For once, it was going to be a quiet night. The café's normal influx of customers was already gone, and what few remained were sitting by the windows, chatting idly while they finished the rest of their meals. They took their time, but he did not mind. This store was not known for its popularity or brand, but still retained its share of loyal patrons. The owners, an old but still vibrant couple, had made it clear that customers could stay as long as they wanted, even past closing hours should they choose. It was something they took pride in, running a shop that was known for its hospitality. They reminded him somewhat of Bunkichi and Mitsuko back in his world, a little more stern, but just as caring in their own gruff ways. It was the wife that hired him when he had come in seeking work, despite him not having any related experience. The old woman had given him the job as soon as she inquired about his living conditions and learned that he had been living alone. A few weeks later and the husband had given him a raise, cantankerously telling him it had been his wife's wish. But he had long grown used to observing humans, and from the way the man seemed extremely pleased when he thanked him suggested that it had been his idea all along.
So when they asked him to watch the shop after hours, he did not mind. The slow tempo work suited him and allowed him ample time to reminisce.
The bell ringing caused him to look up from his register. He frowned. Now was not an hour where new customers usually came in. The door to the café opened and a group of people stepped in. As soon as he saw their faces he knew his hopes for a quiet night was very much out of the question. They settled in one of the corner booths and waited expectantly. A few of them flashed him smiles from their seats.
He thought of pretending they didn't exist but deemed that it would be too childish. Which left him only one other option. He sighed, picked up the sheaf of papers he used to jot down orders and made his way slowly towards their table.
He decided against asking how they found out he worked here. From the way one of them was already beaming at him, he figured he knew the answer anyways. So he settled for another question instead.
"Why are you here?"
In response, the boy grinned to his compatriots.
"I told you he would be here," Issei triumphantly said and then turned to him, his face serious, "Lower your voice, Arisato-san, we're on a secret mission."
He looked at the smiling face of Asia, then at the equally serious Koneko, at the rather sheepish Kiba, and finally at the two figures clad in white cloaks that made them stick out like sore thumbs among the shop's remaining patrons. He looked back to Issei who had lost some of his initial bluster and raised an eyebrow.
"It might not be a secret anymore," the boy admitted.
His lips twitched. He was about to make a comment about that when one of the figures, the one with short blue hair, cut him off.
"The Archdemon," her eyes travelled up and down his frame, "the one that supposedly holds Belial inside of him, the one that we were all warned about… works at a café…." she shook her head slowly, "I was expecting something more… menacing."
Her companion, the more kindly looking one, smiled.
"Even Archdemons have to eat, I suppose," she nodded to him, "I am sorry for my friend's bluntness. It's just that the reports we were given suggested things about you that I see now were not accurate at all. I am Irina, by the way, a childhood friend of Issei's."
"Arisato-san would never do those sorts of things," Asia said, and then leaned closer to Issei for support when all eyes turned to her, "He is a very kind Archdemon."
He noticed that the girl who had just introduced herself seemed faintly disturbed by the two's closeness. Perhaps not just friends.
"I have never heard of Archdemons being kind to anyone," the one with blue hair muttered, then sighed and looked at him, "I am Xenovia, and for the record, I am still uncomfortable about all of this."
"If you are uncomfortable about all this," Kiba replied briskly, "you should not have asked for our help."
"We did not have a choice," the girl stated coldly, "Only Irina and I have been sent to retrieve the swords, and we are too few in number should things go wrong."
He did not quite understand what they meant, but could guess from what they had said.
"Is this about the Excaliburs?"
"Yes," Irina nodded, "We believe whoever has stolen the Excaliburs means to start a war between the Three Factions. The Church has sent us to recover them."
"And they sent only the two of you?"
"What Irina meant by war is a restart of hostilities," Xenovia responded. The curtness in her tone was almost insulting, "The Three Factions are technically still at war, but there has been no great battle between them for many, many years, just a few minor skirmishes that were quickly resolved by the leaders of those responsible. That is why it is only the two of us. A more significant force sent by the Church can be construed as a military buildup in devil territory, and that is a threat the Underworld will have to respond to with forces of their own. We wish very much to avoid that. A repeat of the Great War is the last thing anybody wants."
"Even now, it might be too late," Irina muttered, "When we left, the more fervent factions of the Church were already up in arms about the theft. They were very much in favor of sending an army of exorcists to take the Excaliburs back. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and that course of action was abandoned."
"All of this for swords?"
Xenovia glared at him.
"Those swords were once the holiest blade in existence. They were shattered long ago, but even the pieces are deadly weapons in their own right. They hold a great deal of meaning to us. I do not expect a devil like you to understand."
He smiled. Such willful ignorance was to be savored. By then, Issei had already half-risen from his seat to defend him. Irina defused the situation by placing a hand on the devil's shoulder. Asia frowned at their interaction and scooted closer to the boy when he sat back down.
"I apologize for Xenovia. She as well as I are under a great deal of stress at the moment."
The blue-haired girl looked like she was about to argue, then sighed in defeat. Her face softened.
The apology was sincere. He nodded in acceptance. Irina seized the moment to speak again.
"We came here today to ask for your help in retrieving the Excaliburs."
He gave her a bemused look.
"Those swords have nothing to do with me."
"You are right," Irina replied without breaking stride, "But if those swords remain stolen they will have a lot of things to do with you."
He frowned. Xenovia saw his expression and chuckled darkly.
"If stealing the Excaliburs by themselves won't start a war, then what better way is there than using them to kill the Devil Faction's newest celebrity?"
His frown grew.
"You saw it too?"
"The Great War may have ended, but we still have spies in each other's camps," the girl shrugged, "Even if we did not, the Devil Network was not exactly subtle when it aired the fight live on nearly every channel in the Underworld."
It took him a full second to digest the information and all that it implied.
"There is a devil television? And it showed the Rating Game?"
They nodded at him.
"Yes, with pundits and everything," Kiba remarked dryly, "Some of them said I should have been more aware of my surroundings when the Knight took me out of the fight," the sword-user sighed, "That is an observation I completely agree with."
He shuddered. It did not help when Issei gave him a thumbs-up from across the table.
"Don't worry, Arisato-san! I recorded it for you."
He supposed he should be grateful.
It took his best effort to not make it sound like a question.
Issei beamed at him, as did Asia.
"I am sure you understand that you have somewhat of an exalted status among devil society," he did not know, but let Irina continue on, "Those who have stolen the Excaliburs will take advantage of that fact. Though as of right now they do not know who the Archdemon is, only that it exists, it will not take them long to find out. Slaying you using some of the holiest weapons in existence will make it seem like the Church had a hand in your death."
The fact that they had selected him as a target did not bother him. What bothered him was something else entirely.
"They think I am a devil?"
Xenovia glanced pointedly at him.
"Are you not one?"
He looked down at what he was wearing and deduced that nothing was out of the ordinary.
"I am human."
"Humans don't participate in Rating Games and don't summon the equivalent of an ultimate-class devil at a mere whim."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Does the Church consider me a devil then?"
"The Church is not sure what to consider you. That is another reason why we are here. To observe you."
He shook his head slowly.
"You are being very frank about all this."
"Our main objective is to retrieve the Excaliburs," Irina said stoically, "Even if we have to enlist the aid of the one we are supposed to be wary of to do so. Besides," she half-smiled, "we can better observe you while you are with us."
He could respect her honesty. Admire it even.
"What do you say?" the girl asked, "Will you help us?"
They all looked at him expectantly. He was about to reply when a certain thought struck him.
"Where are Rias and Akeno?"
Issei suddenly looked very guilty.
"Ah… They might not know that we're on this secret mission."
He glanced bemusedly at the devil.
"Is there a reason they do not know?"
"Buchou said it would be best if we kept to ourselves while representatives from the Church retrieved the Exacliburs by themselves. She was worried that we might be caught in the crossfire and get hurt, so she ordered us not to interfere."
