Rias Gremory was, without a better word to describe it, confused.
She should have been in a foul mood. Issei had gone missing. Despite what she had told him, despite the warnings she had given him, the boy had still went. Ever since the Fallen Angels captured Asia and sequestered her away in their hideout, the newest member of her Peerage had been restless. The boy wanted desperately to save the priestess, and Rias was sympathetic to her plight as well as his. Especially his. In fact, she was more than sympathetic. She outright admired his courage and his sense of loyalty to his friends. It had been one of the reasons why she had selected him to be a part of her peerage, after all. That, did not mean however, that she agreed with the way he dealt with things. Being brave was one thing, but being reckless with one's life was another. And charging on his lonesome into the lair of a group of Fallen was definitely in the latter.
She was forced to call upon her peerage, scrambling them in a rescue mission that she hoped would not be too late. Raynare was sadistic, even for one of her kind, and Rias did not doubt for a moment the Fallen Angel would kill Issei if given the chance. She had reminded Issei of that fact, but to her chagrin, the boy did not seem to consider the seriousness of the matter at hand.
They made the trip in record time. Their preparations had been swift, and they arrived at the site of the church, battle-ready and prepared for the worst. What they had seen actually made them gawk, and Kiba, her knight, whistle in appreciation.
The place was leveled. The chapel was almost completely destroyed, with a few standing pillars the only remains of what had once been a complete and undamaged building. Broken shards of glass, splintered pieces of wood, scattered pieces of tiles, all were abundant at the scene. And among the wreckage, they had discovered the bodies, Asia's and Issei's first, but thankfully only unconscious. Both teenagers were slumped against a large crucifix, backs touching the holy edifice, and judging from the severed chains that dangled from the structure's arms, Rias knew exactly how the Fallen had been holding their prisoner captive. The priestess's head was leaning against her rescuer's shoulder, and from a distance, it seemed as though a young couple was merely resting. Had the situation been less dangerous, she would have admitted the sight would have looked cute.
She should have felt relief. More so when they found Raynare and her followers as well, lying where they had fallen, incapacitated without a shadow of a doubt. With such a powerful band of enemies stunned and at her mercy, she should have been glad of the reprieve. But that only brought more questions, especially when he was there too.
They found him sitting on what should have been the steps to the antechamber, near the sleeping forms of Asia and Issei. His posture was slackened, almost lazy, and the headphones she always saw hung around his neck were over his ears instead. There was an alertness to him though, an aura of wariness that prevailed despite the image he gave out. And he had positioned himself facing both the girl and the boy, and if she were to guess, she would have assumed he was guarding them.
He stood up when they approached, mop of unruly hair flopping almost comically as he did so. She did not miss the two burnt holes in his uniform, one center to his chest, the other scorched into the fabric near his shoulder. He saw her looking, and turned imperceptibly to the side, so that both holes would no longer be visible.
He nodded to them, courteously, as though if he had been expected to be there in the first place. Her peerage had not known what to do at that, and just nodded back. She would have found the whole scene amusing had she not been as confused as them.
He had stepped to the side, allowing them access to the unconscious duo. A tilt of her head sent Akeno and Koneko to check up on Issei and the priestess. Kiba, though, stayed by her side, his expression curious as he gazed at the newcomer. When he made no further movements, Rias had turned on her heel to stalk towards the forms of her fallen allies. Akeno met her gaze when she arrived, and inclined her head towards the battered body of Issei. She bit her lip when she saw the newest member of her peerage sporting bruises and cuts all over his skin.
"He was lucky the Fallen like to take their time playing with their victims," her queen said mildly, "Had Raynare lost interest in him, we would have been too late," the black-haired beauty smiled, and a hint of her sadistic side shone through, "Though, this will be a good lesson to him. Provided, of course, that you do not delegate me to punish him later."
Now that was an amusing thought. Akeno would make sure he understood the implications of his actions.
"Do it," she said and turned her attention to the priestess.
"She is healed," Koneko spoke without preamble from her position kneeling by Asia, "but her vitality is low. The Fallen drained her life to power their rituals. She is alive, but only just."
"And the Sacred Gear?"
The former Nekomata frowned. Rias leaned in with interest. She knew from experience her usually cold and aloof rook seldom showed emotion, and when she did, it was almost always because of something that was worth noting.
"It is there… but it is not whole."
"Not whole?" she raised an eyebrow, "Could the Fallen have botched the ritual?"
Koneko shook her head.
"The Sacred Gear, the real one, has been taken out. The one that is inside is a mimicry, a copy."
Rias's eyes widened at her rook's words.
"It is the only thing keeping her alive," Koneko said simply.
"How is that possible?" she questioned. To this, Koneko sent a look in the stranger's direction.
"I am not the one you should be asking for that."
