Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... New Symbols?

When we appeared in Hell, Rias and a cadre of maids were waiting for us.

"Thank you all for coming," Rias said warmly, "The maids will take your luggage to your rooms. We are going to have a short meeting to fill you in on the current situation and answer any questions you may have. I know it is late in Japan, so we will try to keep it brief."

She led everyone else away, but I held back.

"Dresden?" she paused and looked back at me. So did everyone one else.

"I need to grab something," I told her, "Are you going to the main dining room?"


"I'll catch up," I assured her. She nodded.

"Is there something I can help you find?" the violet-haired Devil who holding my duffle asked. Another maid, holding my backpack, staff case, and sewing kit, gave me a questioning look, but I just nodded that she could go. The first maid set my larger bag down, and stepped back.

"No, it's right on top," I answered, unzipping it. I took out the cardboard box, and then zipped it up again, resetting the lock.

"That isn't necessary," the maid said mildly.

"Maybe not," I told her, "But there's a lot of questionable people running around."

Her eye twitched ever so slightly.

"But could you tell me what I should do with this?" I asked, indicating the winter coat, "I borrowed it, so I need to return it."

"I can take care of that," she offered.

"No," I shook my head, "I mean, thanks for offering. But I'm sure you have enough on your plate right now, Lady Venelana."

Her eyes widened. Then she sighed. Her violet hair turned a gentle flaxen hue. Her nose and chin narrowed. And her figure filled out the maid uniform, especially around the hips and bust.

"How did you know?" she asked, "Even Rias didn't recognize me."

"To be fair, she has a lot going on," I said, "Running everything here, bottling up her feelings, all that. Even so, I'd give it even odds that she did notice, and just didn't say anything. As for me, I recognized how even though you are right handed, you tend to favor your left shoulder. Presumably an injury from the war. Once I noticed, I was able to pick out your magic aura."

Rias's mother frowned cutely.

"You hid it well," I told her, "But with everything that's happened in the last six months, I've had to hone my senses. And the Power of Destruction has a very distinct feel."

"I see," she considered that. Then she asked, "And will you tell my daughter? Or the others?"

"Rias is my friend, your daughter, and nominally in charge here," I said, "Sona, Tsubasa, and Reya are my girlfriends. If any of them ask, I will tell them."

I paused, and pointed out, "I'm assuming Serafall already knows, otherwise she also gets the girlfriend priority."

"But if they don't ask, I won't volunteer. And if anyone else asks, I won't lie, but I don't have a problem dissembling. Or just not answering. I mean, I get it. You are worried about Rias, and her Peerage. And maybe a little bit about the rest of us. But I'm not a fool. The fact that all of us are here, in a fortress in the middle of nowhere? The teenagers and the non-Devils? The Old Maou factions and their stooges are already complaining about all of the outsiders interfering in Hell."

"Hypocrites," she scowled.

"Right there with you," I agreed, "You need our help, and you need to let us non-Devils help for the sake of The Accords. But you also need us to generally be out of the public eye. And if keeping us outsiders out of view helps you keep Sona and Rias and their groups safe... or I should say safer, that's two birds with one political stone. And if keeping tabs on that also lets you keep an eye on your hurting daughter, all the better."

"I owe you an apology, young man," Venelana was now full into her 'Duchess' mode, "When my daughter first told me you were an active private detective, I thought the idea amusing."

"You aren't the first to underestimate me and won't be the last."

"Perhaps not," she said sardonically, "but at least I will not make that mistake again."

Then her eyes twinkled in a familiar way.

"Oh no," I waved my finger at her, "I know that look. I've seen it on Rias often enough. If you are thinking a about recruiting me into your peerage, the line starts with Sona. Then Serafall, Ajuka, Anna, Coira, and Michael. Oh and maybe Sirzechs, if he was actually serious about making the band eternal."

"Really?" Venelana asked, "I thought your point cost was to higher for Sona's remaining Evil Pieces."

"That was before four of her pieces underwent a sudden and inexplicable mutation," I said with all the innocence I could muster.

"Hmm," she hemmed dubiously. Then she shrugged at me, "You should get going. I will see the coat returned and your bag delivered to your room."

