"It changed color," was all Akeno had time to say. The high-powered Garula smashed into her a second later and sent her flying away like a careening ragdoll. The devil managed to regain her balance in midair and landed crouched on all fours.
"Oh my, Arisato-kun," she smiled at him as she rose, "So that's how you like to play."
But he wasn't listening. Not to the teasing tone in her voice or anything else for that matter. The power that burned through his veins was a familiar, throbbing sensation. It flooded into every inch of his body, spreading like wildfire to fill him with a warmth he had not felt for a very long time. All the other Personas he had summoned thus far were facets of his personality, aspects of his psyche given sentience and form. Orpheus Telos was a cut above the rest. It was one of his three Ultimate Personas, the second of which he had shown to this world. It was the culmination of the accomplishments in his past life, the physical representation of the eternal bonds he had made. It was the apex of everything he had achieved, the tangible proof that conquering the impossible was by no means impossible. It was him at his best, at his most powerful, as he should have been.
The crowd had gone silent ever since Orpheus's transformation. They had no idea of the underlying significance of the act. They couldn't have. Orpheus Telos was something of his own making, a creation that could only exist by undergoing the same experiences he had experienced. There was no parallel to it on this world. But while the audience might not have understood the significance behind its summoning, they certainly could understand the raw power that emitted from the Persona's golden limbs.
His eyes had closed sometime midway into his self-reflection. They snapped open now. Wide. Alert. Focused. No more reservations. No more holding back for the sake of holding back. The battle was his to win now and he would guide it to whatever conclusion he deemed fit.
"Watch carefully," the words came out as a slow, steady breath, "This is how a Persona-user fights."
To their credit, that didn't faze them one bit.
Kiba came at him from the side, twin swords spinning in dazzling blurs. Issei launched himself at his back, armored fist cocked back to punch. Koneko slid under his guard, aiming a sweeping kick for his legs.
Three against one. It was a splendid assault. A superb attempt to take him down before he could react. But for all their coordination, it didn't change the fact that they were just a second too slow.
Kiba's speed as a Knight made him outpace the others and thus he was the first to be dealt with. The sword-user's eyes widened and the blades that had been twirling around his wrists abruptly clanged above him in a blocking cross. A heartbeat later and Orpheus's massive lyre smashed into the devil's hastily prepared guard. Kiba grunted at the strain before his legs buckled and promptly sent his knees crashing painfully into the ground. The boy's expression conveyed good-natured resignation as the gentle hand settled over his chest.
"This is going to hurt, isn't it?"
"A little," he admitted.
The devil winced and braced himself. The Garula that blasted out his palm sent the sword-user flying away just as it had done with Akeno. He didn't get the time to see if Kiba would land in a similar way however. Issei's closing fist prevented such a luxury from occurring.
The crimson gauntlet was inches away from connecting before he caught it with his free hand. The strength behind the blow was prodigious and he marveled inwardly at just how far the pervert had come. But whereas Issei had strength, he had momentum. A slight pivot from his foot, a minor change in his stance, and the boy went sailing over his head; hurled over his shoulder in a textbook Judo throw. Issei's back slammed into the ground with such force that the breath was driven from his lungs in a strangled, wheezing gasp.
Almost simultaneously, the same hand detached itself from the boy's limp arm and caught the ankle of Koneko's sweeping leg. The girl paused in mid-kick, surprised. Before she could react, he hurled her upwards with the same fluid grace that had sent Issei over his shoulder. Orpheus was waiting and the golden lyre slammed into Koneko's midriff the same way a batter would connect with a pitch. The girl rocketed away at such speed that her hurtling body resembled nothing more than a shapeless blur. He was momentarily worried the nekomata would crash into one of the amphitheater's thick walls, but at the last second Koneko righted herself and skidded to a halt a scant few feet from a painful collision. He felt himself being immensely relieved by the sight. Injuries were expected in battles like these but he had no wish to make them debilitating.
He turned to his last opponent, fallen at his feet but not out of the fight. His gaze roamed downwards and met the cobalt-blue barrel of an arm cannon braced against the ground and pointed at his face. The fact that the rippling sphere of arcane energy was already leaving the mouth of the cannon was a testament to just how far he had fallen into the trap. He could almost sense Issei's grin behind Scale Mail's crimson, visored faceplate.
Rakukaja stopped the shot cold. The defensive spell wrapped around him the instant he called for it, and the blistering projectile that would have surely knocked him out of the fight instead met the barrier designed to stop the unstoppable. His hands had instinctively gone to his chest when the ball of arcane energy spat from Issei's cannon. Therefore, when the cackling sphere connected with the barrier and was halted in its tracks, it made it seem like he had caught the missile with his palms when it was the spell that did the brunt of the work. Not that it prevented a certain boy from believing the former over the latter of course.
The way Scale Mail's emerald visor seemed only to have eyes for the rippling sphere of focused energy being contained between his palms spoke of open and genuine admiration.
"That… is… so… awesome!"
The sheer enthusiasm that radiated from the devil's voice made him smile even as he sent the projectile hurtling back into its creator's face.
"Then you may have it back."
The resulting explosion rocked him on his heels and sent Issei sailing away at the same time. He swore the pervert was laughing as he flew through the air. The way the boy landed, arms and legs outstretched, resembled a cumbersome beetle that had just been flipped on its back.
"Don't care," Rias's Pawn slowly raised a fist into the air as his allies hurried to his side, "Still awesome!"
Asia and Gasper helped him up. Kiba and Koneko also staggered within vicinity and he felt the rejuvenating aura of Twilight Healing bathe all three with its warm embrace. He waited for the sensation to fade before choosing to speak.
"That was a commendable attempt. Would you like to try again?"
They did, and this time they came at him as one. Akeno led the charge, lightning spear cackling in her hand. Issei followed closely behind and pounding alongside him was Kiba, completing the vanguard. Out of the corner of his eyes, he could see Koneko trying again to flank him. And behind the prowling Nekomata, Gasper and Asia, the support elements, trapping him in a perfect encirclement.
Once more he was outnumbered. And once more it simply didn't matter.
