed. "So far I see only reaction. No one ready to take the initiative."

"Because that worked out so well for you," Berenice growled.

"At least I acted. At least I had the courage to show the undead we will not stand for it. I have drawn the line in the sand!"

"We noticed," Ginedine answered drolly. "And I think your next contribution to this conversation should be silence." Technically none of the Cardinal's outranked the others but there was an informal hierarchy of age, though Raymond, even though he was the youngest, as the commander of the Six Scriptures and with his calm nature was respected. "I agree that we must retake Synoro but it must be done in a way that is beneficial to us. There is no point in sending forces to Synoro if it leaves us open to other plans from the undead. We need to determine what its goals are."

"We do not have enough information for that," Maximilian said sadly.

"Then we must pursue our own plans," Ginedine said before Dominic could complain.

It was a rather uncomfortable realisation that they had not taken the undead's declaration of war seriously. It was winter now and no one fought in winter, though that restriction did not appear to have occurred to the undead. And with the display at Synoro it was taunting them, showing off its resources.

"We can reach Synoro," the General said, "but Your Graces, it would be best if we left now before the winter snows set in fully."

"It mocks us," Yvon said softly. "It wants us to suffer. Even if we transport the army, or even the Scriptures to Synoro, we will be fighting against men."

That realisation was sobering. It was one thing to fight demihumans or the undead. It was another to fight men. The Baharuth Empire's Legions were obeying the undead but they were still human. Humans should be focused on destroying the undead.

"It is insidious," Raymond agreed.

"It must be destroyed!" Dominic proclaimed.

"But how do we get to it?" Berenice asked.

That was the central question and shed light on a way out of their predicament. They could muster the strength to fight the Legions. The Re-Estize Kingdom had, though with the Theocracy the battles would be bloodier. But that did not deal with the undead, and it appeared to be one of the most dangerous. It thought and they knew it was immortal. It could afford to wait for them to exhaust themselves. It had far more resources than they did.

Ginedine's lips twitched. Raymond looked at him but the Cardinal of Water shook his head. The Commander of the Six Scriptures gave a wry smile. He understood what Ginedine was thinking. Perhaps they should have responded to the undead's demand. Not to give it what it wanted but for the opening the opportunity would have provided.

But the thought did not give them an answer. This was not an easy place to be in. They were the guardians of humanity but…

Berenice swallowed hard. "I hesitate to suggest this," she said, glancing towards the Captain of the Black Scripture. Their extra seat was not present. "But in the end this is not just about the superiority of humanity, it is about the survival of the living. We should consider an official cease fire with the Elve-" Berenice was cut off as a bell began to toll.

She frowned. She wasn't the only one. As Cardinals they were intimately familiar with the tolling of the bells in Kami Miyako and now was not the time for any services.

"That's-" Yvon stopped when another bell joined the tolling. They were both tolling an alert. The Cardinals turned to the window.

"It wouldn't have!" Dominic gasped.

"Your Graces, please get away from windows," the Captain of the Black Scripture said, striding forward. He was accompanied by the other Captains and the Generals. An alert in the capital was their domain.

There was nothing visible. The sky was overcast but the air was clear. The weak light streamed around the statues of the Six Gods that looked upon them benevolently. As they looked, or cast detection magic, they all heard the alarms from the other Cathedrals begin. The tolling made an eerie backdrop to the capital.

The mood was broken when there was a pounding on the door. Most spun to face it. The General strode over to the door, drawing her sword before she pulled it open.

A messenger stood there, lungs heaving. "Attack," he gasped, stumbling into the room. For his own safety he didn't attempt to approach the Cardinals. "There has been an attack."

"Where?" Raymond demanded.

"On the Cathedral of-" The first messenger was interrupted when another pounded up. He was quickly followed by a third, and a fourth, and the Cardinals knew what the messengers would say before it was even said.

"The undead attacked each of the Six Cathedrals," Ginedine said as the sixth messenger appeared. "What did it desecrate?" He asked.

"Nothing," the first messenger, having recovered the most, replied. "There has been no damage to the Cathedrals or the statues of their Holinesses. The administration section was attacked."

The other messengers nodded, confirming that their messages were similar.

"The administration sections?" Dominic demanded.

"Your office, Your Grace," the messenger replied.

"My office?" Dominic's brow furrowed as he thought about what was contained there, what was in any of their offices. Papers relating to the day to day running of the Church and State. An ancient text or two but nothing that sensitive. The others would be the same. They all knew better than to keep things in the open. "What is it playing at?" he demanded.

No one present knew the answer.

"Did we capture anyone?" Raymond asked.

"I do not believe so, Your Grace," the response was given after the messengers looked at each other.

"Then I suggest we reconvene in a few hours," Raymond suggested. "We must determine what was lost, as that may give us some hint as to the undead's plans. Then we must determine our course of action. It is doing as it wishes, but we will stop it. For the good of Humanity and in the names of the Six Gods, we will do our duty!"

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 3 War on the Border Part 3

-cos-

Tenth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ainz' Office

According to the clock it was 2:37 AM. It was about now that Ainz was thankful he was no longer human. He had been working since before dawn the previous day but it was proving profitable.

The Theocracy had noticed Synoro quite quickly and had called a meeting of their Cardinals to respond. That had allowed Demiurge's raids to go ahead. Shalltear's had followed in the confusion. He wasn't dealing with hers. He had every faith that she would now pull the required information from those retrieved. And there had been no high value targets in her list. The vampire had quite sensibly nominated to grab only the peons, as she called them, this time. Those of rank within the Theocracy would be better guarded. She or Demiurge would need more time to prepare the raid for them.

Still, those taken now were involved. They had raped Aura. They would suffer. And Shalltear could now get to work on finding out where their loved ones were. They wouldn't be guarded and could be retrieved from under the Theocracy's nose. Even if the Church noticed, it would simply serve to cause more chaos for the Cardinals. Ainz approved because he knew Punitto Moe would approve. Your plan had to be strong but flexible and if it sowed confusion to the other side, all the better.

He had only scryed the meeting of the Cardinals to the point where he knew they were meeting. He'd given Demiurge the signal, and then another warning when the news of the raids was given to the Cardinals. By then the raiders were already gone.

And now he had reams and reams of documents to work through. Not by himself. Demiurge had several literate underlings sorting through the papers, looking for Japanese text. Titus was on hand to translate other works and Ainz was wearing his [Magic Glasses] perched on his skeletal nose as he looked through documents.

"My Lord," Demiurge interrupted as he flipped through a stack of papers.

"Yes?"

Ainz saw that Titus was standing with the demon. The undead Head Librarian was holding several documents. "My Lord," Titus said, bowing his head deeply. "We have confirmed that it was Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche who ordered the attack." He spoke matter of factly.

Ainz felt his anger flare but he quickly suppressed it before his limiter activated. "We are sure?" he asked.

"Yes, My Lord," Titus did not take offence. He knew how important this was. He held up two books. "These are the personal diaries of the Cardinal of Water and the Cardinal of Darkness. They both name Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche as the one who authorised the attack. They were rather upset about it."

In other circumstances Ainz might have considered what that meant. The opportunity to drive a wedge in the Slane Theocracy was something that could be used. These were not other circumstances. Ainz Ooal Gown had not accepted the excuses from those who claimed not to know about the Minoshirokin Incident. All were guilty. It was the same now. It was not his fault they were not united.

He snorted. "They were upset about it?" Ainz asked archly. They did not yet know what upset was. "Very good work," he added. Those of the Great Tomb of Nazarick already understood his position.

"Thank you, My Lord," Titus again bowed his head.

"Please let Shalltear know which Cardinal she needs to focus on," Ainz instructed. Demiurge frowned but said nothing. Ainz knew what the demon was thinking but Shalltear needed this opportunity to continue to learn. Eventually he was sure they would understand that. "Which of the Scriptures carried out the attack?"

"The Windflower Scripture," Demiurge replied. "There is a list of their members available."

"Good. How many are there?"

"Fifteen," the demon told him. "We do not have images but we do have a list of names."

Ainz gave the Seventh Floor Guardian a considering look. "There are meant to be six Scriptures, correct?" He asked.

Demiurge nodded.

"The Sunlight Scripture was nothing special but it would be a mistake to consider them all equal," Ainz mused before fixing Titus was a stare. The undead Librarian had flinched at the mention of the scripture.

"My Lord," Titus said without prompting, "while I have not had time to read all the records, a preliminary scan indicates that Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche was a member of the Sunlight Scripture." The undead didn't continue.

Ainz nodded slowly, using the gesture to give him time to control his reaction. While the Theocracy might claim otherwise, there was a personal element with the attack on Aura. They were trying to punish him for his defeat of the Sunlight Scripture.

"Kulap Erckens indicates that the Scriptures will serve with the Theocracy's military," Demiurge told him suggestively. It went without saying that the Cardinals would be captured.

"You may have any who take up arms and were not involved," Aniz decided, anticipating the demon's request. There were always uses for strong humans. "Those that survive," he added. There was no need to make things difficult.

"You are most generous," the demon replied, bowing as he crossed his chest with one hand.

"We are still sorting documents but have we identified who this is?" Ainz asked, reaching out to the stack of images on his desk. They were the copies of those taken from Aura's mind. He flicked through them until he found the image of the elfin woman. He held it up, glaring at the back of the paper. Soon all the images would be labelled with names. He'd told Shalltear that he wanted that and he knew the vampire would take great pleasure in filling out each name. She'd probably include little notes with ideas for torture.

"Unfortunately, My Lord, we have not yet been able to identify her, not even through inference," Demiurge seemed ashamed.

"Inference?" Ainz asked. Usually Demiurge was far more accurate.

"Many of the Cardinals' documents seem to be about keeping what they call the Godkin Bloodlines pure and productive," the demon explained.

The word struck a memory. Momon had been called Godkin. He had ignored it at the time but knew it had to be a powerful human.

"We believe she must be one of these Godkin," Demiurge continued.

"We will find her," Ainz assured the demon. "The challenge will just make the outcome more satisfying," he added as he put the image down, making sure the stack was neat as he moved it to another part of his desk. There were so many papers on there today. So long as they were only as powerful as Momon was supposed to be, there would be no issue but it was something to watch for.

Demiurge's features flashed through a vicious smile. "Of course, My Lord," he agreed.

Titus nodded. "We have also sorted several papers from the dross," he indicated, placing several thick rolls of parchment onto Ainz's desk.

Ainz reached out for one and unrolled it. Non-existent eyes widened when he saw the script. Japanese. "There was a copy of this paper in four of the Cardinal's offices," the demon told him, telling him why this particular paper had been singled out for attention. Multiple copies meant the Theocracy thought it was important, and the parchment crackled with age.

"There was an accompanying note with it, from the Cardinal of Light," Titus took up the thread as Ainz set a few paperweights on the scroll to hold it down.

"Hmm?"

"I do not believe the Cardinals could read it," the undead Librarian said.

"But?" Ainz objected, taking off the [Magic Glasses]. He didn't need it for this.

"The note indicated that the Cardinal was working on a translation but did not understand the text." There was a note of superiority in Titus' voice. The NPCs could read the text easily. It just proved that humans were primitive.

He read the top line. "Proposed Rules for the Kingdom." Ainz chuckled. "Maybe we will provide a translation for them," he indicated.

Demiurge smiled. He had no doubt already read the document and understood his jest.

Ainz looked at the document, re-reading the first line. His eyes traced out the kanji, lingering on the word Kingdom. It was scary. Just those two kanji meant so much. He had a Kingdom now. He was a King. It was not the same as being Guild Master. It was far more important. The lives of all those within his Kingdom relied upon him.

And it was all for the Great Tomb of Nazarick, he reminded himself. It was for those his friends had made so that they could know peace. The Theocracy had removed that peace. The Kingdom was at war.

"Kingdom," he murmured, re-reading the words. This was a document he was currently developing for his kingdom. The rules that they would live by.

Internally Ainz sighed. The fact of the document just meant there definitely were, or had been other players in the Theocracy. They had founded it. They were the Gods the Theocracy worshiped. At least that was the logical assumption.

He hoped they were gone. He hoped they were still there. He didn't know what he wanted. If they were there, then how could they condone such an action? He was undead. His emotion was no longer human but he was angered at the thought. Ainz considered his feelings carefully. It was partially because it was Aura but… no, he did not particularly want anyone to go through that. At least, no one who had not earned such punishment. You repaid good with good, evil with evil. That was the way of the world.

He looked below the line to the text, running one skeletal hand over the words. He could tell it wasn't an original document. Not with four copies and briefly he wondered where the original was. They'd find it in due course.

"Well, as the Americans would say, we ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto," the opening line made no sense. Ainz didn't understand the reference but he knew it was probably some sort of joke. Temperance would have understood it. He knew more about American idiosyncrasies.

"Given that this isn't Yggdrasil, and it sure as hell isn't home, and the humans are following us around as if we are some sort of super shepherds, we need some rules for the long term."

There it was. In black and white. The Gods of the Slane Theocracy were players, though he still didn't know which ones. Given the slang… Mentally he winced. Given the slang they were probably younger players.

Ainz looked up. "You have read this?" he asked Demiurge and Titus.

"Yes, My Lord," they both murmured.

"They are from Yggdrasil," he stated.

"Lesser beings," Demiurge replied immediately. It was how the NPCs referred to the other players. "As evidenced by their nonsensical writings."

Ainz said nothing as he rested his chin on one hand, leaning onto his desk as he thought. The joke was poor but probably indicative of the players. He would have to read further to understand Demiurge's comment and since this was written by players… it would have insight in how they had adapted to this world. He tapped one finger against this upper jaw bone. "Lesser, but still dangerous," he gave his assessment. Demiurge knew that players were dangerous. "We need further information," he added.

"My Lord?" Demiurge questioned.

"The Theocracy will be destroyed. However, if their so called Gods still exist, I do not want to be ambushed."

The demon's expression cleared as he understood.

"It is so nice that Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche has volunteered to give us what information he knows," Ainz declared. "Titus, I would be grateful if you could tell Shalltear I wish to speak with her before you continue sorting the documents."

"It will be done, My Lord!" The undead Librarian said bowing before he turned away.

"Are you sure, My Lord?" Demiurge asked carefully. He already knew why Shalltear was being summoned.

Ainz understood. "Yes," he assured the Seventh Floor Guardian. "Shalltear has a vested interest in seeing the Slane Theocracy's downfall, both for herself and her friend. But more than that, as the Guardian of the First Three Floors, her power was designed primarily for bludgeoning, but she, like all of Nazarick, can learn more. Except, nothing will change unless she is given opportunities to learn."

"Your wisdom is beyond compare," Demiurge said, once again bowing.

Ainz wanted to reply that it wasn't, that only time would determine who was wise and who had been foolish but he knew that would give the wrong impression. Instead he waved the demon's praise away. "Since coming to this world, we have all had to adapt. Mistakes will be made but that is how we learn and I enjoy knowing that you are all learning."

For a moment the demon said nothing but Ainz saw the way his expression changed. Mentally he frowned. He hadn't said anything profound, had he? Yet from the the demon's expression he must have.

"Master, you are truly magnificent to think so deeply of us all. I am honoured for the opportunity to learn from you."

Ainz shook his head. "There will not be much learning this time, though I will strive to maximise any opportunities. While subtlety worked with the Baharuth Empire and the Holy Kingdom, the Theocracy will not appreciate it and thus force will be applied. They seem to understand that language and I do so want to be clear." Ainz frowned to himself. The Holy Kingdom… he had yet to assign a ruler to them. He made another mental note. He would have to visit or send someone soon. It could not be his concern now.

The demon grinned. "Of course, My Lord."

-cos-

Fifth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Room of Truth

Shalltear looked around the room. They had assembled all of those taken from the Theocracy. She felt her anger threatening to make her lose control of her human form but clamped down on the emotion severely. There would be time to let it reign supreme later. Besides, these were Aura's playthings. She just needed to persuade them to give up a little bit of information. That wouldn't be difficult.

They were assembled here to ensure that they had captured them all. Each of the proletarians was kneeling in front of their own picture. Some were staring at the images with a satisfying amount of shock. It would soon be fear.

She tapped the two spare images against her hand. They were the images of the Cardinal and the unknown woman. She sucked air through her teeth. She really wanted that woman and knew Aura would as well. There was something disturbing about that image and for her to be thinking that… there was something very wrong.

"Good, you are all here," she announced happily. That brought their eyes towards her. Usually she'd preen but this was serious.

Those who had been in Nazarick already quickly dropped their heads. The newcomers were easy to recognise in the way they kept staring.

"Although," Shalltear mused thoughtfully, "you probably don't know where here is, though you certainly must know why you are here."

Those who had been guests of Nazarick for a while shuddered. The motion seemed to pass on to the others. Shalltear raised her free hand, making a placating motion. "You need not worry, I am not going to kill you. I'm not even going to hurt you," she announced. "No matter how much you scum deserve it," she added with a growl. "No, no... calling you scum gives scum a bad name," she muttered.

From the side Neuronist gave a small cough. Usually she would have snapped but this was too important. She'd have a word with the brain eater later.

"Now, we can do this two ways, the easy way or the hard way." Shalltear examined one perfectly manicured nail as she let a small smile play across her lips. There was a marked difference in the reactions of those who had been in Nazarick for a while and she hadn't even seen them until today! "The easy way is where you tell me what I want to know without trying to lie to me and the hard way is where you try to be stubborn and I find out what I want anyway. It's up to you but I hope you choose the hard way."

"...y… you said you wouldn't hurt us!" one of the rubes managed to say.

Shalltear's small smile stretched across her features as her red eyes glittered. "There is hurt, and then there is hurt," she almost purred the last.

The peasant flinched back. Given his crime, it wasn't nearly enough. He should be on his belly begging for whatever she desired. For the moment, Shalltear restrained herself to a glare. "I will give you some time to think about it. A few hours, then I will return, and you can decide what is best for you. I hope you don't disappoint me," she said tapping the spare pictures against her hand before turning away and almost skipping out of the room.

Neuronist Painkill and her assistants followed after glaring at their future victims. They would get the information Lord Ainz wanted one way or another. They were hoping it was another.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Cardinal of Earth's Office

Raymond steepled his fingers as he thought. Yvon, Maximilian and Ginidine were sitting quietly as well. There was much to consider. Berenice was out reassuring the people. She was the best of them to do that. Her grandmotherly appearance made her a more familiar face to the people and right at the moment, they needed cheering. Everyone had heard the warning bells.

Dominic was still raging. Raymond suspected the others were happy to leave him out of this. "Did you lose much?" He asked the other three.

"Not that much," Ginedine spoke for them all. "Though the undead will know that Dominic ordered the attack," he added.

"Oh?" Raymond frowned. The Windflower Scripture had carried out the attack, with help from artefacts lent to them by Zetsumei but the documentation had not been in his papers, and he doubted Dominic would have been dumb enough to keep documentation himself.

"Not official documents," Maximilian seemed to read his mind.

"Ah." The Cardinal of Earth nodded his understanding. Dominic's culpability would be established through personal documents that were missing.

"They appear to have grabbed what was easily available," Yvon said. That indicated that his secret papers, at least, had not been touched.

"They may not have even wanted the documents," Ginedine suggested.

The Cardinal's nodded. The effects of the alarms was more than enough.

"Or they wanted those prisoners," Raymond said.

"The prisoners?" Maximilian asked.

"The disposables," Yvon told him.

"The undead would not care, would it?" the Cardinal of Darkness frowned.

"It doesn't but it is giving the impression that it does," Yvon surmised, and they all thought of the declaration. The undead was definitely giving the impression that it cared for its servants. It was an excuse, nothing more.

"Do we care about them?" Maximilian asked.

"It will look bad if it gets out that they weren't executed," Ginedine indicated, "but I don't think we need to worry about that. Yvon is correct, the undead is giving the impression it cares, so it will take care of their execution." He didn't need to say that with an undead involved, it would be far more brutal than a mere execution and would probably involve the desecration of their bodies afterwards.

"They will be given merc-" Yvon stopped when there was a soft tap on the door.

"Come," Raymond called. There were members of the Black Scripture standing guard so any knock was allowed.

General Parisa Easton Wuopio stepped through the door. She saluted the Cardinals present.

"General," Raymond greeted her. Parisa had worked her way through the ranks. She would have made a good member of any scripture but had been more inclined to work with the military. She was a good commander.

"Your Graces," she greeted them.

"My colleagues are just observing," Raymond said with a wry smile. They were discussing events and trying to determine a clear course of action. There were so many unknowns. And the undead was doing a very good job of adding more. He suspected that was at least part of its plan.

Parisa gave a single nod to indicate she understood.

"It is done?" he asked before she spoke. All three of his colleagues looked sharply at him. He was the Commander of the Scriptures but they had agreed that for the moment, there would be no missions without notifying all the Cardinals.

"Yes, Your Grace. I have dispatched a reinforced troop towards Synoro," General Parisa confirmed her actions. "With the demonstrated ability of the undead to block our scrying, I deemed it best to dispatch physical observers, in the event that it does obscure Synoro again."

"Won't it kill them?" Yvon demanded.

Parisa turned slightly. "According to the Thousand Mile Astrologer the undead has left the Legions occupying Synoro. I have instructed the troop to maintain their distance but if challenged, to approach under a flag of truce."

"If they honour it," Ginedine muttered.

The General gave another grave nod. There was always that. "Without the undead being physically present, I believe they will," she said firmly but the Cardinals, who were masters of oration heard the small note of doubt in her voice. Yet they did not disagree with the order. It was essential that they have information.

She didn't need to tell the Cardinals that gathering the army to go into combat against the Legions was a bad idea. Given the events of the Katze Plains, gathering that many men together was asking for trouble. They were still checking the rumour that the undead could not re-cast that spell but there was always the possibility of other spells. No, direct combat was not advised on many levels.

"We are focusing too much on the Legions," Maximilian said, tapping at one of his books. It was a large tome though its title was obscured, it was one that appeared well read. "They are not our enemy," he justified his earlier statement.

"They aren't," General Wuopio agreed, "but at the moment, the Legions are the face of the undead."

"Which just means we need to draw out the undead," Ginedine concluded.

"Yes," Yvon agreed. "If we can do that, then we can finish this."

Raymond looked sharply at the Cardinal of Light. He wasn't the only one. General Parisa looked slightly confused but she recognised something important was about to be said.

"I told you already," Yvon said with a flick of his hand. "I am preparing Gisei."

"You can't."

The Cardinal of Light gave the Cardinal of Darkness a look. "I can," he said firmly. "And at this point, even if it means my loss, or the loss of a hundred of us, it will be a victory."

"One we will not recover from!" Maximilian almost yelled, his usual control absent.

Yvon looked at him serenely. "The Theocracy would. It would be slow but the Theocracy would recover and would be stronger." He shifted his gaze to the ground. "Gisei is a last resort, and if any of you have any other ideas on how to destroy an undead of this calibre then I am open to hear them!"

"Zetsumei," Raymond said the name of the Black Scripture's extra seat. She was the single strongest Godkin the Slane Theocracy had ever seen. She was the closest to the Gods.

"I pray for her success," the Cardinal of Light indicated but he did not back down.

"It is better to be prepared," Ginedine agreed. "Zetsumei cannot be victorious unless we create an opening." He didn't need to say that openings were in short supply at the moment.

"That might be easier than we think," Raymond said slowly, as he thought. "The undead has proven that it responds to attacks on its servants," he added.

"So if we can attack one of them," Maximilian said carefully, "then it will come into the open." The Cardinal of Darkness frowned suddenly. "Has the Thousand Mile Astrologer seen it since the declaration of war?" he asked quickly.

"You know she can't see it," Raymond told him pointedly.

"Yes, yes," he waved away the objection. "Has she? Or any of his servants?" They knew who they were from observations of E-Rantel.

"I can answer that," General Wuopio interrupted. "We have been asking about their location but she has been unable to locate them." It was a simple part of war. You always tracked the enemy commanders.

The Cardinals looked at each other, a tiny flame of possibility igniting in their hearts. "None of them?" Maximilian pressed.

"The Insect thing appears to be with the demihumans. His Prime Minister has not been seen recently, though we believe she is at his home base," General Parisa began listing off the undead's known servants. "The elves had not been seen at all either. We presume they are at the home base as well." They knew that E-Rantel, no matter what the undead claimed, was not its territory and the city was not the undead's main place of residence. That was in what had been thought to be ruins near the Katze Plains. They weren't sure what to call it. The Baharuth Empire called it a Tomb and that was accurate, given it was the dwelling of an undead but it felt wrong. "The Adventurer Momon is in E-Rantel," she concluded.

The Cardinals knew there had to be other servants, lesser ones perhaps scattered around but they did not know their identities. Those of the Empire who had been to the undead's base were not speaking. And those spies they had sent to E-Rantel had not been able to gather reliable information, though the slave traders had confirmed that the undead did not allow slavery. It was not just a rule imposed upon the Empire with their vassalage. That meant they had to accept the reality that the undead had spies in Kami Miyako. It was a disturbing thought and one that Berenice was doing her best to dispel within the population. They didn't have that luxury.

"So the insect is the only one we can positively locate," Maximilian murmured, tapping his fingers against the tome. "What do we know about it?"

"Not much," Ginedine replied. The Insect thing had only been identified recently and spent most of its time with demihumans. They had not bothered to look into it. He looked at Raymond significantly.

The Cardinal of Earth nodded. "I'll have her look into it," he acknowledged before drawing a deep breath. "So that is our plan."

"The only part I don't like is leaving Synoro," Yvon said.

"The Legions are there, not the undead," Maximilian pointed out. That was a mercy.

"Oh, I understand why we can't reply," the Cardinal of Light addressed the issue. "But I do not have to like it."

"If we attack, we will be drawn into a full war, and that is undoubtedly what the undead wants," Raymond said. His tone was tinged with sadness. He too understood Yvon's thoughts. Synoro was a part of the Theocracy. It felt wrong to just leave them, even if in the long run it was for the best. Strategic decisions were seldom simple. "Then it will be man against man and that will only serve to weaken us all." The demihuman nations on their borders were no doubt just waiting for the chance to pounce. Even the Elves, perhaps especially the Elves. The skirmishes with them had been toned down recently due to the season but no doubt the elves would be happy to reinvigorate the war if the Theocracy displayed weakness.

"We must send words to the priests that they must remain alive. Information is the most important thing now," Maximilian said.

Raymond nodded. "I'll get the Windflower Scripture to do it. They will be able to send a message in discretely."

"Put them on more active observation," Ginedine suggested.

The Cardinal of Earth sighed, but nodded. The Windflower Scripture would be best to observe the undead's servants in the event the Thousand Mile Astrologer was blocked. They wouldn't like moving in winter, but no one did.

"Should we send the other Scriptures to the border? To avoid a repeat of Synoro."

"No," Yvon decided instantly. "They are better kept here, to ensure the security of the capital."

"For a man who regrets it, you are being cold about this," Ginedine noted.

"I don't like it but I understand it," the Cardinal of Light replied. "We can lose Synoro, we can't lose the war. That means we can lose everything so long as we destroy the undead. It will be difficult to recover but Humanity will survive then." He sighed heavily. "I don't want Humanity to go back to the time before the Six Gods, but survival must be our primary concern. Compared to how humanity was then, we are stronger, we can fight the demihumans, but the undead must be destroyed."

"It must be," Maximilian repeated.

"When we strike," Ginedine said seriously, "we must be at full power. This is no longer a problem we can probe at. I, Ginedine Delan Guelfi, the Cardinal of Water, authorise using the God Artefacts."

Raymond's eyes widened. His weren't the only ones. General Parisa's eyes looked like saucers.

"You feel that strongly?" Maximilian asked, his voice carefully neutral.

"I do," Ginedine replied. "If Yvon is preparing for Gisei, then we can do no less. And if it comes to Gisei then Augmenting Seraphs should be used. I do not wish for the losses, but as the Cardinal of Light has so rightfully pointed out, we must win."

Maximilian wasn't the only one to sigh as he closed his eyes, resting his hands on two books as he thought. The Augmenting Seraphs were a special group of magic users. Divine Magic users were rare but those who made it into the Augmenting Seraph group were even rarer. They were not allowed to leave Kami Miyako and were never spoken of in more than a whisper. If others realised they existed, and what they did… Their magic was simple and their name was enough of a description to determine their ability. They enhanced and amplified other magic. It didn't matter what type, they could amplify any type of magic. Transporters working with an Augmenting Seraph could transport larger items for the same magical expenditure, or could transport things further. Combat magic became even stronger. And divine magic was amplified so that it would destroy any unclean creature.

The individuals of the Augmenting Seraphs were considered God Artefacts, just the same as those items left to the Theocracy by the Six Gods.

Yvon sighed as well but gave Ginedine a formal half bow. "I, Yvon Jasna Dracrowa, the Cardinal of Light, authorise using God Artefacts."

Raymond snorted. "I can imagine what Zetsumei would say about us here. She'd tell us to issue a challenge to the undead, and be damned with the circumstances."

"That child does not yet understand," Ginedine said, though he silently admitted the irony. In this case, just issuing a challenge would be the simplest solution but the time for that had past. Now it would look desperate. It would seem as if they were only reacting. If they were going to issue a formal challenge to the undead it should have been during the week of its Declaration of War.

Now they actually had to take action. A strike at one of the undead's servants would create the opening they needed, and then a challenge could be issued. At the moment, the undead knew it was winning. It had no reason to accept a challenge. Therefore they had to gain some strength, then they could issue it.

"She is young yet," Raymond agreed. "Very well, I, Raymond Zarg Lauransan, the Cardinal of Earth authorise the use of God Artefacts," he gave his consent as well.

General Wuopoi's eyes were wide. She trembled but remained silent as all eyes turned towards Maximilian. The Cardinal of Darkness was still thinking.

He looked up at his colleagues. "Are we talking about specific artefacts, or all of them?" he asked. There was no inference in his voice but the sincerity of his question.

"All of them," Ginedine said. His reasoning was obvious. There was no point in winning the battle if they lost the war. It was possible the undead's servants would retreat once it was destroyed but they might continue to attack, to stupidly avenge their master's destruction. As living beings they should know better but as demihumans they were lesser beings. They probably clung to the undead's semblance of care as proof of its loyalty and in that, this undead was a good actor. "But only if needed."

"Only if needed," Raymond agreed. He well knew the mess the Scriptures could get into if allowed the use of God Artefacts all the time.

"Alright," Maximilian said softly. "I, Maximilian Oreio Lagier, the Cardinal of Darkness authorise the use of God Artefacts," he intoned.

"That's quorum," Yvon announced, "but it would be best if we can get Berenice and Dominic to agree."

"Dominic will agree," Raymond said, raising one eyebrow. The Cardinal of Wind would probably ask what had taken so long. "Berenice-" he paused. He wasn't so sure about the Cardinal of Fire. She would agree that the undead had to be destroyed but releasing the God Artefacts was a risk. She would probably point out that it was hiding, as were its servants. That did mean, to a certain point, the undead feared them but it could also be part of its plan.

This undead was a challenge. It was not just a powerful magic caster, it thought, it planned and it was immortal. They couldn't be sure how long it had been planning its emergence into the land. Had it known the Eight Greed Kings? Was it one of them? No! They were dead.

It was an interesting thought and in other circumstances it would be interesting to question the undead. What had it seen? What did it know? But it was undead. While it appeared to be able to control its hatred of the living, sooner or later it would act on its instinct. It had to be destroyed now, before it really gained dominance.

"Berenice will agree," Ginedine said firmly. "I will convince her," he added.

"It's not necessary," Maximilian reminded him.

"It would be best to be unanimous on this," the Cardinal of Water countered.

Maximilian nodded. "Then we had best get going," he said, rising. His books moved with him.

"You have service?" Yvon asked unnecessarily.

"Yes, and I think it best if we all follow Berenice's example and preside for the next few days." Usually the Cardinals only presided once a week over services in their Cathedral but for now, for the people of the Theocracy, it would be best if they were seen more often.

"Yes, we are going to get a lot of flack for Synoro," Maximilian agreed.

"We will get it back," Raymond assured him.

"I know," he agreed, looking towards the General. "Keep us all informed," he instructed as he walked to the door. The other Cardinals followed.

General Wuopio looked at the Cardinal of Earth for instruction. Raymond nodded. She returned his nod. The Cardinals would all be informed, after the commander of course.

"All right," Raymond said after the door closed on his colleagues, "what else did you have to report?" He asked. Parisa wouldn't have remained unless there was something else. He could only hope it was beneficial to them.

She smiled at him gently. That was reassuring and Raymond relaxed. At least this report should now be routine. He needed that.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 3 War on the Border Part 4

-cos-

Tenth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick

Ainz walked down the corridor of Nazarick. He didn't even know what time it was but he needed a break. He was not physically tired, that was an impossibility for his undead body but he was mentally tired. There was so much going on that required his attention. At least some of it would be over soonish but in the meantime he had to work more.

No, Ainz mentally shook his head. Even once the Theocracy was dealt with, it would not be over. Aura was… Mare had seen him earlier in the day while he had been reading documents from the Theocracy. Aura did not appear to be getting better. Except he had no idea how to make her get better. He hesitated to think it but it was up to her. She would start her recovery when she wanted. He hoped it was soon but he had no idea.

Despite wracking his now nonexistent brain, he wasn't sure anyone within Ainz Ooal Gown would have known how to deal with this sort of issue.

The Theocracy was the easier issue. Shalltear would be starting on the thugs soon. Demiurge had everything in hand with the Theocracy, and was looking into the feasibility of how to capture Cardinal Dominic. The man would be able to identify the elfin woman and then, once Shalltear was done, they would have everyone who had hurt Aura. He wanted them all before he did anything much else with the Theocracy and he wanted to see what the Cardinals' reaction was to Synoro before deciding on the next step. Sebas was… actually, he hadn't heard from Sebas for a while. He would have to check with Touch Me's creation. Then there was still the Re-Estize Kingdom, the Holy Kingdom and even E-Rantel. There was so much to do.

Ainz raised one hand to where his eyebrows would be, rubbing his bony fingers over his skull as he walked. There was no one here to see the gesture. He had sent the ever present maid off to speak to Mare to find out when Shalltear was going to begin.

A flash of white caught his attention. Ainz looked up.

Albedo was there. She was closing the door to the room he had assigned her. The maids had said something about her room but he couldn't remember what it was for the moment. It couldn't be too bad.

"Albedo," he called softly.

"My Lord!" the succubus gasped, spinning to face him. She bowed her head.

For a moment, just for a moment, he didn't see her as Tabula Smaragdina's creation. He saw her as a friend, someone he could rely on. He needed that.

Ainz closed the distance between them and put his arms around her. She was as soft as he remembered but she felt stiff. He ignored that as he briefly laid his cheek against her head. Her horns felt rough against his bones but her hair was soft and it smelt almost familiar. The scent teased at his memory but he couldn't focus on that.

"Thank you, Albedo," Ainz said, pulling back from the succubus. He held her at arm's length but made sure his grip was gentle. Not that he could hurt her. Albedo was physically far stronger than him.

Albedo stood still, like a statue.

"I haven't had much chance to see you for the past few days but I wanted to thank you," he continued. She had been at Synoro but that was work. "The work you are doing behind the scenes is as important as the work that the world at large sees and your contribution will not be forgotten, Albedo," Ainz told her. It was something he had heard one of the CEO's say once to a worker they had happened to see. It sounded contrite then but he understood it now.

It was much easier for a boss if they could rely on their subordinates.

"I don't meant to neglect you, but it gladdens me that you can work without stifling supervision. It shows your maturity," he said, giving her a smile. Albedo wouldn't see it, but he had faith that she'd feel it.

"Thank you," he repeated, before turning back down the corridor. He couldn't keep her from her duties and he had only a limited amount of time before he had to make other decisions.

Behind him, Albedo remained standing, her yellow eyes wide as she stared into the distance.

Ainz never noticed.

-cos-

Sixth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick

"This is for Aura, Mare."

"I know but I don't want her to be alone."

"She's asleep."

"For now, Shalltear. It's worse when you are alone, that's why I've been sleeping here."

"Has it been bad?"

"Today, not much but…"

"Then come help us. It will make you feel better. And when she is ready, it will make her feel better. I can't take the photos without your help and we need them, you know that."

"But if she wakes up..?"

"Put a charm up. You'll know then and can come back."

"Okay."

There was a tingle of magic.

"I'll be back, Aura."

There was a whisper of sound as the door closed.

Aura lay still, listening as the footsteps retreated before she opened her eyes. Fenrir was a comforting warmth beneath her and she pushed herself into a sitting position. Mare's magic was a tingle on her skin but since she had been awake when he cast it, the magic would not react to her movement.

The dark elf took a deep breath, blowing it out heavily. She was so sick of everyone watching over her. If it wasn't Mare, it was one of the Pleiades. They meant well but she was capable of doing things for herself. She wasn't some weak flower that needed guarding. Yes, something terrible had happened but that was in the past. She was stronger than that, and she was going to prove it.

Aura got up. Mare had dressed her in her bed clothes which she quickly shed. Lady Bukubukuchagama's watch was on the bedside table. Aura smiled as she looked at it. Lord Ainz had retrieved it. He was so great. She was proud she could serve him but she was going to have to earn her right to serve him again. She had been so weak.

Humans had captured her! It was a disgrace, not to her. That hardly mattered. It was a disgrace to Nazarick and she couldn't allow that to continue. The humans would pay. This time they wouldn't take her by surprise.

"Fenny," Aura said as she dressed. "I need you to check that they are gone," she told the wolf.

His deep blue eyes looked at her. Aura knew what Fenny was asking. "Of course I'm sure!" She said. "I just… I just need to do this," she almost begged.

Fenrir sniffed at her before giving her a lick on her cheek. Aura giggled as the wolf moved past her. He nudged the door open with his nose and was gone silently. Aura kept getting dressed. Her scale shirt was hanging up, as was all her equipment and she put each piece on, running her hands over them carefully. They were all intact with only the wear she had given them. It was normal wear that could be easily repaired. Her world item, [Depiction of Nature and Society], wasn't here but Lord Ainz had probably returned it to the treasury for now. No matter, she didn't need it.

She coiled [Queen] slowly before fastening her whip to her belt. She was ready. Just in time.

Fenny's head poked back through the door. "Well?"

"Arf!" The wolf made a small barking noise.

"Good!" They were gone. "I'm just going to go up to the surface," Aura said. "I want to see the sun."

Fenny gave her a look. She could tell the wolf didn't believe her. "I want to see the sun," Aura repeated. "It's Nazarick," she reminded the wolf. "I'll be safe," she added, suppressing her sigh.

Even Fenny was trying to keep her safe! It was as if somehow she couldn't do anything any more! It was so frustrating. The wolf seemed to humph but backed away from the door.

Aura grinned, and walked out. She almost bounced down the stairs, especially when she saw the rest of her familiars waiting there.

"Heji! Quadracile!" She greeted them. The frost dragon just looked at her while the six legged chameleon opened its mouth. Its sticky tongue unrolled slightly. Again there were questions. A larger dragon rose up from behind them.

Aura felt her eyes widen. That was… "Wanglong?" she whispered.

The dragon snorted. It was just bones with a few scrapes of skin clinging to its wings. There was a red light in each of its eyes.

"What?" Wanglong had not been like this.

"Grr," the dragon responded. It wasn't a growl at her, rather the noise almost seemed to be an attempt to speak. She understood though and felt a flash of anger. She knew Wanglong had been injured, she just didn't think her brother's dragon had been killed. The anger mixed with guilt. She'd caused that. She hadn't been strong enough.

Aura bowed. "I am sorry, Wanglong," she said to the dragon.

"Ars." Wanglong made another noise, telling her to rise. He was happy. Lord Ainz…

"He resurrected you?" Aura asked. "No, not resurrection." If it was resurrection the dragon would be as she remembered. "Raised you," she corrected.

"Ars!" Wanglong agreed.

Lord Ainz had used Wanglong's corpse and his innate ability to raise the undead to create the dragon's new form. He'd used all his summon ability for that day. That meant there were other undead which hadn't been made. Aura felt a wave of guilt again. And she already knew Lord Ainz would tell her that it wasn't her fault, that he thought nothing of it. He was too magnanimous. Far too magnanimous.

"Rsh!"

Aura jerked at the admonition. Wanglong was happy. He was more powerful than ever before. And he was going to protect her.

"No!" Aura objected. "I didn't protect you," she told the dragon.

It just gave her a look. It might be just a skeleton now but she understood. She'd argue with it later. "I'm going to the surface," she told Wanglong. "You don't need to come."

"Gar!"

"What?" Aura demanded. "He did what?" She growled.

"Gar." Wanglong repeated.

Mare had told the dragon that she was its primary objective. Her brother had ordered it to protect her.

"I do not need protection!" Aura yelled, anger bubbling within her.

Again, Wanglong just gave her a look.

"I do not want your protection!" she screamed. "Mare shouldn't have done that! I can protect myself!" She didn't care about the noise. Oh, she was going to let Mare have it later. How dare he! How dare he order one of the dragons they were meant to use to protect Nazarick to protect her!

Lord Ainz would not forgive that. What was he thinking?! They had to protect Nazarick. Not her. They all had to protect Nazarick and Lord Ainz! That was their job! Not protecting her. Wanglong should understand that.

No, Aura made a growl in the back of her throat. Wanglong wouldn't understand that. The dragon hadn't been created to protect Nazarick. It had been won by one of the Supreme Beings. Aura felt her eyes open wide at the realisation. She had let one of the Supreme Being's dragons die. How could she? Her knees felt weak. They'd never forgive her. She'd never forgive herself.

It didn't matter that Lord Ainz had recreated Wanglong as a dragonlich. He wouldn't have had to if she hadn't been so careless… And… and… Aura gulped, before pushing back her memories. She had ruined Rubedo's mission as well. She could remember Albedo's sister rescuing her. She'd ruined everything.

She was weak, just as that woman had said. Aura pushed that memory away.

Tears threatened to fall but she remembered why she was up. She would have to apologise to Lord Ainz later and accept whatever punishment he gave her. She looked back at the dragon. "I am going to the surface," she said. "You are not to come," she ordered.

"Gar."

"No! I know what Mare ordered but I do not need that now," she said firmly, glaring up at the dragon's eyes.

The red lights narrowed before the dragon huffed, much like Fenny had. "Gurrsh," it heaved with nonexistent breath.

"I will call for you if I need you, if I need any of you," Aura assured them.

None of her familiars looked happy but she was their Mistress, they would obey. She skipped out from under the tree. Now all she had to do was get out of here! That would be easy!

-cos-

Aura took a deep breath. She held it for a moment before breathing out. Nazarick smelt good but there was something different about the outside. It was fresh, especially in the forest Mare had created. She was almost tempted to take off her shoes to feel the grass between her toes and maybe squelch the mud. Except, that wasn't a good look and it was cold. Maybe in summer.

She leapt into the trees. It was good to be out. Aura ran, leaping from limb to limb with wild abandon. There were guards in the forest but she knew how to avoid them. They wouldn't attack her anyway because she was of Nazarick. It felt good to be moving again though. She reveled in it.

Aura stopped running only when she was out of breath. She snorted to herself. She'd lost some of her conditioning. But that could be fixed. She would fix that! She looked around. The trees were still dense here but there was a smell of smoke in the air. She was near E-Rantel. She scampered up the tree to the top branches. Yep, there was E-Rantel in the distance.

The Statue of Lord Ainz was visible. It looked good in the dull light of winter. It would look magnificent in the summer sun. She smiled just seeing it. Aura took another deep breath. It was nice to be out. She frowned as she looked around. There was something new there. It was outside E-Rantel's walls and appeared to be a maze. What was that?

She jumped from the branch, landing lightly on one below. Another few skips brought her to the edge of the forest and she looked out. There was a human looking at the maze. He appeared to be talking to one of Lord Ainz' created liches. But why had it been built?

Aura jumped to the ground and trotted through the grass. It rustled with her movement. At least there wasn't snow yet. The lich saw her but didn't react. Why should it, she was one of Lord Ainz' servants. The man kept talking to the lich. Were all humans this oblivious? Aura came closer. This was going to be fun.

The twitch of the man let her knew she'd been heard. She felt a slight trace of disappointment. Oh well, at least he wasn't completely useless. He turned when the lich bowed its head towards her.

Aura looked at him… There was a roaring in her ears. No… No! She wasn't there. She wasn't there! She took a shallow breath, it hissed through her mouth. Aura took a step back but she couldn't look away. The man looked back. He seemed concerned.

It was a lie. She reached for [Queen]. The whip was at her side. Her hand shook. No… this wasn't happening. She couldn't do this. It hurt. It hurt.

She didn't want to remember!

"No!" Aura squealed. She took another step back but her legs were weak. Her knees gave out. She collapsed, still staring up at the man. No.

"Please," Aura whispered. He was coming closer. "Please don't hurt me."

-cos-

Outskirts of E-Rantel

Living in E-Rantel had never been exactly boring but in recent times, it had become far more interesting. At least, that's what Pluton Ainzach told himself. It was better than the alternative words and he knew some were using them.

In the time since the undead King Ainz Ooal Gown had taken over the city, there had been changes. But they were not bad. That had to be emphasised. Things were different but not necessarily bad. Sure, the Adventurer's Guild was now a part of the Sorcerous Kingdom but that, like everything else, had advantages and disadvantages.

So far though, Pluton had yet to see any real disadvantages. Yes, there had been a huge downturn in jobs for Adventurers since the Sorcerer King had come to power but there had been quiet times before. And the downturn in jobs was really a good thing. The undead's forces were keeping the demihumans and other things in check. Fewer jobs actually meant fewer deaths. It was a good thing. Difficult for income but a good thing.

Some of the Guild had thought that His Majesty would use them in the war against the Theocracy. In fact, when taking the Adventurer's Guild under his wing, the Sorcerer King had admitted that there might be a time when the Adventurers were used in a war. He had been honest about that. Ainzach had appreciated that, as had Theo. But so far, that hadn't happened. It might, but not yet.

Things Momon had told him seemed to indicate that His Majesty had no thought to use them this time as well. The Adamantite Adventurer was still maudlin. Pluton understood but… There was a reason Momon was such a great man. He felt things far more personally and he cared on a different level than he did.

