He had a dream.
Issei was walking into a great hall with a long table. Try as he might, he could not pick up any finer detail such as the ornaments hanging on the walls… or even if there were walls in the first place. The corners of his eyes saw glimpses of things here and there but he could not turn his head to look at them. His attention was locked ahead.
Lining the table were chairs. Some were made of wood, some made of metal, some even plastic. Some were decorated with regalia, gems, or crests of importance. Some were just plain. And seated— now standing at attention as soon as he came in— was a person. They wore clothes of every culture of just about every civilization as far back as he could trace. Well, it's not like he was an ace in history class but Sona had drilled the lectures into his head and couldn't forget the most important stuff no matter how much time had passed.
He could barely make out their features. Some of them just had blank faces. Some, towards the far back of the table, he couldn't make out any details only that they resembled a human shape. However, the three at the very front of the table were the most significant, he knew. On his left was a woman and on his right, across of her, was a man. The both of them radiated a power that was just one league below him.
The third figure spun his chair around— a leather office chair instead of the dining and thrones— in order to face Issei. He… she… it… Fuck, Issei couldn't tell who or what this individual was. A smooth face, between feminine and masculine, between handsome and pretty, with large black eyes and black hair. There weren't any definite shapes or curves on their figure for him to tell whether this one was a man or woman.
~To the King!~
~The Dragon of Domination!~
In perfect sync, each denizen at the table raised their arms and cheered. It was a singular sound of a thousand voices mixing into one. They all cheered, some pounding their armored chests, banging fists against the table, or stamped their boots. Some simply saluted according to whatever military they originated from.
They all did this except the one at the head. The figure crossed its legs and cupped its hands over the knee.
"What… What is all this?" Issei asked.
"The antechamber," answered the genderless figure. He/she/it tilted their head slightly and thought further. "The prison for all your predecessors."
"It is no longer a prison," said the woman. "We are all free to leave when we wish. Our current host has broken the curse. We stay to serve him just as we have in his most dire time of need."
The man across of her gave a gruff. There was pride in his stare but Issei couldn't tell anything further.
"…Who are you?" Issei asked next.
The woman smiled but didn't answer. The man crossed his arms and said nothing as well.
"I am Vorpal," said the figure at the head. "Or, the expression of the system. I am the processor my creator designed at its core. He did not, however, install a personality into me. You did that with by infecting me with the Oppai virus. I've been force fed your love of breasts and had been forced to adapt. I was only to be a support program that adjusted your Sacred Gear according to the situation…"
Vorpal sighed and massaged the side of its head.
"…I'm sorry?" Issei could only offer as he scratched the back of his head.
The man at the right lifted his head. His stare was hard. He looked to be a man who had come across a hundred battles with a soul just as hardened as Issei's, if not greater. There was a great age in his eyes. His lips twitched as he opened his mouth to share words. His voice was deep and gruff.
He then gave Issei a thumbs-up and a smile of respect.
Whatever the man had said shook Vorpal. The incarnation of the blade swiveled back around, pressed his face into his hands, and began to visibly shake. The sound of sobbing was heard shortly after.
~ZOOM-ZOOM, IYAAN!~ roared the people in the background.
"Just make it stop!" sobbed Vorpal.
Issei… had no idea what was going on.
It was the woman who answered him. "Can you not feel it, my king? The echoes of the chant? It comes straight from your core, where your soul and Ddraig's have melded into one. We hear it every so often, and when we do does your vessel glow like a second sun. There lies your true power."
"No!" shouted Vorpal as it stood straight from its seat. Its hands fell flat on the table. "It doesn't work like that! You can't just gain quantum radiant energy from something as mundane as a pair of tits! This is an error, I keep telling you people! But you don't listen! You instead worship this glitch as if it's some… some… god!"
Issei was getting more and more loss by the second. He raised his hand and tried to get the attention back. "Um…? Can I just know why I'm here?"
"You still deny it, Vorpal?" asked the woman. "You were not here when our king made love with his master—"
"YOU GUYS SAW THAT?!" shrieked Issei as his face turned scarlet.
She ignored him. "Both times did this spike in energy come. It came again, when you were here, as he made love to the priestess. It came once more, albeit to a lesser extent, when they offered their bosoms for him."
"It was him getting excited," countered Vorpal. "This happens. Take the battle we just commenced. Let me dumb it down for you barbarians. His heart was racing, producing this little thing called adrenaline, and heightened all his motor and cognitive functions. That included the efficiency in the synchrony with his Sacred Gear. The closer the patterns match between body and Sacred Gear, the better both operate."
"…You simply refuse to believe," she shook her head.
"Believe?" Vorpal asked incredulously. "I'm not here to believe. I don't follow such an abstract concept you humans come up with to lie to yourselves in understanding something beyond your own measurements. I learn facts. I know truths. Those I follow. So unless he, I don't know, pokes Rias' breasts and hits some unknown switch from doing so, then I'll listen to your babbling."
"You will rue those words, Dream Eater," she returned with a smile.
"Devourer," Vorpal retorted, almost pouting like a child. "I am not fat. I am the Dream Devourer—"
"Oi!" Issei barked. "I'm still here!"
"Oh, yes, you," Vorpal sat back in its chair and spun back around. "What was your question? Why you were here? Well, let me share you something. Usually this would be the part of one's life where one would come to a crossing of roads. You are to make a choice, between several options, all of which are life-changing. Normally, this would be the point where you come to this…"
Vorpal waved its hands around looking for the right word.
"Adviser?" inserted the woman.
"Good enough," shrugged the blade incarnation. "Adviser. This little voice in your head that offers you sound advice— useless things that you already knew beforehand but still waste the time to reflect on them. You are at an end of your journey, Hyoudou Issei. And you need to figure out what to do next. And this would be the part of your story where this seemingly know-it-all adviser will point you in the right direction."
Vorpal stood, crossed the distance in a few long strides, and grasped Issei's shoulders in its hands. It gave him a firm squeeze of assurance.
"This is not one of those stories. Good luck figuring it out on your own."
It then patted his shoulder and went back to its seat.
"I am an operating system designed to increase your chances of survival in combat," further explained Vorpal. "It's not in my programming to worry about what you do with yourself for the remainder of your days. That's for you to decide on your own. So don't ask me why you're here when—"
"I, uh, actually meant that in the literal sense," Issei scratched his cheek this time. "I wasn't asking for some lecture. I just want to know why I'm here."
Vorpal's face puckered. And Issei could have sworn there was a tint of red on its cheeks. It did look embarrassed though. "I see. Well. You are currently unconscious. You're in a deep enough sleep to have your psyche sink in here, where not even the World can reach you. This is one of the chambers to your Quantum Identity Cortex— or the soul, as you humans confuse it with. This particular chamber is in charge of hosting your Sacred Gear, the Boosted Gear. Normally, it would be a part of your body instead of the QIC but seeing what you did to Ddraig…"
It shrugged, leaving the statement open for Issei to finish on his own. It then moved on, "There's no particular reason you're here. It's a… defense mechanism, if you want to call it that. The analytical detection program— you're little constant awareness perk, as you prefer to call it— is keeping you in a semi-conscious state of mind. Your body needs to fully heal and the World is keeping it from resting entirely. Your mind shut down, then, allowing your body to work on recovery. But, so you know, this is when you are at your weakest."
Issei nodded but asked another question. "What happened after I…?"
Vorpal drummed its fingers on the armrest. Its eyes looked away in thought. "You returned to your… fRiEnDs," it said the word with an awkward pronunciation, as if the word was entirely foreign and didn't know how to properly say it. "You succumbed to your wounds, the fatigue, and the erosion from your adversary. I don't know how long you've been under. You'd be dead if it wasn't for that… thing. I couldn't remove the toxins but she did something. I can't remove her injection either—"
"M-My friends!" Issei cried. "What happened to them? Did Serene get them out of there? Are they alright? Did they—"
Vorpal raised his hand. "Of all the things you concern yourself with. Never mind I just stated something of vital importance and you just… I can't answer any of that. It's not in my programming to worry about them. You are my only concern."
There was a heavy silence in the antechamber.
Vorpal raised a brow as it saw Issei lower his head and bow. His face was parallel to the floor.
"If it wasn't for you… I… I don't know if could have…"
"That spear would have killed you," Vorpal stated. "I'll accept your gratitude but it's unneeded. It's in my core to remove the greatest of threats… provided they are things within my means of removing. I'm not done with the installation, by the way. You only have access to [Knight], [Rook], and [Bishop] Illegal Moves. I am… 78.142% complete. You won't be able to access [Queen] until it's complete."
"There's… one more thing…" Iseei said. He felt something in the back of his mind. He could hear the whisperings of the World slowly start to creep around him. Perhaps he was starting to stir back into consciousness.
"…Yes?" Vorpal asked with interest. The blade's eyes sharpened. It seemed to know what Issei's question was before it could be asked.
"Your voices I could hear clearly," Issei looked around to his predecessors. Their emotionless gazes were locked on him, ready to fulfill any command he might give. He returned back to Vorpal. "But… I could have sworn… I heard Ddraig."
Vorpal gave a frown. Behind him, heads were turning and murmurs were shared. The blade incarnation unfurled its hands in a slight shrug. "That shouldn't be possible. Ddraig is no more. Or… he is you just as you are him."
It scratched the ridge of its brow in thought. "Ddraig… was not a dragon as you might believe. He was not another being's Quantum Identity Cortex crammed into a shell that the Biblical God called Sacred Gears. He was a program— a grand nexus of code woven together into a super computer. Of course, it's far more complicated than that but this is the best I can explain it to you. I don't know what he truly was or his purpose.
"But he was code; nothing more," Vorpal shrugged again and rested its hands back into its lap. "A sequence of ones and zeroes which can be installed into your own Quantum Identity Cortex. And it was. Ddraig is now you just as much as you are him. You are two… souls intertwined into one. It is because I cannot fully analyze and tweak his coding with the tools my creator installed me with the reason why my full installation is hindered.
"There is more than just the Boosted Gear," it said with a raised finger. It was now rushing its words as Issei was struggling to hear. The World's voice was becoming louder. "The Boosted Gear was a console manufactured by the Biblical God with a processor larger than the console can manage. The Boosted Gear can only do so much! There is more, and I am trying to decode it.
"Bearer mine, I will unzip this file [Potential] before the—"
Whatever else Vorpal had to say couldn't be heard. The dream ended.
And Issei awoke.
He felt sore. Everything in his body ached and he felt more like a solid giant bruise. The pain was deep and reached down to his bones. Every heartbeat made him want to groan.
But the pain was welcoming. It meant he was alive.
He released a breath of air as he slipped out of slumber and back into the conscious world. He recognized the smell of the room and the feeling of the sheets. He was in his room and lying in his bed.
The World was also telling him he wasn't alone.
"Good evening, Master Hyoudou," greeted the Dragon Slayer just as soon as Issei had sensed him. As another Predator, Ludwig had gained the knowledge when someone was focusing on him.
Issei tried to sit up. He put his palms flat on his bed and tried to push himself up. His arms shook with fatigue and his body ached at the effort. A steady hand from Ludwig pushed him back down. Even feeling a few fingers pressed against his chest sparked pain.
"Not yet," said Ludwig sternly. "Let your body settle first and then try again."
Issei opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. The lights were low with only the desk lantern on. Ludwig was sitting in the chair with a basin of water and a few towels folded neatly in his lap. One such towel was floating in the basin. It looked like he was ready to use it before Issei awoke.
He found he was naked underneath and drenched in sweat. Ludwig must have been readying himself to wipe his body down.
"How did you get in here?" Issei asked in a voice he almost didn't recognize. It also burned to talk. He needed water.
Ludwig chuckled as he leaned back in his chair. He put the towels aside. "The lovely ladies of yours asked me for assistance when you were throwing them around in your sleep. They had asked the Familiar Master and a youkai specialist for assistance before me but it was apparent the two were of little help.
"You were dying, Master Hyoudou. Your body was fighting a losing battle against the toxins from the… former Fourth. Your body was overheating from overexertion and rampaging in your sleep. I had to use some of my dragon-slaying magic to force you to calm down. After that, I was able to give a diagnosis and work to find a remedy.
"Your lovers wanted to be at your side at all moments of the day," he said with a sigh, as though remembering something. "But you were in such a critical state and often tossed around I had to shoo them away. They are worried sick for you. When you are feeling better, I shall let them in."
"No," Issei said as he tried again to sit up. This time the pain was bearable and some of his strength had returned. He sat up and leaned against the bedframe. "I want to go to them. I don't want them to see me like this and worry about me more."
Ludwig looked at him with sharp eyes. It was the same analytical look Vorpal had given Issei in the dream— eyes that were constantly observing and learning. The old man shrugged, strangely in the same way Vorpal would, and answered. "If you are well enough. Do not remove the IV though."
Issei looked and saw the crimson cord stabbed into his arm. He wondered how it had gotten through his skin but dismissed it as it being something Ludwig, the Dragon Slayer, was capable of doing. Hanging on a metal rack was a pouch of red liquid. Blood. He very highly doubt it was human's blood considering Issei was scarcely human.
He wondered if he should ask how Ludwig acquired it. If it was Devil's blood then he could assume his master, Rias, had gotten it for him. If dragon's… well, it didn't matter in the end. He had other things to say.
"Thank you," he said and meant it.
"Think nothing of it, my boy," Ludwig said with a small smile. He stood, still holding his cane to support his right leg, and moved to the closet. He began to pull down one of Issei's robes.
"No, not for… all of this. Thank you for Vorpal."
There was a glint in Ludwig's eyes. Excitement. Pride. "…It surpassed all my expectations and then some. I did not believe it could defeat the Vampire but you found a way. Now come, I will assist you. You mustn't keep a woman waiting— especially such lovely ladies that are worried sick downstairs."
"Wait, there's something else," Issei said. His voice was heavy. His strength was returning but he felt drained. He looked up at the Dragon Slayer in such a stare he hadn't used in such a long time.
Ludwig noticed it as well. He nodded in understanding and waited patiently for what Issei would say next.
Issei had the stare of one who was helpless, drowning almost. He was looking up at Ludwig not so much in the literal sense as it was metaphorically. The Dragon Slayer was his senior with decades of experience beyond him. Issei had no clue what it meant to be a Predator when first starting out, official or unofficial according to the World and its Ruler regardless. He was thrown into this world when he had believed for the first fourteen years of his life everything was peaceful. That the worst he had to fear was whether he would be able to get himself a girlfriend.
When he first med Ludwig, he burned the Dragon Slayer with a flurry of questions. And Ludwig, in his practiced patience, had been able to answer each of them to the best of his abilities. Issei had looked up to this man as his senior and knew the man would be there if he ever needed help. The events with Ayame had tarnished that relationship and he thought he had lost his mentor.
Now, he was looking at Ludwig von Siegfried in the same way as before.
"…What do I do now?" was all he could ask.
This feeling of weightlessness was not from his body. It was from his heart. He had driven himself into battles, becoming a hero for the people, for the sake of being the antithesis of what the Vampire was. He did not do it for the sake of justice, to save lives, or for some code of honor in himself. He didn't even do it for the sake of vengeance or for the memory of his parents. He drove himself to be the exact opposite of the Vampire. He grew more and more powerful, had dragged himself through blood, sweat, and tears on countless battlefields. He wanted to, one day, confront the Vampire and defeat his ultimate enemy. It was a dream he didn't think would happen.
But, it did. He defeated the Vampire.
And now he felt complete. But with that completion was stagnation. He had achieved his goal and he couldn't possibly feel any prouder with himself than ever before. He wanted to cry in joy and celebrate with his loved ones. But the thought at the back of his mind and heart was tugging at him. What was the point of his existence if he didn't have this opposition any further? The fuel to his fire was extinguished and now he felt so… empty.
He also didn't know why.
Ludwig bowed his head as he cupped both his hands at the top of his cane. "I don't know, son. Many have asked me this question before and I have never found the answer. They would ask me… what would I do if I could have my queen? Would I still serve her or would I rule as king? I could make up a few stories on what I believe I would do… However, these are things I would do and not you. You and I are very much different.
"I digress, this is an ancient question man has asked himself since their very beginning. As far back as Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit of knowledge. I believe, and this is my personal opinion, the answer is a lot simpler than people give it credit for.
"What do you want to do?"
He let the question hang in the air before gesturing once more with the robe. Issei moved, gritting his teeth as Ludwig helped swing his legs over and get him to stand up. The question floated in his mind, almost giving him something to focus on instead of the pain, as they moved slowly to fit one arm through each sleeve.
Issei pulled the IV in his left hand as he held on to Ludwig's arm with the other. They took steady steps towards the door. Very, very slow steady steps. It felt like his joints were rusty with spikes wedged between the bones. But, by the time they were in the hallway the pain was dulling down and he could begin to move more freely.
They both gave an audible groan when they reached the stairs.
After a glance to another and a nod shared, they began to tackle each step one at a time.
"You ever thought about replacing your knee?" Issei asked. He was only making conversation as a distraction.
"Lad, I've had this thing replaced thrice," the Second returned. He was grimacing whenever he needed to put weight on his right leg. "My grand ancestor bore a weakness in his invincibility. A small hole at his back the size of a leaf. It is a curse that has been in my family since then, simply expressed differently. I've had problems with my knee since I was a school boy."
Issei was sweating with heavy breath by the time they reached the final step. And they both released a soft sigh— Issei's louder than Ludwig's.
There was a sweet scent in the air. He could pick up a mixture of tea and coffee brewing along with a few baked sweets. The lingering smell of something spicy was still in the air, indicating dinner had just passed. He hadn't a clue what time it was but with the lights on and it being dark outside the windows it was clearly nighttime. There was also the sound of clattering of utensils and the soft splashing of water. However, he couldn't hear anyone talking.
They turned the corner and entered the main foyer. It was the large room that connected both the dining area and the living room.
His senses flared as the World warned him. He wouldn't be in any danger and would be inconvenienced at best. It still didn't stop him from locking his jaw and bracing for impact.
There was a moment of stillness as he was viewable to everyone. Half of the group were in the living room staring at the television while the other half were at the dining tables. Rias, Akeno, and Koneko were sitting on the couches drinking tea and eating snacks. Serene, Asia, and Sherry were in the kitchen cleaning the dishes. At the dining table were Irina, Yuuto… and for some reason Xenovia and another girl Issei had no clue who was.
Then, as Ludwig scooted away as his own instincts were telling him the same thing, the whole room imploded upon him.
"ISE!" a chorus of cries shouted.
"OOOOOF!" the wind was knocked out of his lungs by their gathered strength as well as the flare of pain on his body. It felt like he had ran straight into a wall.
He was knocked back and pushed against the wall as several of the girls tackled him. Rias was at his chest, sobbing under his chin. Akeno was at his left, wrapping her arms around his neck and crying into his shoulder. Asia, who was crying the hardest, wrapped her arms around his right arm and face planted onto his bicep. Koneko was wedged between Rias and Asia and trying her hardest to not cry and failing miserably.
For whatever reason he couldn't understand, Irina was wedged between Rias and Akeno. She was sobbing just as hard as the next girl and muttering prayers for him even when each word was hurting her.
Sherry was standing near the kitchen with her hands clenching the corners of the wall. She was looking at him and debating whether to join in on the fray or give him space. There was heavy relief in her eyes.
Serene stepped out in a moment, wiping her hands on the apron before taking it off and hanging it on the kitchen hanger. It had been his mother's apron and he had never touched it before. A small part of him hurt seeing her use it but he couldn't condemn her for using its intended purpose. She wasn't dressed in her nun attire; she bore a plain gray modest dress that went down to her ankles. She also kept her usual blank expression as she approached him.
"I'm glad to see you are better, Master," she opened with. Her dull eyes then looked at the sobbing girls taking up his personal space. "Girls. He is still wounded. And he is in pain."
Her words got them to realize what they were doing. Some let up while Rias and Asia refused to let go. They sobbed further and muttered apologies yet remained close to him regardless.
He sighed. Though there were assurances to see he was fine he could sense their fears and doubt. They didn't want to make space on the chance he would, what, kick the bucket? He didn't fully understand their thoughts but could acknowledge their emotions at least.
He patted both their heads. "Rias. Asia. Look, I'm fine. I wouldn't be on my feet if I wasn't."
"Ise… you idiot," sobbed Rias. But she smiled, wiped her tears, and stepped away.
Asia whimpered but moved away. She did, however, keep a firm grip on the sleeve of his robes almost like a small child not wanting to lose their parents.
"H-How are you feeling?" Rias asked with worry deep in her voice.
"Tired… hungry…" he answered dryly as he leaned against the IV stand. He knew he was hungry but he was also in so much pain he couldn't feel it. Everything in him hurt so he wasn't sure if his stomach was rumbling or if he was beyond that stage and his stomach was completely void. He hadn't eaten anyways since… well, a day before the mission.
"How long have I been out?" he asked.
Looks were shared. That wasn't a good sign.
"Almost a week," replied Serene as she gestured for him to take a seat. "It's now Wednesday… almost Thursday in a few hours."
So… five? Six days? The mission was on a Friday evening.
"We were expecting you to be out for much longer," chimed Akeno. She had her mirthful smile but there was also a tint of worry just as much as everyone else. She was watching him carefully and ready to bounce the moment he collapsed. "That man said if you didn't die you'd be out of commission for a good month."
That man. She had said that with such bitterness Issei could almost taste it.
"Rolan," Serene answered his unspoken question. Her eyes sharpened for an instant before returning to her tranquility. "Take a rest, Master. I shall heat something up for you. Sherry, will you like to assist me?"
Sherry, Ludwig's youngest maid, nearly jumped as soon as her name was called. She was in some sort of daze staring at him. At the request, she nodded and quickly returned to the kitchen. Every now and then she would flick her eyes at Issei.
"Sona was here a few days ago…" shared Rias. Her eyes were downcast. "She was worried… but she didn't want to stay. She told me what happened… She hasn't been around since but… Tsubaki shows up. I think she does on behalf of Sona's orders."
His heart began to hurt at the mention of Sona. But then… there was some joy in there as well. She had come to see him. And the Sitri Queen was probably sending reports to her King. It meant Sona still cared about him. Which meant there was still hope they could patch things up together.
"Hello, Hyoudou Issei," greeted Xenovia as the girls led him around. The Exorcist had gotten up from her seat to give a proper greeting. She even bowed. "I owe you my gratitude for coming to our rescue and an apology for when we last met. I had offended Argento-san and thus I offended you. Please forgive me."
Asia tugged on his sleeve and then spoke. "X-Xenovia apologized to me, Ise. She's really a nice person. She helped Kiba-kun a lot in his recovery…"
Issei took this chance to look at the Knight. The damn handsome wasn't fully recovered but he was still better looking than Issei in his prime. His face was still sunken in and there were some bags under his eyes. But he looked healthy enough and offered Issei a very tired smile.
He wasn't fooling Issei, though. There was no warmth in that smile. In fact, Yuuto looked to be lost in his own little world. There was a vacancy in his eyes as he watched everyone around him but never really focused. He looked… lost. Probably just as lost as Issei was currently.
What stole Issei's attention next was the little girl sitting on the Knight's lap. He had no idea who she was or where she came from. She had long blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. She couldn't be any older than… ten? Eleven? And she wore an elegant blue and white frilly dress. Her smile was bright was her teeth literally sparkled.
Her smile grew when she saw him staring. She offered a wave before humming a tune and enjoying the seat.
Yuuto didn't seem to like her. But he didn't force her off at the same time.
"…What happened while I was out?" Issei asked as they further led him into the living room. He didn't bother to give Xenovia a reply. He was too tired to think about formalities anyways. He didn't even care if he was being rude to her.
"…You don't remember?" Koneko asked from within his shadow.
He tried to recall things. Bits and pieces flashed through his mind. He remembered…
A man made out of sunlight fighting a spawn of his enemy. The spawn needed to be killed. He blasted it into oblivion. The man of sunlight disappeared after. He felt tired. Oh so tired. He felt cold. Ever so cold. He was ready to sleep, but he feared the sleep. He would never wake up again.