Faint footsteps coming from behind her caused her to turn. Yuuto greeted her with a thin smile and jerked his head back towards the figure standing by his lonesome some distance away.
"Not the talkative type, is he?"
Rias snorted. That was an understatement. From what knowledge she could gleam, bare minimum as it was, the boy did not talk much during or after class. In fact, she couldn't remember him talking at all, at least not when she was present. But then again, he had always done his best to avoid her, something he was very good at she was forced to admit, so she couldn't exactly say she knew what his habits were outside her sphere of influence.
She had suspected at first that she had done some grievous wrong to him when they first met and she had simply not remembered it. But that was not the case, proven by the fact that he would at least acknowledge her presence with a polite nod when a situation arose where he could not excuse himself. It had been immensely frustrating to try and get to the bottom of the reason he treated her so, and were she a normal girl, she would have long given up.
And now he was here, not hiding from her this time, and yet the mystery only grew.
Kiba noticed her questioning look, and his features hardened slightly.
"The Light is strong here. It is everywhere. I can sense it seeping into the very ground. Whoever took down the Fallen was well-versed in the High Arts of the Heavens."
Her gaze flickered towards the boy, who was still facing away from them. The knight saw her eyes glancing at his back, and he shook his head.
"He is covered in the Light. But then so is everything else here."
"So we cannot be certain?"
"No, not unless we choose to force him to reveal himself," the sword-user let a grim smile cross his face, "Though I am not averse to the suggestion."
Rias mulled it over in her head. Direct confrontation was a possibility. She certainly had the numbers, though with angels, one could never be sure what divine weapon they hid until they chose to reveal it themselves. And that was assuming he was one, an angel, and though the area around them was saturated with holy power, the idea that he had been a seraphim all along while managing to hide right under their very noses was a far-fetched one at best.
"No," she retorted, "Issei is injured, and so is the Holy Maiden. We will take them back with us and recover. If matters come to head, I want my peerage to be at full strength."
"Of course," he did not quite manage to hide the disappointment in his tone.
Rias grimaced. The Church had done heinous things to her knight in their quest to create wielders for the Holy Swords. He had never forgiven them for that, and Rias suspected he never will. Kiba would always carry the grudge, and any mention of the Church and the Heavens they served was sure to set his mood dark.
"See to it that Issei and Asia are safe. I have other things to take care of."
The sword-user nodded and moved to assist Akeno, who was already dragging Issei upright. The boy's head lolled limply to the side, and Rias bit down a surge of anger. She would see to it that the Fallen would be punished for harming a member of her peerage.
A few steps later and she arrived at the source of their problems. The unmoving form of Raynare lay before her, head buried into the ground. Around her cracks appeared in the stone, a spider web of fissures that originated from below the depraved angel's body. Something had smashed into her with enormous force, the impact strong enough to create the abrasions on the floor. And that was not all she had suffered through. Rias noted impassively that the woman's arms were stretched out painfully by her sides. She could see the furrows carved in the ground near the Fallen Angel's hands, marred with streaks of blood where the angel had worn her fingernails down to flesh. It was almost as though she was trying to escape, trying to run from some inevitable fate, and by the looks of it, she had not succeeded. The burnt, smoldering wounds on her shoulders further reinforced that fact.
She did not enjoy pain like some of her kind did. She was not like some of the other devils, who enjoyed watching other beings suffer. Nevertheless, she fervently wished the Fallen lying before her had at least felt some of the pain she had inflicted on Asia and Issei.
She called upon her Power of Destruction, feeling the familiar aura of magic rising from within her. It was a pulsating, living thing, her power, the demonic energies eager to be released. She directed it towards the body of Raynare, fully intent on eradicating the evil woman here and now.
A hand on her arm stopped her, and she turned to see him, of all people, standing at her side, his fingers wrapped around her wrist, preventing her from casting the fatal spell. Her eyebrows rose. Somehow, someway, he had moved past by her peerage undetected, despite the considerable battle awareness of her pieces. It was with interest she noted that he refused to look her in the eye, even though the closeness between them demanded it, if not out of necessity, than out of courtesy. His headphones were settled around his neck now, and Rias wondered idly if her conversation with Yuuto had been heard.
And then to her astonishment, he actually spoke.
"They have been judged already," his voice was soft, gentle, but she could hear the steel sheathed beneath.
His gaze was firmly rooted on Raynare.
"They are my enemies," she managed to hide her surprise, "They have hurt friends of mine," Rias nodded towards the limp form of Issei being supported by Akeno and Kiba, "I won't show them any mercy."
The boy merely shrugged. The grip on her arm, however, tightened.
"It is not for you to decide."
