Disclaimer: I do not own Highschool DxD nor do I own anything from any other franchise that might pop up.
Chapter 22: The Price of Victory
Three days had passed since the attack on Kuoh was repelled, surviving Choir members and fallen angels had been taken into custody and clean-up had proceeded remarkably swiftly. While Issei was still sore from the beating he'd taken, he was back on his feet and had chipped in wherever he could.
Today however, he'd taken a break from sorting out the mess and stood on a cliff overlooking a beach where the bloodhounds had gathered. A massive funeral pyre had been set up and storm clouds gathered overhead, reflecting the mood of all present.
"Shouldn't you be down there with your men?" Issei asked the morose Gael standing next to him.
"…There'll be time for that latter. Now… now I don't have the guts to face them. I don't have the right to do so. Say boss, I ever tell you about how I joined them?"
Issei had heard it before but out of respect, he shook his head and allowed Gael to speak his piece. "Heh, I remember it like it was yesterday… just another blasted orphan lost in a country too busy tearing itself to pieces to care about its people. Should've died then ya know."
Gael looked up to the overcast sky that had yet to release the first drop, screwing his eyes shut and putting on a bitter smile, he continued in a faux cheerful tone.
"But out of everyone else, fate smiled upon me. The 17th found me right when I needed a miracle the most, took me in, nursed me back to health. You have any idea how irrational that decision was? A mercenary company taking in a random orphan, just one of thousands… but take me in they did. I'd have been content to be another soldier, but no, the captain had other ideas, gave me and education instead. Said, my hands were those of a scholar, not a murderer."
Gael chuckled, a sound devoid of mirth and full of his own brokenness. "Got through law school and thought I could finally make a damned difference. Then the choir happened and we became these… freaks." Looking at a half-transformed paw, Gael chuckled again.
"So many of us didn't make it out of that hellhole. Put me in charge next, the captain's adopted son, it's what he would have wanted according to the rest… and now… I have to bid a final farewell to those who died following my orders. So much for taking care of them eh?"
"…I won't say not to blame yourself since we both know that's impossible, but right now you gotta be strong, if not for yourself then for those who remain, those who believed in you enough to follow you to the end of the line."
"Figured you might say that. I'm just real tired of losing family. Heh, rain's pretty fucking heavy isn't it, it's getting in my eyes now."
"Yeah… heavy rain indeed." Issei and Gael lapsed into silence as the funeral procession continued below, the pyre already a roaring inferno. Minutes later, the first drops of water began to fall.
A jolt brought D-13 back to the waking world, a quick survey of his surroundings informed him that he was in an interrogation chamber of sorts. Before him stood the Gremory heiress and the silver wing, neither of whom looked pleased to see him.
'Ah, that's right… I was captured, wasn't I?'
Issei spoke up first. "Before you ask, Valper was executed for his crimes two days ago."
"…So you've come to gloat at my failure then?"
"Au contraire, we're here to make you an offer you cannot refuse."
"More than a few are clamouring for you to be executed alongside your former master, but, since your actions occurred in my territory and it was my pawn who captured you, the terms of your… punishment… are ultimately up to me."
"Both my knight and pawn have vouched for your undying loyalty however misguided it was, and your skill is already evident. So I'll make you this offer…" Rias pulled out a glowing red knight piece and presented it to the bone wielder.
"Join my peerage… or don't. The only thing keeping you alive at the moment would be the stasis field you're in, without it you have seconds at most before your body breaks down completely. Joining will either remove the disease or sustain you until a cure can be found."
D-13 remained silent as he mulled it over. "What kind of trick are you playing here? I'm your enemy, I tried to kill you all, why would you make such an offer."
Issei shrugged his shoulders before answering. "No tricks. There's just no point in wasting good talent. You said you were loyal to Valper till either of you died, since Valper's gone, any loyalty you owed him died with him. Sure we could leave you to die but that doesn't benefit us in the least, and having a background almost identical to Kiba's helps."
Issei could see the gears turning inside D-13's head and pushed forwards. "You owed him your life since he saved it, now we're offering to save your life in exchange for your loyalty. Unlike some of the others, I don't believe you're inherently evil and so we offer you a second chance."
"…And how do I know you're not setting me up? For all I know, joining your peerage just allows you to mind control me and use me as cannon fodder, it is what you devils do isn't it?"
Rias flushed red at the insult but her outburst was interrupted but Issei's laughter.