"And you disobeyed her orders because?"
The boy seemed honestly surprised that he was being asked such a thing.
"Because Irina asked me to and she is my friend," the girl in question smiled in response, "And I always help my friends."
He sighed. Such simplemindedness was also to be admired. Kiba held his hands up placatingly when his gaze turned to him.
"I know what you're going to say, but I'm not doing this out of revenge, or anything like that. I still need some form of closure though, and whoever has stolen the Excaliburs might know the person who was responsible for the holy sword project."
He shrugged. It was not his place to judge their motives.
"Where Hyoudou-san goes, I will go too," Asia shyly fidgeted with her fingers when he looked at her, "I will do my best to help him!"
His lips threatened to curl upwards.
"Someone has to keep them out of trouble," Koneko replied before his gaze could switch to her.
Out of all the reasons he had heard so far, the shortest one was the most sane. Somehow, he was not surprised. He nodded to her, and she nodded back. Sane people tended to look out for one another.
"I do not think Rias will mind all of you helping," he offered for what it was worth.
"It does not matter if she minds or not," Kiba muttered, "We still disobeyed our master's orders, and that is more than enough reason for her to punish us when we get back."
Both Issei and Koneko nodded gravely in agreement. He thought of Mitsuru's executions and immediately sympathized.
"Will you help us?" Irina asked again after a moment of silence.
He thought for a while before slowly nodding.
"Alright!" Issei whooped, "Arisato-san is in!"
"You will have to tell me where we will meet and what time we will begin."
Issei's enthusiasm faded. He suddenly looked very guilty again.
"Uh… right now?"
It took another full second for him to realize what the boy meant.
"I am still on the clock," he gestured to the register at the counter.
Xenovia smiled at him. It was not the considerate type of smile he had been hoping for.
"I am sure the Archdemon has a way of dealing with such mundane things as timesheets."
Their intended destination was a cathedral. Its roof jutted with gothic spires, their exteriors adorned with ornamented windows. At their tallest point a bronze hued dome sat, a statue of the Cross etched onto its metallic surface. Encircled by the drab shapes of apartment blocks and shopping malls, its surroundings made the building stand out even more than its already grandiose architecture suggested. The road that led to its arched entrance was well-kept, and the trees that lined the meandering path could technically be considered pleasing to the eye.
Honestly, he had not known such a structure existed in this city. But then again, sightseeing was not exactly high on his to-do list in the past. It was not in the foreseeable future either if he could help it.
"It was built years ago," Irina had explained in response to the questioning gazes she received, "It is still maintained these days, but hardly any people use it as it was meant to be used. It has become more like a park instead of a place of worship."
There had been something close to reproach in her tone.
They stopped at the beginning of the path, gazing warily towards the entrance that was their destination.
"It might be problematic if we go in there," Kiba frowned.
"If you are worried about holy symbols, there shouldn't be an issue," Irina replied, "All of them were removed long ago. They were distributed to other churches in the city when it became clear the cathedral was losing its appeal."
That explained the tone then.
"And they are in there?" Issei asked.
"As far as we know," said Xenovia, "What few pieces of intelligence we gathered suggested they are using this place as a sort of headquarters."
"They have extravagant tastes," Koneko stated as she eyed the building looming before them.
"They want to start a war," Xenovia replied curtly, "The fact the thieves have an inflated ego of themselves should be of no surprise."
"It might be an ambush," Kiba pointed out.
"It very well might be," Irina admitted, "But we have surprises of our own," she smiled at her fellow exorcist before nodding towards him, "and an Archdemon."
He sighed and allowed Belial's presence to enter his mind. He supposed he might as well act the part.
"Let's get going then," the sword-user gestured and the long, straightened forms of demon swords materialized in his hands, "The sooner we get to the bottom of this the better."
They nodded at that and proceeded through the winding trail that led to cathedral's entrance. They passed under the archway before hesitating in front of the wooden doors. It was unlocked and Xenovia pushed them open. They entered, blinking at their new surroundings.
It was, as Irina said, close to abandoned. He could see the holes in the stone floor where once pews had been bolted to the ground. The immense columns of granite that had long ago lost their veneer. The lines of mildew ran down the walls, and draped from wooden balconies. The staircases that led said balconies, missing steps from rot and decay. These were secondary details, however. As soon as they stepped into the antechamber, his eyes as well as theirs were drawn to the immense doors that lay at the back. They were bronze-plated, burnished yellow in color, and across their surface were etched elaborate symbols he could not understand but guessed were of some importance. They were more gates than doors, and along with the columns that sprouted from the floor and extended to the ceiling, cast dark shadows against the walls that moved like ghosts in the moon's light.
He had to admit it was an eerie setting. It was made all the more eerie by the two figures that stood in one of the few spots that was marked by light.
"Well, hello there," the first figure smiled, "it's a fine night for bloodshed, don't you think?"
One amongst them started in recognition.
"Freed," Issei snarled. Raynare's warning flashed in his head. He frowned.
"Ah, familiar faces," the man continued smiling, "I like that. And how are you, Asia?"
The former priestess regarded the cloaked figure with wide eyes before hiding behind Issei's back.
"You really need to be more assertive, my dear," Freed sighed, "But then again you always were an annoying little shit."
He had braced himself for something like this, but the sheer vulgarity that came from their foe's mouth was still surprising. Beside him, Issei gritted his teeth.
"Shut up you monster!"
"It's always shut up. Always. And it's always monster too. Why can't you think up of anything interesting for a change?" the man scratched idly at his chin, "You know what I would have said? Fuck off you shitstain! Get bent you fuckup! Go shove a rusted spoon up your ass!" Freed's face brightened, "Oh, that's a good one! I'm going to have to write that one down."
The second figure chortled. Freed nodded to it, smiling once again.
"But where are my manners? I have yet to introduce my most esteemed companion. Valper Galilei, ladies and gentlemen."
The figure stepped forward, revealing himself to be an old man with a pencil-thin mustache and dull grey hair. He was dressed in a priest's clothing, the robes barely fitting over his corpulent frame.
"He makes swords," Freed commented offhandedly, "Very good swords."
The man stepped aside, allowing them to see what had been hidden behind his back all this time. A blade, gleaming with yellow light, half its length embedded into the stone floor. He could feel the holy energy suffusing the weapon's entire length, pulsating as though alive. Within his mind, Belial snarled in disgust.
"You… fused them?" Irina whispered.
"Fused. Mated," Freed shrugged, "Whatever you wish to call it."
'This is heresy," Xenovia growled, "The Excaliburs are meant to rest in pieces. You have no jurisdiction in fusing them together!"
"Swords are meant to be used, little girl," the figure that was Valper croaked out, "Exaclibur, especially. It took a painstakingly delicate process to piece them back together, but in the end, it was a success. To see a reforged Excalibur in my lifetime, even if it is only partially completed," something akin to fanaticism had entered the man's tone, making them shift uncomfortably where they stood, "it is all worth it."
"You know much about holy swords," Kiba meant it to be an insult, but the priest did not seem to mind.
"Considering that I was the one who headed the Holy Sword Project, yes, I do know much about holy swords."
The devil's eyes widened, then narrowed. The grip on his swords became dangerously tight.
"As though stealing the original Excaliburs weren't enough," Irina shook her head, "What are you planning to do with a reforged one?"
"Oh, I was thinking of taking it for a walk along the park. You know, having some alone time, maybe setting up a picnic to enjoy the scenery together. All the things you would do on a first date," the man tilted his head to one side and stuck out his tongue. The very picture of insanity, "Then I'll bathe it in blood. All of yours at first. Eventually others as well. Find a few people. Kill them. Chop them into little pieces and say it was the devils that did it. Do the same to a few devils and say it was the Church that ordered me to do it. They have an Archdemon, now, you know? I would like to kill him the most. Eviscerate him and pull out his guts. Strangle him with his own intestines. Doesn't that sound like fun?"