He fell. Someone caught him. Someone small. With black hair. Eyes timeless, capable of seeing things not perceivable by him or mortals of his caliber.
His brow twitched. An impulse he had grown accustomed to. He remembered the next part clearly.
She wore one of those damnable Red Blur hoodies. It was the same design Ayame had worn on that day he ditched school. Those timeless eyes continued to watch him. Dazzled. She combed the hair out of his face. The darkness was consuming him. He was growing colder. Sleep was coming.
A kiss. Someone kissed him. Warmth filled him. It slivered down his throat like a creature and rested in his stomach.
Sleep came still. But it was welcomed this time. He didn't fear it as he knew he would live to see another day.
"…Just bits and pieces," he eventually said. By the time they reached one of the couches, he released a heavy sigh he hadn't known he was keeping. The IV stand rested between his feet as he pulled his head back against one of the pillows. Rias sat at his left and Asia at his right. Akeno took the seat opposite them and Koneko snuggled herself into the loveseat. The Rook's knees were drawn under her chin as she hug her legs. They all couldn't take their gazes away from him.
There was a moment of silence in the room. Only the sound coming from the kitchen. They were waiting for him to continue. They knew he had more to say and were waiting on him with batted breath.
"…I'm Seventh," he said more so to himself than them. He blinked at this realization. "I'm Seventh. Heh. I… killed the Fourth. No, wait, Philips-san would be Fourth now, wouldn't he?"
It was strange to say and even stranger to have the assurances of the World confirm his words. He had to laugh at the surrealism of it all.
Asia's hands cupped his right hand. She looked sad. Not because of him but for him. He didn't know what to make of that look. Asia had been just as much of a victim to the Fourth's— to the Vampire's caprices as much as Issei was. According to Serene, Asia had lost her parents to the Vampire. He had also returned a second time in both their lives as Freed Sellzen. Thanks to him, Asia had her Sacred Gear torn out of her and left for dead.
And now it was over. The one who had hurt them the most was gone.
He squeezed her hand as tightly as he could, which wasn't strong at all if the best he could do was press her fingers together at best. She returned the squeeze with one of her own; it sent jolts of pain up his arm but he accepted them.
"It's… over…" he said aloud.
It really wasn't. He knew this. The Vampire was no more but that was only one small problem compared to everything else. He still had to deal with Rolan over Sona's marriage. He had until the first week of summer to find the necessary amount of candidates to participate in the Rating Game. That also meant Issei would have duties as a Demon Lord in the near future.
Then, there was the Evensong. It was coming closer. The noise of the beast pounding against the edge of the World was getting louder and louder.
Despite all this, it felt like for the first time since his parents were alive… Issei could breathe.
For starters, Serene was no longer bound to the Church. She was free to do whatever she wanted and had chosen to become his Queen. Of course, Issei would ask her again. He didn't want to make her his Queen just so she could escape the Church. If anything, he would want her through a clear conscience.
Asia could pray again. That had always been a boon for him for a while. But now, after what Serene revealed what Asia was, it felt even better for the blonde girl. If Serene hadn't told her yet, then Issei would. He could imagine the smile she would have after that.
Issei had also grown stronger. He could now push back his seniors— the unsurmountable beings he had always feared for the past three years despite being within their ranks. And if anyone wanted to mess with him, be they Predators or some other affiliation on the planet, then Issei could show them how bad of a mistake that would be. He was no bully, not by a long shot, and he wouldn't use his power to get what he wanted.
He could breathe because he knew there would be a level of peace now. No one would bother him or those who he loved. He didn't need to fear any of the other Predators stabbing him in the back or getting any of his friends and lovers caught in the mix. For once, even if it would be for a short while, he could live a normal life.
He silently whispered a prayer of thanks to his gods of debauchery. He had Rias and Asia, who he loved and had returned his love with their own. He had the makings of a harem!
As though reading his mind, Rias wrapped her arms around his neck and drew his head towards her chest. She ran her fingers through his hair as he used her glorious breasts as a pillow.
"B-Buchou!" cried Asia. "That's not fair!"
"Ara, ara," Akeno snickered from her spot. "Stealing him before any of us could? I must agree with Asia-chan."
"He is my boyfriend," argued Rias with a proud smile. She continued to stroke Issei lovingly. "Besides, she who strikes first is always the victor."
Asia puffed her cheeks and looked ready to cry. "H-He's mine too, Buchou…"
Koneko was too busy patting her own chest while glaring daggers at Rias' overcompensating rack.
The girls broke up into a small argument. Irina had joined in and then Sherry later. Serene had tried to calm them down but quickly gave up when none of the girls listened to her. Ludwig chuckled quietly to himself as he watched the engagement. Xenovia watched with intrigue, her eyes locked on Issei as though trying to figure out a way to make this situation in her favor. The girl sitting on Yuuto's lap made a comment and he only offered a half-hearted laugh.
And Issei… he had been long asleep almost as soon as Rias had claimed him. There was a small smile on his lips as he was warmed by the love of all those around him.
This was his family. And he loved all of them just as much as they loved him.
"He… How the fuck?!" shouted Rolan as his eyes stared out towards the south. He looked crazed. His eyes were wide with shock.
The blood demon Philips had been sparring against shriveled for a moment. It let out a shriek, a sorrowful howl as it had sensed the death of its creator. But it changed nothing as it continued its rampage to stamp out the newly ascended Fourth Predator.
Philips didn't bother to dodge this time as the beast, taking the form of a rhinoceros with a centipede's legs, started to charge at him. Radiance of the Sun continued to blaze through his vigil. He simply stood his ground as he tucked his weapons away.
The beast drove at him. But he didn't flinch. He didn't even move. His body scorched through it as it continued to travel. It bellowed in pain as two-thirds of its body was incinerated by the powers of the Original Sun. Its body jerked and tried to reform into a new form based on how much of its flesh remained.
It was then the Dragoon arrived.
Issei Hyoudou was dripping with blood, had blood dried on his armor, and had his armor chipped, cracked, and shattered all over. Parts of his flesh were exposed and the meat under the metal was infected by a black taint. The skin looked long decayed. Yet he stood tall, hovering high above their heads. His eyes were locked on the blood demon.
The beast roared, recognizing the being who slew its creator. Its rage transcended its attention from Philips. It began to warp again into a creature of aviation. However, it couldn't finish in time.
There was a long barrel under Issei's left arm. He pointed its end at the beast and pulled the trigger. There was the ear-popping burst of cannon fire, but no shot was visibly seen.
Still, the creature was no more. It simply vanished.
His eyes then turned towards Philips. The barrel was raised.
Philips immediately returned his authority to its normal settings. To everyone else, he disappeared off the face of the planet. Not even their Predator instincts could find him as he was invisible to even the World. Only Rolan could see him.
And Ophis. She had seen the Original Sun as well.
Philips slouched. He had spent nineteen seconds with the reverse Radiance. He had more than enough time to last longer but even at this shortened exposure he felt weakened.
"My word…" Ludwig said next as he stared up at Issei. "He… He did it…"
Even Serene looked taken aback. Her eyes were wide and full of disbelief. With the Vampire no more, his barrier had lost its power. The World was back in control over them. She should have been forced back into the mindset of acceptance. But it was the knowledge of Heaven's greatest adversary, who surpassed even the ancient Earth Mother, that shook her.
Issei had won. No, he had triumphed. He didn't just defeat his opponent. He had killed the Vampire.
"Ise…" one of his girls called out to him. Rolan wasn't sure which one. He didn't give a fuck either way.
Issei's Gift of Flight deactivated. No, it looked more like it had lost its fuel as it blinked out after sputtering a few last breaths of its radiant light. He dropped to the ground without hesitation. His armor shattered into a thousand motes of red light.
His body was in a worse condition than anyone could have believed. His skin was raw. Some parts were rubbed down to the bone. And what skin remained was either pinkish, pussing with green and yellow ooze, or decaying with dark greens and blacks. Blood followed in a trail as he fell.
The girls screamed his name and rushed to catch him. But they wouldn't make it.
His landing was softened. There was no concussive force as a greater mystery caught him like an invisible pillow. And the crafter even had the audacity, or perhaps privilege depending on the instigator, of resting his head against her lap.
Rolan gulped. Ophis had revealed herself before everyone.
"Hold. Hold!" shouted Ludwig. His Knights obeyed but not without confused looks. "Stay back!"
It was the deep fear in his voice that got everyone to stop moving. Even the girls from the Gremory group. They all knew Ludwig was a Predator, or at least a figure of extreme power based on how much he displayed on the fight just now. For him to be afraid of something spoke measurements of the thing that would warrant such a reaction.
Ophis smiled as the world around her was nothing but background noise. It wasn't one of the expressions she shared to mimic human emotions. It was genuine. She was, however the hell such a Primordial processed the emotion or the equivalency of, happy.
She stroked the hair out of Issei's face. His body was shivering uncontrollably. "Hello, Issei Hyoudou. I, am a big fan. I, like your show."
She paused, blinking slowly as she looked at him. Really looked at him. Her eyes moved throughout his body with her brows raising. It was as though she just realized the condition he was in.
"You will die soon. I, wish to see your growth a little longer. I, may need you when I challenge Stupid Red."
Power. Such a word that was tossed around a lot these days. Everyone always said Rolan had power. Be it political, military, or just in the metaphorical sense. Sure, he could level whole cities. He could probably freeze the entire ocean if he put some thought into it. Not just a single ocean, but the whole body of water on the planet. Just because he could do it they said he had power.
He had power. Ophis, in comparison, was power.
Every breath was power. Every heartbeat was power. Every thought and whim was power. Everyone could feel it as she released the smallest speck of her infinite reserves. The incarnation of the Law of Nothing was brimming in it. It reminded him how much power he didn't have.
She leaned forward and raised his chin with one of her dainty fingers.
He nearly gagged. She, in the body of a ten-year-old, kissed Issei.
Nobody moved. Nobody dared. Her power was still swimming in the air and caused everyone to stay still. No matter how much Issei's girls wanted to protest they remained where they would. Rolan noted Ophis was kissing him longer than necessary.
He also noticed how she inserted one of her Snakes through that kiss.
When it was done, when she lifted her head and smiled down at him in one of her genuine expressions—
…Holy shit was she blushing?!
—Issei took in a large, deep breath of air. He stopped shivering. He released his breath and slowly shut his eyes.
Ophis lowered his head from her lap and onto the ground. She stood, patted the dirt off her hoodie— perhaps actually concerned about it getting ruined rather than mimicking another human gesture— and then moved away from Issei. Still, nobody moved. They all watched her without blinking.
"It was good to see you again, Chase," she said towards him. Towards him, not at him. She was still distracted by her private moment. He could have said anything at her, be it a compliment or an insult, and it would never reach her. Her eyes were staring into the infinite cosmos only she could perceive.
Her eyes flickered towards him. They focused… not on him but something behind him. At Philips? No, past him even.
With a wave of her hand, something broke through the ground.
Vali Lucifer, the vessel for the Divine Dividing, was surfaced. His body had succumbed to the damages Issei had inflicted on him at some point— probably when Philips tore the entire building down on top of them. With just a thought, Ophis lifted him up into the air and towards her.
She looked at him, tilting her head slightly as though examining a puzzle. Not a complicated one, it would seem. Something had flashed in her eyes.
Rolan blinked. She was suddenly wearing the limited edition White Chaser hoodie. Her smile returned.
And then, just like that, she was gone. Simply gone without a trace.
Rolan made an audible groan and sank to his knees. As did Ludwig, except he took a seat on a pile of rubble instead of collapsing. Even Serene looked weary. Philips looked unshaken, but then again he always looked that way. Rolan couldn't tell what he was really feeling—
Strike that. Philips removed his helmet, took a few steps to the side, and released the contents of his stomach. The Tactical Hunter's nerves had been shaken enough.
It was within reason. They all felt the compulsion to battle against Ophis even if it meant their absolute death. To be exact, it would have finished in their absolute death. Ophis was something far beyond their reach, especially right now with the Vampire killed and Issei wounded. Yet the World wanted them to try anyways.
With Ophis gone, normalcy returned. Or, a level of normalcy enough when in the middle of a tarnished battlefield surrounded by the world's Ultimate Killers. The Gremory group rushed immediately to the Dragoon's side and tried to tend to his wounds. Asia worked her Twilight Healing while Serene drank as much sin from him as she could. But there was only so much either of them could do. The decay had originated from the Vampire. Rolan wasn't sure if there was an applicable cure for it; he normally just burnt it away rather than concocting an antidote.
Serene's head jerked upwards. Creyroux was in her hand once more as she circled around Issei. She raised it with its tip pointed…
At Saint Virtue. The elderly Living Saint, who had done nothing throughout the exchange, had started to make his move. His robes were glowing with runes Rolan recognized. Things of healing, of increasing one's spirit, courage, focus, cognitive functions, perception of time, of physical augmentations, of wardings against magic, devilry, other weapons of light, elemental energies, psychic attacks… There was more to it. A lot more. There were just as many offensive charms on his robes as there were defensive and supportive. He was, in essence, a walking fortress.
That, of course, would just be his robes. He also had a series of weapons hidden underneath as well as his power of Miracles. Virtue was the most powerful Living Saint who could surpass Serene's Miracles.
"You will stay back, Virtue," Serene warned.
He was not afraid of her weapon. He probably had something in his arsenal to counter her power over sin. "Serene, no, Amelia Rosewood. You will stand aside. I will be freeing you from the bonds of your slaver and bring you back to the path of righteousness. Your soul can still be salvaged. Come with me or stand aside. With the death of the Devil's Dragoon and the return of the True Excalibur, Heaven will be stronger than—"
"I'm going to have to stop you right there," Rolan spoke up. Heads turned towards him as he walked towards the group. He had been in the far back, keeping to himself and out of the battle. He still had to protect Xenovia after all.
Virtue's eyes narrowed. "You."
"You are the one who stole our Divine Beast from us before. I know you. Mercenary, Heaven has not forgotten your sacrilege."
"You people keep acting like I give a fuck about what Heaven thinks," there was an edge in his voice. His anger was rising. Tongues of flame spat out of his mouth. "You don't know who I am, do you? Well, this is fan-fucking-tastic then."
"I can handle myself, Chase," Serene rebutted.
"Fuck off, Amy," he snapped. "In case you haven't noticed, Adaulfo, I've recently become a Devil as well. But it's not like you fuckers never pissed me off before. You Church pussies and the Heavenly assholes have been my enemies since Israel. You weren't there, Siegfried-Germanicus, when they took Serene. When they dragged her back against her will. When they forced her to promise to stop me from freeing her.
"Well, she's no longer your damn dog. Which means there's nothing protecting you fucks. Which means I am free to burn every single last one of you. And burn them I will. I know the names of every Living Saint. I know every Exorcist, every Paladin, every Inquisitor, every Templar, every mother fucking pedophile on your goddamn roster.
"You people had your fun. You made the mistake of pissing me off. Now, I'm going to kill every last one of you fucks so the Church can't rebuild from the ashes."
"Well then…" Serene began but didn't bother to finish her statement. She shared a look with Rolan for a moment before dismissing Creyroux and stepping aside.
Virtue, however, was fuming. His face was red with rage as his body shook. He couldn't move, however. His name had been invoked.
"Heathen!" it didn't stop him from cursing though. "You will be the one to burn! Heaven will not stand aside as you strike down its chosen—"
Rolan made a small gesture with his hands.
Saint Virtue's head erupted into a gory explosion as flames burst from within his skull. The blood, bone, and gray matter within had disintegrated before any of it could reach any party member. The force of the blast had torn open his collar and knocked his body back. It had been so thorough no blood leaked from the gaping wound.
For all his defenses, Virtue had been powerless to stop Rolan. His Flame had penetrated every ward and holy protection.
"You saw," he stated at the Gremory group, who was staring at him with horrified looks. "There you go. Plan accordingly. If the fucker doesn't die from his wounds he'll be back and up around a month, give or take a week or so. Make sure he's ready for our little match."
"M-Mister Chase…" Asia spoke up. She stood, but didn't approach him. There was more horror on her face than any of the others. Despite how he threw her under the bus with the Vampire, on numerous occasions at that, she still held a light for him. Even now. "Those things you said. You're not really going to—"
"I'm going to destroy the Church," he said without any hesitation. "It was a promise I made to myself when they forced Serene into their slavery. Be glad you're on this side."
Her eyes widened. She realized immediately what he was implying. Rolan would be going after anyone belonging to the Church indiscriminately. Even if they were innocent. If Asia had stayed in the Church, he might have gone after her just as much as any other.
She took a few steps back, shaking her head in denial but couldn't voice her words.
"O-Onii-sama won't let you!" Rias shouted. "Do you have any idea what this will mean?! You are a Devil as well! You'll force Heaven to retaliate!"
"Hmm…" was his reply. It was entirely dismissive. "I'm also King Oberon. They'll sooner try to attack the Fae than the Devils. Especially when I have their stupid sword…"
He raised his hand as if to reach for the blade resting against Kiba's shoulder at the far end of the ruined cathedral. The blade shifted slightly but remained still.
His brows furrowed at this. He put a bit more will into his mental command and compelled the blade to his hand.
It twitched more violently, began to lean towards him, but then slammed back onto Kiba's shoulder.
"Son of a fucking bitch…" cursed Rolan under his breath. He tried one more time. "By my name, King Oberon, come to me!"
Excalibur shook. And then it began to glow.
"No!" it shouted.
Heads turned towards Yuuto Kiba as soon as the light faded. There, resting on his lap with its arms wrapped around his neck, was a small girl. Blonde hair, blue eyes, fair skin… she even had the same signature as the Gremory Knight. A lavish dress of blue and white with golden ribbons was donned.
"No!" she repeated more clearly. "I'ma stayin' with Papa!"
She even stuck her tongue out at him.
"Fuck it!" shouted Rolan. He threw his hands up in the air and turned his back on everyone. "Chase. America. Going home where everything makes fucking sense! Fuck you Japan, fuck you! If this was anywhere else Excalibur wouldn't have turned into a fucking loli girl! Instead we get that fucking loli girl, the single most powerful loli girl in the entire fucking cosmos shows up and makes out with the world's worst pervert, the Vampire dies— which is fucking impossible!— and a Devil is a fucking Living Saint! Fuck! This is why I don't go to Japan!"
No one knew how to react when the Sixth… or was it Fifth now? The Fifth Predator ranted on, waving his hands around and throwing a tantrum like a child.
"You… You knew about Asia?" Serene asked with wide eyes.
"Eh?" the person mentioned swiveled her head between Serene and Rolan. Cluelessness was in her eyes. When he said something about a Devil being a Living Saint… she had thought he was referring to Serene. But…
"Asia… was chosen for the Holy Sword Project back then…" he stated in an aggravated voice. He scratched his head vigorously almost like how one would when carrying lice. He was simply frustrated and couldn't control his emotions at this state. "Doesn't take a fucking genius to piece things together. Why do you think I sent her here? Fucking why would I leave her in that shithole? But I don't get how she got her Miracles back when… Fuck it. Don't answer it. This is Japan. Only shit like that happens here. I'm leaving now."
He waved his hand at the open space in front of him. Space split open as a dark portal opened up. They could make out some sort of human figure standing in the doorway but couldn't define the details within. But they could see a gloved hand reach out for him. He almost took it.
"Wait!" Rias called out to him one last time. "Kiba! How do we put his Sacred Gear back—"
His reply was to give her the middle finger and step inside the portal.
It shut close right after.
"…What a child," commented Koneko.
"Siegfried-sensei," Rias spoke softly when their small argument had died down. She had won in the end and continued to bask in the glory of embracing her lover. It was for her lover was she worried. "The girl that… that kissed Ise. Who was she?"
Ludwig took the moment to gather his thoughts. He sipped the coffee Serene had brewed for the two of them. The two Predators shared a look at another.
He answered, "I suppose you deserve to know a few things. Understand I cannot tell you everything; that is for Master Hyoudou to share with you. That girl you saw… her name is Ophis."
Rias blanched. "T-The Ouroboros Dragon God of Infinity?!"
"That is the one," he nodded sagely as he sipped his coffee again. He needed it to draw out time and for Rias to compose herself. The rest of the children in the area were waiting anxiously for more information. "I cannot share with you her purpose in… all this."
He made a sway with his hand, a gesture that meant generally anything. But he was implying the duties of Serene, Issei, and himself.
"Other than that," he went on, "I am afraid my intelligence is limited. I know not why she was drawn towards Master Hyoudou. At the least we know she is responsible for his Gift of Seduction."
He finished with a dry chuckle. He intentionally left that for them to soak in as he drank another sip of his coffee.
"…His what?" Akeno had asked.
"The Gift of Seduction," he answered calmly, as if it were nothing of grand importance. It was his way of teasing them, calming their nerves in a sense. "It is another one of the Gifts much like his Flight and my Craft. It is granted to the human who has successfully charmed a Dragon— that's with a capital 'D', mind you— to be in their favor. It would seem the Ouroboros has taken a liking to Master Hyoudou."
"…We said no more," pouted Koneko. Her feline eyes now glared daggers a hundred times as intense at Issei as opposed to her glare with Rias. Issei's lips twitched in his sleep.
"I believe Chase explained it was with Primordials, not Dragons," commented Serene.
"Bah," Ludwig waved it off with a half-hearted scowl. "You believe in his nonsense? It was a Dragon I slew, an Evil Dragon that Artemis boy slew, a Dragon my Trist slew, and a Dragon Master Hyoudou slew. These are Gifts of draconian origins. Why would they come from Sir Rolan's gods?"
"Oh ye of little faith," said Serene as she sipped her own coffee. It wasn't missed by Ludwig how she used that tactic to hide her smile. He smiled for her, inwardly of course— he wouldn't dream of showing his content for her until he learned of her true intentions. Serene was starting to thaw out and express herself more openly. Small things here and there, he had noticed. But grand things when it came from a woman who never showed anything beyond acceptance.
Ludwig felt a tinge of pride for Issei. The boy was a marvel. He remembered when Issei was so quiet, so shy and scared. He shared a few stories of his friends… Motohama, Matsuda, and Sona. Well, Sona hadn't been a genuine friend back then but it was clear the boy had cared deeply for her. That, and she had a nice pair of tits that Ludwig was reminded of over and over again.
In such a short amount of time, Issei had been able to make his circle grow. He had a bountiful amount of maidens who loved him. His influence was growing. The reports Ludwig had received over the few days had proven how serious of a power figure the boy was becoming. News had reached far and wide over the death of the Vampire. Heaven was shaking, the Devils were celebrating, and just about every other faction was trying to get in touch and talking about peace.
But the biggest prize, at least in Ludwig's opinion, was Serene. She was loyal to Issei. She would die for him, he knew. And she was smiling, overwhelmed with such joy not even her bleak mindset as a Predator could keep the warmth down.
Why… he hadn't seen her smile like this since those six months she lived with Sir Rolan.
Now if he could get it through the boy's thick skull that Sherry and Ayame were the same person. He thought about telling him on numerous occasions. But… this was Sherry's wish. She wanted to warm her way into his heart before revealing herself. Why, Ludwig couldn't fathom. But she seemed to know Issei the best.
She better make it happen soon. The longer this little charade happened the deeper of a wound she would inflict on the boy. It was because of his did Ludwig meddle. He had always intended on giving Issei the information the British held on Sir Rolan but instead he dangled it over his head at a price. One week to share with Sherry— that was all. If she did not make her move by then, well, it'd be best she'd never see him again.
Ludwig raised a brow at the addressing. As did others. Heads had turned towards the boy sitting at the far end of the table they were sharing. Even the little girl, Excalibur given human shape, looked up at him with startling eyes.
Sir Rolan had sworn it was Japan and its strange phenomena to have the supernatural, occult, and simply weird events gather on its lands that made Excalibur become this way. Personally, Ludwig believed it was the Fae and their tendencies to screw with their High King. A small prank, in their own twisted sense of humor.