She stared at him. Had he actually implied that an enemy who had wondered into her territory, who sought actively to kill one amongst her peerage, whose fate she now held in her hands, should not be judged for their actions? It was a laughable thought. More so, it was a dangerous thought. Devils who did not protect their territory were weak devils, and soon to be dispossessed devils as stronger ones took their territory. That, and Raynare was a dangerous foe, who would no doubt cause further mayhem if let go. She couldn't risk it. She was about to tell him that in as polite a manner as she could when he suddenly turned, and Rias found herself staring into cold, blue eyes.
There was an indifference to them, a certain impassiveness that could easily mislead the casual observer. But she was a devil, and her kind had always been able to glimpse further into humanity's conscience than others. And after gazing into his eyes, what she found was power, pure and unadulterated, veiled behind the passive pupils, hidden not by choice but by design.
He broke the connection as suddenly as he had initiated it, averting his gaze and choosing again to stare at the fallen form of Raynare. A flicker of pain passed across his face, so quick, that Rias was not sure she had seen it.
"Did you save Issei?" she asked.
He nodded again.
"And them?" she gestured to the Fallen littered amongst the ruins, "Were you the one to defeat them?"
He hesitated, as though if considering what to say.
"Not alone," he finally settled on.
She narrowed her eyes. There was truth within those words, but she suspected that he was also omitting something, leaving it out on purpose. She wanted to pry, but knew that now was not the time or the place.
"I should thank you then," Rias began slowly, "Issei should not have run in there by himself. I will make sure he understands how foolish he acted today."
The boy nodded in understanding.
"It is because of my gratitude that I am willing to listen to your suggestion regarding these… angels. But if I find them attacking my friends again, I will not hesitate to destroy them."
His gaze flickered towards the unmoving forms that stood out among the rubble.
It was not the words that convinced her, but the firm finality that was in his tone.
"So be it," Rias watched the boy with interest, gauging his reaction for what she was about to say next, "No doubt you have questions regarding what you saw today and what they," she flung a contemptuous hand towards the Fallen, "are, what we are. I would like to answer them, if you have the time. Tomorrow after school, perhaps? The Student Council Room?"
He seemed to at least contemplate her proposal.
"I will consider it."
It had been a better reply than she expected. At least he was willing to consider meeting face to face instead of avoiding her like he always did. But even if he had chosen the latter route, it wouldn't have mattered. After today's events, she wouldn't let him go without answers, even if it meant tailing him every day.
"Good. I will have Akeno prepare tea for us."
She smiled at his sudden discomfort. He could not back down now without appearing impolite. Her smile grew as he nodded for the final time.
He was angry with himself.
He had not expected the combat to move that fast. Months with no towers to ascend, no Dark Hour to infiltrate, no Shadows to fight had dulled his senses to a less than acceptable state. Without the threat of Nyx hanging over his head, he had been lax in his training. There was no reason to anymore, and his combat abilities suffered as a result. It was something he would have to amend now that new enemies just as supernatural as the Shadows revealed themselves. New allies, as well, as he thought of Rias Gremory and the offer she had extended to him.
As he took the meandering road back to his apartment, he wondered what his fellow members of SEES would say. Mitsuru would probably admonish him for putting the mission at stake, as well as the lives of his teammates. Yukari would do the same thing, but would be more worried about him than the team. The only one who would defend him would be Junpei, and he could almost imagine the slacker's voice telling the others to give him a break.
A thin smile spread across his face. Good, old Junpei.
And then the gravity of the situation struck him, and once more he grew angry, the recollection further adding to the pain.
They had caught him unaware, the ones termed as Fallen Angels, and had he been himself when climbing the Tower, the wounds that he was dealt would have proved fatal. But he had surpassed the Tower, beaten whatever challenges that awaited him on its darkened floors, and had climbed to the top where Nyx herself had awaited him. Wounds that would have been lethal if left untreated then, did little but bother him now. It was a testament to how far he had come, beginning when Orpheus had first leant him its aid to when he faced the Shadow of Death on that broken pillar, with gods at his side to do battle instead of just a single master of strings.
Still, while the soul was strong, the flesh had proved weak, and he had felt pain, real pain, when the spear of light sheared through his heart. But pain did not mean death, not when Death itself existed in him in the form of Thanatos. As long as He was inside him, he could not truly be killed. And even without the Guardian of the Underworld to protect him, there were others who would have risen to the task.
His Personas were many and myriad when he fought Nyx, and they had all found him eventually when he was transplanted to this new world. Angels and demons he could command. Divine beasts and mythical monsters prowled beneath his psyche. Heroes of old, legends that were sung of in flowing tales, their deeds as fabled as their names, willingly bent knee to him. And while they were inside him, they shared a fraction of their power with him. It was the gift of the Wild Card and it was a gift he had used well.
From Kohyru, Sacred Dragon of the Celestial Zodiac, he had learned to summon fiery conflagrations in the form of powerful Maragidynes. From Siegfried, slayer of Fafnir, the knowledge to wield swords better than any mortal could teach. From Odin, the element of lightning, the ability to wield it and to protect himself from it. The list grew on and on.