The lightning spear surged towards him with remarkable speed, aided by demonic strength and enhanced by a Queen's own natural grace and agility. A normal man might have gotten off a single spell before the coruscating lance struck home. He got off three in rapid succession and each as flawlessly executed as the last. Such was Orpheus Telos's power when summoned and such was his mastery over the Arcana when it was his to control.
Null Electricity stripped the lightning from the lightning spear, the same way a soft breath of wind would gut the flame of a lighted candle. Null Pierce dulled the point of the now normal spear, wore down its sharp edges at a molecular level until there was nothing remotely sharp about it. Reflect Strike deflected the remaining kinetic energy back towards its source, bent the blunt impact force behind the blow in the direction of the one who had struck it.
At the last possible moment, he redirected the energy not into the spear's owner as originally intended, but into the spear itself.
Even now, when time was peripherally slowed by a combat-alert mind and reactions were measured in scant milliseconds, he still remembered the reason he had accepted Sirzechs's proposal.
He was here to test them, not hurt them.
The look on Akeno's face when her prized weapon suddenly fizzled out, rammed into his chest without penetrating, then promptly shattered in her hands in that order was something he would treasure for a very long time. Rias's Queen stepped back, understandably chagrined, and held up the splintered, blackened remains of what had once been a spear towards her face.
"Now that's something you don't see every day," as swiftly as it appeared, the confusion was gone, replaced by mischief, "I guess that's what happens when you focus too much on working the shaft."
He was in the midst of rolling his eyes when Akeno suddenly swerved to the side, revealing the onrushing forms of Issei and Kiba. Both boys had their weapons out and ready, determined to make a stand despite knowing they were outmatched. He rewarded their bravery by meeting them head on. His steps took him in a measured advance towards Kiba while a simultaneous command sent Orpheus off on an intercepting course for Issei.
The sword-user's mistake was trying to blitz him again. The error was forgivable. Speed was what the boy had used to almost overwhelm him and he did not fault Kiba for employing the same tactic again, especially when it had nearly worked the first time. A Knight's strength lay in his or her natural swiftness after all. But deny them that swiftness, negate their ability to seize the initiative, and they became what they had always been. Glass cannons in every sense of the word.
He layered Absorb Slash together with Null Fire, wove the two spells into a single protective barrier and sheathed it with his right arm just in time to deflect the first of Kiba's two swords. The flaming blade that had spat fire at him not moments before crashed into the shielded appendage, instantly put itself out, and then clanged harmlessly off the raised limb. The Knight's reflexes were on point however, and switched to the attack with his second weapon, only to be met by the left arm, enhanced by Absorb Pierce. Sukunda immediately followed and when Kiba recoiled from the two blocked strikes, it was to find that his advantage in speed and evasion had been dutifully negated.
He timed the kick perfectly and swept the devil's legs out from under him while the spell's effects were at their strongest. Kiba let out a suitably emphatic oomph as he landed on his rump and reflexively reached for his blades, only to realize they had been knocked away in his undignified descent. The dismal look that stretched over the boy's countenance spoke volumes of just what he thought about his latest performance.
"This was a lot easier the first time around."
He nodded along in polite agreement.
"Many things are."
Kiba rose to his feet, then promptly sighed when the gentle hand settled once more over his chest.
"Please don't send me flying again."
The corners of his lips threatened to curl upwards. The way the request was worded made it sound almost civil.
"There are other options if you'd like to hear them."
Relief spread over the devil's face.
"By all means!"
"Zionga will send enough electric current through your body to incapacitate you for a week. Bufula will chill the temperature in your blood until it freezes in your veins," he paused for effect, tilting his head to the side for extra impact, "Agilao will most likely set you on fire."
The sword-user's expression had gone from hopeful to uncomfortable to genuinely unsettled and now it reached the height of uneasiness.
"You know what? Now that I think about it, being sent flying doesn't sound like such a bad thing after all."
He dipped his head in acknowledgment.
"I'm glad we could come to an acceptable compromise."
He caught amusement being reflected in Kiba's smile before the Garula sent both the smile and its owner hurtling off into the distance. Not a second later and another challenger took the sword-user's place, smashed into the dirt in front of him by a single blow from Orpheus Telos's lyre. Issei stared groggily at the silent figure floating above both of them before coming to his senses.
"Oh hi, Arisato-san! That shiny gold guy hits like a truck!" the pervert hesitated, no doubt listening to the voice inside his head, "Ddraig says he's never been hit by a truck before, so he can't relate. But he says the closest approximation he could come up with was when Tiamat threw a mountain at him!"
He supposed he could take that as a compliment.
Tarukaja was the spell he wove next and he followed it by placing a foot directly over Scale Mail's crimson breastplate. Issei had time to tense before the kick amplified many times beyond human levels propelled him backwards with incredible force. The devil's armored body carved a boy-sized furrow into the ground all the way to its destination, which just so happened to be another devil in the midst of picking himself back up.
Kiba's expression was almost comical as he beheld the pervert-turned-projectile speeding its way towards him like some draconic-shaped torpedo. The sword-user managed to shield his face with his arms before Issei collided with him head on and sent them both tumbling away in a mad jumble of flailing limbs. When the two finally rolled to a stop, the exasperated voice that ground out suggested who had received the misfortune of being on the bottom.
"Get off of me."
"Sorry Yuuto! I'm trying!"
"Oh for the love of… Just how much does that damned suit of armor weigh!?"
"Ddraig says it's impolite to ask for a dragon's weight!"
"I'm not asking Ddraig how much he weighs! I'm asking how much you weigh!"
"Ddraig says Scale Mail is an extension of his will onto my body. So it's exactly like asking him how much he weighs!"
"Even if that's the case, it still shouldn't weigh this much!"
"Body acceptance is a thing, Yuuto! Just because some dragons are wide on the outside doesn't mean they can't be skinny on the inside! Dragons are beautiful no matter what shape or size they are!"
He shook his head at the superfluous exchange. Even when the situation was supposed to be serious, the members of the Occult Research Club still found ways to diffuse it. But perhaps that was as much his fault as it was theirs. Aspects of his personality were changing, of that there was no doubt. He smiled more often and frowned less. His replies were actually meaningful instead of the one sentence answers that were purposefully constructed to be vague. Secrets he never thought he would share he found himself letting out, not because he was forced to, but because it was easy to. The mind was a fickle thing and he could not help but wonder if the price to stop Erebus had not been so high, would a similar path of change have opened up before him and SEES.
