NMHA Ch. 66 - Zero Day
A/N: So I accidentally replaced Chapter 64 with Chapter 65 for a while, and I didn't realize for a while. I was mortified when I found out. Whoops.
Anyway, it's fixed now, this is just to explain what was going on with the chapter count and whatnot for those who weren't already aware.
In other news, it is here. The big one, the moment we've all been waiting for!
Thanks for putting up with my slow world-building - I know it's a long period of buildup. And waiting. And waiting. And in hindsight, there's probably multiple chapters that could be wiped out if I were to go back and revise.
To say nothing of actually waiting for this chapter. At the time of writing this particular sentence, it's been far too long since I last posted. I apologize.
Man, I miss having lots of time to sit and write during work.
In completely unrelated news, work has been keeping me quite busy, Xenoblade 3 is a good game with incredible main cast dynamics, and 24 is a number of years that I have now lived.
Still, before I revise the story, I want to finish it first. And this, this is a big step in that direction. This is where the arrow flies, and so fly it shall.
Fair warning, this is also 52 pages worth of story. 20k+ words. So if you need to take a break while reading, then go right ahead. I'm not gonna mind, lol. Hopefully the length is worth the wait.
Let's get started.
The Kuoh-Takamagahara Abrahamic Summit, Day One
When Issei was told that the Peace Summit was going to be a big deal, he didn't realize it was going to be a big deal.
As in big enough that, when Issei saw for himself the Bounded Space within his culture's version of Heaven, he almost choked on his own breath. It was one thing to be told about it, but to see it himself?
Apparently the Shinto wanted to keep a very close eye on the summit as part of the reparations each faction owed them, but at least it meant that Kuoh - other than being the entry point for their current Bounded Space - would be basically untouched by whatever unfolded here.
Even beyond that, scenes like the one Issei was now tasked with guarding made the brunet wonder if some anime artists hadn't been inspired by such supernaturally-crafted landscapes.
The numbers of Angels, Devils, and Fallen alone was staggering, the halls of Kuoh Academy filled as though the very heavens and hells themselves had been opened upon the facsimile of Issei's school.
Not that one would recognize it as a school- indeed, for such an occasion, the very building itself - already a powerful expression of modern Japanese ingenuity - was laden with expansion enchantments and filled with all the luxuries one could ask for. Buffets, exquisite tabling, glasses, drinks, all of such fancy appearance that he had no doubt a single bottle could pay for a year of tuition, flew through the air, propelled by familiars, spirits, runic circles, and various other modes of supernatural inclination. The entertainment was top-notch as well, vaguely reminding the brunet of a school culture festival, just... expanded, into the realm of the divine.
Issei even swore he saw Azazel bowling with Ajuka at one point during his rounds, the two of them side by side, surrounded by a rapt audience. That raptness, Issei presumed, was due to one of the two leaders making some very awkward poses in the brief moment that the Boosted Gear wielder saw them.
Even the outside was gorgeous in its own right; underneath a bright, starlit canvas, the very air was filled with sakura petals. Flowing from finely-curated trees, they swirled in the gentle breeze before floating into the sky, pagodas and buildings of traditional Japanese design dotting the hilly horizons.
It was curious. Most of the time, the Big Three remained separate, only interacting with others outside their three war-torn sides. Certainly, the 'peace' conference was still rife with tension, and he had personally stepped in more than once to settle rustled feathers - literally, in the case of some purple-haired Fallen messing with (flirting with?) a rather severe-looking Angel, who had used the opportunity to storm off in a huff.
"Aw, but I was just having some fun with the guy-" she complained, though Issei was having none of it.
"And he clearly didn't feel the same way," he replied frankly. "I want this thing to go off with as few bumps as possible - harassing the other delegations is just asking for trouble."
The black-winged angel pouted, but seemed to accept his reasoning, as Issei hoped the cadre would. It didn't stop him from having to do the same with the others, whether it was settling an overzealous Camael ("Archangel of the Powers", he'd been informed by Azazel before being put on duty) after Penemue had riled him up, or preventing a trio of Devils - the heir of Uvall and his Queen and Knight respectively - from swindling one of the Youkai guards, a white wolf Tengu - into some sort of deal.
The less said about the Youkai, the better. Honestly, the number of girls from that faction who propositioned him alone... thankfully, the aforementioned wolf tengu was not one of them, but even she eyed him with clear interest before returning to her work.
Well, he never thought that the idea of sex, and lots of it, would be what starts a serious headache.
The Red Dragon Emperor shook off the thought with a grunt. He wanted a harem, dammit, but not like that!
As time went on, delegations from other factions began to arrive. The first of which was from the Church... more specifically, five people - two older people, three around his age. Two of the three girls were also his age, which was a plus!
Though there was the little nudging in the back of his mind as to who the girls were...
His mind went back to his visions from the Sephiroth Graal, aided by his own memories from over a decade ago.
"Irina-san?" He blinked as the dots connected for one of them, and at the same time his childhood friend from the way her eyes widened.
"Issei-san? Thank God, it's been so long! It's wonderful to see you again!" the brunette cheered, then tilted her head. "Ah... I wasn't expecting to find you here of all places, though."
"I could say that more to you! I live here. In Kuoh, I mean. I haven't exactly moved." He peered at her, blinking as a thought occurred to him.
'Azazel mentioned some holy sword wielders are coming to watch... Wait, does that mean she-?'
"W-well, I mean... guarding the Conference, I mean." Irina gestured to him. "I, uh... why are you guarding it?"
