It smashed Zeruel out of the sky like a falling comet.
The angel had ascended on his wings to challenge the beast, rising magnificently on pinions of pure fire. A single backhanded swipe from the immense, taloned paw sent him hurtling back down, crashing to the floor. Bellum spun away from the Archangel's hand, jarred from his grasp by the force of the impact.
And then the dragon was upon him, jaws spread open, wings extending like sails on its back. Claws longer than a man's arm pinned Zeruel to the ground, crushing the angel's plated form, pounding his armored body into the dirt.
"I will shatter the idea of peace," it repeated, mockery laden in every snarled word and syllable, "I will break it like the fragile glass it is."
Nidhogg lowered its snout, so close that a huff of hoarfrost drifting from its nostrils coated the angel's breastplate with a spreading layer of rime.
"And I will begin by devouring this Angel of Might before your eyes."
Azazel had chosen to forego his bodyguards to follow the dragon. His men were needed back at the defenses in case another wave of Sacred Gear users attacked their positions. This suited him fine. His brief foray from friendly lines was no more than a scouting mission, to see for himself what they were up against. Already ideas of countering the beast was spinning inside the Fallen Angel's head.
"This is what they choose to send against us?" the Grigori's voice was tinged with bemusement as he gazed at the carnage the creature left in its destructive wake, "A dragon?"
"Not any ordinary dragon," Vali commented from behind him, "They sent an evil one, as well."
"And in doing so, cemented their own defeat while securing the foundations of our alliance," the grizzled man smiled grimly.
The boy turned to him, brows raised.
"You have a plan?"
"Better than that," Azazel grinned, "We'll bring an end to both the dragon and any arguments against peace. It will be like killing two birds with one stone."
His protégé caught on immediately.
"You mean to seal it away."
"Yes," the Fallen Angel nodded curtly, "It's been done before. In the rare time all three factions worked together during the Great War. You should know, Vali. Your Sacred Gear was a result of it."
"So it was," the human-devil hybrid said noncommittally.
"If we succeed," the Grigori was too caught up in his own excitement to notice the absolute neutrality in the boy's tone, "then we prove to everyone that angels, devils, and Fallen Angels are capable of working together. This is a chance too good to pass up."
"Agreed," the boy said, just as evasively as before.
"Quickly Vali," Azazel urged, "Go find Michael and Sirzechs. Tell them I am waiting for them here. I should be able to duplicate the same spell that locked those two away. Together, all three of our combined power should be more than enough to lock this creature away."
"That is what I was afraid you would say."
The Fallen Angel frowned at the strange choice of reply and was about to turn when he felt a hand being pressed into his back.
"Vali…" the man seemed to age a hundred years as the wings of Divine Dividing lifted into view behind him, "…why?"
"I'm sorry, Azazel," the boy's tone was insultingly sincere, "but orders are orders."
"Orders? From them?" the Grigori bit out, unable to move because of the fingers digging like claws around his spine, "The same people who are attacking us? What power could they have offered for you to betray us?"
"Some things are worth more than power," Vali said softly, "Some things that have been denied to me since I was born."
"I…" raw anger warred with despair in Azazel's voice, "…I treated you like my own son."
"I know," his protégé nodded solemnly, "For that, I thank you. Father."
A flash of light and the unconscious form of Azazel slumped to the ground, just one more unmoving body amid a field littered with them.
On a field of war secluded far away from the effects of the dragon's rampage, yet not so distant as to miss it completely, a girl was arriving at the same conclusion as the Grigori. From her vantage point hovering high in the air, she could see her peerage entangled in clean-up duty, all that remained of the mass assault by Sacred Gear users, now reduced to nothing more than a series of disparate skirmishes. Their combined defiance was enough to blunt the charge and force their mutual enemy to retreat. All that were left were a few muddled stragglers, abandoned by their magician masters, and as her allies finished dispatching these last, pitiful remnants, she waved them in from her position above the ground. They gathered around her as she landed, armor dented and scarred, uniforms and clothing tattered and ripped, all evidence of the hard, bitter fighting they had been embroiled in.
"I have a plan," Rias said to them.
"Oh, this should be good," Akeno's smile was only half-teasing. The beauty's form-fitting dress was split on one side, revealing the ugly, jagged gash running from her hip down her leg. The wound was healed when Asia joined the huddle, the power of Twilight Healing repairing the damaged limb until the flesh was seamless once more. Akeno nodded her thanks. The way she trailed a finger where the gash once was, however, suggested almost disappointment.
Rias ignored her friend's playful tone. Her gaze was serious as she locked eyes with those in her peerage and those she counted as allies.
"We are going to kill the dragon."
They blinked at her, surprise written over their features.
"Not that I disagree with fighting a towering monstrosity with the ability to create gigantic glaciers of ice just by breathing," Kiba's tone was remarkably straightforward even as his face displayed his unease, "but why exactly do we want to fight a towering monstrosity with the ability to create gigantic glaciers of ice just by breathing?"
"We aren't going to fight the dragon just for the sake of fighting it," the devil explained, "We're going to fight it to help Zeruel."
"But the guy's an asshole," Issei complained.
Rias smiled briefly at her Pawn's bluntness.
"He may be, but he's also one of Heaven's greatest leaders and the main opponent to the peace conference. If we help him, then we can change his views on devils and sway him in favor for the alliance," the girl's face was set into a mask of determination, "My brother has for this his entire life. I can't just see it fail in front of his eyes."
"It's no small task to face something like that," Xenovia said quietly. The exorcist's combat vest was torn in half a dozen places. Beside her, equally as battered, Irina leaned on the hilt of her Excalibur.
"Which is why I'm only asking for you to join me, and not demanding it," Rias replied, "I understand it might be too much for me to ask, but all your aid will be welcome. If we succeed," she added, "then we will have helped achieve an end to a war that spanned for centuries and attain a peace that might last for even more."
The two exorcists shared glances with one another before nodding.
"If you put it like that…" a slight smile played on Irina's lips.
"How can we refuse?" Xenovia finished.
Rias turned to the ten armored men looming behind her peerage, halberds held proudly aloft in their gauntleted hands. The lead knight held out a palm to silence her when she made to speak.
"We will go wherever the Holy Witch goes," Erich said simply and the curtness in his tone told her that was all he was going to say.
The devil was about to thank them when new figures joined the impromptu gathering. The joints in their massive suits of plate groaned with strain even as the servos that moved them hissed and clicked with each taken step. The hammers clutched in their grip thrummed with aching power, their blunt, killing ends rippling with garlands of flickering energy.
"We heard the words 'kill' and 'dragon' in the same sentence," their leader grunted, amused, "and now we are interested," he set aside his hammer and removed his plumed helm, revealing a grizzled, stubble-lined face, "I am Adelmar, castellan of this noble squad."
His men did the same, unmasking themselves, showing scarred, weather-bitten faces lined with experience and age.
"I am Tareyn," a second Paladin said gruffly.
"Androcles of Pergamon," a third knight, his features tanned by the Mediterranean sun, inclined his head.
"Ernhart," hard, aquiline eyes stared uncompromisingly from a face framed by snow-white hair, "and if you make a comment about how old I am, I will be most peeved with you."
The last knight's countenance was ruined by the jagged scar that crossed diagonally from the right side of his face and ended at the tip of his chin. It was as though a great, gigantic blade had been pressed into the man's face but not with enough force to split it completely.
"Sigmund," his voice was almost polite, "You fight well… for devils."
"We tell you our names," their leader, Adelmar, concluded, unfiltered voice still tinged with war-bred amusement, "because someone has to carve them into the monument they dedicate to our honor after we kill the dragon."
In the uproar that followed, Akeno pulled Rias aside so that their conversation would be heard by no one else.
"How much of this is really for the sake of helping that angel?" the beautiful girl asked.
Her friend pursed her lips until it was a thin, straight line.
"I don't know what you are implying."
"How much of this is really for helping your brother?" Akeno continued on relentlessly and there was an uncharacteristic hardness to her words, "And how much of it is for getting out of his shadow?"
Rias's cheeks flushed. Her Queen noticed, and the stiffness slowly evaporated from her face.
"Don't do this just because you want recognition for yourself," the girl pleaded, "Do it because it means something."
The two devils locked gazes, and what passed between them was something that could only come from deep understanding and friendship.
"Why can't it be both?" Rias asked softly.
His enemy was little more than a teenager, scarcely older than his own sister. The observation alone was enough for him stay his hand. That, and Sirzechs knew him, not by name, but by the clan and family he belonged to.
"Don't do this, boy," the devil lord batted aside the spear aimed for his throat, "Don't fall for the Old Satan Faction's lies."
His opponent glowered back but said nothing and renewed the attack. The blows that came were clumsy and awkward, as expected from a youth with little to no experience in handling a weapon. But what the boy lacked in control and finesse, he made up with unflinching zeal and the sheer number of strikes and thrusts he hurled in Sirzechs's way. The man was forced to take a step back from the murderous assault even as he blocked and parried every stroke with his own demonic blade.
"What would your mother say?" the devil continued to plead with his assailant, "What would your father say? They were all so very proud of you. What would they think now that you have joined these traitors?"
That only seemed to spur the youth into the heights of rage. The assault continued unabated, with half the skill and twice the fury. Some of the blows were so off target, Sirzechs didn't even need to block them.
"Don't make me do this, boy" he whispered.
His opponent overextended, a desperate lunge with his lance. The man tilted his head to one side, the jagged point of the polearm plunging harmlessly past his face. In response, the devil lord swept the boy's legs from under him with a low, graceful kick. The enemy devil landed hard on his rump and made to reach for his fallen spear when the tip of the demon sword settled beneath his chin.
"Don't throw away your life like this," Sirzechs begged, "Don't cast away your future because they told you to."
The boy glared up at him, anger and stubbornness blazing in his eyes, uncaring for the blade prickling at his throat. Sirzechs saw himself in the youth's face; the same defiance centuries ago when he faced hosts of enemies with armies of devils by his side, the same burning vigor in his arms as he cut down foes by the hundreds, the same boiling rage as he stared down his own kindred marching on him with the Old Satan Faction's banners flying high above their ranks. He saw himself and abhorred at what he saw.
His hesitation was not share by his opponent. The youth dived for his spear, and before the fog of memories could fully dissipate, rammed it deep into the devil lord's thigh.
Sirzechs grunted and slowly fell to one knee. He grunted again as the boy pulled his weapon free in a spray of crimson arterial spill. The man looked up to see his enemy standing victoriously over him, lance raised in both arms for one last stab.
"Don't do this…" he sighed.
A blinding flash of light lit up the room. The spear thrust was turned aside at the last moment by a gleaming blade. It rose and fell in angelic hands, the bright, blazing sword, and the boy reeled away, the gash splitting down his face, dead beyond a shadow of a doubt.
The figure continued his immaculate bladework, spinning and pivoting on his heel in an elegant dance as more foes neared, eager to take advantage of the devil lord's weakened state. All of them failed to reach their wounded target, hewn apart by elegant strokes that bordered on perfection, forced back by the light radiating from the luminescent wings, so bright they burned skin and scorched flesh.
When the figure finally stopped moving, a dozen dead warriors lay sprawled around his feet, killed in the time it would take a normal man to blink.
One hand held Deus Xiphos, dripping traitor blood down its keen, silver edge. The other reached for him. Sirzechs grasped it and felt himself being hauled to his feet.
"I had forgotten the warrior behind the kindness," the devil said to the angel.
Michael turned to him, hard, unyielding steel unseen for centuries glinting in his eyes. As quick as it appeared, it was gone, vanished from his gaze, and the seraph's face once more showed nothing but deep sadness laced with unending compassion. The Archangel gestured to his counterpart's clothing, stained red with blood, most of it not his own.
"And I had forgotten why we called you the Crimson Satan."
Sirzechs smiled slightly, but his focus remained on the body of the boy, cooling with the others in unsightly repose against the floor.
"I knew him."
Michael's head was turned. The seraph was directing his men into the fight, a few dozens angels and humans he had scrounged up in the chaos. He sent this ragtag force surging into combat, joining those among the civilians who were capable of fighting in driving the traitors back towards their portals. When the angel looked back at him, his gaze contained only sympathy.
"He came from a modest family. Not an insignificant one, but far from a Pillar clan. I met him once, at a gathering for young, promising devils. His parents were some of my most ardent supporters, and they were proud to see their son in such exalted company. But you know how our society works. The never-ending climb up the ranks and the eternal need to earn glory for the clan name. There is so little a devil from an average family can do to advance when positions of power are filled with Pillar heads and their descendants. Maybe that's why he joined, seeing his peers elevated to ranks higher than his and being unable to follow. That is what the Old Satan Faction is good at. Promising much, but delivering little," the man's voice became thick with emotion, "What will I tell his parents? How will I tell them that their son died not fighting for what they believed in, but serving the cause of liars and demagogues?"
"You will tell them the truth," Michael said softly, "They might not like it. They may even hate you for it, but once they have come to terms with their loss, they will respect you for your honesty."
"If only I had done something," Sirzechs breathed, "If only I had said something to him, just a few words of comfort at that gathering, and it would not have come to this. If only I had taken a few minutes out of my day to speak with him, then a boy would still be alive today."
"This is not your fault, Sirzechs," his counterpart whispered, "so stop trying to make it yours."
"Perhaps not my fault," the devil bobbed his head in half-hearted agreement, "but certainly my failure as a Great Satan. What kind of leader am I, if I allow my own people to be led astray like this?"
"Never attribute to your own failure what can be explained as the enemy's malice. Why do you think the leaders of the Old Satan Faction have yet to show themselves?" Michael gestured to the bodies lying on the floor, "They know they are no match for you one-on-one. So they are sending people you know, people you are familiar with that they have swayed to their side to do the deed. They are hoping to shake your confidence. Your poise. They are hoping the shock of each betrayal is enough to force you into committing a mistake, and it is working, for they already made you commit one."
Sirzechs followed the seraph's gaze to the wound on his thigh, bleeding crimson down his leg.
