Authors Notes = A/N

"Normal Speech."

'Thoughts."

"Foreign Language."

"Sacred Gears/Weapon spirits speech."

'Sacred Gear/ Weapon spirits thoughts."


A/N: To those who read 'The Death God of the Grigori, I welcome you to the newly posted and re-named version of my original story on my last account, which I would appreciate no mention of, as I do not want to have to punch anyone in the face at school/ out of school again.

The fallout was a pain and I could do without it.

Anyways...

As it stands little has been changed (not even my A/N at the end), but I would just like to quickly thank everyone for all their support throughout this difficult period of time, and I hope you enjoy this story all the same.

And to those who are joining us for the first time, my name is MetalGearMantis, and I hope you enjoy this story.

But enough outta me.

Let's get this show on the road!


Disclaimer: I would like to clearly state that I do not own (and more than likely never will) Highschool DxD or any other copyrighted material mentioned here. The rights to said series or materials belongs to their rightful owners. I merely own the intellectual property rights of my OC, Thierry Blanc. I do not, nor ever intend to, profit from the writing of this Fanfiction, and I am merely writing it for non-profit entertainment purposes only.


Prologue: Enter The Jackal.


(New York City, Harbour Front, January 15th 2014, 9:50 P.M)

A single, lonely figure stood upon the edge of a tall building in the centre of Manhattan island. The figure stood at least 6'3 tall and was wearing what could only be described as 'traditional' Ninja garb. Black, almost samurai style body armour covered his torso, shoulders and legs, whilst a fireproof set of undergarments ensured that the figures modesty was protected. Upon his head, a simple black mask with an armoured lower face-guard was fit snugly against his face, and a skull like visage painted in a dull white on the armoured mask.

The figure stood as still as a statue for several minutes as he kept a calm vigil over the city below him. His gaze was hidden by ballistic goggles, but it was obvious that his eyes followed the world calmly as it bustled around bellow him, watching with a disturbing level of disinterest as life played out in-front of his eyes. It was as if he considered the millions of lives below him, trying to scrape by as little more than insects beneath his boots…barely worth even the cursory glance that he was giving them. The lone figure kept his disgusted vigil over the gorgeous skyline of New York City, the lights on the buildings glistening on the horizon like a million night-time stars in the countryside.

Eventually, after several more minutes of standing, the lone figure felt a faint vibration from the earpiece he wore on his right ear. Raising his right hand, the young man pressed the 'accept' button on the top of the device, only to be greeted by several seconds of static, before a distinctly gruff, male voice spoke over the line.

"Jackal, what's your status?"

The now identified Jackal took a calming breath before replying in a voice that was barely above a whisper.

"I'm overlooking the docking area right now. Falcone's got his goons crawling all over the site. Must be a minimum of twenty of them, tops I'm looking at dealing with forty, armed with automatics, shotguns and handguns." His voice seemed to carry over the radio, the person on the other end taking a shuddering breath before they spoke back up.

"Is that going to be a problem?"

"Remember who you're talking to, Azazel. All it means is that a lot more people are going to die tonight than we first thought."

"Good. Just ensure that there is no interference. The last thing we need is Overbearing catching wind of our operations."

"Don't lecture me, old man. Overbearing won't have a single clue that it was a Grigori run operation."

A soft chuckle emanated from the other side of the line, eliciting the faintest of movements from the young man stood on the rooftop; the tensing of his arms and legs ever so slightly, followed by the creasing of the material around where his brows would be. The young man took a step off of the edge of the building, cutting the line as he did.

Shinigami took a slow, calming breath before breaking out into a sprint…..on a super-human level. Within two seconds, the young man had covered the seventy meters of the rooftop and was launching himself into the air, overlooking the docks. His body was spread out like a bird, the wind sweeping over his form…..until he began his decent.

Tucking his body into a ball, the young man rapidly fell towards the cold waters of the Hudson bay, rolling forwards in the air, therefore picking up momentum as he flew closer and closer to the cold waters of the winter bay. Eventually after several more moments, the young man flattened out his body into perfect diving poise milliseconds before he slipped silently into the water, the loud chime of a nearby clock covering and potential noise from his entry into the water.


Frankie Jones was your average street thug working for Carmine Falcone. Slim build, poor hairstyle and terrible dress-sense. Frankie Jones relied upon the cold steel of his 9mm Berretta to get anywhere in life, to make him feel important.

The young man in question stood on the edge of the pier with little interest in what was going on around him. Some of the other guys he was working with said they had caught wind of a Justice League plan to interfere with their operation tonight, but thus far they hadn't seen a god damned thing. Nope, all he was currently doing was wondering up and down the pier front, pretending that he was on the look-out for anyone stupid enough to attack. Just like everyone else was. After all, who was going to be freaking stupid enough to attack Carmine Falcone's shipments, and those that were, were either Police or they were just down-and-outs who were looking for a way out of life. To deal with the latter, there were guys like himself, and to deal with the former they had their own….special guests to take down any pigs if they decided to make a surprise appearance.

'Stupid freaking pigs. If it weren't for them then I wouldn't be out here freezing my gods-damned balls off!'

As such, the young man completely missed the black clad figure that clambered over the edge of the pier and onto the walkway, three feet behind him. If he had been paying attention, Frankie Jones would have noticed the faint 'shink' as a blade was drawn from its scabbard. But even if he HAD been paying attention, he would never have heard the figure walking behind him…nor the blade that said figure wielded as it cut through the cold, night-time air.

The only thing that alerted Frankie Jones to the fact that someone was behind him was the half-a-second of pain he felt in his neck as a blood-red blade sliced through his neck like a knife through hot butter.


Jackal watched with complete disinterest as his targets head dropped to the floor with a near-silent 'thud', the body set to follow, but the masked assassin simply gave the corpse a light shove with his right hand, sending it careening into the ocean below, before pointing his right index finger at the decapitated head.

All of a sudden, a small but noticeable ball of white-hot flames shot forth from his finger and smashed into the head, turning it into ash so quickly, not even the sickly-sweet smell of burning flesh was produced, and with a lazy hand gesture, a faint wind blew the ashes away silently.

Shaking his head in boredom, the young man immediately dived behind the nearest piece of cover he could find; several stacked crates near the edge of a large corrugated steel warehouse. Pressing his back against the slightly damp cardboard, the young man let out a faint sigh as he gathered a miniscule amount of his power before releasing it in a tiny pulse.

