When he walked into the same room they had gathered before the match, it was to be greeted by an entirely different atmosphere than before, as well as five pairs of wide eyes. There was no hostility in those gazes, nor was there fear. That was what surprised him the most. That despite what they had no doubt bore witness to, they were still unafraid of what he had done and what he could do. There was only confusion, as though they did not know what to make of him.
Rias stepped in after he did, gingerly sliding past. Their shoulders brushed, and she sent him a small smile in response. A smile that did not quite reach her eyes.
Her peerage surrounded her, and he watched her act the perfect master she was, alleviating Asia's fears with gentle words, nodding to Kiba when he asked if she was alright, smiling at Akeno's teasing with consummate grace.
It struck him then, that this was truly her peerage. Her group. Their group. He had never truly belonged. He had always been an outsider, a stranger amongst them. Even when he agreed to help, he had only been a temporary member. A passing acquaintance.
And that suited him just fine.
He turned to leave, not wishing to infringe upon what was their moment.
Normally, he ignored requests, but there was something about her voice that made him stop. He chanced a glance back and to his mild discomfort noticed that her cheeks had turned a rather deep shade of red.
The look on Akeno's face suggested that Christmas had come early.
And then they were around him, her peerage, congratulating him for a victory well fought. Kiba pounded his back hard enough to make him wince. Koneko smiled at him, something he had not yet seen the normally taciturn girl capable of doing until now. Issei gave him a friendly punch to the arm that would no doubt bruise in the morning. The slight stab of pain brought back another memory. Akihiko would often do the same after they brought down a particular challenging enemy. Both the punch and the bruising.
He told himself the sudden feeling of belonging was only a fleeting thing.
Asia hugged him.
He tried hard not to look horrified. He didn't do hugs. It was not his way. Even on that beach with Yukari, the entire experience had been rather uncomfortable for him, though not for her.
The girl's arms seemed only to grow tighter when he tried to squirm free.
He sighed and patted her shoulders awkwardly. He guessed it was what he was supposed to do in a situation like this.
The door opening thankfully saved him from further violations into his personal space. Sirzechs entered, a bemused smile spreading across his face as he beheld the spectacle in front of him. The faint smile disappeared when his eyes settled on him, replaced by an expression that could only be described as curious thoughtfulness.
The devil inclined his head in his direction.
"Walk with me."
This time it was an order.
He broke away from Asia's embrace and the former priestess returned to Issei's side. He noticed how the two seemed closer somehow, and how the boy did not shirk from the girl's touch anymore.
How very interesting.
And then they were out the room, Sirzechs and him, walking in the very same hallway they did not an hour before. This time they were not alone. He could feel eyes watching them, their owners hidden behind the many doors that adorned the walls.
Sirzechs noted his bemusement and chuckled.
"They are devils that were invited by the participants' families to watch the Rating Game. Do not be alarmed. They are just surprised at the outcome of the match. That is all."
That was a rather substantial understatement.
They eventually stopped at one of the doors. Sirzechs pushed it open, and beckoned him in with a tilt of his head.
He stepped in. His gaze was immediately drawn to the figures that were already in the room. A man who looked like an older version of Riser yet far more refined conversed with another man with grey hair that when exposed to the dim rays of light that entered from the windows, gleamed almost like silver. A graceful, elegant air settled about him, but there was also a hardiness, a toughness that radiated from his frame. The third figure stood alone to the side. The flaming red hair that flowed down his head was a mirror to Rias's and gave him the same dignified bearing as Sirzechs. A relative perhaps, he found himself pondering. He also took note of the lone table in the center of the room, the corresponding chairs, and the beautiful women dressed in maids' clothing that stood at each corner.
Devils. Even in a situation like this they still somehow found a way to be show off their decadence.
"I did not expect to see you here, Diehauser," the man who looked like Riser was saying, "You are usually out with your peerage training in some other inhospitable environment."
The one termed as Diehauser and the one with grey hair smiled at his counterpart.
"I make it a point to watch all Rating Games, Lord Phenex, even the unofficial ones. You never know whom among our young generation will show hidden promise," he turned when they entered, and the smile grew, "And this one, I must say, was most promising."
The devil gestured to the table and the chairs surrounding it.
He did and then blinked when he realized that from the way the seating was arranged, he was placed at the head. It was unmistakably a gesture of respect. He was not sure what to make of that.
They sat down when he did, Diehauser alone on one side, while the remaining three claimed the other. By chance or by intention, Sirzechs was the closest to him, and the man winked at him when their gazes met. That alleviated some of the tension but fueled the nagging feeling within him that he was not at all going to like the outcome of all this.
"Would you like something to drink? Tea perhaps? I am quite partial to human coffee, myself," one of the female devils dressed in maid's clothing stepped forward, bearing a tray of refreshments. When he shook his head, Diehauser gave him another smile, "On to business then? Very well. But before that, I believe introductions are in order."
"That is unnecessary on my part," Sirzechs was the first to say, "He has already met me. I made a detour before the Rating Game began."
The man Diehauser had called Lord Phenex raised an elegant eyebrow.
"Technically, a visit before the match begins could be considered giving one side an unfair advantage."
"You would not begrudge a brother's visit to his sister, Lord Phenex," the devil replied easily, "especially before the event that could determine her fate for the rest of her life."
"No," the man admitted, "I would not. It would be something I would have done as well, in your place. Though, I will point out she did not need your help, or any of our help for that matter in determining her fate."
A thin smile graced Sirzech's features.
"My sister has always been fortunate in finding good servants to support her."
"This one is more than just a mere servant," the man turned to face him, and while there was no resentment in his gaze, there was no acceptance either, "I am Lord Phenex, one amongst the Seventy-Two Pillars, Head of the Phenex Clan, and the father of the son that you just defeated most violently."
Ah. That would explain it.
The figure sitting by Lord Phenex's side took that as his cue for his own introduction to begin, and nodded politely at him.
"I am Lord Gremory, one amongst the Seventy-Two Pillars, Head of the Gremory Clan, and father to Rias."
There was an undercurrent of meaning in his tone, as soft-spoken as it was, and had he not been as observant as he was, he probably would have missed it. The devil was judging him, this he knew, though for what reason or what purpose, he did not know. He found he that did not particularly enjoy the feeling.
