Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... Runaway Training?

"Good afternoon, Harry," Sona said, when I entered the student council's office.

I had noticed for the last two days that Sona was referring to me only by my first name, no honorifics. At least when we were alone, or only with her or Rias's groups. I guess she still wasn't comfortable with letting the student body as a whole know about us. I didn't have a problem with that. I wasn't sure if it was because I had agreed to go off to the Underworld with her, or because of the invitation for Christmas Eve. Either way, if I was glad to have one less person referring to me as Dresden. Not that I minded most of the time, but I wasn't a very formal person, and preferred to have my friends treat me the same. Especially the friends, who were girls, who I happened to be dating. Of which Sona was the last one using my last name.

The office was otherwise empty. This was our afternoon for magic study. And while I had said I didn't mind if the other members of Sona's Peerage joined in (now that I knew enough calculated magic that I wouldn't make a complete fool of myself), they generally gave us the time alone. Though I had the impression Saji still did so under duress.

"You mentioned you wanted to work on something besides familiar contracts," she remembered my comment at lunch, as I set my bag down, "Could that mean you have figured out how to make variations of those spells for people other than Devils?"

"Just the opposite," I grimaced, "No matter what I try, the circles just don't seem to work with vanilla mana. I'm starting to think it might be a special property of your Devil Power. And I'm not willing to try it with Soulfire. Yet. So I'm going to take a break, set it aside, and come back to it later. Maybe set up some time with an Angel or god, and see if it is any different for them. Besides, there's something else I need to start looking into."

I opened my backpack and took out two large tomes. The first was titled Imbuing for Idiots. The second had an Old Norse title that roughly translated as Silver into Steel.

"You wish to study imbuing?" Sona asked with a deep frown, "Why?"

"Huh?" I grunted in confusion, "What do you mean 'why'?"

"It's just…" She seemed to struggle to put it into words for a second, "Well, Harry's enchanted items are much better than imbued items. Their one glaring limitation aside…"

She gave me a wry little smirk as she said that.

"Hey," I protested, "Thanks to a bunch of things, I've been able to get the length of time they can hold a charge to almost six months."

'I cannot help but notice you did not point out that improvement is primarily due to a combination of what we have learned studying calculated magic with Sona Sitri, and the superior materials she has procured in her role as your agent,' Lash needled me.

"… despite the need for a periodic recharge," Sona ignored me and naturally didn't hear Lash, "your jackets and gloves surpass all but the strongest of imbued defensive items. And you create them in a matter of days. I would expect a similarly powerful imbued item to take months to craft. And despite your efforts to obfuscate the process, I have a good idea how much it costs you to make your items…"

"I'm not just trying to hide it," I interrupted again, "I'm also tinkering with new stuff all the time, so what I want and need changes."

"Yet you do not deny changing the materials and quantities you have me order, to hide just what you are using," she sighed.

"Gotta keep my monopoly somehow," I shrugged, though my expression was completely unapologetic.

"Anyway," Sona narrowed her eyes at me, "Imbued items of similar power would probably cost you twenty-five to thirty times as much to craft, with a similar increase in sale price as a result. Therefore, I have to wonder, other than your being a self-proclaimed magic researcher, nerd, and completionist, is there any practical reason you wish to learn a magician's method of creating magic items?"

"So, from my point of view, there are six types of magic items," I told her, "You have your potions, liquids or pills that convey a magic effect when swallowed. They are cheap, and the magic doesn't have a time limit… Unless the potion base spoils, though that really just makes it a gamble. It might work, it might not. Of course, the down side is that potions are one and done items. You take them, you get the magic, and then all you can do is recycle the bottle."

"Then you have your focus items, like my staff and watch," I continued, "Arguably they aren't actually magic items, they don't produce an effect on their own. Instead, they have magic symbols carved into them and are treated with magic, so that they make it easier and quicker to cast a spell or group of spells."

"The last type of item I know how to make is enchanted items, patented pending," I said.

"I do not believe you have actually registered a patent request," she sounded mildly amused, "I don't think the Japanese government accepts patents for magical processes."

"Hence the reason it is pending," I said sagely, "Anyway, using a super-secret anchoring process I can cast various spells on various items and have them last for a couple of months. Though it can run out faster if the spells are overused or pushed beyond their limits."

"Outside of my skill set, we have imbued items," I continued, "They basically the same as my enchanted items, except up until now they only used calculated magic. And they are more expensive, in a couple of ways. But the tradeoff is that they are permanent."