"Do not continue to make the mistake of doubting yourself now, when so many others remain loyal to you in the Underworld," the Archangel said gently, "They have placed their hopes and dreams with you because they trust you and your vision. They follow you not because you carry the title of Lucifer, but because you are worthy of it," tired, solemn eyes met the devil's own, "Leaders like us, we are nothing without our people. Don't ever fail to live up to them, Sirzechs."
In front of them, the portals began flickering various shades of red as they disgorged more traitor devils into Kuoh Academy. The allied lines began buckling at the influx of enemies. Both men broke off from one another and began heading towards the fight. Before they could fully separate, Sirzechs inclined his head gratefully in the direction of his fellow lord.
"Thank you for your wisdom, Michael."
"Not wisdom," the words were accompanied by a sad smile, "Experience. The Fallen used this tactic on me many times during the aftermath of the Great War," the Archangel raised Deus Xiphos in a two-handed grip as he neared the forefront of the battle, "It is my eternal shame that it worked as many times as it did."
A lone figure waited for them, blocking their path, extruding quiet, reserved confidence.
"I know what you're trying to do," Vali crossed his arms over his chest, "and I'm here to stop you from doing it."
"What are you talking about?" Rias met the boy's gaze with her own, "You're on our side. You're Azazel's favorite," then, her eyes began to widen in realization, "You turned on him, didn't you?"
"You'll find that he is quite indisposed at the moment," the devil-human hybrid admitted to the deed with a faint nod, "as all of you will be, shortly."
"You… betrayed your own master?" the revulsion displayed over Issei's face was a mirror to the boy's own thoughts.
"He wasn't my master," Vali didn't even deign him worthy of a glance, "No one is my master. I am my own man. For too long I've sat in the shadows, listening to lesser beings discuss my fate when my own power surpasses them by leagues. For too long I've been ordered around by leaders not worth their salt, forced to heed their commands like some errand boy. No more. My fate is my own. My destiny is mine to grasp, and none of you are going to get in my way."
"You don't care about the alliance?" Rias whispered, "You don't care about a chance for peace after all these years?"
"I care little for the alliance. I care little for peace. I care even less for the ones trying to make both," a glimmer of emotion flashed over the boy's countenance, "All I care about is finding the ones who did this to me, the ones who cast me out, and killing them with my own bare hands."
Akeno's eyes gleamed. The frightening battle-smile slowly crept over her exquisite features.
"You can't win against all of us."
"I don't have to," Vali replied, "I just need to stall. As long as Nidhogg kills all of the faction leaders, this alliance will be ruined. I just need to give the dragon the time it needs and prevent people like you from interfering. And none of you are capable of defeating me in short order," Azazel's former pupil shook his head in a gesture of mock sympathy, "It's a shame, really. If you had your Nephilim with you, maybe you would've had a chance. But he's not here and if things are going right on our front, then he should be just as indisposed as Azazel."
"What did you do to him?" Rias ground out.
"Not me," the boy smiled at the effect his words were having on the devil and her allies, "but what's the point of asking? If the battle continues going in our favor, all of you will be too dead to know."
That made them bristle, and the human-devil hybrid watched with amusement as blades were unsheathed and halberds lowered until their rune-engraved tips pointed to his chest. He waited for the last sword to slide free from its scabbard before asking the only question that mattered.
"Which one of you will be first?"
Wings brighter than the rising sun descended. Tendrils of incandescent light bore their owner to the ground, and as her feet touched the floor, they trilled a soft, comforting song to all those who within vicinity.
"You betrayed Azazel," she accused, weaponless except for the anger bleeding out from her voice.
"Just found that out, did you?" Vali glanced lazily in her direction before shrugging, "I did say I was sorry."
"He always treated you right," Raynare's eyes never left the boy's face, "Ever since he found you and brought you in, he raised you as his own."
A flicker of annoyance passed over the devil-human hybrid's frame.
"So he did. But what's it to you? Shouldn't you be out there helping your new angel masters?"
"Azazel never asked why I Fell," the woman said quietly, "He never judged me for the reason I became what I am, even when others did. He helped me when no one else lifted a finger, and treated me with the respect as a person I was due," behind her, Dohnaseek stalked towards Vali's flank, a gleaming blade twirling in each hand. Kalawarner did the same to the boy's other flank, a lance of pure light held horizontally in front of her as she moved gracefully to encircle. Mittelt remained hovering in the air, power gathering her palms, completing the trap. The smile the tiny girl wore was wrong in every way, "He treated all of us, not as minions to be thrown away, but as people."
"And where has that led him?" Vali didn't move, but his eyes watched each potential enemy warily, ready for the slightest provocation, "Betrayal after betrayal. First Kokabiel. Now me," the hybrid shook his head, "You don't rule through respect. You don't rule by making people happy. You rule through authority. Through power. You rule by making people fear. You should know. You're not innocent in this. You betrayed him as well. When Kokabiel called, you disregarded Azazel's orders and went to that madman with your tail between your legs like a beaten dog."
The angel's gaze fell on the slight figure of Asia, watching the exchange with wide eyes, and then on Issei behind her, hand placed protectively over the former priestess's shoulder.
"There are some things I wish I would have done differently," she whispered, "Some things I will regret for the rest of my life," the woman turned back to Vali, "But just because I'm guilty of my own sins, doesn't absolve you of yours."
The boy's lips curled.
"And now you're some righteous warrior fighting on behalf of the betrayed? Don't make me laugh. You're no better or worse than me."
"I might not be better," Raynare shook her head, "but I'm certainly not worse. At the very least, I knew what I was doing was wrong, even if I was too afraid to admit it. He taught me that. That regret wasn't worth anything if I didn't take steps to face it. That even for a coward like me, I could still be brave in my own way. That while I might have done the wrong things in the past, that doesn't mean I can't do the right things now."
Inaerion materialized into her hand, bright and luminous, the tip blazing with righteous fire.
"Go kill your dragon," she said over her shoulder to those behind her, "Leave this one to us."
She didn't need to look back to know they were doing as she suggested. Her eyes remained stoically on her opponent, whose own gaze was riveted to the lance she grasped in her hands.
"The only reason you are in the same conversation with me," Vali said softly, "is because of that spear."
"Oh, I know," the familiar, vindictive smirk surfaced, spreading over perfectly framed lips in a leer no pure angel should have been able to make, "Which will make it all the more special when I ram it down your throat and pull it out your ass."
Zeruel had escaped the drooling jaws as well as recovered his sword, but even having done both, battling the dragon was still a challenge. Nidhogg didn't give him a second of relief. It used its immense bulk as a weapon, smothering the angel whenever he tried to swing Bellum fully for a fatal strike. The beast was always up close, claws swiping and slashing, always face to face, snapping with its immense jaws. Zeruel was forced to smash his venerable blade in brutal, bashing motions against the monster's snout to drive it back, and his form suffered for it. The Blade of Angels simply wasn't meant to be used this way. Elegant, graceful strokes was its forte. Not crude, hurried strikes.
In a desperate gamble, the Archangel gusted fire from his outstretched wings. The fiery pinions whipped up a roaring conflagration and sent it crashing into the dragon's snout. Nidhogg reared away from the flames wafting into its scale-lined face, temporarily driven back, momentarily disorientated.
Zeruel saw his chance. A miniscule chink in the dragon's guard. A tiny crack in its defenses, so unnoticeable that any lesser warrior would have missed it. Infinitesimal. Smaller than that.
He put his sword through it. Bellum fell, a silver blur trailing white-hot fire. Nidhogg was faster. Its predatory reflexes were simply superior to anything the angel could produce. The dragon craned its neck back and Bellum severed a spine instead of the skull it was attached to.
The Archangel uttered a wordless grunt of dismay at the miss. He braced himself, knowing the retaliatory strike would be all the deadlier because of his gamble, understanding that in overextending his reach, he had made himself all the more vulnerable.
The attack came in the form of a breath of ice so intense it blew out the wings stretching from his back. Layers and layers of chilling frost, blasting from the dragon's unhinged jaws in a swirling gale of force. The sheer volume of it suffocated the air around the angel's fiery pinions and reduced the blazing wings to dull glimmering coals falling listlessly over his shoulders. Zeruel shouted into the storm, trying to show his defiance to its creator, trying to close the distance to use his sword now that his wings were rendered all but useless. It was like trying to step into the heart of a hurricane, trying to walk into the mouth of a tornado. Hoarfrost buffeted him from all sides, coating his armor, covering his limbs, forming painful stalactites of ice that wormed into his joints. The chilling effect of Nidhogg's breath was mirrored on the inside. Zeruel could feel the blood in his veins coagulating, the organs in his body freezing, his very heart beating slower as the dragon continued to cover him with the hoarfrost storm. Bellum stuck fast to his fists, legs rooted to the ground, the Archangel became a crystalline statue, rime coating the top of his knightly helm down to his plated feet.
The dragon's sneering laugh rang down in booming echoes as it peered at the frozen form of its victim.
"Look at you, Zeruel. So perfect. So pristine. Why, it would almost be a shame to break you into pieces to feed. But then again, I can always devour you whole."
The monstrous head snaked in to do exactly that. Trapped in his icy prison, the angel could only watch as the horned snout loomed ever closer. The jaws spread open, filled with rows and rows of murderous fangs. They snapped closed bare centimeters away from Zeruel, only missing because of the purple flash of an exploding round detonating on the ground below it.
"Hey you! Why don't you pick on someone your own size?!"
Nidhogg's enlarged pupils flickered contemptuously towards the figure floating in the distance, cobalt blue cannon smoking with recent discharge. A long suffering sigh escaped its reptilian muzzle.
"Do excuse me while I deal with this interloper."
The dragon turned lazily from its frozen quarry. It rose magnificently from its crouched position, a colossal giant, a massive slab of meat and scales and teeth. At its full height, its crocodilian skull reared easily above the surrounding rooftops.
"And what, may I ask, are you going to do if I refuse?"
Issei grinned and bared Boosted Gear alongside his lightning cannon.
"I'm going to kick your ass with this!"
Nidhogg's eyes fixated on the crimson gauntlet like a cat would gaze at a caught mouse.
"Ddraig," the emerald jewel gleamed in response, "The Crimson Emperor. My old enemy."
"If you know what Boosted Gear is," a blade formed between the metallic claws, straight and true, its gleaming edges unmistakable, "then you'll know what this is as well!"
The beast's face was rich with its sneer.
"Ascalon. The Dragonslayer's sword," it took a step towards the hovering devil, "Very impressive, but don't you think it is a little premature to show me the full extent of your power? Now I know what you are capable of."
"Nope!" the boy said cheerfully, "I'm not worried at all! Because I'm going to wipe the floor with you so fast it's not even going to matter!"
Nidhogg let out a short bark of laughter. It began prowling towards the Issei, every motion laden with predatory threat.
"Such bravado deserves to be disciplined," the dragon sounded almost like it was purring, "Such audacity needs to be punished. And I… I will be the instrument to deliver that punishment."
The mountain of flesh and scale continued its confident, arrogant gait towards Issei and stalked directly into the path of the prepared ambush.
Akeno and Rias, rising into the air, raw power spitting from their palms. Bolts of demonic energy crashed into the beast from one side. Holy lightning scorched from the other. Together, the two girls caught the dragon in a punishing crossfire that forced it temporarily back.
Nidhogg craned its neck to stare at these new threats. It opened its jaws to breathe its chilling breath at the two devils. The sight of Ascalon flying past its head stopped it from doing so. The red, hateful eyes followed the sword's path. They widened when the blade slapped solidly in Kiba's palm.
The sword-user was already angling in to attack, approaching the dragon's back at breakneck speed. Too late did Nidhogg realize what was happening and too late did the pillar of ice blast from its mouth. Kiba bounded over the stream of hoarfrost in one fluid motion, the wings on his back giving him the needed momentum to leap clear. The boy streaked into the beast's side like a missile and slammed Ascalon into the flesh above its hip. He hung there for a scant heartbeat before his own weight dragged his body and the blade with it towards the ground. The gash that followed was deep enough for a man to thrust his arm through and ran all the way down the dragon's flank.
Nidhogg roared. Its skin was impervious to all but the most enchanted weapons, invulnerable to all but the most well forged blades, but Ascalon was a different matter entirely. Saint George's sword was an anathema to drakekind. Its edge was made keener when it touched dragon skin, and its tip became sharper when it punctured dragon flesh. That, and the holy aura clinging to the blade was potent enough to make each lasting wound feel as though it was smeared in acid.
Enraged by the pain, incensed to the point of madness, Nidhogg disregarded both Rias and Akeno completely and focused solely on Kiba. The beast tried to trap the boy between its huge claws, seeking to crush the small, frail mortal that had dared to hurt it. The sword-user ducked as the man-sized talons swiped at him, and leapt away when they pounded into the earth. The dragon's reflexes were impressive, but as a Knight, Kiba was simply faster. He used that to his advantage, dancing just slightly out of reach from the monster's grasp, making sure to draw his opponent's attention but never staying still enough for the creature to bring its full strength to bear. The only drawback to this tactic was that he couldn't attack. Even a split second of indecision risked disembowelment by Nidhogg's claws, so the sword-user was forced to concentrate only on dodging and weaving at the cost of his own offense. Kiba solved that problem by hurling Ascalon high into the air, as Issei had done before him.
"Sword!" he called out in his loudest voice.
Xenovia caught it. The exorcist snatched it out of midair by the grip, pulling it down in the middle of her own leap. She spun with the movement, gathering strength and momentum, and as she landed, Ascalon shifted gracefully from a one to a two-handed grip. The resulting gash was just as deep, just as long as the first, but carved in the dragon's other side.
Nidhogg bellowed in agony. Just like it had did with Kiba, the mountain of brute strength and primal aggression began chasing after Xenovia, trying to bring her down and inflict punishment in retribution for the pain dealt to it. And just like Kiba had done, Xenovia danced easily out of reach, using her own prodigious speed to avoid the wild, swiping claws. The blade left her hands a second later, tossed over her shoulder in almost haphazard fashion.