Issei shook his head with a shrug, and held up his left arm, the plated gauntlet of the Boosted Gear appearing on it. "Did you see the actual Kuoh, or did you all just teleport to the Academy before coming into the Bounded Space?"
"We saw it," that was the blond man, glancing back the way they came with a pained expression on his face. "It's... a mess. We'd heard that it was nearly destroyed in a conflict between the Dark Moon and the Fallen cadre Kokabiel, but even so..."
Issei nodded gravely. "The only reason it isn't gone completely, is because I was able to Transfer enough Boosts to a barrier for it to block the worst of the explosion."
"Wait, what?" Irina stared at the gauntlet in open curiosity before her gaze shot back up to her childhood friend in shock. "That's what happened?!"
The blond turned back around to smile kindly at the Red Dragon Emperor.
"I see. Thank you, Issei-san. It is good to see another Longinus user with a strong sense of keeping those without power safe."
Wait. This guy looked familiar too, but it was fuzzy.
"You mean you have one as well?" he blurted out.
"Hyoudou-san, watch your tongue," the blue-haired girl bit out, arms shifting in her robes. "You are in the presence of the Church's mightiest disciples. You would do well to treat them with the respect they deserve."
Now this girl he knew, though the derisive way she spoke caused his jaw to tense.
"Now now, Xenovia, no need to be so aggressive," the old man commented, his baritone voice matching the body of what Issei could only imagine was that of a young adult's, laden with muscle as though in his prime. "Issei-san here is clearly doing good of his own, even if he is not affiliated or knowledgeable of the Church."
Xenovia turned to said man and bowed obediently, Issei furrowing his brow.
"Is that going to be a problem?" he pointed out. "That sort of attitude toward the others isn't going to be acceptable at a peace summit."
"Please be at ease, Issei-san," the oldest woman in the group said, clasping her hands in front of her with a smile. "We shall ensure that our own beliefs will not cause undue conflict. Isn't that right, Xenovia?"
The girl in question stiffened, standing ramrod straight at the sweet tone. Forget her instantly making the cross symbol, where did she pull that rosary from? "Y-yes, Mother Griselda."
"Undue conflict," Issei repeated, crossing his arms. "And what would you see as 'undue'?"
He got looks from each of them; derisive from Xenovia, concerned from Irina, and... speculative, from the other three.
"Simply put, we're not here to cause a fight." the blond stepped forward, holding out his hand. "We just want to observe for the Vatican and let them know what we've seen. That's not to say we won't bite back if threatened, but we want peace as much as any faction here. And to start... Dulio Gesualdo, wielder of Zenith Tempest and leader of the Vatican's Bethlehem Division. It's a pleasure to meet you, Issei-san."
Issei blinked, tilting his head to mull over Dulio's words before nodding. "I take it that it's a big deal then, since Bethlehem's also a big deal?"
"Issei-san... you're talking to the Church's most powerful exorcist!" Irina hissed, leaning in with a look of faint mortification. "Anyone who follows His word in the supernatural world should know that!"
Oh. Well, that explains it.
"Ah." Issei rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. "Sorry about that. I don't really follow the religion, is the thing. My girlfriend's a pretty big believer though."
"Girlfriend?" Irina gave him a look. Issei remembered it from when they were younger; it was the same kind that meant she was going to pull him into something.
"Yeah; we got together just shortly before Lunarunn blew up the town." He frowned. "You'll probably see her around; she went in to get me something to drink while I'm standing guard. She should be back any-"
"Ise-kun!" Lo and behold, the girlfriend in question came walking up with a cup of some sort of juice in hand. "And... ah... Eep!"
Issei was very glad she'd already transferred the cup to him, because the way Asia yelped and hastily bowed toward the Church delegation suggested that she'd have spilled it all over him.
"F-Father Vasco! E-er, Father Dulio, too! An-and Mother Griselda! My apologies, I didn't realize the Vatican would send you all!"
"Asia...? Asia, child, is that you?" the large man, Vasco if Issei recalled correctly, grew a wide smile. "So it is! Thank God that you are safe and well."
"You know her?" Issei wondered aloud.
"The entire Vatican did, young Issei." Griselda replied, bowing her head toward Asia. "She was canonized for her gentle soul and her healing prowess- Saint Argento, the greatest healer the Vatican has seen in centuries."
"Yet she was kidnapped," Xenovia interjected. "by the rogue apprentice of Irina's father, Masaomi Yaegeki."
'Wait, the old fart's a runaway?!'
Issei wisely chose to take a long drink to swallow his words at that moment.
Said father's daughter flushed again, this time an expression of irritation coming over her face as she looked away, all eyes on the blue-haired exorcist.
Asia stilled mid-bow, before rising slowly. "Is that the Vatican's story?" the former nun asked, the hurt written on her face. "After his court-martial, he was spared the death sentence by Gabriel, and in his 'thanks' he stole away from the Vatican with me as a hostage?"
Irina blinked, turning to face Asia. "You mean that's not what happened?"
Instead of answering, Asia turned to meet the muscular old man's gaze. "Father Strada, can you please inform Irina-chan and Xenovia-chan how many times I had to be corralled back into the Church 'for my own protection' over the three years before then?"
"Because it was. You were unprepared for the world, Asia-san," the older woman protested.
"How many times?" she repeated, turning now to Griselda. "I did not seek out the outside world merely out of some form of wanderlust, Mother. I left willingly, because I needed to make a pilgrimage, to better understand God."