Today though, Pluton was looking at one of the advantages. When the Sorcerer King said he wanted to have control over the Adventurers it wasn't a hollow gesture. He didn't just want the power they represented, he wanted them to be something new, something greater. True Adventurers and the undead was willing to support that goal. The maze before Pluton was proof of that support.

The undead had built it for training Adventurers. His Majesty had deplored the losses they routinely suffered and had proposed this as a way of training. Looking out on the maze, Ainzach felt at least ten years younger. He was excited and he couldn't wait to get a turn running through it. His Majesty promised that the maze could be set for various difficulties.

Ainzach was… it was going to be good and it would save lives. It would take time but he knew that the Adventurer's Guild under His Majesty would be larger than ever. Their ranks would no longer be a matter of luck, of never encountering anything you couldn't fight early in your career. He felt a keen sense of loss when he thought about how many promising Adventurer's had been lost in the past.

It was… this was going to be amazing, and all from the thought of an undead. Pluton smiled to himself. Momon wasn't the only one learning from His Majesty. It was so odd to think that. Undead were meant to hate the living. They were meant to want to kill them, yet His Majesty had come up with this solution specifically as a way of saving lives.

The only thing that Pluton still had to work hard at was controlling his fear when he had to speak with His Majesty's servants. Thankfully he didn't have to speak to His Majesty's powerful servants that often, though power was a relative matter. He did have to speak with several elder liches during the construction of the maze.

He almost snorted at the thought. It was more than odd to consider an elder lich to be one of the lesser servants of His Majesty. It was even worse to be walking beside one, going through an inspection but he had gotten used to it. Besides, Pluton knew, even at his peak he wouldn't have been able to fight the lich… or even any of the Death Knights that patrolled the city.

Actually… "Urei," he asked the elder lich, suppressing his natural wince as he turned to look at it.

He could speak to His Majesty. Then, while he saw the white bone that was the undead's body, he was able to think of it differently. His Majesty radiated power. Urei was also bone but he was smaller. That made the difference. Ainzach could too easily imagine Urei with flesh and that was creepy. Still, like all of E-Rantel, he was working on it.

"Yes?" the undead asked.

"The Death Knights do know that we are able to have weapons here, right?" Pluton asked. The Death Knights were charged to protect the peace of the city and they did. The citizens of E-Rantel knew that they couldn't draw a weapon on the street. Most of them had never needed to, so it wasn't a problem. Visitors to the city went through orientation before they were allowed in, and that had cut back on the deaths.

"Yes!" Urei was quick to assure him. "They have been instructed that this area is not within the city," he explained.

Pluton frowned. That was a security weakness there but the maze was outside of the walls so maybe not much of a weakness.

"Their orders can be changed, if necessary," Urei apparently read his thoughts.

"Of course," he agreed. "So when will it be completed?" he couldn't keep the eager note of hope out of his voice.

Urei gave him a look. The undead seemed amused. "Soon," he replied. "I will let you be the first," he added.

Ainzach chuckled, reaching up to scratch at the back of his head. Was he that transparent? He suppressed a frown as as Urei inclined his head to someone behind him. There was a rustle, and Pluton turned.

Oh, it was one of the elves. He frowned looking at the heterochromatic eyes. The elf was dressed as a boy but Ainzach remembered there were meant to be two of them, a brother and a sister. And it was the sister who had been raped. Momon hadn't been any more specific than that.

He looked at the elf, expecting a greeting, at least for Urei. His Majesty's servants were polite to each other but his gaze quickly changed.

The elf's face paled. The pupils of his eyes shrank and Pluton heard him gasp. This wasn't a normal reaction. His expression changed. He was concerned. He was about to step towards the elf lad when he took a step back.

What? The elf reached for something at his waist but his hands shook too much. What was happening?

"No!"

Pluton heard the word. It sounded desperate. He wanted to look to Urei for help but he couldn't look away. The elf took another step back. He was trembling. Another step but this time the elf fell. He stepped forward, concerned. Was the elf sick?

"Please," the elf child whispered. "Please don't hurt me."

Ainzach reared back. What? He wasn't going to hurt him! He just wanted to help. What was wrong?

He looked at the elf. It was shaking now. What did he do? He took another step forward, reaching out one hand.

"Please," the elf begged. "Please."

He turned back to Urei. The lich seemed as surprised as him. That moment made the undead so much more human. Pluton gasped. He felt sick just looking at the elf, and with the way it was staring at him, he was sure the elf wasn't seeing him. What was the elf seeing? What had happened to put the child in such a state?

"I think you need to contact His Majesty," Ainzach suggested.

"What?" Urei seemed surprised.

"For-" he gestured. He didn't want to get closer. Whatever the elf was seeing, he didn't want to get close when it was obvious that was causing the elf distress.

"Of course!" Urei understood. There was a flash of magic.

Pluton watched. He'd watched Theo cast spells many times but the undead always made it seem so easy.

[My Lord,] Urei said aloud, apparently making contact with His Majesty. [It's Lady Aura Bella Fiora.]

Wait, what? This was Lady Aura, His Majesty's servant… The one who had been captured by the Theocracy and… He didn't want to think it. No wonder she was like this. She was just a child. He wanted to help but he held back from taking another step towards the elf. She would just be more scared.

Was she dressed like that to hide? He didn't know.

He didn't hear His Majesty's response but there was motion coming from E-Rantel. Pluton looked over. The thin light of the winter's day made Momon's armor seem black. The Adamantite Ranked Adventurer was riding on the King of the Forest, the almost mythical beast he had subdued. He was racing towards them.

"Thank you," Ainzach said to Urei. His Majesty had obviously sent Momon to help with the elf.

The huge beast sent up a spray of cold dirt as it came to a stop but Momon was already dismounted. He was striding through the grass towards them and for a moment Pluton was afraid. He had a glimpse of what the man was like when he got serious. For an instant, he almost felt sorry for the monsters Momon had killed. They really didn't have a chance.

Momon didn't greet him, instead he went straight for the elf. His armor jingled slightly as he knelt beside her, reaching out gently to touch her shoulder. The contact seemed to startle the elf. She flinched, somehow sinking further down which was sadly impressive given how small she had managed to make herself. Ainzach understood His Majesty's anger. This was not how anyone should be, elf or not.

The elf turned her eyes. She was breathing shallowly, many quick shallow breaths in rapid succession. It took a moment but Pluton watched as her eyes focused. Her pupils widened as she took in Momon's dark armor.

"Wah!"

He didn't see her move but suddenly Momon's arms were full of elf. She clung to him. The Adventurer wrapped his armored arms around the elf. Where he had looked murderous before, now Pluton could feel a softer side to Momon.

"Shh, shh, shh," he murmured, actually rubbing the elf's back. Momon rose, cradling the elf as he moved. She was so small he could hold her securely with one arm. With this other he reached to his shoulder and unclasped his cape.

Ainzach watched as Momon wrapped the elf in it.

"I'm sorry," she gasped, tears streaming from her eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry!" It seemed to form a litany.

'It's alright, Aura," Momon murmured to her. "I'm here." It seemed to work.

Pluton was surprised, but thankful. He had wanted to help but he knew he was bringing back the memories.

"Just sleep for now, Aura. They won't ever get you again," Momon told the elf as he pulled something out. It looked to be a tiny chain and Ainzach watched as Momon gently lowered it to the elf's forehead. When it touched the skin her eyes clouded and then closed.

"Nabe gave it to me," Momon answered his obvious question.

He nodded. "So…" What did you say in this situation?

Momon seemed to understand his difficulty. "I will take her back to His Majesty," the Adventurer said before turning slightly to look at the undead. "Thank you, Urei."

Urei bowed his head.

"I'll carry her, Master, that I will."

It always surprised Pluton when Momon's mount spoke. It shouldn't surprise him but it looked like an animal and one did not expect a horse to speak for example. It was different for the undead.

"It's alright, Hamsuke, I'll take her," Momon replied.

Pluton almost shivered. He didn't know how Momon did it. He was speaking politely to his mount but the Head of the Adventurer's Guild knew that if anything tried to attack Momon right at the moment they would regret it. He swallowed hard as the black clad warrior turned away. Hamsuke moved with him. While Momon's mount was registered and knew the way back to the stable, it was loyal.

"Momon," Ainzach called.

"Yes?"

He swallowed again. There was a definite note of threat to Momon's voice. "If His Majesty needs the Adventurer's Guild, please let him know we stand ready to serve," he said. After seeing Lady Aura he understood Ainz Ooal Gown's anger. "And," Pluton took a deep breath, "please tell Lady Aura I am sorry for the reaction I caused."

Momon turned to him and nodded. "I will, Pluton," the Adventurer said, his voice much gentler than before.

"Thank you," Ainzach said as he watched Momon walk away, cradling the now sleeping elf against his chest. There were any number of women who would kill to be in that situation, including, rumour had it, Blue Rose's Evileye… He didn't think they'd want the elf's experience though.

Pluton took another breath as Momon disappeared into the forest. It wasn't common knowledge but it was known that His Majesty did have a residence somewhere near the Katze Plains. Ainzach had never looked for it since the Sorcerer King used E-Rantel as his base, but it made sense that Momon knew where it was, and would take the elf there now. It would be more familiar for Lady Aura.

"Thank you, Urei," he said again to the lich who was still standing with him.

"Lord Ainz Ooal Gown is very upset at this," Urei told him.

Pluton nodded. He would be upset as well.

"He views his servants as his children," the undead said.

"Huh?" Ainzach wished his response was slightly more coherent.

"I was created by Lord Ainz Ooal Gown," Urei said. "But I am only a lich," the undead added deprecatingly. "His direct servants are far more powerful and… he loves them."

"Love?" Again his response was hardly that considered.

Urei looked at him again. "Those of us who know his thoughts, who were created by Lord Ainz Ooal Gown know this. He does not say it, but it is true."

Ainzach nodded. What could he do but accept? His Majesty did not hate the living in the way the undead were meant to, who was he to say that Ainz could not love? It was only a part of what made His Majesty so special.

Though… Pluton glanced back at the forest. Momon was no longer visible. The man could move like the wind when he wanted. He hadn't known that His Majesty's servants thought so highly of the man who had promised to kill their Lord if he started killing the citizens of E-Rantel. It was good that Lady Aura had calmed in Momon's presence but…

He shook his head. No. Momon would not betray them. He had simply reacted to Lady Aura's pain as any decent being would. Comforting the elf was the right thing to do and Momon would always do the right thing. Ainzach knew that. It was a good thing that Aura hadn't seen him as…

He didn't want to think it but he knew what Lady Aura had been thinking when she looked at him. Well, not exactly but in general terms. She had been back where… where she had been raped. She had probably thought he was one of… He definitely didn't want to think that. It made him sick. He didn't know exactly how old Aura was but since His Majesty had taken control of E-Rantel, Pluton had done some research into elves. They aged very slowly. Lady Aura looked like a child so she probably was still. At least in elven terms.

That made him feel sicker and while rape was bad enough, the fact that Aura was a child, albeit a very powerful child, made it worse.

Pluton shivered. It had nothing to do with the cold air. His eyes widened. "By the Four Gods…" he murmured.

Urei looked at him. He waved one hand at the undead, telling him not to worry. "I was just thinking I was lucky."

"Lucky?" Urei questioned.

"It's a selfish thought," he replied. "I am lucky Lady Aura didn't lash out at me."

"Ah," Urei's tone indicated agreement. The undead couldn't smile and didn't laugh. They were emotionless. Or at least they appeared to be. Maybe only one of His Majesty's stature could feel. But they did understand. "I'm sure Lady Aura would have been sorry."

Ainzach just looked at the skeleton. He knew Urei wasn't joking. Lady Aura might have been sorry, but he would have been dead. He suppressed another shiver.

"I'm sorry, Urei, I will continue looking at this tomorrow," Pluton said.

He suddenly needed to feel warm and comforted. After what had happened today, the excitement of the maze had waned. It was… it was important but it was just a small thing against the events in the world. It didn't feel right to be looking at it.

And he needed a drink. Probably more than one. He didn't want to remember the way Lady Aura had looked at him. He didn't want to remember her pain. And he wanted to mourn for the people of the Theocracy.

He felt sick.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 3 War on the Border Part 5

-cos-

Great Southern Forest, Elf Kingdom

Sebas sipped at his tea. As always, it was refreshing and with the bite of cold in the air, it was warming. As always, the cup was beautiful. And as always, this was not what he was here for. He carefully set the cup back down, looking across the table at the elves gathered there.

They did like their ceremonies, especially with tea. He understood them. With their longer life spans the elves had made everything into a ceremony. It made him somewhat glad that Aura and Mare didn't do this. Still, this ceremony was something he wanted.

The sharing of tea with the King was meant to be the opening phase of negotiations. At least, that is how Lady Ailapha had explained it. She wasn't present. Sebas hoped it was because of her rank or something similar, not that the Elf King was a misogynist.

Lords Tuhinga and Karanxohol were present, though Sebas could tell from the slight hesitation in their movements that they were not comfortable. He noted that for later. There had to be a reason.

He folded his hands on the table and waited. It was traditional for a King to open these sorts of talks. For him to speak first would be dishonourable and Lord Ainz had instructed him to show the elves every courtesy.

Yet the Elf King did not appear as if he was going to speak any time soon. Sebas examined him. The elf was thin and his clothing was of high quality but that was to be expected. He had heterochromatic eyes, much like Aura and Mare but his eyes were cold. They were dead and bored. He seemed to view everything with contempt.

They were not good eyes for a King.

Sebas watched as the Elf King made an imperious gesture. He had seen Lord Ainz make a similar move. The Undead was far more graceful. A smaller elf rushed forward, moving to stand beside the King. It was a child. Sebas was slightly surprised to see them. So far he hadn't seen any elven children. It made sense, in a way. Children were precious to the elves who bred so slowly, you did not allow them to come into contact with unknowns, even if those unknowns were Ambassadors.

He watched as the child reached out to pick up the teapot. He wasn't sure if the elf was male or female but Sebas thought the child was younger than Aura and Mare. The twins had an unconscious grace that said they were used to their bodies. This child seemed so young that it was still unsure. He wondered what the purpose of having such a young child here was. No doubt the elves knew the reason.

Sebas watched as the child tried to pour more tea. Except the King's cup was just slightly out of reach. He knew what Lord Ainz would do, even though the undead did not eat. He would discretely push the cup towards the child to make the job easier. Sebas waited for the King do to that, except he did no such thing.

As he watched the child's expression altered. It had been pleased earlier but was now turning into consternation. Sebas could not do anything officially though.

"Hurry up!" The Elf King growled.

The child startled. Their grip on the pot loosened and it dropped back to the table with a clink. The lid rattled.

"Stupid being."

Sebas kept his expression neutral as the child cringed. The Elf King blew out a breath. "Leave," he ordered distantly. The child looked up at the King for a moment. The Elf King's heterochromatic eyes didn't move but the child cringed again before backing away.

"Go!"

The child ran. Both Tuhinga and Karanxohol seemed even more uncomfortable. That, Sebas could understand. Their King had not presented himself in the best light. Nazarick's Head Butler kept drawing comparisons with Lord Ainz and the Elf King came up wanting. Sebas kept his breathing under control. Anger would not serve him here, though he wished some of the others from Nazarick could see it. They would learn that humans were not the only species who could be cruel.

The King reached out, snagging the tea pot and poured himself another cup. His long fingers grasped the cup and he delicately sipped at the liquid. "Bah!" The King spat, slamming the cup down. "Cold." Somehow the tea remained in the cup as the elf drew his hand back.

Sebas remained sitting. He was aware of the King examining him. His suit was pressed and his hair was neat. He could have stepped from Nazarick directly. There was no fault in his appearance. That would bring shame to Lord Ainz and Nazarick and Sebas would never allow that.

"You present an interesting proposition," the King said finally.

Sebas nodded his head shallowly, making a slow blink to acknowledge the statement.

"But I see very little advantage to it," the Elf King concluded.

"My Lord?" Sebas asked.

"Your proposal offers no advantage to my Kingdom," the Elf stated. "I see very little reason to ally with your Master." The Elf King leaned back. "As I understand it, this Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown will destroy the Slane Theocracy even if I don't do anything."

Sebas displayed no reaction but he was forced, privately at least, to acknowledge the truth of the words, even if he didn't like the way the elf said his Master's name.

"But that is a good interpretation," the elf said, waving one hand. "Imagine for a moment that I do agree to this proposition and then the Slane Theocracy kills your undead master." The Elf King took a deep breath. Sebas could tell it was mocking. "Then that puts my Kingdom in a difficult position."

Sebas wanted to say that the Elf King did not care about that. He knew it was the truth but equally knew that the King would not admit it. To say nothing of the thought of the Theocracy killing Lord Ainz. That would not happen. No one in Nazarick would allow it to happen. Or rather, it would only happen if they were all dead. He felt cold at the thought. It was not going to happen. It couldn't because the Theocracy did not know Lord Ainz' power. They would, but only to their grief.

"You are already at war with the Slane Theocracy," Sebas pointed out. The Elf King's proposition was an impossibility but would not change the Elf Kingdom's circumstances.

The Elf King seemed amused. "We are and they have withdrawn for the winter," he stated. The war was such a bore. It went nowhere. The Theocracy could not properly penetrate the forest and his useless servants could not fight in more open territory. Besides, it would continue until he decided it was time to get his offspring back. Then the Theocracy would quickly sue for peace, a peace he wouldn't grant them.

"Though I suppose this proposal from your Master could just be an attempt to have my Kingdom bear the cost of his declaration of war," the Elf King alluded.

It was such a blatant attempt to rile him that Sebas almost laughed. From the reaction of Tuhinga and Karanxohol they were horrified. Apparently it was enough to insult them.

"My Master is aware of how your war has drained your kingdom's resources," he replied, giving the Elf King a chill little smile. If the elf was sensible it would know better than to attempt to insult the Sorcerous Kingdom or his Master again. He wasn't usually vicious but Nazarick's butler couldn't help the small hope that the Elf King would not take the warning. "He is extending his hand in friendship as one nation to another, as nations that understand the grief brought by the Slane Theocracy."

The Elf King looked faintly surprised before a small smile played around his lips. "Ah, this elf child. We have no records of the birth of such a child," the King said. "As you can imagine we keep track of all births carefully."

Sebas tilted his head to express his question. Of course the Elf Kingdom had no records. Aura and Mare had not been merely born! They, like him, like all the Guardians of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, had been created by the Supreme Beings. Being born was such a plebian concept to them. But more than that, did the Elf Kingdom claim to be the only elves in the area? Were there no others in other kingdoms?

"Lady Aura Bella Fiora was born in the Sorcerous Kingdom," Sebas gave his response. "Thus you would have no records."

"This Sorcerous Kingdom does seem to have an odd variety of inhabitants," the King murmured.

"My Lord Ainz Ooal Gown values skill over species," Sebas replied shortly.

The elf chuckled. Sebas wasn't sure what he had said that would cause such a reaction but he was practiced enough to control his expression. The King rose abruptly. "You give such pretty answers," he said as he moved away from his chair, "though I still see no compelling reason to ally with your Sorcerous Kingdom. However, your undead master does represent change to the boredom of existence so I will give you and-" the Elf King paused, looking back over one shoulder to Sebas to gauge his reaction. "-it a chance."

It was an obvious provokation. Sebas kept his expression bland, though the provokation combined with what he was concluding was the King's inferior attitude was not endearing the elf to him. It appeared the elf had chosen to ignore his warning. "My Lord?" Sebas questioned mildly.

"My offspring is with the Theocracy," the Elf King indicated. "If you bring them to me, I will consider your Master's offer."

Sebas inclined his head. "And how might we know your offspring?" he asked, though internally he was wondering the obvious. How had the Theocracy gotten ahold of a possible heir to the kingdom?

The Elf King raised one hand, pointing two fingers at his eyes. "They are powerful and like me they have mismatched eyes. They will be in the capital," he added before turning back around and leaving.

Sebas looked at the other elves present. "I will relay this to my Master," he told them, "though any further description would be appreciated."

Lords Tuhinga and Karanxohol shared a look. "I am sorry, Lord Sebas," Tuhinga said quietly, "we do not have any better description."

The question showed in Sebas' face.

"The King's child was conceived here, but was born in the Theocracy," he said.

There were things the elf wasn't saying. Sebas knew that. He let one eyebrow raise slightly to indicate his questions.

"We can't tell him!" Karanxohol hissed.

"The woman is long dead," Tuhinga replied.

The phrase stuck with Sebas. He remembered it. One of the scouts had said something about a human woman being strong. "So the woman was from the Slane Theocracy," he said.

The two elves looked at him, horrified. Sebas knew why. He wasn't meant to understand their native tongue. Sebas ignored their expressions. "And the Theocracy took her back before she gave birth," he added his deduction.

Karanxohol glared.

Tuhinga sighed. "It is as you say, Lord Sebas," the elf said. "The woman was from the Slane Theocracy. I believe she was one of the seated members of the Black Scripture. She was captured, and a child was conceived. Before she could give birth, the Slane Theocracy took her back. We have only had hints of the child's presence, but we know they are powerful."

"They?"

"We are not sure if the child is male or female," Tuhinga admitted. "Our King has never seen his child," the elf continued, attempting to make the information more favourable to the Elf Kingdom.

Sebas gave him a small smile. So the woman had been kidnapped, raped, impregnated and had then been rescued. He was once again thankful, in a way that made him sick, that Aura could not get pregnant.

"I will relay this to my Master," Sebas repeated what he had told the Elf King. "He will make the final decision."

"Of course, Lord Sebas," Tuhinga agreed, lowering his head.

Sebas said nothing further. He had a lot of think on.

-cos-

Tenth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick

Ainz looked at the document. It was 3:57 AM and he was still working. The ever present maid was watching him but he had found when he concentrated he could ignore their presence.

"Proposed Rules for the Kingdom." Ah, it was this one. The one the Cardinals were working on translating. It brought a wry smile to his face. He could read it with no worries. He wondered what they would think of that revelation.

"Well, as the Americans would say, we ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto." The opening line still made no sense but it again reinforced his previous thought that the writer was young. Or at least, this had been written when they first came to this world.

There were advantages and disadvantages there. He had no idea what it meant for them to still exist, but he thought that if they did, they were in hiding. But the fact that they were younger players might mean they were new to Yggdrasil. Even though it was shut down, the game had attracted new players, just not enough. If they had been new to Yggdrasil then there was the chance that they hadn't collected many powerful items.

He immediately wiped that assumption from his thoughts. They had the world item [Downfall of Castle and Country]. That was powerful enough.

Ainz reminded himself, young players didn't mean inexperienced. Young could be worse. They might only play, doing nothing else with their time. Or they could be… he didn't want to think about that.

"Given that this isn't Yggdrasil, and it sure as hell isn't home, and the humans are following us around as if we are some sort of super shepherds, we need some rules for the long term."

He re-read the line… He did need to think about that. The line didn't fit. There had always been rumours that some of the Shitty-Dev's kids logged into Yggdrasil. Or some of the rich brats, just for a laugh. They would come fully equipped, and… Most of the time they played by the rules, but sometimes they cheated. It had never happened to Ainz Ooal Gown but he had heard of it happening to others.

Ainz shook his head, before looking back at the document. It was a list of rules. He wondered if they had been introduced. He would have to find out.

"Surshanna wanted us to go with the ten commandments as a start but we've seen what they do. A religion isn't what we want. I don't know if we can stop that though. For now we can, but will we be here forever? I don't know."

Surshanna. He didn't know that name. Damn it! Ainz heaved a deep breath. He only vaguely knew what the ten commandments were as well. They were meant to be some sort of rules handed down by one of the western religions. From what he understood, they were the sort of guidelines that most decent people would obey. He read further.

"Still, some of the commandments have merit but they need to go further if we want to avoid our reality becoming this reality."

Ainz blinked, and re-read the line. "If we want to avoid our reality becoming this reality," he murmured aloud. "Our reality."

He remembered when he'd first come to this world, and taken flight. He'd looked at the world, up at the stars… The stars! You could see them here. They weren't obscured by an ever present layer of smog and pollution. You could see the sun.

He swallowed. Tears would have formed if he still had flesh and Ainz put the document down but his thoughts wouldn't stop. You didn't need a gas mask here to go outside. Not that his current form needed to breath but… It was the principle. He still remembered how hot they were to wear. He never really thought about it then. He had to wear it. Everyone did… but… the difference was startling.

That at least answered one question though. Whoever these players were, they weren't related to the Shitty-Devs. They all lived in the domes. They saw nothing wrong with the world.

He felt better with that realisation and looked back down, picking up the document again.

"The first three commandments are out. They are about god, and while we are powerful, we aren't gods. Fourth one is okay. It at least ensures people won't work to death. I'll allow it. So, the first rule of the Kingdom. There shall be at least one rest day out of each seven-day."

That definitely confirmed they weren't with the Shitty-Devs. Workers weren't allowed rest days. Ainz pushed that thought away, remembering how hard he had to argue to convince the maids to take a rest day, one day out of forty one! And he hadn't had a rest day in… a while. He wasn't going to get one now but he promised himself one when the Theocracy was controlled.

"Honour your father and mother, is a good rule, that can stay."

That was a good rule. Ainz made a note of it. It should already be happening but he would have to confirm that it was. At least in his kingdom.

"I can accept some of the other commandments, but not all of them. No murdering, no stealing and no lying but adultery and coveting your neighbour's house, wife or property. Yeah, not going with them. I'd never get sex if it weren't for adultery and people need to have ambition, so covet away is what I say."

No murder, no stealing and no lying were self evident rules. Ainz didn't care about adultery. The members of Ainz Ooal Gown had a lot of … fetishes. Peroroncino was a walking fetish given Shalltear's predilections. That was their own business, provided everyone was consenting. Given the events, that part should be obvious.

He wasn't sure about the coveting but left it. He was reading this for hints as to their identity, not to set the rules for his own kingdom but it was nice to see someone else had had to go through the same troubles.

"The next rules are the important ones. No individual or corporation shall be so rich as to control the government. The government will provide for those who serve but only so far as to meet their basic needs. Government should not be a place for greed. It should be for those who truly wish to serve the people."

Ainz blinked. Or he would have. That was… that was different. But, he related it back to Nazarick. Is this what the Guardian's felt, in a twisted sort of way. He was trying to pay them but they rejected that, which was good for Nazarick's finances but he wasn't going to allow it to continue. The Guardians always said that they did not wish to be paid because serving a Supreme Being was payment enough… is that what the player was trying to say. That those in government should be happy just to serve? He needed to think about that.

"Technology is primitive here. I know Alah Alaf wants to develop it. But that will come at a price. I'm not going to let it happen if it leads to our reality. The protection of the environment is the domain of all, especially those profiting from pollution. Though here we might be able to use magic to deal with pollution or to develop in such a way that things aren't the same. I don't know.

"I don't know if we will be around to see it. Are we immortal here? Can we be resurrected? How will we regain experience? Those are things we haven't experimented with. Still, Alah Alaf can promote technology but he's going to have to prove that it's sustainable before I'll allow it. The others are going to side with me on this. I know it. I think he will too so it won't be an issue."

He nodded. That was a good rule. One he would instate. Ainz lifted one hand to his face, scratching at a mask he hadn't worn for… That was a good thought. A long time. No one in this world would ever have to wear a gas mask to breathe the air. The blue planet Blue Planet would have loved to see would be preserved. If he ever… Ainz shunted that thought aside. He already knew it in his heart.

He looked at the rest of the document. There wasn't much more to go. This had obviously been an early draft, more the laying down of thoughts. He wondered what had happened then? Had they become rules… some of it probably had.

"The last few rules are for the military. The locals won't know but other players will, and that will be our way of saying 'We were here!' It's an American language thing but anyone who's led fighting forces knows it, or at least their equivalent. I'm guessing those who attempted to raid the Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ainz Ooal Gown's headquarters know it better than most, since they gave the commanders the nicknames.

"Anyway, enough of Yggdrasil. What's important is that no military commander will ever be named Fubar or Snafu. Ever. Anyone named, such that either of those words can be derived from the letters of their name, shall not be allowed to rise through the ranks."

"What?" Ainz couldn't help the exclamation. The maid jumped. He waved one hand in a practiced motion to indicate he didn't need anything. It was an easy gesture now.

He'd been excited when he saw the familiar names. He wasn't sure how he'd missed them earlier but what the hell did that rule mean? He frowned… they were nicknames given to those who had led the raid? That didn't seem so bad, except he knew it had to be.

1500 players had died in the raid on Nazarick. Even now Ainz felt a stir of pride at that thought. 1500 players… The fall out had been magnificent. It had allowed Ainz Ooal Gown to re-establish their defences. A few player groups had tried to push into the Tomb while they were weakened but they did not have the backing required.

Of course the main planners would have gotten nicknames. Most had to restart Yggdrasil, if they didn't retire completely. Ainz Ooal Gown weren't the only ones hunting them. Those had been good times.

Ainz sighed. The document made some sense and went some way to establishing how the Theocracy had copied the layout of some areas of Nazarick. At least one of the players must have been in the raid.

Except… he still didn't know who they were. Who had ended up with the world item [Downfall of Castle and Country]? He just didn't know. He put the document down. He could re-read it later and try to work out more. It wasn't quite as nonsensical as Demiurge indicated but the demon didn't have the knowledge of his world. But it wasn't as helpful as Ainz had hoped. He knew from experience that he could spend a lot of time thinking about it and he'd still get nowhere. It was best to put it aside until he had further information.

He glanced at the clock. 4:18 AM. Still too early for the sun to rise. Still too early for most of Nazarick's citizens to be awake. He didn't need to sleep, but they did and he did not begrudge them that. It was healthier that way. Ainz looked back at his desk. There were still papers stacked all over it. There were still decisions that needed to be made. He pushed the parchment from the Theocracy more securely on to the pile of documents he had dealt with. If he needed it again, someone would fetch it.

That left others to look at. His eyes raked over the papers, and Ainz frowned as he spotted one that wasn't like the others. He pulled it out and felt his eyes widen as he read the title. Why had it been near the bottom of the pile?

It should have been near the top! This was one he needed.

He suppressed a groan when he realised what had probably happened. The report had been made and delivered. Then more reports had been delivered and just put on top. That's why this one had been hidden.

He looked at it, feeling his mind focus. Contents of the Slane Theocracy Treasury was definitely something that needed his attention. He should already have read it. Ainz shifted slightly. The padding of his chair was just right and his bones didn't hurt. The fidgeting was a leftover memory of his human self. He paid it no mind as he began to read. Maybe this would jolt loose some information.

But whatever it revealed, he would deal with it. The Theocracy was not going to get away with this.

-cos-

Synoro, Field Marshal's Office

"Your Majesty, this is a surprise," Field Marshal Taalay Marijn Ayodele Ozols said with a formal bow towards the Undead King. As always, the undead was not alone. The toadman followed his master closely as did a woman dressed as a maid. The undead did not carry his golden staff today but still radiated power.

Still, the small group filled the room he had taken over to be his office. Taalay indicated towards one of the chairs, inviting His Majesty to sit. The undead sat, while the toadman stood in close attendance. The maid moved to stand behind the undead's chair but was otherwise silent.

"I thought it best to come myself," the undead King replied. "You are doing a good job," came the follow up assurance, "but I wanted to see how the Theocracy was reacting."

Taalay nodded. "A moment then, Your Majesty," he asked before turning to one of his aides. "Go and fetch one of the prisoners," he instructed.

The aide nodded and dashed away. Taalay almost wished he had that option himself. He stood before the King. That was only proper.

"We have bivouacked the Legions around Synoro," he said. "If you wish to see that, we can go to the wall."

"There's no need," the Undead indicated. "Though you have prisoners?" The question referred to his previous orders.

"Yes, Your Majesty. The Theocracy has sent a unit to observe us," Taalay explained. "We have captured several, though I have not yet spoken to their commander."

"You would speak with their commander?"

Taalay wondered at the question. Of course, if circumstances dictated he would. "If they approach under a flag of truce," he began, inwardly cringing at the words. The undead probably didn't believe in a flag of truce.

"Oh," the undead murmured. "Similar to the negotiations at the Katze Plains for terms."

The Field Marshal felt a burst of… not comfort but relief upon hearing those words. He had not known what His Majesty knew of warfare beyond killing but if he could relate things to experiences His Majesty had known then that would make things easier.

"Very similar, but they have not approached, and I have felt no need to speak to them."

"Don't," the undead ordered coldly. "You have made the right choice to capture them."

"We haven't captured them all, Your Majesty," Taalay felt required to point out.

He watched as the undead waved one hand. A glowing trail was left in its wake and a net of magic seemed to flash outwards, quickly disappearing. The undead made another gesture, this time almost like a slash downwards. "[Detect Lesser Item]," he intoned.

"Umhu, nothing special there," the Sorcerer King murmured.

Taalay felt his eyes widen when he realised what the undead was doing. It was such a casual display of magic!

"[Detect Medium Item]."

Could the undead truly detect any items the Theocracy might have had? The time of casting this type of magic would take… There were a few in his magic corp who could cast the spell but nowhere near as easily.

"Umhu, that might be a problem." The undead reached out and Taalay watched as the Sorcerer King's hand disappeared into a void. It reappeared a moment later clasping a rolled parchment. With a flick the undead threw the parchment up. It unrolled and hovered in the air. A quill appeared and began scritching on the parchment.

The Field Marshal suppressed a shiver. He had seen magic. He had seen people killed by magic. Not to the extent of the events on the Katze Plains but he had seen troops killed by fireballs. He had seen others trapped by various area effect magic spells. It happened all the time in the Empire's Arena. But he had never, in his entire life, seen any being wield magic so casually.

"And I suppose I should cast this to be sure," the Sorcerer King muttered. His servant looked slightly amused. Taalay wasn't sure what was amusing. Was it his reaction? Or was the toadman so used to his Master's muttering that he thought it endearing. "[Detect Greater Item]."

There was another flash of magic. He almost missed it because he was still staring at the hovering parchment with the quill that was writing on it.

There was one more shocking thing about His Majesty's control of magic… How many spells could the undead cast at once? Taalay had never heard of anyone being able to cast more than one at a time. Skilled Magic Casters could hold a shield perhaps and cast offensive magic, but that was more because the shield was a set spell. Once cast the shield just existed and didn't require further attention. And of course, all Magic Casters could cast several spells one after the other.

It didn't appear that His Majesty was doing that. The hovering of the parchment and the writing of the quill was an ongoing spell, especially if it was being fed from the results of the detection charm… And his Majesty had cast three in succession, each more powerful than the last if the words were to be believed. Taalay had no reason not to believe those words.

"Umhu, as expected, nothing there. Good." The undead seemed somehow to relax.

"I can capture them, My Lord?" The toadman suggested.

For an instant Field Marshal Ozols wondered who them was, then he realised. The toadman was speaking about the Theocracy's troop.

"No, I believe the Field Marshal can," the Sorcerer King replied, looking back to Taalay.

"Of course, Your Majesty," Taalay said, but couldn't take his eyes from the floating parchment.

"They have a few interesting items," the undead said, gesturing towards the parchment. "I will leave you a list," he added. He might have spoken further but at that moment, there was a polite knock on the door.

"The prisoner," came the statement from the other side. Taalay looked to the Sorcerer King. His Majesty nodded, though the toadman moved to stand between the door and his liege.

"Bring him in," Taalay spoke loud enough to be heard.

The door was opened and two Knights led the prisoner in. His hands were bound in chains and his eyes were downcast. His was still dressed in his uniform and the toadman seemed to hiss at the sigil of the Slane Theocracy on the prisoner's breast.

"[Kneel!]"

Taalay almost fell to his knees at the order. He had heard that the toadman could control people with his voice. This was his first time experiencing it. Just from hearing it, it was obvious that the toadman was not human, there was so much power in the voice. He could forgive his knights for kneeling with the prisoner.

"Demiurge, please let the Knights rise," His Majesty instructed.

Ozols was surprised when the undead's eyes turned to him. "I am sorry. The barbarism of the Slane Theocracy has deeply impacted the feelings of all my servants. The sight of anyone from that hated kingdom tends to lead to strong emotions which is why Demiurge's command has affected your knights."

The Field Marshal wasn't sure if there was a note of amusement in the undead's voice. He wasn't sure if the explanation was the truth. He resolved not to think about either the amusement or the explanation. As far as he was concerned, there was no amusement and the explanation was the truth. It was safer that way. The toadman nodded and the two Knights got to their feet.

"This is one of the scout troops we captured," Taalay indicated.

"You are from the Theocracy?" the Sorcerer King asked, unnecessarily. The man's uniform proclaimed his allegiance.

The man said nothing.

"You are from the Theocracy?"

"[Answer!]" Again the toadman's voice reverberated with power.

"Yes," the prisoner answered. He had no choice.

"What is your purpose here?" His Majesty pressed.

"To observe Synoro," the man replied. At least he didn't have to be forced this time, though Taalay wondered how long the toadman's order would be effective. "To make sure the undead is not killing the citizens."

This was all information Taalay already knew. The captured scouts had admitted it freely.

"Not to deliver any messages?"

That was something they hadn't answered. The Field Marshal hadn't yet gotten creative with questioning. With His Majesty here, it appeared answers would be forthcoming.

Except the prisoner knew it was a loaded question and was silent. The Sorcerer King flicked one ringed finger.

"[Answer!]" The toadman again ordered.

"No."

"Umhu, interesting," the Sorcerer King said. "You weren't but I suspect others were, which makes you the lowest ranked. Disposable as it were."

"You won't win!" The prisoner snarled, suddenly looking up to glare at the undead.

His Majesty seemed to chuckle. "I won't win what?" he asked, a definite note of amusement lacing his tone.

"Against the Slane Theocracy. Against the Six Gods. You will be destroyed."

"I don't think so," the Sorcerer King said calmly.

"My Lord," the toadman prompted.

"Yes, I know, Demiurge. This is a distraction," the undead agreed to whatever the toadman had been reminding him of. "I came to collect you for a meeting in Arwintar," the Sorcerer King said, turning to Taalay.

"Your Majesty?" He asked. He hadn't heard of any meeting.

"I wish to discuss our next move," the undead said.

The prisoner jerked at the words. Taalay felt odd. Was this the undead's way of making them kill the man? His Majesty could just order the prisoner's death. To deliberately reveal information seemed unnecessarily cruel but then His Majesty was undead.

"I am, of course, ready to aide you," he said. What else could he say?

"Good." The undead rose. "Oh," he said, looking towards the prisoner. "I almost forgot," he murmured. "I was also going to give you some assistance."

"Assistance?" Taalay had to ask.

"With provisioning," His Majesty replied.

The Field Marshal felt his eyes widen. Had the undead actually remembered the conversation from earlier when he had told him some of the worries?

"Your men are working for me and are away from their usual winter abodes. They should be well provisioned," the undead indicated. "He should do nicely. He will cease to be a burden on your supplies."

Taalay felt a chill.

"[Create Middle Tier Undead]," the Sorcerer King intoned, pointing at the prisoner.

The chill coalesced into fear when a wind from nowhere swept through the office. It centred on the prisoner and Taalay swallowed hard when he saw that the man was covered in a black nothingness. His eyes bulged and his mouth was open but there was no noise. Quickly the man was obscured. Taalay was thankful for that. The Knights took a step back.

It didn't take long. The darkness flowed away and there was a clunk as the chain that had been around the prisoner's wrists fell to the ground. Taalay stared. Standing in the middle of his office, wearing the uniform of the Theocracy was an undead. Not just a skeleton but a lich! Taalay could feel the controlled malevolence coming from the creature. He stared at the white bones as the newly created undead bowed to the Sorcerer King.

"This one will help you with supplies," His Majesty said, looking at Taalay.

Taalay gulped. The Knights didn't know what to do. He waved them back. "Thank you, Your Majesty," he managed to say.

"Have Urei help you," the Sorcerer King told the undead.

"Yes, Master," it said.

"Well, then, shall we go?" The Undead raised his hand and Taalay watched as a portal formed. The Sorcerer King reached out and plucked the scroll from the air. The quill disappeared.

The Field Marshal made a decision there and then. He was retiring after this campaign.

Too many things had changed and he knew he didn't like them. Magic was… It really wasn't war.

-cos-

End Chapter 3, War on the Border

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Intermission, Aftermath of War

-cos-

Neia Baraja's world had been reduced to simply the sole feeling of exhaustion. The black rings around her eyes were natural but now they were from tiredness. She had thought she had known exhaustion in the war. That was nothing. Now she was trying to hold everything together.

As the Sorcerer King's squire, she had never known how much responsibility would come to her once the Holy Kingdom declared their loyalty to the Sorcerer King. She wasn't sure how it had happened but somehow, that meant she was now his representative. She was the one in control.

And it scared her. She had never been trained for this. She could run a household, maybe. She had enough skill for that. During the war she had run a division but in war that was relatively simple and there was a legion of others helping her. Running a country was different. Many people were offering her advice but she couldn't trust them. She got the feeling they wanted her to fail.

She didn't understand that. A few weeks ago they had all been working together to save the Kingdom and now they had fractured. It wasn't everyone. She had to admit that. But some days it felt like it. She couldn't blame them completely. She wasn't trained for this. She had no experience but couldn't they remember this was only a temporary job for her?

The Sorcerer King had promised to send them a proper ruler in due course since most of their Royal Family had been killed in the war. Those that survived… no one wanted to follow. His Majesty had been very apologetic that he couldn't provide them with a leader immediately but Neia understood. Choosing the Leader for a country was not something to be done without consideration. It actually made her feel better that he cared enough to consider it. It just reinforced her belief that he was a considerate ruler. He thought through every decision. Those who were objecting to her would admit that. Privately at least.

Today was no different from any other day. She had woken up, practiced her bow, using the magnificent weapon the Sorcerer King had gifted to her. She had used what little authority she had to ensure she had at least that much time for herself. Then the problems had started.

It wasn't the sensible problems that bothered her. Food was something that was in short supply. The demihumans had eaten it all and there was no point in asking any neighbouring Kingdom for assistance there. She had no authority to do that, but she also knew they were facing similar problems. The Re-Estize Kingdom was also starving and there was no way she could approach the Slane Theocracy. Not when the Sorcerous Kingdom was at war with them.

Anyone she sent to them would most likely be taken as a hostage and Neia wasn't going to risk anything that would interfere with His Majesty's efforts. The news had come with a dispatch from the Sorcerous Kingdom. They had been hoping for a new Leader but at least His Majesty was keeping them properly informed.

The missive had been brief and to the point. One of His Majesty's direct servants had been assaulted. There hadn't been many details. There didn't need to be. Neia already knew the Sorcerer King cared deeply for his subjects. Given that, he would have a strong personal relationship with his direct servants. He would be very angry about this.

The missive had included the declaration of war. The Sorcerous Kingdom and all allies… The Holy Kingdom was now an ally. It would actually be treasonous for her to approach the Slane Theocracy. She wished the Holy Kingdom was able to offer support in some material way but they couldn't. The war had weakened them. They could maybe raise a brigade but nothing more. Against the warriors His Majesty could summon, a brigade was nothing.

She hoped the war would be brief. Having experienced war herself, she knew there was nothing good about war. It just brought misery to the nation, and she was now far more aware of how little the regular citizens knew about what their leadership was doing. She had seen both sides.

Technically she was still a squire, but she knew when she was just a squire of the Paladin order, she had been privileged. She had known far more about what was going on than other squires. Now she knew even more. But she remembered her childhood. Even with a father who was a member of the border guard and a Paladin Mother, she knew very little about the reasoning the leadership used when making decisions.

She was now intimately familiar with the reasoning of leaders and some days that made her sick. Neia was doing her best to make the Sorcerer King proud. She was trying to be compassionate and caring but she was learning that compassion required strength. It made her appreciate the Sorcerer King even more. She knew most demihumans didn't have compassion. Although, there were a few exceptions.

Neia shook her head in admiration. Unfortunately the Lord speaking to her thought it was to him. Inwardly she cringed. What had he been talking about?

Oh yes, the rebuilding plans. She held up one hand. "I'm sorry, Lord Roshan," Neia said as gently as she could. "Would you please go over your plan again?"

The man looked insulted for a moment but composed his features. While the Lords were taking swipes at her, they knew better than to be open about it.

"Of course, Lady Baraja." He spat the title. They didn't like calling her that. Truthfully Neia didn't like it either but she knew it had to be that way. If she didn't have the title, they wouldn't respect her and His Majesty himself had awarded her the title. Even so, the surviving Lords hated it.

"We are rebuilding many cities," Lord Roshan began.

Neia nodded. The demihumans had destroyed many cities, including the capital. Given that it was winter, they were rebuilding as fast as they could but many people were still living in communal tents, or in the camps established by the demihumans. She didn't like that, but at least they had shelter. With the lack of food, shelter was imperative.

"Currently the plans are rather haphazard. It is felt the process could go faster if we were more structured in our approach."

That sounded like a good idea but Neia had learned to be wary of any suggestions from the nobility. They almost always sounded like good ideas but generally they weren't. There were very few who actually cared for their subjects and even though they were not the King, they had a responsibility to those they ruled. They seemed to have forgotten that. The difference between the nobility and the Sorcerer King, who cared for everyone, was very stark. She was actually thankful that he was going to provide them a leader. Even if whoever he provided was as selfish as the nobles, he would be overseeing them. That almost guaranteed they would have at least some compassion.

"Anything that speeds the process is to be commended," she said, trying to keep the doubt from her voice. "How should we structure the rebuild process?"

Currently they were rebuilding street by street, but to be fair, which street to rebuild was being determined by lottery. This meant that the nobles and the commoners had an equal chance of having their homes rebuilt. The rebuilds were simple affairs, designed for functionality rather than elegance. It was the best they could do, and she thought it the fairest way.

Lord Roshan smiled. "Then I feel it would be beneficial to structure the rebuilds so that we build the centre of the cities first, and then move out."

Neia cocked her head slightly. "Why would that increase the rebuild speed?" She asked.

"It would also increase public morale," Lord Roshan added.

