A Glimpse of the Future


[We're looking at one Hell of a showdown today, Craven, and I for one am PUMPED! This'll mark the day when Caine Valefor's Peerage goes head to head with Lisolette Gamigin and her Peerage for the rank of 300th in the Rating Games and even better Gamigin proposed an Equivalent Exchange set of team matchups, we're going to be settling the question of overall Peerage strength definitively in just a few short minutes!]

[I hear you on that, Zak! It's promising to be a truly interesting matchup since aside from their first few introductory matches most of Valefor's wins have been done on the basis of individual prowess and skill, it's an open question as to whether they can work together in hard-hitting environments where watching each other's backs is going to be crucial to victory! Gamigin's own Peerage has made it this far specifically because her members are so good at fighting alongside the other.]

[Valefor certainly seemed confident in our interview yesterday, in just two minutes we'll see if he can walk the talk, the field is being constructed as we speak!]

I smirk and shutoff the broadcast crystal, seeing as how it would soon go dark as to keep any and all potential tactical advantages unknown to the participating Peerages. Guess my little publicity stunt is making as many waves as I hoped it would.

"You look entirely too pleased with yourself. Still riding high on the crowd's adoration and bewilderment?"

Ravel's teasing tone causes me to smile as I glance over my shoulder, the nearly inaudible rasp of metal on metal cluing me in to her approach. Dressed like a Goddess of old with golden plate armor adorning her frame, bright blonde hair done in an intricate ponytail that falls out of an ornate helm dotted with stylized Phoenix feathers what would otherwise be a regal image is turned lethal by the talons woven into the feet and hands of the armor, resembling a bird of prey.

It hadn't been cheap, custom ordering armor from the Dwarven Smiths...but in between my own access to 'varied' contraband and Jonah's bevy of favors and small stockpile of precious metals for them to work with we'd been able to rush order several sets of Mythril, Orichalcum and Adamantium armors of varying size and purpose just for this match.

While our previous equipment hadn't been subpar by any means, it was a shade of what we currently can equip.

...And it was all for this day.

To truly succeed in the Rating Games, to earn and keep the adoration of the crowd among 933 other competing Peerages you need to have three things.

Style, skill and presence.

Style makes you an image others can't forget, a shape that all will see in their mind when they imagine 'the cool people'. Skill allows you to backup your claims, to doggedly climb your way up the side of a mountain while those below cheer you on or stare up in envy. Presence makes it so you can't be forgotten, so that any room you enter, no matter how spacious, will feel small in comparison.

...In this match I'm going to be playing all three up to their max.

"What can I say? Everybody loves the underdog."

"An underdog that has been crushing anyone and everyone that has stood up against them. Unless the vagaries of language escape me, that's an overdog."

"Now you're just quibbling, didn't years of board and card games inform you that I can be petty about the small things?"

Her smile matches my own as she archly replies, "Humorous, I was about to ask the same thing of you."

We share a nostalgic smile as the waiting room chimes three times in quick succession, the one minute warning bell.


"All right everybody, huddle up!"

Ning, Jeanne, Corentine, Mittelt, Kuroka, Shirone, Ravel and Frederica all form a circle, eyes gazing in anticipation as I let out a deep breath.

"Well, here it is. Our real big debut. The eyes of the Underworld and realms beyond are watching us, waiting to see if we're all talk or just some one-trick pony upstarts. We've made a convincing argument thus far, taking down anyone and everyone in our way and making it look easy...but Lisolette Gamigin is the real benchmark we're going to test ourselves against, the first real challenge thrown our way."

I let the fire simmering through my veins color my predator's grin.

"And we're going to crush her too. The Peerage with the greatest teamwork? Not fucking likely. They aren't us. Haven't been brought together like we have. What's centuries of combat experience against our Peerage, who's members have spent so much of their lives fighting for the basic right to exist, who have battled tooth and nail for such a simple privilege? We're bothers and sisters. Friends and rivals. Lovers and spouses. We're family, a family brought together by blood, sweat, tears and a healthy amount of irritating quirks that bother the shit out of us."

A round of smirks as I hold out my hand, eight others laying themselves atop it.

"So let's show all those non-believers out there that we're here to topple the self-styled kings, what do you say?!"


Light flares around us and the Game is on.

The interior of the Rating Game broadcast studio is a sprawling complex, comprising of almost a hundred different rooms of varying sizes and function. The ones in use nearly 24/7 consist of three interview booths that can simulate a variety of backgrounds and hold a widely varying number of guests, booth number two currently about to house one of the most elusive and highly anticipated competitors of the games, Caine Valefor, an attending crowd of almost three hundred membership holders eagerly shifting in their seats. While certainly no stranger to public appearances and interviews, having attended quite a few over the years of him and his Peerages meteoric ascent through the ranks, this will be the first time the notoriously vague Devil has agreed to speak plainly about his Peerages past and repertoire of abilities.

Conducting the interview will be two of the Rating Game's top commentators and analysts, Zak Koonce and Craven Moorhouse, Koonce wearing his trademarked Zoomies for better visual acuity and Moorhouse his concealing motorcycle helmet.

The life of a famous sports analyst carried with it a fair amount of danger, after all. Better safe and anonymous than sorry.

"And we're on in 3...2...1!"

Broadcasting crystals and more mundane Human cameras sprung to life, displaying the room from as many viewpoints as possible and ensuring no comment or action during the interview would be missed.

"Welcome back everyone to the Bael Power Hour, sponsored by the hour's very namesake! As no doubt everyone present and watching is aware in just a few short minutes we're going to be having a very special guest on the show, a guest who's finally agreed to share some of his deepest and darkest secrets!"

"Bit of an exaggeration there, Zak, but you're not far off. This competitor has played things pretty close to the chest over the years and only with the most recent of correspondence with him has he agreed to finally shed some light on his shaded past."

"...That's not a good joke, Craven."

A few scattered chuckles from the audience.

"Maybe it is, maybe it isn't but that's not the reason we're here, we're here because of tonight's man of the hour! Ladies and Gentlemen may I introduce to you the one, the only, Caine Valefor!"

(Redline OST – TV Show)

With a slight whisper of wind and blink of movement the shadows sprout an extraordinarily tall man, clad simply in a short-sleeved button down shirt of midnight material, dark pants loosely hanging off his hips while understated sandals adorn his feet.

Ruggedly handsome despite his young chronological age of twenty years the Devil seems more like a seasoned war veteran than he does young superstar, dark circles under his eyes with a light coating of stubble, scars and pockmarked skin visible on his displayed flesh while a ragged slash mark etched itself across his features, as if some wild beast mauled him. His dark hair with singular blonde streak cut short to a few inches while his striking eyes of crimson and void black-a change that had suddenly occurred a year ago for no reason he had seen fit to explain-ceaselessly scanned the room, lopsided and winning grin on his lips as the crowd cheered, Zak and Craven enthusiastically shaking his much larger hand.

Caine was one of the far more 'relaxed' nobles that partook of the games, something a great many fans admired as more than a few of them were Reincarnated Devils or younger pure Devils, who had little patience for the slow and plodding mannerisms of the older generation.

Eventually the applause and cheers died down, the two analysts and Caine taking their seats-specifically enlarged so the Pillar Devil didn't end up falling out of the thing due to his imposing height-as Zak opened up with, "Ok, so the question I know is on EVERYONE'S mind right now...how the Hell do you manage a Peerage where you're romantically involved with most of the members?"

Wolf whistles, catcalls and laughter fill the studio, Caine good-naturedly smiling and responding, "The way any smart and intelligent man does it, Koonce...nod, agree with what your wives are saying and if there's conflict between them, you take the fall for it. Also make sure the couch is comfier than the bed, because you'll be sleeping on it more often than you think."

Plenty of the ladies in the crowd laugh and giggle, the successfully married males nodding and smiling in sympathetic understanding, the single ones taking notes.

Moorhouse leans forward, opening up his line of inquiry with, "We've got no shortage of questions we hope you can answer because, as you might imagine, there's a lot of them, especially with your match against Lisolette Gamigan coming up tomorrow. But maybe we should start with how you met each member of your Peerage, you've been pretty vague about that over the years and people are wondering why."

Caine folds his hands in his lap and genially smiles, explaining, "Perfectly understandable. Especially considering the breadth and variety of my companions no doubt many are wondering how the Hell I gathered such a diverse group of allies to my side...doubly ones as powerful as they are."

He leans forward, a gesture that suggests confiding a carefully kept secret, the interviewers and audience subconsciously following his movement.

"Why don't I start with the place where I met every single one of them...Kalichi."

Interest rises, the topic of that notorious city yet another thing the Valefor had been vague about, only alluding that after he had escaped the assault on his family and arrived there as a result he had learned much of what he knew within its confines.

"Allow me to set the record straight on a few things I know people have been speculating on, first and foremost of them being that Kalichi isn't that bad of a place. They're right. It's not. It's worse. I spent most of my days, weeks and years almost dying on a weekly basis. Daily if you look at my first few months among the crowd. I was lucky."

He settles back into his chair, the audience now hanging on his every word.