"You are hardly in any position to question the offer since your only other alternative is death. But to address your concerns, joining a peerage does not strip one of their free will. If it did stray devils wouldn't exist. And besides, if we could mind control you so easily, why would we even make this offer? We'd just execute you and revive your corpse."
"Ahem." Rias coughed lightly to draw attention back to herself. "In any case, this is your one chance to craft a future for yourself that doesn't involve an early grave. I won't lie, having you as a knight would be a major boost to my peerage and you will have to step onto the battlefield again. But, I have no intention of discarding any one of my peerage members regardless of their faults, I'm not Valper after all. And so I ask you again, will you join my peerage as a knight?"
D-13 stared at the glowing piece for a few moments more before bowing his head.
"Excellent." Rias held the piece out to the immobilised warrior and fed a trickle of her own power into the piece, allowing it to rise and float towards D-13's chest before sinking in. A gasp was D-13's only response as a new power flooded his system and he felt better than he had in years, the pain of his disease fading like a bad dream.
"Fufufu, I have a new knight now… still, D-13 was it? That's hardly a proper name and it is essentially 'die'. Since you lack a name, I'll give you one. From this day forth, you shall be known as Kimimaro."
"You got excommunicated… seriously?" Issei found it hard to believe what he was hearing when Irina and Xenovia had shown up at his warehouse. He'd been expecting quite a number of scenarios when he received a call from his childhood friend who was clearly in distress but this was most definitely not one of them.
"I assure you we aren't joking." Xenovia fired back while narrowing her eyes at the pawn. "When we sent back our reports of Kokabiel's assault, they had us excommunicated and branded heretics for including Kokabiel's statement regarding the death of the god of the bible. Amelia wasn't under their jurisdiction hence she was able to return but it is likely she faces censure as well."
Issei continued staring incredulously at the duo. "What in the world possessed you to admit that? I thought between Gael and I we'd already provided enough evidence that most if not all of your superiors are corrupt to the core. Just how did you expect them to react when you informed them of the tiny detail that you have knowledge that threaten their power."
"Sorry Issei-kun, we didn't think they'd react in such a way… or confirm that it was true." A depressed Irina answered.
"Haaaah….." Issei gave a long-suffering sigh and buried his head in his hands. "Well, what's done is done, you can stay in the base for now till I get things sorted out. Gael should be back soon, see if he can't get you in contact with whatshisname, vasca? Vasco?"
"His eminence Vasco Strada?"
"Yeah, that's the one. Maybe he'll be able to work something out. You're free to stay here till then. Again, the fallen are still around and I would prefer you not fight them. Fixing my base is a major pain in the ass and I don't need it destroyed so soon after I patched it all up."
Two nods from the ex-exorcist duo was the only response he got.
"As to the jokers who though excommunicating you all was a good idea… well I'll be paying them a visit soon enough. Once they're gone maybe you'll be able to return."
"Just what do you intend to do?" Xenovia queried, a suspicious look in her eyes.
"Oh nothing much, just a friendly visit to let them know actions have consequences." A vicious smile graced his face, promising bloody vengeance. The fools were already dead, their bodies just didn't know it yet.
"You intend to kill them."
"Kill is such a strong word… I prefer leave them in agony until they expire from their wounds. I had the distinct… privilege… of looking through Valper's mind before his execution. Let's just say they have a lot to answer for and justice is long overdue."
Omake: Bloodhound rising
"Pathetic fools! There's no escape!" Issei's voice rang out in the shadows before his figure dropped out of the trees and landed on a hapless member of the Choir, instantly crushing the man to a pulp beneath his weight.
Before the others could react, he whipped his arms out, sending razor sharp metal fragments flying from them. Tearing through body armour and embedding themselves in flesh wherever they found their mark, their victims fell where they stood, blood pouring out of the gaping wounds.
"AW YEAH!" Issei laughed maniacally before summoning two submachine guns to mow down the survivors. "Filthy Choir scum, die! Die! Die! Die! Ahhahahahaha!"
[Issei, enough with the grandstanding, we're short on time as it is, get back to work.] Motohama's annoyed voice came over the communicator in Issei's ear.
"Ehhh? Awww come on, live a little would'ya? Don't tell me you don't enjoy sticking it to these assholes, cause I know you do."
[…I will neither confirm nor deny that statement. If you must laugh at least turn off the damned comms before you do so. Oh, and heads up, that little buddy of yours picked up a stray.]
"Hmm?" Issei's question was answered by the rustling of leaves as Roku and a stranger came out into the open. Roku was as upbeat as always while the stranger looked to have escaped a warzone.
