What saved them in the end was not the lay of the terrain, but what was built upon it. Kuoh Academy held an expansive network of buildings, and each was of sturdy construction. Thick cement walls were the first layer of protection, and beyond them a maze of passageways and corridors that could prove a challenge to navigate to those unfamiliar with its halls. Added together and they made the academy a natural fortress, not easily taken provided that there were defenders willing to guard it. And those inside were very much willing to guard it.
The first wave of Fallen Angels poured into the school, crashing through windows, breaking down doors. They expected frightened children, unprepared teenagers, scurrying away in fear at the sight of a superior, more numerical foe. What they got was an alert enemy, dug in behind reinforced positions, well prepared for the battle at hand.
Confident in their victory, assured of their triumph, the Fallen surged into Kuoh Academy and met a brick wall of resistance.
Shadow-wreathed figures hesitated at the junction between three hallways. The network of corridors was like a labyrinth to them, and they had gotten lost just like the others before them. In the distance, the din of battle reverberated, echoed down the walls to reach them. It managed to mask the sound of steady footsteps until it was almost too late.
A lone boy approached. The Fallen swiveled on their feet and pointed light imbued weapons at him. It did not impede his progress in any way.
He carried two swords in his hands. One was a serrated, curved blade that burned with demonic fire. The second was a plain, undecorated broadsword that seemed entirely out of place compared to the other. Yet somehow, there was a palpable aura of power that clung to its straightened edge, wrapping it in a cloak of unused potential.
Both weapons were dragged along the walls. The demon sword left blackened trail marks were the bladed tip slid. The other split the wall itself, sent cracks fracturing upwards wherever it touched.
The Fallen recoiled at the sight. The boy noticed and smiled.
"This is a Nihil Weapon," Kiba twirled the sword in question expertly about his wrist, "I have no idea what it does."
Then both were bared, blade against blade, in a flawless fighting stance.
"Let's find out."
A group of Fallen Angels chased Issei and Saji through the hallways. Light spears whizzed past their heads, forcing them to duck, sinking into the walls where they missed. The two led their pursuers through a maze of corridors and two flights of stairs before skidding to a halt. Dead end. They turned to see twisted figures advancing on them, weapons lowered menacingly.
The two devils looked at each other and nodded.
Saji shot something into the ceiling. A line of glowing power. In response, sprinkler systems built into the roof came to life, drenching the hallway and its occupants with water.
Amused faces glanced up. If this was a trap, then it was a poorly sprung one. They continued to look amused until Issei bared the arm not sheathed in Boosted Gear and revealed the fat-mouthed cannon. Garlands of electricity ran down its barrel, stored lightning leaping in tendrils of whipping power.
Eyes widened in realization. Issei grinned at their expressions.
"Fry you bastards."
The cannon was slammed into the ground.
Nerves ruptured. Muscles convulsed in painful contractions. Twisted figures jerked and spasmed, shuddered as raw current traveled into their bodies before collapsing into heaps on the electrified floor. Smoke emitted from their mouths, snaked out from every opened orifice.
Saji stared at the piles of twitching bodies in front of them.
"I can't believe that worked."
"Water conducts electricity," Issei said as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
"I know that," his counterpart rolled his eyes, "I just didn't think it would work."
"Tiamat-sensei said that I should always try and find a weakness to exploit it, and if I can't find one, I should create one."
"You're just going to call one of the legendary dragons sensei now?" disbelief was apparent in Saji's tone.
"Well, she did teach me," Issei nodded, again as though it was the most natural thing in the world.
"Right then," Sona's Pawn continued to look skeptical, "What else did she say?"
A mournful expression developed over the boy's face.
"She said that I should find a way to set Ddraig free. That way, she can have her fun with him instead of me."
The way Boosted Gear flashed suggested just how averse the being within was to that idea.
All across Kuoh Academy, half a dozen similar scenes played out. Small scale engagements that heavily favored the defenders. Ambushes were sprung. Traps laid out and tripped. The defenders knew the school's halls well, and used that knowledge to their full advantage. They baited the foe into following them into darkened corners, strung them along in abandoned corridors, forced them to lose themselves amid unfamiliar intersections. All the while they sought out weaknesses, and when an enemy squad was isolated from the main body, they struck with overwhelming force, affixing their opponents' attention from the front while smashing into them from behind.
Hammer and anvil at its most rudimentary form.
Charging in blindly was a mistake, and for the first stages of the battle, that mistake cost the Fallen Angels dear. Half the initial force was neutralized in flickering firefights and savage melees that ran all across the school. The other half, savagely mauled, beat a hasty retreat, regrouping outside on academy grounds and leaving the defenders wearied but triumphant.
For a bare moment, hope glimmered, and victory seemed a distant possibility.
Then Kokabiel entered the fray. The Lord among the Grigori floated up where he could see the school in its entirety. The spears he conjured in his hands were lances of pure power, and he hurled them down in indiscriminate fashion. They detonated where they landed, flashes of angry light, creating massive craters in the earth, annihilating pavement and cement with likewise ease.
Building by building, block by block, the Fallen Angel demolished Kuoh Academy, turning looming structures into rubble, rearranging the very landscape, obliterating everything and anything to get at those inside.
The knife flashed down and buried itself up to its hilt by his head. His eyes flickered towards it then back at the one who had stabbed it down.
"Why can't I do it?" Raynare whispered, "Why can't I do it?" trembling hands left the grip of the blade and clenched at the edges of his shirt, "This is all your fault."
He smiled upwards at her.
She laughed. Pained and bitter.
"Even in a situation like this you can remain so calm… Where is your anger, Nephilim? Where is your rage for the one who betrayed you?" tears threatened to spill down her cheeks, "Where is your hatred for the one in front of you?"
"All I see in front of me," he said softly, "is someone who is hurting."
She recoiled, and for a brief instant the familiar scorn was back, flashing across her face.
"You would never understand what I went through. You could never comprehend my pain."
He smiled again.
"I will never understand because you choose not to tell me."
She hesitated. Her head dipped down, and he could sense her inner turmoil as clearly as he could see her fear.
"Do you know what happens when an angel Falls?" she finally said. Before he could reply, Raynare was already moving on, speaking so low that he had to strain to hear the words, "There is a feeling inside of you that you are sinking, sinking into something you can never get out off, that you can never escape from, and no matter how hard you try it continues to pull you under, latching onto your soul, dragging you down. It feels like you are drowning in your own thoughts, suffocating under the weight of your own emotions, and when it is over, there is nothing left of what you once were," her fingers had latched onto his shirt again, and they clung there with almost desperate strength, "And after that, it doesn't get any better. The warmth that once gave you purpose is gone forever, and in its place there is a void, a great emptiness that tears at your sanity and violates your thoughts. The things that you once enjoyed you don't ever gain happiness from again. Even your wings, the limbs that you have grown so used to become twisted mockeries of what they once were."
She looked haunted when she finished, as though reliving some long forgotten memory. It took her a moment's pause to regain herself, but even then, when she next spoke, her voice still trembled.
"You get used to it. Eventually. Some may even enjoy it. To those who Fall willingly, these feelings are liberating to them. But not all angels Fall willingly. Some of us are tricked. Some of us are betrayed. Some of us fall in love and suffer both."
"Kokabiel," he said neutrally.
She nodded, her face contorted into an emotion he could not describe.
"I do not know how he first dug his claws into me. How he even knew my name. I was just a normal angel. There was nothing special about me that would have set me apart from the countless others. Perhaps that is what made it so attractive. So alluring. That someone like him would consider me worthy of attention, even if it was the wrong sort," another harsh laugh, more pained this time than bitter, "He was so very earnest about it. So very sincere. He told me that I was the only one who could ever understand him, that I was the only one who could help him. He promised me that he was finding a way back into Heaven's graces," the Fallen Angel scoffed, "As if that was even possible. But what did I know at the time? I was too idealistic, too naïve. I thought that if I could help a Grigori redeem himself, I could earn honor and esteem for myself. More than that, I thought I was doing the right thing."
Her gaze became like glass and he resisted the strange urge to comfort her. The fact that he felt the need to was just as strange.
"It was only later that I learned it was all a charade. A joke. That was what it was in the end. I was nothing more than a plaything to him, a toy to be discarded when the initial novelty wore off. And I was not the only one. How many more others like me Fell because of monsters like him?" her gaze bore into him, as though searching for a hidden answer, "I do not regret loving. Never that. What I regret it that it is him who I love. That at least, is what I tell myself. Even now, I can't distinguish the difference."
She heaved a shuddering breath before watching him with hooded eyes.
"I told him. When his minions visited me I told them what I knew. I tried to stop myself. I really did. But so much leaked out. That's why he chose to strike while you were away. So that you would not interfere with his plans. Kokabiel is afraid of you. He is afraid you will stop him. So he ordered me to delay you. To kill you. But I can't. I just can't."
"Get off of me."
Raynare smiled resignedly at him.
"There's the anger. Now we wait for the rage. Then the hatred."
"No," he replied, "Not that. You are starting to become heavy."
She blinked at him, surprised enough that she did not resist when he placed his hands on her stomach and pushed her lightly off. She stared at him from the couch as he stood up.
"I don't understand you. You should be angry! You should be enraged! You should hate me! How can you be this damn stoic!?"
Those last words were almost yelled out. He turned to look at her.
"When has anger solved anything? When has rage? Or hatred?"
"I could have killed you," she whispered.
He made a show of examining himself before shrugging.
"You did a rather bad job of it."
A half-smile was better than the bitter ones he had seen her make so far. She rose when he skirted around the table and made for the door.
"Where are you going?"
"They will need my help," he responded.
"No!" the alarm in her voice was what made him turn back, "Don't go! You can't go!"
He looked at her in bemusement.
"Are you afraid for me?"
Raynare glared at him.
"So what if I am?" that stunned him, and he was searching for a reply when she spoke again, "It is pointless for you to go."
He shook his head.
"It is never pointless to help someone."
"You don't understand," her sigh was accompanied by another bitter smile, "It is pointless because they're most likely all dead."
The figure descended from the sky, floating leisurely down to the shattered husk of what had once been Kuoh Academy's gymnasium. Debris piled around his feet, pulverized pieces of cement, broken shards of glass. A slight tilt from his head and they became nothing more than drifting motes of ash; clearing the wreckage, setting the stage.
"There is no use in hiding," Kokabiel smiled, "I know you are in here. Reveal yourselves to me."
And just like that, the trap was sprung.
