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"Your terms are pretty damn acceptable! Not to mention, I like the cut of your jib! Count me in!"

I'm not going to lie, I couldn't decide whether I should feel happy or annoyed by that answer. Ignoring a certain mad scientist going 'Kihihi!' behind my back, I focused my attention on the slightly less mad scientist in front of me and forced an amicable smile onto my face.

We were sitting in a restaurant at the moment, as it was the only neutral meeting place I could arrange on a short notice. Originally, I only reserved a couple of tables, but at the end of the day I was forced to book the entire place for the afternoon due to the sheer number of Research Society people showing up. In retrospect, I should've taken Fred on his word. Not only that, but contrary to my expectations, none of them seemed to be generic placeholders. I repeat: out of the twenty or so people gathered in the restaurant, there wasn't a single placeholder. Not one.

Furthermore, they all looked really weird in strange and unique ways. A young woman in the back was sporting an Einstein hairdo combined with a neon green lab coat and a stethoscope hanging around her neck. A guy on my left was dressed like he just walked out of the set of a Victorian drama. A boy, no more than twelve by the looks of it, was wearing some kind of steam-punk ensemble with a gear-shaped monocle and matching top-hat. Then there was their spokesperson and, presumably, the oldest person in the room. I could only guess, since he was wearing a thick grey coat with various gauges and knobs on it, topped by a wide-brimmed hat and an honest to goodness plague doctor mask. Seeing any one of these guys would've been enough for me to peg them as a side-character at the least. In the worst-case scenario, they could've even passed for a canon-immigrant hero of their own story, kind of like Rinne.

Speaking of which Mountain Girl has been standing by my side since the beginning of the negotiations, and she was sending a death glare at the man in front of me at the moment.

"Who gave you permission to address Leonard-dono so informally?" she hissed, and it didn't take long for the high-tech plague doctor to awkwardly clear his throat.

"Ah, my apologies. I'm afraid my excitement got the better of me." Based on the murmurs of the other mad scientist types surrounding me, the man backpedaling like that was out of character. I didn't really care though. I still had lots of things to take care of today, and I've already spent more time here than I originally intended.

"No need to apologize, I took no offense," I told him and assumed a relaxed posture. "Can I presume you all agree to my terms then?"

"Naturally," a man with a huge handlebar moustache and thick glasses noted on the side, and the rest also let out grunts of agreement.

"If you can provide just half of what you promised, we'd have to be insane to refuse," the woman with the Einstein hair added in an odd, mechanically modulated voice.

"Kihihi! Trust me, he's going to come through," my resident mad scientist supported me from the back.

"If Robatto vouches for you, then there's all the more reason to go through with this!" Mr. Plague Doctor emphasized with a nod that made his beak shake around.

By the way, apparently all Research Society members had their own cheesy code names, and Fred didn't just make up that Robatto thing for the harassing act. Combined with their outfits, I figured I could safely add 'chuuni' to the Research Society's adjectives, right next to 'weird', 'broke', and 'kookier than a kookaburra'. And no, I'm not going to recount any of said code names, because I was still busy repressing them into a dusty corner of my brain, never to be remembered again.

"Very well then," I spoke in a neutral tone. "I'll have my expert work out the contracts. If you have any further questions, ask Friedrich here. As for your equipment or other required materials, I'll take care of the logistics once you settled in. Now, if you excuse me, I have other matters to attend to. Continue as you were, and I'm looking forward to working with you."

Following those words, I stood up and gestured for Rinne, and she immediately jumped into my shadow. The act suitably impressed the people present, as usual. Truth be told, I only took her with me because she insisted that having a bodyguard for someone of my standing was common sense, but I had to admit that she was fairly convenient like this. She also really liked to play the role of the 'muscle' ready to get offended on my behalf, and who was I to get in the way of her fun? More importantly, I left discussing the gritty details in Fred's hands, and after saying my goodbyes. I wasn't afraid of him running away; after all, I was apparently the Research Society's golden goose. Also, he knew I could track him, and while he was a touch crazy, he wasn't stupid. As such, I left the restaurant without any further ado.