That was a thought he set aside for later as he turned to face Koneko's surprise attack. Repel Strike absorbed the force behind the blow and redirected it into whatever the Nekomata had brought crashing down upon his skull. The subsequent shower of debris that bounced off his shoulders and onto the ground below made him raise an inquiring eyebrow.
"Sorry," his opponent saw his bemused look and shrugged apologetically, "I thought I'd try something different."
"I see," he replied offhandedly before jerking his head towards the piles of pulverized granite that were just now beginning to settle on the floor around his feet, "Where did you get the rock?"
Koneko's face displayed nothing but absolutely neutrality as she slowly, carefully slid her hands behind her back.
He accepted that was as close to an explanation as he was going to get and did not push for more. Instead, he switched his gaze in a different direction and indicated that she should do the same.
"You might want to brace yourself."
The girl turned, saw what he saw, and turned to face him again.
"Ah. Goodbye Arisato-san."
Orpheus Telos crashed into her petite frame a heartbeat later, slamming into her with all the weight and force of a runaway freight train. Koneko's slender body catapulted away, soaring through the air in a vague mimicry of a human-shaped missile. All missiles had to have their targets however, and Koneko's just so happened to be one who had already suffered that particular fate.
Kiba was in the midst of untangling himself from Issei when Koneko streaked into him from above like a falling comet. The sword-user's heartfelt "Why me!?" caused a smile to form even as he spun on his heel to deal with the last of his challengers.
Gasper and Asia slowly backed away, identical looks of dismay written over their features. He found their unsettled reaction hard to blame. They had just watched their battle plan being systematically dismantled in the span of a few moments and their cohorts being equally dismantled in even less time. Some caution and perhaps a little bit of fear were warranted, especially when neither Bishop could adequately defend themselves. Just as it was in Chess, strip away the outer protective layer of Rooks, Knights, and Pawns and the rest of the pieces became painfully vulnerable.
Which was why he was not surprised when a pair of arms enveloped him from behind, wrapping around his waist in a last-ditch attempt to stop him.
"Hurry, you two!" Akeno's voice called out from behind his ear, "Run while I still have him distracted!"
The fact that the girl's hands were taking their leisurely time roaming over his body did not bother him. It was where she chose to place those hands that bothered him.
"This is how you distract people?" his gaze flickered down to where her fingers were threatening to creep below his belt, "By groping them?"
It should have been impossible for an expression appear so innocent while maintaining its fair share of mischief, but Akeno somehow made it seem almost natural.
"Well it's working, isn't it?"
He found it hard to argue with that logic so he didn't try. In lieu of a reply, his response came in the form of another Tarukaja, and he used the boosted strength in his arms to hurl the girl over his shoulder just as he had done with Issei. Just like the pervert, Rias's Queen was thrown to the ground with punishing force. Unlike Issei, Akeno did not appear to be affected in the least. In fact, the devil's features had twisted into an exaggerated caricature of a smirk, as though she had found the whole experience immensely enjoyable.
"Ara, ara, Arisato-kun! That was a particularly bothersome itch that's been troubling me lately and you've managed to scratch it perfectly," the particular glow emanating from her cheeks told him that he might have done something that he hadn't meant to, "You wouldn't mind scratching it for me again sometime in the future, would you?"
Warning bells rung inside his head and the hand still holding Akeno's arm by the wrist abruptly let go as though it had just encountered something too hot to touch. Such was the inexplicable nature of his discomfort that he was only reminded he had other foes to fight when Gasper's hesitant voice reached him from behind.
"Um… I know that this is a test of our abilities and you have to fight us Arisato-san, but could you please not aim for my face? Mittelt says that's the part of my body she enjoys looking at the most."
The strangeness of the request was made somewhat clearer when Asia turned to her fellow Bishop, excitement shining in her eyes.
"Gasper-kun! You didn't tell us you've progressed this far! Are the two of you finally dating?"
The boy in question rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.
"Um… I don't know? Does her watching me change into different sorts of clothing count as dating?"
At his feet, still lying on her back, Akeno peered up into the dhampir's blushing face.
"Why, Gasper! That's the best part about dating!"
Asia nodded in agreement and clasped her hands together fervently over her chest.
"I'm happy for you Gasper-kun!"
His gaze moved to the impassioned priestess, switched to the excited seductress, and finally settled over the tongue-tied boy.
Of all the times to have a conversation like this…
In the end, he elected for the Magarula to do the speaking for him. The area of effect spell crashed into the figures around him, lifting Rias's pieces off their feet and blowing them haphazardly through the air like leaves caught in the midst of an autumn wind. The fact that all three homed in on a specific boy who had just managed to untangle himself from a certain Nekomata was merely an unfortunate circumstance.
Sheer muscle memory saved the swordsman. Kiba instinctively ducked as Gasper's flailing body sailed over his head then spun on his heel to avoid the robed blur that was Asia. The boy finished his twirling maneuver with a finesse that bordered close to extravagant before turning to face him, swords bared in readiness, stance complete with a confident grin.
Akeno slammed into him like a solid slug shell shot from the mouth of a howitzer. Both devils tumbled to the ground together in disorganized mass of limbs. And just like all the times before, gravity dictated that one had to be on the bottom.
"Oh my, Yuuto," the black-haired beauty wriggled appreciatively from her place seated on her comrade's back, "Thank you for breaking my fall. Such a gentlemanly thing to do."
He used the time it took for Kiba to make a muffled response to brush the last remnants of Koneko's improvised attack off his shoulders. Orpheus Telos drifted down to join him, golden limbs shining with incandescent light. Its sudden nearness filled him with an invigorating feeling of invulnerability.
They couldn't beat him.
Not in the conventional sense and not in the unconventional sense either. That much was a given. Orpheus Telos was too powerful of an opponent. He had poured everything into fusing this Persona. All the knowledge he had gained in his long forays into the Velvet Room. All the experience he had piled up from ascending the seemingly infinite levels of the Tower. Every spell. Every skill. All of it had been used in the creation of this one being. Power constituted the very fiber of its existence, and if that was not enough, his command over the Arcana ensured unparalleled mastery of that power.