"Semi-permanent," Sona interjected.


"In all fairness to your enchanted items," she explained, "And in my role as your calculated magic teacher, I feel I must point out that imbued items are not permanent. While they may not have time as a limitation like your items do, there are still means to remove the enchantments. Beyond the obvious destruction of the base item itself."

"So don't need to throw them into a volcano," I joked. Then I sobered, and asked, "Just what 'means' are there?"

She opened the top drawer of her desk, and took out a ring. It was a simple bronze band, set with two small ruby chips.

"This is one of the simplest and most common imbued magic items," she said, "You would call is a ring of fire resistance. It conveys protection from fire and heat roughly the equivalent of one of your high end jackets. And also costs approximately twenty percent more."

I cringed at that.

"Precisely," she agreed. Then she held up her hand. A mandala appeared above it. I didn't recognize it, though I could tell it was from the Egyptian school. It was pretty complex, consisting of five concentric circles with two more embedded inside.

"This is a counterspell," Sona explained, "If I were to fully power it, and direct it at the ring, it would cease to be an imbued item. And unlike your items, it would take more than a simple recharge to repair it."

"Then why use imbued items at all?" I pursed my lips, "I mean, it's a moderately complex spell, but if it that's all it takes to destroy your opponent's magic toys…"

"I did not say this is the counterspell for imbued items," she answered, "It is a counterspell for the fire protection spells. If I wanted to destroy a ring of ice resistance, it is a completely different mandala."

"Not just a little different?" I prompted.

"No," she shook her head, "Each counterspell will remove one or at best a small number of similar spells embedded in an imbued item. On top of that, there are sealing spells that can be added to imbued items to protect them from counterspells. Of course, the sealing spells have their own counterspells, but I expect you can see where this is going?"

"So does that counterspell do anything else?"

She shook her head.

"I would have to learn, what, dozens? Hundreds? Of distinct counterspells. Then I have to figure out what items my opponent is using and target them individually… I guess it's a limitation to imbued items, but it's not much of one."

'I suspect we might be able to do better, my host,' Lash suggested, 'Once we have learned the secrets of imbuing.'

"Most agree," Sona confirmed, "Rather than learn a spell specifically to destroy imbued items that protect against fire, it is simpler to learn a curse that temporarily gives an opponent weakness to fire. That would cancel out the protection of this ring, and would be useful in other situations as well."

"Why do you know that counterspell?" I asked Sona suspiciously.

"When I traded for our initial versions of your jackets," she blushed, "I was curious if they would stand up to the counterspells. They did. That is also why I have this ring, it is the last of a trio I purchased to test the counterspell. However, once we received the upgraded high-end jackets, I tested disjunction on my old one. And that did work."

"Disjunction," I frowned, "Is that what I think it is?"

"An extremely powerful spell that unravels all active magic effects in the area," she nodded, "It does not kill living being made of magic, but it will temporarily disable many of their innate abilities. And, of course, it will destroy the spells in all but the strongest of magic items."

"Including Sacred Gears?" I asked.

"No, Gears are immune," she said, "Otherwise, as you might guess, the Longinus class gears would likely have been destroyed by various gods. Also, disjunction is a horribly complex and energy intensive spell. It is my understanding that even the Beelzebub needs to review the spellbook containing the mandala before he uses it. And casting it just once took the majority of my power. It is not a combat usable skill, and is more useful for disposing of cursed type items."

"So imbued items can be neutralize by specific counterspells and disjunction," I mused, "And maybe physically destroyed, though I suspect many of the best ones are reinforced or self-repairing for just that reason. Is there anything else?"

"An Alpha or Beta Beholder's anti-magic can neutralize an imbued item," she informed me, "But unlike your items, it takes an extended exposure to make it permanent. A minute or two of continuous exposure, depending on the item. The Manaphage would have been able to do it, but it is dead. There are other creatures with similar powers to those, but they are generally much weaker, and thus take too long to be considered a credible threat."

"Still, good to keep the weaknesses in mind," I told her, "Maybe I can find a way around them. But I won't know until we get started."

"You still have not answered why you wish to learn imbuing," Sona reminded me.

"Well, there are a couple of reasons," I told her, "Like you said, Lash is a completionist, and I'm a tinkerer. She wants to learn anything she doesn't know, and I think it imbuing might help me improve my enchanting, and verse vica. I've already been able to use a few mandalas in my bracelet and watch, and in my coats and gloves. Maybe I'll be able to do the reverse. Or figure out ways to improve my enchanting or imbuing. Or better yet, integrate them to create some really powerful items."

