Disclaimer: I do not own High School DxD.
A/N: Miss me? Probably not, but oh well. That's life for you.
– First Arc: The Reckoning –
"Are you absolutely sure that is him? It is of great importance that he is truly who we believe he is."
"With certainty, he is the one."
"Then let there be no doubt. He must be taken care of."
"This must not be done callously, but with extreme delicacy."
"But if he is as pious as his actions have greatly implied?"
"Impossible. He will be eliminated. The descendants of the Messiah's murderers are not to be trusted."
Frost looked at the squadron around him and forward again. There was not a trace of emotions on their faces, and he had the sneaking suspicion that it was just a mask to hide their nervousness at this sudden mission.
They were now somewhere in a secluded region in the mountainous areas of Eastern Europe. It was the dead of night and they had not yet reached their destination. It had been a short airplane ride under the guise of a pilgrimage and then hours of marching since then. Before he embarked on the mission that may very well be his last days on Earth, he had tried to find ways to get himself out of the mission. Apparently, this was a mandatory mission and while he did not really give a damn about whether he was required to do this or not, the rumors that those who did not participate were never heard from again did not fill him with confidence either.
In hindsight, he should have escaped the Church during that whole Holy Sword Project fiasco instead. He had not anticipated that gas attack in the least.
"…This was not how I thought my life would go."
Three weeks. That was how long he stayed still in one room. It was almost torturous, with nurses, nuns, and for some reason Ewald Cristaldi looming over him nearly half a day every day. When he made a full recovery and arrived at his designated location, he was greeted with a pregnant silence.
The crowd of exorcists studied him. Rookie exorcists watched his every movement in anticipation of what he would do next as he traversed to the end of the room. It appeared that news of his lone involvement in shutting down the Holy Sword Project or whatever it was called had traveled about quickly… and were also greatly exaggerated. He could just feel it. It looked like even gossip was a powerful tool, even in an organization that was meant to be the epitome of piety.
It was not just the rookies staring at him. He could also feel the gazes from the veterans as well. Most of them did not have the same wondrous eyes, however. They were cold and calculating, scheming more like. What benefits could be reaped from using him, what consequences would befall them if they engaged with him, what use was he to them. He knew too well their kind.
This was not what he wanted. Instead of getting honorably discharged as he intended, he was instead venerated and now under the scrutiny of every lower and higher-ranking members of the Church, if what Cristaldi implied was true. That would mean that every action he committed from this day forth would be evaluated with a strictness that could be found in an Asian parent making sure their child was studying for their next exam that was in two months – so, really damn strict.
…If that's the case, excommunication at this point would just mean a lot more trouble than he would like. He would just have to rise up the ranks, then. Once he reached a level equivalent to a Major or higher, he can avoid danger and live to a ripe, old age. It's a viable option. Plus, if he had been so focused on getting himself kicked out, others would soon notice and call him out, which was a situation he also wanted to avoid.
…Thinking long-term was really hard. He was still in his early teens, too. Weren't teenagers supposed to be more concerned with being edgy little shits that were easily swayed by what was stupid, hip, and against the norm? Why wasn't he part of that rabble? It was stupid and cringeworthy, but they were at least enjoying being stupid and cringeworthy.
"Is that him? The one who shut down the Holy Sword Project?"
"He's scrawnier than I thought."
"I bet I can take him on."
"Doesn't he look kind of scary?"
"Yeah… but it looks kind of roguish, don't you think?"
Frost overheard the whispers and ignored them in favor of approaching the one who was apparently in charge of this fine little regiment: the same girl who was taking care of him when he first joined. And from the looks of it, she did not seem thrilled to see him either. At least they shared the same opinion of each other.
"And so, the hero of the hour arrives." Frost twitched at being called that. Simona folded her arms and studied the white-haired boy. Her expression remained as taciturn as it was on his first day here.
"Tell me, hero. How does it feel to be at the top of the world?"
Simona was not what one would call a normal girl.
At the age of four, she began her first steps towards becoming an exorcist from that dainty orphanage by a creek and rose to the top of her class.
Nine years of iron-willed training and at the age 13, she had slain her first vampire and its four familiars by herself. That accomplishment alone rose her to the rank of Vindicator, hunters of the church and the highest possible rank one can achieve within a decade. The accomplishments did not stop there and after six now years, she was now, at the age of 19, on the beginning paths of becoming a full-fledged member of the Choir, a privileged position especially for one who had barely reached two decades of their life. To be part of the Choir was to be one of glorification, demonization, and information. In essence, she would be one of the very few people in the Vatican that would judge any and all members of the Church and tell their tales and tribulations through song and story.