Irina, a spinning, whirling blur. The girl already had one sword out. Her own Excalibur, biting into the dragon's leg as the massive limb rose. The other hand caught Ascalon, swung upwards, and severed one of the taloned toes.
Nidhogg began hopping in pain, alternatively skipping and pounding the ground with its remaining good legs. The beast's snout was literally frothing with rage. It snapped its jaws at Irina who was already leaping out the way.
Kiba was there, lunging, diving for the falling blade. He ducked under the immense bulk of the beast and scored a jagged laceration across the dragon's belly.
Xenovia. Pure economy of motion. Ascalon rose and fell in her practiced hands and Nidhogg tore its snout away, a bloody gash ripped across its face.
Irina, jabbing and probing. She leaned back to avoid a horizontal slash from the killing claws and left a pair of puncture wounds in the arm that swung past her.
A swarm of buzzing bees. That was what the trio resembled. They deployed hit and run tactics to the finest degree, vectoring in to attack when the dragon's attention was elsewhere and swiftly retreating when the crimson eyes focused on them. Ascalon was always in motion between them, staying with one user with just enough time to score another wound before rapidly changing hands again. Nidhogg's roars of agony became fevered in pitch as the holy sword left gashes and lacerations too many to count. Its enraged gaze switched continuously between the darting, weaving forms, trying to fix them in place so it could finally do something to them. Its awareness completely shot by the speeding, blitzing foes around it, the dragon simply had no defense when the ambush proceeded to a further stage.
Ten armored figures charged out of the rubble, tabards whipping in the wind, polearms levelled in their plated hands. They launched themselves at the beast's hind legs, halberds sweeping in wide, broad strokes. The blades attached to each haft were mass-produced, rune-engraved weapons. They didn't carry the same holy aura as Ascalon did, not even close, but swung enough times, and the dullest sword would still break skin. And that fitted precisely the Knights Templars' approach. They hacked ruthlessly at the dragon's legs while it was distracted, making up for the inferiority of their weapons with fiery zealotry and sheer bloody-mindedness. And in the meantime, Rias and Akeno continued to circle from above, raining ruin and devastation, with Issei joining in with his cannon, ravaging the beast's already suffering body with endless volleys.
Together, fighting flawlessly as one, the combined force of humans and devils succeeded in driving the dragon back from Zeruel and towards the walls of Kuoh Academy.
In frustration, Nidhogg began slamming its spiked tail into the earth. The wrath-fueled blows sent tremors spreading below the ground. One of them caught Kiba in the motion of throwing. The boy stumbled, and his arm went wide. Ascalon flew out of his grasp in the wrong trajectory, and sailed far out of range of Xenovia's reaching fingers. The blade flipped end over end, a soaring, spinning blur, before falling through the air and landing in the hands of someone who was perhaps the least qualified to use it. By pure instinct, the girl caught it by the hilt with the tip pointing up.
"Um…" Asia blinked at her new sword, "…Thanks?"
The dragon's claws descended a fraction of a second later, to crush the only mortal who was seemingly unarmed. The timing could not have been more perfect. The scaled palm smote down with terrible force and met the gleaming point of Ascalon with the same consequence of a man stepping on a nail.
There was a moment of silence as everyone stared at the girl still holding the sword, now wedged solidly in the dragon's palm. Asia meekly let go of the grip as the massive paw above her began spasming with pain.
"Ah… I'm sorry?"
Nidhogg started roaring, started howling as it tried to dislodge the burning blade stuck fast in its claws. The beast began thrashing with its limbs, beating the wounded paw against the ground in an attempt to escape the agony caused by its own self-inflicted injury.
"Behold!" one of the Knights Templar pointed with his halberd, "The Holy Witch has dealt the beast a most dolorous blow! Truly, she is the holiest among witches!"
His comrades took up the cheer and began hacking at the dragon's limbs with renewed vigor even as Asia started waving her hands hurriedly in front of her to ward off their praise.
"Ah, no, I didn't do anything…"
Standing a slight distance away from her, Kiba was staring at the scene he had inadvertently caused with a mixture of guilt and confusion. It didn't help when a figure floated down to join him, grinning ear to ear like a Cheshire cat.
"Don't say it," the sword-user warned.
"You missed," Issei said it.
The boy sighed.
"I didn't miss. I misjudged the distance. There's a difference."
Issei nodded. His expression had turned uncharacteristically serious.
"Is that what they're calling it these days?"
Kiba winced as the dragon continued rampaging around the school grounds, Ascalon still stuck between the scales of its claws. The devil slowly covered his face with his palm.
"I'm not going to live this one down, am I?"
By the time Nidhogg extricated the sword from its palm, they had cornered it against the mountain of debris and wreckage that was Kuoh Academy. A few buildings still stood, and the roof remained stubbornly whole. But much of it was gone, if not demolished by the Khaos Brigade's earlier barrage, then certainly by the hoarfrost breath the dragon had spewed out. It was perhaps a fitting act of irony that the beast's own graveyard would be in the very ruins it had created.
The creature's malevolent eyes darted towards the figures ringing around it, preventing it from escaping, caging it against the walls of the school. Its maddened gaze focused on Ascalon, recovered from the fight and now waiting in Issei's hands.
"Your little ambush is completed and I am still left standing," it spat, "and now none of you are brave enough to deliver the final blow."
None of them said anything, just continued watching, waiting.
"Your silence speaks for your cowardice," Nidhogg mocked, "No more running. No more fleeing. Come closer and allow me to test your mettle teeth to teeth, claw to claw."
Rias nodded upwards towards the school's roof as though heralding some unseen, hidden signal.
The dragon sneered.
"If you think I will fall for something like that-"
It stopped speaking when five pairs of armored legs landed on its spine.
"Greetings," Nidhogg craned its neck back and met the stare of tear-shaped visors gleaming over brutal, sloped helms, "I am Adelmar, Knight-Castellan of the this noble squad," five shock mauls raised high in unison, bludgeoning ends dancing with lines of arcane energy, "and I tell you this because you should know the name of the man who slays you."
The beast's pupils expanded in realization the same time each hammer crushed down into its sides. None of them broke the surface of the dragon's thick skin. But they didn't need to. Each hammer-stroke released energy in thunderclaps of noise, channeled it into concussive stabs of force angled in from above. And as the Paladins continued pounding their war mauls into the beast's hide, continued pummeling the mountain of flesh beneath them, they did massive, irreparable damage to its insides.
Nidhogg's entire frame shook from the wrathful blows. It tried to move, tried to hurl aside the armored figures latched to its back, but the aftershock of each thundering impact caused its muscles to spasm and lock beneath its skin. Betrayed by its own unresponsive body, the dragon let out a long, outraged roar as its legs finally gave out from under it. Its collapse rolled it onto its back, with the Paladins leaping off to escape from being crushed, and then they were upon it, stabbing with blades at the vulnerable belly, hacking with halberds, blasting with lightning and demonic power. They were like ants swarming over a much larger animal, taking it apart piece by piece.
Ascalon rose and descended one last time, its bladed edge sinking into the dragon's chest. Nidhogg twitched once, its entire body writhing before falling absolutely still.
"Well," Kiba blinked, "that was kind of anticlimactic."
Issei jumped down from the creature's motionless body and grinned.
"Or we're just that good."
"I can't believe you did it," they looked up to see Raynare floating down towards them, her three followers trailing after her. The woman's arm dripped blood from a painful laceration just below her shoulder. The Archangel landed in front of the dragon's body and stared at the unmoving mountain of flesh with something akin to amazement, "and after I thought it was a fool's errand too."
Asia watched her from behind Issei. The former priestess bit her lip, as though deciding on something, before stomping in her former tormentor's direction. Raynare saw her coming and flinched back, expecting words of censure, an outburst, or even a blow struck in anger. The girl did neither, and as she halted in front of the redeemed angel, she placed a fist on each side of her hip in a gesture of stern disapproval.
"You really should be more careful in the future, Raynare-san" Asia wagged a finger at the woman, like a mother would do when lecturing her child, "You were always getting injured before everybody else even when I was still with you."
Twilight Healing's power activated a second later, and the gash on Raynare's arm closed, the freshly mended wound blending seamlessly with the flesh around it.
"There," the girl smiled, "All better."
"I…" it looked like the woman was trying to say something but was too overcome with emotion to form words, "I…"
Raynare blushed. Fortunately, she was spared further embarrassment by Issei, who took the former priestess's place.
"Did you do it?" the boy asked. His gaze was remarkably solemn.
The redeemed angel blinked. Curiosity helped her find her voice.
"Did I do what?"
Issei continued to stare solemnly at her.
"Did you ram the spear down his throat and pull it out of his ass?"
A slow, deliberate smile crept over the woman's face.
"He ran before I could."
The devil nodded gravelly.
"He's a coward then. At least you tried."
Raynare shrugged, a loose, comfortable motion she would have been incapable of making in an earlier, darker time.
"To be fair," she nodded upwards to the last figure floating in the air, now descending on black, feathery wings, "I did have help."
"Don't mistake Vali's retreat for cowardice, boy," Baraqiel's craggy, bearded face was spread firmly into a scowl as his feet touched ground, "He may be a battle-maniac, but he is no fool. He has learned well the meaning of patience and cunning under Azazel's tutelage. The fact that he is willing to put aside his own battle-lust in withdrawing speaks of a higher goal that he has yet to achieve. And that does not bode well for us," the Grigori's stern gaze flickered from Issei to the immense body of the beast behind him, "Though I will say that despite his methodical approach, he certainly didn't expect this. Good work."
And then the man was moving on, brushing past them, and heading towards the main reason he had come.
"Akeno," the Fallen Angel was trying to smile, trying to convey his intent through the upwards curl of his lips and failing utterly. On his worn, battered face the smile looked nothing like a smile, "Daughter."
In contrast, the girl's body bled scorn from the grimace etched onto her features to the hostile, unreceptive way she moved. She shifted away when Baraqiel attempted to move closer.
"I have nothing to say to you."
The man looked crestfallen, but resolutely soldiered on.
"How… How are you?"
The glare Akeno sent his way described her thoughts in a way words could not.
Off in the distance, Issei shook his head at the scene.
"I kind of feel bad for him."
"I do too," Rias said in agreement, "but I don't think it would be right to interfere," the girl began moving towards the trapped form of Zeruel, still encased in his icy prison, "Now how do we get him out of that?"
"Allow us," Adelmar hefted his massive hammer as he approached. Behind him, his men fanned out in disciplined formation. A few of them nursed hurts from their fall off the dragon's back.
Kiba's eyes settled doubtfully over the maul the man carried over his shoulder.
"Isn't that a little too excessive? You might miss."
"I will strive to be careful," the Paladin chuckled as he swung his hammer back in anticipation for the blow, "Besides, if I miss, I'm sure you devils can glue him back together."
It took two full strikes for the ice to split and a third to shatter it completely. Freed from his frozen prison, the angel fell to his knees with a grunt. The once blazing wings that arced over his shoulders clung to his back like wet rags. They smoldered instead of burned, their fury dulled by the dragon's breath. Nonetheless, Zeruel still rose, joints protesting as he stood up. The first thing the Archangel of Might did when he reached his full height was to shrug off the hands that sought to help him.
"I did not need your aid," the words that growled out from the knightly helm were as cold as the ice their speaker had been rescued from.
Kiba looked down at his own spurned hand, brushed contemptuously aside by the angel, then at the looming bulk of the Paladin standing beside him.
"You should have missed."
Adelmar pounded his weapon into the ground in front of his feet. The man's helm masked his emotions from view, but the displeasure radiating from his frame spoke volumes of his disapproval.
"Are you alright, sir?" Rias tried to be kind despite the blatant insult Zeruel was showing her, "If you need any more assistance, we will be glad to provide it."
Her attempt at diplomacy was likewise rebuffed.
"Do not speak to me, devil," the Archangel growled, "I tolerate your presence for freeing me, but my tolerance has its limits. Do not make me break it."
Rias had to look away to hide her anger. Her peerage was less successful in covering their resentment. Both Kiba and Issei wore mutual looks of dislike as they stared up at the angel. Even Koneko, who normally displayed next to no emotion, held a noticeable glimmer of anger beneath her features.
"These children saved you, Zeruel," the voice prevented the tense air from turning into something more than just resentment. They turned to see Baraqiel making his way toward them. The man had given up trying to talk to his daughter. The Grigori's bearded face was set into a stern frown as he grew nearer, "Without their intervention, you would surely be dead. Is it such a crime to admit their courage and valor when they have displayed it so openly in front of you?"
"The deeds of a few devils done in a time of peace does not wipe away the atrocities the rest of their kind committed in times of war," the angel said without a trace of remorse, "They are still as evil and blasphemous as their ancestors were in the Great War. A righteous soul does not forget the smallest slight, nor does he forgive it," burning emerald eyes traveled up and down Baraqiel's frame in barely contained disgust, "But I do not expect a traitor and a renegade like you to understand."
"Wow," Issei blurted out into the silence that followed, "What a dick."
Zeruel stiffened, as though struck. When he tried to speak, white, translucent fluid poured out the mouth slit of his helm and dripped to the ground below. The angel grunted in surprise at the sight of his own blood splattering on the floor. He slowly looked down, where a single immense claw jutted out of his chest. Dazed, confused, Zeruel wrapped his hands around the talon, trying to comprehend what was happening through a mind that was rapidly shutting down. The crowd around him recoiled as he was lifted, slowly but surely into the air, hauled up until his punctured body dangled three stories above the ground. The claw turned him around with methodical, almost leisurely slowness, and when the motion finally stopped, the angel looked up painfully into the glare of crimson, malevolent eyes.
"You hear that, Zeruel?" Nidhogg purred, "They don't like you. Don't worry. I like you," the dragon's jaws were parted into a twisted parody of a grin, "I like you when you are dead and buried."
