I Was Done Waiting
Among the Gods and Devils, there existed a different race.
They were neither part of the Divine or the Damned. Neither Devil nor Angel nor Monster. They were something different. Something other. No one knew where they truly came from, when their existence began or even if they had a beginning at all. Who could truly tell with those ephemeral beings?
Perhaps they had always been there.
Walking among us, living beside us, and we had no way of remembering.
Before we put pen to paper, before songs and legend, before we even had the words to speak the tales they had been there. Watching, waiting. A time before we had the means to name them. Back before even the world had a name.
Yet they had a name of their own.
We did not name them. Nor did they name themselves.
They bore one nonetheless.
They called themselves Yōkai.
And the Yōkai were other.
They did not truly exist, not in the same way we did. Though they had walked alongside humans since time immemorial they didn't quite fit into the world, like pieces of a puzzle that belong to a different set and yet, somehow, inexplicably managed to seamlessly blend in. Straddling the line between reality and fantasy, they managed to inhabit both worlds at once, wandering from one existence to another as easily as you and I walked through doors.
They were strange, they were other, and currently, two of them were sniffing me.
"Why do they keep doing that?" I asked, barely resisting the urge to glance back at the two girls in question as they broke into another fit of snickers. Instead, I focused my attention on the man walking beside me.
I had seen Riser Phenex once before, at the opening ceremony of the Young Devil's Gathering, and he looked exactly as he had then. No surprise. It hadn't been that long ago, barely a couple of days now that I thought about it, but a lot had happened since and it felt a lifetime ago.
He carried himself with the kind of lazy confidence that's usually found in people decades older. The Phenex Clan symbol sat proudly on the right breast of a burgundy blazer, with matching coloured pants along with a white half-buttoned dress shirt underneath, and a pair of freshly polished dress shoes to top it all off. With unkempt blond hair that looked as if it had been carefully styled rather than natural, he looked as if he was ready to attend a ball rather than a fight.
At the moment though he looked every bit as perplexed as I felt.
"…I," Riser Phenex began, baffled, pausing to glance over his shoulder at the pair of Nekomata trailing a few paces behind us, "I haven't the faintest clue."
This time I couldn't stop myself from following his gaze towards his pawns, Ni and Li, the Nekomata twins. Their distinctive red and blue hair were eye-catching, along with the pair of feline cat ears sprouting out from their heads. Currently, they trailed not too far behind us, heads bent close, furiously whispering in hushed voices that I couldn't quite make out, occasionally breaking out in giggles before sending knowing looks my way.
I wasn't ashamed to say they were beginning to creep me out a little.
Ni and Li were Nekomata.
And the Nekomata were Yōkai.
However, they were less other than most Yōkai. Unlike the more esoteric of their brethren, Nekomata were more grounded in the real world than the other, thus resembling us in nature than others of their elk. If one compared the true Yōkai who resided in the mirror city of Kyoto – where it was said that eight million gods lay hidden – to the creatures that dwelled in the deepest depth of the sea, who had never seen the light of day and whose very natures appeared eldritch and alien to those who dwelled on the land up above, then Nekomata were the frogs that lived on the shores of the great lake known as reality, their toes only brushing upon the lapping waves of the other realm.
However, they were still Yōkai. Which meant that even if they appeared to look and think like us, they were still fundamentally different underneath.
I gave the Phenex scion an incredulous look, "You mean they aren't usually like this?"
"No, never." Riser shook his head firmly, "I can honestly say I've never seen them act this way before."
As if on queue the blue hair sister, Li I think, leaned forward in my general direction and took a quick sniff, before slapping a hand over her mouth to stop herself from bursting out in laughter. Quickly the sisters drew their heads together, whispering and tittering as they both shot glances my way, eyes sparkling with mischief.
No, seriously, was I the only one who found this creepy?
"What I'm having trouble understanding is why they refuse to get any closer to you." Riser looked my way and shrugged. "Believe me Emiya, my girls are anything but shy. Particularly when it comes to something that strokes their curiosity, however with you it's like there is an invisible line around you they're refusing to cross."
Sadly, he wasn't exaggerating in the slighted.
The closest I had physically come to the twins was when I had first introduced myself to Riser as his escort, not ten minutes earlier. I had walked past one of them on my way to him when she flinched as if she had been slapped, before quickly slapping a hand over her nose.
When I glanced her way, I found her staring back at me, eyes wide with shock and incredulity before she snorted, then immediately broke down into a fit of giggles. When her sister gave her a puzzled look, she pulled her closer, whispered something in her ear before pointing at me. A heartbeat later and a quick whiff in my general direction, the second sister joined the first in a heap of giggles.
After that, the two always made sure to leave a liberal amount of space between us.
It was enough to make a guy self-conscious.
"Wiser men than we have tried to unravel the mysteries of a woman's heart only to fail. Even less have succeeded in understanding the mercurial nature of cats. Combined together? I doubt any mortal soul could hope to comprehend the minds of Cat-girls and remain whole. Only madness lay waiting down that road. Best put them out of your mind Emiya, it's for the better."
Doing my best to follow said advice I pushed any thoughts of the pair aside and instead turned my attention to the young Devil walking beside me.
Riser Phenex was not what I expected him to be.
After everything that had happened between me and his elder brother, I had anticipated a cold reception at best and a downright hostile at worst. I had mentally braced myself for it when I set out to meet him. Instead, I was greeted cordially, almost warmly, and things had gone smoothly since.
Sure, he was confident, that much I had expected but it wasn't in the cocksure, blustering way that a lot of teenagers trying to prove themselves tended to be. It was a subtle thing in the way he carried himself, how he spoke freely and openly no matter who was listening. It projected a self-assured image that I hadn't expected from someone his age. More than that he was both polite and courteous, with none of the back-handed compliments intermixed with subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, insults that I had come to expect from a High-Class Pure-blooded Devil interacting with a Reincarnated one.
Honestly, the more I talked with him the more I got the impression that he genuinely didn't care that I wasn't a Pure-Blooded Devil.
To my utter shock, I found myself liking the guy.
I hadn't expected to, not after everything I've heard of him. There were many words I had heard used to describe Riser Phenex and 'likeable' wasn't one of them. Then again, he wasn't engaged to my sister so there was that. I probably would have had a totally different opinion if I'd ever spotted him hitting on Illya.
Snickers rang out from somewhere behind me, and this time I steadfastly refused to glance back at the two Nekomata that I knew were grinning my way. It would have only encouraged them.
"I must admit," Riser gave one last lingering look back at the pair before apparently giving it up as a lost cause, "When I first heard that I would have a guard escorting me, I hadn't expected it to be you."
"To be fair," I replied, "I wasn't expecting to be escorting anyone either."
Even while we spoke I made sure to remain alert and kept my eyes open for any trouble. Not that I expected any to appear. I had already been half-convinced that this entire assignment would be a waste of time from the start and so far I have seen nothing to change my mind.
However, when I considered who exactly I was supposed to be guarding them from I found myself scanning every nook and shadow for a hidden attacker or trap, no matter how unlikely it was that anyone would hide there.
The Young Devils Gathering was a major event in the Underworld. This year even more so.
To many of the participants it would be their first chance to prove themselves to the world, while to those who were watching, they would get their first peek at the potential future leaders of the Underworld. It was no surprise that millions of Devils watched the event, and even less of one that many among those watching sought a way to influence the outcome.
To prevent something unfortunate from happening, escorts were often assigned to guide the participants from the waiting room to the battleground. There was quite a bit of hike between the two points, what with the security wards preventing unauthorised teleportation within the arena, and as most people would either be up in the stands watching the matches or in the waiting room waiting for their turn, the rest of the arena was usually deserted.
Simply put, it was the best and last chance to ambush a competitor.
Not that it usually happened. Most people weren't desperate enough to try something so overt and preferred a more subtle approach to rigging the matches, such as bribes, but you could never be too careful when dealing with Devils.
Especially this year.
With so many Heirs and members of important families participating in this year's Gathering the people in charge decided to play it safe and beefed up security. Guards were drawn in to help from all across the Underworld. It wasn't uncommon to see a High-Class Devil or two escorting some of the more important participants to their matches. No one was willing to take any chances of something going wrong.
I hadn't expected to be roped into becoming someone's escort when I woke up this morning, let alone to a potential competitor in a tournament I was participating in, but here we were.
Sometimes I wondered if Devils had any common sense at all.
Then I remembered that they collectively decided to leave matters of Foreign Affairs in the hands of a girl who loved to dress up as a Magical Girl in public and realised I had my answer. To think there was a time when I thought Fuji-nee would be the weirdest person I'd ever meet.
Another eruption of snickers drew me from my thoughts and I had to fight the urge to glance back at the twin. At least I wasn't the only one who found the pair's behaviour weird if the looks they were getting from the rest of Riser's Peerage were anything to go by.
Riser's Queen, Yubelluna, a woman with long wavy violet hair wore a look of disapproval, her lips curling into a slight frown whenever the twins snickered but did little else. I got the impression that the only reason why she wasn't outright scolding them was that I was there. Riser's Knights, on the other hand, a partially armoured girl with bandages wrapped around her head and a tall woman carrying a Zweihänder longer than I was tall, only gave them a single cursory glance before ignoring them with stoic indifference.
The Rook dressed in a blue cheongsam watched the pair with a curious tilt to her head, arms crossed before her while her fellow Rook, a tall woman with streaks of red running through her brown hair with an odd half-mask covering the right side of her face, alternated between watching the twins and me as if trying to discern the reason behind their behaviour. When she thought no one was looking she'd tried taking a few tentative sniffs my way, though going by her reaction she couldn't smell anything out of the ordinary.
Which was a relief.
Another pair of Riser's Pawns, a blue-haired girl in white robes with a red sash tied around her waist and a long wooden staff in her hand, and a girl dressed in what I could only describe as a metallic bikini, tried to engage the twins in conversation in an obvious attempt to weasel out the reason for their behaviour, with no luck so far.
The other pair of twins in Riser's Peerage, two green-haired pawns who couldn't have been older the Shirone and looked far too young to be allowed to ride a rollercoaster let alone participate in Rating Game, did not even seem to notice anything odd was going on as they were adamantly talking to each other about the upcoming match. Something about chainsaws.
Riser's maids, or at least they were dressed as maids, ignored the entire thing with an air of practised indifference. Instead, their eyes were focused solely on Riser as they trailed a step or two behind him. If this had been anywhere else I would have questioned the logic behind dressing up members of one's Peerage as maids, but truth be told I doubted anyone here would have looked twice at their clothing.
Not after Grayfia set that trend. I supposed it might have even been considered the height of fashion in Devil culture these days, though I won't know.
As for Riser's Bishops, one was serenely trailing after the rest of the group in the back, dressed in a brightly coloured kimono of purple and pink hues, while the other Bishop was-
A tiny pair of eyes cautiously peeked out at me.