"Which is also kinda the second reason," I hiked my thumb at my staff, leaning in the corner, "A while back I lost most of my gear and was short on funds. But wood was free and available. So I created a new staff, but also enchanted it with a number of copies of the spells of my force rings. It seemed to work okay at first…"

"But?" Sona prompted when I trailed off.

"After a while, I realized it wasn't working quite as well as a focus," I shrugged, "Some of the power was bleeding into enchantments. I was losing ten to twenty percent of the mana I was channeling into my staff. Even worse, it wasn't like that power was recharging the enchantments. Instead, it was fraying them, and I had to recast them more frequently. And in the end, it turned out wood was not the best choice for spells that store and release kinetic energy."

"It broke," she deduced.

"Yup," I confirmed, "I tried it again with my shield bracelet, and the same thing happened. Except for the breaking part. The shields were weaker, and the fire and lightning resistance spells didn't last half as long as they did on my jacket."

"You are hoping that, given the 'semi-permanent' nature of imbued items, you can incorporate them into your staff," Sona glanced over at my big stick, "without the drawbacks of combining focus items and enchanted items."

"Got it," I nodded at her, "Since Tsubasa keeps dragging me to bojutsu club… since she's too much of a wimp to tell the track team president that she's not interested… I'd like to at least reinforce it so I can use it in real combat without having to worry about it breaking. If I could give it a +1 or something while I'm at it, even better."

I reached into my backpack, and took out a wooden box. I opened it up, and showed Sona the bracelet inside.

"And this is the last reason," I continued, "Athena asked me to see if I can create a mana potion, and she gave me this capacitor as reference. Unfortunately, I don't know enough about imbued items to reverse engineer it, and see if I can adapt it to a potion."

"A mana capacitor," she frowned, "A joke item amongst imbued items. But I can understand the reasoning of the Greek Goddess of Wisdom. And of course, such potions are a gaming staple, giving you all the more reason to want to create one."

I very maturely stuck my tongue out at her, and put the fragile talisman back. Then I put my hand on the first tome.

"So what can you tell me, before I crack the books?" I asked her.

"I know the basic theories," she admitted, "But I am no more familiar with the specifics than you, Harry."

"Basics is always a good place to start," I smiled at her.

"The first thing you need is a tableau," she explained, illustrating with her hands, "a square metal panel. Though the size varies based on the complexity of the spell and the talent of the magician, each tableau must always have a seven to seven to one ratio. The tableau must be made from copper, silver, gold, platinum, palladium, or titanium, and the metal must be at least 99.8 percent pure."

I whistled, and then said, "Those are the only options? No iron or aluminum? No wonder imbued items are so expensive."

"Various magical researchers have tried to get other materials to work," Sona answered, "Wood, crystal, other more common and cheaper metals, even silicon wafers after integrated circuits became common. So far the only success was the addition of titanium to the original five in the latter half of the 1960s. And while one could just use copper for all imbuing, most spells work best with one specific metal of the six."

"Right metal for the right job, paying out the nose. Got it."

"Once you have the tableau, you must carve the mandala into it," Sona explained, "And you cannot use magic to do it. The tableau must be free from any magical contamination at this point. That makes this the longest and second most difficult step. Carving the entire circle by hand, and making sure it is perfect. And I know that expression. What are you thinking, Harry?"

"Well… Okay, so this is a trade secret I'm trusting you with," I decided, "Part of the enchantment process I currently use is a special potion. It cleans the item, both like normal soap, and also removes magical contamination. Now, I'm not sure if it will work as well on pure, solid metals, but…"

"My concern would be the potential for corrosion of the metals," Sona countered thoughtfully, "Still, it may be worth experimenting with. And the other thing you are thinking of?"

"Hmm?" I grunted with false innocence.

"That was not your 'I have an idea that might work' face," Sona informed me, "That was your 'How could those idiots miss something so obvious' face."

"Right," I smirked. Or maybe I should say resumed smirking, based on her statement, "It's just that it is 2014. There are these things called CNC mills. Computer… something controlled. They allow you to program an image or phrase into them, and then they do really nice etching for you. Quick, clean, fast, and no magic involved."

Sona blinked and stared at me.