She morphed back into her maid guise.

"To start with, while it is not particularly relevant," Rias started, after we were seated and introduced to each other, "the reason we were in the Underworld is because members of my and Sitri-san's peerage were participating in the rank up demand. And Dresden-san accompanied as our friend and teacher."

We were back to speaking Japanese, because Bob and Kurama were not fluent in English. And everyone except the Youkai and Shirou had some variation of Language.

"More importantly," Rias continued. Then she took a deep breath, and said, "Not quite two weeks ago, Azazel-sensei brought Ophis Ouroboros and two members of the Vali Faction to Hyoudou House. She was curious about my Ise, and wanted to observe him..."

She trailed off. She looked around for reactions. And braced to justify herself. She and Sona both wore stony, penitent expressions. Well, for a second anyway. Then the teen Kings looked around and frowned in confusion. Because the reactions of rest of the table were not what they were expecting.

To be fair, some of what they were expecting was there. Everyone who was complicit in hiding Ophis was on the defensive. Shirou gave Tomoe a disappointed grandfather look. Until he realized she had no idea what Rias was talking about. Then he shifted his gentle glare to Sona. Gaspar, Momo, Ruruko, Saji, Kurama, and Bob all were shocked and somewhere between nervous and frightened.

But Serafall, Lasciel, Nike, Kendra, Griselda, and Dulio were completely nonplussed. My Maou even looked slightly amused. And Az just looked smug.

"Rias?" I called out, so the conversation wouldn't stall. The red head glanced over at me hopefully.

"Serafall?" I prompted, pointing my chin down at my chest and then inclining my head towards Levi-tan.

'What about her?' I countered. We were all still processing Az dropping the Dragon goddess in our laps and the trouble it might cause. Then my brain-mate appeared in front of me, prompting the name of my Maou as a question.

Lash didn't say anything. She just tapped her right wrist. I blinked, considering the steel band trapped on my forearm.

'Unless Az has completely forgotten' I remembered how I ratted him out to Sona, when he 'gave' me 2nd Amendment, 'He has to expect I'll tell Serafall about this.'

'You, or Sona Sitri,' Lash agreed. Then added, 'Even should both of you keep the secret, the Leviathan has been making ample abuse of her newly granted ability to teleport through your wards.'

'It's only been four times in two months,' I argued.

'She could potentially detect the power of Ophis Ouroboros in Hyoudou House from our home,' the former Fallen continued, ignoring me.

'Hell's Bells, she might even just see Ophis, if either of them goes outside,' I mused, 'So you think he already told her?'

'I suspect he is lying about this being a secret,' she said, 'The Custodians of the Accords will have been informed, and likely other high ranking members.'

'Then why not tell us?'

'Aside from the fact Azazel likely finds it amusing?' she asked.

'Yeah, should have guessed that,' I agreed.

'I can only speculate,' Lash reminded me. I waved my hand for her to continue.

'Azazel wants Ophis and her escorts to believe this is a secret,' she said, 'for any number of potential reasons.'

'And he doesn't trust Ise or Xenovia or especially Asia to pull off the act.'

'Would you, my host?' she asked.

'Not really,' I agreed.

"Dresden-kun?" Rias looked at me in confusion. But Sona face-palmed.

"You already knew, didn't you, onee-chan?" my King locked onto my Maou, "From the beginning."

Rias looked shocked.

"Of course," Serafall nodded broadly.

"Ophis was going to be right next door to me," I said, "And Az knew she just drops by. So she might see Ophis or detect her power."

"Honestly, it was never a secret from the top levels of the Accords," Azazel explained why Nike and the Angels weren't surprised, "The Vali group wanted it to be secret, so we let them think it was."

"Yasaka-sama suggested that the shared secret would help you grow closer to Ophis-san more quickly," Kendra added.

Sona looked annoyed, but thoughtful. And Rias was about to protest when Az held up his hand.

"We couldn't keep this a secret from the Accords' leaders," the Fallen told her, "But we still needed to keep the circle small. 'If two are dead' and all that. And need I remind you, the Chaos Brigade did find find Ophis. Maybe they have a way to track her. Or maybe we have a mole."