It was those factors above that imbued him with the confidence to proclaim the following challenge and in a tone that for him, bordered close to arrogance.
"It is time we finished this fight."
His intended audience turned to one another, amused. It was Issei who eventually gave voice to their thoughts and in his customary enthusiastic manner.
"Wow Arisato-san, you sound just like a video game villain!" the boy cocked his head to one side, again listening to the presence inhabiting his Sacred Gear, "And Ddraig says that's the best way to inspire us to fight harder! By acting like a villain!"
If that was their last request before their inevitable defeat, then he would oblige them. That being said, there remained one small problem.
"I've never been a villain before."
"It's easy Arisato-san!" his counterpart exclaimed, "All you have you do is threaten us! Ddraig also says that all the evil dragons he fought in the past would say a bunch of threatening stuff to him before actually fighting!"
While the advice helpfully solved one problem, it also laid the groundwork for another to take its place.
"I've never threatened anyone either."
Kiba looked thoughtful over by Issei's side.
"You could say you're going to experiment on our friends and family in a secret laboratory," the sentence was accompanied by a faint smile, "That always seems to work."
Behind the Knight, Asia bobbed her head up and down in agreement.
"You could also say you're going to leave us and never come back. I would be very sad if you did that, Arisato-san."
"Threatening to seal us away would make me really uncomfortable," Gasper suggested once his fellow Bishop had finished, "Mittelt-san said she would save me if I was sealed away against my wishes," the diminutive vampire blinked as though if remembering something, before proceeding to look shyly at the ground, "She also said she had always wanted to try and rescue a damsel in distress."
"I like the sealing away idea," Akeno smiled impishly, "with the added caveat that you seal yourself away with us. Who knows what dreadful things you'll do to us when you're our torturer?"
Koneko's counsel came last, and the expression the Nekomata wore mirrored the seriousness of what she was about to convey.
"If you threaten the world's food supply, I will never forgive you."
He frowned when the petite girl finished, processing the overload of information he had just been fed.
"That's a little too much to take in."
"It's okay Arisato-san!" Issei declared earnestly, "We believe in you!"
"Maybe try something simple first," Kiba offered helpfully, "Threatening family members seems to be what all villains do by default."
He tilted his head to the side, considering the suggestion. It did make a great deal of sense and he had seen it for himself, when Mitsuru's father had fallen to Ikutsuki's treachery. Her rage and horror at the act had pierced the veil of indifference that clung to him and made him sympathize during a time he honestly thought he was incapable of emotion. He drew upon that memory, schooled his features into a stern expression, and lowered the inflection of his voice to an octave he thought would be adequate.
"I'm going… to do something… to your mothers?"
Silent seconds ticked by, slow and painful. He gradually became aware of a stadium's worth of amused gazes settling on him and did his best not to show it.
The look of empathy Issei was currently directing his way didn't help in the least.
"Wow, Arisato-san. You're really bad at being a villain."
The rest of Rias's peerage nodded in agreement. All except Akeno, who was staring at him with mournful eyes.
"My mother's dead," she said sadly.
He winced. He hadn't meant for that to become the topic of conversation. The sudden looks of horror he was receiving from the others turned the wince into a cringe.
"You can't say that to Himejima-san," said Issei, aghast, "That's being too mean!"
"Agreed," Kiba's look of disapproval further amplified his discomfort, "That was cruel of you."
Gasper peeked out from behind the sword-user's back.
"I thought you guys said Arisato-san was a nice person?"
"He normally is," Asia murmured before staring despondently at her feet, "I don't know what happened. Someone as nice and kind as Arisato-san would never say something like that."
For some reason, disappointing those two made him feel far guiltier than letting down the others.
"You should apologize," Koneko said sternly.
He nodded. That seemed like the right thing to do. His legs propelled him forward mechanically while he racked his mind furiously for a way to express his remorse. Akeno met him in the middle of the stadium, features still downcast. The hesitation in her movements was profound, the doubt clouding her face, heartbreaking. He spread his arms in an attempt to show just how regretful he was before dipping his head in an apologetic motion.
"I'm sorry," he said and meant it.
The girl's response was to place both her of her hands over his chest.
"Apology," the sudden glint in her eyes was the warning he was not quite fast enough to recognize, "accepted."
A snapping sound split the air, akin to the crack from a whip. The smell of burnt ozone filtered into his nose, followed by the distinct sensation of his feet leaving the ground. His surroundings blurred, an incomprehensible landscape of images that came too fast for his vision to process. Instinctively, he knew he had been launched into the air, but his awareness was shot and gave conflicting pictures to his already disordered mind.
The impact shocked him back into cognizance. The force of his back smashing into the ground knocked the sluggishness from his senses along with the breath from his lungs. In the few seconds it took to regather his wits, he discovered that he was lying on his back, arms and legs spread wide apart. In the few seconds it took to sit back up, he discovered that a considerable distance had been created between him and Akeno.
The tendrils of electricity leaping from the girl's palm in addition to the victorious smirk hovering over her lips told him all he needed to know.
"That was for sending me flying earlier."
He blinked, then blinked again. Usually those words alone would have been enough to confirm his suspicions, but he needed to be sure. Which led to him turning to the figure floating down for the second time to join him, the question already on the tip of his tongue.
"Did I really just fall for that?"
His manifestation stopped to regard him. The ivory face fashioned into his own likeness swiveled in place; staring at him with a gaze that revealed nothing but its own unwavering neutrality. A moment that felt like eternity passed. Finally a movement, curt and fleeting, but significant all the same. Joints creaked and light reflected off of radiant gold hair as Orpheus Telos dipped its head in an unmistakable nod.
He slowly rose to his feet, flinching as limbs made numb from static discharge were suddenly forced to bear his own weight. A faint smile threatened to tug at the corners of his mouth when he saw that the accusing expressions had disappeared from his opponents' faces, replaced by looks of feigned innocence.
How very clever of them.