The little girl-sword had stuck to Kiba like glue. Wherever he went, she followed. He had tried endlessly to shoo her away, dismissing her into motes of energy such as how he would when dismissing one of his creations of Sword Birth. But she always returned, sometimes with a vengeance. Sometimes she would reappear with such force she would tackle him to the ground after latching onto his face. It had been comical at first. But then it quickly grew annoying— especially towards the poor lad. He eventually gave up but set some ground rules… such as when he needed to use the privy.
Right now, Kiba was looking at Ludwig with a hardened expression. One of loathing Ludwig had seen many a times. He had kept it to himself for the sake of his compatriots but couldn't hold it in any longer.
"What can I do for you, Good Kiba?" Ludwig answered calmly and professionally. His eyes had sharpened as he took on the mantle of Her Majesty's Knight of Honor.
"…The Holy Sword Project," he stated in a low voice. He was ready to burst into an outrage. "How much of it was true? How much did you have a hand in it?"
"Papa…" Excalibur pulled on his shirt but he swatted her hand away.
"Hmm… That…" Ludwig nodded. He stalled for time once more by finishing the last of his coffee.
It was a mistake. Kiba slammed his fist against the table and shouted. "My friends died because of you people! And for what?!"
Rias had opened her mouth to reprimand her Knight, but suddenly closed it. Her face was downcast as well as the others. Most of the Gremory peerage had known about the happenstance with Kiba while the more recent members had been informed within the past few days. Kiba had lost everything in the Holy Sword Project. There was a deep fire for revenge still brewing in his heart but he no longer had anyone to direct it towards since those he thought responsible were gone.
Ludwig stared at the young man long and hard. Unflinching. If the boy was going to try to challenge him, then Ludwig would not hold back.
Excalibur met his gaze trying to protect her… father. Or, tried to at least. She ducked her head and rested it below the boy's chin in fright. Kiba remained stubborn but eventually he had to look away for he couldn't match the glare.
"Do not challenge something you know you cannot defeat," Ludwig instructed. "There are forces out there less forgiving than I am and would strike you down in the name of their arrogance."
"…My question," Kiba replied, almost demanded. His expression was crossed between rage and desperation as he shook his head. "…Please."
"The Holy Sword Project was a proposition fasted by Sir Rolan," Ludwig began. His hand left the coffee mug as he sat erect and hands resting on the edge of the table. He drummed his fingers as he talked, gaining a look from Serene but was ignored. "We were all a part of it in our own way. Every one of us had a small responsibility. Even I. Even the Vampire. We are all guilty of the things that took place behind those closed doors.
"I could tell you all the good that came out of it. I could tell you all the evil that transpired. But that's not what you want to hear, is it? No, you only want to know who it to point your sword at. You are unsatisfied Valper Galilei was killed before you could have your vengeance… justice… whichever you prefer to call it. You are even unsatisfied it was Master Hyoudou who took it from you against the Vampire.
"But you know who it is," he said with a voice on edge. "We are. We created the Holy Sword Project and had a deep hand in its affairs. We are all responsible for the good and evil that came from it. And I shall have you know this was not the first side-project to create more of our kind. Nor was it the last.
"Now, what will you do with this knowledge?"
Kiba gritted his teeth as his fists curled up to the point of nearly breaking skin. Excalibur placed a comforting hand on top of his and tried to sooth him. His eyes snapped at hers and the reminder of what she was only increased his ire. His eyes were full of such hatred Ludwig believed he would strike at her. She was the final conclusion of the fiasco that ruined him.
She looked up at him, pleading and begging for him not to be angry with her. Her eyes shone with love and heartbreak. But it was not enough. His anger would not reside. She vanished into motes of light. Either dismissed by Kiba or on her own volition.
"Sister Serene…" came Asia. "It's not true… is it? You… You wouldn't do all those things… and Mister Chase… he wouldn't."
"But we did," Serene replied calmly. She spoke in the same tranquil tone one would comment on the weather. "I was in charge of locating those who had the highest potential of becoming Living Saints. Some had just enough grace within them to become influential figureheads when they became of age and then there were those who could awaken as a Living Saint by puberty. We had the Inquisitors gather and interview them."
"Then…" Akeno stood up and approached the table. Her smile was gone. Only bitterness remained. "You were the one to bring Kiba-kun there…?"
Serene tilted her head and thought for a moment. "As I said, I was in charge of locating them. It was the Inquisitors who did most of the manual labors. But… there was the occasion where I, Saint Virtue, or Saint Choir had to do it. Yes, I do remember meeting the young man. He would have made for a Paladin at best with his level of grace… I believe the orphanage children called him… David? Was it?"
She brought her fingers to her lips in thought, trying to recall an event that had happened years ago. She blatantly ignored Kiba's howl of outrage. He almost came at her but was stopped by Xenovia and Irina. Not even the words from his master could calm him down.
Ludwig glanced over at the Divine Beast, pondering what her intentions were for revealing such information. As the face of the Church she had been well versed in the art of diplomacy. She could have revealed the truth in such a way that would have left Kiba upset at best. Instead, she had been sloppy in her delivery. It was becoming worse as her tranquility was being seen as apathy.
"…Having that said," she began slowly, waiting patiently for the boy to calm down enough to hear her next words. It took a moment for the two Exorcists— former Exorcists to get him back in his chair. Xenovia kept a firm hand on his shoulder while Irina took a few steps away but ready to catch him again.
"I refuse to accept any of the responsibility in aftermath of the Holy Sword Project," her brows furrowed slightly. Just enough for everyone to see her frustration. "It was sickening and I wanted no part in it. But, I digress, the Gathering of Heaven would never allow any Living Saint, especially their Divine Beast, to go against their will. I did horrible and blasphemous things, regardless if they were in the name of their good. But I shall not apologize for them when I never had a say in the matter whatsoever."
"You're telling me the Church forced you?" Kiba snarled with disbelief.
"They did," Serene nodded, her brows furrowing further. Her frustration quickly became disgust. "I share no love for the Church. I am glad Chase is wiping them out of existence. Since I was a little girl, younger than when you were taken for the Holy Sword Project, they have used me as their mascot and greatest weapon. The Gathering of Heaven has the list of every Living Saint's true name and can compel them to do anything. Most comply willingly but there are those who despise the Church, myself included."
"And now… you are a Devil," Ludwig stated.
"Now, I am… free," Serene tasted the word and found she liked it. There was a cruel, twisted smile on his lips. "But I am no Devil. Not yet. I have only lost the grace that made me a Living Saint. The contamination from my master's Queen Piece was more than enough for me to betray the Laws of Heaven."
"But… Madame Serene… you said…" Irina began with wide eyes.
"I lied," Serene retorted, returning to her tranquil expression with unreal ease. "I tend to do that, Irina. The Church has taught me to be an avid liar."
"You being Ise-kun's Queen hasn't changed anything," Kiba regained the attention. "Don't think because he trusts you that I will."
"That we will," corrected Rias. She had laid Issei down on the couch and approached the conference. "Don't think we've forgotten what you've already done to Ise and how much you've put him through. That includes Asia and Ayame for that matter. Will you blame the Church again for that as well, Divine Beast?"
Serene gazed at Rias with an expression almost akin to curiosity. It wasn't entirely so as it was mixed with a plethora of other emotions, most of which were unreadable. The only other emotions readable was defiance, arrogance, and, dare she say, delight.
"Only partially, and not in the direct sense," the Third Predator replied casually. "They did not force me to do it in their usual manner. It was more so… indirect. A threat, let's call it. Asia was once known as the Holy Maiden. She was another one of the Church's prized possessions and was vicious towards anything that might steal her away. When the Astaroth Devil came and she healed him, the scandal could have easily been kept silent. She could have remained in the Church.
"I found an opening. I caused the scandal to escalate beyond the Church's usual means of bribery and assassinations. News of the Holy Maiden becoming a Witch had reached beyond the Church's means of control. She was forced to be excommunicated… but to be shipped off to another facility of the Church elsewhere. It was on Chase's part was she smuggled out of the country and sent here to Japan. It was also convenient the Dragoon's territory was shared by the Devils…"
While Asia listened, she kept her hands pressed over her mouth. Her complexion was ghastly pale. Serene had announced the Church had killed people in the name of keeping her act of healing a Devil a secret. She had also shared it was her who made all those people hate Asia and condemning her a Witch.
"Why?" she asked. "Sister Serene… why?"
At the sound of her voice, Serene had lost her tranquility. Her eyes looked sunken, aged, and weary. She looked older than she was supposed to be.
"You are a Living Saint, Asia," she answered after a heavy sigh. "You awakened a few years after your Sacred Gear had."
There was more she wanted to say. Explanations and stories— her mouth was open and ready to say these things. But she only gave another weary sigh and sipped her lukewarm coffee. She also couldn't look Asia in the eye.
Asia's world was spinning. Potential futures she was seeing had been robbed from her. People she could have saved or helped as a Living Saint just as Serene of Finland had once been was no longer possible. It had been her pride and joy as well as her reason for living when she had been the Holy Maiden. It warmed her empty heart to see the people thanking her on a daily basis.
"I want to say something before this gets any more out of hand."
Issei entered the group with his IV stand in his hand. His steps were slow and steady but not as heavy as they were previously. He looked to be a bit livelier with only the few minutes he had slept.
"Ise, why are you awake?" Rias was at his side and tried to push him back towards the couch. He wouldn't move though as his feet were firmly planted to the floor. "You need your rest and—"
"It's kinda hard to sleep with all this shouting…" he sighed. Rias had looked hurt and apologetic by his words. But grabbed her hand and gave it a firm squeeze to assure it everything was alright. "I feel like I need to stand anyways. I'm tired of being in bed."
"You should listen to the request of your master, Master," Serene turned to look at her unofficial King. "You are still recovering from your battle. You mustn't burden your mind with—"
"Thank you, Amelia," he cut her off and did his best to give her a bow.
"…I'm sorry?" even she had been taken aback.
"It's probably not the right thing to say. It's probably the worst. But I mean it. Thank you. I would have never met Asia. And… I know how miserable Asia was at the Church. She didn't have a single friend but now… everyone loves her at school. I don't know if it was the right thing to do but… I think it was all for the better in the end…"
"Ise…" muttered Asia. Whatever conflict she had within herself had been washed away by his words. She believed he was right.
"…You are too nice, Master," Serene scolded. "That is not a welcoming trait as a Predator."
"No one actually gave me a guidebook to follow," he muttered below his breath as he scratched his head. "I can be nice if I want to. That doesn't mean I trust you either, so you know. I'm still going to be keeping my eye on you. But right now… we start with a clean slate. So, if you don't mind, I would like my Queen Piece back."
Serene blinked. "You… do not wish for me to be your Queen? We had a deal, Master. I wish to finish my end of it."
"I don't want you to be my Queen because of something like that," he shook his head. "I'm no better than the Church you hate so otherwise. You're free now. You can go wherever you want and do whatever you want. So long as you don't cause any trouble you're welcome back here whenever you want."
Everyone was quiet as they watched Serene's reaction. She bowed her head with her eyes staring at the floor in thought. Her hands had went towards one of the pockets on her dress and pulled out the white Queen Piece. It had been chipped with a series of scratches on it. It was worn down due to her influence of sin even for a short period of time. She had only bonded with it for roughly an hour and it was already so beaten.
She stood, paced towards Issei, and lifted it up for him to receive. Their eyes had met. Both of them gratuitous for the other in their own ways.
She did not let go, however.
"Then I have a request, Issei," she said. "As a free person. You say I can walk out of here right now and you will not hold it against me?"
"…You can do whatever you want," he said carefully, unsure where she was going with all this.
She nodded. A smile filled her lips. It made her look radiant.
"Then I ask, as a free woman, if you will have me as your servant. It doesn't matter to me if I am to be your Queen or any other Piece. I wish to stay. Forever."
Her smile knocked the air out of his lungs. He had never seen such a beautiful thing before. Dare he say it transcended the pure smile of Asia and the radiant love from Rias?! He could feel his cheeks heat up as the thought of he and Serene being together forever. It was almost like a marriage proposal—
His senses flared. Danger was coming in three seconds and closing! He spun around but his reactions were slowed.
"We said no more!" shouted Koneko as she threw the nearest thing she could grab… which had been the whole coffee table in the living room.
It struck him in the back of the head. Had he been in the peak of his health it wouldn't have phased him. But in his condition, he went down face-first onto the floor. And he was unconscious for the remainder of the night.
"Koneko!" cried Rias as she, Asia, and a few of the other girls went to the dragon's aid. "He's injured! I'm just as frustrated as you are but that wasn't necessary!"
"Oh dear…" Serene said as she hunched over Issei's collapsed form. She didn't bother to revive him. "You misunderstand. I have no romantic interest in him. I will not get in your way of your pursuits."
"No but you fired the first shots, Oba-san," Akeno gave the older woman an icy glare and a venomous smile. "War has been declared."
"I'm twenty-three," Serene countered with a blunt stare of her own.
"You've been twenty-three for the past twelve years," chuckled Ludwig. He stood and pushed his seat back under the table. "Everything seems to be in order here. I will excuse myself. Call me if anything stirs, but I'm more than sure nothing will…"
He didn't bother to finish his sentence. No one was listening to him. The girls were too busy fighting over who it was to take care of Issei. They began to pull on his limbs like children fighting over a ragdoll. The poor lad. He had no idea what he had gotten himself into.
"Sherry," he called to the little girl finishing the dishes. Rather, she had been finished for quite some time and was only finding meticulous things to occupy her reason for staying in the kitchen. She didn't want to disturb anyone, especially her beloved brother. He had accepted to bring her along for the sake of showing her he was better. Nothing more.
"Come child, we're heading home."
She was at his side with his coat and hat at the ready. He thanked her as they both put on their attire. Summer was drawing near but the nights were still chilly. She took a moment to look back at the charade still going on. Her eyes longed on Issei's still form until she forced herself to look away.
"Stupid Ise-nii…" she muttered as she opened the door for Ludwig.
He thanked her politely as his eyes locked on Kiba's one last time. The young man was staring intently on him, sending him this silent message that he will find his way around Ludwig's warning. The business regarding the Holy Sword Project was incomplete, to him at least. The boy would continue to hold a grudge… and Ludwig shall accept that. He was guilty of doing far worse in the name of his queen anyhow.
He nodded in respect towards Kiba before walking out the door. Nakashima Ayame gave the Gremory Knight a wave with pleading eyes to watch for her brother in her stead before shutting the door behind them.
Ophis slit her wrist and poured the blood into the funnel. It was a steady process filling the pouch to the right amount. The first attempt had her overfilling it. The second hadn't been enough. She got it right by the third time and every other after that.
Having its fill, she withdrew her hand and sealed both pouch and wound with her mysteries. With steady and patient care, she tucked it within the cooler and went to look for the tape. She knew she had it resting somewhere in her room but… ah, there it was.
When she returned, but only a second with her back turned, there was a second pouch of blood resting on top of hers. She eyed it curiously, pondering for a moment how it had appeared without her knowledge. But then she realized where the blood had come from. After all, there was only one person in the entire omniverse who could sneak around her.
Stupid Red. That's who.
She had half a mind to toss his gross, contaminated, inferior blood into the Abyss. But then she stopped and thought further about the action. Why would he bother himself with doing something as menial as this? He had been more interested in fighting the Triangular Beast. Getting him to work with her and her minions had been a godsend with his selfish tendencies and that had only been because she was trying to break the Heavenly Father's seals. Their plans coincided.
So… what the hell was this?
She frowned as she picked up the pouch, only by its tips. She didn't dare to touch his blood, even indirectly. But she couldn't deny its worth. By drinking this she could become far more powerful and inherit some of his Dream properties, if not only temporarily. It was tempting. But she knew it would only be enough to defeat the avatar Stupid Red had in this world and not the actual Dragon roaming around in the Dimensional Gap.
But, to someone like Issei Hyoudou… his ascension to a Dravirik Lae'cueri would hasten. Combined with her blood and her Snake morphing his flesh and power…
The pouch was tossed back into the cooler. But she put a note on there to have Stupid Red's blood used after hers… as a sort of final treatment. Hopefully Sir Siegfried would comply.
Taping everything together and fitting it all into a neat Styrofoam box and then put that box into a cardboard box… and then taping everything together one final time, she stamped the top with a sticker.
To Hyoudou Residence, it said. No actual address.
She opened up a portal and chucked the box within. It would reach its destination, she knew.
The idea of having the Red Blur as her champion made her want to go into the future and watch the upcoming movie. But, unfortunately, she had other pressing matters to attend to.
Vali Lucifer, the White Chaser, was beginning to stir from his sleep. She needed to see if there was any backlash from being dead for so long. She hoped he still had his Sacred Gear. It would be a bother to her if he could no longer qualify as her favorite theatrical antagonist if [Rejection] moved on to its next host.
Ophis grabbed her Plush Chaser before leaving the room and locking the door. She wanted him to sign it.
The Vampire was dead.
Rolan repeated this in his head for several days and still couldn't believe it. The man had been a parasite that had never wasted away no matter the environment. He was as much of a survivor as Rolan had been. They both survived against the war in their old world, had fought against forces that were the bane of their existences, and had faced an army of beings that could reduce their abilities to nothing more than flashy light shows. The game had ended, the world had died out, and a new Ruler had taken its place. The Ruler had wiped the board clean and started the current world. And Rolan, Philips, and Four had survived.
His paranoia continued to tell him the Vampire was still out there somewhere. A broken and beaten fragment of himself, no bigger than a cockroach or even a grain of rice, but more and more evidence surfaced as the days went. The world was changing. Rather than it decaying from both the authorities of the Earth Mother and the Heavenly Father vanishing, the world seemed to be thriving. As though a series of chains placed on it had been undone and now it was free to flourish in all its glory.
It meant the Earth Mother and the Heavenly Father were truly dead now. And if they were, then so too would it mean for the Vampire.
He didn't want to believe it. But as he looked for his oldest adversary he was only discovering truths he didn't want to hear. The land of the Americas was no longer drinking the prayers of the olden gods dry. Ley lines across the globe were pulsing with magic that hadn't been seen since the ancient days where magicians and gods once lived amongst the common folk. These things had been only within the past few days and he knew more significant changes would start to appear as little as half a year.
The air was also starting to clean up. There was not so much smog even within the City of Angels. The sky was becoming a little more blue by each day as opposed to its silver hue everyone had gotten accustomed to.
There was also this weight removed that Rolan couldn't describe any better. Others had mentioned it as well. His friends had shared stories they were having strokes of luck in their jobs and personal lives. They also seemed happier for some unknown reason they couldn't answer. They also didn't think much on it nor had they noticed until he asked them.
The entire world seemed to be getting better after recovering from an illness.
Well, everyone except the Church.
They were suddenly losing their power. Their influence. Only a few days and there were newspaper articles and reports on television about groundbreaking records. Only the truly faithful and zealous practitioners had attended Church weekly rituals. When asked, the general populace stated they either had more pressing matters to attend to or simply couldn't find any reason to go. Rolan had a feeling the Church would collapse in less than a decade.
Not that he was going to give them that long. Let alone half a year. He, alone, had executed two-hundred thousand of the Church's finest. Combined with the efforts of Philips, the mercenaries of the American Union Postal Service, and the natural enemies of the Church the two had rallied, the death toll was somewhere near three-hundred and fifty thousand.
The news reported it as natural disasters, terrorist attacks, local murder sprees, kidnappings, suicides, freak accidents, casualties of war… so on and so forth. It was being controlled by as many of Rolan's resources and as many of Philips' Dawn Blades as possible. Less than ten percent of the deaths were actually reported.
The greatest thing about America was that its people were ignorant. They only cared about the latest gossip, the latest trends, what celebrity was sleeping with who, the most recent political scandal… and countless other garbage that had no relevance at all. No one in America really seemed to care about the outside world. If it didn't involve them directly then they weren't interested.
Having that said, that didn't mean the Church didn't have branches in America. Getting around that triviality was simple as Rolan was using this wave of newly found freedom on the world to get what he wanted. No one batted an eye when the local priest went missing. No one was asking questions.
Of course, the Church tried to fight back. Tried. And failed miserably, laughably so. Rolan and Philips had used their experience from their war to land the first preemptive strike. The heads that made up the Gathering of Heaven had been cut off as well as the next set of replacements. Without anyone to lead them, the Church was in chaos and running around blindly.
Take for example right this second. A small group of Exorcists had tried to storm his place, swearing vengeance on their fallen comrades, friends, family, would seek out justice, blah, blah, blah— spewing words he had heard a hundred-thousand times. Sure, they managed to break through the first barrier but lost most of their strength after running face-first into the second one. And then they were all picked off by Syrche, the deity that inhabits the forest surrounding his manor.
The sound of their screams reminded him of the ones the girls from the Astaroth Peerage made when they tried to sack this same place. That reminded him— he needed to figure out what he was going to do with them and their King.
Still, it was only a few days. Shit might turn up once fifty percent of the Church was successfully removed. Heaven wasn't going to accept the deaths of their servants and livestock. Like any other divine being, Heaven relied on the prayers and sacrifices of humanity. If their religion fell then they would be no better than the old forgotten gods. They would fight back.
And Rolan would be waiting for them.
He sat on the balcony in a foldup chair. There was more lavish and comfortable furniture around but there was a bit of nostalgia to enjoy the sunset in a foldup chair. It reminded him of his days in high school when he would sit on the porch of his house doing just this. Sitting on his feet, doing just the same and using his legs as a back rest, was his daughter Snowball. Her eyes were locked on the sun slowly rising from the horizon. She had a cup of warm chocolate in her hands.
They both loved these moments together. They were becoming less frequent as the Evensong drew nearer. This was the only time when her prophecies weren't bombarding her psyche and he wasn't plagued by his curse. Both their problems were still there in front of their faces but they could both ignore them only when the sun rose and set.
The sun. Such a beautiful thing. It reminded him of his wife and her mother, Snow.
"…Send her in," he announced before his maid could speak through the speaker. He had detected the harassment of magic trying to penetrate the barriers around his home. All of them. Even a collective force of Archmagi wouldn't be able to get through. And even if they did, they would have the forest deity and the lake deity he created as guard dogs to hunt them. So far only the likes of a Predator or an impressive Candidate had been successful in getting past those two.
A minute later, Serafall Leviathan appeared through a magic circle. She was dressed in frills of pink and white, with a short skirt that was close to scandalizing, and a top that showed her midsection. Gloves decorated in gems, boots lined with feathers and too many laces for any purpose in the footwear, and a ridiculously large hat… She was going for that magical girl look again.
"Sera, don't you look lovely today," he drawled the words with such sarcasm anyone could have felt them ooze in thick sludge.
Snowball looked once at Serafall, sipped her drink as her eyes peered into the Devil's laughable soul, and then returned her attention to the sun. This wouldn't be the first time they had met. Nor would it be the last. Snowball had been intrigued by Serafall on the first few times but then she had gotten so accustomed to the Devil's antics nothing was surprising anymore. She found Serafall boring and couldn't understand why her father kept her around.
"Chase, you're as big as a ball of sunshine as always," the Devil retorted with just as heavy of sarcasm as he had.
It got him to look away from the sun to gaze at her incredulously. He blinked. "Huh. Everything alright? You're never mad at me—"
"I know it was you," she accused.
"…You're going to have to be more specific," he said bluntly. "I won't deny it if I am responsible. But, I mean, there's a lot of things I've done. Not trying to be an ass this time."
"This time," she nodded with a smile. A sweet smile. If only she didn't have a tick-mark above her brow from barely restrained anger. "Everything. Serene of Finland. The Church. Excalibur. Dragoon-chan. Everything. Your hands were all over this one. And to think I believed you. You almost had me fooled, Obi-tan. I thought you couldn't lie but it turns out you betrayed me with—"
"Shut the fuck up you damn fucking hypocrite," he snarled. His eyes blazed as his killing intent leaked out. The wood on the railing cracked despite the amount of fortification wards placed all over the house. His Aura was pressing down on them.
They all could feel it. He was about to kill her. But he didn't. He had killed countless others for upsetting him far less than this. However, Serafall was one of the special persons of Rolan. He genuinely cared for her. There was something intimate between them and that was the only thing keeping him back.