He supposed he should be honored.
"Does your blasphemy know no end?" Xenovia demanded.
"I rather like blasphemy," Freed shrugged, "It rolls off the tongue so much more nicely."
In response, the blue-haired exorcist held out a hand. The air hissed around her, becoming a gale of whipping wind that surrounded her resolute form. Beams of light erupted from the end of her fingertips, joining together to form a hexagrammic ward. She reached into it and dragged something out. The broad, straight edge was unmistakable, as was the sudden flow of power that emitted from its entire length. Xenovia heaved it up, pointing it towards Freed.
"This is Durandal, and it is going to end your wickedness."
He shared the surprise they all felt. Their foes didn't, and that made it all the more worrisome..
"You have shown me your trump card," the man licked his lips, eyes wide with delight, "Now allow me to show you mine."
Scores of heavy oaken hafts beat against the floor in perfect unison. Figures emerged from the shadows, their forms sheathed in heavy plate, their faces hidden by sneering, wrathful helms. The joints in their armor snarled with every motion, the steps they took heavy, resonant thuds against the ground. The halberds in their hands gleamed with lethal intent, each a silver blade etched with burning sigils.
And then they spoke, as one, intoned together the first phrase of what was to become a mantra.
We are the hammer!
Xenovia stepped back in surprise, then a look of grim resolve settled over her face.
"Knights Templar," she snarled and Durandal moved from Freed to point at the closest of the figures.
It did absolutely nothing to deter them.
We are the spear in His hand! We are the sword in His fist!
Ironclad, every warrior was a mountain of steel plate and indomitable resolve. Tabards hung down from their armored necks, each piece of white cloth emblazoned with the crimson mark of the Cross. Strips of parchment trailed down legs and arms, adorned ornate shoulderplates, and covered gauntleted hands. On their surfaces were etched lines of scripture, holy words, and they were not merely for show. He could sense the power that emanated from each, weak individually, but when placed together, formed a latent matrix of defensive energies that protected its wielder from harm.
Knights Templar indeed.
They advanced together, utterly disciplined, utterly composed, and the butt of their halberds came down again against the cold, hard floor.
We are girded for war! We are protected from sin!
It was affecting them. Their words.
Kiba swore under his breath. Issei held his hands to his ears. Blood leaked from the gaps in his fingers. Asia made a soft mewling noise by his side. Her body trembled as though she was wracked by a fever. Koneko shook her head to clear it, and when that failed, tried again.
It was affecting him too. The uttered verses were making his head ache with their drone. Within his mind, Belial's presence hissed and recoiled.
Revile the demon! Abhor the devil! Humanity will be free from your tainted touch!
"What is…" Issei gasped and tightened his hold over his ears, "What is going on?"
Irina's lips were set in a grimace.
"Knights Templar. They are exorcists, like us, but from a different order."
"Exorcists don't make me feel like this," Kiba growled and cast a dark gaze down on his sword arm, which was twitching in response.
"That is because they are both the best of us," Irina replied with a scowl, "and the worst of us."
We will cut into the corruption with our faith! With the weight of our words, we burn the dark!
"But why would they be working with someone who was excommunicated?" Asia had managed to recover enough to ask. He noticed that her knees still shook.
It was Xenovia who chose to answer, Durandal still bared towards the approaching figures.
"Because more often than not, they are the worst of us."
As if punctuating her point, dozens of halberds lowered as one, gleaming, metal tips pointed to their chests.
We are the Knights of the Cross! Bearers of His Word! And we shall excise you filth from His perfect world!
And then they charged and the world around him exploded into combat.
He knew it would not be an easy fight when they almost incapacitated Kiba in the first exchange. The sword-user, the finest swordsman he had seen so far, lasted for two savage clashes before he was being forced back, wheeling and pivoting on his feet as heavy, silver blades hacked down all around him. They hemmed him in from all sides, snaring him with brutal efficiency, and it was through sheer luck that the devil saw an opening and hurled himself out of the closing trap. The blackened gashes on his body when he emerged emitted smoke like burns. Asia had healed him, but he was not the only one in need of aid.
Irina and Xenovia were being mauled by their counterparts, the weight of numbers heavily leaning the fight against them. A score of tiny cuts across their bare limbs spoke of killing blows barely avoided, and while they were not life-threatening, the sheer amount would prove taxing in the long run. Issei was hardly doing any better, but through sheer dogged determination was somehow managing to keep up. Boosted Gear lashed out in armored punches, hammered in wild fury, but did nothing but dent the surface of gunmetal plate. Koneko was the only one that seemed to weather the attacks with any impunity, and that was only because of her innate toughness. Her own blows, what few she could land while protecting Asia, were shrugged off with equal ease.
It was not that their foes were superior warriors or better fighters. They were still only human, and did not possess the innate boosts to strength, speed, and endurance that all devils seemed to have. But they were disciplined, controlled, and when they attacked, they struck as a team, working together flawlessly as they sought to bring down a tougher, more agile foe. And that did not solely apply for their offense. Neither he nor the others could find an easy gap in their formations to exploit. Kiba had tried the hardest, darting into their ranks, seeking weaknesses, and was beat relentlessly back each time. Every Templar covered his brother-in-arms, presenting a solid wall of halberd points when they were pressed, then moving fluidly back to attack when the moment of crisis passed.
Not better warriors, but better soldiers. And in a battle like this, that made them the superior combatants.
And all the while they continued to chant. Continued to fill the air with their maddened verses.
Our purpose is sacred! Our cause is just! With every deed we carve our names into fabled legend!
Issei slipped and had to be dragged back by Kiba to avoid a stroke that would have left him disemboweled on the floor. Asia stumbled and was righted by Koneko, who herself nearly mistepped.
It was making them commit mistakes, the words. Making them hesitate. Each uttered syllable was like a faint buzzing in his mind, disturbing his concentration and making him second guess his judgment. And if he was this affected, they would be even more so.
We are the unyielding shield of man! The bulwark against sin! Upon our steel you shall break!
They suddenly parted ranks. Their formations broke willingly, and from the gaps marched entirely new threats.
Four in all, their forms were more bulky, more armored than their compatriots and in their arms they cradled heavy, cumbersome contraptions. Tapers of flame flickered in and out of existence at their nozzled ends. If that was not enough to deduce what they were, the canisters strapped to their backs was evidence enough.
Burn! Burn! Burn! Burn in the fires of absolution! Be purged in cleansing flame!
The tapers of flame flared bright blue.
"Don't let the fires touch you!" he heard Irina shout above the din.
It was unneeded advice, but they still took it to heart. Kiba and Issei leapt away, and Koneko hauled Asia behind a pillar. He followed, but without the natural speed of a devil to aid him, he was a step slower, and that made him the closest to the ensuing firestorm. Four streams of hissing fire ignited out of tubular barrels, lighting paths of destruction wherever they spewed. Like hot glue they coated the ground, sticking to the floor and then onto everything else as their wielders continued to douse their surroundings with scorching heat. And then the stink hit him, the chemical-rich scent that was too thick, too strong to come from anything natural. His mind connected the dots and recognized it for what it was.
Holy fire. Man-made, and all the more deadly to devils.
Irina's warning did not seem so unneeded now.
We are the bringers of the end! Wrath made form! Upon our blades you shall die!
He gritted his teeth to stop another bout of nausea. It was not entirely successful, but it let him focus. He noticed that the flames the Templars had sent their way did not quite manage to reach the place where Kiba and Issei had landed, nor were they sufficient in burning through the cover that Asia and Koneko sheltered behind. It begged the question why. Fire, no matter how hot, could not match the speed of a devil. He had seen proof of that in the Rating Game, when the enemy pieces danced around the plumes of flame he conjured with relative ease. Yet these Templars, seasoned exorcists, did not know of this simple fact? It took him a second of reexamining the situation to realize what was occurring, a second of revaluating the battlefield before the truth became clear to see. And when it did, the revelation hit like a ton of bricks.