"I almost didn't make it to the city in the first place. My last-ditch effort to escape the attack on my family left me on the outskirts of Kalichi, bleeding to death and unconscious within moments. I would have died then, were it not for Kuroka and Shirone. They found me and, in a fit of goodwill and decency most wouldn't have bothered with, nursed me back to health and taught me how to survive in the city they resided in."

A light chuckle leaves the Devil.

"That's also where I first met Father David, who I've hinted at a few times alongside Lisa, the Elf who basically was in charge of putting my pieces back together when they invariably fell apart several times over during the course of my stay there. I also became acquainted with Mittelt, Jeanne, Ning Que and my Pawn over the years...and by the way, this upcoming match will be the debut of said Pawn. I think I've kept you all in enough suspense to last a life time, haven't I?"

Excited whispers circulate around the auditorium, Koonce replying, "Eight Pawns to resurrect a single individual. You must have found quite the interesting person during your travels. On that note, would you mind explaining just what each member of your Peerage is like? It's just been you and your brother conducting interviews alongside Lady Phenex, everyone else-even your Queen-have been staying out of the limelight. Is that deliberate or is there something else happening behind the scenes?"

Grinning widely Caine responds, "My Peerage, huh? Well we've kept to the shadows pretty well, now haven't we?"

A few cheerful boos echo across the room as the Devil laughs.

"Have no fear, ladies and gents...this match marks a momentous occasion, the day where we show off the metaphorical cards hidden up our sleeves and start taking a more public stance. You'll be getting lots of interviews with said members once we win."

Moorhouse cocks his head, remarking, "You seem remarkably certain that you will win."

"Of course I'm confident. Gamigin is one Hell of a competitor, I still remember her match about a decade ago against the Red Gator. 'You're not that much of a challenge if your jaws stay shut'. Classic line, right there."

Relaxing into his seat Caine continues with, "But precisely because I admire her and her Peerage I know we'll win. I know we'll win and not lose a single member."

Murmurs fill the room, Koonce arching an eyebrow before remarking, "A pretty bold claim there, especially since no one's ever managed that particular feat before."

"Which is why it'll be so impressive when we do it. Because we're us and everybody else is them. Tell you what, how about I answer your earlier query about the individuals that comprise my Peerage and maybe then you'll be convinced?"

The glare of the teleportation circle fades as I take a look around the chosen arena, Canyon.

Makes sense. A collection of twisting ravines ranging from a dozen meters shallow to hundreds twist and turn with innumerable side passages and cave formations connecting them, spiderwebs of pathways that lead to each team's starting fortress, a massive construct of stone and magic that can withstand quite the significant bombardment before crumbling. And above the convoluted canyon floor reside flat, geometric plains that can be used for swift travel at the expense of giving you absolutely nowhere to hide or duck should you find yourself the recipient of negative attention.

All said it's probably the most team oriented battleground aside from Amazon, Archipelgo and Metropolis. Having fellow Peerage members available and able to watch your back through the maze of caverns-since it's depressingly easy to wind up chasing an opponent, only to end up with them slipping away or behind you due to the twisted nature of the stage-is critical for success.

Factor in Gamigin's control over kinetic-style magic and ability to summon a vast number of beasts and phantoms, well...not hard to understand why she would select this stage.

I set that aside for the moment and flick the communication circle that offers a direct line to my opposing King inscribed on a stone tablet at our starting position, the rest of my Peerage spreading out to keep an eye on the skies.

True, we're supposed to be civil about this Equivalent Exchange style game but no sense in being naive about it.

[Having second doubts about your earlier claims, Valefor? It's not too late to admit you were reaching above your means when you proclaimed you weald defeat us without losing a piece.]

Smirking at Lisolette's confident, husky tones I glibly reply, "And go back on my word? You must not think very highly of me. I made that claim with the full confidence that we would be walking away with the big V."

[Quite the stretch of assumption, Valefor. But since we're on the topic of stretching, I'll take great pleasure in turning that V of yours into an L."

Ahh, smack talk. An old pastime of the Rating Games as honored and timeless as sliced bread.

"Give it your best shot...you're gonna need it. We still on for the Equivalent Exchange rules, or are you thinking you need your Peerages backup to make this a fair fight?"

[We chose the stage, you choose what pieces will be offered up on a silver platter.]

With a feral grin I turn to my gathered family, grandly announcing, "Well, you heard the lady. Who'd like to kick off the show?"

And, surprise surprise, it's the Kalichi crowd that all want a first slice of the pie. Bloodthirsty crazies.

"All Pawns, one Rook, two Knights and a Bishop."

[Then we shall begin in two minutes. See you at the loser's podium, Valefor.]

"I'll be sure to rent you a booster seat so you don't strain your neck looking up from down there."

We sign off as I chuckle with uncontrollable excitement.

"Alright, gang...showtime."

A snap of my fingers and Frederica, Ning Que, Jeanne, Corentine and Mittelt are dashing out the window, eager to get the game underway.

Lazily walking to one of the windows that overlooks the stage from a significant vantage point I'm joined by Ravel, Kuroka and Shirone, the smaller Nekoshou asking, "You really think they'll win without losing anyone? Tough battle, jokes aside..."

"Yeah, I think they will. They're my executioners for a reason, Gamigin's Peerage won't have a clue what hit them."

My hand starts lightly massaging Shirone's scalp, a quiet purr leaving her as I begin a mental countdown of when the game is truly underway.

"Besides, I'm planning on having you three be the co-stars of the show."


Three pairs of eyes lock onto mine as I raise an eyebrow, remarking, "What, did you think you would have individual matches or something? We're proving that we can take them down as a team...and that means my Queen, Rook and Bishop are gonna be kicking ass and taking names. No exceptions."

Ravel nervously shifts from foot-to-foot, asking, "Do you...really think we're going to be able to handle this? I know your Kalichi friends are one thing, but-"

"But nothing, you three will be fine. If there's a problem you three have it's merely that you lack confidence, there's no shortage of teamwork and power. Why do you think they volunteered to go first? It's because they know you'll do perfect as long as you believe you can do perfect."

I point to the sprawling stage before us.

"Five seconds. And here, we...go."

"Hmm...where to start where to start..."

The audience eagerly hung on Caine's words as he steepled his fingers, eventually stating, "Let's begin with my favorite, loving, irascible bitch of a Fallen Angel lover, Mittelt. To put to rest any and all rumors of what she did before joining my Peerage...yes, she is an ex-assassin from the Grigori. Better yet she was scouted directly by them. They saw potential in her and directly harnessed it, ergo she knows her craft. But everyone who's faced off against said blondie already knows that, don't they?"

Moorhouse tilts his head in concern, carefully asking, "Not to be that guy, or anything...but that means that she could have very well-"

"Killed Devils in the past? I don't doubt it one bit. But if we're to apply that logic practically everyone in my Peerage is some sort of social pariah and war criminal. And you all seem to be forgetting that she chose to help, aid and eventually love me despite the fact that her profession means she's also lost people to Devils. The point to all of this is that we're willing to overlook the past and move forward regardless. Isn't that what the latest talks between our factions is all about?"

While some of the audience seems unsure or nervous at his statement most agree or nod their heads, understanding or sympathizing with the simple logic of his words.

"Now, as for Ning Que...well shit, there's no real nice way to sugarcoat this. He's a born killer, simple as that. That's not all he is, but it's what defines him. You know his background, an ex-Legion soldier, the lumberjack of River Styx. What hasn't made it to the tabloids is the details of his past...a past remarkably similar to my own. He too is the survivor of a murdered family, heir to a dead clan. More than that...he's the host of one of the original 72, the Phoenix."

Murmurs and open conversation dominate what had been silence, Caine smirking at the abrupt volume shift as Koonce and Moorhouse do a double take.

"Is that true?! He has one of Solomon's Demons within him?!"

Smiling beatifically the towering Devil replies, "That he does. You've seen it before, the way his wounds heal and bring him back from the brink...but he's no bastard or wayward child of the Phenex clan, Ravel can attest to that. Rather, he contains the primordial genesis that once afforded the Phenex clan their namesake regenerative abilities, chosen by the Demon itself."

Caine chuckles.

"He's also the closest thing to a true best friend I have. Even if his Confucius-speak occasionally drives me up a damn wall."

The gathered audience isn't given a chance to properly comprehend and follow the course of the interview, the guest of the hour continuing with, "Next on the line is our favorite seductress and manipulator, Corentine. I'm sure you all are familiar with her beauty and more...exotic nature. And yeah, I've seen all those chat room posts about how you would totally like to ride her with those ears serving as sexy reigns. Too bad so sad, people. She only does that with us~."

The room eases a great deal in regards to its tension as Caine jokes, a few quickly hidden scowls of jealousy from a few of the more 'admiring' members of the audience not missed by the Devil.

He was well aware of the Vampiress hybrid's ability to charm and enrapture others.

"But look past the playfulness and open sexuality...Corentine, like most of us, has something of a troubled past, one that left its mark. She was once a noble among the Vampires before being betrayed, largely over the matter that left her with those ears and tail. She knows of persecution and abandonment, knows that we take those concepts seriously and would never inflict them upon her. It's why she trusts us and doesn't hold a Vampire's pride among my Peerage."

He winks at the members that had scowled at his mention of having private access to their idol's body.