Like a child hiding behind their mother and clutching onto their skirt, the little girl clinging to Riser's side would slowly peer at me from around his waist but only when she thought I wasn't looking. The face they belonged to was young, little more than a child's, with golden curls tumbling down her shoulders and soft soulful blue eyes. Half-hidden behind Riser, I could barely make out the pink and white dress the tiny figure wore, one that reminded me of a young girl's princess doll, with puffy sleeves and a wide bell-shaped skirt.
She watched me with the kind of intensity that usually could only be found in young children, eyes wide and unblinking, never wavering from me for an instant. Almost reminding me of a tiny rabbit.
When I turned to look at her, she flinched. Her eyes growing painfully wide and, with a squeak of fright, ducked behind her brother, burying her face into his side while her shoulders faintly trembled with fear.
"Ravel," Riser chided lightly, though I noted he made no move to pry her from his side. "Stop that, you're being rude." He quickly turned back to me, "I apologies about this Emiya, Ravel isn't normally like this."
"No. No, it's fine," I lied, barely managing to repress a grimace at the sight. It wasn't fine. "I understand."
And I did.
Things had changed.
After my little show a couple of days ago where I had almost publicly executed her old brother, I appeared to have acquired something of a reputation in the Underworld as someone to not be messed with. To be feared even. It hadn't exactly been the intended effect I had been aiming for when I set out for that fight, but I decided to take it as a plus rather than a minus overall. Having that kind of reputation among Devils would only end up helping me in the long term.
It hadn't even occurred to me what exactly that meant until I saw a little girl almost break out in tears at the sight of me.
Riser had greeted me warmly with open arms when I had gone to pick him and his Peerage up, looking as if he were genuinely glad to see me. The same, however, could not be said about his sister.
The fear I had seen in her eyes wasn't something I'd soon forget.
She hadn't even realised I was there at first, having been lost in a discussion with her fellow Peerage members when I arrived. But the moment she heard Riser call out my name, she went so very still.
Slow, almost mechanically, she turned my way, the colours draining from her face as she caught sight of me for the first time. I couldn't adequately describe the way she looked up at me at the moment, it was as if an old monster from one of her old half-forgotten bedtime stories had come to life and now stood before her. For one petrified instant, it was if she couldn't move, didn't dare so much as breathe as her eyes filled with terror.
When I took a half worried step her way it broke her out whatever spell gripped her. She leapt to her brother's side like a frightened rabbit, latching onto him with both arms and refusing to let go no matter how hard he tried to cox her.
I didn't think I ever realised until then how much it sucked to be feared.
If I ever got the chance to meet Berserker again, I think I owed him an apology.
"No, it's not alright." Riser insisted, frowning thoughtfully at me as if he could read my mood, though he continued to run his fingers through his sister's hair in a soothing manner. "Come now, Ravel. You're better than this." He chided lightly as he looked down at the girl. "Remember what you told Father. You promised you'll act better than this."
The implications hidden in that statement caught my attention, "Lord Phenex mentioned me?"
"Mentioned?" Riser raised an amused brow as he let loose a long rueful chuckle, "Emiya, Father has spoken about little else for these last two days."
That... was unexpected. While I knew that I'd get some kind of a response from the Phenex Patriarch after beating his second child in the Rating Game, and possibly traumatizing the poor man in the process, I hadn't expected it to be this extreme.
My shock must have been more obvious than I thought because Riser laughed.
"Come now Emiya," He said chidingly, a small, good-natured smile on his lips. "Did you expect anything else?" He asked with a shake of his head, "In a single moment, in front of the entire Underworld, you demonstrated that not only could you break our Clan's regeneration but that you could also hurt us."
"That's not a big a deal as you make it sound." I pointed out just as we reached a corner. Picking up the pace slightly I made sure to place myself at the head of the party as we rounded the corner, setting myself between them and any potential attackers lying in wait on the other side, only to slow my pace down and allow Riser to catch up once I made sure the hallway was empty. "I doubt that I'm the only one in the Underworld to have managed to hurt a Phenex before-"
"You are," Riser cut me off, causing me to look at him. "You haven't the faintest clue what you did, do you?" He asked, looking thoroughly amused at the revelation. "Emiya, no one can hurt us. No one."
He spoke those words with the supreme confidence of someone who knew their words to be true.
"This isn't a boast. We are the Phenex and outside of Heaven and the Divine, we may never be harmed. Killed? Certainly. Our magic could be exhaustion, our bodies extinguished in a single all-encompassing attack, then perhaps, we may die. But harm us? No Emiya. In all of Hell, there are none that can cause us pain." His gaze dipped to his side. "Save for you."
Following his gaze, I found myself looking at the young girl clinging onto his shirt, and I had a sudden revelation as to why she was so scared of me.
"Worse," turning his gaze back to me, "if my father's suspicions are proven true, then you can forge weapons capable of harming us." Riser watched me while he spoke, a lazy relaxed gaze that wouldn't have looked out of place on an idle cat, yet one I doubted missed anything.
He nodded to himself a moment later, as if confirming something, and made a noise that sounded like a cross between a snort and a laugh, "And you wonder why my father's obsessed with you."
Put it that way, it did make a lot of sense.
"Ah, Emiya, it's such a shame." He carried on with an easy shrug of his shoulders. "Had we found you first, my family would have willingly given you half our fortune to have you. We'd have heaped treasures upon your head, placed wonder after wonder at your feet, fulfilled your every desire a thousand times over, and counted ourselves lucky if it meant obtaining you. But alas as it stands now, we dare not even try. We're willing to risk much for you but the Lady Leviathan's wrath is not one of them. Instead, we must content with throwing ourselves onto the Leviathan's mercy and do our best to remain in her favour."
"Is that the reason you've been so welcoming," I asked, the suspicions that had been dwelling in the back of my mind rising to the forefront as I put two and two together, finally understanding why he had been acting so genial. "Lord Phenex's orders?"
"In part," Riser admitted freely without the slightest hint of shame. He continued to run his fingers through Ravel's hair while we spoke, the girl never having once looked my way throughout the entire conversation, "My father ordered us to get into your good graces. He told us, how did he put it again, to 'charm you'."
Here he tossed me a knowing smirked, "Admittedly he also told us to keep that part a secret and not to let you know we're trying to get in your good graces but really, what's the point? This whole subtle manipulation all the older nobles seem so fond of is not my thing. Too much of a hassle. Truly. Why bother trying to keep it a secret when you're trying to be friends with someone when you can just walk up and tell them to their face? The most direct approach, I found, works wonders more often than not." He let out a short bark of laughter, "And besides, my father forgot one crucial thing."
"And what's that?" I asked, shooting a quick glance down the corridor to make sure no one had followed us.
"You're not a girl."
He spoke those words in such a casual matter of fact tone that it took a long moment for my brain to process what he had just said. When I did I almost stumbled before I managed to regain my balance, my head whipping back towards him.
"You're not a girl, Emiya," He repeated. "A girl. You know, those wonderful ephemeral beings that made up half of the Devil race, who can captivate the hearts of men by merely existing and the entire reason why life was worth living. And you, my dear red-headed friend are, alas, not one. More the pity for it. I've always had a soft spot for red-heads. You see, Emiya, no matter the stakes or the cause or even if I were commanded by my Lord Father himself, the only ones I ever willingly charm are girls. And you, clearly, are not one. So alas, I must ask your pardon for not stealing your heart."
He spoke in a grandiose way, his expression was filled with the passion of a true believer, his tone of a poet that waxed on the virtues of love, but it was his eyes that gave him away. The way they all but sparkled with repressed mirth the entire time made it clear he was teasing.
"Do forgive me Emiya but, a redhead or not, you're nowhere near pretty enough to get me to bat for the other team." He tried his best to keep his features solemn as he spoke and he had been doing a good job of it so far, but he must have found something funny in my expression because it suddenly looked like it took everything he had not to break out into a fit of laughter. "No offence."
"None taken," I reassured dryly, amused despite myself.
The rest of the conversation went on in a similar vein for the next couple of minutes, with Riser waxing on the virtues of women or making some kind of light-hearted remark or joke, as all the while he never stopped comforting the little girl that desperately clung to his waist nor once tried to push her away.
For all the reasons I had not to, I found myself liking Riser Phenex.
We were making our way down a long corridor, one that ended in a double door behind which lay the teleportation room that I was supposed to deliver them to, and it was at that moment that Riser brought up the elephant in the room.
"If you wouldn't mind me prying for a moment Emiya," Rise began after another failed attempt to get his sister to talk to me, "I have a question I was hoping you may answer."
Not seeing a reason to deny him, I shrugged, "Go ahead."
"Why are you here?"
I almost tensed up at the suddenness of the question, but thankfully before I gave anything away I slammed down on my instincts.
"I thought I told you already," I said, forcing myself to relax and keep an easy pace. "I'm here to escort you to your Rating Game."
That part at least was entirely true.
It also wasn't the real reason I was there. In the end, it looks like I had gotten better at telling half-truths. Not sure if that was a good thing or not. Rin, at least, would have been proud.
"That is true." Riser admitted, sounding as if he was just humouring me more than anything. "But it is rather odd for one participant to escort another, isn't it? Not that I'm complaining, of course, it is an honour to be guarded by an Ultimate-Class Devil such as yourself.
"Still," Riser hummed thoughtfully to himself as he kept pace beside me, "it makes one wonder, doesn't it? What did I ever do to deserve the honour of being personally escorted by an Ultimate-Class Devil, the Lady Leviathan's most beloved Queen at that?"
When I turned to look at him, I found that he wasn't even facing my way, instead, he was gazing down at his sister with an easy smile on his lips as he continued to ruffle her hair, much to the chagrin of the girl in question.
I didn't know how but I could feel his eyes on me.
He wasn't looking at me, he wasn't even facing my general direction, but I somehow knew he was watching me.
Riser Phenex was a playboy, a possible hedonist, a charmer that was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and probably wanted for nothing his entire life, yet I was quickly coming to learn that didn't make him any less intelligent.
"I wonder," Riser carried on in the same thoughtful tone, not paying any heed to my gaze, "does it have anything to do with my upcoming marriage?"
I didn't have an answer for that, so rather than lie I decided to say nothing at all. In the end, it was enough to piece for Riser to put the pieces together.
"That girl,'' He sighed, sounding almost fond as he did, his lips twitching at the corners into a slight smile. "Ah, it seems my dear fiancee is not at all happy with me I take it?"
"Not my place to say," I answered as neutrally as I could.
"But of course." He nodded. Tapping his chin thoughtfully with one hand while with the other he continued to play with his sister's hair even as she discreetly tried to whack his hand away without catching my attention, Riser mused, "Still, I wonder, what could my dearest Rias possibly have done to cause such a fuss."