The reasoning for his pulse was simple; he was using his 'echo location technique.'

In simple terms, his technique operated in a similar fashion to sonar. Shinigami would release a faint pulse of his power. Following its release, whenever the pulse hit either an object or a person, a trace amount of the pule returned to him and therefore allowed him to build up a mental image of the surrounding area. It was simple in terms of concept, but the actual skill required to perform a successful execution of the technique was something only Jackal and a few others could actually hope to achieve.

The main reason was because it required a ridiculous level of control to perform properly.

Most people could actually perform a variation of the technique, by simply sending out a large pulse of energy, they would be able to achieve a similar effect. However, the problem is that in doing so, any individual carrying out the technique would put themselves at serious risk, as any decent sized power fluctuation could be detected by an enemy, and therefore expose your position or attract the enemy to you…neither of which were exactly ideal for someone in Shinigami's line of work.

As such, the assassin had been forced to develop his own technique for stealth operations. His technique relied upon perfect control, as The Jackal's variation was based around releasing a tiny pulse of energy. This meant that the amount of energy released was smaller than the previous style by a thousand-fold, and as such, only a master sensor would be capable of sensing the energy release. And even then, they would only be able to detect it if they were focusing and actively looking for it.

Fortunately, the chances of these idiots having anyone of such a skill level were virtually nil. This was a fairly low-end operation from what Shinigami and his 'employer' were aware of, so these fools were hardly going to 'splash-the-cash' on what they thought was a small-scale deal. And seeing as their true foes were trying to maintain a level of anonymity, and keep the weapons secret, it was unlikely that any of their members would be there.

After releasing the pulse, 'Jackal' allowed his eyes to close behind his goggles as the 'sonar image' began building in his mind. Everything from the rats scurrying in the offices two hundred yards away, to the guard currently taking a piss on the balcony some half a mile away. He could now see it all.

Within several seconds, The Jackal had already decided upon his course of action for this hunt.

'Okay, first target has to be security centre. Don't need any cameras catching any of my skills on tape for these bastards. Following that I'll use the fuse box in the main-building's basement to leave them blind and dumb. It'll make clearing house that much easier. Then all I'll have to do is light the shipment up and leave before any of the other factions turn up and get in the way.'

Plan formulated and his mind set, the young assassin took a calming breath before slowly creeping out from behind the crates he was hiding behind. Checking that the coast was clear, the young man sprinted across the small bit of open ground between him and the cold steel wall of the nearest warehouse…..

Before continuing his run up the wall of the building by applying a miniscule amount of energy to the soles of his feet. A scant few seconds later and the young yet brilliant assassin found himself on the roof of the building. He silently began making his way across the thin sheet-metal roofs of the nearby buildings, making little more than the faintest distortion of the still night air, before soon finding himself directly above the security centre he had identified earlier.

Just as he was about to use his ability again to assess the situation in the room bellow him, the young assassin heard the faint 'clink' as a door opened and a pair of heavy foot-steps broke the silence of the night, and the faint murmur of inane chatter polluted the air.

Stepping towards the edge of the roof, the young assassin peered over the edge and onto the walkway bellow. There, three foot away stood two heavyset men, one with blond hair and the other black. Both were leaning against the railing of the walkway, a faint trail of smoke trickling from the cigarettes the two of them held.

'Sorry lads, but I can't just let you stay out here and risk you finding me.'

Silently, the young assassin slipped down onto the walkway, allowing the faint chatter to muffle the sound of his prized sword being removed from its scabbard. Then with the speed of a viper, he brought the blade around in a semi-circle arc, slicing through the poor men's necks as if they were little more than hot butter. The two corpses fell like rag-dolls, absolutely lifeless at the young killers feet the moments they made contact with the steel grating, whilst the now decapitated heads smashed like watermelons on the cold stone bellow.

The young man turned and was about to head back onto the roof, but before he could, a third figure barged through the door, fumbling around in his pocket as he obviously searched for his smoking equipment.

Half a second later and the two men's eyes seemed to meet.

The thug stood there in utter shock. His eyes quickly registered what had happened when he caught site of the crimson coloured blade in the assassins hands….thus activating the mans 'fight or flight' instincts.

He chose flight.

Unfortunately, that was not going to save him.

Not by a long shot.

The thug immediately garbed a hold of the handle for the door he had just barged through, and went to slam it shut. However, by this point, The Jackal was already in motion. The crimson blade in his left hand began to sparkle and crackle as lightning danced up and down the very blade itself…..crimson lightning that flashed across the blade like its white cousin in the night sky.

The young thug in question managed to slam the door shut and pull across the locking bolt, therefore bracing the door against any attempts at forced entry….

However, the thin sheet-metal door was not designed to stop a weapon that could slice through the skin of gods.

And as it happened for the young thug who thought himself safe…..he was about to find out about the blade the hard way.

He had kept his back braced against the door, in order to stop the masked murdered outside from claiming his head like he had his comrades. But as he was about to move away from the door that 'protected' him from the masked killer, his ears barely managed to detect the quietest screeching and scraping of metal, as if it were being torn asunder…a faint hiss as if something were boiling away.

And then he felt pain.

Unimaginable pain that course through his entire chest. Hit felt as if his entire chest-cavity had spontaneously combusted and was melting away. His lungs burned, his heart best so fast it was painful and his ribs felt as if they had shattered completely. The pain was so intense and sudden that he didn't even cry out (not that he would have been able to thanks to the lack of air in his lungs)…but the pain wasn't so strong that it had overridden his sense of smell.

A sickly-sweet smell had invaded his nostrils and was clouding his other senses.

Turning his swiftly failing eyes downwards, the young thug couldn't even find the strength to widen his eyes in surprise at the crimson blade now protruding from his chest. He tried to move his arms upwards to pull on the blade, but it was yanked from his body before he could even twitch a finger, sending his now lifeless body crashing to the floor.

There was several more seconds of silence before the faint rending of metal filled the corridor again for a short while….and had anyone been paying attention…..

They would have seen the crimson blade cut through the steel frame of the door, granting entry to its wielder….

A wielder who yearned for more blood.


(Ten minutes later, Warehouse security control centre.)

The Jackal flicked the blood-red blade that sat in his left hand with what appeared to be almost minimal effort, sending a thick layer of crimson onto the already heavily stained floor.