But cleverness would not win them this fight and deceiving him, no matter how well it worked, could only postpone the inevitable. If they thought this would be enough to put him down permanently, then they were going to be in for a rude surprise. A wave from his hand and the effects of the cast Amitra settled over his shoulders, curing the aftereffects of Akeno's lightning attack in a shower of rejuvenating energy. If Rias's peerage were shocked by his prompt recovery from what otherwise would have been an incapacitating blow, they certainly didn't show it. On the contrary, the faces arrayed before him displayed even greater confidence than before. As though he was the one losing, and not the other way around.
Controlled bravery or reckless foolishness? A little bit of both, he decided as he began the journey back towards his foes, intent more than ever to finish the contest.
"Shall we end this then?" was what he chose to say.
It was meant to be a rhetorical question.
The warning sign shot up his spine long before his mind could rationalize it; the eerie, unnatural sensation that something had just gone unfathomably wrong. His eyes widened in surprise before darting in their sockets, searching for the source. It only took a second to focus, but it was a second that passed by with agonizing slowness. His gaze finally locked onto his target, the figure that was just now approaching, hidden previously from attention by the actions of her followers, and suddenly he understood the reason behind their confidence.
The voice only confirmed it.
"Yes. We shall. But it won't be you ending things. It will be me."
Rias Gremory strode through the parting ranks of her peerage, confidence etched onto every line and contour of her face. Strands of her hair stood up on their ends, weaving in wrathful patterns over her shoulders. Dust swirled at her feet, a whirling dervish kicked up not by movement or motion, but by her sheer presence alone. Eyes he had grown accustomed to seeing only kindness from pierced him with their stare, rooting him to the spot with an intensity that he could not quite describe.
It surprised him. The change in her appearance. The look in her eye. The commanding presence she gave off. Truly surprised him. Stunned him even.
What stunned him more was the raw power that radiated from every inch of her body.
It bled off her in pulsating waves, crashing into him with the slow, pent-up fury of a downhill avalanche. He felt his teeth inadvertently gritting as the crushing force lapped over his frame. The pressure was somewhere in between being dragged under by an ocean tide and ground beneath a waterfall. The same time he was reeling from the aftershock, his mind was working in overdrive, trying feverishly to decipher this new puzzle.
He had noticed Rias's absence in the fights that had taken place so far and had pondered about the subject. And while the speed at which events occurred had prevented him from coming to a solid conclusion, that was far from the problem.
He should have known.
The power pulsating off Rias's body was something he should have been aware of. The process could not have been instantaneous. It would have required time. Space. Patience. Most importantly, it could not have been hidden. Even without a manifestation or spell enhancing his senses, the sudden spike in power should have been easily detectable. With Orpheus Telos by his side, it should have been obvious. He had been confident for precisely that reason. Secure in the knowledge that no matter what his opponents did, they would never be able to catch him off guard. Yet here he was. Left reeling in the face of this new revelation.
It made no sense. Such a blatant tactic could not have possibly escaped him. As long as the source of the power came from Rias herself, his vigilance should have warned him long before it became an issue…
Unless the power didn't come from Rias at all.
The sinking feeling in his gut was further exacerbated when Issei suddenly fell to his knees.
"Haha…" the boy's panting laugh spoke of exhaustion barely kept in check, "I can't believe that worked."
Realization flashed like a stab from a bitter blade. All the instances he had seen of Boosted Gear working thus far had involved enhancing the natural abilities of its own user. But that was only what he had seen and did not represent the full scope of its capability. The power that he sensed emanating from Rias was not only demonic. There was a draconic element to it as well. And that could only mean one thing.
Full understanding dawned and with it came the sudden urge to grin.
They had most likely planned this from the very beginning. All of it. The attempts to rush him when Orpheus Telos first appeared. The subsequent rounds of combat. Even Akeno's recent turnabout play. Everything. All of it had been done not with the express purpose of defeating him as he first thought, but to delay him. The ramifications were staggering. They had to know that individually, they could not match him. They had most likely known it as soon as Orpheus Telos appeared and had acted accordingly.
It was why Kiba, Issei, and Koneko had started the fight by charging him. Not because they believed their foolhardy assault would work, but because they were buying time for the plan to be set in motion. It was why Akeno had followed the heels of the first attack with an identical one. Not because she believed it would make a difference, but because the first assault had failed to distract him sufficiently for the plan to continue. It was why Rias had not joined the fight until now. Not because of a sudden bout of cowardice or indifference, but because she was using the time her pieces gave her to siphon as much power as she could from Boosted Gear.
It was also why she was currently rising through the air, borne aloft by the demonic wings stretching over each shoulder, twin orbs of rippling dark energy gathering in her palms.
The sight was what did it. The image of her rising triumphantly through the air was what lifted the floodgates and turned the urge into reality.
His lips curled upwards into a smile and continued spreading until it became a full-fledged grin.
They had used his own confidence against him. Employed his own innate feeling of superiority as a weapon and mislead him into believing it was true. The amount of coordination they needed to pull this off was phenomenal. The amount of trust and belief they had to have in one another, beyond exceptional.
In the course of testing those who came before, he had wondered what the Occult Research Club would show him when it became their turn. Seekavaira had revealed to him a quiet, deep-rooted determination to succeed. Sona had displayed her fierce intellect and tactical acumen. Sairaorg had introduced him to strength so raw and pure that it had taken Personas he never thought he would ever need for the Heir of Baal to back down. It was because of these displays that he had first tailored the fight with Rias and her peerage to their advantage instead of his own. The biased part of him had been afraid that whatever feats they were about to show him would pale in comparison to those that were performed before, especially when all that he had seen in their battles thus far was their reliance on each other.
But now he was beginning to realize just how badly he had misjudged them. The strength in Rias's peerage had never lain in determination, intelligence, or physical prowess. Their reliance on each other was their strength. Strength in the form of an understanding; that no matter what obstacle stood in their path, they could overcome it by facing it together. It was the same type of understanding that brought the members of SEES together and united them against the Shadows. The same type of trust that led them to the top of the Tower to face the Aspect of Death itself and defy the ending of a world. These were the foundations on which his bonds were forged. The qualities that unlocked the gateway to the Arcana and the potential hidden within his Wild Card. The same gateway that now loomed behind the figures standing defiant against him.