The one who seemed the most cheerful of the lot, the one who had started it all tapped a finger against the table when it came to his turn.
"And I am Diehauser Belial, one amongst the Seventy-Two Pillars, Head of the Belial Clan," wry amusement found itself onto his face in the form of a smile, "and I have come forth to greet the one who has summoned my most esteemed ancestor."
He twitched. He should have known. On the opposite end of the table, Lord Phenex sighed.
"It was better when the real Belial said it."
"I imagine it was," Diehauser replied cheerfully, "But that's the thing about our ancestors, isn't it? They all tended to be rather boastful beings."
"And in most cases, they had the power to back up those boasts," Lord Gremory quietly added in.
"Indeed," Diehauser turned to him, "Tell me, boy, what do you know of the Great War and the equally as great but far less glorious schism that followed?"
He frowned. Sona had told him about these things, back in the student council room, and Rias had made mention of them. But their descriptions always had been fleeting at best. He had a basic understanding, and that was it.
The devil took his frown to be his answer.
"There were originally three great factions," Diehauser began, "The Angels, the Fallen, and us, the Devils. For a variety of reasons, we fought against each other and for a very long time. We call that period of time the Great War. I will not bore you with the details, but suffice to say, it was quite the bloody affair."
"That is considerably underselling it," Lord Phenex interjected, "Bloody is a word to describe battles. We fought ourselves to damn near extinction."
"Would have fought ourselves to extinction if the Old Satan Faction got their way," Sirzechs amended.
"It was a very close thing, you must understand," Diehauser explained further, "After centuries of nonstop conflict, our forces were exhausted to the point where the next great battle would have undid us as a race. Our population had been decimated that much. By then, the original Satans that were our leaders were long dead, slain in the Great War, and among them, many of the greatest of our kind that served as their commanders and generals. But the deaths of so many high ranking devils had a curious side-effect," the man smiled at him, "It allowed us to think for ourselves."
"The Four Great Satans were immensely powerful beings," Lord Gremory said evenly, "and as such, they ruled the Underworld with an iron fist. Lesser devils were beholden to their will, and any that disobeyed were put to death and their clans destroyed. Their names were Lucifer, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, and Leviathan, and their reign was marked by both violence and strife. "
"In short, they were evil," Lord Phenex said bluntly.
He found that he could not disagree with that statement.
"Quite so," Diehauser nodded, "Even the most ardent supporters of the Old Satan Faction will admit to that. They just don't happen to care. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We are jumping all over the place in terms of our history, and I believe if we leap anymore it will leave our guest very confused."
He was not, but did not deem it necessary to tell them he was not.
"With the death of the Four Great Satans, a power vacuum was left in their place," Sirzechs took over the explanation, "By all accounts, the right to rule should have been left to their immediate descendants. But as Diehauser mentioned, we were simply too exhausted to continue the Great War, and that was what the Old Satan Faction wanted. To continue the war against the Angels and the Fallen, even if it meant the extinction of our kind. It was madness, and to stop that madness, some of us rebelled and formed a resistance. The schism that followed tore through our ranks and led to a very brutal civil war," the devil's handsome face bore a saddened expression, "Warriors who once fought together on the same battlefields turned against one another. Comrades-in-arms shed each other's blood. Brother fought brother, and fathers fought sons," Sirzechs paused and shook his head regretfully, "We lost many good devils in that conflict."
"Those were dark times," Lord Phenex muttered.
"Dark times and troubled times," Diehauser said seriously, "yet ultimately necessary for our survival as a species. We won the civil war, and banished the descendants of the Four Satans and their supporters to the furthest corners of the Underworld. With our newfound independence we put a stop to any attempts at continuing the Great War and focused on rebuilding both our infrastructure and population. The former could be done easily enough. The latter required our own Ajuka Beelzebub to devise the Evil Pieces system to turn willing humans into devils. Our numbers were simply too few for normal procreation methods to work," the man shrugged, "It is a system that remains controversial to this day."
"Pureblooded devils and devils turned from humans," Sirzechs smiled, "Some would say there is a notable difference between the two. Others would say the difference is slight if there is one. I would take that a step further and say that there is no such difference and as long as a devil chooses to become a devil, he or she will be welcome among us no matter their background."
"A noble sentiment," Lord Gremory said, "and one that is slowly but surely becoming the norm for all of us."
"And that brings us to the crux of the issue," a grin spread over Diehauser's graceful features, "A most impressive event we have witnessed today. The summoning of a devil that has long ago passed into the annals of our history and in his most primal state as well."
He noticed that all four of them were looking at him now, each sporting a myriad of emotions across their faces. Sirzechs seemed the most calm amongst them, but he could detect the hint of uneasiness that remained behind the mask. Lord Gremory wore a neutral expression on his countenance, but the lingering gazes the man would sometimes send his way were anything but neutral. Lord Phenex was scarcely different in that regard. Only Diehauser seemed to be in good spirits, but that was not exactly unexpected considering the events that had just unfolded.
"Belial," the devil's voice carried an unmistakable tint of reverence, "An Archdemon. One of the earliest Pillars and the greatest champion the Underworld has ever known. Other devils were renowned for their courage in battle or skill at commanding. Not Belial. From the moment it existed, its sole purpose was destruction. It was an elemental force of nature. A being bathed in fire and rage. Wherever it tread, Angels and Fallen alike fled before its demonic glory."
"Careful now, Emperor," Lord Phenex remarked, "Your words are beginning to sound like what someone loyal to the Old Satan Faction would say."
"Forgive me, old friend," Diehauser chuckled, "But it is not often one gets to see the ancestor he was taught to venerate from a very young age in the flesh. You will have to excuse my excitement."
"Of course," was the dry reply.