"How?" She pressed.

"Rebuilding the centre of the cities allows us to rebuild the public facilities first. That will give us a more structured method of distributing food and other essentials."

Neia nodded. That was true. Currently the remains of the churches were distributing food, but they were being guarded by the Paladins to make sure no one stole the few resources they had.

"Would you be rebuilding all of the centre of the cities?" She asked.

"Of course!" Lord Roshan told her as if it was obvious.

Neia frowned. That would mean the houses of the nobility would be rebuilt first, and she knew there were already those who were building more than warranted. It was hard to monitor that when she was in the capital. She accepted it, but she didn't like it. Accepting Lord Roshan's suggestion would mean it would get worse, and it would seem as if she was agreeing with it.

She gave him a smile. "I do like the idea of rebuilding the public facilities," Neia told him. As he said, it could allow more centralisation but most of the temples were already reasonably central. "However, I do not believe rebuilding the entire centre of the city is fair to the citizens," she added. "We have been brought together by this unfortunate conflict," she said, ignoring how pious it sounded.

"I do not wish to do anything which may break that unity, and I feel showing favouritism with the rebuilding would do so." She tried to sound earnest.

"However, I believe it is the right thing to do," Lord Roshan told her.

Neia gave him a chill smile. "Why would that be?"

"Because it is the nobles who are funding the rebuild of the cities! It is our funds which are being used to build everything, even those houses we will not be living in. As those providing the funds, I believe it is only proper that we have our homes rebuilt first."

"But is it not your duty to serve the citizens?" Neia countered, giving him her best ingenious look. With her black rimmed eyes, it didn't work. It more looked as if she was glaring at him but her point was made.

It was just another reason she was disappointed with the nobility. No wonder the demihumans had been able to do so much damage. They needed the Sorcerer King.

"Do you not think it fairer that everyone has the same chance to have their home rebuilt?" She asked. She knew what would happen if she allowed this. The nobles would rebuild their houses, and then forget about the rest of the cities. That would lead to resentment and hatred, and she knew there was already some feeling of that. While all had been targeted by the demihumans, in the camps, the demihumans hadn't cared about human rank, as soon as they got out, the nobles had more resources to draw upon to recover.

The poor didn't, and Neia was determined to be fair. It was what a compassionate ruler would do. She was sure it was what the Sorcerer King would do.

Lord Roshan just looked at her as if she had grown horns. She knew what he was thinking but she held her nerve. She had stared into the face of death during the war. Staring down an angry noble was far easier.

"Of course," he grudgingly admitted. She could tell he hated the taste of the words in his mouth.

"Then we will continue to rebuild by lottery," Neia concluded for him with a gentle smile.

"Yes, my Lady."

"Good," Neia said, as she moved away. Lord Roshan had caught her in the corridor after her morning practice. Being the acting ruler of the Holy Kingdom meant she had been awarded the use of one of the houses that had remained intact in the capital.

She didn't like it but again she recognised the practicality of it. She had to have somewhere to rule from. She just wished it wasn't quite as ostentatious as it was but it had to be large enough for the staff required. This wasn't like the war, to run the country she did need staff.

Neia took a deep breath. That was one. The first stupid idea of the day. She could hope it was the only one but realistically she knew it probably wasn't going to be. She really hoped His Majesty sent the new ruler soon. While she was happy to be of service, she would be happier when she wasn't under this much pressure. She wasn't trained to rule and she knew, sooner or later, despite her best intentions, she would make a mistake.

But… given the war with the Slane Theocracy, while she knew His Majesty would not have forgotten about them, she also knew he would be distracted. She would just have to continue to do her best.

For the Holy Kingdom and for the honour of His Majesty, she would not fail.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 1

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Palace

Leinas Rockbruise was using the meeting as a subterfuge to examine her new Master. He wasn't her Master yet, but since he knew how to cure her curse, by the Four Gods, the day he did, was the day he'd become her Master. This wasn't like Fluder or any of the other Empire's Magic Casters. She'd stayed here, serving the Emperor, because there was a chance one of them would have found something. Yet they never had, and Leinas knew that they probably never even looked for anything that might help her. Keeping Jircniv happy was their goal, not her.

The undead though had admitted he knew how to cure her curse. He hadn't even said he wouldn't. He'd just given her a warning. It was a useless warning. She would survive. She'd gone through too much to give up now. She'd been assigned to be the Sorcerer King's liaison during the war with the Slane Theocracy but so far the undead had not needed her assistance. So far the undead did not seem to be doing much. She was certain he was, but the Empire wasn't seeing it. How was she meant to make an impression on him when he was not in Arwintar?

Leinas put that thought from her mind as she pulled her attention to the meeting.

"The Theocracy is being slightly more intelligent than I gave them credit for," His Majesty, Ainz Ooal Gown was saying.

Slightly? Leinas wasn't the only one surprised at that assessment. She was one of the few present who best controlled her reaction. Emperor Jircniv did as well. His expression didn't even flicker but despite his youth, he was adept at the game. He raised one aristocratic eyebrow to express the question the entire table was wanting to ask. No one would dare insult the ultimate ruler of the Empire.

It was interesting to note that His Majesty's attendants did not seem surprised at his assessment. But then, he had probably already discussed this with them. There were two today. A tall woman, dressed as a maid was carrying a satchel, and the toadman the Undead had assigned to liaise with the Emperor. The woman was thin. She was the definition of willowy except for her generous bosom and her black hair, which was tied in a bun. There was a set of lenses over her black eyes and Leinas noted her hands. They were delicate. But the woman was a maid, so Leinas focused on the toadman, specifically his tail. It lashed behind him, almost as if he were laughing even when his expression remained strictly neutral.

The Sorcerer King waved one hand. "I had hoped to provoke them by taking Synoro," he said.

Field Marshal Taalay nodded. The man had been the first through the portal the Sorcerer King had opened to travel from Synoro. Leinas knew he wasn't blind to the implications of that. On a positive note, it spoke well that Field Marshal Ozols trusted the undead enough to pass through the magic field. More pragmatically, if there was an ambush on the other end, he would bear the brunt of it. Ozols had been followed by the toadman before the Sorcerer King had come through. It was a sensible procedure, one she as one of the Emperor's knights would follow if it was Jircniv they were protecting. Except she wouldn't have gone first. It showed that the Sorcerer King's servants took his safety seriously.

That was a good thing. She hated dealing with amateurs. She examined the toadman out of the corner of her eye. The demihuman was standing at the Sorcerer King's right hand but just slightly behind him. The position was obviously one of a trusted advisor but doubled as a bodyguard. She had a feeling the demihuman would not be an easy opponent. The undead magic caster was well protected.

"It is probably due to the season," Ozols offered the explanation though he was looking towards Kulap.

"We have detected no obvious build up in the Slane Theocracy's forces," the Empire's Head of Intelligence confirmed.

"Would you detect the Scriptures?"

Kulap's expression was answer enough. The Scriptures were quite small, and much more easily moved by the Theocracy. "There has been no official movements of the Scriptures," he admitted. "We monitor Cardinal Raymond Zarg Lauransan quite closely."

That admission brought the attention of the undead and both his attendants.

Leinas was surprised at the speed displayed when all three stared at Kulap. The man was intelligent but it became obvious he had no idea why he was being scrutinised. The Emperor's expression was restrained. Leinas was used to Jircniv so she understood. She turned her attention back to the undead. His bony hands were resting on the desk but she could see the way they were straining against each other. She watched as one finger twitched. It seemed to be a signal.

"Were you aware of the Windflower Scripture's mission against Aura Bella Fiora?" the toadman asked.

She suppressed a shiver. There was a note in the toadman's voice that said without words that the wrong answer would have consequences. Jircniv heard it as well. He fixed Kulap with a stare that told the man the answer better be the right one. Leinas could well imagine the panic gripping the Emperor. He looked controlled but he wasn't. As one of his bodyguards she was intimately familiar with his nature.

"No, Your Majesty," Kulap said. His adam's apple bobbed in his throat. "We were not aware of the Windflower's objective." Leinas could hear how strained he was but she knew he had checked that particular fact stringently.

The undead again twitched a finger. Leinas could see that Sorcerer King was almost trembling. Yet there was no other feeling from him which seemed odd.

"But you were aware of their mission?"

There were definite insinuations in the question the toadman asked.

"No, Your Majesty," Kulap again answered. At least he was wise enough to answer the undead even if it was the toadman asking.

The Sorcerer King shook his head slightly, and took a deep breath. It was dismissive. Kulap knew better than to take offense. His answers had saved his life. Losing whatever respect he had gained was a small price to pay for that.

Leinas watched the skeletal King. The gesture was interesting. He was undead. He didn't need to breathe but she got the sense he was adept at copying the gestures of the living. It would unconsciously make his living subjects more comfortable in his presence.

She began to understand Jircniv's obsession. The undead was a very skilled creature. But for all that he could act like he was living, she knew the truth. She'd felt it. Leinas well remembered the oppressive feeling that had filled the Sorcerer King's throne room. It had been partially caused by the monsters gathered but the pressure from the undead king had eclipsed them all. That was his true face.

But it was still not enough for her to refuse the cure he represented.

"If the Theocracy have not been provoked by Synoro, then this is war," His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown said, "I can take another town."

The toadman smirked. There was no other way to describe his expression. Field Marshal Taalay seemed surprised.

"We can discuss that later," the undead said. "While the Slane Theocracy is displaying some slight intelligence, it is within expectations." The way he spoke made it clear he was taking over the direction of the meeting. Not that the undead king had to, but by the tone of his voice he was not going to accept distractions. "Taking Synoro was not just to provoke them, it has allowed the gathering of much information."

The maid stepped forward to lay the satchel on the table.

Leinas watched her move. It was graceful. But… She controlled her expression. The maid had combat experience and Leinas had the feeling it was true combat, not just the ability to fight. There was a slight difference but it was one her eyes could spot.

The Sorcerer King opened the satchel and rifled through the papers as Leinas thought.

If even His Majesty's maids had combat experience, what did that mean for her? She wasn't as beautiful as the maid, and she had seen in her first trip to the undead's stronghold that there were other beauties there. All she had to offer was her sword arm. Until now that had been enough. But for a Magic Caster as powerful as the Sorcerer King, what did that mean?

"Ah, here it is," the undead murmured, before pulling out some papers. It was a casual expression, one that spoke of power. His Majesty was confident enough that he could be unguarded, even here.

Leinas stiffened. The toadman's eye was on her. There was a particular feeling to the gaze. He was measuring her. She suppressed her natural inclination to gulp under such intense scrutiny. The toadman and the maid were on guard. They had been on guard since the moment they came here. The focus of their guard was the Sorcerer King. They were fully ready for combat at any moment. Nothing would get to their Liege without first going through them.

She had thought the Emperor's Knights guarded Jircniv well. Just seeing those two made her realise how much they had to learn. The toadman gave her a sly smile before his expression once again schooled itself into one of appropriate seriousness.

"Apart from the fact that I can confirm that it was Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche who authorised the attack on Aura, and that the attack was carried out by the Windflower Scripture, there is not that much of interest in the papers I had liberated from the Slane Theocracy."

Leinas felt uncertainty rise within her as she listened to His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown. The revelation embodied in the maid and the toadman left her feeling anxious. If she had nothing to offer the Magic Caster then why should he cure her curse? He had already indicated that he was not interested in her body and all he had said was that he would consider curing it, after the campaign. She had to have something to convince him!

No! She'd find something. It was just a matter of opportunity and to have that, she had to pay attention. Yet he seemed to have such skilled servants. She was certain, absolutely certain, that if the Undead King had desired it, the Slane Theocracy would already be in flames. He didn't need the Empire's Legions. They were probably a hindrance.

"Your Majesty?" Kulap asked. It appeared the Head of the Empire's Intelligence was brave enough to forget his previous put down to express his curiosity about the intelligence gathered.

"Oh, I had the Cardinals' offices raided," the undead said offhandedly, waving his bony hand to dismiss the importance of his words.

Except that wasn't possible. The Sorcerer King had raided the Cardinal's offices. How? When? Even Jircniv was surprised. No doubt he was considering what information could be lost from a raid on his office… Or maybe he was thinking what might be gained from the Sorcerer King's papers. But she was certain that no one would be capable of getting them.

No one had the guts to ask when the raid had taken place but there really was only one answer and Field Marshal Ozols was nodding to himself. "Your Majesty did indicate you were focused on documents after Synoro was taken," he murmured.

"Indeed," the undead agreed, confirming the time line. "There is not much in the documents, though they do continually talk about Godkin. What are Godkin?"

The sudden question startled those gathered. Jircniv quickly recovered but others weren't as controlled. They spent a few minutes glancing between themselves before it seemed that the Head of the Empire's Magic Caster's pulled the short straw. The temples were not represented in this meeting so he was the closest to a Priest.

He didn't look impressed but was politician enough to swallow his trepidation. "Your Majesty, the Adventurer Momon has not explained?"

"Why would Momon explain?" the undead returned the question.

Again, Leinas wasn't the only one surprised. It was the general belief that the Adamantite Adventurer Momon had to be a Godkin. Nothing else could explain his strength. Was it possible to be Godkin but not know it?

"Ah," Ithai tried for aplomb but failed. "Then I will explain, Your Majesty," the Magic Caster said. "The Slane Theocracy worship Six Gods, who they believe descended from the Heavens six hundred years ago. The Godkin are selected descendants from those Gods."

"Selected?" The toadman asked on his Master's behalf.

Ithai frowned, as if remembering details he hadn't thought he would need again. "Technically all descendants are Godkin but the Theocracy considers only those who manifest power to be worthy of the title."

It was interesting to watch the undead King's interaction with his servants. Previously it had been those of the Empire sharing glances, now the toadman and the Sorcerer King exchanged a look. There was understanding in that look.

The Magic Caster reached for the papers again. He went through them until he found the one he wanted and held it up. Leinas couldn't see it from her position but she had a suspicion she knew what it was. "She has to be Godkin," the undead said.

"It will not matter," the toadman assured his liege.

"No, it won't," the Sorcerer King agreed.

The undead returned his gaze to Ithai. "How much power?"

"I am uncertain, Your Majesty," the Magic Caster admitted. "However I believe what the Slane Theocracy call a Godkin, if magically inclined, could cast spells into the seventh tier."

"Seventh?"

"Far below Your Majesty's potential," Ithai said.

It almost didn't need to be said. The Undead King had shown his strength on the Katze Plains and the entire world knew it. While no one knew exactly what the spell was, they all agreed it had to be of the Tenth Tier.

"The Godkin are physically strong as well?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," Ithai agreed.

"I might have to be careful."

Leinas couldn't help the jerk she gave at that. The undead King was so blase about it, though she wasn't the only one concerned. There was a faint look of horror on the toadman's face. To allow his liege to be in danger went against his desires. She had the feeling that if the toadman had any say in the matter, no Godkin would be allowed within miles of his Liege. That was a bodyguard's point of view. It was expected so what did the undead King mean? Was the Sorcerer King joking? Did undead even joke?

No one knew what to say.

"Umhu, the only consideration now is if to take another town. They will all be taken but timing is the question."

"The Legions stand ready to serve," Field Marshal Ozols said. "We can easily hold several towns over the winter."

Leinas thought Jircniv should be pleased with Taalay. There was no doubt the man was lying but he sounded sincere.

The skeletal king leaned forward, resting his arms on the table. "But do we need to?" He murmured.

That was the question. It wasn't Leinas' question though. She had returned to her original consideration. By the Four Gods of the Empire, what could she offer the Sorcerer King in exchange for him curing her curse?

The question haunted her. She had no idea of the answer and the usual platitude, that time would tell, offered very little comfort. With the Sorcerer King's strength, both personally and that of his servants, she didn't have time.

-cos-

Lizardman Forest

Tokage felt his heart hammering in his chest as he ran. His tail lashed behind him, keeping his balance as he vaulted over fallen logs and pushed away branches. This was not how a scout ran but it was how he was running. He didn't care for the trail he was leaving. Those following were not relying on tracking. They had magic.

It was not the terrifying magic of the undead Sorcerer King. Tokage had seen that first hand with the chilling messengers and then the actual battle. But he had also seen the Sorcerer King's ability to heal. The undead was capable of great destruction but also great acts of compassion. This magic was more mundane, and that made it all the more terrifying.

The Sorcerer King's magic, even the Guardian Cocytus' abilities were so far above him that he almost couldn't comprehend them. If they were to strike him down, it could be considered an act of god. In fact, many of the Lizardmen would now consider it exactly that. The magic tracking him now was routine. He had seen old Klaatu use it on occasion. He understood this magic which was why he was running. It would track him wherever he went and find him if he tried to hide. If they caught him it was all over.

If they didn't kill him, they'd use him as bait. Thankfully that was not going to happen.

Tokage had sensed them first. He'd been scouting along the outer edges of the Lizardmen's territory. It was forest, and by common consent it belonged to the other demihumans. Lizardmen could travel through it but as their primary diet was fish, they lived in relative peace with their neighbours. Certainly, peaceful enough that Tokage knew Cocytus had sent emissaries to the other demihuman clans of the area, offering to provide the protection of his Master to them. Tokage didn't know how those negotiations were coming. It didn't matter just now.

That's why at first, Tokage had just assumed that he'd come across some of the others of the area. He'd approached openly. That had been a mistake. He and his fellow Lizardmen were demihumans. He recognised the sigil on their clothes. All Lizardmen would. Cocytus had made them learn it in the wake of an attack. Their leader and Guardian had returned briefly to his Master's side immediately after that attack. When the details had come through, Tokage wasn't the only one volunteering to fight. The Undead didn't require them. Not because they were weak, which they were, but because Cocytus assured them all that the Sorcerer King had other plans. All they had to do was remain safe for now.

Tokage had known the moment he'd actually seen the humans that he was in trouble. He'd tried to back away slowly, but they had detected him. There had been a tingle of magic on his skin and he knew then that he had to run. He couldn't hide. Tokage had thought of leading them away but that would mean they'd capture him and the village would have no warning. He had faith in Cocytus' abilities but if this Theocracy was bold enough to take on one of the Sorcerer King's servants, to actually capture them and subject them to those horrors… there was the slightest doubt.

Which was, paradoxically, why he was running towards the village. These humans might be able to take Cocytus by surprise, but if their Guardian was warned, and if the Lizardmen could rally, then that would be a different story. He had to get that warning to them.

Even if he died, he had to be cut down in sight of the others. That would be warning enough. A branch caught at his scarf. He ripped it away. Speed was of the essence now. But his feet hurt. The cold was beginning to seep into his bones. No, this was nothing. When the Sorcerer King froze the lake, that was cold. This was just a slight chill. But it did burn his throat and he was tiring.

The village was still so far away. It was closer now though. All he had to do was keep running.

There was a break in the trees. Tokage pushed himself harder, using the clear ground to gather speed. His put his arms out, grasping the branch that was about waist high and hauling himself over it. His tail kept him balanced. As he rushed back under cover he risked a glance back.

The Humans were there. Closer than he thought. They were surprisingly silent. They knew the stakes. A new thought occurred. Tokage didn't let himself falter at it. If they were tracking him, why weren't they using other spells? Or were they trying to save them.

He winced at the thought. No... Cocytus would win! Especially with assistance.

There was a thud to his side. Tokage glanced at the tree. The motion was confusing, but the shaft of an arrow was clear. A human would have missed it but a Lizardman's eyes were different. Was it a warning? No, there'd been no shout. Tokage flinched, and another arrow flashed past him. Except the motion he'd made meant he was now off course. Was that the purpose? Were they trying to herd him?

He immediately resumed his original direction, taking precious time to dodge around several trees so that the archer could not get a clear shot at him.

There. The undergrowth was thinning. That meant he was close. Here the Lizardmen gathered the fallen limbs for their fires, and the smaller branches to be tinder. That's why the forest here was more cultivated.

"Argh!" Tokage cried out. Pain radiated from his shoulder. He didn't look. He knew what had happened. The archer had marked him. But it was only his shoulder. It was not his legs. He ran harder but was still slower. A few more steps and he would be in sight of the village. Hopefully the watch would see him.

Please let the watch see me! He prayed to the Sorcerer King. It seemed appropriate. He was trying to protect the undead's servant. He could hear a human close behind him, so close that they almost had to be within arm's reach. If he lashed his tail, he'd probably hit them.

In the fight against the Sorcerer King's undead army, Tokage had felt scared. He had been terrified, but he had fought. He'd been absent from the final battle because of his wounds. Too many wounded, and too few of those with the ability to heal them. As a scout he hadn't been a priority.

While fighting, he had known deep within that he was not going to die. Now the feeling had changed. He felt the arrows in the air behind him. Tokage knew they were going to hit him. His scales tingled at the points of impact. He could turn aside. There was a tree large enough to shield him but if he did… He knew, with absolute certainty that if he dodged, the human who was almost running on his tail would cut him down. And the Theocracy's men would fade back into the forest.

He would eventually be missed, but it would take too long. The Theocracy would have the element of surprise when they struck.

Tokage smiled. The arrows hit his back, exactly where he knew they would. There was no pain. Blood filled his mouth, and he could feel it trickling over his scales from the wounds. It was warmer than his scales. He staggered, taking precious further steps but his knees felt weak. His tail brushed against the ground. He fixed his eyes on the village walls.

There. There was a watcher standing there. Their eyes met. Tokage's smile stretched further, and he heard the human rush out behind him. Alarm flashed across the watcher's expression.

They had seen. They knew.

Tokage never felt himself hit the ground.

-cos-

Fifth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick

Chouko Zorlawsi was afraid. She was very afraid. She also knew better than to make a sound and was concentrating on her breathing as if her life depended on it. And it might. She could hear people talking, though from what they were saying, Chouko was hesitant to call them people. It was their casual conversation more than the fact that she didn't know where she was, and that she could feel rope holding her hands and feet together that made her fear.

"So how many do we have now?" That was a gravelly voice. It was quiet but there was something in the resonance that Chouko thought she'd hear even if she was asleep.

"At least two for each of them." That was a woman's voice. It sounded almost kind but it wasn't. Not with what it was saying. It was incongruous.

She didn't move. She wanted to. The ground was oddly warm and lumpily soft. There was something digging into one leg. Zorlawsi ignored that. She had to because for the moment she was safe enough. That meant she had to gather information. But the speakers weren't making sense. At least two for each of them. Each of what? But given that she didn't know where she was, or what had happened, did that mean others had been kidnapped as well?

Carefully, Chouko opened one eye, just the merest slit. She immediately closed it wishing she'd never opened it. She knew now why she wasn't cold and why the ground was lumpy. She wasn't alone. She was lying in a heap of people. At least, by the warmth she knew they were alive.

It wasn't much of a comfort.

"And we can't do anything to them." The first voice sighed, full of regret.

Zorlawsi didn't want to know what that meant but she wasn't a child. And she wasn't from a rich family either so she wasn't sheltered. Her dad, before he got arrested had brought in enough that they were comfortable. Not well off but not scrimping for everything. Her mother, after her dad was gone had remarried quickly enough that the small family hadn't really wanted for much. But she knew.

"You know we can't." Somehow the woman sounded insulted. "The Supreme Being has promised them to Lady Aura."

"Not these ones," the gravelly voice was now weedling.

What was this Supreme Being? She'd heard them refer to it more than once. The Priests said there were Six Supreme Beings. The Gods. There were no others. The Greed Kings had been powerful but were not Supreme. The Dragon Lords were animals to be put down. Strong, but just animals. At least that's what the Priests said. There were evil spirits and other entities but none were supreme.

"True, these ones haven't done anything." The woman was dismissive.

Chouko couldn't see the speaker but it was more than a simple brush off. It was as if her entire being was disregarded, as if she was too low to even contemplate. She wanted to see what type of creature it was, but if she opened her eyes, they'd know she was awake. Given what she knew she was lying on, it was certain she was not meant to be awake. They couldn't know.

"So I can have one, right."

"No!"

"Why not?"

"Lady Shalltear wants these ones," the woman said.

"For what?" the gravelly voice was surprised.

Zorlawsi wanted to know but knew that it wasn't going to please her.

The woman didn't answer immediately. That worried her.

"You see!" the gravelly voice was triumphant. "There is no use for them."

"There is," a new voice spoke. Another woman. Girl. Chouko corrected her thoughts. The voice sounded young. There were several footsteps.

Chouko didn't know how she knew but the shoes sounded expensive. It was an odd thought but a highborn had once come through the town. She had had to walk and her shoes had sounded the same on the floorboards of the shop. This new comer sounded the same.

"Lady Shalltear!" Both of the original speakers said.

"We need to start sorting them," the new speaker said, ignoring the greeting. Just like a highborn, Zorlawsi thought.

"Where do you want them put?"

"We need to move them from the Fifth Floor," the girl said. "I've prepared an area on the Third Floor. Put them with their relations. I have enough rooms for that."

What? Relations? Who else had been kidnapped? Zorlawsi tried to remember what had happened but she didn't know. She'd gone to bed as usual and had awoken here and she'd already determined this wasn't a dream, even if she might wish it. Her mind wouldn't do this to her! Briefly she wondered what had happened to the man. He seemed so eager before but now was silent. Was this Shalltear so powerful?

"Then what?" the woman demanded. Her voice had changed. It was curious.

"That will depend on Lord Ainz," Shalltear replied. "But I have several ideas." There was relish in that tone.

"Oh?"

"Ho, ho, ho," Shalltear laughed. "I thought it might be fun to force the dogs to fuck these humans. To inflict the same pain as they gave Aura on those they care about."

"That would be fun!" The woman sounded excited.

Huh? But by the Six Gods, what did Shalltear mean? Chouko felt her body stiffen. Instantly she tried to relax. She couldn't. Her heart was beating too quickly. It was too hot. What did that mean? She was going to get raped? No. She didn't want that. But what could she do? Her hands and feet were both tied. She tried to suppress a shiver but knew something had shown. Hopefully it would be overlooked.

"It would be," Shalltear agreed, "but Lord Ainz may not allow it," she sounded regretful.

"Our Master is merciful," the woman agreed.

"He is," Shalltear agreed.

"Why though? These insects are just humans." There was the man.

"Our Master is merciful," Shalltear repeated the woman's expression. "He believes in repaying kindness with kindness and hurt with hurt. The ones here have done nothing."

"So why did we grab them if they aren't going to be useful?"

"Oh, they will be useful," Shalltear assured the man patiently. Zorlawsi didn't like the note of pleasure lacing the girls tone. It was the sound of a selfish child, one who was spoiled. "Even if we do nothing, in due course, I will allow the dogs to see them. That will eat upon their minds. They know what they would do. They know what they have done. They will assume we will do the same."

The man sighed. "That's not the same." He sounded disappointed.

"It is Lord Ainz' will!" she snapped! This time Shalltear was not patient. "You will not disobey our Master!"

"Of course not!" There was a scrape accompanying the exclamation. Chouko thought the man had bowed. "I will never disobey the Supreme Being! But they are just human! After what they have done, they should be begging for mercy.

"They should be watching as we take these ones. As we wring every scream, every moan from their bodies. Or even as we show them every pleasure of the flesh. Let the dogs watch as we make these ones unable to live without us."

"I do not disagree," Shalltear said. "But it is our Master's decision. He's already given the dogs to Aura for whenever she wants them. As for these humans, he has not yet told us of his decision, but I know they are part of his plan, so for the moment they are to be untouched."

Zorlawsi couldn't take comfort from that. It meant nothing. The moment this Lord Ainz was not paying attention the others would have their way. But there was so much that didn't make sense. She didn't want it to make sense but she had a sick feeling it was all related.

There were several references in the conversation. The dogs. She had no idea who they were but knew they were human… Wait… By the Six Gods! Were the speakers not human? She'd assumed they weren't but had hoped otherwise. Yet the way they referred to humans indicated that they weren't. What had taken her? Why? Who was this Lord Ainz?

Then there were the references to "these ones." That was her. At least she thought it was. Her and those she was lying with. They had been brought here, to wherever here was. There were several floors. At least five. That meant she had to be in the capital? She'd never heard of any building being that high before!

But Shalltear had said that she wanted the dogs to fuck her group. To inflict the same pain as they gave Aura on those they care about…

Chouko wasn't stupid. She knew that meant that the group named the dogs had raped this Aura but no one she knew was a rapist. And certainly no rapist would care for her! It didn't make any sense. There were those rumours about her dad but he was dead. The Priest had told her so. He had reported that he'd been executed, so it couldn't have been him.

"I think we've said enough for the one that is awake!" That was Shalltear's voice. She seemed happy.

Zorlawsi heard something sniff. "That one," the gravelly voice said.

Something poked at her leg. It sent a shock through her and Chouko's eyes flew open. The sudden light was blinding and she heard a chuckle before she saw the speaker.

"How long has she been listening?" The woman asked.

Chouko focused on her. Now that they knew she was awake there was no point in hiding. And the logical part of her mind told her that information was power. She had to know what had taken her. The woman was beautiful. There was no other word for it. Her blonde hair seemed to glow. She was far more beautiful than the highborn Zorlawsi had seen but was dressed as a maid.

"She was awake when I came in," Shalltear replied.

She shifted her eyes. As she'd thought, Shalltear was a child but her expression was haughty. This child was used to getting her own way. Her silver hair complimented her red eyes. She was dressed formally and her dress had ruffles and bows. In other circumstances, Zorlawsi might have been jealous. Now was not the time.

The woman chuckled before she sighed. "Lady Shalltear?" She asked.

Chouko didn't know what the question was for.

"Hmm, yes," Shalltear replied.

She wriggled, trying to get away. Whatever the question was, it wasn't good for her.

"Oh, don't worry," Shalltear said. Zorlawsi knew the girl was talking to her. "I'm not going to hurt you," she almost purred. "I'm just going to put you back to sleep."

She didn't believe that but she couldn't move. She could wriggle but that produced no movement. Zorlawsi watched as the girl raised one hand. There was a feeling of power and then something flashed towards her. She cringed but couldn't move.

"Sweet dreams," the girl said with a laugh. "And just think, when you wake, you will find out what we have planned."

That's what she was afraid of. Chouko screamed but the world went dark.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 2

-cos-

Former Slane Theocracy township, Synoro, Mayor's Office

"You want us to die." The fact that the statement was whispered did not change its harshness. "That's what you are asking, Emerens. You want us to die."

"I want us to live," Emerens Vukoja objected. The Mayor of Synoro took a deep breath, controlling the shiver that had nothing to do with the cold. "You weren't there. You didn't feel it! It wants us all dead."

"But it didn't kill us all, did it? And now you want us to fight." Jouni Gwerder didn't have to fake his unimpressed look. Being the Head of the Merchant Guild, he was adept at acting but also at spotting a good deal. What the Mayor was proposing was suicide.

"Of course! Synoro is not part of the Sorcerous Kingdom. We are the Slane Theocracy!" The way Emerens said it made it obvious that to him, it wasn't even a question.

"Oh, we were here! We woke up to the fact we had been conquered." That was the reality of the situation. One night Jouni had gone to bed, when he woke his country had been changed. The Undead King of the Sorcerous Kingdom had made Synoro his first conquered township of the Slane Theocracy.

"And you know what it cost!" Vukoja was going red as he strained to avoid shouting.

The Baharuth Empire's Legions were patrolling Synoro. For most of the citizens, they were the face of the invasion, but the Legions admitted they hadn't fought. The Sorcerer King's forces had broken through Synoro's defences and then withdrawn. All without most of the citizens knowing what had happened.

Gwerder snorted at Emerens' statement. "Less than it could have." He said it quietly. It was the truth. The Undead's forces had killed the garrison on duty and anyone who dared to attack them. Given that the attack came at night, the numbers were far less than would have been killed if the Undead had of struck during the day. Jouni didn't like to think why that might have been, but he was thankful nevertheless.

"You've turned!" Vukoja hissed the accusation.

Jouni was skilled enough that he heard the Mayor's doubt. He didn't mean the allegation. "Never!" Gwerder growled. The Mayor might not mean the allegation but those who were better suited to fighting, those who were clinging to the hope that the Theocracy would help them would take it to heart. Emerens should have known enough to just sit there and be a good Mayor the way the Undead expected. A fight back could come later, once it was lured into a sense of peace. But the Mayor never had thought of the long term. Jouni sighed. "I just refuse to be stupid," he explained before fixing a stern eye on the Mayor. "Tell me, what would happen if we fight?"

"We'd show the undead we aren't conquered." Emerens slammed one fist on his desk. It wasn't that loud but in the quiet of night it seemed louder.

Gwerder didn't smile. He expected that answer. "And then what?" He pressed.

Vukoja was silent.

Jouni tilted his head to emphasise the fact that the Mayor could not answer. Emerens thought of the now. He didn't think of the future. "We'd get caught." Gwerder paused, allowing that statement to sink in. It didn't matter who raised their hands against the Legion, they would get caught. "There are 80,000 Legionnaires here! Eighty Thousand! That's more than our entire population!"

It had been a concern at first, but the Field Marshal of the Legions had assured the citizens of Synoro that the Legions were well provisioned and would not be taking anything from them. While it was still early in winter that was exactly what had happened. The Legions were using their own rations. Some of them did come to drink at a tavern, but they paid. The Field Marshal had mandated that. There was still the dislike of being a conquered people, but everyone knew, those who bothered to think about it, that it could have been so much worse.

"I'm not concerned about the Legions," Jouni continued. "They are men and we know what men can do but how do we know there's no other things? I'm no Magic Caster but you know at least some of them treat with things better left unseen." It was a low blow. Gwerder was referring to the time the Windflower Scripture had come through Synoro. Their Magic Caster had used some sort of shadows as spies and messengers. Their dark forms, even in broad daylight had frightened a lot of the townsfolk. Still, they had been effective in finding the demihumans that had been periodically assaulting Synoro. The Sunlight Scripture had then wiped them out.

But it was illustrative. If the Theocracy's forces wielded that sort of power, what forces could the Sorcerer King muster? "What if they are watching now? What do we do?"

It was a good observation and an astute one. Both Emerens and Jouni looked around instinctively. But it was dark as Vukoja didn't want to bring attention to the fact he was meeting with someone. Gwerder was an old friend. As far as the Legions were concerned, this meeting was simply two old men having a drink one cold winter's night. Neither of them noticed that the shadow of the far corner was darker than it should be. Their words were heard. And their opinions had been noted. There would be consequences, but it was not the spy's task to inflict them. It would simply continue to report.

Again, Emerens said nothing. Jouni could tell from the way the Mayor's knuckles whitened that he wanted to, but reality was seldom that kind.

"You know what would happen," Gwerder tried to be gentle. He was logical, and he understood Vukoja's frustration but there were times when there was nothing you could do. This was one of them. "We'd get caught, and then, if they are kind, they'd execute us. If they are not, they'd turn us over to the Undead. And then who knows what would happen!"

"It would know! It would know we aren't defeated!" Emerens found his voice. He glared at Jouni.

"Oh, it would know, but would it care?" Gwerder asked mockingly. He doubted the undead would see it anything like Emerens thought. The man seemed to have a romanticised image somewhere, as if this could be solved merely by making sweeping statements or petty gestures. "I'd be more concerned about what it will do," he stated. By the Six Gods, had the Mayor really not thought about that? "Have you thought about that? It's entirely possible the undead wants us to rebel! If we attack, if anyone of us rebel, then it will have an excuse to kill us all!"

Jouni shook his head. That was doubly true if Vukoja was caught attacking. If Emerens really wanted to fight, for the good of everyone he should have delegated. He couldn't afford to be compromised. He was amateurish, and Gwerder was sure the Sorcerer King's forces were already on to him… if they were even bothering to watch. If they could take the garrison out in a few hours... There wasn't much more to consider. If the Undead could do it once, he could do it again, and this time, he may not be as merciful.

"And we are meeting here! Your office? Hah!" Jouni snorted. He knew something was up when Emerens had invited him to sit here. They should have remained in the parlour. It would have been warmer. It wouldn't have raised suspicions. But no doubt Vukoja was using his office to subdue his fear and justify his position. He wasn't hearing anything that didn't agree with him. "You remember the service, don't you?" Gwerder asked.

The Mayor nodded. It had been a surprise to all when the Legions had not attempted to stop the masses. They did attend though. At least some of them did. While the Baharuth Empire worshipped Four Gods, they were four of the Gods that the Slane Theocracy also worshipped. Emerens had asked Field Marshal Ozols about it but the man had confirmed that the undead had said nothing about forcing the church to obey. It was still an unresolved question in the Empire, and until he heard otherwise, he was not going to dictate who they worshiped.

"You heard the priest as well as I did. The Theocracy wants us to live." The Priests had stressed that. With Legionnaires present, the Priests had not been able to say they had been in communication from the Cardinals, but it was known that they would have. Message spells were instantaneous.

Gwerder lowered his voice. "They want us to collect information," he whispered. "We have to be alive to collect information." Jouni didn't claim to be a strategist but he understood the value of information. He didn't like it but he could see the Theocracy's play. You did not wage war in winter, so they were using the time to spy on the undead. Synoro was to be their eyes. If only Vukoja could see that. "You want us to die. And maybe the undead does as well but I'm not about to give it such an easy excuse."

Attacking the Legions wouldn't do anything anyway. Jouni doubted that the Undead would even hear about it. Field Marshal Ozols had not maintained his position by being inept.

"We can't do nothing! Have you no pride?"

Jouni held back a sigh. Why did Emerens think surviving was doing nothing? He was like one of the hotheads who got brave with drink. That was not a good thing for Synoro. Surviving was essential in a situation like this. Information could be gathered only if you were alive, and it wasn't like the undead was making surviving difficult. Only Vukoja had seen it. The Sorcerer King had left Synoro to the Legions and they were human! It was the best possible situation.

Sure they were no longer under the protection of the Theocracy but prayers to the Six Gods were still said and no one was oppressing them. Well, not unduly. Gwerder was sure the thieves were gnashing their teeth. The Legions, like most authority figures took a dim view of crime. Synoro hadn't been this safe since… Well, for quite some time.

"I have plenty of pride, but I also want to live," Gwerder tried to explain. "All we have to do is wait. The Theocracy will kill the Undead and then things will go back to normal." He wasn't sure if he believed that but it was what Vukoja needed to hear. "This is our test of faith. We have to trust in the Six Gods."

The unseen listener added Jouni Gwerder to the list of those who were to be watched. It had thought that maybe the Guild Leader was sensible. The words proved he could be pernicious.

"The Gods help those who help themselves." Emerens reminded him. The Priests were fond of saying that in the dead of winter, when they had the most requests for aide. It was a reference to preparing but it was appropriate for now.

"But the Gods can't help those who are dead," Jouni retorted matter of factly, shaking his head. He knew the reference. The Mayor was getting desperate, and Gwerder knew, if he wasn't with Vukoja then others wouldn't be. He couldn't give his stamp of approval to this. It was suicide, even if he wouldn't be doing any fighting himself! That would be real suicide. He sighed again, trying to be sympathetic. "I have faith, Emerens, and I will do what is necessary, but I am not going to die needlessly. If you want, then go ahead but don't do it in such a way that takes us all down with you." That's really all that needed to be said. If Vukoja wanted to take up a sword that was fine, but he couldn't involve them all. The possible consequences were just too distressing to think about.

"I'm the Mayor!" It was a reflex response.

Emerens still thought he represented them all. Reality had not set in. Frustrated with the Mayor, Jouni scornfully said, "As if that means anything now."

-cos-

The Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ainz' Office

[My Lord?]

[Sebas,] Ainz returned the greeting. He had been waiting for Nazarick's butler to contact him.

[I have met with the Elf King,] Sebas told him, without being prompted.

Ainz sat up. The motion caught Cixous' attention. He flicked one finger at her to indicate he did not need assistance. She understood and nodded at him gravely with a soft smile. Still, from the way Sebas phrased his statement, Ainz knew that things were not going to go smoothly.

[The Elves have indicated they are interested in an alliance,] Sebas continued, [however, their King is arrogant.]

[He does not wish an alliance?] Ainz asked. Sebas would also know to interpret the question for other subtleties.

[He put conditions on the possibility.]

There was something in the way Sebas said it that put Ainz on edge. He knew Albedo would be sputtering with rage if she heard that sentence. [What are they?]

[Just the one, My Lord,] Sebas said. [The Elf King wishes Nazarick to retrieve his child from the Slane Theocracy.]

[His child? They have another elf?] None of the reports had mentioned that and Ainz had read every report collected from the Theocracy carefully. Usually he just skimmed over reports, taking in the important points. These were so important that he made the time to read everything.

Ainz felt that Sebas wanted to sigh. Nazarick's butler would never be so uncouth when speaking to him. [The child is a hybrid. From what information I have been able to gather, the mother was a member of the Black Scripture of the Slane Theocracy. But she is long dead now. The child was not willingly conceived.] Sebas added the last carefully, aware of what the information might trigger.

[So the Elf King raped the woman, and now wishes his offspring?] Ainz controlled his anger. If it was not directly about Aura it was a simple enough task.

[Yes, My Lord. The King indicated that he would consider an alliance only if the child was brought to him.]

[Consider it?] Ainz asked. That was not definite. The Elf King could still say no even after Nazarick had done the work.

[Yes, My Lord,] Sebas confirmed. [The Elf King was rude enough to point out that even if he did not accept the offer of alliance, the Great Tomb of Nazarick would destroy the Slane Theocracy, thus ending their war.]

That was true. With or without the Elf Kingdom, the Slane Theocracy was going to be destroyed. But most rulers would be astute enough not to mention it so blatantly in negotiations. The way Sebas said it made Ainz very aware that the Elf King had been brazen. The elf had probably insulted Nazarick or himself as well.

[You have thoughts?] Ainz asked. He was trying to encourage the NPCs to share their thoughts with him but most would not volunteer any thought. Still, he was getting used to asking.

Nazarick's butler thought for a moment. [I believe the elf people are willing to form an alliance, possibly more,] he announced.

That told Ainz quite a bit. It was the Elf King who was showboating for some reason. He mentally sighed. He didn't have time to deal with the theatrics of another ruler. Still he didn't want another war. [What does this child supposedly look like?] This child would give them leverage.

[The elves indicated that the child was powerful and has heterochromatic eyes.]

Ainz felt his non-existent eyes widen. Sebas had seen the pictures Mare had made from Aura's memory hadn't he? He thought back. No, he realised slowly. No Sebas had left to see the Elves just before that. There was no need to borrow trouble. The image did not have to be the Elf King's child. But how many of the Theocracy would have elfin features and heterochromatic eyes?

[That is unfortunate,] Ainz murmured. [We have an image of a woman with heterochromatic eyes and elfin features taken from Aura. She was very powerful, being the one who held Aura down when one of the men removed the [Constraint of Umbra].]

Sebas understood immediately. If the woman Aura had seen was the Elf King's daughter then Nazarick would not be giving her up. At least, she would not be whole.

Ainz thought for a few more moments. [There is no guarantee that this woman is the Elf King's child,] he said.

[True, My Lord,] Sebas agreed, though they both knew it was likely.

[Who is the Elf King's heir?] Ainz asked. If the Elf people were willing to form an alliance then there were other alternatives. Yggdrasil had been full of examples of bad leadership from NPC kings. It helped fuel the quests for players. He was determined not to be one of those bad leaders.

[I am uncertain,] Sebas replied, after a moment of consideration.

[Is this child his only heir?] That would complicate things.

[I do not believe so.]

If it was Demiurge, Ainz wouldn't hesitate. If it was almost anyone else from Nazarick he knew they would see nothing wrong with the order to carefully assassinate the Elf King, where "carefully" translated to not being caught, to put someone who might be more amenable to Nazarick's desires in charge. This was Sebas. He was Touch Me's creation and it felt wrong.

[My Lord, I have already considered the possibility of removing the Elf King,] Sebas said, as if anticipating his order.

Ainz was surprised. His butler was matter of fact. The Elf King must have really rubbed Sebas the wrong way and it generally took a lot to ruffle the man. He was reminded again that Sebas was of Nazarick. That meant the butler considered his orders, and his desires absolute. His own preferences would be subsumed if it was for Ainz' benefit. The undead suppressed a sigh. He didn't want Nazarick's citizens to go against their beliefs, not really. Sebas was a good man. He should remain that.

[There is a problem?]

[Yes, My Lord,] Sebas confirmed. [While the King holds his people in contempt, he is very powerful, at least five times more powerful than any other elf I have met. He has not said anything but-] At this Ainz sensed his butler taking a deep breath. [He may be from Yggdrasil, or have knowledge of it.]

Shock rippled through him but habit forced Ainz to calm down before his limiter kicked in. He had been wanting this. Someone from Yggdrasil would understand him… but should also recognise the name Ainz Ooal Gown. They weren't that unknown! [He has said nothing?]

[No, My Lord.]

That was odd. If the Elf King was from Yggdrasil, he would have expected the elf to have said something. Not something large but something. Even just the mention of Yggdrasil would have been enough. Sebas would have picked it up. If the Elf King was another player would he have recognised Sebas as an NPC? Possibly not. Only Ainz Ooal Gown had ever seen the tenth floor of Nazarick. But there were other possibilities.

[He could be a descendant,] Ainz mused. [The Slane Theocracy believe their gods sired children and monitor what they call Godkin bloodlines,] he explained.

[It would explain his abnormal power,] Sebas agreed.

Most demihuman groups assigned leadership on the basis of power. Humans did not and elves were similar enough to Humans that they did not fall into the normal demihuman habits. The Elves would say they were above that.

[Continue watching,] Ainz decided. [Do not mention the possibility we have found the child. Tell them I am considering it but that the hand of friendship is always extended without conditions.]

Again he sensed Sebas' smile at his words. He probably thought keeping the offer open was part of a larger plan. It was, but not in any cunning way. There was no need to initiate a conflict with the elves and offering friendship cost him nothing.

[Of course, My Lord,] Sebas agreed. [I will attempt to determine the line of succession and find any details I can of the King's heritage.]

[At the moment, there is no reason to kill him,] Ainz said. [But in due course, the elves will be joining my Kingdom,] he added, deliberately suppressing his fear at that thought. Even if he did nothing, it would happen, so he was determined to guide it as much as he could.