Six bodies lay around the apparent 'security centre' in various levels of dismemberment and brutalisation. One, who had clearly been in the middle of getting a drink of some description had his right hand removed from his arm before having his entire persons sliced in half across the waist area. A second had been decapitated and had both of his legs removed whilst a third and fourth had both been completely bificurated by the brutal assassins' lethal weapon.

The fifth corpse was little more than a pile of ashes, as was the seat he had been sat in after they had been utterly destroyed by a low-level fire spell. The sixth and final corpse was arguably the most grim of all of them. He had both of his arms removed and his entire body slashed to ribbons in an extremely painful but non-lethal way, whilst his bloodied remains were speared to the metal wall by a re-purposed chair-leg ; making the bloodied corpse appear to be more like a wall-mounted trophy than an assassins victim.

Jacakl quickly-re-sheathed his blade before walking over to the command console at the far wall of the room. He seemed to take several seconds to compose himself before punching through the steel frame of the computers in-front of him. A faint fumbling sound emanated from within the confines of the PC's casing before he ripped the main circuits out of the casing. With a tired sigh, the young assassin cast his trophy aside with little regard as he slowly began walking towards the main doorway, his right hand grabbing a chair as he went, before shoving aforementioned furniture under the door handle, therefore preventing anyone from forcing their way into the room without serious time or effort.

'That should stop any grunt who gets to curious.' He thought to himself with a small amount of grim-satisfaction as he admired his 'handiwork'.

'Yup, Azazel is right. I am seriously fucked up…...'

"But this is a much better way to live than procrastinating in a nine to five job." He muttered to himself quietly in a manner that suggested he expected the nearby corpses to either affirm of disagree with his statement. After an awkward few seconds of silence, the young assassin walked over to a vent cover in the back left corner of the room before ripping it off and inspecting the insides of the now-exposed ventilation system. With a small sigh, the young assassin crouched down and slowly worked his way into the ventilation system, all the time wondering only one little thing as he eased himself into the grim-covered steel tubing.

'Why can't Vali do this shit?'


(Non-descript room, Main Warehouse)

Deeper in the complex, a small group of people stood or sat around a table in the middle of a small but quaint little office.

The first member of the room one would notice is the gorgeous woman at the head of the main table. She had long, silky, raven-black hair that reached all the way down to her perfectly formed rear, whilst two tails swished gently behind her and a pair of cat ears stood proudly atop her head. Her body was arguably one of perfection; flawless white skin, a ginormous (and extremely distracting) amount of cleavage and mile-long legs despite her diminutive height. Her face was absolutely gorgeous, but the main feature was the deep-amber eyes that sparkled with mischief and a general love of life.

The second person in the room was an absolute giant of a man, standing close to almost the 7'0 mark. His skin was evenly tanned and his muscles came close to being 'musclebound' and his paws looked large enough to crush the skull of any mortal man. His eyes held a look of boredom and disinterest; as if he would rather be anywhere other than where he was.

The third most notable member of the room was also male. He stood at a respectable 5'10 and cut a commanding figure with his presence and sense of dress (jeans, shirt and a barber jacket). His face was undeniably handsome and was extremely 'aristocratic'; strong jawline, high-cheekbones and flawless skin marked him out as a stereotypical 'Prince charming'; but the cold and calculating look in his eyes would put any thoughts about a fairy-tale prince out of even the most love-struck of girls minds.

The fourth member of the room was a slightly diminutive female with a lithe but gorgeous figure that was currently clad in a white blouse, jeans and combat boots that had several pieces of armour covering them. A happy smile was currently plastered on her angelic face and her eyes sparkled with mischief as she looked around her fellow occupant.

Eventually, after a tense silence, the brute of a man finally spoke up.

"This is fucking boing Arthur! I'm getting fed-up of waiting around here for jack-shit to happen." He complained in a deep and gravelly voice that literally seemed to fill the room. The now identified Arthur turned his gaze towards the giant of the man, and was about to speak, but before he could, the angelic blond spoke up.

"Muuuuu~ Herc-Kun, you need to be patient!" She spoke with a slightly childish voice, her smile still plastered on her face.

The brute of a man turned his gaze towards the woman in question.

"Shut it Jeanne! Just because you're weak and don't wanna fight doesn't mean I don't. AND DON'T FUCKING CALL ME HERC-KUN YOU LITTLE BITCH!" The giant man roared towards the giggling blond, but before he could leap across the table and attack the diminutive girl, a tired sigh broke out from the other female in the room.

"You need to relax a little Hercules, nya. Ophis-samma told us to hang around here and that's what we need to do , nya nya." She said with a playful smile on her gorgeous face, earning a 'you tell 'im' from Jeanne and a nod of approval from Arthur.

"Kuroka-san is right Hercules-san. Ophis-samma has given us this task for a reason, and as such, it is our duty to carry her orders unless we hear otherwise." Arthur added calmly, his voice filling the room despite the fact that his words were spoken at barely above a whisper. Hercules sent the man in question a look of betrayal, but a single second of a withering glare later, and the bear of a man was subdued; but his pissed-off eyes told everyone that he wasn't going to let the matter drop later on.

The room was silent for several more seconds, before the cat-like ears on Kuroka's ears perked up.

"Someone's here."

"No shit. There's like forty other guys here Kuroka." Hercules grunted, but a glare from the woman in question stopped any further comments.

"I know that you muscle-bound idiot, Herc-kun. But….."

Before she could finish her comment, each of the four people in the room found their vision completely drowned in inky blackness as the single, pathetic light that hung in the middle of the room flickered out of existence.

"…."

"…."

"…."

"…."

"I meant someone who's not supposed to be here, nya."


(With Shinigami, Warehouse ventilation system, two minutes later.)

'Fuck this shit. I'd rather be back home crawling through blood and guts than this shit.' The Jackal growled to himself as his hand landed in another grey/brown/black pile of sludge as he continued to traipse his way through the ventilation system. Finding the fuse-box had taken him all of about five or six minutes. It would have been way quicker had he gone through the corridors, but given the number of people between him and the box, it was more tactically sound to traipse through the sludge-filled, poorly maintained ventilation systems.

And after cutting through the fuse box, 'Jackal' found himself (once again) heading through the ventilation system, and towards the main holding area where his main target lay; a cargo container containing some new form of chemical weapon that could affect members of the supernatural.