That got a rise out of everyone. Well, not me, Serafall, or Shirou, but the rest of the room reacted with various degrees and forms of negativity.

"I'm not saying it was anyone here," he told us, "You'll notice that Fenrir and La Fae, Ophis's guards, were not invited to this meeting. The Vali Faction could have a traitor or this whole thing could have been a plot. But at the same time, most of us could be an unknowing host of a True Longinus shard. So I would like to have Dresden check you."

"Most of us?" Nike prompted.

"What if Dresden also infected?" Dulio asked, considering me carefully.

"To answer our young Angel first," Azazel said smugly, "Dresden, Hyoudou, and Saji are immune. Well, not directly immune. But Lash, Ddraig, and Vritra wouldn't be controlled by the Longinus, and thus could let us know if their hosts were implanted. And technically not just the Dragon Kings, any Sacred Gear with an awake and active source soul would be the same."

"And to answer your question, Nike-sama," he continued respectfully, "Aside from Dresden and Saji, I know that Dresden has scanned his four girlfriends, so they are also in the clear. And I was also recently scanned. Does anyone object to being scanned?"

"What does this scan entail?" Griselda asked suspiciously.

"You sit in a comfortable chair, fully clothed," I answered before the now grinning Az could stir the pot, "I stand or sit behind you, and hold my hands on either side of your head, or on your shoulders. Then you read or have a light conversation for somewhere between thirty minutes and an hour."

"And what do you do during this time?" she pressed.

"Circulate my mana over you to get an understanding of your core spiritual structure. And look for anything out of place. In this case, specifically the mini spears, which I'm getting unfro... unfortunately familiar with."

Gabriel's Queen considered that for a moment, and then nodded.

"We will have to set up a schedule," Sona said, "As the scanning can be tiring for Harry-kun. So let us return to the original topic of what is happening in the Underworld."

Rias looked embarrassed that we had drifted off topic. As did Griselda and Nike, though to a lesser extent. Serafall and Kendra grinned. And then the Youkai leader spoke up.

"If it is not a problem, Harry-kun," Kendra offered, "You may scan me while we get up to date on current events here in Hell. We, we youkai that is, were given a basic rundown by Yasaka-sama. And had a few more questions answered while we were gathered at Harry-kun's house. But I would like to hear directly from those involved. Also level set and make sure that everyone is equally informed."

"Sure," I responded to her first request. I slid out of the chair, and walked over to stand behind the Tengu. I held my palms next to her temples. I'd been getting a lot of practice scanning people lately. And on a wide variety of people. But Kendra was my second Youkai and first Tengu. I started synchronize with her spirit. And Rias and Sona started talking.

Sona told them about the attack of the Bandersnatches and the fake Jabberwocky.

Rias explained what happened to everyone what happened in Dimension Lost.

Then they tag-teamed talking about the attack on our current base.

By the team they finished talking, I returned to my seat.

"She's clear," I announced.

"If I may cut in?" Nike asked. The Kings both nodded and we all looked to the goddess.

"You mentioned that there were Reapers fighting with the Hero and Old Maou factions. What happened to them?"

Nike sounded apprehensive.

"There were a dozen Reapers that we saw mixed in with the other attackers," Shizukesa explained.

"We captured seven of them," Sona added.

"And the rest escaped with the Heroes," Serafall's Knight concluded.

"As for what happened to the ones we captured," Az interjected, "Dresden-kun scanned them. He removed Longinus shards from two of them, and guided Sona-san and me through removing shards from one more of them apiece. The other three were clean."

"Which brings me to a question for you," I said to Nike, "Namely, just what are Grim Reapers?"

She frowned at me.

"Those seven I scanned," I elaborated, "Four of them were identical. If we hadn't pulled the light spears out of two of them, I would have thought they found a way to switch places on us. To be clear, even identical triplets would scan as different people, at least on a supernatural level. And aside from the four that were perfectly identical, the other three were more similar to those four and each other than I would expect from anyone. Statistically, Lash tells me that winning two lottery jackpots at the same time is more likely than canning a thousand pairs of twins and finding any as spiritually alike as the Reapers. So what are they? Some sort of clones? A hive mind? Drones?"