"A pilgrimage suggests that you planned to return to the Vatican," Xenovia pointed out. "And yet, despite that, if you have joined hands with a godless heathen like this Red Dragon Emperor-"
"Xenovia!" Irina protested, but was promptly spoken over.
"-then perhaps you had no intention of returning at all!"
"Because God isn't there, Xenovia-san." Her voice was gentle, but the resolution in Asia's eyes was plain for all to see, even as she shrunk at the other girl's aggression. "At the Vatican, there are men and women that worship God, good men and women of the cloth that follow in His teachings. Yet, for all the pomp and circumstance, that's all there is. I didn't see the point in staying when I was being hailed as the next Saint - the pinnacle of acknowledgement in faithfulness to God - despite being only a child. I was seven years old when I came to that conclusion. I still believe it to this day."
"Speak carefully, Saint- you tread the line of heresy," the blue-haired girl stepped forward, but was stopped by Dulio's outstretched arm.
"Xenovia, at ease." The Sacred Gear wielder's expression was firm, brooking no argument from the exorcist in question. Once she backed off, he ran that hand through his hair. "Man, I just wanted to take this time to relax a bit and enjoy what might actually be a peace agreement, maybe try some Japanese delicacies! I can only imagine what they're like, if the atmosphere alone is so vibrant..."
As Dulio trailed off, eyes sliding shut with a touch of drool escaping the side of his smiling mouth, Griselda gave her blue-haired pupil an inscrutable expression. She then held her hands up in a prayer with a sigh. "I take it by your admission of... leaving the Church-"
"For a pilgrimage of undisclosed duration and location," Asia added sweetly.
"Yes, that," the older nun amended, with an equally inscrutable smirk. "I take it from your admission, that you are still in contact with the rogue exorcist who absconded from the Vatican with you in tow?"
"He runs a church here in Kuoh, actually- just not one officially acknowledged by the Vatican." The blonde smiled. "Despite his status as persona non grata, it's still a holy place."
"We would see that for ourselves. After this menagerie is over and done with." Without another word, Xenovia strode inside, not paying either of them another glance.
"A-ah, Xenovia, wait up!" Irina made to hurry after her, but paused to turn back to Issei with a shaky smile. "Oh, uh... it's nice to see you again, Ise-san. I hope God smiles on your and Asia-san's relationship."
"It's good to see you too, Irina." Issei smiled and held up a hand. "We'll need to catch back up once I'm done here- it's been way too long."
"Y-yeah." Irina nodded and took another look at Asia, something flickering in her eyes before she turned away. "Yeah. It really has been, hasn't it?"
Then, she hurried after her peer.
Griselda sighed. "It appears that Xenovia is feeling particularly tense today. I will follow them, and ensure they do not cause any trouble."
"Please do," the Red Dragon Emperor replied evenly, giving the older woman a much more formal nod as she walked by, leaving Dulio and Vasco.
"Before we head inside as well, Asia-san, please answer this." Dulio tilted his head, studying the blonde in question. "Have you found what you were looking for? Were you able to find God?"
The former nun looked at Issei, then back at the two top exorcists again, taking Issei's hand in her's. "I've found more of His world. I haven't found Him yet, but I feel closer than I ever did as the Vatican's Holy Maiden."
"I see." Zenith Tempest's wielder smiled, bowing his head toward the couple. "Then, Issei-san, Asia-san, I hope that your relationship with each other flourishes."
"And I, as well. Young love is a rare and precious thing; it warms my heart to see the sparks of it here." He held his hand up and made the symbol of the cross. "Give thanks to the Lord, call on His name; make known among the nations His deeds. Splendor and majesty are before Him, strength and joy in His holy place."
"First Chronicles, chapter sixteen, Father Strada?" Asia inquired, getting a nod and a smile from the muscled elder.
"Indeed. Chronicles, stories, fitting for a young couple in a world far beyond the mundane. I pray that for you two, your shared story is long, kind, and happy."
Vasco then turned to Dulio. "Let us be off- we have a summit to observe."
"Ah-" Dulio opened his eyes, before rubbing his hands together. "I agree. A summit to observe, and also new foods to try!"
As the two left, Issei turned to Asia, nudging her briefly before whispering to her. "How many times did they have to bring you back to the Vatican since you were seven, anyway?"
She flushed prettily. "...Twenty-three."
He chose to hide his amusement behind his juice cup, though given the way she looked away with a pout and puffed cheeks, she'd caught the way the corners of his mouth had turned upward.
Perhaps thankfully, the rest of the delegations from the other factions didn't have personal history with Issei and/or Asia, though more than a few of them stood out... in one way or another.
"So the birds and the bats got a dragon whelp to guard their little gathering? Ohoho, now isn't that a sight to see!"
"Red Dragon Emperor-san, please forgive Lord Odin's lack of formality-"
"Lack of formality my kiester!" the old man, Odin apparently, barked out with a laugh. "I'll give it where it's wanted, but I know the look on that kid's face! I should know, I see it on Thor's every day!"
"W-well, even so, there's still protocol-"
"Look, Rossweisse, being such a stickler for the rules like that is no good! No good I say! That's why you still haven't found a boyfrie-"
"Don't antagonize your secretary like that, old man," Issei felt like he had to butt in, getting looks from them both- one shocked, and the other suspicious.
Odin leaned in closer, tilting his head to one side. "...I never said she was my secretary, boy."
"Looks like you slipped up, whelp."
