Chapter 16

Beta: Worldbringer of Joseun

Cover: LousGndiner


Haruaki Konoike, better known in Theldesia as Krusty, sighed as he retired to his office.

What a day…

The guildmaster of the largest guild in Akihabara unceremoniously reclined onto his office throne. It was an unnecessary expense, especially in such trying times, but his second-in-command, Rieze, had argued that he needed to look more imposing in his office.

She claimed it was to bolster his reputation among their members. They'd be more inclined to listen to him than if he used his old wooden chair.

Shame, he rather liked that chair. He couldn't exactly lean back and balance himself on the chair's rear legs with a massive throne now, could he?

Truth be told, he wanted to kick back and relax, but as D.D.D.'s guildmaster, he could not afford to do so. Even if he just started the guild as an experiment, it was still his responsibility. He couldn't just leave like he would at most social events. The old, 'taking care of my cat' excuse wouldn't work here. He didn't even have a cat.

Not many people knew what it was like being in charge of so many people. His guild had over a thousand members before the Apocalypse had begun, and it only grew as people left their smaller guilds for his. In trying times, there was undeniable safety in numbers.

There was a raid to be had today, but there were a few complications.

Namely, the NPCs.

To embark on a raid, one needed supplies to keep players alive. The journey to the raid location was almost always dangerous, and the raid itself more so.

With the NPCs being a hassle, it would take a while until they could obtain the necessary supplies. Sometimes they'd be unwilling to sell items, as unbelievable as that sounded. While he believed in the reports he got from his second-in-command, Krusty didn't believe the problem stemmed from the NPCs alone as she'd presumed.

He wasn't an idiot. He saw how they'd look at them in disdain, especially in the recent month. Krusty didn't know when it started, but he hoped it wasn't a sign of something.

What that something was, he didn't know. Nothing good, perhaps.

It would take time to grab the materials themselves, or until certain key NPCs would sell to them again. Not that it was an issue. They had time. After all, time is something that Krusty had learned to be of an abundance.

With that time, they would procure camping supplies, blacksmiths to repair their weapons, and even chefs to buff their stats. Yes, there was a lot that went into a raid, and he hadn't even scratched the surface.

… Although, speaking of chefs.

Crescent Burger.

When that first appeared a few days ago, Krusty had been skeptical at its authenticity, but after seeing how many of his guild members would literally wait an entire day in line, he couldn't disregard it.

Krusty himself had refrained from trying it. He never had the freedom to, as much as his other second-in-command, Takayama Misa, would argue otherwise.

Odd irony right there. All the time in the world to wait, but no time at all for himself.

"… Might as well sort through the paperwork…" he muttered. There was a lot of it, mostly for the guild's inventory.

With more than a thousand players, it was hard to keep track of them all. Even more so for unsavory individuals who'd take the chance to embezzle– why on earth they'd do that here, Krusty had no idea. People were bored and did things they'd feel some form of excitement from.

There were always a few bad apples in a basket. The bigger the basket, the more bad apples.

He sighed. It was going to be a long day. "I hate paperwork…"

"On that, we'd have to agree."

Krusty paused. He made no indication of surprise, which surprised himself to a fair degree.

That was not Takayama, nor was it Rieze. Those two, alongside himself, were the only people allowed into the guildmaster's office. This new voice wasn't any of the three, and he had his voicemail set to mute so nobody could contact him either.

So who was it?

Luckily, there wasn't any cause for alarm. Within the safety of his office, where player combat was disabled, his calm and logical mind took over as he began taking note of how empty the room was.

Silently, he activated his skill, Sense Bloodlust. A Berserker subclass exclusive skill to detect hostile monsters nearby. Unfortunately, it also drew their attention. Perfect for a tank class though. However, he wasn't trying to provoke a monster. The skill could also be used to detect nearby players at the cost of letting them know where you were.

A double-edged sword, but one currently with no drawback.

Krusty stopped his eyes from widening.

Above?

He tilted his head up as if nonchalantly taking note of something interesting, and raised a brow at what he found.

… A white bird?

Sure enough, a white bird floated silently above him. No, at a second glance, it wasn't a bird. It was a summon, whose very body was constructed from a cluster of ethereal string.

"And to who am I extending my greetings to?" He asked.

With zero chance for combat to occur, it left dialogue as an open avenue for him to use. He'd try to draw out as many secrets as he could from it, namely two. Who was it and how did they get a familiar in his office?

"My name is of no importance, but if you need something to call me, then Justeaze is fine," it responded in a feminine voice.

"I see," he muttered. "You'll have to forgive me, but could you kindly move before my desk? Reclining my head as we discuss would be an unnecessary hassle."

'Justeaze' was silent, which he knew wasn't her real name so didn't bother labeling her that, but obediently floated its way onto his desk. It avoided his paperwork, which was a relief. He didn't want to gather them up again.

"I suppose this is more to your liking?" she asked.

"Yes, this is much more comfortable. Now, onto more important matters," he replied. "This isn't something Isaac would even think of doing. Soujirou is busy with his little harem, and Eins is too focused on his member's wellbeing to even consider it. So, how did you get in, and what are you after?"

"Two inquiries right off the bat, and not even a single pleasantry? How boorish," she sniffed. It irritated him how much it resembled his aunts and uncles back in the real world, but Krusty maintained his composure. "What made you assume that I was after something?"

He let out a mild chuckle, both out of authenticity and the need to assert control over the situation. Outright demanding an answer never did well, not with someone like this. "Well, seeing as you hadn't even bothered to keep yourself hidden, it must mean you wish to discuss something, doesn't it?"

"In other words, it was easy to deduce, you mean?" it muttered. "Very well, I'll humor you for a bit. Let's just say that what counts as combat and what counts as a player, that all depends on the systems that run the world. There are always loopholes to exploit."

That didn't bode well.

He knew that they had existed, but he didn't know it could be exploited to this degree. Krusty could already see how knowledge of this loophole could cause so many issues. Especially with Akihabara in its current state.

If the raid-guilds started attacking each other out of suspicion…

"That, and your window was open," it added. "I'd advise to keep it closed."