"Ni-san! Ni-san! Look, I found us a guide into the base!"
"Found me a guide, it's too dangerous for you to go in gaki, and I thought I told you to stay put, ah close your eyes for just a sec."
Issei grabbed one of the surviving Choir agents by the hair as she was trying to crawl away. Once Roku had obeyed Issei's instruction, the teen ran a knife along the woman's throat before dropping the gasping body.
"There, all done, you can open them now gaki. As to you stranger, who the hell are you."
"I… I… my name is Gael. I… escaped from that prison. I… I… YOU GOTTA HELP ME! MY FAMILY IS STILL IN THERE! THEY'RE DOING STUFF TO THEM!"
"Calm down idiot, you're not making any sense. And gaki, what have I told you about finding lost souls hmmm?"
"Ermm… not to find them? Because… because… ah! Because we're not a charity!" Roku answered proudly.
"Yes… so why is this man here?"
"Ni-san needed a guide so I found one."
Issei saw that he wasn't getting through to the boy today and sighed in exasperation while waiting for Gael to compose himself.
"Right… right… sorry… those… those men in white, they kidnapped my family and… and… experimented on them… oh god…"
Issei shrugged as Gael descended into hysterical sobbing. "Sounds like the Choir all right. But how did you escape their base anyway."
Gael gave a bout of self-deprecating laughter before raising his hands to show Issei. "They got me too I'm afraid." Wincing as several shudders ran along the limb, it grew in size and hair started covering it.
"They did… something to me, gave me enough power to escape. But I couldn't save the rest. Please. They're still in there, you have to help me."
"I don't have to do anything. But. Today is your lucky day since I just so happened to have an extermination mission. Lead the way then, I'll kill anything in the way, but if you betray me, I assure you, you will live to regret it."
Fortunately for all involved, Gael's guidance was solid and they arrived at the entrance to the compound in short order, only stopping so Issei could terminate a few patrols.
A massive cathedral stood before them and Issei whistled in awe despite himself. "My, my, it never ceases to amaze how they can build something like this in the middle of the jungle without anyone noticing. Hehhehehe… too bad I'm gonna burn it all to the ground."
"Okay… we're here. There should be a way for us to sneak in so I can save my people."
"Sneak? Oh please, they already know we're here, there's only one way we're getting in and that's through the front door. Gaki. Stay. Here."
"So you say, but I'm going to find you inside again aren't I?"
Gael stared at the duo with a blank expression. Ecstatic as he was to have come across someone who could fight and was at least nominally willing to help him save the 17th, he wasn't sure if he was hallucinating the whole thing.
'Help' came in the form of a teen and a child who could barely be more than ten years old, here they were about to launch a frontal assault on the most heavily fortified structure in the region and they could still make small talk.
The only thing that told him this wasn't a dream was the pain plaguing him from the experiments and he hoped to god he hadn't damned everyone he cared for by putting his faith in these two less than sane individuals.
Before he could voice any objections, Issei had already marched out into the open in full view of the defenders. Shrugging off enemy gunfire without issue, Issei retaliated with his own weapons, twin rocket launchers that made mince meat of anyone foolish enough to stand against him.
"Knock knock!" Issei raised his foot and kicked the giant double doors open, shattering the locks in the process. Despite being met with a hail of gunfire and explosions from the defenders on the other side, his only response was more insane laughter and a tidal wave of death.
Gael followed behind, face turning a sickly shade of green as he beheld the leftovers of Issei's rampage. He managed avoid retching to give directions to where the labs were. Any dead ends they encountered when his memory failed him were rectified shortly by Issei blowing up the walls in succession until they found the path or someone to extract the information from.
Pulling a bloodstained claw out of the last man brave enough to charge him, Issei swiped a key card taken off the man's corpse and the doors to the inner sanctum slid open noiselessly.
Beyond the doors stood a single figure dressed in a priestess garb wielding a silver cane.
"Trespassers, you are intruding upon a holy sanctuary. Turn back now or face the consequences."
"Holy? Bitch, you have a twisted sense of that word. Do me a favour and stand still so I can kill you." Issei leapt towards the obstruction, metal claws at the ready to rip her to pieces.
Sparks flew when she raised her cane to parry Issei's claws and the duo engaged in a macabre dance of death. Gael could only watch on awestruck as they performed feats he never thought possible.
"Vile beast. How dare you bare your fangs against us. We work for the glory and advancement of human kind! You would oppose that!? I, vicar Amelia will not allow you to succeed."