First came the demon sword. It flew from Kiba's hand, straight and true. Kokabiel caught it bare-handed, the tip halting scant centimeters from his face. The Fallen Angel glanced at the blade before smirking at the one who had thrown it.
"Is that the best you can do?"
The sword detonated in his face. Exploded in a flash of purple light. The smiling features was erased, vanished among a cloud of thick smoke and kicked dust.
Like ghosts they emerged from their ambush places and used the distraction to attack.
A dark blur of speed. Irina, cloak long since cast aside, surged into the Fallen Angel's flank. She had wielded one Excalibur in the battle at the cathedral. Now she had two and she thrust both into the shadow wreathed in smoke.
Tsubaki launched herself from the rafters. The height gave her a vantage point and the distance provided momentum for the blow. The naginata spun in her hands before coming down fast and hard against the figure's shoulder.
Kiba did not produce another demon sword. Instead, the weapon that had drank well in Fallen blood that night materialized in his fists. The Nihil Sword, as plain as any other blade, but so much the deadlier. He charged in from the side and cleaved it deep into the flesh of the other shoulder.
Last was Xenovia. She came from the front, counting on her allies to have already immobilized the foe. Durandal gleamed in her hands, levelled like a spear. This was to be the killing blow. The most worthy strike saved for the most worthy blade. With a fierce shout the exorcist drove the weapon into the figure's vulnerable stomach and out his back.
For a split second there was absolute stillness. Then the smoke was blown away, the cloud of dust whipped back, and the one they had sought to kill revealed himself in all his glory.
"More please," ivory fangs bared in a mocking grin, "May I have another?"
Xenovia stared in shock at the sight of Durandal embedded up to its hilt in the Fallen Angel's body. Stared then reared back as the leering face smashed into her own. Nose broken, vision a bloody haze, she staggered away, disoriented and helpless to respond. Kokabiel lifted a leisurely arm and opened her up from shoulder to groin with a single downward swipe. Thick arterial spray arched into the air. The exorcist sagged to her knees and slumped forward. Blood pooled beneath her prone form, cascading out in rivers.
In the same motion, a casual backhand lifted Tsubaki off her feet and sent her hurtling back. She broke two wooden beams in her path before the wall arrested her momentum. The girl's head slammed painfully against the cement and her eyes immediately became dull and senseless. Her body left a trail of crimson as it slid down.
And all this had happened in the time it took for them to blink.
Irina managed to drag both of her weapons free before the hand came back and grasped her by the throat. In one fluid movement, Kokabiel hurled her over his shoulder and smashed her into the floor. The impact drove the breath out of her lungs and the girl started coughing, fighting for air. The foot crushed into her sternum a second later, and the coughing turned into gurgling as the exorcist began choking on her own blood.
Kiba tried to leap back. Tried to get away. The Fallen Angel lashed out, impossibly quick, and snaked his fingers around the boy's wrist. The sword-user was jerked back before he could escape and lifted into the air by one arm. Cursing, Kiba formed a demon sword in his free hand and rammed it up towards his tormentor's face. Again the blade was caught, and though it had been forged with the purpose of burning in mind, the fire that wreathed its edges did little to the palm that grasped it. Kokabiel flexed his wrist and the weapon broke, snapped in half like a twig.
"This is the arm that threw the sword," cruel, red eyes flickered to the limb being held, "It's not yours any longer."
Kiba screamed. Screamed as his arm began dissolving, began disintegrating. Kokabiel's vice-like grip burned with wrathful heat, searing away skin and flesh alike with sickening ease. Without anything to hold him up, the boy fell heavily to the floor and clutched at the stump that ended at his shoulder.
The Fallen Angel picked him back up by scruff of the neck like a man would a beaten dog.
"Yuuto!" Tsubaki had regained consciousness. She struggled back up, eyes still dazed.
"You want him?" the Grigori cocked his head to one side, "You may have him."
A contemptuous flick from the Fallen Angel's hand flung the boy in Tsubaki's direction. The two crashed together amid a jumble of tangled limbs.
The other hand reached down and pulled Durandal out. Kokabiel brought it up to his face, studied it with scorn, before dropping it disdainfully by the prone form of Xenovia. The holy sword clattered to the floor and stained itself crimson with the blood of its own wielder. The fingers returned and pried the naginata loose.
"You may have this as well."
Kiba had managed to stand with Tsubaki's aid. He went back down again, the polearm sticking out of his back like a mast. The girl at his side cried out in anguish.
"The sound of your voice suggests you have feelings for him," Kokabiel advanced on the two, "Good. I will wait before killing you then. I will allow you the pleasure of watching him die. That way, the last thing engraved into your minds will be this bloodstained memory," the Grigori smiled, "It is the least I can do for two young people in love."
Yet Kiba did not die. Somehow, he seemed to be recovering his strength. The polearm was pulled out of him by Tsubaki. The gaping wound that was left mended itself. His arm too. In place of the stump a healthy new limb was growing, extending, and the boy used it to push himself back up, wary and alert.
Kokabiel frowned and turned to see the two exorcists being similarly affected. Their wounds closed, their flesh reknit. Irina retrieved both her fallen Excaliburs before retreating. Xenovia did the same, grasping Durandal with both hands before leaping away. The only sign that showed she had nearly died was three jagged tears over her combat suit. Both of them withdrew, landing at the side of their allies.
"Ah," the Grigori's features brightened in understanding, "So you've brought support. Commendable. And where are you, cleric? Where have you hidden yourself? Did you think I would not recognize your power for what it is?" blood-red eyes scanned their surroundings like searchlights. They narrowed at an area hidden by shadows, "There you are."
A mere glance sent rubble and debris blasting backwards, revealing the one who had used them for cover. Asia took a step back in fear as the Fallen Angel's cruel gaze fixated on her like a cat would a caught mouse. Immediately, her allies went to her aid, placing themselves in front of her, shielding her with their own bodies. Kokabiel ignored them and remained focused on the former priestess.
"Twilight Healing. Such a useful tool. Had things gone my way, it would have been mine long ago."
Asia's eyes widened. The Grigori leered at her expression.
"You did not think that it was a coincidence that it was us who greeted you first after you were excommunicated, did you? Nothing is a coincidence. Azazel wanted to study your ability. He sent his underlings to retrieve you. He did not realize his underlings had long since become my underlings. The difference between us is that while he wanted merely to study your power, I wanted it for myself," the ivory fangs bared again, "You were meant to have died that day. The ones Azazel sent, I told to harvest your Sacred Gear and bring it to me. They failed."
Kokabiel reared back. Disgust ran down his features.
"The problem with lackeys is that sometimes they develop their own feelings. They grow attached. They become useless. The one I felt sure was most loyal to me became very much useless," the Fallen Angel shrugged, "Perhaps she pitied your plight. Perhaps she saw something within you that reminded her of herself. Whatever it was, she started protecting you, shielding you from harm in her own twisted way. And whenever I demanded the Sacred Gear, she would stall for time. Time and time again she would come up with excuses and wear down my already thin patience. It got to the point that I that had to send another to bring her into line."
"Freed," Asia whispered.
"Yes," Kokabiel grinned, "The problem with human lackeys is that they are even more susceptible to weakness. Mankind has been always vulnerable to their primal urges, and for a crazed exorcist, Freed had a great many."
"No…" the girl placed both hands over her mouth.
"He agreed to help her stall. For a price, of course. And what did she have to trade beside her own body?"
They looked shocked at that. Stunned. Sickened. Yet that seemed only to heighten their opponent's enjoyment. The Fallen Angel drank in their dismay like it was a fine wine.
"And when she could no longer come up with any excuses, she decided to try one last desperate method. She thought that if I could not have Twilight Healing, then perhaps I would be satisfied with another Sacred Gear, one that is even more powerful than yours," Asia shook her head vehemently, as though trying to deny the words being said, "A Longinus. One of the Thirteen. She believed if I could be sated with one of the most powerful weapons in existence, I would forget about Twilight Healing and in extension, spare your life. And so she killed him, hoping to retrieve the Sacred Gear that would preserve your existence. A life for a life. There is something delectably twisted about that, don't you think?"
The one the question was directed to couldn't form an immediate response. Kiba placed a steadying hand over the former priestess's shoulder, but even then it barely brought her from the brink. Kokabiel chuckled at the girl's near catatonic state his words had caused.
"She was wrong, by the way. I don't just want Twilight Healing. I want both. And after today, I will get them. They will be the consolation prizes along with all the other things that were denied to me," the Grigori smiled at them, "Do not worry. After I pry them from your broken corpses I will use them as they were intended to be used. For destruction and mayhem."
They took off at that. They recognized a superior foe when they saw one, and even the most hardheaded amongst them would not willingly tempt death. Irina and Xenovia retreated, leaping over heaps of rubble and crumbling ruins with superhuman swiftness. Tsubaki and Kiba lifted Asia between them and darted into the air.
Kokabiel watched them go with all the confidence of a predator observing cornered prey.
"Running will not save you," he rose slowly into the air. Light spears formed in the center of his palms, "The night is still young and I have plenty of time to make this place your tomb."
The explosion obliterated the building they had been sheltering in and hurled the two of them savagely through its remains. They landed hard, falling amidst pieces of shattered glass and broken cement. One of them managed to free himself, raising on his elbows and heaving himself from the debris that had nearly crushed him.
Issei coughed and looked back at the eviscerated husk that had once been a portion of Kuoh Academy with his one good eye. The other was a swollen, bruised mess, and caused him to hiss in pain whenever it tried to blink open. A sudden realization made him forget about the pain. The devil glanced worriedly around until he found what he was looking for.
Sona's Pawn lay where he had fallen, face down amongst the wreckage. One of his arms was bent the wrong way, angled awkwardly at the elbow. Issei crawled to him, wincing as his own wounds were dragged along the glass-lined floor.
"Come on! Come on!"
He turned the boy over, and sagged in relief when Saji let out a deep groan. His friend was out cold, knocked unconscious by their impact, but still alive. A morbid part of him wondered just how long that would last. Grunting under the strain, Issei began trying to move his fellow Pawn, began trying to haul him back towards academy grounds. It was a challenging thing to do with his own injuries nagging him, and he could hardly move without feeling pain stabbing from an open wound. The ache dulled his senses, and when added to his focus on the body he was trying to drag away, made the boy lose sight of his surroundings.
That was a mistake.
Issei took a second's reprieve to chance a glance up. What he saw made him immediately stop what he was doing. For there, outlined against the blood-red sky, dozens of Fallen Angels hovered, light spears gripped in black-clad fists.