A contemptuous flick from the gigantic scaled wrist and the angel sailed out of view, hurled away like a piece of discarded garbage. The talon, still dripping with Zeruel's blood, smashed into the pavement below. There, it flexed with four others in eager anticipation, digging ragged furrows into the earth, violating the ground in preparation for the battle that was to come.
"You didn't think it would be that easy, did you?" whatever wounds they had dealt to it was rapidly closing before their eyes, mending at a rate that even Asia's Twilight Healing couldn't match, "You didn't think a few meager slashes and stabs were enough to put the likes of me down permanently, did you?" long winding gashes and deep puncture wounds alike were vanishing along the beast's sides, replaced by hard, reptilian hide, sheathed by spiked, scaled skin. It was as though the dragon was reincarnating before their very eyes, "Why, that would almost be disappointing. And I hate to be disappointing."
Nidhogg took a step towards them. The sheer presence radiating from its gargantuan form was enough to make them all take an inadvertent step back.
"I will admit that I had not expected such a coordinated attack," the monster's snout dripped with its own blood. An engorged purple tongue snaked out and licked it clean with mocking slowness. "I will even admit that had I been in my original state, the ambush might have even killed me," the serpentine neck lowered, and with it, the head. The beast's colossal jaws closed around the hilt of Ascalon embedded in its chest and tugged it free in a spurt of freezing ichor. The sacred blade flipped into the air before being caught, snatched out of the sky by the same jaws that had freed it, "But I have become so much more than a mere dragon. Ophis's snake resides within me. Her power sears through my veins. Despair, for you look upon the face of a god."
The monstrous head reared up, carrying the holy sword higher. Even without a wielder, Ascalon's power still worked. The blade was burning the dragon's mouth, dissolving its teeth, leaving painful welts on its tongue.
Nidhogg simply didn't care. The maddened eyes glared at its shocked audience, delighting in their horrified expressions.
"This is round two, but first, let us see how you will fare without your dragon-killing sword."
The jaws clamped down, tight like a vise, and snapped Ascalon in half like a brittle twig.
Heracles shoved through the pack of Sacred Gear users to get to the boy they were mindlessly harassing. His opponent's body already sported numerous wounds, staining his uniform dark with spilled blood. Some of them were grievous to the point of death, yet the boy remained stubbornly standing, ripping his sword back and forth across the faces of the horde assailing him. The hero cared for none of this. His hand was already clutched into a fist and he launched it into his enemy's side while he was still distracted.
There was the distinct crack of bones breaking, and Heracles had the momentary pleasure of seeing the normally taciturn face twist in pain. The man followed it with more punches, a flurry of strikes, each backed up with tremendous strength and flung with lightning fast speed. The boy seemed to wilt under the barrage of fists, seemed to buckle in upon himself. Heracles laughed as he felt his opponent's ribcage giving in, his internal organs bursting, his very body contorting and deforming under the sheer volume of blows.
The last punch caused the boy to stagger back three full steps. It left a deep imprint in his chest, evidence of a caved in sternum, but he did not fall. Heracles snarled at the sight. Variant Detonation triggered in his hand. With a victorious shout, the hero hurled the clenched fist with the activated Sacred Gear into his opponent's face.
The power unleashed from the resulting explosion rippled across the battlefield. Acrid smoke blew in all directions, obscuring everything from view. The man smiled, for he felt the blow connect. The smile disappeared when the smoke blew away, revealing a clenched fist caught on the surface of a bronze-rimmed shield.
"You remind me of someone I know."
The warrior's features were masked by the confines of a Corinthian-styled helm, complete with a horsehair crest that arced over the domed skull. His chest was protected by a muscle cuirass, a breastplate cast in bronze to resemble the pinnacle of human physique. Ornamented greaves sheathed his calves, elaborate shin guards embroidered with sculpted adornments.
"Very handsome, he was. Very dashing. Good archer too. Had a habit of stealing other men's wives. Started a whole war because of it."
Heracles gritted his teeth as he felt his own strength being pushed back against him, his own fist being forced back into his face by the indomitable mass behind the hoplon.
"Still a coward at heart, though. Ran from every good fight there was."
The spear came out of nowhere, entirely too fast to see. The hero leapt back just in time to avoid being spitted. His opponent chuckled and advanced, straight-backed, erect, utterly confident in gait and bearing. The shield held in front of him was not only used to block but also to smash, and when human ghouls stumbled in its way, the bronze-plated barrier crunched into their faces with bone-jarring force.
"His name was Paris."
Heracles growled as the Legend bulldozed his way through packs of Sacred Gear users. The hero began throwing individual drones into the figure's way in a vain attempt to stop his inexorable advance. The spear came to play then, darting out from the protection of the shield, ending mindless lives with each and every thrust.
Beneath the Corinthian-styled helm, dark intelligent eyes remained riveted on Heracles's panting frame, brimming with war-bred humor.
"Bastard shot me through the foot."
Heracles's mistake was using his full power too late. It gave his opponent time to gather himself, time to resist. Siegfried would not make the same mistake. The hero made for the boy's unguarded back, Gram held in a two-handed grip. A second later and it was joined by four others, all of them demon blades, each rising in a silver, scaled arm as the Twice Critical of his Sacred Gear activated. The straight-edged blur of Balmung. The curved reaping death that was Tyrfing. Nothung, hilt resembling the jagged points of a broken star. Dainsleif, icicle-like blade serrated like shark teeth.
It was overkill. More than overkill. But to make sure a man stayed dead, no overkill was ever enough.
Siegfried launched all five of his swords towards his opponent's back, indifferent that the act was more akin to murder than a rightful kill. Too easy. Too easy.
Thus, he was not surprised when the crescent edge of a glaive descended down on his head in response. He almost expected it. Nothing was ever this easy.
Balmung and Tyrfing flawlessly broke off the attack and crossed above his head. He would block the incoming glaive and then slay whatever presence was wielding it before moving on to his primary target. It was a precise plan. Well thought out. Such was the assured warrior in his battlefield home. Confident. Composed.
The great blade met the edges of both demon swords with an ear-splitting crack. Balmung and Tyrfing immediately gave away, forced downwards by immense, unstoppable strength.
Alarmed, Siegfried raised his two other dragon arms, and Nothung and Dainself joined their brother swords in forming a cross over his head. The curved blade met them and sent all four careening down into the face of their master.
In desperation, the hero raised Gram, one hand wrapped around the hilt, the other palming the blade. He thrust it upwards, the edge horizontal in his grip, and tried to stop the descending weight with his own prodigious strength. The crescent-edged blade stopped a hairsbreadth from hacking into his face. But the resulting force, the subsequent pressure, had to go somewhere.
Siegfried let out a gasp of surprise as his knees crashed into the floor, grunted with strain as his entire body was smashed downwards.
"At Huarong Pass, I let the traitor go free."
The warrior's face was ruddy as a date's, with eyebrows so thick they resembled wriggling silkworms. He was clad entirely in green; long emerald cloak hanging over his shoulder and down his back. Where the cloak did not cover, hints of silver glinted out, plates of lamellar armor winking in the sun's light. One arm held the haft of the glaive, forcing the gleaming edge closer and closer into Siegfried's face. The other ran a hand through his long, majestic beard.
"In the Central Plains, I served in the traitor's army against the usurper, and cut down two of his finest generals."
The hero tried to push the blade off of him, six arms and their attached demon swords straining against one. He couldn't do it. It was like trying to move an immovable object, trying to lift an unliftable weight.
"I did both, believing that all great men must be inherently righteous, that all leaders must have, at least, a shred of dignity within them."
A pack of Sacred Gear users surrounded the figure, stabbing at his freshly materialized frame, clawing at the vibrant green cloth draped around his body. The glaive lifted, fluid in the warrior's weathered hand.
"I was wrong."
Two strokes. Two strokes, and they fell before him. Carved open by the glaive's immaculate edge. Scythed down like stalks of ripe wheat.
"If only I had been harsher. If only I had not stayed my hand, then there would be no more Cao Caos today."
And then the weapon was descending down on Siegfried again, smashing its enormous, colossal weight onto his shoulders, driving his breath from his lungs a second time.
"For a hero may die in dishonor. His body may rot and his soul may suffer, but it is his legacy that lives on. His honor, his righteousness, his persevering will that influences the perception of future generations."
Tyrfing began shrieking as the strain became too much, the presence inside howling as the pressure crushed down with merciless force. Nothung did the same, groaning in pain as it sought to free itself from the overwhelming weight.
The Warrior's face tilted to regard the utter ruin he was causing. The hand holding the glaive flexed ever so slightly.
All five demon swords, locked together in a parrying cross, gave away at the same time.
"And the reason why Green Dragon is so heavy, is because you possess no honor."
Jeanne was dueling with a woman so similar in appearance to her, they might as well been mirror images of one other. But whereas the hero was dressed in tight fitting combat clothes, her counterpart was clad in a suit of ornate plate, embroidered at the edges with idyllic lines of gold. And whereas the girl was snarling with the exertion of battle, her opponent was all bright smiles and sunny laughter, while at the same time, being infuriatingly helpful.
Their blades locked together again, a sword generated from holy light clashing with a steel longsword that was plain as day, and somehow the one made from holy light fared the worst in the engagement.
"Ah, see? You are getting better," the woman's voice flowed with a soft, gentle lilt, accentuated by a slight accent that only made her words more pleasant to hear, "But had you swung a little sooner, you would have caught me in a very precarious position."
Jeanne pushed her opponent away with a growl. Her sword was a blur of white light as she chased after the foe, dancing in her hands in elegant, graceful strokes that were almost too fast to see. All of them were blocked with consummate ease and once more the two swords locked together at the hilt. Her enemy's face was genuinely supportive, honestly caring, and that made it all the harder for the girl to bear.
"That was very good! But may I suggest that you add a little diversity to your form? A few thrusts here and there should do the trick. Maybe change the directions of your swings once in a while? It would make you a very difficult opponent to predict."
Jeanne gritted her teeth at the compassion behind the woman's tone.
The armored figure tilted her head in a gesture of innocent puzzlement.
"Ah, why must you be so angry all the time? That is not good for you, you know? A girl is most beautiful when she is smiling and not frowning. I know this. I am very good at it. See?" her opponent flashed her a dazzling smile behind their locked blades, "Now you try it. It would make you look so much prettier. Especially since you are wearing my face."
"Shut up! You are not my ancestor!" the hero spat.
Her counterpart's face grew mournful.
"That is a very hurtful thing to say. It is also very mean. You shouldn't be mean. That is Rule Number One when it comes to attracting men. You lure them in with your kindness. Then, once they have married you, you may be as mean to them as you like," the woman nodded gravely, "If you do not know this, then that means you have little experience with men. And as my descendent, that just won't do at all. I can teach you, if you want. It can be a bonding experience. Just between the two of us."
Jeanne's response was to kick her into a throng of mind-wiped Sacred Gear users. Surrounded, assailed from all sides, the woman still somehow managed to be unfalteringly polite.
"Excuse me," she said as she beheaded a man swinging a gigantic axe at her, "Pardon," she mentioned as she rammed an armored elbow into a Sacred Gear user's face, "I like your dress," that, to a female drone whose blank face was made all the more featureless as the sword embedded itself into it. By the time she cut all of them down, the woman was humming to herself.
"It's because of Him, isn't it?" their swords started hacking against one another again, "That's the reason you don't like me?"
Jeanne's eyes widened in incredulous disbelief.
"God," her opponent said seriously, "I know all the historians say that I was just hearing voices in my head, but that is very much untrue. He really was speaking with me," the woman looked thoughtful, "Though come to think of it, He might have been a pervert. Once, He said that He would always watch over me. I asked Him if that would still apply while I was bathing or using the latrines, because that would be a very ungentlemanly thing to do. He told me that was on a 'need to know basis'."
"You've… got to be kidding me," Jeanne grunted as her light-imbued sword was pressed back into her face by a blade that, by all rights, should have been inferior to it.
"Yes, I know," the woman said solemnly and completely missed the reason for the disbelief in girl's tone, "He was also very vague when it came to answering my questions. One time, before a very important battle, I knelt to pray, and when He answered, I said to Him "God, if we're descended from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?" He… didn't speak with me for a long time after that," the beautiful face tilted again in an expression of polite pondering, "I think He might have been exasperated with me."
"No! That's not it at all!" the hero's voice matched the infuriated look she wore, "You don't get it! You're not supposed to act this way! My ancestor was the Maiden of Orleans! She was a warrior! A hero! You're no hero! You're just a ditzy, clumsy fool! You're not my ancestor at all! I have her soul inside of me! You're nothing like her!"
Her opponent's face held nothing but kindness and that combined with the compassion in her eyes made Jeanne flinch.
"Souls are funny things. They can recall past deeds and memories, but they can't remember who they once were. And that means they've forgotten all the fun quirks and oddities that make each one of us a human being."
"You can't be her…" Jeanne whispered, "You just can't… My ancestor was a hero…"
Their blades at last slid free from each other, and both combatants drew back to gather themselves for the next clash. One was panting hard and using her sword as a crutch to remain standing. The other merely smiled.
"Sometimes," the woman said softly, "a hero is someone born with great power already in his body. Other times a hero is someone granted power through the deeds he does or the weapon he wields. Most of the time though, a hero is just an ordinary person put into a situation nobody else wants to be in. But that's where the true quality of a hero lies. Not in great power or priceless weapons, but in inspiring others around her to greatness."
The Maiden winked at her counterpart, wearing the scowl where the smile should have been.
"Nobody signs up to be a hero. The world just conspires to make them one."
A boy stood at the outskirts of the battle, unsure if he should join in. His opponent's back was turned, attention focused on the swarm of once-humans trying to drag him down. His guard was nonexistent, and it would be a matter beyond simple to just slip in and plant the weapon between his shoulders. Necessity and orders demanded he complete that act. Honor and human dignity stayed his hand. His sister stood by him, watching the ongoing fights with sad eyes. She winced as drones brushed past her, mindless automatons that were guided forward by a will not of their own. Their mad dash threatened to pull him into the charge. The boy remained where he was and gazed down at the beautiful blade in his hands as though it alone would provide the answers he sought.