Issei hurled his head back in laughter, dodging an overhead strike by a hairsbreadth in the process before counterattacking. "Don't recall asking for your worthless name and I don't understand why you Choir idiots find the need to justify yourself. I don't care what your goals are or how holy you believe yourselves to be, I'm just here to end you."
Issei began forcing Amelia back with his own inhuman strength, inflicting a multitude of small cuts wherever her defence failed to account for his ability to spawn blades from random parts of his body. His inexperience kept him from delivering a finishing blow much to his chagrin.
"Gael, make yourself useful and go find your people or something. Quit standing around!"
Gael barely managed to parse Issei's command, his mind had nearly shut down from fear at coming face to face with the monster who'd captured and experimented on him prior to his escape. Unable to work his mouth properly, he could only give a shaky nod before dashing deeper into the sanctum while Issei kept Amelia busy.
"Can't you see that your actions are keeping mankind from its destiny!? Why do you resist!?"
"Nope, can't see it, don't wanna see it. I just want to see you bleed." Issei locked the cane in place with his claws and summoned a spike to burst forth from his chest. A timely dodge from the vicar kept her from being skewered but still left a long gash along her side.
Pushing a hidden button on the cane, she transformed it into a bladed whip and took advantage of Issei's momentary surprise to disengage and leap away from him. Whipping out a glass vial, she downed the contents and her wounds began to heal immediately.
Issei growled in frustration and prepared to resume battle as Amelia readied herself. Both were caught off guard by a series of massive explosions rocking the building, sending large chunks of the ceiling falling towards them.
'Tch, Motohama must be done with rigging the place to blow, this sucks, I wanted to kill some more.'
"No! The specimens!" Amelia shouted before rushing off in the same direction Gael went, Issei's attempt to follow was thwarted by the falling masonry forming a barricade of sorts and a truckload of hostiles pouring out of the side passages.
"Wait! Ah fuck it, I'll kill her next time, now you assholes… BURN!" Laughing like a maniac again, Issei rushed into the horde of opposition, their small arms fire serving only to replenish his metal supplies.
Forming additional blades on his elbows and knees, blood splattered everything as he mowed them down like grass. Within a minute, he was surrounded by thirty corpses but both there was no sign of Gael or Amelia.
[Three minutes till the place is rubble and all hunters outside the base have been recalled as a result of your little party. Get out of there now or you're digging yourself out.]
"Aww… fine. I'll leave."
"Ni-san! We can't just leave Gael here. We have to save them!" Roku's insistent voice interrupted Issei's reverie.
"Didn't I tell you to stay outside. Ah never mind, Gael and his buddies are on their own. There's not enough time to get them all so why bother?"
"We can't leave them!"
Issei sighed in exasperation as he wasn't winning this argument, not when the boy had already made up his mind. Forcibly evacuating him would only see Roku find a way to slip away from him and return to the cathedral on his own.
"Shiiiit, I'm growing soft. Fine, I'll try to save them. Now please, leave this place and find a safe spot to wait."
"Hai ni-san!" Roku snapped off a salute and ran off into the shadows, leaving Issei shaking his head.
"Right, two minutes and thirty seconds left, no time to waste." Bringing all of his power to bear, Issei kicked off hard enough his feet ruptured the ground. Clearing the rubble in a single jump, he broke out into a dead spring down the hall.
Vaulting over any obstacle and slashing apart every panicked member of the Choir unfortunate enough to run into him, Issei was vaguely aware of where he was going.
His senses had been heightened to an extreme and Issei felt as though he could identify where every living thing was in this sprawling complex. He attributed it to being a result of the link between whatever organism had infected him that fateful day stabilising further. Mentally filing it away under the list of things he needed to get an answer from his shishou.
Running through the possibilities, there was only one place Gael and Amelia could have headed to, a subterranean chamber where several dozen life signs resided, all but two of them stationary and strangely muted.
Lacking the time to continue navigating the collapsing structure, Issei decided to risk further structural instability in favour of a short cut.
Forming a drill out of his arms, Issei bored a hole straight through the floor and all the way to the chamber directly below. As soon as his drill met no further resistance, he reformed them back into his hands and fell through the hole.
Arriving just in the nick of time, his sudden appearance distracted Amelia long enough for a giant wolf to roll away and avoid another painful blow from the blood-soaked whip. The right side of the wolf's face had been brutally savaged and only the familiar rags on it identified the beast as Gael.
A glance around the area revealed rows upon rows of comatose 'wolves' lying on operating tables with multiple drips hooked up to them, more than a few no longer breathing.