They floated above the ground, but low enough so that Kuoh Academy's walls obstructed them from view. That had been the intent from the very start, the boy realized. To be hidden out of sight until the time came. Kokabiel was monstrously cruel, but that did not make him a fool. Quite the contrary, it made him all the more cunning. The first wave that was sent in had never been more than a scouting force. That explained why there was so few of them. Why the attack had seemed so lackluster. Even the pack he and Saji had finished off numbered barely more than half a dozen. And when the fighting turned against them, the Fallen had retreated, escaped back through the entrances they had made. They had thought at first that was because their enemies had been truly driven off. Now it was made brutally apparent just how wrong that assumption was.
For here was the true vanguard. The meat of the attack. The second wave.
Breastplates of black iron covered their lithe frames, the armor ugly and misshapen. Equally ugly helms sat over their heads, shaped into the snarling visages of long dead animals. Some of them were bedecked by dark plated horns. Others sprouted obtrusions that resembled a crown of thorns. Altogether these Fallen Angels looked more menacing than their lesser equipped brethren, and their armor was not the only thing that made them appear so. The light spears in their hands seemed to glow with more brilliance, seemed to radiate a far more deadly intent than those that had been thrown so far.
If the first wave was the probing fingers, then this was the armored fist, meant to smash and pulverize anything in its way. Shock troops. Concealed away to conserve their strength for the assault that would break the enemy's back.
It struck the boy then that there had been a second reason for Kokabiel's way of fighting. The Grigori had been obliterating the sections of the school to force them out of hiding. This was true enough. He had also been destroying parts of the academy that were far away from the battle. They too had first thought that it was wanton cruelty that fueled the Fallen Angel's hand. Meaningless spite hurled in the form of earth-shattering spears. But now, the intent could not become more clear.
Without Kuoh Academy's buildings to give them cover, without the barest of rubble to hide behind, the second wave would sweep over them like a black tide, destroying everything in its path. Without obstruction to ruin their aim, the light spears could be hurled with unerring accuracy, and they would be helpless to respond. Even if they took to the air to escape, it would still be playing into the enemy's hands. These Fallen Angels were far tougher than the ones they had faced so far, and Issei did not doubt for a minute that each of them was at least capable of matching a Pawn in power. And there was a great many of them.
These thoughts swam darkly in his head. The realization was like a bitter blade twisted into his gut. He could not leave and inform his master and the rest of her peerage. Saji was still here, and he could not leave him behind. Even if he wanted to, he would not get far, for just as he had seen them, they had noticed him as well.
A detachment of Fallen broke from the rest. The leisurely way they flew suggested just how low of a threat they perceived him to be. One of them, wearing a sneering helm over his features, descended at gliding speed, light spear crouched low like a jousting lance.
Issei swore under his breath. He saw an outcrop of cement behind him, formed from the debris, and with the last vestiges of his strength hurled Saji into its cover. The boy's comatose body rolled limply to a halt beneath the jagged concealment. His back slammed against it a second later, hard against the cement wall, just in time to see the Fallen Angel already sweeping past the place where they had lain.
Too swift. Too fast.
Plates of cobalt metal materialized. They hung in the air for a split second, before slamming onto the devil's bared arm, encasing it in a sheathe of steel. Purple gems studded along the sides flashed and the weapon came to life with a hungry whine.
The cannon, fat-barreled and humming with power. The boy pointed it towards the oncoming foe, grim smile stretched over dry, torn lips.
Behind the Fallen Angel's helm, crimson eyes widened. The winged figure tried to bank away at the last moment, but he had come at a full charge, and that prevented him from swerving aside in time. And at such close distance, his opponent simply couldn't miss.
The cannon flared with discharge. Belched out its deadly payload. A sphere of arcane energy, it shot from Issei's arm in a thunderous roar. It slammed into the Fallen's midriff like a blow from a sledgehammer, detonated in a flash of cackling lighting, and blew the charging foe into two ragged halves. The legs plummeted to the ground. The torso with wings still attached soared over their cover, and coated the two of them with stinking, cooked entrails.
Issei wiped the blood from his face with Boosted Gear. Dark red ichor stained the crimson gauntlet. Flecks of it besmirched the emerald jewel. However, instead of being insulted, it gleamed even more brightly than before, as though in approval. In response, the boy grinned, and stared upwards at the slain angel's comrades. Not only at them, but at the rest as well. More than a few from the main body had seen the death of one of their own, and they hesitated in the air, not sure if to remain in place or join the attack on this one lone enemy.
"That's right you bastards," a plan began to form in the devil's mind. If he could stall the attack, it would buy the others more time. Not to win, but at the very least escape. It was a long shot, but the Rating Game had been a long shot, and at the end the boy he called friend had saved Buchou from her fate by summoning Belial, an Archdemon thought long dead. He had no Archdemon of his own to call upon, but he had a weapon he had earned from a legendary dragon, and he had Boosted Gear, and these two would be enough, "Come and get a piece of me!"
A few of them started inching closer, started testing the distance. The devil levelled the cannon in their direction and began feeding power to the hungry core once more.
"I'm Issei Hyoudou," the whine that came from the barrel was like music to his ears, "and I'm going to take down as many of you with me as I can!"
"You underestimate them."
She glared at him.
"They are facing a Grigori. A lord among us Fallen. What can they hope to accomplish against him? They are already dead."
"It was people like them that faced Nyx," he said softly, "and they almost won."
Raynare shook her head.
"Kokabiel will have brought his own forces with him. Hundreds."
"Tartarus was not an empty tower. We left it as one."
"You trust them this much?" she whispered.
"I trust that they will fight to the end. That is the most anyone can wish for," he noticed her frustration, and raised an eyebrow, "You seem disappointed."
Raynare stared at the ground for a few seconds before looking at him again. The expression on her face was one that he thought she could never make.
"Come with me," she said at last and he was disturbed to hear the faint edge of pleading in her tone, "Don't worry about them anymore. Kokabiel only wants them, not you. Run away with me and I swear that you won't regret it," she was rambling now and only halted when he held out a hand to stop her.
"When are you going to decide to stop running away from your problems?"
She took a step back in anger.
"You make it sound so easy," she hissed, "When have you ever had to make a hard decision?"
He inclined his head.
"That boy who fought Nyx. Nobody forced him to become the Great Seal. No one forced him to sacrifice himself. He did it on his own violation. That was a hard decision."
"And I bet he was so heroic about it when he did it," Raynare snapped back, but he could tell most of the fight was gone from her, "I bet he thought he was being so noble when he sacrificed himself."
"No," he smiled at her, "His last thoughts were that he just didn't want to die."
He sighed when she didn't reply.
"Sometimes we have to choose between making a bad decision and a worse one. Sometimes that makes us stumble and do the wrong thing. That doesn't mean you have to keep on doing them. It just means you have to pick yourself back up again."
He turned to leave when she still chose to remain silent. His hand was on the door when she finally spoke.
"You really aren't coming with me then?"
"Going with you will not help them."
She looked down. Something akin to shame flushed across her face.
"You must think I'm a coward for wanting to run. You must think I'm a traitor too along with everything else."
"I do not judge," he replied, "I merely accept."
That seemed to affect her for she suddenly clenched her hands into fists.
"If you will not come with me," the Fallen Angel said quietly, "let me come with you."
He was surprised by the offer, but did not let it show. He was surprised too by her resolve and turned that surprise into a question.
"How do I know I can trust you?"
She smiled sadly at him.
Two figures floated above Kuoh Academy. One was a normal Fallen Angel. Rank and file. The tattered cloak that hung over his shoulders was the only outstanding feature that distinguished him from his brethren. The other was a full head taller than the first, and possessed five pairs of wings compared to one.
Kokabiel glared down in contempt at destruction he had wrought.
"Go to the second wave. I want to know why they have not yet attacked. If it is Gadreel being his usual slow self, you have my permission to kill him. Tell the others to act in haste. Forget subtlety. Volleys of spears immediately after they arrive. Saturate this place. I want their bodies to look like pincushions after we're done."
"With all due respect, my lord," the lesser angel hesitated, "our forces are engaged all over the battlefield. Some of them will have difficulties in withdrawing. Your order, when it is obeyed, will have our second wave hurling their spears as soon as they arrive. Won't that hit our own men?"
Kokabiel turned to his subordinate, the motion almost lazy in its casualness.
"Why yes," cruel lips parted in a grisly smile, "but it will hit theirs as well."
A shudder went down the underling's spine.
His superior noticed, and the fanged smile stretched wider.
"You are too used to Azazel's kindness, Sorath. He has grown weak and pitiful in his lax state," the Grigori spread his arms wide, encompassing the scene of devastation below him, "This is how war is meant to be waged. Brutal and unmerciful. But that is why you are here, aren't you? You and the rest of your flock. All of you abandoned Azazel to be at my side because you desire the glory that should have been ours. If you serve well, this glory and more shall be yours."
The lesser angel nodded eagerly, his earlier hesitation forgotten.
"I live to serve, sire."
"As long as you understand that," Kokabiel gestured airily, "Tell those in the second wave to watch where they throw their spears. The two high-class devils. I want them alive. Everything else though. They can die."
"And if they are dead? The two devils?"
The Grigori frowned.
"If they are dead, then I will be most displeased. But some things cannot be prevented. If they are dead, find their bodies and crucify them to the walls," bloodshot eyes gleamed with insanity, "I believe Sirzechs will appreciate the irony."
Another shudder passed, filled with equal dread.
"It shall be done, my lord."
Kokabiel's crimson gaze continued to bore into the lesser angel's back well after he turned to leave.
"Oh, and Sorath?"
The lesser angel halted in midair, shoulders stiffening.
"Don't ask such worthless questions in the future."
He had more than stalled the attack. He had stopped it completely. His cannon had the range, and its merest touch was death. Like flak the arcane shells burst into the Fallen Angels' midst, threatening to bring them down with bursts of cackling electricity. Yet he could not keep this up forever. His power was a finite resource, and already he was nearing its limit. Each shot he sent barreling towards his foes was weaker than the last, and where once the cannon boomed with thunderous retort it now whined in protest with every discharge, as though demanding respite.