"Even if they aren't perfect, and precise enough… Though given they are machines, they are probably more precise than most people. If they can to ninety percent of the work in one percent of the time… Then a little clean up and double checking would be a small price to pay."

"I…" she started. Then she paused and shook her head, "And just how are you familiar with such devices, Harry?"

"There is this web-series," I admitted abashedly, "Some master smiths make swords from games, comics, movies, etc. And they use a CNC mill for some of their etching."

"Harry," Sona looked at me gravely, "You must never tell Reya about this series. Or Tsubasa, for that matter."

"Okay, yeah, I can see that," I agreed, "Back on topic, what comes after you etch the tableau?"

"Once the etching is complete, or technically before it is complete, you prepare a reagent suspension. The exact composition depends on the individual spells."

"But there's also a degree of flexibility and slash or a power boost for better materials, right?" I cut in, pretty sure I knew the drill, "Like for a certain spell dragon fangs work best, but dragon claws will work fine and wyvern fangs can be substituted in a pinch."

"Yes, just like the materials you have me order for your enchantments," Sona agreed, "Except the reagents are subjected to a set of spells that reduce them to a liquid. The mixture is poured into the etched mandala, and the excess must be carefully removed. And though the suspension itself is prepared with magic, the filling must also be done by hand. Once the tableau is ready, the spell is cast, and the suspension solidifies and bonds with it."

"The next step is the second longest, and the most difficult and delicate," she continued, "You must then spin the tableau into a thread."

"Spin it into a thread?" I mused aloud.

"Yes," she said, "It is a specific spell, and it takes a great deal of time and mana. If it is done to quickly or roughly, it can destroy the tableau, or even worse, alter its functionality in dangerous and unpredictable ways."

"So it becomes a thread," I double checked, "long, skinny, flexible, but still containing the spell."

Sona nodded, looking at me closely.

'My host,' Lash said, 'That sounds like…'

"Yeah," I agreed with the Fallen out loud, "It sounds like the Evil Pieces."

"What do you mean?" Sona asked quickly.

"When I was examining your Pieces," I explained, "I found they were made of layers of thousands of mandalas, but drawn out into fibers. It sounds like the same process, except it didn't seem like the Pieces have a physical base like the imbued items. Like Ajuka found a way to do it to the spells directly, without etching them into metal first."

"The Beelzebub is a genius and likes to keep secrets," she sighed, "It would not surprise me to learn that you are correct. Though it would also not surprise me to learn that you are completely off base."

"Yeah," I chuckled, "Okay, so spin the gold into silk. And then?"

"The last step is to fuse the threads into the item. The actual imbuing part of the whole process. A last spell that causes the fiber and the target to bond and merge, and also activates the magic to spread out into the item."

"Hmmm," I considered everything she had told me, "So, where do we start?"

"Let me turn that back on you," Sona countered, "Since we have all but reached the limits of my knowledge on this subject. How would you proceed, if you were studying this without me?"

"Wellllll… Since I don't have a CNC mill… at least not yet…." I joked to stall as I considered it, "I guess I would start by cracking the books. Start to learn the spells involved, and see if there is any advice or any steps you missed or just aren't aware of. Then I'd probably start practicing carving on blocks of wood, while I look for a mill I can borrow to try, and also look into ordering some cheap copper I can make into tableau blanks."

"Then let us start there," she stood up from her desk and walked over to the table. She sat in the chair next to mine (normally Reya's seat) and scooted it as close as she could.

"Perhaps the books will give us more ideas, or explain why your suggestions are not viable," she continued leaning in close, so she could see the first page as I opened it. Imbuing for Idiots was a bit smaller than most spellbooks I had seen here, and the StuCo's chairs were bigger and had armrests, unlike the ones in the library. So it was a little tough for us both to see it.

"You know, it might be easier if you sat in my lap," I suggested flippantly. And then immediately regretted it. Well, regret isn't quite the word. Is there a single word for 'anticipated her response with equal amounts of hope and caution'?

Sona looked up at me, and her eyes narrowed. Not the angry kind of narrowing. More the Dangerous kind. Then she gestured at the door, and a literal splash of her Devil Power turned the lock. I felt the barriers and wards on the room spring up. And then suddenly my lap was pleasantly less empty. Though she was still facing the book, I could see Sona's cheeks were red. And she was pressing her body up against me a little more than was necessary. I wrapped my left arm lightly around her waist. Just to help keep her steady.

"We are still going to study, right?" I whispered in her ear.

"Of course," she said, "Anything else would be inappropriate."