He shut his eyes and recalled his power. The pressure distilled until the air was sterile once more. When he opened his eyes, the orbs within were still glowing with power but his expression had softened.
"…You have no idea how much this cost me," he said in a heavy voice. "I kept my promise to your sister to the letter. I was forced to break it or the Dragoon would have died. Breaking that promise constitutes as a lie, did you know? There is a reason why I hate lies, why I hate people who lie through their teeth, and why I can't do it."
Snowball moved from sitting on his feet to sitting on his lap. He welcomed her, wrapping one arm around her waist and the other hand combing through her hair.
"But… whatever," he added dryly. "What would you care? You and I both have killed more than enough families. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters… We've killed hundreds of these. I've just recently killed thousands before the morning. Why should we care when one of ours is removed instead? Especially by our own hand?"
Serafall pulled up one of the wooden chairs with a cushion and sat beside him. She looked at him skeptically, her demeanor from before completely gone. "I want an explanation."
"That depends," he scowled at her… more than usual anyways. His anger hadn't fully resided. "Are you going to ridicule me again and call me a liar?"
"…I'll listen," she said softly. "But I want the full truth. Not your regular half-assed truth full of holes. You owe me that much at least."
"…Fair enough," he said as he leaned back in his chair. His eyes locked on the sun again and his eyes softened. The sun always put him in a better mood. "Where to begin…? Ah. I suppose it would go as far back as when I first met Serene."
He told her. At least as much as he believed she deserved to hear. He told her of the story of Amelia Rosewood, how he slipped something called True Love into her drink and gave her a healthy body free of sin, of how they lived together peacefully (if not arguing every day viciously) for half a year. And then an incident arrived where the Predators were called into action. Rolan had been ejected from the world for a year… whatever that meant. He returned to find Serene had been dragged back into the Church and forced to absorb the sins of their faithful yet again. He threatened all those years ago to set her free, but the Church had used her as a shield, making her swear by her name to protect them against him.
"…Do you love her?" Serafall found herself asking. Despite their previous aggressions, Serafall was swept away by this tale. She always was a sucker for romances. The question had come to her in a mixture of curiosity, excitement, longing, and despair all wrapped into one package. There were strong feelings for Rolan, definitely not love but surely something there. He had been a dear friend. Someone she could rely on and be herself— both as the adorable sis-con magical girl and the veteran of a war that forced her to sever her heart and kill her childhood friends.
"I did. Once," he answered in a distant voice. "Probably as much as I love you now but it's passed. I still remember the feelings though. I remember how it felt when the Church took something important from me. I might not love her now, but I'd still never forgive them. I'm mostly doing this for myself rather than for her. But, I also know she's laughing her ass off over it."
She withheld her words. His actions were going to cause colossal problems now that he was a Devil, especially one of high rank as a Demon Lord. But he was also King Oberon of the Fae, the Knight of Honor to the princess of Britain, the Commander of Legions to the Tempes vampires, the Archmagus of Los Angeles, Vice Roy of America to the Acolytes, and the Second Symphony to the American Union Postal Service mercenary corp. He was a lot of things. A lot of powerful figureheads. How he was able to shuffle all these responsibilities was beyond her. Even she skimmed on her work frequently.
Hopefully the retaliation from Heaven would be split far and wide to all of these factions instead of focusing on just the Devils.
"I'm supposed to arrest you for that," she stated diplomatically. "You are instigating a war without the authority of the Maous. Predator or not, we cannot turn a blind eye towards your actions."
"But you won't," he said dispassionately.
"…No, I won't," she confirmed. "Not yet, at least. I should… but it's more like I can't. Legally, you haven't broken any laws. You haven't left any evidence to confirm it's you attacking the Church. But how long can you keep this up? Heaven isn't so stupid to not notice the patterns and will spot you in action at some point."
He shrugged. Not a clueless one but a gesture to show he cared very little about it.
"Because I plan on bringing Heaven down as well."
He had said such words as if it were simple. To bring down Heaven would mean to tear down the system God of the Bible had created. It would be the same if Rolan had declared war on the Devils and promised to erase them from existence. The idea was ludicrous. Serafall might not be able to stand up against him but she sure as hell could put up a fight. And then there was Sirzechs Lucifer. Serafall never knew anyone more powerful than he.
But Sirzechs wasn't a Predator. Rolan was.
She had been raised to respect and fear Heaven just as much as she had experienced their power and authority in the Great War. Heaven was a force to be reckoned with. It was a presence that had existed since the beginning of the world, was older than the Devils and Fallen, and was older than even the most ancient of gods. Heaven was something even the greatest of beings on the planet wouldn't dare to challenge. Even the Earth Mother, the incarnation of the planet itself, could not defeat Heaven.
But Heaven had lost their Heavenly Father. Without their host, without their creator to keep its system maintained, it was slowly decaying from within. Heaven was still beautiful and all who saw it were frightened by its magnificence, but no one knew the conditions behind the pearly gates. The inhabitants of Heaven were too busy trying to maintain their system just as the Devils were struggling to keep their people from dying out.
Worse, Heaven was defenseless. She suddenly realized. The Angels would always be able to put up a fight but they would not survive another clash like the Great War even if they were the victors. The cost would be too heavy.
And Heaven would, indeed, fall.
Serafall sighed. A very weary and frustrated sigh. No one got under her skin more than Rolan. And yet, he was the only one she could ever have fun around. She missed the days they would goof off and get into heated debates over superheroes and magical girls. This was just a phase, she told herself; they would overcome this hurdle in their relationship and be back at each other's throats over anime, concerts, and games like how they used to.
"Tell me about the Holy Sword Project."
"You mean other than what you don't already know?" he sassed. The cheeky little prick. He even gave her a sarcastic smile. "Fine. I had a hand in it. But not directly. I couldn't break Sona's promise and you've no idea how annoying it was trying to reform my plan. You've no idea how frustrated I was on that day she caught me in that stupid favor. It was supposed to be a small favor for her efforts in watching over Hyoudou but it ended up backfiring in my face.
"That's not to say it was impossible, just annoying. I managed to convince the Vampire to get involved. I even told him Amelia's name for him to use at the perfect chance. Stealing the Excalibur Fragments was simple… but the tricky part was getting the rest after the Church had been warned. I didn't expect Saint Virtue to be there. But I was glad the Church had been timid because of Hyoudou's stunt in the Rating Game. So timid, in fact, they willingly let loose their Divine Beast. I couldn't ask for a better opportunity.
"Saint Virtue never worked with Amelia. I'd also like to thank the Church for their idiocy in political subterfuge. Seats in the Gathering of Heaven kept information from another and traded secrets like currency. Virtue was left in the dark, believing he knew everything about the Saints he commanded. He seriously thought she was dead.
"I knew Amelia would follow the commands from the Church to the letter. She was to keep watch over Xenovia and Irina and to… what was it… make sure the Dragoon is not a threat. With Xenovia taken, she would do everything in her power to retrieve her. But with the Vampire knowing her name, there was little she could do. The commands from the Church worked against her and she was forced to seek aid from her sworn enemy.
"The other hard part was to get you to hand over some Evil Pieces," he frowned. "You're definitely not going to just hand them over after all these years of badgering you and Ajuka. I needed to find a way to force your hand. Something that would make you desperate enough to hand them over in exchange for something you needed from me. There's not much I have you'd be interested in so I needed to acquire it."
Her face paled. And then it turned red. "You used Sona just for that?!"
"Among other things," he replied. "Nothing is ever so simple, Sera. Nor am I done with Sona. And it goes far deeper than that. You'd not believe how many steps I had to make just to reach that far. Acquiring the Astaroth Conglomerate by staging Asia Argento's mishap… You, the great Leviathan of foreign affairs, know there are plans within plans. But plans change. I had planned on the marriage ceremony gathering the attention of my enemies. The Khaos Brigade couldn't possibly ignore a stunt like this. But then you and Hyoudou had to come in and—"
She rose from her seat. Outraged. The area around them was frozen solid as her demonic energies leaked beyond her means to control. Her eyes were dangerous and her voice was lethal. "You were willing to put my sister in danger."
It wasn't a question.
"Yes," he said cooly while matching her gaze with one of his own. His Aura protected him and his daughter. He made Snowball get off of him and gestured for her to stand aside. "I use people, Sera, but that doesn't mean I will throw them away. If anything were to happen to Sona I would have brought her back. There are ways for you Devils to come back even from complete incineration by light."
"That doesn't make me feel any better about this," she growled.
"Get over it. The plan's changed anyways. For the better, at that. Your big sister tendencies saved her from potential harm and got her into a much more controlled environment. Think about it. The Rating Game will host two Predators in a match. The enemy will see us battle and strike when we are weakened. Sona doesn't need to be there for this. Congratulations."
It still didn't make Serafall feel any better. She thrust her palm in his direction.
A large geyser of water and ice sprouted under his seat, stabbing and tearing him apart in an instance.
The ice cracked and he broke free. Both his eyes were blue as he commanded her ice by his will. His flesh was torn with chunks of meat dangling. His arm was split in two and yet he could move it despite the bones and tendons ruined. The more critical wounds had transformed his body, revealing parts of the visage he kept underneath— armor made of ice with flaming veins coursing through them. The ice she conjured soaked into his skin and began to convert into flesh and clothes.
"…I liked that chair," he said as soon as his regeneration was complete. With a gesture of his hand, the remaining ice not used on his wounds had reformed into a replication of the seat that had been shattered. But unlike his skin and clothes, he could not convert it into any other material other than ice. He sat in it, grumbling at the inconvenience of how it didn't flex with his weight.
"Dragoon-chan doesn't know about this, does he?" Serafall asked as she took her seat in the comfortable chair. She wasn't satisfied over his immediate recovery but could make do with how annoyed he had been.
"He can learn if he wants," shrugged Rolan. "But I'm not going to tell him. You can if you want. I'd prefer if you didn't. The boy can't keep a secret for his life. I'm afraid the enemy would learn about the big plan somehow…"
She couldn't argue with him, much to her dismay. Issei was a boy who wore his emotions on his sleeves and had little to no mental training. It was possible he could find a cute girl walking down the street, she would woo him, and he would spill the beans. Only to later find out that nameless girl was a member of the Khaos Brigade.
"How did you know I would give you Evil Pieces?" she asked, getting the conversation rolling once again.
"I didn't," he answered dryly while still trying to find a comfortable position on his icicle chair. And failing. "I only knew you loved your sister more than enough to use people just as much as I do. Admit it, you were going to use Hyoudou. If I got involved in a situation where he would be and have to fight, then I would be exposed by showing my battle capabilities. He would have an advantage and the chances of him winning would increase, even if only slightly.
"It was a gamble though. I didn't fully think you would hand over Evil Pieces after so long. But you really do love your sister that much. You can guess where the rest of this story goes."
She could. At least to a certain extent. She had been forced to hand over Issei's Evil Pieces while Rolan's were still on order. It had been his plan all along to hand them over while he kept the King Piece to himself. It was his intentions from the very beginning to have Serene of Finland lose her grace. But there were still things she didn't understand.
"You mentioned you had another contract," she recalled. "That you were to watch the group of Fallen Angels that took the Excalibur Fragments and make sure another Great War wouldn't break out. That you were to eliminate them should those be their intentions."
"Yes…?" he waited for her question.
"It was Azazel-san who placed the contract, wasn't it? Why?"
"There is this thing called client confidentiality," he stated.
"This whole conversation is illegal on several levels."
"Fair enough. As I said, there are always plans within plans. I needed a scapegoat should things go sour and I also needed to use the Fallen to get something else. I had an acquaintance who offered to help me reform Excalibur but only in exchange for getting the Fallen off his ass. I broke Galilei out of prison, gave him to the Vampire to rip off his face. As Galilei, he managed to convince Kokabiel to assist him in his latest project. Kokabiel agreed and mustered his personal troops and researchers. I didn't think the White Chaser would be there but… it didn't change anything in the end.
"There, we have Fallen involved in something that would bring the wrath of both the Devils and the Angels. Azazel couldn't afford that and reached out for assistance. I made sure to be the only one to answer. I also slipped in the meeting a good recommendation of raw materials and mystic artifacts for purchasing in the name of his research by my acquaintance. The two have already met and I've heard they've come to an agreement."
"And why did you drag Dragoon-chan and Rias-chan into all this?" she asked with an edge in her voice.
"Other than demonizing Serene? Hyoudou has done everything I wanted from him. He is the ideal Predator. My interest, however, was Yuuto Kiba. The Vampire took him for the sake of the Holy Sword Project. I told someone I would give him Excalibur even if I had to shove the blade down his throat. Excalibur is now Synthesized with Sword Birth. They are one in the same. And he can't live without it… but Excalibur getting a human form was outside my control. Either Elaine did that to screw with me or— no, I'm going to just blame Japan for this one. The ley lines of that country are—"
"You said you had nothing to do with all this," she cut him off before he went on another rant about how irregular Japan was. She had heard it a thousand times whenever she brought up magical girls.
"So I did," he crossed his legs, though still awkward about his seating. "And it wasn't a lie. I never touched a thing throughout this whole nonsense. I also recall saying it was the Fourth doing everything and I couldn't understand his reasons for doing it. I still don't know why he said yes… plus I never bothered to ask him. You people interpret my words however is best convenient for your sakes, never for what they really mean."
"…I really should arrest you," she said after massaging her temple.
"You should smile," he commented. "Scowling isn't good for you. It's also not your thing. You're so much prettier when you smile."
"Chase…" she warned.
He waved a hand at her. "Spoil-sport. Legally, this conversation never happened. I could tell you all the other things I've done wrong but you've no evidence to prove this conversation ever happened. I don't trust anyone, Sera, including the people closest to me. Especially those closest to me. There are just as many anti-surveillance wards here as there are for defense. Among other things. Plus, I could always argue with you on all the points on how my hands are clean in this one. In a legal sense, anyways. I would prefer it. It would remind us of back then. But you're not in the mood."
She should have felt warmed that he was missing their friendship. Should have. She was just too irked by him to forgive him so easily.
"There's more to it, isn't there?"
"Snowball," he called out to his daughter, who had gone into making… snowballs out of Serafall's frozen aura. She wasn't doing anything with them. Just stacking them into a neat and orderly pile. There was a joke in there somewhere, he was sure of it. "Go inside now. It's almost time for school."
The girl stared at her father in the trademark Rolan family scowl. She wanted to play in the snow a little longer. But she listened to her father… while chucking one snowball to his face and then making a quick dash for it indoors.
"…Viri's going to get mad about her soaking the carpets," he sighed as he wiped the snow off his face. He returned to Serafall as he picked up Snowball's unfinished mug of chocolate. He blew into it once and it began to steam. "There's always more to it. Nothing is ever so simple. I'm still in the middle of a few other projects. Most I'm not willing to share. Some I need to rethink…
"I didn't plan on the Vampire dying," he said before taking a sip from the drink. He smacked his lips before staring at the mug. In a sudden flash of rage, he stood and chucked it as far as he could throw. It sailed far, further than any human could have thrown it, and was lost in the sea of trees below.
"The guy was a psychopath but… we've been through so much shit I might as well call him a friend," he gave a dry laugh at the end of those words. "He's dead. Totally, undeniably, entirely dead. The fucker had his existence wiped clean out of the system. He was a glitch, did you know? Something called a Lingering Residue— a fragment of another world that refuses to fade away. He wasn't natural to this world.
"I never knew Siegfried finished the Vorpal Sword. One blow directly at the Vampire's core would have done it— and it did. That was how the Dragoon won. I had thought they would tie. That they would cripple each other but could get back up by the time of the Evensong. But, fuck, that damn fatass went and got himself killed.
"And now we are behind schedule. Our deadline is catching up. No, more like it's getting shorter. Our enemy has been making more progress lately. There are only seven of us now and eight wasn't enough. And the Holy Sword Project failed. Yuuto Kiba didn't become a Predator. My calculations were wrong. I had thought Excalibur with Sword Birth properties would give him the edge he needed. Even replicating and applying Durandal's Miracle of Separation wasn't enough. He's not even at the level of Candidacy."
There was more to it. There always was. He was withholding information from her once again. He would answer if she asked, but only if she asked the right question.
"…What happens when you lie?" she found herself asking. It had been bothering her and she had noticed how he had been avoiding that topic.
His eyes narrowed. "I'm sick, Sera. Very, very sick. And there is only one cure— just, the price for that is too high. Something I'm not willing to give. I'd sooner let the world burn instead of pay it. This illness… it's a curse that I can't fully understand. Because there's nothing to understand. No Laws, no algorithms, no sequence of codes or structure. Just nothing; you'll never find it no matter what science or magic you use unless I reveal it to you. But it's there. And it's killing me."
He lifted up his hand and looked at it. The flesh washed away in the sunlight. A grotesque gauntlet forged of ice with veins of fire running up its fingers and arm replaced his hand. Rather, it was more like the skin was nothing but a glove and this was what lay hidden underneath. Blood dripped from the fingertips, puddling in his palm and falling to the floor. The blood never hit the floor. It always dissolved before it could.
She had seen it before. When he was injured critically his body would show its true colors. When Issei had punched him. And when Serafall had struck him not too long ago.
Having shown her what he wanted, he brought his hand back down onto the arm rest. The ice reformed into something closely resembling human skin, shimmered, changed colors, and could now fool anyone into believing it was flesh and bone.
"When I break certain rules, there are penalties to me. I cannot not love. I cannot lie. I cannot exist the same way you do. The world, to me, is like a storybook. Everything I perceive is the same as you would when reading a book. You have a firm grasp of things based on your imagination… but none of it is real. If I break any of these rules… there is a terrible penalty on my part.
"Two things. The first, my existence in this world shortens. I start to fade away a little more and soon I will no longer exist. You people won't even remember me when I'm gone and the World will shift to fill in the gaps. It'll look like I never even existed in the first place. But until then, I have to be reminded of these rules. A sort of punishment.
"Someone I love dies. No, not dies. Their Quantum Iden— their souls get taken. They stop existing. And there's nothing I can do about it."
There was heavy disbelief within Serafall. Rather, she wanted to not believe him. But his tone and the gravity of his words told her otherwise. This was the truth. This was why he hated lies.
"…Who placed this curse on you?" she asked. Her mind was racing for ideas. If some higher being cursed Rolan then surely they could find the originator and set him free… right?
He didn't answer. His scowl disappeared entirely as he looked up at the sun. There was a look of longing in his eyes that she had never seen. It was as though he wanted to reach out for it and embrace it. But along with that longing, that brilliance to embrace it and never let go, there was a deep hatred. His eyes were flaring with passion of both despair and hate just as much as they were of sorrow and romance.
She knew he hated the sun above all else. Everyone did. But he never shared why he hated it. Especially now, as he was looking at the golden orb as though it were a lost lover.
"Is there anything else you wanted from me?" he asked instead. His head lowered and his scowl returned.
There was more she wanted from him. But it could wait.
"I wanted to let you know Dragoon-chan has made a quicker recovery than you predicted," she said with a small smile. Her façade was starting to return. "You were wrong, Obi-tan."
"I'm not surprised," he replied with a shrug. "The kid's too stupid and obsessed with tits to stay in bed for that long. But good for him. He finally got what he wanted."
"A harem?" she asked.
"No, a family," he said with a small smile.
She blinked. She could have sworn there was a small bit of pride in his voice. And she could have sworn he had smiled. But when she looked there was nothing there.
"The match isn't over, Serafall Leviathan," he said in a challenging tone. "You and I are still adversaries. I plan on winning the Rating Game and I'm bringing the heat. People who can keep up with me are going to be in my roster. You guys only have two months to find the other half of your crew. If Gremory and her peerage are going to participate, then I suggest you get them into shape and quickly. They won't survive a single battle the way they are now."
She smiled at him. A teasing and just as challenging one. "Don't you worry, Obi-tan. Dragoon-chan and I won't disappoint~"
She struck a pose. A peace sign near her head, a wink, and her tongue sticking out with her hips swaying. There was even a little magical heart popping out of thin air as soon as she winked.
He only stared at her. He could never get used to her habits.
"Right, well, if that's everything, I've a people to massacre and a parent-attendance day to go to," he stood out of his frozen chair and then dissolved it into mist. He moved to walk away from her. "Snowball was getting some reward for… fuck if I remember. Still, I'd like to be there and rub it in those snooty parents' faces that my kid is better."
"You don't really plan on marrying So-tan, do you?" she called out to him right as soon as he opened the door.
He turned his head just enough to look over his shoulder. "…No, I never did. But that doesn't mean I'm holding anything back. I plan on winning but expect Hyoudou to surprise me with something. Still, it'll be his fault if he loses and I'll marry her anyways— yes, even if it means I'll be stuck with you being my sister for, fuck, ever. I'm not that big of a dick to steal someone else's girl, though. I mean, come on, even you know those two are in love with each other—"
"SO-TAN WILL ONLY BE MINE!" she shouted more so out of instinct than anything. She coughed and then returned to her bubbly persona. "You hurt them really bad, Obi-tan. I hope you know that."
He leaned against the frame of the door and thought for a moment. He blinked as an idea came to him. "…There's this meeting coming up soon. Taking place in Kyoto. Tell you what. I'm going to have Odin ask permission to request Devils as his escort. He wanted the Gremory group… but I want you to have the Sitri Peerage instead."
She eyed him curiously. "…And this is going to do… what?"
"Consider it my apology to them and to you. Hyoudou is going to attend this meeting. He won't have much of a choice. Odds are Gremory is going to accompany him anyways so I see no point in Odin asking them. They could use this time as a vacation to sort things out."
"…Obi-tan, are you playing matchmaker?" she asked incredulously.
"I am cleaning up my mess," he clarified. "I had thought those two would be in a stronger relationship. You know, like in those stories. The hero would be driven to rescue the woman he loves while the damsel in distress would cheer him on. I didn't think they'd be stupid enough to sacrifice their happiness for the other. But that's a mistake on my part. I had forgotten something critical. They're teenagers."
"You're still a terrible person," she said as she approached him. Her cheeks were puffed as she was pouting. Not truly pouting but in her own fake way. Things were far from fixed between them, but at least Serafall was willing to make things work.
"You're still annoying," he returned bluntly. His scowl had softened. Just enough to show he was irritated by her and yet still welcomed her. "I'm still waiting on those rare jewels and metals, by the way."
"Yeah, yeah," she waved it off as unimportant, which caused his brow to twitch. It was the reaction she was hoping for. It was like how they used to tease each other.
She jabbed him in the gut. Hard. It forced the air out of his stomach and made him flinch. At least he was willing to take her jabs and not stop her. He could have easily with his constant awareness as a Predator. It was another sign of improvement.
"Behave, Obi-tan," she said to him in a strict voice… as strict as Serafall Leviathan could allow in her magical girl persona.
"Don't fall for Hyoudou's charms like everyone else," he warned. He had recovered instantly. Rather, it was like he wasn't harmed at all. "The Gift of Seduction is a serious bitch."
"Fu, fu, fu," she laughed and wagged a finger as she approached the magic circle she came in. "Dragoon-chan is a thousand years too young to seduce this one. Besides, I am Miracle Levia-tan! My magic powers comes from my purity!"
"…You and I totally remember Cancun differently," he muttered in too low a voice for her to hear. But she did hear. She had a witty response but he cut her off. "I'll remember that when you do join his peerage. Or his harem at least. I'll be the one laughing my ass off."
"You? Laugh?" she teased further as the magic circle began to glow. "Hell will freeze over on that day!"
She was gone before he could share his riposte.
"…But Hell is frozen," he said to the open air. "The lowest level is… You know what, whatever. Fuck her. Good luck, Hyoudou. She's your problem now."
He remained at the edge of the doorframe, his back leaning against it as he gazed over the railing of the balcony. At the thought of Hyoudou, his senses traced across the ocean towards the Dragoon, the newly ranked Seventh Predator. The young man was being smothered by the young girls... including the Exorcists Xenovia and Irina… and Yuuto Kiba. Odd. They were nurturing him back to health, more so hindering him rather than helping him. It looked like they were currently arguing who had the rights to sponge-bathe the dragon. Seeing Kiba inside the argument made him raise a brow.