[Of course, My Lord,] Sebas repeated. [It will be done,] Nazarick's butler added before the message spell was released.

In his office, Ainz heaved a mental sigh. He couldn't actually give one or that would worry Cixous. He reached out for the stack of images which were never far from him. The woman's picture was on the top. She hadn't actually raped Aura but Mare had been clear that this was one of the difficult images to get from Aura. That meant this woman, who ever she was, had done something worse. Facilitation. He shook his head as he put the image down.

Whoever she was, she had a lot to answer for.

-cos-

Baharuth Empire, Arwintar, Emperor's Palace

"What is he doing?" Emperor Jircniv exploded. Those with him had become used to the Blood Emperor's outbursts. They knew who their ruler was referring to. The Sorcerer King, Ainz Ooal Gown, the Overlord of the Empire.

"It is winter," Baziwood pointed out reasonably.

"Pish!" Jircniv waved off the explanation. "With that transport spell the Legions could be holding multiple towns, but they aren't! What is he doing?"

The Emperor's Knight had been at the recent gathering. He had much the same information Jircniv was operating from. "He was trying to identify those responsible."

Jircniv waved his hand to dismiss the explanation. He already knew that. "But why not keep taking towns?" He pressed.

"He could be cautious of encountering the Scriptures," Baziwood said. It was a reasonable suggestion. The Emperor's Knights were considered strong but the rumours going around about some members of the Scriptures put them all to shame. Even the Adamantite Adventurer Groups were cautious around the Scriptures. Though would the undead care? That seemed to be absurd. Maybe the undead would not care about their lives, but he was prideful enough to care about the loss.

"No, the Scriptures only captured the elf with the element of surprise and some powerful artefacts," Jircniv said. "By now I'm sure he knows where every last copper coin is in the Slane Theocracy. There is no reason to wait!"

Baziwood sighed. He had seen Jircniv like this before, but he didn't know what to say now. The Empire was already a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom. He already knew that the Emperor would not ask the toadman. The Emperor would never admit it, but he was afraid of the toadman. Baziwood understood that. He was cautious around the creature as well. To be able to force the truth from someone with just your voice… that was a formidable power.

"He could be waiting for the Theocracy to do something," the Knight gave another suggestion. So far, the Theocracy had just issued denunciations, but it was generally believed that the attack had caught them off guard due to the season. Most were waiting for spring to see the Theocracy's true response.

"No," Jircniv again shot down the suggestion.

"Then I do not know," Baziwood said, shaking his head. "You're better at this stuff than I am."

"That's the problem!" Jircniv snarled with frustration. "This inactivity has to be part of a larger plan! He's too intelligent for it to be normal inactivity. There's a plan, but I cannot see it. Must he continue to do this?"

Baziwood didn't say anything. He was a warrior. Politics made no sense to him. He understood it was all based on gaining strength but swinging a sword was so much more honest. Even casting a spell was better. And, if the truth be told, he wasn't sure the Sorcerer King was up to anything. The few times he had met the undead he had seemed straightforward enough. Powerful, Baziwood had no doubt of that, capable of casting terrifying magic but relatively straightforward. He knew that Jircniv didn't want to hear that and what did he know? This was politics. That was Jircniv's domain so the undead probably was doing something.

He sighed. About all he could do now was sympathise with Jircniv. "Maybe the stars aren't aligned or something?"

That brought the Emperor's attention. "What was that?"

"Huh? Maybe the stars aren't aligned," Baziwood repeated. "I don't know," he shrugged. "I'm not a Magic Caster, but as you say with the transport spell, there is no reason not to be conquering more townships. So, unless the Sorcerer King is collecting information, or waiting for something specific from the Theocracy, then maybe the delay has something to do with some arcane reason."

Jircniv looked at one of the servants who were always around. "Go and find Ithai," he ordered. There was a note of hope in his voice. The Emperor shook his head. "There has to be a reason," he muttered.

Baziwood gave another shrug. There wasn't much else he could do.

Ithai must have been close because there was a soft knock on the door. Baziwood looked to Nimble who was standing at the door. He checked it quickly, but here, in the Palace there was unlikely to be danger. It was an ingrained habit.

The Head of the Empire's Magic Casters was allowed entry, but he was not alone.

"Field Marshal," Baziwood greeted the Commander of the Legions. He had thought the man had returned to Synoro.

"Knight Peshmel," the greeting was returned.

"You summoned me, Your Imperial Majesty?" Ithai asked, cutting through the small talk. He was new to the position, but he had learned that the Emperor despised time wasting.

Jircniv eyed the Magic Caster. He'd ask about the Field Marshal later. "Is there some arcane event happening?" he asked.

"Your Majesty?" Ithai did not understand the question.

"The Sorcerer King," Jircniv snapped. "Is he waiting for some arcane event?"

The Magic Caster nodded, indicating his newfound understanding with the explanation. "Midwinter is the only significant event in the near future, Your Majesty," he replied. "The darker magics are usually stronger on that day."

The Emperor looked faintly pleased at the answer. Interestingly the Field Marshal looked horrified. "Are you suggesting that the Sorcerer King is waiting for Midwinter to launch further attacks?" He demanded of the Magic Caster.

Ithai seemed taken back by the demand. "It is a possibility," he replied. "While I understand that His Majesty can't use the same spell as he did on the Katze Plains, I am certain that a Magic Caster of his calibre would have other effective spells."

That didn't ease the Field Marshal's expression. After a moment of thought Baziwood thought he understood why. If the Theocracy gathered their army, it would be giving the Sorcerer King an opportunity to decimate them. So, if you couldn't gather your army, how did you fight a war?

The Scriptures sprung to mind as the immediate answer, but Baziwood knew, because he was with the Emperor most of the time, that they had not been seen doing anything.

"It is the Theocracy's problem," Jircniv announced giving Taalay a significant look. Now that the Emperor had a possible answer to the Undead King's seeming inaction he was calmer.

"Your Majesty," the Field Marshal saluted.

"I thought you were in Synoro," Jircniv growled. It served as a demand for an explanation.

"Yes, Your Majesty," Taalay agreed. "The Sorcerer King has provided me with several servants."

"He has?" That was Ithai. For Taalay to be here, those servants had to be powerful Magic Casters.

"He has," the Field Marshal confirmed, though he did not look pleased. Jircniv looked interested, but wary.

"What menagerie have you been saddled with?" the Emperor asked.

Taalay took a deep breath. "An Elder Lich," he said. Those present didn't gasp but there was a collective flinch. Field Marshal Ozols swallowed hard. "It was created in my office, from the living body of one of the Slane Theocracy prisoners."

"Alive?" Ithai pushed aside his fear to ask.

"Not anymore," Baziwood muttered.

Jircniv waved one hand. He'd seen the Sorcerer King create a Death Knight. An Elder Lich was a step up but one that was within expectations. "What else?"

The leader of the Legions looked uncomfortable. "I'm not certain," he admitted. His tone said he didn't really want to know either. "It opened the gate here. The Lich is augmenting our supplies."

"What do you mean?" Baziwood asked. This was still a casual meeting so he could ask. If the Emperor sat up, it would be more formal.

Ozols gave a soft exhale. "It means exactly what you think it means. The Lich is augmenting our supplies. It is providing fresh vegetables and fresh meat, mostly. Sometimes some fish."

"The undead don't eat," Ithai said. It was a blatantly obvious statement. "Where is it coming from?"

Jircniv waved his hand to indicate he agreed with the question.

"I don't know. The Lich simply brings through wagon loads of supplies every few hours. His Majesty said that it was to help us."

"A Lich helping the living?"

"That's what the Sorcerer King indicated the Lich would do," Taalay weakly defended the statement, though they could tell he didn't quite believe it.

Again the Emperor waved one hand. "The old man could control Skeletons enough to set them to farming. I imagine the Sorcerer King doesn't even have to try to do that, but there are still questions. He has no space! Where are the farms?"

"I did ask the Lich," Ozols said. "I didn't want to be stealing from somewhere else, but the Lich assured me that the produce was from Nazarick. It is very high quality."

"How do the men feel?" Baziwood asked.

"They were nervous at first but-" Taalay gulped.

"But they are slowly being won over to the undead's side," Jircniv finished for him. "Damn him!"

"It is as you say, Your Majesty. The fact that the Undead loaned troops for the assault, and is now providing provisions is leading to feelings of good will."

"He's undead! They do know the undead hate the living?" Jircniv pressed.

"They know that," The Field Marshal agreed. "I feel it from the Lich but most of the Legions haven't ever personally encountered an undead. And even if they encounter the Sorcerer King, he does not feel like an undead."

Jircniv dismissed that sentiment. He had felt Ainz Ooal Gowns aura several times. It was not the unreserved hatred for the living, it was hatred for everything that didn't bow to him. "Do they not remember the Katze Plains?"

Seventy thousand men (and their animals) died in the initial spell. At least another 100,000 killed by the horrific entities the Sorcerer King had summoned. And he'd called them lambs! Six of the Legions had witnessed that first hand. They would not forget it so easily.

"They remember, Your Majesty," Taalay said. "They definitely remember but I believe at least some of them take solace in the knowledge that the Empire is now a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom."

Meaning the Sorcerer King, undead though he might be, would have lesser reason to strike at those who were on his side. And in providing fresh provisions and ensuring that none of the Legions were killed assaulting a walled town… it had gone a long way to giving him a positive reputation.

The Field Marshal didn't mention that many of the Knights had blamed Jircniv directly for the disaster at the Katze Plains. It was, after all, common knowledge that the Emperor had asked the Magic Caster Ainz Ooal Gown to use his most powerful spell. Then it had been to gauge the unknown Magic Caster's abilities, but the political reasons were lost on the Knights. They had seen the outcome. And the outcome, and the gauge, was far beyond human understanding.

The Emperor looked unimpressed. "Are they worshipping him?" he muttered.

That was something Taalay obviously didn't want to think about. "Some of them, probably," he had to admit. He knew what the Knights could be like.

"We are truly riding the tiger," Jircniv muttered. "All we can do is hang on."

"And hope it doesn't eat us," Baziwood murmured. Officially, they were on the Sorcerer King's side but the Emperor's Knight felt a bit like Leinas now. She would do anything for the cure to her curse. He knew the Emperor would do anything to be free of the Sorcerous Kingdom. But even Baziwood could see that the chance to be free was dwindling.

He cringed at the thought, but then logic imposed itself. The Sorcerer King was taking care of the Legions as well, or possibly even better than the Empire itself. It might not be all bad.

Only time would tell.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 3

-cos-

Outside of the Lizardmen's Village

Cocytus stood in the clearing before the village. His eyes were closed but most would not be able to tell that. The lack of vision in no way impeded his senses. There was snow falling around him as he waited. If one was not familiar with him, they might believe he was some sort of giant ice sculpture. He was not moving but was content to wait. He had felt several probes against his senses but nothing worth attacking.

Besides, he wanted to be noticed. Tokage had died to give the Lizardmen warning that the Theocracy was here. They were here for him. There was no other reason for them to be so far from home. It would be impolite of him not to greet them. And it was an opportunity for him to redeem himself in his Master's eyes.

He was not being reckless. Cocytus was not so foolish as to risk that, and his Master would rightly not forgive him if he was careless. But after due consideration he had come to the conclusion this was the best way of drawing out the Theocracy. The [Billion Blades] was with him. If the Theocracy had a world item, he would be protected.

He just had to be patient. It was not hard to be patient in the quiet of the night. The clouds were obscuring the moon, so it was particularly dark. Whoever the Theocracy had sent was wise enough to ensure that the fire he knew they would have lit was well hidden. He suspected they were using magic. At the moment, he wasn't sure if it was a spell or some artefact. If it was an artefact, then maybe it could be copied by Nazarick. Devices to provide safe fires would be of benefit to many species.

There. Over by the edge of the forest. There was a rustle. He could hear a branch moving. There was no crunch of footsteps in the snow, indicating that there was some magical sound suppressant, and that magic probably extended to any noise made by moving the branches but such magic did not affect secondary sounds. Unless you gently placed the tree limb back into position, the movement as it shifted back into place after you passed could be detected. Cocytus was not a ranger like Aura, but he could detect such things. Lord Takemikazuchi had ensured his senses were highly accurate.

He didn't move. There was no need to give away that he had heard them. There was a possibility that the Theocracy was only here to observe him. If that was the case, then being out in the open was tempting them. If they were loyal, they wouldn't do anything but he suspected by presenting such an obvious target they would take the opportunity he had given them. Since coming to this world Cocytus had learned that there were very few who knew what true loyalty was.

Time would tell if his watcher was one of the few. Maybe they would be, or maybe they would take word of his placement back to the others who had to be there. Then, Cocytus was sure at least one of them would suggest a strike.

Or not, Cocytus thought when the air whistled. An arrow, shot from a different angle. It appeared one watcher was better than the other at being silent. He made no move to stop it. It was not aimed at any of his vitals. It appeared the archer was guessing or could not aim properly in the dark. His shields would absorb it.

The Supreme Being, Takemikazuchi, had done his best to ensure he was immune to magic and such low level physical attacks weren't worth mentioning. The arrow shattered. Cocytus remained still. There was no noise but the ice crystals embedded in his back detected vibration in the air. Someone was annoyed that they had missed. Humans seldom thought about protecting themselves from senses they did not have.

Another arrow. Again Cocytus did not move. Another impact that did nothing, followed by more cursing. Unseen, Cocytus smiled. They were so predictable.

There was more rustling from the forest. Others were coming closer. He tightened his grip on his spear. It was his primary weapon. Scum from the Theocracy did not deserve to see the [God Slaying Emperor Blade].

He opened his eyes when he sensed them emerge from the trees. Five. Two women and three men. The women were slender but Cocytus did not doubt their strength. The Guardian Overseer Albedo was slender but was not weak. One of the men was larger. He was dressed for the cold but Cocytus could see he was well muscled. The others were of a more medium build.

"Hey, thing!" One of them called. It was one of the medium built men.

Cocytus tilted his head slightly towards the speaker. He was obviously not a warrior. Not with an attitude like that.

"We were just meant to observe you but your Master declared war-" At this, Cocytus heard one of the others mutter, "And took Synoro," but he ignored the second speaker. "-so, well, this is war. We are going to have to kill you."

Accompanying his words came a flash of light. Several balls of magical energy suspended themselves in the air, illuminating the clearing. Cocytus didn't need the light but humans were weak and he had been slightly surprised that they had taken action at this hour. He had been expecting them just after dawn. Still, he took advantage of it to examine them properly. Their clothes were of high quality. These were not casual observers sent by the Theocracy.

"How. Rude." Cocytus replied, lifting his spear. "To. Not. Even. Announce. Yourselves. Properly."

"My apologies for my companion's direct speech," the large man said. "I am Kaan Utkin of the Slane Theocracy's Windflower Scripture." The man brandished a spear. It was oddly shaped and didn't seem feasible for battle, but Cocytus knew the man wouldn't have brought it if it was not functional. "As stated, this is war."

"Indeed. I. Am. Cocytus. The. Guardian. Of. The Fifth. Floor. Of. Nazarick," he introduced himself, though Kaan's introduction raised questions. "Were. You. Responsible. For. The. Capture. Of. Lady. Aura?" He angled his head towards the speaker. This Kaan was one of the ones who wanted to attack.

"Kaan!" One of the women hissed. There was a bow slung over her back. So this was the one who had killed Tokage. She was standing at the edge of the light, attempting to hide in the shadows. She might as well have just come forward. Humans might need the light, he didn't. From her stance Cocytus gathered she had been against the decision to attack. If they were only meant to observe him, then she was trying to be loyal to their orders. Humans were such fickle creatures.

"The Windflower Scripture was," the man admitted.

Cocytus already knew that. Lord Ainz had ensured that the Guardians knew which Scripture was responsible in preparation for the assault on the Theocracy. Cocytus never thought he would be in a position to capture them. This was a gift from the Supreme Beings! He would give thanks to them.

"Kaan!" The woman growled this time.

"What Midge? You ashamed?" Kaan asked, though his attention didn't shift from Cocytus.

Nazarick's Fifth Floor guardian reassessed. Maybe Kaan was a warrior.

"Of course not, but we do not owe it answers!"

Cocytus got the distinct impression that she wanted to say more but wouldn't in front of him. She had some sense of operational security. It was odd. They were obviously going against their orders, but at the same time they wouldn't abandon all of their principles.

"Look, are we doing this?" one of the other men asked his companions.

"It. Is. Rude. Not. To. Introduce. Yourselves," Cocytus said, lifting his spear.

Kaan snorted softly. "We aren't usually into formal fights," he explained honestly. There was a faint note Cocytus didn't recognise in his voice. The Insect Fighter thought Kaan might be slightly wistful. "Generally the Windflower Scripture collect intelligence, not fight, but all the Scriptures are doing more since the Sunlight Scripture got themselves offed." He said it casually but Cocytus heard the note of annoyance.

"My. Master. Did. Warn. Them. That. He. Was. Stronger. Than. Them," Cocytus said.

"And are you stronger than us?" one of the men asked.

"We. Will. See."

"Humph! We will," the man agreed. "I am Durk Esser, of the Windflower Scripture," he introduced himself before gesturing to the woman standing to his right. She had so far been silent.

"Men," she muttered. "I am Azra Wehner of the Slane Theocracy's Windflower Scripture. For the sake of Humanity, you must die."

"To. The. Death?" Cocytus invited, though he had no intention of killing them.

"Of course to the death!" the other woman said. "Your Master killed the Sunlight Scripture and who knows what atrocities are being perpetrated within Synoro! There is nothing else to do but kill you."

"Atrocity?" Cocytus was insulted. "You. Speak. Of. Atrocity. Yet. Know. Nothing. What. Of. The. Atrocity. Inflicted. Upon. Aura? Even. My. Master. Finds. The. Rape. Of. A. Child. Reprehensible."

The woman was silent, though she glared. "Demihumans do not feel in the same way Humans do. They are lesser species."

Cocytus felt cold at that. He suppressed a growl. The Windflower members felt his agitation. He would have to take particular care to capture that woman alive. She had a lot to learn and he knew there were many members of Nazarick who would be happy to provide the lessons.

The woman huffed triumphantly. "I am Midge Hunnisett of the Slane Theocracy's Windflower Scripture," she announced, pulling her bow over her head, nocking it in the same motion. "We will take your remains back to the Theocracy to show your Master that we are not to be mocked."

She didn't fire her arrow, and Cocytus heard her muttering beneath her breath. He didn't hear the words but he thought it was some charm for her arrows. He would have to be careful.

"Well, if we are doing this, I should introduce myself," the last man said. It was the first speaker, the one who had called him a thing. "For what it's worth, thing, and in the moments before your death, know that I am Vilhelm Baarsma of the Slane Theocracy's Windflower Scripture."

Cocytus jerked his head once in response. There was no need to reply. It appeared Kaan didn't expect a reply. The large man levelled his spear at Cocytus. He detected a pulse coming from it. Magic. It hit his shields and Cocytus felt warm for a moment as the magic was dissipated.

Midge had fired an arrow when Kaan moved. They had obviously planned this. They would have been better off attacking as soon as they created their lights. True, it was a dishonourable move but one that would have given them a better chance. The arrow burst into flames. Cocytus spun his spear, destroying the arrow with the flat side of the blade.

"What?" She gasped.

Kaan shook his spear. There was another burst of magic and Cocytus understood. It was obviously meant to immobilise him or lower his defences so that their attacks would connect.

"It's not working!" Kaan shouted.

"It's got to!" Midge cried.

Cocytus flicked his spear, knocking her follow up arrows into the snow. He kept his eyes on the others. They would make a move soon, though from the murmuring, Azra was chanting some sort of spell. There was no need to wait for her to finish. As a magic caster she should have known to remain hidden.

He took a step. The snow crunched. Azra seemed to know he was coming at her. The others did as well and they moved. He was faster. A slash of his spear was sufficient. He was Nazarick's premier weapons user. He could create effects others couldn't. A shock wave lashed out from the motion. It took Azra in the stomach and Cocytus watched with detached interest as she was flung back. She rolled in the snow several times but came to a halt, lying face down. His senses told him she wasn't getting back up.

"Try it again," Midge ordered, while Durk used the opening Cocytus had given him by attacking Azra.

"I have!" Kaan growled his response. "This thing is probably just humanoid enough to avoid being affected," he added.

Cocytus caught Durk's blade. The strength behind the swing was inferior to Zaryusu Shasha's.

"I. Am. Immune. To. Such. Magic," he told Kaan. "My. Creator. Thought. Combat. Was. Best. As. Combat. Magic. Is. Not. Combat." Warrior Takemikazuchi had specifically imbued him with as many resistances to magic as he could. Spells that a Supreme Being could cast would be a problem but this level was nothing.

"That's not possible!" Vilhelm said.

Cocytus didn't reply. It didn't matter what they thought was possible.

"Then we will have to do this the old fashioned way," Kaan said. "Midge, see to Azra," he ordered. It was a logical instruction. If they could get their magic caster functional again, then they could be healed. Cocytus acknowledged that this Kaan was the most sensible of them but he wasn't going to let them win.

He shifted again, tapping his foot against the snow to ensure a secure purchase. Cocytus lifted the arm that had caught Durk's weapon and flung the man away before he moved to the archer. She didn't see him coming and the flat of his spear's blade knocked into the side of her head. He was as gentle as he could, not due to her sex, but he had become aware of how fragile the beings of this new world were. The woman collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut and Cocytus took a few steps away from her before turning again to face the three remaining.

Kaan looked impressed. Cocytus could see that the man was excited at the prospect of combat. Durk was unsure. He was getting back to his feet. A flick of Cocytus' wrist embedded his blade in the snow near him. He looked surprised at the gesture.

"Your. Leader. Is. Honourable," he gave the explanation.

Kaan brandished his spear, wielding it now as a true weapon. He raised it as he charged. Cocytus met his charge. Their blades clashed with a steely ring. The noise would no doubt attract the attention of the Lizardmen but Cocytus had given them strict instructions that they were to remain within the village. The man was stronger than Durk but nothing special. Close up, Cocytus could feel the magic of his weapon. It felt like Yggdrasil.

Vilhelm had earlier pulled two short blades and charged in as well. Durk was a little more reticent. He pulled his sword from the snow, weighing it carefully to ensure that there was no damage before he looked for an opening.

Kaan tried to exert pressure on Cocytus but he wasn't strong enough. Vilhelm charged in but the man was obviously suited for fast, light combat. Against other humans, he was probably skilled. Against Cocytus, whose entire body was armoured, Vilhelm was nothing more than a fly buzzing around. His knives could not pierce through the Insect Figher's armour, not even when he targeted the traditional weak points at his joints.

With one arm, Cocytus backhanded Vilhelm sending the man spinning away. A follow up blow knocked him out as Durk charged.

"You are good," Kaan said.

Cocytus couldn't bring himself to reply as he again caught Durk's blade. This time he didn't shake the man free. Instead, he used his lower limbs to pull out another weapon from his storage space. Cocytus didn't miss the way the men's eyes widened. It was a simple thing. Could they not do this? He chose a mace. It was blunt. A quick flick and the pressure from Durk's weapon vanished as the man collapsed. Cocytus kept a hold of the blade so that it did not injure the man. He turned his full attention to Kaan.

There was no need to drag it out further and he sensed that the man knew he was defeated. He pulled back slightly, bringing his strange spear up to a guard position. Cocytus spun his spear backwards so that the axe blade was trailing before he struck. Kaan saw it coming but couldn't move fast enough and joined his companions collapsed in the snow.

Cocytus caught his spear. When the touched it, the buzz of magic raced up his arm. It was familiar. Yggdrasil. Automatically Cocytus sent several queries to the weapon. It was something anyone from Yggdrasil would know how to do. The information came back. The spear was a [Frysta Javelin.] His fist clenched on the shaft. This was probably the weapon that had brought down Wanglong.

Unseen, Cocytus smiled again as he gestured towards the walls of the Lizardmen's village. He could hear them watching. The signal let them know it was safe to come forward. The gate creaked as it opened and he heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow. The Lizardmen would tie up the prisoners, readying them for transport.

He looked up at the magical lights that were still burning. The light would soon be dimmed by the rising sun. Five members of the Windflower Scripture and the weapon that had brought down Wanglong. It had been a good night's work.

-cos-

Sixth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, Aura's Room

"Aura," Mare whispered. His sister was sitting in a chair. It would have been good to see her out of bed except that was where he had set her up earlier. She was staring into space. "Aura," he called again.

She continued staring. Their Master had brought her back to Nazarick when she had left. He had assured him that Aura wasn't hurt. Of course she wasn't. Nothing could take on their Master but she had been shivering. Mare had given Aura a hot bath and then had put her back to bed.

It was only then that he'd asked Wanglong what the dragonlich was thinking. Mare couldn't talk to Aura's familiars in the way she could but he knew enough. The dragonlich had been upset as well but had explained as best as he could that Aura had said not to follow, that she would call if she needed help. Obviously she hadn't. It was a good thing that the Human had been with one of their Master's undead.

Aura had slept for the night but when she'd woken up she'd just whispered that she was sorry. That was all. Nothing else. And now she wasn't saying anything. She was just staring into space.

"Aura, don't you have to yell at me?" Mare asked. Wanglong had said that Aura was angry at him. He'd take anger now. Her staring was… The dark elf felt his heart clench. This wasn't his sister.

He should have been here!

Yes, he knew Shalltear needed his assistance to extract the images from the prisoner's minds but Aura was his first priority! Even their Master had given him leave to ensure that. Mare felt guilty at that but at the same time he was thankful. That hurt. It felt like he was betraying their Master.

"Aura, please," Mare whispered, tears forming in his eyes.

She didn't move. She just kept staring.

Mare bit his lip. The faint pain radiated outwards but couldn't stop his tears. "Please," he begged as they began to fall. He didn't reach up to wipe them away. Instead he swallowed but that brought no relief.

He had no idea what to do now, and sat there crying, watching his sister who sat and stared and did nothing.

-cos-

Tenth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, Throne Room

Ainz felt his fingers strain on the armrests of his Throne. It was the world item [Throne of Kings]. The crack of his bones did little to release his stress though. This was one of the reasons he had not allowed himself to visit the prisoners Shalltear had confined. If his unconscious status effects were affecting Nazarick's NPCs, they would probably kill those lowlife scumbag rapists. In as much as that might be justice, it was still too lenient a punishment for them.

There were prisoners before him now. Five members of the Windflower Scripture. Each was shackled, and each had more than one guard. Cocytus had brought several Lizardmen with him but others from Nazarick were there as well. The prisoners were on their knees and if they so much as twitched out of line, Ainz knew the guards would strike. Regardless, Albedo stood at his side. She was armed. Cocytus stood between the prisoners and him. Demiurge was also present. Shalltear had wanted to be here but he did not want to risk the prisoners being able to cast a message spell. It was a tiny risk but until they were all in chains, he didn't want to take that risk.

He looked at them. There were three men and two women, though one of the women was gagged. She was glaring at him. The others seemed more cowed. He had been surprised when Cocytus had contacted him but it was a pleasant surprise.

"The Windflower Scripture," he murmured. No one said anything. "The Theocracy's dogs who take pleasure in attacking children and delivering them to rapists," he added. The sentence sparked his anger and he knew the sense of his presence increased. The prisoners flinched.

"Their. Weapons. My. Lord," Cocytus said, attempting to calm him. The Insect Fighter stepped forward. He lay a spear on the first step. Ainz recognised it. Several other weapons were laid beside it. A set of knives, a bow, a sword, and a staff. He didn't recognise them. They were well made but did not feel like they came from Yggdrasil.

Though the staff explained why the woman was gagged. She must be their magic caster.

Ainz gestured. The spear rose. "A [Frysta Javelin]," he said, gripping it when it came close. Unlike Cocytus he could not activate the data crystals stored within the weapon. He could identify it, but if he tried anything further he would drop it, and he was well aware of what that would do to his image.

"They. Attempted. To. Use. It. On. Me." Cocytus reported.

In other circumstances, Ainz would have found that amusing. From the smiles gracing Albedo and Demiurge's faces they were finding it amusing. He was still angry but he did not wish to impact upon their pleasure.

Instead he gave a huff. "Warrior Takemikazuchi would be insulted," he murmured. Actually, Takemikazuchi would probably be laughing at such a futile attempt to control his creation. The [Frysta Javelin] was not designed to be used on NPCs with Cocytus' protections. He was a Vermin Lord so technically, he was a creature but… Takemikazuchi would never allow his creation to be felled by such an obvious weapon.

Cocytus nodded.

"Which one was the leader?" Ainz asked. They had already searched the area and found the campsite they had been using. There was no evidence of others present. That was a relief. While it was Lizardman territory and they knew the land, most of the dryads and others who were better suited for searching through a forest were dormant with the winter and he did not want to wake them.

"The. Large. Human. Was. Barely. Acceptable. As. A. Warrior," Cocytus indicated.

Ainz turned his attention to the man. Presumably he had been the one to wield the [Frysta Javelin]. "I recall the Sunlight Scripture as being larger," he said, fishing for a reaction. These were members of the Windflower Scripture but there was a chance they were not involved in the action against Aura. It was unlikely, but it was best to check. "Are you all of the Windflower Scripture?"

The prisoners were silent. Ainz flicked one finger towards Demiurge. The demon bowed his head slightly before turning to face the prisoners. "[Answer]," his order was laced with power.

He could see the way they tried to resist but while Demiurge and Albedo had been amused by the thought of the Scripture members trying to use the [Frysta Javelin] on Cocytus they also shared his anger at the assault on Aura. There was no way mere humans could resist Demiurge when he put that much power into his voice.

"No," the large man eventually gasped, sweat pouring down his face. It was cold in the throne room, a cold that was enhanced by Cocytus' presence. No one from Nazarick felt it.

"Where are the others?"

They glared but before Ainz could signal Demiurge again the man shook his head. "They are still in Kami Miyako," he told them.

He would find out the details of how many remained and their abilities later. No doubt Neuronist would be delighted to retrieve that information. Before that though… "Were you involved in the attack on Aura?"

The man looked confused for a moment. The expression did nothing to lessen Ainz' anger. He had to be close to his limiter kicking in. Deliberately he took a deep breath, focusing on that unnecessary action. He wanted to feel the anger. He felt like he should. "The Elf," he added the further information.

The prisoners knew it was a loaded question.

"By virtue of your attack on my servant, Cocytus, and the murder of the Lizardman, Tokage, your lives are already forfeit," Ainz told them. He noted the way the Lizardmen guards jerked slightly at the mention of Tokage. No doubt they were surprised he knew the name of the scout. He had asked Cocytus earlier. It was these little gestures that instilled loyalty. Having the CEO know your name was scary in one way but it did give you a sense of connection to the company. They would report back now that he cared for each of them. "The answers to my questions are to determine how fast you lose them. And you will be answering them."

The larger man sighed heavily, apparently reaching a decision. "We were involved," he answered. "But I swear, we had nothing to do with what happened after we got back to Kami Miyako," he added.

"But in your attack, you were the facilitators." The response was easy. They would be punished. There was no question of that. "The details of the others who participated in the attack can wait," Ainz announced, gesturing towards Lupusregina Beta who was attending him today. It appeared, even within Nazarick the NPCs had decided he needed the additional protection. The Homunculus Maids were not combat ready. There was no doubt they would try to fight if necessary but that was not their skill.

The werewolf held up the image of the elfin woman. "Who is this?"

So far those they had captured had only been able to say the woman was powerful but they were merely thugs. They would not know the power structures of the Theocracy. These were members of a Scripture. They would know. They jerked at the image. Their guards were quick to react, hitting the prisoners. Ainz raised one hand to indicate it was sufficient.

"Who is this?" he repeated his question.

Demiurge glared, the demon's expression making it clear that he would be happy to force them to answer. The prisoners seemed to know that.

"You can't," the woman who wasn't gagged hissed. Her guards hit her again. Ainz saw the way she suppressed a cry of pain.

"They're gonna find out anyway," the larger man snapped back. The flick of Ainz' finger kept his guards from reacting. It was nice when prisoner's recognised reality. "And she's powerful enough to kill them all." That wasn't reality. The guards reacted.

"Who is this?" he asked for the third time. Unseen, Ainz smiled. He had learned that even though he could not make those gestures thinking about them helped with his acting, and right at the moment he was playing the part of the evil overlord. Well, to the prisoners he was. To those holding them he was a benevolent and caring ruler.

"She's the Guardian of the Treasury."

"A better answer than we've had so far, but I want a name," he told the man.

"You can't!" the woman repeated. Again the guards hit her. This time she pitched forward.

"Gag her," Ainz ordered with the flick of one hand. The guards were only too happy to comply and the woman was trussed up further. "A name," he repeated, turning his attention back to the man.

"Zesshi Zetsumei," he answered. "A godkin."

"One of the descendants of your petty Six Gods," Ainz murmured. It was good that he had learned what the term meant. "It amuses me, you know, that you call her godkin. By that standard, I am a God." He tilted his head to look down at them. The prisoner's eyes were wide at the revelation. So were many of the guards. He'd deal with that later. "And I don't think your gods are here to fight me," Ainz added confidently.

There wasn't much more to ask. "Take them to Neuronist Painkill," he instructed. "I want to know everything about this Zesshi Zetsumei," he instructed. They would already know to question them about the other members of the Scripture and the exact details of their part in the attack on Aura.

He watched as the prisoners were forced out before turning to Cocytus. "You have done well," he praised the Insect Fighter.

"It. Is. My. Honour. To. Serve." Cocytus replied.

"Perhaps," Ainz agreed, "but the capture of members of the Windflower Scripture will hopefully provide solace to Aura, as well as valuable information."

The Fifth Floor Guardian nodded. "I. Hope. For. Aura's. Swift. Recovery."

Ainz nodded. He was hoping for that as well but he wasn't as confident of it as he had been previously. He was careful to ensure no one from Nazarick learned that. If he doubted her ability to heal, they would, but… He had sat with her yesterday for a time. She did not seem to be getting better. Everything seemed to be oppressing her. He wanted to ask for further information from Neuronist Painkill but had yet to be able to find a time to ask privately.

"I must reward you for their capture," he stated. "Do you wish the Lizardman resurrected?" he asked.

"No. My. Lord," Cocytus replied. "Tokage. Died. Performing. His. Duty. He. Was. Content."

That was understandable but it meant that he still needed to reward Cocytus. Then he remembered, something. "If it pleases you, you may select a weapon from the Theocracy's treasury," he indicated.

"My. Lord. You. Are. Too-"

Ainz held up one hand to forestall objections. "It is only right," he said firmly. The NPC would probably say that serving was its own reward. The thought of reward reminded him he would have to give Neuronist something as well. She had been working hard with all the prisoners. What did one give someone like her? He deliberately moved to a new topic, gesturing for Lupusregina to hold up the image again. "So, Zesshi Zetsumei," he said, rolling the Z's on his non-existent tongue.

"She will be captured, My Lord," Demiurge assured him.

"I have no doubt," Ainz replied. "But we must be careful as we move forward. Their so called Gods were in possession of not only the [Downfall of Castle and Country], but also several Divine Class items and weapons. It is likely that we will be seeing them as we move forward."

"They are only human! They cannot possibly use them," Albedo objected.

"Humans are adaptable," Ainz reminded her. She was still insisting they were weak, and while that was true on an individual basis, he well knew what humans could do if they were organised. And they knew those Humans could use the World Class items. "We must assume that at least some of them can use those items to their full extent," he said.

He tapped one finger on the throne's arm. "While the capture of the members of the Windflower Scripture is a boon, I am eager to have Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche join us. Then the rest of the Scriptures." After that he would probably give the Theocracy one chance to surrender. He was really only interested in capturing those who had harmed Aura.

Demiurge nodded. The demon probably already understood that.

"Is the plan ready?" He asked. Both Demiurge and Shalltear had been working on their kidnapping plans.

"Mine is, My Lord," the demon told him.

"Good," Ainz nodded. "Initiate it," he ordered. "Albedo, please have a team on standby, just in case. The Theocracy will be getting desperate and I expect them to attempt something stupid."

She smiled at him. "Of course, My Lord," she said.

Ainz nodded again as he rose. "Then I look forward to Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche joining us," he said as he walked down the stairs. "I will inform Aura of the good news," he announced, leaving the NPCs to their work.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 4

-cos-

Sixth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, Gigantic Tree

"She's not getting better!" Mare wailed.

Mentally Ainz blinked, half wondering how he had gotten into this. There was no question as to who the 'she' was. "What do you mean?" he asked the Dark Elf gently.

"She's just not getting any better," Mare repeated. "Aura," he said his sister's name softly. "Master, she just isn't getting any better."

Ainz said nothing, letting the young elf work through his issues. "All she does is sit there."

"Umhu?" Ainz prompted, though he felt a stir of worry. Some of the books he'd read indicated this might happen. He'd been hoping otherwise.

"She just sits there, staring at nothing," Mare repeated, sniffing heavily. Ainz reached into his dimensional storage and pulled out a tissue. He had literally thousands of the things there. They had been consolation prizes in Yggdrasil for any number of things. They were useless there. Now, it was a necessary item.

Mare took it and sniffed again, blowing his nose. He was aware that he was in his Master's presence but the situation was so bad he didn't know what else to do.

"Is she not taking care of herself?" Ainz asked when the Dark Elf seemed a bit more composed.

"No," he said, swallowing hard. "She eats whatever food I put in front of her, and she drinks whenever the maids tell her to, but she is not doing anything."

Mentally, Ainz heaved a breath. He couldn't remember what the book had said was happening, nor what should be done about it. He did remember that all of the books confirmed what Neuronist and the elf women had said. They had to be understanding and compassionate. They had to remind Aura it wasn't her fault until she believed it… but if she wasn't listening, that was going to be difficult. Had her excursion to the outside world been that traumatic?

Ainz took another metaphorical breath. "It is difficult," he said to Mare. "I know it is, and I know that some days it may seem as if we are going backwards, but we have to be patient. Aura knows we are here for her."

"But," Mare said, and that was perhaps the largest indication that something big had happened in the Dark Elf's life. He would never have contradicted Ainz in the past. "I gave her Carambola! She hates Carambola! But she ate it without even commenting."

"It will take time for her to heal," Ainz said clearly. He sounded sincere. He was surprised by how sincere he sounded. But Neuronist and the Elf women had been very clear. It might take decades but Aura would recover if they let her. They just had to be patient and that was not patience on a human time frame, that was patience on the time frame of an immortal. That had been a surprising revelation but he had accepted it.

He was thankful that Aura was eating. It made it easier than trying to magic sustenance directly into her.

"And I have some news that may help," he added, in an attempt to cheer up the young elf.

"My Lord?" Mare asked, his heterochromatic eyes wide.

Ainz held up the image of the woman. "Her name is Zetsumei Zesshi," he announced. "She is the Slane Theocracy's Guardian of the Treasury."

Mare's eyes widened, then a shy smile ghosted on to his face. Ainz felt almost joyful at seeing it. "You are going to tell her?"

"Yes," he agreed. "Do you wish to accompany me?" Ainz asked. He was beginning to learn to phrase his questions to the Guardians less as orders but as questions. That required them to make the decision. He hoped it would guide them to making choices based on what they wanted, instead of what they thought he wanted. At the moment, he knew they were doing things they thought he wanted but these things took time.

"Ah, no, no, My Lord. I do not wish to interrupt your time with Aura," Mare replied.

Internally, Ainz sighed. There was probably too much going on now to expect Mare to make his own decisions. "You are not an interruption," he assured the young Elf.

The Dark Elf seemed to blush but bowed to cover it, gesturing towards the door. Lupusregina Beta rushed forward to open it. He nodded to the werewolf as he entered.

As an undead, his eyes did not need to adapt to dark or light conditions. Even in the dark he could make out fine details on items, it was just that everything was slightly darker than daytime vision. Ainz almost wished he needed the time. It would have given him a chance to compose himself.

Aura was sitting at the table. She was neatly dressed, no doubt due to Mare's efforts, or one of the maids. Her hair was brushed and she was clean. If it was a statue, the likeness was uncanny but this wasn't Aura. Her eyes were dull and her expression was slack. Her usual mobile, smiling expression was absent.

He felt a spike of anger seeing her. Ainz suppressed it. This was not Aura's fault. There were prisoners on the Fifth Floor who bore responsibility for this but those were merely the pawns. Those who were truly responsible were still in the Slane Theocracy's capital.

"Aura," he called softly.

She didn't move. She didn't even react to his presence. That was very unusual. Everyone in Nazarick acknowledged him. It was a measure of how wrong the situation was.

"Aura," Ainz repeated, stepping further into the room. The Dark Elf was seated at a table. Her hands were clasped on it. There was another chair on the other side. Ainz moved to it, sitting in the chair to look over at her. She was still staring. She hadn't moved. Mentally, Ainz shook his head, clamping down on his anger. He pulled out the image of the woman. This was a risk but maybe Aura would react to it.

He placed the image on the table, tapping one bony finger on it. "We know who this is now," he told the unresponsive elf. "Her name is Zetsumei Zesshi," he said. He thought he saw a flicker in her eyes. That was something. "She is the Guardian of the Slane Theocracy's Treasury."

"...e… all… m….eak."

The words were less than a whisper. It was only because Ainz was looking directly at Aura that he saw her lips move. He tilted his head, inviting her to speak again.

"She called me weak," Aura repeated.

"You are not weak!" He snapped. It was almost an automatic reaction but it was one he believed. Aura was not weak. None of the Guardian's were. He wondered if she might think that because the invasion of the Great Tomb of Nazarick had been stopped on the Eighth Floor. Did they think they had failed?

Aura shook her head but it seemed as if a dam had broken within the Dark Elf. "She said I begged! I never begged them! Not once, Master," she howled.

Ainz wasn't sure how to respond to that. Did he display a softer side or did he behave as she expected him to?

"I know you didn't," he assured her. "None of my Guardians are so weak as to beg."

"But she held me down for them to put the shackles back on," Aura told him.

Ainz froze. It was almost as if everything within him had completely stopped. "She did what?" He demanded. His voice wasn't loud. It was soft. There was not an undertone of frost, it was pure biting ice.

"One of them took the cuffs off, once," Aura explained. She hiccuped the words. "I killed him and got away, but she was there. She hit me. It hurt and she held me down. She ordered them to put the cuffs back on."

"Because they were the [Constraint of Umbra]," Ainz explained, ice still lacing his tone. He hoped Aura realised it was not directed towards her. "The weaker the being who puts them on you, the stronger the effect." He tucked the information that Aura was telling him into his mind. If this Zesshi Zetsumei had ordered others to put the [Constraint of Umbra] onto Aura, that meant she was stronger than them. He knew that much. The men had said that, but they had no idea of the sheer difference in power.

"You were strong," he added, his anger not lessening in the slightest.

"She called me weak! She said I begged!"

"You did not beg," he repeated her assurance from before. His anger felt like it was going to burst within him.

"She said I did. I said nothing, Master. Nothing! But she said I begged. She said if I was stronger it wouldn't have happened, that it is what happened to weak women."

Ainz just looked at Aura. He distantly heard a whimper but couldn't identify it. His hands which were resting on the table formed into claws, the bones scratching deeply into the wood. He trembled. He was no fool. He knew women could be just as cruel as men but the fact that she had held Aura down, that she had done this… Others within the Slane Theocracy might have given the orders but she had allowed them to become reality.

The anger vanished. Ainz drew a deep breath. This Zetsumei Zesshi would suffer for a very long time and if she was the Elf King's daughter… well, what was begat of rape was obviously hatred. He uncurled his fingers, taking a deep, deliberate breath. The wood was splintered. He looked over at Aura.

She had shrunk into herself, tears streaming down her ashen face.

"Aura," Ainz said softly.

She didn't move. She just kept cowering. It was odd but he didn't feel a stab of guilt. "Aura," Ainz was firm when he said her name with a note of command.

That at least caused the dark elf to look up at him. "My anger is not directed at you," he told her. He made sure his voice still reflected command. He wanted to be softer towards her. He could easily see Bukubukuchagama being softer but that was different. "It is towards this creature." He gestured towards the image. "She does not know the definition of strength, nor of pain... But she will. You have my word Aura, she will not die until she knows every last shame she inflicted upon you." He had a feeling that with Aura, he now understood pain far better than he had.

He said it that way because he knew that's what most of Nazarick would want to hear. Shalltear wanted to be punished for her failure, but she also wanted revenge, to cause pain to those who had caused her humiliation. It was what he expected Aura needed to hear.

He did not expect her to burst into tears. "Aura!" Ainz cried. What did he do? What had he said? "Aura!" he cried again.

Her tears didn't stop and he could see the way she was hiccuping, almost gasping for breath. "But I'm weak!" It was almost a howl.

"Aura!" There was a sharper note in his voice but she didn't appear to hear.

"I am not worth it. I am weak! I failed you!"

"You did not fail," Ainz said, still not sure how he could calm Aura down. He wanted to take her hand, but she was still curled in on herself.

"I failed!"

Internally, Ainz sighed. Maybe Mare was right, she was not getting better, but seeing her cry was better than seeing her staring into space. Yet it was not Aura. "Aura, you did not fail," he said in his most practiced, commanding tone.

The elf didn't appear to hear him but he had faith that, like all the Guardians of Nazarick, she would hear him in her soul. "Now, sleep," he added, pushing the minor spell towards the dark elf. It said a lot about her mental state that such a simple spell was capable of affecting her. Bukubukuchagama would have made sure Aura was not susceptible to such magic.

Aura slumped and Ainz moved to catch her before she hurt herself. He hoisted her into his arms before he sat back down. She should have looked peaceful asleep but there were tear tracks running down her cheeks and snot at her nose. It was so common place. He pulled another tissue from his stock and gently wiped her face.

What was he going to do with her? Should she be getting better by now? Or was this normal? He didn't know. The elf women had been pragmatic but they had had to be. They had been raped but they had to move when the Worker said to or they would be dead.

That led to an uncomfortable thought. Were they cosseting Aura too much? Would it be better if they were harsher? No. He didn't believe that. Neuronist hadn't said anything about that. The brain eater had said some firmness was needed to help her recovery but that they had to let Aura take the lead there. He could not just demand she return to normal. It wasn't her fault.