"I see, thank you for the lesson," he said honestly. Strange, Krusty swore that it was closed earlier. He'd have to close it later… and figure out how to make sure his base of operations wasn't so easily infiltrated again.

"That's one out of two of your questions answered," the bird chimed. "It doesn't seem fair if I answer all of it without getting something in return."

Krusty hummed to himself. "Well, that'd depend on what exactly you want in return. Ironically brings us back full circle, doesn't it?"

He swore he could hear a slight laugh from it, but he knew better.

Krusty, or rather Haruaki Konoike, was born into a large family. A rich one at that. He knew of the thinly veiled insults sent to each other and of the dark intentions which lay beneath.

This was a similar sort of laugh. It even sent shivers down his spine, which spurred him to maintain his guard. One slip up could mean disaster. That was what he had learned whilst living alongside his horrid family. He was lucky that his step-sister didn't end up growing up like them. She was the only real family he had.

His step-sister, Sayaka, had even visited him when he decided to escape it all, though he supposed it was because she was thankful for him dropping out of their lifestyle. Succession wars and all that.

None of his other family members would even bother to drag him into their little games, especially if they all saw him as a NEET who decided to drown himself in gaming. It led him into the perfect escape from that lifestyle.

… It was unfortunately ironic that he'd be dragged back into it.

"You're an interesting one, aren't you?" It said. "Have no worries, for what I want is something you will want as well."

"Isn't this the sort of offer a demon lord gives to the hero?" The guildmaster jests. "The whole 'giving you half of the world' and all that?"

"Oh no, not at all," the bird replied. "This is something that will mutually benefit us. What I want, is for your cooperation."

He raised another brow. "In what?"

"EXP pots," it continued. "If you were offered the ability to purchase them, what would you do?"

This time, Krusty didn't hide the narrowing of his eyes or the slight upturn of his cheek. "I see you are a part of Hamelin then. Looking to profit from two sides, I presume?"

It made sense. Every battle guild knew of Hamelin's rising worth. Whatever that guild was before no longer mattered. What they were now was an investment. The EXP potions they sold were worth a whole lot more than regular raid supplies.

It was a little odd that they would offer to him though, especially since their trade deals with the Black Sword Knights and Silver Sword were undoubtedly important. However, he supposed that it was reasonable they were reaching out more if they somehow obtained more stock.

Ignoring the experience boost, the pots increased attack power and healing received for a solid two hours. That alone eliminated the need for most healing supplies, and it eliminated the need to waste time eating for stat boosts, but not being a replacement outright.

They were an important part of the new player experience and just as important to a raid-guild. Krusty himself had a second account just to give himself the potion daily. He deleted it later when he reached the max level cap, but now he was sorely after it.

He was only halfway to leveling up to ninety-one. A boost, especially with the next raid incoming, would be greatly appreciated.

Just as Krusty was about to try and accept the deal, his instinct stopped him. Something was amiss. His experience in dealing with his family told him that he had just made a misstep.

"I'd greatly appreciate it if you didn't associate me with those bottom-feeding rats," it simply said. "Those fools don't know how to run an organization. Honestly, it's like watching a disorganized black-market sale, and just as disgustingly chaotic. They squander the unique opportunity they have."

Krusty frowned.

"Not fond of Hamelin, I see," he stated. "Forgive the error. However, it was the likeliest assumption from the information I had available."

Not Hamelin? What other guilds could sell EXP potions then? You could only obtain them from level thirty or lower players, and Hamelin snatched all of them up before the other raid-guilds could even blink.

"Apology accepted. I trust my outburst won't affect the deal?" it asked.

"On the contrary, it might," he replied. "You offer to sell EXP potions. However, what's stopping me from approaching Hamelin instead? They are a well-known supplier. Would it not be safer to approach a known guild, rather than one such as yourself?"

"True, but Hamelin can only supply the to two relatively large guilds. They don't have enough members to sell to everyone," the bird relayed. "Nearly two-hundred or so players can't even compare to a thousand. It's simple. The only alternative for EXP potions lies within my hands alone."

Krusty narrowed his eyes.

Despite saying it was in her hands alone, there was no chance that this summoner was actually working alone. Such a unique summon… perhaps it came from the Novasphere Pioneer's update. But that would mean this summoner was high-leveled enough to access the content. She'd have to be in another raid-guild or a newly-formed exploration-guild.

"And I suppose you can supply a thousand players?" He mused.

"As flattering as it is for you to think that, there's no way you'll use all one-thousand players in a raid, is there?" it replied. "The largest raid you can possibly go on is a Legion Raid, and even that only requires ninety-six players, not a thousand. You can finish a Legion raid in a day if you did so non-stop."

"That's still well over a thousand potions needed, especially if we use it without breaks," he commented. "However, I concede the point that it is a highly unrealistic number."

"Yes, truly unrealistic… at least, for now."

Krusty twitched.

"For now?"

"Yes, for now," it said once more. "As I said, Hamelin is squandering their opportunity."

Just as Krusty was going to question the bird once more, his menu opened up with a trade notification. He eyed it warily but entered into the trade window nonetheless.

Because of what he saw offered within, he was glad he did.

[EXP Potion x99]

"That should be able to last throughout the entirety of a twenty-four player raid," it said nonchalantly. "A good deal, isn't it?"

Krusty smiled.

Ninety-nine EXP potions right off the bat? It was surprising enough to see. Krusty thought that you could only find such an amount on bot accounts, or pay-to-win accounts. Scrubs.

However, that smile slowly faded.

Strangely, the username was absent. Usually, trade windows would have the usernames of players shown between the players. However, what Krusty was seeing was what could be compared to written static. The game menu was obviously trying to search for a player name to display, but it seemed to fail to retrieve it.

Another one of these so-called 'loopholes', then?

In the first place, how did this player have such a stock of EXP potions? Was it from before the Apocalypse and it was only now that she sought to cash it out. That made little sense. If that was true, then why not sell earlier on?

Confusing. It was all just confusing.

"I suppose it could be a good deal," Krusty started. "–if there was a price tag attached to it. You have yet to state what you want in exchange."