The Gift of Seduction was, indeed, a bitch.
Serene had chosen to stay by his side, watching the whole episode with the smallest curve at the edge of her lips humanly possible; that made Rolan smile.
Of course Serene would stay near Hyoudou. She liked the boy. And there was no way she would leave Asia now that they were reunited.
Rolan wondered if the woman would ever tell Asia the truth. Not just the girl being a Living Saint. But everything else.
Upon sensing him, Hyoudou looked out towards the window by his bedside. His senses had locked on to Rolan. The World would have told him if anyone was scrying him and it was too easy for him to hone in on who it was.
Rolan offered a friendly wave.
Hyoudou had been taken aback by the gesture. But he decided, with some reluctance, to wave back. More so out of politeness than honesty.
The girls asked him what he was doing and he found himself in a pickle. Why, Rolan couldn't fathom. All the boy would have to do is explain himself and he'd get out of trouble. But that was the problem with dealing with multiple teenage girls. Nothing ever goes as planned. Fuck, might as well throw logic out the window as everything was run by emotions and hormones on a daily basis.
Rolan did not miss high school.
He traced back to Serene, who was watching the whole charade how one would watch a soap opera. Her eyes moved towards the window as well after sensing him.
He debated between giving her the same friendly wave or one of his mocking sneers. It didn't matter. Her eyes had narrowed as she came up with her own way to greet him.
She crossed through the crowds of girls (and Kiba) competing to get Issei's attention. Her aura was commanding, almost like a queen's, which would seem fitting as she was supposed to be Issei's. Without a single care for his wellbeing, she grabbed the clueless dragon by the collar of his shirt, lifted him towards her…
And kissed him.
Rolan's brow twitched. It was a fuck-off kiss. There was no denying it now. Serene— no, Amelia Rosewood was now and forever out of his personal life.
Amelia Rosewood… how he wished to be the one to call her freely by her name. But that was Hyoudo's right now. He was the one who freed her. Despite it being Rolan's plan all along, he wouldn't have been able to make Amelia happy without Hyoudou. To be more specific, he wouldn't have been able to make her happy at all.
On Issei's end, Serene had broken off on the engagement and calmly walked back to her place before. No one dared to ask her— who was the instigator— but had instead badgered the victim. Even blaming him. And poor Issei hadn't a single clue in the world what was going on.
With that, Rolan cut off the link, walked inside his house, and began his day.
To be continued...
A message from the author!
Hello everybody! This is Arrixam coming to you for-
WAIT! Arry, this is like only halfway according to the scroll bar. Are you telling me you wrote 20k words worth of author notes?!
No, I did not. This message is relatively short and you can all skip it if you so chose. The omake at the end is more of a... special chapter. I'll get to that later on though.
Here is the conclusion for Eighth, the Dragoon! I would like to first thank everyone who has read this story to the very end. You guys rock. We've been through so much together and I've read each and every one of your reviews. Some have been answered, some I leave open to answer during plot and story, while some I really can't answer because they were such simple things like 'nice update'. I've also lost a great number of readers throughout the journey. But I believe my crowning success was gaining the attention of my fellow writers, especially those I am a fan of. Getting reviews from them had me squealing like a little girl.
I had problems, things even I didn't like about this story. I'm going to just name a few of them.
First, Issei dying on the fist chapter. It was always an issue to me and I always wished to go back and redo that. But then it would be an entirely different story. Issei, this overly badass mother f'er that can kill gods, dies to a lowly Fallen Angel? Even I was iffed about this. But still I did it. And while I admit this to be a mistake, I do not regret it. I believe I turned it around with the Fourth's rant about "that shouldn't have happened" back in Chapter 5. Still, I always wonder what the story would have been like if Issei hadn't been turned into a Devil...
Second, the drop-rate on Chapter 4. It bothered me to no end how EVERYONE stopped reading at chapter 4. I even got the most hate-filled messages about it. Now, I've read that chapter over and over and I see hints, clues, and outright bold descriptions that tell the readers that it was NOT Freed Sellzen but someone impersonating him. Still, I clearly did something wrong if so many dropped it... I've also no clue how to fix it.
Third, and final, I did not like how Issei and Rias got over their problems. Originally, I planned on the two of them to be arguing even as far as right now in the plot. I could have solved it in a different manner other than "oh yeah sure, everything's fine". I think, looking back on it, I just didn't want to deal with all the drama. I mean, the poor guy still has to do something about Sona! Could you imagine having him to juggle her AND Rias? I could. But I didn't want to put that much effort into it. In the end, I chose to be lazy and make things work by unrealistic conclusions.
I do have other problems. Minor ones. But they're not important to state.
So now we have the conclusion of the first Act. Here is the point where those who wanted to see the Fourth die have been satisfied and can close this book for good. Those who wish to see Issei's next adventure can join me in Seventh, the Dragoon. I still thank all of you for sticking it this far. I love each and every one of you.
Now, before a message from my beta, let me explain the omake at the end of this chapter. It was something I started to write on Christmas Eve but never finished. I thought about saving it until this year but then things began to change and the lore within the omake no longer made sense. Rather, nothing was canon. Do you hear that? NOTHING IN THIS OMAKE IS CANON! So don't take it seriously. The plan always changes, after all.
Now, good night everyone! I wish you all well! And I hope to see you in the future once again!
Without further ado, the illustrious Third Fang:
My words of infinite wisdom that transcends Olphis' and Red's meager comprehension!
Ok, I know it sounds a bit hypocritical given that I'm responsible for some of the most well known (and in some circles most well hated) OC's in fanfiction, but I like many people tend to avoid fics where OC's play a big role in the story, especially if they are competent and powerful. It's not hard to see why given that most of the time these characters are one dimensional and tend to play the roles of several other characters in the canon universe simply because the author gets lazy and doesn't want to bother with multiple major perspectives and more complicated plots, thus forcing otherwise semi-important characters into the background to be convenient support in a major fight and inconsequential at any other point.
This story, clearly didn't fall into that deathtrap, and I am glad.
Making a solid OC is hard. Making a solid OC that's actually powerful and relevant to the story is harder. Making an overpowered OC, make them relevant to the story, and still make the overall story GOOD while keeping the world interesting is another thing entirely. Honestly, I believe that the only fanfiction authors out there that are capable of making solid original stories on their own are the ones that can do just that.
I'm looking at you fifty shades of bullshit. Fcking copout. We know what you did.
Anyways, Arrixam did something a bit more than what most authors tend to do. He made a secondary world, or system to work in tandem with the established one that the readers know and expect, and he did it well. Not just in how it worked but in its presentation too.
He was a bit heavy with the secondary world elements from the get go, and could have been a bit more clear at some points, but overall it's far better than other fics I've seen.
Plus this is a freaking DXD fic. How many decent ones of those are out there right now that aren't focused on porn, pity, smut, and poorly designed OC's that steal Issei's position as the MC because they can't develop the ability to comprehend a main character that is naturally hyper perverted and still be somewhat competent?
True, DXD canon is a bit messed up at its base with Issei being... Issei, sheer stupidity does have its limits before it becomes just plain ignorance and unrealistic, but his perversion is part of his character. Having a DXD fic where he isn't a pervert on hilarious or distracting levels is just... boring. Arrixam did a good job balancing out this element to make it a good story.
All things considered, he should really talk to Kagaseo. Those two would get along perfectly if their writing styles are any indication (discretely looks at the trails of bodies made behind the authors in their stories). And people say that the French and American can't work together (discretely looks at MY characters that have been used in their stories... or what's left of them).
... Hopefully this isn't isn't an indication that I'm a terrible judge of character in real life.
(Characters in the background) "You're the one that told these two to maim us you sick bastard!"
(Turns back to the minions) "Silence and get back in your holes!"
Overall I can't claim much when it came to the story. Some ideas. Some lore. Some impressions and words of advice. I wasn't a traditional beta for this story in that I never corrected grammar and the like. In that regard I really am grateful for Arrixam for calling me one for this fic. As far as I know he did most of the hard work himself so all the more to him. Stories like this don't come by very often.
So there's my bit. Good work finishing this part of your fic Arry. Most authors cop out in the middle of their work cause they can't think of how to write past their "dur, i have a cool story idea" phase and can't carry through, which personally pisses me off. So cheers to not being a cop out!
A Very Oppai Christmas
During this time of the year friends and families gathered together in festivities. The holidays cycling around the winter solstice brought a time of celebration. There was simply something magical about it. What child didn't love this time of the year? Their parents would take days off from their jobs to shower them with gifts and bathe them with their love. On these cold winter days, everyone would be in their homes to be close to family.
But there were circumstances to a few others…
Issei was one such person as he flew through the air and dumped another criminal at the doorstep of a police station. No matter the reason, it would seem heroes and villains never took a day off from work.
He sighed before returning to the heavens to proceed with his scheduled patrol.
"Ise… your budget gets more and more ridiculous every year," Sona stated as she finished going over the finances Issei had saved up. From the jobs he had received given by Second, Fifth, and Sixth Predator, Issei had saved up well over seventy-two billion yen. The currency was spread out in several hundred accounts under different aliases in different banks all over the world. But he only touched the bare minimum amount— just enough to pay his bills and some miscellaneous extras… like his porn.
Every year he would do something special with his excessive accounts.
"That reminds me," she pressed her glasses as she thought of the other occasion he would partake in during this time of the year. "Do you know if they will be…?"
"Uh…" Issei couldn't make eye contact as he pulled out the little red envelope from his bag.
Sona withheld the small groan desiring to escape as she reached for the letter. Just like last year, the Predators were planning something for the holidays. They would spend one day together to celebrate with a truce of parlay for a full twenty-four hours. If Issei agreed to partake in this event, then it would mean he couldn't do anything to the Fourth else having to go through his other six seniors first. However… should the Fourth do something… then he was free-game.
As Sona read the letter of the celebratory conditions, her heart nearly stopped. This year, the party was going to be hosted by Issei.
And the chosen date and time was parallel to…
"Yeah… this year I'm supposed to find a gift for Archibald," Issei scratched his head. "Honestly, how do you get a gift for a guy who literally owns everything?"
"…I think that's the least of your troubles." No matter how much time passed, she could never understand the machinations of Issei's mind. "You're just going to go along with this? What about… everything that's happened within the past few months?"
"Sona, it's Christmas," was his answer as if it was the only answer needed for ANY argument. "I can put things aside for one night."
She opened her mouth to argue, to spill the news of what she had planned this year with Rias and all the others. But it was to be a surprise. For the past three years Issei had spent Christmas without a family. Apparently a large number of Predators had no one to turn towards during this time of year and so gathered together for one night. Before the series of events a few months back, Issei's seniors were the closest thing to a family he ever had and would spend Christmas night with them all. It was the one night he belonged to something.
"You can't just decline them?" she eventually asked but knew the answer already given a certain section of the letter was cut out as well as seven of the ten stamps were missing from within the envelope.
"I… uh… already sent the reply letters to them all," he looked away once more. "I probably should have told you all of this last Tuesday…"
"That would have been preferable," she groaned out. "Now, is there anything else you'd like to share with me? Something on par with eight of the most powerful individuals on the planet gathering together under one roof? Like if members of the Khaos Brigade are also invited to this party?"
Her brows twitched when she saw his body glisten from suddenly bursting in drenching cold sweat.
The school bell rang.
And he was out the door.
"ISSEI COME BACK HERE!" she nearly broke the door with how she tried to chase after him. Unfortunately, he was already long out of her hearing range.
"Right! Thanks a lot for the help Archibald-sempai. For every year. I know they'll love it!"
With a large grin, Issei shut the phone and went back to examining the large list he and Sona had worked together. This was something he did every year. The first year, when he lacked the finances and proposed the idea to the most resourceful man on the planet, First Predator Archibald Lolifor had offered him a loan to get started. Not in cash, but in favors. And to this day Issei was still working off on that loan.
Now, just because he had the finances to afford such a task, it didn't mean he had the capability to do it alone. He still relied on the First… and the elderly spirit continued to charge him for it. But in the end it always made it worthwhile.
It was Christmas Eve. He had perfected the timing by the third trip and could now follow the rotation of the planet to appear around the marked locations on his map so long as he followed the allotted schedule. With this going into his fourth trip, the world had quickly caught on and was making something of a televised event about it. And every year he always started in the Land of the Rising Sun since Japan was always the first country to start the new day. His screen in the living room was on with the members of the Occult Research Club and student council sitting around to watch.
They were calling him the Santa Blur.
The watch at his wrist rang, signaling it was almost time to start.
"Alright everyone, I'm going to be off!"
"Here he comes!" someone shouted. Heads swiveled around to where the individual was pointing in the sky. Eyes squinted until the familiar streak of red was shooting through the dark night. They cheered, spotlights lit up, cameras were at the ready, and the welcoming orchestra began to play an instrumental version of Here Comes Santa Clause.
The Santa Blur fired down from the heavens and slowed his flight pattern until his body could be visibly seen. Ever since his revelation to the world, he had no problem stopping for a moment for the people to see him. In the past, he would simply drop off what was needed and be off before anyone could catch a glimpse of him.
The famed hero was even going along with their shenanigans. He was wearing a large red suit with white trimming over his armor, a black belt to tie it together, and a matching winter cap over his helm. He was, by extension, Santa Clause on this merry evening.
He dropped off the mountainous sack of wrapped presents at the center of the stage the people had made for him, waved at the cameras…
"Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!"
And then flew off to repeat the cycle throughout the rest of the night all around the world.
"My, the chap had put zealous thought in this," commented Second Predator Ludwig von Siegfried from the kitchens. He was busy mixing away at a bowl of cookie dough as he watched the live broadcast. His Gift of Craft radiated beautifully in equal measure to Issei's Gift of Flight on the screen.
The Dragon Slayer was in his realm of comfort… dressed in a frilly pink apron and baking Christmas goodies in four different ovens, brewing teas and chocolate concoctions on the stoves, and making the preparations for the evening feast. His loyal knights Morgan, Lancelet, Trist, Kayla, and Guinevere were doing their best to keep up with him. However, in due time, they would tire and leave everything up to him.
Which he preferred, but welcomed their help nonetheless.
"…Sir Siegfried," Rias was both awed and frightened by the mastery of the kitchen the Second possessed. She had hesitated in asking a question she should have prioritized but was caught off-guard by his childish desire to take over control of the kitchen. She as well as a number of the girls among Issei's unofficial 'harem' were busy making the preparations when he showed up. At first, he only offered advice, then offered demonstrations on how something was 'properly' done, and then just swept them out of the room.
All the while ignoring almost everything they had to say.
Lo and behold, the Dragon Slayer. He who killed a Primordial being— a creature beyond comprehension as it was the manifestation of a Law crafted before the age of civilization given physical form. He who could blow away mountains, cities, continents, or the entire freaking planet with but a flick of his finger. Literally! He who possessed a blade that did not exist and could carve through existence itself.
Lo and behold the Second Ultimate Killer and how he sang holiday tunes while icing the gingerbread men.
"What… exactly… are you doing here?" she asked, seeing the opportunity to gain his attention now that something had distracted him from his baking.
"Why, my dear, this is the most holy of nights," he stated as if it was the most obvious of answers. "Am I too early? My, I make for a terrible guest if I've appeared before the festivities have begun. I do apologize if I've intruded and—"
"Rejoice! For the snicker doodles are finished!" so sang the man they had seen bathe in the blood of a small army.
"Huzzah!" chanted the greatest soldiers of Britain, whom the Dragon Slayer had personally trained, the current generation of Knights of the Round Table.
"…Sona…" Rias decided to walk away before her mind broke. She reached her friend's side, who was calmly sipping on her tea while reading a book in the loveseat. Aforementioned friend slid her finger across the page as to not lose her place while she peered through the roof of her glasses to look at the Gremory Heiress.
"Are all Predators…?" she left the question open while gesturing her eyes towards the middle-aged man who was sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on the cookies he just pulled out of the oven.
"From the few that I've met… unfortunately," Sona answered and went back to her book. "My advice? Look at them as if they were talking fruit. It's what I do. They live in a completely different world from ours."
"Fruits…" Rias nodded and took the advice to heart. Lost in her thoughts, she sat down on the armrest and began to go down the list of Predators. "Issei must be a Drapple for obvious reasons. Rolan has to be a coconut; hard as hell on the outside but hollow on the inside. Serene has to be…"
"Oi! Vali, he just landed in Berlin. Now Dresden. Shit, now he's in Rostock. How the hell does he jump from…"
"Germany?!" the voice of the White Dragon Emperor shouted from the other end of the magic communication. "I'm still in Poland! Alright, I'm going to have to try and cut him off in Ireland. I'm going right now. By the way he does this every year to stop at every country, I should be able to get there before him if I go there in a straight line."
"Roger that," Bikou confirmed as he kept an eye on the scrying spell Le Fay was keeping up. "I'll keep you updated on his progress."
The young witch puffed her cheeks as she gave her best glare at her teammate. She had said to Vali on how much she was against the idea of trying to track down her most worshipped idol. And she did so in the Santa Blur hoodie— a limited edition that always sold out but seconds when it was put on the shelf and could be found on the internet for thousands of American dollars. Acquiring such an article was childish to the Red Blur's Number One Fan and executive president of the Rainbow Blur Knights Fan Club.
Le Fay was a Blurry, and a proud one at the highest rank of Red.
She almost lost the position and demoted to shameful White Blurry, a measly second-rate Blurry but one rank below Red. One day she will have her vengeance against her archenemy, the holder of the White Blurry title, Nakashima Ayame for the embarrassment in knowing what toothpaste Hyoudou Issei used when Le Fay didn't.
Since that day, Le Fay had been getting invitations to those disgusting Rainbow Chaser Knights Fan Club as rumors the organization she built were planning a mutiny. She refused to become a Chasister. Refused!
"Bikou-sama," she reminded him for the umpteenth time, "Reddobura-sama is delivering presents to good boys and girls like every other year. Vali-sama shouldn't be doing this!"
She somehow knew she would be dragged into helping Vali ever since they formed the team a few months back. Bikou was for it, Arthur didn't care much, and Kuroka went along with it because she had a thing for Vali. But Le Fay? She was completely against it.
But she couldn't say no to her leader. It simply wasn't in her heart.
It didn't stop her from tweaking her scrying spell to give them all wrong information however.
She was NOT a Chasister. She was a Blurry! A BLURRY!
She will be having Vali running (flying) around in circles as he pointlessly tried to engage battle with his 'destined' rival.
"If Ise is Santa Blur…" Seventh Predator Xi'lon Li Qin, the Valkyrie, began to muse from her seat on the floor. "Wouldn't that make White Chaser… Hmm… AH! White Grinch!"
"I was thinking more like Grump Chaser," added Sixth Predator Chase Lance Rolan from behind the couch. He leaned against it with his hands as his red and blue eyes were glued to the screen as much as the next person. "Guy's been trying to catch him every year since this began. I wonder if he realizes this will put him on the shit list of everyone on the planet."
"The White and Red Dragons have desired battle since the day the chaos was split and made them," First Predator Archibald Lolifor put in his part in the conversation from his place at the dining table. "For as long as I can remember Ddraig and Albion have been at another's throats; their vessels in these times made no difference."
Kiba was doing his best to not freak the hell out. There were four of the world's most dangerous individuals within one room. Though they were all relaxed, just by being near them he could feel their overwhelming murderous presence. He was doing everything in his power to not abandon his teammates, friends, and master and run for— holy hell— as far and as fast as possible from the premises.
There were a few things keeping him locked in place, however. For one, Excalibur continued to sit on his lap, munching away on Sir Siegfried's gingerbread men (always biting the heads off first) and refused to leave. Two, his legs had stopped obeying his commands the moment Li Qin arrived with her 'holier than the holiest of holy swords' (Rolan's words) Instrument of the Originals. He had no idea what that was, but understood the talking sword resting in her lap, disguised as an umbrella, could obliterate him, reconstruct him, and then obliterate him once more. He had seen it happen to poor Lancelet before Siegfried made the Seventh bring her back molecule by molecule.
The last thing that kept him from running away…
Li Qin, the Valkyrie, was dressed in some crossbreed outfit between a Santa suit and a magical witch girl found in those hentai Issei watched. Kiba would be more than willing to admit the teenage Predator was drop-dead gorgeous and undeniably the most appealing girl in the room, but the atmosphere she kept up around her said otherwise. She simply could not be attractive with her bubbly, childish, immature, and outright innocent personality. It was as if he was checking out a ten-year-old… It made him feel like he needed to take a shower to wash out the disturbing thoughts he had.
Rolan arrived in a knitted Christmas sweater with a family of snowmen holding hands as the main design. He also brought his personal Christmas mug in the shape of a cute cartoonish Santa Blur that all the girls fretted over a few years back. He poured some of Siegfried's hot chocolate in it. Minded… this was all before he entered the house dressed up as a Santa and handed out presents to everyone already here. All of these things simply could not go with his permanent scowl of constant aggression.
Then… there was Archibald. Kiba had thought he would have been the most… sane of the group. This was not the case. As the living embodiment of humanity itself, Archibald had made Issei's house (already a mansion since Rias' upgrades) that much impossibly bigger with but a snap of his fingers. He claimed it was too cramped. Understandable with how many people were attending. But he didn't need to make it into a palace by getting rid of the neighbors and every other building within a full mile radius solemnly for the sake of 'making room'.
According to him and how his… ability (the term used as loosely as possible) works, Archibald claimed every citizen previously living in the area had 'moved away' years ago when the palace began construction. Should anyone look into the archives of the city, they will find the right documents and could even see how aged the papers were to confirm his story. How he did that, Kiba, as well as anyone else in the room, could never know.
Now, while Archibald had done all this, he had brought his own assortment of sweets and Christmas knickknacks. And he shared with everyone how lucky he was to find them on sale or how he had gotten the last set of Christmas napkins or how he had to get the snowflake encrusted glasses at a small family-owned shop. He also sobbed how some things he couldn't acquire because they were out of stock or he had run out of bills at certain venues that only accepted cash.
…The third reason why Kiba didn't leave the room was because he simply couldn't understand these people. His mind was demanding of him to know or die trying. It was like watching an evacuated building burn. He was simply drawn to it. Even when he knew this building was a fireworks factory with several tons of gunpowder stored and ready to blow up at any second.
Or… to be a little more realistic, a burning nuclear power plant ready to kill everyone in a several mile radius.
"Neh, neh, Sunshine!" Li Qin looked up at her shorter senior with her doll-like eyes. "Did you manage to finish the Christmas special of Dragon Knight Heroes?"
From seemingly nowhere, Rolan pulled out a sealed blank disc.
Li Qin leapt with joy, grabbed the disc from his hand, and went straight towards the television.
"Now hold up there, young one," Archibald gained her attention. "Be courteous to those who are still watching the program you are about to change. Ask them first if you may watch your little cartoon, if they are interested, or if you can watch it in another room."
Li Qin puffed her cheeks in annoyance before blowing out her frustrations through her lips. Unbelievably, she listened to her eldest senior and did as was told instead of disintegrating the nearest object within her reach.
"You can watch it when the show's over," retorted Rolan in his usual dry voice. "Or when you go home. Whichever comes first."
"Neh?!" she shrieked and spun around. She leaned up at him with her knees against the cushions and hands against the back rest. "B-But that won't happen until after the party! A-And that's not gonna start till Puppy returns!"
Kiba also didn't… couldn't understand her choice of nicknames for her affiliates. Rolan, the ever brooding and sour man, was named Sunshine. Issei, a rampaging dragon capable of leveling the city in even the smallest of temper tantrums, was named Puppy. The Vampire, a grotesque beast who ate people and bathed in their blood, was named Teddy.
Archibald and Siegfried had simpler names that made some sense at least. Archibald was named Uncle while Siegfried was named Lulu. Kiba didn't know what other nicknames she had for the others but was rather curious to find out.
"Tough," Rolan said as he took a few steps away to reclaim his personal space. "You're a big girl. I think you can wait a little while longer."