The huskiness in her voice somehow made me not believe her.

Captain's log. Stardate Friday, twenty million, one hundred forty one thousand, two hundred nineteen. Err, point six three, I guess.

'That is not a Stardate,' Lash pointedly informed me, 'You are just…'

'I know,' I rolled my imaginary eyes at her, 'but it isn't like they're consistent anyway. Can I continue?'

She waved a hand at me.

Having barely escaped a Dangerous (if thoroughly enjoyable) encounter with a Sitri vessel the previous day, my first officer and I found ourselves in an unusual region of space known as the 'Gymnasium of the Old Schoolhouse'. I was currently engaged in war games with the entirety of the Sitri, Gremory, and Leviathan fleets, as well as a single Phenex vessel. Our goal was to remodulate their shield…

'Harry,' Lash growled, 'If you continue, I will start singing Star Trekkin'. And I will use the voice and tempo of that song.'

I shuddered. Sayaka Aoki was a skilled actress, but that album was not fit for human consumption. My Little Ponies, or Care Bears, maybe. But not sane mortals.

"Is everything alright, Dresden-san?" Asia asked, worried by the look of horror on my face.

"Yeah," I reassured her, "Lash just threatened me with psychological torture."

"And, why would she do that Harry?" Tsubasa tried to sound knowing and mocking. Unfortunately, she was in too much pain.

Okay, amusing myself to distract myself aside, we were in the middle of our first light resistance training day. All but five of us were in agony. Irina and I had taken pinpricks of light as show of solidarity, but it didn't pose the same danger to the two of us as it did to the Devils. Serafall and Behemoth had also subjected themselves to the attack, however they were High Class Devils and experienced with holding light at bay in their bodies. To the point it didn't even hurt them, at least as long as they resisted. Which barely took any conscious effort on their part. Serafall could have even ejected it, but was using it to try to illustrate her explanations to the younger Devils. And Asia had not been subjected to the light, since we couldn't have her strained and distracted when we were counting on her to heal the others. Ravel had managed to get us four doses of Tears, in exchange for being included. And I had brought the doses of my first aid potion I had brewed to give to Asia. But those were our backups, and we were reserving them for when the former nun did her own training at the end. And even then, I hoped they wouldn't be needed.

This was actually our second round. The initial trial had ended quickly. Gaspar was the first one to tap out, to no-one's surprise. And Xenovia was the last out, beating even the three Rooks. Though that was not counting the two veterans.

Before we started, Serafall and Behemoth had given everyone some advice. The Queen's tips had been more concise and useful in my eyes. They gave some more personal guidance after Asia had finished treating everyone, and we got ready to try again.

Everyone was doing better this time, though I wouldn't bet on Gaspar lasting another minute.

"Dresdan-san?" Asia paused in her looking around at the others to address me.

"Yeah, Asia?"

"I heard that you will be coming to the Underworld with us before the Young Devil's Tournament," the healer stated.

"That's right," I confirmed.

"Well, I was wondering," she asked shyly, "If you have time, while we are there… if you would be willing to train me?"

"Me? Why?"

"Oh, um, you have a lot of experience in combat," she said, "And you not only know a lot of different magics, you also know a lot of ways to use them. And I don't want to be just a heal-bot anymore. I want to be able to contribute."

"Actually," Rias said, her voice rough, "I was also thinking of asking you to help me, Dresden-kun. Based on what I have heard about your fire training session from earlier this week, I think you might be able to help me better understand my own element. I have been told my power is a wizard-type. And if not, I still think whatever you teach Asia might be helpful to me as well. Naturally, the Gremory family would pay your standard hourly rate."

"Wait," Sona growled, only partly due to the ache and effort of holding the light at bay, "Harry is coming to the Underworld with us so naturally…"

"Aaaa!" Gaspar's sudden cry cut her off. Asia hurried over and healed her fellow Bishop.

"Naturally, he will be training with my Peerage," Sona concluded.

"Actually, Sona," I pointed out, "You only asked me to visit the Underworld and stay with you. You never said anything about training."

Sona's eyes widened as she thought back. She started to talk, but I held up my hand.

"And Asia and Rias," I turned to them, "You may have asked me first, but Sona and Reya are my girlfriends, so you understand that I would prioritize them. Tsubasa is as well, of course, but I have to assume she will be more focused on physical type training, which I won't be as much help with. And Serafall isn't even part of the Tournament. Plus, Sona is covering my transportation, room, and board, so she can argue that in that respect I am already getting paid by her."