It was true that the other peerages were superior to Rias's in many respects. The qualities he had seen and pitted himself against were impossible to ignore. But when it came to unlocking potential, to unraveling the limitless possibilities contained within a mortal soul, the members of the Occult Research Club outstripped all their competitors combined.
He did not know why, but that knowledge comforted him in a way he could not quite put into words.
The satisfaction must have been apparent on his face for Rias mirrored it with an expression of her own.
"Hurting my peerage is no longer allowed, Arisato-san!" on the ground below her, the redhead's followers arrayed themselves into combat formation one last time, "I'm going to have to punish you! And to do that," eyes drunk with their own power rooted him to the ground through sheer, unstoppable force, "I'm going to strip you naked!"
He remembered the next few moments the same way a man would remember being caught in the midst of a raging storm.
Surrounded from all sides, assaulted at every angle, the human brain shut down and reverted to the most basic levels of self-preservation. Details were lost amid a swirl of imagery. Solid information was washed over by a sea of blurred pictures. The concrete was replaced by the abstract as the mind funneled resources dedicated to surviving in lieu of observing. It was now down to muscle memory. To reflexes. To reaction times strained beyond their breaking point. His surroundings became an afterthought. The environment, a hazy blur. Everything became indistinct, muddled, and that included those he fought against.
He parried blows from a crimson fist whose owner's face he should have recognized, but for some reason could not. He deflected sword strokes from a boy he was familiar with, but whose name he suddenly could not recall. Projectiles showered down on him from above, blasting craters into the ground or setting it alight with bursts of electrical discharge. Instinctively he knew who they belonged to, but like all the rest, their identities were dimmed by a mind too preoccupied by the threats it was trying to stop.
All that mattered now was fighting back. Standing his ground. Giving as good as he got. Every punch he received he threw one back in response. Every blow sent his way he returned with equal ferocity. His actions became mechanical in nature, his limbs moving as automatic extensions of will onto his body. But even in a near-catatonic state such as this, his method of retaliating was still far from just physical.
Conjured fire sprayed out from his fingertips in the form of blazing Agilaos, the pillars of flame so hot they peeled off the coating on the stadium's walls with their mere passing. Layers of rime solidified where he covered the floor with Bufula and from it jagged spikes of ice shot out, protruding from the earth like the spines on the back of some primordial beast. Zionga sent forks of lightning streaking down from the heavens; tendrils of electricity that turned into kinetic impacts as they smote into the ground. Even the weather became a weapon. Modified Garulas reconstituted the very air around him, whipping up fierce winds that gusted into his opponents to cut flesh and slice skin.
And it was still almost not enough.
He had promised himself to refrain from employing his full abilities in this fight and the ones before. To restrain himself despite how his opponents might resist. He was here to see how well they would do and that involved testing them, not showing off his own skills. He had so far remained faithful to that promise. The Personas that stood against Seekavaira, Sona, and Sairaorg had pushed them to their limits. Each manifestation had been a challenging opponent to face, a grueling enemy that required each peerage to go above and beyond their normal limitations. They were strong. Tough. Powerful even. But they were not the best. Not even close.
He had been of similar mindset when devising a test for the Occult Research Club. The spells he were currently using could be considered mid-tier at best. Potent enough to harm but not endanger. He had thought it would be sufficient for the task at hand. The other peerages along with their masters had backed out when stronger and stronger Personas took the place of the ones they defeated. He expected much the same would happen with Rias and her followers. That the gradual onslaught of his spells would eventually wear them down and force them to capitulate. But that hadn't happened. And not because of a lack of effort on his part. Far from it. Orpheus Telos was his declaration that he was going to take the fight seriously. His announcement that his intention was to win. What he didn't account for was that his opponents would match his intent with a resolve of their own.
The battle was still his to win. Its outcome was never in doubt. But the paradigm had shifted. His enemies were actively pushing him out of his comfort zone. Forcing him to reevaluate his strategies and reconsider the promise he made to himself. More than once he thought about ending the fight then and there with an advanced spell. How easy and effortless it would be. A cast Bufudyne would encase the entire stadium in ice. A quick Agidyne would envelop the arena in a raging firestorm. Ziodyne would hurl lightning down from the sky as though thrown from the fist of an angry god. Garudyne would blow them all away along with the amphitheater's walls in a hurricane gale. These treacherous thoughts were fleeting and passed just as fleetingly. But he was thinking them. More importantly, they were making him think them. Their defiance was actually making him consider upping the ante. Their unity was actually making him contemplate reengaging on his promise. Their courage was redefining what it took to win and in doing so, rewriting the conditions of the victory he had all but assured himself.
Against any other opponent this would have been a noteworthy act. Perhaps even praiseworthy.
Against him, backed by the power of an ultimate Persona, it went beyond the boundaries of impressive.
A small part of him honestly wanted this to continue. To see more of their burgeoning potential. But unlike him, they had no powerful manifestation to prolong their effectiveness and stave off exhaustion. He understood it as much as he wished against it, and thus he was not disappointed when the first cracks in their defiance began to appear.
He did not know when it occurred, only that it did so. A gradual… lessening… in their struggle to fight back. Mentally and physically. Attacks against him lost their previous threatening edge. Tactics that had come close to working became sloppy and easily warded off. Their resistance was ebbing, receding as fatigue took its toll. Sympathy made him want to lessen his own efforts to match theirs. Respect prevented him from doing so. They had shown him their very best and he would not shame that display by holding back when the end was so near. They deserved a fitting conclusion and he would endeavor to give them one.
The last blow held the same determination as the first but none of the strength. He allowed it to slide harmlessly off the prepared Rakukaja before brushing both it and its owner aside. Silence met him after that. Stillness that could only mean a battle's end. The adrenaline slowly left his veins. Steady breaths replaced irregular panting. Clarity returned, driving the combat haze from his eyes. With it came a flood of memories, frozen pictures of the events that had occurred before. He allowed them to sink into his greater conscience, drinking in the details that he had missed in the rush to defend himself. Some of them made him smile outright.
A murmured order dismissed the presence at his side and Orpheus Telos's physical form began to disappear, dissipating back into the nothingness it had been born from.
It was with newfound lucidity that he took in the sight of an annihilated battlefield and the state his opponents were in. Just as battered as he was, just as bruised. The difference though, was that while he was still standing, they were not.
