Chapter 18

Azazel woke to hands pulling him up, heaving him upright. He opened his eyes, and through his cloudy vision, he could make out the blurry forms of his bodyguards milling around about him. None of them were the ones that helped him up however. And as the man unsteadily stood on still shaky legs, he turned to his rescuer, nodding his gratefulness.


The frown on Shemhazai's face betrayed nothing except for a thin air of quiet disapproval.

"Not a good place to be taking a nap, Azazel."

The Grigori grunted as he placed a hand over his brow.

"I feel… I feel like my skull is about to split apart."

The corners of his friend's mouth twitched ever so slightly.

"Your choice of a bed," the Fallen Angel inclined his head at the numerous rocks and piles of debris that Azazel had once lain over, "might have something to do with that."

Azazel smiled thinly.

"Funny," and then the weight of what had just happened hit him with full force, and the man felt like falling down all over again, "Oh gods Vali… what have you done?"

"Betrayed the man who treated him like a son," Shemhazai said neutrally, "allowed enemies into the peace conference knowing that we would be vulnerable, and worked hand in hand with them to try and destroy said peace conference."

Azazel shook his head.

"I know what you are thinking, friend, but that can't be all of it. I refuse to believe that Vali committed this treasonous act just for the sake of betraying us. There must be some reason he is doing this. Some ulterior motive driving him," the man steadied himself before stepping away from his fellow Grigori's hold, "Nor is the blame his to shoulder alone."

His companion sighed.

"I do believe I know where this is going."

"I should have seen this coming," Azazel continued on, despondency settling over his grizzled features, "As the leader of the Grigori, as the leader of an entire faction, I should have seen the signs of betrayal from the very beginning. First Kokabiel, and now Vali. But due to either ignorance or arrogance I have failed in that duty. It is clear from these recent events that the Fallen Angels deserve a better leader than I," the man nodded solemnly towards his compatriot, "You and Baraqiel have always been the most pragmatic of the Grigori. Both of you have always been logical and rational. I will resign from my position as Governor General and leave the rank to either of you. That is one small step towards righting the wrongs that I have allowed to be committed during my reign."

"I do not agree with that conclusion," Shemhazai said simply, "but if that is your true wish, then I will not dispute it. Still, I believe matters of governing can be set aside for the moment when we have a far more concerning issue on our hands."

Azazel turned in the direction his fellow Fallen was gesturing to. It took him a full minute to process the entirety of what he was seeing.

"Now that is a sight."

"There are two of them now," for the first time since the conversation began, Shemhazai's face displayed a sense of creeping unease as well as a tinge of honest confusion, "Should we… Should we try and stop them?"

"No," the answer he received came in the form of a grin, splitting over Azazel's mouth in an expression of utmost satisfaction, "Let them fight."

It would later be recounted in the annals of history that the Battle of Kuoh Academy was remarkable in that just a few weeks before, another battle had been fought on the very same ground. The siege that took place in the very same school was a small scale action. The number of combatants never numbered more than a few hundred. The battle fought after it contained ten times that amount, with the superiority of numbers solidly in the attacker's favor. Despite this formidable disadvantage, the defenders held on, a motley assembly of devils, angels, Fallen, and humans, defiant against the waves of enemies that lapped around their barricaded positions, tenacious against increasing pressure from all sides. Their deeds would be recorded in a few short lines that were woefully inadequate to describe the courage and valor involved. Yet this was not an intended slight, nor was it a planned insult. The scribes and the historians they served simply used most of their words to describe the event that unfolded next.

For in the sky above the battle, two gods waged a war of aerial dominance that simply overshadowed everything else. They coiled around one another like enraged serpents, two colossal titans entwined together in an unending fight to the death. They battered at one another with their clawed limbs, raking wickedly sharp talons over each other's flesh until their enormous bodies bled from a hundred different gashes and lacerations. They rammed their heads together, horned dome against spiked crest, slamming their thick skulls against one another in a brutal, primitive test of aggression neither was willing to forfeit. Their necks brunched and curled as they swung in like battering rams, smashing against the other, propelled by layer after layer of corded muscle and rippling sinew. Their wings flapped in a tormented mockery of flight, buffeting each other with hurricanes of force, creating miniature tornadoes on the ground with each immense beat. And finally the jaws. Elongated, fang-filled mandibles. They snapped and bit, ripped and slashed. They opened great festering wounds on one another's necks and tore chunks of meat from each other's shoulders in drizzling spurts of gore. And when they met their mirror image in the heat of combat, white-flecked snout against white-flecked snout, both jaws unhinged to blast ice into each other's faces.

This was no longer a ground war. It had ceased to be even a mortal war. This was two ancient creatures battling for dominance, two primeval beasts struggling for supremacy over the other, evenly matched in every which way, and as the battle raged on, unrelenting in its absolute fury, warriors from both sides forgot the fighting going on around them and craned their heads up to watch.

It was inevitable that a lull would occur. A pause in the combat. The two might have been immense, towering monstrosities, but even they required time to rest and regather themselves for another clash. Both dragons broke free from one another, disentangling themselves with one last parting snap of their jaws.

One landed on the roof of Kuoh Academy, bleeding but rapidly healing. The weight of its gargantuan frame was enough to shake the entire structure to its foundations. The other descended towards the earth, just as wounded but no less closer to death, for one simply did not kill a manifestation of thought. The force of its impact cratered the ground and sent a tremor rippling out in all directions like the aftershock of a burgeoning earthquake.

"So here we are," the dragon on the roof sneered down at its copy, "Two immortals locked in a forever battle until the end of eternity. I should have known the only worthwhile foe I would encounter in this wasteland of a battle would be a replica of me."

Its counterpart on the ground sneered back, the curl around its scaled lips a perfect match to the one above.

Spare Me Your Longwinded Boasts. There is Only One Immortal between the Two of Us, and it Certainly isn't You.

Nidhogg laughed, harsh and mocking. Its talons flexed against the cement sides of Kuoh Academy, and perforated them as easily as a man would insert a knife through butter.

"Have you seen me demolish these mortals? I went through them like a force of nature! My claws punctured their frail little bodies like spears! My teeth scythed through their weak fragile flesh like swords! Anything they hurled my way I endured on my ironclad skin and anything that got through my armored hide, Ophis's power has healed. I am the definition of invincible. And that makes me so much more than immortal. It makes me a god."

A mirthless chuckle gurgled from the dragon below.

You are No God. You are the Servant of a God. And that Makes You a Bootlick. A Sycophant. A Wretched, Pitiful Worm Begging for Your Deity's Favor.

Nidhogg's reptilian pupils flashed with rage.

"You dare insult me when Ophis's power flows through my veins? You dare blaspheme against her chosen herald when she has deemed me worthy of this power?"

And How did You Gain this Power? Did You Beg and Scrape for it Like a Dog would Whine for Scraps at the Table? Or Did You Promise an Eternity of Servitude as Soft, Gullible Mortals are Wont to Do?

An avalanche of mortar and debris poured down from the roof, uprooted by the beast as it dug its claws deeper into the school's sides in a fit of rage. Flecks of frost covered drool splattered out of its mouth as it snarled.

"I was bestowed it!"

Its equivalent on the ground was no more impressed than before. The sneer that spread over the bloodied snout grew wider.

Another Way of Degrading Yourself, More Like.

Crimson red eyes dilated in delight as the dragon above peered down at the dragon below.

"You are envious of me. You are covetous of the strength I wield and the might I bear. You want this outside source of power."

The reply it received was an ugly barking sound that barely passed for laughter.

A Dragon Needs No Outside Source of Power. A Dragon is Power. Something that You have Conveniently Forgotten in your Deluded State.

Nidhogg snapped its jaws in anger. It reared its neck back, until its automobile-sized skull was a full three stories higher than the ceiling its massive bulk was sprawled upon.

"Do not presume to lecture me on the meaning of power! I burrowed myself beneath the cold earth for the sake of power! I ate from the roots of Yggdrasil, inhaling its poisonous essence and breathing in agony every day for the sake of strengthening myself! I changed my very identity, altered my very existence so that I would one day match Ddraig! I have sacrificed for power! I have bled for it and suffered for it! Do not dare to lord over me the meaning of power when my entire life has been defined by the pursuit of it!"

And You have Chosen to Throw All of That Away by Serving a Naïve Little Girl, so Full of Delusions of Grandeur that She would Open a Rift in this World just so She could Claim Her Already Ruined Home.

The dragon's eyes glinted dangerously as it tensed on the roof, flexing its entire body as though readying to strike.

"Do not. Trifle. With me."

The warning was met with the same sneering disdain, ripping free from the horned snout in an articulated growl of noise.

The Ancient Gods Knew what They Wrought when They Forged the Realm Between Worlds. The Fact that You would Serve One Who would Upset the Balance Upheld since the Dawn of Time Makes You a Fool as well as a Bootlick.

Showers of debris continued to rain down the school's walls as the monster on top of them reentered its raging state.

"I am the Destroyer! I am the Vast Jaws that will Devour this World! I am a god!"

Its counterpart below remained duly unimpressed and leered in the face of these boasts.

It is a Poor God who Tries to Prove His Superiority by Killing Mortals. It is an even Poorer God who Proclaims His Power by Spouting it for All to Hear. If You are so Eager to Impress Your Master, Enter the Dimensional Gap and Challenge the Beast that Resides within. Declare Yourself a God to the Great Red's Face and See if He Agrees with the Notion.

Nidhogg snarled but left the challenge unanswered. Its tail swished back and forth, pounding into still standing walls and knocking them down like they were ninepins.

"If I am a poor god, then what are you? You, who wear my face and armor yourself in my hide. What are you but a pale reflection of my might? You are me before my ascension, and that makes you weaker."

Its opponent chortled, splattering frozen drool onto the ground as it made its contemptuous mirth known.

Wrong. I am You when You still had a Shred of Dignity Left in Your Body. And that Makes Me Stronger.

The academy trembled as the beast atop it began climbing down, scaled claws ripping great chunks out of the walls in its lazy, clambering descent.

"Then let us decide this contest, here and now," the two titans began to move towards one another, their crawling, lumbering gait a perfect complement to the other's, "and see which one of us is superior. A ghost of the past, or the rightful herald of the future."

There is No Past or Future. There is only the Present. And the Present is Telling Me I will Win.

"Oh?" Nidhogg displayed its scything incisors in a fiendish smile, "So confident of your victory? Need I remind you that my master has granted me the gift to heal any wound, and you have yet to find a way to nullify said power?"

Then Perhaps it is Time I let You in on a Little Secret. Manifestations of Thought like Us, Those Whose Names and Deeds are the Greatest, are Fused. And the Interesting Thing about being Fused, is that We Retain all the Abilities of the Beings who were Used to Fuse Us.

Nidhogg's monstrous visage twisted in surprise as all around it, figures rose from their prone, defeated positions, clutching grievous, mortal wounds. Its counterpart laughed, mocking delight shining in its blood-red eyes.

Samarecarm. Such a Wonderful Spell to have in One's Arsenal.

The power of Twilight Healing blasted out a second later, a creeping aura of rejuvenating energy, radiating from a slim figure who was now just standing, hands clasped together in heartfelt prayer. Nidhogg roared in outrage. It started moving towards the source of the healing, seeking to end it before it could revive more of her allies. The jaws that closed around its neck stopped the charge before it could begin, the mandibles locking around its throat, fangs digging deep and tugging it forcefully back.

Come now, Brother. Don't Leave so Soon when the Fight has only just Begun.