Then Lash dredged up a memory.

"There was that one that looked like a young girl, when we met Hades before the tournament. But his other bodyguards back then also seemed to be identical."

"They are not all identical," Nike said thoughtfully, "The Grim Reapers are led by Pluto, Thanatos, and Orcus. I have met them, and those three have distinct appearances. But I also cannot tell regular Reapers apart. Rumor has it the other Reapers are all children of the three brothers. But if they are all unusually spiritually identical, I don't know how or why."

"Hmmm," I considered that.

"And what happened to the Grim Reapers after you removed the Longinus fragments?" Shirou prompted.

We turned to Azazel.

"A crow and a bat deign to summon me," Hades glared down at Sirzechs and me, "You better have good reason."

It took all I could not to flinch. I had never considered the skeletal god to be especially expressive. But after hearing Harry describe his encounter with Hades, I was considering the skull very carefully. And even though the bones didn't move, I could somehow read a combination of annoyance and incredulity.

Sirzechs, on the other hand, didn't seem to care.

"We wanted to confirm if you were declaring war on Hell," Sirzechs stated, nonplussed, "Is that important enough for you?"

Hades forced himself to calm, and asked, "What does that mean?"

"A dozen Grim Reapers have attacked Gremory territory," I took over, "Alongside three factions of the Chaos Brigade."

"Not all Reapers serve me," Hades said evenly.

"Which is one of the reasons we wanted to talk to you," Sirzechs smiled kindly, "instead of just announcing this to the Kyoto Accords."

"And the other reason?"

Hades wasn't alone. Hecate was with him. The goddess of magic was not seated at the table with us. She was standing back, watching, in a guard position. She was the one who asked the last question.

Sirzechs' grin widened. I drew seven action-figure blister packs out of a pocket dimension. Stood them on the table, so the two Greek deities could see them. Inside each there was a Grim Reaper, shrunken and in stasis. Then I plunked down four glass jars. A small spear of light floated in each.

"We captured seven of them," I said respectfully, "And we found the control elements of the True Longinus in four of them."

There was a surge of power that almost knocked me out of my chair. A moment later, I realized Hades and Hecate were scanning the Reapers and shards. And I wondered if my smart-ass way of transporting the prisoners was the best idea. I blame Dresden.

"Satisfied?" Sirzechs asked.

"These are mine," Hades admitted. Then he stared at us again, "What do you want?"

The Lucifer raised an eyebrow.

"You haven't just come to return my brainwashed warriors," Hades said. He then repeated, "What do you want?"

"We have come to bargain," I presented, mimicking a certain fictional sorcerer. Hades didn't seem to get it. Or didn't appreciate it.

"During the battle," I continued quickly, "Issei Hyoudou went missing."

I should mention that we were speaking Greek. To be polite.

"If he is dead," Sirzechs voice took on a brittle edge, "His soul should have ended up in Hell. But on the off chance he was delivered to your realm... Here is our offer. We will return your Reapers. And even give you two of these Longinus shards, to verify that they came from your men and try to find a way to prevent this from happening again. In return you will turn over Issei's soul, now or if it ever ends up in your domain in the future. And also share any information about him that might come your way."

Hades considered that.

"We are trusting you," Sirzechs said, "You are known as a god of honor, but also one who enjoys and appreciates deals. Seven of yours versus one of ours?"

Hades frowned. I thought.

"I will agree," he said slowly, "With one addendum. Show me your true form."

"What?" Sirzechs said angrily.

"You are the leader of the bats," Hades said, "I have heard many rumors. And I would know if you are worthy."

"Done," Sirzechs finally said, "But only you. Neither your servant, nor your wife in the invisibility helm."

There was a shuffling in the dirt.

"Done," Hades repeated, and extended a bony hand. Sirzechs shook it. I collected two of the shards, but left the other two with trapped Reapers on the table. Then I stood and walked away. Hecate and the concealed person followed. I assumed it was Persephone, Hades didn't lend his helmet to many people. But I didn't want to press the issue.

A black barrier raised behind us.