I felt a chill take a hold of me at those words.
He was close, so very close, but Riser had missed the mark entirely.
In the end, he was too reasonable, too logical.
You needed a certain madness to contemplate the terrifying truth of how the Underworld worked, that the people in charge were not the reasonable sane individuals that everyone secretly hoped they were.
So in the end, I said nothing, because how would anything I said have helped? Even if I did, I wouldn't know how to break it to him.
How could I tell him that the literal Devil might be after him?
"Sirzechs is going to kill the chicken boy."
Without any kind of preamble, Serafall dropped that bombshell on us.
In any other circumstances, I might have found her declaration that was Sirzechs was about to commit premeditated murder alarming but at the moment I was having trouble taking her words seriously. I couldn't even look her way. Every time I tried my eyes were inexplicably drawn to the bushy eyebrows that hung just above her eyes, attached to the rim of the plastic glasses she was wearing.
The large nose with an equally bushy moustache clinging to the bottom of the frames wasn't helping either.
"Are you certain?" Ajuka demanded from the other side of the table, his graved expression thoroughly ruined by the similar pair of his glasses he wore. Worse, whenever he spoke the moustached would flap back and forth with his every breath almost as if it was waving a tiny hello at me. I had to resist the inexplicable urge to wave back.
Every day I spent among these Devils I drifted ever closer to madness.
"Why," I began, doing my best to ignore the absurdity around me, "is Sirzechs trying to kill...whoever this chicken boy is?" I paused, glanced around the room then added, "And why are we having this meeting in a closet?"
No one would have believed me if I told them that I was in a janitor's closet along with two of the Underworld's Maous, and that we were discussing the possibility of another Maou committing murder. No, wait, scratch that, I don't think anyone would have trouble believing that. They probably wouldn't even bat an eye.
This morning had started out so normal too.
It was the official start of the Young Devils Gathering and the first fights were about to commence. An all-day event where sixty-four competitors would pair up and fight until only half their number remained. A drop-out style tournament, where every participant would fight with all they had because they knew they only had one shot.
My own opponent was a young lady by the name of Seekvaira Agares who was of similar age to both Sona and Rias, in addition to also being a Heiress to one of the 72 Pillars. For a supposedly rare position, I sure kept running into a lot of them.
Anyway, I had been in the middle of preparing for my match when I had been summoned by Serafall. No details, just a simple message asking me to go meet her at some random building in the middle of the city and to come alone. Had it been anyone else I might have been worried that it was a trap of some kind but this wouldn't be the first time Serafall had contacted me in cryptic messages to come alone to unusual places, so I took it in stride.
Sending Xenovia, Asia and the Fallen ahead to the arena, I went off to find my wayward King. Locating the building had been a fairly simple affair. It turned out that her show was shooting a scene there so it was surrounded by a bunch of vans, equipment and staff trying to set everything up. The security guards watching the place, long used to my presence, let me inside without a word and pointed me in the right direction. Next thing I knew someone grabbed me by the back of my shirt as I was walking down a random hallway and yanked me into a room.
It was only because I had expected something like this to happen that I didn't fight back and allowed myself to be pulled inside.
The door immediately shut behind me, plunging the room into pitch-black darkness. It took my eyes a split second to adjust to the sudden change in lighting but as soon as they did I turned to look at where I found myself.
A janitor's closet.
A completely ordinary run-of-the-mill janitor's closet with a mop, bucket and broom in one corner while a table with three chairs was set in the middle of the already cramped space.
And of course, the two Maous sitting there waiting for me.
It was telling that the first thing I did when I saw Serafall along with a disgruntled Ajuka seated across from each other in the tiny closet was to wordlessly set myself down in the final chair. There was a third pair of gag-glasses set on the table before me that I refused to so much as look at, let alone touch.
Not a second later Serafall told me that Lucifer was about to commit murder.
It said something about my life that it was the last bit that surprised me the least.
"She means Riser Phenex." Ajuka clarified, cupping his chin in one hand as he pondered the matter. Ajuka was hailed throughout the world as a once in a millennium genius, quick possibly the greatest mind to be born to Devil-Kind and at any other time he might have stuck a dignified image, now, however, I had to keep my gaze firmly locked on the table's surface least I find myself waving back to his fluttering moustache.
Ever steadily drifting closer to madness.
"And we're here because it's the only place I can say for sure that Sirzechs isn't watching." Serafall added while sitting with her legs crossed in her chair, "When he gets into one of his 'all-according-to-plan' modes, he tends to go a little overboard. I wouldn't put it past him to have bugged all of our offices and usual meeting places."
I would have told Serafall how ridiculous that sounded but when Ajuka just nodded gravely in agreement I realised that this wasn't one of her hyperboles and that she was being entirely serious.
"I take it that circumstances have changed?" Ajuka asked, turning back Serafall.
"Yup," She chirped, leaning dangerously back on her chair so that it stood on two legs, "looks like little Red got sick of being chained to the birdie and decided to make a break for it."
Ajuka sighed, tapping a rhythm onto the table with the tip of a finger while he stared blankly at a wall, lost in thought. "Yes, I can see Sirzechs interfering. This is happening far earlier than anticipated. The contingencies aren't ready, I take it?" When Serafall shook her head Ajuka grimaced. "No, I wouldn't have figured. Let's scrap them for now, it'll be too late to help us now. This could get bad if-"
This wasn't the first time I had been dragged into a discussion between Ajuka and Serafall and, as always, I felt more than a little lost. There was a certain synergy between them, a flow in the conversation that came from years of genuine friendship and long experience of working with one another. They leapt from topic to topic without any apparent rhyme or reason yet they managed to immediately grasp what the other was thinking and effortlessly followed along, quickly reaching the same conclusions before they even needed to finish speaking. Sometimes words weren't even needed and they skipped what felt like entire parts of the conversations as they spoke.
Something that I naturally couldn't do.
So still sitting in my seat I raised a hand up, and I couldn't shake the feeling of being back in junior high trying to grab the attention of the teacher. Serafall and Ajuka were in the middle of an animated discussion that I hadn't quite been able to follow when suddenly stopped speaking and swerved their head towards me. They both blinked owlishly at me, the oddest looks on their faces.
Huh, so this is what it felt like being on the receiving end of that look rather than the one giving them.
"Yes, Shirou?" Serafall finally ventured after a few long seconds and realised I wasn't going to say anything. "You have a question?"
I felt a brief flare of embarrassment take hold of me as I realised that my old middle school habits of never speaking until I had the teacher's permission kicked in, but I quickly fought it down.
"Could someone please explain to me what's going on? What's this about Sirzechs murdering Riser?" I asked before a stray thought struck me. I pointed at Ajuka, "And why are you wearing that thing?"
Ajuka sniffed, his moustache flapping violently as a result, and gazed down his massive fake nose at me. "Two hundred years of friendship," he stated simply as if it answered everything.
And maybe it did.
Serafall shared a quick glance with Ajuka before they both turned to me and began explaining. It took a while as there were a lot of details to cover and they often had to stop to clarify some facet of Devil history or culture that I didn't fully grasp before carrying on. When they finally finished a good thirty minutes later, I had a good understanding of the situation and I could honestly describe it as-
"This has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard," I told them. While that might have been a bit of an exaggeration considering all of the stupid things I've done and seen and it wouldn't be much of one.
The simple gist of it was that a marriage agreement had been arranged between the Phenex and the Gremory clans. Long before either Rias or Riser were born, the Patriarchs of both clans had met and agreed to marry the Heir to the House of Gremory to one of Lord Phenex's children. The Phenex in question will take the Gremory name as their own and become a consort to the Gremory Heir. Similar to how Serafall's father, Stheno, took on the Sitri name and became Liliana Sitri's consort.
A simple and common enough arrangement in the Underworld. The exact details of the betrothal were complicated, there were apparently a ton of trade deals tied up into the marriage, but what was clear was that the arrangement would have mutually benefited both clans tremendously. In terms of political manoeuvring, it was wildly considered to be a brilliant play that helped ensure the prosperity of both clans for many years to come. Or it would have, were it not for one single problem.
Rias Gremory utterly loathed Riser Phenex.
To say that Rias Gremory wanted out of the marriage was like saying Karasuba had a penchant for violence, it couldn't adequately describe the situation. Perhaps another compromise could have been made, the Phenex Clan did have other sons, but it appeared even that wasn't an option.
Rias simply didn't want to marry someone of her parents choosing. In this matter, she was completely adamant. Family obligations or not, she was determined to choose her own partner come hell or high water.
This, as they succinctly put it, was a problem.
Then somehow, as if in an attempt to prove that common sense wasn't at all that common, they managed to take a difficult but manageable issue and make it even worse.
"They're actually going to gamble the entire marriage on their upcoming match?"
As if things weren't asinine enough as it was both Rias and Riser had agreed to determine the fate of their marriage through their fight in the Young Devils Gathering. The terms of the bet were simply this: Whoever won would be granted the right to determine whether the marriage took place or was dissolved.
Then, just when you couldn't imagine things getting any worse, their parents consented to their asinine proposal.
I was never the most politically acute individual, not by a long shot, but I didn't need Serafall to walk me through this particular issue to see that this was a clusterfuck in the making. No matter who won this was going to end with an entire clan being publicly humiliated.
There were only two possible outcomes to this mess.
She would defeat Riser Phenex, the rising young star of the Phenex Clan, in a public event while the entire Underworld watched only to declare afterwards that marriage between the Phenex and the Gremory Heiress would be called off as she found none of the sons of the Phenex Clan worthy of her hand.
To say that would cause a little bad blood between the two clans would be putting it lightly. Century long feuds have started over less.
Then there was the other, far more likely possibility.
Somehow this was worse. Far worse. While the alternative would damage the relationship between the Phenexs and the Gremorys, this outcome would utterly ruin her.
In the eyes of Devils, Rias had defied her parents, went against the interest of her clan, only to be brought to heel like a child throwing a tantrum by none other than the man she rejected. Her consort, her supposed inferior in the family hierarchy. Humiliation wouldn't begin to cover it.
Power was everything in the Underworld and Rias Gremory would leave no doubt she was powerless. Everyone would know that though Rias led the Gremory Clan in name it was Riser who held all the power.
Then there was the dark horse to this entire mess.
You'd think that people would know better than to anger Lucifer's little sister but the thought that Sirzechs would ever interfere on behalf of Rias was an absurdity to them.
He was, after all, Sirzechs, the greatest among the four.
I could not even begin to describe what Sirzechs was to most Devils. They spoke of him with the same reverence that a priest would of a messiah, taught about him in classrooms alongside myths and legends rather than real people. He was the ideal leader, the epitome of what it meant to be a Devil.