"It is a contradiction, what we feel about the Four Great Satans and our ancestors," the man continued, "On one hand, they are the reason for our existence. The powers we wield were passed down generation after generation from them, the original Satans and the devils that served them. I earned the title Emperor because of my ability at winning Rating Games. That would not be possible without the original Belial, the first Belial, passing down his strength to his descendants. We venerate these ancestors, respect them for their strength and power, and admire them enough that we name the most important offices in the Underworld in their memory," Diehauser tilted his head towards Sirzechs, "Lucifer is one among them. Beelzebub as well. But that is not to say we are blind to their faults," his face darkened, "They did monstrous things, our ancestors. Evil things. Things that would make us ashamed and horrified if done today. So we must strike a balance. A balance where we venerate our ancestors for their power, yet despise them for what they chose to do with said power. A balance where we respect those that gave us the strength we possess today, but scorn them for using that strength to do dark and evil deeds. A balance where we admire the Great Satans for being the ultimate devils, and nevertheless, revile them for leading us down the path of near extinction," the devil smiled at him, "It is a bit long-winded, I know. It is alright if you do not understand."
He understood. Humanity had its own controversial figures throughout history. Figures who forged empires and carved kingdoms yet did so through bloodshed and violence. Glory was no stranger to suffering. Grandeur was often built upon the misery of others. It was curious how these devils understood these facts, and sought not to ignore them but understand them.
It made them all the more relatable.
It also explained the demon's scorn and why it had been mocking each and every word that had been uttered thus far.
"And now you have brought that contradiction to our very door," Diehauser gave him a pointed look, "Belial fell early in the Great War. On a battle whose name was long ago lost to memory, he took to the field and met his match amongst the foe. An Archangel. A Seraph. The highest among Heaven's order. He fought the Archdemon to a standstill and when it faltered, he broke Belial's back across his knee," a fierce expression flickered over the man's face, "It was not a bad way to go I imagine. An Archdemon falling to an Archangel. The battle itself must have been glorious. The Archangel. His name was Metatron. Do you know of him?"
He smiled inwardly. He knew of him. As though picking up on this fact, devil's features turned questioning.
"Where did you get this power? How can you summon the primordial Belial, a devil that long ago perished in the Great War? What did you exactly do to summon it? How did you do it?"
So many questions. He thought of a way to condense his reply so that it would answer all of them at once. He was still in the midst of thinking when Sirzechs said it for him.
"Personas, I imagine," Rias's brother smiled when all eyes turned to him, "They are manifestations of thought. Resolution of the mind taken form. At least, that is what I am told about them."
He recognized it for what it was. An attempt at shielding him from the worst of the interrogation. The reason Sirzechs would do so was unknown to him, but he could guess.
The devil merely winked at him when he gave him an inscrutable look.
By his side, Lord Gremory's brows furrowed.
"You knew of this power? And you did not deem it fit to inform me?"
"I apologize, father," came the easy reply, "But what Rias writes to me has always been private. Besides, telling you would have ruined the only advantage she had in the Rating Game."
His counterpart let out a long suffering sigh.
"You have always spoiled your sister."
"That is a crime I have no issue admitting to," Sirzechs said without a trace of shame.
Shaking his head, Lord Gremory turned to the man sitting at his other side.
"I am sorry, Lord Phenex. Had I known what I do now, I would have stopped the Rating Game before it could take place and prevented your son from such a…" he paused, as if searching for the right words, "… ignominious defeat."
"No, no," his fellow Pillar replied graciously, "This is no fault of yours or your daughter's. We have always been a little bit greedy when it came to wishing for pureblooded heirs. It was partially my mistake for pushing the issue. It is what it is. Honestly, I had suspected Riser's vanity would be the downfall of him someday. He has always been different from his brothers, in that regard. It will be a good thing for him to learn from this, and think better of underestimating his opponents in the future. Though I will say that I wished for his lesson to be far less brutal."
"Our ancestors were brutal in the Great War because they had to be," Diehauser said with a small chuckle, "We cannot expect anything less from a devil who lived in a time where brutality and ruthlessness were traits necessary to survive."
"And that does not worry you?" Lord Phenex stared pointedly at each of the devils seated around him in turn, "That something so brutal, so ruthless still exists? The times have changed. We have no need for pointless violence or meaningless rage. We are not those types of devils anymore."
He could almost feel the demon's sneer of revulsion at that proclamation.
"It could be dangerous. The repercussions of such a being allowed to roam free are unthinkable."
"The fact that it has not rampaged through half the Underworld destroying everything in its way is a point in his favor, I would think," Sirzechs said lightly.
"Nevertheless, it is troubling. The lad has an Archdemon's presence within him. How do we know it is not influencing him? Making him do things he would otherwise not be capable of?"
If that's what they were worried about, he had a way of abolishing their fears.
He pushed Belial's presence away from his mind, forcing it back into the Sea of Souls. It acquiesced to his demand, fading with one last sneer towards the inhabitants in the room, and then his mind was left conspicuously bare, empty of the dark thoughts that had plagued him.
The sudden disappearance of the demon also had a curious consequence. The piece within him, the Rook that Rias had implanted, had nothing anymore to hold onto, nothing to attach itself to, the demonic taint that had been its anchor having dissipated alongside the Persona. It became inert, unresponsive, and he could feel it beginning to reject him as its vessel, pushing actively away from his presence.
He cupped a hand to his chest, reaching where her fingers had danced before, and waited. Seconds later, it emerged, an inconsequential thing, materializing through the fabric of his shirt, freeing itself inch by inch from his body before landing softly in his waiting palm. He let it rest there for a brief moment, feeling the ridges and serrated edges that decorated its otherwise smooth surface. Then he placed it on the table, setting it upright, a figurine of a small tower ringed with crenelated battlements.
The silence that resulted from this simple action was almost gratifying in a way.
"Please don't do that again," the head of Phenex sighed and rubbed his forehead wearily, "I have seen enough impossible things for one day."
"Hmm," Sirzechs stared at the piece he had set on the table in bemusement, "Rias will be most disappointed."
"It had always been a temporary arrangement," he said in response.
Somehow, he was not surprised the first thing he would say since the conversation started would be to him. The man had a curious effect on people in that regard.
"I know," Sirzechs smiled at him, "but she has always hoped."
"I do not sense Belial's presence anymore," it was Diehauser who led the subject back on track. The devil sounded slightly disappointed, "That is a shame."
"If you can do that," Lord Phenex had seemingly recovered enough to stare at him, "then it was not the Archdemon that influenced you to be so brutal in the Rating Game, but yourself?" recrimination shone in the man's eyes.