"Oh, nothing much. As I said before, all I need is your cooperation," it said. "I'll even sell it at a lower price than what Hamelin offers. A thousand gold per pot, correct? Well, it's eight-hundred gold now. A good deal, isn't it?"

Krusty, as much as he wanted to accept the deal, restrained himself. "As much as I like what I see, I can't help but feel as if I was making a deal with the devil. Even you can see how… unwise, it feels to accept?"

A mysterious stranger approaching someone alone in a room, offering only benefits in exchange for something vague. In what world would that not be considered a suspicious deal with the devil?

"Hmm, so it's not enough to convince you?" It muttered. "Not even if accepting meant a secure supply of EXP potions?"

Krusty shook his head.

There was something else this stranger was after. He wouldn't accept until he figured out what.

"… How unfortunate," the summon lamented. "However, at least make your final decision after seeing what else I have to offer. This alone will cost two-thousand gold, though."

What else–?

Krusty froze, eyes wide and filled with incomprehension at what else was added to the trade window.

Impossible!

"I see I have your attention once again. There's more where that came from."

"T-This is–?" The guild leader started. However, he stopped himself. He couldn't make himself look like a fool. Being bedazzled was fine, but gobsmacked was just asking for it. But, from what currently sat on the trade window–

Was this a new feature from the new update? This doesn't… the developers specifically confirmed that these would never be brewed! Even when countless players asked for it, they had always stonewalled them.

They were vehement about it, incredibly so, but what if they did backtrack their statement? It wouldn't be the first time a company did so. However, Elder Tale was a unique game, in which the developers were always transparent. Atharva Inc., the company that made this game, never lied. They had stuck to their statements even way back from day one.

It was strange. Unnatural even… but could he let this chance slip by him?

Could anyone?

"How about it? Will you accept this 'deal with the devil'?"

He sighed.

Rieze and Takayama are going to kill me.

But he couldn't say no.

"I accept."

"Thank you for your transaction. I'll be ready to supply again next week."

With that, the bird disappeared, leaving Haruaki Konoike, better known as Krusty, with a new potion in hand. He'd hoped, or rather knew, that they'd understand. If they questioned why he spent so much from their guild coffers, then there was only one answer he could give them.

And what was that one answer going to be?

[Berserker's EXP Potion x1: Doubles EXP gain, outgoing damage, attack speed, and healing received for two hours (Does not stack with other EXP potions)]

Yes, that seemed like a very convincing answer. Hopefully, it would keep them placated. If not, then he truly wished he had his cat here as an excuse to escape again…

… Wait, what did he name his cat again?


"I assume that the transaction went soundly?" asked Krentelfal.

Illya nodded as her familiar disappeared, transaction completed.

The negotiation was quick and simple, with a little intimidation littered here and there. She was surprised that a simple MMO guild leader was able to keep up with her. Surprisingly charismatic too, but Illya supposed he'd have to be to manage a guild that large.

The fact that her bank account doubled from one deal was the cherry on top though, and that was after Lord El-Melloi II invested almost all of his personal funds into it. Compared to the first few days of the transition, her bank account might as well have quadrupled. It was almost half a million!

By now, Krusty could be having some of his guild members look around the compound to find her. This was likely on the off chance that she was nearby, but it wasn't a good idea. Creatures from a Summoner could even travel to another city entirely unless they were banking on her being a Druid, who need to be nearby for their summons to remain functional. They had enough manpower to spare so why wouldn't they?

Except that she wasn't. She was at the complete opposite end of the city, to the south. Her Storch Ritter's could last as long as she wanted them too. She was able to keep track of her brother throughout the Holy Grail War through such methods.

Such secrecy was necessary, however. Even now, she knew that their guild was still in a precarious position. The largest raid-guild could still try to lord over them simply because of the fact they had the largest player count.

And she knew they would if they could. People would try to press any and all perceived advantages they had.

Illya sighed in slight exasperation and reclined her head onto the concrete building.

Five days had passed since their discovery.

In that time, Illya was pleased to learn that her lower-leveled guild members had made massive progress with their levels. They were all at least level twenty-five, a good ten levels higher than before. They could've gone up more, but Illya called them back after the third day.

Not that they argued. Rin wanted to level up her alchemy subclass and Sakura wanted to do the same for her cooking. Shirou simply got dragged by his former guardian off on an errand. Namely, exploring the other parts of the city.

Their section at the heart of the city was rather tame, but up north, loads of players just glared at each other daily. South, on the other hand, was orderly and calm. Likely due to the efforts of Eins, Honesty's guildmaster.

"Was it wise to imply that you could sell more potions?" Krentelfal asked. "I had thought mister ConquerorsAdvisor was close to being at his wit's end."

True enough, Lord El-Melloi II had been crafting nonstop for five whole days. It was enough for him to detest the scent of all the materials.

"He's not making potions at the moment, but he said that he had an idea to speed up the process," Illya offhandedly commented. "I have faith in him to do so. He lives up to his reputation so far."

Not to mention, the guy had a glint in his eye once he saw Blacksmith's Guild building. He was definitely planning something. He said he'd speed it up, but Illya felt that it was more likely that the lord wanted to automate the process. How he'd do that, the young guildmaster had no idea.

He didn't have to, though. When he took five days to brew the potions, it wasn't just a full stack he had made. The max leveled Alchemist took it a step further and brewed several more stacks. Meaning, Illya had several more for her guild to use.

Not that they were going to use them.

Because it wasn't just D.D.D. that they had approached.

West Wind Brigade, Silver Sword, Honesty, and even Black Sword Knights. Illya had spent the day conversing with them via her familiars. The discussion with D.D.D. actually took less time than the others did. But, even if it was faster, these meetings had all ended in the same way.

First, reveal the stack of potions. For most raid-guilds, that would have been enough for them to bend over and accept. However, for the creme of the crop, they were wary. Cautious about what they'd need to do in return. It was a little different with D.D.D, due to their massive player count, but Illya eventually won them over.

All it took was to flash a uniquely brewed EXP potion and they practically begged for it.