Such was his reputation, so perfect was his image, so flawless an icon in the hearts and minds of his people that none but a handful of people outside of the Maous, not the Lords he ruled over, not the Phenex, not even his sister ever considered that he would ever interfere after he had publicly announced that he would remain neutral on the issue.
He was supposed to be above such things, impartial and fair. While in truth he would happily murder an innocent boy for no other reason than to make his sister happy.
The fools had evoked the wrath of Lucifer and they did not know it.
"What I don't understand is why Lord Gremory is still going through with this?" I asked looking between the two, and thankfully I had managed to get them to take off the gag glasses so I could finally look them in the eye without fear of breaking down in hysterics. "Anyone can see that this marriage is a disaster in the making so why doesn't he just call it off?"
"He's desperate," Ajuka explained, looking down at a tiny device that he pulled out at some point and began fiddling with. It looked like some kind of a cross between a tablet and a medical scanner, a semi-transparent screen lighting up with a blue hue whenever he ran his finger across its surface.
"Of what?" I asked turning to face him, not the least bit surprised when he didn't bother looking up at me. It hadn't taken me long to realise that once outside of the public view, it was all but impossible to keep Ajuka focused on one thing for long. Sirzechs and Serafall could manage but with almost anyone else it was only a matter of time until something would draw his attention away. I don't think I can remember a time when he wasn't fiddling with some kind of device or another, yet despite the evident lack of attention he never appeared to have any trouble keeping track of what happened around him so I pushed on. "What had gotten him so desperate that he's willing to sell his own daughter off while simultaneously dragging her name through the mud? What could possibly push him this far?"
That's what had baffled me from the start. Why were the Gremorys so desperate to go through with this marriage?
It was entirely normal for children of nobility to be saddled with engagements not of their choosing, but it was equally common for those same engagements to be called off when it became apparent that the arrangement would simply not work.
It had even become something of a tradition for younger Devils to break out of unwanted engagements through their own initiatives, using nothing but their own wits and skills to fight their way free. A rite of passage of sorts. Even Sona had managed to get her own marriage called off through nothing but a chess match.
That didn't appear to be the case with Rias.
It was clear that even though the Gremorys approved the fight, no one expected Rias to win.
For whatever reason, the Gremorys were pushing this marriage and pushing hard. They were determined to go through with it no matter the cost.
Why were they going this far?
Strangely, Ajuka seemed oddly reticent to speak on the matter. He just sat there and refused to answer. He wasn't even looking my way, still tinkering with his device, and I was just about convinced that he had forgotten then I was there.
I waited for a little longer for him to answer but with every passing second, it became increasingly clear that Ajuka wasn't about to say anything. I had just been about to give up on waiting for him and switch to Serafall when something happened.
It was hard to describe what followed.
He hadn't leapt to his feet or anything instead, it was with an almost lazy tilt of his head that he drew his gaze away from the device he held and up towards me.
It wasn't until I felt his blue eyes land on my own that I knew something was wrong.
Ajuka never looked anyone in the eyes.
It was a quirk I had picked up after spending enough time around the man. He would look in your general direction, or at a spot a little over your shoulder that could fool you into thinking he was looking at you but he never did. He'd always be looking through you or around you but never at you.
Only this time it was different.
Ajuka was watching me.
It might have been the first time he ever truly did.
And I finally learned why Ajuka never looked anyone in the eyes.
His eyes were broken.
It was one of the most unsettling experience I've ever felt. There was something very wrong with his eyes. They were empty. It was as if someone had scooped out twin holes in his skull only to fill them with glass spheres and declared them eyes rather than anything remotely like the real thing. They were utterly devoid of life.
So when Ajuka turned those disquieting blue orbs my way I felt as if a corpse had sat up to look at me.
And I couldn't stop myself from looking back.
They held an uncomfortable stillness to them, a calmness so complete that you instinctively knew was a lie, tranquil, like a deep-sea that hid beneath it the turmoil of a slumbering Cthulhu.
It was at that point that I realised how unnaturally quiet it had gotten.
With how loudly we were speaking earlier I hadn't noticed but in the silence of the moment, it hit me that I couldn't hear any sounds coming from outside of the room. No voices, no footsteps, not even the rumbling of the air-conditioning, not a single sign of life. Nothing. Even with my enhanced senses, it was as if the entire world simply ended on the other side of the door.
Were it not for the blue spheres embedded into Ajuka's face that were pretending to be eyes gazing back at me, I might have given the matter more attention but instead, I found myself locking gazes with one of the Demon Lords of the Underworld, unable or unwilling to look away.
It felt like hours, though I knew it couldn't have been more than seconds, and as I continued to start into those broken eyes I saw something in them. A flicker of movement. A shadow hid among the shades of the swirling blues. And though I couldn't make out what it was, the longer I stared into his broken orbs the more certain I became that something was staring back at me-
The clap sounded like a gunshot going off, and I jerked back so much that I nearly fell off my chair. Arms whirling, I barely managed to avoid tipping over and regained my balance only to immediately find myself dealing with an even greater danger in my hands.
Serafall was pouting.
The diminutive girl was standing on her chair, both hands set on the table as she leaned forward, going so far as to stretch onto her tiptoes to reach far enough, and she had her face so close to mine that it blocked the sight of everything else.
"That's not fair, Shi-chan!" She pouted at me, cheeks puffed while her teary eyes shone with a deep-seated indignation that I couldn't understand. "What does Ajuka have that I don't? No, wait! Don't answer that!" And before I could get a word in edgewise she whirled on Ajuka. "And you," pointing an accusing finger, "stop that! I know they're pretty but the only one allowed to get lost in Shi-chan's eyes is me!"
And like that, the tension in the air vanished in its entirety.
Slumping back into my chair, I let out a deep breath I hadn't realised I was holding. A cold sweat had broken out across my forehead at some point and I suddenly realised that I had both hands held out before me.
Blinking bewilderedly down, I stared at my hands as if I had never seen them before. I couldn't remember moving them but they were held open and ready, fingers curled as if to grasp the hilt that wasn't there. While beneath my skin I felt my circuits thumping with power, eagerly waiting for my call to leap into action.
Like the shock of icy water spilling down my back, comprehension filled me. I had been ready to attack-
I jumped, the yell yanking me out of my musing like a fish on a fisherman's hook, and I glanced up to discover that Serafall had climbed onto the table and now stood looming over me. Her face was set into a deep frown as violet eyes looked down at me, arms crossed while one foot kept tapping impatiently.
It took me a second to realise that she was waiting for an answer, but for the life of me, I couldn't remember what she had been saying.
"Sorry, what?" I ventured, hesitantly.
If anything, her frown only seemed to deepen.
"I said," She began, enunciating each word carefully, "There will be no Boy Lovey-love business going on so long as I'm here, understand?" She continued to glare down at me for a long confusing second, before tossing her hands in the air and wailing. "How am I supposed to join in then!?"
I had no words to reply to that. None. I think I may have been literally made speechless for the first time in my life.
Unfortunately going by the darkening expression on her face Serafall didn't seem to take my lack of response well, possibly mistaking it with disagreement rather than my brain calling in a strike and refusing to work after trying and failing to process the absurdity of her last sentence, so I desperately groped for something to say.
"There's no sound." I quickly tossed out, in the same way one might toss a bone in front of a feral dog in the hopes that they may leave you alone, not even realising what I had blurted out until I said it
Thankfully, my words had their intended effect and successfully managed to pull Serafall out of her train of thought.
"Eh?" Serafall blinked down at me, thrown off by the sudden change in topic, only for her eyes to light up as she grasped what I meant. "Of course there isn't. I made sure to completely ward the room before you got here." She said before puffing out her chest and pointing at the door. "Even if Sirzechs was crouching outside with his ear pressed against the door he wouldn't be able to hear a thing we said."
...and now I had that image stuck in my head. Thanks.
In a desperate attempt to rid myself of the image of the red-haired Demon Lord standing on the other side of the door with a glass placed against the door's surface and his ear against the glass, snickering like a mischievous child all the while – an image that came painfully easy – I turned my attention to the wards.
It said something about how well they were made that I could only make out the concealment wards filling the room after I had them pointed out to me. Had I been standing outside the room, it would have been well beyond my skills to sense that the room even existed let alone what was happening on the inside. They were beyond-
"The Gremory Clan will lose their status as one of the 72 Pillars."
-anything I could ever hope to make. I couldn't believe how well they...wait, what?
During the brief time I had spent looking over the wards Serafall had clambered off the table and reclaimed her chair so when my head snapped back around there wasn't anything blocking my view of Ajuka.
He wasn't looking at me, something that I felt grateful for, instead, his attention had returned to the device in his lap as he resumed fiddling with it.
"Do you know what the requirements are for a clan to be counted among the 72, Emiya?" Ajuka asked blandly while he continued to tinker.
At the question, my mind immediately leapt back to the lessons Serafall had given when I first appeared in this world. It really did feel a lifetime ago sometimes.
"The 72 Pillars are made up of clans that possess a unique bloodline. One powerful enough to elevate all of its members to the rank of a High-Class Devil." I recited as best I could from memory, before quickly adding, "more precisely they must possess one of the 72 officially recognised powers to be considered a Pillar."
It wasn't as if any bloodline was enough to make you into a Pillar.
There were probably thousands of clans scattered throughout the Underworld with unusual powers but only 72 of them were counted among the Pillars. While there were many reasons why in the end it all boiled down to one simple thing; power.
Enough power to guarantee that even the weakest among their number would ascend to High-Class. And out of all those uncounted thousands, only 72 had ever proved worthy enough to be recognised as one of the Underworlds Pillars.
In theory, there was always the possibility of a new bloodline emerging from the Devil population that could stand equal among the 72 but in practice, none had emerged since the very founding of the Pillars.
"Correct," Ajuka nodded, much like a teacher explaining a basic concept to a very young child and having to walk him through all the steps, "And what is the Gremory Clan's power?
"It's…." I began, the answer ready on my lips only to drift off into silence, "…It's…"
I had been about to say that it was the Power of Destruction but that wasn't true, was it? While both Rias and Sirzechs had inherited that power it hadn't come from their father, Zeoticus Gremory, but their mother, Venelana Gremory.
Formerly known as Venelana Bael.
The Power of Destruction was the Bael Clan's power. But if the Power of Destruction wasn't the Gremory's Clan power then what was?
"...I don't know." I confessed.
And wasn't that a surprise?
Devils took great pride in their clan's power and flaunted it at every opportunity but I had never seen either of the two use theirs.
"Their clan's power isn't something that could be seen with the naked eye," Ajuka said, knowing what I was thinking without having to put it to words. He looked completely at ease as he lounged back in his chair, still not bothering to look up. "I ask you once again, Emiya Shirou, what is the Gremory Clan's power?" This time he only waited for a moment before he answered his own question. "It is Prophecy."