"I know that sword."
The voice made him turn. His sister gasped at the sight.
The knight's armor was black as midnight, dull drab plate obscured by darkness. The joints were pitted with rust. The armor itself, stained with age. The breastplate revealed a jagged hole; the puncture wound that had killed its wearer. A ragged, tattered tabard flapped in the wind, tied around the man's mailed neck and belted across his waist. Whatever insignia of loyalty that had been displayed on its surface was ripped away, torn from the fabric in vicious defiance. The knight's helm matched the viciousness done to the tabard. No elegant, Renaissance casque was this. It was a brutal, ruthless faceplate, slung low like the underjaw bite of some primitively evolved beast. On both sides of the helm, blackened steel protrusions stretched out, decorations shaped into the spindly pinions of a bat. Visor slits lined the middle. Blue, eldritch fire smoldered behind them, baleful, burning coals for eyes. They settled on the boy's form and seemed to stare into his very soul.
"I know that sword," the knight said again.
Arthur swallowed. It was not fear, but looking at the ancient warrior slowly making his way towards them and the hero could not help but feel a little intimidated.
"I knew it when it was whole. Unbroken. Unsullied by the hands of lesser men."
The boy grimaced and held Excalibur Ruler up in a two-handed stance. Behind him, peering over her brother's shoulder, Le Fay Pendragon stared at the approaching figure with wide eyes.
"I fought beside it. I bled beside it," a Sacred Gear user dashed forward, light lance crouched to stab, "I killed for it," the sword clasped in the armored gauntlet barely moved, constrained to the slightest of movements, and the Sacred Gear user fell into pieces, literal pieces, before it. The sword rose from the victim it had so effortlessly butchered, its edges stained a deep morose red, "And I would eventually betray it."
Arthur's gaze refused to leave the blade. The boy recognized it for what it was the instant it had appeared in the figure's hand. He flinched when the sword slowly lowered until its serrated tip was pointed directly at his chest in an unmistakable gesture of challenge.
"To see it now in the clutches of someone like you," the knight continued plodding towards them, watching them with his burning, hoarfrost eyes, judging them with his eternal, forbidding glare, "is an irony beyond imagining."
The hero tensed.
"I know who you are," he said quietly as the figure finally stilled to a halt in front of them.
"Do you?" his opponent's tone held no emotion, an impassive rasp devoid of the faintest feeling, "That is good. That means we can skip the charade and move on to what is important."
A pitted, scarred gauntlet placed the demon sword's tip against the edge of Excalibur Ruler. The two blades slid against one another, filling the air with the hiss of metal scraping against metal. Arthur grunted as he felt vengeful heat gathering beneath his palms, radiating from the grip of his weapon in beating waves. Even separated by space and time, a fragment of the legendary sword still recognized the blade that had killed its master.
Despite the foe he faced, the hero felt himself beginning to smile.
"No words to say to the descendent of the one you so callously murdered?"
The two began circling one another like feral wolves, probing for weaknesses. Their blades still slid against each other, holy metal grinding against demonic forged steel.
"It is considered bad form for the killer to speak to the kin of the deceased," the brutal helm was unmerciful with its baleful stare. The eyes behind it glowed with the amusement of the damned, "It is considered a waste of time for the killer to speak with one he is about to kill."
Asia's power was capable of healing any injury and it was for that reason she earned the dragon's ire. Nidhogg's massive shoulders heaved as it lumbered after the girl, uncaring of the explosions rippling across its hide and the figures trying to cut into it with their blades. Five warriors barred its path, five mortal men in powered armor, swinging great bludgeoning hammers in an attempt to drive it back. Their shields were constructions of reinforced steel, layers and layers of impenetrable material forged into an impossibly dense slab of metal. The dragon's claws punctured them like they were paper.
"Oh, hell," said Adelmar as a single serrated talon spiked through his raised shield and halted scant millimeters from his face. Nidhogg twisted its claws free a split second later and took the Paladin's arm with it, wrenched out of its socket in a shower of blood and cascading sparks. The knight grunted in shock at his sudden missing limb and as blood continued to pour out of the massive wound, he collapsed limply to the ground.
His warriors fared no better.
Tareyn was crushed to the ground by an enormous, scaled palm. The weight behind it splintered the man's bones and drove his own pelvis into his stomach. Androcles lost both legs to a swipe from the scything talons. The knight's upper body flopped to the floor and twitched like a dying fish. Ernhart managed to bring his hammer in a roundabout swing that knocked Nidhogg's head askew. The dragon shook it off with a slight jerk of its skull and bashed the Paladin against a pile of rubble in response. The faint groans coming from the ruined pile of armor once the dragon lifted its claws were the only signs the warrior was still alive.
Sigmund was the last one left. The Paladin pushed Asia behind him and covered them both with his tower shield. It was a futile effort and he knew it. Nevertheless, he still tried, hammer rising threateningly in his other hand. Nidhogg seized him with its jaws and crunched down with such awful force that the man's visor lenses shattered inside his helmet. Blinded, writhing in agony as spiked teeth punctured his armor and buried themselves into his flesh, the knight suffered for what seemed like an eternity before the beast finally decided to let go. A scornful flick of the immense head hurled the warrior away, battered and beaten beyond recognition.
And then there was nothing in the way between the predator and its prey.
Asia was rooted to the ground in fear. The former priestess did not move despite voices screaming for her to, could not seem to run in spite of the figures trying to reach her, only for the dragon's massive bulk to block their path. The ugly, malformed skull lowered, eyes wide with monstrous delight as they noticed the girl's trembling hands clasped together in prayer. The next few words were hissed out, rippling from the curled snout in a laughing mockery of noise.
"Where is your God now?"
Asia flinched. The scaled paw crashed into her a bare instant later, lifting her into the air with sickening ease. The former priestess collided against a nearby section of Kuoh Academy's walls and tumbled down in a jumble of loose limbs. Her head lolled loosely on her shoulders as she settled into a pitiful heap against the floor.
Nidhogg turned with infinite slowness to regard the horrified onlookers, some of them still half frozen in their attempts to reach its victim.
Akeno had tried darting in to save Asia. The monster's lashing tail caught her while she was still in motion. There was an ear-splitting crack as the thick appendage swung about like a whip and smashed into the black-haired beauty's side. Such a brutal attack should have knocked her out of the sky. The force behind it should have sent her careening away to land dozens of meters away, battered but still alive. The spines protruding from the beast's skin prevented even that small mercy from happening. One of them impaled Akeno to the dragon's hide, dangling her above the ground like a broken marionette.
Nidhogg laughed and swished its tail back and forth. Whatever direction the massive appendage swung in, Akeno followed, a fleshy, ragdoll ornament, attached unwillingly by the spike jutting out from her stomach.
"Akeno!" the desperation in the scream could only come from Rias. The devil unleashed her Power of Destruction in the form of black bolts of energy. They detonated below her friend's feet and blew the spike holding her in place raggedly apart. Without anything to support her weight, the girl plummeted wordlessly to the ground. Her ruptured body slapped wetly against the floor and immediately curled into a ball, hands wrapping loosely around the fragments of spine still spearing through her.
"No! No! No!" Rias was sobbing as she landed in a dead run. In her mad dash towards Akeno's prone form, she stumbled over a piece of rubble and fell. Uncaring of the undignified way she looked, she began scrabbling on her hands and knees toward her friend, still begging, still imploring, "No! No! No!"
A blast of ice froze her in place. Scant meters from Akeno, arm already reaching out, the breath of chilling frost covered the stricken girl and rooted her to the ground. Jagged stalactites of ice formed around her legs. Hoarfrost streamed down in frozen rivulets over her body. Icicles hung from the outstretched arm, dangling perilously. A few of them fell and shattered on the floor below. The crinkling sound they made was a mocking contrast compared to the helpless cries of the one trapped within.
Nidhogg chuckled at the grotesque piece of art it had just made.
"Why the rush?" its eyes gleamed, "Stay for a while. That way, you can watch the rest of your peerage die."
The dragon turned and snarled as streaks of arcane energy crashed into its snout and travelled down its neck. Baraqiel, his face contorted into an almost animalistic mask of rage, was raining devastation on it, saturating its immense body with Holy Lightning. One hand continued dousing the creature with torrents of destructive power, singeing its hide, scorching ugly burn marks across the knobby black skin. The other formed massive spears of holy light, each jagged and shaped like a lightning bolt. The Fallen Angel hurled them with vengeful fury towards his target, and where they struck, they blasted great smoking craters into the dragon's flesh.
Nidhogg roared at the violence being done to its body, and for a moment, it seemed like Baraqiel was winning, driving it back, forcing it to retreat with the sheer volume of power spitting from his hands. The dragon's brutish head weaved and bobbed in a cobra's dance as it sought to avoid the tendrils of lightning and spears of the same being hurled its way. The crimson orbs remained glaring hatefully at the Fallen lord, searching for an opportunity to strike.
"Such rage. Such defiance," it leered, "Where were both when they butchered your wife and nearly gutted your daughter?"
Baraqiel hesitated for a split second. A pang of guilt flashed over the man's face. The sorrow from the distant memory made him pause. That split second of indecision cost him everything.
The tail that had so grievously wounded his daughter returned with a vengeance. It swung in like a battering ram, thick with corded muscle, and slammed into the Fallen Angel from behind. Spiked horns ripped through the Grigori's body, punching into his back before erupting out of chest. Baraqiel grunted. The lightning spitting from his hands sputtered, then fizzled out. Blood dribbled out of his mouth and stained his beard a dark, ruddy brown.
The dragon chortled at the way the man was gripping the spines jutting out of his torso, trying weakly to pry himself free. The beast began dragging its tail with the Fallen Angel still attached across patches of rubble and broken wreckage, scraping the man against hard, uneven ground, grinding him against the pavement beneath the massive appendage's immense weight. By the time it tired of the game it had made for itself, Baraqiel was no longer moving, his body hanging loosely from the spikes that impaled it in place. Nidhogg slammed him against the sides of Kuoh Academy for good measure, smashing its tail and Baraqiel with it into the school's walls. An avalanche of brick and mortar showered down and pummeled the man's already ruined frame.
The dragon sneered at the limp form draped over its spines. A single, dispassionate flick of its tail sent the Fallen Angel flying away, sailing over the battlefield before crashing to the ground below. The crimson eyes eagerly followed the man's pitiful flight, then narrowed with malevolent glee as Baraqiel rolled to a painful halt between Akeno and Rias.
"There," false compassion dripped from the creature's tone like venom from a serpent's fangs, "Now you can bleed beside what's left of your family."
Nidhogg craned its head lazily to stare at its frozen audience. The saurian lips curled back and displayed rows of jagged teeth in a terrifying smile.
The hundredth drone he killed was no different than the first and any number in between. The same empty eyes, blaming despite barren of the slightest emotion; the same blank stare, accusing despite devoid of the slimmest feeling. He could not help but compare them to the foes he had fought in the Tower, the twisting labyrinth that was Tartarus. Shadows were caricatures of human emotion, distortions of mankind's thoughts and given the proportions to match. They were sometimes hideous in form and sometimes inhumanly graceful. They took on shapes utterly bizarre to gaze upon that sometimes bordered on the comical. Yet despite these alien features, he still preferred facing them, because while one could make the argument that Shadows were a reflection of the human mind, that they could, at the very least, feel, the wretched creatures that surrounded him on all sides were deprived of even that small sliver of humanity.
They wore human faces. They were encased in human skin, wrapped by human meat, framed by human bone. They looked like men and women, but they weren't. They simply weren't. Whatever that made humans human were missing from them. There was no soul inside. No life. No capacity to think for themselves. No ability to understand the world around them.
They acted like he did so very long ago. That was a thought he did not enjoy.
He freed his blade from the man's chest with a wet, sucking sound and then it was back to the grunt work, back to the emotionless killing. It was instinctive, how he fought. There was no strategy or tactic to it. His exhaustive state prevented him from analyzing the situation, barred him from even thinking straight. It all came down to muscle memory, to reflexes, to the base human desire to spit back in the face of adversary. They swarmed up all around him, remorseless in their hounding attack, blurred faces in his blurred vision, and he cut them all down just the same.
A man, his face caked in gore, wielding some oversized bardiche that glowed alternatively between purple and blue. Some energy weapon that flared in hue with the nonexistent emotions of its wielder. The tip of the Nihil Sword planted itself into his stomach and jerked up, slithering behind the ribcage and into the heart. The man was already falling by the time he slid his blade free.
A woman. She was beautiful. Beautiful. The end of her arms were metal. Oversized gauntlets. It was though someone had hacked off her hands and replaced them with ugly steel gloves. Blood wept from the places where metal touched skin. Great slashing claws jutted from the knuckles. It took him only a single glance to understand. Artificial Sacred Gears. Grafted to humans who couldn't use them. Another horror. Another crime. His blade danced back and forth, and the woman collapsed, armless, wriggling in the churned soil like a freshly-surfaced earthworm.
Another Sacred Gear user, running forward to die mindlessly on his blade. Another, scrabbling on all fours like a hunch-backed madman.
Cut and hack and slash and dodge and weave and kill and bleed and cleave and thrust and chop.
It was senseless killing. Carnage. Slaughter. And he was in the middle of it, in the thick of it, bleeding like all the rest.
Flames covered him. A sheet of phosphorescent fire, spewing out from a Sacred Gear user's palms. He ducked low to avoid the worst, feeling his back turn raw and red where the searing heat passed. The flames continued on unabated, their creator panning his destructive power left and right, dousing his own comrades with corrosive spillage, burning them to death, melting their frames into the ground, uncaring of their fates because he was incapable of caring.
His dodge tucked into a roll, and his body went along with the motion, taking him past stabbing spears and cleaving blades. The flame-spewer loomed in front of him, and as he stood, completing the roll, his blade scythed up and bisected the man's head into two bloody halves.
Not a second of respite. More of them. Always more.