He was not incorrect. Sometimes even the members of SEES became uncomfortable with how merciless he could become towards his enemies. But they had grown used to that in time, and took it to be one of the characteristics that defined him, along with apathy and silence. It was only later that they found themselves to be wrong.
These devils had not the time to discover that about him.
"His pieces," he found himself saying, "are they badly hurt?"
The inquiry was met with a grunt from the one his question was directed to.
"Much of the Rating Game is simulation," Lord Phenex supplied, "but some serious wounds will still carry over. The injuries you have inflicted. They are all significantly more than serious. They are grievous, and some of those girls might be crippled for the rest of their lives."
"They will not be," he met the challenge in the man's glare with his own, "I will heal them."
Cautious surprise set in on the devil's face.
"You would venture into the home of your enemy and heal his followers? The same ones that were seeking your defeat not moments ago?"
He nodded to the piece he had set on the table.
"They are not my enemies anymore."
He could feel Lord Gremory's gaze upon him, and the approval that came with it.
"I accept this gracious offer," the head of Phenex said after a moment of thoughtful silence, and then shook his head resignedly, "It should be a crime to like the one who has defeated my son so profoundly."
"It is better to respect your opponents than to hate them," Sirzechs mused, "We have learned that the hard way from both the Great War and our civil one."
"Does that assuage your worries, old friend?" Diehauser tilted his head towards him, "Stray devils do not offer their enemies relief from their wounds, though I doubt our young friend here can be considered such a thing"
Stray devils? He filed that under information he would have to ask Rias or Sona about later.
"It does," Lord Phenex nodded regally, "As long as these so-called Personas can be controlled I am satisfied."
He deemed that it would not be prudent at this time to mention that Personas could break the chains that held them in check if their users were unprepared. Shinji had been the proof of that. Strega, to some extent as well.
"Quite," Lord Gremory's gaze flickered towards his son, "Though something tells me that Belial is not the only Persona he can summon."
"You would be right then," Sirzechs shrugged apologetically towards him, "There are more."
He understood. Even though the devil had taken most of the attention off him when it came to the subject of Personas, there were still areas where he could not help or would not. He did not mind. He was relieved that there would be no long-winded explanations of what Personas were, and he was grateful that Sirzechs had chosen to take that particular mantle from him.
"More…" Diehauser said slowly. The man seemed like he was savoring the thought.
The rest looked at him expectantly.
He fought the urge to sigh. He knew what they wanted. A demonstration. A part of him resisted the idea. His ability was not given to him so he could parade it around like a circus act. The other part of him, the logical part, knew that leaving these beings in the dark about his talents would not be well received.
And as always, it was the logical part that won in the end.
These devils respected power. He could show them that at the very least.
He called and it answered.
Like a poisonous miasma it oozed into his mind and immediately his conscience became thick with black thoughts. Even though he had summoned it before, used it against the Shadows in Tartarus, relied upon it in that last cataclysmic battle against Nyx, the sheer weight of its presence still surprised him.
It had taken Belial flaunting its immense demonic power to make him think the way he thought. This one made him think things a magnitude darker by simply existing.
He would not allow it to manifest. It would be disastrous to do so. But still, by merely lurking behind the thin veneer that was the wall separating the mind between reality was enough for its existence to be felt. Like spilled ink he could sense its essence spreading into the room, drowning the inhabitants with its presence, eroding their resistance with its black malevolence.
There was a crash behind him as the female devil that had offered him refreshments gave in to the sudden, irresistible urge to kneel. Broken glass scattered and the porcelain lid of a teapot rolled away. The hauntingly eerie sound it made as it traversed the floor in wobbly patterns was the only noise that could be heard over the silence that had settled.
"Oh my," Sirzechs smiled.
"You feel it too?" Lord Phenex murmured, and he could not help but notice the man's words were slightly slurred.
"It is demanding my obedience," Diehauser's face carried a bemused expression as he watched the other maids bend knee one by one, their bodies trembling as they tried to but could not fight the command of a higher power, "I can defy it, but it is not a pleasant feeling, by any means."
"No," Lord Gremory agreed. The slight twitch in the fingers of his left hand was the only outward sign that showed he was affected, "it is not."
He allowed the Persona to linger for a second longer before banishing it from his mind. Even then, it did not go quietly. It faded from his conscience slowly, almost tortuously, and the dark, vehement chuckle that it left echoing in his head taunted every fiber of his being.
He shook his head to clear it, and was unsurprised when he finally looked up to see those that had fallen to their knees had gotten to their feet once more. The girl that had dropped the plate, the one that had been first to kneel, scrambled up behind him, and pressed her back against the wall. The fear on her face was painfully obvious.
"Which one of the Great Satans was that?" the Emperor asked. Excitement flashed in his eyes.
It was none of them.
He knew of Lucifer. Of Beelzebub. Of Asmodeus and Leviathan. But he did not recognize them as these devils recognized them. They were powerful kings of Hell, rulers of vast portions of the Underworld, but they were not Satans as he knew of them.
There was only one Satan.
"Your Four," he said slowly, "… they had to answer to something."
The weight of his words was almost as heavy as the stillness that followed.
"That's it then," Diehauser finally said. The grin on his face was almost feral, "That's all the proof we need," turning, the descendent of Belial spread his arms wide in a magnanimous gesture, "My fellow Pillars and Lords, I have a proposal."
"A proposal?" Lord Phenex tore his gaze away from him, "Now that is interesting."
"Indeed," Lord Gremory nodded, "it is not often you hear a proposal from the Emperor."
Sirzechs noticed his puzzled look and smiled.
"All proposals from the Emperor tend to be interesting."
If at all possible, Diehauser's grin grew wider.
"I propose we confer the title of high-level devil to the human, Minato Arisato, along with his right to peerage as well as any other rights his new status might imply."
Now that was intere-… Wait… What?
"As I've said," Sirzechs said lightly, seemingly amused by the whole situation, "All proposals from the Emperor tend to be interesting," the devil winked at him again, "I second the proposal, by the way."
Somehow, he felt incredibly betrayed, and did not know why. It must have shown on his face, for Sirzechs chuckled in response.
"There are tests for these type of things, Diehauser," Lord Phenex protested, "Not that I disagree with your decision, but this flies in the face of tradition."
The Emperor laughed.