"Prophecy?" I repeated.
"To see the future," Ajuka clarified, "to know what lies around the next bend, the right time and place to strike and when not to, which path to take to find treasure and which roads lead to danger. To put simply the Gremorys were seers capable of divining the future. It was said the Gremory of old never knew defeat for if there lay a single sliver of chance for victory they would find it, and if there were no hope then they simply would not set foot onto the battlefield. In every war, every conflict, every skirmish no matter how small, they found themselves on the winning side each and every time."
"That's…that's some power," I admitted, a little stunned as I tried to wrap my mind around the full implications of such an ability.
If Ajuka wasn't embellishing facts then anyone with such a power will essentially be unbeatable. Chance was no longer a variable in battle. No, even if you pushed its application in the battlefield aside there was a staggering amount of different ways it could be used. Trade, diplomacy, experimentations, the sheer possibilities were endless.
If you knew the future, knew every consequence of your choices, you'd never lose. Anything possible becomes probable. Every gamble a guarantee. You could fund any venture, any expeditions no matter the risk and they'd be a success every time. Even on a personal level, its uses were overwhelming. You could lead any conversation to the conclusion you wanted. Uncover knowledge that the speaker never realised they told you because it happened in a possible future yet to happen. You could find anything, anyone, you could even recruit-
The chair slammed into the wall behind me so hard that it shattered.
"Wait!" I yelled, not even realizing I had stood up until I found myself looking down at Ajuka, my legs knocking the chair back as I shot to my feet. My mind raced, thinking back over all the tiny inconsistencies I had seen happening around Rias. "Wait for one damn second, if they have the Power of Prophecy then...then does that mean that Rias-"
If the Gremorys had the Power of Prophecy then suddenly a lot of things began to make a frightful amount of sense.
Rias always had incredible luck when it comes to finding her Peerage. It was like the hand of some God guiding her.
I thought it was Sirzechs, I thought he had been behind everything. It was the only thing that made sense. There had been too many coincidences, too many unexpected strokes of good fortune to be explained by mere chance and luck.
But perhaps there was another explanation.
After all, to an outside observer was the power to read the future any different than a string of good luck?
If Rias Gremory had the Power of Prophecy and used it, even on a subconscious level, then it would explain-
Like a string dangling between a scissors blades, my line of thought was cut short.
Serafall watched me sadly, looking as if she understood what I had been trying to say. She shook her head. "Little Rias doesn't have the power of Prophecy." There was something sad about the way she said, a finality in her voice that left no say in the matter.
Still, I tried to argue, "Are you sure? Because if she does it would explain-" I didn't even get the chance to finish.
"Rias doesn't have the Power of Prophecy because the Gremory Bloodline is dead."
There were moments when the world seemed to pause, where everything around you goes still.
I stared down at my King but she wasn't looking at me any more instead, her eyes were locked onto the table before her with a grimace. She ran her fingers over its wooden surface, tracing the patterns in the grain as if to distract herself. That more than anything else that happened today told me how serious this was.
"Dead?" I found myself echoing several seconds later, more for something to say than anything else, "What do you mean dead?"
"As in it has been lost," Ajuka replied from his place at the table, still appearing unconcerned with the conversation at hand. "None of the living Gremorys have inherited the power of Prophecy."
"The Gremory bloodline has been gone for a while now," Serafall added, and she seemed to shake off whatever melancholy that gripped her because in the very brief moment I wasn't looking she managed to get her hands on a pink pen and begun doodling on the surface of the table. I quickly turned my eyes away from whatever image she was drawing. I had the feeling I really didn't want to know. "They haven't had their clan's power since the previous generation when Papa Gremory's dad was still Head."
It was only thanks to long practice to Serafall's idiosyncrasies that I was able to seamless translate Papa Gremory into Lord Zeoticus Gremory.
"Wait, wait." I held my hands up, signalling them to stop. "Just give me a second to process this."
It was too much, in too short a time. I had barely managed to process the latest bombshell that upended my world before they dropped an entirely new one onto my lap. I could feel my mind struggle to keep up only to lag further behind as they dumped more information.
Thankfully both Serafall and Ajuka both seemed to understand and answered me by wordlessly falling silent, which I felt a flash of gratitude for.
I had just been about to sit down when I realised that I didn't have a chair any more, the poor thing nothing more than a broken pile of kindling on the floor, so I took a step towards the wall instead and leaned my back against it.
Taking a deep breath, I shut my eyes and slowly started to organize my thoughts. I didn't know how long it was when I finally opened my eyes, it could have been anywhere from a single minute to a dozen, but when I finally felt I had a better grasp of the situation I looked around and I found both of them waiting patiently.
It was odd how I knew I had their attention despite Ajuka messing with his machine and Serafall enthusiastic drawing, but I had no doubt they were following my every movement.
I decided to start with the basics.
"How are they still part of the 72 Pillars?"
The answer was not what I had expected.
To be fair though, it stood to reason that anything that happened in Hell then the Devil would have his hand in it.
"When he first discovered the loss of the Gremory's Bloodline centuries early he aided the Gremorys in suppressing the knowledge." Ajuka supplied, "Were it not for his interventions, the Gremory Clan may have ceased to exist in its entirety long before any of us were born."
"But why would he? Wouldn't he be the one to benefit the most if the Gremory's dissolved?" I pointed out.
To become a Lord to one of the 72 Pillars you had to possess your clan's power. If you didn't then you couldn't inherit the mantle of Lord. It was why Sairaorg Bael could never become the Bael Lord despite being the official Heir. In the same token, Rias Gremory could never become the Gremory Lord without her clan's power.
Even her father shouldn't have been able to hold the title if what they told me was true. If the truth ever came out then Zeoticus Gremory would be forced to step down and without a successor, the Gremory Clan would effectively cease to exist.
Unlike most cases where the clan would simply lose their name and their status as one of the Pillars but continue to exist, albeit under a different name and without any of the privileges they previously enjoyed, matters were further complicated with the Gremorys. They only had one potential heir - Rias.
The same Rias who possessed the Power of Destruction.
The Power of Destruction was a bloodline that belonged exclusively to the Baels. Unless an agreement could be made with the Bael Head, all who possessed its power were considered a Bael.
Which meant as soon the Gremorys were dissolved Rias Gremory would become Rias Bael.
In a single instant, she would go from being the Heir to one of the 72 clans to becoming a minor branch member of the Bael Clan.
All it took for that to happen was for Zekram to open his mouth then everything the Gremorys possessed would be his. And yet here he was, not only keeping silent but actively helping the Gremorys suppress the information.
"No one wants one of the Pillars to disappear Emiya," Ajuka explained, pulling some kind of instrument from his breast pocket, some kind of mechanical screwdriver that seemed to spin and click under its own power as if it were alive, and began to dismantle his device, "no one. Least of all him. Zekram Bael desires to rule over a flourishing Underworld not the broken remnants of a once-great kingdom."
"That old fuddy-duddy Zecky likes to play the long game," Serafall added from where she was still doodling. "As in really looooooooooong."
Serafall's hands flowed smoothly over the table's surface while she stuck her tongue out the side of her mouth in concentration. An entire collection of pens now lay scattered across the table's surface, a full rainbow of different hues, one that only seemed to grow as Serafall continued to draw. Whenever she'd finish colouring one section she'd toss her pen aside and summon a new one rather than search the pile for the right colour.
Despite the seriousness of the conversation, curiosity briefly got the best of me and I couldn't resist sparing a quick peek at her doodles.
An action I immediately regretted.
I couldn't look away fast enough. Serafall's doodles were more on the level of an artist's detailed sketches than a child's scribbles, but the content was...questionable at best. No matter how much Illya enjoyed dressing up that way, I doubted Archer shared the sentiment.
"Of course that doesn't mean that old Zecky didn't rob them blind," Serafall, unaware of my inner turmoil, continued, "he's the entire reason why the Gremorys lost most of their family fortune. Haven't you ever wondered why they're so poor?"
For a moment the words didn't compute.
"Wait, poor?" I said, shooting Serafall a look though I made sure to keep my eyes well away from her drawing. "The Gremorys? Serafall I've seen their holdings, they rule a territory the size of Hokkaido."
And wasn't that a shocker.
However, Serafall only nodded as if I had proven her point.
"Exactly!" She exclaimed, reaching into her pockets and – oh for the love of everything good in the world who carried glitter around with them? "Such a tiny place."
"Emiya. Think on how large the Underworld is." Ajuka picked up the conversation, and I was all too happy to turn towards the other Satan in the room as Serafall pried open the tube of glitter and started liberally applying it to her 'art'. "Despite being of similar size to Earth the Underworld has no oceans. Furthermore, Devils can survive in climates inhospitable to humans. The sum of land accessible to us is far greater than that on Earth even before accounting to the disparity in population. Yet the Gremory's territories, a clan with the rank of Prince, whose eldest child sits on Lucifer's throne and are among the last remaining 72 Pillars accounts for less than a single tenth of a percent of all the land ruled by Devil-kind."
Well, when put into that perspective then it did make a certain amount of sense that the Gremory's holdings would be considered small.
"And how exactly had Zekram managed to get a hold of most of their old territory?" I asked, "Blackmail doesn't seem like his style." Not that I thought it was beneath him, just that it seemed far too blunt an instrument for someone as twisted as him.
"A bride's price." Ajuka supplied as he popped open his device and pulled out its components piece by piece. It didn't surprise me in the least when I noticed that the inside of the device held much more space than should have been possible. "Venelana Gremory is the offspring of Lord Gremory's aunt and one of Zekram's many children. Though she had inherited the Power of Destruction the Gremory blood was thick in her, it was anticipated that a union between the two would result in a child bearing the Gremory's bloodline. Zekram secured a contract in which he surrenders his granddaughter's hand in marriage along with his support in maintaining their secret. Furthermore, he also agreed to grant Zeoticus Gremory the right to claim all of his children as Gremory, regardless of whichever bloodline they inherited. In exchange, Zekram received a substantial portion of the Gremory wealth."
"Mama Gremory used to brag that no other Devil was worth more than her in history," Serafall added as she finished with her doddle. She leaned back to look her work over before nodding in satisfaction, only to pull out a smart-phone and quickly snap a picture.
There wasn't a doubt in my mind that picture would be uploaded onto the Underworld's social media by the day's end.
I didn't even want to think about what would happen if it trended.
"And I'm sure the prospect of the child inheriting the Power of Destruction if things didn't pan out didn't hurt," I muttered as I thought it over, and the idea that he may have planned for all of this literal centuries ago was chilling.
By securing the marriage between his granddaughter and Lord Gremory Zekram Bael secured himself a fortune, ensured the continued survival of a Pillar and all but guaranteed that his great-grandchild would be the next Gremory Heir, all in a single stroke.
And if the plan failed?