Nor had the Fallen been idle in the exchange. Like a disturbed nest of hornets they buzzed around him, filling the air with twisted shapes. They had already tried to flank him twice. First from behind, then from above. Both times he was saved by his cover. The outcrop he had chosen purely by chance nullified such avenues of attack. They could only come from the front, yet they did not rush him. These were not the foolhardy warriors that fell for every ambush within the school. These were veterans, soldiers well-versed in their craft, and their experience could not be more finely displayed than it was now. They constantly danced out of the range of his cannon, forcing him to expend his shots and consequently drain his power. When his attention was elsewhere they probed at his blind spots, and when he swung his weapon to bear on them, they retreated, replaced by a new squad that came from another vulnerable side. Attack. Feint. Retreat. Repeat. Over and over again.
Such was the confidence of prepared hunters cornering their prey.
A sizzling sound confirmed what he had already felt. The cannon fell limply by his side, power all but spent. Issei stared down at it, thought for a second on a multitude of words that could express his current predicament, and managed only one.
A light spear hissed past him and buried itself into the rock between him and the still comatose form of Saji. More followed, sinking into his cover with ease. Without the cannon to menace them, the Fallen Angels were closing the distance, finding the range.
He ducked and a lance quivered where his head had been a second ago.
They stopped, suddenly. The swarm of shadowy figures ceased their attacks. Remained hovering in midair. A few of them descended to the ground and planted their spears into the floor. They leaned on them as though expecting something, waiting for something. Their gazes were locked onto what was behind him.
Issei chanced a glance back over the jagged edges of his cover. What he saw made him sigh the next few words out with surprising politeness.
"Fuck me sideways."
We are the hammer!
They charged in a V-shaped formation, surged forward in a flying wedge, halberds lowered in gauntleted hands. From the outlying ruins of the academy they came, pouring forth in a wave, running like gods.
We are the spear in His hand!
Their ranks had been savaged at the cathedral, and their once pristine armor bore the scars of battle. They had lost comrades that night, but that merely fueled their anger, fed their zealous rage, and they had scraped up what remained of their numbers to form this small but lethal fighting force.
We are the blade in His fist!
Tabards whipped in the wind. Armored boots crashed into the ground. The reddish sky cast an ominous glow over sigil-engraved plate, covered ironclad forms with a terrible sheen. Helmeted heads glared at the outcrop of debris. That was their destination, and they homed in on it in perfect formation.
In one smooth motion, the halberds were raised, not to strike, but to throw. The distance was long, and revenge would not wait. As one, polearms were lifted over shoulders and cast in a single volley towards their intended target. The sigils carved onto each blade glowed with angry fire, and like homing missiles they found their mark, each sinking deep into vulnerable flesh.
Corrupted angels fell from the sky like leaves in an autumn forest. Clutching at the thick hafts protruding from their bodies. Grappling with the steel transfixing them from end to end. They tumbled to the ground in disorganized jumbles and lay where they fell amid the broken wreckage of their own wings.
Gauntleted hands reached out, and the halberds flew back, slapping into armored palms once more. Along with them came the first words of the catechism, renovated and restored for the occasion.
Wreathed in darkness, we have been misled! Cleansed by Uriel's flame, we have seen the truth! Redemption calls and we shall forge it through blood and fire!
They vaulted over the outcrop of cement, bladed polearms sweeping in great disemboweling strokes. Dark, twisted shapes fell before their advance like wheat before a scythe, giving ground in surprise-induced panic. That panic turned to fear as plated forms muscled bulky weapons into the fight. Their ends lit up with tapers of flame before becoming streams of them, coating the pavement, setting Fallen Angels on fire, turning them into screaming, flailing torches. Those few that took to the sky did not escape. The second rank carried crossbows, seen but not used during the battle at the cathedral. They were used now, and shadowy figures writhed in the air as the bolts found them, shot with unerring accuracy by keen-eyed marksmen.
Halberds swinging, crossbows spitting death, flamethrowers flinging dragon's breath in hissing gouts of holy fire, the Knights Templar flung themselves into the teeth of Kokabiel's second wave and shattered it utterly apart.
Behind them, among the outcrop of cement, a lone head popped up and gazed at the sheer annihilation that surrounded it.
"Okay," Issei said slowly, almost hesitantly, "that was kind of awesome."
Parts of the ceiling collapsed and separated her from her allies. The rubble created a wall between them and she could hear them shouting at her, telling her to find another way around. This, she had been trying to do for the past few minutes and failing. Kokabiel had continued to hurl his spears of light, and Kuoh Academy had continued to suffer for it. The once pristine roof was now marred with craters, and crimson light shone where the craters had become holes. Debris piled high in the hallways, blocked doors and entryways, and turned once familiar paths into mazes of obstruction.
Asia turned the corner, hoping to find familiar faces, and instead ran smack-dab into rune-engraved plate. She let out a soft cry as she rebounded from the indomitable mass and fell on her behind. The figure she had crashed into glared down in deep disapproval. She swallowed as the sharpened tip of a halberd stopped centimeters from her face.
Ten more were levelled at her as the Templar's comrades made their presence known. One of them gestured disdainfully towards her.
"Should we kill her?"
"Peace, brother," another Templar said, "We are here to repent for our deeds. Purgation can wait for another day."
"But she is a witch."
"Lord Uriel spoke with her," another pointed out.
"He answered her questions," a third confirmed, "In his wisdom, he has deigned her worthy of his words."
"Lord Uriel," half of them muttered in reverence.
"Cats," the other half muttered with equal reverence.
Asia blinked. Then blinked again when it became apparent they were serious.
"Indeed, brothers," the lead Templar nodded his head, "When we arrive back at our monastery we must adopt as many as we can to preserve the sanctity within our sacred halls."
"But what of this one?" the knight that had wanted her killed continued to stare at her, "Lord Uriel would not have spoken with the unworthy, but she is still a witch."
Silence passed, brief but tense. It was broken by one of the Templars in the back, who had lifted his halberd away from her.
"What if… What if she is a holy witch?"
Helmeted heads turned to him, then to one another. Menacing faceplates nodded together, as one, and the hall echoed with the sound of halberd butts beating against the floor in newfound purpose.
Protect the holy witch!
The stink of holy fire was an anathema to devils, but here, now it could not have been a more welcome scent. Plumes of it erupted in ruined corridors and filled debris-strewn passageways with killing fire. All around them, plated forms stalked the halls and hunted corrupted angels in the name of purification.
Rias turned from the scene, expression weary but determined.
"When I said I hoped for reinforcements, this is not what I meant."
Her two pieces reacted with varying degrees of guilt. Issei rubbed the back of his head ruefully. Asia looked like she didn't know what to make of the situation and Rias found that she could not blame her. The armored figures surrounding her glared menacingly at any perceived threat and tilted their halberds ominously at those who came near. The devil had no idea why they were acting this way and doubted she would like the answer if she asked.
But all of this was a moot point. They had come when the situation was most dire, and pushed back the foe all along the line. And at a time like this, she was grateful for any help that was offered.
"But they are welcome anyways."
By her side, Sona frowned.
"These men are some of the worst exorcists there are," she said in a voice only the two of them could hear, "They don't distinguish the difference between stray devils and normal ones. Is it wise to ally with them?"
There was no judgment or recrimination in her tone, only concern. Nevertheless, Rias still grimaced.
"We are under siege from an enemy that has no qualms about killing us. If others disagree, they can put themselves in our position and then decide what we should have done."
Her peerage nodded at that. Some among Sona's did the same.
Rias regarded them gravely.
"Do not attack the Knights Templar unless you are attacked first. Treat them as temporary allies. Fight by their side."
Her next words made them smile.
"We can hurt them now."
For a few moments, they did exactly that.
The Knights Templar surged out of Kuoh Academy in the same formation they had entered. But this time, by their sides were two high-class devils and their full peerages. Bolts flung by crossbows were accompanied by tendrils of lighting and sizzling orbs of energy. Halberds hacked alongside demon swords and holy swords. Flamethrowers breathed streams of chemical fire and were matched in destruction by waves of crashing water.
Their enemies sought to stop them. Twisted figures descended from the sky to waylay them. Those that remained in the air flung gleaming javelins of light into their ranks. They were all smashed aside. Indomitable, unyielding, this alliance forged in the crucible of war crushed all opposition and reaped a fearsome tally among the foe.
For a second time that night, victory seemed hauntingly close.
A single figure greeted their charge out the gates. He still had half his force remaining, one hundred Fallen Angels blackening the sky, but alone he stood facing them, hands clasped behind his back.
"It is such a bother when the help you so meticulously manipulated chooses to betray you."
Normally they would have reacted with caution, but here was a chance to cut off the head of the snake and their zealous nature would not let this opportunity slip away.
"There, brothers! The root of this malevolence! Slay him and it will be over! Charge!"
A score of plated forms followed, polearms lowered, blades drawn.
"No!" Rias cried out, "Stop!"
They did not listen, and continued to charge. Only the Templars that surrounded Asia did not move, but that was still only one-third of the total force. The rest flung themselves towards the distant figure with reckless abandon, confident that the runes engraved onto their warplate would protect them from the heresy they were sure they would end.
The first knight reached the Fallen Angel and swept his polearm down in a vicious stroke. A casual flick from the Grigori's hand and the blow was knocked aside, along with the halberd, jarred from the Templar's grasp in a display of inhuman strength. The knight made a surprised sound then gurgled as claw-like fingers stabbed into his stomach, rammed through with such awful force that he was lifted from his feet and suspended in the air. Geysers of blood sprouted from the terrible wounds, and the knight thrashed in agony as he was raised higher and higher like some macabre trophy.
His comrades roared in fury. They brought weapons to bare. Master-crafted blades. Rune-etched polearms. Kokabiel hurled all of them back with a wave of his fingers.
They flew through the air like rag dolls, blasted off their feet by enormous force. The ground broke their fall, but it was far from graceful. They landed among the debris in twisted, painful heaps and broke piles of rubble with their sundered bodies. Some of them crashed against the walls of Kuoh Academy and tumbled down like broken toys.
The Fallen Angel glanced at the piles of unmoving plate in amusement.
"The problem with zealots is that they are all so very predictable. They can only do one thing. Charge. Charge. Charge. No tactics involved. No subtlety. There's no fun to it," the Grigori's eyes flickered to the man that was still impaled on his hand, "Wouldn't you agree?"
"God will… smite you down… heathen…" blood leaked from the slits in the knight's helm.
"God?" Kokabiel studied the dying man with insulting politeness, "God is dead. I killed him," the expression flickered, and the true face showed itself, a demented, bloodthirsty leer, "It was I who stabbed the blade into his back! It was I who bathed my sword with his blood! All the others dared not do what I accomplished! Azazel? Baraqiel? They stood and watched as the being that cast them out of Heaven was on his knees in front of them! Cowardice stayed their hand! Weakness prevented them from doing the deed! They feared the consequences of their action when the dice has already been cast! So I did it for them! I killed God to usher in a new age where Fallen Angels would rightfully rule! And had his body not been immolated by his filthy servants, his skull would be hanging around my neck!"