The beast writhed in its fellow dragon's hold. It turned its head once more towards the priestess, uncaring of the ripping damage the serrated teeth were doing to its flesh, confident that the wounds would heal in time. Its attention was focused solely on Asia, prioritizing in shutting her power down. Its jaws spread open, and a beam of concentrated hoarfrost ripped out, lancing in a continuous stream towards the girl's praying form. It missed completely. It missed because Raynare was there, ducking under the pillar of frost, sweeping Asia into her arms at the last second and bounding away to safety.

Nidhogg bellowed in frustration. It shoved aside the mandibles latching onto its serpentine neck, smashing its aggressor away with its own tremendous bulk. Temporarily free to act, the dragon bobbed its head up and down as it followed the redeemed angel's zigzagging path, seeking to curtail the escape attempt with its freezing attack. Its eyes narrowed as they locked onto their target, the clouds of misting frost drifting from its jaws the telltale signs of another stored breath. It opened its mouth wide, ready to unleash a blizzard storm, and then proceeded to eat lightning instead as the figure floating into the air doused its opened maw with a veritable storm of her own.

Akeno, one hand holding the wound that was still in the midst of healing, the other outstretched into a palm and raking streaks of holy lightning across the dragon's face, gouging painful, smoking tears over its horned snout. And a second later, she was joined by another figure, lightning bolts clasped in each fist. Baraqiel rose towards the sky until he hovered protectively over his daughter, shielding her from harm with his own injured frame. The Fallen Angel cocked back both of his arms and hurled the contents they held directly towards Nidhogg's recoiling body. Both spears sank deep into the scaled hide and both detonated immediately after, blasting identical craters into the monster's side in twin sprays of cooked, superheated viscera.

Shunted sideways, thumped back a full dozen paces by the relentless assault, the beast roared in agony. It took an angry step towards the father-daughter duo then started howling again as it felt the same damage being done to its legs and stomach.

Three darting forms, so fast they were blurs to the naked eye. They ran rampant beneath the dragon's enormous bulk, played havoc under its immense body. Kiba, Irina, and Xenovia. Revived by the Persona's spell and healed by Asia's power, they dashed under the creature's exposed guard, swords twirling in expert strokes about their wrists. The trio hacked into flesh, severed tendons, opened great weeping gashes in the thick, trunk-like limbs. And when the monstrosity's attention was elsewhere, diverted towards their blitzing comrades or focused on the two figures raining lightning down on it from above, they took the opportunity to ram their blades into its soft, vulnerable belly, punching them like railroad spikes into the dragon's coiled innards.

Writhing in pain, spitting its frustration, Nidhogg began stomping on the ground, trying to crush each individual swordsman beneath its scaled palms. It was like attempting to catch water with one's hands. The trio flowed around the trampling limbs, veering off in random directions, dodging and swerving to avoid the claws pounding into the dirt. And as the dragon continued its vain efforts to catch them, it found itself assailed in another direction.

We are the hammer!

Ten gleaming, plated figures ran out from the piles of debris. Their immaculate carapace were dented to the point of ruin, demolished in some places like a crumpled-up tin tray. The tail swipe that had cast them all aside was powerful enough to crush armor and the force behind it had broken bones and bruised vital organs. Nonetheless they hurled themselves at the beast's unguarded back, hacking mercilessly at their quarry's flank and legs, the runes on their halberds turning each blade white hot as each knight focused his hatred for the foe into a weapon in itself.

We are the blade in His fist! We are the sword in His hand!

One of them swept his polearm up with a fierce shout and severed the spiked end of the dragon's tail as it whipped above them. Freezing ichor rained down, dousing combatants with droplets of hoarfrost blood.

Revenge most satisfactorily taken.

Nidhogg spun in a maddened circle, alternatively snapping its jaws at the enemies beneath it, alternatively swinging its now much shortened tail at the enemies behind it. Just like before, each of its opponents was an insect compared to its massive bulk. Perhaps even less than that when compared to its full might. But even the largest of beasts must divert a modicum of attention to crush an insect. Even the most gargantuan of creatures must spend an ounce of focus to swat aside a fly. Both of which the dragon possessed in short supply for its foes simply didn't give it time to gather any. And then it no longer mattered, for the true threat was there, surging back into the battle, laughing with every taken step.

Another Thing You have Forgotten in Your Descent into Madness, Dear Brother.

Nidhogg rose on its hind legs to greet its mirror image's charge, seeking to block the oncoming rush with its sheer size. The swarm of enemies attacking it from behind made such a motion next to impossible. Kiba ducked beneath the dragon's bulging belly and hacked his Excaliburs into one of the rearing limbs. Irina and Xenovia did the same to the other, carving bloody grooves into their chosen leg with the sole purpose of destabilizing the immense weight it supported. The Knights Templar added their blades to the mix, chopping at the grounded tail, slicing off chunks of flesh with each vengeful swing. The monster stumbled, then bellowed as tendrils of holy lightning tore across its spine and burned corkscrew patterns into its skin. Akeno and Baraqiel, still hovering in the air, lent their power to the fray and the combined weight of their assault forced the creature back down. Nidhogg toppled like a tilted statue, completely unbalanced, falling forward and directly into the path of a foe just as massive, just as heavy, just as powerful as it.

A Dragon Always Brings His Brood to the Fight.

There was an earth-shattering impact, a bone-jarring crunch as the two titans smashed into each other. One dragon had the advantage of moving at full speed, charging at full momentum, and thus it remained standing after the collision. The other had the disadvantage of being unsteady on its feet, of being unstable, caused by the enemies that surged around and above it, and thus it was the one whose feet left the ground. Nidhogg howled as it felt itself being hurled unceremoniously into the air, jaws frothing with rage at the physical insult even as its claws grappled vainly for something to latch onto. The monster's enormous body crashed to the earth a heartbeat later, pulverizing the pavement beneath with the same ferocity of a falling comet. The beast rose as soon as it landed, curses spitting from its mouth. The spiked head lifted, expecting its mirror image to come rampaging after it, expecting a storm of ripping teeth and tearing claws, and instead met the stare of tear-shaped visors etched over a brutal, sloped helm.

The Paladin was still missing an arm. Twilight Healing had not yet given him his amputated limb back. Sparks trickled out from the ruined armature beneath the man's shoulder like droplets of electrical rain. But only one arm was needed to swing a weapon, and as the dragon focused its attention on this new threat, said arm whipped back, carrying with it the lightning charged payload, shaped in the form of a crude, bludgeoning maul.

"Though verily I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for I wield a hammer full of fuck you."

The head of the shock maul smote into the side of the monster's jaws a split-second later, blasting into its cruel visage in a thunderclap of noise and discharged energy. Adelmar had supercharged his weapon, frying the power source within to boost his blow to near superhuman levels. The resulting impact was enough to crack every bone in the dragon's mandible and shatter all the teeth on the left side of its face.

Nidhogg made an incoherent gurgling noise. Its vision was swimming in a multitude of colors, its hearing reduced to bare haunting echoes. Secondary effects caused from the deafening blow were now being felt, the sudden discharge of electrical energy having briefly shut down its keen senses. It was stunned. Disorientated. Confused. Temporarily struck dumb by the force behind the strike, momentarily dazed by the thunderous strength behind it.

And therefore it offered little resistance when Issei leapt onto its head, wings spread for balance, and rammed the broken hilt of Ascalon into its skull.

Pain. Pain. Agony unlike any other. The creature opened its jaws to roar and began shaking its head to dislodge the source of its suffering. Issei leapt off, but the damage was already done. The sacred aura clinging to the remnants of Saint George's sword was lacing poison into the dragon's veins, pouring venom into its bloodstream like a sting from a scorpion's tail. Had the blade remained whole, had it retained just a few more inches of its length, it would have been a killing blow beyond a shadow of doubt. As it stood, it was still enough to set the monster's nerves on fire, to pour the equivalent of acid into its sensory glands, to stab a thousand barbed needles into its vulnerable sense of smell. It was not enough to kill it, not by a long shot, but it was enough to wound it, enough to hurt it beyond its capability to heal, to ruin its already failing senses.

It was for that reason the beast missed its counterpart closing in. Missed the way the wings were spreading, opening like the petals of a flower. Missed the girl with shocking red hair they revealed as each enormous pinion peeled away. She had been using the Persona's immense body to hide her presence, to give her cover while she gathered her power. The tactic, as simple as it was, had worked. For in her hands, rippling between her palms, was a volleyball-sized sphere of demonic energy.

"This is for hurting my peerage," Rias Gremory said and hurled it with both arms directly into the dragon's opened mouth.

It was a perfect, perfect shot.

The bolt of sizzling black energy flew through the unhinged jaws, ricocheted past rows and rows of serrated teeth, and detonated in the roof of the dragon's cavernous maw with all the brilliance of an exploding sunflare.

Nidhogg screamed. Not roared, but screamed. Its flesh and skin were sloughing off from the top of its skull, the connecting tissue cooked away by the searing heat. Its eyes were melting in their sockets, boiled into viscous goo dripping from its ruined face. Its tongue had been severed from the base of its mouth, half of it disintegrated by the demonic blast. The other half still existed and as the dragon continued to scream, continued to wail, it fell out of its jaws and flopped to the ground, an engorged purple chunk of meat, wriggling in the dirt like a fat, distended worm.

Blinded, crippled by pain, half of its brains leaking out from the hole blasted into its skull, the dragon thrashed on the ground like a wounded beast, thick, tree-trunk limbs beating against the earth in an imitation of a dying animal.

It knew it has been defeated. Through the haze of indescribable agony, it knew it has lost the fight. And as its foes surrounded it on all sides, seeking to finish the job, self-preservation took precedence over any form of defiance.

The creature lifted its bleeding, battered form into the air to try and take flight. Those who were near it were blown off their feet by the beating pinions, gusted away by the whipping winds created by each flapping wing. The only one who could stop its escape was its mirror image, simply for the fact that it possessed enough weight to drag it back down. For a moment, the Persona looked to be doing exactly that, launching itself at its counterpart's airborne frame, grappling with the massive body, raking sword-sized talons over its opponent's hide and dealing lasting damage with its serrated teeth. But Nidhogg had the advantage of desperation on its side, and with a spurt of frantic strength, the dragon shoved its enemy off and onto the ground below. Now free to take to the sky, it lifted its devastated body steadily into the air, until the figures beneath could no longer reach it with their weapons. Then it began soaring off into the distance, trying to head for the distant horizon to make good its escape.

A lone figure rose to greet it, rising into the air to block its path on flaming, majestic wings.

"Come, beast," streaks of dried blood ran down Zeruel's helm and plastered their way across his chest. It made him look like some angelic avatar of vengeance, like some personification of retribution suddenly brought to life, "Confront Might as you should have. Face to face."

Had the dragon possessed just a tiny bit of wit, it would have banked away at the last second, veered off from the angel at the last possible instant. But its sanity had been shredded to bare slivers of intelligence, its former cunning clouded by an unnavigable miasma of pain. The wounds it had been dealt and the agony it was still suffering through had reduced its mind to its most primal, bestial state. No more was it an assured predator cleverly hunting its prey. It was a trapped, blinded animal, desperate to escape the jaws of death looming ever closer. Any sense of logic and reasoning had simply vanished from its obliterated brain. And as the foe in front of it made his intent known, Nidhogg's response was to charge him at full tilt, seeking to smash the angel out of the way as it had done with its enemies so many times before.