He got to assimilate the entire Gremory Clan into his own. No matter how things unfolded, Zekram would always win.
"Still," I added, pushing aside the thought of the oldest Devil and his schemes, "someone must have noticed. You can't tell me that no one suspected that Gremory's lost their bloodline?"
"There were rumours of course," Ajuka replied, frowning as he picked up a tiny circuit board and held it up to his eye, "The unprecedented bride's price alone drew suspicion. Many believed that the Gremorys were being blackmailed though none could agree as to exactly what. However, as there is no physical manifestation to the Gremory's power there was no evidence of its disappearance. With Zekram diverting the attention of anyone who grew too suspicious they successfully hid the truth for decades. The situation, of course, was unsustainable and it was only a matter of time until someone realised the truth."
"So," I asked, "what happened?"
It was gone so quickly that I almost missed it, but for the briefest second a smirk adorned Ajuka's lips.
"Sirzechs was born." He said, setting the circuit board down, "And all the doubts of Lord Gremory's powers were set to rest."
It took me a second to understand, and when it dawned on me I couldn't help but let out a sigh. "Of course." If you sired the equivalent of baby Jesus to Devil kind a lot of your problems went away.
To many, it would have seemed as if Lord Gremory planned the entire thing.
He chose his wife knowing that she would birth him the greatest Devil in history. Instead of the lovestruck fool many must have thought he was when he traded away his family fortune for a single bride, Lord Gremory's actions suddenly appeared so masterful that it could only be explained through the power of supernatural foresight.
In the end, the birth of Sirzechs was all the proof Lord Gremory needed.
"And when Sirzechs kept winning battle after battle during the civil war it must have appeared that he could literally see the future," I said, at which both the other occupants of the room nodded. I had read up on the civil war, and to say that Sirzechs was a brilliant strategist wouldn't have done him justice. It wouldn't have been hard to convince people that some of his victories were due in part to the Gremory bloodline. "I'm sure that him being a master schemer in his own right didn't hurt either."
I didn't have the words to describe how much of a charming bastard Sirzechs could be when he wanted to. He always seemed to know just the right words to say, just the right places to push, as if we were just tiny puppets dancing in the palm of his hands, and he did it with such an effortless grace that it almost felt as if he could read your mind.
Or the future, I supposed.
"But just because Sirzechs appears to have the Gremory bloodline doesn't mean that Rias does," I added after thinking it through. It didn't matter if they had proof that both Lord Gremory and Sirzechs had the Power of Prophecy if it didn't extend to Rias.
"And now we have reached the crux of the issue Lord Gremory currently faces," Ajuka wore a thoughtful frown as he looked over the disassembled components of his device, where it laid spread out in neat even lines across the top of the table. "Rias doesn't have the Power of Prophecy, but no one can prove it for sure. So if the young girl happened to exhibit an unusual amount of good luck, many will be willing to attribute it to her clan's power."
"Good luck?" I asked, furrowing my brows in confusion at the man. "Rias doesn't have…" It dawned on me then what he was implying, and I felt a sudden flash of red hot rage rise up from the pit of my stomach. "Her Peerage." I accused, "It was a setup!"
Ajuka waved a hand as if to swat the unspoken accusation away as if it were a fly.
"We played no hand in the matter." He glanced away from the table to look up at me. Well, not directly at me, his gaze hovered a little over my left shot shoulder. "Nor do we have any proof but yes, it did occur to us that the ease young Rias appeared to assemble her Peerage was unnatural. We presumed it was either her father or brother manipulating events behind the scene. Or both working together." he added the last bit as if it had just occurred to him. "Though if true then neither of them had deemed it fit to inform us."
He turned back towards the table, "The Power of Prophecy is often said to manifest in a subconscious level." He continued, "Were she to have successfully acquired the Boosted Gear into her Peerage and tamed it's wielder then it would have been all the proof they needed of her lineage."
As far as I could tell it was only due to luck that Rias found out about the existence of the Boosted Gear at all, but that would have just made things even better. Luck and foresight were hard to tell apart.
"Is that why they're suddenly rushing the marriage?" I asked, "Because Rias failed to get the Red Dragon Emperor into her Peerage."
"Exactly." Ajuka nodded, "In light of the Boosted Gear fiasco, people have begun to question whether Rias ever had the Power of Prophecy. For the moment those doubts have been set aside due to her young age, as her current lack of ability could easily be excused as a late manifestation of her bloodline but that will only buy so much time. It's now more a matter of when things will come to light rather than if. The Gremorys need to produce an Heir with the Power of Prophecy soon or they will lose everything."
"But why the Phenex?" I asked, "Why them specificity?"
"The answer is twofold." Ajuka replied, "To produce a child with the Power of Prophecy the Phenex's bloodline is essential. Or at least it's the most likely to bring about that result. Their Clan's Immortality is the antithesis to the Bael's Power of Destruction. Immortality and Destruction – Eternity and the End. Two opposing forces that can never coexist. A union between powers that symbolize both will result in a child that inherits neither."
"Which just leaves the Gremory's bloodline for them to inherit." I nodded, seeing the logic in it. "And the second reason?"
"Money." Serafall chimed in, "The moola. And lots of it."
Hearing Serafall's voice made me realise that I hadn't heard her speak for a while and, turning to look at her, I realised why.
I only managed to catch the last moments of Serafall typing what appeared to be a wall of text on her phone, but before I could read so much as a word she pressed the send button and tossed the phone face down onto the table.
Noticing me eyeing her, Serafall set me a beaming smile.
I was worried.
When she continued to smile, I grew more worried.
"As Serafall says," Ajuka interjected while Serafall continued to smile beatifically up at me, "the monetary benefits of the marriage will be substantial, to say the least. Even if you disregard trade agreements, the bride's price alone will more than double the Gremory's wealth."
"That much?" Turning to Ajuka I did my best to push the thoughts of whatever new horrors Serafall had unleashed onto the world, which was much harder to do when I could still see her smiling up at me from the corner of my eye. "I can see why the Gremorys want this marriage so badly but the Phenex? What do they get out of all this?"
"Prestige." Ajuka replied, "You wouldn't be aware but the Phenexs hadn't always been an important Clan. During the Great War, their House was counted among the lesser of the 72. Their Immortality, as powerful as it may seem to other Devils, was proven less than worthless against the might of the Divine. To our ancient enemies, who rained down Holy Light upon our heads, what meaning did regeneration hold when their every attack was toxic? It was only through the power of their Tears that the Phenexs managed to retain their prestige in the duration of the Great War. It was the introduction of the Rating Games that saw their rise in power."
"The birdies want to become important," Serafall said. "So they're trying to marry up in the world. They want their clan to break out of the High-Class bracket and into the Ultimate-Class. Only issue is there hasn't been an Ultimate-Class Phenex since..." Serafall trialled off, her brows scrunching up in thought before shrugging, "ever really."
"Offensive power, something that the Phenexs are very much lacking, is key to acquiring Ultimate Class status." Ajuka picked up the explanation, "Despite their best efforts the Phenexs have only managed to advance to the rank of Marquis."
Devil sociality was divided up into a strict hierarchy of different ranks. From the lowly Knights all the way up to the lofty heights of Maou, a Devils House could be granted any variety of titles.
The Gremorys were ranked as Dukes, effectively making them Ultimate-Class, while the Phenexs carried the rank of Marquis which meant they were in the highest tier of the High-Class bracket. A single step away from achieving the much coveted Ultimate Class of Prince.
Yet that single step was one they couldn't overcome.
"After nearly two centuries of trying, they've realised the limits of relying on their accomplishments in the Rating Game alone and have turned to more political methods. This marriage will tie them by blood to two Ultimate-Class clans, the Dukes of Gremory and the Great Kings of Bael. Make no mistake, while the Gremorys may have fallen in hard times that by no means makes them weak. Their history is a long one. What they lack in material wealth they make up in prestige and influence. With their political support, it would be a simple matter for them to rise in status. Furthermore, the Phenexs could claim kinship with the Lucifer, as any child born from the marriage would be able to call Sirzechs uncle. For such a cause they are willing to pay much. Even the absurd bride's price that Lord Gremory had demanded would be seen as cheap."
"...there really is no way to call this marriage off, is there?" I suddenly realised.
Not only was the Gremory's future riding on this marriage but the Phenex's as well.
"No," Serafall shook her head sadly, "even if little Rias wins it won't make a difference. If she doesn't marry Riser there won't be a Gremory Clan left. Papa Gremory is desperate."
"He's also furious with his daughter for trying to prevent the marriage. Which is why he's allowing the fight between her and Riser Phenex to occur. It's a punishment." Ajuka stated coolly while giving one final judging look over his disassembled device, which now lay scattered across the table's surface in hundreds of tiny little pieces, before nodding to himself and putting the tool that he had been using as a screwdriver away. "To remain as one of the 72 Pillars is something any Devil would kill for. Selling his daughter into an unhappy marriage to ensure the continued existence of their House is a small price to pay in his eyes. A sentiment many would agree with."
He snapped his fingers.
On the table all the dissembled components began to float, rising steadily into the air as if gravity had been switched off before they were inexplicably drawn to one another. Wires folded themselves into neat lines inside the device's casing even as chips of data spun on their axis to slide smoothly into their allotted slots, disappearing from view when the device's covers clapped together and dozens of tiny screws floated through the air towards it, drawn to their places on the covers smooth surface before spinning, sinking into the hard shell and welding the two pieces together. It was as if watching a video in reverse.
There was an oddly breathtaking feat to see, one made doubly so when I realised that this wasn't some act of advanced magic but basic telekinesis.
It shouldn't have been possible for any single mind to manage so many separate moving pieces in such complex patterns, the level of multitasking required was beyond any human's or Devil's brain but it was clear that no one had mentioned this to Ajuka.
In a matter of heartbeats, a hundred random pieces of electronic components had transformed itself into an advanced piece of hardware, which dropped from the air to slide smoothly into Ajuka's hands. He hardly wasted a second before flipping it on and started messing with it once again.
Honestly, it was like watching a kid with a toy.
The thought brought a brief smile to my face.
"I have a question." I said, shaking off the smile as a strange sudden thought snuck up on me, "Why doesn't she just step down?"
Serafall tilted her head curiously up at me while Ajuka simply raised an elegant eyebrow.
"Rias, I mean Rias." I elaborated, realising what I said didn't make much sense. "If she's so against marrying Riser couldn't she just step down as Heir?"
Serafall furrowed her brows at my words, clearly not getting what I was trying to say so I tried once more.
"Look, Rias doesn't know the real reason behind the marriage, right?" I asked, this time getting a clear nod from Serafall in response.
If Rias knew the real reason why she was being forced to marry Riser then she wouldn't have bothered with this entire fight. I supposed her father thought she was too young to be trusted with the truth of their bloodline. Still, what this meant was from her perspective this entire thing was just a typical arranged marriage. One where she was essential being sold off like cattle to the highest bidder.