"No?" No, Odin hadn't. Shit. How had Issei known- wait, Rossweisse? Hadn't he- wait, no, that was a Graal vision. 'Think fast Issei!' "Uh- who else would come with the King of Asgard? I'd have expected your wife, or your kid, but instead you brought... some random girl? Valkyrie?" The Red Dragon Emperor looked her way and got a brief, nonplussed nod before continuing. "No, you wouldn't bring just any Valkyrie with you. So she has to be an attendant of some sort, and she clearly isn't the type to hand-feed you grapes based on attire alone."
"How does my clothing tie into you deciding what my 'type' is?" Oh, she was starting to get angry.
"Add a clipboard and a pen, and you'd make the spitting image of a gorgeous young teacher or secretary." Issei turned her way and gave Rossweisse the warmest smile he could on short notice. "It fits you well."
He turned back to Odin, no matter how much he wanted to see how the silver-haired Valkyrie squirmed, and looked away - perhaps even pinked - from his compliment. So she did have a weak spot for praise. "Which makes me wonder. Why bring a secretary someplace where you're just gonna watch?"
Odin gave him a long look, then smirked, standing back up straight. "To learn. And read back on how the conference went. What else?"
"He isn't telling the full story."
Issei tilted his head, raising a brow before gesturing toward the entryway. He agreed with Ddraig; something about Odin's answer didn't sit quite right with him. Even so, the explanation was reasonable. "Then as long as you don't cause trouble, you two are welcome to do just that."
"We shall be as honored guests, Issei-san." He bowed his head at the brunet, stepping by without a care, voice fading into the crowds within the false school. "Come along, Rossweisse. Enjoy some of the pleasantries before you work your keep, eh? Maybe then I won't rag as hard on ya about being so uptight-"
Issei didn't introduce himself to Odin. So where did he learn the Red Dragon Emperor's name...?
"How do you not know us!? Everyone knows us!"
"Sure I do. But there's a list of foreign delegates to observe the peace process, and I'm to make sure nobody who doesn't fit the list is met at the door."
"Are you kidding-" The brown-haired god lifted a hand to olive skin, pinching his nose. "Of course you aren't, you're the Tartarus-damned Red Dragon Emperor. None of you have been anything near respectful."
"Not for something as important as this, anyway. Sorry" Issei smiled humorlessly as the man. "So?"
"Fine, fine, but I'm totally writing a bad review for you for this. Hermes, god of messengers, coming with Ares, god of war, yadda yadda yadda," Hermes waved his hand impatiently, rapidly, much like his speech. "Now can we get through or not?!"
Issei glanced at Ares, then at Hermes, lifting a brow. "...I'm not sure that I should be letting Ares of all people into a peace conference. I might just be some Japanese kid compared to the rest of you, but I've learned at least a little bit about Greek mythology. I'm not an idiot."
"I would beg to differ," the darker-skinned man glowered his way, cricking his neck even as his fingers drummed on the hilt of his sword. "You face War, yet you deny it? 'Tis the height of idiocy, boy."
Man, he was really getting tired of being called 'boy'. He was guarding the summit, he was asked to do so! What part of that did these assholes not get?
"It's not that we deny you, Lord Ares," Asia replied, stiff in nervousness but firm in voice all the same. "But it would be improper for Issei-san to let you pass. He said it himself; this is a peace conference, yet you..."
"I wasn't speaking with you," Ares shot back, shooting the blonde a look that caused her to back up, visibly shuddering. "Unless you're willing to pick a fight, I would let your boyfriend do so for himself."
Issei opened his mouth, about to bite back in Asia's defense, before a smooth, melodious voice snaked its way into his ears.
"Now, now, dears. There is no need to be so hostile, is there?"
His eyes shifted to the speaker, and thoughts of hostility fled his mind. As did most else.
How could he, when his eyes beheld the pinnacle of beauty before him?
That secretary from Odin might have been gorgeous, but she had nothing on this woman. As if there was anything else he could call her.
As a connoisseur of beauty, Issei had thought he'd seen it all already. But this goddess had shattered his expectations and then some.
There was a faint part of him that warned Issei of who exactly this woman was, but the rest of him had already flown south for the winter... discomfort of such fully included.
Aphrodite smiled at him, and the brunet could feel his pulse quicken. "See? There's nothing wrong with asking nicely, Ares. You don't have any issues letting us in to enjoy the show as long as we play nice, don't you?"
Issei winced as Asia pinched his arm, snapping him out of his fugue, noticing the raised eyebrow from Hermes and the glare from Ares. As well as the amused one from the Greek goddess that had joined them.
He tore his eyes away from Aphrodite and met Ares, shaking his head slowly. "She does have a point. I'm here to make sure the summit goes smoothly. If I find you making trouble, I'll kick you all out myself. That goes for anyone that comes to this summit, though right now, you're not exactly giving me reason to trust you."
There was a long moment where Issei wondered if Ares would actually start a fight.
He might have been a little excited at the prospect himself. It'd be a nice change of pace from being a hall monitor.
"Feh." Ares scoffed, eventually dismissing the idea with a visible shake of his head. "Fine. I swear on the Styx that I will not instigate any... trouble, as you put it, and that Hermes nor Aphrodite will actively seek conflict. Happy, drakeling?"
Issei wasn't quite sure what the Styx was, but he got the feeling it was a big deal, given the look Ares got from Hermes. "...Then enter, but remember that you're here as guests."
"Noted," the god of war grunted, even as he stalked past. Hermes followed with a wry shake of his head, and Aphrodite left last, giving the brunet a salacious wink as she sashayed through the door.