Zeruel ducked the claws swinging recklessly for his head with flawless grace. The slashing blow was poorly placed, badly mistimed. Bellum entered the dragon's sternum a heartbeat later, rammed in with both hands as the Archangel slammed his prized weapon upwards into the beast's scaled body. Momentum kept the monster going, kept its enormous bulk moving. The Blade of Angels remained steady, kept absolutely still by its master's grip, and its stationary state coupled with its victim's forward motion opened thickened hide like a razor cutting through skin.

Nidhogg continued on its haphazard flight toward safety. Its heart, its lungs, its entails and every organ that made it a living, breathing creature stayed behind, cascading out of its split belly in an immense shower of gore as Zeruel gutted it in midair like a floundering fish.

The dragon lasted for three more tormented wing beats, three more anguished flaps of its faltering pinions before falling from the sky, dropping like a rock to land broken and crumpled on the ground below.

Somehow, it was still alive. Somehow, despite the enormous wounds it had suffered, it was still breathing, still living. Ophis's power had already repaired the damage done to its flesh and reknit the broken bones caused by the fall. It could not, however, replace the eviscerated organs, the filleted intestines, the disemboweled entrails strewn in an inelegant splatter behind its ruptured form. The snake within it was attempting to revive a body already dead, trying to replace the cracked shell of an egg when the yolk inside had already been scooped out. The rejuvenating aura could do no more besides that, and the healing energies it generated was only enough to keep their master alive for a few more scant minutes.

Those scant minutes turned into scant seconds as the ground around it trembled with the impact of clawed, taloned forelimbs. In response, the dragon began to drag itself away, began to crawl in the opposite direction of the enemy it had sensed landing. The voice that bled out its ravaged snout matched its crippled, beaten state.

"I did this… for us… for our race… I was going to return us to glory…"

Its shadow made no move to assault, made no effort to finish the kill. Instead, it merely kept pace, stalking alongside the dying mountain of flesh and hide.

And How Glorious You Look, Lying Broken and Defeated in the Dirt.

Nidhogg gurgled, exhaling slurred words through a throat filled with its own freezing blood.

"You don't understand… We were gods once… The mortals feared the beat of our wings… They fled at the slightest hint of our approach… And now… And now we are reduced to living in their shadow… the greatest among us exiled into obscurity…"

Its counterpart chuckled mirthlessly and continued prowling alongside its defeated kin.

Times Change, Brother. The World that Gave Us Power so Easily Takes it Away. In the End, even Creatures like Us are Mere Pawns to Play on the Board that is Fate.

Despite the mutilation its skull had suffered through, the dragon still found strength to shake its head.

"Not pawns… and never Fate… We were so much more than that… We were the guardians of this world… We shaped it to our will when it was still young… We carved rivers into existence with our claws… We created canyons from rock and stone with the fury of our breaths… We upheld the balance… And the mortals… They took that all away… They and their Sacred Gears… They forced us out of our lairs… They burned our nests… They drove our species to the brink of extinction… I… I was going to change that… I was going to restore balance… to bring back the natural order…"

It is the Calling of the Son to Take the Place of the Father, Just as it is the Destiny of Younger Races to Supplant the Old. That is the Natural Order. Why do You think the Others have Chosen to Remain Hidden Among the Humans? Tiamat? Yu-long? They Recognized that Our Age has Passed, and the Mantle that was Once Ours to Bear now Rests Upon the Shoulders of Lesser Beings.

Nidhogg spat a globule of bloody phlegm from its mouth. Rage and anger had once again infiltrated into its voice.

"They are cowards… They are weaklings… They have betrayed our race…"

They are Far Less Traitors than You.

The creature's immense shoulders shook with emotion. Its face, what was left of it, flashed defiance over burnt, scorched skin.

"I betray nothing!"

Its mirror image gazed down at the pitiful heap still trying to crawl away. The look in its eyes was almost sympathetic.

You have Betrayed Yourself, and That is the Worst Betrayal of All.

The dragon could sense the end coming. Its own death looming. The broken, ruptured jaws parted one last time to spit our slurred words, forming the verses of a final epitaph.

"I am Nidhogg… the Destroyer… the Vast Jaws that will Swallow the World…"

A scaled palm wrapped over its head, enveloping its shattered skull in a merciless hold.

So You are. You are All those Things and More. But that is Not the Question. The Question You should be Asking, is Who the Hell Cares?

There was the sound of bones giving way, of cartilage being strained to their breaking point as the palm pressed down, before one final, ear-splitting crack, as stark and alien a noise as a laugh in the middle of a funeral march. When the Persona lifted its claws again, fragments of bone and brain matter dripped from its talons like biological sludge. A warped parody of a smile passed over its draconic visage.

And Now There is Only One.

With that, the sole dragon left standing reared back on its hind legs, rising until it reached its full height. Its massive wings stretched out to their fullest extent, fanning into the air like vast canvases of hide. From its unhinged jaws a concentrated wave of noise blasted out, a triumphant roar trumpeted out for all to hear. It was proclaiming its victory in the only way it knew how, heralding its conquest through the most brutal, inelegant manner possible. But it worked. For all across the battlefield, Sacred Gear users craned their heads back to listen, pausing in their preordained tasks. And then, as though ordered by some unseen signal, they began to disengage from whatever positions they had been attacking, retreating from all fronts, flooding back like a receding tide. The defenders, those who still had guns, took the time to lace the withdrawing horde with opportunist weapons-fire, dropping running figures like sticks. Bodies slid down next to already cooling corpses, piled there by prior assaults as the conference guards bracketed the fleeing backs of their enemy with one final parting volley. Silence fell as the last body toppled, eerie and stifling.

In the absolute stillness, a blue-haired boy picked his way through the dead, hands stuffed in his pockets. The defenders who rose from their entrenched positions stared in open-mouthed astonishment at his dilapidated condition, blinked in stunned amazement at his tattered, ragged state. Some of them sat back down with queasy looks over their faces.

The boy ignored the unsettled looks he was being given and continued making his way towards his intended destination. He stopped when he reached the academy grounds and drank in the sight of the dragon still roaring over the body of its slain kin. He turned to the one beside him, and simply offered two words of praise.

"Good job."

Issei's face still displayed the flush of adrenaline, and as the rush of excitement slowly faded, the devil rose wearily on his feet.

"Thanks," the pervert grinned and turned. His expression immediately fell at the sight of just how mangled the figure next to him looked, "Um, Arisato-san…" he said slowly, gingerly so as not to alarm, "There is a giant hole going through your chest."

The source of his nervousness tilted his head slightly to the side and stared at him with his one remaining eye.

"Yes," the boy nodded as the others began running towards him, wearing identical expressions of alarm over their faces, "It hurts," and then promptly fainted into their waiting arms.

As it always happened in pitched battle, the civilians were saved at the expense of the common soldiery. The noncombatants, a mix of dignitaries and luminaries, were spared the worst of the assault only through the blood and sacrifice of their attending guards. These noncombatants gathered now among the rubble of Kuoh Academy, standing silently over the ruins of the building that had once housed them, speaking quietly amongst themselves. Behind them, a steady river of healers and medical personal streamed back and forth from portals connected to the Underworld, tending to the wounded and carrying those whose injuries were too severe into impromptu caring facilities where their conditions could be stabilized. The groans coming out from each hastily raised tent was a constant drone that made the already solemn air all the more stifling. The body of the dead dragon in the background only added to it.

Azazel gestured to it, the mountain of unmoving flesh that had once terrorized an entire battlefield.

"Do you see now? This is why we must unite. This is why the alliance must happen. Creatures like that," the Fallen Angel flicked his head back towards the immense corpse, "are a threat to us all."

A murmur of agreement travelled through the crowd. Sirzechs used it to ram the point home.

"Not to mention the resurgence of the Old Satan faction and their newfound allegiance to this Khaos Brigade," the man's tone was clearly angry, yet the expression that appeared over his face was one of mild distaste, "They were always secretive, the devils who still remain loyal to the previous Great Satans, and it does not bode well now that they have chosen to reveal themselves. What we once thought were mere agitators on the bottom rung of our society has redefined the meaning of treachery."

"And yet this attack is also a sign," Michael's world-weary features looked even more tired than before as he nodded in support of his devil counterpart, "a signal that we are doing something right. These new foes would never have shown themselves if they believed they were safe. They chose to attack now because they feel threatened. They fear the peace between us will make us stronger, make us undefeatable, so they chose the moment before the conference was completed to finish the deed," the seraph turned his head to regard the gleaming figure standing aloof and distant from the gathered throng, "If an enemy fears what we are doing, then that means what we are doing is right. That is sound tactical advice. What say you, brother?"

Zeruel had shrugged off any attempts to heal him, and the wounds inflicted upon his frame by the dragon's spines were plain for all to see. Ghastly, ragged holes lined their way down his chest, evidence to where the cruel, serrated spikes had punctured. It was a testament to the angel's prodigious willpower that he was still able to stand.

"Do not try and pin this as strategic counsel, brother. The alliance you so adamantly back is still laden with the weight of heresy. I will have no part in it."

Michael swept a hand towards Nidhogg's lifeless body, as Azazel had done before him.

"It was an alliance of angels, devils, and humans that slew the dragon. An alliance of which you took part of."

Zeruel's fiery pupils flashed once.

"A temporary arrangement under trying circumstances. It was never meant to last. Just like the peace you blasphemously support."

"But we can make it last," Michael argued, "We can make it something more than just temporary. All of this is just an excuse. You know this, brother. So what is the real reason for the vehemence in your disapproval?"

The Archangel of Might clenched the grip of his angelic blade as a sea of stares focused on him.

"We are beings created by God. We are virtue made into flesh. Purity given form. We are His angels. Selflessness wreathes our souls. Courage beats in our hearts. We would sacrifice for one another in a mere heartbeat when mortals would dally and hesitate amongst themselves for an eternity. We are different from them."

Michael smiled.

"Are we?" the seraph said softly and inclined his head at a distant throng of figures, "They nearly gave up their lives trying to save you. That is selflessness. They faced a foe many times their power without flinching. That is courage. And when the end loomed near, when defeat was all but a certainty, they were willing to lay down their lives for one another. That is sacrifice. Will you deny them these traits, even after witnessing them yourself?"

Zeruel's gaze flickered towards them, specifically on a red-haired girl worrying over a blue-haired boy, before settling once more on his superior's waiting form.

"The legions of Heaven. The veterans of the Long War. They are mine to command."

Michael nodded.

"No one disputes that."

His subordinate's posture suggested he hadn't heard.

"As for this alliance," Zeruel said slowly, knowing full well how his audience was hanging onto his every word and caring little, "…I retract my objections to it."

A wave of relief, like a waft of freed wind drifted through the gathered masses. Azazel grinned and spread his arms wide.

"Then I believe this conference is concluded. Unless anyone else has something left to say?" the Fallen Angel let his last few words hang there in the open, expecting none would challenge the authority in his tone. He was unpleasantly surprised when a figure stepped out from the crowd, helm dangling from the chain around his neck, hand gripped over the sheathed sword at his hip.

"I have words left to say."

The herald who had announced each conference member's turn to speak straightened his back. The devil's neck had been lacerated by a holy sword sometime during the battle and was now wrapped by a roll of thick bandages. Nonetheless, he still tried to complete his aforementioned duty, though the words that came out from his tattered throat was nothing more than a hoarse whisper.

"This council recognizes Lord Maximillian Ludolphus, Grand Master of the Knights Templar."