"It's why she calls me her blood sugar daddy and is so 'adventurous' with all of us."

Hearts breaking could be physically heard the Underworld over.

"Jeanne? Well she has quite the resume that speaks for itself, now doesn't it? The reincarnation of the Maiden of New Orleans herself, in the flesh and made manifest...but like Mittelt I know most of you have quite the grudge against Exorcists, of which she is most certainly one. I would propose that most of you don't actually know Jeanne, the real Jeanne. One of the most non-judgmental and sweet girls who just so happens to be a genuinely good person that I've ever met. She left behind the Church, threw her lot in with my own because she cared. And in doing so she gave up a lot. She gave up the Excalibur Fragment she wielded. She gave up the respect and admiration of her fellows and was decried as a traitor, witch and whore who sold her soul, turned her back on Heaven and spat in the face of God...all for power and the touch of a Devil."

A mild frown appears on his scarred and imposing features.

"Anyone who down talks her, for having the courage to leave behind her past for the sake of ones she cares about, is the type of person that's been most unfortunate in never having a true friend."

Once again he continues without allowing for a break in the interview, idly stating, "As for Frederica, my Pawn? Well..."

A savage grin pulls at his lips.

"You'll see her debut tomorrow. And I guarantee you won't be disappointed."

Settling into his chair Caine continues with, "Those five are the ones that stood by my side during the years leading up to my return. They know how to fight, they know how to work together and Gamigin's Peerage has no idea the fight they've signed up for."

(Alexander Rybakov – Action Hero)

"Leapfrog formation, let Frederica lead the way and keep a distance no greater than twenty meters away at all times, you're coming up on a particularly twisted section that clears into an opening to the valley proper. They're likely setting up a trap somewhere in the vicinity, they got there about two minutes ago."

Watching Ravel quickly and concisely communicate with our group is always a treat, especially today when a lot is on the metaphorical line. Although it certainly helps that one of Corentine's bats has taken up residence on her head, allowing the Bishop to see through the eyes of the other and receive realtime data about battlefield conditions.

My own observation mammal showcases Ning, Jeanne and Mittelt sprinting through the caves at a rapid pace, each branching pathway covered by one of them as the other two continue on, Corentine and Frederica slipping through the shadows and padding along in cat form, respectively.

A practiced tactic that affords a good pace and safe travel in equal measure.

[They're not in the tunnels. Fred and Cor can't smell anything and I've got nothing on my end. Their not using any variation of chi or spirit energy that I'm familiar with.]

Ning's calm tone reports back as Ravel frowns slightly, tapping her armored foot as Kuroka and Shirone continue to keep a lookout.

"They most likely are waiting for you once you leave the tunnels then. Distract and destroy once you approach the opening, Cor first with illusions after Mittelt throws a light bomb, Ning and Jeanne afterwards with ranged weapons to ideally take out any observers. Frederica is last, stay hidden until the Triplets bring out the Tri-Elemental."

[Will do. Hope the cameras are watching because this is going to great.]

Corentine's gleeful tone causes me to roll my eyes as they shift direction and sprint towards the opening and the almost certain ambush.

Cor's bats had used their sonar abilities to provide us a basic but accurate map of the cave systems and Ravel's quick analysis had revealed the current maze my Peerage is sprinting through opens up to a neighboring channel that affords passage into the basement of the enemy fortress, an obvious and enticing location to get into a scrap.

My wife had given Gamigin's Peerage a very short window to set up shop at that killzone by sending ours through a mildly meandering pathway, ensuring they wouldn't think things were going TOO according to plan.

Hook, line and sinker.

In less than twenty seconds my family is hauling ass towards the cavern's exit, Mittelt and Jeanne rapidly whispering under their breath and flicking their hands in rapid motions, arcs of light rapidly coalescing into a knotted ball as the first rays of light begin to illuminate their feet-

-and the Fallen throws the combined spell out as hard as she can, everyone else skidding to a halt as Corentine rapidly sends several bats to follow the pulsating orb, eyes flaring brightly as Ning's body glows with ethereal flames, gaze locked intensely on the circle of light that clears the opening...and explodes into blinding incandescence.

And then my Peerage is on the move as several kinetic spells slam down around the entrance in a random pattern, shattering stone into a concealing smokescreen as Ning, Mittelt and Jeanne whirl around as one, firing off a flurry of arrows, silver bullets (just because silver bullets are a class 1 artifact doesn't mean they don't hurt like a mofo) and lightspears at Gamigin's Bishop, the poor bastard still dazed from the earlier assault and being liberally perforated by metal, silver and light.

[Gamigin Bishop has retired!]

Zack Koonce's excited tone echoes throughout the arena as a feral grin makes me seem like a loon.

We've spent a long time working on that one.

Seeing as how we have such a wide variety of powers and techniques available to us It only seemed natural to make use of it, as well as work out a way to turn the tables on any Peerages that think they can get the drop on us.

Mittelt and Jeanne compress light and Holy energy into a ball that subsequently detonates, its radiance not enough to damage but certainly enough to blind and play havoc with anyone looking in that general direction.

Cor uses her bats as a medium to apply low level illusion magic to the ambushers while they're still stunned and off balance, causing them to see shapes and silhouettes of things that aren't there. Ordinarily she would require direct eye contact to pull that trick off-never mind natural magic resistances play Hell with entrapping someone in an illusion-but causing even a Bishop to see fuzzy and vague outlines is easily doable.

And lastly Ning sends out targeted pulses of his natural chi, a foreign energy most Devils don't have much-if any-experience in dealing with.

All in all Gamigin's Peerage was blinded-both physically and magically-saw humanoid shapes emanating odd energy and understandably opened fire.

Revealing their positions to my Peerage and sealing the deal.

The battle quickly descends into chaos from there.

Gamigin's two Knights descend on my Peerage, followed shortly by the Rook leaping down from the cliffs, recovered from the initial barrage and with Her Sacred Gear Frontal Furnace active and spinning across her chest in a catherine wheel of flame.

Which could be a problem in most circumstances. Frontal Furnace allows the user to affect heat in a thirty degree arc in front of them with a range of twenty meters, a real nasty piece of work. Sapping the warmth from an enemies limbs, heating up their body or even dousing flames and melting ice...and those are just the obvious techniques.

Thankfully-aside from the limited range-Frontal Furnace has a mild weakness, in that more powerful effects have a bit of a windup period. You can't just go creating thermobaric nukes at the drop of a hat, a few seconds of compressing and gathering the necessary heat is required.

Factor in Gamigin's Knights flanking the Rook and hemming in opponents and you've got yourself a strategy.

Just a damn shame we're already a step ahead of them.

As the Rook's feet touch the ground Corentine rises up from the shadows, Gothic Plate armor of midnight coloration drinking in the light with her helms jawplate removed, ivory fangs glistening as she wraps herself around the startled woman-

-and sinks her teeth deeply into a gap in the Rook's armor, a startled yell leaving her opponent as shadows, blood tendrils and bats descend, binding the Devil in a variety of 'interesting' ways.

I sigh at the more obvious means of restraint, namely Corentine sneaking her arms, relieved of their armor plating, under the Rook's breastplate and using her bust as handholds, legs provocatively intertwining with her waist and crotch.

...Really, Cor?

The Rook doesn't go down without a fight, granted. Powerful hands latch on Cor's legs through the gaps in armor and crush them to a bloody pulp, ripping and tearing at the imprisoning ropes and shadows...but a Vampire is nothing if not a stubborn opponent, healing ragged wounds in seconds and just recreating the bloody restraints, aided by the Rook's own supply of hemoglobin.

And geez Cor can drain em' fast these days. Seven seconds in and the Rook is already keeling over, skin pallid and Sacred Gear deactivating as she collapses facefirst, disappearing into motes of light.

[Gamagin Rook has retired!]

Standing with a flourish Cor replaces her helm's mouthpiece, a glimpse of bloody smile no doubt caught by the cameras.

The rest of the battle with the Knights is a done deal. While the man and woman are as far away from being slouches as is possible...they're up against Ning Que without their Sacred Gear and Bishop backup, the crux of their strategy.

And if there's someone who's the purest distillation of the art of murder in this wide world...it's my Knight.

Whirling blades ensconced in murderous blue light slash and stab with incredible force, autonomously attacking the two Knights as Ning advances with a single identical blade in his hands, this one covered with orange, baleful light that reflects off his Men-Yoroi styled armor and mask, movements swift and lethal as he dances flawlessly into their midst.

With Jeanne in her Templar-themed armor of gleaming silver providing a steady stream of support fire from her .45 ACP pistol and Mittelt with her gothic plate similar to Cor's, albeit trimmed gold, firing off lightspears the two Knights fall in short order.

[Gamigin Knights have retired!]

I smirk and glance at Ravel, who quickly announces, "Keep an eye out, they've had enough time to carry out the ritual, they should be summoning it at any moment-"

Even from this distance a loud wail reaches our ears, the sound of Gamigin's heavy hitter finally appearing on the field.

A bit of mutual viewing through Cor's bats reveals a gargantuan wolf creature comprised of what looks to be jelly, lighting and fire dancing across its gelatinous form as three Devils rest within its chest, hands clasped and eyes closed.

A comical sight, until you know the history behind it.