It was tougher for Issei to not keep his eyes on her than he'd like to admit, especially given the way her necklace-highlighted oppai looked so full and firm - as though they truly held the hopes and dreams of men, or the way her hair had been a brilliant crimson, and eyes an equally brilliant lazulite, or the way the goddess looked so similar to Rias Gremory of all individuals.
His brow drew together. That wasn't how he'd expected Aphrodite to look. Why did she have red hair, or look so familiar to the she-Devil he refused to answer...?
"I get a bad feeling from them, Ise-kun," Asia warned him, drawing his attention back to the former nun.
"I do too, but I can't exactly bar them on a hunch," Issei admitted. "Especially since Azazel did mention the Greeks would send a delegation..."
"Yes, but..." the blonde frowned. "Why Ares-sama, and not Athena-sama?"
Athena... she was their goddess of wisdom, right? Issei frowned as well.
Asia was right. That was peculiar.
The other parties were much less eventful. The Hindu pantheon was next, which thankfully passed through without incident, though that one bespectacled god, Indra, staring at Issei as if sizing him up. Like the others, they were at the conference to see a big moment in the Three Abrahamics. Still, there was something in Indra's eyes that set Issei ill at ease, even as Issei let the Indian god and his entourage through.
As though he were expecting a show.
The same applied to the Chinese pantheon, even as Issei watched the tail of the Monkey King enter the building, vanishing inside.
Issei wasn't sure he wanted to know how, but given the keen inspection the original Sun Wukong gave him, Issei had a feeling that the trickster somehow knew of his... enhanced attributes, even if the words exchanged between the two were polite and few.
"Too polite," Ddraig commented. "Either the monkey mellowed out since the last time I saw him, or something is afoot. They're all expecting something."
Issei almost wanted to cry out in frustration. '...Come on, it's a huge peace conference with watchers the supernatural world over, what isn't afoot here?'
The dragon just chuckled. "You have a good point, partner. Just be on guard- one way or another, this Summit is going to be interesting."
If the first of the three days was any indication, that was the understatement of the century.
The Underworld, Day One
"Lord Rizevim," Diodora started slowly, as he turned his head to look at the Super Devil in question. "You wanted us all to come here for... what, exactly?"
"Entertainment, of course."
Creuserey Asmodeus snorted. "Entertainment. At this crucial venture? We could be assaulting the Underworld right now, when their strongest are away!"
"We could," the white-haired leader agreed with a nonchalant shrug. "But that'd be boring."
"And this 'entertainment' has to do with the Peace Summit," Shalba Beelzebub remarked dryly, gesturing to the theater screen they were all in front of, the footage of discussions, reports, and the way Azazel was not taking losing at his bowling match with Ajuka particularly well (if his pouting over his wineglass was any indication) all scrolling across the feed.
"Yep. Thanks for stating the obvious!"
"Milord... forgive me for prying, but... why is the Peace Conference something to sit back and... enjoy?" Katerea Leviathan tilted her head. "The traitors making peace with the Angels and Fallen is counterproductive to our end goals. Unless, do you expect that someone else will interfere?"
"Mmh, perhaps." Rizevim steepled his fingers together with a grin. "Or the talks might just fall apart and reignite the Abrahamic War. Who knows? What I do know is that, something as big as this? No way on the Great Dumbfuck's green earth there won't be something that happens to send the whole thing sideways. It's practically like cause and effect; something like this goes down, and something batshit crazy happens in turn!"
"Yet we're going to sit here and just watch as opportunity passes us by," the black-haired Devil grunted, the twitch under his eye growing more pronounced by the second.
"Yep! And hoo boy, I have no doubt it's gonna be good." There was a rustle, and suddenly the white-haired Super Devil had a bag of movie confectionery in hand, holding it out to Creuserey. "Popcorn?"
Creuserey stared at the bag, then at Rizevim, before sneering and rising from his seat, cloak billowing as he left the private theater.
Rizevim watched him go with a pout, before returning his attention to the screen. "Whatever, it's his loss."
He popped a few pieces into his mouth, the grin returning. "But enough of that. Let's see how this pans out, shall we?"
Diodora watched the Super Devil sit eagerly in place, before a thought occurred to him.
'Is it me, or is Rizevim... overselling his anticipation?'
The other question then, was why.
"Is this the place?" Rias asked, glancing over at her friend while her Rook stared at their surroundings, a wide-eyed expression on her face. Realization, perhaps?
Sona nodded, pulling out a photo and holding it up. The image of the small ramen joint in the alleys of the city of Lilith matched the sight before them, albeit with some additional wear and tear on the surrounding building sides.
"This is the place," she confirmed, looking from side to side with a stern frown on her face. "Though why my sister would recommend that we meet here of all places eludes me."
"I remember it," Koneko said quietly. "Nee-san and I used to come here. When I was still barely out of my infancy, and she'd managed to get a little extra cash."
Rias and Sona looked the white-haired girl's way, before meeting eyes once more and nodding, taking the opportunity to step through the small half-curtain to provide privacy to the customers.
She was glad to not have to avoid looking at the number of Devils, garbed in tattered, dirty clothing, sitting with their backs to the wall, scurrying by, huddled over a barrel bonfire, or even each other for warmth. Many more had just been sleeping, out in the open, as though those Devils had nowhere else to go.
When the young women did slip past the privacy curtains, they were immediately met with the mouth-watering smell of a kitchen at work, another individual already there, sitting primly in her seat, twin drill hairdo bobbing gently with each breath.
"Ravel," Rias started, prompting the Phenex heiress in question to glance back at Rias.
"Rias, Sona," She greeted them both with a nod. "I hope you don't mind, but I ordered ahead."