The man might have been handsome. In an earlier age, in a different place, the lines around his mouth and eyes might have given him a noble, stately appearance. Made him seem dignified instead of just tired. But now the face that gazed out at its audience was anything but handsome. It was a face that had seen too much battle and too much violence. A visage that had seen too many brothers die and borne witness to too many sins being committed in the name of war. Weariness dragged the man's features down until he appeared so much more ancient than old. Cynicism pulled at his lips until they stretched into a forever scowl, matching the cold fury radiating from ice-blue eyes. He fit the very definition of the jaded warrior, suited the perfect description of the war-weary veteran. And completing the image, emphasizing the depth of his belief, was the engraved tattoo, spread over his brows and running down his face, burned into skin with black ink and cut into the unmistakable shape of a knightly cross.

"We have spoken much of peace and alliance," the warrior's voice was a practiced growl, low and gravelly from a lifetime of bellowing orders and shouting commands, "Of treaties and accords. What we have not spoken of is the most pressing matter. The elephant in the room," his hard, unblinking eyes roamed over the faces of his fellow dignitaries. None had the courage to stare back, "God is dead," the simple sentence drew whispers and more than a few winces, "Yet, for some reason, we were not informed of His most untimely demise."

The Templar's roving gaze stopped over the forms of the Church's representatives, draped in thick, voluminous robes. They shifted uneasily in their spots before one of them stepped forward to reply.

"God's death has been a shock to us all, Grand Master," the cleric said softly and with profound sadness, "We all mourn for Him and we have taken steps to address the issue."

"Have you now?" the faint traces of sarcasm could be heard in Ludolphus's tone, "Strange that I do not see said steps being taken. Instead of demanding accountability, the clergy sends diplomats to the peace conference. Instead of demanding responsibility, the Church sends envoys to barter and negotiate with beings we have always thought as our enemies. These actions do not fit the picture of shock and grief you are painting, priest. They reek of prior knowledge."

It was Michael who chose to answer that particular accusation.

"It was our decision to keep God's death a secret. A mutual agreement between the faction heads. After the Great War, we could not risk more chaos consuming this world, and thus His passing was kept from both the ears of humans as well as our own kind. But whereas my fellow leaders have kept my Father's death a secret to all their followers," the seraph spared a glance towards Sirzechs and Azazel, "I couldn't lie to those who dedicated their lives to worshipping Him. When we angels first made contact with the beginnings of what is now the Church, we told them the truth. The whole truth. What has become of that truth," Michael sighed, "I cannot say."

The knight's eyes, in the meantime, had never left the Church's envoys.

"Well now it has come to light."

One of them could no longer bear the judgment in the warrior's gaze any longer.

"God might be dead, but His ideals remain."

The Templar's tattooed head automatically swiveled towards the speaker.

"So the millions of souls who pray to Him at night are not praying to Him, but to His ideals."

An older cleric took the place of his younger counterpart, the golden embroidery on his sleeve designating both rank and age.

"There is no difference, Grand Master."

"I beg to differ," at last, no longer able to be kept hidden, the sneer broke freely over the knight's face, "There is a difference. A very large one," the warrior began pacing, prowling around the edges of the circle like a caged beast. Those in his way hastened to get out of it, "The Knights Templar have always been the Church's last weapons of resort. We have been called into battle when no other alternatives are left. We have been sent into the fight when your pet exorcists have failed. And it is we who have paid the greatest price; in men, in material, and in reputation," the armored figure jabbed a finger towards the ranks of clergymen gathered amid the crowd, "You proclaim us as butchers, when we have only killed at the Church's behest. You declare us as fanatics, when we were the only ones who could get the job done. We have borne this undeserved scorn with dignity, with grace, never once complaining, never once uttering a word of protest, believing our charge to be the executioners who were forever to be feared, never to be loved. And now you tell us all of this was a charade. That the deeds we have done for Him, worth nothing. That the battles we have fought in His name, hollow clashes. That the victories we have won at the cost of slain brothers, nothing more than ashes in our mouths. That, is what you now choose to tell us."

Many wearing the Church's robes looked distinctively uncomfortable. Some stepped back in growing apprehension as men clad in silver plate and holding rune-engraved halberds stared at them with the same accusing intensity. The sole cleric who remained unfazed at the rapidly changing atmosphere, the one who had interjected himself between the knight and his younger colleague, met each glare with commendable poise.

"What would you have us do to reassure you that this is not the case."

"I would have you tell us the truth, when the truth still mattered."

"You know that is impossible," the priest sighed. "There are millions who follow our faith in this world. Think of the chaos it would cause," he urged, "the upheaval that would follow, if the secret was to leak out. Think of all the lives that would be lost in the ensuing violence. We did not keep God's death a secret for our sake, but for the safety and welfare of mankind."

The Templar let out a bitter laugh.

"And think of all the fat priests who would suddenly go hungry. Think of all the temples and cathedrals whose coffers would suddenly be empty. Think of all the feeble old men whose grasp of power over the masses would suddenly vanish."

The Church's representative pursed his lips until it became a thin straight line.

"What are you implying, sir knight?"

"You know full well what I am implying, priest, just as you know full well that I am right."

"This isn't an interrogation on the Church's policies, Grand Master."

"No," the Templar replied with a smile that looked too much like a leer, "it is a discussion on whether an order built on the foundations of trust and brotherhood should remain indentured to an institution built on feeding its fellow man lies."

An expectant hush settled, and every eye seemed to be riveted to the verbal spar taking place. To his credit, the cleric continued to remain calm in the face of these threats.

"You are free to leave the Church's embrace along with your order," the man said simply, "But I wonder how you will live up to your honor knowing you've chosen to abandon your fellow man over such a miniscule difference in ideology."

Ludolphus met the priest's tranquil response with cold amusement burning in his eyes.

"Just as I wonder how you will look into the eyes of your exorcists and sleep at night knowing you've made them into living weapons of the Church, yet deprived them of the one truth that matters."

His counterpart stiffened.

"You think this is treachery?"

The knight grinned, tattooed features splitting until they formed an ugly smirk.

"I think it is betrayal."

"And what, Grand Master," the priest said softly, "will you do in the face of this betrayal?"

Maximillian Ludolphus drew his sword.

"I will show you what I will do."

The crowd watching the proceedings murmured in dismay. Some of them began inching back from the escalation taking place. The Church's representative shook his head at the sword that was now bared.

"You've gone mad, drawing a weapon in a place like this," he turned to the uniformed figures behind him, "Guards. Restrain this man."

The exorcists at his back looked at one another. Their hands went to their sheathed blades, fingers wrapping around silver-inlaid hilts… and remained absolutely still. For the first time since the knight had stepped into the circle, the cleric's calm demeanor faltered.


One of them finally responded. Irina was in the process of drawing her own sword when a hand reached out and dragged her back in line. Xenovia maintained her grip on her friend's shoulder, preventing her fellow exorcist from moving, and stared straight ahead. Her face, as were the faces of the exorcists to the left and right of her, was set into a mask of blank neutrality.

And then the Templar was in front of them, armored frame looming before them like a menacing statue.

"This is what happens when you tell men and women you've trained since childhood into weapons of the Light that the source of that Light is now dead," Ludolphus said quietly, "This is what happens when you mislead children into believing they are fighting for a worthy cause and now they learn that cause is empty. This is what happens when loyal warriors who believed their superiors were beyond reproach now find out their superiors were lying to them all along," the way the knight's gaze flickered over each exorcist in turn suggested almost sympathy, "I am no man of the cloth. I have always deferred to the clergy when it came to matters of faith. But I know soldiers and I know how a soldier's courage works. Lie to them, and they will begin to doubt. Refuse to tell them anything, and they will begin to suspect. That suspicion will gnaw away at their resolve until their valor is no more than an empty shell. But tell them the truth, even if the truth is painful, and they will fight to the last. Tell them how things are, leave nothing under the table, and they will find their own courage," the bottom of Xenovia's lips quivered and Irina looked away, "Because a man with nothing can still cling to the truth."

"If you leave the Church, you will no longer be protected," the cleric had regained his earlier composure, "Whether your reputation is deserved or not, it still precedes you. No faction will ally with zealots, even more so when you have slain their members. Enemies you have wronged will come for you, and without the shelter the Church provides, your order will be easily dismantled," the robed man nodded at the wisdom in his own words, "You need us, just as we need you."

"If no faction will accept us," Ludolphus said without breaking stride, "then we will make our own."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

The knight's reply was to walk away. His path took him past the crowd of uneasy dignitaries, past the herald who was looking interestedly on, past the leaders of the three factions who tensed as he neared, until he finally arrived before a tired and not entirely lucid form. The boy's companions huddled around him protectively as the knight neared, glaring at the naked sword still held threateningly in the Templar's hand. They were subsequently ignored. Ludolphus had eyes for only one among them, and as the man halted, their gazes locked, one glowering from a scarred, tattooed face burdened by the weight of its wars, the other watching from an impassive mask framed beneath a mop of untidy blue hair. Only one face displayed emotion, and it was that face who eventually spoke, lips parting into the beginning of a disapproving scowl.

"Are you the reason half my knights have started adopting cats?"

Sirzech's frown turned into a smile. Michael had to cover his mouth with his hand to hide his own. Azazel grinned openly.

The boy stared at the menacing form looming over him, sheathed entirely in metal, before nodding once. The sword was planted in front of him a split second later, the tip sinking easily into the ground. Armored hands placed themselves over the worn hilt as the Grand Master of the Knights Templar knelt to the one in front of him.

"The Knights Templar will serve the cause of the Nephilim," Ludolphus touched the pommel of his blade with his forehead before looking fiercely up, "He, at least, has shown us the truth."

A murmur of disquiet rose from the crowd as the warriors among them who wielded halberds likewise bent knee. Before the disquiet could turn to words another figure strode forward and approached the drama being played out. The man was clad in form-fitting Kevlar, protected by a dark bulletproof vest. Splatters of blood dotted his shoulders and chest, evidence of hard fighting elsewhere during the battle. The collar of his uniform was embroidered with silver chevrons, denoting that he was an officer of significant rank. He had no sword to plant into the ground with, but he did have his arms, and as he neared the scene, the man hammered both over his chest in a crusader's cross.

"All knightly orders swore an oath to God and mankind. To serve and to protect. God is dead. Therefore our oath to Him is void. Humanity is left. Therefore our oath to it remains," the soldier knelt beside the knight, "The Knights Hospitaller will join our Templar brethren in serving the Nephilim's cause. Your battles are now ours."

Another wave of murmuring arose as those wearing black and white knelt with those in gleaming silver. And just like before, the spectacle was further exacerbated as more warriors made their presence known.

They shoved their way through the crowd with their sheer bulk, towering over civilians and fellow knights alike. Mechanized servos hissed and snarled as their owners moved, and the weapons they clasped in their plated fists produced headache inducing whines. Their slow, methodical gait made them look like armored bears, made them appear as lumbering giants. The one that led them had his plumed helm resting in the crook of his arm.

"A hero needs his bodyguards," Adelmar smiled mirthlessly as he neared, "both to protect him and prevent him from doing stupid things. Fighting that army on your own was stupid, boy, but also brave," the Paladin flexed his newly minted arm, bare like his face, "And we happen to like stupid but brave."

Five lightning imbued hammers smashed into the ground in perfect unison as their wielders knelt on grinding, damaged joints.

"The Hammerhands are yours to command," Adelmar inclined his head, "We will be your Praetorians. Your Custodians. And whatever burdens you have yet to bear will be ours to carry as well."

The boy looked at the figures kneeling before him, armored and unarmored, fists clasped around enchanted blades, hands cradling assault rifles to Kevlar-protected chests. He turned to the waiting forms of the faction heads standing nearby. "Help me" was written plainly on his face.

The trio glanced at one another and shared identical smiles. It was Azazel who finally spoke, breaking the silence with a slow amused drawl.