Dreadful, disturbed silence fell. Kokabiel grinned at them. The calm façade returned, and the Fallen Angel swiveled his head once more to smile into the face of his victim.
"God is dead. I killed him. Just as I have killed you."
The fingers flexed. The Templar came raggedly apart in a shower of gore. Shredded from within. Turned inside out by lacerating claws. Blood, limbs, chunks of diced meat fell from the sky like rain.
Amid the crimson downpour, a vampiric grin lit up with inhuman malice.
"Now. Where were we?"
After that, all the fight seemed to leave the defenders. The humans among them were affected the most. Irina and Xenovia. The two exorcists still fought but they were a shadow of their former selves. Their sword arms faltered and their form wavered. Blades fit for kings became listless in their hands. The Knights Templar too. Where once they had surged into battle, indomitable in their plate, resolute in their courage, shouting litanies and singing catechisms, they now huddled in a defensive formation, fighting in defeated silence, their polearms prodding half-heartedly at the foe that assailed them from every side. The only reason they still lasted was because of Asia, standing behind them in the semi-circle, healing them, urging them on. But her pleas fell on deaf ears. The Grigori's words had shaken them to the very core, and sapped them of their will. Resolve was needed to wage war, and it was gone now, torn abruptly and suddenly from their grasp.
Half of their fighting force had been reduced to mere bodies going through the motions with a single confession. The other half continued to resist with the same ferocity, but their allies' despair affected them too. Morale plummeted. Gaps appeared. Communication broke down between peerage members. Desperation reared its ugly head. These factors alone was enough to push them to the brink. These same factors allowed Kokabiel to waltz effortlessly in and pluck the very prizes he had been after from their disorganized ranks.
He held one such prize now, the Fallen Angel, perched on one of the buildings that still remained standing, dangling her above the ground, fingers wrapped tight around her neck.
"I will admit that you put up a good fight," the pale face danced with cruel mirth, "But this is my victory, as it always has been."
Rias struggled in his grip, kicked out in futile anger. A few feet away, Sona lay helpless on the roof, Fallen knees on her back and light spears at her throat.
"You are a delectable thing. I can see why Sirzechs would protect you. The love of a brother is heartwarming indeed."
Rias continued to struggle. Continued to kick. Down below, her peerage shed their own blood in a futile attempt to reach her, and was pushed back yet again by waves of Fallen Angels.
"Imagine the despair he will feel when he finds you lying here. Naked. Defiled. The hopelessness that will worm into his soul. Why, the grief would drive him mad. He would lash out at everything and anything. Raise an army of devils to wage a vengeful war. Just as I have planned all along," Kokabiel chuckled into her face, "The Excaliburs were never the true intent. They were a distraction. A diversion. Their theft is a dull ember compared to the raging fire that your death will cause," the Grigori casted a sideways glance at Sona, "Yours as well. Your sister loves you in her own way, and she will join Sirzechs in his crusade when she learns of your end," a blissful sigh escaped the Fallen Angel's lips. It sounded enormously wrong coming from someone like him, "Two of the Great Satans, maddened with grief, clamoring for war. The cards are already falling in place. Now all that remains is for the final hand to be played."
He turned and met Rias's outstretched palm. A bolt of black energy struck him in the face, exploding in a flash of demonic energy. The Power of Destruction unleashed in projectile form. Kokabiel took it like a man would take a light slap to the cheek. The Fallen Angel turned his head and besides a slight singe that marred his features, did not appear outwardly affected.
"Bael's power flows through your blood, girl. That one was a most difficult foe to face in the Great War. Perhaps one day you will arrive at a pinnacle where you will be able to match him in strength," the grin was bared. Pure murder radiated from maddened eyes, "It is a shame you will never get a chance to reach it."
Fingers tightened. The grip closed like a vice. Suspended five stories up in the air, wings beating weakly against the relentless hold, Rias began to choke.
"Do not struggle," the words were said with almost soothing softness. Kokabiel's face was a false mask of pleasantry as he looked up at the one he was about to kill, "Make it easier for yourself. Just die."
Her hands beat futilely against the pale arm, weakening with every passing second. Her vision started to blacken, darkness beginning to form along its edges. Life left her in shuddering, agonized gasps as the monster in front of her continued to hold, continued to squeeze.
A thrown spear saved her. A beam of gleaming light, it streaked through the air and embedded itself into Kokabiel's forearm. The Fallen Angel made a hissing sound. It was not enough to wound him, not even enough to hurt him, but it caused a lapse of concentration. The hold lessened momentarily, and Rias used it to break free, erupting from the Grigori's grasp and darting away.
Two more spears hurtled through the air and thudded into the figures pinning Sona. Her guards fell, clawing at the hafts protruding from their backs. That too was enough to free her, and Sona sprung into the air and followed her fellow devil in escaping.
Kokabiel glared up at the ones who had cost him his prizes, eyebrows raised in bemused anger.
By then, the three figures were already retreating, but the smallest of them paused, blond ponytails bouncing as she hovered above the ground. Turning, eyes alight with mischievous glee, Mittelt smiled at the Fallen lord before promptly blowing a giant raspberry in his direction.
"You," Issei said with no small amount of confusion.
"Us," nodded Dohnaseek as they landed. The man hastily waved his hands in a placating gesture when the cannon rose to point at him, "Wait! Stop! We're the good guys now!"
"Good guys," repeated Issei, clearly unconvinced.
Dohnaseek nodded fervently.
"If you don't believe me, you can ask the Nephilim! He set us up to this!"
Issei still looked unconvinced. It was Rias who interjected, placing a hand on her Pawn's weapon and gently forcing it down.
"Thank you," she said and meant it.
All three Fallen looked embarrassingly pleased, as though unused to words of gratitude. Their smiles were wiped away when the earth around them suddenly exploded, forcing them to scatter. They looked up to see Kokabiel sneering down at them, another lance held high to throw.
"First zealots, and now my own former minions. Where are you getting all these allies?" the Fallen Angel hurled it into their midst, forcing them to scatter again and annihilating the ground where they had stood seconds before, "It is ironic that leaders of the Three Factions have talked long about uniting together and what is it that I see before me? Angels, devils, and humans fighting together against a common foe. For that reason alone you must die. The very idea of different species mingling is shameful. The Three Factions are meant to wage a forever war against each other, not bond with another like mewling children. There is glory in the heat of combat! In spilling your hated foe's blood! The idea of peace," the Grigori spat in disgust, "must be stamped out. Killing all of you will clean the stain off our honor."
From where he crouched on the ground, Issei glared up in defiance at the distant figure.
"You know what? I'm sick and tired of you flapping your mouth you ghost-faced bastard!"
Kokabiel's gaze switched towards him. The sneer grew.
"At last the dragonling makes his presence known. And what wisdom do you intend to share with us? You who hold a Longinus-class Sacred Gear within your body but can no more wield it than a mere brute. What words can you say that will change this outcome? The graves are full of upstarts who think they are heroes like you."
"I don't know about all of that," Issei shook his head, "All I know is that you need a good ass-kicking!"
"And I presume you are the one that is going to do it?" cruel lips smirked disdainfully.
The devil grinned.
"For you, I'm willing to do it for free!"
The Grigori laughed. High-pitched and harsh, it grated on everyone's minds and caused shivers to pass down their backs.
"Such bravado deserves to see itself fail. Come then," the Fallen Angel stood to his full height and bared his chest, "I will allow you one free strike. Be careful though," Kokabiel showed his fangs, "For if you fail, my return blow will detach your head from your body."
"No take backs!" Issei revealed the cannon attached to his limb.
Kokabiel glanced at the exposed weapon and sighed.
"And here I thought it was going to be something interesting. You are wasting your time and your life. Any fool can sense that pitiful thing has no more power."
The boy nodded. His grin, however, refuse to leave his face.
"You're right about that. But I have another form of power! His name is Ddraig, and he wants to say hello!"
The Fallen Angel's eyes widened slightly. Just in time to see Boosted Gear smash into the arm cannon. Crimson talons wrapped around cobalt-hued steel. Each claw was a conduit, a channel, and the air hummed with static as the gauntlet in red fed power to the gauntlet in blue.
The ground shook. They staggered in surprise then in shock as the earth around them groaned in agony. Piles of rubble crumbled under their own weight. The wreckage strewn around the school grounds were flattened by sudden, immense force, pancaked into the convulsing ground.
The barrel of the cannon flared with colorless intensity, the fang-mawed opening aglow with gathering energy, rippling with raw power. From afar it resembled a dragon about to breathe fire.
"We have won," Koneko said. Her eyes were wide.
Up on the roof, Kokabiel snarled as the waves of lapping power buffeted his frame.
"What… What is this?" he hissed and drew back.
The Fallen Angels around him did the same, unease apparent on their twisted visages.
His answer was given in the form of a shout, barely heard over the charging whine.
"This is the power of the bond between Arisato-san and I," Issei bared his teeth in a rictus of a smile, "And I'm going to shoot it all over your face!"
A pregnant pause followed as everyone stared at the boy and his cannon. Saji summed up all of their thoughts in a single adequate sentence.
"That sounds soooooo wrong."
If the boy heard he did not reply. The weapon was shuddering in his grasp, Boosted Gear still clenched to the barrel, and he could no longer control it. Everything was unleashed in a thunderous boom, shot out in a howling shriek of displaced air. Along with it was the second shout, yelled out with just as much vigor as the first.
"Oppai! Tiamat! Cannon!"
The world vanished in an explosion of draconic fire.
Two figures were making for the distant sounds of battle when one of them suddenly stopped. The other almost didn't notice in time and nearly collided with his back.
"What is it?" Raynare asked.
"I just had a premonition," her companion said slowly.
"A good one or a bad one?"
Solemn eyes met her own.
"An outrageous one."
The dust settled. The waves of power gradually dissipated, returned back to whence it came. By Issei's side, the cannon heaved a shuddering cough, exhausted twice in the same battle. The faint smell of burnt ozone drifted into the air.
Kiba turned and stared at the one responsible. Wonder was alight in his eyes.