A flood of Devil power hit us. Hecate stumbled. I was still used to it from the war. Despite that. I was amazed by the torrent of mana hitting us. I had never fought Sirzechs. I knew he was strong. I hadn't expected his power to rival his predecessor. Rival the original Lucifer, or maybe, just maybe surpass him.

A moment later, the wall fell. Sirzechs and Hades were standing there, apparently unchanged. But the table and chairs were gone. Hecate and I, and presumably the invisible observer, returned to the two gods.

"The host of the Red Dragon is not in my domain," Hades said, his voice subdued, "As per our bargain, should he arrive here, I will contact you and arrange for his return. As will we contact you if we hear any news of him."

Hades inclined his head towards Hecate as he said that.

"Thank you," Sirzechs said with genuine gratitude.

Hades nodded. Then a gout of purple flame wrapped the Greek gods. And they were gone.

"Let's get back," Sirzechs told me.

Persephone removed the Helm of Invisibility. She returned it to her beloved. He returned the artifact to its pedestal. Then he addressed the two goddesses.

"The Heroes have betrayed us," the skeleton said softly, "Little surprise. But the Devils have acted with more integrity than I expected."

Then he slumped down onto his throne, shrinking to a more reasonable size, his flesh becoming visible. Persephone quickly sat next to him, wrapping both of her arms around his left limb and taking his hand.

"What is it, my lord?" Hecate asked cautiously.

"That bat... No, Sirzechs Lucifer. He is stronger than I expected. And I am sure he was still holding back. If it came to war, I could kill him. But it would cost me, greatly."

He took a deep breath. Took control of himself. And returned to his preferred appearance.

"We need to revise our plans," he told them, "Even if the Chaos Brigade wins, this proves they will not honor our agreement. At least not the Brigade as a whole. While the disappearance of the Red Dragon is a blow to the Kyoto Accords, they have lost less than I expected. And it is not clear that this loss is permanent."

Persephone nodded into his shoulder. Then she kissed his cheekbone.

"Call Pluto," he told his second, "We need to return these to him, and make sure he is not compromised."

Hades dropped the blister packs on the table next to his throne, allowing himself a brief grin of amusement.

Hecate bowed in understanding and agreement.

"So we know Ise isn't in Hades or Hell," Az direct his attention to Rias, after finishing his flashback, "Chances are he is alive."

"Or his soul was trapped or destroyed," Dulio added. Most of us glared at the insensitive Angel.

"What else happened while we were on Earth?" Serafall asked before Ise's harem could react.

"Well, there was a protest in Purgatory Gulch," Oakley told her boss flippantly, "and a couple of the Old Maou donkeys almost turned it into a riot."

"And yet you are smiling," Bob noted.

"Yeah," the Pawn agreed, "That's cuz Miss Behemoth had the video of the attack on this palace. It clearly showed the instigators working with the Zeroes, and attacking the Oppai Dragon. So instead of startin' a riot, they almost almost got lynched. Or whatever the Devil version of a lynch mod is. And after that, word spread, so the protesters are being a lot more cautious about escalatin' things. They don't like bein' used and ain't lookin' to be linked to the terrorists they are complainin' that the Maou doin' nothin' about."

"Well done," Shirou said appreciatively.

"The other major happening," Rias took over, "Was that members of the Hero and Loki Factions attempted the Tomb of Mephistopheles."

"Attempted the tomb?" I frowned, "How does one 'attempt' a tomb? And I thought Mephisto was still alive and running the Grauzauberer back on Earth."

"The Tomb of Mephistopheles is not an actual tomb," Sona explained, "When the original Lucifer banished Mephistopheles to Earth, Mephistopheles left behind a monument that he called his tomb. In reality, it is more like a dungeon from a game."

"A maze full of traps, golems, undead, and the occasional treasure," Serafall nodded, "Mephi claimed that all of his knowledge and strongest imbued items are in the vault at the center. But in all the centuries since then, no-one has reached the prize. Or at least, no-one has admitted to reaching the prize."

"The outer layers are considered mostly safe," Rias resumed, "Some Devils or guests use it as a proving ground or for exercise. Anyone going past the second level is 'attempting' the tomb. Trying to reach the center and Pheles' legacy. The invaders failed, were discovered, and fled."