Soujirou accepted once she did. Surprisingly quickly, in fact. It could mean that he was an incredibly opportunistic man… you know, when he wasn't busy managing his harem. Dense brick.

Eins was just gobsmacked. He had his jaw hanging open and everything. He was extremely wary, and he couldn't hide it from her whatsoever, but he also knew that it'd benefit his guild completely. He relented in the end, but Illya couldn't help but feel slightly disappointed in the man.

Isaac, that muscle-brained fool, practically accepted once she revealed the unique potion right then and there. He just threw his whole deal with Hamelin away for it. No doubt the guild was in a panic. They just lost their largest piggy-bank and they'd have no idea why.

Even Silver Sword's William Massachusetts threw his deal with Hamelin to the wind, saying that he knew a better deal when he saw it. That's two of their piggy banks out of the way. At this rate, they were going to run out of guild funds.

They were going to try and find another buyer, likely from the smaller raid-guilds. This, unfortunately, meant they'd be more widespread, but to Illya, this was a good thing. The more buyers, the more brokers they'd need to send out. This, in turn, meant that they'd be able to find out all of the guild member's names quicker and more efficiently.

Like little ants without a stable source of food, they'd spread themselves thin. A few would remain in the nest, but once they were desperate, then they too would crawl out of the woodwork.

Krentelfal's main job now, or once night had fallen, was to scout out all the members that they didn't find before. With luck, they'd be able to mark them all by the end of the week.

It was almost… too easy.

"Something is amiss, I presume?" Krentelfal asked.

"Yes, something. I'm not sure what though," Illya admitted. Her instincts were crying out to her that something was going to happen. She knew it as a magus, but also knew that unless she figured what it was, then she wouldn't be able to do much about it.

Illya sighed and took out a map from her inventory. "For now, follow this map. I've marked out the likeliest guilds they'd want to contact next. You know what to do."

Krentelfal simply nodded with a smile as he faded into the concrete building.

However, his head slowly reappeared from the framework. "Forgive me, but if I may be so bold as to inquire about something that brings me unease."

Illya raised her brow. "Go ahead."

"I believe that you are focusing on Hamelin a bit too much," Krentelfal said. "While it is true that their presence as a fellow merchant of experience potions could trouble you down the line, there is no need to vehemently hunt them down as you are now."

The guildmaster frowned. "On the contrary, it is. We aim to be the undisputed power here in Akihabara. A power that could and will quash any form of competition."

It was what some companies did in their old world… if what Shirou told her was right. Illya was never that privy into the business side of modern man, but from the few interesting articles she's read, it painted an odd picture not too dissimilar to some less bloodthirsty magi.

"And the vehemence? The malice whence you merely gaze upon their numbers? Your ire towards them is undeserved. From what I gather, you decided they were an unforgivable enemy from hearsay alone, from a single unsavory encounter they had with your family." Krentelfal pushed. "Lady Illya, I say this as your friend, but I believe thou to be using Hamelin as a scapegoat for other repressed emotions."

Illya's frown faded as a blank look settled on her face. "Repressed emotions? Is that so? Even if that's true, how is it an issue?"

"It is an issue for when thine plan succeeds," he continued. "Should their presence be banished from the city itself, where would thine malice journey? What shape would these emotions then take? Lady Illya, what I worry for is your spiritual wellbeing. It is not good to cling to dark emotions."

Illya closed her eyes and sighed. Slowly, she opened them and gave him a wide smile. "Thank you for worrying about me, Krentelfal. I'll give some thought to it."

When she didn't feel his presence immediately fade away, she held the expression. Eventually, she could no longer feel his ghostly self nearby.

Illya sighed.

It wasn't good to cling to dark emotions? She sure as hell knew that.

A decade of drenching herself in the hate and disgust of her dear brother, a decade of sadness at being abandoned, and a decade of festering those emotions within herself. She knew more than most what they could do to someone.

Krentelfal was right to worry, it wasn't a healthy mindset to have– always clinging to hate of others. She knew that… but Illya supposed old habits are hard to break. If that old knight could see it on her then the others must've already realized it.

Damn it, that damnable headache was back again! It only grew worse as the week passed.

Illya breathed in, and let out a deep sigh, waiting for it to pass.

It was currently the fifteenth of June. Halfway into the month. Almost two weeks until the Landers would convene again about the situation in the city. Illya didn't know if that was truly enough time to get Akihabara sorted out, but she believed in her plan.

Once Hamelin was dealt with, Illya would be able to maneuver the combat guilds to fix the situation in Akihabara, lest they lose their supply of unique potions. They'd listen because it was just that valuable to them. They were all racing to reach the new maximum level, after all.

And at the end of it, the Emiya Family would stand above them all.

It wasn't going to fail.

Illya clenched her fist.

It wasn't.


Adventurers walked about the cluttered streets. At this time of day, only members of the bigger guilds would brazenly do so. You could easily distinguish them by how others shied away.

If the road was divided by rights, then the smaller guilds were relegated to the sidewalks. Even Landers were beginning to read the context clues and stayed away as they didn't want any trouble.

Shirou sighed.

For some reason, it got worse the further north you went in the city. He had started seeing fewer and fewer Landers and more and more adventurers. It was as if the place was being overtaken by a new sort of atmosphere.

If Shirou had to place a reason for it, then it would have to be due to D.D.D.

With its extremely high player count, all they had to do was walk in the general area and people would part like the red sea. Their guild hall was situated north, so that didn't help things either. It felt like a guild exclusive area, even if it wasn't formally owned.

"I thought there would be something interesting, but it's pretty boring here," Taiga muttered.

With the absence of most Landers, the usual stalls that littered the sidewalks had faded, which only left a handful of adventurer-manned shops. Shirou noted a few player blacksmiths but only frowned upon seeing their selection.

Most of them were empty pieces, not even forged but simply brought to existence. There was no history behind them. They had nothing but simple descriptions about it being a standard steel sword.

Even with their emptiness, Shirou knew that they were stronger than what he made. His menu showed how much higher the levels in these empty crafts were compared to the blades he made by spending hours at the forge.