Or rather, after paying for the food. A lot of food. Heck, if Fred was to be believed, the main reason why I could gather all the Research Society members, even though they only recently arrived on the island and had their reservations, was because he promised them free food in my name. Seriously, just how broke could these people be?

Anyhow, once I left the restaurant for good, I let out a pent-up sigh and looked for an abandoned alley before I Phased to the secret base. The place was incredibly noisy, with the thudding of heavy steps and the whirring of machinery, yet after the people around me confirmed my arrival and greeted me, it somehow became even louder. Rinne also came out of my shadow and took her place a step behind me, like it was entirely natural. It was another of her 'retainer-things' I didn't bother to argue.

As for my surroundings, we were inside Fred's workshop. The room was almost completely bereft of the usual furniture and machinery, filled to the brim with building materials and tools instead. There was also a brand new hole in one of the walls, the other side swarming with the newest generation of Fred's robots. Mark V, I believe? Either way, they were serving as our main workforce in the process of expanding the base, with three different construction sites around various parts of the underground complex, and with Galatea and the Fauns serving as the foremen.

Speaking of the devil, I noticed one of the Fauns coming my way. It took me a while to recognize him, as he was wearing blue overalls, a face mask to protect from the dust, and even safety glasses, but once he got closer, I figured out it was Karukk.

"[Welcome back. Is something the matter?]"

"No. I just came by to drop off Rinne and to see how things are progressing."

"[Believe it or not, we're ahead of schedule,]" the Faun told me with a grin hidden behind his mask. "[These sprocket things are great! They never tire, they follow instructions really well, and they don't need to sleep either. The only reason we can't work around the clock is that we still need to sleep, and breaking the bedrock is noisy.]"

"I can hear that," I told him and spared a glance at one of the robots. They looked considerably more sensible than the ones that menaced the guys a few months ago, with simple metal frames and round heads. In a way, they almost looked oddly cute… though that might've been just the image stuck in my head after Angie drew smiley faces on a bunch of them. Anyhow, I turned back to the Faun and asked, "What about the gigants?"

"[Oh, they're also great. It's just…]" I raised a brow at his reluctant reply, and so he leaned closer and told me, "[To tell you the truth, they scare me a little. They can dig out solid rock like it's wet sand with those glowing hands. They make expanding the tunnels a breeze, but I can't help but imagine how we'd fare if they were used to attack us, and I don't like the odds.]"

"They were originally supposed to be war machines. That's why I told you to be careful around them."

"[I know, but… Well, nothing bad happened so far, but I just can't help but feel anxious around them. Old habit,]" Karukk grumbled, and I decided to change the topic.

"Do you need me to move the rubbish again?"

"[Hm? Oh, no, we're good for today.]"

"In that case, I won't bother you and let you get back to your work. I'll look for the general first, and then…" I took a glance at my phone, and my shoulders drooped at once, followed by a stifled groan. "Crap. I didn't realize it was this late. Change of plans. I've got to go. Please tell Brang I said hi."

I didn't even wait for the friendly Faun to respond, but just Phased out of the room. I was already late from my next appointment at the School, so I picked a placeholder in the School's neighborhood as my target and then walked the rest of the distance. One short elevator ride later, I was face to face with Gowan in his personal workshop.

"Oh, Leonard! Welcome," the stocky artificer greeted me with an amicable smile and beckoned for me to come closer. "Come in, feel yourself at home."

"Thank you, and sorry for being late," I responded as I made my way inside. Gowan's place was small, but well-kept, with shelves filled with all kinds of odd arcane tools, magical engraving tables, and a cheap espresso coffee machine. Upon reaching his side by the table, I also added, "My day's been a tad hectic, to put it mildly."

"There's no need to excuse yourself. I understand. You're a busy man."

"You have no idea," I moaned, and my host let out a good-natured chuckle at my expense.