"They're trying to separate us!" Issei realized the problem as soon as he did.
It was true. The flames that he had thought fell woefully short of their targets had never been aimed at them in the first place. They blazed furiously on the ground, their true intent there, creating a maze of unpassable obstruction that already covered half the antechamber, and threatened to cut them off from one other. Already he could see the Templars breaking into groups, navigating through the paths of fire with trained ease, their plated forms immune to the heat that surrounded them.
"We have to stay together!" Issei yelled out again, "Or else they'll surround us!"
That much was clear. They all made to follow the boy's suggestion, including him, converging on a position away from the flames. All except one.
His brows furrowed as he followed the direction of Issei's voice.
The sword-user had not moved. He stood, at the edge of the fire, his gaze riveted to a distant figure. Valper, a merciless smile on his worn face as he turned to look at them one last time before vanishing through the immense doors.
"Damn it," the first time, it was whispered, "Damn it," then steadily growing in volume until it became a full-fledged roar, "Damn it!"
The devil tensed, then sprung forward, darting through the walls of flame, charging past the Templars that sought to stop him, ducking beneath the swings of their halberds, before finally halting in front of the doorway. The boy hesitated. The demon sword in each of his hands trembled, not from chanted words but from emotion.
He stepped through.
The looks of shock on their faces would have been vaguely amusing had he not felt the same way.
After Kiba left them, the fighting grew all the more desperate.
The unexpected loss of the sword-user not only deprived them of a formidable fighter, but dampened their spirits as well. He could see it in their eyes. Could sense it in every move they made. The sudden feeling of helplessness that was just one step away from defeat.
Betrayal was not a word to describe it, but it came very close.
They were giving ground now. At a rapid pace. Koneko kept on dragging Asia away, trying to protect her the best she could. Lines of worry ran across the normally unflappable girl's brow. Issei switched constantly from attack and defend, and suffered all the more for it. Against experienced exorcists working in tandem, the devil found himself constantly outmatched. Were it not for Asia's Twilight Healing, the boy would have long ago succumbed to his wounds. The only thing that kept it from becoming a rout was his flames. Belial's fire blasted from his hands in a continuous stream, buffeting the advancing Templars with waves of heat, preventing them from bringing their full numbers to bear. It was a testament to how sturdy their protection was against the demonic that the Archdemon's flame only singed their plate and did nothing to the flesh beneath.
If these Knights Templar were not his enemy, he would have marveled at their ingenuity. To fight opponents faster and stronger than they, these warriors had turned the words of their faith into a weapon and shielded their forms in the strength of their beliefs.
Human potential. Just used in a different, more violent manner.
His flames might have made them pause, but it did nothing to stop them from surrounding him. Already they had driven a wedge between him and the others, forcing Koneko and Asia back towards the stairway that lead to the balcony, while keeping him at the lower level. Divide and conquer at its most raw form.
At least he was not alone.
Their backs collided, smashed together, and he tried hard not to smile.
"This is such a bad way to die," Issei spat.
He chuckled inwardly. As if there was a good way.
The ring of halberds closed in around them, their wielders tightening the noose.
"Do you know what the worst part about all of this is?"
He eyed the gleaming steel points that were being marched relentlessly closer. He had a general idea.
"That I won't even be able to touch Asia's breasts when this is all over."
Of all the last wishes he could have chosen…
"She said if I did well, she would let me touch them," Issei suddenly started in realization, "Do you think it's because she likes me?"
He very much doubted that now was the time or the place for such information to be shared. He very much doubted that said information should have been shared in the first place.
"Even if she did it's pointless," it was almost depressing, the way those words were spoken, "I'm going to die and I've barely begun my harem!"
Despite himself, he could not keep the grin from spreading. He attributed it to the situation. The heat of combat did wonderful things to the human psyche.
"I have a way, but you will have to listen to me."
The boy glanced at him over his shoulder. Fear and anticipation alike warred on his features.
"A way? A way to win?"
"Yes. But you will have to listen to every word I say and obey every order I give."
"How is that any different from listening to Buchou in a Rating Game?"
His gaze remained riveted on the halberd tips and the great, glaive-like blades that lay behind.
"You don't die in Rating Games."
"Right," Issei muttered, "Forgot about that part."
"Are you ready?"
The boy nodded, a grim expression setting over his face.
"Let's do it."
He closed his eyes. Belial faded from his mind, and the flames that roared from his open palms abruptly sputtered out. The new presence slipped into his conscience like silk, suffusing his senses with waves of reassuring calm. Lucia, Fuuka's initial Persona, came to the forefront of his mind, and when he opened his eyes, it was to see an entirely different world.
Everything was made clearer. The imagery made more distinct. Details that had eluded him before were magnified a hundred times over. The cracks in a distant column, splits in the smooth marble. He could tell the length of each down to very last millimeter. The nearby wall of fire, left there by Templar torches. He could distinguish the temperature at which it burned, the chemical makeup, the exact amount of oxygen it needed before the flames would peter out. A thousand separate nuances appeared in his sight, and he could see it all, and more importantly, make sense of them.
This was how they had defeated the Shadows. By studying their foes in combat and exploiting the weaknesses they found. Fuuka's help had been invaluable, and without her in the background aiding them, he doubted very much they would have reached Nyx as smoothly as they did.
His gaze switched to the advancing Templars. He could see the places in their armor where the matrix of energy did not quite cover, gaps in their defense he had not noticed before but now appeared like glowing beacons before his eyes. He could feel the wrongness in their movements, the way that a few stepped a millisecond earlier than their comrades, the slight spaces in their formation that now seemed so easily exploitable.
It made sense. These knights were human, the armor they wore were crafted by humans, and humans were very much imperfect beings.
Which meant there were all the more weaknesses for them to utilize.
The first Templar stepped forward, halberd swinging in his gauntleted fists. His gaze flickered to the menacing figure. Time seemed to slow as Lucia's power took hold, augmenting his vision, enhancing his senses, revealing every minute fault to the very last detail. Silence reigned in his head and their chants became nothing more than a single drop of noise in a sea of stillness.
"First one. Sidestep. Lunge. Aim for the chest."
Issei hastened to follow his command. The devil charged, halted as the knight registered his presence, sidestepped the responding sweep and surged into the Templar's exposed guard. The crimson claws became a fist and drove unerringly into the steel breastplate. The boy's face was taut with tension as the blow connected, fully expecting the punch to bounce off like all the rest. His expression turned to pleasant surprise as the metal caved in, becoming a crater with Boosted Gear in the middle.
The man dropped like a sack of dead weights.
Issei turned to him, eyes wide. But there was no time to celebrate. Already more knights were moving forward, keen on avenging the loss of their comrade.
"Next one. Dodge left. The elbow is vulnerable."
The devil jerked into motion once again. Speed was his ally, and as he swept to the left, the halberd came down predictably towards his head. Issei swung Boosted Gear upwards in a vicious uppercut, the crimson fist crunching into the metal joint that attached the knight's limb to his elbow. The Templar roared in agony and staggered back, his weapon forgotten as he clutched at the arm that was now bent entirely the wrong way.
Two more stepped into the fray, taking the place of their injured brethren.
"They will swing together. Aim for their backs."
Issei rolled under the sweeping halberds, and brought Boosted Gear like a hammer down against the spines of both. They dropped, collapsing like the first. The ground dented where they fell.
"Behind me. The helm is the point of weakness."
The boy spun on his feet, surging into combat, the blood-red gauntlet clutching again into a fist. The knight that had come for his unprotected flank was flung savagely back, his faceplate a splintered, shattered ruin. Broken pieces of metal sprinkled down like rain.
"Next one. Get under his guard. Abdomen. Slightly to the right."
The Templar doubled over as Boosted Gear found its mark, driving into the gap where the holy seals did not cover, pulverizing the unprotected steel and the flesh beneath.