Li Qin puffed her cheeks again but said nothing more.
"Wait a minute!" shouted Rias as she heard the conversation. Rolan's brows twitched as he was still annoyed by having any conversation start with 'wait'. "You mean you're the guy who makes Dragon Knight Heroes?!"
"What? The hell did you come to that assumption?" his stare was blunt. He wanted to take a sip from his mug but stopped himself from doing so.
"My family has been trying to buy out Sunlight Studios and hand over their rights to that anime all this time!" she continued, flustered. "You're using Issei's image for your own profit!"
"Pfft," something between a snicker and a snarl escaped his lips. There was no smile and he continued to scowl, but there was a bit of amusement in his eyes. "What are you talking about? Any likeliness of the characters in Dragon Knight Heroes is coincidental. Besides, why would I be the producer of the world's shittiest anime within the past twenty years? You people keep acting like I'm the Red Blur's number one fan who tries to glorify his adventures in an animated feature for everyone to see. You and Sera think alike. You think I do this just to spite her and her fixation on the growing popularity of magical girls. Superheroes are better than prepubescent children running around in skimpy attire and singing songs of love and friendship…"
He had looked away halfway through his ranting with the mug at his lips without taking a single sip. He continued to mumble to himself, muttering a few nothings about magical girls and heroes, but the words couldn't be found.
"Speaking of which, Chase," Archibald adjusted his glasses in the similar fashion Sona would when she spotted an opening… or an udon shop she hadn't tried out. "Production of a live action movie is underway. It's scheduled to be released for the summer in two years' time."
The Sixth's hands were slammed against the table as his body warped at impossible speeds directly in front of the First. His face was red in both shock and excitement. "W-What?! Don't you dare say those words! Don't you say them unless they're true! Sunlight Studios never announced anything like that! Who the hell is doing it?!"
Archibald calmly answered in the same manner one would in regards to a pushy client. His head was level and he was respectable. "It is to be an American film. It is funded by Columbia, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, and I believe the leading role is to be performed by Robert Pattinson."
Blood gushed out of Rolan's mouth as he sank to his knees.
"Why did the World just suddenly acknowledge me as Sixth?" questioned Li Qin.
Apparently the news was so bad it had crippled Rolan in such a way the World no longer recognized him as a Predator.
The Valkyrie clapped her hands together as her ahoge began to bobble around liken to the wagging tail of a dog. "Oh! I'm Seventh again—"
"NO!" shouted Rolan with enough rage to have his Aura leak out into the air and shake the entire house. When he stood, he had grabbed the edge of the table and flipped it. However, he had done so with enough intincity to have it flip in a full rotation. Nothing on its surface was spilt as it had been fast enough for gravity to register. The table landed right back where it had been with only a few things wobbling off balance before settling back to where they once were.
In the background, three of the Knights of the Round raised boards with 10, 9, and 10 drawn in bright red ink. Siegfried told them to stop fooling around and to get back to work. Pots don't clean themselves.
Rolan spun on his heels and pointed a finger at Rias. "GREMORY! We cannot let this blasphemy happen! Gather your troops. We begin production right after New Year's! My people will get in touch with yours and find a suitable number of candidates for each role. We're only going to get the best to play as each hero. Dammit all… I'm going to have to get Sera involved in this if we're going to punch this before M. Night Shama-lamma-dingdong finishes."
Everyone pretended to not notice Archibald's not-so-subtle grin of victory.
Rias looked a little loss with the sudden change in topic. "E-Eh…? But… wait a minute. Shouldn't we get Issei to play the main role? I mean, he is the Red Blur."
Rolan gave her a look that made her challenge her intelligence. "…What? Why would… No. You don't get Tony Stark to play as Iron Man. You get Robert Downey Jr to do it for him. Tony Stark is too damn busy being the real hero while Robert Downey Jr does the cinematics in his stead. Why would I get Hyoudou to waste his time doing this when he needs to be a hero in real life?"
"…But Tony Stark is a fictitious character," commented Kiba from his seat across the room.
Rolan looked dumbfounded. Dumbfounded at a comment as though Kiba had said the strangest thing. He looked insulted and baffled at the same time. Like Kiba had the audacity to walk up to the Predator, a being who could kill him in an instant, and be stupid enough to slap him across the face. It was so surreal he needed a moment to collect his thoughts.
"W… Wha…?" escaped his lips eventually. He blinked and the focus returned. "Tony Stark… fictitious?! Next thing you know you'll say something just as ridiculous. What, you think Peter Parker is also fictitious? Or Johnny Storm? Or—"
"Did he just say Spongebob isn't real?!" shouted Li Qin with outrage.
…Kiba had no idea what was going on at this point.
"Papa, shame on you," said Excalibur as she stopped her munching to glare her sharp eyes at him. She looked so disappointed. "Elmo is a real person, y'know!"
"I think he did!" bellowed Rolan, answering Li Qin. "Gremory, I'm stealing your Knight. Lucious! Open the portal to the truth!"
A tear into the fabric of reality split open into an oval shape large enough to fit a few persons within. The visage of his familiar could be seen within its vast nothingness.
There was nothing he could do as both Sixth and Seventh Predators grabbed onto his shoulder and dragged him out of his seat and towards the portal. Excalibur, who had been sitting on his lap, swung her legs around his waist and dangled holding onto his chest.
"We'll be back before the party starts," Rolan said as he tossed the blonde combo into the dark abyss. He and Li Qin climbed inside and it shut behind them.
"…What just happened?" Rias asked for anyone to answer.
"They went to reveal to him the eldritch truth," replied Archibald. "Those two. They firmly believe they live in the world of storybooks. I believe their latest comments was… what was it called…? Ah, fanfiction. Yes, we are all in some sort of fanfiction."
"…Coconuts," Rias muttered to herself in a mantra. "Hard on the outside and empty on the inside. Both of them. Empty on the inside. Empty on the inside…"
"I really don't have time for this," muttered Issei under his breath. He hefted the next colossal bag over his shoulder and readied himself.
This happened every year thus far. The number of criminals were always small around this time but they were still there. Those he could deal with. There had been a few natural disasters and he still put up with those. But this?! Now this was just bullshit.
Every year some Christmas-themed monster would stir up trouble. The first year it had been a flock of vampiric reindeer. Issei thought nothing of it at the time. The following year it was a troop of elves with weapons fashioned from hard-as-steel cookies and candy canes. It was odd, but whatever. And last year it had been a mechanized nutcracker as tall as a skyscraper. Now that he had to pause and question if this was really happening.
This year, he was up against a snowman as big as a mountain. Its fangs were made out of icicles, its eyes burned brightly with charcoal, and its claws made out of whole trees.
But it was slow as fuck. It didn't have any legs and had to twist and turn its entire body left and right in order to pace forward. It'd take a couple of hours for it to reach the nearest civilization.
Issei wondered if he had the time to deal with this creature. Maybe he should go to the next few stops and come back to deal with this. He was starting to fall behind schedule and was arriving a few seconds after midnight instead of being spot-on. If he wasted any more time on this then he'd be a few minutes behind and the whole Santa Blur thing would lose its magic. The children expected, no, demanded their Santa to arrive right on midnight!
"Hyoudou Issei!" shouted a familiar voice.
Vali, the White Chaser, had arrived. Issei was a little disappointed the White Dragon Emperor wasn't wearing anything Christmas related. But it's not like the people ever gave him an awesome title like Santa Blur. Come to think about it… what would that make Vali…?
White Grinch? Grump Chaser? This required a little more thought…
No, wait, he didn't have time for this.
"Ah! Vali!" Issei turned around and greeted his self-declared 'rival'. "I'm so glad you're here! You can deal with this guy then. I've only a few more stops to go before I'm done."
"What?!" Vali flinched. "I'm not here because… I'm here to fight yo—"
"Thanks a lot, Vali!" Issei gave him a salute and began to drift back up towards the sky. "Have a merry Christmas!"
He shot towards the heavens in a series of vibrant colors. Perhaps because it was Christmas time even his Gift of Flight was in the spirit of the holidays. A trail of sparkling snow drifted on his tail. It even made the singsong rattling of jingle bells.
"Hyoudou get back here!" shouted Vali. His own wings glowed as he prepared himself to pursue. Issei was leagues faster than him, even when he used his speed of light, and would need to cut him off on his last stop.
Only, Issei's launch had gained the attention of the snowman colossus. It turned at the streaks of light and then noticed Vali. It opened its mouth and breathed a winter's blizzard.
Vali was swept away in its blast before he could take off.
"Are you kidding me?!"
[…Maybe we should just stop, Vali,] sighed Albion from within. [This happens to us every year. Face it. We're a laughing stock. They call us White Chaser because we can't catch him. Even all the other Dragons are laughing at me. Oh… how powerful and frightening my name used to be…]
Vali cursed as Albion caught himself into another crying fit. All the while, the snowman was spawning miniature snowmen below its feet and surrounding Vali.
"…Merry Christmas, Albion," he said with heavy sarcasm. "Merry Christmas indeed…"
The fight was on as Vali unleashed a barrage of magic bullets and zipped through their ranks with his fists.
Issei returned home within the next few hours. His last stop was within the Americas; it had been midnight by the time he arrived and Japan was close to starting its new day. Christmas Day here in Japan was pretty much over. All of his neighbors and schoolmates would have celebrated it hours ago and would be in bed by now if they weren't already.
He had been told Devils don't celebrate the holiday. It was probably why Rias never mentioned anything to him and why he didn't think to invite her. He didn't want to make her or any of the other Devils uncomfortable. But it did hurt slightly. Issei was far from Christian and only celebrated the holiday because it was something his parents did. He doubted they were too and had a few memories of them trying to explain the whole Shinto faith to him.
At the least, he had the Church Trio— Asia, Xenovia, and Irina. The three were content waiting for him to return in order to kick off the festivities. Of course, he had been polite enough to invite Ophis and told her she was welcome to bring anyone she wanted… so long as they didn't cause trouble. She didn't give much of a reply though, not that she ever did in the first place. He would also have his seniors, who knew of his plan as the Santa Blur and willingly held their own gathering until the next day just for him.
He removed his large Santa coat and hat before dematerializing his armor. All in all, it was a good day. This year none of the governments had tried to shoot him down or capture him. He had been welcomed in every city he visited all over the globe. There would be backlash the next day on the news and on the internet— people complaining or trying to stir up things. The biggest one was the topic on why the Red Blur visited only those certain cities and not theirs.
…He couldn't make everyone happy. But oh well.
Issei climbed out of his basement, opened the door, and announced he was home.
Party poppers with bursts of confetti and streamers shot through the air. This was the sort of thing you'd do for birthdays, not Christmas celebrations. But at the least the confetti was in the shape of snowflakes and everything else was in the red and green colors.
"…Eh?" he found himself dumbfounded by the amount of people present.
He had expected a very small crowd to welcome him. The whole Gremory peerage for sure and maybe a few of the other Predators. But he didn't expect others. The Knights of the Round had been there, all eight females including a few he hadn't met yet; members from the Hero Faction and Team Vali (without their leader of course— Issei pondered if he was still fighting that snow creature…); Ophis and Red had accompanied them, naturally; the Primordials he had met in Kyoto along with the ever buxom and beautiful Kyuubi… and her chibi daughter; the eccentric Archmage Richard Royals with his wife…
Issei couldn't make out who else was in the back. There were more people. Everyone had huddled together into a large crowd and had cheered for him at his arrival.
"…Eh?" he found himself asking again.
"Come on, Ise!" pouted Rias. She was dressed in this super sexy Santa outfit that displayed her perfect hourglass figure. She broke free from the crowd to grab his hand and pull him forward. "Everyone is here to celebrate with you! Don't be a dunce and join us!"
"Y-Yes!" he said after forcing himself to take his eyes off her jiggling breasts. He felt something within himself tear having to do it. But he found it to be worthwhile.
Others were wearing similar attire. Akeno's had less fabric and she wasn't ashamed at all by it. She wore it especially for him. Her boobs looked ready to pop out at any instance and Issei found himself captivated by their swaying. Asia had noticed immediately and pulled his hand over her chest. When he felt her still-developing mounds on his sensitive skin, he felt his knees give out. A gooey smile spread on his face.
"Nya, Ise-sempai," Koneko whined and grabbed his other arm.
His smile turned into an open-mouthed gap of astonishment. Koneko was channeling some of her chakra— just enough for her to sprout a tail and cat ears. The image of her cuteness knocked the wind out of his lungs.
And then, Irina and Xenovia joined in the fray. They too were dressed in the scandalous attire and pressed themselves against his body. Their overly generous assets rubbed against him. He felt himself being drowned in an ocean of breasts as the other girls dove in after his affections. And he couldn't find a better way to die.
"Are they seriously doing this?" asked Rolan from his corner. "In front of everyone?"
Snowball, dressed in the same attire and in her sixteen-year-old appearance, pouted silently. Her scowl that made her the trademark City of Angels' Ice Queen was present and deep with jealousy.
"Looks like you lost before the match even started," chuckled Heracles from his side of the room.
"S-Shut up!" barked Jeanne… as she too was in the same outfit. "I was only wearing this b-because it's the holidays!"
No one in the Hero Faction was believing her story.
"I see now," said Cao Cao as he pulled out a notepad and began to write notes. "His power comes from breasts. So this is how he's so powerful. I must strive to be just like him…"
"Um… please don't," begged Georg.
"How else are we going to beat Great Red if we cannot overcome Master Hyoudou?!" he argued. "You agree with me, don't you, Red?"
Red, the avatar of Great Red given human shape through the power of his Dreams, only stared blankly at Cao Cao. He continued to lean against the wall with his arms crossed beside Ophis (who was jabbing at his leg with a sharpened candy cane whenever she thought he wasn't looking). He only had one thing to say to the reincarnated Hero.
"Exactly!" cheered Cao Cao with his charismatic smile. "See, everyone? Red understands! He and I will gain the secret to defeating Great Red before you!"
Red only shook his head at the ignorance of his words.
"B-But I'm Ise-sama's number one fan…" sobbed Le Fay beside her brother. Under her cape and hat was, like all the other women present, the same Sexy Santa costume from the Christmas catalog. They had been sold out but Le Fay found a way to get her hands on one. She wanted to show it for Issei but her idea wasn't impressive enough. She couldn't even get close to her idol. "I'm a Blurry… a Blurry…"
"Well, our plan failed…" said Morgan in her normal dry tone... with extra dryness that sucked up the water in the air. Many of the other Knights nodded. Under their uniforms were the same Santa outfits. There was no point in revealing them at this point. And such a shame. It had taken a lot of convincing to get Lancelet to join in.
Aforementioned Knight had her arms crossed and pouting. Of course, none of the Knights were going to comment on this. Lancelet had been looking forward to this despite her protests.
"Honestly… that man…" sighed Rossweisse. She was probably the only female who didn't order that particular costume from the catalog. She wanted her outfit to be a bit more… personal. Her Valkyrie armor had been altered only slightly with fur lining and coated red and white. She had hoped Issei would like the adjustments but it was going to be a challenge of itself to get him to look at her.
"Ah to be young again…" chuckled Sirzechs besides Azazel. "Grayfia, I remember when you used to wear such things for me. Whatever happened to—"
His words were cut off as the silver-haired Queen pulled on his cheek.
Azazel laughed. "Hoh? Serafall-chan, aren't you going to jump into the fray as well?"
"Only if So-tan joins!" Serafall puffed out her chest, letting her bosom bounce as, she too, was dressed in the same outfit. The Leviathan was beaming mental messages towards her younger sister across the way.
Sona, with more than enough humility in her to come dressed in more casual attire, was intentionally ignoring the psychic invasion.
It made Serafall deflate, sob on her knees, and draw archaic symbols in the carpet with her finger.
"What I wouldn't give to have Rias wear that for me…" sighed Raizer Phenex. He shook his head and then looked down at his sister. "Ravel, aren't you going to—"
"What?! I have no idea what you're talking about!" Ravel Phenex argued before he could even finish his question. "I-I-I-It's not like I picked this out for I-I-I-Issei-sama! That's just stupid!"
Although she said this, her eyes were glued on the heap of bodies trying to steal her (no-so) secret crush. Why, that damn cat had the audacity to look her way, pause, and then give a chuckle of superiority.
Ravel was going to claw her eyes out. She swore it.
"Ise-sempai!" called out Gasper slid across the floor from within his box. He had been frightened by the amount of people but found strength as soon as his hero arrived. He leapt out of the box and—
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WEARING?!" Issei shouted and threw the girls off of him in a fit of outrage.
Gasper was wearing the same Santa suit as everyone else.
"Eh?" the Dhampir blinked. But then he realized the question, smiled, and even did a little twirl to show off his outfit. "Isn't it cute? I saw it online and had to buy it! Do you like it sempai—"
Issei's hands were on the small boy's shoulders and gripping tightly enough to creak his bones. "Gasper, real men don't wear cute dresses. Real men don't wear dresses, period! Men wear clothes for men!"
"But, but, but…" sobbed Gasper.
"Ah, Ise-kun, it's Christmas. I think it's okay just for today. B-Besides…"
Issei raised his head to see over Gasper. His face paled as cold sweat washed over his face.
Kiba Yumi, the female version of Yuuto after swapping genders, was dressed in the same Sexy Santa suit. Her head was bowed, a deep blush coating her face, and her eyes were hidden behind her bangs but staring at Issei's. Her arms were in front of her with her hands fiddling between fingers, unintentionally pressing her generous breasts up. Her body was swaying in embarrassment.
"W-Well, Ise-kun? W-What do you—"
"WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS TO ME?!" Issei shouted as he fell on his knees and slammed his head against the floor. "Y-You damn handsome. You're supposed to be a handsome! Go back to being a handsome! Do you know how hard it is trying to fight off against these urges! My body thinks you're a hot chick and I don't know what to do!"
Yumi blushed deeper as she put her hands to her cheeks. A delightful expression appeared. "Y-You really think that way about me, Ise-kun?"
"…Okay this is getting a little weird," said Rolan aloud. "MUSIC!"
At his command, an orchestra of music began to play. When seeking its originator, they would find a single woman sitting in the furthest corner of the room. A series of instruments floated in the air around her as she swayed her hands around like a conductor. The instruments played in holiday-themed music.
With that, the party began and groups gathered together for celebrations. People of different species and factions chatted amongst another. Drinks were shared, stories were told, hilarities ensured, and laughter was made.
Everyone was sharing their experience within the past year. Of how they met the unique individual known as Hyoudou Issei and why there were all impressed by him. Truly, without him, it would have been a miracle to gather such a diverse crowd together under one roof.
"Ayame, what's wrong?" Issei said as he finally found his sister. So many people had stopped him, wanting to talk to him. He had been polite enough to share a few words and then moved on… and then stopped again by the next group. He eventually found Ayame in the makeshift living room, sitting beside the fireplace.
"Ise-nii," she said after yawning. She looked tired. "Merry Christmas…"
He saw how she was struggling to stay away. There were bags under her eyes.
He leaned close to her and brushed the hair out of her face. "Ayame, how long have you been up?"
"I'm not tired!" she argued, her brows furrowing and newfound fire flared in her eyes. But it immediately went away as she had to blink back the weariness.
He smiled at her, "You've been up since yesterday, haven't you? You helped with the decorations?"
She frowned, not wanting to give in. But she did eventually and answered. "Yes. And the baking. And the shopping. And the—" a yawn, "—cleaning. Lulu-ji is hopeless without me. I watched your broadcast from the beginning. And now I want to spend Christmas with Ise-nii…"
Her brows were defiant. She wanted to stay up to be with him. But it was futile. She had been awake for too long and it was now a large burden to stay up any longer. Her words were slurring and she constantly had to blink. It was like watching a little drunk person argue that they weren't drunk.
He reached down and swept her up into his arms, bridal style. "Come on. You and I can open presents as soon as you wake up. We'll have our own private celebration."
Her droopy eyes widened slightly as she wrapped her arms around his neck. "…Really?"
"Really," he said with a smile.
She let him carry her out of the party and up the stairs. Despite Archibald's renovations for this evening, he had at least kept the base layout of the building. It had taken a few minutes more to reach Ayame's room only due to the increase in space.
He helped her get undressed, trying his hardest to not look her way. He had to remind herself that she was now and legally Hyoudou Ayame and still only twelve-years-old. But she didn't seem to mind. Rather, she sulked at how he wasn't looking at her. But she was too tired to try anything even when it was the most opportune moment… where those damn hussies weren't trying to steal her precious brother. There were so few moments when they were alone.
He tucked her into bed. She held on to his hand to stop him from leaving. Capturing his attention, she pointed directly up.
And there, hanging over her bed, was some mistletoe.
She had planned this much at least.
Issei scratched his cheek, unsure on what to do. But the longer he thought about it, the more his instincts were warning him on danger. Ayame's glare was piercing and only growing stronger. The little girl was starting to think dark thoughts. If he didn't think of something, and quick, she would concoct a plan that could leave him hospitalized for the next few days. Predator perk warning him or not.
He brushed the hair out of her face once more and bent down. Ayame had cupped his face and leaned herself upward. She closed her eyes and went to meet his lips.
…He instead kissed her brow.
"Good night, Ayame," he said in a soft and caring voice.
She could only glare at him in irritation. Ayame let go of him, tossed to the side with her back towards him, and muttered darkly…
"Issei, go to Heaven."
It felt like an arrow had pierced his heart. He visibly flinched. Not from the words, but the tone she had used. Her tongue was always sharp and knew the best way to inflict pain.
"Ise-nii…" she began in a low voice. So low he had to strain to hear. "I love you…"
He sighed at her tendencies. Nasty one instance and sweet the next. He didn't understand women.
"I love you too," he replied and stroked her hair. He remained at her bedside until she closed her eyes and eventually drifted off into sleep.
When he exited and shut the door behind him, he hadn't expected Sona to be waiting for him. There was this silent agreement between all the girls that Issei would be in hands-off territory whenever he was alone with his sister. But here she was, probably breaking that pact.
"Oh, uh, Sona…" he began nervously. No good ever came when she reached out for him. Especially in isolated environments. He immediately began to think the worst. "I-I'm sorry about all this! I know you would have yelled at me if I told you so I didn't tell you. And that was probably my mistake… not telling you. But I really didn't want to get lectured by—"
"I'm not here for that," she cut him off, fixing her glasses. Her eyes were closed. "I'm here… to apologize. You're right, I would have lectured you about all of this because of past events with the Predators and your bouts with the Khaos Brigade. But, it appears I was in the wrong. Everyone is behaving appropriately… as appropriately as is socially acceptable anyways. They all seem to be getting along… because of you."
He didn't know what to say about that. He could only look away bashfully as he scratched the back of his head. "I, uh, think I should apologize too. I remember you saying Devils don't celebrate Christmas so I didn't think I should have invited you. I didn't want to offend you… but I might have anyways. I'm sorry I— urk!"
"Hm?" Sona blinked. She saw Issei spot something on the ceiling and then freeze in place. Her eyes went to follow what it was but…
"Why don't we get back to the party?!" Issei nearly shouted frantically as he began to push her down the hall. He was starting to sweat. "Why don't we get as far away from here as possible before—"
"Before I notice the mistletoe, Ise?" she glared at him.
His body froze. Even his nervous smile. He was as still as a statue.
Life returned to his body as he fiddled with his fingers. "I-I didn't put that there, I swear! Ayame must have. I would never put that there to get Sona in that position… even if it'll make me happy to kiss— I didn't mean that! I don't want to kiss you! No! Wait! I didn't mean it like that! I would love to kiss you— but I wouldn't— I mean… please don't yell at me…"
He bowed his head and slouched his shoulders. A sniffle came from him.
"…Honestly," Sona removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She didn't put them back on when she was done, however. "Do you think me as such a shrewd, Ise?"
Her face was scarlet as she closed the distance between them. Her hands pressed against his chest as she raised herself up to match his height on her toes. Quickly, before he could react and sputter more nonsense to ruin the mood, she pecked him lightly on his lips.
Her blush intensified by the time she lowered herself. Their eyes never left. And she never moved away from him.