Up on the rooftop, Kokabiel glanced over at the crater that had once been fully half of Kuoh Academy. He flicked a piece of wayward debris off his shoulder in a bemused gesture. The fact that he had lost a full dozen of his remaining force in the blast seemed only to be a mere afterthought.
"We have lost," sighed Koneko.
Kiba's eyes continued to twitch.
"How could you miss!?"
Issei looked down guiltily at the weapon fused to his fist.
"It was the first time I shot it at full power."
"He was right there in front of you!"
Boosted Gear flashed in muted agreement.
"Even I didn't miss," Dohnaseek muttered.
The boy threw up his hands in frustration.
"Oh, not you too!"
One of the Knights Templar lifted the visor of his helm, revealing a grizzled face pockmarketed with scars.
"Back in our monasteries, we have a way of dealing with such situations. It is called the Litany of Aiming. Would you like us to recite it for you?"
Issei looked like he was about to say something biting in response. What stopped him was Kokabiel. A single wayward glance from the Fallen Angel sent them all to their knees, smashed them into the ground. The immense force pressing down on their backs prevented them from rising again.
"It would seem your celebration was a bit premature," the Grigori smiled down upon them, "That was a nice trick, though. Do you happen to have any more hidden up your sleeve?"
The way Boosted Gear clawed futilely against the earth suggested what they all knew.
"Good. I grow tired of playing these games. This spectacle demands an end, and I will end it."
The pressure increased. Bones began to creak. A few of them cried out in pain. Those that could still lift their heads glared in defiance up at the cruel figure perched on the academy tower.
"You won't get away with this," Rias breathed, hard and strained.
"Get away? Again you mistake my intentions," the Fallen Angel leered, "I do not want to get away. I very much intend to stay here. This school, this place will be the very first battlefield in the second Great War. The other factions will come, intent on vengeance, intent on revenge, and they will find me here, waiting for them. I will slaughter my way through them like a hurricane! Cleave their heads from their bodies in showers of blood! I will forge my glory among the bones of devils and angels alike! Pile their sundered bodies in a mountain! I will show the world the true strength of the Fallen Angels!" laughter, harsh and dissonant pierced the air, "And your skulls will be the first to litter the base of my throne!"
"You are… You are insane…" Kiba coughed out.
Lying prone by the sword-user's side, Issei glared up fiercely at their tormentor.
"Arisato-san will stop you!"
"Ah, yes," Kokabiel's lips curled disdainfully, "The Nephilim. And where is he, this grand savior of yours? Where is the Nephilim? I will tell you where he is. He ran. Escaped. He has abandoned you."
"Arisato-san would never do that…" Asia gasped. Pressed against the ground, she could barely speak. The Knights Templar around her tried to reach for their dropped weapons but could no more manage it than the others.
"Then where is he?" Kokabiel continued to sneer, "Where is your savior now?" the Fallen Angel spread his arms wide mockingly and threw his head back, "Where are you, Nephilim!?"
Slowly, a hand rose, courtesy from the lone figure that had escaped unnoticed and remained standing.
"Here I am."
It was a disappointing entrance as entrances tended to go. He attributed it to a character trait. His Personas may have their own unique weight behind them, but he was altogether a more quiet soul. That made him easily overlooked and there were times in both worlds where his presence had not been acknowledged until the very last second. This was one of those times. He fought hard not to sigh when those on the ground craned their necks to stare at him. The looks of surprise were expected. The looks of relief as well.
They had made good speed and had reached the school just in time. Or at least what was left of it. While others would have gaped at the rubble around them, stared at the scale of the destruction, he did not. He accepted what he saw and moved on. Questions could come later. The presence of the Knights Templar and the three redeemed angels was accepted as well. He saw them lying on the ground next to those he knew, not as enemies but as allies, and recognized it for what it was. Stranger things have happened, and he did not judge.
They rose now, freed from whatever spell that had put them there. His gaze moved from them to the reason he had come.
The figure that had to be Kokabiel was perched on Kuoh Academy's main building, now no more than a ruined tower with crumbling foundations. The way the Grigori presented himself reminded him of a stone gargoyle squatting on a gothic cathedral's roof. At the Fallen Angel's back were dozens of lesser angels, some floating in the air, others perched similarly like their lord. A significant show of force. Part of him wondered if it was because of him. The other part sincerely wished it wasn't so.
It spoke now, this Fallen Angel, and the voice that rasped out was thick with venomous anger.
The one who had been hiding behind him all this time trembled. The fingers that had grasped his shirt clutched even tighter than before. The grip was almost painful.
"Why have you brought him here, when my express orders for you were to delay him?"
He did not need to look back to know that her eyes were wide with fear.
"You disappoint me."
Tears spilled down onto his shoulder. He jerked in response, surprised. He had expected that she would be affected, but not this much. The wounds. They ran deep.
"But you can still redeem yourself," Kokabiel's features had turned pleasant, "Kill him. Dispose of this interloper and you will be back in my good graces once again."
He could feel her stiffening behind him. Feel her shaking.
"It would be such a simple thing," a pale hand gestured airily in his direction, "You are already behind him. Kill the Nephilim, and all you have ever wanted from me will be yours."
The claws were at his back a second later, cruel spiked talons pressing into his spine. The others around him reacted with alarm. Rias looked murderous. Akeno as well. Issei was already moving towards him, crimson gauntlet ready to strike. He smiled, not because the claws formed, but because they wavered. The talons pressed into his back but they refused to cut, refused to impale. Bladed fingertips ghosted across his skin, shaking as their owner fought with her will, fought with herself.
"No… Don't want… Not again…"
"Why are you delaying?" the venom in Kokabiel's voice had returned, "Kill him and be done with it."
At first her response was so soft that he almost couldn't hear it. But then she said it again, firmer, louder.
All pretenses of pleasantry vanished from the Fallen Angel's face.
"What did you say?"
"Shut up," she repeated, drawing strength from the words, "Shut up. Shut up. Shut up."
"Your defiance will be remembered," Kokabiel spat, "You will be punished for this. Heed my order before I choose to make the punishment worse. Kill him!"
He felt blood splattering onto his clothing and stiffened. Yet strangely, there was no pain. He turned to see Raynare slowly sinking to her knees, the claws that had been at his back impaled into her own stomach. She looked up at him through a mask of pain. Tried to smile through it.
"I really am worthless, aren't I?"
His method of reply was to reach for her with a welcoming hand.
Something hot and bright and heavy flew past his ear. It struck her dead center in the chest. A shaft of pure light, transfixing her from end to end. It burned her. The heat ate away at her body. Incinerating skin. Cremating flesh. Parts of her disintegrated. Blown away by the wind. The last thing he saw was her face, pained but accepting, and then that too disappeared, crumbling into dust, and there was nothing in front of him but the hand he had extended in her direction.
Her ashes drifted through his fingers. Behind him he could hear them gasp and Asia letting out a sob. The hand clenched into a fist.
"If she will not listen," he could feel Kokabiel's leer burning into his back, "what use is she to me?"
Rage lit up in his mind. Like a white hot knife it cut into his conscience, threatening to overpower reason, threatening to undo the calmness. He struggled with it. Tried to wrestle it back. But it was a living thing, this anger. The Sea of Souls broiled under the strain, the waves writhing in tormented agony. He could feel its power surging in him, the rage giving it strength, swimming in his veins and saturating every inch of his body. It was all he could do to prevent it from leaking through.
What seemed like an eternity passed when it couldn't have been more than a few seconds. The volatile emotion gradually ceased. The anger ebbed away, gone like the tide. He opened the palm that had inadvertently clutched into a fist and looked down. There, raw power coalesced, in the form of a sphere, cackling with barely contained wrath.
He smiled at it before forcing the spell to dissipate. That was not him. It was not who he was.
The rush of power that receded back into his mind was like a breath of fresh wind.
Rage subsided and in its place came acceptance. Acceptance at what just happened. Acceptance at her fate. And after acceptance came defiance. And with defiance came purpose.
"Thanatos," he said, "Give her back to me."
There was a moment of silence. A moment of utter stillness.
A long, vengeful howl broke it. It shattered the plane of reality and gutted the foundations of the world.
White gloved hands reached out. Grasped the edges of existence. Pulled.
The head came first. The skull-like helm, white like bone. It peered through the hole in reality the hands had just torn and laughed. It was a monstrous sound, deep and resonant, rich with bloodstained mirth. The body slipped through. Black and cloaked. Emerged in all its gruesome glory. Man-sized coffins arced over its back in a twisted parody of wings. Surrounded its shoulders like a ring of shields. The wrongness that emanated from its frame was a physical thing, and warriors who had been at each other's throats moments ago suddenly clutched their heads in mutual pain.
There was no words that came with its summoning. No glorified phrases or statements laden with purpose. It did not need them. It proclaimed its intent from its mere presence, leaked it out in short, shuddering breaths, bared it all to see in the form of the curved blade clasped in white gloved fist.
Thanatos reared back and from the lightless dark that resided within its skull-faced helm, the second howl ripped free.
Every window not already broken abruptly shattered. Pulverized by the sonic boom. Atomized into fine powder. Ground to dust by sheer, unrelenting force. Cracks appeared in the earth. Split the ground. They ran like wildfire over the battlefield and up onto the cement walls of Kuoh Academy. Chunks of masonry peeled off and fell. Those Fallen Angels who were nearest shuddered at the noise. They shuddered then burst, their bodies coming apart in ragged explosions of gore. Steaming offal landed all around them, splattered on the ground like pieces of rotten fruit. Swirling blemishes of color twisted their way into existence, and the sky that had been so bloody and red was suddenly consumed by a hideous shade of green.
Kokabiel was no longer smiling.
Something dark and heavy fell to the ground. It thudded into the pavement and threw up a cloud of dust around him. He turned from the spot he had seen her die. One of Thanatos's coffins. Erect and still, it jutted from the earth like some blasphemous monument. The lid creaked open. The cover slid free, just like he had known it would, and there, what was inside was revealed for all to see.
A figure, white and translucent, unmistakably female. Her form shimmered in the light, a haze of blurred imagery. There was no emotion to her face. It was blank, featureless, wiped clean by the neutrality that was death. Like the rest of the body, it was a transparent thing, and in the moments where the haze solidified, it shone like quicksilver.
Without the confines of the coffin to hold her, she began to tip forward.
Thanatos caught her before she could fall.