"The boy holds the Primordial Aspect of Belial inside him and can call upon others even more powerful than that," the man's eyes gleamed, "What tests could we offer him that he would not pass with flying colors?"
Lord Phenex leaned back, his expression thoughtful.
"I am human," he tried to argue.
"No, you are not," Diehauser said cheerfully, "You are Nephilim. And I will not have Heaven grant you your due before the Underworld does."
If that was supposed to make him fall silent, it worked. His eyebrows rose at such a bold declaration.
"We are just gifting him titles now?" again it was Lord Phenex who voiced his opinion, "The lad is powerful, there is no doubt, but with all due respect we cannot just give him titles on a whim, especially ones that belong to legends and tales."
"Have you not wondered, old friend," was the response the head of Phenex received, "why he can call upon the greatest devils, the greatest amongst us and not fall under our sway? Humans can be turned into devils. They can be resurrected into devils. But they cannot go back to being human. The process is irreversible. That is how the system works," the man's gaze fell upon him, "Now enter one who cheats said system, one who can hold the presence of a devil inside him to trick an Evil Piece into believing he is one of us, one who after doing so can return back to his normal state without consequence. That, in itself, is the definition of a Nephilim. A human who cannot be influenced by the sway of Heaven nor Hell, yet wield both their powers together with impunity."
Lord Gremory gave the speaker an even look. The rest looked at him.
"You are well learned about this subject, Diehauser."
"Knowledge is a form of strength as well," the Emperor replied, "and many of my victories on the field of battle and in Rating Games have come from studying my foe well in advance."
"So he is Nephilim then," Lord Phenex said, and there was no objection in his tone this time.
"He is. Though the thought of a Nephilim having a peerage is an intriguing one."
He agreed. Which is why he did not want one.
"If you do that," he tried again, "I will just give the pieces to Rias."
Sirzechs smiled at him. Lord Gremory was trying hard not to smile at him. Diehauser chuckled and shook his head. Only Lord Phenex did not share their mood, but even then, he still looked somewhat amused.
"Is that even possible?"
"I do not see why it would not be," Sirzechs replied, "There is no law forbidding one devil from outright giving another his pieces. It just hasn't happened before. We devils tend to be very possessive of our power, even the most humane among us," the man regarded him with a pleased eye, "If you do give them to Rias, it would be considered a substantial gift.
"It would be," Lord Gremory nodded stately, "But I would like to know why you think my daughter is deserving of such a gift."
"Rias," he said slowly, "she is not a bad person. And I would rather have her be in power than someone like Riser."
He must have said something right, for Rias's father suddenly looked very proud. Proud enough to nod in Diehauser's direction and further seal his fate.
"I third the proposal," and then the man turned to face him with a serious yet strangely warm gaze, "And I also approve."
Approve? Approve of what?
It did not help when Sirzechs reached over and patted his shoulder in brotherly fashion.
"Congratulations," the devil said gravelly, though the way the corners of his mouth lifted betrayed his true emotion, "It is not often you win a father's approval the first day you meet."
He was missing something here. It was in the back of his mind but he could not quite figure out what it was. It was a maddening feeling.
"I do believe my House has left an unfavorable first impression on our young guest," Lord Phenex said with remarkable aplomb, "That will not stand. What do you think of Ravel, lad? You fought against her in the Rating Game. She is quite unlike her brother. Very skilled but not nearly as vain. She is already a fine Bishop in Riser's peerage, but would make for an equally fine one in someone else's as well."
The meaning hidden behind those words were about as subtle as a brick smashing into a window.
He would have to respond in an equally eloquent and subtle manner.
Diehauser actually laughed out loud.
"I have not seen someone being rejected so bluntly since you first started courting Lady Phenex, old friend."
Lord Phenex, for his part, did not seem a bit insulted.
"My wife had always been a hard one to win over," the man said warmly, "But eventually, I succeeded through perseverance, determination, and true, unfaltering grit."
"And no small amount of pleading," Sirzechs whispered into his ear.
His lips twitched.
"I will not criticize your decision," Lord Phenex said grandly, "But I would urge you to reconsider. My daughter deserves to be in an outstanding peerage, and it would be a great shame if her talents were wasted."
"You have not asked Ravel's opinions on this," Sirzechs chided, "and even if you did, I believe she would say no," the devil's face turned mischievous, "Have you seen the way she was looking at Issei all throughout the match? Infatuation could not be a more fitting word to describe it."
"He was the Pawn, yes?" the man asked. At their nods, he shook his head ruefully, "The boy proved to be a most irritating thorn in Riser's side. There were times I honestly thought he was defeated, only to see him get back up again."
That was a remarkably accurate assessment of Issei in general.
"And he did it without his Sacred Gear's ability to boost," he paused, realizing that all eyes were on him again, and shrugged, "That was my fault."
"Somehow, I am not surprised," Lord Phenex said dryly. The devil stared at him, his expression contemplative, "In all honesty, I do not know what to make of all this. Belial's summoning. Personas. But I have learned long ago to trust my senses, and they are warning me now that something momentous is in the works, something significant is about to happen, and I will not lie and say that I am unconcerned," the man leaned back and regarded them all, "The key has been turned. What is hidden within is anybody's guess."
"It does not necessarily have to be a bad thing," Sirzechs replied easily, "When we first rebelled, there were plenty of naysayers who prophesized our doom. Look at us now. We won that war and from the ashes of an evil empire, we built a new one, a just one, a better one."
"Yes," his counterpart nodded, "and if there is a reason for believing that, it is because of our guest," Lord Phenex turned his gaze towards him again, "You do not gloat over your victory. You are not drunk with your power. You elevate your allies before yourself. After the battle, when your enemies are hurt you offer to heal them. These are traits all devils should learn if we wish to never repeat the mistakes our ancestors made and tread on the path of destruction again," the man sighed and nodded to Diehauser across the table, "I also approve of this proposal."
"A unanimous decision," Sirzechs raised his eyebrows in amusement, "It is not often you see that in a council of Pillars and Lords."
"Unanimous amongst the four of us," Lord Gremory spoke up, "There are other families who might raise issue with the Emperor's proposal."
"They will," Diehauser said cheerfully, "and then we will show them what happened here today and their complaints will ring rather hollow, I imagine."