Those of high esteem would be renowned as saints to the world.
Those of ordinary background or who chose not to be drawn into the spotlight would be a part of the nameless many to be sung about.
And the traitors will be condemned and cursed, their name sullied and forever a blight to the faithful, their existences reminders of mankind's original sin.
For all intents and purposes, everything had been faring well for Simona.
And now she was staring at some 14-year-old brat, whose very lifestyle went against everything she had been taught to adhere to. Nothing about him screamed faithful. His pose was slouched, his face sagged with relaxation, and his white hair was entirely uncombed and was haphazardly positioned to appear barely presentable. He was a scoundrel.
Yet, within a few hours – not days, not weeks, HOURS – he gained the personal, nearly intimate approval of His Eminence Cristaldi after supposedly deposing the Holy Sword Project and capturing the heretical Archbishop Valper Galilei all by himself. She herself only gained the Cardinal Deacon's attention when she was soon to be a Choir, but it had merely been a professional meeting of acknowledgment than anything else.
There was disbelief, and there was this.
Where was the fairness in all of this?
"And so, the hero of the hour arrives." She spoke coldly. She did not bother to hold back her spite. Her eyes narrowed at his lack of reaction besides a ghost of a twitch on his smile. "Tell me, hero. How does it feel to be at the top of the world?"
His lips curved into a jolly smile that she just knew was faked. "Nauseating."
"Oh?" She raised a brow at the answer. "Does glory not suit you, Ziegler? The grace of God is not good enough?"
He chortled. A wave of irritation began to rise, but she quelled it before it could flood. "Maybe. Perhaps. I can safely say that I can do well without the attention. Keeps me safe, sound, and out of mind."
There was a small amount of chuckles at the joke. The irritation returned with vengeance. "I can see that the ordeal you have been through was an entire joke to you. Perhaps you would like another that is more to your liking?"
He waved it away casually. Disrespectfully. "You honor me too much, Simona. I prefer that things like that not happen in the first place. See, before I joined, I was under the impression there were no human experiments going on under the Vatican's nose. These last few days have only shook my faith." He peeked at her with lidded eyes, not bothering to hide the slouch on his body. Then he looked around at the mass. "So I'm honestly more impressed to know that I'm surrounded by sheeps who continue to remain blindly faithful. Kudos, by the way."
There were a lot of shoulders shifting uncomfortably at his remark. He suddenly straightened up. It felt as though a weight was suddenly placed in the air. Ziegler shook his head, his fake smile becoming a sneer. He was now aware that every eye in the room was on him.
"I do not deserve the fame. Even though I emerged as the victor, lives were still lost. How many have died from the depraved man's experiment? How many of those who managed to survive will recover from it? How many heretics have escaped in order to avoid His judgment?" His eyes traveled around the room in accusation. The venom in his voice and eyes when he said "heretics" was almost physical, the recruits fidgeting under his glare. "Do not presume me to be so conceited about this achievement. In the end, I still lost, even if I succeeded."
Simona kept her gaze on him for a moment longer, which Frost returned with equal fervor.
Finally, she nodded, "I must apologize, then. My initial impressions of you were wrong after all. You are not as selfish and vainglorious as I believed you to be."
He spoke truths, but she felt that he did not really know that. She frowned at the conclusions she was coming to. If nothing else, he was very verbose and quick-witted.
Whatever the case, he was worth observing.
'That is where you're wrong. I'm really selfish.' Of course, Frost didn't say that out loud, but he did return her statement with a smile. He would allow her the chance to feel smug about her assessment on him. It would be easier to manipulate her that way.
"Regardless, you have made a full recovery, and now we have a mission to undertake. I pray that you're ready for whatever is to come."
'No, not really. I'd rather much stay here.' "Of course, Simona," he curtly replied. With that, he left to join the battalion of exorcists who have gathered. The whispering began again, but it did not take long for it to dissipate when Simona's gaze traveled across the room.
"Is everyone here?" A hush of silence was all that she needed to continue, "Good. Then we can begin. Sir, if you may?"