How was rape dealt with in his old world? Thinking about his world was almost like trying to recall a dream. Some things came to him clearly, others were lost in a fog. Ainz worried his non-existent lips as he thought. Rape was still illegal in his old world. The Corporations proudly proclaimed that they upheld those laws and that there hadn't been a trial for rape in many years. He couldn't remember the number. But he wasn't naive. Ulbert had seen to that with his lectures on "Evil" in the real world.

Poor men and women were raped all the time, and it wasn't always sexual. Ainz shook his head. That was getting too far afield, no matter how true it was. Poor men and women were raped. If they did not move, they would then rot away, unless someone took care of them. But Aura wasn't poor. Those of the workers... Had to do the same. They had to get on with their jobs or they would starve. And for the rich, Ainz almost snorted. No one would have dared touch them.

Though did it happen in their own echelons? He had no idea. What would they do?

Again, he had no idea. He didn't sigh. The answer from his memories was about what he expected. Which meant he still had to deal with Aura. They could be firmer. No one in Nazarick would say anything was wrong if he forced her to return to her duties. In fact, Ainz suspected some of them would think it was about time…

But, no. He didn't think force was the answer here. Aura had been dealt with forcefully. She would respond to it but it was not going to help her heal. It would just push the issue down, giving a false sense of health and he did not want that for Nazarick's NPCs.

If any of the others returned and learned that that is what he had done, no matter his intentions… He shuddered. No matter what others in Nazarick might think, force was not the right way.

So what was? And what would work? He looked down at Aura again as he incinerated the tissue with his other hand. With her tears cleaned away she looked peaceful. It was an illusion. It wasn't peaceful, just his desire for it to be that-

A soft knock interrupted his thoughts. Almost instinctively, Ainz tightened his grip on Aura as he looked over at the door. He was in one of the rooms in Aura and Mare's residence, so he should be secure, and there had been no sounds of fighting.

The knock came again. Of course it did. No one in Nazarick would dare interrupt him. "Come,"
Ainz called. Those outside would have already vetted whoever was knocking.

Lupusregina Beta opened the door. Ah, there were only a few beings who could be trusted to interact with him alone. He noticed though that the maid seemed pale. She was usually so full of life but the werewolf seemed subdued. What had caused that?

"The Human Paradyne wants to see you, Master," she told him softly.

Fluder? Why did he want to see him? He couldn't have finished the books yet. A tilt of his head requested further information.

"He says he has something to discuss with you," Lupusregina added.

"Very well," Ainz replied.

The werewolf moved into the room and Fluder entered. He was at least two hundred years old but was still spry and he knelt easily.

"You may rise," Ainz allowed, examining the man closely.

He had taken some care with his appearance, Ainz immediately noticed. When he had first met Fluder in Arwintar, the man had been immaculately dressed. It was expected of the Chief Magic Caster of the Baharuth Empire and close personal friend of the Emperor. But there had been times when Fluder had been in Nazarick when Ainz had seen him that it was obvious he had been wearing the same clothes for several days. Today was not one of those times.

"Your Majesty," the old man started, though he still kept his head bowed. "The depth of your foresight always astounds me." Fluder gave a weak smile as he shook his head. It was a self deprecating gesture, as if Fluder was once again surprised at something. "That is on those few occasions I am even aware of it."

Ainz felt a slight stir of worry at the opening. He'd heard this from Demiurge and others before. They always thought he knew more than he did. It was times like this he had learned that unspoken gestures were safer. While he did not have an expression, he did not want the tone of his voice hinting at any surprise. He lifted one hand, making a small circle with his fanned fingers to indicate Fluder should continue.

"Do you wish me to prepare the ceremony?" Paradyne asked.

Ceremony? What ceremony? The stir of worry grew from a mere tendril into something more substantial. If it could have, Ainz knew his breath would have hitched. He took a moment to compose himself as he furiously thought. There were a lot of ceremonies in Yggdrasil. The encounter with Khajiit had shown him there were ceremonies here as well. He had performed several ceremonies to increase his repertoire of spells, but he didn't think Fluder would be referring to any of those ceremonies. What one was he talking about? The man wasn't ready for any of the ones Ainz knew.

He had to say something! A certain amount of deliberation on his part was accepted, even expected but he could not be silent too long. "You wish to attempt a ceremony?" he asked cautiously, hoping it was not too vague.

"Of course not, Your Majesty!"

Ainz felt a slight relief when Fluder sounded honoured rather than insulted.

"I do not presume to possess enough power to be able to heal the Lady Aura," the man continued. "I doubt I could remove a single memory, though you have indicated that is not the path to take."

Again, Ainz felt blindsided, but the additional information provided some context. He had considered if using [Wish Upon a Star] was suitable to help Aura, but there were no appropriate wishes. And while she was healed physically, it was her mental state which was still poor. There were no spells from Yggdrasil to help there because this problem simply didn't exist. There were some vague mentions of rape but they were so generic that you could pretend it didn't happen. It was referred to in legends that so and so warrior kidnapped the beautiful princess and had his way with her. It was not appropriate for here.

There were some spells which were supposed to 'settle the mind'. They were used on warriors going into battle or on magic casters about to cast Super Tier Magic in crowded environments. Since they couldn't really affect your mind, all they did was give a slight increase to your luck stat. None of them were what Aura needed.

But was there something in this world that could help Aura? He hadn't considered that and Ainz felt stupid for his lack of thought. Were the elves wondering why he did not conduct this ceremony and thus gave him what they thought were the answers he wanted to hear? He hated that doubt.

"I must admit, I knew of no magic which would help Lady Aura," Fluder was continuing, his voice full of praise. "But of course you did! Though I must confess, to my shame, I did wonder why you had not used it already." The man actually hung his head lower. "But then I heard about what Lady Shalltear was doing and I understood. You were simply waiting for the right materials.

"As I should have known from your benevolence. You would not transfer Aura's pain to those not connected to this. It would not make sense to them. It would not be justice."

Fluder almost seemed to shine with sincerity and admiration.

Ainz was thinking as fast as he could, trying to put together what the old man was referring to. Shalltear had captured the men responsible for raping Aura. He suppressed a wince at the thought, though it was becoming slightly easier to think it. Did that mean he was getting used to it? Or was it because he could see that the end was drawing closer? The mission to capture Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche would already be leaving. He pushed the consideration aside. He needed to focus.

Shalltear had also captured those few the men cared for. They were an unusual mix. There was no defining thread amongst them, except that Neuronist had determined that the men cared for those people. That was all Shalltear had wanted. But how were they connected to what Fluder was talking about. Were they the materials he mentioned? How did they help Aura, since at the moment she was not interested in vengeance?

Wait… transfer her pain? Through a ceremony? When you got right down to it, most magic was transformative. You put in raw ingredients and power, and you got something made from those ingredients. Like the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown. That had started as a pile of metal and gemstones. The guild had then infused them with power and the staff had been created. Obviously it was more complicated than that but at the core of the matter, that is what had happened.

What Fluder was talking about though seemed to be transferal magic. There was some of that. He had examples of that in Nazarick. Werewolves could create other werewolves, and Vampires could create thralls or other vampires. That was transferal but also transformative. But it began with a transference of power that then began the transformation.

So what was Fluder talking about? A Ceremony to transfer Aura's pain to others? If such a thing existed it would theoretically work, but only if it did not completely remove her memories. That was the same as something he could do, and for something like this, Ainz knew simply removing the memories was the easy but ultimately incorrect path.

Well, if this ceremony relied on capturing the correct people… Ainz nodded, giving Fluder the gracious gesture he had practiced. "Yes," he agreed with the man, happy that his voice sounded confident even when a part of him was screaming 'I have no idea what is going on.' "It is harder for Aura, but I was waiting for those needed for the ceremony to be captured, though I would like the Scriptures as well. All the Scriptures," Ainz added the clarification. No doubt word of Cocytus' capture was already circulating.

"And I was thinking that the Cardinals should witness the fruit of their labours but that might be asking too much of Aura and I hope she can forgive me."

"As always, I am left stunned by the depth of your foresight. And I would selfishly say, I admit, that you were waiting for someone to suggest what you had already planned!" Fluder smiled. It was full of admiration.

Ainz mentally shook his head. Now, he just needed to extract information from Fluder now so that it looked like he had planned this. Fortunately, it was easier to get information from Paradyne than it was with Demiurge.

"I am pleased that you have been taking your studies so seriously," he told the man. The hint that he had expected it, combined with flattery, was the right tone to take here. He was, after all, meant to have already thought of this. "But while you lack the skills to properly conduct the ceremony, you do have the skill to document it. So that is your homework, Fluder," Ainz said with a little chuckle. "I want you to document the ceremony. I will check your work to ensure that you have properly transcribed the details from Ashurbanipal."

"Your Majesty!" Fluder seemed surprised.

Ainz raised one hand before the man could object, though he was careful to ensure the gesture did not impact on Aura who was still asleep, nestled in his lap. "Being able to perform magic is only one aspect. One must be able to pass it on in a coherent and concise manner," he stipulated. That should mean that Fluder's writing would be easy to follow. And he needed that.

For a moment Ainz didn't recognise the expression on Paradyne's face. It was one of confusion, mixed with jealousy and envy. Then he understood. Fluder was self taught. There had been no one to pass on knowledge to him… but learning on your own was not the way of Yggdrasil. You joined a guild to access their accumulated knowledge and to contribute your own findings about the worlds.

He shook his head again. He was reminiscing too much about Yggdrasil recently.

"Of course, Your Majesty!" Fluder agreed as his features took on a more enlightened expression.

Ainz knew he had to give the old man something or doubts would arise. "You may watch the ceremony," he said. "And should there be need to perform any grander feats of magic against the Slane Theocracy, I will ensure you are present," he added. He well knew Fluder wished he had been present at the Katze Plains and that was a simple promise.

"You are too generous, Your Majesty," the former Head Magic Caster of the Empire gushed.

Ainz waved away the praise. He wasn't generous so much as desperate. If Fluder's ceremony worked, or even helped in any way that would be more than enough to warrant being rewarded.

"I will have the documents to you quickly," Fluder promised.

Ainz nodded. It was easier than trying to say something. Fluder took the gesture as dismissal, so did Lupusregina who opened the door for the man. No doubt she didn't want to but in his presence she would do her duty. She closed it when Fluder was gone, but remained standing beside it silently. Her colour had improved during his conversation with the man which meant whatever had been affecting her had been temporary.

When he was gone Ainz shook his head. He'd gotten through that one… somehow. Though he was curious what Fluder was speaking of. Still the man would provide the document soon enough and he could work out then what to do. If it was something viable, then-

There was another knock. He saw Lupusregina sniff delicately. "It is Pandora's Actor, My Lord," she reported to him.

Inwardly Ainz cringed. He liked Pandora's Actor, he really did. In fact, he loved his creation. It was just that… He just wished he'd thought a bit more ahead when he created the Greater Doppelganger. He was so, so… He had been so young when he made Pandora!

While he had regulated his creation to lesser priorities, he had no excuse not to see him now. Ainz nodded to Lupusregina.

"Mein Creator!" Pandora greeted him. The doppelganger bowed as he said it, flourishing his cape.

"Pandora," Ainz responded, deadpan. He flicked his fingers at the werewolf, indicating she could go. Lupusregina nodded to him and slipped through the door. Thankfully, he could now be left alone with his own creation.

The doppelganger turned slightly, looking at the door before he nodded, turning back to Ainz.

"Father," he said. There was no extravagance in his voice at the word. There was almost sadness there.

Ainz worried what it was. Was Pandora sad that he could not give him attention? They had discussed this! He had thought his creation understood.

"Your anger is understandable but it is so intense," Pandora said.

"Umhu?"

"Your anger at Aura's condition," the doppelganger said delicately, though still without his usual extravagance. "It is too intense. We all felt it, all of Nazarick."

Non-existent eyes widened. Ainz thought perhaps the flicker of the flames stilled for a moment. Nazarick had felt his anger… oh! He remembered. The woman's image was still on the table. That was why Lupusregina had been pale. He couldn't tell with Pandora since his creation was always pale.

"I am sorry," Ainz said.

Pandora waved one long fingered hand. "There is nothing to be sorry for."

"There is!" Ainz insisted. "If everyone felt it then-" he didn't know how to finish.

"Then they know you care for us all. It was just intense," Pandora countered immediately.

"Just so long as no one was hurt," Ainz said with a sigh.

"I'll check," Pandora assured him.

He nodded. That was all that could be done for now. The gesture also told Pandora to tell him why he had come.

"It's about Aura," the doppelganger said. Almost everything was about Aura today but what did Pandora know?

"Umhu?"

"I know what Mare is saying, and I know what Fluder is proposing," Pandora said. It was easy to believe the doppelganger was uninformed given his domain, but he was adept at gathering information.

"Will Fluder's ceremony work?" Ainz asked. He didn't even know what it was but he could be himself with Pandora. While he may lament his youth when creating the NPC, he was thankful that he did not have to act with the doppelganger… with his son. The thought was still reluctant but it was the truth. He knew it.

Pandora considered the question for a moment. "It should, but you don't have to do it."

"What do you mean?"

Pandora huffed, as if frustrated. "Mein Creator, Father, the ceremony will require your power but it's not the only way to heal Aura." There was no accusation in Pandora's voice. Rather he sounded as if he was going to cry.

"[Make a Wish] will not work, and none of the healing magics truly deal with mental health," Ainz reminded his creation. "And all the Guardians of Nazarick have protection against memory erasure spells. I'm not sure that memory spells will work the same in this world."

"I know," Pandora agreed, almost desperately, "but you don't want to do it."

Ainz tilted his head. If Pandora was saying that, there had to be a reason. "Why not?"

"Fluder's ceremony takes the mental trauma Aura is feeling and transfers it to another," the doppelganger explained. "But to work best, the trauma has to be transferred to someone who hasn't experienced that pain. Otherwise it merges into their own, and it could be possible that their pain will overwhelm Aura's and the ceremony will reverse."

"What?" Ainz didn't quite grasp what Pandora was saying. "Doesn't that mean I could just transfer Aura's pain to those who inflicted it? They didn't experience it." At least that seemed to be what Pandora was suggesting.

The doppelganger shook his head. "No, it can't be those who inflicted the pain. If that was possible I wouldn't be here," Pandora admitted.

Ainz was willing to let the explanation pass without further reason. He still had no idea what this ceremony was but it was obvious Pandora knew quite a bit about it.

"It can't be a simple reflection," the doppelganger attempted to explain. "It is transference and it can't be transferred back since that's reflection."

"Alright, so Aura's pain can't be reflected back," he allowed. That didn't explain why he wouldn't want to conduct this ceremony, especially if it was going to make Aura better.

"You will have to transfer Aura's pain. Parts of it will have to go to each of the prisoners. Some have been raped, so that pain can't be transferred to them."

AInz nodded. "But they won't necessarily have felt the pain of being caged," he said slowly. Well, they could have. He wasn't sure if they were conscious of being in Nazarick. And when they woke up they would know they were confined, would that be enough?

"Possibly. I think, if you want to do it, you will have to spread the worst of Aura's pain amongst those the prisoners care for."

"But you say I don't want to?" Ainz pressed.

"No, Father, you don't want to," Pandora agreed. The expressionless face turned to him. "In this world Father, you have been careful to repay kindness with kindness and hurt with hurt. But you have always made sure those who were given hurt were those who deserved it. In this case, they don't. I know the dogs care for them, but they didn't actually do anything."

Ah, so that was it. Ainz gave Pandora a nod to indicate he'd heard. The doppelganger raised a valid concern. Those the dogs thought of fondly had done nothing but… this was for Aura, this was for Nazarick. And he had to send a strong signal to the world, that attacking his servants had dire consequences.

"It must be done," he told Pandora.

"It must be done, but not like this."

"Then how? You have spoken to Mare. You know he is not being overly sensitive about his sister. You can see Aura now," Ainz lifted the sleeping elf gently, "she is not recovering."

"It is a huge thing to recover from," Pandora defended.

"I am aware of that. It may take decades," he agreed. "But what do I do for the present time? I have declared war. That is progressing, despite the season but this is more personal. They deliberately targeted her." Ainz spoke carefully so as to avoid rousing his anger again. Now that he knew how far it had been felt, he did not want to subject Nazarick's citizens to that again.

"Let me change into one of the others. All of them, if necessary. There must be something that can help!"

Ainz thought about it for a moment. He may not be able to cast all the spells in Yggdrasil but he knew of them. It was his business in Yggdrasil to know. He did not think there was anything, or that anyone of the guild would know anything that could permanently help. Even with the Minoshirokan incident, the morons had just captured Yamaiko's in-game avatar. She had thought it almost amusing. Though…

He sighed. "Transform into Bellriver first, then Yamaiko," he instructed. "I do not expect you to find anything," he added, "because I do not believe there is anything to find, but you may try."

Pandora bowed.

"However, assuming Fluder's ceremony is workable, and you seem to believe it is, I will be going ahead with it. It is to help Aura, and Nazarick."

His creation knew what that meant. "I know, Father, I know," he said softly. "And Nazarick is greater for your dedication." There was a note of understanding in Pandora's voice, and acceptance.

Ainz relaxed upon hearing that. He had vowed to himself he would do whatever it took to keep Nazarick safe, and that included its citizens but he needed them to accept that. All of them. It touched him that Pandora was thinking of him but this had to be done. It would be done.

It was for Aura. It was for Nazarick. And it was so that the world knew there were consequences for attacking one of his beloved subjects.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 5

-cos-

Fifth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Prisoner Area

If he thought about it logically, nothing that had happened made any sense. At first, Nurasyl had tried not to think about it. But now he had nothing but time in which to think.

He'd discussed it with a few of the others. They didn't see it, though he thought that Gawal understood the edges of what he meant. The man had a little bit of intelligence. Enough that he had seen the corruption of the Priesthood, but not enough to leave well enough alone.

That's why Gawal was in this situation. But then, what else could he have expected? Living in the Theocracy he should have realised that the Priests controlled everything and it didn't matter how corrupt they were, because unless you were rich and could pay off a higher ranking priest, nothing was going to change.

That wasn't Nurasyl's concern now. None of it was. All of the others had petty little stories but they did have one thing in common… well, beyond being here. They had been used by the Theocracy to carry out their country's dirty work. It didn't matter what work it was, they did it. At least, they did if they wanted to live. He hadn't minded the work. There were rewards after all, and if he had to dig the occasional grave to get those rewards, then that was okay. Watching a woman squirm under him was compensation enough.

He suspected the Priests had realised that with him. That's why they kept him alive but they had to punish him, which is why they kept telling him about his family.

But all of that was in the past. In the Theocracy he had lived in the dungeon. He had no choice. Now he was in a cold place, and again he had no choice. But unlike the Theocracy there were no nice diversions here. He rather thought he would be the diversion for something but for the past few days nothing had come near them.

Food had appeared at what seemed to be random intervals, but frequently enough that no one was too hungry. Same with water. The monsters were seeing to that much of their needs anyway.

But what wasn't making sense was the fact that they were being left alone. For the past few days, none of the monsters had come near them. He hadn't even caught a glance at whatever was feeding them. Yet before that, they had been visited by something at least daily.

What had changed? He couldn't work it out. If the monster's plans were progressing, then there was no need not to gloat… He'd be doing it. And if they weren't progressing, then he, and the rest of the men were easy targets on which to take out any frustrations. But there was nothing. That didn't make sense. It was as if they were being ignored.

Why?

The only reason Nurasyl could think of was that they were occupied with something else. But what? Again, if it was because they were slaughtering the Theocracy he would have expected one of the monsters to gloat. One of the idiots, Lutoj, Nurasyl thought was his name, was always praying. He knew the monsters had noted that but they were doing nothing.

It made no sense. What did they want? They had promised all sorts of revenge and blood, but nothing had happened. Sure, they had been roughed up a bit and there had been all those questi-

No!

Nurasyl felt his eyes widen. No, no, they couldn't have? Could they? Why hadn't he thought of it earlier? They had asked all those questions. That was practically telling him what the monsters were going to do. Nurasyl took a few calming breaths. The cold air was good for that at least.

He hadn't thought of it earlier because he hadn't wanted to think of it. He knew now that he had, it would be all he could think of. Did they have his little girl? His darling Chouko? His breath caught just thinking that.

Nurasyl couldn't care less if they had his bitch of a wife. More luck to them if they did. Hell, he'd happily watch whatever they wanted to do to her. He would even suggest a few things. But not Chouko. She hadn't done anything. He had. He'd done plenty but that wasn't her fault.

They couldn't have her. Why would they? Not when they had him. Sure, he knew it was common to target families. He saw it all the time. But you only targeted the family if you were too weak to actually strike the one you wanted. One thing Nurasyl knew was that the monsters weren't weak.

He was here, after all. So were the others. There was no need for Chouko to be brought into this.

Or was that what they wanted him to think? They could have asked all the questions hoping he'd draw the logical conclusion. After all, why would they ask, unless they were going to act upon the information?

But why take Chouko? She knew nothing. She was too young to know anything about what he'd done.

No. That's what they wanted him to think. They'd asked because they wanted him to believe they would go after Chouko. They'd want him to torture himself thinking about everything they would be doing to her.

Well, it wasn't going to work! Let the others think about it. Let the others imagine it. He knew that's what the monsters wanted him to think. Well, he wasn't. They had him. He was the one who had enjoyed the elf. Nurasyl knew the elf was probably older than him but that wasn't the point. It had looked young. That was the point. It had looked young and it had fight. He liked both traits. He really liked both traits. The only downer on the entire situation had been having to share. He didn't like that. But the Theocracy would have had his head if he didn't, and maybe not the one on his shoulders.

They hadn't seen the elf at all since getting here. The monsters had rescued her but he hadn't seen her. He didn't think any of the others had seen her either. That could mean only one thing. Such a fragile child. He didn't grin but the thought was nice. The thought was very nice, enough to keep him warm in this hellish cold for a while. Enough to drive away the thought of Chouko.

They were worse than the Theocracy! The Priests told him what his son was doing, how he had a good apprenticeship and was thriving there. They told him how his wife had remarried. Bitch. But the news that really hurt was of his Chouko. They told him how she was entertaining various suitors. He had no idea who these boys were. He didn't need to, they were not appropriate for his Chouko. No one would be appropriate for Chouko, no one would ever be good enough for his little girl. But according to the Priests she was enjoying herself.

He didn't like boys but he would have been enjoying himself as well.

But now… No, the monsters did not have Chouko. They had no reason to have Chouko. Nurasyl thought forcefully. It didn't help. He took a deep breath, trying to calm down, trying to focus on other things. The elf! The reason he was here.

Except the elf's features, so delicate when contorted in pain kept flowing into Chouko's features. He hadn't seen his little girl in years. The Theocracy did not want to risk his escaping but that didn't matter, he knew what his little girl looked like. He didn't need her to be the elf. That almost made him sick… He'd almost prefer that she was…

What fiends! How could they be making him think that? He would never want her here! Being courted by inappropriate boys was better than her being here, even if he could do nothing about it.

Nurasyl settled himself carefully. It was difficult to do with the cold but he wasn't like the other men, he was intelligent. He wasn't a mere thug as they were. He drew his thoughts inwards, seeking to calm his mind. It only took him a moment to realise it wasn't going to help. This was not a place he could do that. He thought of the elf again, this time concentrating on her features so they could not change. The monsters would hurt him for that thought. But they were going to hurt him anyway. He knew that. Anyone thinking they were walking away from this was being naive. This wasn't like the Theocracy, there was only one way out and he had the feeling that the end was going to be sooner than he thought.

In that case, it was best that he entertain himself as best he could. The elf was as good a thought as any. But… Even remembering all the good bits, the way she had squirmed, the strength required to hold her still and the way she softly cursed them wasn't enough…

He still saw Chouko. He still saw her here. Which is what they wanted him to think. It didn't matter how illogical it was. It didn't matter how many reasons he could come up with to fight against the theory that Chouko was here, he couldn't shake the feeling, deep in his mind that the monsters would go after her, even though they had him. They would still attack his little girl, even though she had done nothing, simply because she was his.

The thought only made him colder.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Cardinal of Wind's Office

Kurashitai was honoured that he had been chosen to be a part of this mission. Nazarick trusted summons but often the missions they were given were dangerous because if they were cheap, they were expendable. He wasn't cheap, so he wasn't expendable and with the mission he had been given, he was returning to Nazarick.

Not that if he was killed he'd truly die. As a summon he would return to his world where he would heal so that he could be summoned again. But he was different from the others now.

In Yggdrasil, many had experimented in merging summons with other creatures in an effort to create a creature with the strength of a summon that did not have the high expense of being summoned. He was the result of one such experiment, but one conducted in this world. The Arch-Devil Demiurge had tried merging him with an undead, a Pale Rider to be exact. He'd used that undead because it was powerful and specialised in stealth, the same way he did. It was also one of the undead that the Arch-Devil's Master could create. It was his way of attempting to bring down the cost of his summoning.

It hadn't worked quite the way he was hoping. Kurashitai was still a summon, so Nazarick still had to pay the price to bring him over from his world, but he did now have some of the abilities of a Pale Rider, and a name. That meant he had to be summoned by name specifically. Being merged with the undead also meant that he was now subject to the orders of the Arch-Devil's Master. It was an odd combination.

Kurashitai wasn't sure how he felt about that. Sure, it had taken him out of the usual summon rotation, and it was highly unlikely that anyone else would ever be able to summon him but it did mean he was alone. Though, as a Hanzo with the abilities of a Pale Rider he was a desirable summon, and the Arch-Devil knew it. While the experiment wasn't a complete success, the Arch-Devil was prepared to try again. He was patient, that one.

That's why Kurashitai wasn't going to be alone for long.

That was a thought for a later day. For now he had to concentrate. He might have some of the abilities of a Pale Rider, but merging them with his natural ones wasn't as easy as it seemed. Hopefully it would become easier with time. These things took practice after all. He had time, but not right now.

The target was meant to be alone. He wasn't. He was where he was meant to be, that was something. Kurashitai didn't want to tell the Arch-Devil or the True Vampire that the target wasn't where he was meant to be. They'd probably fight over who's fault it was. Kurashitai was powerful, but he didn't want to be involved with that argument! Being a summon, even crossed with an undead, did not mean he did not have opinions.

There was a woman with the man he was meant to grab. She was odd. Her hair was parted and each side was a different colour, the same as her eyes. Heterochromatic eyes signified power in some species but the woman was human. At least, he assumed she was since she was in the centre of the Slane Theocracy. Even though he hadn't been in this world long, Kurashitai knew that they were Human Supremacists. That was laughable. He knew the power of other species and Humans barely rated. Some did… those from Yggdrasil, the special ones, they were powerful but most were not worth mentioning. This world was filled with the latter.

She had appeared to have noticed him. That was impressive given that he had merged with a shadow. He was slowly creeping down the wall, keeping his speed the same as the normal movement of light. It was unusual that she had seen him but the Slane Theocracy was reputed to have sensitives in its ranks. And he was now undead. That would be a beacon to those with divine magic. It was something he would have to explore later.

Being noticed didn't present a problem. He was fast. Both as a Hanzo and a Pale Rider, he was fast. All he had to do was grab the man, and all he needed to do that was a moment. A few blades would take care of the woman. He just needed her to look away. Until then, the Arch-Devil had said that any information he collected would be beneficial.

The man appeared to be yelling at the woman. "It's an absolute disaster! We have lost Synoro, we have lost members of the Windflower Scripture and the God's artefacts! That is your fault. There can be no question of that!"

The woman didn't appear concerned. "You are the one who told me to loan them the artefacts," she murmured.

Kurashitai wasn't familiar with human diseases, but he didn't think the colour the man turned was natural. "That was for that mission only! Not every other mission!"

"It was for a mission against the Sorcerer King," she said, still not showing the slightest trace of discomfort. "You didn't specify!"

"Well, the artefacts are missing!"

Kurashitai winced. He wasn't alone, the woman's expression was pained for a moment. The man had an impressive set of lungs and seemed to be going strong. This could take a while but he had time. A bit anyway, before the [Gate] was opened. Hopefully the man would be out of breath sometime before then.

-cos-

Zesshi Zetsumei wasn't listening to the Cardinal. He'd been droning on about something for the last five minutes and she'd lost interest. She was far more interested in the shadow that was stealthily making its way down the wall. It was moving incredibly slowly, almost with the light. A normal observer wouldn't have noticed it. Cardinal Ihre Partouche hadn't. But she had. While it did nothing, she would do nothing. Besides, she'd heard the gist of the Cardinal of Wind's speech before. Raymond had given her that lecture in the wake of the mission which had captured the elf. How dare she let the Windflower Scripture use some of the artefacts? And more along that line.

Though, there was a slight difference. The Windflower Scripture had brought back the artefacts that time, along with the elf. For all the good it did. This time, well, the artefacts weren't going to be voluntarily returned. She doubted the undead would just hand them over.

"And now Raymond is blaming me!" The Cardinal of Wind almost shrieked.

Zesshi raised one hand, using her little finger to scratch at the corner of one eye. "It's not my fault they were captured," she said.

How was she meant to know that they would be stupid enough to be captured by the thing they were meant to be watching?

"Though, if it's strong-" she added, licking her lips.

The members of the Windflower Scripture had apparently been taken down by the insect thing that served the Undead King. The Thousand Mile Astrologer indicated that they had attacked it and it had won quite easily. Zetsumei was vaguely interested. The Windflower Scripture wasn't known for its combat abilities, but they did have the [Frysta Javelin] with them.

The creature was apparently immune. That meant, at least in some way, that it was strong. How strong, she wasn't sure, so she wasn't getting her hopes up. But if it was stronger than the elf, then maybe, just possibly, it would be stronger than her. The undead had to have some strong servants right? And if it defeated her then… She would bear its young. Their child would be fantastically strong.

"Yes," Dominic waved one hand. He looked faintly disgusted. "We all know your perversion," he added. It was only because he was a Cardinal he could get away with the statement.

Zetsumei gave him a smile. "Humans have to seek strength where they can," she murmured.

"And you will do it in the arms of whatever inhuman defeats you," he replied.

"Or human," she corrected. Species didn't matter to her, only strength. "Maybe that Adventurer Momon could defeat me?" she asked.

"He's not godkin," Dominic dismissed her statement.

"That we know," she countered. The Captain of the Black Scripture thought she was stronger than the vampire they had encountered. Momon had defeated that vampire. It was a simple equation. He might be stronger than her. And he too was in the service of the undead.

She almost heard the Cardinal grind his teeth. It was a part of a vigorous theological debate between only those who were ranked Cardinal and above, or were powerful Godkin. There could be other Gods. The Gods themselves had said that they came from another world, one where they had not been alone. There was always the possibility that others could come into their world. Momon could be Godkin, just descended from an alternate god.

And that would simply serve to make her child stronger.

While the Cardinal was grinding his teeth, she looked at the shadow. It appeared to have stopped creeping and was listening. At least, that's what she thought it was doing. Zetsumei suppressed a sly smile. There was really only one being who would be listening this way. The Sorcerer King of the Sorcerous Kingdom.

So much for the extra protections that had supposedly been cast on the Cardinal's offices.

"So how are you going to make up for the loss of the [Frysta Javelin]?"

Zesshi shifted her attention back to Dominic. Her eyes hadn't wandered so the shadow didn't know she knew it was there. "By the Six Gods you are annoying!" She snapped. "It is not my fault they got captured!"

"But it is your fault they had the [Frysta Javelin]," he said triumphantly.

She rolled her eyes.

Bad decision. The shadow moved. Something shot out from it. The Cardinal didn't even see it. She did, despite her distraction. Zetsumei felt a surge of excitement as she reacted, gripping her scythe and swinging at the projectiles.

Dominic saw that. His eyes only belatedly widened with fear as her scythe tinged midair. The projectiles shot away, thudding into the wall.

She was faster. Her excitement faded. She was always faster. Zetsumei kept moving her scythe, giving it a flourish as she slammed the shaft into the floor, fixing her heterochromatic eyes on the shadow. It was extended from the wall. She couldn't really make out its form as the edges were blurred.

The Cardinal turned. His eyes were travelling between her scythe and the projectiles that were now decorating his wall. He saw the thing. Zesshi was thankful he didn't scream.

"Why don't you come out?" she invited. Dominic scrambled around his desk. The Cardinals were well trained in what to do in an attack. Stay out of the way and let the Scripture's handle it were their instructions. Moving was possibly the most sensible thing he'd done all day. She'd handle this thing.

"Why don't you get out of the way?"

"Oh, so you aren't interested in little old me?" She asked, almost teasing.

"Your turn will come," the thing countered.

Zetsumei swung her scythe again. This time she drove the point into the shadow as it tried to retreat back into the wall. "That's rude," she admonished.

"You are not my target," it told her.

"The Cardinal is, though you aren't going to be getting the Cardinal while I'm here."

It seemed to consider her words. She took the time to examine it. It was interesting that it hadn't cried out when the tip of her scythe had pierced it. Had she missed or was that not its real body? No, it was probably suppressing its reaction. The edges of its form were now a bit more solid, though she wasn't certain what it was. It had a head, and she thought two arms though it was thinner than almost any human she'd ever seen. She wasn't sure what its legs were like. They were still embedded in the shadow. How many types of servant did this undead king have?

"You won't be here forever."

Zetsumei shifted her grip slightly, sending a pulse of power through her weapon, [Glory of the End]. The thing screamed. That made her feel better. It pulled the thing from the wall. It had two legs, completing a humanoid look.

"Neither will you," Zetsumei said, once again bored. The fact that it was new didn't matter. It was weaker than her. She swung her scythe downwards.

The blade cut into the floor, clipping the edge of Dominic's desk but the thing was not there. She kept moving, tracking it with her eyes. The thing had rolled, recovering quickly as it danced to the side. There was a clang. She felt her eyes widen. There was a slender blade blocking her scythe. There was the feel of strength from the thing.

"Longer than you believe," it said.

She activated the power again. It seemed to anticipate it and leapt backwards, landing neatly on the Cardinal's desk. Papers fluttered into the air.

Zetsumei looked at its eyes. They were black, completely black. Those were not human eyes. There was no pupil, no sclera, nothing but black. "I have already failed my mission," it said. "I will leave, but I will return."

"Your Master wants the Cardinal," Zesshi said.

"And he will get the Cardinal," the thing replied. There was not the slightest trace of doubt in its voice.

She snorted, recalling an earlier meeting of the Cardinals she had been forced to attend. They had wanted an opening. This was a perfect opening. "Fine," she snapped. "Let's make this interesting. I issue a challenge to your Master. Mid-winter day, noon. The representatives of the Sorcerous Kingdom will fight those of the Slane Theocracy."

Dominic spluttered. The creature watched her warily for a few moments. "By what authority do you issue this challenge?"

It was a surprisingly civil question.

She shifted [Glory of the End], pulling it up. "I am the Guardian of the Legacy of the Six Gods, the Extra Seat of the Black Scripture and I challenge your Master to meet me in combat."

The creature looked at her. Zetsumei got the impression that it was really looking at her. Eventually it nodded. "I will check," it announced.

"What?" Dominic exploded.

"I will check," the creature said again. It raised one hand to touch the place where an ear should be. The motion meant it came into sharp focus. Zetsumei could see now that it was swathed in black and was horrendously thin by human standards. She still couldn't tell if it was undead or something else.

"How dare you!" Dominic raged at her

Zesshi slashed one hand through a sharp motion in an effort to silence the Cardinal of Wind. Could he not figure this out for himself? The Cardinals had wanted an opening to directly attack the undead. This was it. She had the feeling they had planned for the undead to conquer most of the Theocracy before they struck. Or, they would sit and talk and lament their lack of power. They were not very good at doing practical things.

"You don't have the authority!" Dominic growled, softer this time.

"Just like you didn't," she replied. There had been plenty of gnashing of teeth in private over Dominic's actions but the fact was he did not have the authority to authorise the Windflower Scripture's attack. It should have gone through a Collaboration. Just like this should. But the rules were broken now, and they were at war. This was the opening they wanted.

And it might get her a decent fight. Maybe.

She couldn't feel the Cardinal of Wind glaring at her, but she imagined he was. While Cardinals were not paid, in order to reduce corruption and to ensure that they truly wished to serve the people, she knew very well he wanted to be in the top job - the Pontifex Maximus. There were after all, other rewards over money and power was a powerful driver. He wasn't going to get that position. The other Cardinals would not elect him, but he hadn't realised that yet.

Raymond would most likely take that position next. He was well respected, and more importantly, level headed.

"A challenge of this type needs to be discussed," Dominic pressed.

"You did discuss it," Zetsumei reminded him.

"What are the terms of the challenge?" the creature interrupted.

Zesshi got the impression it was amused by their discussion and had most likely reported it back to its master.

"There is no challenge!" Dominic cried.

The creature didn't even look at him. Zetsumei sighed. "I will walk out of here now," she threatened, turning slightly to face the Cardinal. "Then you can deal with it," she gestured vaguely towards the black thing that was still standing on Dominic's desk. Though to say it was standing was a bit of a misnomer. It appeared to be balanced on the points of its toes. It was ready to move. "Then you can talk to the Sorcerer King in person."

"My Master would overlook the issuing of a challenge for that outcome as well," the creature said.

Dominic paled. He knew exactly what that meant.

"You are going to support my challenge, Cardinal, because it is the quickest and easiest way of dealing with the undead king. There will be a suspension of hostilities until the challenge is concluded, which means the Sorcerer King will cease sending parties into Kami Miyako, and we will cease sending idiots into his kingdom."

"My Master will not give up those he has captured."

Zetsumei looked at the creature. From the strength she had felt through her blade, and the speed it displayed, she had thought it a physical fighter with some specialised stealth abilities. It was obviously more if it could state things so casually, or was the Sorcerer King actually watching this? It was in communication with someone.

"What are you?" she asked, ignoring the challenge for the moment. She had actually read the Theocracy's records on demihumans and other creatures in an attempt to identify something that might be strong enough to defeat her. She couldn't recall anything like this.

It shook its head to dismiss her question. Obviously just asking was too easy and for a moment Zetsumei was tempted to attack. But no, if she defeated this thing, then she wouldn't have the opportunity to fight anything stronger. Eventually she would but there wouldn't be much left, and while most thought she was impractical, she knew the benefit of keeping the organisation that was the Theocracy around. It meant that little things like food and other necessities were taken care of. And she didn't have to rule morons. She could easily establish herself as a queen somewhere but… it was so primitive.

Zesshi pulled her mind back to the challenge. "Noon, mid-winter day," she declared. It was reasonably soon. "And since that day gives your master an advantage, he will give me the advantage of location. It will be held in the Great Square of Kami Miyako."

"And the terms?" the creature asked again. She thought its nod was to accept the time and place.

"To be determined then. Fight to the death, obviously, but a grand melee or one on one is all semantics. I do not care," she asserted. She didn't. So long as she could fight something strong it was all just details and that was the only detail that mattered to her.

"You can't do this!" Dominic again interrupted.

"I am doing this," Zetsumei replied coldly.

"The forfeits?" the creature asked.

Zesshi felt a slight respect for the Sorcerer King, who she assumed the creature was speaking to. He appeared to be one who wanted to do things properly. His declaration of war had obeyed the proper formalities and now, issued with a challenge, he was prepared to negotiate the terms of the challenge.

"There will be no forfeits!" Dominic declared before she could speak. He stomped one foot as he moved to stand beside her to glare at the creature.

It tilted its head slightly as if questioning his right to be here. Zetsumei almost smiled. Apparently it thought as little of the Cardinal as she did. She smirked, looking back at the black thing. "There will be no forfeits," she repeated the Cardinal's words. "The Theocracy will be putting its best fighters on the line," she added, knowing that the Sorcerer King would understand what she was saying.

The challenge was the Theocracy's chance to win, possibly their only chance to win the war. The forfeit was already implied.

The creature was silent. It didn't give off the air of one talking which again raised it a notch in her mind but she knew it was. She wondered if it was arguing with the Sorcerer King. No, an undead would not allow any minion such freedom and one as powerful as the Sorcerer King would not need to.

"Very well, Zesshi Zetsumei, Guardian of the Legacy of the Six Gods, and Extra Seat of the Black Scripture, my Master accepts your challenge."

For an instant she felt excited, before she felt her eyes widen slightly. She'd never said her name. She'd issued the challenge under the guise of her rank but she had never said her name. Nor had the Cardinal. Not even in his conversation with her. He hadn't said it once. He didn't need to. He knew who she was and they were the only two in his office. And she knew her name was well guarded, just as the true knowledge of her abilities was.

How much did this undead know?

The creature seemed to understand her slight motion. It titled its head again and while she couldn't see it, she was sure it smiled, or whatever the equivalent was for whatever it was. "My Master wishes to speak to you as well," the creature confirmed.

So it hadn't simply been making conversation when it said her turn would come. That did make her excited. It meant the Sorcerer King would take the challenge seriously. She licked her lips and made no move to stop the creature when a portal of darkness opened behind it. It lept back and disappeared.

Zetsumei turned towards the Cardinal of Wind. She thumped [Glory of the End] into the floor once to get his attention. He was staring at where the creature had been standing. "Well, I think the loss of the [Frysta Javelin] was well worth it," she told him.

"The loss…" he murmured, his eyes going wide, as if he was only now realising what had happened.

The scattered papers, the blades still lodged in the wall and the gash caused by her strike in both his desk and the floor were evidence enough.

"You think this is a good outcome?" Dominic seemed to recover.

She snorted. "I think it's the best outcome you could hope for," she told him.

Really what did the man want? The Cardinals had wanted an opening. The Sorcerer King had given them one, though if she hadn't been here she rather thought Dominic would already be enjoying the hospitality of the undead's kingdom. And he wasn't. Instead, they now had the chance to strike directly at the undead.

And she might get a decent fight.

Yes, the loss of the [Frysta Javelin] was well worth it for that.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 4 Challenges of War Part 6

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako

Everyone who sat at this table was equal, Raymond thought somewhat sardonically. Equal did not equate to polite, reasoned or mannered discourse. What was going on here sounded more like a packed market square than a debate amongst the leaders of the Slane Theocracy.

The six Cardinals were around the table, as was almost every godkin, the Captains of the now five Scriptures and the Pontifex Maximus. They needed a bigger table. They all appeared to be screaming their opinion for everyone to hear.

"The Windflower Scripture deserves the chance to fight!"

"All should fight!"

"Why are we-"

"This is an outrage!"

"One Godkin does not-"

"It is my members missing!"

Raymond shook his head, sighing deeply as he looked around. Most faces were flushed with anger. Not a few bore signs of fear. And… yes, Zesshi Zetsumei looked bored. She was seated at the table. She was beside the Captain of the Black Scripture, Seraiah Ruzzier Isaev Kysely was a fellow Godkin. He seemed faintly annoyed but was giving as good as he got.

Zesshi caught his gaze. She rolled her eyes. Raymond was experienced enough in dealing with her to know what she meant. She was bored of this. It was no longer amusing, as it had been earlier.

"Enough!" Raymond roared. He slammed his hand on to the table to add extra emphasis. He wasn't as young as he once was, but his lungs were still good. He thought Zetsumei might have also stomped with his roar to ensure he was heard. "We do not have the time to squabble like children!" He growled into the sudden silence.

"One godkin, no matter how powerful, does not have the right to issue a challenge on our behalf!" Berenice pointed out. She was at least polite about it.

"The challenge has been issued," Raymond replied reasonably. They had to get those feelings dealt with before they could move on, no matter how much of a waste of time it might be considered. "We have to deal with what has happened, not what might have been," he added. Dominic understood the jab. This whole incident started because he authorised a mission he did not have the authority to. Now the Theocracy had to deal with the fall out, no matter what other rules were broken.

"So, you are saying we should just blindly go?" the Cardinal of Fire objected.

"The undead will be coming here," he reminded her. The Sorcerer King had accepted Zetsumei's challenge. They didn't know how he would travel, but given evidence, it was likely he'd just open one of the portals Zesshi had reported.

"Look," Zetsumei growled before Berenice could respond. "Previously, you've been complaining that you needed an opening to challenge the Undead. You needed a victory. I gave you one." She glared, as if daring anyone to contradict her. If you ignored the challenge, Zetsumei had performed brilliantly, stopping the Sorcerer King from kidnapping one of the Cardinals directly from his office. If word of that had gotten out... The undead wouldn't have needed to do much more to the Theocracy before whole villages started capitulating. They might later regret that decision, but it would have been made.

"And I have made sure that the Sorcerer King will be here, in person, at a specific time. What more do you want?"

"You do not have the right-"

"Enough!" Raymond yelled before Berenice could finish. They'd already discussed this. Technically Zetsumei had issued the challenge personally. They all knew it wasn't a personal challenge. "The Godkin Zetsumei is correct. We were wanting an opening, and an opportunity similar to this. We now have it. We have other things to discuss," he said. Let Berenice dispute that.

She huffed. "Fine, but I want my objection on record!"

He nodded, gesturing to one of the scribes to ensure that her objections were duly noted. After they got through this, they would have to overhaul the entire system. He was sure he wasn't the only Cardinal thinking of that. "We must fight," he said seriously, "but we must also be sensible. If we send the wrong units against the Sorcerer King, we will be doing little more than creating corpses."

It was a rather horrific image, one they had no difficulty in imagining. The Re-Estize Kingdom had seen it as was evidenced of their rather quick acceptance of the Slane Theocracy's surreptitious offer of food shipments. The Re-Estize Kingdom's leadership might be fraught with internal problems but the ruling family did care for the welfare of the people.

"Only the most powerful should fight!" Dominic managed to get in before anyone else could response.

"I think you've suggested enough," Maximillian said coldly. Berenice nodded. Losing the previous argument did not stop her having an opinion on this. It was one that most of the Cardinals shared. Dominic glared but knew enough to shut up.

"With respect," the Captain of the Salvation Scripture said softly, "I believe we should be very careful when selecting those who will represent the Slane Theocracy."