Weary footsteps took him past the motionless body of Akeno, sprawled in the center of a crater of her own making. Glossy, fused clumps of blackened sand littered the ground around her, petrified proof of the elemental fury that had been prevalent throughout their exchange. Despite her defeated state, the girl's face had settled into an exultant, almost jubilant expression, as though she was caught in the midst of some blissful dream. Exactly what was causing her bliss in that dream was something he shuddered to think about.
Not a dozen paces from the fallen Queen, Issei's spread-eagled form rested on its back, spine kissing the floor. The armored protection of Scale Mail had long since faded away, the last vestiges of it disappearing when its wearer could no longer conjure the power to maintain it. All that remained of the draconic suit were the metallic talons of Boosted Gear, forever jointed to its wearer's arm. The jewel atop the crimson gauntlet glowed slightly as he limped past, as though the being contained within was acknowledging his presence.
Kiba lay amid a field of broken swords. Scores of shattered blades were strewn around the boy's unconscious body. They ranged in size and shape, from simple constructions that would not look out of place in a blacksmith's armory to elegant creations with curved, serrated edges that bordered on the fantastical. Each blade had been different; imbued with a different set of elements, instilled with a different set of properties, forged with a different purpose in mind. None of them had gotten through. The barriers that wrapped around him were the closest thing to impenetrable, made more so by Orpheus Telos's vast power. Blade Blacksmith had fashioned a veritable arsenal of weapons for its wielder and all had shattered against his ironclad defenses.
All except one.
The way Kiba gripped the Nihil Sword close to his chest resembled a knight who had been laid to rest with his most treasured blade by his side.
His path through the field of sword fragments led him to Koneko. The Nekomata looked the most peaceful out of all of them. The way she lay on her side, shoulders relaxed, back slouched, gave off an impression of quiet tranquility. It was an illusion. He could vividly recount the hammer-blows she had launched his way and the heavy-handed ripostes that were his response. A Rook's strength lay in the ability to take punishment in obscene amounts and dole it back out. Koneko was no different in that regard. Any normal man could not have possibly matched her when it came to sheer endurance and longevity in a fight. But he wasn't normal by any measurable standard and when backed by a manifestation like Orpheus Telos, things like human limits no longer existed. So he outlasted her in combat, outmatched her in a game that played to her own strengths, and eventually outfought her when she could no longer keep up.
Two more figures rested adjacent the defeated Rook. Asia's and Gasper's comatose forms were slumped next to each other, so close that their limbs almost intertwined. Unlike the state of their guardian, their bodies were pristine. Undamaged. Partly because Koneko had done her best to protect them and partly because when he finally did reach them, they had already collapsed. Fatigue was forever a lurking enemy and both Bishops had succumbed to it. Asia from erasing the constant injuries that had plagued her teammates. Gasper from employing his Sacred Gear in desperate attempts to leverage an advantage for his allies. Reluctance to disturb their rest made him pick his way gingerly around them, plotting a course to avoid their unmoving bodies.
Whether it was reluctance in the normal sense or reluctance born out of something else was the question he pondered as he neared his final objective and the reason behind his journey.
She lay where she had fallen, back supported by the steps leading up to the platform. Her normally neat hair was a frazzled mess of tangled strands, the well-kept bangs he was used to seeing drooping over her face like unkempt curtains. Parts of her clothing were torn at the seams, the revealed skin beneath showing the telltale signs of battle, evidence of a fight steadily gone downhill despite Boosted Gear's augmentations. But there was no shame about her, no air of defeat that clung to the defeated. It looked like she was merely sleeping. Resting. At peace.
A sudden emotion welled up within him as he took in the sight. He suspected it was fondness.
Rias's eyes fluttered open when she heard him approach. The girl tilted her head up weakly and stared at him with a face dulled by exhaustion.
"We almost won, didn't we?"
The statement was not exactly accurate, but he thought it wouldn't hurt to maintain the illusion.
The lopsided smile she gave him surprised him, as did her response.
"Oh stop it. I can tell that you're lying. You're terrible at it. We didn't even come close, did we?"
A part of him wanted to argue otherwise, but he understood her desire to hear the truth.
"No, you didn't."
The redhead nodded wearily, accepting the reality for what it was.
"I thought so. When your last Persona changed, I could sense the scale of its power. It was something else entirely," the girl's gaze travelled to the fallen forms of her pieces, strewn on the ground around her, "I'm surprised we even managed to get this far."
"But you did," he pointed out.
She focused back on him and from that simple motion alone he could tell just how much the battle had cost her. Yet etched over her features was pride, fierce and brazen, where defeat should have been.
"Yes. We did. And we gave you one hell of a fight."
Now that was something he could agree with.
"That you did."
Rias smiled at him.
"When Yuuto had your attention and Akeno came at you from behind, I thought we had a chance. But somehow you emerged unscathed."
He recalled that particular incident, where twirling blades had distracted him from the front and the lightning spear had sought to end the fight from behind.
"They work well together, those two."
The girl's growing smile told him she wasn't close to being finished.
"And when Gasper finally froze you in place, I thought we had another opportunity."
He remembered being trapped by the power of the Bishop's Sacred Gear, only for a well-timed Dekunda to free him from its debilitating effects.
"Had you been better coordinated, it might have been more than just an opportunity."
Amusement danced in Rias's eyes, both from his words and the words she was about to say.
"Issei tried kicking you in the shin again."
The pervert had done exactly that but with most of his power lent to his master, the effort while valiant, could only end in pointless futility.
"I was prepared that time."
Something akin to smugness entered the devil's gaze.
"Yes. Which is why he then punched you in the face."
He traced a hand over his left cheek, fingers brushing against the slight swelling that began from the tip of his jaw and ended at the corner of his ear.
"I was… not as prepared that time," he allowed.
Rias chuckled at the reluctance in his tone.
"Not even when Koneko threw giant rocks at you?"
He remembered the gigantic boulders that had been sent hurtling his way, some of which Orpheus Telos had been forced to deflect when they ended up too close for him to dodge.
"Where did she get the rocks?"
Feigned innocence replaced the amusement in the redhead's eyes and he would have believed it were it not for the devilish smile that threatened to spill onto her lips.