Normally, mortal poisons or toxological agents would have no effect on even the weakest members of the supernatural. Azazel was still unsure if it was due to a difference in chemical make-up or if each and every member of the supernatural simply did not suffer from it due to some magical or unknown factor. However, it seemed as if someone had managed to figure out the secret to weaponizing some of the more dangerous 'mortal' poisons so that they could now harm members of the supernatural world; and given how much more readily available the rarest human poisons were in comparison…

Well, the possibility of true 'chemical weapons' being introduced into the supernatural did not exactly bode well when boarder disputes and acts of 'solo-terrorism' were so commonplace.

Hence the need for The Jackal's presence here in New York.

Thus far, the only batch of the weapon to have been completed was currently passing through the city under the protection of a human gang (an attempt by the Grigori's foes to keep it as hidden as physically possible). As such, the chemicals current position presented a unique opportunity to acquire a small sample of the weapon for Azazel to examine, and then hopefully destroy the rest before it could be shipped out to Japan; currently the most unstable of the three factions 'flashpoint' zones.

At first, 'Jackal' had been surprised when Azazel had told him the nature of this job. Normally, the eccentric Viceroy would have still sent in Vali to deal with the situation, regardless of the political ramifications and the potential reprisal from their foes. His selection of The Jackal showed just how important and sensitive the mission truly was. After all, if he felt the need to keep this news from his brethren in Heaven and his neighbours in the underworld, then it truly must mean that the mission was of the highest importance and deserved all the secrecy.

'Hmph. Well at least Azazel trusts me enough to deal with things like this I suppose.' Jackal mused to himself as he finally felt his guiding hand make contact with the vent-cover he had been looking for.

'Finally!' He mused to himself as his hand reached for the side of his goggles. Pressing a small, almost unnoticeable button on the side, the young assassin's vision turned from the inky black of night to a black and green vision that showed his surroundings in remarkable detail.

Night-vison activated, the infamous warrior gripped the ventilation cover in-front of him and applied just enough pressure to the grating to force it off. Gently placing the cover to the side, the young assassin pulled himself from the vent and immediately dived behind the nearest crate before proceeding to gather a better idea of his surroundings.

A rickety old walkway ran around the perimeter of the room some six or seven meters in the air. All in all there were seven humans stationed around it, each carrying either an assault rifle or sub-machine-gun that sported a small torch that they used to try and keep vigil over the room.

On the floor below, the north-west, south-east and south-west corners (where he was currently hidden, were stacked full of crates and metal shipping containers. A single guard patrolled each corner as best they could in the dark, and they were also armed like their comrades above. The north-east corner of the room was dominated by two sheet-metal doors that looked like they had seen better days. The opening mechanisms for both doors appeared painfully rusted in night-vision, and the doors themselves appeared battered in several places, with huge dents and bullet holes riddling the flimsy metal.

And in the centre of the room was his target.

It was a small brief-case, no bigger than the average one you would expect to find in the hands of a corporate executive or big-shot lawyer. Unlike its civilian cousins, this brief-case was obviously not meant for civil use. The entire case seemed to be made of heavy-duty steel or some-other type of strong and resilient metal, and several hazard labels on the case clearly denoted its status as a mobile storage unit for a biological agent.

'Okay, targets in the centre of the room with two guards on either side of it, whilst two guys from above have got flash-lights trained on it…okay. Best plan is to take out the guards in the corners first and then hide the bodies as best I can before heading upstairs and taking out the idiots on the walkways. Only slight issue is that I'll have to take out the two guys keeping tabs on the idiots below at the same time before they can raise the alarm, but even that isn't all that difficult….then it's just wrapping the operation up.'

Plan of action decided upon, the young assassin placed his right hand on his hip, directly above what appeared to be some sort of runic writing. Applying a miniscule amount of power into the runic array, the man watched with satisfaction as a faint 'puff' of smoke formed around his right hand and a familiar weight dropped into said appendage.

The moment the smoke cleared, the unmistakable profile of the Belgian-made Browning Hi-power pistol. The weapon was a gift to him from his mentor before he was killed, and was loaded to fire light-based slugs, therefore allowing Shinigami to engage both mortal and supernatural targets at the same time without having to change weapons. The heavy pistol was currently outfitted with a silencer and was painted a matte-black, therefore ensuring that the weapon could not be seen or heard.

With a well-practiced flick-of-the-thumb, the safety was disengaged and the weapon ready to fire (as the magazine had already been loaded and the first round chambered by the young assassin before he set-off.). With a deep breath, the young man waited for several seconds as the guard for this corner of the room bumbled past his hiding place, muttering obscenities all the while. The moment he was several meters away, The Jackal stalked out from behind his cover with the grace of his name-sake and behind the poor fool, before swiftly wrapping his hand around his mouth and putting a single round straight through the man's heart.

With a muffled sound of surprise, the thug's body jerked once before it fell at a controlled pace to the floor, not a single drop of blood falling from his back due to the muzzle-burn cauterising the wound, whilst flowing far more generously from the almost half-fist sized hole in his chest cavity.

Setting the body down, Shinigami immediately worked his way around the other two opponents in the corners before turning his attention to the cat-walk.

With practiced ease, the young assassin used his magic to anchor him to the walls of the ware-house before making his way to the edge of the rickety metal construct. He waited for several tense seconds as a pair of guards casually strode their way past his precarious hanging position; his breath hitched as the two men stopped for several seconds, literally thirty centimetres away. But before Shinigami could grow concerned, the two of them continued on their way.

With a relieved sigh, the young assassin hauled himself onto the cat-walk and began the process of elimination again; picking of guards one by one until only the two with their flash-lights fixed on the case were left.

Shinigami was now positioned on the western half of the cat-walk, barely a meter away from his first target. Taking a deep breath, the assassin fixed the iron-sights of his most prized fire-arm on the other guard on the opposite cat-walk…waiting until he finally felt ready to spring into action….and after what seemed like an age….

He exhaled…

And moved.

His first action was to dart forward and grab-a-hold of the guard in-front of him, whilst simultaneously placing a single round through the eastern guards head, sending him flying backwards.

With a show of strength, he then sent the guard in his vice-like grip tumbling from the cat-walks with a violent shove that completely shattered the flimsy metal guard-rail and sent the guard flying another half a meter before he began his descent.

The Jackal grinned viciously underneath his mask as the torchlight from the falling guard gave him half-a-seconds glimpse at the two shell-shocked men guarding the case. Then, with what appeared like absolute ease, the most lethal weapon of the Grigori sprung from the cat-walks with so much power that the flimsy metal grating cracked under the power of his jump. His trajectory was designed to completely re-position him into the two (now panic-stricken) guards blind-spot, and it was not a jump he was going to miscalculate.