"I do believe there is room in this alliance for a fourth faction."

It was a subdued procession that dragged themselves through the portals. A defeated army, tattered and limping. They made no sound at the state of their wounds, for the state of their minds no longer allowed them to.

A group of figures waited from them amid an outcrop of rock, their tall, elegant forms hidden from recognition by detail concealing cloaks.

"Ah, and here is our valiant general, returning from his valiant defeat at the hands of his lesser enemies," one of them stepped forward to address the battered frame leading the procession, tone brimming with sarcasm, "I expected better of you, Cao Cao; at the very least, a better result than this pathetic rout."

The hero's tired face swiveled to regard his accuser, eyes blazing with contemptuous defiance.

"I am not in a mood to hear this," he said and shoved the man out of his way.

"Yet hear this you will," a second figure blocked his path, "Do you have any idea how much this defeat will cost us? By failing to kill Sirzechs, you risk everything that we have secretly achieved. He knows we are involved now, that we are a threat and not the rabble we have purposely misled him into believing. He will come down hard against us. He will investigate every lead, examine every clue. The spies we have planted by his side are now at risk. The moles we have placed in his government are now endangered. Your failure just may cost us the entire intelligence network we have painstakingly crafted over all these years."

"It was not my failure," Cao Cao countered, "It was the dragon's. Killing the faction leaders was its job."

"No," the first figure spoke again, "Nidhogg was supposed to crush all opposition until it reached the faction leaders and kill them. It was prevented from reaching them by outside interference, which lays the blame on the one who was supposed to prevent said interference from happening in the first place," the man gestured to the host of Sacred Gear users arrayed before him, "And where is Vali? Is he too ashamed of his own defeat to show his face?"

The hero shrugged.

"I have not seen him since the end of the battle. I have no idea where he is now."

The two cloaked forms shared significant glances.

"That boy is a loose cannon. It was a mistake to believe a battle-maniac like him could ever be of use to us."

"A good strategist knows how and when to use his generals out in the field," they turned to see Cao Cao looking at them with disdain, "A poor one knows neither and will make up excuses for his incompetent plans."

Both figures stiffened.

"You dare-"

"This bickering is getting us nowhere," the third cloaked form stepped forward, joining the other two. Despite it being covered by the same detail hiding cloak, the figure still bled femininity, female elegance and gracefulness leaking through the layers of thick cloth. And if that was not enough to betray its gender, then the soft arousing voice that drifted from the shrouded face made it unmistakable, "We all serve the same master, even if our causes are different. Besides, our primary objectives may not have been achieved, but their failure will be inconsequential if our secondary goal is met," the woman tilted her head to stare at Cao Cao, features still hidden by the cloak that veiled her face, "I trust you have done what I asked of you."

The hero's countenance was curled into an expression of disgust but he nonetheless lifted his spear, displaying a pointed end slick with blood. The weapon had only pierced one foe in the battle, and that made the fluid covering its surface enticingly pure. A single drop of crimson hung on the lance's bladed tip, and as Cao Cao shifted the grip on his spear, the vibrations that travelled down the weapon's haft dislodged the bead of blood from its precarious position.

The woman caught it before it could hit the ground, trapping the droplet deftly in a glass vial before stoppering the end. The motion was incredibly swift, graceful to the point of perfection. Lithe, nimble fingers lifted the sealed vial delicately, as though afraid the slightest of movements would shatter it. The other hand reached back and pulled off the hood of her cloak, revealing a tanned face that would have been breathtakingly beautiful had it not been for the superior smirk playing around her lips.

"They can have their Nephilim," said Katerea Leviathan, "We will have our own."

The devil continued to raise the vial higher until her face was directly below it. Her eyes fixated on the glass container's contents, glowing with fascination. The smirk grew.

"So this is how it feels to hold power in the palm of your hands."

A wizened man dressed in magician's garb stepped out from behind her, features hidden from view by the same blank faceplate the rest of his kin wore.

"If I may, mistress," he wheezed and held out a hand, "we can begin the duplication process immediately."

"A minute longer, you old fool," Katerea snapped, "Can't you see I'm having a moment?"

"Of course," the sorcerer inclined his masked head in deference. The hunchbacked figure turned to see Cao Cao staring at him.

"You…" the hero accused, "…You were responsible for this."

The magician regarded the sea of blank faces the boy was gesturing to before nodding once.

"I was in charge of the implementation process, yes."

Cao Cao's anger could literally be felt as it radiated from his body in waves.

"And you see nothing wrong with what you have done?"

The sorcerer shrugged.

"You wanted an army," the voice that creaked out from the mask's mouth slit was scornfully indifferent, "That was the agreement. You would join the attack if we provided the army. I gave you that army, which you led into battle without complaint."

Cao Cao took a wrathful step towards the robed figure. Behind the boy, the rest of his faction drew weapons in support of their leader.

"I had no choice! You pushed them onto me moments before the assault was to begin! I had no choice but to lead them into battle or the entire plan would have failed!" the Spear of Longinus rose until its tip was pointed to the man's chest, "But what I did doesn't excuse what you have done. You took away their minds. You made them into… into whatever they are now."

"I took away their weaknesses," the magician countered, "I made them better. They know no fear. They feel no pain. They will attack the enemy until he is dead or they are dead themselves. They are the perfect soldiers. Wiping their minds was a small price to pay for that."

"And in the process wiped away everything that made them human," Cao Cao snarled.

"Why does it matter what types of minions you herd forward to die for you? As long as they are efficient, as long as they get the job done, then it should not matter."

"It matters because I am fighting for humanity!" the boy spat.

"And yet here you are," the masked man returned indifferently, "allying with beings who are not humans, leading once-humans into battle against fellow humans. What does that make you?"

The change of expression over the hero's face was frighteningly swift.

"I agree," Cao Cao said softly, "Which is why this problem must be rectified immediately."

The sorcerer jerked in surprise and slowly looked down, to where the Spear of Longinus jutted out of his chest, transfixing him end from end. When he looked up again, his killer was already leaning in, expression stretching into a merciless smile.

"I hate it when my enemies are right," Cao Cao whispered, "I hate it more when I agree with them."

The boy kicked the dying man off his lance with a contemptuous motion. A spray of ichor arced out of the sorcerer's back as the spear left his body, filling the air with droplets of ruby red blood. Katerea stepped gracefully away from the crumpling form to avoid the arterial fluid from landing on her cloak.

"That was wholly unnecessary," the woman frowned at the fresh blood glistening on the Spear of Longinus's tip, "And now you've destroyed the purity of the specimen. How am I supposed to get more samples now?"

"Silence, witch," Cao Cao pointed his lance towards the vial she still held, "I have half a mind to destroy the sample you hold now."

Said vial disappeared under a curtain of thick robes as Katerea hid it beneath her cloak.

"Is that a threat, hero? Need I remind you who you are dealing with?"

The two figures standing by her side tore off their hoods, revealing hard, aristocratic faces twisted into superior sneers. Shalba Beelzebub chuckled darkly and flexed his bare knuckles. Creuserey Asmodeus retained the sneer and drew an antique demon blade from the sheathe at his side.

Cao Cao kept his spear levelled at their chests.

"This alliance is over. The agreement between us is no more. Whatever foul deeds you commit in the future, the Hero Faction will have no part in it."

The boy slowly backed away and his cohorts did the same, weapons bared and ready in case the conflict escalated. Cao Cao was the last one to turn his back. He managed three steady steps when Katerea's voice halted him.

"I believe you are leaving with something of ours."

The woman's gaze was locked onto the mass of humans staggering after the hero, following him like a flock of sheep would do to a shepherd.

"It was partly my fault they were made into this way," Cao Cao said over his shoulder and continued walking away, "And thus they are my responsibility now."

Creuserey made to go after him when an elegant, feminine hand placed itself over his chest.

"There is no need for that," Katerea patted the place where she had hidden the vial, "We have what is most important. Those dog soldiers," the woman tilted her head towards the retreating backs of the horde, "are easily replaceable."

She frowned and glanced down as blood-slick hands clawed at the hem of her cloak. The magician was barely alive, barely holding on, twisting and writhing in a rapidly expanding pool of ichor.

"Mistress…" the man lifted a trembling arm towards his master, "H-Help me…"

Katerea didn't even deign him worthy of a second look.

"You always were going on about a chance for your apprentice to prove himself to me, old friend," the devil's smile was perfectly charming, perfectly polite, "Well, now he can have his chance when he takes your place."

In the days following the conclusion of the peace conference, he noticed a change occurring between the members of the Occult Research Club. They seemed to become more protective of one another, more defensive. Growing closer, was another apt way to put it. Rias, in particular, seemed to be far more shielding of her followers than before and after the school was repaired a second time and classes resumed, he would often see her sitting together at the same table as her peerage, worrying over them, upsetting herself over some small detail she misconstrued as a threat to their safety. The way she fretted over them resembled a mother would do to a pack of unruly children, and yet, the approach was producing results. Under her careful attention, Asia began to smile again, and that brought the cheerfulness back in Issei. Kiba too regained his confidence under her concerned eye, and after a while, so did Koneko.

It was to be expected. They had seen their friends being torn and sundered beneath the dragon's claws, witnessed them being mauled and savaged by the beast's teeth. Each of their wounds had been grievous, and though Twilight Healing was enough to save them, the experience of being so close to death was almost guaranteed to affect them. It was no surprise that they would be shaken. Traumatized even. On the contrary, he would be surprised if they weren't. The fact that they recovered so quickly was a testament to Rias's ability as a leader to coax them out of their shells while also preventing them from relapsing. He respected her for that, and if he was being truthful with himself, even admired her for it.

The odd person out was Akeno. The wound that she had suffered was the worst by far. Nidhogg's spikes had literally torn right through her, inflicting horrendous injuries in the process. It was nothing that Asia's power couldn't heal, but the lasting damage done to the nerve endings around her spine would take some time to disappear. She wasn't crippled, not in the normal sense, but there would be times he would catch her in the school's hallways, leaning against the wall and wincing as some new pain suddenly flared up.

It didn't suit her, this new halting gait. It made her look weak, fragile, even feeble at times when she had to stop in her motion and regather herself. Nonetheless, she put on a brave face about it. She was a Queen, a senior member in a high-ranking devil's procession, and it was expected for her put aside her own difficulties to look after the younger pieces. This she did with commendable poise, and half the reason those in Rias's peerage had regained their former state of minds was due to her playful, but gentle ribbing. It would take an outside observer careful scrutiny to discern anything was wrong with her at all, but as fate would have it, he was one such observer, and after watching the girl suffer through her own trials unaided in the passing days, he was resolved to help her in any way he could.

If only they allowed him to.

For some reason, they were avoiding him. They still said their greetings to him when they met in school and acknowledged his presence when they passed each other in the hallways, but beyond that, they made no attempts to interact with him. For a time, he did not think much of it. This was their trial to undertake. Their baptism of fire so to speak. SEES had undergone something similar when they investigated the Tower. Each close call with death when fighting the Shadows had served to make its members closer with one another, and when the end came, when they ascended the tower to do battle against the avatar of Nyx, they were as close-knit a group as could be. He was witnessing something similar happening to Rias and her peerage. The experience of fighting the dragon might haunt them for the rest of their lives, but it would also harden them, toughen them. The imagery of their friends being torn and ravaged under Nidhogg's claws would influence their nightmares for weeks to come, but it would also serve as the impetus to strengthen themselves so that such a thing would never happen again. They would be changed, he had no doubt about that, but who was to say that it wouldn't be for the better?