An older gentleman coughed. He must be the commanding officer, if the look of seniority proved anything. With negligible features, the man stood a third of a meter higher than Frost, in a white tabard that distinguished his ranking from the other exorcists.
"So. We have received reports of a group of renegade vampires growing exponentially around this mountainous region of Eastern Europe." The older gentleman had pulled out a map and straightened it out on a board for all to see. "Our mission is simple: we will enter the area in question, discreetly if possible, and remove the roots of this festering darkness. If there are any survivors, it is of utmost priority to evacuate them immediately."
As quickly as the man was pinpointing out the mission and whatever recommended strategies, Frost was looking through the lines and markings strewn about the map himself. All of it felt fishy for some reason, and he could not figure out why. Was it because the destination is roughly thousands of kilometers away from Italy, in a region that appeared to be uninhabited? Then again, he wasn't a veteran exorcist, so he didn't know the exact logic behind it. Could it be because the mission itself looked like something that rookie exorcists were not supposed to undertake so early in their career?
"Your flight will be scheduled as followed. Team A will be deployed to scout the region. Team B will-"
What was it? Why do his palms itch already?
Frost bore through the irritation and fear that he had been bottling up since he had been dismissed to prepare for the mission ahead, all while waiting for his contact to finish laughing over the phone. 'I swear, if it hadn't been for this asshole helping me survive the supernatural world until now, I would have fucking blown his head off.' He grumbled mentally.
"Come on, this is serious! I might actually die if I don't do something!"
His contact finished his laughing and coughed, "I'm sorry, kid. It's just that, hearing about your recent exploits and hearing it from you directly are two different stories, and I can't help but laugh at the complete stupidity. Wait, another one's coming- pfffft!~ HAHAHAHA-!"
The prick on the other side began laughing again. Frost suddenly found it very admirable that he had not attempted murder before. It was a long shot, but it seemed doable. But still, he needed the guy's help, so that could wait for a while. Now if only he'd stop laughing!
The man over the phone was one of his very few trustworthy contacts, but this one in particular he could trust his life to implicitly. It had been so long since they had met in person that Frost had forgotten what the man looked like, mostly by virtue that they only ever talk over the phone. He had introduced himself under the alias 'Katsu', an information broker with a suspiciously unnatural acumen in supernatural activities. In exchange for entertainment values, he would give answers to whatever questions Frost had, and more often than not, those answers proved to help him.
All of that did not stop him from being a freaking smartass.
"-hahahaha…Alright, I think I'm done. Never cease to entertain me, kid."
"Yeah, yeah. Fuck you, Katsu."
"Not interested. You're not my type. When you're older and have found a way to switch genders, I might reconsider."
"That's not happening anytime soon!"
"Keep telling yourself that." Frost was about to demand what the hell that was supposed to mean but he was cut off, "Anyways, you should watch out when you reach that place you told me about." All previous thought forgotten, Frost leaned into his phone to hear his contact better. "I hear it's a good time of the year for vampire cullings."
"That does not sound like a ringing endorsement for healthy living."
"And your knowledge of vampires continue to astound me," Katsu remarked sarcastically over the phone. Frost growled at the snark. "No, numbnuts. You should know that vampires are not born naturally unless they are royalty. Thus, for any lesser beings to become full fledged vampires, they must participate in vampire cullings. It's called "culling" not because it's some kind of population control, but because it culls the weak out."
"…So basically, population control."
"Yes, the bullshit is not lost on me, but the vampires see it as that, so shit on them. Aside from that, there are no other significant meanings to it. Level with me. What are the most simplest creatures you can think of that are supernatural and happen to have a liking for blood?"
A pop quiz? At a time like this? Still, Frost was kind of desperate so he humored the question. His first thoughts were zombies, but those were the kinds that necromancers brought up. They were more shambling corpses that brought from the dead and could not think in any way for themselves. A subsection of zombies, then? 'No no, that can't be right,' the white-haired boy shook his head. 'Simple' implied that they could still think for themselves, even on the basest level of instinct. Any zombie variety were out. So that meant the answer was…
"Yep. The most rudimentary creature you will ever meet. They're the "zombies" born from the wet dreams of George Romero, so imagine slow shambling corpses but with a thing for human flesh and brains. The former more than the latter. Anyways, in these cullings, these ghouls will go about killing, eating, and tearing each other apart until only one is left."
"And the last one? What happens to the last one standing?"