The Aspect of Death landed beside the casket and wrapped her in its black-clothed arms. It heaved a shuddering breath and growled low in its throat. He knew why it would do this. Why it would kneel and clutch her to its chest. Thanatos hated life. Hated it to the point where it would gladly surge into existence to end it wherever it may be found. But it respected the dead and that respect showed. It continued holding her in one arm, cradling the body to its own, allowing her head to rest against its shoulder. The other arm planted the sword deep into the earth. Gloved fingers enclosed over the grip, squeezing vengefully. The head glared up, defiant, as if daring those who floated above to attack.
He took a step forward. The skull-faced helm tore its gaze from the cloud of enemies to stare at him. Dog-like pants escaped from the jaws, rasping, guttural growls that were nevertheless laden with meaning. He understood.
A soul was nothing without the shell of flesh and blood to hold it in place.
He reached into the depths of his conscience. Dipped his presence into the Sea of Souls. He asked for their aid, and one by one they emerged from its tranquil waves.
Power coalesced. Not wrathful like it had been before. Calmer. At peace. It surged into his fingertips like water from a broken dam.
The body began to form.
He remembered her face, the sneer she had worn when they first met, the look of pained acceptance when she died, the features that made her her, and the power in his hands sought to turn memory into reality.
He could hear them gasping. Hear them exclaiming. There were words, but in his state, he could make no sense of them. They were white noises in the background, sounds he knew by instinct but could no longer recognize. The mortal brain could only hold so much, could only endure just enough, and as it was, he had already reached that limit. Everything else became secondary to the task at hand.
A body existed, but a body needed organs to function. The shell required something within it to become more than just a shell. A new presence took its place inside his mind, lent him its power, and deep within newly created flesh, a heart began to beat, joined by two inflating lungs.
The sudden gasp of escaped air told him all he needed to know.
He knew that he was breaking rules. Defying laws. Conservation of matter. Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed from one form to another. The body was there, had come into existence from nothing, and spat into the face of that rule. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. Energy too, had to be conserved. Heat was energy. Yet the body that had been cold and lifeless before was now flaring with heat as yet another presence broke into his conscience.
Humans, in their quest to understand the world, had created these rules to define their surroundings. In doing so, they limited their own potential, restricted their own growth, and when they could not understand, when they could not find the strength to comprehend, they sought to create even more rules to define what little they did know. Questions that should never have been asked hung in their thoughts, and when mankind could make no sense of them, could no longer define them, they sought an end to the question itself.
Nyx had answered their call. She had descended to give them her own answer to that question. Death was the meaning of life, the ultimate end, and even as he fought her on that last battlefield, she had lamented over the fact. Saddened not at the loss of life she was about to cause, but at the loss of potential of what could have been.
For potential never followed rules. Never followed laws. Instead, it merely shaped them to its will.
The new presence in his mind was loud and boisterous. It laughed in approval at what he was doing, lent him its power, and pumped once empty veins with red hot blood.
Dimly, he was aware that things had not stayed idle. The Fallen had chosen to attack, and the air was thick with flung spears. Even they knew what he was doing, what he was so close to achieving, and in desperation they selected him as the target. They were failing because the others were protecting him. Like his hearing, his vision had become a former mockery of what it once was, but he could still see. In flickering imagery burned into his mind he saw them all around him, defending him and what he was striving to do.
Irina and Xenovia, side by side, cutting down any of the foe who lunged too close. The Knights Templar in front of them, turning aside hurled light spears with their halberds and armor, sacrificing their own bodies to prevent them from reaching him. Those that sank to their knees with shafts of light protruding from their forms got up again, for Asia was at the back, healing them, erasing any and all damage, gentle features scrunched up in determined concentration. Kiba dueled with a Fallen Angel wearing a black cloak, and in a series of masterful strokes worthy of song and legend, decapitated his opponent in a plume of spraying blood. Akeno and Rias had taken to the air. Lightning forked. Bolts of black energy smote and smashed. Pure destruction rained down from their hands and popped Fallen Angels like blisters. Beneath them, Koneko plied her deadly trade, mauling all those who slipped past.
And not only them. The rest as well. Sona had sent her own peerage into the fray, and in savage individual clashes that were too many for him to count, hurled their opponents back. Tsubaki, her Queen, carved a bloody path to fight by Kiba's side, and together they left writhing, defeated bodies all around them. A small darting form buzzed in the air. Mittelt, cackling with glee, flung projectiles of light that were so transparent they couldn't be seen, yet exploded with the strength of thrown grenades. On the ground, Kalawarner stood, legs entrenched firmly into the earth. Her chosen weapon was a light spear, but she did not throw them like the rest. Instead, it became a lance in her hands, thrusting and impaling into corrupted bodies, pinning them to the ground like wriggling insects. Beside her was Dohnaseek, guarding the rear, and when lone enemies sought to flank, he savaged them with his blade.
And finally Issei. The boy was ahead of all the others, Boosted Gear clenched into a fist. The crimson gauntlet burned with draconic fury and wherever it struck, wounds singed and smoked, courtesy of the beast within.
A tempest of battle surrounded him, and he was in the middle, calm in the eye of the storm.
A single spear threatened the peace. Its sides were jagged with protrusions, serrated with spiked points. It burned with unholy hatred, the surface alight with vengeful flames. Even in his half-aware state he could feel the sheer power that had been put behind the creation of the weapon.
Kokabiel, anger written on his monstrous features pointed it at him and hurled it with all his strength.
They scattered. The projectile seared everything in its path, turned the very ground beneath it into slag, and they could no more stand against it than a man could a crashing tide. They broke away and shouted for him to do the same. He watched it loom closer, still subconsciously calling, still in the midst of completing the task he had set out to do. Like a heat-seeking missile it drove home and detonated in his face.
The world around him exploded in a corona of expanding light. Disappeared in a flash of white heat. The sheer power behind it knocked everyone down, blew them off their feet with concussive force. Light-infused flame wreathed his surroundings with fire, yet they would not touch him, dared not touch him. He stood, in the middle of the crater, and looked up at the armored palm that had stopped the worst of the blast.
By his side, Thanatos let out a deep, throaty chuckle.
The hand was plated in silver. Sheathed in heavenly steel. Armored, articulated joints connected fingers with the palm, and they clenched with life as the rest of the body materialized.
Bladed wings extended into the air. Lifted above ironclad shoulders like a fan of knives. A face encased in silver stared unblinkingly at its surroundings and the fire that had been roaring at the edges of the crater abruptly flickered out, cancelled from existence by a single disapproving look. And then it spoke, the tone deep and resonant, every uttered syllable laden with heavy displeasure.
"No…" the Fallen Angel's visage was twisted in surprise, disfigured by fear. All around him, his minions recoiled as though physically struck, "It cannot be... You fell… You fell with Him."
Metatron tilted his head, a slight nod that carried immeasurable weight.
Through Fire and Flame. With Demon Blades in My Chest and Fallen Spears Impaled through My Limbs. I Fell. But before I did, I Cut Down a Hundred of Your Champions and Laid Them Low Beside the Body of My Lord.
The silver mask glanced upwards.
You were not One of Them, Kokabiel.
The Grigori snarled, and along with madness, fury glowed in his eyes.
Like a Coward You Fled, Unwilling to Taste My Wrath. Incapable of Standing Before My Fury. You Fled and in Your Place a Hundred of Your Allies Died for Your Crime.
Five pairs of crow-like wings stretched to their fullest extent. Their owner glared down at them, face an ugly mask hatred.
"I am the Slayer of God! I am the son who killed the father! I am the future of this world!"
You are a Vulture. A Carrion Bird Who Picks His Glory from the Corpses of Worthy Heroes. Why Do You Think the Others Stayed Their Hand? Azazel. Baraqiel. Even the Devils Would Not Touch Him. They Knew that In His Weakened State, There was no Glory in the Kill. More than that, They Knew What had Caused His Weakened State, and They would Not Kill the One Who had Saved Them All.
Kokabiel bared his fangs.
"It was a worthy kill!"
In contrast, Metatron's gaze remained utterly composed.
No more Worthy than the One Who Killed Him.
The Fallen Angel grappled with his rage. The lines across his face contorted in frightening patterns before settling into its normal sneer once more. Fury simmered under the surface, barely contained.
"Then let this be the reckoning that decides that. An antique from the past against the rightful inheritors of this world! Let us match blades, Metatron, and see which of us is the stronger!"
The reply the Grigori received was a slight nod followed by damning words.
You are Right, Traitor. There will be a Reckoning. All the Atrocities that You have Committed. All the Sins that You have Accumulated. They Will All be Accounted for This Day. Justice Calls, Kokabiel.
The way the gleaming helm was cocked to one side suggested amusement.
But Who Said it will be Done by My Hand?
Crimson eyes widened. Kokabiel's gaze darted to the dark form of Thanatos and the wisp-like figure that it still held protectively in its arms. Too late.
A silver palm lifted, rising toward the heavens.
In the darkness that permeated everything, that one word became her whole existence. She clung to it with all her strength, huddled against it in fear, embraced it for she knew nothing else. In the infinite void she floated; a single soul adrift on an endless sea of nothingness.
The memories came. One by one they appeared before her in hazy imagery, haunting her with their existence.
She stared at a boy lying in a puddle of his own blood and regretted that it had come to this.
I'm sorry, she said, and kneeled down to close his eyes.
She stared at the sleeping features of a girl in an abandoned church and regretted that she could not do more.
I'm sorry, she said, and bent down to caress her face.
She stared at the exhausted form below her and then at the blade she knew she would not use.
I'm sorry, she said. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
More came. But she was losing track of the others. For every new reminiscence that came to light, another faded, gone forever, sucked away by the nothingness that surrounded her. It was like losing a piece of herself, each time, and she could feel her very existence disintegrating, made less whole with every missing fragment.
And then the memories she treasured most began disappearing, began fading. She saw them once before they vanished, ripped viciously away from her helpless grasp. The things she enjoyed, the things she loved. She could no more remember them than her age, her name, not even who she was.
No! Not that one!
Another memory gone. Another recollection lost to the void.
Leave me something! Anything! Please!
Instinctively she knew what would happen if all of them were lost. If the last memory vanished, then the last piece of her would as well. Oblivion sought to embrace her and her way of fighting it was only dragging her down deeper.
Give me something to hold on to! I beg of you!
The last few recollections were the ones that she cherished most. Within them was the same face, the same smile, the same person. She held them close to her, clutched them tight like an artist would the last clean fragments of a vandalized masterpiece.
Not these. Not these.
It was no use. Each one was pried from her grasp. Shredded before her eyes. Gone like everything else about her.
No! No! No!
The last one now. The very last. An image of a boy holding an accepting hand out to her.