He took that as a sign. His hands were on her hips and he closed the distance. He took the initiative this time. Their lips met, this time lasting more than a small peck.
It was a short and quick engagement, all things considered. They parted from another without another word. Sona's face was a full shade of red, reaching all the way to her ears and down her neck. She took the moment to gather herself by placing her glasses back on with both hands. Her fingers lingered at her lips for a brief moment.
She huffed and then jabbed a finger at his chest. "I accept your apology. Now, I expect you to make an appearance, Demon Lord Hyoudou, at the Grand New Years' Ball. Remember Onee-sama is your sponsor so if you fail to make an appearance you're going to embarrass her. And I'll very upset if I don't see you there. I… would be very upset if I didn't have the first dance of the New Year."
"Urm… yes?" Issei replied with what he believed to be the best answer. He couldn't figure out what was right or wrong whenever Sona got like this. He remembered the days when they would be strictly friends and he had a better grasp on her personality. Now, as a firm candidate to be his wife along with Rias Gremory, their relationship was obscured. He couldn't understand these random mood swings.
"Good enough," she said with a satisfied nod. She stepped away from him and smoothed the surface of her winter blouse. Sona would resume as she normally would and pretend the previous engagement had never happened.
Or, she would have… If she didn't turn around and realize she had gotten caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Both she and Issei broke out in cold sweat.
There, at the edge of the hallway, was Issei's full harem. They had seen the entire exchange.
"Shots have been fired!" one of the girls shouted. He thought it was Irina or… Serafall?
"Oh, shit!" shouted Issei. He quickly turned and began running.
There, blazing in obsidian armor and black flames, Saji was pursuing close behind. "How dare you touch Kaichou! I thought we had a deal! What happened to the bro-code you girlfriend stealer?!"
"She kissed me!" Issei shouted in his defense. He avidly dodged tongues of black flames and weaves of dragon silk that could tear him to shreds. Both were tricky to deal with and were a bitch to recover from. Vritra's black flames were the hardest to gain a resistance from.
"Issei, you prat!" Sona shouted after him. "Don't throw me under the bus like that! You kissed me too!"
"Sona~" Rias was cackling as her Power of Destruction oozed between her fingertips. The black and red demonic essence breathed and coiled around her fingers like a serpent. "I thought we had an understanding~"
"So-tan… how could you?" cried Serafall. Though she was crying from the (supposed) betrayal, her own frozen essence was leaking into the hallway. She only got that while she was angry. "You're only allowed to kiss Onee-sama…"
"I call for an inquisition," demanded Xenovia.
"Second!" shouted Irina.
"Third!" called Rossweisse.
"Your vote doesn't count, Homewrecker-san," muttered Koneko.
"H-Homewrecker?!" Rossweisse fell into a sobbing fit. "But, but… Ise and I are… Our love is recognized by the Norse Pantheon!"
"Sona-Kaichou!" cried Asia. "I thought you were my sister! How could you?"
"Take her to… the movie parlor," said Akeno in a dark voice.
Sona's face paled as she knew what this meant. "N-No! Anything but that! Please! Don't make me watch Dragon Knight Heroes! Anything but that horrible anime!"
Sona continued to struggle in vain as the girls carried her away. Her shouts were heard throughout the whole house but none came to her aid. She would not be seen again until later on. And she would resurface into the world as a changed woman.
"I'll have you know it's the number one anime right now all across the world," Rolan said bitterly.
"Who are you talking to?" asked Serene as she took her seat in the circle.
"Someone. Anyone. I don't know," he groaned as he scratched his brow. "I just had the urge to defend my favorite show. It felt like it was being used as an instrument of torture… again."
"Did it ever occur to you that no one likes that show?" asked Issei as he approached the circle. He had managed to outrun Saji but he had suffered a few minor burns here and there. His skin was still smoking.
"The hell happened to you?"
"…Meh," Issei mumbled, not wanting to give an answer. He went to take his seat across of them.
Except a hand pushed him back towards the center, away from the chair.
"I'm sitting here," declared Philips.
"Eh? Philips-san? Sorry. I didn't see you there. When did you arrive?"
"…I've been here the whole time," he answered. There might have been some bitterness in his voice. Maybe anger. Maybe frustration. Maybe depression. But Issei couldn't tell. It was just a blank face without expression due to his Radiance of the Sun. "We had a conversation about my daughters. You asked me how old they were, you got excited to find my oldest was your age, and then I punched you for your perverted thoughts."
"Eh? Really?" Issei thought for a moment as he took one of the spare seats… this time making sure there was no one invisible there. "Now that you mention it… my face does kinda hurt a little… And my shin now for that matter…"
"…I kicked you for forgetting about me just now," said the Fifth as he crossed his arms.
And then, he was forgotten entirely from the circle.
"Is it that time already?!" Li Qin appeared and took her seat between Issei and Rolan. "I have my gift ready! Who gets to go first?"
"Now, now, child," chided Archibald as he took his seat beside Issei. "Wait for the others to arrive. Then we can begin. Those are the rules, do you remember?"
"…Can I at least know who pulled my name this year?" she asked with her large doll-like eyes. "Please?"
"My word, she even said please," Ludwig was in the midst of folding up his apron by the time he entered the circle and took his seat. "You rarely ever hear that from Mistress Xi'lon."
"I say my 'pleases' and 'thank yous'!" she defended herself. "Tell them, Mars!"
The parasol she waved around in her hands said nothing. It couldn't tell a lie… but it also wasn't stupid to shoot itself in the foot by going against the wishes of its master.
"Neh…" Li Qin deflated.
Issei looked around and realized they had all sat in the circle of chairs according to their seniority. Again. They always did it year after year and claimed to have never noticed until one of them pointed it out. Perhaps it was some intricate subconscious command placed onto them by the World? Or an act of their own? This was the fourth year with them and he couldn't believe it was coincidence by this point.
"We're missing the fatass," said Rolan as he eyed the one empty chair in the circle. "Anyone know where he is?"
"Normally we'd ask you that," Serene rebuked. "Have you lost your rabbis-infected dog again? Please don't tell me he's masquerading as one of the guests. Did nobody tell him this wasn't that sort of party?"
As if on cue, a large globous mesh fell from the fireplace. Its mass was so big it had put out the roaring fire instantly. It began to move, squirming from the heat of the ashes as well as the awkward landing. A pair of legs could be made out and managed to find its way out of the fireplace. Soon after that, the figure was able to crawl out.
The Fourth cursed as he patted the sooth and ash off his Santa suit. But not before pulling a flask out of one of the pockets and taking a swig. Right after, he reached back into the fireplace and tried to pull out the large black sack that had gotten stuck through the chimney. He eventually managed to pry it free and drag it across the floor. He continued to mutter curses under his breath.
"Sorry I'm late," he apologized in something that almost sounded sincere. "You'd not believe how big of a bitch it was to get my gift. I had to— NO! NO! DOWN YOU DAMN THING!"
Something within the sack began to stir. Some animal by the sound of its whining and the way it began to flip around in the sack. The Fourth tackled it before it could make a break for it, wrestled around on the floor with it, and eventually managed to stop its squirming by hitting it a few times. He dragged the bag back to the side of his chair before he began to disrobe.
"Damn thing. Thought I had it tranquilized long enough. So anyways, how's everybody doing? Glad I made it just in time for the…"
When he took off his coat, his eyes went straight for Rolan. The Fourth was wearing the same knitted sweater with the family of snowmen holding hands. They looked at each other in bewilderment.
"Really, bra?" the Fourth lifted his hands. "Really? You're wearing the same… My Ma made this for me, man. How did you even… You know what, fuck it. I'm keeping it on."
The Vampire crossed his arms and sat on his seat. The chair groaned from his weight and nearly collapsed. He continued to grumble under his breath as he took a few more swigs from his flask.
"…Viri made me this…" Rolan said as he stared at his own sweater, trying to unravel some great mystery on how two women (whom Issei had no clue about) had managed to make the same knitted patterns. Maybe they followed some stencil?
"You know, lad," Ludwig got Issei's attention for the moment. He pointed at the television screen still displaying some of the Santa Blur events. But, currently, it was covering the recent attack on the snowman colossus over in Canada. "That was a Predator-class threat. The World sent you there for a reason. Are you sure you should be here doing this?"
"Oh. That…" Issei suddenly recalled that snowman monster. He had forgotten about it. Hours on end since he left and the thing had yet to come anywhere near any civilized area. "Vali showed up. I'm sure he can take care of that."
"That is a beast of winter," Archibald turned his attentions at the screen. He stroked his chin as he observed the creature, admiring it even. "A winter incarnation itself. It creates blizzard and thrives off of them. A perpetually growing spirit that grows stronger as the winter stays long and shall do so by creating its own winter. Eventually it will cover the whole world in ice. Are you sure the White Dragon Emperor—"
"Grump Chaser!" interjected Li Qin.
"—is enough to deal with it?" concluded Archibald without pause or even acknowledging the Seventh's argument.
Issei shrugged. "I trust Vali to take care of the job."
Archibald nodded neutrally, "It is your target. I shall respect however you wish to deal with it."
"Gifts!" shouted Li Qin as the group was starting to break into their own private conversations. She lifted a neatly wrapped box above her heads and waved it around. "Who's going first?!"
"The right always belongs to the host," Archibald answered professionally. "Mister Hyoudou, if you will…?"
Issei gulped. He had been worried about what to get to the man who could acquire anything and everything. So, he gave him the only thing Issei knew how to make. He handed the small paper bag over to the First. "I, uh, actually had you this year, Archibald-sempai."
The eldest raised his brows as he accepted the brown bag. He examined it clinically and could determine everything about it. His power told him the boy had been rushed in crafting the prize within and didn't have the time to wrap it. There could have been alternatives but Issei had grabbed the first thing he saw. But it didn't matter. What mattered was the article within.
A smile of wonder spread his old lips. What Archibald had pulled out was something he could have gotten anyone to make. Something he could have found through his own merits. Something he could replicate using his own powers. But what he couldn't replicate, locate, or purchase was the amount of love and care placed inside the creation.
It was a plush doll in the likeness of Archibald Lolifor himself.
While the gift was the doll itself, he accepted what it represented more so. The potential of humanity and the concepts that Primordials, gods, and other higher beings could never hope to understand.
"Thank you, Mister Hyoudou, I shall treasure this throughout the ages," he tucked it back inside the paper bag and let it rest on his lap. He then pulled a wrapped box from seemingly nowhere. It wasn't extravagant compared to the disposable things the Gremory family would use. Perhaps the First was simply modest in his spending… or cheap.
Li Qin's face lit up when the box was offered towards her. She accepted it, undid the ribbon, and pulled off the lid.
Issei wanted to punch someone.
"I've never seen this one before!" she squealed in delight as she pulled out a long red coat. He recognized it immediately. "This is the Red Blur's Alice Hunter coat! It hasn't even gone on sale yet and Mars won't let me take one! I love it!"
It was actually a coat resembling what he looked like when he Promoted to Queen under Juggernaut Drive. He was pretty sure nobody had seen him use it. But someone must have if it was aired in animation on that stupid Dragon Knight Heroes show.
Li Qin was already wearing it by the time she handed her present over to…
…And then Rolan was delivering a gift to Serene.
"Huh?" Issei asked aloud. He was sure Li Qin was giving it to someone else. It felt like he had blacked out in that instant.
"Don't tell me you pulled out my name," Serene said as she eyed the bag hanging in his hands.
"I didn't. I'm giving this to you because you wouldn't have noticed it even if Artemis slapped you across the face with it," he replied in his usual blunt manner.
Oh. So Li Qin had pulled out Philips' name and then Philips had a gift for Serene. How Li Qin managed to hand her gift over without—
"Neh…?" the Valkyrie was spinning around in her chair, looking for the gift she just had in her hands. "Where did…? How did…? What was I doing again…?"
Ah. It seemed she was victim to Philips' EX-rank presence concealment skill.
Serene pulled out a series of tissue paper from the bag until she uncovered a large book. It was a photo album. And it looked to be full of pictures as well.
She opened the first page…
And shut it without hesitation.
"I don't know what sort of joke this is," she began dryly, matching the tone Rolan would have used. "Nor do I know why you gave this to me. But I am not amused."
Rolan leaned over his left and asked aloud, "What the hell did you get her this year?"
Issei didn't know who he was asking but he apparently received his answer. His eyes had widened. A snort escaped as his lips curled without his control. Rolan's eyes had met with Issei's. And suddenly he couldn't hold back his laughter.
"She… She seriously wanted that this year?!" he laughed aloud. "How did you even… Seriously? That's great! Only you could pull it off!"
"Um… Amy… what did you get?" Issei asked.
"I-It's nothing, Master," she stuttered. Serene didn't stutter. Ever. Nor would she she blush and advert her gaze from him. He didn't think it was possible for someone of her stature. Now it made him twice as curious to find out—
"They're all pictures of you, Hyoudou," cackled Rolan.
"THEY ARE NO SUCH THING!" cried Serene as her face turned scarlet and arms hugged the photo album.
"Then, please, great herald of lies, prove me wrong," Rolan challenged with a snicker.
Serene refused to budge.
Li Qin raised her hand, "Oh, oh, oh! Rosie, can you get me a copy of that? Or at least of the first page? I really wanna have that picture of Puppy showering…"
A spot of drool fell from her lips.
"I'm doing what in what picture?!" shrieked Issei.
"Oh, look, Chase, here, your gift!" Serene shouted frantically as she shoved the box at her feet into his arms. "Open it so we can never come back to this again. Hurry up now!"
Smoothly, she slid the album back into the bag and pushed it behind her seat with her foot. Out of sight and out of mind, one might say.
But it's not like Issei was going to forget something like that anytime soon.
"Fine, fine," sassed Rolan as he began to peel away at the wrapping paper. He took his time, mostly taking one corner at a time as though the thing would explode in his face. He even eyed it as if it would. But then he blinked. He had spotted something. A colorful streak of the article hidden within.
He forbade subtlety and tore the wrapping with gusto. His eyes were wide and only grew wider as…
Issei gave an audible grown. Seriously?!
"This is the super ultra-rare collector's edition of the Red Blur figurine of Episode Forty-Seven in replication of scene seven and sequence sixteen…" his words were fast as his eyes were glazed. He was totally lost in himself as if the toy in his hands was like the answer to all his problems. "My god. They said it didn't exist. They said I was crazy. But I knew. I knew it exists!"
To clarify, it was a replication of Issei's [Potential] transformation. The kind the cameras couldn't capture. Issei could count the number of people who had seen that form. How the FUCK the schmucks in Sunlight Studios had been able to learn about it was beyond him.
"Amy… marry me," Rolan turned and asked her with a dead-serious look in his eyes.
She frowned. "No."
He shrugged, placed the box on his lap (there was no way he wasn't going to let it out of his reach), and pulled a small box out of his jean pocket. "Louie, catch."
He tossed it to Ludwig, who caught it easily enough.
"…I thought you pulled my name," stated Serene.
"Let's not start that again," concluded Rolan.
Ludwig pulled out a small charm from within the box. As far as Issei could tell there was nothing special about it. It was just a small piece of metal carved into the shape of a sword. There wasn't anything decorative about it.
But Ludwig flexed his hands around it as the charm rested in his palm. When his fingers curled, a sword appeared in his grip. Now that was immaculate. It was an estoc as long as his arm made of the finest steel and polished like a mirror. Gems decorated its pummel and fancy inscriptions of Germanic words lined its guard.
Recognition flashed through Ludwig's eyes. His fingers nimbly traced the flat of the blade. "…This was my mother's sword."
"It's not the real one," shrugged Rolan. There was an apologetic look in his eyes. "There's nothing I could have done for that one. This replication has all the properties of her finest work and can take the form of all the other weapons she made as well. It's mostly for decoration, to frame and adore really. But, I suppose you can use it for combat. Not for things we deal with on a normal basis but a decent enough sword for everything else, I suppose."
Ludwig had flicked his wrist again and again. Each time, the sword became something else. A rapier, a dagger, a straight sword, a hatchet, and even a war hammer. Each one as beautiful as the last and blessed by something divine and coated with magic.
"This is a marvelous gift," the Dragon Slayer said in a quiet voice. His eyes were distant though he continued to stare at the weapon. It was a stare of one living memories of a lost past. He flicked his wrist one more time and the blade reverted back into its charm. He placed it back within its box and tucked it into the breast pocket of his suit.
"This year I pulled your name out," Ludwig began as he pulled out the flat box resting on his lap. "At least I am assuming it was yours. The ticket was a little smudged so I couldn't make out what was written on front. But, who else would it be but you?"
Ludwig handed the box over to Serene, who then handed it over to the Vampire upon his request.
"Hm?" the Fourth accepted the box with a raised brow as he began to pull back the strings. "Now what could such an old engineer get me for the Winter Solstice? I still use those sets of lightsabers you got me a few years back. My brother Josh and I still play Jedi with them and I… oh my."
Inside contained a set of kitchen cutlery. They were in two stacks of six knives of various sizes. The metalwork was… strange, at least to Issei. He never seen metal folded enough times to have a plaid and/or checkered pattern. Then again, he never knew any other type of metal other than the stainless steel his mother had purchased at the appliance store.
The Fourth picked up one knife— one of the four steak knives in the set. He appraised the blade, bent it in half and then bent it back, and nodded in significant approval. "This is indeed some fine work, old man. And is this…?"
He licked the blade and smacked his tongue against his lips as though tasting the flavor. His eyes widened as a smile grew. "This has been forged out of the blood of… No! Father Jeremiah?! The Archbishop of Madness himself?! Better, it's been cooled inside his brain while he was still alive?! Ludwig you sick son of a bitch. Thank you. I've been looking for some new kitchen knives."
Issei gulped. By process of elimination, it was now his turn. And it was the Fourth who had pulled his name this year. Which meant whatever was in that sack was for the Dragoon.
The Vampire placed his things away, stood, and dragged the sack across the circle and then lifted it up so whatever was inside could stand. He held it firmly so the thing within couldn't break free, though it was trying once more in his grip.
"Yeah, I wasn't sure what to get you," the Vampire began. "Thought about some books to help your lovin' with the ladies, maybe some educational videos, or some toys. Bah, I said, who needs those? You seem to be doing fine. You're really hard to shop for, you know that? But then my bro recommended this and I thought, sure, why the fuck not? So here you go kid. Enjoy."
He opened the sack, pulled it down to the floor to reveal what was within, and then shoved it towards Issei. The Dragoon only had an instant to catch it.
It was a girl. A very pretty thing roughly his age with hair as white as snow, evergreen leaves sticking out here and there, almond tanned skin, and a long red winter's robe. Her eyes were gold and glowing like the last rays of the setting sun. As she pressed herself against him, fumbling around for balance, Issei could feel her breasts pushing up on his chest. Immediately his mind could tell him of the size, elasticity, and perkiness of the mounds. They were of some serious high quality.
That, and his hand was already cupping one of them by the way he caught her. A squeeze.
His mouth gaped open. By the Great Lords of the Debauch they were magnificent.
"Oh, her?" Archibald gave his own appraising stare and found what he had been searching for lacking.
"…Fucking hell we're going to have fucking Keeblers here, aren't we?" cursed Rolan.
"And here we go again," sighed Serene.
Before Issei could ask, the girl sitting in his lap realized where she was. Their eyes had locked. Her face flushed red. He went to move his hand away, or at least tried, but his mind and his body ran on two different systems. So when he told it to let go, the hand defied him stubbornly and gave another firm squeeze of her right breast. And then his mind was complying, accepting fate and believing any hell the girl would lash at him would be worth it. For her breast was of some extremely high quality.
That wasn't the case when she snarled, "You."
"…Eh?" was all he could say.
Her hands were gripping his shirt. Their faces were dangerously close to each other, their brows touching. Her anger didn't reside. "I lost my job because of you!"
"…Eh?!" was all he could say. Again.
In the most ancient of times, to the farthest east of the globe, there was a deity that guarded a small village. She was a creature of the forest who watched over the game dwelling within and kept the cold winter from destroying everything. She was a god of life, of sunlight, of winter, of love, of fertility, and of protection.
The people worshipped her. Year after year they would make sacrifices in her honor. Children were her favorite and the village would be bountiful and healthy when a child was given in her name. The ritual was to have the child wander into the forest until they met this motherly spirit. Most children were never seen again but, every now and then, after several years, the child would return as an adult and tell of their tales how their goddess nurtured them and taught them her secrets.
She was always there for the winter, warming houses and using her body made out of the trees against the harsh winds and unforgiving snow. She was there more during the rituals of union— she always blessed the gathering of two, for they would always bring her more children.
But as the years continued on, as she watched the children she loved grow old, wither, and then die, she grew lonely. She wanted a child of her own but could not have a man. For not without trying. She fornicated with the men of the village but none could give her a child.
A strange woman arrived to the village one day, drawn in by the goddess' tears. The goddess was captivated by her beauty. She was far more beautiful than any mortal— and far more beautiful than she. And there was this connection that the goddess could not understand but had been familiar enough. It was… a sort of bond. Like a daughter looking up to her mother…
She was the Earth Mother.
The Earth Mother had heard her daughter's cries and offered to help. She pulled three strands of hair from her head and wove them together into an effigy. The goddess embraced this effigy close…
In time, a child was born from the goddess.
Time resumed on and the child grew, but never growing beyond the age of a child. It was forever young, frozen in time just as the goddess was. It was always a playful creature, playing with the children of the villagers offered in the sacrifices.
But the child was hungry. Always. It always ate the sacrificed children after so long until its hunger grew. When it had not been enough, it would stalk into the village and steal another child in the middle of the night. It no longer hunted out of hunger but now out of pleasure. It enjoyed the taste of human flesh and craved it the more it consumed.
Eventually, the villagers would have enough.
One night, they captured the demon. They burned it on a pyre.
The goddess had heard the screaming of her child and cried for its death. Her screams became a howling wind. The sun darkened above their heads. Winter had never been so cold before.
The village was wiped out, infected by a plague unlike any other.
Grieving nonstop, the goddess' howls continued to be heard as the wind carried her tale. The song it sang spread her misery. It attacked the villages nearby. It attacked whole cities.
The wind continued to spread as the goddess continued to cry.
The people she was killing were becoming her sacrifices. Their cries of mercy and torment, their curses and their sorrows, and their inevitable death were in her name. She wanted her tale to be told. She wanted the people to know of the suffering she was going through. And the mortals were forced to feel it. Her song of torment continued to travel, claiming death upon death far and wide. The more died, the more powerful she became.
Her song had been heard throughout the entire continent and only continued to grow.
A man in black garb had appeared, deaf to her song. He carried a silver sword in one hand, a leather book in the other, and a cross around his neck.
Saint Solstice, the Church's guardian of the winter and summer, had ended the perpetual winter as he fought against the pagan goddess. He surrendered his life doing so. Her last scream was a testament of their battle. And as she faded, the warmth of the sun began to return.
But a new legend was already forging by her destruction. The goddess would return in due time. Her story would begin again despite Saint Solstice's sacrifice. There had been too much death in the world for it to be ignored. The rumors, myths, and legends of the abomination that had spread the Black Plague would return by the fears of the people.
The Church acted. The Inquisitors were made. Pagans and heretics were stamped out— anyone who so much as thought the plague had been from blasphemous origins were tortured and executed. Just as many died in the name of God as they had from the plague. The fear of God was put inside the hearts of people just as much as the fear of the plague. Eventually, people began to fear the Church more and were beginning to forget about the plague. Slowly, but surely, the legend of the forest deity was beginning to change.
And when she would return, she would be in a new form…
"Thus, we have Christmas," finished Rolan.
"…What?" Issei asked; it felt like his brain had been deep fried. He looked at Serene, who had given him a nod that, yes, this bullshit story was true.
"So then…" Issei tried again. His mind needed a moment to reboot. "What does she have to do with all of this?"
The girl (who was still sitting on his lap for whatever reason) crossed her arms and huffed. "I am that goddess! I am the mother of winter and the herald of the solstice!"