Seen from that perspective I couldn't entirely blame her for wanting out.
Which was why I couldn't understand why she didn't take the easy way out.
"Rias has made it perfectly clear that she is entirely against the marriage, or any marriage really, and she's willing to do near anything to get out. So why doesn't she step down as the Gremory Heir?"
It was such a simple solution that it was a wonder why no one else had thought of it.
As the Gremory Heir she was obligated to fulfil her duties to her clan, which meant marrying someone of her father's choosing, but that was only true so long as she remained the Heir. If she ever chose to walk away from it all then she'd free, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop her.
What could her parents do? Cut her off? An empty threat as neither Sirzechs or Sona would allow her to live in destitution. Hell, if she so much as asked for pocket change Sirzechs would throw so much money her way she'd be an overnight billionaire. Either way, I doubted she'd find herself strapped for cash. All she had to do was step down as Heir and she'd be free to live her life however she wanted to. It was, in short, a single elegant solution to all her problems.
So why wouldn't Serafall stop staring at me as if I was talking gibberish.
Even Ajuka had set down his device to turn my way, an out of place look of bewilderment gracing his normally imperturbable features. It was almost surreal how they both stared at me as if I had suddenly grown a second head.
"Shi-chan," Serafall shared a quick glance with Ajuka , seemingly unsure on how to continue, "why would she do that?"
"So that she wouldn't have to marry Riser…?" I was so thrown off by their reactions that my own answer came out sounding like a question.
"Yes, but," Serafall appeared to struggle as she tried her best to understand my words but was clearly failing, "but, why?"
"I believe what Serafall is trying to say," Ajuka interjected, "is that it makes no sense for young Rias to surrender power granted to her as the future Head of the Gremory simply to escape an unhappy marriage. Power that is her birthright."
It was as if we were having two completely different conversations. We just kept circling around the same point over and over again.
Were it not for the visible effort Serafall was putting into understanding me I might have thought that this might have been a set up for one of her more elaborate jokes but as it stood, I just felt lost. We simply couldn't seem to understand one another, almost as if we were speaking in two different languages.
It hit me then.
I wasn't talking to humans.
These were Devils.
To Devils, power was everything.
I don't think I ever truly comprehended what that meant until that moment, when the mere suggestion of surrendering power to escape an unhappy marriage wasn't just unacceptable, it was literally inconceivable. The thought was so alien to their way of thinking that it could not be understood.
To willingly surrender power...it must have sounded as if I were asking why Rias wasn't willing to take her own life in order to avoid her marriage.
An incomprehensible idea.
"Never mind…" I answered, suddenly feeling oddly cold, "I think I have my answer."
It was so very easy to forget what they were at times. They acted so much like humans, like people, that I could have easily allowed myself to forget. Even as I called them Devils in my own mind, I never stopped thinking of them as people.
Then they'd do something like that and suddenly they felt so very alien.
I...I needed to change the topic.
"Alright, what do you need me to do?" I asked.
It went without saying that they needed me for something. Serafall wouldn't have dragged me along with Ajuka just to tell me all of this and send me on my merry way.
Serafall was eyeing me with a worried look on her face, her hands braced on the table as if ready to leap out and catch me should I collapse. I tried giving her a reassuring smile, though I don't think she brought it.
"I need you to guard chicken boy," Serafall spoke slowly, never taking her violet eyes off me, though she slowly settled back into her seat, "make sure nothing happens to him before his match."
"While I don't believe Sirzechs would attack Riser Phenex directly, I wouldn't rule out the possibility either. Sirzechs has ever been unpredictable. It's best to play our hand safe." Ajuka added, turning back to his device. "Serafall and I will personally keep an eye on him for the duration of the Rating Game, between the two of us even he would be hard-pressed to attempt anything. Thus should he wish to take action against the young Phenex his only recourse would be to send someone to act in his stead. His Peerage are the most likely candidates, though be on guard for anyone else."
"For guard duty, we'd normally use one of Sizechs's Peerage but…" Serafall trialled off sheepishly.
Yeah, needless to say, that wouldn't work here.
When it came to work the Maous needed to keep quiet they'd usually turn to one of their Peerage members. We were the only ones they could trust inexplicably to get the job done and keep quiet. The only question was who among us to send..
Anyone from Sirzechs's Peerage was out, obviously. Which was a shame because there was no one better suited to the task of keeping Sirzechs in line than Grayfia. Ajuka 's Peerage was also a no go. While he had plenty of talented individuals in his Peerage they were primarily intellects, researchers rather than combatants. Not to say that they couldn't hold their own in a fight but most of their talents lay off the battlefield rather than on it. As for Falbium, well that involved getting in touch with the guy first, something that could take weeks depending on which point we were in the man's sleep cycle. That finally left Serafall's Peerage.
And I was the only member of Serafall's Peerage.
Funny how it always seemed to come down to that.
In the end, my job could be basically summed up as 'make sure Riser doesn't end up kicking the bucket before his match with Rias'. A task that would either be near effortless or all but impossible depending on how far Sirzechs was willing to push things.
There was no telling who Sirzechs would send, but seeing as his Peerage was made up of some of the most powerful Devils in the Underworld there was no shortage of powerful opponents I could be facing.
Even if you excluded Grayfia, who had once been a legitimate contender for the position of Leviathan, the number of his Peerage who had carved their names into legend were more than I could count on one hand. He had no shortage of people he could rely on.
Hopefully it wouldn't come to that.
As the meeting finally came to a close and I stepped out of the closet - which had Serafall snickering the entire time - along with the other two, I felt an odd vibration coming from my pants pocket.
It took me a second to realise that my cell phone was vibrating.
Tuning out Serafall's happy cheer of "I'm so glad you're finally out of the closet!" to Ajuka , I pulled my phone out and flipped it open, and found that it was a message from Illya. Actually, scratch that, it was a dozen messages from her.
Huh, the wards must have blocked out the phone's signal as well as sound.
Scrolling up I spotted her first message, something that was oddly titled 'Look it's you, other you and dad!' along with a file attached.
For some inexplicable reason, cold terror gripped my heart.
After taking a few seconds to steel myself and send a prayer for mercy to a dead god that I knew wasn't listening, I opened her first message.
And stared even longer
Calmly, I deleted the message, along with the rest Illya had sent before flipping my phone closed and sedately slipping it back into my pants pockets.
Turning to my right, where a beaming Serafall stood eagerly waiting, I said, "This is all your fault, isn't it?"
"Yup," She admitted happily without a hint of shame. "Did you know that Illya doesn't have a single family picture?" Her smile dimmed, "Not a single one," Her violet eyes held mine as she spoke. Then like a switch being flicked she beamed up at me and puffed out her chest. "So being the brilliant Magical Girl and surrogate big sister that I am, I decided to make some for her. I've been practising every time I got the chance. This time I decided to draw only the Emiya boys. It wasn't easy getting Papa Emiya's looks down with just Illya's descriptions but what can I say," she folded her arms with a proud smile, "I do good work. I even made you look younger so the ages match!"
I was wrong, it hadn't been a sketch of Archer Serafall had been drawing back in the closet. Or at least, it wasn't just him.
"Yes but, why are we all wearing..." I couldn't bring myself to finish.
It was bad enough seeing Archer dressed like that. Did she have to drag Kiritsugu into it too?
"To quote a certain little vampire," Serafall's voice switched to a spot-on impression of Gasper, "it's cute."
Without a word, I spun around and made my way down the hallway and out of the building. By the time I reached the exit, I was praying that Sirzechs would send someone to kill Riser just so that I would have something else to think about.
Sticking my head past the open door, I peered into the room, making sure it was empty. At this point, I was almost certain that nothing would happen, but I wasn't about to take any chances so close to the end.
Scanning every corner with both my mundane and magical senses, I found the room barren save for the large magic circle set into the middle of the floor. The circle in question was massive, large enough to hold an entire Peerage of sixteen with room to spare. I felt a little dwarfed standing near the giant thing.
Once I was sure there was no one inside I stepped aside and allowed Riser and his Peerage to enter.
"Well, Emiya," He nodded genially as he made his way into the room, Ravel clinging to his side, "it was a pleasure meeting you, truly, but it appears here is where we must part ways. I'd wish you luck in your own fight but I don't believe you'll need any. So instead I'll save my best wishes for dear Seekvaira."
"Of course," I deadpanned, barely managing to stop myself from rolling my eyes. Given the choice between me or a girl, as if there had been any doubt on who Riser would cheer. Still. "Good luck in your own fight. Keep an eye out for anything odd."
He looked back over his shoulder, blue eyes lingering on my own. He didn't say a word, and after a while nodded slowly before resuming his pace. He disappeared from sight a moment later while I remained outside.
I hoped he got the message. It was the best I could do under the circumstances. I couldn't give him any other warning, but hopefully it was enough to get him to keep his eyes open lest Sirzechs tried something.
The rest of his Peerage tailed along after him, and as I looked the colourful group over I couldn't help but wonder if they knew the danger they were in? Perhaps they did.
It was no secret that Sirzechs doted on his sister. And while many knew that Rias wanted no part of this marriage, few knew how badly. Being a part of Riser's Peerage meant that they would have been privy to information that most wouldn't have access to. They would have witnessed first hand how little Rias wanted to do with Riser.
It wouldn't have been too hard for them to put the pieces together. And yet-
They showed no fear.
Not in the purple haired Queen who walked with the poise of nobility, nor the armed Knights who's eyes gleamed with fervour behind their stoic features, or the elegantly dressed bishop whose bare feet made not a sound as she walked past me. Even the young green haired twins who chattered on in childish excitement about chainsaws as if they were toys appeared carefree. Not so much as a hint of anxiety in their tiny frames.
It was baffling.
They were about to enter a battle. One where they could get hurt and bleed, feel pain even if they could not die.
Yet they were utterly relaxed.
In a way, they reminded me of Riser's elder brother, Rylan. The utter assurance that he carried when he saw me during our fight, even as he stood in the ruins of the castle I brought down on his head he smiled in welcome at my approach, filled with the belief that no matter what I did he could never be hurt.
The air surrounding them was akin to that. But with one crucial difference.
It wasn't Riser who acted that way, it was his entire Peerage.
Every last of them walked unburdened of fear. Of doubt. Even the weakest among them, a pawn dressed in a red robe and carrying a plain staff whose overall power felt barely weaker than Issie's did while under the effects of the twice critical, acted fearlessly.
They walked as if they knew they were going to win.
It was in the way they carried themselves, the confidence in the stride, the total lack of fear or even stage-fright jitters. They didn't simply believe they would win, it was almost as if the very question of whether they'd win or lose never crossed their minds.