"Think of it like Pokémon. They have stages of existence and as they become stronger, they evolve. Sadly, you can't catch them and make them battle for you. The world's not that convenient. Otherwise, we'd have a bunch of prepubescent kids running around like idiots unsupervised with world ending monsters at their beck and call, and let me tell you, that is not the worst way to go that I've heard of."
"The last one standing, Katsu!"
"Right right. The observing vampires will cast blood magic, using the corpses of all the dead schmucks as resource, to convert the ghoul into a full-fledged vampire." Frost remained silent to understand why vampires even go out of their way to do that. "Gotta repopulate themselves in one way or another, yeah? They wouldn't even think about getting it on with humans and having a bunch of baby dhampirs. It's like they think their chromosomes are so valuable. They are really low in the pecking order-"
"So say a group of newbie exorcists happen to wander into the middle of a vampire culling…"
"Oh. They die first." The man over the phone said bluntly. Frost felt his heart sink. "Ghouls have very little going for them, but they still hate humanity and the living before they hate themselves."
"Wonderful… that's wonderful…" Frost laughed hopelessly. "You don't think you could help me out here?"
"Ha, kid. I'm a lot of things, but you'd have to be up shit creek without a paddle for me to help you directly. I'm your information broker, not your arms dealer nor your sugar daddy. You have a lot of that now with the Church on your side. You want information, I'm your guy. Otherwise, sorry for your damn luck."
There was silence between the two, Frost being more vocal with his heavy, scared breathing.
"…But if it interests you, there is a particular arm you could use." Katsu mentioned without warning. "If you want a slightly better chance of living, there's apparently a Holy Sword near the area you'll be in. Before you ask, no, it's not mine. Belonged to a dead guy who thought he could one-up a Devil on his own. Dunno if it'll choose you, but it's something to think about. Good luck, kid. Don't get yourself killed."
The call ended. Frost was left to his own device now.
And so, here he was… marching to his death along with others unknowing of their fate.
This truly was not how he envisioned his life going. Nor how he saw himself dying.
"You're the one…"
That statement was said in such a negligible volume, that Frost would not heard if he had been thoroughly brainstorming, which he had finished a second before it came up. The source of the sound came from a little girl. He did not recognize her nor did he have any knowledge of who she was. Still, she spoke unclearly, as if he was someone special.
It did not help that there were others that shared the same look as her.
"I am me. Not one, not anyone. Just me."
He closed his eyes, hoping that the girl would stop talking to him. She did not.
"P-please, milord! My name is Tosca! You were the one that saved me, saved us from," she paused, as though recalling a horrific memory, "…from that place. That Holy Sword Experiment."
Frost froze. No, no, please no, not now. He could still remember the gas working its way into his brain and shutting it down. Just recalling it could make him have a panic attack. Still, he kept a calm expression as he opened his eyes towards the girl. White hair cut short that it barely reached her neck, probably a year or two younger than him, standing up barely to his neck, she did not look like she belonged in a warzone, let alone an exorcist regiment. Frost felt his hope of living slip away further.
It would be really nice if there was a miracle.
"We…" His thoughts were brushed away by Tosca speaking up again, "We had not any chance to thank you, milord." We? He looked at the others that were marching by Tosca. He recognized their faces. Some of them were missing, though. Did they die? Or…
'Goddamnit.' "It is of no concern." He spoke sternly. "I did what I believed was right." For him to get out of that damn place. "If destroying the Church's chance to progress beyond itself means I will achieve my goal-" To secure my prolonged life and future. "-then I will do what I must. Your thanks… they mean nothing now."
Goddamnit. This was a mess no matter how he looked at it. Seeing these people, the subjects who were now just a reminder of his failure to get out was just salt on his wounds.
"Ah, please, milord! Please wait!" Tosca gave chase alongside her other friends.
Among the ruins of a hut separated from a nearby village laid.
Inside that dilapidated hut, a skeleton in vested garment laid prone.
Under it was a sword.
A sword that did not deserve the fate that was brought upon it. A sword that was wielded by an exorcist who allowed his own arrogance to dominate his mind. A sword that was, in the end, left to rust away into nonexistence…
Then it reacted.
The Holy Sword shimmered. Its tarnish vanished. Its rust dissipated. Its beautiful patterns revealed itself under the skeletal corpse that was once its wielder.
A new owner had been chosen for Tizona.