"They're looking for something," I mused. Everyone turned to look at me, and even Lash manifested so she could show her surprise.

"That... that could be," Nike said softly, as if things were shifting in her mind.

"There are more efficient ways to cause trouble," the former general of the Fallen agreed, "But if they are searching for something, and want to hide that, the random attacks work only multiple levels."

"But what?" Tomoe asked.

"Hell if I know," I said. That got a lot of groans.

"Seriously, though, what treasure are hidden out there, rumored to be out there?" I ignored them heckling, "I can think of a few things I've heard of, but I don't know what's real and what's distorted legend."

"We should check the locations of the Chaos Brigade activities," Sona looked to Serafall and then Tsubaki, "Correlate artifacts and tomes thought to be in those areas. And double check if anything is missing."

"That might also help us determine places they will target in the future," Kendra pointed out.

"Which brings us to our next steps," Azazel said in his leader voice, "The Sitri Peerage was on patrol today, and helped with the protest Oakley-chan mentioned. So for tomorrow, our plan was to have the Gremory team active, while the Sitri team rests and helps our allies acclimate and requisition any equipment they might need. And also potentially help Dresden-kun replace his staff and jacket, if he is feeling less secretive than normal."

"About that," I said slowly.

"Yes?" Az asked.

"First, if I can get some NDA promises out of certain individuals, I was hoping that some of you would help me brew some potions tomorrow. Or maybe tonihg... tonight. Thanks to the time difference between Hell and Tokyo, we still had a couple hours of daylight to burn down here."

Azazel's eyes sparkled, but he managed to keep the rest of his face serious.

"Second.." I picked up the cardboard box I had left behind my chair.

"I've had these for a while," I started, "Made them on a bit of a whim, and partly to test a few things. But they came out better than I expected, so I've been trying to decided if I should try to sell them to you, or just give them to you. But with everything going on... Here, Serafall. For you and your Peerage."

I slid the box to my Maou. She opened it up. Levi-tan took out the first coat, looked it over, and handed it to Shizukesa. The reformed (physically and morally) Beholder stood up and tried it on. She zipped it up, and looked over herself. Her expression was one of joy.

The second coat went to Oakley. Miss Winchester did not stand. She held it to her body to test it. Then she gave me a dubious look.

"Fit looks good," the sniper sounded like she was trying not to insult me, "But the colors' a bit bright for mah tastes."

"Say that again once I teach you how to use the camouflage feature," I countered.

Her eyes widened in wonder.

Serafall also put on her new jacket during this exchange.

"We'll have to give Behe-chan hers later," my Maou said, "But these are great, Harry-chan. Thank you."

Sona gave her sister a look.

"I will, of course, pay you for them," Levi-tan quickly added.

"We'll work out some way you can pay me back," I said, trying to keep the teasing out of my voice.

"If you are willing to share the secrets of your potions," Azazel suggest, "You might also want to let someone help with your new staff."

"Maybe," I agreed, "Lasciel has given me some good advice in the past and owes me for the 14th."

The female Fallen gulped, but also nodded.

"While we are on the topic of new tools," Rias interrupted, a hitch in her voice, "I am hoping that Harry-san and Azazel-sensei can take a look at something in the next few days."

I knew she was serious, if she was buttering up Az by callin him 'sensei' outside of Kuoh property.

The red-headed King took out a bronze cuff. It was more decorative than practical, the metal too light to be an arm guard. A dozen ruby shards decorated the surface in a random geometric pattern. Lash floated over to look at it, focusing on the gems.

"Is that?" Az seemed to recognize it.

"Yes," Akeno confirmed, "This is the device I have been using to store the Dragon Power I extract from Issei's arm, so it looks Human."

"It's a capacitor?" I asked, thinking about my other project.

"No," Rossweisse shook her head, "It is not designed for quick charging or discharging. It is just a container. Or it was supposed to be."

With that mysterious and slightly ominous statement, Rias picked up the bracelet. She put it on her left wrist. Then she flicked her arm.