"But that's so she won't have to spend two weeks away from you," Akeno purred. Then her face quickly morphed into a grimace, and she held out her pinky for Asia.

"Plus our parents really want to meet Harry-chan," Serafall said. I shuddered again.

"All that said," I took back control of the conversation, "I have a suggestion. I was checking out the Underworld Wide Web, to get some info on the tournament. The first three rounds are going to be round robin, with only the top eight teams going to the final three rounds. And your two teams aren't even scheduled to face off in the first half. So unless you make it to the finals you won't even fight. Seeing as you are friends, I'm sure you ladies want to see each other do well. And as rivals, I'm sure you want a chance to face off. Right?"

Both young Kings nodded.

"So here's what I'm thinking," I continued, "During those two weeks we are all in the Underworld before the first round, let's pool our resources. Train together. I'll train the magical types the best I can with my style of magic and my supposed wealth of experience. And Rossweisse, who knows way more calculated spells than anyone else I know, can also teach the magical types spells. Including me. And we can help each other out with things we might struggle with."

"Grandpa is also coming with us," Tomoe suddenly remembered, "To teach me and Tsubaki-san. I'm guessing he'd be happy to work with Xenovia and Irina, since they were also with the Church. And probably Kib-kun too, since he makes all sorts of different kinds of swords, and is our friend."

"A chance to learn from the Sword of Faith," Irina was almost drooling.

"I'm out," Saji groaned, "Argento-san, please?"

"And again, the more people you have to work with, the better," I nodded, "And then for Tsubasa, Ruruko, Saji, Issei, and Koneko, maybe the two of you can combined your monetary and political clout, and find some kind of martial arts master to work with them. Maybe bribe Hades to lend you the soul of Bruce Lee for a couple of weeks, if you can. If not, maybe there's someone else in the Alliance you can hire."

"Uncle!" Oakley called out. Then once Asia had treated her, said, "What are we, chopped liver?"

"You are also not in the Tournament," I reminded her, "Unless Levi-tan is hiring you out as mercenaries…"

I looked at the two sisters, wondering if Serafall's girls might fill Sona's incomplete roster.

"Nope," my Maou shook her head, "No mercs allowed in the Tournament, otherwise So-tan would have already begged Harry-chan to be 'her only hope"."

"Okay then," I half-shrugged, half-nodded at the truth of that, "It's still up to Serafall and Rias and Sona. If your King wants you to train with us, and can spare you, I certainly don't mind. But those two haven't even agreed to this yet. And even if they do, they might want to keep the circle small."

"I like it," the Leviathan said brightly. Then she casually blew the light poisoning out of her finger, "Shizu-chan is learning martial arts, but she could also learn some magic. And Oakley-chan knows her way around a military dagger, plus she might be able to help the spellcasters with their marksmanship."

As she said that, Reya, Momo, Kiba, and Ruruko dropped out of the practice in rapid succession. That left the three Rooks, Ravel, Shizukesa, Xenovia, Issei, Tomoe, Tsubaki, and the two Kings still hanging in there. Oh, and Behemoth, who at this point seemed to have almost forgotten she was poisoned, she was so busy silently watching over the younger Devils.

Gremory and Sitri looked at each other. For the most part their expressions were thoughtful consideration, but at times it looked like each young woman was daring the other to speak up first.

"It is a good suggestion," Sona finally conceded.

Tomoe surrendered.

"Yura-san is possibly the best analog for Sairaorg my darling Ise could spar with," Rias admitted, "At least in her promoted state."

Shizukesa and Tsubaki both flagged down the healer at the same time.

"We would still have time to develop new strategies and techniques before our potential match," Sona mused, "And I would feel dissatisfied if I won the Tournament without defeating you."

"Don't you mean lost to anyone else besides me?" Rias needled.

Ravel tried to burn the light out, but ultimately had to get Asia's help, too.

"Girls, girls," I said sarcastically, "You're both deadly. But if you don't agree to this, I'll probably have to toss a coin to be fair. Or maybe a d6, since three of you asked me; Rias's peerage, Sona's peerage, or just Asia…"

"No, I couldn't," the petite blonde protested as she patched up Rossweisse.

"I am willing to agree to this," Sona folded.

"Alright," Rias agreed. Then she gave me a sly look and said, "But in that case, I'll only pay you for half of your time."

"I can live with that."

next: Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... a Night of Peace and Joy?