His back was already blistering, already forming painful boils where the fire had scorched. But his body was already afflicted with enough wounds to kill a man a dozen times over. One of his lungs, filled up with fluid from the broken pieces of ribcage puncturing through it, courtesy of Heracles. The gash that opened his lower intestines, a gift left by the plunging stroke of a spear. The cleaved mess that was all that was left of his shoulder, hacked into existence by a descending sword. Each one of these was an outright kill-wound, a deathblow on a normal man's body, but he was still standing. He was still standing because Thanatos refused to let him fall. For every new wound the essence of Death clutched his soul closer. For every new indignity piled upon his body, its grasp grew fiercer. He could hear its mocking laughter inside his head even as another injury was carved into existence into his side.
An axe, forged entirely out of fire. It barely missed amputating his arm and thudded into the meat above his hip. Pain. It flared into a mind already riddled with it. Already clouded by it. What was this fresh burst of agony compared to all the rest? What was this one wound compared to all the others? It was nothing. Thanatos made it less than nothing. They have done all they can to him. They have stabbed him, cut him, bled him. They have done their absolute worst and he was still standing. There was nothing else they can do to him that was any worse than what he was feeling now. There was no pride involved in admitting to this. Merely fact.
His response was precise. Surgical. The edge of his sword slid into the Sacred Gear user's throat. He twisted the grip and the man's head popped off, popped clean off. The headless body slumped back. The axe remained, still embedded into his side. He pulled it out with a grunt. The wound did not bleed. The fire that wreathed the weapon had cauterized the gash into a blackened lump of smoking meat.
A small mercy that he would return.
The axe burned his palm. More pain. More nothing. He hurled it like a tomahawk into the face of a Sacred Gear user leaping at him. It caved in her blank features, demolished her slightly upturned lips and crushed the bridge of her nose. The woman's head jerked back, the flaming axe protruding out of her skull like the hilt of a butcher's knife. Her boneless body slithered into the muck a second later, still and dead.
Another. Another. Another.
His foes felt no pain but could die when enough damage was done to them. He felt pain but couldn't die no matter what was done to him. In his fogged, muddled mind, he did not know which was the superior choice.
Roars entered his ruined hearing. His senses might have been a pitiful reflection of what they were once were, but he was not entirely without them. The reptilian bellows far off in the distance have changed in tone. Changed in quality, and for the worse. He understood the implications. What seemed like a daring attack before now seemed like a foolhardy assault. He couldn't help them. Not in his state. Not while an entire army was clawing for him and trying to kill him. And if he allowed them to, then they would sweep over the rest of the defenders and end them, dragon or no dragon.
The thought was heinous and he was surprised at just how bitterly he railed against it. The thought also made him pause, and therefore his guard was poor when Cao Cao reared up in front of him and rammed the Spear of Longinus into his chest.
For a minute, his vision, his hearing, everything, blacked out.
He thought he knew pain. He thought he understood it. He was wrong. Mistaken.
There was pain, and then there was this.
The Nihil Sword tumbled from his nerveless grasp.
When Kiba fell, he took an entire section of the school down with him.
The sword-user had somehow managed to embed his blade in the dragon's neck. The boy hung there for scant seconds, suspended in midair, trying to saw his way through the thick tendons, trying to do damage to it, trying to do anything at all. Nidhogg's way of dislodging him was to smash itself into the sides of Kuoh Academy, crushing the devil between its immense weight and layers of solid concrete. Kiba's broken form slid down as soon as the beast moved, and before his body could even hit the floor, the devastated building collapsed on top of him, burying him beneath a landslide of wreckage. When the dust cleared, all that could be seen was a pile of rubble with a single, bare arm jutting out, frozen in the motion of clawing for the Excalibur just a hairsbreadth out of reach.
"I do believe I have lost count of the number," the mountain of scaled flesh stomped away from the remains of the building it had just demolished. The voice that rasped out from the reptilian jaws was almost pleasant, "How could I keep counting when I'm having so much fun slaughtering all of you?"
The squad of Knights Templar attempted to waylay it. Led by Erich, they tried surrounding the beast like they did before, swiping at the hulking frame with their halberds as it stamped past. They were suitably ignored. Mortals carrying mortal weapons did little but scratch its skin, and Nidhogg deigned them no more worthy of attention than a man would a fly. Each knight was brushed aside, forced to hurl himself out of the way to avoid being trampled under the creature's colossal bulk. Likewise, the Fallen Angels left floating in the air went similarly unheeded. They were directed by Raynare, and the three former enemies of the Occult Research Club hurled spears of light at the moving gargantuan in the hope of stopping it. The dragon disregarded these pinpricks thrown at its hide and continued its search for worthy prey. It found them in the form of Irina and Xenovia. The two exorcists had wounded it grievously when Ascalon was still theirs to use, and such an affront could not go unpunished.
The dragon plodded after them, following the two darting figures as they tried to use speed again to their advantage. Both girls dodged the swipes from the immense claws with relative ease and leapt back to avoid the lashing tail with equal grace. They even managed to evade the beast's hoarfrost breath, bounding and leaping in zigzagging patterns so the creature would never have a stationary target. For a while, the approach seemed to be working, and they left the monster growling in impotent rage at its inability to close the distance. But their foe had not existed this long without dealing with such simple tactics before, and as the dragon continued following them, it began smashing its claws into the earth, cratering the ground, creating miniature earthquakes with each pounding blow, knowing that without wings, the exorcists would eventually have to land, and seeking to unbalance them as soon as they did.
By sheer bad luck, Xenovia was the first to feel the deviousness of this new strategy. The girl landed at the end of her leap and immediately was in the motion of another when a sudden tremor broke under her feet. The exorcist stumbled, the ground below her betraying her motion, and that split second of hesitation was all the dragon needed. Nidhogg's gargantuan palm swept into her, a brick wall of scale and muscle, and sent the girl sailing away, flipping end over end like a thrown away ornament. Her body bounced painfully off the floor before finally slinking into a rest beneath one of Kuoh Academy's destroyed walls. Patches of blood marked where she had struck the ground hard enough to break skin.
"Xenovia!" Irina's features were set into stunned shock at the sudden, brutal way her friend was taken out of the fight. Another moment of hesitation. Another instant of indecision, and the dragon was upon her, a seething mass of rage and fury.
"Worry about yourself," it sneered.
Irina managed to dodge the monster's claws in the nick of time, flinging herself flat to avoid the talons scything for her head. She rolled fluidly to a stop before launching back into her earlier leaping, bounding motions. But in her haste to escape the claws, she had forgotten the beast's jaws. Nidhogg slithered its head in like a serpent, cutting off the exorcist's retreat, boxing her in between its immense body and the slavering mandibles. The ugly, malformed skull darted in, rows upon rows of spike-like fangs revealing themselves as their owner spread its mouth wide. The girl twisted her body in midair, trying to avoid the teeth closing around her waist. She only half-succeeded. The sound of the beast's jaws snapping together was followed by an agonized scream.
Irina went one way. Her left leg went the other, amputated at the thigh, blood pumping out from the stump in drizzling spurts of red. Flecks of it landed on Nidhogg's snout. The dragon licked it clean with a scornful laugh.
"How delectable," a massive paw spread over Irina's moaning body, "It is a shame you humans are such small morsels. There is so little flesh before the teeth hits bone," the curved talons crunched into the pavement, trapping the girl beneath a prison of scale and hide. The beast dipped its saurian head until the crimson eyes were level with the exorcist's. The words that followed were almost conversational in tone, "You do understand you are going to die, don't you? Bleeding your life away on this pitiful ground. Crushed to ruin beneath my claws. No last second heroics for you. You will die like the nothing you are," the palm began pressing down and Irina let out a muffled cry as she felt her entire body beginning to deform under the immense pressure. That cry turned into a sob of relief as the pressure was suddenly lifted.
Nidhogg snarled as purple detonations peeled off its snout and jaws. It glared at the one responsible, hovering in midair, deep azure cannon flashing with repeated discharge.
"Facing gnats like you is problematic only in that there is so much of you. Kill one, and another pops up in its place. The only solution is the extinction of your entire species."
Issei's response was to shoot it in the face again. The dragon growled in annoyance. It tore its attention away from Irina and began following the boy, but that had been Issei's intention from the start. To draw the beast away from his childhood friend. Every lumbering step it took away from the exorcist was a second she could claw herself to safety. It was a shame that Nidhogg knew this just as well as he did.
The spiked tail pounded the girl's stricken frame into the pavement before she could so much as lift a finger.
"A parting gift," the creature smirked at Issei's horrified shout, "and one, I hope, to leave for you as well."
The dragon followed its declaration with a plume of ice breath, gusting it out from its unhinged jaws in a swirling hurricane of force. The blast itself did not hit Issei. The devil was too quick, too mobile in the air for the creeping chill to drag him down. Instead, Nidhogg chose the ground as its target, covering the surrounding terrain with a rapidly spreading carpet of rime. From the frozen wasteland it had just created, great crystalline spires began to form, protrusions of meter-thick ice that the dragon sent shooting up at the boy with tremendous speed. Issei was forced to climb higher and higher into the air as building-sized spikes erupted with earth-tearing violence all around him. From afar he looked like a fly trying to escape the frozen fingers of an enclosing palm.
"Run, run, run, little bird," below him, the massive bulk of the beast continued to unleash hoarfrost from its unhinged jaws, "But be careful. One misstep and you might find your wings suddenly clipped."
A spire of ice shot directly into Issei's path. The devil hurled himself aside at the last moment, throwing caution to the wind to return a few desultory salvos with his cannon. The decision nearly cost him his life as a second spire twisted itself upwards where nothing had been there before. Issei managed to squirm his body away just in time and the tip of the spike missed impaling him by bare centimeters. The tip was followed by the rest of the structure, however, and the sides of the immense edifice crashed into the boy with all the force of an oncoming freight train. Knocked senseless, struck temporarily unconscious, the devil began the slow tumbling descent back to the ground.
Nidhogg was waiting for him, head eagerly looking up, jaws spread wide to swallow the morsel plummeting down directly into its open maw. The dragon's eyes were glued to the crimson gauntlet attached to the boy's arm, flashing helplessly as it fell along with its user towards certain death below.
"Come, Ddraig," it laughed, "Allow me to free you from your wretched prison on this devil's pathetic body," the monster's neck brunched impatiently, ready to snatch the proffered treat out of midair, "Then, once I have devoured you, I will free you from your shameful mortal coil as well."
A thrown chunk of cement forced the dragon to snap its jaws shut. The size of a mini-van, it crashed into Nidhogg's skull and forced the immense snout away from Issei's falling form. The beast shook its head to clear it and stared murder at the source.
"More of you."
The answer to its scornful drawl was another piece of rubble, hurled with desperate strength by the slight figure in the distance. Koneko. The girl had been forced to find other avenues of attack. Strength and endurance she possessed in great amounts, but both were close to useless when matched against her opponent's ripping teeth and slashing claws. Going head to head with the dragon was suicide, so she had been limited to scavenging the outskirts of the battle for projectiles to throw at the beast. This, she could at least do with relative ease. Nidhogg's rampage had left rubble and cast down buildings piled all over the battlefield, and it was a simple affair of picking out the largest and most damaging pieces to hurl.
"If you believe a few thrown rocks will stop me," the dragon's voice was rich with its sneer as the automobile-sized portion of debris broke into harmless fragment on its hide, "you are sadly deluded."
The tip of the girder collided with its snout a second later, a steel strut Koneko had pulled from a collapsed section of the school. The beam struck Nidhogg head on and made the saurian skull recoil with the force of its impact. Blood ran down the monster's nostrils when it recovered enough to glare daggers at the one responsible.
A second girder soared directly behind the first. It smashed into the dragon's mandible and bent the bone behind it. Nidhogg roared in agony. It thrashed and broke the ground beneath its gargantuan bulk with pain-induced spasms. Broken teeth sprinkled out its jaws like rain.
A third beam followed, thicker than a man's waist and longer than a lamppost was tall. Nidhogg saw it coming from the periphery of its vision, and made haste to deflect it. The whiplash tail swung around in a black blur and sent the strut careening back towards its hurler.
The beam spun haphazardly in its flight, rotating end over end like a bladed propeller. Koneko's eyes had time to widen before the overweight projectile struck her position at full speed and obscured everything from view in a thick cloud of kicked up debris.
"Koneko!" Issei was there a second later, digging through the rubble, coughing through the dust. The devil had recovered, though barely, and his stumbling, staggering gait resembled the motions of one who had just woken from a coma. Nevertheless, the boy still found his quarry and dragged her upright with a grunt, "Don't worry, Koneko! I've got you!"
The girl slid limply back to the ground as soon as he let go.
"Issei," she murmured, "I can't move."
The boy looked down, to where Koneko's legs lay broken at horrendous angles. He swallowed, then placed himself between the maimed body of his friend and the oncoming form of the dragon.
Nidhogg laughed at the sight.
"Look at you. So brave. So heroic. Ddraig must be very proud. I will ask him myself when I swallow you whole and absorb the Crimson Emperor's strength as my own."
The cannon spoke its defiance for its user, spitting volleys from its fang-mouthed barrel. The bursts of power rippled across the beast's hide in swelling explosions. The monster chuckled at the energy being blasted into its sides and came on regardless, splitting the pavement beneath it with each inexorable stride.
"Aren't you an interesting specimen?" the crimson pupils focused on the cobalt blue gauntlet ending with the toothed barrel where the fingers should have been, "Not only do you hold the presence of one of my kind, but another as well. I smell Tiamat's scent upon you like a revolting odor," the dragon's gaze flickered to the gauntlet's wearer, "No matter. If she is inside of you, I will devour her as well."
Issei switched his aim towards the monstrous skull, hurling lightning-imbued rounds towards vulnerable areas situated on the beast's head. Flashes of arcane energy detonated around the dragon's snout, ignited the skin on its jaws, exploded in purple coronas of light beneath the blood-red eyes.