He understood these principles and it was for that reason he gave them their space. But as the days passed and they kept communication to a minimum, he could not help but feel just slightly secluded. Left out. It was unexpected, in a way. He had been prepared to live his life in solitude ever since his inclusion to this world, believing his power to be too overwhelming to see the light of day and unwilling to alter the events of this world either for good or for ill. That had changed when a certain pervert had befriended him from out of the blue, and had kept on changing when said pervert's friends introduced themselves to his life. He had tried to keep himself reserved in their presence, hoping that whatever bonds that were forming would be severed by a mask of indifference. It hadn't worked. They navigated past his usual walls, slipped past his normally solid defenses, and wormed their way into his heart until the faint lines that connected them became unmistakable links.

They were not his friends, not in the way the members of SEES had been. The bonds he had forged when ascending the steps of Tartarus with them were unshakeable, irreplaceable. The bonds he was making now were in the process of becoming unshakable, were in the course of being irreplaceable. They were not his friends, but they were close.

And thus he missed them. Missed the interaction. Regretted that he was not able to help them even if the reason was a good one. It was strange to admit it, but he would be lying to himself if he did not. These feelings troubled him as he walked up the steps of his apartment, and continued to bother him as he inserted the key into the lock that guarded his room. He ignored the faint clicking sound that resulted and pushed open the door. The familiar warmth of home hitting his face as he stepped in caused a small smile to creep over his features. That smile faltered when he noticed a single figure frozen in the midst of movement in his kitchen, face stretched into an expression of comical alarm.

All the faint longing for companionship he had felt seconds ago abruptly vanished out the window.

"What are you doing here?"

Issei looked tremendously guilty as he shuffled away from the refrigerator he had been busy rummaging through.

"Ah, no, wait, Arisato-san, I can explain! This… This isn't what it looks like!"

It took a significant amount of effort to hide the exasperation in his tone, but somehow, he managed it.

"Then what does it look like?"

The boy glanced to left, then to the right, and after finally realizing that no help was immediately forthcoming, straightened his back and waved his hand in a vaguely mysterious fashion in front of his face.

"You are being hypnotized," to his credit, the devil actually managed to sound a bit enigmatic, "After I snap my fingers you will wake up and pretend I was never here."

His jaw tightened at this miserable attempt to deflect the subject.

"Do you really think that's going to work?"

"No," Issei said mournfully, "but it was worth a try."

He felt the beginnings of a headache coming on and pinched the bridge of his nose to stop it. The source of his frustration saw what he was doing and shifted uneasily in his spot still beside the freezer.

"Um… Arisato-san," the devil ventured, "aren't you supposed to be at work right now?"

"I was let off early," he bit out, then paused, realizing that he should be the one asking the questions in this scenario, "But that's not the issue. The issue is how did you even get in? The door was locked when I entered."

Issei grinned sheepishly.

"Um… Magic?"

He rolled his eyes and moved into the kitchen. The boy wisely got out of his way. He halted in front of the refrigerator and opened it, expecting the contents within to be thoroughly ransacked. To his mild surprise, the assumption was only half true. The leftovers he had stored in the freezer was missing, as expected, but in their place was fresh food; fruits and vegetables, packages of easily prepared meals and even a few delicacies he had not been able to afford for a very long time. His gaze remained on the bounty arranged neatly within the refrigerator's plastic shelves for a second longer before moving on towards the only one who could be responsible. His raised eyebrows asked the question for him.

"You are always eating the food that comes out of that café or takeout," Issei said with a serious nod, "That's not good for you, Arisato-san. So Buchou decided that we should fill your fridge with healthy food instead. She said it was the least we could do for you after what you've done for us."

"Buchou?" he frowned, latching onto the only suspicious topic in the boy's explanation, "What does Rias have to do with this?"

Issei's eyes grew wide as he realized he had just let slip something that he shouldn't have. The devil immediately clamped both his hands over his mouth.

He sighed.

"Is that really necessary?"

The boy mumbled something incoherent into his palms. He caught the words "it was supposed to be a secret" somewhere in the muffled sound.

"And now I know the secret. Just tell me."

The devil remained stubbornly silent. He sighed again.

"What's the harm in telling me? Besides, it's not like Rias and the others are hiding in my apartment listening in."

In retrospect, the immensely guilty look on Issei's face should have been all the warning he needed. In his defense, he didn't have time to ponder the boy's choice of expression, for the air between them suddenly boiled with pressure. There was a distinctive popping noise, like a balloon being burst, and out leapt Kiba, seemingly materialized out of thin air. Rias's Knight landed lightly on his feet and turned to address what he no doubt thought was the only one in the room.

"Issei, the President told you not to linger in Arisato-san's house for too-"

The sword-user's voice died miserably in his throat when he saw who was staring directly back at him. The handsome boy hastily raised both hands into the air, as though trying to ward off some incoming attack only he could see.

"Ah, no, wait, Arisato-san, I can explain!"

His gaze travelled from the boy whose hands were still clamped over his mouth and then to the boy who had literally just appeared out of nowhere. He glared in both their directions before crossing his arms over his chest.

"Explain then."

"So let me get this straight," he said slowly, making sure to stress each word just to be sure, "You built a house… inside my house?"

Both boys nodded, one remarkably serious, the other predictably enthusiastic.

"It might be a bit bigger than a house," Kiba admitted.

"Isn't it great?" Issei beamed at him. Now that the secret was out, the pervert seemed delighted in revealing all of his knowledge, "We all have our own rooms and everything! And each room has their own bathrooms and showers too! And that's only the domestic area!"

"Only the domestic area?"

Kiba saw the dangerous glint in his eyes and made a throat-cutting motion to Issei, trying to get his fellow devil to stop. The signal was blissfully ignored.

"Sure! There's also a swimming pool, an indoor gymnasium, and a whole bunch of other stuff I didn't get to see yet!"

It took all his resolve to maintain his calm façade.

"So you built a mansion inside my house?"

The sword-user winced.

"It might be a bit bigger than a mansion as well."

"And there's also portals to the Underworld so Buchou and the others can get through," Issei continued on happily, "though they won't need it because they have their own rooms as well. There's also training facilities, a laboratory, a cafeteria, and even a sauna! Azazel wasn't lying when he said it would be like living in a five-star hotel!"

The corners of his eyes began to twitch at a record pace.

"So you built a vast underground complex inside my house?"

Kiba let out a nervous laugh.

"Well… if you put it that way…"

"Yes!" Issei said without a hint of shame.

The instinct to massage his brow was there, and it took all his strength to ignore it.

"This…" he struggled for a moment, trying to come up with words to describe the situation at hand, "…This is a heinous violation of my personal space."

Both boys looked at each other, unsure. The exasperation in his tone made even Issei lose his characteristic cheer. The pervert appeared uncomfortable, apprehensive almost. Staring at the duo, he felt his anger beginning to fade. This was not their fault. They were the unwilling messengers, caught by pure circumstance. He couldn't blame them, not when their intent had been noble to begin with. He could understand their concern for him, and even appreciate it. He just hadn't imagined that concern could ever translate into something like this.

"How long ago was all this planned out?" he finally ground out.

"Not too long," Issei said nervously, "After Buchou visited you, she kept on thinking up ways to be near you. You are living alone so far away from school and so far away us. She was concerned for your safety. All of us are, and since you're by yourself all the time, we can't help you if you're in danger."

"I'm not in danger," he replied automatically.

"The Hero Faction knew where you lived and even had enough time plan a trap," Kiba said quietly, "They chose not to attack you that one time, but that doesn't mean other enemies won't try."

He kept silent, conceding the point. The sword-user took his silence as a blessing to continue.

"I understand why you might want to be left alone, Arisato-san," Rias's Knight rubbed the back of his head uneasily, "but people like those in the Khaos Brigade don't want to leave you alone. You're a threat to them and they might want to eliminate you in the future. We're here to prevent that from happening. And besides," the swordsman seemed to steel himself, as though preparing for the conversation to take an ugly turn, "you're in no state to be left on your own. You don't have any family here or anyone else for that matter. You don't have any people you can rely on. We can be the people you can rely on."

He smiled at the implication, finding it honestly amusing.

"You seem to be suggesting something that doesn't exist in the first place."

It was Issei who chose to reply, features set in a grim mask of determination.

"You don't have any people you know at school beside us, Arisato-san. You don't try to make new friends either. You help people, but no one tries to help you. That has to make you lonely, and our point is, well, that you don't have to be lonely, not with us here. Let us help you, just as you've helped us."

The last few words were said with a faint pleading tone, and he would be lying if he said he wasn't the slightest bit moved. It was touching, their worry for him… in a weird, convoluted, roundabout way.

His earlier frustration and annoyance left him in a sigh. The two devils took that as a sign of acceptance as well as approval. The grin reappeared over Issei's face and Kiba looked visibly grateful. As the duo displayed equal expressions of relief, a wandering thought lurked into his mind, and curiosity made him give voice to it, a passing mention he did not expect a serious answer to.

"You said that the house in the Underworld is connected to my apartment through individual rooms," both devils nodded in confirmation, "So whose room is connected to my room?"

Kiba abruptly developed an acute interest in the tips of his fingernails.

"Ah… About that…"

The door to his room suddenly swung open. Rias's head popped out, a look of impatience plastered over her beautiful features.

"Issei, Yuuto, I thought I told you two to not stay too-" the girl saw him staring back and blanched before turning a rather violent shade of red, "Ah, no, wait, Arisato-san, I can explain!"

As it turned out, Issei's and Kiba's depiction of the house was unerringly accurate. There was a swimming pool, a sauna, training faculties, and that was barely scratching the surface. He passed grand, ornate antechambers that bordered on opulence as well as warm, cozy rooms that seemed tailor made to fit their prospective inhabitants. The sheer variety was staggering, as was the maze of hallways that led to them. The winding corridors he travelled through resembled a labyrinth in their complexity and without them acting as his impromptu guides, he had no doubt he would have been hopelessly lost somewhere in the beginning of the tour.

Said tour was just now finishing, ending when he stopped in front of a room in the center of a hallway filled with rooms.

He looked back at their expectant faces before pushing open the door.

The area he walked into was spacious. Expansive even. A cursory glance told him that his entire apartment would have fitted easily within its confines. The same passing glance also notified him of details he would have rather not noticed.

Rias entered after him, and the rest of her peerage followed, squeezing through behind her.

"This is your room, Arisato-san," trepidation was clear over the girl's face, "Do you like it?"

He chose to ignore the hopeful tone in the devil's voice and instead focused on his immediate surroundings.

"Why are their chains hanging from the ceiling?" he squinted up at the rafters, "And are those manacles attached to their ends?"

"That would be me," Akeno raised a hand, looking proud, "I was in charge of interior decorating."

The corners of his mouth twitched. His gaze fell from the ceiling and onto the walls that supported it.

"And the walls? Why are there so many swords nailed to them?"

"Akeno ran out of chains," Kiba said, face remarkably straightforward, "so I helped. I thought it would help create a nice atmosphere. Like you were in a medieval keep or something."

"Or a dungeon," Akeno added in helpfully.

He blinked at their reply and decided not to question the reasoning behind that particular logic. He began to move towards the bed that dominated the center of the room, a heavy, elaborate piece that looked like it was made out of solid oak. It looked comfortable. And as he neared, he ran a hand over the bed's cushioned surface. It felt comfortable. It was a shame the color of the sheets covering its frame was anything but comfortable. He turned towards the ones responsible and raised a questioning eyebrow.

"Um, we couldn't decide on what color your sheets were supposed to be," Asia said shyly. Behind her, Koneko nodded studiously, "So we compromised."