"The leg. Thigh. Be cautious. He will swing for your neck."
The talons flashed, raking over metal, cutting into it like a knife through butter. The knight fell back, hobbling on his one good leg, dragging the ravaged remains of the other behind him.
"Shoulder is unprotected. Aim for the space between the parchment."
Another warrior crashed to the ground, nursing the cracked, ruptured mess that had once been a pauldron. His compatriots retreated, and they were given a temporary moment to breathe. Half a dozen bodies were piled around their feet, some unmoving, others writhing in pain. Those that still stood were in barely better condition. The armor that had been so immaculate, so pristine when the battle started now sported numerous gashes and cracks across their surface.
He noticed that they were no longer chanting now. No longer saying the words.
Issei was grinning as he returned to his side.
"That. Was. Awesome!"
He frowned. Not at him, but at something else entirely. Inside his mind, Lucia's power continued to work, overloading his senses with information, suffusing his brain with flickering imagery.
He pointed and the boy's gaze followed. The excited look abruptly fell from his face.
He agreed, even if no words came from his lips. They had relied on his Persona's power to overcome their foes. The others had no such luxury.
Koneko and Asia had been pushed fully onto the balcony, harassed all the way by Templar blades. Out of all of them, they had suffered the most throughout the fight. Koneko was no slouch when it came to combat, and her endurance made sure she could last in any contest. But the one she had been protecting had no such ability. Asia, for all her healing aptitude, had no fighting abilities to call her own, which meant Koneko had to defend the former priestess as well as herself. This, to the petite girl's credit, she had done remarkably well. But it was inevitable that a crack would slip in her defenses, an opening their enemies were bound to take advantage of.
The Templar detached himself from his cohorts hemming the girl in. Koneko saw this and tried to intersect him. Halberds clasped in plated fists forced her back, and the lone warrior continued, unimpeded. The polearm in his hands lowered until the thick spike that was its end was level with his target.
Asia took a step back for every one the knight took forward. Her own frightened expression was reflected back at her by the blade's mirror-like sheen.
He could sense her desperation from here, as could the one beside him.
"Asia!" Issei cried out, "Shit, shit, shit!"
The boy's back sprouted bat-like wings. No. Not enough time.
He reached out and his fingers fastened over the devil's collar, jerking him back. Lucia's presence disappeared from his conscience, and in her place, Belial returned. Its demented laughter howled into his head.
Issei's eyes widened in surprise, then in realization. A fierce grin latched onto his face.
Already he was calculating trajectories, estimating distances. Lucia had given him more than enough information before she vanished. Still, a niggling doubt crept into his mind.
"I might miss."
The boy's gaze settled on the various protrusions around the balcony that could prove very painful if collided against. When he looked back, none of the fierceness had faded.
"Don't miss then."
He smiled. Demonic strength lanced through his arm.
"Don't worry Asia!" Issei inhaled a deep breath as he was whipped back, then let it all out as he was hurled into the air, "I'm cooooooommmmmiiiiinnnnngggg!"
He frowned at the devil's choice of battlecry, realized after a second just how wrong it sounded, and fought hard not to cover his face with his palm.
At least he had the fortune of seeing Issei land. The devil-turned-missile flew in a perfect arc towards the balcony, yelling all the way. His intended target turned, hesitated almost comically at the sight that greeted him, before the crimson gauntlet crashed into his helm and put it along with the Templar into the adjacent wall.
Displaced rubble piled around the knight's twitching feet. He nodded to himself. It had been an exceptionally good throw. Then the halberds returned in the periphery of his vision, swinging in vengeful hands, and devils hurled at sufficient velocity became the last thing on his mind.
The halberds burned demon flesh. He learned that the hard way. A particularly accurate blow had threatened to amputate his left arm at the shoulder. He had thrown the limb away from the falling blade's path at the last second, and instead of biting deep into flesh, the polearm merely grazed his arm. It had still been enough to fuse the fabric of his shirt with his skin. Pain had lanced into his mind, made all the more acute due to the presence that resided in his head. Belial's rage was a physical thing, and it translated into a gout of flame he had flung in the offending Templar's way. Not enough to kill but enough to make them hesitate.
At least he could do that. All around him his allies fought the same foes and suffered far worse.
Irina exchanged blows with a squad of knights, her sword of light dancing in elegant patterns. They might as well been pinpricks against her foes' enchanted warplate. In return, halberds cleaved down at her in every direction and forced her to constantly retreat. Freed had long since joined the fighting and had chosen Xenovia as his opponent. It had been clear from the first clash that the wielder of Durandal was the superior swordsman, but Xenovia had no bodyguard of Templars to call her own, and that made all the difference. The enemy exorcist would constantly withdraw behind the wall of halberd points when his opponent gained the upper hand and dart out again when his minions had worn Xenovia down for another try. For all its simplicity, the tactic was working. The girl was visibly tiring, and the immaculate form she had displayed when the battle began had been reduced to the most basic blocks and parries. Durandal, a sword worthy of kings, became nothing more than a piece of metal draped in lethal energy in her hands.
Here was a lesson that both he and the other members of SEES had learned when exploring the depths of Tartarus. A weapon was only as strong as its wielder. No matter how fabled the weapon was, it was still dependent on its user's skill. And once exhaustion set in, once weariness bit into bone, the prominence of a weapon mattered little. The same applied here, but instead of Shadows they were fighting humans, who were much more capable when it came to tactics.
That much had been apparent when he had tried to link up with his allies on three separate occasions, and been rebuffed each time. His enemies gave him no time to rest, no time to recover, constantly attacking, constantly probing at his flanks, threatening to overwhelm him at the slightest hesitation he showed. He couldn't even summon Belial if he wanted to, such was the nature of this combat, where a moment of indecision could invite the fall of a blade onto his unprotected body.
Human discipline. When it was married to determination, even if it was as zealous as this, could become a very fearsome thing.
The only good he could think of about this situation was that they still refrained from chanting. They had deduced that he was the least affected by their words, which was only partially true, and thus abstained from saying them. Instead, they fought in absolute silence, ironclad warriors whose uniform, meticulous motions made them seem more machine than man.
That same silence could not be said for those Templars that assailed his allies on the opposite end of the chamber. Koneko, Issei, and Asia had long since moved down from the balcony, breaking free of the trap, only to fall into another one. A squad of knights had broken ranks from the ones challenging him and marched rapidly to counter. Together, they formed a pincer with those that were descending down the stairwell in pursuit and crushed the three devils against the wall leading to the gate.
He could only chance an occasional gaze in their direction, such was the ferocity of the foes that pressed him. What few images he saw worried him. The Templars were closing in all around the trio, and with their backs to the wall, that left them with little room to maneuver. Already he could sense the desperation in their movements as they strove in vain to break free from the ring of advancing enemies.
That was all he got to see before plated forms blocked his vision and he was forced to defend against their relentless onslaught. When he had the opportunity to look again it was to discover that the knights had separated Issei and Asia away from Koneko. He gritted his teeth and began to try and forge a path to them. The Templars that were in front of him immediately changed tactics. Their halberds bit into the air in vicious strokes, and he had to do his best to avoid them all the while trying to push his way through to his beleaguered allies. They were waiting for him to make a mistake. This he knew. And while so far he hadn't committed any, this sudden change in the flow of battle threatened that record.
In the distance he saw Issei ducking a heavy swing. The boy was too quick in getting up, and the return sweep caught him unawares. The thick wooden haft crashed against his temple, temporarily stunning him. He went down wordlessly. Asia was the boy's side in an instant, but her presence was callously disregarded. Their enemies were not fools, and they had seen enough of their abilities to recognize the priestess's lack of fighting ability.
He quickened his pace, striving to reach them, and nearly ate a thrust to his face for his trouble. The Templars that surrounded him would not let him go that easily. He crushed the rising sense of frustration inside him. Taking unnecessary risks would do them no good.