Nidhogg didn't even blink. It moved through the explosions without a hint of slowing down, an indomitable mass of primeval aggression shrugging off the detonating rounds as though they were a light shower.
By the boy's side, a frail, tired arm lifted and tugged at his legs.
"Just run," Koneko sighed, "Just run."
"I…" Issei panted as energy left his body and entered the gauntlet bearing the cannon. He placed Boosted Gear on the heating barrel, trying to add more power, more force to each shot, "…I can't…"
"Don't be an idiot…" Koneko said softly, "…Save yourself."
"I can't," the devil shook his head, "I'm not going to run," he swallowed again, forcing fear down his throat before it could leak into his mind, "Before I met you guys, I wasn't anyone special. I was a nobody. And then all of you came along, and suddenly I had friends. Suddenly, I had people who cared about me," Nidhogg's immense form grew closer with every whispered word and the earth around them churned and roiled as though in agony, "I wasn't a nobody anymore. I was someone I wanted to be, and not someone people thought I was," the purple flashes ripping from the boy's cannon illuminated the tears streaking down his face, "And that's something worth fighting for. Even worth dying for."
The dragon loomed before them, a vast, incomprehensible bulk of dark malice and hateful malevolence. It lifted a massive paw, the digits bladed with curved, scything talons.
Issei closed his eyes.
"Because without you guys, there's no point in living anymore."
Boosted Gear flashed.
The black scaled palm descended and was stopped in its tracks by the flickering dome of a golden shield.
"Why won't you just die?" Cao Cao whispered.
His opponent swayed drunkenly, unable to fall due to the spear wedged into his chest, unable to stand because of the pain ripping through him. He looked like a corpse. A broken, battered doll, transfixed by the lance that went through his chest and jutted out his back. He should have been a corpse. A dozen mortal wounds littered his frame, each as life-ending as the last. His body was so bloody it no longer seemed human, so riddled with gashes and holes it couldn't possibly be alive. But the eyes remained staring in their sockets, wide open and burning with such intensity that it made Cao Cao shrink away behind the haft of his spear.
"Why are you doing this?" there was no compassion in the hero's voice. No kindness. Just confused curiosity mixed in with faint horror, "Why are you fighting for them? Why are you subjecting yourself to this? Just walk way. Just stand aside."
The corpse chuckled. A perfect death-rattle, if there ever was one.
"I have stood aside all my life," the hand that had once held the blade grasped the haft protruding from his chest. The blood, his blood, dripping down the surface made the hold slippery and tenuous at best, but he still managed to lock the weapon in place, using his own body as a vise. Cao Cao's eyes widened, "ever since a fragment of Death was sealed inside of me. Everything I thought, everything I did, that small part of her was enough to influence me. I had no friends because I did not understand human interaction. I jumped from foster family to foster family because no matter how hard they tried, they could not relate to me, nor I them. I thought this was my fate for the rest of my life. Always alone. Knowing the world moved around me, but unable to do anything but watch. So I stopped trying. I stopped living. It was apathy. But it was not my apathy."
The hand gripping the spear wrenched it deeper, forcing the haft further into the body. The sound of flesh being torn inside, of meat being churned and shredded was too surreal to describe. Cao Cao's face twisted in surprise as he, along with his lance, was jerked closer.
"And then I met them, and together we ascended each level of the Tower to do battle with foes that tested our strength and endurance to their limits," closer and closer, laborious hand by laborious hand, the spear was pulled deeper, and its wielder closer, "We risked our lives every night in a war no one knew or cared about, fighting an enemy beyond human comprehension, but for the first time in my life, I was happy. Finally, there was a group of people I could relate to. A group of people I could understand, even if it was something so small as fighting beside them. But as time passed and we defeated every fragment of her on the night of each full moon, I grew fearful. I became frightened, afraid that once these enemies stopped appearing, we would have no more reason to be together, and once more I would be alone. That thought haunted me, and when I was asked to make the ultimate sacrifice for them and for everyone else, I almost said no," Cao Cao tried to shake his weapon free, but his opponent had made his own flesh a prison, and the Spear of Longinus remained steadfastly entrenched. By the time the hero glanced up, they were already face to face, eye to eye, smile to frown, "You want fairness, Cao Cao. You want justice. Where is my fairness? Where is my justice? Where is the fairness in asking someone to die when he just began to learn how to live? Where were people like you when Nyx descended to the world and begged for more to defy her? Where were heroes like you when the fate of humanity fell onto the shoulders of someone who was deprived of it so long ago?"
The hero's eyes were wide by the time he finished, features set into an expression of disbelief. The expression was ruined a moment later by the face smashing into it. Cao Cao reeled back, spitting in pain, clutching his nose. The Spear of Longinus followed, slipping free and leaving the gruesome wound behind.
When the hero's vision finally stopped swimming, it was to see his enemy walking towards him, the sword back in his hands, straight, unremarkable edge gleaming menace as its owner advanced.
"You did that on purpose," Cao Cao wiped away the blood dripping from his nose. Grudging respect leaked into his voice.
The boy smiled. On a face covered in blood and matted with gore, it looked like a corpse's rictus leer.
"I had to get closer somehow."
Cao Cao didn't reply at first. His eyes were focused on the hole in the boy's chest and the fact that he could see straight through it.
"You… You aren't human."
"I gave up everything to stop the Fall," his opponent said quietly, "Just because I am here now doesn't mean everything was given back."
"Now I understand why you could not see things our way," the hero nodded his head, "I mistook you for a human when you were something else entirely. I wasted my time trying to recruit an ally when you were an enemy all along."
To his chagrin, the boy didn't respond as he had hoped, just continued to smile.
"Is that what you think?"
"Normal people die when they get stabbed in the chest."
There was something eternal about the way the gore-streaked face tilted in amusement.
"Normal people don't go around stabbing other people in the chest with the Spear of Longinus either."
Cao Cao grimaced.
"Don't pretend you are the same as us. Our power is different from yours. We hold in our bodies the souls of our ancestors. Within each of us there is the need to live up to their expectations. The power they have gifted us, it was meant to be used to do great things. That is the hero's burden."
The boy's gaze was resolute in its absolute neutrality.
"The burden of a hero is not knowing when to use his power, but knowing when not to use it."
Cao Cao laughed out loud.
"And now you're lecturing me on power after all you've done? Unleashing an Archdemon to win a Rating Game? Summoning an Archangel to defeat those Templar zealots in that church? Releasing more of them in your battle against Kokabiel and then using whatever means to reincarnate a Fallen Angel back into her previous, pure state? And now you're saying I should be careful when using my own? All of those deeds reeks of unchecked power."
"Yes," his opponent said softly, "And I would give it all away if it meant I could see their faces one more time."
"Then you are weak," the hero's reply was merciless, "Power should never be squandered away. It should be used for the good of humanity. To give us the means to fight back against our foes. To uplift our species as a whole until we can match our enemies."
"And who would be the one to judge who deserves to be uplifted? You?"
Cao Cao squared his jaw.
"If the need fell to me, I wouldn't shirk from the task."
"No one should have the power to decide that."
"People who understand what is good for humanity should have the power to decide that," Cao Cao argued, "People who know clearly right from wrong. People who can set an example for others, and pick out the worthy from the rest. Those people deserve all the power."
"Those aren't normal people," the boy's tone remained insufferably patient, "Those are people playing God."
"Pedantry," the hero sneered. His opponent shook his head.
"No. Humanity was never meant to be uplifted. We aren't gods. We aren't devils or angels. We aren't blessed with long lives, or even particularly good ones. We don't have any special powers to call our own. We are flawed, but that is where our power lies. In knowing that we are flawed and accepting it for what it is. By understanding one another, by forging bonds that are unbreakable, we overcome these weaknesses and they become our strengths. That is humanity's potential, and with it even the smallest of us, the frailest of us, the loneliest of us are capable of doing great things."
"That is precisely what I am fighting for," Cao Cao growled, "Our potential. Our courage, our valor, our bravery. To see it wasted away serving devils and angels is unbearable. You should be fighting by our side! Against them! Look who you choose to stand with! Look who you choose to associate with! I have the descendants of humanity's greatest heroes at my back! That alone lends credence to my belief! Where are your heroes? Where are the champions of your cause?"
"Here I am," the voice was followed by the flash of a xiphos, the lethal double-edged sword of classical Greek antiquity. Cao Cao managed to raise his spear in time to deflect it, but the short cutting blade pressed down regardless, forcing the hero to hold his weapon up to block it or risk a downwards slash that would cleave open his skull.
"I do hope I fit your definition of a hero," the Legend smiled. Behind him, Heracles lay in crumpled repose, the spear jutting out of his side like a mast.
Before Cao Cao could respond, the crescent edge of the glaive smashed into his guard. Such was the force behind it that it carved an ugly groove into the haft of his spear. The hero grunted at the weight, at the strain. His eyes flickered to the figure holding the glaive one-handed, the other stroking his long, black beard, then at the motionless form of Siegfried behind him, face-down in the dirt, demon swords strewn haphazardly around his comatose body.
"Here I am," the Warrior peered down, "Your ancestor and the dogs of Wu conspired to kill me. Consider this a small measure of revenge."
A third blade joined the other two. A steel longsword, devoid of name or fame, crashed against the Spear of Longinus, and made the weight even harder to bear.
"Hello," the Maiden beamed, "Pleased to meet you. You must be Jeanne's boss," the woman nodded towards the girl behind her, slumped in an unconscious sprawl, "Though you really should have a talk with her. She is always angry all the time. And so very rude!" the beautiful face leaned in close to whisper, "I think it might be because she is sexually frustrated."
The last sword was remarkable in just how warped it was. A perverse reflection of its master, down to the very last detail. It smote down in rusted, pitted hands, and when the serrated, fang-like edge touched the haft of the lance, thin contours of wisp-smoke trailed from both weapons as though they had caught fire.
"You're no hero," Cao Cao spat to its wielder.
"You're right," the Knight's eyes gleamed behind his helm, "I'm here because I just plain don't like you."
"So," the dragon's voice dripped with venom, "not only power gained from Tiamat. From Fafnir, as well," the blackened lips leered, "Undeserved. Unmerited. And so very, very weak."
Nidhogg's eyes rolled lazily towards the clawed limb being trapped by the golden dome before gazing down at the two figures being protected within its glimmering confines.
"The Golden Monarch's power has always been in absorbing his opponent's attacks, but he is a dragon and you are not. Whatever gift he has bestowed upon you is a pale reflection of the real thing," the monstrous jaws parted to chuckle. Saliva dripped from the slavering mandibles and landed on the shield below. They sizzled against the surface like droplets of rain on heated metal, "This shield you hide behind is brittle like the rest of your misbegotten kind. False like your pitiful Sacred Gears. It was meant to be that way. The strong are the strong. The weak are the weak. The strong dominates the weak. That is the law of nature. But then He decided to mess it up for the rest of us. He decided to interfere on behalf of humanity, giving you the means to defend yourselves," the dragon sneered, "Sacred Gears. Powers that weren't yours to begin with, given to you to wield. All because a senile old man on top of his golden throne couldn't stop meddling in the affairs of mortals. Humanity was never meant to be powerful. You were meant to be pitiful. Weak. As nature ordained you to be. Humans were meant to be lambs before the slaughter, and beings like us, we were meant to be the wolves," the crimson, baleful orbs glared hateful malevolence at the gleaming yellow dome keeping its claws from descending, "You may be a devil, but the wretched impurity of your past still beats in your blood. That makes you weak. And that makes your pitiful shield just as weak."
The massive palm pressed down, propelled by tons and tons of hardened muscle, driven downwards by a dragon's rage. The shield flickered in place. The golden hue flashed into silver, then bronze as immense, unstoppable force assailed it from above. Below it, the boy staggered at the strain.
"Look how badly such a simple attack taxes you," Nidhogg crowed, "I wonder what would happen if I continue to press down?"
The barrier began flickering out of existence as the black dragon continued to push its claws into its lustrous surface. The shield's edges were fraying, no longer gold, but flashes of red as overwhelming force threatened to undo its very existence. Blood poured from Issei's nose. A river of crimson flowed from the corner of the boy's mouth and dribbled down his chin. More of it leaked from his eyes and ears, caking the devil's face in a mask of ichor. His body shook as though wracked by a fever. His legs trembled as though they were about to give out from under him. The boy couldn't make a sound, just a continuous choking noise that barely described the agony lancing through him
"That pain you are feeling," the beast's voice had turned into a soft purr, rich with predatory delight, "It is the pain of inadequacy. Of being inferior. This is how the world works. An inferior species bowing to a superior one," the spiked skull swooped down, arrogant in its confidence, and peered down at the one still choosing to defy it, "Now kneel."
Issei's mouth was open in a silent scream. Every inch of his body felt like it was on fire. His heart was pumping adrenaline spiked pain through his veins. His lungs were inhaling and exhaling at a record rate, forcing him to breathe agony instead of air. But the devil did not bow. His legs quivered, but he did not kneel. Instead, the boy raised his arms towards the dissipating shield, palms open as though to catch it. Boosted Gear was no longer just flashing. The crimson gauntlet was gleaming with pure, undiluted power, radiating it off in physical waves. And as the boy raised it towards the center of the dome, the metallic claws curled with breathtaking slowness into a fist.
The barrier solidified. The bulwark hardened. The golden shield held.
Nidhogg's pupils dilated in surprise. Lying prone at the boy's feet, bones broken, paralyzed from the waist down, Koneko looked up in wonder.
"Issei…" she whispered. The reply she received was not so much words as they were animal-like growls, panted out from a mouth going dry with exertion.
The Knights Templar advanced with their halberds swinging, taking advantage of the beast's inability to move. They hacked at the mountain of flesh with their polearms, trying to cut it down with their rune-engraved blades. The halberds left deep gashes in the dragon's flank, painful lacerations that healed by the time each weapon returned for another swing. The monster's response matched its furious roars. Nidhogg began lashing out with its hind legs, thrashing with its barbed tail. The Templars were driven back by the wild swipes, leaving behind only freshly mended scars as evidence they had attacked at all.