With the grace of an angle, the masked hit-man landed on the table the two guards were stood either side of with barely a thud. And before either man could even contemplate reacting, The Jackal had already drawn his fearsome crimson blade and driven it through the guard to his left's back in a reverse grip, before pirouetting on his right foot, ripping his deadliest weapon from his first target in a shower of blood, before returning the grip to normal as he sliced clean through the seconds guards neck, sending his head flying like a baseball and leaving his body to drop like a puppet with its strings cut.

Flicking his blade clean of blood and re-sheathing it, the right-hand of the Viceroy jumped down from the table and ejected the spent magazine from his pistol before slamming a new clip home and pulling back the slide, taking a great amount of comfort from the familiar 'chi-chink' as the first round of a new clip rolled into the firing chamber.

Setting the weapon to the side of the brief-case, the young assassin got to work on the lock on the top of the box. Advanced it may have been, but when you spend almost your entire life learning how to bypass such protections, they pose as much of a challenge as a simple door-lock.

Within moments, there was a faint hiss as the case opened enough to allow The Jackal to fit his fingers underneath the case and prise it open.

The insides were exactly as Azazel described them. Four, twenty centimetre long and five centimetre wide containment cylinders sat comfortably in a shock-absorbing foam casing; each one filled with some sort of liquid. The colour was obviously indecipherable to the assassin, but from what he could tell by the way it seemed to move in the tube, it was obviously a liquid of some description.

Gently, the young assassin removed the left-most tube and stored it on a seal on his left hip, sending the dangerous tube into a pocket dimension with a silent 'puff' of smoke.

Just as he was about to begin setting up explosive runes, he heard a noise….and it sounded just like a vent-cover being forced off of its fittings.

'Someone else is here….and I can't sense their presence…'

Realisation struck him like lightning.

'So, one of the Brigade is here…well that complicates things.'

However, that did not mean he was going to stop working…..no, instead he was going to just keep on doing what he was doing, planting explosive runes and getting ready to get the hell after dodge. After all, he didn't need to really confront his guest just yet…

Well, not when such a wonderful chance for an ambush presented itself.


Kuroka made her way towards the figure she could make out in the centre of the room in near silence. Her cat-like heritage gave her incredibly good vision at night, and as such she could tell that the man in the centre of the room was trouble; simply by the way he made every fibre of the Nekomata's being scream 'danger'.

He seemed to be clad in mostly old-school Ninja gear, with black undergarments and matt-black armour covering his torso, shoulders and legs from what she could see. On his right hip sat an odd looking scabbard for a Japanese style Katana. The entire thing seemed to be made of some sort of metal, with the tip being painted an extremly dull grey as opposed to the main sheath's black. Towards the top of the scabbard seemed to be some sort of firing mechanism, with a hand-guard on the underside and a trigger, whilst a bolt-mechanism was built into the face of the scabbard that was open to the world. The handle of the weapon was wrapped in a rich purple material and the hand-guard seemed incredibly intricate (although it was difficult to tell as she could only see a small part of it).

All in all, he looked like the sort of person you didn't really want to tangle with. His aura was calm, cold and collected and his stance relaxed….which was slightly off-putting given the carnage that he had inflicted upon the occupants of the room…

And that just made him all the more threatening to most people.

And all the more interesting to Kuroka.

'Nya, it seems like he's pretty strong, nya. I wonder…'

A small smirk broke out across the gorgeous Nekomata's lips as she slowly stalked across the open ground between her target. Once she was within striking distance, she slowly built up a miniscule amount of chakra around her hands, sharpening it until it was strong enough to cut through steel.

Taking another step forward, the Nekomata prepared to launch the strike that would undoubtedly slay the young thief in-front of her, but before her strike had truly begun, her opponent lashed out.

With the speed of a viper striking its pray, the young man's right hand darted forward and grabbed the pistol on the table whilst he turned his body around. Kuroka's eyes widened as the gun was brought to bear on her body, and let out a small yelp of surprise as she began ducking, rolling and weaving away from her target as he unloaded round after round towards her.

Diving to the left to avoid a shot that had been placed in front of her path in anticipation, Kuroka landed on her feet and readied herself to dive off to either side, but when an all too loud 'click' reached her hypersensitive, the gorgeous young woman knew she had to act.

Darting forward at almost untraceable speeds, thanks to her species natural traits, she had closed the distance between her and her target in barely two seconds. She launched a simple straight right, and naturally her target ducked down in order to avoid her chakra-enhanced shot.

However, he could do little about the follow-up knee she had already launched at where his head would be. Almost immediately, the gun had fallen from his grip as both his hands caught Kuroka's attack, before pushing her away with what appeared to be little effort. Back-flipping with the pushes' momentum, Kuroka landed on her feet with her left arm on the floor to steady herself, eyes fixated solely on her target.

Said man was reaching for the sword on his hip, and judging by the speed he was going for his weapon, that was his main means of close-combat.

'Obviously he's not as comfortable in hand-to-hand…..so I'd better keep that big-ass sword in its sheath for as long as possible.'

Darting forward again, the fearsome SS-Class criminal engaged the masked man in hand-to-hand combat in an effort to keep what was obviously his primary weapon out of the fight. To her surprise, the man met her blow for blow, despite the cuts he suffered from her chakra strikes. To be fair, his cuts were a fair price to pay for some of the shots he managed to inflict on her (If the agonizing pain she felt from her ribs and right cheek was anything to go on).

Ultimately, her plan fell through.

During one particularly speedy exchange, Kuroka found herself overextending in one of her strikes as her mysterious and lethal target managed to slip underneath the left hook she had thrown…with his left hand outstretched and his right-hand firmly gripping the mechanism on the scabbard.

'Oh Shit!'

Realizing that nothing good could possibly come from this, the young Nekomata pumped as much charka as she could into her legs and leapt backwards as far as she possibly could, causing the ground to crack slightly under the pressure.

And it wasn't a moment too soon.

As she travelled back several meters, the entire room was filled with a 'thum' louder than the skies during a thunderstorm. It was as Zeus himself had struck the room with a shot from his master-bolt, or a volcano had erupted. The sound was absolutely deafening in such a confined and echoy room the two of them stood in.