Regret. Regret. Regret.
Let me have this one.
She sounded like she was pleading, but there was no concept of pride in this hollow place, and she felt no shame in begging.
At the very least, let me have this one.
The image began to fade. She reached out for it, trying to claw it back, knowing it was futile, but trying anyways. Her last thought was stained with pained acceptance even as they were laden with weary defiance.
Not this one. Never this one.
And then she was falling, falling, falling away, everything about her gone, everything that made her her torn away, and she was floating in the void, consigned to this wandering, drifting fate…
She jerked in surprise as a hand grasped her own. Real and corporeal and warm. She recoiled against it at first, for nothing could break the darkness of this place.
The hand came with a face, a familiar one, and her fear faded. She was glad that she would at least get a chance to see him before the end.
"I'm sorry," she said to him.
The face smiled. The hand pulled.
A thousand flickering images ran through her mind. It was like being dragged through quicksand, being pulled through existence itself. The darkness snapped at her heels, trying to drag her back but the grip around her wrist was stronger and it heaved her free in an explosion of color.
Light. Light everywhere. It burned her with its brightness. Her vision was blinded by flashes of it as it sought to reorient itself. She could not see but she could still hear and the voice that once spoke with deep reproach in an abandoned church was now intoning in solemn respect.
Fallen. Your Sins were Absolved by Death. The Slate has been Wiped Clean.
Realization twisted its unwelcome blade. The memories flooded back. Like a wave they crashed into her conscience and overwhelmed her through sheer sensation. It lasted but a second, this tide of feeling, and when it did, she started laughing, laughing at the utter impossibility of it all.
In Your Last Moments You Refused the Path of Darkness and Reached Out for the Light. Your Cry for Aid will not Go Unheeded. Heaven Will Take Back its Own.
Her sight returned and when it did, she looked up into the stern frown of a silver mask.
With Armor We Will Clad You.
She shivered as a sensation crawled upwards along her spine. Cried out in surprise as the feeling crept into her limbs and spread to every inch of her body. Over pale flesh liquid silver flowed, hardening into rigid plates across her chest, toughening into segmented shields over her shoulders, covering the entirety of her like a second skin. She stared down at her palms that were now gauntlets of steel, their surface so bright, so luminous, that her own face was reflected back at her by its polished sheen.
With Weapons We Will Arm You.
It fell like a lightning bolt. Streaked down from heavens in a flash of blinding light. It smote into the ground in a thunderclap of noise, smashed into the pavement like a lance hurled from the fist of an angry god.
A spear. Straight, and long, and true. It impaled itself into the earth before her, gleaming like the sun.
She reached out with trembling hands, fingers wrapping delicately around the inlaid haft, and pulled it from the ground. The blade was revealed, the tip so painfully sharp it seemed to cut the very air. And upon its surface, burnished in flaming sigils, was etched but a single word.
Those Wings that were Torn from Your Shoulders Shall Now be Returned in Glory.
She arched her back. From the spaces in her armor, pinions erupted, stretching towards the sky in newfound life. They were not wings of feather or heavenly steel. They were limbs of pure light, tendrils of luminescence that moved and swayed with a purpose of their own. They trilled when she extended them to their full width, the sound like the melody of a harmonious choir.
Rise, Raynare, Archangel of Vengeance, and Take Your Place Alongside Us Once More.
She stood. The joints in her armor whispered as they supported her weight. She reached her full height and glanced up towards the figures who hovered above. The gentle tilt of her head matched the smile on her face in every way.
"Kokabiel," her voice was no longer bitter. No longer desperate. It was soft and firm, as it was so long ago, as it should have been, "You have hurt me. Allow me to return the favor. And to do that," the spear was lifted, Inaerion, singing a wrathful song as it was pointed in the direction of the hated foe, "I'm going to ram this up your ass."
They were again in the center of the storm, though this storm was of a far quieter sort. A tempest of stunned disbelief was what it was. A gale of hushed silence. Within it, the boy blinked and then turned to the angel by his side.
"Did she really just say that out loud?"
"To think of such a holy weapon," Metatron muttered, "defiled in such a manner," disapproval radiated from the Archangel's frame, "Sacrilege... We should have left out some of her more Fallen tendencies."
The boy smiled at the accusation laden within the tone.
"But that would have erased her identity. That would have changed who she was."
"Yes," the silver mask nodded, "You humans have always had an irrational attachment to your identity. It is a foolish belief. We could have made her better. Purer. Flawless instead of flawed. But you chose merely to give her life back in a new form instead of remaking her existence."
"It is the flaws that make us who we are," the boy shook his head, "And I will no more erase them than the strengths that define us."
Metatron sighed. Even when accepting defeat, the Archangel somehow still sounded dignified.
"The motives of the Nephilim are whimsical indeed. I recall you would have had me do something similar to the girl we found in that church. And when I told you that the Laws of Heaven would not work in the same way on a human as it would an angel, you found a different method to bring her back," stern eyes stared out from behind the gleaming faceplate, "And what did that accomplish? She still chose to become a devil. The outcome would have been no different if you left her there. What you did for her was meaningless in the end."
"She deserved a choice. The power to choose her own fate. That in itself is meaningful."
"Choice," the angel said distastefully, "Another human concept."
A brief instant of silence followed and the two of them watched as the gleaming figure scythed her way through the black horde that sought to stop her. Turning, the boy eyed the angel beside him in bemusement.
"This was your plan all along, wasn't it?"
Metatron inclined his head.
"I was most aggrieved when I learned of God's death. Even if things are different, it is a haunting feeling to not have His voice in my conscience," the grimace the angel wore matched the frown carved into his helm, "She was right when she said more and more angels Fall. Without God, the laws He has created become easily skirted. Easily broken. Michael has done admirably in upholding the balance, but he is not God, and his power is insufficient. Our numbers dwindle with each passing day, bleed out like an open wound, and all the while our foes grow in strength. This must not be allowed to happen. I will see Heaven restored to glory. I will see the Antechamber of Thrones filled with gleaming figures once again. I asked you to spare their lives so that they may have a chance to redeem themselves and return back to the fold. But even then, how events have unfolded still has surprised me."
The seraph continued to track her progress, watching as she broke free and started chasing after the one who had hurt her most.
"I did not give her the mark because I did not think she was worthy. Her deeds were too heinous, her past too dark. She had lost her purpose and in her despair, lost herself. I did not think the Light would ever reclaim her. But you have changed that," the Archangel turned to him, "The bonds you make. The links you forge. They bring out the potential hidden in all of us. It was enough to allow her to accept who she was and what she had become. And that is where true redemption lies. The acceptance of the wrongs we have done and the wish to right them," Metatron nodded, "Truly yours is both a wondrous and frightening power to have. Which is why I would ask now for this small favor."
An armored palm placed itself over the plated chest. The angel bowed his head, the motion surprisingly sincere.
"Call for us, Nephilim. All of us. Just like you did in your fight against Nyx. Manifest us in all our glory. Let our presence fill the hearts of those present and light the fires of those who are not. Heaven's will is but an echo of what it once was. The Light that once shone in the darkest of places is now nothing more than a dying spark. Our existence will change that. They will see us in our splendor and they will be reminded of a time when our numbers were legion and our banners flew proud. Call for us, Nephilim, and let Heaven taste glory once more."
The boy hesitated, weighing the request.
"That is neither small nor a favor," he finally said.
"From you, it is both."
The boy smiled. He reached into his pocket and produced something silver. It was shaped like a gun and he stared at the gleaming barrel with something akin to sadness.
"I was never meant to live a normal life, was I?"
"The weak despairs over lives they cannot live," Metatron said quietly, "The strong mourns for it and moves on. Which one are you, Nephilim?"
The barrel was placed to the side of his head. A finger tightened over the trigger. Squeezed.
The gates were lifted. The waves set free. Each manifestation before had been chained to his psyche, purposefully held back in fear of the damage they could do. No longer. From his combined gestalt they came forth, figures breaking the surface, wings dripping with liquid power. That was how they appeared in his mind. Reality was different. Unchained, set loose, they chose to manifest in the way they would have in life.
Six pillars of light smashed into the ground. Like lances of judgment they smote down from the heavens and crashed into earth. Each was a coruscating column of luminescence, and where they descended, where they landed, they lit their surroundings on fire from sheer, undiluted power.
From within each pillar, figures began to move, began to rise on armored joints. Unified, as one, they stepped through and bathed the world in heavenly light.
Sandalphon was the first. Bronze plated and true. Gleaming sigils adorned his battle plate, emblazoned runes shaped in half-crescent moons. The spear he held in his hand was the brother to Inaerion in every way.
Raphael walked through. Unhelmed, his stern features resembled a face carved from marble. The wings that extended over his shoulders were jagged like swords. His firm gaze swept across them all, strict and unyielding.
Uriel stepped into existence. He chuckled at the sight before him before throwing a cheery wave in Asia's direction. The girl hesitated before waving falteringly back.
Gabriel's beauty was like the radiant sun. Wherever she tread life bloomed anew and wounds healed in shimmering auras of light. None of these things seemed to matter compared to the lethal blade she held in a war maiden's grip.
Michael's expression were set into a grim frown as he emerged. The Commander of His Legions glanced up at the enemies above him and the frown turned into an equally grim smile.
Melchizedek was last. The Sage of Heaven was no warrior compared to the others. His strength lay elsewhere. Tendrils of arcane sorcery sparked in his hand, danced in flickering lines around armored fingers.
Metatron spread his arms wide. They gathered around him, lesser angels making their respect known to a greater one.
Gabriel smiled. Melchizedek tilted his visored head. Raphael wrapped his hands around the grip of his diamond-pommelled sword.
This World Believes that Heaven has Fallen. They Believe that Our Kingdom is on its Knees, Heaving its Last Breath. They Believe that without God, We have Become Weak. Diluted. Powerless.
The silver mask regarded them each in turn. The power that had been kept simmering beneath the surface flared like the heat of a newly born sun.
Let Us Disabuse Them of that Notion.
Pinions spread. Feet lifted from the ground. The air was filled with heavy wingbeats as the greatest among Archangels took to the skies.
By his side, the figure of darkness and shadow let out low, rumbling growl. It sounded almost like a question. Despite the strain of keeping them mired in reality, despite the growing pain that assaulted his mind, the boy still smiled.
Laughing, cackling, howling its maddening dirge, Thanatos launched itself into the air and joined with beings of light and valor in slaughtering the foe.
Author's Note: You may begin singing the curbstomp song now.