However, that wouldn't last long. He was just a single level away from fifty on his subclass, nearly halfway to level one-hundred, the level at which Landers considered you to be a grand-master at forging. Even Illya was astounded at his progress. She said that raising your subclass that high was nigh-impossible without constant supplies and working throughout the night.

Shirou hadn't done that. He simply worked when he could and took breaks when necessary. The number of weapons he could make were comparable to other apprentice smiths. If anything, they should be gaining even more levels, especially since they were the ones toiled away at the forge far more than he did.

Rin had made a quip about it being related to his origin as a sword, and he sort of agreed. It felt like there was something more to it, though.

Shirou frowned once he saw an adventurer haughtily dismissing something a Lander said, even though he was the one trying to buy something. Eventually, he left without having bought anything.

Taiga, having not noticed, strolled up to the stall and browsed the selection. "Hey, Shirou!" she called. "Do you think Sakura could do anything with these? I don't recognize these fruits, but they look interesting!"

Shirou sighed and walked up to her. "Which ones?"

"The green one with purple stripes," Taiga pointed out. "Oh, and the white one with black dots… Why are fantasy fruits so weird?"

Shirou shrugged and looked to the Lander, a wrinkly old lady with a tired expression. "Excuse me, what kind of fruit is this?" he said as he pointed at the stripped one.

The Lander raised a brow at him, likely confused at his politeness. Understandable, considering what she usually got as customers. "You mean the Bella?" At his nod, she continued. "It grows on the sides of cliffs."

"And the taste?" Shirou continued.

She blinked and narrowed her eyes just a bit. "… Sweet when eaten as is."

Shirou hummed to himself. "Sakura would probably like to try this out…" What if she could use it in a parfait? Pairing it with ice cream would be a great way to compliment the two. But maybe too much ice cream could fade out the Bella's flavor, so maybe in a crepe?

"Shirou? Hello~"

Taiga's waving hand dragged his attention away. "You thinking of cooking again?"

Shirou sullenly nodded. "Thinking is all I can do, really."

Especially since Illya banned him from obtaining the subclass. He might like forging blades, but cooking was his stress relief! Knowing the secret to making tasty dishes but having it just out of reach… that was torture.

If only he could obtain a second subclass somehow. He tried asking Illya, but she said she didn't look into cooking items or items related to cooking. Unfortunately, when it came to trying to cook, he was on his own.

He wasn't envious of Sakura.

Not at all.

"How about that dotted one?" Taiga asked, growing bored of Shirou's inner musing.

"The Nogard fruit? Grows naturally in caves. They're sour so I don't recommend biting into one," she said.

"Eh, something with taste is better than nothing," Taiga said as she took out a few coins. "Two please!"

The Lander smiled and handed two of them to her, one of which Taiga put into her inventory. The other one she held with her Wolf-Fang teeth bared. "Itadakimasu~"

She sank her teeth into it, noting how bits of pink juices dripped from her lips. After chewing for a few seconds, she swallowed with puckered lips. "Hmm… yeah, that's really sour."

Shirou blinked.

White with black dots on the outside and pink on the inside… Wasn't that just the inverse of a Dragon Fruit– wait, it was called a Nogard fruit. Nogard and Dragon. God damn it.

"Want a bite?" Taiga offered, to which Shirou shrugged and took the offer.

To put the taste into perspective; Like a lemon, but twice that.

"The fact you barely reacted just surprises me," Taiga muttered. "Come on, there might be something for us to do over there," she said as she pointed towards a large building.

"I'd think you two should avoid that," the Lander suddenly piped. "I don't know what that building is, but other adventurers avoid it like the plague."

"Really?" Taiga muttered. "Weird. Want to check it out, Shirou?"

Shirou frowned. "It might be dangerous."

"We're in a safe zone, we won't be getting into fights anyway," Taiga waved him off. "Besides, if it gets dicey, we can run! Hasn't failed me before."

As Shirou was dragged along, he could only wonder what kind of torment Lord El-Melloi II had to go through on his way to this city.

Probably a lot.

The Lander just sighed as they left. Well, she did warn them. Not her fault that they didn't heed her warnings.

A solid two minutes later, the Samurai and Swashbuckler arrived. The building was larger than anything else on the north end of the city and had a massive iron gate as wide as some buildings.

"This place is like a castle!" Taiga exclaimed. "What do you think it is?"

Shirou looked around. That was all it took for him to draw a conclusion. "It must be D.D.D.'s guildhall. With a thousand players, they likely need one that big."

His former-guardian just whistled in response. "Hey, you think we'll get a place that big someday?"

"It'll be a pain to clean, so I'd rather we never," Shirou admitted. The Emiya Estate had been a pain to clean up, especially since he only ever used a few of those rooms daily. Maybe he should've considered making it into an inn?

"Eh, you're probably right," she muttered. "Well, that was disappointing. Let's hit the road. Maybe the other parts of the city will be more interesting."

Just when they were about to leave Shirou's ears perked up.

"Hey, Shirou– Shirou? Where are you going!?" Taiga shouted as her little brother in all but blood broke into a mad dash down the street. When he turned a corner, Taiga groaned as loud as she could. "… This is just like when he brought Sakura-chan home."

Steeling herself up for what she'd inevitably find, Taiga followed him around the corner. Luckily, she had made him enter her party, so she could see where he went, which was straight forward to… a place called the Northern Marketplace. Apt name.

Taiga's iron soles skidded to a halt as she caught sight of a small crowd forming around a somewhat large caravan. Emphasizing the somewhat part, mostly because a considerable amount of stock had already been depleted. There was only half left on the caravan.

A blond Lander was standing atop of it, where the rider would usually sit to maneuver the horses, and making placating gestures. Taiga would normally be unable to hear them from her distance, but her Wolf Fang ears made it child's play.

"Please leave! There's nothing left for me to sell!" He pleaded.

"Do you think we're blind? You have a whole caravan left!" the adventurer shouted. Fortunately, she was close enough to know that he was a Summoner from D.D.D. Actually, everyone around the caravan was from D.D.D.