That was all well and good, but they were forgetting to factor the most important part into the equation. Him.
"I am human. I will remain human," he tried to emphasize the importance of that word, "These Evil Pieces you wish to give me. They are useless. They do not accept the presence of humans."
"And when you summoned Belial your presence becomes indistinguishable from a pureblooded devil," Diehauser said without a hint of breaking stride, "Belial was an Archdemon, one of the original Pillars. Just a small portion of its essence lingering on you is sufficient to make you one of the purest of our kind. That is ignoring the fact that the other one you showed us cloaked you with enough demonic taint to make lesser devils kneel and us current Pillars want to kneel," the man smiled at him, "Do you understand now why you must be offered this title? Why it would be granted? We would be remiss in our duties as guardians of the Underworld otherwise."
He could understand. But it did not mean he had to agree with it.
"Much of it would be symbolic," Sirzechs ventured, "You can still remain human. Perhaps call upon Belial or another like it to attend some of our more important gatherings. Be human the rest of the time. It would not be so different than what you already doing."
Another title then. Just like Nephilim had been before it, with all the baggage and trouble it entailed.
He frowned at them, his displeasure leaking through despite his best efforts.
"I do not like it."
"If we only did the things we liked, there will be no one left to make the hard decisions, and you will find the world a very poorly run place."
He hated when others made points he agreed with.
It made them all the more harder to refuse.
They shrank back when he entered. Those not immobilized on clinical stretchers, not lying motionless on impromptu beds stared at him when he opened the door, and fell back when he stepped in. The fear in their eyes would have made the demon sneer.
He reached the first stretcher. The girl he had incinerated. Charred, singed flesh covered her entire body. Belial's fire had not been kind to her. Io was in the forefront of his mind by then, Yukari's Persona, the representation of the Greek woman that had been turned into a beast by Zeus to save her from Hera's jealousy. She had been a priestess before that particular fate, and back in those days, priestesses often meant healers.
He lifted a palm over her chest. One of the braver girls made to stop him, but halted in her tracks when she saw the Diarama doing its soothing work. Flesh reknit. Skin became unblemished once more. The body was healed, and the girl's labored breathing turned soft and calm.
He moved on, pushing past the one that had stood up. He dimly recalled she had been one of the Rooks, the one Akeno had bested. Instead of leaving him be, however, the girl hovered nervously behind him, as though she wanted to say something but did not have the courage to do so. It soon became apparent why.
Her sister Rook lay face down on three desks formed into a temporary cot. The devils had been right when they told him that not all wounds would translate over from the Rating Game. There was no gaping hole in her back, no bloody chasm that yawned over her shoulder. But the effects still lingered. The woman's limbs were sprawled stiffly around her body, and he could tell from the way they dangled uselessly over the edges that at least some form of paralysis had set in.
A small frown appeared on his features. This one would actually require him to concentrate. Diarama again, but instead of saturating her full body with the healing spell, he focused it on the area along her spine where he had inflicted the most damage. He was rewarded for his efforts when the woman's limbs began to move, albeit sluggishly, and her stiffened posture relaxed. She made to push herself up and let out a grunt of surprise when he placed a palm on her back and forced her back down.
"If you strain yourself like that, you will be sore for a very long time."
She nodded dumbly, and the eye not covered in the metal mask glanced up at him in surprise.
He regarded the rest of them clinically and was relieved to note that the injuries they sported were far less serious. It meant a Mediarama would suffice. Some of them murmured as they felt and watched their wounds reclose.
If they were impressed by this, then Asia's Twilight Healing would leave them gaping. The girl had not managed to use her Sacred Gear to its full potential before she was taken out of the fight, but he had sensed long ago that her ability far surpassed some of his Personas when it came to healing. Even Io would be hard pressed to match it. But what Yukari's Persona lacked when compared to Asia, it more than made up for with combat ability. He had seen Io in action against the Shadows enough times to have a healthy respect for it. That was the difference between Personas and Sacred Gears, he supposed. Personas were versatile and could be adapted to any situation. Depending on which one was summoned, they could attack, heal, and defend with equal vigor. Compare that to Asia's Twilight Healing which could only heal, or Kiba's Sword Birth, which could only be used to attack, and it was clear which one was superior.
But then again, he would always be biased towards matters like these, and any judgments from him would always side with the power he was most used to.
He nodded, satisfied, when the last of them was fully healed. He spun on his feet to leave, and found his path barred by a tall, graceful figure with long purple hair. His Queen. Yubelluna, he had learned, was her name.
He ignored her. His work was done and there was no reason to linger. He made for the door, feeling their mistrustful gazes boring into his back. Then he remembered something, and paused. He turned to the Knight he had wounded in the Rating Game, the one that had watched him from above, and the one that had sacrificed herself to take out Asia.
"That tactic," he inclined his head to the comatose body in the background, and the only male one in the room, "did he force you to do that?"
She seemed taken aback by that question, and then, as though fully comprehending what he had just said, a sudden fierceness took over her, protective and defiant.
"No. Never. He would never make us do something like that," she glared at him, "It was our idea. If it meant giving our master a chance to win, we would gladly sacrifice ourselves for him."
He smiled at her, smiled at them.
Devils, not demons.
He turned to Yubelluna, who had been watching the whole exchange with wide eyes.
"Because you are not bad people," he said and walked out the door.
"You really did it, didn't you?"
Again she was sitting at the table, but there was no drunkenness to her this time. Her eyes were wide and alert, and they travelled up and down his frame as though that alone would be enough to give her the answer she desired. He sighed as he closed the door behind him. The trade-off between a drunk Raynare and a sober Raynare was that the drunk one did not ask nearly as many questions.
"What did you do?" the woman's tone was still impatient, but for the most part had lost its bitterness, "Summon Metatron again and have him tear off their wings?"
The sarcasm was thick, but he did not mind. Sarcasm was better than sullenness, after all. It meant they could have a cordial conversation at the very least. He set the backpack he had carried into the apartment down to the floor. It let out a dull, muted clunk when it touched the wooden surface.
Raynare's gaze flickered to it curiously.
"Belial," he corrected.
She blinked at him. The expression on her face was almost amusing. Almost.
"Belial," she repeated slowly, disbelievingly, "You are being serious aren't you?"