Lisolette Gamigin is also known as the Kinetic Summoner, a title given after her excellent skill in both aforementioned disciplines was displayed during the Rating Games. Able to freely control the most basic acts of nature and call upon an astonishing variety of beasts she's quite the knowledgeable individual...more to the point, she's rational.

The Gamigin family had been enjoying the spotlight for quite a number of years around five decades or so back, having given birth to three children in quick succession, a feat almost unheard of among our people...at least until it was discovered that those three children had almost no talent for the family art of summoning.

While they hadn't been kicked to the end of the Underworld like some Pillars are wont to do they had been quietly marginalized, kept out of the spotlight and pretended to have never existed.

Their older sister, Lisolette, hadn't seen things that way.

Gathering her three younger siblings and putting them through a rigorous training program had yielded quite interesting results. One had a slight affinity for beasts, one for monsters and the other elementals...so she taught them to combine their powers, bolstering each one's individually weak strength.

Lo and behold, the Tri-Elemental.

The gelatinous 'body' can harden, flex or stretch as needed to an astonishing degree, the elemental powers afford it devastating magical attacks while the beast 'spirit' endows the summon with the instincts and ferocity of a fearsome predator, the three conductors safely nestled within the durable body.

The Tri-Elemental is no pushover and even Ning, Jeanne, Mittelt and Cor working together would have a Hell of a time taking that thing down, none of them having some incredibly destructive ability suited to tearing down a singular, durable opponent.

Enter Frederica's debut into the games.

Even as Ning Que slices apart whirling tentacles that would break bone and armor, the other three also dancing out of range and avoiding elemental blasts a small, fuzzy cat with gray coloration slips past the onslaught and leaps towards the summon-

-and with a flash of blue light assumes her monstrous Dragoon form, smashing the creature aside with raw strength and unleashing a challenging roar that causes the canyon to shake, false sun beating down on her metallic hide and making Frederica seem all the more terrifying.

I cannot WAIT to see the reaction videos to that reveal.

Tri-Elemental makes a valiant effort of putting up a fight, but...yeah. Dragoon.

Flaming tendrils latch onto my Pawns limbs but a contemptuous flex of polymorph muscle shreds them, the metallic creature rearing back and breathing forth a wave of annihilating fire that eats away even at the supernaturally resistant material, causing it crash to the ground and desperately try to reform even as the body is continuously eaten away at by the tenacious flames.

It doesn't get the chance, Frederica stomping down on it with her forelegs, rearing back her head and darting towards the three Pawns trapped inside-

[Gamigin Pawns have retired!]

-and pulls back with a disappointed grunt, maw full of rocks that she crushes into dust with a lazy flex of powerful jaws.

My grin could now be charitably described as shit eating. Jeanne didn't even have to reveal the Xerographic Excalibur we oh so heretically fashioned for her.

"So...think we can pull off that perfect win now?"

"Kuroka and Shirone...yeah, I don't think it would be a stretch to say their relationship with mine is the most tumultuous, aside from maybe Ravel's. From allies of convenience to friends to lovers to estranged back to distant allies then lovers once more. And, much like Ravel, they're probably the pair that know what I was like as a child best of all, know who I was before my family was murdered. They know where I come from and know where I'm going."

Craven leans in and asks, "It sounds like quite the rollercoaster. What happened, exactly, that made things so turbulent?"

"I broke a promise, is what it is. And it was over the whole deal with Gyer Crocell, when I killed him and his Peerage."

An uncomfortable silence descends on the room, Caine smirking at the clear disquiet.

It had been a serious issue two years ago, the Crocell family suddenly accusing the youngest Valefor brother of the murder of their son Gyer when he had visited Kalichi a number of years ago, citing irrefutable proof in the form of written documents that Gyer had known of Caine's survival, went to meet and introduce him back to Devil society only to be attacked and killed.

The entire case had stank right from the very beginning, on both sides.

The hatred between the Crocell and Valefor families was well documented and nobody with half a brain thought for a moment that the case wasn't a simple means of revenge. Crocell no doubt fabricated evidence and Valefor no doubt did kill Gyer, leading to a truly memorable legal battle that had seemed to be going Crocell's way as the newly reinstated Pillar found himself with little meaningful political support, the consequences of actually killing a Pillar and potentially ending a family bloodline offense enough that even his extenuating circumstances weren't sufficient excuse.

Then it had very quickly and very abruptly gone all wrong for Crocell. Several representatives from other factions-predominantly the Yokai, Norse and Greek-had come complaining to Serafall Leviathan that Crocell had begun causing trouble for their international trade, disrupting, taxing and stealing from shipments in a bid to drive out their business and replace it with his own. They had also been in a bad enough mood to outright boycott Crocell exports or tax them heavily in return, causing a quick and worrying economic crisis as many of the Pillars had been ill-prepared for the sudden vehemence displayed by other pantheons. The killing blow was struck less than a month later, Patrias Crocell found dead in his office and a new organization of Sacred Gear wielders and Hero descendants, calling themselves the Human Brigade, claiming responsibility, citing the killing as a statement that they should be taken seriously and could hurt the Supernatural.

The case was summarily dropped as the leading instigator was dead and presiding judges ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict Valefor, while the other pantheons also calmed down as the Devil's death meant the end to their grievances.

To the common man and woman the trial, while fascinating, was simply a case of Pillar politics taking a slightly off script turn as several surprise circumstances reared their heads in quick succession. To those who played the game however, it was a clear and concise message the Valefor brothers had sent.

It was an open secret that they had engineered those events. Both Valefor's had clear ties to those factions-had publiclyannounced said ties-and had formed bonds powerful enough that said factions would happily cause a minor international mess to help them out.

Then there was the far too convenient timing of Crocell's death, suggesting that the Human Brigade was either close allies with the Valefor's or was happy to take work from them.

And they had done it without getting caught. The entirety of the trial had proceeded with Caine under house arrest and close observation, his brother agreeing to fall under the same supervision just to cover all their bases.

Combined with Caine's meteoric rise through the ranks of the Rating Games it was a clear statement that the Valefor siblings weren't some upstarts or naive children reaching beyond their means...they knew how to play the game and win.

The audience was quickly broken out of their musings as Caine chuckled, airily waving a hand and stating, "But that's old news and if you want full details you can ask the cats themselves. Like I said, once we win we'll be opening up the floor to a LOT more in depth interviews. Real National Enquirer levels of gossip, if you catch my meaning."

Zak cocks his head, dropping the big question as he asks, "Guess there's only one member left, your wife. It was quite the surprise-and even a little controversial-when she wasn't picked as your Queen. A lot of people said it was a social slap in the face, choosing a Yokai you had a previous romantic fling with over your Pillar betrothed."

Caine good-naturedly smiles, rather than become evasive.

"Yeah, we knew that was going to be a big point of contention but it was actually Ravel's idea, not mine. When we sat down and talked she knew my ambitions to climb the ranks of the Rating Games would require nothing less than absolute perfection in both strategy and execution. She knew that Kuroka's blend of both physical prowess and magical skill would make better usage of the Queen Piece than she could...and if we're being honest, I think Ravel rather enjoyed the idea of beating etiquette and proper manners into the cat. She's got a mean streak, my little firebrand."

A number of the audience laugh, remembering the months leading up to the Valefor's reemergence as she toured the Underworld, a pair of harried and overwhelmed Nekoshou often found in the background.

"But that's my wife, in a nutshell. She's the metaphorical brains to my brawn, much like how Jonah is. There's a reason I let him be the head of the house and her the strategic genius of the Games. I'm fine at improvisation and adaptation, but the long game was never my comfort zone, things like Chess frying my brain quicker than an angry wife."

A few pointed laughs from the audience cause Caine to smirk.

"Yeah, I know you Chess enthusiasts are out there. To Hell with you all, Monopoly is where it's at."

More laughter.

"Jokes aside, Ravel really is my other half. She's the one I argue with the most, disagree with the most and probably rely on the most. We've been doing this song and dance since the first day she accused me of being a cheating son of a bitch when I insinuated I could beat her-and subsequently did-at Risk. Which was an entirely unfair accusation, since she was bending the rules just as much. But it's the weight of familiarity and comfort that we covet, enough so that we're both willing to sacrifice roles, responsibilities or wants for the other's sake."

He spreads his arms into a 'what can you do' gesture.

"And somehow, against all odds...she, Kuroka and Shirone are practically unstoppable when put together, despite all conventional and emotional logic stating that they should hate the other's guts."

"Now that was a showing!"

Ning, Frederica, Jeanne, Mittelt and Cor are all smug smiles as they pile into the fortress, Kuroka, Shirone and Ravel having already began their approach to the main floor for their upcoming match.

"Meh, I didn't even really get to do much. Hardly a good fight, the thing practically fell apart the second I touched it!"

Our eyes roll at Frederica's expected complaint, the Dragoon obviously not satisfied unless she'd been torn apart a good few times by her opponent.

"Well I think it was a damn good showing. Although was the groping strictly necessary, Cor?"

Removing her helm the hybrid gratefully flicks her freed ears, salaciously smiling and making perverted grasping motions with her hands as she licks her ruby lips.