"This stock is for the Landers here! This isn't for adventurers!" He claimed. "Can't you purchase from the central sector, or from Egburd! He only sells to you lot anyway!"

Some adventurers grumbled, but the one who shouted last time just sneered. "Do you expect us to walk all the way there? What a load of– Just hand over the supplies and we'll leave! We said we'd pay didn't we!?"

The Lander merchant looked over his shoulder, frowned at something within the wagon, and shook his head. "There are Landers around here that need these supplies."

"Then why haven't they bought it yet!?" Another brash voice shouted out.

The Lander's brow twitched. "Because you boorish lot keep crowding around here like you own the bloody place! Some of them are too scared to leave their homes!"

The adventurers mumbled again, with one or two looking sympathetic, but the perceived leader just held his breath for a bit before sighing. "… We need those supplies for an upcoming raid. Is there another way we can come to an agreement?" He said with gritted teeth.

The merchant winced. "Other than trying with the other merchants, not really."

Another D.D.D. member walked up to the sighing leader and shook his shoulder. "Come on, we can come back tomorrow when he restocks." he reasoned. Then, he looked around warily. "Plus there's also… that."

The leader followed his gaze and winced. "Fine, let's go. We can try that Egburd guy."

When he left, the rest of the guild followed with him. That, Taiga admitted, was strange. The merchant let out a deep sigh and sat down. "What a day…" he muttered.

Suddenly, he opened his eyes and noticed Shirou standing ajar. "What, you going to try and purchase what you can't too?"

Shirou shook his head and raised his hands in surrender. "No, just worried about it escalating. I'm glad they left before anything started."

The merchant regarded him for a bit, before sighing once more. "… You and me both."

Taiga, who had slowed to a walk once the crowd left, finally caught up with her hasty companion. "Next time, don't run on ahead!" She complained and smacked the back of his head. Strangely, it didn't count as combat. Maybe it was because they were in the same party that friendly fire didn't activate?

"So," Taiga started. "Are heated arguments the norm around here?"

"Heated arguments between Landers and adventurers? Unfortunately, yes," Shirou admitted. "Hasn't happened for a few weeks, which was good."

Taiga winced. "I guess good things don't last forever…"

Before Shirou could nod, he noticed a young girl hurry up to the merchant and hold up a meager bag of coins. "I have the money, Drudgel! The usual please!" she said. Or at least, what Taiga thought she said. She messed up her pronunciation so much that it was adorable.

The merchant smiled. "Got it. Just a moment," he said as he reached far back into his wagon. He smiled as he dragged a small bag out. "Here it is. Send my regards to your father, will you?"

The bag, while small, appeared large when held by the young lander. Like a newborn lamb, she sauntered off across the street, unaware of the smile upon the merchant's face.

It faded once he sighed and jumped off the caravan. "If you two adventurers have nothing better to do, then leave. If you didn't notice, your presence here doesn't do you any favors."

It was then that Taiga finally blinked and looked around.

Without the horde of adventurers enveloping the street, the Landers at the sides were much more visible.

They stared, whispered to each other, and gave wary passing glances. They were secretive about it. You wouldn't have noticed if you weren't looking for it.

Taiga frowned but smiled shortly after.

"Got it! We'll be leaving now! Wouldn't want to get in your way!" She said as she wrapped an armored arm around her dense little brother and began to walk away.

She wasn't the brightest of people. Hell, she wasn't even the most responsible, but she was observant. She could tell when her students were worried and could tell when her grandfather's men were hiding something from her.

Yet she couldn't tell how much Sakura was suffering.

Taiga held back a wince and dragged Shirou along. "So, this place was a bust. Any suggestions on where to head next, Shirou?"

Shirou gave her an odd glance, but she kept her inquisitive yet dull smile on. "… I guess I'd want to check in with Meltraus."

"Boring~, I've already been there!" Taiga whined. "I know! Let's head to that smithing guild. You've been there before, right?"

Her surrogate brother merely sighed and nodded, resigned to being her guide.

That was good. His mind was off the people around them. The sooner they left the north area, the better. It was starting to feel a lot more like the Ninetails Dominion than any other place.

And that wasn't a good thing.


As always, nights within Akihabara were peacefully quiet. The winds whispered a subdued sonata. Leaves trailed behind the zephyrs as it voraciously painted the starry sky.

Shiroe enjoyed the fact that the developers had taken the time to design the night sky. In other games, leaving it black with several motes of light could've easily depicted the night, yet Elder Tale surprised him with the care that was put into it. That could've been the reason he stuck to the game all these years.

The tactician took a deep breath and once more immersed in the atmosphere.

"Relaxing just a bit aren't we, nyaa~?"

"Yeah, just a bit. Sorry."

"No, no. I believe that is a good thing, nyaa~" his old friend and newly found guildmate responded. "You've been working yourself to the bone lately. Even Akatsuki is starting to notice."

Shiroe smiled weakly. If Akatsuki noticed his weary state then Naotsugu or Marielle surely would have as well. He wouldn't be surprised to see them spring a surprise later today, or perhaps tomorrow. Hopefully something like curry. He was admittedly annoyed at being deprived of his favored dish for so long. Thank everything that Nyanta was here. He didn't know any other chefs.

His smile wavered as he withheld a sigh. He couldn't let his mind drift off now. Even if he was gathering his wits and resting, he needed to stay focused on the task at hand.

Namely, waiting for Soujirou.

His former Tea Party comrade had contacted him in the middle of the day by sending a message. Shiroe was admittedly busy working out the finances and potential laws he'd want to implement to respond, but waiting proved to be a detriment once Soujirou messaged him again.

And again.

And again.

By the time Shiroe's inbox was halfway to a hundred full with unread messages, he took a look at them. All messages were about meeting back at the train yard, where Shiroe had first enlisted the man's aid. He said that he wouldn't believe him if he didn't see it first hand. When inquiring about what 'it' was, Soujirou wouldn't reply.

Whatever had his former comrade spooked must've been quite something. In all the years he had played with the man, he was unflappable and only responded aggressively when his friends were put into harm's way. The few times he had seen Soujirou truly angry, when his guild members were being harassed by admittedly foolish players, were times he would not forget.