Following that, he put his hand onto the large metallic briefcase on the table, and with a press of a button, it opened up, revealing a set of bulky, but otherwise perfectly sensible sports watches.

"Is that the first batch?" I inquired as I took one of them out of the case, and on closer inspection, I found it emitting a barely noticeable glow.

"Yes. The base arrays are to your specifications, but scaling them down to fit onto these items took longer than expected. We only had one engraving tool capable of working at such resolutions, so we had to do them one at a time. Thankfully, there were no failures."

"I'm happy to hear that," I said and put the watch down. "What about the second batch?"

"Ah, those... Honestly speaking, we're still having some trouble with those." He showed me a self-deprecating smile and closed the lid on the briefcase. "It's nothing major, more of an engineering challenge than a real roadblock. We'll figure it out. Oh, but speaking of which..." The artificer raised a finger for me to wait and quickly walked over to the other side of the room. After some rummaging, he picked up something that looked like a large metal plate with multiple concentric circles drawn on it. He showed it to me and said, "I recently acquired this base recursion stabilizer, but despite my best efforts, it only seems to work at half efficiency. Could I maybe ask you to take a look at it and, if possible, do that 'debugging' thing that you do?"

I restrained the sigh trying to escape my mouth and gestured towards the case.

"There's no need to stand on ceremony. I'll take it with me and give it a look."

"I'm in your debt."

"Don't even joke about that. If someone's indebted here, it's me, considering all the extra work I've been imposing on you as of late."

"Don't even mention it, my friend."

We shook hands to conclude our nice-off, and after I was done here, I picked up my stuff, and bid my farewell. On my way out, I considered paying a visit to Lord Grandpa, but I was busy enough as is, and while heckling the old man was always entertaining, I really wasn't in the mood at the moment. As such, I rode the elevator, and once I found a secluded spot, I simply Phased home.

"Welcome back, Ue-sama!" a certain tiny fox, currently coiled around Judy's neck like a scarf, greeted me the moment I arrived, prompting my girlfriend to turn away from my PC.

"Hi, Chief. Did everything work out well?"

"More or less," answered as I fell onto my bed and let out a long sigh. "I checked on the Knights and took their measurements, then I introduced myself to the Kage clan elders. By the way, Mountain Girl made them ratify my position as the clan head."

"More or less as expected," my dear assistant told me as she came over and sat down next to me. "Face it Chief; at this point, you can't avoid having your own group of ninja assassin spies."

"That was horribly redundant," I grumbled, and she reassuringly patted me on the shoulder. Another sigh later, I continued my report. "After speaking with those old buddh-shin-taoists or whatever monk-priests, I talked with the Research Society, and… those guys feel like trouble."

The foxy miko, still sprawled out around her neck, let out a delighted yip at my flippant description of the clan elders, while Judy gave me a worried glance.

"Were they hostile?"

"Nah, that's not it. They were just too unique. As in, I went in there expecting a bunch of placeholders, but those guys looked like each one of them had their own elaborate backstory and subplot."

"You're probably correct. The Narrative wouldn't create an entire group of side-characters without a purpose. It might be wise to observe them first."

"Too late. They already agreed to work for me," I told with just a hint of trepidation. "They were really eager to come under my umbrella too, so the best I can hope for is to keep a close eye on them."

"Another expected development," my girlfriend noted with a detached tone and then looked me in the eye and added, "Sorry, Chief. I'm afraid your descent into an arch-villain uniting all lesser villains is but a matter of time."

"Still not funny," I told her flatly. "I also refuse to get pigeonholed like that."

"The Narrative really seems to steer you that way though."

"Then it can shove its rudder up where the sun doesn't shine, because I'm not playing along," I griped, and seeing how Judy was staring at me with unbridled curiosity, I told her, "I have a plan."

"Is it the secretive yet absurdly effective kind?"