"I could have made it even sexier if I'd turned myself into my wolf form, gotten down and dirty with some sexy bestiality action~!"

"It's at times like this I understand why you and Kuroka get along so damn well."

Jeanne also takes off her helm, freeing her waist-length golden hair from the tight braid it was in, asking, "Speaking of which, how are those three doing? I know they always feel the pressure more than we do."

Mittelt rolls her eyes, dryly remarking, "I dunno why they're even nervous in the first place, those three are such bullshit."

Ning joins in with, "Have confidence that if you have done a little thing well, you can do a bigger thing well too."

I wrack my brains and come up blank.

"That's not any kind of Eastern woo-woo saying that I'm familiar with. Where'd you get that one?"

My Knight shrugs.

"David Storey."

Further debate about his unconventional choice of quotes is cut off as Kuroka's voice suddenly announces, [We're starting.]

Noticing the slight hint of nervousness in Kuroka's words I smirk and respond, "Remember, Kuroneko...a bowl of warm milk and a week's worth of ear and belly rubs await if you pull this off."

[Hey, I ain't no kitten!]

Her anxiety replaced with playful indignation I more seriously reply, "Relax, you three. Follow Ravel's plans, have confidence in yourselves and you'll come out just fine. We'll be cheering for you back here, kick ass out there."

[Now that we can do.]

(Mick Gordon – Touch Me and I'll Break Your Face)

Kuroka signs off and I lean out one of the fortress's many windows, eagerly watching the area my Rook, Bishop and Queen have staked out for their own, an open clearing leading to our base's front door as Ravel boldly stands atop the entryway in her armor, seemingly unconcerned about any assault whatsoever as the cats take up hidden positions among the rocks and shadows, borrowing my gifted powers through the Evil Pieces to turn that phrase something literal.

...A clear invitation to walk into a battlefield of our choosing, but after my Peerage just did the same and won without taking a loss Gamigin is under pressure to return the favor or look like a fool.

They're coming, of that I'm certain.

A few minutes pass, nothing much happening as the waiting game continues-

-and a white, pencil width beam of light smashes through Ravel's helm and head, blowing apart the rock she was standing on and turning her body into a swiftly reforming mass of cinders and ash.

Acceleration magic is always a good choice.

As my Bishop takes a few precious seconds to reform the three Gamigin Peerage members round a bend-

-only to meet a tidal wave of blue flames and grasping branches as Kuroka and Shirone cover for their Peerage Sister's regeneration, dozens of illusions of the cats racing and dancing around the canyon in random patterns.

Experience has proven that this kind of assault leaves the enemy overwhelmed and confused, Senjutsu energy being a niche powerset in the Games so not many Peerages have experience seeing through the attack...and the sisters are no slouches with the art to begin with.

"Winter storm, halt it all!"

But raw power has its place, Gamigin's Queen shouting out a high-tier ice spell that freezes the Yokai's abilities solid, fire sputtering out into gouts of steam and coating the arena with reflective and glittering mirrors.

The Bishop and Rook capitalize on that.

Some sonar-looking magic circle springs to life in the Bishop's hands, rapidly scanning the battlefield with sweeping motions-

-and a barked order that I can't hear at this distance causes the Rook to pull back on some giant fuck off crossbow, firing it and sending another killer beam of white light at the real Kuroka, the black cat hastily diving out the way with barely a moment to spare.

I rescind my previous statement, people are wising up on how to see through Senjutsu...oh well, Ravel's back anyway.

Right on cue with that thought a hurricane of flames burst to life, filling the cavern as green-tinged wind fuels the blaze, Ravel's armor repairing itself along with her body and clothing, a tricky piece of enchanting that was worth the effort as I can perfectly imagine the annoyed expression she would be wearing if I could see her face, flaming wings spread wide in a clear challenge.

Sure, she's perfectly fine but getting one-shot is still rather embarrassing no matter your regenerative abilities.

Unfortunately her fires are kept in check by the Queen's admittedly impressive ice powers, a swiftly growing cloud of chaotic steam expanding outwards from where they're pushing against the other which means it's up to my Nekoshou to turn the tide.

And with a grin I see Kuroka quickly land next to Shirone, both cats wearing olden samurai armor with Nekomata facemasks of yin and yang coloration, quickly conversing...before Shirone leaps behind Kuroka at around a two meter separation, both Yokai charging through the cloud at the crossbow and sensor duo who wheel to face them.

The killer projectile once more lines up with my Queen, fires off a blinding shot and at this distance there's no dodging-

-but you don't need to dodge when you can simply redirect.

A purple, hexagonal portal snaps to life directly in front of the projectile, lethal kinetic and magical force abruptly transfered through an identical portal...and manifesting four meters behind the sisters, detonating with impressive force but barely so much as mussing my kitten's hair.

She's still getting used to them and can't really control the portals beyond a distance of six meters...but anyone with half a brain for tactics would readily admit that space-time portals are pretty fucking awesome and powerful.

Case in point, as the Bishop and Rook prepare to meet my Neko's headlong charge Kuroka opens up yet another portal-

-and Shirone leaps through it and alights upon the floating Rook, clinging to him exactly like an affectionate cat would.

Except there's nothing remotely affectionate about the way her form is ensconced in emerald light, limbs tightening around the Rook as he wheezes in pain, desperately trying to dislodge the smaller girl...and failing miserably.

Sure, my little Shirone has been getting quite the generous pair of assets after a late growth spurt...but she's still on the shorter spectrum and even with armor she's hard to pin down, especially for a taller individual like that Rook.

And me. But then again I never seem to have trouble pinning her down on the bed, so maybe I'm just used to it?

Or she's humoring me.

"You're getting all perverted again, asswipe. Way to pay attention to the battle."

Mittelt's dry tone causes me to smirk, idly announcing, "I can be perverted all I want when I know we won."

True to my words Kuroka has already finished off the Bishop with a well timed usage of poisonous gas, space-time portals and a swift kick to the face that shattered teeth and bone. Similarly Shirone has hugged the Rook into retirement via Toki-enhanced strength, both sisters reuniting and staring at the ongoing battle of fire vs ice.

[Gamigin Rook and Bishop have retired!]

Interesting thing about cats. They're both incredibly lazy but also egotistical showoffs. So naturally rather than actually move and take the Gamigin Queen down from behind they simply raise their arms, channel Senjutsu fire into a writhing length of fiery rope-

-and send it careening into Ravel's own flames, the Phenex blaze greedily accepting it as its own and forming the faintest outlines of a sneering feline, blue flames contrasted perfectly against yellow and orange in the vague shape of whiskers and slitted eyes.

Ok, that is pretty cool. Guess they were hiding that one from me just to show off for our big event.

Ice is overwhelmed by fire as half the clearing is turned into a molten and slagged slurry of minerals and stone, no trace of the ice mage remaining.

[Gamigin Queen has retired!]

"And that, ladies and gents, is how you play the fucking game."

"You haven't even done anything yet."

A Shade smacks Ning over the back of the head.

"Shush, I need to smack talk Gamigin."

Dialing in the communication circle for the opposing King, voice-only once more connects as I smugly ask, "So, about that loser's podium..."

[I'm not above admitting your Peerage has surprised me, Valefor. You've been holding back quite a bit these past few years, haven't you?]

"All in preparation for when we start tackling the big fish. Although I don't think we'll start having much difficulty again until we start hitting the hundred ranks, your little gatekeeping has been the biggest hurdle we've encountered so far."

[Gatekeeping? I prefer to think of it as a test, an opportunity for rising stars to earn a badge of honor.]

"Well I appreciate your sacrifice and will gladly accept that badge now."

[So confident! Or did you forget, Valefor...you still have to defeat me and you don't have your Peerage to back you up.]

A bloodthirsty smile appears on my features, the scar across my face stretching with a pleasant flexing of scabbed skin as I reply, "Five minutes, Gamigin. Then I'll come for you and most graciously show that it wasn't only my Peerage that's been holding back."

We cancel the communication at the same time as I stretch my limbs, eager to get into the fight and perform my own bit in this little play of ours.

"How all in are you thinking of going? Lots of people are going to be watching this, you know."

Cracking my neck in response to Ning's query I languidly explain, "I'll keep the most impressive stuff under wraps but all bullshit aside Gamigin is a pretty tough opponent. There's only so much I'm going to be able to hold back if I want to take her down. And on that note..."

My father's Hearth Blade crackles to life in my palms, arcs of electricity dancing across its polished surface as I stare at my reflection, lazily stating, "I think it's high time that I-"

"Please don't make that joke."

"Ragnarok-and-fucking roll~!"

"Now, as for myself? Well, I've been deliberately keeping my goals and other such stuff vague and unspecific, just so tonight would be a time of true, spicy reveals."

Once more leaning forward with clear intent of confiding deep and dark secrets Caine states, "Let's be clear about one thing here...my brother and I are going to find the ones who killed our family and we are going to return the favor. We are going to return the Valefor name to the height it once achieved and we are going to steamroll anything that tries to stop us. We know the rumors, the whispers people say about us. That we've lost our minds, that our time away turned us into murderers and revolutionaries that are a threat to our oh so fragile way of life."

Rather than look annoyed or angered the Devil merely seems amused.