Slowly, painfully, things were starting to come together. He figured this girl (wasn't she supposed to be a mother? She's, like, fifteen? Sixteen? Gods) was the goddess of the story all along. Why else would Rolan spew the secret meaning of Christmas for twenty minutes? But he still didn't understand something else.
"…Um, Goddess-chan, what job did I steal from you exactly?"
She stood, gracefully and flawlessly. Her feet were bare and when her robes swayed he could pick up the scents of winter bark, evergreens, and mint. "It is my sole purpose to make the children under my guardianship happy. How can I do that when all they talk about is how the Santa Blur did this? How the Santa Blur did that? I only get one year for people to remember me and you're stealing my thunder!"
"…Eh?" he said. Again.
"For fuck's…" Rolan sighed. "Dipshit, she's Santa."
Issei blinked. He pointed at… Santa, and looked at all his seniors to see if they were bullshitting him. Apparently they weren't. Nods of confirmation were given.
"…But Santa's a man," he tried to find the logic in all this.
Santa's(?) lips twitched.
"As was defined by the Church," Serene informed him. "They did everything they could to alter the truth. No one even remembers her name. I doubt even she."
Now, tears were beginning to form from the corner of her eyes. Apparently Serene had hit a soft spot.
Issei stood and scratched the back of his head. As he thought further about it… he had been portraying Santa for the past few years. He had thought little about it. Then again, he always knew very little about the supernatural world and hadn't fully delved into it until he became a Devil. He just thought he was doing something nice for the people. If his seniors knew about this Santa(?) then why wouldn't they stop him?
He felt like he owed this girl an apology anyways. He bowed his head and offered, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to steal your job from you. I didn't even know you existed…"
"Shots fired," said Rolan as he quickly stood from his seat and walked away from the circle.
Everyone stood up as well and followed right after him. In haste.
Issei looked around and wondered why they were leaving.
The winter goddess' face was fuming red. Her lips were trembling as her hands were curled into fists at her side. She was shaking in barely contained anger as the tears were now ready to come cascading down.
He said the wrong words, he realized.
"I HATE YOU!" she shouted.
The next thing he knew, Issei was thrown back. He crashed through one, two, three, four walls before being ejected out of the house entirely. He landed on his back and slid against the sleek frozen street before flipping back onto his feet.
This girl had managed to get around his Predator's perk. He hadn't even sensed her intentions.
She was outside in a moment to meet him. Her red robes swaying as the power of winter flowed around her. It began to snow as the wind picked up.
Still, he couldn't help but notice she had great legs.
"Do you know who I am?"
His eyes widened. She was speaking in a voice of power. The same he would when announcing his presence.
There was fire in her eyes. Fire as luminous and scorching as the sun's summer rays. The bushes and flowers surrounding the mansion's garden started to grow. Thick vines and branches full of thorns wrapped around her. They were starting to weave together, animate, becoming something liken to wolves.
"I am Zero Predator, the Black Death!"
"…Shit," was all he could say.
What felt like the full force of a blizzard hit him without warning. And then he felt the pricks and shredding of the thorned wolves digging into his skin. It was all too fast, even with his draconian senses. She wasn't going to pull any punches in this… tantrum?
It felt like a tantrum. It felt like something Rias would do when he ogled any of the other girls or Sona when he did something stupid.
He sighed. It was going to be one of those fights.
"What's going on?!" Rias Gremory came bursting onto the balcony when she felt the whole house shake. Some of the other guests had noticed and also the extremely high spike in energy. It was hard to miss the power of an Ultimate-class God.
Seven of the eight Predators were gathered at the balcony. Some sipping drinks, Li Qin was munching on popcorn as though this were a movie, and others were simply leaning against the railing watching everything transpire.
"Issei's gift is throwing a tantrum," Rolan answered with only so much care to satisfy her inquiry. He knew it wouldn't be enough for someone like her and so offered more. "Not that it's her fault. I mean, do you know what's the worst thing you can say to any god's face? 'I don't believe in you'. Fuck, even I believed in Santa before learning all this crap."
Serene looked over at him. "…You believed in Santa this whole time? Even as a grown man? If I recall, you didn't learn about her until I told you that Artemis boy defeated her."
"Details," he waved his hand to shoo her away.
Rias joined them and placed her hands against the railing. She tried to see beyond the blizzard storm but the snow was too thick. She could make out flashes of red light coming from Issei's retaliation but nothing more. All the other Predators could see something, though.
"Shouldn't you do something about this?" she asked for any of them to answer.
In perfect unison with each motion synched, all seven of them shrugged.
She could only groan and rub her brow.
"…What did Issei even do?" she asked instead. It was a simpler question. Well, as simple as things normally went. At least she had a better chance of understanding the eccentric pervert she loved over his seven clearly crazed counterparts.
"I told you," Rolan said, a little more annoyed. "Told her he didn't believe in her."
"…But Santa's a—"
"I'M NOT A MAN!" a shrill voice screamed from the wind.
"…Fuck," half of them cursed, placed their things down, and prepared themselves.
Rias was smacked in the face by the blunt of the winter storm as the barrier keeping it at bay was shattered. She was consumed in hoarfrost that numbed her body and knocked the wind out of her lungs.
A hand grabbed her wrist. She couldn't see anything through the blinding white storm. But there was warmth in that grip. It traveled deep into her skin without burning her and then ran up her arm through the veins. She felt her body warm up and gain resistance to the cold.
She recognized the signature. It had been Rolan who saved her from the cold.
"Get back inside, Gremory," his voice could hardly be heard. "I'll not save you twice."
He turned her around and pushed her back. She could only assume it was the way back inside.
"That damn Godking had to deal with this bullshit?!" Rolan shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice amplified by his Aura for all his counterparts to hear.
"He had help!" Serene shouted back. She didn't have any such augmentations so her voice was mostly lost. She also couldn't see a single inch in front of her.
They had been separated. Some great beast made of thorns— more like wholesome trees than thorns by the size of it— had destroyed the balcony and pursued some of the others. Of course, by sheer dumb misfortune, Rolan and Serene were stuck together.
Rolan wasn't talking about the storm. That he could deal with. His Aura could push the wind back while both his Flame and Frost could distill the cold entirely. And his eyes allowed him to see several layers within.
He was talking about the things he was seeing within.
"Fucking Keeblers…" he snarled.
"What?" Serene shouted, trying to catch what he had said.
"KEEBLERS! COMING OUT OF THE FUCKING TREES!"
Little people began to charge at them by the hundreds. They were all the victims of the plague those many centuries ago, children at that, only morphed by the legend the Church had manufactured. They were grotesque little things hardly resembling humans. Their bodies were black with decay and filled with welts and puss from the plague. Their eyes were hollow, their nails were sharpened into makeshift claws, and their teeth had been filed into fangs.
…They were also dressed in aprons and chef hats or green and red suits full of bells.
"When I live through this," he snarled as he began to channel his Flame through his left hand. "Rias Gremory is totally going to—"
"What?" Serene called out again.
…He knew she heard him. She did that on purpose.
Across the ocean, Vali was getting his ass handed to him.
It had been a simple monster. It was large. It was slow. It was stupid. But nothing seemed to be working against it. He could melt it with his magic, he could use Divide to suck up its power, and he could reduce it to mush with his fists.
But it kept coming back. Always. It had at the starting point been a giant snowman. It was cute all things considered. But after each resurrection the thing had become some jagged titan made of ice and snow alike.
Then, there were its minions.
They too had been snowmen as tall as he was. He had plowed through them with just as much ease as a regular snowman. But, like its titanic creator, they always got back up. And they were getting up stronger, bigger, and harder to kill. They were still slow and stupid, but they were drastically outnumbering him.
His wings glowed as he shrank the area around him. Space distorted as everything within his sight was cut in half over and over again. The little snowmen were shrinking as well as the master. He did it until the safety lock on his armor kicked in and the ability had turned off.
He had managed to cut the creature down to a quarter of its original size while wiping out a massive quantity of the smaller troops.
But, this had been the third time he attempted this.
Something resembling a howl came from the colossus. The icy storm kicked up once again with new snow blowing everywhere. Vali didn't know how it could continue to create such a storm but he knew it was using it to reinvigorate itself. And in a matter of minutes it would be back to its former glory.
"This… is getting annoying…" he was beginning to pant. Issei Hyoudou had to deal with things like this?! It was unreal. It was tiresome.
But that was the thrill of it all. If his rival could put up with things like this then so could he. He just needed a little more firepower.
[…Vali, I know what you're thinking,] Albion said. The mental image of the ancient dragon inching away from his host surfaced. Vali had, indeed, sensed timidity coming from him. [There's another way. There's always another way.]
Vali flew down to a clearing not consumed with snowmen. "Sorry Albion, but it's the best method."
[J-Juggernaut Drive!] Albion argued in haste, borderline panic. [There's always that! I'll even surrender some of my energy to cover the cost! That'll double your time before it starts consuming your soul!]
Vali shook his head. "It won't be enough. It'll just keep coming back. I can feel it. This is something Hyoudou would have to face against at his full might. As a Predator. I won't fall behind him so easily."
[Please Vali!] begged the dragon now. [My next therapy session isn't until Wednesday! I don't think I can wait that long!]
He felt sorry for him. Truly he did. Albion's reputation had plummeted as soon as Vali unlocked this power. The once most-feared being on the planet was reduced to a living mockery. But sacrifices needed to be made in the name of power.
"Kuroka!" he called out to the open.
An intricate magic circled appeared at his back. The sort that crossed dimensions— which was needed as his base of operations needed to be outside the Predator's awareness. One of his faithful companions stepped out seconds after.
"Nyah, what can I do for you, Vali?" Kuroka stepped out, not bothered at all by the cold despite her attire. He could feel her aura warm herself and repel the bitter wind.
"Sorry, but I'm going to need that again."
She frowned, losing her aloofness. She huffed, turned her head away from him, and crossed her arms. "No. Not this time, nyah."
"Hmm?" he turned to look at her. He found her behavior strange. She was always enthusiastic about the practice, sometimes even badgering him on the next time she could be of use to him. To turn him down all of a sudden… "Kuroka, I need you. I can't do this without—"
"Stop right there, nyah," she jabbed a finger to his helm and continued to poke at the plating. She looked upset. "It's always 'I need you' or 'only you can do this for me'. I do it. And then you ignore me right after. Well no more, nyah. Go find yourself another girl, Vali."
She huffed again, turned, and was about to reenter the magic circle.
"What do you want, then?" he asked.
He couldn't afford to let her go. He really did need her. She was his Switch Princess and none others were compatible. This was the only way he could defeat his opponent absolutely. Perhaps if he gathered his entire team then maybe they could defeat it if they went all out. Or, to his great shame, he would have to request the help from Cao Cao or, even more embarrassing, his rival.
No. He needed to defeat this thing here and now. If Hyoudou Issei could do it, then so too could Vali Lucifer!
Kuroka turned, tapping a finger on her chin in coy thought. She already had an answer and only drawled out the time. A smile formed on her lips. Her tails swayed in delight. "You know what I want."
He didn't move.
"…If that's what you want," he eventually said. "But just this once."
She shrugged, though the smile only grew. "It's the best I'll ever get from you, nyah~"
[Vali… please…] Albion began to sob inside his head.
The two grew closer. Kuroka put her hands onto his chest and wrapped a single leg around his waist. She lifted the hem of her kimono as high as she could.
The gauntlet retracted, exposing his hand to the cold. It went around her waist, reached the underside of her dress…
…and firmly gripped her buttocks.
"Nnnyaaaaah~" she moaned and rested her head under his chin.
[Vali, WHHYYYYYYYYYY~] Albion sobbed harder. And then, the dragon was dragged deep down beyond his hearing. He was becoming one with his soul.
Vali could feel the power starting to flow into his being. He could feel himself change underneath his armor. The tumblers were turning and his ultimate technique was unlocking.
"I'll be waiting for you, Va-li~" Kuroka separated from him and gave him a wink. She moved back to the magic circle but never broke her eyes from him.
"A promise is a promise," he agreed as his wings fluttered. By the time she disappeared he was already flying high above the skies. He could see the monster had hardly moved at all… but the lesser snowmen were nearing a local town.
I am, Destruction
I am, the Dark
His armor and vessel shattered into dust glittering in light. Quickly, each particle of dust attached to another through ethereal cords, forming a pattern and weave that could never be understood by mortal men. Words, but not words, were forming in a language none could ever speak or read. These patterns were an expression, a code to something of a greater purpose in the fabric of reality.
They were combining together to form a Law.
My Dream, it shall consume all
My Nothing, it will be enforced
A body was forming from these wordless words. The Law was being made real, giving corporeal form. It was dark, darker than any void. It drank in the light, veiling its appearance in a coat of white burning brighter than any star.
I am, Omnipotent
I am… [Rejection]!
Vali Lucifer flexed the wings on his back. In the next instance, he stood in front of the slowly marching army of snowy troops. He stood against them. He was the wall that would block their path.
No, he was now the thing that would eradicate them. No more would they be a threat. He was the threat to them all.
"I reject you!"
It was not an announcement. It was an authority. It was the hammer slamming down on a final decision. None could disobey.
The magics giving these creatures life dissipated. The energy returned to the open space and spread out across the land. It sank into the ground and became nothing more than nutrition for the life already inhabiting the land. And the snowmen, now without the thing making them constructs, all exploded into harmless soft snow.
Vali looked up at the towering colossus. Towering… how silly. Though it was far taller than Vali by leagues, it was Vali who was looking down on this thing now.
"I reject you," he said with a smile.
The magic within the entity was forced out. The spirit of winter, forged by the prayers of humanity, became nothing more than soft snow and pure energy. That energy became life force as it returned to the land, the skies, and the mountains.
"Hmph," Vali released a breath of air. By his will did he revert back into his human form. "Five hours of fighting you and it only took an instant in that form. I need to get stronger to where I can fight things like you without it…"
He sighed. Albion would still be out cold and he wouldn't be able to access the Divine Dividing. But he could transform again for the next half hour if things got crazy. He sighed because he had made a promise to Kuroka. He was a man of his word.
A shame. He really wanted to attend his rival's party. He even got an invitation from the kid. But oh well. It was probably over now that it was so late… or early in the morning, depending on how one would look at it.
With the problem finally solved, Vali opened a portal, stepped inside, and went to go face Kuroka and her most recent scheme for her to seduce Vali.
Only, this time, it had worked.
"You people will never get rid of me!" she shouted as she threw more winter at him. Not a blizzard storm of ice, snow, and wind. Winter. The full wrath of the season compacted into a single thrust at him. "I've been here since the dawn of man! Since the dawn of the planet! I am winter and summer!
"The people may have forgotten my name… and me… but I've not forgotten my purpose! I am here for the children! The children! I will be the one to make them happy! I am the original Santa Clause and will not have some mockery called Santa Blur tarnish my name! I refuse to fade away! Refuse!
"I was once Fifth Predator, the Black Death! I chilled the sun and brought about a plague onto the world! My death meant nothing! I am still here! I still hold my authorities! I will never fade away! I am Zero Predator because the World cannot fully acknowledge me! But that will not deny I am still an Ultimate Killer! You are nothing! You hear me?! Nothing! I will—"
"You talk way too much," Issei said as he threw back what he assumed to be a dragon made out of thorns and tree branches. It had put up one hell of a fight but it couldn't so much as scratch his armor.
The incarnation of the solstice seasons gaped like a fish. Her face flushed red as her anger spiked once again. "H-How dare you! I-I will not take that tone from the likes of a—"
The good thing about her talking was that Issei could find her location throughout the blinding blizzard. His Predator perk couldn't get a lock on her. But he could tell her general direction based on how much she yapped on and on.
A Dragon Shot was fired. He heard her shriek in surprise and then saw the faintest shadows move in the sea of white. She had dodged but now he knew where she was.
His Gift of Flight blazed as he followed the shadow. In an instant he was right in front of her.
He smacked her on her behind. It was quite plump. Bubbly. There was a respectable amount of firmness to it.
She screamed in anger but didn't retaliate. She only gained distance from him while covering the spot he had struck with both her hands. The winter storm had subsided from her distraction. He could not see her clear enough to get a good view of her form.
"H-H-H-H-H-How indecent!" she shook in rage… or embarrassment? He was sensing some strange emotions coming out of her through his draconian instincts. Her face was flushing in a new color. "W-W-W-W-W-Who dares to… to… s-s-s-smack a fair maiden's b-b-b-buttocks?!"
"I'm really more of a breast man," he commented without shame. "But, Goddess-chan, I'm having mixed feelings. I mean, your breasts and your butt are just as nice to feel as each other."
Her face reddened further. Her lips trembled. She looked ready to cry again.
He almost felt bad for what he was about to do. Almost. But he needed to do this to calm her down.
Something flashed in his eyes. A fire unlike any other. A fire that transcended the brilliance of the sun. Her eyes widened as she saw it.
"Now, Dress Break!" he roared in glee. And then he snapped his fingers.
Her robes disintegrated. They did not tear apart like normal fabric. They, woven out of the raw energies of magic from nature and prayer from the people's stories, simply dissolved. The winds stopped blowing. Snow fell back to the ground. The animated constructs from tree bark and vegetation grew still.
And the solstice deity was naked for all to see.
Her eyes widened further. She took a moment to examine her surroundings.
There was an audience. The large gathering of guests within the manor had made a show of it and had gathered at every window they could. They had managed to see the entire exchange, some better than others despite the blizzard.
And they all saw her naked.
Worse was her enemy. The Santa Blur stared at her with such an intensity she had to cover her precious parts with as much as she could. But she found it to be useless. Her attempts to cover her bosom and crotch only added fuel to that intensity. She could feel an overwhelming pressure force itself down on her. That stare. That stare! It was seeing into the deepest parts of her soul no matter what she tried to do.
In the end, she fell to her knees and began to cry.
He was alone with her. The two of them sat in an isolated room prepared just for her. She had been given some clothes to wear and had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. A cup of coffee was held in her hands though she didn't drink it, merely huddling it for warmth and comfort. Her feet were up on the seat as she sat near the fireplace.
Issei scratched his cheek as he took the seat opposite her. He didn't know where to go with this. He didn't know what he was supposed to do with this girl. This was his gift but he didn't know what its intentions were supposed to be. Did the Fourth just give it to him to fuck with him?
It was, strangely, Serene who told him there was a courteous purpose to all this. Courteous. As if the Fourth was offering something to prove his respect to Issei. It was also Serene (as well as the collective force of all his girls) who told Issei to try and reason with the girl.
Which led to now. He offered her everything he could and she accepted them.
"How did you know my clothes was the source of my powers?" she began, staring at him through the corner of her eyes. She looked peeved at him. But, he had to admit, her pouting scornful look was rather cute.
He didn't know about her clothes. But it's not like he was going to tell her that.
"You're really Santa…" he said instead.
She frowned. But then she looked at the fire and her expression softened, if not only slightly. "I was Santa Clause until a certain someone took that from me. It was the last thing I had left attached to this world, you know? No one remembers me. I am an Incarnation— a manifestation of a natural force given a physical body. I am the incarnation of winter and summer. But no one knows this. They worshipped me like some goddess. I don't even remember my own name…"
She stared into the fire a bit longer.
"I love children, I always will," she began again. "Being Santa was all I had left. No one prayed to me. No one remembered me. Santa was a mask but I wore it proudly. They might remember the character but never the actor. Still, the show must go on. Eventually I grew into such a theatrical harlot I no longer resembled my former self. What you see on television is what you get, really. But, now that this Santa Blur is around, the children sing songs for him instead. In time, people will even forget about me as they replace me with him. And when I die, I really will stay dead."
Now he felt like an ass. "…I didn't know."
She shrugged, accepting his words but it did not wash away her discontent. "I understand your intentions. I should praise you for your care. I've watched you, Red Blur. I've seen you through the hearts of the children. But… I want to keep hating you. Because of you… I will eventually fade away."
"Do you want to know when I stopped believing in you?"
His question made her fully turn and look at him. Her brows were still scrunching in a scowl but her eyes were bewildered. She was curious.
He had to look away. His hands cupped together as he closed his eyes. "My parents. We would celebrate this time every year. Sure I saw them put the gifts under the tree every year… saw Dad bite the cookies and milk I offered to you once. But I still believed for a while. Even I wasn't so silly to believe someone flies around and delivers gifts through a chimney. I can't do that. I wanted to go through every house but could only have enough time to go from city to city and drop off the gifts at the center.
"I didn't believe in Santa like the normal kids did. I never really did believe in fairy tale stuff. I always thought Santa was… the guy behind the scenes. Like he was the one making the toys and stuff for kids, sending them off to companies, and having the parents buy them for us. The kids called me crazy. But that's what I believed. I sat for a very long time thinking about all this. I mean, how does someone deliver toys throughout the entire world in a single night? I think he gets the parents to do it for him!"
There was a small smile on her lips as she listened. But, with the look she was giving him through her sunlit eyes, she knew there was more. She was still waiting for his answer.
"…I stopped believing in naïve things like that when my parents died," he said in a heavy tone. "I couldn't believe the world was so simple. So childish. So nice. There were a lot of terrible things out there. It's not that my theory for Santa— for you— was proven wrong. I just lost faith in… everything…
"…I'm sorry I said I didn't believe in you," he concluded and bowed his head slightly.
Her reply was a small snicker. "Little boy, are you telling me you believed in me until you were fourteen?"
He didn't tell her when his parents had died. Still, it got his cheeks to flush. "N-No! This and that are completely different!"
Her smile grew. "I forgive you. Not for stealing my job but for your beliefs. It still hurt, I'll have you know. I work very hard to get the recognition I deserve."
He looked at her as she looked away and finally sipped her coffee.
"Hey… Santa-chan? How about… next year… we do this together?"
A brow was raised as she turned only her eyes to look at him from the corner of her vision.
Issei scratched his cheek as he thought about it a little further. "I could use the help. I'm still new to all of this. I was thinking you could show me how you get from house to house. N-Not that I'm trying to learn your secrets and steal your job! I was thinking we could be partners, you know? If I show people you're real then maybe—"
"That's sweet of you," she said in a warm tone. Her smile had been genuine. "But the people never needed to see me to believe me. I don't mind teaching you my tricks, little boy. But I want you to make me a promise…"
She looked at him. Another brow was raised as she eyed him up and down, appraising him. "Two things, little dragon."
The purr from her tongue sent shivers down his spine. "Erm… sure?"
"Never forget about me," she said with a sad smile. "So long as you promise that, I will never fade away. If I have at least one believer, I will be here. Powerless maybe, but there will always be a chance I may return. This world is too wonderful for me to die out. I wish to see it until the very end."
He nodded. "I promise, Santa."
"That's a good boy," she nodded as well. "Now, the other thing. I want you to give me a child."
"Dragons are Incarnations as well, did you not know?" she said calmly, though there was an amused smile at his reaction. "Normally the idea of a Dragon and a goddess having a child is so rare most legends have been forgotten. To find a humanoid Dragon is a prize of itself. I am still your gift, little boy. Am I not good enough for you?"
Though she said this with coy, her hands were shaking and her face was flushing just as bad as he was. She was also breaking down into a nervous sweat. It took all of her power to say those words smoothly but there was nothing she could do to fight her bodily reactions. Her heart was racing loud and fast enough for the both of them to hear it.
They sat in awkward silence in each other's company. She turned away from him and sipped her coffee, using it to hide her face. Issei stole glances at her every now and then while he did everything in his power to not think about sex. And failing miserably. Their eyes would meet every now and then and steam would pour out of their ears as they quickly looked away.
"I-I don't even know your name," she started another conversation. "For that matter, who are you? Who are you to challenge the likes of a Predator?"
He blinked. All this time…
"Do you know who I am?"
Her eyes widened in recognition.
He sat up straight, no longer timid around her. His posture was like a king that commanded all to listen. Like a warrior who could not be challenged. Like a god who could not be denied. His eyes glowed green while scales began to form on his skin. His draconian essence slivered into the room just enough for her to feel its potency.
"Easter, dear sister, this one is mine," she said with a hungry smile.
"I am Hyoudou Issei. Eighth, the Dragoon."