The moment her eyes landed on her target, she couldn't help but let her eyes widen in amazement and wonder.

The once sheathed blade was now fully un-sheathed, revealing its crimson-blade to the rest of the world, whilst smoke poured from the mechanism at the top of the weapons' sheath. The entire blade was coated in crimson lightning that pranced around the surrounding air like the most agile of dancers.

'So that's what that's for! A quick-draw mechanism using an explosive charge to allow for super-fast draws. But the physical strength he'd require to catch it, let alone the reflexes just shows how dangerous this guy is… I need to step up my game.'

Deciding to mask the shock that she felt at the assassins' show of strength, Kuroka decided to fall back onto her usual mid-fight trash-talking in the hopes of putting the young assassin off his (very dangerous) game.

"Ohhhh, taking out your sword so early in our relationship, nya? Are you always this forward, nya nya?" She asked in a sultry tone of voice whilst placing her right hand on her hip. The young man brought both his hands to rest on the fearsome sword before he finally replied, his voice carrying a French accent that made itself known despite how quietly he spoke.

"Non, only for ze people I wish to kill."

"I think your giving yourself a little too much credit for size, nya."

"Zose are ze words of someone 'o wishez to find out."

Kuroka couldn't help but let her smile grow a little bit at his retorts, they were witty and almost instantaneous.

'He's a sharp one…hmmmmmmmm…..I wonder…..no. There's no time to think about that now. I can ask him later after I capture him or we run into one-another again.'

Kuroka relaxed her stance ever so slightly and began to circle clockwise towards the young warrior, who in turn circled in the opposite direction, keeping Kuroka in view at all times whilst also ensuring that he also began to close the distance. A tense silence had occupied the room as they continued to drift towards one-another, until the male in the room finally decided to break his silence.

"So what are you doing 'ere? Last I checked, your organization wanted to keep It's distance, non?"He asked as the pair reached within eight meters of one another. Kuroka smirked at his movement; clearly he was willing to engage in a little bit of fun.

That she could indulge.

His desire for information though…

Well, she couldn't give away everything now, could she?

"Why do you ask? Don't you like me Assassin-kun, nya?" She asked playfully whilst tilting her ears forwards ever-so-slightly, giving her a slightly depressed look. The assassin just seemed to give her a deadpanned look from underneath his goggles before letting out a small sigh.

"Your combat skills and beauty, Oui. Your incessant need to talk? Non."

"Ohhhhhh, you naughty boy, nya! Been eyeing me up have you, nya nya?" To emphasise her point, Kuroka stopped walking and crossed her arms underneath her bust and forced a sly smile onto her face before leaning forwards slightly, putting her less than a metre away from her opponent.

"Like what you see, Assassin-kun, nya?"

For most men of any species, this would be enough to leave them a complete and utter stuttering mess, thus leaving them open and easy targets for the SS-class criminal.

However, it seemed her opponent was not one to back down in a game of physiological warfare.

Instead of turning into a quivering mess like she had hoped, the young assassin actually stepped towards her and lifted her head until it was merely a few inches from his own.

"And what if I 'ave? Don't 'o like ze thought of someone admiring such beauty?"He asked in a voice barely above a whisper. Kuroka felt her heart beginning to race at the close proximity to the young assassin, which was not aided by the complete mystery he exuded…

'Focus! Now is the time to strike.'

Kuroka pretended to be lost as she continued to try and 'find' his eyes, whilst secretly coating her hand in chakra and lining up her fist with the assassins flank. One thrust and this would all be over…..she launched her hand forwards…..

"I wouldn't if I waz 'o."

Kuroka's fist stopped barely a millimetre from the man's flank as she felt something cold slice through the material of her kimono and rest just below her generous bust. The young SS-Class criminal couldn't help but leap back in surprise at the touch, whilst her opponent followed suit and leapt backwards several meters.

'He…he was distracting me!'

"Noticed, eh?"

Kuroka shook her head slightly, and was immediately forced to dive to the left in order to avoid a downwards slash that would have cut her clean in two, before ducking under and roling away from a sideways/downward slash combo. Digging her hands into the ground, Kuroka pulled her legs up as far as she could before unleashing a powerful mule-kick at the warriors mid-section. She took a little pleasure when she felt her feet connect with the man's sternum and sent him flying away.

Rolling onto her feet, she immediately began to summon her magic to her hands and was just about ready to unleash a firestorm upon her opponent, but before she could even think about it, an all too familiar voice broke her from her thoughts as the lights flashed on.

"I thought I told you to inform me if you ran into our unwanted guest, Kuroka?"


'Shit! This Kuroka I could deal with. But four who I haven't a clue as to their abilities…..not worth it.'

The Jackal backed himself away from his four opponents with small, measured and controlled steps as he attempted to clear his vision from the white spots caused by his new foes restoring the lights. He kept his sword comfortably in-front of him as he began trying to formulate an escape plan from the clearly dangerous individuals in front of him…and move himself closer to his prized fire-arm.

As the Viceroy's right hand continued making his way towards said weapon, the princely-looking leader of his opponents spoke up.

"I do hope you realise how foolish and futile any form of resistance is on your part. You are outnumbered four to one. Surrender and you will merely be taken prisoner and questioned by our leader. Resist…."

Pausing in his speech, the young man reached to his hip and drew an exquisite blade from its sheath. The blade was modelled after the European longsword style, and even at this distance, Shinigami could tell that the blade was the work of a master craftsman…and judging from the oppressive holy aura flooding forth from the weapon….it could only be one sword…..

'Caliburn.'

"Zat sword…..you must be Arthurs' descendant then, non?" The young assassin asked quietly, earning a nod of acknowledgment from the young man in-front of him. The Jackal tensed his muscles even more as the young man slowly began to creep towards him, sword still hanging from his grip.

"And judging from your attire and that lovely blade, you must be The Jackal, correct? Or do you prefer your Japanese pseudonym, Shinigami? "

"Not many people know zose names."

"Indeed….unsurprising if you leave most witnesses like this." Arthur commented off-handedly as he pointed to the two dead guards next to the case. He stopped walking as he gently pushed the closest corpse out of his way with his weapon, whilst The Jackal continued to slowly back-peddle from his opponents, all the while silently praying that the group behind him would just advance a few more measly steps.

'Come on….come on, come on, come on! Just a little bit closer you bastards.' He thought to himself as he finally found himself within dashing distance of the remaining piece of his master's legacy.