"Revolutionaries? Both Jonah and myself can't exactly claim to be right in the head or that we're no longer killers-our respective circumstances saw to that-but revolutionaries? Satans above and below, we're retaking our old glory and responsibility through systems that have existed ever since the Civil War ended. The Pillar Congress, Rating Games...I suppose we're revolutionary in the sense that we don't beat around the bush. We know what we want and are perfectly willing to go ahead and get it, not bide our time and wait years if not decades for results."

His arms spread wide.

"Take tomorrow, for instance...I said we'll flawlessly win despite Gamigin being more on the level of a hundred rank, a gatekeeper and badge of recognition for a Peerage rising through the ranks to defeat. No room for doubt there, is it? And I know many have wondered about the full extent of my abilities, have wondered if I'm just riding the coattails of my wonderful little Peerage. Have no fear...you'll be getting a good show when an Ultimate-class Devil is taken down by a Super-class Devil."

Movement and conversation ceased as the room went quiet.

"Oh, did I forget to mention that little tidbit?"


"It's almost time, it's almost time, it's almost tiiiiiime~!"

"V-Vallia? Could you loosen up your grip?"

Ingvild and Cao Cao wheeze as I squeeze them blue with excitement, practically bouncing on my seat as it's finally time for Caine to take the stage~!

"No way! This has been too exciting!"

The rest of the gathered and newly christened Human Brigade slightly edge away from my unbridled enthusiasm, Le Fay tenderly asking, "U-umm...may I ask why you're so excited, miss Lucifer? Normally you're more composed and less...grabby when observing a game."

Ingvild pouts and affixes me with her glowing orange eyes.

"Much less grabby."

I glance at the overhead display and notice that there's still no action happening, allowing me to give everyone a proper explanation.

"Because it's Caine. And he's not gonna be holding back this time around! Well at least not mostly. C'mon, this is exciting!"

Heracles scowls from where he's sitting next to Leonardo and Georg, grumbling, "You mean that one Devil you're always pining over? He can't be that good."

A knowing smirk crosses my lips, tone playful as I correct the larger man with, "You're right, he isn't that good. He's better. Good enough that we're almost always evenly matched whenever we practice...he's also able to keep pace with me in other physical endeavors as well, heh heh~!"

The rest of the room pointedly looks away, Cao Cao and Ingvild looking slightly jealous as I squeeze them harder.

They're so cute when they're envious...and I always forget that Humans tend to have a less open view of sex and all the naughty bits that accompany it.

[Well Craven I think we can safely say Valefor wasn't just blowing smoke out his ass during yesterday's interview, who the Hell busts out a Dragoon like that?!]

[I don't know, Zack, but this match has been on fire! Literally, as the Phenex and Toujou sisters just proved.]

[Bad jokes are my territory, Craven, back off. But the real meat of the matter is just on the horizon, from what Valefor and Gamigin just communed with each other they're going to be facing off in just under three minutes!]

[I'm not sure how much crazier this match can get but it's do or die time for Valefor, his Peerage did their job splendidly and didn't lose a single member, it's down to the King to take home the checkered flag and prove that he's not all talk!]

Hah! Not all talk...sure, half the time the stuff he says is deliberately aggravating but I've never known Caine to brag outside of being deliberately annoying with it...if he says he can do something, he 100% believes he can.

"So...bets on whether he wins against Gamigin? Or fail and massively blue ball our dear empress~?"

Bikou's cheery words instantly spark debate, money switching hands as calls are made and agreements sealed...and all I can do is eagerly wait for the three minutes to slowly, agonizingly count down to zero.

"...You're really excited about this, aren't you?"

My gaze snaps to Ingvild's warm eyes, the underlying meaning of such a blatant statement coming across loud and clear.

"I am. For so long I dreamed of being able to just sit down and watch the Rating Games with family and friends, follow it like every other Supernatural viewer and cheer and laugh with the drama that naturally unfolds during the course of the games. And now?"

I drag Cao Cao and Ingvild closer, rumbling deep within my chest.

"Now not only do I have that...but one of those people is actually competing in said games and I get to cheer him on! It's a win win!"

Cao Cao looks torn between being happy at my happiness and jealous at how much of my attention is being taken up by Caine-so cute and loyal-before grudgingly asking, "And what do you think his odds are? Is he going to win as assuredly as you say he is?"

Affectionately rubbing his head with my own to assuage some of his worries I explain, "Gamigin has one, single strategy that will give her fairly good odds at coming out the victor. Anything else? Caine's going to tear her to pieces. And don't worry, Strongest Hero...he may be my shadow, but you're still my spear~."

The man blushes slightly and averts his gaze, mumbling, "I wasn't feeling threatened by him..." before Ingvild pokes his cheek, teasingly remarking, "Yes, you totally were."

Both are cut off as an entirely unfamiliar high-pitched squeal of joy leaves me, the announcers stating, [And it's time, ladies and gentlemen! Five seconds to go before the last round of this Equivalent Exchange Rating Game is up and running! I don't know about the rest of you but I am puuuuuuuuumped!]

[And here. We. GO!]

(Mick Gordon w/ Omega Sparx – I'm Back to Rise)

Gamigin bursts out her fortress, alighting upon its peak and swiftly tracing several magic circles at once, simpler ones that allow her to control kinetic force and far more complicated formula that denote the summoning of beasts and monsters under her command, tanned skin and dark hair whipping in the wind as her artfully crafted clothing reminiscent of a sexy safari guide catches the light.

As for my boyfriend?

His appearance is far more attention-seeking.

A blur of movement escapes the confines of the fortress, careening off the canyon walls with enough force to send chips of rock and dust flying in every direction before achieving enough vertical distance to alight upon the stage's flat plane, pausing for a moment that I know is meant so that the cameras and recording devices can get a nice, long look at his new apparel.

My tongue instinctively licks my lips.

Far more sparse than everyone else's suits-since he relies on flexibility to a large degree as well as having direct skin contact-the armor is more along the line of a series of independent plates and coverings than it is 'armor', all of midnight coloring with dark green trim.

Gauntlets that smoothly flex and shift with his arms motions that go up the shoulder, leaving the shoulder blades and neck bare were it not for a lion's mane artfully encircling his collar. A thin breastplate covers down to his navel while shinguards and boots afford basic protection to his legs, upper thighs and groin bare aside from a steel-padded cup.

...It's the helm that draws the eye, as is no doubt intended.

Styled after one of the Roman Gladiator's helms it's artfully crafted to resemble the face of a snarling lion, the image completed by the aforementioned mane resting around his neck.

All in all, not the kind of individual one wishes to meet in an abandoned alley. Or bloody battlefield.

It also causes my imagination to run wild. Hmm...I wonder if I can convince him to wear that suit the next time we have a chance to be alone? Heh heh, pinned and restrained by the dark, bestial knight, forced to beg for that large, juicy-

"You've been reading erotic novels again, haven't you?"

I hastily slurp back the bit of drool as Cao Cao rolls his eyes, Ingvild teasingly pinching my side as I hastily reply, "N-no I wasn't! The match is beginning, let's watch it!"

[Guess it wasn't just his Peerage that got upgrades, Valefor's packing some new heat himself!]

[He's probably going to need it, Gamigin has already sent her first chimeras after him! Taking the battle to the plateau was the right choice given fighting Gamigin in enclosed spaces in a very bad idea, but there's a tradeoff in visibility that he'll have to overcome!]

Sure enough two leonine creatures appear in bursts of light, tearing across the even ground with powerful strides of clawed feet with sentient, serpentine tails keeping them balanced as the close in in Caine, the beasts easily ten meters in length and four in height.

...I'd charitably describe them as a warmup for my favorite significant other.

Right on cue he bursts forward in an explosion of floor, the force his legs channel enough to turn solid rock into fast moving dust. And very quickly he begins to outpace the Chimera, giant bounds replacing running as the kilometers distance is eaten away at until they're no more than fifty meters distant, the two creatures leaping forward with claws outstretched, maws open and snake heads spitting corrosive acid.

And then one of them promptly has its head blown out of its ass.

ljós Dalr manifests in a blaze of lightning, a wild rotation of Caine's arm sending the oversized axe directly into the face of the beast, accelerated fast enough that a CRACK of displaced air echoes across Canyon, the Chimera's body turned into a bloody splatter of guts and bone.


The other summon attempts to flank the Devil using the dust kicked up by the assault, getting as close as ten meters-

-and finds itself staring down the muzzle of a heavily modified Smith and Wesson, altered to have a three cartridge magazine that fires off .75 caliber rounds of varying elemental effects.

Another one of his newly constructed bits of equipment, Stentorian.

A blast of percussive force that would definitely alter the location of an individuals kidneys fires of an oversized round that enters the roof of the Chimera's mouth, exiting with a wild spray of bloody flesh a good half-meter wide.

Two down, a lot more to go.

Not missing a beat Caine once more dashes forward, the gun disappearing in a flash of light to one of his engraved storage seals while ljós Dalr returns to his grasp with a snap of lightning, electricity burning off the remains of the Chimera's brains with almost lazy efficiency, an unstoppable grin appearing on my features as the next wave of Gamigin's summoned creatures offer themselves to the meat grinder.