Issei awoke with a start. The devil tried to rise, but a plated boot planted itself onto his chest and forced him back down, effectively pinning him to the ground. Asia cried out and wrapped her arms around the trunk-like leg, futilely pulling at it. A blur of silver was the response she received, and the former priestess was backhanded casually away, sent sprawling by an armored fist. The one who landed the blow glared down at her, his iron visage cold and merciless.
"Your turn will come, witch," the Templar nodded to the knight next to him, "Finish it, brother."
The warrior raised his halberd, the bladed tip aiming for the boy's heart. Issei glared at the point that dangled over his chest and continued to struggle. Boosted Gear clawed uselessly against the man's legplates, leaving thin furrows in the armor but doing nothing else. His tormentor let out a steely chuckle. He could hear Irina screaming out Issei's name, Asia doing the same, and in the meantime all he could do was try and pound his way sluggishly through the foes that waylaid him at every side.
The knight heaved his weapon up, readying for the final strike. Plated digits squeezed the haft in a firm grip, then abruptly relaxed. The halberd slid free from spasming fingers, and the Templar looked down to where the tip of a demon sword jutted from his chest. He made a wet, choking sound. Blood weeped from the faceslit in his helm. Like a falling statue, the knight keeled over, his knees hitting the ground with a metallic thud, followed by the rest of the body and revealing his killer at last.
"I don't leave my friends." Kiba spat.
The other Templars reacted, bringing their halberds to bear. But it was too late. Kiba was too quick, and at such close quarters, the extended range of the polearms became their greatest disadvantage. The devil slipped under the guard of the first, avoided the knight's clumsy attempts to parry, and opened him up from hip to sternum. The second bellowed in anger, the words of another catechism already on his lips. Kiba silenced him with a thrust into the soft mail around his throat.
The third was also within striking distance, and unlike the first two was at a range where he could use his halberd to its full effectiveness. The knight stood a real chance of harming the boy had he not reached there first. Breaking through the gauntlet of foes, he was behind the Templar just as the knight was about to swing and brought Belial's strength hammering down in the form of a fist.
The sigils etched onto the flowing parchment flared briefly with light before simultaneously winking out.
The man roared in pain as every bone from his hip down abruptly shattered. Kiba whirled on his feet, just in time to see the knight collapsing in front of him. The boy grinned and twirled the blades in his hands before placing both at the neck of the Templar, one sword for each side, mimicking the cutting edges of a guillotine. He knew what was about to come next and looked away. Kiba didn't, and when the devil brought his arms together, the resulting spray of blood jetted out and painted a streak of crimson across his face.
A helm bounced away and a body slumped to the floor, minus a head. Kiba stared at it, then at him. The smile on his lips was almost feral in its intensity.
He blinked at him.
This time it was directed to everyone. Asia winced and half carried, half dragged Issei upright. Koneko appeared by her side, a gash on her forehead and helped her, throwing the boy's other arm around her shoulders. Irina and Xenovia came next, retreating from their fights. The latter's sword arm hung loosely from her shoulder, broken without a doubt. Durandal was in her other hand, wielded in a one-handed grip.
They gathered around them, bloodied, wounded, and though Asia was healing them, it did nothing to wipe the exhaustion from both their minds and bodies.
Kiba jerked his head in the direction of the immense double doors.
"Get out of here!" the devil snarled at them, "I will hold them back," the blade in his hand was lifted before they could argue, pointing to their chests, "I am the best swordsman here. Any other of you will not last."
Koneko looked into the boy's eyes, nodded, accepting. She grabbed a reluctant Asia and together they carried a struggling Issei through the doorway.
"The sword!" Xenovia protested, her gaze riveted on Excalibur and the grinning figure that carried it, "We must get the sword back!"
The boy laughed harshly and wiped the blood from his face.
"It's either the sword or your life. Choose."
No truer words had ever been spoken.
The exorcist glowered at him and seemed like she was about to say something bitingly in response. Irina made the decision for her and pushed the wielder of Durandal through. The last look she gave them was tinged with solemn respect.
And then it was just the two of them. He smiled. Déjà vu.
"Go," Kiba jerked his head in his direction, "Not even an Archdemon will help you here. Those weapons of theirs will cut through anything that is demonic."
What he said could not be questioned. Their halberds had been particularly troublesome. The seals on their armor even more so. These Templars had come prepared to face demons and proved themselves worthy opponents. If demons were the only Personas he had.
"Go with them," the boy repeated then flourished his blades towards the reforming foe, "I should not have abandoned you all. Let me make my penitence here."
Look at him. So brave. So courageous. So worthy of being saved.
"No," Kiba glanced down in surprise at the hand that had been placed on his shoulder, "Not your penitence. Your penitence," he nodded to the doors where the rest had disappeared through, "is through there. This fate," the fingers squeezed firmly around the devil's shoulder, "Let it be mine."
The sword-user's eyes widened. He could see the words that were beginning to form on his lips. He smiled and pushed, the Archdemon's strength becoming his own for another brief second.
Kiba shot through the entranceway in a blur, propelled by immense force. The gates shut behind him with a clang. No one would be getting through them now.
He turned to see a phalanx of halberd tips pointing at his chest.
"That was very touching of you," Freed cocked his head to one side, "Very moving. Sacrificing yourself so the rest of your friends could get away. The stoic hero, silent as he stares down the encroaching foe," the crowd of Knights Templar advanced, and the deadly tips of their weapons inched closer, "I wonder how silent you will be when I'm carving you apart piece by piece and flaying the skin from your bones."
He ignored the sadistic leer that had formed over the man's face. Ignored the almost orgasmic tone in his opponent's voice. His gaze was centered on the bodies that lay still and unmoving behind the wall of knights. Plated forms split and sundered, leaking cooling blood on the tiled floor. Enemies. Foes. Humans. People. That was what they were in the end. Take away all the titles, all the names, and that was all they were. People. Lives. Potential. Potential that would never be used again.
He did not regret their deaths. He regretted that there was a need for their deaths in the first place.
His gaze flickered back to the one that had started it all, the man in the white cloak who stood behind the ironclad warriors, not leading them as he should have, but hiding behind them. Cruelty. Malice. Cowardice. These were human traits, and as much as he wished to deny them, he could not. It would be hypocritical of him to do so. He did not judge. He merely accepted.
"I accept you, Freed Sellzen, for who you are."
The man cackled. The sneer on his face made it clear just how contemptuous he was of that statement.
"Is that supposed to make me want to redeem myself?"
He cocked his head to one side. The very idea.
"No. I am going to kill you. I just wanted you to know that I accept you before I kill you."
His opponent seemed taken aback at those words, then the sadistic expression resurfaced, and he licked his lips hungrily.
"Brave words for a devil about to die."
He did not deign him worthy of a rebuttal and instead turned to the throng of knights that surrounded him.
"The rest of you need not die with him. If you leave, I will spare your lives."
They laughed at him. Thick and mocking, the sound that came from their sneering helms was tinged with metallic disdain. He could not blame them. They were veterans of their craft, exorcists without peer, and here he was, a single devil, alone and telling them to run. In their view, at least. It was the wrong view, but they would find out all the same.
"While we thank you for this generous offer," Freed gestured airily, "I believe we would rather stay. It would be far more fun to kill you and your friends. Don't worry," the exorcist shrugged nonchalantly, "We'll catch up to them, and then we'll violate their corpses, just for good measure. Gregor," one of the knights turned, his armor more ornate than the others, an officer or leader without a doubt, "If you would do the honors?"
The Templar heaved his massive halberd over his shoulder and stepped purposefully for him.
"It shall be done," he boomed, the weapon rising in his gauntlets in a two-handed grip, "Die demon, and sup with your foul minions in the depths of Hell."
The polearm swung for his head, the blade of silver singing its devastating song as it arced down. By then, the power was already there, coalescing in his mind, replacing Belial's essence with its own unique presence. The halberd halted centimeters from his face, the blade trembling as it was stopped by sudden, immense force.