When he nodded, she broke into incredulous laughter. It was not an unpleasant sound, he was forced to admit.
"I never really stood a chance against you, did I?" a sad smile spread over her lips, and he noticed that one of her hands had dropped down to rub the place Metatron had planted his blade.
"You managed to place two light spears in my body," he replied, "That was sufficiently more than what they achieved."
Somehow, that seemed to placate her, for her mouth suddenly curled upwards in a wicked grin.
"I would have liked to seen that. Devils being chased by a greater devil. There's something poetically ironic about that," she smirked, "If only Issei was on the other side. Him and his little friends. But that's not going to happen, is it? Still, he must have been the first one to fall. He's that useless."
He raised an eyebrow at the glee in her voice. He supposed he should be disturbed.
"You seem to take comfort in another person's weakness."
She crossed her arms across her chest. The way she did so made it seem like a pout. Just another of her mannerisms that he was slowly getting used to.
"And why shouldn't I? They're weak because they're pathetic. And pathetic people should be made fun of. Just like that idiot, Issei."
He regarded her neutrally.
"You are a very good hypocrite."
"What?" her face was the perfect picture of confusion.
"Asia was weak. Weaker than Issei. At least he could defend himself. And yet you kept Asia by your side for not an insignificant amount of time."
She stared at him as though he had gone mad.
"She had a Sacred Gear I wanted. I killed her to get it."
He did not miss how her tone wavered at the end.
"But why didn't you do so in the very beginning? When she first came to you for aid. It would have been a simple affair to lure her in and remove the Sacred Gear then. Yet you didn't. Did you sympathize with her? Was that what led you to stay your hand?"
She looked down at the table and remained silent.
"Or was it because there was something about her that reminded you of yourself?"
"Shut up," she muttered.
He shrugged. It was not his job to pry. He merely accepted things for what they were.
He turned and lifted the knapsack from the ground. He reached within it and pulled its contents out, feeling the hardened edges and soft leather that covered its surface. A case, thick and rectangular, with golden embellishments flowing down its side. He let it drop from his hands, and it made a thudding noise as it impacted against the table.
It was enough to make her start from her reverie.
"What… is that?" the Fallen Angel asked.
His fingers were already working on the latch by then, and when the muted click of unlocking clasps was heard, he flipped the case open, revealing what was inside.
Sixteen pieces lay in sheathes of red velvet, eight to a side, their elaborate forms cushioned by soft cloth. Each was immaculately detailed, finely carved, a flawless example of skilled craftsmanship. They were inert for now, lifeless and without power, but should he choose another demon for his Persona, they would begin reacting. That, at least, was what Sirzechs had told him.
He shook his head at her stunned stare.
"In truth, I do not now know what to do with these."
"Those are…" she sputtered, at a loss for words, "The devils use them for… And you don't know what to do with them…"
"Yes," he said patiently, "and I cannot use them because I am human."
She seemed to recover her wits when he mentioned that.
"And they gave these to you despite knowing you are human?"
"They must have been either really impressed by you," Raynare swallowed, "or really frightened by you."
It was a little bit of both.
When Belial, Lord of Shadow and Flame, stepped fully into existence, the first thing it did was turn everything in front of it into a sea of fire.
The gathered Maragidyne, a throbbing, volatile sphere of rippling heat, was finally unleashed, blasting from its cave-like mouth in a continuous stream, like a dragon breathing fire.
It covered anything and everything, lapped over the ground like flowing water, carpeting the earth with churning, wrathful flames. Grass was incinerated in a bare instant, the dirt beneath scorched into blackened sand. Pavement lasted a fraction of a second longer, and then gave in to the heat as well and became puddles of bubbling asphalt. Trees were stripped bare, their branches torn off by the whipping wind, their waifish trunks bending and snapping before turning into blazing, fiery torches as the flames finally found them. Those buildings that had been spared the worst of the battle did not escape this time, their innards blown inside out by immense, suffocating force and their shattered, eviscerated frames lit ablaze in an almost contemptuous afterthought.
One breath. One breath and it had managed to turn the entire battlefield into an ocean of hissing, spitting fire.
Such was the nature of a demon if allowed to take form. Such was the power of a Persona if allowed to manifest. Such was the danger of an entity if allowed to let loose.
Belial's beast-like head craned up to stare at the three figures that hovered above them, only spared from eradication by the wings that held them afloat from the ground. The cracks that surrounded its bulging neck lit up with orange flames like a mane.
YOU ARE, ALL OF YOU, VERMIN.
The voice was deep and guttural, heavy and resonant, sounding of earth and stone, and lapped with the crash of lava on rock. The intonation made the muscles in his body spasm involuntarily with each uttered word.
COWERING IN THE DARK. SCAMPERING ABOUT LIKE RATS.
He could see Riser's face going through a myriad of different emotions. Could see his Queen watching the archaic monstrosity with wide, frightened eyes. Could see how his last remaining Bishop held her hands over her ears to try and drown out the damning voice to no avail.
MEWLING PITEOUSLY AS YOUR SUPERIORS, YOUR BETTERS TRAMPLED YOUR MISBEGOTTEN RACE INTO THE GROUND.
It burst amongst them with tremendous speed, lifting from the floor on shadowy wings and with a swiftness that belied its immense bulk. The clawed hand swept down before they could react and batted Riser's Queen aside as though she were a mere fly.
She fell like a comet. Streaking down from the sky. The charred skeleton of a building stood in her path. She ploughed through it, crashing into the ramshackle frame, obliterating its already weakened supports with her impact, and sending the whole thing cascading down on top of her in a heap of broken timber and flaming debris.
She did not get up again.
A hideous grin spread over the Belial's monstrous face as it stared down at ruin it had just wrought.
I FORGET HOW FRAGILE YOUR KIND CAN BE.
They scattered. Riser and his last piece, fleeing from the great slab of fire and menace that had suddenly appeared in their midst.
BUT THAT HAD ALWAYS BEEN YOUR FATE AMONGST US. YOU DEVILS WHO GROVELLED AND BEGGED FOR OUR FAVOR.