Yet that unflappable man was startled. What could that mean? Only something bad, Shiroe would wager… potentially something that could interfere with his plan.

Unfortunately, speculations were going to get him nowhere, so all he could do was wait.

It was all he could do right now.

Even as everything was smoothly moving into place, there were unforeseen situations. This being one of them.

"Shiroe-senpai, I'm glad to see you made it," Soujirou said as he walked out of the woodwork. His pace was hurried and the usual smile he'd wear was weak. That only worried Shiroe further. "You too, Master Nyanta. I trust I didn't keep you both waiting?"

"Not at all, we had only arrived a few minutes ago," the Chief replied. "Although, you had us worried nyaa~. We had thought something awful happened to your guild."

"I suppose that would be an error on my part," Soujirou murmured. "Forgive me. Apparently, I was more startled than I thought…"

"Startled enough to spam our dear tactician's mailbox so verily," Nyanta continued off. "You have nothing to apologize for nyaa~. Only something truly surprising would've set you off as such. Isn't that right, Guild Master?"

Shiroe smiled. Opening up a way for him to enter the conversation, as expected of chief Nyanta. He wasn't as good as him in conversations, but he supposed he'll have to be once his plan comes to fruition.

"Yes, that's right. I trust you, Soujirou. If it's something important enough for you to go out of your way to contact me, then I'll listen."

Soujirou smiled in mild happiness. However, it slowly faded as he raised his arms to open his menu. A moment later, a trade notification came online.

"I didn't send you this as mail because I didn't think you'd believe it unless I showed you vivid proof," Soujirou began. "You didn't explain your plan to me, but that's fine because I didn't ask for one. However, I might need you to explain how this could affect it."

Shiroe nodded along as he opened the trade window, seeing it empty for the time being. That would soon change when Soujirou dragged his fingers over, likely to his menu.

Soujirou sighed. "Just want to remind you, this is real."

He released his finger and an item displayed itself.

Shiroe widened his eyes and felt his jaw quiver.

"This is… [Assassin's EXP Potion]?" He muttered. He also ignored Nyanta's loud stutter of surprise, which he'd normally feel bad about but Shiroe felt the Chief would understand at the moment. "How in the world did you get this?"

Soujirou shuffled uncomfortably and stared at his feet. "We were just in our guild hall. We expected nothing more out of today. Crescent Moon Burger had sold out for the day, so we were relaxing. That was when a white bird appeared."

White bird?

"At first, we thought it was a unique NPC. However, when it offered to sell us EXP potions, we then thought it was from Hamelin. It wasn't, but still wanted to sell to us, or rather, set up a partnership," Soujirou continued. "It was too risky to accept. Even Nazuna agreed, but once it showed, this in the trade menu, I felt that it would be best to accept."

"You accepted? That doesn't sound so wise, nyot in the slightest," Nyanta muttered.

Soujirou looked up with determined eyes. "I know. It was shady and set off all my warnings, but I needed to show this to you. Above all else, Shiroe needed to know."

"Thank you, Soujirou," Shiroe muttered, a dark gloom overtaking his expression. "You were right in accepting. This is… unprecedented."

"What does it mean, Shiroe-chi?" Nyanta asked.

"It means that there is a third party in our midst," Shiroe began. "Or rather, there has been one for some time. Whenever Akatsuki went out to scout out Hamelin members, she would occasionally encounter a white bird."

"The same white bird that met us?" Soujirou tried asking. He got a nod in return.

"Considering the current state of the city, there's no way that those two aren't related," Shiroe continued. "At first, I thought it belonged to a raid-guild stalking out the EXP potions, or someone aiming to take down Hamelin like we are, but it appears that I was half right."

"In what way?" Soujirou asked.

"Competition," Shiroe answered. "You mentioned that the third party tried to sell you EXP potions? Under any normal circumstances, I'd have assumed it was another Hamelin in the making, trying to undercut their competition by getting a varied source of buyers."

Shiroe's eyes trailed to the EXP potion in his trade menu.

"However, this EXP potion tells a different story. It was a theory at first– especially after seeing how varied the food items were, but I suppose it is all but confirmed with the existence of this Assassin's EXP potion…" Shiroe trailed off.

"You think that someone, an alchemist perhaps, made this potion? Like a chef would a dish?" Nyanta muttered. "What makes you say it wasn't a drop from a monster or some other special quest from the Novasphere Pioneer's update?"

"Because they offered to supply you, didn't they Soujirou?" Shiroe prompted.

After replying with a nod, Soujirou spoke. "That white bird did say they'd be able to supply us again next month."

Nyanta frowned. "Which entails they have a way to re-obtain this item… or remake it. What a predicament, nyaa~."

To sum up the meaning of this discovery, someone found out how to create their own items using their own two hands. Just like Nyanta did when he tried his hand at cooking and blissfully succeeded. This third party must've had an alchemist, or something similar, and brewed a successful variant of the EXP potion.

It was that, or they had access to a renewable quest for both regular or that new EXP potion.

"So… this is a problem because someone figured out how we made Crescent Burger?" Soujirou tried asking.

"A big problem," Nyanta answered. "We planned to release the knowledge in tandem with the applying of new laws. However, this throws a wrench into it. What will happen once news gets out about it, while the city is in its lawless state?"

The simple answer? War.

It seems unbelievable. How could players start a war over food? Well, with immortality and all the time in the world to kill, people would, without a doubt, do something like that to fill the boredom, to give them something in life, manufacture a purpose for existing.

Even if it would be to the detriment of everyone else.

Shiroe narrowed his eyes.

"Which begs the question… why haven't they?" Shiroe continued. "The answer to that is simple. It's similar to what we're doing. They're keeping it a secret for the time being."

"Instead of selling food, they're selling EXP potions?" Nyanta concluded. "Are they after a monopoly? That would explain getting rid of Hamelin. They wouldn't want someone sharing market space. It feels… incomplete though."

Shiroe closed his eyes further. He was close to figuring it out. The answer was just at his fingertips yet drifting out of reach every second. What was he missing…?