And when Metatron, Lord of Angels, had been called, he had been infused with holy light, the Archangel's mere presence enough to bask him in an aura of sanctified energy. His flesh had reknit, the holes had closed, and where the light spears had penetrated his body, clean, healthy skin appeared, covering the once gory wounds as if they had never been there in the first place.
It had not been his first choice. He had wanted Thanatos at first, or even a dark type Persona to take advantage of the Fallen Angels' affinity with light. But Metatron had demanded to be called. Metatron, who hated demons above all else, who punished the heretic with fire and sword, had demanded to be summoned. Metatron, whose contempt for those that betrayed the Word of God was legendary, had demanded to be called forth so that it may face the Fallen.
And then it had done something that surprised even him.
I Know of Your Kind. Cast Down from the High Heavens. Banished from Eternal Paradise.
Its silver face turned to regard the woman, who was no longer wearing the triumphant leer.
I Know of Your Ilk. In Your Hubris You have Thrown Away His Gift. In Your Despair You have Lost Yourself to Darkness.
Raynare trembled, and took a faltering step back.
I Know of Your Heresies. The Perversions of Light You have Committed. The Wretched Deeds that have Stained Your Souls Black.
The Archangel spread its arms wide, almost invitingly.
I Know of You. But do You Know of Me? Do You Know Who I Am?
They nodded, eyes wide. In a flash, the atmosphere in the room changed. The metallic wings spread open, reaching their full span. The sword was lifted, the flaming blade tip pointing to the Fallen. And when it next spoke, its voice contained the brass rumble of authority.
Then Why aren't You Bowing Yet?
They knelt. The bearded man first, features taut with frightened surprise. The woman was second, her lithe body moving sensuously despite the trembling in her limbs. There was a worshipful expression on her face. The child was last, tumbling from her seat on the table to land clumsily on the floor. She pressed her forehead to the ground and did not look up.
Only one still stood, Raynare, whose look of defiance did little to hide the way her legs quaked. Metatron tilted its head, its mask gleaming as it took in the sight of the Fallen who refused to bow.
When Man Heeded the Poisoned Words of the Serpent, He was Doomed for Eternity. What Serpent has Whispered into Your Ear, Raynare, Guardian of the White Gates, for You to have Fallen so?
Raynare refused to meet the angel's stare, but her lips moved.
"Kokabiel," she whispered.
In response, Metatron slowly floated its way towards the woman, who took a step backwards in fear.
I Know of Him. Just as I Know of the Honeyed Words that He has Fed to You are Lies.
Raynare's face contorted in rage.
He has Never Considered You His Equal. He has Never Thought of You as You have Thought of Him. He has Never Loved You.
I am the Voice of God. I Convey His Command. Truth is All I Know.
"Shut up," the Fallen Angel clutched at her head, "Shut up. Shut up."
Kokabiel Fell because of His Love for a Mortal Woman. He has Tasted the Sweet Fruit of Corruption. You will Never Compare to the One who Made Him Fall.
Raynare's eyes lit up with anger, and in an instant the light spear was conjured, sent hurtling towards the gleaming figure that hovered before her. Metatron swatted the projectile away with an armored hand, sending the lance flipping end over end until it sank shaft-deep in a nearby wall. Another appeared in Raynare's hand, but before she could cast the Archangel was already in front of her, steel gauntlet reaching out.
Raynare. The Ancient Laws of the High Heavens Forbids Us from Interfering with the Mortal Realm.
One hand grasped her by the neck.
Yet, You have Done So. Brazenly.
The other buried the sword up to its hilt into her stomach.
This is the Punishment for your Transgression.
The Fallen made a wet, gasping sound as the blade exploded out of her back.
The Wound will Never Heal until You have Atoned for your Crime.
The sword slid free, and the woman collapsed to her knees, mouth wide open. The Archangel gestured and the blade vanished from his hand. Turning, it placed an armored boot on the Fallen's shoulder. Raynare managed a single jerk of surprise as the plated foot touched her back, and then she was being forced down, pushed by immense, overwhelming force.
Fallen. You have Committed Untold Atrocities. Your Hands are Stained with the Blood of the Innocent. Your Deeds have Tainted the Name of Our Kind.
Silver hands grasped her exposed pinions in a vice-like grip, one for each wing. Her eyes widened in realization.
You do not Deserve the Gifts He has Bestowed Upon You.
"No! Stop!" Raynare struggled feebly against the Archangel's strength, her fingers scrabbling for purchase against the ground as she tried in vain to drag herself away, "I repent! I repent! Stop! I beg you!"
Metatron merely grasped her wings in a tighter grip.
The Wound was Your Punishment. This is Your Judgment.
It pulled, and Raynare screamed.