"I have no idea. I suspect she picks out the ones she likes and hides them somewhere."
He did not know what disturbed him more. The idea that the petite girl would actively go out and seek ammunition in the form of rocks to squirrel away or that there was an apparent need to do so in the first place.
"You did well yourself," he finally sought to change the subject.
The mirth faded slightly from Rias's gaze.
"Does it matter?" she said softly, "We still lost."
The sudden change in her tone caused him to sit slowly down beside her, wincing as new pains flared into his joints. His companion shifted in her position, surprised but not unwelcome.
"You are being entirely too hard on yourself."
"Am I?" the girl sniffed, "My peerage performed better than my greatest hopes. It doesn't change the fact that I still failed to bring them victory. We lost. That's all that matters."
"You sell yourself short by defining things in absolutes," she turned to stare at him, "There is no such thing as an absolute victory or a certain defeat. If victory was so assured, we would never be able to learn from our loss. If defeat was so sure," he paused as he thought of Ryoji, "no one would ever try to win. Life… is so much more than just a result. There is a process to it. And oftentimes, we take it for granted while focusing too much on its beginning and end. We ignore the middle, even if it's the part that lasts the longest and means the most. You are making the same mistake. What happens after a battle's end does not invalidate everything that came before. Nor does it make the struggle to reach that end any less significant. It's not that losing doesn't matter. It's what people think of you for losing that doesn't matter. And besides," he nudged his head up towards the stands, "Those people. They don't seem to think you've lost."
Rias followed his gaze up to the stadium's walls, where the audience watching them had unanimously risen to their feet. The sound of sincere applause drifted into their ears and caused a faint blush to appear on the devil's cheeks.
"But I didn't-"
The girl's eyes widened when he put a finger to her lips. He shared her surprise. There had been no planning on his end to do what he just did. The act had been spontaneous. Automatic. Intimate. He did not know why he did it, only that it felt… right… to do so.
"You were the one who came up with the plan," at her reluctant nod, he continued, "You were the one who guided and led them until the very end. You might not have brought them victory but you brought them something more… and that… that is a victory in itself."
He caught the small smile hovering over Rias's face before it disappeared.
"Thank you," the devil said, serious once more, "I think… I think I might have needed to hear that."
"Sometimes all a person needs to hear is that they're treading the right path, even if deep down inside, she knew she was already on it."
Another fleeting smile, this time with more meaning.
"Still," Rias said slowly, "it hurts to know that despite trying our best, we still lost. Even if it's against you."
He nodded, understanding. There was only so much words could do to alleviate the sting of a defeat, even if it wasn't much of a defeat in the first place.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" he figured that was the polite thing to say.
"Yes, you can," he missed the flash of determination in her eye and the signs of courage steeling over her face, "There is something. But you'll have to come closer to hear."
He acceded to her request and leaned in, suspecting nothing. Which was why he was caught entirely by surprise when Rias closed the remaining distance between them and placed both her hands over his cheeks. Before he could react he was being pulled closer and before he could draw back her lips were already on his. For a split-second his mind tried to reason with what was happening, and then she deepened the kiss and his hastily formed thoughts promptly faded into the background. He could taste the warmth of her mouth and inhale the distinctness of her scent. He could sense the desperate need behind the act yet feel the gentleness that was being used to convey it. He could etch into memory the texture of her tongue, picture it swirling in patterns over his own, and that… that caused something else besides just surprise to swell from deep within his breast.
It seemed like time had lost its meaning before they finally pulled back, both as breathless as the other. Rias glared at him challengingly, as though daring him to defy what had just transpired.
"There," huskiness warred with shyness in the redhead's voice, "Now I've won."
A more coherent him would have come up with a rejoinder or at the very least, something witty for a response. As it stood, it was a miracle he managed to form an intelligible sentence.
"I… don't know what to say."
Resisting was the last thing on his mind when she bent in closer for a second kiss.
"Then don't say anything at all."
The effects of the freshly cast Amitra settled over the occupants of the amphitheater, filling fallen bodies with rejuvenating energy. One by one, those who had been defeated groggily woke up and one by one they became aware of what exactly was happening in front of them.
Issei was the first to react, pumping his fist tiredly into the air from where he still lay.
Sharing the pervert's enthusiasm, albeit with a twist of envy was Akeno, who had risen to a half-sitting position.
"Oh my, Buchou! I know I said I would not mind if you took the lead next time, but this… this is a little too much, even for me!" the black-haired beauty made a pouting expression before casting a playful glance over her shoulder, "I hope you're taking notes, Gasper-kun!"
The mischievous light in the girl's eyes only grew brighter when she saw that the diminutive vampire had taken out a palm-sized notebook from his shirt pocket and was indeed taking notes in it.
Kiba was the last one up. Accepting a helping hand from Asia and leaning on Koneko for support, the sword-user finally managed to stand. The Knight's handsome face surveyed the pockmarked battlefield before settling on the scene in front of him, whereupon said features immediately turned thoughtful.
"You know, I'm the last one to interrupt a moment like this, but doesn't he sort of need to… well… breathe?"
The wild flailing being performed by the boy's arms told them that he very much needed to breathe.
Author's Notes: Hello everyone! First of all, I want to apologize for updating so late. As many of you might know, the oil prices took a serious hit this year which was especially bad for me since I work in the oil sector. To make things worse, I live in a state where the majority of our revenue comes from the petroleum industry. As you can imagine, lay-offs have become commonplace around here. My company has already undergone two rounds of lay-offs and though there are no more planned, the future doesn't look especially bright. Life has been pretty hectic for me as a result, so I haven't been able to write much or any at all for weeks at a time. That being said, I have no intention to abandon this story and will continue to write until it's finished.
Some of you might note that this chapter seems to be shorter than the previous ones and you would be right. I have a bad habit of writing more and more words into a chapter until it reaches obscene amounts. The last few chapters were averaging 18,000 to 20,000 words. This one too I had originally intended to add a few more sections after the fight, but I realized that those scenes could wait for the next chapter. That, and I think that last scene was as good as any to end.
Anyways, hope you enjoy this chapter. I think I'm going to go the shorter but more frequent update route, so hopefully the next chapter will come a long in less time. Thanks for reading!