Issei narrowed his eyes before lunging straight at Amelia, claws aimed for her jugular. The vicar switched her whip back into its cane form to ward off the berserk Issei.
"Foul creature, you've destroyed years of hard work. Monsters like you need to be put down."
Issei snarled before batting the cane away and redoubled his efforts to eviscerate her. "Yeah, I'm a monster, never denied it. But even a monster has lines he will not cross, you… it's sickening how you believe you can justify all this. Humans are the real monsters indeed, but then, you can keep up with me… so how human are you really?"
"Tsk, enough of this." Amelia disengaged once more and readied a flashbang. "I have responsibilities elsewhere, but I will not forget this insult. Till next time."
Tossing it in Issei's direction, once the blinding flash and ringing had disappeared, Amelia had vanished into thin air.
By this time, Gael had already reverted to his human form and was clutching his mangled face. "P-please s-save them."
Issei nodded before paging Motohama. "Yo, I have a situation, need emergency lantern now. Got a room full of test subjects that immediate evac to the dream, no time to get them out the normal way."
The time was almost up and the pillars groaned in protest as cracks spread along them. Forcing metal to grow out from his feet, Issei had them erupt into additional metal support beams to keep the ceiling from collapsing on them all for a little bit more.
Spending the next ten seconds shooting down any piece of rubble that threatened to crush the patients, Issei breathed easier when the air next to him distorted and a glowing purple lantern spawned.
"Alright, time to go people!" Issei grinned and touched the lantern, a burst of energy exploded forth and the world went white. When the light faded, the room was devoid of anyone and the ceiling finally came crashing down.
Issei and company found themselves amidst a field of flowers with a log cabin in the distance. An unnaturally large and red coloured moon hung overhead while a strange fragrance filled the air. Aside from Gael's laboured breathing, all was quiet.
That peace was interrupted when Issei had to block a killing blow meant for one of the comatose werewolves from Motohama. Sparks flared as the two friends traded blows.
"What the hell Issei!? These aren't people, they're beasts."
"Whoa, I didn't bust my ass to save them just so you could kill them. Besides, half-face over there is one of them and he's still sane… relatively speaking."
Motohama groaned in frustration before punching Issei in the face. "But for how long? They're beyond saving, even if they were human once, they're cursed now and we have no cure for them. A mercy kill is the best we can do. They could lose themselves to their own instincts at any time."
Motohama faltered at that question and Issei took the chance to push him back, placing himself between the test subjects and the hunter.
"That's… it's not… fine, I'll let them live. But what if they turn?"
"We'll burn that bridge when we get to it. Who knows maybe none of them ever will, it doesn't sit right with me to execute a bunch of defenceless, unconscious victims of the Choir who never asked for this. It'd make us no different from the ones responsible."
The bespectacled hunter twitched at that comment. "Alright, alright, I get it, don't be a dick. You don't have to lay on the guilt like that. I'll see what I can do for them, no promises though. Haaah… shit, if only we made it here in time."
"In time? What do you mean in time."
"I got word that the Choir were planning to conduct some large-scale experiments at the base, it's why I called you up for a pest control job. Didn't think they'd already gone through with them."
Issei frowned and cursed the fact that they were too late. Being what he was, more than a few governments around the world would happily cut him apart to see how he ticked and as such he had a very dim view of human experimentation.
In his opinion, anyone who engaged in such lost the right to call themselves human and the only acceptable responses were either wholesale extermination or a taste of their own medicine. No mercy for the merciless after all.
As Motohama walked off to attend to Gael's injury, Issei's dreams of death and vengeance were interrupted by another voice.
"That… was… COOL!" Issei looked down to find his adopted brother next to him after appearing from… somewhere.
"Sugoi, ni-san is a real hero! Ne, ne, can you teach me how to be one too? Please….?" Issei was blasted with Roku's puppy like expression at point blank range and had to rapidly avert his eyes before he found himself promising something he'd regret. Not for the first time, he cursed the fact that his transformation into whatever he was now left him two glaring weaknesses, any sufficiently attractive female and little brothers evidently.
"I'm not a… how did you even… you know what, I don't want to know. My sanity is fragile enough as it is." Issei shook his head before ruffling Roku's hair. Turning his attention back to the figures sleeping on the beds, he noted that fur coats were soaked in blood, most probably from whatever 'treatments' they'd been subjected to.
"Hmm, oversized dogs covered in blood… heh, wouldn't that make them bloodhounds?"