"Not at all." Sona walked up and sat down. "We apologize for our tardiness."
Rias nodded, the blonde accepting the black-haired girl's apology with a wordless gesture to the seats beside her. Sona, Rias, and Koneko all obliged, though the latter girl continued looking around, a clouded look in her eye.
The Phenex daughter hummed. "Mm. Before we go any further, I wanted to apologize for asking so much of your time over the past couple months. I imagine it wasn't easy, especially after the Dantalion... issue."
"We have not seen the loss of a full-on Pillar in centuries," Rias replied, lifting a thin brow. "Calling it an 'issue' seems like a massive understatement."
Ravel's lips quirked upward, letting out a short huff of amusement. "You're right, of course. I apologize again, my attention has been away from the extinction event."
"It certainly helped keep us from worrying too much about the fact that our families have been watching us like hawks," Sona hummed, glancing over at Rias. "You said you would be visiting me, correct?"
The redhead nodded. "And you, me?"
"Yes. If Mother and Father start to pry, our indiscretion will be caught, but by that point the matter will be moot." Sona smirked slightly. "I expect I would even be congratulated by them for proving my mettle in getting past the guards they hired on."
Ravel tilted her head. "Your parents hired guards too?"
"After what happened? It should come as no surprise." The bespectacled Devil shrugged.
"...Instead of hiring guards, Mother has insisted on a training regimen for the Gremory family." Rias sighed. "Quite aggressively, at that. Both in her persistence and the regimen itself. I've had to give up sleep to fulfill my end of your project."
"Your sacrifice will not go unnoticed," Ravel teased. "I know that you have steered clear of Riser ever since he started making more definitive overtures toward you, but I know you enough to know that if you lost sleep, that's because you were that invested."
The redhead flushed. "The point is, it hasn't gone unnoticed- Mother certainly has. She's been making inquiries as to why I have not been putting everything I have into ensuring I'm powerful enough to survive whatever killed the Dantalions."
"You mean aside from investigating records to determine who might be the culprit?" Ravel shook her head. "Lady Venelana expects too much of you at once, Rias."
"And yet I manage all the same." The Crimson-Haired Ruin Princess's locks swayed from side to side as she lifted a hand, snapping her fingers to summon the papers she'd compiled, setting them on the countertop. "It has been difficult, but after my investigations, I am of the opinion that you're onto something. Sona?"
"I have the same belief. I've gathered what information I can from our own family contacts. Thankfully, Serafall has been more than willing to reach out where I can't." Sona mimicked Rias's actions, letting out a sigh. "Honestly, for someone as... loud as my sister, it's almost scary how many nooks and crannies she's able to peer into without anyone the wiser. This should help round out whatever Rias missed."
"Must be her wartime occupation coming into clutch," Ravel hummed, taking both stacks of papers and gathering them into one, flipping through them to double-check the content before she set them back down. "Spymasters typically don't like losing their nets, especially after taking so long to craft them."
"How would you know that, exactly?" Sona wondered.
"How, you ask?" Ravel put her hands on her hips and puffed out her chest with a smirk. "Don't you know? When it comes to military and espionage, there's no better young Devil!"
"Is that so?" Sona leaned in, smirking faintly with a lifted brow. "Care to back that up with a game of chess, Phenex?"
"And let my opponent decide the battlefield, one she is renowned for dominating?" Ravel laughed once, almost haughtily. "I would be a fool to agree!"
Then the bowl Ravel ordered rapped the table, being placed in front of the blonde somewhat abruptly, snapping her attention to the returning cook.
Given the way the man who placed the meal down had locked on to the smallest of the four Devils, recognition dawning, it was clear why the bowl had been so rudely placed.
"By the Morningstar, is that you Shirone?" the gray-haired Devil gasped. That snapped Koneko out of her fugue, turning back to face the Devil in question.
She held up a hand in a minimal wave. "Hey, old man."
"Still calling me that, even after all these years? The disrespect of this generation..." the Devil in question grumbled, but it was with a smile on his face. "Though, compared to the rest of you lot, I suppose I am. What can this humble cook do for a friendly face after all these years, and her three... noble Devil compatriots?"
Ravel and Rias exchanged glances. For someone who was supposedly just a shopkeep, he'd worded that request in a curious manner.
To say nothing about the elder Devil's knowledge of Koneko's previous name.
"Some privacy, please," Koneko supplied, prompting a nod from the gray-haired Devil.
"And would you like something as well? It'll be on the house, for old time's sake."
"That'd be nice." Koneko gestured to Sona and Rias. "The usual for them, too."
"They'll have to pay."
The white-haired girl sighed. "They will."
"Koneko-!" Rias's voice rose, but a sharp look from her Rook caused the redhead's mouth to shut.
"Good. I'd hate to chase someone down because they wouldn't foot the bill." The gray-haired Devil turned back into the kitchen, humming as he went along.
A few moments passed as the three noble Devils looked between each other, their silence broken by Sona.
"...Care to explain what that was all about, Koneko?"
"You don't see many nobles in these parts," she explained. "The fact that three of you are here, that doesn't usually bode well for the homeless folk."
"I did notice more than a few layabouts on our way here," Rias commented, glancing behind her as though looking out the curtain in place.
"They aren't layabouts by choice, Buchou," Koneko said quietly, causing the other Devils to exchange glances.
"Isn't your brother accepting immigrants right now?" Rias asked Ravel, who shook her head.
"He is, but I imagine for many, it's either too big a trip to make, or they aren't ready to make that move."