Suits of armor leaking hellfire from the gaps of their plate, winged imps the size of a horse and two golems of crystalline structure...all useless.

A horizontal swing from one of the armors is neatly ducked beneath, a swift tap to its helm causing the summon to abruptly twist and crumple into an unrecognizable mess of steel.

Weiji-do is a scary ass art.

A divebombing Imp is perforated by several bladed Shades, another armor flattened by an overhead swing of Caine's axe that kicks up a concealing cloud of dust and shatters stone, two of the Imps coming at his outline from differing angles, claws digging into his flesh-

-and instead of blood they only draw drifting blue light, the illusion dissipating as the real Caine leaps out of a nearby shadows, smashing their heads together with a result similar to sticking a bomb inside of a watermelon.

The Golems seem to drink in the light around them, refracting and redirecting the energy into sunbright beams of energy that impact Caine dead center-

-except he slaps aside the deluges of destruction with his armored palms, precision Weiji-do strikes that curve the assault so that it incinerates the remaining summons, Stentorian once more smacking into his hands as two rounds pulverize one of the crystal golems, the other leaping forward with surprising agility as it attempts to grab him...and receives a powerful palm strike for its trouble, internal structure utterly destroyed as it falls apart like so many panes of cheap glass.

A swift reload and Caine's once more moving, a gleeful glance around the room revealing more than a few dropped jaws.

Fifteen seconds and two waves of powerful summons were made to look like second-hand trash.

[I don't believe what I'm seeing, Craven! Valefor is making this look easy!]

[That he is, Zack! But now he's approaching Gamigin's effective range, jury is out if he has a plan to deal with that!]

True to the announcer's words one more wave of creatures appear, these ones vaguely worm-like in appearance but carrying noticeable bulges of muscle along their spine, loaded with wicked spikes that leave little confusion as to their purpose as Gamigin's yellow spell formula begin to rapidly spin and glow with ominous light.

[Here we go, he's only two kilometers out! Can Valefor find a way around Gamigin's notorious compression fields?!]

Several of the worms convulse, launching their projectiles at blinding speeds in a bid to hem their target in as a wave of shimmering power suddenly manifests in front of Caine, pulsating with lethal power that launches itself at my Devil partner.

A detonation of incredible force creates a wave of debris that briefly obscure the observation camera's view until it clears...revealing Caine entirely unharmed, palms splayed outwards as a crater two meters deep and ten wide surrounds him.

Perfect application of Weiji-do to once again redirect what would have otherwise been a heavy blow.

The battle becomes frantic at a swift pace, the worm summons firing off a constant deluge of spikes-

-that are this time blocked by a writhing cage of Shades that perfectly impact each and every round without slipping, an impressive feat of concentration that's even more attractive once you notice that Caine is also avoiding Gamigin's rapid usage of kinetic formula, several balls of compressed force constantly firing at him from differing angles that he dashes and dodges around, slowly but inexorably approaching the opposing King.

He closes to one kilometer...and then a wave of Gamigin's arm creates a wall of shimmering air, a literal tidal wave of physical force that smashes into Caine and forces him back several dozen meters, a smooth roll bringing him to his feet...but it killed a great deal of his forward momentum as the artillery barrage once more resumes, Gamigin's defense too much for the magically average Devil to simply power through.

It's a good thing Caine is, well...Caine.

ljós Dalr is swiftly slung over his back, lightning gathering along the length of the axe as yet another volley of projectiles are launched, time seemingly slowing as his body takes on an odd, almost static-like aura...and then he's gone with a lightning crack of speed, appearing almost instantly at the side of one of the worms with an explosion of displaced air, knuckle-duster knife manifesting in his right hand as he rams it into the summon which screeches in agony before transforming into drifting ashes.

David's consecrated weapon, powerful enough to be classified as a Class 4 artifact.

Everyone including Gamigin's eyes bulge at the maneuver, Caine once more vanishing in a crack of electricity as another worm screams a death cry, aftershocks rocking the plateau at my mate's insane velocity.

Understandable, using his Hearth Blade's control over lightning to accelerate himself to such damaging speeds-and so perfectly control it-is nothing short of astounding...but I'm plenty familiar enough with how absurd my lover is. A nigh-indestructible body, abnormally fast reflexes and preternatural affinity with the art of battle?

That's not even close to the extent of what he's capable of.

Within seconds all of the remaining summons are but dust in the wind, Caine charging headlong at Gamigin's defensive wall of force-

-and being forced back once more, even his newfound speed not enough to negate the technique.

[Uh oh, it seems Valefor has run into a bit of an issue here! Despite the constant surprises he's having trouble getting past Gamigin's defenses!]

[If he doesn't have a way to negate her magic it seems no matter how skilled he is this match is as good as over.]

Hah. Just you all wait.

Quickly hefting ljós Dalr into his grasp once more Caine raises it high overhead, lightning streaking down from the sky and ensconcing the blade with the power of an untamed storm, an audible THRUM emanating as he tenses his muscles-


-and for a brief, impossible moment his power skyrockets, a roar of challenge leaving his throat as ljós Dalr slams into the ground...and the canyon is promptly reorganized.

A two kilometer swath of rock is dislodged and sent tumbling into the depths, spires of underground stone jut upwards at killing speed and the air itself is shattered, fire and superheated gravel intermixed with lightning colliding with Gamigin's kinetic forcefield, effortlessly overwhelming it as the woman just barely manages to redirect enough of the force that she isn't retired on the spot, half of the fortress she was standing atop of collapsing in a melted mess as she leaps down to the plateau proper, face conveying nothing short of disbelief at the destruction.

...The Mortal Stroke.

The art of letting go of restraint and preconceived notions of one's own mortality, striking with all you're capable of and more.

Caine had recognized even before joining the games that his lack of significant reserves of magic would sooner or later come back to bite him, especially when facing off against an opponent like Gamigin, who can shut down almost every single one of his abilities and has significantly larger magic reserves. His solution was Frederica's teachings, allowing him the ability to break past his own natural limitations, boosting already considerable physical strength and, more importantly, allowing him access to large reserves of demonic energy.


...It had drawbacks, however. All abilities that artificially enhance one's power do. He can only maintain it for two seconds before the induced increase in abilities begins to negatively affect his body, shutting down natural functions such as hormone production and magical regeneration. Even the brief two second usage stresses his core and muscles to an extent that he had best finish the fight quickly before the negatives begin to outweigh the positives.

...The results are inarguable, however.

The dust clears as Caine swiftly covers the distance between him and the bewildered Gamigin, the woman belatedly noticing his approach and preparing another vast swathe of her magic-

-that has to be allocated to defense as Caine raises Stentorian, Ravel's Phoenix Heart blazing with fire as arcs of lightning dance across the length of the barrel.

A pull of the trigger and if the previous shots were powerful they're nothing compared to the next three. Fire and lightning enhance the rounds so that when they leave the barrel a visible ripple of air is seen, the ground trembling with percussive force as a starbright piece of metal is sent streaking for Gamigin's heart.

Yellow formula convene in the path of the projectile, layering over the other-

-and a howl of conflicting forces sends the round spiraling off into the distance, fifteen meters off from its target. The second reflected is ten meters and the final bullet leaves Gamigin sweating and gritting her teeth, five meters off from impacting her body and scattering her remains across half the stage.

Caine leaps through the roiling clouds of dust, sheathing his gun-

-and is suddenly held immobile in the center of a semicircle of kinetic formula, Gamigin snarling as she contorts her grip, the air within her spells wavering with a heat haze of compressed force that would crumple steel.

Caine almost falls to his knees as he's brought short, barely four meters away from his target, knuckle duster knife clasped in his right hand and raised high to drive it through his opposing King's neck.

...But he doesn't kneel, what I know is a combination of stubbornness, physical strength and circulated Senjutsu and Weiji-do energy keeping him upright and staring at Gamigin beneath his faceless helm...before taking a single step forward.

The footfall craters the ground due to the sheer force exerted within that cage, Caine's body trembling like a jittery mouse as the conflicting energies and forces play off of each other...and then a second step.

[I don't believe this, Craven! He's taking the full brunt of Gamigin's full power and he's still standing! Forget pushing back and outlasting her like others have done, he's showing that he can advance through it!]

[I know we've stated that Valefor is quite the unusual and unpredictable competitor but this is next level!]

The entire room waits with bated breath as Caine moves forward step by agonizing step, closing in on his opponent like an inexorable predator and I just know the realms over are watching with just as rapt attention.

Finally seeming to falter as he gets within a single step's distance, Gamigin's power at last overwhelming my love as his advance halts-

-a single Shade snaps to life from a nearby patch of shadow, kindly provided by an overturned rock as it stabs deep into Gamigin's kidney, causing her to hiss in pain, concentration slipping as the array collapses-

-and her eyes widen as steel enters one side of her neck before exiting out the other, Caine towering over her as his helm comes within a hairsbreadth of brushing the woman's nose.

With zero fanfare the Devil's body dissipates into light, no sign of her remaining other than the blood slowly dripping off Caine's knife.

[Gamigin King has retired! All Peerage members have retired, VALEFOR WINS!]

Raising a single finger skyward-the motion stiff and slightly unwieldy-Caine makes the symbol him and his Peerage have made after every victory, pointing upwards towards the heavens themselves, a message that their climb to the top still isn't over.