And considering how weak some of their numbers were, it made no sense for them to think that they'd be strong enough to win on their own. So what was it that they believed in that made them-
Something clicked in my head.
She hadn't tried running away. As terrified as she had been of me she chose to cling to her brother's side rather than run, even if that meant staying within arm's reach of me. She had run to Riser not away from me. Why?
She believed her brother would protect her from me.
To her, there was no safer place she could be. That was the faith she held in him. It was the faith they all held in him.
The Promise of Victory.
To them, that was what he was.
It didn't matter who they were facing. It didn't matter who was after them. They had Riser Phenex leading them. To them, that was akin to victory. That was why they were so unafraid. They didn't believe in themselves, it was in the strength of the one they followed.
They had faith.
They believed in their King.
For the first time, I wondered just how strong Riser Phenex really was.
For him to inspire such faith. It wasn't something I had seen in any other Peerage from the younger generation. Not in Sona's nor Rias's. Yet Riser had achieved it with ease. Sairaorg Bael was said to be the strongest Devil to have been born in over two centuries, but Riser Phenex was always the name they mentioned after him. To be spoken in the same breath as Sairaorg…
Well, there was no point wondering. I'll be finding out soon enough as it is.
The match between him and Rise was about to begin. I'll get my chance to see first hand how strong he really was.
Snickering drew my attention, and when I looked at the source-
Oh yes, I had forgotten about these two.
The two Nekomata, Ni and Li, were standing several feet away, grinning mischievously. The pair kept their distance, refusing to get any closer while their eyes gleamed with suppressed laughter. One glanced at the door I was standing next to while the other tilted her head in question.
It took me a second to get what they were trying to say.
Sighing, I took two long deliberate steps away from the door, which was as far as I could comfortably get in the hallway, leaving plenty of space for them to squeeze past without getting near me.
When they still didn't move I shot the pair an unamused look.
"Well," I waved a hand towards the room where the rest of their Peerage waited for them, "aren't you going in?"
Eyes twinkling, the pair exchange glances and nodded.
Without a word they broke into a run, dashing past me and through the open doorway as if to spend as little time around me as possible. Curiosity, however, had always been a cat's bane and before they made it all the way through the door the blue-haired one, Ni I think, paused, stuck her head out of the doorway to take one last lingering sniff my way.
If I hadn't already been beginning to feel self-conscious about my body odor then the way she immediately clamped a hand over her mouth and doubled over in her effort not to laugh would have done it. Shoulder shaking as she tried to her best hold it in, Ni somehow managed to stagger the rest of the way into the room, where her sister stood waiting for her by the door.
The door barely had time to slam shut before hysterical laughter filled the air.
I stared at the wooden door.
And continued to stare.
Slowly I raised an arm to my face and gave it a big whiff. Nothing. I couldn't smell anything.
Shrugging, I decided to let it go, though not before glancing both ways to make sure no one saw me. There wasn't anyone around naturally, considering where I was, but I checked just the same. When I got the chance I'll ask Shirone if she noticed anything off about my scent just to be safe, but for now, I'll put it out of mind.
Spinning on my heels, I began the long trek back to the viewing room.
This section of the arena was far off from everything else, something to do with the magic of the place that needed it kept apart, so I found myself wandering down a long empty stretch of corridor that ended with a door set a good mile away. Beyond that was another series of corridors that would eventually lead me to where I wanted to go. It was quite a hike and I'd need to hurry if I wanted to get back before the start of the match.
So picking up the pace, with nothing but the echoes of my footsteps to keep me company, I hurried to along.
This entire section was deserted.
There wasn't anyone there. The corridor was empty, just a long empty stretch of space between two doors bereft of furnishing, there was no place for anyone to hide in. I couldn't even hear anything save for my own footsteps.
I was alone.
Had there been anyone watching, it would have appeared as if I was talking to myself.
There was a brief pause before I heard him.
Between one second and another, a second pair of footsteps joined my own.
I didn't look back.
"Report," I commanded.
The footsteps speed up.
"As you anticipated," The masked form of my Fallen Pawn appeared by side, matching my pace, "the security was laxer than usual."
I spared a quick glance at my Ramiel, the leader of my Fallen Pawns. "Did you succeed?
There was a tilt of his head. "But of course." Though I couldn't see it, I could almost hear the smile in his voice.
"None." He shook his head. "We secured access to all locations without incident. There will be no traces of our presence."
"Good," I said, feeling a grim sense of satisfaction flare in my chest. It was a long time coming, but it looked it was finally about to get some answers.
Here's the thing, Sirzechs wasn't the only one playing this game.
The largest Young Devils Gathering was already underway, hundreds of prominent Devils from across the Underworld have gathered to watch. With the sudden influx of people security had to be raised, manpower was pulled from elsewhere to cover the need. It naturally left other, less vital places painfully understaffed. Places such as the Archive.
The Archive served as the primary location to store all the written records and classified documents that the Maous kept. It was a room that contained nearly all the secrets of the Underworld. More importantly, it was a room that held all the answers to any question you had.
And I had a lot of questions.
Normally it was one of the most secure places in the Underworld. Even now with part of its security pulled to help with the Gathering it still held more guards than most banks. Getting inside was completely impossible for most people.
My Pawns? They were beyond most people.
They had managed to sneak into the heart of the church on four separate occasions and steal the Excalibur fragments without anyone noticing.
Some classified files? Didn't compare.
Even better, they didn't need to go in blind. I knew the layout of the Archive and where everything was stored. I had the authority to access most files. Most, but all. They were hiding something from me. Something important.
And I was determined to find out what.
"The others are already at their assigned locations and waiting." Ramiel stated, "At your command, we'll begin the operation and secure the desired copies. So long as one of the Four do not appear, we anticipate no difficulties."
That was the snag of the entire plan.
The Four Maous.
Serafall had already proven capable of sensing my Pawns when they were close, I didn't doubt that the others could do the same. While two of the four rarely visited the place, the other two were frequent visitors. Ajuka practically lived there while Sirzechs tended to drop by unannounced almost every other day. The odds of running into one of the two were simply too high to risk.
I had been planning for this day for a while but I never could find the perfect chance to pull it off.
When Serafall dragged me into the closet along with Ajuka, I knew I had a unique opportunity. At the moment, all the Demon Lords were accounted for and distracted.
While Sirzechs busied himself with his sister and both Serafall and Ajuka watched over him, there was no one else left to watch the Archive. No chance of any one of them stumbling across my Pawns.
It was now or never. And you know what they say.
When the cat's away, the mice will play
Almost the entirety of the first page had been censored out. Sentences and entire paragraphs were crossed out with thick black lines. I quickly skimmed through the rest of the pages and had found nearly half of the file had been censored.
I still remembered the file I had on Shirone. How dozens of papers had been blacked out. Even back then I knew that something terrible had to happen for them to hide so much from me.
"I am Shirone, the little sister of the black cat Kuroka. And…and…"
".…and I miss her. So so very much. Despite everything she's done she's still my sister and I love her so. With every beat of my heart."
Without me noticing, my hand clenched into fists so tightly that I heard my joints pop. Something terrible had happened, and a little girl had gotten hurt for it.
"Neh- Shirou. The sun and the stars, they're still shining." She asked, so quietly that I could barely hear her. "So that means that she still loves me…right?"
How long has it been since then?
How long have I been waiting to get some answers? And yet even after all this time I haven't managed to get a single step closer. So guess what?
I was done waiting.
"Rob it entirely." I commanded, "I want every bit of information raided. Especially on the black cat Kuroka."
I had promised myself I'll find myself to find out the truth. It's time I kept it.
"I'll keep the Demon Lords occupied while you do." I said, "Just concentrate on getting everything without being seen."
Ramiel wordlessly bowed in response and slowed down his pace.
He soon disappeared from sight as he lagged behind but I could still hear his footsteps right behind me.
Soon even that disappeared.
By the time I reached the end of the corridor, I was alone.
What was never alive can never die – thus this story which was never alive can never truly be Dead! Or some other faux philosophical nonsense.
I'm back, wait, put those chairs down, you don't need to toss them at me. Look I know it's been a while but no need to exaggerate it hasn't been that long. Looking it up it's only been...holy crap! It's been three and a half years since I've written anything! Oh come on guys, don't pull out the knives, I bleed easy!
Anyway after some very hectic years of life with many high highs and even deeper lows, I'm finally at a point where I can start writing again – but I'm sure none of you are interested in my personal life, so let's get to the main announcements.
First, I will be resuming both my fics "A Demon Lord's Hero" & "A World Full of Monsters". I'm in the process of rereading earlier chapters both to refamiliarise myself with them and fix things up (god there are a lot of grammar mistakes). I'll also be changing some minor scenes in the earlier chapters, but nothing that will affect the plot so there won't be any need to reread anything.
This is going to take a bit of time, but in return I'll be able to write a better story. With stories like this, the devil is in the details. So I can't afford to forget even the smallest plot point or character trait.
Second, I wanted to thank 'John Malfoy' and 'rlc' over at ficbook for translating this story into Russian. I can't begin to tell you how much that means to me. The time and effort you painstakingly put in to translate nearly 400,000 words into an entirely different language, its mind boggling. I just wanted to let you guys know how much it means to me to see people care enough for my work to put in that much effort into it. Thank you guys, really.
Finally, I wanted to say that I'll be jumping the bandwagon and starting my own pages. Don't worry though, I'm not going to force anyone to pay or anything. My fics will always be completely free. Just if you want to toss a tip my way or by me a cup of coffee I'd appreciate it. But if you're short on cash, please save the money for yourselves. We're hitting a recession folks.
It's been a long time since I've written anything. Literally years as many of you have noticed. And not writing for long my skills have atrophied, to say the least. I'm basically going to reteach myself how to write all over again. I had to spend an average of 3 to 4 hours a day writing, nearly every day for two months, just to get this chapter out, that's how rusty I am. Didn't help that this chapter was politically heavy and most setting the stage for the main events. And to be perfectly honest I'm not entirely happy with it but I decided to get this chapter out the door to get the ball rolling again. Hopefully the quality was up to par but if not, I promise to do my best to get my skill up to standard again.
My current plan is to spend the next two months going over my work, fixing stuff up, refamiliarize myself with the story and, quite frankly, teach myself how to write up to my old standards again. After that, however, I'll be throwing myself into writing again full time. Might release a one-shot or two as practice.
Anyway, as usual, thanks for reading and please leave a review and let me what you thought of the chapter. I'm picking up writing again, and hopefully, I won't keep you waiting too long this time for the next chapter.
Next Chapter: Rias vs Riser - The Prince
Patr eon Page is:
www. Pat reon Fahad09 (without spaces)
Ps. You can find the image Serafall's drawing was based on if you google search "Fate/Kaleid Prisma Emiya Shirou, Kiritsugu and Archer"