His gaze switched back to the bed, and the two not so varying colors it was covered in.

"You couldn't decide between two different shades of pink?"

Both devils bobbed their heads in agreement.

"I thought a lighter shade would fit with the mood," Asia smiled hesitantly, "but Toujou-san said a darker shade suited you more."

The girl in question shrugged.

"It does," Koneko said simply, as though that alone was enough to justify the assumption.

He bit his tongue to refrain from saying something sarcastic in response. His eyes roamed over a few more pieces of furniture; sofas and a table arranged neatly to the side. They stopped to where a series of antique bookshelves stood propped against the wall. At last, here was something that could be construed as mildly normal. Fashionable too. He had a soft spot for antiques. Something about history just naturally pulled at his interest. He began to make his way towards them, then halted in his tracks when he realized just what sort of books were stacked on top their shelves.

"Don't worry, Arisato-san," Issei gave him a thumbs up from across the room, "I picked all the ones that you liked. Buchou even let me use the ones she confiscated for reference."

So that's what they did with those magazines. Wonderful.

As though sensing his distaste, Rias began to wring her hands nervously.

"So, do you like it, Arisato-san?" she repeated.

His gaze flickered upward towards the ceiling where manacled chains hung from the rafters, then towards the various swords lined up in plaques adorning the walls, then at the garish colors wrapped around the bed he was supposed to sleep on, before finally settling on the antique bookcase with not so antique books stacked on top its shelves.

His answer to that question was to walk towards the door.

They all winced when the door slammed shut behind him.

"I don't think he liked it," Koneko said into the ensuing silence.

Both Rias and Asia looked crestfallen. Kiba stared up at his surroundings thoughtfully.

"I still think we should have chosen a theme and stuck with it."

"You would have just added more swords to everything," Akeno smiled.

"You say that as though it's a bad thing," the boy sniffed, "A man can never have too many swords."

Asia looked imploringly at her fellow peerage members.

"Does that mean Arisato-san doesn't want to live with us?" the girl sounded heartbroken at the idea.

They had no immediate response to that.

"I'm sure he just finds some aspects of his room… objectionable," Kiba finally said.

Rias sighed and shook her head despondently.

"This is why I said to keep everything a secret," she shot a reproving look at the ones responsible, "We were going to gradually ease him into the idea. It must be a shock for him to learn that we were preparing all this beforehand, and frankly, I don't blame him for acting this way."

"But if he keeps on refusing, it will make him hard to guard," Kiba pointed out. The rest nodded in agreement.

"Not necessarily," Rias smiled at her peerage, "I put up scrying lenses all around his house. That way, we can keep an eye on him at all times and protect him from harm if he's in danger."

Asia blinked in confusion.

"Scrying lenses?"

"The devil equivalent to security cameras," her master explained, "They're small enough to go unnoticed by most people and will adhere to any surface."

"I was wondering how we were going to know if a potential enemy showed up," Kiba mused, "That was good thinking, President."

Rias looked faintly proud of herself.

"There's no need to worry about that. I placed them strategically around his rooms so we will know instantly if an intruder appears."

"No," Akeno's smile had been growing ever since her friend had mentioned her choice of surveillance, and now it reached its full length, "You placed one in his bedroom and one in his living room. You placed all the rest in the ceiling above his shower."

Rias's cheeks flushed scarlet as her entire peerage turned to stare at her.

"We know that the most likely place enemies will choose to enter from is the door," somehow, the devil still managed to appear dignified as she defended herself, "What we don't know is if they have any other avenues of attack. Therefore, it makes sense to place the most scrutiny in the most unexpected areas."

Asia still looked confused.

"But why would enemies want to attack Arisato-san in the shower?"

"Obviously to get a better view," Kiba deadpanned.

"Maybe they wish to catch their target in a very unready, very undressed state," Akeno suggested innocently.

"A nude target is a far more attractive target," Koneko agreed.

Asia nodded in understanding.

"Whoever those enemies are," the girl said seriously, "they must really want to fight Arisato-san naked."

Rias's face turned an even deeper shade of crimson. Thankfully, she was spared further embarrassment when her Pawn spoke up.

"I know why Arisato-san left," Issei said suddenly.

Kiba regarded his fellow devil dubiously.

"You do?"

"Well, we all assumed what Arisato-san liked because he never told us, right?"

They all nodded and waited for the boy's explanation to continue. The fact that Issei's gaze was centered on the bookshelf he had meticulously stocked himself should have been all the warning for what came next.

"What if our assumption that he was a boob person was wrong and he was a butt person all along?"

In the pregnant silence that followed, Kiba pressed a hand over his face.

"That's not-" the sword-user began.

They jumped when the door suddenly swung back open, revealing a blue-haired boy as well as the additional baggage he carried. Under the crook of one arm he cradled a worn but still serviceable pillow. Over the other was a bedroll, draped over his shoulder, just as worn if not more. They parted way for him when he marched past them, then smiled as he proceeded to dump both sleeping implements onto his new bed. The boy turned and frowned when he noticed the types of looks he was being given.


He had very little when it came to belongings to carry into his new room. His current circumstances simply prevented him from having the luxuries other people might have enjoyed. Besides a few spare changes of clothes and some other assorted oddities, there was little to transport from his apartment. Rias had taken notice of that, his threadbare amount of personal items, and judging from the look on the girl's face when he was done, she was resolved to change that with or without his consent. For some reason, he did not find himself minding. Despite his sparse belongings, Issei had nonetheless volunteered to help, forcibly conscripting himself to what he no doubt saw as a noble cause. It had made potentially two trips into one, but he supposed he should be grateful for the help, as unneeded as it was.

The boy was sitting on his bed now, feet dangling down the side, and gesturing animatedly with both hands.

"Ddraig said when Nidhogg came to the rescue, it felt like a dragon gate being opened inside me," the devil held up Boosted Gear and waved the crimson gauntlet for emphasis, "And when Nidhogg disappeared, it felt like the gate was being closed. He says he hasn't experienced anything like it before, and even if the Persona was only a manifestation, it still had a presence to it, like it was its own distinct being."

The emerald jewel flashed once in affirmation to its master's words. He frowned slightly, and wondered how best to word his explanation.

"To be honest," he admitted after a moment of silence, "I do not know. The place I would go to ask questions in circumstances like these does not exist in this world, and the people I would obtain answers from likewise do not exist," he could see the almost desperate longing in Issei's eyes to ask what that place was or who said people were. The boy kept quiet though, surprisingly tactful, and he was appreciative of the silence, for he had no wish to discuss either of those things for the time being, "I can only guess, and with anything that has to do with guessing, it will not be a hundred percent correct."

His counterpart displayed his Sacred Gear once again.

"Ddraig says you've always been honest with us so far so I should listen carefully to what you have to say, even if it's only guessing."

He supposed that was high praise coming from a dragon.

"In my world," he began, "the bonds I made with people powered up my own abilities to create and fuse Personas. In this world, that connection seems to be reversed. Instead of strengthening my ability, the opposite is happening. Whenever I make a bond with a person in this world, it is they who gain power, not I. My guess is that something similar occurred during your fight with the dragon. You called for help through the link between us and Nidhogg answered your call."

Issei looked both excited and thoughtful.

"So I can create my own Personas?"

He smiled slightly at the boy's eagerness.

"I was not lying when I told you I was the only Persona user in this world," he said, referring to the meeting they had in the Occult clubroom after the Rating Game with Riser, "The manifestation you summoned was my own. I could feel it leaving the Sea of Souls within me, and it returning when its duty was done. Borrowing is a far more suitable word," to his credit, the devil only seemed slightly disappointed, "My theory is that it can only occur when you have undergone a great resolve of the heart, of which you experienced during the battle. But perhaps that is for the best. It requires a great deal of mental training to manifest one's inner thoughts into the corporeal realm. People who do not have that fortitude normally lose control of their Persona as soon as they are summoned, and in response, the wild Persona will most certainly turn and kill its former master."

Issei flinched.

"That's kind of grim, Arisato-san."

He shrugged.

"As I said, perhaps it's for the best."

In the meantime, the devil was already moving on towards the earlier part of his explanation.

"Is that how Yuuto created those swords?"

"And your ability to form the arm cannon," he inclined his head towards the boy's other limb, bare now that there was no combat, "as well as the new shield you used to protect yourself. It seems the bonds I make manifest their power through mediums that already exist. Yuuto already possessed the ability to create weapons with Blade Blacksmith and Sword Birth. Whatever link is shared between us enhances his innate skills instead of creating new ones. That is why he can now create Nihil Weapons with his Sacred Gears."

"But what is a bond?" Issei's face had been confused ever since he introduced the subject, and now it was apparent the pervert could no longer keep up, "Is it just the power of friendship or something like that?"

He shook his head.

"It is… significantly more than that. In truth, I cannot fully describe it to you. Like I mentioned, the people who could word it far better than I are absent from this word. The most I can say is that it is something that resides within all of us. Something that we are all capable of forming. And once we have formed it, once it links us together, it is something that will last a lifetime and open a gateway to potential we never thought we had."

Issei nodded, face remarkably solemn.

"So it's like having you inside me."

Nothing in the realm of cosmic possibility could have prepared him for such a distortion of his original statement. Issei should be proud of himself. The boy's comment no longer existed within the confines of logic and rationality. It had transcended them both entirely.

"That is one way of putting it," he finally found his voice, then winced as a particular thought struck him, "…Don't tell Akeno you said that."

As expected, Issei missed the meaning behind his request completely.

"Alright, Arisato-san, but I don't think Himejima-san is the type to get jealous just because I have you inside me."

He had encountered obliviousness before. Occasionally, he was guilty of it himself, especially when he was too focused on progressing his Social Links. But this… this was so much more than just obliviousness. It was almost painful.

"Please stop saying those words."

The boy looked hurt that he would even suggest that.

"But Arisato-san, I like having you inside me."

And now it was no longer painful. It was excruciating.

Issei glanced down quizzically at the gleaming form of his Sacred Gear resting in his lap.

"Ah, and now Ddraig is saying I should stop saying it as well."

He inclined his head towards the crimson gauntlet in gratefulness.

"Thank you."

And now he was talking to inanimate objects. Fantastic. Somehow, it did not surprise him at all when the jewel on top Boosted Gear flashed once in response.

While he was still grasping with that fact, Issei's attention had turned back to him, and the boy was looking at him with a strangely embarrassed air.

"I have one other thing to ask you, Arisato-san… Um… If you're willing to answer, that is."

He nodded, relieved that they were going to put this particular episode behind them and expecting another question regarding the events that happened during the battle. Therefore, he was temporarily ill-equipped to respond when the devil asked him something from far out of left field.

"Are you any good with girls?"

He thought of the Social Links he had maxed out and the disaster that had nearly befallen him when the recipients of those Social Links sat him down for a long, detailed "talk". He would have to be honest and forthright with his answer.


Issei took his reply at face value. The boy leaned in close and began whispering conspiratorially to him despite no one else being in the room.

"It's about Koneko, you see. She's been acting really weird around me lately. Usually, when we sit down together to eat with Buchou and the others, she scarfs down her food really quickly and has seconds already out before we're even done with our own meals. But recently, she's been sharing her lunch with me every day and what's even stranger is that she gets this really disappointed look when I refuse to eat any. I don't want to see her disappointed, so I eat as much as I can… but she packs a lot of food," the devil stared mournfully at him, "I think I've gained at least five pounds since she started."

It was hard to hide his smile, but he managed it nonetheless.

"Do you really not know?"

His companion pondered the question for a few seconds before replying.