The statement might have been considered so generic as to be useless but because of its very generic nature, it was one all could agree with.

"You have an idea, Captain Ruiha?" Ginedine asked shrewdly.

Captain Ruiha Quinones was old, far older than any of the other Scripture Captains. The Salvation Scripture dealt with internal affairs. She had the best understanding of the mood of the Theocracy than most.

"I have several, Your Grace," Ruiha replied with a slight nod. The two were old conspirators. Raymond wondered if they had planned this. He decided he didn't care, so long as the suggestions were reasonable. When no one objected, Quinones rose so as to be better heard. She was habitually softly spoken but they could not afford her words to be misinterpreted now. "I would envisage that regardless of the strength of those chosen to fight, many will die, maybe more than we can resurrect," she started.

The statement led to a shiver passing through those gathered. Zetsumei looked bored, but that was normal. She wouldn't care about the deaths. Raymond suppressed a sigh. This was why Humans were superior. She was a halfling but… her elven blood made her cold. And without the ability to feel, one could not remain Human. He refocused his attention on Ruiha. Zesshi was loyal. She knew no other life and the Theocracy gave her what she needed.

"With that consideration in mind, I would suggest that where possible, we select those Godkin who have already sired or borne children to be our vanguard.-"

"No!"

Raymond sighed. It was Zetsumei who objected. Quinones' suggestion meant she would not be chosen, despite her strength since she had not given birth. She would refuse to take a partner until that man proved he was stronger than her.

Quinones didn't seem surprised at the objection but Ruiha had seen a lot. "As the one who issued the challenge, Godkin Zetsumei must of course be present. I was not suggesting you let others fight in your place, child."

Zetsumei huffed, still glaring but she acknowledged Ruiha's statement with a nod.

"Might I remind everyone that it was one of my Scripture members desecrated to deliver the undead's Declaration of War?" The Captain of the Holocaust Scripture said. "We are all ready to die, we always have been!"

"We are all ready to die in the defence of the Theocracy," Quinones said. It wasn't agreement but again, it wasn't disagreement. Raymond felt himself wishing she wasn't quite as good as she was at the generic statements, even if it meant that the meeting had quieted significantly. It now did represent something approaching a calm and ordered debate.

"It is all well and good suggesting that those who have seen to the next generation fight, but those who are willing to fight, those who want to fight, need to be considered. This undead has insulted the entire Theocracy. It destroyed the Sunlight Scripture. It has kidnapped members of my Scripture, and we will not stand for it! We deserve the right to show this undead our power."

Again Zetsumei rolled her eyes. Raymond thought he was probably the only one to see it, though he knew there were others who would know she made the gesture. They knew her well enough for that. The Windflower Scripture wasn't known for its fighting ability. They might be willing yet they would likely get in the way of the serious fighters. "Are you suggesting that we request the Sorcerer King accept a melee?" Raymond asked.

"I don't care what it accepts!" The Windflower's Captain snapped.

"As the one challenged, it is the undead's right to select the method of battle," Captain Ruiha reminded her compatriot.

No doubt the Windflower's Captain already knew that. He didn't want to accept it. "He has shown himself to be willing to negotiate in the past."

Zesshi snorted. That brought attention back to her. "You'll just get in the way," she said pointedly.

Raymond couldn't deny her words. He had the feeling the Windflower Scripture's Captain couldn't either. "I believe it is not prudent of us to rely on the undead's generosity," he said more diplomatically.

The Captain paled, realising what Raymond was saying but his anger didn't fade. The Cardinal of Earth didn't expect it either but was glad that he understood the underlying message. If they broke the forms of challenge, there would be those who suggested they did not deserve to win. The Sorcerer King had the right to choose the style of battle.

"We will be on standby."

"It only needs me," Zetsumei said. It was an insult to the entire table but it was not one they could deny. Zesshi was the strongest Godkin.

"You will be the first choice," Raymond assured her. "I believe what Ruiha was trying to say is that our choice is now for contingency," he added, nodding at the Salvation Scripture's Captain.

The old woman nodded back. There was a sparkle in her eye. Raymond tapped his fingers on the table. "We must now decide how much we are willing to risk."

"Everything," the Cardinal of Light replied softly. "It must be everything," he repeated. "We cannot win if we do not risk it all."

"The Gisei?" Raymond asked.

"Will be ready," Yvon said. He didn't say anything further. Given the undead's ability to infiltrate the Theocracy, it was safer if he didn't.

"We must risk our strongest. Zetsumei is correct. She has given us the opening we desired, and this may be our only chance to strike directly at the Sorcerer King," Ginedine pointed out.

"Then Zetsumei must be backed up by the strongest from all the Scriptures," Raymond drew the conclusion. He took a deep breath. "No one has been found for-?" He didn't complete the question for much the same reason Yvon would say nothing further.

Maximilian shook his head. He had been in charge of testing candidates.

"Then we are one weapon short already." One of their most powerful weapons, the [Downfall of Castle and Country]. But it would only work for those with the correct power, much like the [Crown of Wisdom].

"I can use the others," Zesshi pointed out unnecessarily.

"And you will be permitted to use them," Dominic replied. No one bothered to tell him to shut up on that point.

"Then the battle party must be the Black Scripture's Extra Seat, their Captain, the Salvation Scripture's Fourth Seat and the Holocaust Scripture's Eighth and Ninth Seats," Raymond suggested. "The others of each Scripture, including the Windflower Scripture will be on hand for support, or to provide extra manpower if required."

"And the Clearwater Scripture?" The Captain asked respectfully.

"Will be undercover," the Cardinal of Earth indicated somewhat ironically.

The Captain nodded with a depreciating smile. The Clearwater Scripture would be the last line of defence, and in the worst case, they would be those who incited rebellion. It was not a future they wished to consider but reality was seldom as nice.

"It won't be for long," Zesshi drawled.

The Pontifex Maximus tapped one finger on the table. While Onegus Romeijnders was simply one amongst equals here, his voice was taken seriously. "We have overlooked one asset," he said.

There was confusion at the statement.

"Your Grace?" Quinones asked.

"Lord Surshanna's First Follower," the Onegus explained. The God of Darkness' disciple was sealed upon his own insistence.

"No," Yvon said. He had spent the most time talking with the disciple. While it was a creature of darkness, it knew much about Divine Magic and was willing to teach those few who earned his regard. "The First Follower would fight," the Cardinal of Light elucidated, "but without a sufficient power source, such as the Lord Surshanna himself, he will not be at full power."

"He's parasitic?" Zesshi demanded. She had often been disappointed that she was never allowed to fight the First Follower.

"Somewhat," Yvon replied. The man blushed. "I was unable to fully understand the explanation," he admitted.

Several incredulous stares were directed at the Cardinal of Light but those who had spoken to the First Follower personally understood Yvon's confession. The First Follower spoke of events from personal experience. They did not share the same underlying knowledge.

"He said he was bound to Lord Surshanna as a familiar but was truly a summon. Because of that, with Lord Surshanna being absent, he requires the seal and the artefact to remain on this plane of existence. Similarly, to fight at full power, he would require a power source, to both fix him here and provide energy," Yvon spoke as if he was remembering something from long ago.

"Wait, do you mean to say we have sealed the First Follower away from Lord Surshanna?" Dominic gasped, outrage colouring his tone.

"No!" Yvon was clear, though he could see how that may be the interpretation. "I thought that initially as well but the First Follower indicated that he is remaining here because he will return to his original world. He said something about there being multiple worlds that were all connected. If he returned to his original one, it would be one further step away from Lord Surshanna."

Dominic breathed a sigh of relief. It didn't matter what was facing the Theocracy. If they had been holding the First Follower away from Lord Surshanna, that was a more important issue.

"We don't need him!" Zetsumei snorted. "And no, I will not be a power source," she spat.

"No one is asking you," Raymond said, though he had to admit some would have been thinking that, even if it was for nothing more than the chance to see the First Follower.

"I withdraw the suggestion," the Pontifex Maximus, Onegus, said gently.

"Then we will proceed as planned," Raymond indicated. "And to confirm, each fighter will be allowed a full panoply from the Treasury."

Everyone nodded. The Cardinals had all given permission earlier for the God Artefacts to be used. The Pontifex Maximus had confirmed their decision.

"Then rather than give the undead more to spy upon, I suggest we each attend to our own arrangements," the Cardinal of Earth said. They would all be busy in the lead up to Mid-Winter's Day and there was precious little time to waste.

There was a second round of nods and while Raymond knew many would want to discuss things further, the most important decision had been made. They could only move forward from here.

-cos-

Tenth Floor, Great Tomb of Nazarick, Throne Room

Emperor Jircniv Rune Farlord El Nix felt as if he'd done this before. He was once again standing in the Throne Room of the Great Tomb of Nazarick. He was again surrounded by monsters of every description. This time though he was accompanied by both Leinas and Baziwood, but almost everything else was the same, down to the rings they had been given when they had first arrived.

The rings were still necessary. Last time he could only feel the Sorcerer King, this time, he could also feel the monsters' anger. The undead was garbed differently this time, and didn't have the elf in his arms. That was the only visual difference. The undead king was still accompanied by his attendants.

Jircniv fingered his ring surreptitiously, though given the expression on Baziwood's face, maybe he wasn't as discreet as he thought he was. Jircniv forced himself to be still and to focus on what was being said.

"You must stop thinking in terms of success or failure," Ainz Ooal Gown was saying.

From what Jircniv understood, the undead king's servants had launched a mission within Kami Miyako but it had not gone well. From what he had been able to gather, and from the summons, he understood that it was going to change the war. What he couldn't tell was how. Most would be upset that a mission had failed, the Sorcerer King seemed almost pleased.

The undead raised one bony hand, lifting one finger to emphasise his speech. "Now, there are those missions which must succeed, but other missions that, if they fail, must be seen as nothing more than a new opportunity."

That was a similar philosophy to Jircniv's own. He wasn't sure what he felt when the Sorcerer King said it. It almost made him feel as if he'd failed somehow, that this philosophy was yet another thing the Sorcerer King was superior in. He did not like that feeling but it was becoming hauntingly familiar.

"We may have failed to kidnap Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche but-"

Jircniv didn't hear much more. He wasn't alone in his surprise. Leinas and Baziwood also started. How? The Cardinals were amongst the best guarded individuals in the Slane Theocracy! The Sorcerer King's minions were powerful but surely not even they could attempt that…

Except the implications were that they had! How close had they come?

"-challenge, from the woman, Zesshi Zetsumei is not a failure. It is a new opportunity."

The Emperor could see that some of the monster's wanted to object. He looked at them carefully. The woman who served as the undead king's Prime Minister looked as superior as she always had. There was another woman, girl maybe, with silver hair and red eyes, she was looking uncertain. The elf girl was shy. The biggest change was in the toadman. He was still kneeling. The others were standing but he remained with his head bowed.

Ah, he must have been in charge of the mission.

"Demiurge, please stand," Ainz Ooal Gown ordered.

The toadman shook his head.

Jircniv was surprised. Inwardly he frowned trying to remember if this was the first time he had seen any of the Sorcerer King's underlings refuse an order. He thought it was. His interest deepened.

"Demiurge," the undead repeated the toadman's name. His tail moved.

"I have failed you," the toadman said. There was none of the usual amusement that Jircniv was used to hearing lacing the toadman's voice present.

"This is an opportunity. I do not lie when I say that." The Sorcerer King shook his head slightly. Jircniv got the impression that the undead was smiling. "The optimal outcome would have been the success of the mission, but this is also an acceptable outcome. Now, Demiurge, rise." This time the undead did not make it a polite request.

The toadman seemed to shudder, as if the power to command with voice alone was the skeleton king's power but he rose. He still kept his head bowed.

The undead seemed pleased at the gesture but exasperated at the continued subservience. "The woman, Zesshi Zetsumei has issued a challenge to me, with the exact terms to be agreed upon on the day."

"You cannot fight!" the toadman wasn't the only one who said it.

"I have no intention of fighting her."

Jircniv could clearly detect the relief coming from the gathered monsters. It was obvious that they thought their Master should not be involved in combat.

"But I will be present," the Sorcerer King added. That caused some consternation but not as much. "However, I want you all to think about what we now know about the Theocracy."

The Emperor couldn't help but think about it as well. What did they know about the Theocracy that he didn't? Candor compelled Jircniv to admit it was probably a lot. His Head of Intelligence, Kulap Erckens, had told him that the Sorcerer King had been launching multiple missions into the Theocracy for intelligence gathering. The man had been unable to hide his jealousy at the resources the undead was willing to devote to such things. The news had not resulted in an increase to his own department's budget.

"This live practice-" Jircniv didn't snort at the undead's words. Is that what it was calling it? "-has allowed us to know the complete outlay of the Theocracy's Catacombs. We know what is in that shielded area but the layout is not my concern." The Sorcerer King waved one hand, as if to dismiss everything that had been said. It was the motion of a ruler who was confident in his power. Jircniv could make such gestures but he knew that his rule was not as absolute as the Magic Caster's. "No, what this challenge gives us is the opportunity to do other things."

"Other things?" the toadman asked.

"Yes, Demiurge," the undead confirmed. "The Slane Theocracy will be focused on fighting. They will see this as their only opportunity to strike directly at me. I know that the challenge will end in their defeat, which means we have the opportunity to do other things."

The Sorcerer King's Prime Minister nodded, as if she understood. The wings at her waist fluttered slightly. Jircniv wasn't sure what that meant. The rest of the undead's servants still seemed confused. He was as well. What were these other things?

"While the challenge is underway, I want you, Demiurge, and you, Shalltear, to work together to fulfil other goals. Demiurge, you shall oversee a raid on their treasury. I expect they will have removed several items for the challenge, but I want everything else. I am particularly interested in the [Downfall of Castle and Country]."

What was that? Jircniv had never heard of it, but from the stir the words caused in the Sorcerer Kings servants, they all knew what the undead referred to. He made a note to ask the Empire's Head Magic Caster but he suspected Ithai would not know.

The toadman smiled, though it didn't appear as smug as it might have been. "It will be done, Master," he said, though his voice was still subdued. This was obviously a simple mission. It may be some sort of punishment for not succeeding in capturing the Cardinal. Jircniv didn't know enough about the dynamics between Ainz Ooal Gown and his servants. He had only ever seen them obedient but there had to be more than that.

"Shalltear, you shall extend an invitation to those who have not yet joined us to come to Nazarick. I expect you will need to be firm with the proposition to them."

The girl with white hair nodded. "It will be done, Master," she declared, repeating the toadman's words.

What was that about? Those who hadn't joined them? Who was that?

"Though, the rest of the Windflower Scripture may be present at the challenge," the undead king said.

Wait! Rest of the Windflower Scripture. Did that mean what Jircniv thought it meant?

"Then I will focus on the Cardinals, Master," the white-haired girl said.

"I look forward to meeting them."

Jircniv wasn't sure how he knew it, but he could tell that that toadman wasn't pleased with the assignment. So the raid on the treasury was a punishment duty but it was a mission that the toadman could not afford to fail. It actually relaxed him to know that the Sorcerer King's manipulative nature was not shown to him alone. It extended to every part of the undead's reign.

"Do you understand now?" the Magic Caster asked his followers gently.

Personally, the Emperor thought several were still confused but the toadman nodded. "Yes, Master! Truly, your ability to foresee every outcome is without peer." That answer made Jircniv's stomach clench. The fact that the Sorcerer's Servants had the same belief he did was not comforting.

"I would have liked to have spoken with the Cardinal now. He could have answered many questions, but this challenge actually gives us the opportunity to conquer the Slane Theocracy faster, and I am sure that will give comfort to Aura," the Sorcerer King explained to those who still didn't understand.

Baziwood nodded with the words. Apparently not all the humans present had seen the implications. Jircniv wondered if perhaps the undead had expected the mission to kidnap the Cardinal to fail… It would be a small thing to set up an overly ambitious servant to fail and it wasn't like Jircniv hadn't used that tactic himself.

"And I will get to speak to all of the Cardinals soon enough," the undead added.

There were smiles at that statement. They were not nice smiles. Jircniv almost felt a moment of sympathy for the Cardinals before he steeled his heart. He had other issues, and they were the same as they had always been since he had signed the papers to make the Baharuth Empire a vassal state of the Sorcerous Kingdom. He had secured the Empire's safety. He had to make sure the Empire, and Humanity within it, remained secure. He could not help the Theocracy.

"Indeed, My Lord," the winged woman said. "Though, Master, the challenge does need to be addressed."

That stirred both Baziwood and Lienas' interest. Jircniv mentally frowned. From the way the Sorcerer King spoke earlier, he had assumed the combatants had already been decided.

"Ah, yes, Albedo," the undead acknowledged. The Sorcerer King raised one hand to his face, tapping one finger against his bones. It was a casual gesture. "Nazarick… The Sorcerous Kingdom must be properly represented," he said, and Jircniv was surprised when the flame eyes of the undead turned to him.

"Emperor El Nix, might I request the services of one of your Knights?"

What did he say to that? He looked towards Baziwood and Leinas. Baziwood was straightforward but he understood the political implications here and nodded, as did Leinas.

"Of course, Your Majesty," Jircniv replied. "If suitable, I would nominate Leinas Rockbruise as the Empire's representative." It would give her an opportunity to see how the Sorcerer King fought. And, he knew she would approach the undead to have it heal her curse. He didn't want her to go, but he did not want her betraying him either. Sometimes in order to win the war you had to lose a battle. Leinas was a battle he had a feeling it was best to lose.

"She is," the undead acknowledged.

"My Lord," Albedo said. Jircniv didn't imagine the note of admonishment in her voice. Leinas' hands formed into fists. The armour on her gloves strained but she said nothing but well understood the question the winged woman was asking.

"A representative, Albedo," the undead replied, though Jirniv thought he was laughing. The woman nodded her acceptance of the statement.

"My Lord?"

Jircniv was surprised when the elf spoke.

"Mare?" The Sorcerer King turned towards the elf.

"I wish to go," the elf said. The young elf made an odd sight. The elf was timidly clutching at her staff but her voice was firm. "For Aura's sake."

"Of course you will be there," the undead acknowledged. "Aura is your sister. It will be your job to witness the Slane Theocracy's defeat in her place."

"Thank you, My Lord," the elf replied. Jircniv felt better when the elf spoke this time. It was again timid. That was understandable. Her sister had been raped, she would fear the same for herself, especially in the heart of the Slane Theocracy but at the same time, he could not deny that the elf was determined.

"Umhu," the Sorcerer King mused. He seemed to be thinking deeply. "Albedo, you will also be present, though I believe it would be prudent to have Momon attend as well."

"The human?" There was an unusual waver in the woman's voice. Jircniv couldn't tell if she was pleased to be participating or angered that a human would also be there.

"Yes, while he is not that well known in the Slane Theocracy, I believe he will be able to calm the regular citizens."

There it was! The undead's unfathomable regard for the living. Why did the undead even think of the regular citizens? Why did he care? Or was he just that good at acting? Jircniv didn't know. Or was having the Dark Adventurer Momon present at the challenge part of a larger plan? It had to be. But what plan? How deep did the Sorcerer King's plans go? How far could he see? Was there any way to be free? It was only because he had practice that Jircniv didn't clutch at his stomach.

The woman nodded, as if she now understood the plan. Jircniv hated that. He could see the plan but was what he saw the same as what she saw? She had the confidence of the undead… he didn't.

"Victim," the undead said. Jircniv couldn't help but stare as something floated towards the Sorcerer King. It was grotesquely pink with what appeared to be veins running over it. Sprouting from its back were two twigs. The Emperor realised belatedly that the word Victim was this creature's name. "I do not wish to completely strip Nazarick's defences during this time, so I must ask that all residents of your floor remain."

"Suna rieht eraperp dluohs srekcufrehtom gnidavni yna. [Of course, My Lord, we will be the rear guard.]"

The Sorcerer King nodded. Jircniv was hard pressed to not stare in disbelief. What had the thing said? He had no time to speculate.

"I would like to take Gargantua, but I do not believe he will fit in the square." That brought a round of chuckles. Jircniv was left wondering who Gargantua was.

"Mare, Albedo, Momon-"

"My Lord, Momon will not fight."

Jircniv frowed. The toadman had been perfectly polite when saying it but it was a surprise to hear the interruption.

"Ah, yes," the undead said, "he did make that clear. Umhu, I do not wish to pull Sebas from his mission, or Cocytus away from his charges." There was the distinct sound of a chuckle.

The Emperor didn't see what was funny and he filed the names away for future reference. If they were servants the Sorcerer King trusted to carry out remote missions they would be important. The more he knew, the better. Even if he was being manipulated there was always a chance… He had to believe that.

"The solution is simple," the undead announced. "In case of a melee, the Pleiades will accompany us. After all, I did win them from Jaldabaoth."

It took Jircniv a moment to make the connection then he realised who the Sorcerer King was talking about. In exchange for his aide to the Holy Kingdom, he had accepted the maids that served the Demon Jaldabaoth.

"My Lord, there are others of greater power," the toadman pointed out.

"I am aware of that, Demiurge," the Magic Caster said but there was an odd note in his voice. It was as if they were discussing something else. "But they must remain here to defend Nazarick. The Pleiades will be sufficient, though Aureole Omega and Sebas will be otherwise occupied. I do not expect them to have to fight," he added. "Though should the Theocracy choose to be dishonourable, you may abandon your missions, Demiurge, Shalltear."

"There will never be any question of our priorities, Master," the girl said with a nod towards the toadman. He returned it.

"Umhu," the Sorcerer King nodded. "Then I think that is- No," he broke off. "Albedo, were you given a [Sokujiryokou Talisman]?"

"I was, My Lord, though I do not know what it is for." The woman bowed her head.

"It was to protect you against one of the final lines of defence of the Great Tomb of Nazarick. I will have Pandora take the others from the Treasury. Everyone living who comes to the challenge must have one."

"My Lord?"

"No," the undead held up one hand. "That is all I will say. They may not be called for, but I would prefer the option to be available."

It didn't help Jircniv that he was not the only one who didn't understand. It actually made him feel worse. If the undead's servants did not understand his references now, then what hope did he have? He put that thought aside. This was just one small thing, and it seemed to be specific. It was unlikely he would ever need to know.

No one said anything. The undead nodded. "Then, I think we are finished in regards to the Theocracy and all we need to do is wait for the appointed day."

"They will be on their knees soon enough," the winged woman said.

"Yes," His Majesty agreed before he sighed. "I had hoped Aura would be up to seeing this day, but she is still troubled by events."

The undead's words resonated around the Throne Room. Jircniv didn't need the reminder about what had happened. Neither did Baziwood or Leinas. They shivered at the fresh wave of negative energy that emanated round the room. Their rings protected them but it was still cold.

The elf bowed her head.

"She will be comforted when the Theocracy falls," the girl said.

"She will. Until then, Mare, I would appreciate it if you could do your best to ensure Aura remains asleep, for her own benefit."

"My Lord?"

"I know I said we needed to have her awake, but just for now, I think it best if she sleeps. After the battle, there will be other options for Aura, and I believe that will make the difference to her recovery."

"Of course, My Lord."

"Good, then I will let everyone prepare for their missions."

That seemed to be some sort of signal, because the Sorcerer's servants knelt. "I shall present you with their treasures," the toadman said.

"I will present you with their bodies," the girl said with a distinct note of relish in her voice.

"And I will present you with their heads," the winged woman said.

"As is the fate of all who oppose the Great Tomb of Nazarick," the Sorcerer King replied to his servants.

Jircniv shivered. He did not like the sound of that. It only highlighted how deeply he was involved. Even standing here was enough. He forced himself to take a deep breath. The Empire was protected with him here. That was what he had to focus on. Until, and unless there was another option, he had to think of the Empire and that meant accepting the undead king.

The Theocracy would try to fight, and they would lose. He couldn't bring himself to doubt the Sorcerer King's words. That meant he was now the protector of Humanity and he would do that as he saw fit. The Four Gods be damned!

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Intermission, Vultures of War

-cos-

Unknown Location

It was rare for Zuranon's Twelve Executives to gather and now was no different. There were only seven of them present which was more than enough to discuss events and make decisions. Zuranon hadn't remained as effective as they had been by being inflexible.

All seven figures were hooded in an attempt to conceal their identity. It added to the mystique of Zuranon and each Executive spent at least some of their time attempting to divine the identity of the others. Some formed alliances with each other but they were usually temporary, lasting until one party completed their goal.

Despite that, Zuranon had a united purpose. They acted as one more often than they opposed each other. It was in their interests.

"I was expecting more." The Executive was leaning back into the chair in an attempt to further conceal their identity.

The others looked at him. He sounded like a he. Zuranon didn't care about gender. Strength and dedication to their cause were the only requirements to be a member.

"I doubt we have seen everything." The counter statement came from one of the others that was probably male. It was accompanied by several gestures that seemed twitchy. That confirmed his identity for most of the Executives. The twitch was the result of an experiment gone bad so even if they didn't know the true identity of the Executive, they knew which one was sitting there.

"He's only taken one town!" The first speaker growled. There was the impression that he might lean forward but he didn't.

"It is winter." The voice was female and sultry. It sounded seductive but was toned just that little bit too strongly. The speaker was a little too eager to seduce and that set off alarm bells.

"And he killed no one."

The Executives looked at each other. That was something they couldn't deny. The undead Sorcerer King was not behaving as they expected.

"A ruse." The voice was quiet. It sounded like it came from beyond the grave and in many ways it did.

Zuranon worshipped death. It was made up of the living and the undead. The man who had spoken was no longer a man but an undead. He was possibly the most powerful of them all.

"A ruse only." The statement was repeated. There was a note of pleasure sufficing it. "We do not need to alter our plans."

"A ruse?" The Executive who spoke had a slightly grey cloak. Until one of Zuranon's plans was actually enacted it was all in motion. They did plan but they also chased opportunity.

"If he killed everyone, the others would run. The others would fight and their blood would be spilled for no reason." One spindly finger rose. "We cannot presume to know all his plans."

That much was true. While the Executives of Zuranon knew they were intelligent, that meant they were wise enough to realise they couldn't know everything the Sorcerer King knew. They did not have access to the information he did. They did not know what his goals were. They knew their own, and they knew how they could work an undead of his power into their goals.

"So we should continue with ours?" The question was rhetoric. They had plans but they had not put them into full deployment.

"We should proceed with them."

"Even without knowing?" The question had no context but the Executives understood.

"There is no new information, but he is what we have wanted," the voice that sounded like it came from beyond the grave confirmed.

The Executives nodded. Clementine's body had been retrieved from the Re-Estize Kingdom but they had been unable to resurrect her. She had refused to be raised. Instead they had had to revert to methods to speak to her soul. Speaking to a spirit was at the same time both easier and more difficult than resurrection.

Except spirits did not have the same connection to the world that they did. From the other side, they saw things differently. They had tried to ask Clementine what happened but she refused to speak. It added to the confusion. It was generally accepted that the Adamantite Adventurer Momon had killed her but no one knew how.

What was confusing the issue was that it was also on record that the Undead Sorcerer King had been seen in the Baharuth Empire's Arena wielding Clementine's stilettos. The relationship between Momon and the Sorcerer King was not meant to be that good. Unless of course the public relationship was just what they wanted to project.

That was possible. And if so, it would speak well of the Undead's ability. No one in Zuranon doubted the Sorcerer King's strength. His display on the Katze Plains was something they were jealous of. No other undead that Zuranon had ever heard of could harness such magic, though they speculated that the Theocracy's undead God might have. The records were annoyingly vague. Even if Surshanna could have, he was not on record as having ever used such magic.

Not even against the Greed Kings.

Clementine's spirit was obstinate. Usually spirits were forthcoming but to get even the smallest piece of information from Clementine required the strongest compulsion spells. Her soul screamed and screamed and screamed before it gave any information. It simply confirmed the evidence provided by her preserved body. She died violently. Her ribcage was crushed. It was odd though, given Momon was reported to use great blades. There were no wounds on Clementine's body that could be attributed to the Adventurer's weapon.

Though if he had crushed her… It was not beyond the realm of human strength but it was near or at the outer limits. That action confirmed that Momon was very strong yet it opened questions as to how he had managed to get close enough to Clementine to actually crush her. She specialised in light, fast strikes. Momon's swords suggested brute force attacks. The fact that he had managed to contain her highlighted his skill.

It didn't matter what compulsion they used on Clementine's spirit, she refused to speak of her death. She confirmed that Khajiit had been killed by Momon's companion, the Ice Queen Nabe, but she refused to be drawn on Momon. The spirit simply refused to answer any questions about Momon.

"So how long do we think the Theocracy will survive?" The question was tainted with ill-concealed lust, though the voice was smooth and controlled. The dichotomy was rather odd. The expressed desire countered with absolute calm.

Even attacking with the Legions would create death Zuranon would revel in. Though they would have to be careful not to be obvious in their harvest. It was likely the Undead would already be harvesting the life force and would notice if too much was missing.

"It is allowing them the illusion of a chance." It was known that this Executive was within the Theocracy by the faded nature of the grey cloak.

"Oh?"

"The Sorcerer King had the Legions take one town as a distraction," the Executive reported. "He had the Cardinals' offices raided for information during that time."

The others were surprised at the report. It was known, at least to those who wanted to know, that the Legions were holding Synoro but the rest of it was new. "Then the Sorcerer King went to capture one of the Cardinals. His forces were stopped."

"Are they that weak?" There was scorn in the question.

The Slane Theocracy's Executive held up one gloved hand to forestall their objections. "While it might appear to be weakness, I believe the Lich wants this. The Theocracy issued a challenge. Their fighters against his."

"Ah," several Executives made the sound. They might be worshippers of death but they could see the efficiency there. If the Undead could defeat the Slane Theocracy's challenge, it would mean he conquered the Slane Theocracy without needing to resort fully to war. While it might seem to be causing less death, the fact was that by conquering the Slane Theocracy through this challenge, the Undead could then kill them as needed, not just wasting the excess negative energy that would result from a war's more chaotic nature. It was the master stroke of a genius. They all knew it would not be that simple but it was still impressive.

"Will you be there?"

"No," the Slane Theocracy's Executive lowered his hand as the grey hood of his cloak moved as he shook his head to say no. There was no need to risk himself so obviously because there was no telling how the undead would respond to the challenge.

"We will continue observing," the undead made the pronouncement. His voice rasped and hissed but was firm. "This reinforces our position but leads into another question."

The Executives nodded. They knew what the question was. Should they contact the Sorcerous King? Would he even accept their overture?

This was another thing Clementine's spirit refused to speak on. She had simply laughed when asked about their plans.

"No," the Executive with the nervous twitch stated. "We can continue without his acknowledgement."

"You think the Theocracy will worship him?"

"I think his servants will force it," the Executive who was leaning back answered with surety. "It will not be quick. It will not be easy and it will be accompanied by blood."

"We know of him, but we do not know the strength of his servants." The woman with the seductive voice was unsure. She didn't know anything about the Undead King's servants but it was possible other Zuranon Executives did. Admitting weakness was not a good way to maintain position.

"One was captured," the Slane Theocracy's Executive said.

"By chance or by design?"

"Design."

"Whose?"

"The Theocracy's."

"You are sure?" Could it be possible that the capture of the undead's servant was a scheme by him to ensure conflict with the Theocracy. Zuranon knew for certain that the undead would not care for his servants. They didn't care for their followers. They were simply tools to be used to promote their desires. The liches within Zuranon used the living to enhance their power.

The Sorcerer King could be no different. He might have set up his servant to fail in order to act as the aggrieved party. It was a bold strategy but no more bold than setting up the Re-Estize Kingdom's army to be lambs to the slaughter.

"Yes," the response was certain. It told those gathered that if the Undead King had set up his servant to fail, then the plan was seamless. "The elf was rescued, which means the Undead has use for her still. If it was his plan he would have sent an expendable servant."

"Or he could have used her capture to test the Theocracy."

"That is possible," the Slane Theocracy's Executive was forced to admit. "But I do not believe it is the case as he has been testing the Theocracy since."

"In the end, it doesn't matter," the observation was astute but was accompanied by a slight tap on the table as the man's arm twitched. If the capture of a servant was by the design of the Theocracy, the Undead was showing its power and skill in actions now. If the Undead had arranged it as provocation, then it was a display of power to the world, and possibly to themselves that he would not be challenged.

Zuraron did not want to use the Undead. He was one of them, in spirit, if not in actuality. It was a pity Zuraron had not been aware of his power while he was still in hiding. But as they were underground, so too had this Undead been underground, and it appeared that he was perhaps more practiced at hiding given that the world at large knew nothing of them before they emerged from their seclusion.

"No, it doesn't, but it does impact upon our decision."

"We go ahead."

"And when he notices?"

"Then we send an emissary." The answer was almost blasé. The Executive leaned forward but not far enough that the weak light was cast on to his features. "Thus far, this undead has been content to leave humans alive." The example was obvious in both the Baharuth Empire and Holy Kingdom. The Sorcerer King had made no move to cull then. "It is possible he is like the others. They made war but for subjugation. Or it is possible it is part of another plan."

The others were the Eight Greed Kings and the Six Gods of the Theocracy. They made no move to exterminate a species. They were content to let all live and serve them. But the key was all must serve them. The Six Gods of the Theocracy did elevate humans but that was considered an affectation towards a species that had been on the brink at the time. The others were like dragons in that way. So long as you obeyed, they were content.

"Could he be from where they are?" The question was quiet. There was no seductive tone in the voice this time. It was a question of power but one that could be terrifying, even for them.

It was speculation they had all made but no one had voiced.

The others admitted they came from some other world. That's what gave them their power. Could this Undead Sorcerer King be from that world?

The evidence was contradictory. The others had arrived with nothing. This undead had a stronghold and a host of servants. That meant he was well established. If he did come from that world, then he had had the sense to establish himself here before announcing his presence. But if that was the case, then surely Zuraron would have heard about him? They were not exclusively human! Humans were tools to be used, nothing more.

His power suggested that he had to come from that world. Zuranon knew more about spells of darkness than anyone else. They had researched the spell used on the Katze Plains. They had never heard of anything like it. The spirits and souls they raised could tell them nothing. They almost seemed afraid of the spell.

"He could be," the answer was equally quiet yet still calm. "Before we go ahead, we need to raise IT."

"No!"

Not much horrified members of Zuranon. That suggestion did.

"I believe it is beyond the time that we know what we are dealing with. There are too many questions that are going unanswered. Too many possibilities. It is not that we lack resources to find out, it is that the truth is being deliberately obscured. Thus, we have to know."

"That does not mean we raise it!"

"It would answer all our questions," another Executive defended the suggestion. "It would clear all the uncertainty," they added. This Executive seemed to be female. While their figure was cloaked, the way the fabric lay suggested curves. At least in some places. Her hood made a shape no human head was capable of.

"It would," the admission was reluctant as the Executive again leaned back.

"But why would it answer our questions? I agree, it would know but I suspect it will be like Clementine. It will not speak."

"Maybe not to us, but it will to another of its own kind." There was a smug undertone to the calm voice.

It took the gathered Zuranon Executives a moment to realise what had been said. They were not from that world the Eight Greed Kings and the Six Gods of the Theocracy had come from. They knew they were not on that level. But… they could pretend. That's what was being suggested.

"In death, it has no power." The reminder was needed to suppress fear.

"It will not believe any of us are the same as it," the Slane Theocracy's Executive said. "I would suggest the ruse of us being servants."

There was a nod of acknowledgement. "That would cover some errors."

"I do not like it."

"It is necessary."

"And what if it doesn't know?"

"Then we will have exhausted another line of inquiry, nothing more."

"It cannot warn him." Another reminder.

"I do not like it." It was said with a heavy sigh of resignation. Several twitches went unnoticed.

"Then I will raise it." There was a slight note of happiness within the contained voice. This Executive might always appear calm but it was a ruse.

"And hope for answers." The seductive voice was back but was slightly mocking.

"And hope for answers. Shall we reconvene then?"

"That would be best and other discussions can be tabled until then."

The Executives nodded and the one at the head of the table raised one hand to extinguish the flickering lights. The meeting was over.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 5 War in the Square Part 1

-cos-

Re-Estize Kingdom, Noble Estate

Philip didn't want to be here. He was however, wise enough to keep that sentiment from showing on his features. The last month or so had been a lesson in how to keep his mouth shut, though he had explored his options via other means.

Not even the landlady had been able to help him get out of the marriage that was about to start but she had pointed out several reasons he needed to go through with it, not the least of which was that until he was confirmed as the Lord, his father could disinherit him. She had been tactful enough not to mention that if that happened, he wouldn't be able to pay her back but he was smart enough to realise that was at least a concern for her. But more importantly it would leave him back as a farm boy. That wasn't going to happen. Hilma had also pointed out that once he was the Lord, divorce was a possibility. He had to marry Gemma Inabil Yuce Nabol now, but he was not necessarily stuck with her. Divorce might cost a bit but…

During the past month or so his father had been giving him a crash course in running the estate. There were so many places Philip could see where improvements could be made. His estate, once it was his, would be more prosperous very quickly, and then he could offload Gemma. And if she didn't accept what he thought was reasonable, he'd still divorce her and see how she liked living without title or benefit.

The thought of the lessons just reinforced his dislike. Today was a perfect example. Mid-winter was a good, strong day to start a new relationship but that wasn't the only reason his Father had scheduled the marriage for today. There was traditionally a feast on Mid-winter day. By having the wedding today, his Father got to save the expense of one feast. Yes, it was a saving that would benefit the estate but it was also an insult to him and to the House of Nabol. Philip could only surmise that Gemma's father had agreed to it. The man must be desperate to marry his daughter off.

Philip shook his head. He immediately regretted it. His stiff, starched collar scratched his neck. Yet another cost saving of his Father's. The formal gear he had worn to the party in the Capital had belonged to his elder brother. It had been slightly too tight. This was no better. Again, it had been his brother's and was too tight. Supposedly the estate couldn't even cover a suit of clothing for him on his wedding day. It was intolerable.

As soon as his father officially handed over the Lordship, Philip would make many changes. The estate would benefit from them. And then Lady Albedo would see his skills and would be further- He forced his thoughts away from there but the new thought caused his lips to curl in disgust. He'd met Gemma a few days ago when the party from the House of Nabol had arrived. She was… He sighed, using the motion to school his face into a more neutral expression. Gemma was a pale shadow of Lady Albedo. It was as if someone had described that exquisite beauty to a blind man. Gemma had black hair but it was lank compared to the lustrous locks the Lady Albedo had. She had pale skin but against the pure alabaster of Lady Albedo, Gemma might have been a peasant woman who worked in the fields. Her eyes were brown. Philip found himself lusting over Lady Albedo's yellow eyes. Her waist was small and she had well defined hips but Lady Albedo's proportions were perfect, Gemma couldn't compare to that. And her breasts, the less he thought about them the better. Gemma was nothing more than a broodmare. Lady Albedo was-

Again he forced his thoughts away. He would have to think of Lady Albedo tonight, or else he would never be able to fulfil his marital obligations and as much as that thought disgusted him, Philip knew it was required. He was standing before the altar of the Six Gods. The Priest had agreed to marry him today, in the early morning, before the rest of the services. Yet another insult! And his father didn't see it. He had just negotiated the time further and then paid, paid the priest for their time. Why? Was his father not the lord of this estate? Did the priest not owe his father? That would change as soon as he became Lord. Many things would change.

The flush of anger did him good, calming his lower head just in time for the Priest to enter. Philip forced a pleasing smile to his face while he inwardly seethed. The landlady was correct, until he was confirmed as the Lord, he had to accept these insults, but he would remember… He would always remember, and there would be changes. That thought stretched his smile further. The priest stupidly thought it was for him.

Let him keep his delusion. Soon enough the man would know who was the Lord. That would be soon enough.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Great Square

Midwinter day had dawned darkly in the Slane Theocracy. Thick clouds had gathered and no one was willing to waste the magic to move them. By mid-morning, they had clustered over Kami Miyako and rain was pouring from the sky in huge sheets. Wind howled between the droplets. Anyone who could, had shuttered their house tight and was huddled before a fire. News of the challenge to the Sorcerer King had gotten out, but in the face of the weather, only the hardiest were daring to be out.

Now as the hour drew close to noon, there was a group gathering at one end of the square. Well, it was more like a hexagon. At each point was a boulevard that led to a Cathedral of one of the Six Gods. Their statues were at each corner. The group was gathering at the foot of the God of Light's Statue. They were gathering there but they had invoked the names of all Six Gods and had the blessings of every Cardinal and Shaman Princess.

They didn't care about the rain. Not because they were protected from the cold but because it was so common place. They were the chosen representatives of the Slane Theocracy and they were outfitted with the treasures of the Six Great Gods.

Usually, that would have led to thousands trying to get a glimpse of them. The Treasures of the Theocracy were legendary, even here in the capital. But between the weather and the challenge, few were willing to dare it.

"It's late," Zesshi snapped.

"Not yet," the Captain of the Black Scripture said. He was the most used to her antics but then Seraiah Ruzzier Isaev Kysely had been dealing with her from the moment it became obvious he was Godkin. It was odd to think that in all that time she hadn't changed. He had. He'd grown from a boy to a man, not quite married but soon, if the Cardinals had anything to say about it. Though, he wasn't dumb enough to challenge Zetsumei as some of them wished.

"It's late," she repeated.

"You can't even see the clock," he huffed. In many ways he was actually thankful she was acting like this. It was normal.

"The hour has not yet passed," the Salvation Scripture's Forth Seat, Edom Ferrero said with certainty.

"He could already be here," Xoana Daviau agreed. She was from the Holocaust Scripture, their Eighth Seat.

"Yeah," Zesshi drawled. "At Lord Surshanna's statue," she added. His statue was all the way across the square, and they couldn't see it because of the driving rain.

"You are not allowed to go and check," the Black Scripture's Captain said preemptively.

Zesshi grinned at him. At least, he thought she did. It was hard to see even with the God Artefacts they had all equipped. Zetsumei had her war scythe [Glory of the End] but was also armoured in the God of Water's [Cuffs of Mist] and the Earth God's [Vest of Echo]. She carried as a secondary weapon the Earth God's [Pledge of Banishment], a set of fisticuffs that would allow her to fully channel her power into physical attacks. Usually the artefacts of each of the Gods were used by their Scriptures but for this battle, they had been assigned on the basis of who could best use them.

Edom Ferrero of the Salvation Scripture was like that, he bore both the God of Life's armour and sword, [Redemption of Soul] and [Edge of Sky]. As a sword fighter, he had also been issued the God of Fire's helm, the [Crown of Ash]. Combined with his normal armor, he could take a lot of damage, though was limited to short range attacks.

Long range attack rested with Xhafer Daviau of the Holocaust Scripture. He possessed some of the best sensor type spells in the Theocracy and given the weather, his ability would prove invaluable. He was wearing Lord Surshanna's [Sash of Haunted Voices] and was armed with the God of Wind's crossbow, [Unseen Cunning]. He had practiced with it over the last few days, to become accustomed to the differences between it and his regular weapon.

Seraiah was confident he was now even better than he had been. Certainly his range had been increased but that was to be expected using God Artefacts. Xhafer's sister was another close range fighter. She had the God of Fire's Scimitar [Last Words] and the God of Wind's gauntlets [Hand of Eternity]. The combination allowed her to use both to their full potential. The scimitar allowed her to drain life forces from her enemy with every clash of their blades. It would heal any damage she took. A very useful feature, while the gauntlets amplified any spell she cast.

He had the God of Water's spear, [Ghost Reaver]. As one of the Theocracy's most powerful Godkin he had access to the God Artefacts and had become used to it over time. When he wielded it, it felt like an extension of his arms. His armor had been supplemented with the God of Fire's boots, [Fire Heels]. They were imbued with several powers, such as protection from fire and the ability to muffle all sound. He was not a thief but with the boots, he was as silent as one.

They each had several potions and other healing items. The only other similarity between them was the [Ring of Concealment] they each wore. There were only six. Each of the Gods had one. They blocked spells of detection. Abilities like Xhafer's were not blocked by them since it was internal but someone casting [Discern] on them would learn nothing. The last ring was still in the Treasury.

They did have a cleric with them. While she had not been nominated, the Clearwater Scripture's Fifth Seat Queralt was a cleric. She was using a staff the Gods named [Tribute of Silence]. It was not attributed to any of the Gods specifically. It helped in healing. She would be support for them, assuming the undead allowed it.

There were others on standby. The Black Scripture were currently guarding the Cardinal of Light. They were one of the failsafes. None of the Cardinals were present. They were all in secure locations. The undead had shown his hand, and had also displayed a tendency to pursue multiple targets. It would not get away with anything today. The other Scriptures were also guarding Cardinals, and the Cardinal of Wind Dominic Ihre Partouche was in the Treasury. He had objected to it massively but it was agreed that it was the safest place for him. They were almost certain that the undead was going to try to take him again.

The Thousand Mile Astrologer was also standing with them. Wassa was huddled under a thick cloak and Seraiah could almost hear her shivering. She was here to ensure that the undead did not attempt to deceive them. With her ability to see through illusion, she could confirm that the undead was indeed here. They had no wish to kill a lesser being, thus showing their strength.

"I can't sense anything, yet," Xhafer reported.

"He'll know where we are," Zetsumei said. It made it obvious she had been teasing earlier.

One thing Seraiah could see was the mounting frustration of the others. They didn't have to deal with Zesshi. Because she was the strongest Godkin, they respected her, but they weren't sure how to deal with her.

"Zesshi," Seraiah sighed.

"Oh, come on!" She gripped back.

"Not everyone likes your humour," he reminded her.

She just glared.

"Just give me a-" He paused.

DONG!

The noise was audible even over the rain and wind. Everyone turned their head towards the noise. It was the toll of the noon bell.

DONG.

Almost instinctively the group looked around. They peered through the rain, except there wasn't anything to see except rain.

DONG.

They looked at each other. The undead should be here. That was the thought they all shared.

"Nothing yet?" Seraiah questioned loudly, shaking his head slightly.

DONG.

His words were directed to the Holocaust Scripture's Ninth Seat, Xoana's brother, Xhafer. He possessed the best senses of all the Godkin. He would be their first warning that the undead was here.