In a burst of flame, the bracer transformed into a circular shield. It extended past Rias's hand and elbow, being about four feet in diameter. The bronze was much thicker. The rubies had multiplied and spread, forming a dragon motif.

Then she flicked her forearm again, and it returned to the bracelet. Which she quickly removed.

"We don't know exactly how or why it happened," she explained, "Obviously it has something to do with Ddriag's excess energy we stored in it. But why did it suddenly gain the power to turn into a shield? Is it safe to use? And if so, other than being fireproof, what can it do? Azazel-sensei knows the most about Sacred Gears. And Harry-san, with Lash, has vast, varied, and strange knowledge of magic..."

"I'll be happy to take a look," Az told her.

"Wipe the drool off," Serafall whispered to him.

"Me too," I said simply, then added, "If only to keep this guy in line."

"Thank you."

We had dinner. Or second dinner, for those of us coming from Earth.

We decided not to mix up some potions. Partly because I was tired, and thus worried I'd mix them up in the other sense. But mostly because the villa was lacking in certain ingredients. As were my brewing stores. I gave Rias a list, and she promised the maids would stock the manor before we were awake tomorrow.

Instead, all of us talked, waffling between light conversation and light strategizing. But my near death experience, only a few days prior, and the teleport lag caught up with me. I ended up going to bed earlier than I planned.

But before I could get into bed, there was a knock on my door. I answered it, to find Sona standing there. She radiated nervousness. And she was still in the same outfit she had been wearing at our meeting; a below the knee black skirt, matching stockings, and a simple white blouse. And of course her promise ring, the earrings Serafall had given her, and her enchanted belt buckle.

"Hi, Sona," I said, "Would you like to come in?"

"Yes," she said. Only then did I notice she was holding a cardboard box behind her back.

"Do what do I owe the pleasure?" I asked not wanting to assume.

"What you said, in the meeting, struck me as ironic," she said quickly and without preamble, "Because I have also been considering this for a few months. Possibly as a birthday gift, until I realized I don't know when your real birthday is. But the events of Sunday forced my hand. And to be fair, we all paid for it. But I had it commissioned. Not to claim cre..."

I placed my hand on her shoulder.

"Sona, you are not the kid from My Hero," I told her with just a hint of teasing, "Just take a breath. I'll let you say what you want and need to say."

She inhaled deeply, and let it out slowly.

"This is for you Harry," she said softly, extending the box, "From myself, Tsubasa, Reya, and Serafall."

I opened the box, almost expecting it. But in spite of my foresight, a wave of nostalgia hit me.

It was a duster. A very new duster from smell. It was the darkest black I had ever seen. Though it was thicker than my last duster, it also felt lighter in my hands. I took it from the box, shook it out. And then I slipped it on. As I did, I saw a hint of silver on the inside.

It fit me like a glove. Like I thought, it was light, and it moved easily.

"It is made from hell bison leather," Sona explained, "Lighter but stronger than normal cow leather. And the liner is a silk and mythril weave cloth. Once you enchant it, I expect..."

I pulled her to me. Carefully removed her glasses. Looked deep into her eyes, since we had already Soulgazed. And I kissed her. Thanks to our research, I knew exactly how my King liked to be kissed. And I did so, in spades.

Almost a minute later, I ended the kiss. But kept my arms around Sona, so she wouldn't fall.

"I love you," I told her. She looked up at me. Blinked. And tears started forming in her eyes.


"I love you," I repeated, "I still worry that I shouldn't had said it. That there are too many issues between us. But in the end, I just can't. Whatever time we have together, I don't want to waste it. Sona Sitri, I love you. As a friend, a partner, a woman, and an object of lust."

Sona nodded. She took out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. Then she reclaimed her glasses, and gave me a probing stare.

"And the others?" she asked.

"I love them too. Tsubasa, Reya, and Serafall. As much as you, if not quite the same as you. And I am going to tell them. Myself. Alone, when I can find a chance. But this is your moment, Sona."

"I love you, too, Harry," she smiled radiantly, and then tightened her grip on me.

"Oh, and Sona?"


"Thanks for the duster."

Next: Beyond the Outer Gates Lies... Anti-dos and Anti-don'ts?