"I think it might be because of a new diet," the boy's brow scrunched up in confusion, "But if she's on a new diet, why doesn't she just pack less food? What's the point of sharing it with me?"

His amusement had turned into exasperation somewhere in the middle of the devil's reasoning.

"It's because she likes you."

Issei seemed honestly shocked at the idea.

"She does? But… But I haven't done anything."

Patience was his strong suit. Otherwise, he would have been pulling out his hair by now.

"I believe saving her from a dragon qualifies as something."

"Oh," Issei looked down at his feet, thinking, "I like her too… But I also like Irina and Asia, and recently I've been receiving letters from the Underworld from someone who says she's a secret admirer. The things she writes to me are really lewd," the pervert's face brightened, "I can tell you, if you'd like."

He held up a hand, then held up the other in case the first wasn't enough.

"Please don't."

"Alright, Arisato-san," the devil nodded sympathetically, "but I'm telling you you're missing out. Why, just the other day she sent me another letter where she said she wanted to-"

"The point, please?" he said before the boy could turn the conservation into something else entirely.

Issei blinked at his interruption, before becoming embarrassed all over again.

"Well… How do you go about… you know… asking them out?"

If someone had told him months ago he would be sitting here now counselling a teenage devil on his love life he would have thought that person positively mad.

"Isn't this something you should ask your parents about first?" he tried to deflect the issue, "I'm sure they would give you better advice than me."

The slightest sense of hesitation was there, so small and miniscule he almost missed it.

"I don't think they would believe me if I told them my problems," Issei laughed and rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, "They never take me seriously."

He decided not to question the regret that had leaked into the boy's tone.

"And you plan on asking which one of them out first?"

"Well, I like Asia a lot and she was the first one to like me, so I think she should be first," the pervert saw his doubtful expression and hastened to alleviate his concern, "Don't worry Arisato-san! Just because I like Asia doesn't mean I don't like the others! Boobs are wonderful no matter how big or small they are!"

That… was not what he was concerned with at all. His concern was a far more serious issue. But seeing the enthusiastic look Issei was wearing shot down the notion of addressing it before it could become more than a notion. He just didn't have the heart to tell the boy. Nor did he have the right. It was not his place to judge the dreams and aspirations of others. He merely accepted them for what they were. Thus, the warning he had formulated in his brain turned into words of advice as they rolled off his tongue.

"And have you told Asia that?"

The devil beamed.

"Of course! I tell Asia her boobs are wonderful all the time!"

The entire left side of his face began twitching.

"That's not what I meant. Have you told her the other part of what you just said?"

Issei's features went from smiling to serious in a heartbeat.

"You shouldn't judge a girl on the size of her boobs, Arisato-san," the boy lectured, "Just because Asia's are small doesn't mean she isn't a nice girl! In fact, they fit in the center of my palms perfectly!"

The right side of his face joined the left in twitching. The source of his suffering finally noticed and drew back in alarm.

"Arisato-san! Are you alright? You look like you're in pain!"

That was an apt way to put it. He managed to regain control of his facial functions with difficulty before asking the question that should have been asked in the first place.

"Have you told her you like her?"

Issei looked confused before shaking his head.

"Then tell her you like her."

The boy blinked, surprised at the curtness of the answer.

"That's it? No trial through combat? No test through fighting? It's that simple?"

He sighed.

"How complicated did you think it was going to be?"

"More complicated than that," the devil muttered before nodding, "So I have to be simple. Got it. But what about being efficient too? That's important, right? Maybe I should gather them together and tell them I like them at the same time?"

He shuddered and tried not to think where that particular train wreck would lead.

"There is such a thing as being too efficient."

Issei tilted his head to the side, digesting the information. A small frown creased over the boy's brow as he continued to think.

"But what if I'm not worthy of them?" he raised an eyebrow at the odd choice of question. Issei didn't notice his skeptical look and began fidgeting with his fingers, "What if I don't deserve to be liked? I was never popular with the girls. You know this, Arisato-san. You saw it. Maybe that's how it should be. All those girls can't be wrong."

"If they didn't think you were worthy of them," he replied patiently, "then they wouldn't have liked you in the first place."

Issei looked up at him, doubt still clinging to his features.

"But there are guys out there who are better looking than me. Guys who are better at… well… everything than me."

"If you keep on thinking like that, then there will always be someone better than you," the devil flinched and made to say something when he cut him off, "But why does it matter? Why does it matter if someone is better looking or better at something than you? They aren't you. That's what's important. They like you because you are you. They like you because you are Issei Hyoudou, and that's the only thing that should matter."


He held out a hand to stop the argument from spilling forth.

"You are overthinking things. Stop overthinking things."

Issei frowned and glanced down at his Sacred Gear, which had started flashing again.

"Ddraig is also saying I should stop overthinking things. He says back when he courted Tiamat-sensei he too chose to keep things simple," the devil blinked and held the crimson gauntlet closer to his ear, "But Ddraig is also saying he brought the carcass of a freshly killed cow to woo her first and he is suggesting I should try and do the same with Asia."

The corner of his lips curled slightly upwards.

"I do not believe the carcass of a dead animal would put you in the good graces of any girl in this day and age, though you are certainly welcome to try."

His counterpart completely missed the undercurrent of humor that had entered his tone.

"I think so too," Issei said seriously, "but Ddraig says he guarantees it will work!"

He sighed again.

"What did I just say about overthinking things?"

"Well, Ddraig says it doesn't count because you were only saying it to me."

His gaze flickered from the boy's face and then onto the emerald jewel perched atop Boosted Gear.

"Then the two of you should both stop overthinking things."

When dawn broke the next morning, he rose from his bed with a strange sense of tranquility within him. A strange sense of being at peace. He couldn't place a finger on it, or describe it in words. The closest he could come to explaining it was the feeling of loss that had affected him ever since his inclusion to this world was no longer as profound. No longer as raw and aching. It no longer defined him as it had done for so long. There was still longing when he recalled their faces, but there was also a lessening, a diminishing. The memories were there, but he remembered them as just that, memories, and not the painful reflections to his past life he had once thought them as.

He was still in the midst of pondering this new mystery when he opened the door to his room and found a peerage worth of devils clumped together against his walls.

"What-" his comment was cut short by Kiba who placed a hand over his mouth and dragged him back.

"Issei is trying to start his harem," the sword-user said in the way of explanation before shrugging apologetically, no doubt at the palm that was now being removed from his mouth, "Sorry, but President's orders."

Rias's Knight allowed him a glance around the corner, and he could make out the figure of a boy standing outside Asia's room, gesturing nervously to the girl standing in the doorway, who looked and acted just as nervous.

"He's off to a rather bad start," Akeno smiled from behind them. He was about to ask why she would think that way when he caught a few drifting parts of the conversation happening in the background. Ah, that would explain it, "though it's good our young Pawn has finally found his courage," the black-haired beauty's eyes danced with amusement as they settled on him, "But I do wonder where he got it from."

In retrospect, it was to be expected. On one hand you had a boy who admired all things feminine yet lacked the tact and knowledge to describe it into something that wasn't perverted. On the other you had a girl who had once belonged to an organization that valued chastity as a defining trait and had no prior experience with the opposite sex beyond healing them. Combine the two and awkwardness was bound to ensue. Still, as parts of the conversation continued to wander into his ear, he could not help from wincing at what was being said.

Akeno, on the other hand, just seemed more delighted.

"I believe that's the fifth time the weather has come up as a topic of discussion," the girl smirked at both the exchange being conducted and the expression he was making.

He shook his head and turned to the others

"How long have they been at it?"

"Thirty-six minutes," Koneko replied automatically before she resumed her surveillance of the scene. There was something about the girl's gaze that suggested she dearly wished to be in the former priestess's place.

He frowned.

"And all of you have been hiding here for all of those thirty-six minutes, spying on them?"

"Oh my, Arisato-kun," Akeno tried to look innocent and failed utterly, "you make it sound like we're doing something we shouldn't be doing."

His mistake. He hadn't meant to structure his words in that way.

"My apologies," he amended, "All of you have been resting here for all of those thirty-six minutes, observing them?"

Kiba was the only one who appeared guilty enough to respond.

"Technically, I wanted to leave fifteen minutes ago, but President said I'm not allowed to leave because I might interfere."

Rias crossed her arms over chest in vaguely motherly fashion when he glanced at her. The devil was trying hard not to look interested in the events taking place between her pieces, and like Akeno, was failing utterly.

"Love should bloom between the members of my peerage naturally," she huffed, "No outside interference is allowed. Those are the rules."

He raised his hand.

"I am not a member of your peerage, so I am not beholden to those rules," he flicked his head towards the sun's rays beaming through the windows, "I would also like to have breakfast sometime in the near future. Am I allowed to leave?"

The girl looked at him dubiously before finally acquiescing to his request.

"Alright, Arisato-san, I'm trusting you this time."

He nodded in thanks and began making his way down the hall. Rias's panicked whisper followed him as soon as he left.

"Wait, Arisato-san, you're going the wrong way! The kitchen is in the other direction!"

Really, the acoustics in this building were simply dreadful. Sounds transmitted down the hallway simply lost their original meaning. Therefore, it wasn't his fault that he mistook Rias's warning as a signal to continue. Likewise, it wasn't his fault that his slow, meandering gait took him on a collision course with the stammering duo still too embroiled in their nervousness to notice approaching presence. And consequently, it wasn't his fault when he accidentally planted a light kick squarely in the back of a certain boy's knee.

Issei made a wordless noise of surprise and stumbled, temporarily unbalanced. The devil tripped over his own two feet, momentum driving him forward and directly into Asia. The former priestess gasped when their lips met, then made a pleased sound and closed her eyes as she deepened the unexpected but welcome kiss. Her arms wrapped around Issei's neck and after a minute of hesitation, the boy did the same, draping his arms gingerly around the girl's waist and hugging her close.

By then he was already walking back, hands jammed into his pockets, and choosing to ignore the stunned looks he was being given.

"My apologies," he said as he neared them, "You said the kitchen was in what way?"

Rias lifted a trembling finger towards a hallway in the opposite direction. He inclined his head again in wordless thanks and began heading in the way she had pointed to.

Her confused stutter echoed after him just as her warning had before.

"That… That wasn't natural at all!"

Kiba let out a loud snort at his master's choice of words which was in turn joined by Akeno's squeal of delight as she peered over both their shoulders. The combined commotion, though, was enough to alert the newly christened couple that their private moment was not so private at all. Asia's surprised cry and Issei's embarrassed shout was a small mirror into the chaos that followed.

He shook his head at the ensuing bedlam.


He frowned as his senses alerted him to a petite figure keeping pace beside him. Koneko met his gaze neutrally when he turned and held up a clenched fist.


He stared at the proffered limb and sighed resignedly. The girl smiled briefly when he tapped her fist with his own before turning serious once again.

"Will you kick him into me next time?"

Such a heartfelt request deserved an equally heartfelt and equally eloquent answer.


Author's Notes: Hey everybody! Sorry for the late, late, late update. My work schedule has been very unforgiving towards me, and I really haven't had much time to write. In fact, after I update this, I'm heading off to my office for another shift to complete a project. As a result, this Author's Note will be very short. However, I've created a forum just yesterday for this story as a medium for me to communicate with my readers. That way, we can converse without having to wait for the monthly updates. Please feel free to ask me questions regarding the story, and I will do my best to answer without spoiling the plot. The forum is called Questions and Answers Regarding A Demon Among Devils. I would link it but apparently Doc Manager is ruining my attempts.

Thanks and take care!

Edit: Put the link up on my profile. Check it out.