"There's no 'yet' there; the best plans are effective because they're secretive. That said, this isn't one of those, but more of a general idea." She was still intrigued, so I resolved myself to give her the outlines. "Long story short, if I do nothing, that devious Narrative of ours might really end up trying to squash the square me into a round hole, so before that could happen, I plan to make my own square hole to fit into by posing as the big good of the island."

"Isn't that…" Judy started to say something, but then her words trailed off, and after a pause, she started over. "I wanted to say that it's Lord Endymonion's job, but on second thought, he doesn't really fit the bill anymore."

"I'm not sure the old coot ever did. More importantly, the idea is that I'd reinvent myself by changing the general perception from 'he united all the baddies' to 'he reformed all the troublemakers'."

"Is that feasible?"

"I don't know, but it's worth a shot. As we all know, the difference between a hero and a villain is nothing but PR."

"I've never heard that," Ichiko spoke from Judy's shoulder, so I absently rubbed her head to hush her.

"Does that briefcase have anything to do with this?"

Hearing her question, I put my hand on the case sitting next to me on the bed and told her, "Maybe? I can't say yet."

"Is this where the secretive part of the plan comes into the picture?"

"Nah, it's more like I've yet to work out all the details. I'll update you the moment I have something more concrete."

"Please do that," she told me, but her eyes were still on the briefcase. "What's in that?"

"Just the bases of the next generation Magiformers," I told her off the cuff, and Judy's eyes immediately narrowed into a small frown as she faced me again.

"I thought we agreed you wouldn't do any more enchantments today."

"I'm not going to, I just brought them home," I told her a touch defensively. "My head still hurts after yesterday's experiment, so I wasn't planning to work on them anyway."

"Good." Saying so, she fixed my collar and told me, "As the manager, you have to motivate the girls, and you can't do that when you look like you took a tumble in a dry cleaning machine."

"I kind of felt like that yesterday, but it's much better now," I reassured her, but then paused. "But speaking of the girls, when did we agree to meet up again?"

Judy took her phone out, and a glance later she told me, "Chief, we're going to be late from rehearsal."

"It's that late?!" She nodded, so I turned to the fox still perched on her. "Ichiko, go get my sister."

"Yes!" she exclaimed and jumped off, and before she reached the ground, she already turned into her human form wearing a shrine maiden outfit, and she pattered out of the room with a loud, "Snowy-samaaa!"

"I left my bag in the living room. I'll meet you there," Judy told me and she left in a hurry as well, leaving me alone in the room.

I took a deep breath and rose to my feet again, my eyes accidentally skimming over the calendar on the wall. The third of December. Time sure does fly fast, doesn't it? Christmas was just around the corner. Before that, there would be the Christmas ball and a very special deadline hanging over my head, but even before that, we'd have to get through the school festival in one piece. Since the class decided to do an idol performance, and the princess became the group's point-man, it meant I couldn't slack off either, as I was declared the group's manager by unanimous votes from the whole class. Well, the whole class minus four guys, but nobody cared about their votes.

But wait, before all that, there was the Draconian conference I had to deal with, and on top of that, I had to integrate the Knights before that. Even with the conference getting postponed due to the Assembly's lockdown, there was only a week left until the opening, and I had to deal with all the hubbub surrounding the new recruits and the secret base first! Thank god the exam period was already over, or I'd literally explode! I mean, figuratively literally, not literally literally. Though again, even that wouldn't be particularly surprising at this rate, would it?

Anyhow, I could hear Judy and Snowy in the living room, so I put the briefcase away, straightened my coat, and left the room as well, passing by a shelf with seven identical, unassuming, and yet very important mugs on it on my way out. As for what was the deal with them… all in due time. All in due time.

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A note from Egathentale

Hello, Dear Readers.

I'm sorry to say, but as much as I wanted to do a double-release today, with next proper chapter, I was completely KOd by the flu for the last two weeks, and I somehow ended up behind schedule again. I'm feeling fine now, some insomnia notwithstanding, so I'll try to get my shit together and resume the normal update cycle next week.


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Egathentale

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