"What?" his foe had time to snarl.
And then it exploded in his hands, the weapon, detonating in a flash of brilliant light. Its wielder howled in pain and fell to his knees. The knight held up his hands and all could see the smoking stumps that were once fingers jutting from his gauntlets.
His own hands were on the Templar's plated helm a second later, a palm placed at each side, and for a split second their eyes met.
The man screamed.
Steam erupted from the visors in his helm, exploded outwards from the joints in his armor, blasting out from every vulnerable slit in his plated form. The Templar thrashed in his grip, clawing at him, beating futilely against his body, but he refused to relent and held him there, all the while as the stink of burning flesh drifted up his nose and the screams became indistinguishable from the hiss of venting steam.
Finally it ended. The knight's armored frame collapsed in on itself, folding in like a stack of cards, and all he was left with was the helm in his hands. Steam still emitted from the menacing eyeslits.
He threw the helm aside. It bounced on the stone floor before rolling to a stop at their feet. The insides glowed white hot.
The silence that settled was marred by a palpable aura of dread.
He stepped over the heap of smoldering armor, stepped over the pile of ruined metal that had once been a man.
I am Thou, and Thou art I.
They drew back in fear as the figure materialized behind him, then in awe as wings of bright luminescence erupted from its armored shoulders.
From the Light of thy Soul I have Come. His Unwavering Will. His Divine Hand.
Freed's mouth opened and closed in rapid motions. Excalibur dangled, then fell from his limp fingers.
I am the Herald. The Vanguard. The Judgment that Shall Wreathe this World in Fire at the End of Days.
Some of them knelt. On plated knees, they fell to the ground. Weapons clattered to the floor, their purpose forgotten.
I am Uriel, Flaming Sword of God.
The figure saw this, and a grim-lipped smile spread over its perfect face.
And I have Come Forth to Slay the Unrighteous.
The corridor was dark and only weakly lighted. They flew through it at a record pace. The sounds of battle grew dimmer with every step they took, until it became nothing more than faint echoes in their ears, punctuated by the occasional scream that made them shudder.
"What's going on back there?" Issei murmured.
"Don't look back," said Irina, leading the way, "Keep on moving!"
She pointed to the immense gates that was ahead of them, bronze plated like the ones they had passed through. They converged on it, still running, and charged through. Their feet skidded to a halt into an antechamber just like the first. Ornamented balconies hung far above their heads, their railings draped with sheets of black cloth. The only source of light came from stained glass windows, beaming down and creating flickering shadows that danced on pale, barren walls. Motes of dust drifted in and out of sight, and along with the coat of grime that appeared on each gallery suggested that they were the only ones to have seen this place in a very long time.
"I have a bad feeling about this," Xenovia muttered.
The sound of running feet made them turn. Kiba, demon swords dripping with blood, made his way through the doors. He looked shell-shocked and shrugged off the questions that were directed at his arrival. All except one.
"Where is Arisato-san?" Issei's gaze darted between the sword-user and the entranceway he had come from.
"He is still back there."
Something very close to fury materialized on his counterpart's face.
"And you just left him there!?"
"I was supposed to be the one holding them back," the sword-user still looked stunned, as if not sure of what had just happened, "He pushed me through."
Issei's hands wrapped around the boy's collar. He shook him like a ragdoll.
"Friends don't leave friends!"
Kiba did not try and fight it. His eyes were wide as they gazed at each of them in turn.
"He pushed me through," the boy repeated. He sounded like a broken record.
"Stop it you two! This isn't helping!" Irina interjected herself between them before it could get worse.
Issei stepped back, still glowering.
"We have to go back for him," he turned to face them, "We can't just leave him!"
"If we do that, what was the point of his sacrifice?" Irina asked softly.
"You've given him up for dead already?" Issei snarled.
"Arisato-san can't die," Asia added in, "He is too kind a person to die."
None had an answer to the pleading in her tone.
"I am saying he gave us the time to escape," the girl's expression softened, "We should not waste that chance."
Issei stared down and made no further comment. His hands balled into fists at his side. Turning, Irina nodded in Kiba's direction.
"Do you know a way out?" there was no recrimination in her tone, but the boy still flinched, "You went through the same passageway as us."
The sword-user shook his head.
"I never made it this far. I got only halfway before coming back."
Xenovia looked back and forth between them.
"What now then?"
The sound of the gates suddenly closing behind them was like a death knell to their ears.
"You didn't think you could get away, did you?"
The balconies came alive with plated forms. Halberds rose in armored fists, along with the bulky stocks of black-mat crossbows. The sound of bolts being slid in their grooves echoed hauntingly in the chamber. A single figure dressed differently than the others appeared, hands clasped behind his robed back.
"You are all very bothersome, did you know that?" Valper frowned down upon them, "You're just like all those used experiments I've discarded. Meddlesome things that keep reappearing, no matter how many times they've been put down."
Kiba had lost his vacant look as soon as the man appeared. The boy ground his teeth together as he stared at the one that had eluded him for so long. His hands tightened around the grip of his swords.
"All of you just need to go away and die like all the others."
"Shut up, you fat priest!" Issei shook a fist up towards the balcony, "Once we get up there, we're going to kick your ass!"
Valper chortled. Turning, he patted the crossbow of the Templar next to him affectionately.
"See these? They may be primitive, but they get the job done. For all the advantage of guns, it is their projectiles that leave much to be desired. Bullets are too small to hold anything of note. Even if you could inscribe them with holy energy, their mass is too insignificant to do anything besides wound," the man selected a bolt from the belt-tied quiver of another knight, "Now these," he held it up for them to see, "these are an entirely different story. You can imbue these with light energy very easily and they each have enough mass to hold a significant amount. Sure, they may not fly as fast as or be shot as many times as bullets, but what does that matter when only one is needed to kill?"
The former priest turned back to them.
"You do understand what I'm saying, don't you?" he waved the bolt in his hands like a lecturer would a stick, "You can try and come up here. We'll just have to make sure you fall back down."
The bolt was inserted back into its quiver and the warrior took his place back amongst his cohorts.
"These projectiles are the product of my genius. They are light-imbued. Capable of being mass produced. Those halberds back there," a few Templars slammed the hafts of the weapons against the floor in response, "they are the result of my brainchild as well. It is amazing what one can accomplish if one is properly funded."
"And how many lives did you take to make those weapons?" Kiba snarled. The fury on his face was barely contained.
"A few?" Valper shrugged, "Many? The number is unimportant. All that matters is the weapons were created successfully," the man's eyebrows rose a fraction over his spectacles, "And how did you know what the requirements for making these weapons are?"
The boy said nothing but continued to glare up. Valper watched him for a few seconds before his features lit up.
"Ah, I understand now. You were one of them," he nodded, pleased, "What a coincidence. I speak of failed experiments and now one appears right before my eyes. Yes… I remember you. Your name was Yuuto, wasn't it? Yuuto Kiba."
The sword-user grimaced. The grip on his weapons became so tight it was painful.
"I remember you. You had the most potential out of all the specimens. That was why you were the last to be tested," Kiba's eyes widened, "The procedures we created had to be perfected before we could use them on our most prized subjects. We had to constantly revise and recreate our steps, and we needed bodies for that. The others who did not have the same potential as you served ably in that regard. They were the guinea pigs for the guinea pigs, if you will," the priest sighed and shook his head sadly, "It is a shame the Church forced me to abandon the project so early. If I recall correctly, you were next in line for the examination table."
"My friends…" the devil choked out, "They died… so you could operate better on me?"
"We always save the best for last," Valper shrugged, "All the rest were trash or the equivalent of trash."
"You have no right to speak of them like that!"