The three Fallen Angels and their redeemed master ringing the beast from above saw just how ineffective the assault was. Instead of following suit in another fruitless charge, they hovered over the monster and flung down spears of light in successive volleys. A stationary dragon made for an easy target to hit, but not necessarily to wound. The holy spears punctured the creature's hide, but did not penetrate far enough into flesh to threaten the organs beneath. They were pinpricks Nidhogg shrugged off. By the time Raynare and her group exhausted themselves, the dragon's back was covered with white shafts of light, solitary spikes of luminescence amid a forest of black spines.
Through it all, the beast continued bringing its immense weight down on the barrier, trying to shatter it, trying to crush it. Its crazed laughter rang off the golden dome like physical blows. Beneath it, Issei continued maintaining the shield, continued straining, continued bleeding. When he spoke, his voice was no more than a cracked whisper.
"I'm coming… Issei…" somehow, Kiba had managed to free himself from the rubble. Dust clung to every inch of the sword-user's frame and as the boy made for the fight, the pained, laborious way he moved suggested something inside was broken. One of the Excaliburs trailed after him, tip dragging against the ground because the hand it was being held in was too sprained to lift it, "… Just hold on… Hold on…"
The sword-user reached the dragon's leg and swung half-heartedly at it. The blow glanced off with a faint ringing sound. There was simply no strength behind it. Gone was the earlier élan, the graceful form. The blade's wielder was too tired, too exhausted, too hamstrung by his own injuries to do anything besides chop uselessly at the impenetrable skin. The Excalibur in his hands became nothing more than a crude club draped in lethal energies, reduced from a masterwork sword to a simple cudgel as Kiba bashed it repeatedly and fruitlessly against the dragon's massive limb.
It was a distraction and one that Nidhogg treated with uttermost disdain. The leg being attacked lashed out in a brutal kick that sent the boy flying backwards. Kiba tumbled away, his abused body rolling over broken rock and debris before finally sliding to a halt. Great jagged tears had opened up from his shoulder to his groin, deep lacerations that showed the bloody muscle beneath. His Excalibur skidded away from him, slithering too far to reach.
Weaponless, wounded almost onto death, the boy nonetheless crawled pitifully back towards the fight. Slicks of blood trailed after him, marking the ground where he had dragged himself over.
"I'm not going to leave you again…" delirious, half-maddened by pain, the sword-user's voice came out as a barely audible croak, "Not going… to leave my friends… again…"
Xenovia came in from the dragon's side. As Kiba tumbled away, the exorcist took his place. Her combat suit was in tatters. Portions of it were completely gone, revealing bruised, scraped skin. Half of her face was frayed to the bone. Parts of her cheek peeled off and dangled gruesomely in patches of shed skin. Her own Excalibur was grasped high, pommel jutting backwards, tip pointing downwards. She plunged it like a dagger deep into Nidhogg's flank with a desperate shout. Freezing blood jetted out, ice-blue liquid that coated her arms and face. The chill was cold enough to burn, and Xenovia cried out as it bit into her flesh, scalding already painful wounds until they became knives of agony stabbing into her body. Nonetheless, she still retained her grip on her sword, twisting it, widening the hole it had created and in the process, subjecting herself to more of the freezing liquid.
Nidhogg craned its neck to glare at the tiny figure daring to do damage to it. From the unhinged jaws a plume of frost blasted out, covering the girl with its chilling embrace. What the beast's blood started, the breath of ice finished, and when the dragon turned its attention back to the shield, all that remained of Xenovia was a crystalline statue, frozen in the motion of attacking, features set into an expression of pained surprise.
There was a meaty, thudding sound. Flesh striking the ground. The cacophony of battle made it hard to distinguish anything over the riot of voices shouting, of blades clashing, of guns being fired. Somehow this noise pierced above all the others, a clarion bell tolling doom in the form of a boy no longer able to stand.
Issei had finally fallen to his knees.
The devil's face had ceased being recognizable. The blood weeping from his eyes and nose turned it into a crimson mask. The pain coursing through him carved it into a permanent scowl. And as the boy's knees struck the ground, the grimace parted to hiss words ruined by agony.
"I can't… I can't hold it anymore…"
His tormentor laughed at the sight of the golden shield flickering once more.
"At last you know your place. To be crushed beneath the heel of a superior species. To perish under the shadow of a dragon's wings as so many of your miserable kind did centuries ago."
Koneko heaved herself towards the boy's sagging form. Tears framed her usually stoic face.
"Don't die… Please don't die…"
Off in the distance another figure was doing the same, crawling with painful slowness back towards the fight.
"KILL IT!" Kiba was screaming, uncaring of the massive wounds leaking out his lifeblood onto the pavement below, "KILL IT KILL IT KILL IT!"
In desperation, the Knights Templar threw their halberds like spears. They sank into the limb being held in place and immediately caught fire, the runes etched upon their blades igniting the creature's skin. The response they received was a contemptuous swipe from the massive tail, a black blur of speed. All ten knights were hurled aside, breastplates caved in, blood spitting from the slits in their helms.
"Do something…" Rias pleaded, still frozen in place near the body of Akeno, powerless to do anything but watch as her peerage fell to pieces around her. The girl's beautiful features were lined with indescribable anguish, "Do anything…"
Raynare leapt onto the dragon's back. Inaerion burned bright in her hand. She drove Metatron's famous spear into Nidhogg's spine, wedging it into the spaces left in its carapace and puncturing the flesh beneath. The dragon howled. It began bucking, claws still held in place by the golden shield, contorting and writhing to rid itself of the lone figure ramming the lance into its flesh. Raynare managed to hold on for a few bare seconds before the thrashing body below her threw her off. For a brief moment, her unbalanced form hung in the air, arms windmilling in slow motion.
The back of the dragon's free forearm smashed into her airborne frame a split second later, sending her broken, bruised body spinning away. The woman's limp form collided against the nearby wall and slid down next to Asia. Her head landed on the former priestess's lap, and were it not for the pools of blood spreading beneath both their bodies, they would have looked perfectly at peace, seemingly at rest.
The three members of her group tried to distract the beast. Kalawarner hurled spears of light that rebounded like toothpicks. Mittelt detonated her power against Nidhogg's skin and did absolutely nothing besides singe the leathery hide. Dohnaseek darted in to cleave at the creature's legs with his blade, trying to hamstring it, trying to waylay it, trying to do something besides die in front of it.
Another blast of ice from the dragon's opened jaws sent all three of them reeling back. Dohnaseek had been the closest to the thrashing beast and hence he suffered the worst from the attack. The arm bearing the light sword was covered in hoarfrost, and as the Fallen Angel leapt back with the others, it fell from his shoulders to shatter against the ground below.
It was not enough. Just not enough. Too many of them had fallen. Too many of them had been wounded, too badly injured to continue the fight. There were so few of them left, and that number could only dwindle. They were no longer fighting to win. That thought had long ago left their minds. They were fighting to survive, to live, and in some cases, fighting merely to stave off the inevitable.
Nidhogg knew this. It had fought precisely to achieve this end. It may have been a cruel, voracious beast, but dumb and easily fooled it was not. Bestial cunning and fiendish intelligence was so much a deadlier combo when mixed together. The dragon had picked out targets it believed most harmful to its cause starting from Asia and eliminated each through bouts of extreme violence. Ever the assured predator, it had taken advantage of the chaos its presence generated, and picked the opposition apart with cold-blooded ruthlessness. Victory was never in doubt. The battle was its to win and theirs to lose ever since it snapped Ascalon in half in front of their eyes. The only question that mattered was resistance. Resistance that had all but crumbled with the last vestiges of it fading fast underneath the scaled claw still being held in place.
Issei's eyes were threatening to roll in their sockets. The strain of holding the shield up was teetering him on the brink of unconsciousness. Parts of him begged for it. Fragments of his mind desired oblivion, and floated treacherous thoughts of it into his greater conscience, tempting him with the blessed feeling of relief. The boy fought against it with all his might, and as fresh waves of agony lapped over him, the only thing preventing him from giving in was the base, animalistic instinct to just hold on.
He was killing himself with this. Channeling too much of his own power into maintaining the barrier. Depleting his own life force so the shield would hold. He was killing himself, but if the shield failed, then they were already dead, so why did it matter?
It was the last thought he would coherently think.
In the air above them, the golden shield cracked.
And everything just froze.
"Issei..." Koneko sobbed, "No…"
Fractures appeared over the flawless surface. They split down the barrier's middle; ugly, zigzagging lines over smooth fields of gold, before shattering like broken panels of glass.
Without anything to hold it in place, the enormous bladed claws descended like the killing weight of a guillotine.
"Do not despair," Nidhogg's voice was flushed with victory. It sounded almost like it was cooing, "Let your last thought be of peace, for there is no shame in falling before a god."
But it wasn't.
The last thought wasn't of peace or even shame. It was a distant memory, a haze of blurred imagery, coming to the front of his mind and burning itself there. Issei reached out for it, felt a presence clawing back, a line being tethered, something responding, and warmth flooding into his slowly falling body.
And then everything went mercifully dark.
He was being chased again. This time though, he might have bitten off more than he could chew. A thrown shoe whizzed past his head, hurled by whatever girl in the horde was closest.
An arm shot out and grasped his own. It pulled him suddenly into a nearby room and with such speed that those chasing him missed his sudden disappearance completely.
"You're…" he began.
The boy raised a finger to his lips in a gesture for silence. He obeyed instinctively, and winced at the sound of the horde rampaging past. When the hallway outside at last grew quiet, he looked back into the face of his rescuer. The question was rude as it was discourteous, but he could not help but ask it.
The boy shrugged. His way of reply was to place the earphones hanging around his neck over his head. He jammed his hands into his pockets, posture slouched, and walked out the room without saying a word.
On a not-so-distant battlefield, embroiled in his own bitter fight, a blue-haired boy felt the pull in his psyche and the Sea of Souls broiling in response. He began laughing, openly laughing into the blank faces of his foes, because for once the surge of power was there, and it didn't come from him.
Cao Cao looked up as the vast, forbidding shadow soared over them all and eclipsed the sun with the beat of its wings.
"Oh," he sighed.
The Spear of Longinus shuddered as a variety of blades crashed once more into its haft.
"Such a beast would have been useful during the Siege of Troy," Achilles mused, "Would've cracked the walls open like an egg, and we wouldn't have needed that ridiculous horse to get in."
"The face you are making," Guan Yu said, "is the same face Cao Cao made when we set his fleet on fire at Chi Bi."
"But please continue making it," Jeanne beamed, "You can be an example for Jeanne, your Jeanne, of course, on how to make expressions other than grimacing and sneering."
"Yes, Cao Cao," Mordred laughed as he brought Clarent cleaving down on the hero's head, "you are, indeed, fucked."
The scaled paw descended, claws curling around the palm to rip and maim.
"At long last," Nidhogg breathed, "the Crimson Emperor is mine."
A breath of concentrated ice blasted into the falling limb, knocking it aside in a hurricane of force. The curved talons smote into the pavement, a hairsbreadth away from crushing Issei's unmoving body.
The dragon craned its neck to stare at the interloper, wrath written on every part of its saurian features.
Then the shadow was upon it, upon them all, a vast looming monstrosity, sweeping low over the ground on titanic, reptilian wings.
The Crimson Emperor.
It crashed into Nidhogg with enough force to collapse a mountain, smashing it away from Issei and Koneko with colossal, brutal strength. The beast roared as it felt its claws leaving the earth. It bellowed as its immense body was shunted sideways, lifted clean through the air and hurled into the walls of Kuoh Academy.
Nidhogg charged through the hole its impact had made, rage spitting from its mouth. The crimson pupils were narrowed as they beheld its opponent, then slowly widened in incredulous disbelief.
Blood-red eyes glared back, taunting in their maddening similarity. Black pinions of stretched leather sliced into the air, each a towering edifice of scaled hide. Curved, scything talons flexed under tree-trunk legs, puncturing the ruined ground. The swishing tail, festooned with spikes, lashed out like a whip.
A mirror. A reflection. A perfect replica, down to the very last detail.
And as white-flecked snout met white-flecked snout, the hoarfrost rimmed jaws parted into a laughing sneer.
Author's Notes: Well that certainly took a while, didn't it! I do apologize for the tardiness of the update. Fortunately, the lengthiness of the chapter should make up for it. Microsoft Word is telling me that this chapter is sitting around 24,000 words. Longest section I've written by far. I actually thought of splitting up this one chapter into two updates, but decided in the end that it flowed better as one gigantic chapter. Hopefully, those of you who reached the end to this author's note will agree with me!
Some of you made mention in the previous chapter that Sirzechs or any other of the higher powered characters in DxD shouldn't have an issue dealing with the traitor devils/Sacred Gear users. I think that's only true to an extent. While canon DxD portrays Sirzechs, Serafall, and co. as capable of levelling the entirety of Japan, using that power is a whole different matter entirely. Blasting away your enemies is all fine and good, but when you have allies fighting alongside you, collateral damage is something you very much want to avoid. Sirzechs could probably eliminate all of the enemies by himself with a single blast of power, but in doing so, he would wipe away all of his allies, his sister, and people he genuinely cares about, and that's something he very much wants to avoid. It's the same with Michael and Azazel.
There's also the issue of power level scaling, a problem I've talked about in the past. One of the things that really dulls my enjoyment for DxD is the insane power levels that start creeping up in the later volumes of the light novel. I don't know about you guys, but it starts to feel like I'm reading Dragonball Z except with boobs. Again, if that's something that other people enjoy, that's absolutely fine. The problem arises when the story becomes about nothing but power levels, which is a damn shame because DxD has such an interesting setting to its name. That's something I want to avoid for this story. To reiterate, just because you're powerful doesn't mean you can't make mistakes. Just because you think you're unstoppable, doesn't mean you really are. Competent tactics can and will take down the strongest foe.
That's all for this update! Please leave a review and if you have any questions about this story please feel free to message me!