"People want security," Sona theorized. "With those raiders warring with the Phenexes, Ruval probably isn't getting as much immigration as he otherwise would."
"Mh, I think so too." Ravel glanced back around them. "Plus, the Phenex lands are quite a ways off from Lilith. I imagine quite a lot of people would die migrating from here to there, as well. Purged if they do, purged if they don't."
Rias tilted her head, before rubbing her chin. "...I see an opportunity for some form of transport service. Or smuggling."
"Plenty enough smugglers for that," Koneko muttered, shaking her head with a scoff. "Still, quite a few of these people deserve better. Like the old man."
"He seems to be doing pretty well," Ravel commented, though she got a surprisingly chilly look from the youkai-turned-Devil for it.
"Only because the old man's the top of the food chain around here," she shot back. "Everyone else is worse off. Usually, much so. You all saw the people sleeping with nothing but each other for warmth."
"It can't be that bad-" the Phenex was interrupted by the nekoshou.
"Ravel, if it wasn't for my sister attempting to pickpocket the Dark Moon and being met with an act of mercy, I would be even smaller than I am now. I might not even be here right now. Kuroka-nee and I nearly starved multiple times during our time on the streets."
That shut the blonde up, who stared at the entrance to the kitchen with a furrow to her brow. "Is that why the prices here are so low...?"
"They have to be," Koneko replied honestly. "Otherwise, he wouldn't be able to get any customers at all. What we saw on the way here- those people were fortunate enough to have the time to not do anything at all. Or the lack of will to. Most of the street rats struggle to even survive."
Once more, the four descended into silence.
"...Just how weak are they?"
Koneko turned to her King, eyes widened at the sheer venom in that tone. "Buchou?"
"Just how weak are they, that they can't even work up the courage to try again?" Rias stood, hands on the counter. "It's not like these people have anything to lose, do they? There's nothing on the line for them, but everything to gain!"
For a long moment, the Rook just stared, aghast at the Gremory's comment. Just as she was about to say something, however, the gray-haired Devil stepped back out from the kitchen, three more bowls in arms and hands. He stared at Rias with eyes closer to stone, before they shifted back to Koneko, softening faintly. Without another word, he stepped forward and placed the bowls on the countertop, taking a step back and crossing his arms before standing in place.
"...Did I say something?" the redhead asked archly, as she met the old ramen stand owner's gaze.
"There's one thing left to 'them' that they can lose," he said, softly. "Their lives."
"And what kind of living is that? Sitting against a wall, day by day, scrounging for food and nothing else?" Rias grit her teeth.
"The kind that you have no choice but to accept. Nobody wants to die, Gremory."
"I would, if the only alternative is to languish like a macabre decoration in some dirty back alley!"
That got her a very weird look from Koneko, as though the younger-looking Devil was debating on whether to be proud, ashamed, or outraged.
"And who would accept them?" the old Devil asked, tilting his head. "Them, the unwashed refuse of Lilith? Them, who have no place to call their own?"
"Don't the Phenexes, these days?"
"Rias, we just went over how the Phenex lands are far off-" Sona started.
She rounded on her black-haired friend. "Yes, and we also briefly brought up that there's likely smugglers already in place to solve just that!"
"Gremory girl." The gray-haired shopkeep grunted. "Just listen to yourself. You're talking about one Pillar. One. You may have grown up seeing a house as open to commoners as his, but the fact that Lord Phenex is even accepting migrants is recent news, especially for our kind."
"Then what about all the charitable donations our houses give to the Spread Your Wings program?" Rias insisted.
"Who feed us, shelter us, and treat us for our injuries. It's a kind gesture," he admitted. "But that's just slapping a bandage over an open wound. Not even a large enough one; for every Devil aided, a dozen more go unanswered. It does nothing to solve the price of housing, when homes are held by a select few and priced far beyond our means, or how the few jobs we are given are incredibly detrimental to our continued health, pay little, and often demand so much from us. Sometimes, it's a combination of the two, and oftentimes it's all three. Have you seen the medical reports of orichal miners? I imagine the Phenex could access them easily."
He paused, before shaking his head. "That is not even considering the risk of becoming trafficked by those same smugglers you mentioned if they tried for anything else. Tell me, are you saying that you would accept these people if they came to your doorstep looking to work?"
"If they're willing to earn their share?" The crimson-haired heiress stood tall. "Yes."
"Even if they have no applicable skills?" he pressed.
Sona glanced at Rias, before rising to her own feet in support. "If they are unlearned, then they must be willing to doff that mantle. But everyone has some modicum of worth."
"Really now?" He glanced between the two girls, before focusing in on Ravel. "And what about you?"
"...My brother certainly s-"
"I'm not talking about your brother," he interrupted, getting him a heated glare from Ravel. "I'm talking about you, girl."
Ravel clenched her hands, breathing in slowly as the broth of her ramen began to bubble.
"As the daughter of House Phenex, it is my duty to uphold the tenets of our Pillar."
"As non-committal an answer as you can get." He scowled. "Enough empty words, girl, I grew tired of such platitudes before even your father first spoke them. Do you, or do you not, believe that Ruval Phenex is right to accept people like the ones you saw outside into his lands?"
Ravel looked away. Looked at Rias and Sona, looked at Koneko, looked at the curtain.
There was a long moment, a stilling of the air.
She sighed, closing her eyes.
Koneko watched closely, brow furrowed and head tilted.
"I don't know."
"Really?" the nekoshou asked, tilting her head to the other side. "I never got that feeling from you."