The screen flickers to an after match analysis table and collection of stunned speakers, slowly speaking up with their thoughts on the upset of the century.

Slow applause gently trickles through my gathered comrades, most still stunned by how quick the ending had come.

But that's the thing about a real battle...if the ones fighting know what they're doing a single mistake is all it often takes.


I turn in Arthur's direction, setting aside the fire burning in my loins in favor of politely meeting his gaze, finger pushing up his glasses.

"You said Gamigin had a chance of winning if she employed a certain strategy. I fail to see what plan would have given her victory against..."

He trails off and glances towards the display, now replaying the moment Caine used Transcension in slow motion as the commentators try to figure out just what it is he did.

"Against that."

Resting my head against the loveseat as my fingers idly play with the hair of my two flanking lovers a pleasant smile tugs at my lips.

"The answer is in the technique he had to employ. Many tend to forget that, in terms of magic reserves, Caine isn't all that impressive. He was merely a 4-78 while Gamigin was an 8-65, four wings against eight. Had she entered the battle alongside her summons, used her full power in conjunction with a varied group of beasts she would have forced Caine to pit his power against hers in a direct manner, draining him dry in quick succession and likely taking home the win."

Smile is seamlessly replaced with a smirk.

"That's why he makes his close quarters takedowns seem so easy and brutal, you know. Why he uses Weiji-do in such a horrific manner. Competitors see that and somewhat rightfully believe that is his most potent distance, mid to close range. Gamigin made the same mistake, attacking him from far away and allowing him to selectively dodge and redirect her assaults as he pleased, conserving energy until it was time to finish things, when she was alone and unable to bring her full repertoire of abilities to bear. He knows what he's doing."

Abruptly standing I drag Ingvild and Cao Cao with me, the Devil smiling playfully as she reads my pent up mood, the True Longinus Wielder caught off guard by my sudden aggressiveness.

"Now if you'll excuse us, watching that put me in the mood. See you in a few hours."

More awkward staring as I once again roll my eyes at their prudishness.


Ingvild matches her pace to mine as Cao Cao reciprocates the action, the Leviathan descendant asking, "So are we going to be taking a more active role in the coming months? You know our esteemed family in the Old Satan Faction won't like his continued success and overturning of expectations...not to mention his interview was a real head turner."

My tail lashes in eager anticipation, anticipatory smile revealing my teeth as I reply, "But of course! Besides, three months from now the once-a-decade meeting between all Devils will be held...and it'd be rather impolite if the true Lucifer line wasn't there to attend and sponsor the latest Peerage to rise in the ranks of the Rating Games~!"

I turn to Cao Cao as we enter my room, inquiring, "Will everybody be ready to 'go rogue' once it's time? I don't like the idea of us having to spend time among the filth that is the Khaos Brigade any longer than necessary."

He straightens, confidently stating, "They will be, I'll make sure of it."

"Good. And, since I'm all wound up with two convenient outlets..."

I kick closed the entryway, hand groping the Hero's ass as my lips seal themselves against Ingvild's, a slow and steady flame spreading throughout my veins.

I don't know what Caine is always complaining about, having a harem is awesome.

"Cat got your tongues?"

Koonce finally found said tongue, carefully asking, "Just wanting to make sure...but you did say Super, right? And you were referring to yourself, not Gamigin?"

"Of course not, she's an Ultimate-class, not a Super. That's me."

No shortage of muttering, worried glances and cautious muttering fill the studio. It's one thing to make the claims Valefor had been making prior to this...but to say he was a Super Devil? A title that belonged only to three of their race, individuals who were rightfully feared the realms over?

It was such a bold and unbelievable statement to make that no one could fathom why he would make it unless it was true.

"...Maybe you should explain why you seem to believe that so wholeheartedly? Just for those of us who aren't in the know."

"Certainly. To begin with, what exactly defines a Super Devil? Power? Sure, but there are plenty of Gods, Demons and Devas that carry levels of raw energy equal or greater than Super Devils but aren't considered as dangerous as them. No, we call them Super, Mutated and Transcendent Devils because we don't understand them. Ajuka Beelzebub's Kankara, Rizevim Lucifer's Sacred Gear nullification and Sirzech's Lucifer's unprecedented control over the Power of Destruction...that's what makes them dangerous, their quirks that we can't explain."

Caine beatifically smiles, raising a hand-palm upwards-as if offering a priceless treasure.

"How would you explain my abilities, ladies and gentlemen? How do you explain my immunity to poisons, Holy energy, skills and powers that should have taken me decades or even centuries to properly learn...all within just a few years? Ask Sirzechs Lucifer or Ajuka Beelzebub what they were doing when they were twenty or so years of age. It sure as Hell wasn't going toe-to-toe against Ultimates and walking away the victor. Ask them, and they'll happily tell you it was around their seventies or eighties that they truly began to showcase their unnatural talents, the control they had over their abilities that would one day become a cornerstone of our people's safety and security. As for me?"

A winning smirk leaves the audience transfixed.

"Practically everyone but me realized something was off, that my growth was unnatural. It was a freakin' Fallen Angel that realized there was no other explanation and told it straight to my face. The word is out, ladies and gents...there's now four Super Devils walking among us."

The audience practically bursts into whispered and furious conversation, the topic of conversation a contentious one as the two Rating Game commentators quickly attempt to regain control of the situation.

"Well you certainly gave us a lot to consider and talk about, Valefor-"

"That was my intention, yes."

"-but before we cut this interview short is there anything else you'd like to ask or say in addition?"

"Hmm...yes, actually. There is."

The Devil suddenly leans forward, eyes dancing with an unidentifiable emotion.

"At what point will I actually be taken seriously?"

Something about the way his tone carries hints of threat but also curiosity silences the gathered attendees.

"Oh, I'm not implying that people think I'm a joke, but try to tell me that Caine and Jonah Valefor aren't thought of as the curious pair of brothers reaching beyond their means by the vast majority of people. Are we sympathized with, thoughts of as admirable? Sure...but no one believes us when we outright state what we wish to accomplish. Why would they? We're just two Devils from a destroyed family that are driven by vengeance and a distinct lack of self-awareness."

His eyes narrow, voice cold.

"Ask my brother what he went through in Asgard, in Kyoto, in apprenticing to a God that hates our race...better yet, you can ask me."

Open threat colors his tone.

"The weight of my opposition is too heavy, too entrenched in tradition, riches and influence to be brought down by just a pair of brothers and a few of their allies? The vast majority of my life has been a constant beating of the odds, of flipping expectations on their heads and killing them dead. I survived an attack on my family that brought low my mother and her Peerage. I learned to thrive in Kalichi, one of the most dangerous cities in the Underworld with an abnormally high mortality rate. I was taught to hunt Stray Devils in their own territories, often leaving victorious by only the slimmest of margins. I encountered Elves, Priests, Fallen, Yokai and countless other species, overcoming racial stigma millennia old and gathering them under a single banner. I escaped a Pillar Devil that brought his resources to bear on me when I was still a child, slaughtering him and his Peerage in the process. I've ascended through the ranks of the Rating Games faster than any other on record. And even when I provide proof of my status as a Super Devil most of you just shrug and think I'm full of shit. How could this little upstart be a Super Devil, when he so obviously doesn't have the qualifications to be one? I heard you whispering out there, Ladies and Gents."

Some of the audience shift uncomfortably as Caine leans back in his chair, idly musing, "Hmm...well there's an easy way for me to prove all of this, since so many seem reticent."

A fire dances in his unusual eyes, a predator's grin splitting his lips.

"Five years. In five years time Diehauser Belial will no longer be the undefeated champion of the Rating Games...that title will belong to me."

One could hear a feather drop.

"Oh, no doubt you all are thinking I'm insane...after all, I already stated that we could defeat Gamigin flawlessly and that's a load of egotistical crap, now ain't it? Except I'll prove you wrong. Again. And maybe, once I stand victorious over the cast down bodies of your kings and idols, you'll start to believe."

A promise of mayhem and battle turns Valefor's smirk into a scowl.

"You'll start to believe that I was born to win. That the Valefor's are returning...and NO ONE can stop us."

Welcome, readers old and (ideally) new! Sequel to King of Thieves and Shadows, The Last Lion, is now published!

...And unfortunately this is the update that'll have to tide you over for awhile, I'll be busy with both classes and other stuff for awhile and I'm still in the process of making sure the overall plot of this story holds up. But this is a teaser of events to come, with lots of details in the middle that will flesh out the chapters and overall aesthetic (which is a word).

And yes, Vallia has a little harem of her own, Dragons are just that 'persuasive'.

And yes, I borrowed Auralnauts FFC commentators for the Rating Games. I fucking love those guys and this is my little nod to them and their Youtube channel.

And yes, Killer Instinct has a fucking amazing soundtrack. It was the last story that they asked this, but to the Guest reviewer who asked what Caine's theme music was? Now you have it~!

And yes, while this chapter is sorta spoilery I'm also 100% confident that the journey there will be compelling enough that this serves more as an In Medias Res intro than it does a spoiler.

Until next chapter, enjoy the introduction to the Rating Games!