“Too slow. Too slow. The mass production is going about too dreaded slow, I say!”
The commanding voice of Earl Hohenheim shook his office as two merchants scratched their heads sheepishly. The man at the desk was an elderly gentleman who still had a fire in his eyes, despite being in his 60s. A green, fitted vest and high collar, coupled with short sleeves, was a strange style of dress unique to the Earl, but it complemented the shaven side trim that gave him a sporty look. Long tresses of gray hair on top hid the balding spots, an attempt to preserve the debonair appeal of an ambitious gentleman. His mustache twitched as he eyed the reports in front of him, the progress of weapon crafting to arm his militia.
The two men in front of him, Greggor and Ivanov, twiddled their thumbs, having known that the region’s boss would be unhappy with the slow progress.
“If I may, it isn’t exactly easy to manufacture the equipment with so few craftsmen willing to work in utter secrecy.”
“I’ve lured as many skilled workers as we could to this town, but still, to arm so many people in the time frame you-“
A hand slammed upon the surface of the wooden desk, silencing Greggor and Ivanov. Slowly, the Earl tilted his head upwards.
“There’s no time. No time at all!” He gnashed his teeth. “It won’t be long before ‘she’ notices. And then what? Why I’ll tell you. There will be war!”
The two merchants flinched, knowing full well the dangers that lay ahead. It was because they knew of a greater danger that they had signed up for this. They were not just helping Earl Hohenheim for the money, but making sure war didn’t affect their families. In fact, they had bought up a large amount of magic stones at a loss, hoping to be reimbursed later for it. Everything was to ensure a supply ready for when the magic weaponry was produced.
“If only I had swiped the plans earlier…,” Ivanov commented. He had been the one that guided the Earl’s familiar into the Queen’s laboratory.
“It’s not your fault. It’s that inventor, former princess, we are talking about. We had to wait until that assistant of hers acted carelessly enough to leave the door open so that we didn’t trigger any alarms. Have to thank the locals for telling us of his sloppy commoner tendencies,” Greggor reassured him. If he had known of the habit earlier in the week, then he would have moved on it sooner.
At this point, the remaining time was limited. Their enemy was growing more and more powerful, and soon, they would lose the window of opportunity to fight back.
Earl Hohenheim was never one to jump into the fray without good reason. That was why he hesitated to act when the Kingdom of Sistina was split apart. The forces backing King Oswald and those supporting the Valkyrie were on equal footing, making it difficult to project who would prevail.
By the time the Princess had returned with the Demon Cleaver to tip the balance, the events had already unfolded before he could even rally the troops. The reports of demons rampaging in the old capital had given him bad memories of his younger days, when they had attacked the kingdom before. Fortunately, those had been dealt with, but with no small loss of his own men.
The weakness of Queen Katalina had played a part in the previous king’s downfall. If she had not left the kingdom, things might have not ended up the way it had. Despite demonstrating a willingness to lead now, the Earl felt that was far from enough.
Because of that, he had tasked his men to swipe the secret weaponry that made the Queen powerful, so that he could bolster his armies in preparation for battle. But now, that was being jeopardized.
It wouldn’t be long until someone caught wind of his activity. And already, there were signs of the Chancellor snooping around those who had been near the castle. They had little time before the connection between his merchants and the gathered supplies would be linked together.
Haste was needed over caution at this point. He couldn’t afford to dawdle and let his opponents gain the upper hand. The future of the kingdom was at stake.
“If the Queen isn’t prepared for the eventual bloodbath, then I will be the one to guide us!”
The Earl clenched his fist, a motion to calm himself from getting too heated up. However, a slight breeze kicked up around him, his anticipation trickling out as residual Wind magic. With a sigh, he continued on. “How much weaponry have we completed on hand?”
Greggor brought up his hand to count with fingers, looping over several times as he estimated the numbers.
“36 from the report yesterday. At this pace, another 100 or so by this time next week.”
“Hmph. Hardly enough to equip a single squadron. This is not looking promising…” The Earl sat back and frowned. They were going to need at least four times as many to take on an entire nation. Frankly, he wanted to equip every able and trained person with a decent mana supply with one, just in case.
Suddenly, the Earl felt a chill run down his spine.
“Come to think of it… the guards in this mansion have already been given one, right?” The two merchants nodded. “I have a bad feeling, and we may need to stall for some more time…”
The Earl felt unsure of his projections. ‘Who knew if they could hold out another several weeks before things got messy?’ If he had to guess, they probably only had several more days, given the recent activity.
Suddenly, an abrupt tremor rocked the building. It sounded like a large wall collapsing.
“Earl Hohenheim! Get your butt out here!”
A voice that sounded somewhat familiar echoed through the halls of the mansion.
“Th-That’s the Chancellor, isn’t it?!” Ivanov cried out. He had been the only one who had directly conversed with him before. Even more, he happened to be present during the demon attack on Engelberg. And hiding in some corner protected by the Magic Knights, he watched the man, known as the Demon Cleaver, work with another fighter to decimate not one, but two demons.
“Wh-What do we do?” Greggor panicked. After all, the two of them were merely merchants. They could do nothing against the might of the Chancellor.
“Hope that the guards buy us time with their new weapons! As for me, I’m getting out of here!” Ivanov searched around frantically, as if he was looking for a window to jump out of to escape. However, they were on the second story, and he was hardly trained to handle a fall.
“Calm down, you two… Unfortunately, nothing you do will be in time. He’s already here.”
As soon as those words left his mouth, the door to the office was slashed open, the menacing glare of a chef enraged staring them down.
I had been waiting for Ludmila to confirm the crimes of Earl Hohenheim. From a distance, I watched the faint form of a camouflaged ninja girl hop over the fence and bounce up to the second story of the mansion.