"I have every right. They were mine. My test subjects!" anger flared across the man's face, "Do you know how long it took for me to collect all those specimens? The time it took to round all of you up!? You think we just gathered a bunch of people off the streets and threw them on tables!? No! Every experiment needs to have specimens carefully prepared! We had to go through a selection process! See if you were even compatible! That took patience and money and most importantly, time! Time I could have spent on other experiments!" Valper gestured wildly to the Templars that surrounded him, "And the Church has the gall to order me to shut down the entire project after all the pain and suffering I went through!? All that time wasted! Gone! Well, not anymore! I've affiliated myself with a faction that is far more farsighted when it comes to affairs like these!"
"The Knights Templar are one of the most extreme orders of the Church!" Xenovia spat, "They've been threatened with excommunication numerous times! And you choose to affiliate yourself with them!?"
"That's not exactly a detriment to someone who has already been excommunicated," the former priest leered, "And besides, it was so tiring having to deal with the archaic views of the main branch. Things like principles and ethics. What use are they in experiments? In the end, they just limit what you can achieve," Valper peered at them from over his glasses, "Did you know it was for those reasons that I was cast out of the Church? My own assistants, people I believed that were just as invested into research as I, ratted me out. All those experiments got to them in the end. Useless things such as morals swayed their minds and broke their will. I hear some of them even took their own lives after the project was scrapped. The guilt was too much for them to bear."
"That is because they were better people than you," Irina hissed.
"They were weaker people than I," the man shot back, "Time and time again I told them that these subjects were not to be considered human, but they did not listen. They grew attached to them, became friends with them. They put aside the glorious purpose that had been set before them just so they could keep a few pets! I could never understand such selfishness!"
"I remember…" Kiba looked down and whispered, "I remember some of them treating us with kindness…"
The chamber was built to amplify sound, and even the faintest of noises drifted up towards the ceiling.
"Yes. And those were the ones that took their own lives. It's funny that way, isn't it? Kindness did nothing for them in the end. They should have listened to me and discarded the frailty that is human emotion when they became involved with my project."
Kiba shook his head and looked up.
"Tell me something, Valper. Did you feel nothing for them? Do you not have single shred of regret for what you have done?"
"Of course I do," the man replied casually, "I regret that they could not provide me with more information before they expired."
The boy's shoulders shook with wrath, but it was an entirely different person that answered. Asia, her gentle features scrunched up in anger, her hands clasped tightly together against her chest, glared upwards at the distant figure above them.
"You are… You are a very bad person!"
An indulgent smile stretched over Valper's face as he gazed down at the girl.
"Now that is relative isn't it? I'm sure I am a bad person to you, but to the ones I gift with my talents," all around him, halberds shifted in steel hands and plated digits caressed the triggers of string-taut crossbows, "I am a very good person," the man drummed his fingers on the railing, "But now I grow tired of discussing what is good and bad. Let us instead discuss your eminent fates. If you surrender now, I promise I will take good care of you. Until your time for the examination table comes, of course," the priest's look turned predatory, "I have never had devils as test subjects before."
"We'll never let you!" Issei took a step forward and Kiba crossed his blades defiantly together in a battle stance.
"As if you have a choice," Valper scoffed, "There is no way out. You are trapped here. Did you think I made small talk with you lot just for the sake of conversation? Simpletons. It was to distract you. Already Freed should be marching through the very same passageway you travelled through with the rest of our forces. Haven't you noticed?" the man's lips curled upwards into a leer, "The sounds of combat have already faded."
They tensed. A few of them cast worried gazes back towards the doors they had come through.
"Minato," Issei murmured.
The gates abruptly opened. On groaning hinges they swung outwards
"Finally. What took you so long, Freed?" Valper squinted at the approaching silhouette, his features and body cloaked by the doors' immense shadow, "Archdemon, he might have been, but he was still only one devil. And where are the rest of your men?"
Issei shielded Asia, his arm hovering protectively in front of the girl as he spun to face this new threat. Koneko frowned and did the same. Xenovia and Irina turned, holy swords bared and ready. Even Kiba, whose stare had never left the man on the gallery, tore his gaze away to glare at the newcomer.
His pace was slow and measured. The echo of his footsteps a steady, rhythmic beat. He finally stepped out of the shadows, the light revealing all. Blue hair. The slackened, almost lazy posture. His hands would have been stuffed into his pockets had they not been needed to carry the things he brought with him.
The sword was planted between Xenovia and Irina. The tip ate into the hard floor with frightening ease. Xenovia reached out falteringly, as though scared to touch it. Irina smiled at the figure that was already walking past.
They made way for him. Koneko shook her head slowly. Her gaze flickered towards the trail of blood that were left in his wake. The girl shrugged as though she had expected it all along. Issei grinned at him. The grin grew fiercer as he saw what remained clutched in the other hand. Kiba sighed. The boy's stance relaxed and a small smile spread over his face. Only Asia seemed troubled, and that was only because of the flecks of red that dotted every inch of his clothing.
He reached the front. The Templars on the balcony trained their crossbows on him. Dozens of steel-tipped bolts pointed downwards. Somehow it did not seem like a menacing gesture at all, but a desperate one. He glanced upwards at them, and then hurled the object he had carried with him all this time.
It landed with a wet, meaty slap. An arm, its fingers still twitching, spurts of blood squirting from the stump and painting the ground with crimson smears.
The boy shrugged, almost apologetically when their gazes turned to him.
"He got away," he jerked his head back in the direction of the sword, "But he left that."
The silence that followed was broken by the enemy.
"Impossible!" Valper snarled and gripped the sides of the balcony. The Knights Templar around him shifted uneasily, "A devil cannot wield a holy sword, less alone the holiest of them!"
The figure that materialized suddenly behind the boy's back proved just how possible it was.
"Greetings," it said, its voice a lilting, melodious rasp, "I am Uriel. Tell me," it cocked its head to one side, almost in thought. The smile that formed over its face did not quite match the look in its eyes, "How do you choose to die?"
Author's Notes: Before you ask, yes, I know Kokabiel hasn't made an appearance yet, and that's because he's going to show up a little bit later in the plotline. The sword arc is going to probably be about three chapters in length (after including this one it'll be two chapters), and our resident big bad will show up before it's finished.
One of the things I've always felt that DxD lacked are credible villains. Part of the reason is the lighthearted nature of the series. Most of DxD's fights can be summarized by bad guy shows up, Issei and co. power up using some wacky, hilarious method, bad guy gets spanked. While that's fine to a certain extent, it does get stale after a while. What I hope to do in this fic is kind of change that routine. The villains will still be themselves, but I want them to feel epic, to make them more threatening. Just like the Personas Minato summons, these big bads should have a certain presence among them. Kokabiel should feel like the monster that killed God. The Old Satan Faction should be a credible threat to the peace of the world instead of dying like mooks to the current Great Satans. The Khaos Brigade should be downright dastardly at times and should do whatever it takes to win.
After all, what are epic heroes without the epic villains to challenge them?
Another thing I want to convey with this fic is that power always has consequences. As Minato reveals more and more of his Personas, not only the good factions are going to take interest. You kind of see this in this chapter. The Knights Templar as I imagine them are zealots. They are exorcists who see devils in a very black and white sort of way, and would do anything in their power to kill them, even the good ones. Just as you have extreme parties in the form of the Old Satan Faction amongst the devils, I imagine there would be the same extreme groups in the Church, the Angels, and the Fallen Angels. Heck, Kokabiel fits that definition of extremism for the Fallen Angels quite nicely. As Minato continues living in this new world, he's going to encounter more and more of these factions, and whether they will become allies or enemies remains to be seen. More importantly, Minato is going to have to realize that in order to protect the people he will eventually care about, he's going to have to use his powers in different ways. For all his potential, he is still only one person and he needs the help of others just as they need his. Now I'm not going to spoil the plot by telling just how he's going to go about using his power, but I will say this. Bonds are a major facet in all Persona games, and they're going to return here. There won't be Social Links, but I think just how they're going to be applied in this story will be satisfying for everybody.
Until next time!