"The odd thing is that unlike most other assets that our organisation has become aware of, we still can't even place you to one of the factions. Hell, many were still convinced that you were merely a ghost story; a legend to keep the criminals of Europe on their toes…."

"But you realised that ghosts don't leave mountains of dismembered corpzez in zeir wake." The young assassin dead-panned, earning a small chuckle from the legacy of Arthur.

"Indeed…..now like I said…"

But whatever the princely looking young man had to say was cut-off by the large bear-like man at the back releasing a howl of frustration as he began to charge forwards.

"OH FOR FUCK'S SAKE ARTHUR, STOP TALKING AND LETS POUND THIS FUCKER!" He bellowed as his tree-trunk like legs slowly but surely began to move his hulking frame forwards at an ever increasing speed. His compatriots went to catch up with him, but before anyone else could react, The Jackal sent a pulse of his own magical energy to the runic array he had inscribed on the case in the middle of the room.

The effect was instant. And devastating.

The four fools could do little but release yelps of shock and surprise as the room filled with the noise and searing heat of an explosion that was nothing short of an artillery shell detonating in the room. Even Shinigami felt himself heat up substantially from the heat whilst his ears filled with the traditional ringing sound one attributes to being too close to a high explosive at the moment of detonation.

Scooping up his weapon, the young assassin broke out into a full sprint as he raced to make his way to the southern wall; the one closest to the docks.

As he closed within a few feet of the wall, the young assassin waved his right hand in-front of him, releasing a substantial amount of magic into a flame-red magic circle. Almost instantly, a huge torrent of white-hot flames burst forth from the seal and smashed into the wall in-front of The Jackal, obscuring the main collision zone from view whilst turning the surrounding metal red-hot as it began to glow within moments of the spells impact.

After several seconds, the assassin picked up the pace and cut-off the magical flow to the circle in-front of him, taking care to keep a few steps behind the last, lingering flames.

"I hope this worked." He muttered to himself in his native French before diving head-first through where the flames had struck. If he had gotten this right, then he would be on the home-run to freedom and success…if he hadn't….

Well he wouldn't exactly live long enough to regret his decision.

Fortunately for The Jackal, he did not dive head-first into a wall of molten-slag like he had been expecting. Instead, he found his body greeted by the freezing-cold air of the outside world.

After executing a text-book forward role, he charged his magical power into his limbs and allowed lightning and wind to completely coat his body….

Before disappearing into the night with little more than what sounded like the displacement of static.


Arthur allowed a snarl of frustration to break from his lips as he reached the outside world. Things hadn't gotten more fucked up if he and his team had actually even tried.

First off, their cargo had more than likely just been completely annihilated by that explosion, the men they had hired had been absolutely butchered and he and the rest of his team had been pretty badly injured by that blast. Arthur had to bite back a yelp of pain as his ribs exploded into agony once again, and his right arm seared with unimaginable pain due to the heavy burns that currently covered everything below his elbow.

"He was pretty good, huh Arty-kun?" Jeanne said cheerily (although with a slight amount of pain in her voice) as she hauled her bruised and singed form up next to him. Her hair was now completely dishevelled and her face was covered in soot and cuts, much like the rest of her, but like Kuroka she seemed to have only suffered superficial damage….unlike Hercules.

Arthur didn't even know if the idiot was alive. But in the unlikely event that he was, the legacy of the legendary King would kill him himself for being such a fool. They all knew that the likelihood of that case being laced with some sort of explosive was high, but that idiot seemed to forget about that.

Shaking his head clear of homicidal thoughts for a certain Greek legacy, the eldest Pen-Dragon legacy sent a black look at his female companion, instantly vaporising the light atmosphere she had somewhat managed to create. The girl brought her right arm up with a slight wince and began to rub her left arm gently out of embarrassment…..but before her commanding officer could reprimand her further, another voice joined their conversation.

"Hey Arthur-san, you want the good news or the bad news, nya?"

Arthur let out a weary sigh as Kuroka came to a halt next to him and Jeanne with one of her hands behind her back whilst the other rested on her hip.

"Start with the bad news first."

"That fucking nitwit Hercules is alive."

That set Arthur's blood onto boil again. But at least now he would be able to deal with the fool himself rather than letting a complete stranger do his job…..however, there were slightly more pressing matters to attend to.

"And the good news?"

Here, Kuroka allowed a small but genuine smile to grace her features as she pulled out what she held in her hidden hand. It was a small but very recognisable container; the top portion had been completely sheared off and well over two-thirds of the vials contents seemed to be missing ,but the faint blue liquid was still concentrated enough for Arthur to release a sigh of relief.

It looked like their plans could go ahead after all.


(Grigori Headquarters, Viceroy Azazel's personal office, 4 days later)

"Stupid bloody idiots…why can't anyone I give an important mission to actually stick within the parameters?" A young-ish looking man asked himself out-loud. The man in question appeared to be no older than twenty seven or twenty eight, with a strong figure (currently hidden by a dark purple suit and shirt) and a handsome face that sported a well-trimmed goatee. His hair was black with blond tips and his eyes a mesmerising violet.

The young man let out a groan of frustration before holding his head in his hands, taking several deep breaths in order to calm himself down…..and in doing so he didn't notice the second person as they stepped out from the shadows of his room.

"Perhaps if you sent competent people in the first place you wouldn't 'ave to deal with ze fallout from incompetence, Azazel."

The now identified leader of the Grigori leapt almost three foot into the air with a terrified yelp as he sent the plush chair he had been sat in tumbling to the floor whilst simultaneously releasing three sets of his wings and summoning a light spear into his hand. When he finally saw who it was that had startled him, Azazel let out a snarl of frustration as he dismissed his wings and his summoned weapon in favour of a menacing glare.

"How many times do I have to tell you Jackal. Don't. Fucking. Do. That!" He snarled, Shinigami gave a casual shrug as he sat himself down in a chair opposite his employer.

"376 times to be precise. But if you actually maintained focus, zis wouldn't be a problem, would it?"

Azazel let out another sigh of frustration before taking in the appearance of his most trusted and valuable asset.