"Well?" Zetsumei demanded as well. She was anxious for the fight to begin.

DONG.

"Not ye-" Xhafer jerked. HIs head snapped around and he stared into the rain.

Seraiah wondered what he sensed.

DONG.

"There's… there's something there," the Holocaust Scripture's Ninth Seat said. He kept staring into the rain.

DONG.

They all followed his gaze though nothing could be seen.

"What is it?" Zesshi demanded. She was almost bouncing on the balls of her feet. Her war scythe clutched in one hand.

DONG.

"I can sense something," Xhafer didn't sound certain.

"What is it?" Seraiah asked before Zetsumei could snap.

"There's-"

DONG.

He didn't say anything further. A wind ripped through the square. They all braced themselves but Seraiah felt his feet slip in the force of the wind. The rain was driven onto exposed skin, raising red welts.

Then the wind stopped.

DONG.

The group looked at each other before looking around. Overhead, the sky was clear. It was startling to see blue. They quickly looked back to the ground. The square was still wet but the rain had stopped and the air was clear. The water still present reflected the sun's light, giving everything a glittering effect. There were several, very brave, citizens who had fallen in the wind gust but they couldn't spare their attention.

DONG.

Standing on the other side of the square, clearly visible now was another group. They radiated a dark energy. The Slane Theocracy's chosen godkin recognised it as negative energy. There was a tall woman standing next to a dark swirling mass of energy. She was dressed in full plate armor and carried a large axe. The shaft was as long as Zetsumei's war scythe. There was a shorter figure on the other side of the portal. It was easily recognisable as an elf. It's gloved hands were clutching at a staff and it peered around with wide eyes. Standing on either side of the portal were three others. The six of them were all different but all were dressed as maids.

DONG.

The portal swirled again and a dark figure stepped through. If those gathered radiated negative energy, this single figure seemed to be made of it. It was as if dark fire was surrounding it. It was a tall skeleton, draped in black fabric.

The Sorcerer King was here.

"Not late," Zetsumei muttered.

Seraiah was surprised by how composed she was. It was a good thing. It calmed the others. He looked at the undead. Beyond the dark energy radiated from its figure, it was carrying a golden staff. He couldn't see the details but parts of it twisted and turned, twining around each other. It was capped with a bowl shape with what appeared to be snakes around the edge. He looked now at the Sorcerer King.

It was a skeleton, but he knew that already. The white of the undead's bones were stark against the black of its garments. It wore a cowl and had pauldron armour on its shoulders. A tiny flame burned in each of its empty eyes. He didn't like it. It was an instinctual reaction. Just as the undead hated the living, so too did the living hate the undead. They were not meant to exist together.

He suppressed a shiver. The undead really did look like Lord Surshanna. Seeing him standing beneath the God's statue made it seem as if the God had stepped down from his pedestal. No, this was not Lord Surshanna. It was just another undead, not the God of Darkness.

"Let's go," Zesshi gestured with her scythe as several others stepped from the portal behind the undead before it vanished.

"Wait!" Seraiah ordered. He turned to the Thousand Mile Astrologer. Wassa was blinking in the sudden light but was peering at the group.

More people were emerging from the portal. One was dressed as a Knight of the Baharuth Empire. It was a woman. He knew it had to be Leinas Rockbruise. Another, older man followed her. He was dressed in robes and had a spring in his step. By his long beard, Seraiah guessed he was Fluder Paradyne. The Captain of the Black Scripture could well imagine what the Cardinals would be saying if they were here. Finally a third man appeared from the portal. This one Seraiah didn't need to wonder about. He wore dark armor that almost seemed to absorb the sunlight, and had huge swords crossed over his back. He knew the man by reputation at least. The Dark Adventurer Momon.

Xhafer answered before Wassa. "They are powerful."

"How powerful?" Zesshi pressed. Seraiah heard a slight note of trepidation in her voice. She was concerned they wouldn't be as powerful as she hoped.

"Very," Xhafer said with a gulp. "I can't get full details on all of them. The maids aren't as strong as the others," he said. That was a slight comfort.

"The undead?" Zetsumei demanded.

"I can't get a lock on him!" Xhafer said. Seraiah felt a moment of concern at the fear lacing the Holocaust Scripture member's voice. Apparently Xoana had felt that as well. She placed one hand on her brother's shoulder. He calmed. "There is something blocking my ability," Xhafer said after taking a large breath. "He is as least as powerful as you, so is the elf, and the armored woman," he told the Black Scripture's Extra seat.

A beatific smile crossed Zesshi's features. Her mismatched eyes sparkled. "Finally!" She almost cheered. "Though the elf?" She turned towards the undead's party, peering at the small creature. It looked almost exactly like the one they had held. "Are you sure?" The other elf had been nothing special.

"Positive," Xhafer replied after moment.

"Well, I suppose that just proves that looks mean nothing," Zetsumei muttered, a grin still alighting her features.

"Except..?" Xhafer frowned. The question was too himself.

"What is it?" Xoana asked.

"I can only sense two humans," he said slowly, as if still sorting through information. Seraiah thought Xhafer might be. There would be a multitude of things to sense from the undead's party.

Seraiah frowned and looked back at the undead's group. "There are three humans," he said. At least he thought there were. Leinas, Fluder and Momon were human, weren't they? He glanced at Wassa. Was one of them not who they appeared to be?

She shook her head. "There are no illusions," she confirmed.

"You are sure?" the Captain of the Black Scripture questioned Xhafer as gently as he could.

"There are only two humans," he repeated more firmly this time.

"Who?" Edom asked.

"The Empire's Knight and the old man are human."

"What?" Edom demanded. "You mean Momon isn't human?"

"He's not," Xhafer confirmed, "but I don't know what he is. He's like…" The sensor shook his head. "He's not like anything I've ever sensed."

"How about we just ask him?" Zetsumei snapped. She was eager to move.

Seraiah had to admit that would be the easiest way. He looked at Wassa again. "There's no illusion," she confirmed again.

"Good," he said. "Then we go."

Zesshi had been waiting for the instruction. She led the way. The undead's group saw them but remained in place. The woman in full plate armour moved to stand before the Sorcerer King, while the maids arrayed themselves at each side. The elf stood to the left of the undead. Momon took several steps so that he was slightly away from the group. Interestingly the woman he assumed was Leinas Rockbruise moved to stand at one end of the group, while Fluder took the other end. There was definitely bad blood there.

"Which one is the most powerful?" Seraiah whispered the question towards Xhafer.

He shook his head. "I can't tell. I can feel the maids and the humans, but between the other four, I can't tell."

"So Momon is as powerful as the Sorcerer King?" the Captain of the Black Scripture asked. He sensed Zetsumei listening to the further details.

"He is," Xhafer said for the benefit of the group rather than nodding.

That was interesting. Not human, but as powerful as the Sorcerer King… Was he really the hero Adventurer he was made out to be? Seraiah knew of some of the Cardinal's speculations. Maybe they would find out the truth.

The undead's group waited. It was arrogant, but it was also cautious. That didn't quite fit with what he knew of the undead but the Captain of the Black Scripture knew it wasn't afraid. No matter how powerful you were, you did not come to your enemy's territory if you were afraid. You did it if you were confident. Hopefully, too confident.

He looked around at the group with him. Zetsumei looked excited while the others looked grim. No matter how anything else turned out, this was the battle for the Slane Theocracy, for Humanity, and they would not lose.

-cos-

It had felt odd to not allow the maids to dress him, Ainz thought as he watched the Slane Theocracy's fighters come close. It was an odd thought for him to have at this point in time. He answered it though. This was combat, and he was confident of his ability to choose the best equipment. He was not concerned with his looks here, though his Divine Level garments were striking.

He focused on more important things. The woman, Zetsumei Zesshi was leading the Theocracy's fighters. It was a smaller group than he had expected. There were six others accompanying the woman.

"[Discern Enemy]" he muttered, loud enough for Albedo, Mare and the Maids to hear.

He waited as the results came to him. The Guardians were composed enough not to turn towards him but he could feel their questions. Ainz huffed lightly. "Blockers on five of them," he said. He recognised the feel of the [Ring of Concealment]. Lots of players in Yggdrasil had used them. "The other two are support," he added. "One is a cleric, and the other is here to determine our authenticity."

Ainz thought that Albedo would have growled at that if the group had not been in ear shot. She knew she was on stage.

"Sorcerer King," the woman Zesshi Zetsumei said, coming to a halt before him.

"Insolent cur!" Albedo snarled. "You should be on your knees in the presence of the Supreme Being Ainz Ooal Gown."

Ainz gestured towards her. "They will be soon enough," he assured Albedo.

Albedo settled, though she still glared at the fighters of the Slane Theocracy.

"Will we?" the woman sneered, almost laughing.

"You will, Zesshi Zetsumei, Extra Seat of the Slane Theocracy's Black Scripture," he confirmed for her. "You challenged me," he added.

"I did," she confirmed. "Let's get this on."

"I think not," Ainz replied coldly.

She sighed. "Ah, the tiresome formalities," she muttered. "I told your creature, I don't care about that."

"I heard." Kurashitai had given him quite a few details about this woman. Some of them would be related to Aura when she was ready to hear them. Ainz was sure the Dark Elf would find them interesting.

"You will not touch the Supreme Being!" Albedo told her.

"I'll go through you, woman," Zetsumei snarled.

Momon chuckled. That brought everyone's attention to him. "You will have to go through her," he told the Slane Theocracy's fighters. "But should you not put up protection?" He asked.

"We have nothing to say to you, Creature!" the man standing at Zesshi's side said.

"Creature?" Momon asked, artfully confused.

"I'd call you a Traitor to Humanity, but you can't betray that which you are not," the man said.

Ainz suppressed a hiss at that. He had been afraid that someone would see through his disguise as Momon but not here, not when it was Pandora. The doppelganger didn't register as wearing an illusion. Leinas was looking curiously at the Dark Adventurer. She was wondering if the Slane Theocracy was telling the truth. Fluder didn't care. He was here to see magic.

Pandora, as Momon shook his head. Ainz felt a moment of relief. His creation was wise enough to ignore the Theocracy for the most part and continue with the script.

"I see betrayal from you," Momon stated. "The actions of the Slane Theocracy are an offense to any decent being," he growled. "Besides, I am not here to fight."

"Then why are you here, Creature?" the man asked.

"I am here to ensure your blameless citizens are not unduly stuck in combat," Momon replied, waving the accusation away. "Something I would have thought the Theocracy would have already seen to," he added. The way Momon looked around made it clear that he could not sense any shielding. "For the supposed protectors of Humanity, you do not seem to care."

"How dare you!" The man hissed.

Momon simply tilted his head. His challenge remained unanswered.

"You think the undead cares?" The question came from one of the other women. She had a scimitar at her waist.

"E-Rantel is under my protection," Momon told her. "So long as his rule remains just, I see no reason to attack, but should the Sorcerer King turn against the citizens, he knows I will fight him."

Ainz waved his free hand. "If the Theocracy does not care for the lives of their citizens, I will attend to the protections," he announced.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Momon said, bowing before he stepped back, making it clear he was not part of the combat team. [Sorry, Father,] Pandora said via Message spell.

[It is not your fault,] Ainz replied. He had hoped they would cast some shielding spell. It would give him further insight into their abilities, but not everything could go his way.

"Humph! A pretty act," the man muttered.

"Can we get on with this?" Zesshi demanded.

"So impatient," Albedo snapped.

"Bring it on, bitch!" Zetsumei challenged.

"The right of combat lies with me," Ainz interrupted before they could get into a full fight. He had no doubt that Albedo would be more than happy to take on Zetsumei physically, but he needed it to be slightly more controlled.

"It does," the man admitted grudgingly.

"Then I believe introductions are in order," Ainz indicated. "I am the Sorcerer King, the Absolute Ruler of the Great Tomb of Nazarick, Ainz Ooal Gown." There were other titles he could claim but those were the important ones. He looked towards the Slane Theocracy's fighters.

"You already know who I am," Zetsumei spat.

"The others?" He prompted. He wanted to know who these people were. Pandora would pass on their names to Demiurge and Shalltear so they knew who was missing, and who potentially they might encounter.

"I am Captain of the Black Scripture, Seraiah Ruzzier Isaev Kysely," the man standing beside Zetsumei said with a practiced nod.

Ainz returned it.

"I am the Fourth Seat of the Salvation Scripture, Edom Ferrero," the heavily built man said. Ainz hadn't heard of him.

"I am the Eighth Seat of the Holocaust Scripture, Xoana Daviau," the woman with the scimitar said.

"I am the Ninth Seat of the Holocaust Scripture, Xhafer Daviau," the slender man said.

Ainz nodded at them. So these were the ones the Theocracy thought special enough to let them use Rings of Concealment. "I do hope you are more skilled than Lojze Puerta," he taunted.

It had the desired effect. The two Holocaust Scripture members started. He could see the way their hands went for their weapons.

He looked deliberately at the other two. The cleric and the other one. It was then that he realised she felt familiar. "Ah, the spy," he murmured. "I'm assuming you are the one called the Thousand Mile Astrologer?" he asked, looking at the woman.

She appeared confused. Was that meant to be a secret? Eventually she nodded.

"If I'd have known you were watching, I would have adjusted my protections so you could see the Sunlight Scripture," Ainz said, "though I do hope you liked the display on the Katze Plains," he added.

The woman paled. Ainz could feel the way Albedo smiled at that. He turned to the cleric. The woman was older but Ainz assumed she was capable. She also paled. "I am the Fifth Seat of the Clear Water Scripture," she said.

"Well, that's us," Zesshi said impatiently.

"It is," Ainz agreed. "I am disappointed there is no one from the Windflower Scripture," he told her. "And no Cardinals want to watch," he added. "I did so want to speak to the Cardinal of Wind."

"Not happening," the woman said.

Ainz waved his free hand again. That remained to be seen. "Albedo," he prompted.

"I am Albedo, Guardian Overseer of the Great Tomb of Nazarick," she hissed, her yellow eyes fixed on the elfin woman.

Mare didn't need to be prompted. "I am Mare Bello Fiore, one of the Guardians of the Sixth Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick. Aura is my sister, and you will pay for her pain."

Ainz hadn't expected that declaration from the usually shy Dark Elf but he saw no reason to censure him.

"Your sister was weak," Zetsumei muttered. "If she was stronger, it wouldn't have happened."

Ainz moved quickly, deliberately placing one hand on Mare's shoulder.

"Got your minions under control?" Zesshi almost laughed.

He allowed himself to release a small burst of negative energy as his reply. The group felt it. As did the bystanders. Several collapsed. They shouldn't be here but you couldn't stop human stupidity. Fluder seemed very interested in the reaction. In addition to the [Sokujiryokou Talisman], which everyone carried, he had protection against Negative energy. As did Leinas. It would not do to harm the witnesses.

"You see," the Captain of the Black Scripture said, glancing towards Momon. "The undead does not care," he told the Adventurer.

Momon said nothing.

"Can we fight?" Zetsumei demanded.

"You chattel have no right to challenge the Supreme Being," Albedo snarled.

"He's the one who's here," Zesshi replied. "But I'll go through you, bitch."

Albedo swung her axe. The whoosh of its passage was evidence enough of her strength.

"I see no reason to fight you," Ainz said, once again breaking into the fight before it could get started. "To me, this is simply the most efficient way of defeating your abhorrent country. Thus I am disappointed that your Masters are not yet taking me seriously," he added.

That seemed to offend the group. No doubt they were the strongest of the Slane Theocracy. The Cardinals would be foolish not to devote their strongest to this battle.

"Master?" Mare asked.

"Yes, Mare, I think they need to understand the difference between us," Ainz replied.

The Dark Elf nodded, and took a single step forward. He swung his staff, before driving it into the ground. There was a crack as six waves of power radiated outwards. The group from the Slane Theocracy cried out but they could not stop it. Four of them spun, tracking the power as the waves rippled through the ground. Zetsumei and the Captain of the Black Scripture did not turn.

There was a burst of noise. It came from all around them. It was followed by other noises. Crashes and crunches and a deep rumble.

It was somewhat gratifying to see the eyes of the Slane Theocracy's fighters widen as they watched. The Cathedrals, all six of them, shuddered and seemed to shimmy before they all collapsed inwards with loud roars.

"You," the Captain of the Black Scripture whispered. He didn't have to turn to see the destruction of the Cathedral to the God of Death.

"Edifices to false gods offend me," Ainz sniffed.

"How dare you?"

"A demonstration," Ainz said as Mare stepped back. "Thank you, Mare."

The elf smiled at him.

"It's all the more reason to fight," Zesshi snapped at the group. She hefted her scythe. "Now, let's get this on!"

This time, she wasn't going to be interrupted. She charged, her mismatched eyes fixed on the Sorcerer King. The others belatedly followed. They all knew there was only one target.

Ainz remained standing where he was. Leinas and Fluder backed away, as did Momon. They were not here to fight, but everyone else moved to shield him, making sure that the Slane Theocracy did not get close.

Albedo intercepted Zetsumei. "Impudent dog!" She growled. Their weapons ground against each other.

"Bring it, bitch!"

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 5 War in the Square Part 2

-cos-

As the Theocracy's fighters charged, Ainz remained where he was. He tightened his grip on the Staff of Ainz Ooal Gown and flicked the fingers of his free hand.

"[Greater Magic Shield]," he cast the spell, focusing on the edges of the square. He had told Momon he would defend the innocent civilians and while he had no desire to, he knew the gesture would be looked upon favourably. Punitto Moe had mentioned that partisans would appear when a population was forcibly defeated. When he had taken over E-Rantel he just remembered the term but couldn't remember what it meant. He had since looked it up.

The Slane Theocracy was going to be forcibly taken over. There would be partisans. Unlike E-Rantel, there was no way he could avoid that, but he could make gestures to establish that he was a fair ruler. At least some would note them, but he had a feeling the Theocracy was going to give him a headache for a while. The reference he had read was clear that religious fanaticism was amongst the hardest to deal with.

Especially since he would not be allowing them to keep their religion in full. That was something he would think about later, though he realised he may need to do something drastic there.

"[Infinity Wall]," he added the physical protection over the square. There was no need for [Dimension Lock]. The Theocracy's fighters would not run. There may not be many witnesses at the moment but there would be enough to report what had happened. Especially if he managed to cast a few enhancement charms on them. Nothing dangerous, just a little something to ensure they were believed, and to enhance their charisma.

[Demiurge and Shalltear have begun,] Pandora reported to him. They had not been sure if he would have been forced to fight, so the doppelganger was acting as a relay point for communications. Ainz had learned that lesson very well. Good communication was the hallmark of a good raid. And this was nothing more than a multiparty raid.

The Pleiades maids were trying to fight as one, but their opponents kept separating. Mare was circling the Captain of the Black Scripture. The man's desire was obvious. He wanted to attack him but Ainz knew Mare would not let that happen. And Albedo and Zetsumei were hammering each other. He had a feeling that would take a while.

Ainz examined their weapons. He was slightly surprised that the Slane Theocracy was not using the [Downfall of Castle and Country] but possibly Shalltear had done more damage than believed. It was possible to destroy items in Yggdrasil, though no one wanted to destroy a world item. He looked at the Theocracy's fighters, was one of them wearing it under their armour? He could see no tell-tale sign of white though.

They had a variety of weapons. He recognised them from Yggdrasil. One of his other Guild Members would have been able to tell him their full strengths and weaknesses. As a Magic Caster, he had focused on learning spells that were the most useful. Touch Me, or Warrior Takemikazuchi would know all the useful details. Still, from what he remembered and had looked up in the library, he had ensured that everyone was equipped properly for this attack. He had faith that their weapons and defences would not be outclassed.

Ainz glanced around the square, examining the statues of the Slane Theocracy's gods. He felt a moment of disappointment. He didn't recognise them. He knew they had to be players from Yggdrasil, but he did not know them. Given that they had the [Downfall of Castle and Country] they had to be attached to one of the larger guilds but… the larger guilds were just that. Large. Unlike Ainz Ooal Gown, most of the guilds had regularly taken on new players.

If he had to guess, Ainz thought that the Six Gods were a raid party from one of the Guilds. That explained why they only had one World Class item, but more Divine Class weapons and armor. He sighed. This was going to be so much easier after today and the evidence was mounting that the Gods were gone. He was not going to encounter the players here.

Ainz looked back at the battle. He would allow those of Nazarick to fight but he would not allow any of them to be defeated. He snorted to himself. They would not be defeated. He had the catalogue of the Theocracy's treasury, he knew what weapons and armour they were equipped with, as did everyone here.

The Great Tomb of Nazarick would remain unacquainted with defeat.

-cos-

Edom didn't feel insulted when the Black Scripture members took what were obviously the Undead King's chosen fighters. The fact that he was skirmishing with the maids was just the way things were. It was not something to be insulted about. If anything, it was a reason he should finish up quickly so that he could offer assistance. There was an obvious combo attack with the equipment they had, one that he was told the Gods themselves had used. His helm, the [Crown of Ash] provided immunity from fire, and the ability to walk through any flame while maintaining perfect vision. The Captain of the Black Scripture, who was still circling the elf, was equipped with boots named Fire Heels, which were capable of creating a large fire, more powerful than anything anyone could fight. If they could catch the undead in that…

Even if it had some protection, and he was not so stupid to believe that the undead had not invested in some items to protect against known weaknesses, he was still armed with [Edge of Sky] which dealt unhealable wounds. And the Captain of the Black Scripture was himself wielding [Ghost Reaver] which specifically targeted undead.

Except to attack the Sorcerer King, they would have to deal with his protectors. He was a Magic Caster, those who accompanied him, were more physical fighters and they were strong.

He could feel that every time he crossed blades with one of them. The group of maids was well practiced at fighting together.

"Break it up!" he yelled the order to the others. The Godkin were scattered throughout the Scriptures. That had been the practice even before the loss of the Sunlight Scripture, though that event simply highlighted why it was a good policy. The loss of one Scripture would not result in the loss of all Godkin. Edom knew that some of the Godkin specifically took higher seats to hide their power. Even so, as the Fourth Seat of the Salvation Scripture, with the Black Scripture's Captain otherwise occupied, that put him nominally in charge.

He hoped the others weren't prideful but relaxed when he saw them obey, each of them leading one of the maids across the square. Two remained before him. He wondered briefly if the undead did not like male fighters. Did it see them as a threat? The only male combat expert here was the Dark Adventurer Momon and he was not participating. He was standing a little way away from the Sorcerer King. His black armour made a dark shadow. Edom was keeping track of him unconsciously. The revelation that Momon was not human was still running through him. He had hoped the Adventurer was just a man in a bad position, but it appeared to be something more sinister. Yet, for now, if he was not fighting, Edom would leave him be. Once the undead was destroyed, they could find the truth.

It was something to consider later.

"I am Edom Ferrero of the Slane Theocracy's Salvation Scripture," he said. It was polite to introduce one's self, even to menials.

The two women before him glanced at each other. One had black hair, confined in a tight bun. The other was blond and had heavy, hanging breasts, yet her waist was thin enough. They both radiated a feeling of power. He didn't know their history, but he doubted they were human, even if they could pass for it.

"Peon," the blonde spat.

The black haired one waved her hand. It was a small hand, emerging from some sort of green gauntlet. "I am Yuri Alpha, Acting-Captain of the Pleiades Maids of the Great Tomb of Nazarick," she announced, bowing her head slightly.

Edom didn't react. There might be a schism here he could exploit. The blonde huffed. "I am the Pleiades Maid Solution Epsilon of the Great Tomb of Nazarick," she growled.

"You do not have to serve the undead," Edom said, trying to be as gentle as he could. These maids were not human, but he knew their history. They had served the Demon King so their service to the undead was by right of conquest. If he could sow doubt in their hearts… that would help him.

Yuri Alpha smiled at him. Solution Epsilon rolled her eyes while shaking her head. Her blonde ringlets fell forward over both shoulders. "Our loyalty to the Absolute Ruler of the Great Tomb of Nazarick is unwavering," Yuri said. "Nothing you say will alter that."

"Humans are so pathetic," Solution muttered. Yuri nodded.

Edom let the words wash over him. "If that is the case, then I pray we may fight honourably," he announced.

"Honourably?" Solution seemed enraged by the suggestion. Yuri waved at her again and the blonde settled.

"The Slane Theocracy showed no sense of honour when they raped Aura Bella Fiore," Yuri said, her eyes hardening. She reached up and pushed the frames on her nose higher. Edom focused on that. If she needed them to see, it was a weakness to take advantage of, but it was too obvious, and she had brought attention to it. Even if he attacked her glasses he would be wary of a ploy.

He said nothing to that. It was an elf, not human. They should know that. After all, any human who fell into demihuman hands could expect no better, or even worse treatment. So, it was not as if the Slane Theocracy was alone. "You are naïve," he said finally.

Yuri shook her head. "Let's not waste further time," she announced, falling into a fighting stance, her hands forming into fists. Edom was once again struck by how small they were. "We have left our Master unattended long enough."

He hefted [Edge of Sky] and pulled in his shield to cover his body. Solution Epsilon simply stood beside Yuri. There was no signal to begin but the two maids moved together, both of them charging, though Epsilon hung back slightly.

Yuri threw a punch. Edom blocked with his shield. [Redemption of Soul] reverberated slightly but Edom was pleased to see the small sign of surprise on Yuri's face. His shield nullified physical damage. It just soaked it up. No matter how hard she punched it, he would not feel it. Edom brought [Edge of Sky] around, lashing out with the sky-blue blade.

The maid was not so surprised that she allowed herself to be cut, and she leapt back. It was the best move she could make. [Edge of Sky] never required sharpening and any cut it made could not be healed by magic. If you scratched yourself on it, the cut would heal eventually as you healed it, but it would bleed for a very long time. Other, more significant injuries would prove fatal and no healing objects, spells or potions would do anything to stop it. Edom didn't pursue because Solution was ready for him. Instead he stepped back into a ready pose.

Yuri flexed her fingers, and a small smile played around her lips. She skipped to the side and came in again. Another punch impacted with [Redemption of Soul]. This time Epsilon moved close as well. Edom slashed [Edge of Sky] at her. The blonde ducked but he was ready, turning the path of his sword around. She saw it but couldn't duck further. Edom felt nothing. He pushed his shield out, pushing Yuri back as [Edge of Sky] bit into Epsilon's hastily positioned arm.

The blade cut through it, and he jumped backwards, pulling [Edge of Sky] back with him. The pressure on it was familiar but the blade was too sharp to be caught in Solution's body. There was no cry from the maid. She was obviously in shock. He looked to her, expecting to see blood pouring from her severed arm, maybe with her attempting to stem the flow.

It was her expression which surprised Edom. Solution Epsilon was not in pain. She raised her arm, looking at the stump of it. He caught her forearm. It was then that he noted the lack of blood. Instead, a viscous, almost black liquid was there. Edom looked to the ground. Her hand wasn't there either. More of the black liquid was there, where her hand should have fallen. There was some black fabric poking out of the liquid.

He felt his eyes widen. "What are you?" he whispered. He had known they were not human but… he had never seen anything like that.

"You!" the maid hissed. There was only anger in her tone, not pain.

"What are you?" he growled.

"You dare!" Solution yelled. "How dare you damage my uniform!" She screamed at him.

What? Edom said nothing. The maid was missing a hand and that was her concern?

"Epsilon," Yuri snapped, charging forward again.

Edom caught the blow with his shield. It again reverberated but she was not strong enough to overwhelm [Redemption of Soul.] Yet, Yuri Alpha did not jump back. She maintained pressure, and Edom knew this was not the strength of a human. He felt a chill as Epsilon smiled at him. It was as if her previous anger had disappeared. This was a cold, calculating smile. Smug and confident. He lashed out at her. [Edge of Sky] could cut her. All he needed to do was cut her again. Her hand hadn't reformed, which meant no matter what she was, the weapon was damaging her.

She practically walked into the blade. Edom watched as it sunk into her side. The perfect cutting-edge bit deep, though immediately there was pressure. He recognised it. There was always pressure when you cut flesh. He tried to pull back. The blade didn't come. No! He was not a beginner. He would not have snagged it on a bone. He had aimed his cut lower than that.

"You are not getting away."

Edom recognised Yuri's voice and glanced to her. The pressure on his shield had not abated but he was surprised to see her fingers curled over the edge. She was holding it in place. He jerked back but [Redemption of Soul] did not move. The maid couldn't be that strong! It was impossible. He was Godkin, which made him stronger than any human! She couldn't be holding his shield!

He pushed forward. Again, there was no movement. Near panicking, Edom jerked at [Edge of Sky]. If he could get the blade free he could slash at Yuri.

"No, no!" That was Solution Epsilon. "I'm not letting go."

Something cold enveloped his hand. Edom looked down. His eyes widened. Epsilon's form seemed to dissolve and was covering [Edge of Sky]. The sharp cutting edge was covered in black slime and it moved upwards, covering the hilt and his hand. He pulled back again, this time with all his strength, trying to move his shield to scrape the slime off. His shield arm didn't move.

"No!" Edom cried out. "What are you?"

"Pleiades Combat Maid, Solution Epsilon of the Great Tomb of Nazarick," the blonde repeated, except she didn't have a face now. Just an opening that dripped black slime.

Something hit his head. Edom couldn't turn to see what. Stars danced in his eyes and he staggered. His grip on [Edge of Sky] faltered but that allowed him to draw his hand back with a slurping noise. Even reeling he pulled at [Redemption of Soul] but Yuri Alpha held it fast.

Even with pain that lanced through him, Edom recognised what was happening. He didn't feel sad at this. He knew his duty. If he was defeated, he had to at least take these two with him. He tried to form the cantrip that would hold them close. Some Godkin had a final attack like this. His tongue was heavy.

Another blow hit his head. He heard the [Crown of Ash] crack, and then everything went dark. Gods, forgive me.

-cos-

Yuri looked down at the man sprawled on the ground. She pushed up her glasses. "You're okay?" she asked Epsilon.

"Of course," the slime replied cheerfully.

"Your uniform?"

The slime chuckled, reforming. Solution cricked her neck as she stood. She reached out to wriggle her fingers in front of Yuri. Her gloved fingers. "Lord Herohero made my uniform a part of me," Solution said.

Yuri nodded. She knew that, but it was best to be sure. "You have the blade?"

"Yep, all safe and sound," Solution replied, patting her stomach. "What about him?" she asked, reaching out with one armoured foot to nudge the man.

Yuri looked down at him. He was part of the Slane Theocracy. That made him party to the assault on Lady Aura. "Lord Ainz was very clear," she said.

"He wasn't involved."

Yuri shook her head. "You can ask for him later," she decided, pulling out a length of enhanced rope Lord Ainz had given them. In so far as possible the Supreme Being wanted all of the Slane Theocracy's fighters captured alive. But Lord Ainz had also been very clear that if it was a choice between capturing the fighter alive, and their own life, they were to choose their life. He would accept that some could not be captured. The Supreme Being was great in that way. That was not an issue they had to face.

"Should we help the others?" Solution looked around. The others were still fighting.

"No! We have left Lord Ainz for too long," Yuri said. Solution nodded.

Yuri reached down, gripping the back of the man's armour as she turned, and began dragging him towards the Supreme Being. Their first duty was always to Lord Ainz. The others would have to complete their mission alone.

-cos-

Even before Edom gave the order to scatter, Xoana knew her opponent was fast. That was to be expected. She recognised the maids by their description. The Holocaust Scripture dealt with assassination and counter terrorism. These maids had appeared both in the Re-Estize Kingdom and in the Holy Kingdom. They had been seen as creatures to be taken down. The same as their one-time master, the Demon Jaldabaoth. It had been a slight surprise to see them with the Undead King, but they had been his price for helping the Holy Kingdom.

Apparently, they saw nothing wrong with switching their allegiance. But that was the way of demihumans, Xoana supposed. They were only loyal to the strongest. Though, after crossing blades with the maid a few times, Xoana knew she was not weak. It was a bit of a surprise, given how spindly her opponent seemed. It just highlighted that fact that despite the pretty garments, she was not human.

"You don't speak?" Xoana invited, twirling the God of Fire's Scimitar [Last Words] in her hand. The gesture accomplished nothing. It was simply to display her dexterity.

She looked at the maid closely. Her face was still. "[There. Is. No. Reason. To. Speak. To. You.]"

"Whoa!" Xoana exclaimed. That was not a human voice. And the maid's lips had not moved. More evidence that she was not human, but was she wearing a mask? Her voice did seem to come from the head.

The maid hissed. She seemed to tremble. Was her voice a weakness?

Xoana chuckled. "You are right. There is no reason to know the name of one I'm going to kill," she said, leaping forward. She took a double grip on the scimitar, pulling it back to slash down at the maid.

The creature didn't move. Instead she raised one hand. Xoana was surprised to feel her sword blocked by another. "What?" The maid hadn't been armed a moment before. For a moment, Xoana thought the maid had transmuted her arm, but a closer examination revealed that there was something encasing her hand and forearm, that then extended into a short blade.

She danced back as the maid pulled her arm back to slash at her. "You'll have to be faster," Xoana taunted. They clashed again. There was a flurry of exchanges.

Xoana drew back, hissing. The maid was good. She could feel a shallow scratch on her shoulder.

"[Slow,]" the maid mocked. "[I. Don't. Need. These,]" she held up her other hand. There were several talismans there.

Xoana grinned. Let the creature think her slow. Only the victor mattered, and she didn't care about such minor injuries. She wasn't like Zesshi who craved the battle, but she was confident of her abilities.

"If I'm so slow, come on then!" Xoana invited, flicking one hand in a come hither gesture. The movement meant the sun caught the groves on her gauntlets. They were from the God of Wind, the [Hand of Eternity]. They were the reason she didn't care about minor injuries. The gauntlets converted life force into healing energy for their wearer.

The maid creature accepted her invitation. Xoana whispered under her breath, "[Last Words] activate," as she swung the scimitar to parry the blow.

The two blades met. It was an odd feeling. It almost felt as if the blade was sucking at the other. There was a small arc of energy between the scimitar and her gauntlets and Xoana felt a slight sting on her shoulder but knew the scratch had healed.

"[What. Is. This?]" the creature hissed, jumping back. The thing surrounding her hand seemed grey now. It cracked and fell away.

Xoana chuckled. "Just something to remember me by," she said. There was no reason to explain. She dodged, slashing [Last Words] through the lightning birds that emerged from the talisman the main threw at her. Apparently, she did need to use them!

It was odd to hear such an inhuman voice mutter, but Xoana watched as something appeared. A summoner, she surmised. An entomancer to be precise. The insect was huge, and as she watched it clamped itself around the maid's forearm, again forming a new blade.

"That's not going to work!" Xoana told the maid as another insect appeared. This one fastened itself around the maid's other arm, forming a flat disk. A shield. Silently Xoana acknowledged that it might work. [Last Words] drained life force every time it clashed with another, but if it was draining the life force of the insects, it would not be draining the maid.

But that could work for her. If the maid had to summon a new blade each time… That would tire the creature out. Summoning took a lot of magical power. She ran forward, swinging [Last Words] in towards the maid's head. As expected she countered with the shield. Xoana didn't let the maid draw back. She kept hammering at the maid. The summoner countered each blow but alternated between shielding and attacking.

The Holocaust Scripture's Eighth Seat let several small strikes through her defence. It was part of her skill, to be able to judge which were safe to take. Once again, she felt the sucking feeling as [Last Words] pulled at the life force of the insects. It was grabbed by her gauntlets, [Hand of Eternity] and she felt the familiar sting as the wounds healed.

This time, she wasn't going to let the maid summon a new blade. Xoana kept driving forward. The maid drew back and dodged as her insects fell away. She was good at dodging. A talisman whipped out. Xoana was expecting it. She was not expecting the lighting blade that came with it.

The shock lanced through her. She hissed and jumped back. The maid just looked at her. For a moment they sized each other up. Xoana ignored the way her armour felt hot. There was real strength in that talisman. "I should have known you were better than most of the trash we face," she muttered the back handed compliment.

The maid said nothing. Xoana thought the creature was probably considering whether or not to summon another blade. After a moment, the creature shook its head, and Xoana wasn't surprised when the maid drew another talisman. A new blade of lightning appeared. It was a logical choice. "I thought I might get to kill more bugs," she mocked.

"I like killing bugs," Xoana continued. "They are so fascinating, but you know what I've noticed?" She asked, cocking her head slightly to invite the maid to answer.

"[You. Talk. Too. Much,]" was her reply.

"I don't think you talk enough," she countered. "I don't think you like to, but that just proves you are inhuman!" It wasn't the best taunt, but it would do. She felt her eyes widen when something appeared below the maid's face. It was as if something had split in two and opened in the shadow formed by the maid's chin.

Xoana suppressed a swallow as she realised what had happened. The maid had opened her mouth! It was like the mandible of some bug. "You don't just summon bugs!" She exclaimed. "You are a bug!"

The maid jerked forward. Xoana was ready. She slashed [Last Words] at the substance that came out of the maid's mouth. It was sticky. [Last Words] wasn't as perpetually sharp as [Edge of Sky] but it was sharp enough. The sticky substance parted.

"You'll have to do better," she mocked. "Though if you are a bug, well, I'm going to enjoy this! You see, I like killing bugs. But the thing about bugs, is that they come in all shapes and sizes. You wouldn't think that… or maybe you would," Xoana said conversationally, as the maid leapt towards her, swinging her lightning blade.

Xoana wasn't just a one trick Godkin though. She dodged easily and kept dodging as the insect maid kept slashing at her. She slashed [Last Words] when there was an opening, but the maid was quick.

"[Stay still!]" the growl was accompanied by a hiss of air and the maid jumped back. Xoana knew better than to follow. A buzz warned her of the danger as a swarm of insects raced from the maid's mouth.

She slashed [Last Words] at them and felt a tiny jolt of energy but the slash wasn't enough to kill the swarm. She could deal with it though. "[Activate One,]" Xoana cried. Everything around her slowed. It was like the Martial art, [Flow Acceleration] but this was stronger. This was her godkin ability. [Last Words] flashed as she moved it through an intricate circle. It cut every bug out of the sky.

They rained to the ground with soft splats.

"Heh!" Xoana laughed. "Nice try," she scoffed, darting inwards while the maid stared at the corpses. She almost thought she was going to hit but something moved and countered her blade. It was long and thin and black. Her eyes tracked it upwards. It went into the maid's back. "Urgh!" she spat. "So ugly!"

"No wonder you hide behind a mask," she added as she drew back before the maid could bring her lightning blade to bear.

The maid seemed to tremble… Ah, so her appearance was a weakness? Inwardly, Xoana smiled. It was almost amusing that something so inhuman obviously cared to look good in human form. A hail of talismanic lightning birds came at her. Xoana jumped back. They were followed by blades. She countered them but held her ground.

"[You. Dare!]"

"I dare," Xoana agreed.

"[You. Are. Nothing.]" The maid declared.

"Yet you can't seem to hit me!"

Xoana watched as again the maid drew back. She brought [Last Words] up, angling the scimitar across her body. Another swarm appeared. Dammit! Though maybe this would make an opening. "[Activate Two,]" she said, running towards the maid, as she cast her free hand forward.

Raw magical energy surged from her fingertips. It split, targeting each of the small bugs and again the bodies rained from the sky. But Xoana forced the magic to travel further, targeting the maid. She smiled as she felt it hit. It was almost like the clash of blades but without the feedback to her muscles.

"[Argh!]" The maid screamed as the small blades of magical energy hit her.

Xoana expected them to puncture the maid. She did not expect the feedback she got. There was a steely ting. It was as if the magic had hit a magical barrier. She didn't have time to stop though, and slashed [Last Words] down on the maid. Again, she was blocked by the black thing protruding from the maid's back. It was like a huge spider's leg. Was that what the maid really was? A gigantic spider? It seemed out of place with the cute mask it wore. Another leg angled in towards her. Xoana leapt back but swiped [Last Words] towards the leg. She felt her blade hit and felt it suck at the maid's energy but the maid quickly retreated.

"Bugs really do come in all shapes and sizes," Xoana muttered. "Though I've never met a bug that wanted to be human before," she added. "If you want to be human that much, pray to the Six Gods that you can be reborn, but I doubt they will listen to a creature like you."

The words had the desired effect. The maid trembled. Xoana took a deep breath. To think such a creature existed! If this is what the Sunlight Scripture had been dealing with, then perhaps they weren't as weak as she thought. Still, she wasn't about to be defeated. The maid was armoured. Like all insects she had an exoskeleton, one that was tough. But exoskeletons had weaknesses at the joints and openings. They had to be flexible.

This wasn't her preferred plan, but with [Last Words] and the [Hand of Eternity] she could carry it off. If she couldn't cut through the maid on the outside, she had to somehow attack one of the weak points. But attacking a joint wasn't going to be good enough. She had to do more damage and while she was doing the damage the maid would be attacking her. Xoana knew that. She was braced for it. The armour of the God of Wind and the blade of the God of Fire would protect her though. They would steal the energy from the maid to heal the very damage that the maid was inflicting.

And if that wasn't enough, she still had her third activation. Nothing could live through that! Not even the Black Scripture's vaunted Extra Seat, though Xoana knew that Zesshi would never give her a chance to use her third strike.

"I mean, why would the Supreme Beings listen to a pathetic creature like you?" she asked.

The maid charged. Xoana braced.

"[A. Supreme. Being. Created. Me!]" The creature howled.

Xoana didn't bother trying to interpret what that meant. She lunged forward, thrusting [Last Words] upwards, aiming at the maid's chin. She felt the moment of impact. She expected to feel resistance. She didn't expect everything to stop.

The Eighth Seat of the Holocaust Scripture felt her eyes widen as she looked up. Then she cried out as two of the black things drove into her arms. She kept her grip on [Last Words]. The black legs drew back, covered in blood. Xoana felt [Last Words] activate. She felt it suck at the maid creature and there was again an arc of energy between her scimitar and her gauntlets. Her wounds stung with a familiar healing energy, but the black things returned. They pierced her sides this time.

Xoana cried out and tried to push [Last Words] forward. The maid's grip didn't shift. Not even a millimetre. If anything, her mandibles tightened on the scimitar. Xoana tasted blood this time, as the black legs drew back. Blood dripped down her sides, making her feel warm in the cold air. More energy was syphoned from the maid, and her sides stung.

"[It. Won't. Be. Enough.]" The maid said. It recognised what was happening and Xoana watched as it raised the two black things high. She also raised one arm, the one that was holding the lightning blade.

Xoana tugged at [Last Words], trying to pull back. The blade moved, but the creature was faster. One of the black legs drove into her arm. She couldn't hold back the cry of pain. There was a crunch and Xoana felt a jolt through the Scimitar as the maid adjusted her mouth's grip on it.

If she couldn't go forward, and couldn't go back, there was only one choice. She still had her last strike. Some Godkin had an attack they could execute, usually at the cost of their lives. They were called the 'Final Strikes'. She was different. She had three. Three strikes she could use each day. The first was purely physical. It enhanced her abilities. The second was purely magical, allowing her to mould the energy into what she needed. The third was a combination of the both.

This close, the maid would not be able to block.

"[Activate Third,]" Xoana cried.

Energy flooded into her. It didn't matter that there was something impaling her arm. Xoana didn't notice. [Last Words] and [Hand of Eternity] were already healing her. She pushed forward. All she had to do was drive the blade deeper. She felt the scimitar move and saw it's cutting edge cleave into the mandible holding it. The maid held firm. Xoana didn't care. She gritted her teeth as the other black thing came in, except it was coming for her eye! Magic moved with only her thought. It cocooned her head. The leg bounced off and Xoana drove her encased head forward, attempting to head butt the maid.

It moved with her, maintaining distance, and again the black leg came in. The air was driven from Xoana as she felt it pierce her abdomen. Blood splashed on to the cobblestones of the central square. [Last Words] grasped at more energy and the maid had energy to spare but Xoana's arms felt weak. Her gauntleted fingers loosened their grip. The maid seemed to be waiting for that.

The black legs pushed back. "No!" She cried as she lost her grip on the scimitar. Her blood was dying the bindings on the handle. The maid drove her arm down. The lightning blade bit into Xoana's shoulder and she screamed. Everything burned but why wasn't the energy travelling down the black legs into the maid?

Xoana looked down. They were gone. All she saw was her blood, pouring on to the stones. The [Hand of Eternity] activated. "No!" She said but her voice sounded weak. Energy drained from her. She felt it centre on her abdomen and the familiar sting of healing spell stabbed her. The blood flow slowed, but it wasn't enough.

She looked up. The maid was standing the spider's legs that extended from her back. She held [Last Words] in her free hand. The mandibles moved. "[Inferior. Species. Lack. Focus.]"

Xoana knew what it meant. Her throat burned. With her final activation, she should have only thought of attack. The world faded to black.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 5 War in the Square Part 3

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Great Square

As the others launched themselves towards the Sorcerer King, Xhafer backed away. It was not because he was a coward, though he would admit to fear. Only someone stupid would not fear a battle against a being of the Undead King's strength. It was an unnatural being but that did not mean it was weak.

He backed away because that was the way he fought. He was a sniper for the Holocaust Scripture. Where possible, those they targeted never even knew they were targeted. Others, like his sister, preferred fighting up close and personal. He much preferred to strike unseen.

As he moved, he activated the [Sash of Haunted Voices]. It would not hide him from the Undead but it would hide him from the others who had accompanied the Sorcerer King. It was his weapon the undead had to fear. He carried the God of Wind's [Unseen Cunning]. It looked like a regular crossbow but the bolts it fired were invisible and, for good measure were poisoned. You could not see them coming but you could hear them.

Only the strongest Godkin could avoid them. He didn't need this crossbow to be deadly but for this battle, he would need the extra boost.

Xhafer fired two bolts as he ran, trying to get into a better position. The first was at the Sorcerer King. The second at the supposed Dark Hero Momon. If he was not human, then it didn't matter what he said, he had to be in cahoots with the undead.