His eyes snapped open. "Why sell to Soujirou?"

"To me?" The man in question muttered. He fell silent as he also tried to figure out a reason. "Um… hold on, I think I can figure out a reason."

"Quite simply, they shouldn't," Shiroe answered his rhetoric. "The West Wind Brigade is, while a strong guild, small. If they wanted to undercut Hamelin, they should've sold to any of their clients like the Black Sword Knights, or even a large guild like D.D.D., but instead, they chose your guild. This means there's a reason we aren't seeing, or they already have."

They said they could resupply Soujirou's guild. In a way, that would imply they needed to restock. But what if they didn't need to? What if they only sold to him because they already sold to the others?

"If the other bigger guilds have the same deal between you and this third party," Shiroe continued. "… Then all these guilds would be in their pocket. Hamelin is protected, as a common courtesy, by the Black Sword Knights and Silver Sword. This is because they're partnered. If the same treatment is extended to this new party, then they have the protection of all the major guilds in Akihabara."

They would have them all by puppet strings, like a drug lord with their hands in every high official's pockets.

Nyanta frowned deeply towards him. "Shiroe-chi, wouldn't this mean…?"

Their plan was at risk.

They were going to attempt to cull all the rowdy guilds, the larger raid-guilds included, via the threat of ex-communication. They'd use their control over the guild building to blacklist designated criminals and have the larger guilds to force them out, like a bastardized form of a local militia. It would've given them authority so that they could freely implement the new laws. So that they could create a government for a civilized Akihabara.

A modern world where people could simply be themselves with protection from said government.

However, how could people follow a government if a shadow guild controlled the hypothetical police force like puppets!? Nobody trusted a corrupt government! Whatever peace they'd obtain would be momentary and transient. He could try and root out the problem once they established the Round Table, but how in the world would they find them if they remained so elusive? Akatsuki couldn't even find a trace of them!

Nobody would feel safe even if they made laws to follow. If the coalition was corrupt from the start, how would it even begin to prosper!?

This third party was potentially ruining everything, and Shiroe didn't even account for them!

Stupid! Stupid! What kind of tactician am I if I couldn't even plan for this!?

A rough hand shook him from his mental rebuke.

"Shiroe-chi! Calm yourself!" Nyanta exclaimed. "What matters is how we deal with it now, not what we should've done earlier."

"Um, right," Shiroe muttered as he relaxed. Idly, he noted how he had gripped his staff a little bit too hard. "Thank you, Chief. You too, Soujirou. If you hadn't messaged me about this, then I would've been blind to it."

Soujirou simply smiled.

But, Chief was right. What matters is the present. How could Shiroe solve this predicament? With their month-long plan coming under fire, what would the ideal solution be?

It wouldn't be combat-related. That was a fruitless answer considering they were immortal. It also wouldn't prevent them from coming back. So forceful expulsion wasn't the plan. So peaceful cohabitation?

No, the Round Table was supposed to be the undisputed ruler of Akihabara. An additional leading party– in other words, a competing party, would lead to players picking favorites and sides. That was a classical set up to any civil war if he ever saw one. That was also out of the question.

If conflict and treaties were out of the question… then what about assimilation?

Shiroe dismissed the trade menu, startling Soujirou as he stared blankly. A few swipes later and the villain-in-glasses held his fingers to his ear. A pointless gesture, but one that signified he was calling someone.

"Akatsuki? I need you to do me a favor," Shiroe started. "Do you remember that white bird from before?"

At her reply, he continued.

"Find that white bird, and say that the Tea Party's Shiroe is requesting a meeting."

He dismissed it after her confirmation. The night was young, so Akatsuki would track it down tonight. If not, then it would hopefully be soon. She had encountered them before, and surely would again. The promised conference was only a few days away.

They had no more time.

"Is that truly wise, nyaa~?"

"Might not be, but with the time we have, it's all we got," Shiroe admitted.

This third party was still an enigma. They knew zero about it and all they had were conjectures layered above hypothesis and guesswork. No, what they needed was information.

And Shiroe was not above putting himself at risk to obtain it.


A/N: Two things before I head into the bulk of the author's note. First, I didn't make a mistake in the first segment. I intentionally wrote about Krusty's cat in this way because that is what existed in the wiki. His so-called 'cat' doesn't exist. He used it as an excuse to escape social events. His memory loss didn't make him forget about his cat's name at all, but instead, made him forget that he never had a cat in the first place. The bit at the end of his segment was an allusion to it.

Second, War over food? What ridiculousness– except it happened over at the American server of Elder Tale. Don't believe me? Look at the wiki. They legit had a war over this shit called The June 1st Food Riots. I'm not even surprised.

Now, onto why this chapter was five hundred ways delayed by a month. In short, school work becoming muddled.

We all know how the present COVID-19 virus is affecting the world, and well it affected my college. I was stopping myself from writing because I had to study for exams and work on projects. I had spent a solid week writing a script for a play we were supposed to do for the finals and was honestly pretty proud of it, but then all schooling was canceled along with final exams, which rendered my efforts moot.

That wasn't all either. I was supposed to have a vacation with my parents this month, who are working for my education abroad. But with COVID-19, they had to cancel their flights. So that just added to my stress. It's like this year was spitting at me, with snot covered loogies. Disgusting.

After that, I just... wanted to relax. Writing doesn't relax me, but it exists as something to keep me preoccupied. Hence why I like to put deadlines for myself and do them as soon as I can. The thing is, this chapter was already seven thousand words done last month, but with everything that happened I delayed it till this point. I haven't even started with the chapter for my other story, which is frustrating.

So, after taking time off for myself, which lasted around two days, I got back to writing a few days ago.

All in all, I'm just glad I managed to write this. It was a tough chapter but I did think it was an important one. Yes, all the scenes. Even the one with Taiga and Shirou. I swear.

Until next time. I'll try and update this story by April.

Kappa.

Now to try and write for 'My Ideal Academia' in four days. Yay.

Also, sadkek because I couldn't write out a joke chapter for my YuGiOh story. There is no future.