Not long after she had found an open window to slip into, her muted voice trickled through the communication device.
“Earl found. Ready.”
Apparently, she had encountered the target and was standing in position to listen in on his activity. It took me a few moments to figure out that he was in the middle of a meeting.
“…slow… production… too dreaded slow. I say!”
The voices of others chimed in next, sounding like the other two merchants that we were looking into. Ludmila whispered lightly in confirmation.
It didn’t take long before the admittance of the Earl’s guilt came through the device. Ivanov had stolen the blueprints and Greggor had been involved also. The two of them had been ordered to do so by Earl Hohenheim, for the sake of building up a large supply of weaponry.
As the conversation unfolded, I could hear hints of disappointment against the current Queen and a willingness for the Earl to fill in that gap. Now, there was a clear motive.
The Earl seemed to think that the kingdom, as it was now, was being led by a weak-willed queen, one that only held power through her inventions. If he were to steal the blueprints for himself, he could order his people to craft them to build up their own resistance.
His current desperation and impatience were likely spurred on by the limited amount of time he had to amass an army before I discovered their secret plans. Another internal war would quickly break out as soon as this was known, and it looked like they were still ill-prepared for it.
I took note of the low number of magic guns that had been produced so far, likely equipped to the mansion guards. That meant, if I could tear through the operation now, this issue would be nipped in the bud before things got out of hand.
By now, I had heard enough. The words that seemingly degraded Katalina’s efforts sparked a fire in me.
“I’m going in,” I whispered into the communication device. My feet started moving, not waiting for an answer.
Straight toward the front gates, I casually walked up. Two guards, each with a gun-shaped holster strapped to their belt, perked up at my approach, drawing their swords.
It took them several moments to notice the emblem on my chest and register that the Chancellor was walking towards them. Immediately, their eyes grew wide, and they reached for the gun.
However, it was already too late. My knife was already drawn, an aura of collected mana extending the blade to sword length. With a single slice, the attack passed through the chest of the two guards, causing them to tense up and tumble to the ground.
Their eyes were still open. I wanted them to be conscious, for I needed to know a few things. I reached down and pulled out the gun from the guard’s holster. Turning it in my hand, I could tell that it was nearly the same model as the one Katalina had created.
“So, it was that after all. Figures.”
I aimed it at the gate and pulled the trigger. Immediately, a large bolt of ice shot forward and collided with the metal gate. A loud clang echoed in the air from the impact warping it open.
“No mana registration lock either. It’s too dangerous to have just anyone pick it up and use…” I snatched the gun from the other guard and smashed them both into pieces.
Ignoring the two men, who were paralyzed and futilely clawing at the ground, I stepped through that hole in the gate and moved forward.
The noise of ice colliding into metal had alerted the rest of the mansion, but I paid it no heed.
‘Better to flush out all the mice and their dangerous fangs.’
Thirty-six. That was the number to watch out for. Or rather, thirty-four after the two guards out front. Several of the men drew their guns and started firing its magic. Bolts of ice flew towards me, which I sliced into halves that changed trajectory and shattered on the ground around me. A swift tap on the stomach caused one guard to drop his gun and roll on the ground in agony.
A plume of fire jetted from one gun, but being equipped with flame resistant clothing, I could endure the heat as I rapidly sliced at the flames. To others, it appeared as if my knife emitted a gust of wind, blowing away a torch, until I got close enough to snuff it out completely. The pieces of the magic gun scattered on the ground, as a strike on the weak point caused it to crumble. Only the handle was left in the guard’s hand, which he stared nervously at before a finger came straight for his neck. Black was all he saw afterward.
Another guard clicked the trigger, causing a mound of earth to form in a straight line toward me like a mole digging a tunnel. A moment later, a flash of electricity erupted from the barrel, its magic tracing along the line of earth.
I leapt to the side, realizing that the earth had likely become conductive, allowing for electricity to travel along it. The first part of the spell was designed to concentrate the iron within the dirt. I hadn’t seen this version before aside from brainstorming sessions, so that must have been an adjustment Katalina planned in progress.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t hard to dodge with my high level, so I zigzagged my way forward and cut down that guard.
Even as the others wised up and started to combine their shots, I dove towards them, picking them off one by one. By now, I had plenty of experience dodging the magic from various angles. Even when the shots had become too numerous, I could still rely on my magic barrier to dull the impact, though it did drain my mana steadily.
‘Twenty-eight… twenty-nine… thirty!’
The numbers were quickly growing thin. If they had gone all-out from the start, then I might have been put in a tight spot. But several men had dropped unconscious before they had dialed it up. With the lack of hesitation that I was displaying, their fears only grew as their numbers quickly dwindled.
A few minutes later, I was standing before the last one, number 39. Apparently, a few more had been made after the report. Sitting on his butt looking up at my glowing, purple eyes, his trembling traveled all the way to his hand, which caused the gun to slip from his grip. I promptly crushed it under my foot.
A bent over and tapped him lightly on the neck, an instant lights-out without any pain. I had gone easy on this guy because he had given up the will to fight. Looking forward, I stomped toward the front entrance, finding it locked.
I reared back and sliced the door down in one blow, marching steadily up toward the second floor where Ludmila awaited. She told me that she ended up in the room at the far end of the hall. And judging by the remaining auras, all the guards present had been knocked unconscious out front.
As I approached the aforementioned door, mana signatures of three men could be felt on the other side, one of them quite impressive compared to the other two. Feeling myself tense up as I recalled the eavesdropped conversation before, my knife raced forward, finding hardly any resistance as the double wooden doors were cleaved diagonally and kicked in.