The first bolt never even got close. One of the maids struck it from the air. The one fired at Momon hit some sort of barrier. Xhafer frowned, he wanted to examine it, but there was no chance for that, and the Adamantite Ranked Hero was a secondary target. Killing the undead was the only goal that mattered today, and to do that, he was going to have to go through the maid.

-cos-

CZ2128 Delta didn't advance when Lady Albedo moved to attack the humans. Instead she scanned the humans. The Supreme Being had told them of the items in the Theocracy's Treasury. Master Demiurge would be retrieving them, but everyone knew that some would be here. Amongst them were several which CZ2128 Delta knew she was well placed to deal with.

She was an automaton. That meant she was not alive, but nor was she undead. She had pointed this out to Lord Ainz when Pandora was ensuring they all had [Sokujiryokou Talismans]. He admitted that she may not need the protections but was not willing to take the chance. Thus she had one as well. The Absolute Ruler of Nazarick was… She could not say he was too considerate, it was his prerogative to be considerate but it was just another example of Lord Ainz' greatness. Not that Lord Garnet wasn't great but Lord Ainz had remained behind. He was the kindest of all the Supreme Beings.

Master Mare was circling the man who had introduced himself as the Captain of the Black Scripture, while Lady Albedo was taking on the woman who was the Extra Seat of the Black Scripture. It was such an odd designation. If possible, CZ2128 wanted to know why but she knew that Lady Aura would be the one to determine the woman's fate.

The humans broke apart at an order from one of the other men. Solution and Yuri went after him. It would be over quickly. CZ2128 focused on a smaller man she noted earlier. He carried a cross bow. That meant he was a distance fighter and she would take care of him.

Lord Ainz had told them about the weapons and armour they were likely to encounter. Lady Shalltear's earlier information gathering raids were being used now. CZ2128 had examined those the Slane Theocracy had placed their hopes upon but she had not seen the [Downfall of Castle and Country]. That was a relief. They would never have been able to hit Lord Ainz with it, but it was good that it wasn't a risk.

The man she was watching though was equipped with the [Sash of Haunted Voices] and she already knew his crossbow was [Unseen Cunning]. For most of those of Nazarick, it would be a difficult combination but she knew that they would triumph. For her, it was barely worth mentioning.

She hissed. The man shot two bolts. Pandora was more than capable of dealing with the one fired at him. Lord Ainz should never have to deal with the one heading his way. She snapped her knife up, slicing through the bolt aimed at the Supreme Being. It reappeared when the spell was broken.

CZ2128 sniffed delicately before she hissed again. The bolt was poisoned. It wouldn't cause a problem for the Supreme Being or Momon but it was an insult.

She tracked him, pulling out her rifle. There was a shimmer around the man. The [Sash of Haunted Voices] was active. The others wouldn't be able to see him. She could. It only hid him from the living. She wasn't alive. CZ2128 braced her feet and raised her rifle. There was no need to delay longer. She tracked his movement. For a human, he was fast, she would acknowledge that. But he wasn't fast enough. Her bullet caught him.

CZ2128 frowned. Her shot had not been fatal. He turned to her, clutching at one shoulder. A bolt followed his gaze. She cut it from the air again. It let him know she saw him and CZ2128 allowed herself a small smile at the surprised expression that graced his features.

She jumped towards him, though was careful to keep herself between him and Lord Ainz. He would not be allowed to fire another bolt at the Supreme One. CZ2128 trusted Pandora to guard his creator but there was no need to take chances. Firing at a run was more challenging but nothing she couldn't handle. He dodged and her shot went wide. That wasn't a concern. More pleasing was the worry she could see. A bolt was fired at her. He was concerned but still thinking.

CZ2128 calculated the trajectory of the bolt. It would not hit Lord Ainz. She avoided it and didn't bother to cut it down as she continued to close the distance between them.

"How?" She heard him mutter.

He probably thought it was inaudible and it was quiet but not enough. CZ2128 fired again. It was her turn to be surprised. He eluded her bullet but not in the way she expected. He jumped. She tracked his leap. It was more than human but then she frowned. The speed was wrong. It was as if he was hovering in the air. She could see that he wasn't flying. He was falling but something was arresting it. It was probably another item.

Automatically she adjusted her calculations, lining her rifle up. In the air he could not evade… But… No! In the air he had a clean shot at Lord Ainz! CZ2128 leapt as he fired the bolt. Her eyes focused on it. It glowed to her. In this new world, UV light was still UV light and she could still see it. Lord Garnet had made her an automaton with all the advantages that entailed. She was not limited to a small range of vision. She twisted in mid-air, bringing her rifle around. Time slowed and her focus narrowed. She fired.

A bolt from [Unseen Cunning] travelled fast. Her bullet was faster. It hit the bolt and CZ2128 was happy to see the arrow shatter. She spun back. If this human was going to continue to target Lord Ainz then she could not take her time. One foot touched the ground, she pushed off again, angling for him. He had landed and was backing away. If he went too far, he would run into Lord Ainz' shield.

CZ2128 slung her rifle over one shoulder as she drew a pistol. Two quick shots were enough to keep the man off balance.

"How?" he muttered again. They were close enough that he drew a knife.

"I can see you," CZ2128 answered his question, swinging her blade in.

"Not possible! You are alive!" he growled, but he swung his knife to counter hers. The aim of her slash should have been enough for him to know she could see him. "How?"

They traded blows. He was skilled but wasn't a fighter who relied on strength. His moves were designed to guide her slashes away from him. It allowed him to slip around her slashes while never directly countering her. He was stronger than a normal human, but she was even stronger. CZ2128 brought her pistol to bear, aiming at his abdomen.

He threw himself to the side, causing her to miss. The bullet tinged into Lord Ainz' shield. CZ2128 slashed her knife through a long horizontal motion. It kept him off guard. She knew he wanted to take another shot at the Supreme Being. It was in his eyes but he was focused on her.

CZ2128 tapped the ground with her foot, using the motion to again propel herself towards him. She altered her stance when she got close enough, forcing him to directly fight her. He was strong but she was stronger and he quickly acquired several nicks and cuts. He was professional though, and did not let that stop him. CZ2128 growled slightly and slashed inwards, locking their blades together. She sensed he wanted to evade and pressed downwards, forcing him to his knees.

Panic blossomed on his face. He knew he was trapped. She kicked. The man folded, but CZ2128 wasn't fooled. He was down but not out and no one who would attack the Supreme Being could be allowed to remain merely down. She slammed the butt of her pistol into his temple.

Even on his knees he staggered and dropped. He used the motion to try to roll away. CZ2128 hopped forward slightly, and once again drove her armoured foot into his torso. The man coughed blood. It splattered on to the cobbles of the square to mix with the drying water that was all that remained of the rain. She watched dispassionately, as he rolled again. His movements were desperate but controlled and he went for his bow. CZ2128 shook her head, before stepping forward, bending as she again hit him with the butt of her pistol.

He collapsed and the activation of the [Sash of Haunted Voices] deactivated. He lost the shimmer to her vision. CZ2128 smiled slightly, and kicked away the crossbow, before she pulled out the enchanted rope Lord Ainz had given them all. CZ2128 tied his hands together, securing them behind his back.

"I'm an automaton," she answered his earlier exclamation. He was unconscious. He wouldn't hear but she would know she'd answered.

CZ2128 looked around at the continuing battles. Yuri Alpha and Solution Epsilon were again standing at Lord Ainz' side. The Fourth Seat of the Salvation Scripture was secured before the Supreme Being. He was unconscious. Narberal Gamma was finishing up, as was Lupusregina Beta. CZ2128 looked towards Master Mare and Mistress Albedo before shaking her head slightly. She would not interfere with either battle. With a soft sigh, she bent down and grabbed the man's collar to drag him back to where Lord Ainz was standing. The Supreme Being gave her a gracious nod. He had seen her victory.

CZ2128 Delta felt a surge of pride. Lord Ainz was beyond generous with his regard but she allowed herself to bask in it for the moment because all she had to do now was wait.

-cos-

Wassa Knoll knew she wasn't the premier fighter of the Slane Theocracy. Her skills lay in detection and observation. She was, however, trained and as a member of the Black Scripture she was far stronger than most humans. In any country she could have been an Adamantite Adventurer, or a high placed member of their military intelligence unit or any number of other jobs. In the Slane Theocracy, she was the eyes of the Black Scripture.

She hadn't meant to be caught up in the fighting here. The Black Scripture's Captain and Extra Seat should be enough, but while Wassa had seen the Sorcerer King previously, this was the first time she had ever been in his presence. He radiated negative energy. She felt cold just looking at him. All her life she had heard the Theocracy speak about the evil nature of non-humans and while she had seen plenty examples of that, it was as if the undead king was the embodiment of evil itself.

He was just standing there, presenting a tempting target. Wassa was not so foolish as to believe he was unprotected. It was something the Theocracy beat out of new recruits. Demihumans might appear to be brutal, unthinking animals but they were not stupid. A simple skeleton undead was weak, but not necessarily dumb. For something like the undead standing at the edge of the great square, she knew it was truly intelligent.

And powerful. She had never thought there would come a time in her life when she regretted her vision. Today was coming close. The Thousand Mile Astrologer could see events at a distance and see through illusion. She couldn't tell what gifts people had, but she could get a vague sense of their power. Not to the extent that the Holocaust Scripture's Ninth Seat could but, she knew enough to know when she was outclassed. Looking at the undead king, and those who accompanied him, she had felt cold. They were powerful.

It was one thing to know it, to see it from a distance, as she had with the Katze Plains. It was another thing to see the Sorcerer King in the flesh, such as it was. His power felt like it was crushing against her.

To the others, it might have been a surprise to find out that Momon, the Dark Adventurer was not human, she had suspected that for a while. It was disappointing but it was not unexpected. It would be sorted out later.

At the moment, she had to fight. When the group had broken up, one of the maids had come at her. The maid was dressed in a fitted bodice, with a flared skirt, that had a single slit. There was something tied about her waist and she had arm protectors on. Her eyes were yellow, and bright and there was a genuinely cheerful smile alighting her features. She had two long brown plaits that seemed to be alive. The maid was wearing a hat with two odd lumps.

That was all immaterial. The maid was fast. Wassa backed away, activating her protections. She wasn't a fighter, but she did go into combat, so the Theocracy saw to it that she was protected. Her hat was a cumbersome thing but it was imbued with the spirit of a snake. Usually the snake tried to eat itself but it knew when she was in danger. She also wore two large red shields. They would keep her safe.

The maid kept coming but she didn't appear to be in a hurry. Her smile remained unchanged but she did cock her head at Wassa. "You going to fight, or run?" the maid asked. "Or are you hoping the others will save you-su?" She added the question with a laugh.

Wassa knew without looking that the battles would not be over quickly. If anything, she might be facing two of the maids before long. She didn't know how well Queralt could fight. The woman was predominantly a healer.

"I just thought we needed a little space," she said, projecting confidence.

The maid's smile went wider and Wassa watched as she seemed to delicately sniff the air. "Well, you've got it, except I don't think you are going to do anything with it. You don't smell like a fighter-su."

Is that was the sniffing had been for? Wassa looked at the maid again. She knew the woman only appeared to be human but there was no obvious sign as to what she was.

"I'm a werewolf," the maid explained. "Lupusregina Beta, at your service-su." She gave a slight bow, lifting one hand to swipe the hat from her head. The lumps were her ears!

"I'm sorry," Wassa said. Humans could become werewolves, if bitten. Just the same way as they could become lesser vampires. Even as she apologised, she felt slightly better. She could kill a werewolf. She had trained for this and the woman Lupusregina had been would thank her for freeing her from the curse.

"Sorry?" the werewolf cocked her head curiously. "What are you sorry for-su?"

"You," the Thousand Mile Astrologer said. "You were human once."

The maid's expression changed instantly. The friendly expression vanished to be replaced with a snarl. Wassa knew she'd made a mistake. The maid's teeth seemed to lengthen and there was no mistaking the way her hands curled into claws.

"You think I was born a pathetic, weak human?" the maid growled. "I was created by the Supreme Being Beast King Mekongawa as a Pleiades Maid in the service of the Great Tomb of Nazarick!"

Wassa backed away as the maid continued to growl. "Silver," she muttered to her snake hat. Werewolves were weak against silver and if the snake could alter its fangs, that would at least weaken the maid.

"I was going to give you the chance to surrender. You weren't involved with Mistress Aura, but, you are against Lord Ainz! And you insulted me."

From nowhere a huge sceptre appeared. It was as tall as the maid but she swung it with ease. Wassa felt ill but she was not about to surrender, or beg. She was the Twelfth Seat of the Slane Theocracy's Black Scripture. She was a part of the final line of defence for Humanity and if they fell… She knew the Theocracy would fall. And after the Theocracy fell, chaos would descend upon the other human nations.

This battle was about far more than just their lives. Wassa drew the small knife she fought with as her shield spun in forward to protect her. The maid charged. She was fast. Wassa leapt to the right, desperate to dodge the maid's weapon. If she got hit by that… Even a glancing blow would be dangerous. The maid's eyes seemed to glow but she didn't correct the swing of her sceptre.

Wassa's snake hat lashed out as the maid went past. It drew back quickly, careful not to over extend and Wassa knew the maid was strong. Not as strong as the undead but stronger than her. That was okay. Brute strength did not always win, and if she could keep the maid off balance… That would give her an opening. Wassa continued to back pedal. Seraiah would be ashamed if this was him and Zetsumei would be growling, but she wasn't them, and only the victor mattered.

The maid turned, correcting from her failed swipe.

"You were created?" Wassa laughed, hoping she wasn't making a mistake. "So like a summon? That means not only are you less than human, you are less than a demihuman! You should be thankful to die."

The maid's yellow eyes flashed again and while her face was still angry, she stilled before shaking her head. Her brown plaits spun sinuously in the air. Wassa's own plaits were thick, and straight and suddenly she wished she had thought to conceal another weapon there.

"You don't understand," Lupusregina said. "I was created by a Supreme Being to serve the Supreme Beings. An honour, and a position you lesser life forms will never understand." She swung her sceptre again, her ears lying flat against her head.

Wassa was ready, though she noted the werewolf's reaction. She wasn't completely without control. That wasn't good. She needed the maid to be unthinkingly angry so that she would make mistakes. She dodged again. The wind of the sceptre tugged her clothes. Her snake hat lashed out again but this time Wassa saw the maid back hand it. She wished she had some way of speaking with it. She could talk to it, but communication was all one way. The hat tightened on her.

They clashed again. Wassa could only dodge but she saw the sceptre come in closer. She leapt backwards, angling to the left. Too late. "Argh!" Wassa cried out as the sceptre caught one of her plaits.

"Gotcha-su!" the maid cheered happily, as she swung the sceptre up.

The Thousand Mile Astrologer didn't need her vision to know what the maid was attempting. If she was knocked off her feet it would all be over. She wrenched back and hissed as her hair was ripped free. Her head hurt, as a clump was torn out. It was enough though. The rest came free, leaving a few blue strands in the werewolf's weapon as Wassa backed away. That plait was a mess now.

"Close-su!" the maid was still happy.

Wassa turned and ran. She needed more distance. She needed to think. There had to be a way of doing this. She pulled at her hat. The snake hissed but as she was wearing it, it would not strike at her. She looked at its teeth. Silver. Good. Her shield disks were at both sides. All right. She pulled the right one over the left. The maid was right handed. The werewolf would strike her left side. Wassa had to allow that. Just once. She had to get in close. A strike to the heart was fatal for a werewolf, even if the knife wasn't silver. And if her snake could get a nip in, that would further weaken the maid.

"One chance," Wassa whispered to herself as she spun, holding her blade before her.

Her eyes widened. Where was the maid? There was no cover in the square and the werewolf had been on her heels. With her eyes, there was nowhere to hide. There was no illusion she couldn't see through.

"Slow-su!"

"ARGH!" Something slammed into her unprotected right side and she screamed as she was slammed into the ground.

Wassa tried to roll but there was too much pain to move. Her knife was gone and her side felt like it was on fire. Blood filled her mouth. Her ribs were broken and except for pain, she couldn't feel her arm. Definitely broken. The force of the blow had pushed her along the ground, leaving large scratches on her legs.

The Thousand Mile Astrologer struggled to rise. If she lay there, she was defeated. Her hat tried to help. Through the tears in her eyes she looked around. The werewolf was again nowhere to be seen.

"I told you, slow-su!"

The whisper came from behind her, literally in her ear. Wassa couldn't spin to confront the werewolf but she managed to turn, stumbling a bit.

The werewolf was standing there. Her huge sceptre was slung over the back of her shoulders and her eyes were laughing. She grinned. Wassa didn't like that grin.

"Why are you doing this?" Wassa asked, attempting to buy time.

"Why-su?" Lupusregina asked, surprised. "Because the Supreme Being Ainz Ooal Gown asked me to." She gave the answer as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"The undead?" The Thousand Mile Astrologer couldn't help but glance towards the Magic Caster.

"The Sorcerer King," the werewolf agreed. "I was created to serve the Supreme Beings, so when one asks me to do something, I do it."

It really couldn't be that simple, could it? "What about what you want?" Wassa spat blood as she asked the question. Her mind wasn't really focused on it, instead she was wondering what she could do.

The werewolf just looked at her for a moment, and then she moved. Wassa cringed, but the maid didn't attack her. Instead, she swung her sceptre from her shoulders, and rammed it into the ground. The cobbles cracked and the sceptre remained upright. "Oh, I get plenty of time to myself-su," the maid said, before she stepped to the right, before, even to Wassa's watching eyes, she disappeared.

Wassa was slightly braced this time, and the hit was to her left side. Her shield partially absorbed it but she was still thrown sideways, and her broken arm and ribs were jolted. More blood flooded into her mouth. The snake hat snapped but she already knew it had missed. The werewolf was too fast.

Wassa screamed as she took another hit to her right side.

"It can't have hurt that much-su," the werewolf told her.

She didn't reply.

"Though I suppose it doesn't matter if it does-su," the werewolf continued, looking off to the side. There were still several battles raging but Wassa knew at least some had concluded. She only hoped the Captain and Extra Seat could achieve victory alone. That would be sufficient. "I had better finish this up-su."

Wassa braced herself as best she could. It wasn't much but her hat reacted. It seemed to clamp further on to her and the snake hissed.

"Oh, that's cute-su!" the werewolf cooed, then she again disappeared.

Wassa felt her head snap to the side. The snake tried to bite. She tried to correct. She tried to find anything to attack with. Another blow came. Her vision blurred. Then Wassa felt something grasp her neck. The sound of the snake snapping changed. Wassa knew what that meant, it had hit the maid.

"Cute-su!" the werewolf chuckled.

Then Wassa felt her pull. It felt as if the maid was trying to pull her head off but it was only her hat that came loose. She cried out as the maid tossed her away, to lie on the still wet cobbles stones. The moisture seeped into her bones and actually felt nice against the burning wounds of her right side.

Her hat was thrown to the ground in front of her eyes and the werewolf stomped on it, driving one foot into it. The snake hissed, but this time it was in pain. Wassa knew what was going to happen. She heard a crack and her hat went limp. It hadn't ever truly been alive but what little magic it had was now extinguished.

The werewolf looked back at her. "Lord Ainz doesn't want you dead. At least, not yet," the maid told her. It wasn't a comfort to the Thousand Mile Astrologer. The maid walked over to her. She didn't appear to be concerned with ambush and Wassa cried out as the maid snagged one of her braids. "So come on, I need to get you back there," the werewolf said, yanking hard, half hauling her up.

Pain stabbed through Wassa's consciousness and blood leaked from her mouth as she looked to the sky. She could no longer see the future.

-cos-

It was a serious business. Fluder knew that but he was hard pressed to keep the smile from his face. Lord Ainz had remembered his promise and was allowing him to see everything that transpired here. He was happy about that, but he was disappointed that so far, there had not been much magic cast.

The Sorcerer King had cast a few spells. They were beyond those Fluder could cast but he had learned of them in the Grand Library Ashurbanipal. [Greater Magic Shield] and [Infinity Wall] were simply higher powered versions of spells he had already known of. He had been hoping to see the Undead King cast something far more powerful but thus far, it hadn't been called for.

Even in the battles against the Theocracy, the Great Tomb of Nazarick's battle maids had not been required to cast much magic.

Lord Mare had of course, and it had been fascinating to see the young Dark Elf generate a multi-directional earthquake. But again, Fluder had seen that before. The elf had cast that in Arwintar. Fluder wanted to see something new.

He chided himself. His Majesty had promised he could see any greater feats of magic but he had not promised that they would be necessary to defeat the Slane Theocracy. Fluder had learned that there were things on which His Majesty spoke very precisely and this appeared to be one of them.

Still, the battles were not over yet, and Fluder had the opportunity to watch the battles and to examine the simulacrum of the Dark Adventurer Momon. Fluder was well aware that Nabe was really Narberal Gamma, one of Nazarick's Battle Maids, and that His Majesty Ainz Ooal Gown was behind the Adamantite Adventurer, this was just the first time he had seen Momon and Ainz at the same time. He was flabbergasted by how accurate the copy was. It even exuded the strength His Majesty had when transformed into Momon.

How was it being done? Fluder didn't know and that was proving to be a good distraction from his disappointment at the rudimentary nature of the spells being cast. Though there was still time. The lesser members of the Slane Theocracy had fallen…

Well, nearly. He fixed his eyes on Narberal Gamma. She was approaching one of the Slane Theocracy's fighters. He didn't know who this one was, so they couldn't be anyone of importance, though he could well imagine what Narberal was naming her. Proletarian, plebeian, peasant, peon were just a few of the names he knew Narberal had for humans. The Adventurer known as the Ice Princess had a very broad vocabulary of degenerate terms to describe humans. The battle maid had lightning flickering between her fingers. It was somewhat hard to see in the bright sunlight…

He wondered what tier it was. Probably fifth, he decided, chuckling to himself. He had changed so much. Apparently seeing Sixth Tier Magic was not enough to arouse his interest, these days. [Control Weather] was one of those spells that you knew existed but never thought anyone could cast. Yet it had been cast before they travelled through the portal His Majesty had opened. It had been cast so casually when the reports of the weather were known.

He'd learned so much since he came to the service of Nazarick. Narberal flicked her finger forward, and the lightning dragon surged forward. The woman screamed and fell to the ground quickly. Fluder watched as Narberal withdrew the lightning quickly. His Majesty wanted these humans captured.

Fluder nodded to himself as he ran through his memories, attempting to determine what spell Narberal had used. Definitely fifth tier but it was a spell that could be amplified to be seventh tier if she added a chain to it. He'd read about the theory but Fluder had yet to have the opportunity to see Narberal do it. He felt a slight surge of disappointment.

That was all the weaker members of the Slane Theocracy defeated. They hadn't done much. He was used to judging fights. The Baharuth Empire's Grand Arena had given him ample opportunity to study both physical and magical combat. The Slane Theocracy's Scripture members were strong. He already knew that, but he thought there were Adventurers who could have taken them down. It didn't require the Battle Maids of the Great Tomb of Nazarick. He frowned as he thought, watching as Lord Mare and Lady Albedo continued to fight. Those who had been defeated displayed no imagination. They had no hidden abilities, none of the racial gifts those of Nazarick were blessed with.

He snorted. Of course they didn't! They were human. That's why they had to rely on their equipment so much. Now that was something he was interested in. Their equipment was first rate and no doubt His Majesty had already identified it.

He watched as Narberal dragged the woman back and threw her unconscious body on the pile that had been started by Yuri Alpha and Solution Epsilon. The Sorcerer King had placed a [Sokujiryokou Talisman] on the bodies, though he had yet to say what it was for.

Interestingly the being playing Momon did seem to know. There was something in the way that creature moved that suggested knowledge.

Fluder put that from his mind as he looked back at the pile of unconscious fighters. The maids were holding several weapons. His Majesty had taken each in turn and had examined them briefly. He appeared to be looking for something specific, because he quickly handed them back to the maids. Fluder supposed that was also a polite reaction. The Sorcerer King was still watching the ongoing battles. Fluder turned his attention back to them.

From his time in the Baharuth Empire, and with the Great Tomb of Nazarick he knew that the Captain of the Black Scripture was one of the most powerful fighters of the Slane Theocracy. The existence of an Extra Seat for the Black Scripture would have been more of a surprise if this was the first time he had heard of this woman's existence. He had seen her image in Nazarick and knew she was powerful.

It was a power that meant nothing against the Sorcerer King. Fluder knew who was going to be victorious here, just as he knew that the other raids would be successful. The Baharuth Empire couldn't stand against the Sorcerer King, and at least Jircniv had recognised that. The Re-Estize Kingdom couldn't fight but His Majesty had not yet turned his attention fully to that Kingdom, and Fluder could see the groundwork for their fall had already been laid by the existence of Momon. Presently, His Majesty's attention was for the moment on the Slane Theocracy, and it would soon fall.

All he had to do was watch. Maybe one of the Black Scripture would have more powerful magic. He suppressed a smile. He could hope.

-cos-

Chapter Text

The Cardinal of Sin
Chapter 5 War in the Square Part 4

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Far Catacombs

"Be calm," Cardinal Yvon Jasna Dracrowa said. He made sure to project his voice so that everyone could hear.

"But-" the objection came from several of those gathered with him.

They were in one of the subterranean rooms of the Catacombs. It was one of the far rooms and was technically outside of the city of Kami Miyako. There were a variety of magic circles embedded into the floor. There were some for observation, some for transportation and some for amplification of spells. In the same way as there were a variety of magic circles, there were a couple of groups of people here. Beyond the fact that they were all human, and all citizens of the Slane Theocracy, they were mostly magic casters.

The Cardinal of Light had gathered them here. "It is a blow," Yvon agreed with those objecting, "but it is not a fatal one. Destroying the Cathedrals is a theatrical statement. It has no meaning."

"But-" the objection came again.

Yvon shook his head. Privately he could understand the sentiment. The general public who believed in superstition would no doubt be crying to the undead for mercy. He was stronger than that. The Theocracy was stronger. "The Gods protect the Slane Theocracy, they protect us, not their houses," he said, making sure he gave a small chuckle with the statement.

That was true. The earthquake that had destroyed the Cathedrals could just have easily collapsed the room they were standing in. Instead, the earthquake was precisely targeted. As far as he could tell, none of the tunnels had collapsed. Whatever had caused the earthquake was skilled.

The statement seemed to do the trick and Yvon felt some of the tension leave those gathered. He was more concerned though. The fact that the Cathedrals were gone wasn't important. More important to him were some of the linings in the Great Square. He had sent several runners to check their condition and was waiting for their reports now. If they were damaged, then everything he had worked towards might be for naught.

He cast his eyes over the groups that were here. There was one dressed in white robes. They were the same robes he wore. Unless you knew he was the Cardinal there was no difference between them. They were other Divine Magic users. Assuming nothing was wrong with the square, then they were only going to get one chance at this. If the Gisei was needed, he was going to do it right.

If needed. He muttered a prayer to the God of Light that it was not needed. If it was, he would do what was necessary. He sent a smile towards the group. It helped calm them. It was not death that awaited them but salvation. They had to remember that. And in their salvation was the salvation of the Theocracy.

There were two other groups. One was armed. They did not wear robes, but the sigil of the Theocracy was on their chests. They were members of the Black Scripture. They were waiting for confirmation that their Captain and Extra seat had prevailed. In the meantime, if needed they would act as defence.

If needed. So much of today was based on those words. He did not anticipate they would be attacked here. The undead was focused on the Black Scripture's Extra Seat and the challenge she had given it. Or it would be focused on finding the Cardinal of Wind. Yvon suppressed a groan of annoyance. Dominic should have consulted them before he ordered anything. He should have… There was a list of things he should have done but hadn't and there was no point in crying over spent magic. What was done, was done. He had to remember that. They all did.

Besides, Dominic had made one point. Sooner or later they would have had to fight the undead. His actions just made it sooner.

The last group was dressed in robes. They were not all the same colour, though some wore a soft purple robe. It had special meaning in the Theocracy. Just as white was the colour of the divine magic casters, purple was the colour of a subgroup of magic casters with an even rarer ability. These were amplifiers. They were usually not capable of casting many spells themselves, but they could channel and therefore amplify the spells of others. They may all be needed before the day ended.

Yvon turned. He could hear footsteps in the tunnel. The Black Scripture members reacted and the Cardinal of Light allowed himself to be guided back towards the group in white robes. Anonymity would provide some protection. A woman emerged from the tunnel. Her hands were raised. Yvon released the breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. He recognised her.

So did the Black Scripture but they still went through the motions of security. "Hail to the God of Light," one of them said to the woman.

She smiled. "For he is the brother of the God of Dark," she replied. It was not the usual response to the hail. The simple words were a test. Any spy would give the normal reply of 'For he is the bringer of life.'

"Well?" Yvon demanded. If he had to abandon his plans, it was best to know now, while there was still time to work out an alternative. If needed.

The woman nodded at him and she took a deep breath. "It's intact," she reported. "Thank the Gods," she added.

"Thank the Gods," Yvon agreed with her. There was a feeling of relief in the room.

"Thank the Gods," others murmured.

"Is it wary?" He pressed for more information.

"No. It is standing near the statue of the God of Darkness," the woman told him. "It has not moved," she added.

"Good," Yvon breathed. No matter the outcome of the battle, they still had a chance.

And Gods willing, that was all they needed.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, Catacombs

Demiurge knew at least some part of his mission was punishment duty. He didn't resent that. He had failed to capture the Cardinal of Wind, but he did admire the way in which the Supreme Being had ensured that even his punishment was an essential mission. It almost hurt to know the faith Lord Ainz had in them.

Though, while part of this mission was punishment for his failure, there was also good reason to keep him somewhat hidden. It was possible that the Slane Theocracy might recognize him as the Demon Jaldabaoth, who was supposedly licking his wounds from the beating the Sorcerer King had given him. He snorted to himself. Even if his Master had injured him, it would be fair, but the Supreme Being had been very careful with the battle. It was unlikely that the humans would recognize him, but it was best not to take the chance.

Thus, he was raiding the Slane Theocracy's Treasury. The Slane Theocracy had several places they counted as treasuries. It was a wise move, much like Nazarick. He wondered if the supposed Gods of the Slane Theocracy had arranged things this way. It was something he could determine later. There were other teams raiding the places where the Slane Theocracy stored its general wealth. That was merely gold. He was going after their true Treasury, the area where they stored what they called the God Artefacts.

He knew what the Slane Theocracy's supposed gods were of course. They were others like Lord Ainz, though to call them like Lord Ainz, or any of the Supreme Beings of Nazarick was to do a disservice to the Supreme Beings. These were lesser beings, those Nazarick had hunted.

Pandora had reported that the [Downfall of Castle and Country] did not appear to be with the Slane Theocracy's fighters. That had brought a smile to Demiurge's lips. He would be bringing something of worth from the Theocracy's Treasury. Other weapons had been removed but they had anticipated that.

Demiurge followed the Pale Rider down the corridor. Lord Ainz had also sent Kurashitai with his team. The half-Hanzo, half Pale Rider was familiar with the layout of the Theocracy's catacombs.

He stopped as the summon cocked his head. Demiurge recognised that Kurashitai was listening for something. The Halfling had very good senses. He held up one finger to indicate his question.

[There are humans in the Treasury,] Kurashitai reported via Message spell.

[Guards?] Demiurge asked, though he was almost certain it wasn't them. The Halfling wouldn't have bothered to report mere guards. They had been taking them out easily as they moved through the corridors.

Lord Ainz had been correct. The challenge from Zesshi Zetsumei was the opportunity Nazarick needed to decimate the Slane Theocracy. The thought again left Demiurge in awe of the Supreme Being's depth of foresight and thought.

[No,] Kurashitai was sure of that but Demiurge detected something else in the Halfling's voice. The altered summon sniffed at the air delicately.

They weren't close enough for Demiurge to smell anything more than the smoke from the torches that the Theocracy used to light the catacomb tunnels. He could smell that there had been humans here, but that was a generic scent. It wasn't enough for him to identify who was there, or how long it might have been since they were there.

[Not enough scent,] the Halfling reported quickly. [But it's not guards.]

[Tell me when we get closer,] Demiurge ordered but he sent a signal to the rest of the group that they were to be silent. The Pale Rider ahead would already be silent. It was phased and so would be silent.

They continued down the corridor. They had already entered the dangerous part of the Treasury. Each of the Cathedrals had an underground passage leading to the same point. A seventh passage came off the small room which led to this Treasury. There had been shaking earlier, the result of Mare's earthquakes and the tunnels had been filled with dust but it was already settling. The Dark Elf had been so careful that the failsafes in the tunnels hadn't been activated. Such skill was appropriate for a Floor Guardian of Nazarick.

[It is the Cardinal.]

The message from Kurashitai caught Demiurge by surprise. [The Cardinal?]

[The one who was with the woman,] Kurashitai explained.

Demiurge paused as a surge of excitement flashed through him but then he frowned. Why was the Cardinal here? The answer came quickly. It was because of Nazarick's interest in the Cardinal. The Theocracy would have had two choices of what to do with the Cardinal. They could have had him taken to some other location and hope that Nazarick couldn't find him, but that was a long hope. The Theocracy had to know that Nazarick had spies everywhere. That was not a safe option for the Cardinal. Instead they had taken the other route. They had placed the Cardinal in the most secure place they had.

Except… He was here now. Capturing the Cardinal now wouldn't make up for his earlier failure, but it would be a step in the right direction. It would show that the Guardians of Nazarick could fulfil the Supreme Being's desires, and that would encourage Lord Ainz to remain with them.

[Who are the others?] He asked Kurashitai.

The altered summon listened attentively. [They aren't saying names,] he said finally.

[No matter,] Demiurge dismissed that. It wouldn't matter how many others there were, he would ensure they were all captured. He reached out to contact the Pale Rider who was the vanguard, but the undead was wise and had already halted its advance. It was waiting for him.

It was a risk, but he would lead the way. He signalled it to those accompanying him as he moved further down the corridor. A door came into view. There was a faint light shining from behind it. He listened for a moment.

"You could go find out!" That was a stringent male voice.

"No, Your Grace. We are here to guard you." That was another male voice. It sounded fatigued from long suffering. But if they were here to guard the Cardinal, were they Scripture members?

"You are down here for the same reason as me," the first male scoffed. Demiurge could almost see the expression of disgust. It did not mirror his own. He felt a smile stretch his lips at the inferences he could make. They were Scripture members and if here for the same reason as the Cardinal, they were most likely the Windflower Scripture.

The Supreme Beings were smiling upon him. His tail lashed behind him.

Demiurge moved forward. It would be impolite to make the humans wait further.

-cos-

Slane Theocracy, Kami Miyako, God Artefact Treasury

Cardinal Dominic Ihre Partouche was frustrated. He didn't like to say he was bored. Boredom was the sign of a small mind. At least, that was what one of the sayings directly attributed to the Gods indicated, so he wasn't bored, but he was definitely frustrated.

And he was trapped. He acknowledged that the Treasury was the safest place in the Slane Theocracy. Well, it was when Zesshi Zetsumei was here. She wasn't here now. She was in the Great Square, fighting the undead. Yet, here he was. He'd argued against being here. Putting him here was tantamount to admitting they would fail but the other Cardinals had outvoted him, so here he was.

Because the undead had shown its hand, what remained of the Windflower Scripture was with him. It wasn't much of a comfort that at least some of them were as frustrated as him. They were being careful not to display their frustration. Their Captain was far too calm for Dominic Ihre Partouche's liking.

But then for the members of the Scripture, just being here was an honour. They had spent some time enthusiastically examining the God Artefacts that were still here. The 'oohs' and 'ahs' had grated on his hearing. He had warned them away from the [Downfall of Castle and Country] but they had already been keeping a respectful distance. You could tell it was powerful by the way the white cloth seemed to glow in the dim light of the Treasury. It made the gold of the dragon all the more outstanding. Still, Dominic anticipated a number of requests to use further God Artefacts to be made by the Windflower Scripture, despite the fact that they had lost the [Frysta Javelin]. He couldn't attribute the loss of the [Constraints of Umbra] to them. The other Cardinals were attributing that to him! How was it his fault the Theocracy's Security had failed to detect the intruders until it was too late?

"That may be true, Your Grace," the Captain of the Windflower Scripture at least had the good taste to sound slightly sheepish at his admission.

"So, go and find out what is-" Dominic broke off as the door moved.

For a moment he wondered who the man was, then as he took in the sharp, pointed ears and the whipping tail, he knew the question should be what. He already knew who this thing served by the other monsters that entered. He'd only heard of some of them because of the information that was given to Cardinals and the Shamanic Princesses. They were the memories, some of them, of the Gods about creatures any sane being would pray did not exist in their world. The Sunlight Scripture would have been hard pressed to deal with them, even with Principality Observation and Dominion Authority.

The Windflower Scripture couldn't know that, but they still reacted. Cardinal Ihre Partouche found himself looking at the man shaped brute from between them. He heard their weapons chime as they drew them and could imagine the steely gaze in their Captain's eyes. He was a good man and had taken the loss of several members hard.

"You don't need your weapons," the man thing said, "I am not here to fight you." There was a strangely compelling note in the creature's voice.

"You are trespassing," the Windflower Scripture's Captain growled.

Dominic saw the abhorrent beast's smile widen. The light glinted off the earrings on its pointed ears. It was reasonably tall and with one thin hand pushed the small lenses on its face back up as it looked down. "[Drop your weapons]." It was a command.

Cardinal Ihre Partouche felt as if he should draw the small enchanted knife that was under his robes to drop it. He fought the feeling. He wasn't holding it so there was nothing to drop. His eyes widened, and a cold grip fixed itself on his stomach when he heard the clatter from in front of the Windflower Scripture.

"That's better," the vile creature said. Its tail lashed behind it, directing the other things to begin spreading out along the walls of the Treasury. Dominic watched them as the cold feeling spread to his throat. It became slick and he felt sick. The motion had allowed him a better look at the beasts. It simply confirmed that they were what the Gods' Memories said they were. He tried to remember their abilities, but his attention kept getting drawn back to the smug-faced blasphemy. It was dressed like a man, in a suit. It was well fitting but only accentuated the sharp lines of the vulgar creature's face.

"I am not here to fight you," the beast repeated. "I was sent to retrieve what items were left," it continued.

"What are you?" Dominic managed to say. He was not going to be cowed by some sub-human! He knew what the other things were, but the man-creature was an unknown. Its tail gestured towards the Windflower Scripture as part of the lashing motion the filthy beast was exhibiting.

"Ah, Cardinal," the brute said. It sounded happy. Certainly, its tail seemed to indicate that. "I was not expecting you here. I was not expecting anyone here, except for a few minor guards. Isn't this Zetsumei's territory?"

Dominic didn't react but not all of the Windflower Scripture were as controlled. He heard their hiss of surprise.

The loathsome creature chuckled. "Do not be concerned, she will be accompanying you shortly," it said.

"She will be adding the undead's head to the list of those who have fallen against the Theocracy," Dominic countered with confidence. He was hoping the Halfling would finish quickly because he was honest enough, privately at least, to admit that the Godkin might triumph against the undead, only to find that he had been kidnapped.

"A quaint belief," the detestable creature said. "But not something you need to concern yourselves with. The Supreme Being Ainz Ooal Gown has been looking forward to speaking with you Cardinal, so if you could come with me?" The beast turned slightly, indicating towards the door and the dark tunnel it had emerged from. Its tail flicked as if to light the way.

It was phrased as a question, Dominic knew it wasn't. "No!" he growled.

The man-thing smiled, and Dominic knew it was grateful for the chance to use its power. He frantically cast around for any reason to delay. Anything, though why hadn't the Windflower Scripture picked up their weapons and attacked? His eyes flew to their backs. They were just standing there! It was true they were the intelligence and espionage unit, not the Sunlight or Black Scriptures but they had more fighting ability than this!

The fiendish creature's tail lashed again. "Look closely," it advised mockingly.

Dominic couldn't help but look. He stared at the Windflower Scripture's Captain. The man was trembling and sweating. The Scripture had been armed and armoured, but the Cardinal could see the way sweat was staining through all their clothes. "What?" he muttered, squinting in the faint light. It was then that he saw it, or rather them.

There was something standing behind each of the Scripture members. It imitated their postures. As Dominic looked closer he could see that the things, he thought they were high level undead, weren't just standing behind the Scripture members, they were holding their limbs. In some cases, it seemed as if the undead actually went through the Scripture member.

"Phased…" he whispered the word as the memory came to him with shocking clarity. These were Pale Riders. Their horses could run through the air and they could turn immaterial, making them extremely difficult to kill. The Theocracy had never seen an undead of this calibre. The Death Knights and Soul Eaters were bad enough but Zetsumei or Seraiah could deal with them. These were beyond that.

"Indeed, they are phased," the walking obscenity agreed, as it stepped forward. "Take the Windflower Scripture to safety," he instructed the things.

The motion wasn't smooth. Dominic could tell the members were fighting with all their strength but against accursed undead of that calibre there was nothing they could do. After the scripture was marched into the tunnel, different undeads took their place. These were sort of round and hovered in the air. Wraiths.

"How?" Dominic asked. "This area is shielded! The Gods themselves cast the protections."

The suited brute smiled at him again. "They did, and the protections are strong. I cannot send a Message spell out," it admitted. "But the protections have a fatal flaw," he held up his hand, one black gloved finger extended for emphasis.

Dominic frowned. There was no flaw. There couldn't be. The work of the Gods was perfect, and in 600 years, no beast had ever infiltrated these Catacombs. Or rather, some stupid ones had, but they had all been captured and disposed of.

"You overlook the obvious," the repulsive creature said. "If you enter these protections at the allowed points, then they do not react to you," it explained. "It is true, that the Pale Riders cannot phase into the protected area, or over one of the protection lines, but so long as they don't do that, then the protections won't react to them. I imagine it would have been difficult if they did for your so called God of Darkness."

It took a moment for Dominic to understand. His speciality was not warding magic. "No!" he breathed the denial. "That's not possible," he added.

The hateful brute chuckled, shaking its head. "Does it matter?"

Dominic didn't hear the question. He might be out of practice, but he had been a member of the Sunlight Scripture and this was a demihuman before him. He shouldn't have wasted time talking. He leapt forward, pulling the small knife from under his robes. It was pleasing to see the creature's eyes flicker slightly. It must have thought he was unarmed. Dominic focused his mind. He didn't possess grand or flashy magic. He instead specialised in martial arts. Strength flowed through him as he activated them. "[Flow Acceleration], [Focus Battle Aura]," he murmured. Everything slowed. He readied his unique martial art strength. Others could perform [Focus Battle Aura]. It allowed the user to push their fighting spirit into their weapon which gave that weapon, temporarily at least, the strength of a magical weapon. But he could go further. All he needed to do was nick this heinous beast, and then he could pour his battle aura into it. His intent controlled the amount of damage done and he felt nothing but loathing for this sacrilegious brute.

The Cardinal thrust his knife forward, aiming for the chest. The creature didn't move. After the instant of surprise, it stood there, waiting for him. Enhanced with his battle aura, his knife drove into the despicable beast. The fabric of the suit dimpled as the point touched it, then it gave, and Dominic felt the familiar resistance of flesh to his blade.

He growled, pushing forward. "[Battle Aura Attack!]" he cried, willing his energy into the creature to corrupt the wound, to do anything that would be painful. A little blood stained the suit fabric. Not much. He didn't twist his blade. He knew he couldn't with the position of his stab. Instead he pulled back, drawing his blade out, anticipating the spurt of blood that would follow.

At least, that was what was meant to happen. Instead, when the Cardinal of Wind thrust his knife forward, it felt like he had run into a stone wall. The tip of his knife actually bent under the force, and Dominic felt his entire body slam into some unseen barrier. His breath was driven from him and he was held in place.

The disgusting beast grinned at him, and then reached out to pluck the knife from his fingers. It wasn't affected by a barrier. "A futile attack by a lesser being."

"What are you?" Dominic managed to gasp. He still felt sick, but he couldn't focus on that. He had to do something.

"Oh, I apologise, I have not introduced myself," the brute said. "My name is Demiurge, Guardian of the Seventh Floor of the Great Tomb of Nazarick."

"No, what are you?" the Cardinal spat. He didn't care what the creature was named.

The thing named Demiurge smiled. "I think that is information you should discover later," he almost purred. "This is, after all, not a secure place." There was no hiding the mockery in the beast's tone.

Dominic tried to claw at the brute. It chuckled, and another Pale Rider appeared in the corner of his vision. He felt it slide through him. It was cold, as if his bones had turned to ice. He tried to shiver, but couldn't even control his body that much. Dominic glared.

That blasphemous obscenity named Demiurge reached out and patted his shoulder before he walked deeper into the Treasury. The Pale Rider turned, allowing Dominic to see the repugnant creature as it examined the treasures.

There was an alcove for each of the Gods. The Holy Relics were laid out reverentially. Some were missing. The Godkin facing the Sorcerer King in the Great Square had been equipped with the most compatible items. The evil creature's eyes moved over everything, assessing it, but Dominic knew there was only one relic it wanted to see. It was the single most powerful item the Slane Theocracy had. Even the Gods had warned of its power.

The [Downfall of Castle and Country]. The Cheongsam dress gleamed and the beast walked straight up to it. Dominic hissed. That the brute was here was utterly blasphemous. The Treasury would need to be re-sanctified once the monsters were destroyed.

"It is beautiful," Demiurge murmured.

Dominic was forced to agree but he remained silent as the creature reached out to touch the item. There was a spark, and a crackle. Demiurge quickly drew back his hand, shaking it slightly. Dominic laughed.

The abominable beast's eyes flashed and he muttered something. The Cardinal assumed it was some sort of detection magic. "Ah, interesting."

"You are not human, so you will not be able to touch that! The God of Light cast that protection to prevent the God of Darkness from taking it." Dominic grinned.

For a moment the distasteful creature looked angry before his expression became incredulous as he shook his head. "It would take but a short time for me to acquire a willing human," the brute said, "but I see no reason to wait." He gestured.

Dominic stumbled as the Pale Rider released him. The cold didn't fade that quickly. It was still in his bones. He shook his head, seeing where the creature was going. "I am not going to get it for you," he announced superciliously.

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