'The Jackal' was a young man, no older than eighteen. His 6'3 frame was powerfully built, more akin to a Rugby player than the normal 'swimmers physique' one would expect of an assassin. His skin was lightly tanned and his hair a sandy blond colour that was naturally styled into an array of spikes. His face was extremely handsome, but in a more 'rugged' manner; strong cheekbones, light stubble and his tanned skin only served to highlight the dark-blue eyes that could freeze a man's soul. The young assassin was currently wearing a pair of black jeans and brown sketchers, along with a white long-sleeved t-shirt and plain-black hoodie. Strapped to his right arm was a combat knife and resting in his right hand was his now-sheathed sword.

All in all he cut the rather imposing and impressive figure; hence why half of the female portion of the fallen-angle population madly crushed on the young man in-front of him.

Thierry Blanc.

'Poor kid looks like he hasn't had a decent night's sleep in the past few days…I should ask him about it later. But for now….'

"I read your operational report; you did well despite the presence of four 'Overbearing' members being on-site. I trust you have the sample on-hand?"

Thierry merely nodded as he removed a tiny vial containing a faint blue liquid from an inside pocket of his hoodie before handing it over to the Viceroy of the Fallen Angles.

"I think I may 'ave managed to kill one of zem with the explosion…. But knowing our luck, I wouldn't put any money on zat statement." Thierry commented dryly as he sat back into his chair, earning a serious nod from Azazel.

"Fair enough. But even if you just managed to singe Arthur, Kuroka and the other two, at least you will have put them on edge for a few days and probably gotten them removed from their combat roster for a while due to incompetence."

"I know. But still…it would 'ave been nice to kill at least one of zem."

Azazel let out yet another sigh; the kid could never take praise. Even if he had done a job flawlessly, he would still go back over-and-over his memories with a fine-tooth-comb until he found some sort of fault. And then he would go and train for days on end until he felt he had corrected that practice. In some respects it was what made Thierry so damned good at his job; the fact he was never satisfied with his current level of performance meant that he was always striving to improve himself and thus make himself even more efficient and powerful than he already was.

However, when said training took up time that was meant for sleeping or socialising, Azazel couldn't help but acknowledge the fact that he did it on purpose. After all, if he 'had to train' then he wouldn't have to face the nightmares or form connections with people. He wouldn't have to focus on anything but avenging himself and his master….

And it wasn't healthy.

Hopefully, this next mission would get the kid to unwind a bit and make some friends….amongst other things.

Plan formulating, the leader of the Grigori leaned back into his chair and crossed his arms.

"Any ways, previous mission aside, I need you ready to move in the next few days."

Immediately, Thierry's entire posture tensed up and his eyes hardened even more (if that was possible).

"Do you want a clean kill or do you want to zend a message?" He immediately asked in an absolutely sub-zero voice that put even the legendary leader of the fallen angles slightly on-edge.

"Nobody needs killing."

"Then what do you need destroyed?"

"Actually I want you running surveillance for me."

That stopped the young assassin dead in his thoughts as he shot Azazel a confused and confounded look, as if to say 'are you mad?' Which in the case of the Viceroy, may have been a fair question to ask.

"Listen, Thierry. I sent out one of my best recon teams to deal with the potential existence of another Longinus wielder. As it stands they haven't been sending back their reports for the past few months…."

"So you zink 'Loki' is making 'is move?"

"Precisely."

"I zee…."

The two of them sat in silence for a while, both contemplating the implications of this recent development. Eventually, after a few minutes of silence, Thierry spoke up to his employer, switching to his native tongue to speak. He knew that anyone eavesdropping would still be able to understand him, but in such uncertain times, he'd still rather do whatever he could to make life a little bit more difficult for his enemies.

"Do you think 'Loki' is connected with my last operation?" He asked in French, earning a small, almost imperceptible nod from Azazel.

"It's likely. We both know that he's been looking into different ways to restart the war whilst avoiding the blame himself; and if his interest in that operation was anything to go by…"

"It's likely that has a vested interest in its outcome."

Azazel nodded his head again, earning a contemplative look from his youngest and brightest warrior. Thierry sat there for several more seconds before nodding his head slightly.

"So you want me there to stop the team if they act on his orders and also protect any HVT's in the area when 'Loki' decides to strike?"

"Exactly."

"Not trying to sound big-headed or anything but this is some serious commitment to this region. Mind telling me why?"

Azazel grinned ever so slightly as he sat forward in his chair and steepled his hands in-front of his face, switching to his favoured tongue of Japanese.

"Tell me Thierry-kun, what do you remember about Kuoh town?"


A/N:

Okay I think this is as good a place as any to stop.

So this is my first ever story where an OC has the main role. As you can tell, he's pretty dam strong given his ability to fighting against someone like Kuroka on even ground and be rated on equal footing with Vali in terms of strength. But he is NOT able to best people like Azazel, Sirzech etc. Where-as opponents such as Kokabiel….well you'll find out I suppose!

Now before any of you ask 'Why didn't you give your OC a stat's sheet etc.', I'd just like to say that it would completely ruin the whole point of making my OC. I want his past to be shrouded in mystery and his skills and weapons to be kept under-wraps until I think the best time to unleash them would be; after all, what's the fun in simply laying out the entirety of your character in fifteen hundred words?

Answer: there is none.

As such, if you want to find out more about Thierry, you're going to have to learn as the story progresses.

Now, onto the next most important thing; Relationships.

As this is a Highschool DxD fiction, it is obviously going to be a Harem fic. I mean, it is kind of mandatory with these stories after all!

As with Thierry's past and what not, I am NOT going to give you the full list straight away, but instead I will reveal them as they are encountered or as I feel I want you to know. So for now, this is what you have:

Thierry's Harem:

Kuroka

?

?

?

?

?

?

So as you can see, it's a fairly moderate sized harem. I feel seven is a fairly decent number, and gives a little leeway for removal or addition if you guys don't like a member of it. But for now, the only one you get to know is Kuroka; the rest will be revealed as we go. I will list Issei's harem in the next chapter, so at least then you have a fighting chance of working out who's with who in the story (and just be aware; there are going to be quite a few ships in this story!)

Now that's all dealt with, all I really have left to do now is ask that you leave a review so that I know what I did well with this chapter and what I did not so well. Also, if you want to stay up-to-date with this story then I suggest that you drop a follow or a favourite (or perhaps both?), and I'd just like to say thanks again to the literal hundreds of people who have shown me support during this tough period of time, and even tougher decision.

So Peace out, and,

Keep it real like a Ninja,

MetalGearMantis.


P.S: I am currently in need of a Beta for this story, so if any of you wish to hop aboard and work with me on this, drop me a PM with your credentials and why I should pick you.