Its descent was far from graceful. The massive body crashed back down to earth, cratering the ground beneath its taloned feet. The resulting storm of dust and debris temporarily obscured everything from view, and for a moment there was nothing but biting sand and the howling shriek of wind whipping past him. But even that could not quite drown out the Archdemon's mocking voice.
WHAT WERE YOU TO US BUT MERE FODDER? WHAT COULD YOU OFFER US BUT YOUR FRAIL BODIES FOR OUR PROTECTION?
The storm finally passed, and when it did, he saw Belial chasing them on foot, stalking forward on its backwards-jointed legs, leaving a path of molten fire behind it.
WHY DO YOU RUN, LITTLE DEVIL?
Wherever it walked, the earth sundered and split, and from those yawing chasms phosphoric vents erupted, poisoning the air with choking ash.
WHERE ARE YOUR BOLD WORDS AND GRAND DECLARATIONS NOW?
Somehow the Archdemon was keeping up, despite the speed of its opponents, breaking the ground in great distance-eating strides. Every step was a miniature earthquake in itself.
SAY THEM TO ME SO THAT I MAY CONTINUE TO BE AMUSED.
Pillars of fire it hurled towards the retreating figures, far thicker and wider than any he could ever conjure, forcing them to swerve and dodge.
TELL THEM TO ME SO THAT I MAY LAUGH AS I HUNT YOU.
Like a shepherd guiding sheep it herded them, toyed with them, keeping them hemmed in with blasts of flame, cornering them in places where escape seemed impossible and then letting them go at the last moment so that the chase could continue anew.
They were visibly flagging now, Riser and his last piece, tiring from the relentless pursuit. They darted into the crumbling ruins that had been an outcrop of buildings, hoping that the Archdemon would not see them. It was a testament to just how desperate they were.
Belial stopped as it reached the area where it had seen them disappear. The smoldering coals it had for eyes raked each potential hiding place like searchlights.
HIDING ARE WE? AT LAST YOU EMBRACE YOUR RIGHTFUL PLACE AS INSECTS. INSECTS THAT NEVERTHELESS, MUST BE CRUSHED.
It spread its arms wide contemptuously, revealing the twisted fissures that ran down its chest.
COME NOW. DON'T BE SHY.
Those fissures flared with angry fire as the Archdemon suddenly stomped down with all its might.
STEP INTO THE LIGHT.
Every building was blasted from its foundations. Lifted by columns of searing heat. Transfixed in midair by geysers of spewing fire. They stayed there for a bare second, the pillars of flame impaling them like spears, and then they vanished, consumed by Belial's fury, turned to drifting motes of ash.
Their disappearance revealed the two figures that had been huddling behind them for shelter, figures that took to the air as soon as their cover vanished. The Archdemon tracked them with its eyes, mocking laughter heaving from its blackened jaws as it once more began to follow.
WHERE WOULD YOU COWER WHERE I WOULD NOT FIND YOU?
It kept pace easily. Like some great carnivorous beast running its prey to ground, it continued the pursuit, ruthless, inexorable.
WHERE WOULD YOU FLEE WHERE I WOULD NOT CHASE YOU?
It was inevitable now. They were tiring, and the Archdemon was not. Belial was gaining on them with each step it took and they were lagging behind, the silhouette of their tormentor growing larger with every passing moment. There came a time where even their superior speed would not save them.
The monstrous leer that cracked over the demon's face told him that such a time was now.
WHERE WOULD YOU HIDE WHERE MY FLAMES WOULD NOT REACH YOU?
In its blackened hand a whip of pure fire hissed into existence. The Archdemon swung it in an arc above its head, the lash of spitting heat searing through the air in a vaguely serpentine fashion. The resounding crack that followed split the air like a knife.
Riser's Bishop let out a loud cry as the tendril wrapped around her leg, entwining around her calf, burning the clothing there, dissolving it and eating into the flesh beneath.
"Ravel!" he heard the devil shout.
And then she disappeared, his last piece, torn from his reaching grasp as Belial wrenched the whip away and her alongside it. She crashed to the ground an impressive distance away, much like his Queen had did, and then disappeared as the Rating Game registered her demise.
The whip vanished. The leer remained.
For the first time since it materialized into existence, Riser stared at the demon not in fear but in anger. Rage lit up on his aristocratic face, and where there was once terror, defiance took its place.
"Monster…" at first it was a whisper and then it gained in strength, growing in volume until it became a shout, "Monster!"
A simple definition, and yet not an incorrect one. He watched as the defiance finally turned into wrath.
The fire he had seen him use against Rias appeared, blasting from Riser's palms in a blazing conflagration. White-hot, it lanced out in a beam of incredible heat, powered by the devil's anger, fed by his rage, lit by his wrath.
Belial walked through it like it was nothing.
The Archdemon chuckled as flames not its own writhed around it, striding into them and basking in their searing touch. Riser shouted something incomprehensible in response and widened the beam, increasing its volume, trying to cover the massive size of his opponent in all its entirety with his fire. He was still shouting when the enormous, blackened hand shot from the raging inferno and snatched him out of midair in a blur of motion.
It smashed him into the ground, the palm crushing him into the dirt, the fingers digging in around him like the bars of a prison, preventing the devil from escaping. Riser made a choking sound as the monstrous skull leaned in until it hovered only an arm's reach away above him.
THEY SAY THAT THE TEARS OF A PHOENIX HEALS ALL WOUNDS.
Belial heaved a wretched, demented laugh into its prey's horrified face.
BY THE TIME I AM DONE WITH YOU, IT WILL HAVE NO MORE TEARS LEFT TO SHED.
Author's Notes: That took a while, didn't it? Sorry about that. I've just gotten promoted at work, and with that promotion came a lot more responsibilities, which unfortunately slowed down the rate at which I write. On the plus side, the chapters are longer now. The last one was around ten thousand and this one is coming up to eleven. That's probably what's going to happen in the future. Longer times to update, but also longer chapters.
This chapter should speak relatively for itself. Some things are explained, some things continue to be vague, and some things remain open to interpretation. Honestly I had a lot of things I wanted to mention in this section, but I'm just too damn tired. It's 2:00 A.M. as I'm writing this and I need to get some sleep before I do something stupid like accidentally deleting this entire chapter. I'll definitely talk a little about the plot and answer some of the more prevalent questions next time.
Thanks for reading and please review!