Ravel shook her head, repeating herself. "I... don't know. I look at you lot and think, 'What a bunch of low-born weaklings'. But at the same time, I think, 'What a waste'."
She faced her ramen bowl and reopened her eyes, staring down at the meal as its bubbling subsided. "I'm still trying to unpack it- what I mean when I think that, why I feel that way, why Ruval seems to care about your kind more than his own kin, how I feel about the fact that my brother seems to not care how he's hurting our family in the process."
"Our kind," the older Devil echoed, slowly inclining his head. "I think I see now. You think we are different."
"Aren't we?" She looked back up at the cook. "Even different families have different skillsets, and then there's you all. I could snap my fingers and incinerate you here and now, if I so chose. You commoners are so... so weak, in comparison."
"So you could," he acknowledged. "But 'us commoners' aren't entirely helpless either. Us 'low-born weaklings' mine the precious metals and gemstones you use to adorn your neck, ears, and wrists. We paint your art. We grow your food. If we were truly helpless, if we were weak the way you seem to see us, then where would you obtain any of that? The same way your forefathers the Demons did? Through pillage and barbarity?"
The blonde scoffed and looked away, prompting the shopkeep to continue. "The Dark Moon Incident occurred because a group of Outland Devils kidnapped Lunarunn Bael, and were no more than Low-class Devils themselves. Would you say that the Dark Moon is weak, when your strongest brother - an 'immortal Phenex', mind you - was badly wounded enough to be scarred from doing battle with her?"
Ravel shook her head.
"Then what about the Commoner Pillar known as Belial? Would you say that Diehauser is weak?"
"Of course not!" she denied emphatically. Nobody could, not when he had definitively proven himself the undisputed champion of the Rating Games, save for the one challenger who had retired since.
"Then there you have it." The old man bowed his head. "Just because most of us are pathetic by the standards of you 'truebreeds' doesn't mean all of us are. What matters is opportunity, and not just serfdom by another name. That, I think, is what your brother is trying to promote."
"You're saying you all just need the chance," Sona finished, crossing her arms as she nodded in understanding. "Not a desperate, fleeting hope, not the one-in-a-million rags-to-riches story, but an honest-to-Lucifer opportunity to explore yourselves."
Rias was still skeptical. "And you say you don't have them now?"
Sona gave her a quizzical look.
"Exactly." The shopkeep gestured to the bowl of ramen. "Even in our weakness, there are always some of us who can make, or become, something truly extraordinary. All it takes is the opening... something that so few of us really, truly have in this sorry city."
The redhead frowned, but lifted the ramen to her mouth, blinking in surprise as the flavor hit her on the way down.
It was delicious. Incredibly so, in fact.
"...I still think you just don't know where to find the opportunities you claim to not have," she persisted, if much more subdued than before.
"Then tell us. Show us the way. Give people like us the chance you think we should have. I think you'll be surprised just how many people take it."
Kuoh-Takamagahara Abrahamic Summit, - Day Two
"Everyone, please take your seats," Gabriel announced to the packed assembly room, turning around while lifting her arms up, voice like a clear bell over the din of the various supernatural delegations talking, either amongst themselves or . "We are about to begin. Everyone, please sit down."
Even so, the time it took for the assembly room to finally quiet left a sense of awkwardness in Issei. He sat second row from the front, Asia by his side, as he watched Gabriel stand amidst the quieting crowds, radiant and undeterred in a yukata of purest white, adorned by a sash of chamomile.
Issei's eyes shifted to the others, Ajuka and Sirzechs on one side of the circular hall, both dressed in elegant kimonos with white poppies on their lapels, Azazel and Shemhazai on the other in much the same with goldenrod bracelets, then Michael on the final side with garb to match the rest and a sash like the blonde who had just brought quiet to the room. Gabriel would join her brother at that part of the table a few moments later.
The silent pressure emitted by gods and their retainers watching pressed down, but if Sirzechs was at all intimidated by it, he showed nothing of the sort as he examined a runic array before him, testing the feed with a small crackle of electricity that momentarily danced between his fingers, then cleared his throat.
"Greetings, everyone," he started, taking a long moment to cast his gaze across the room, a brief acknowledgement of them all as his magic-propelled voice reached the ears of all in place. "Thank you all for coming to witness this momentous summit. I believe most of you know who I am, but for those who don't, I am Sirzechs Lucifer nee Gremory, the Strongest Devil of the Underworld, and one of its four leading Archdevils. I am joined by my compatriot, Ajuka Beelzebub nee Astaroth, as well as my peers from Heaven and the Grigori. I would give them the opportunity to introduce themselves as well." There was a beat, as Azazel cleared his own throat, before Sirzechs interrupted with a wry smile. "But I fear that if we did, we'd be here all day pontificating about titles and achievements. While it would be humorous, there is a time and place for edgy introductions, and this is not that. I'm looking at you, Azazel."
A ripple of laughter echoed out from the crowds, and even Issei fought a smile as the Governor-General slumped in place, casting glances to both sides before shaking his head. "Alright, alright, fine, fine," he muttered, though it was with a grin of his own. "Poking fun that I didn't Fall for the same reason your namesake did, is it? I see how it is."
Sirzechs's smile widened, turning around to bow toward one group of seats, higher than the rest, where five figures sat. "Perhaps equally as important, however, is the magnanimity of those who helped facilitate neutral territory for us to host this historical event. Amaterasu-sama, Susano'o-sama, Tsukiyomi-sama, Nurarihyon-sama, Yasaka-sama, please allow me to speak for all three of the Abrahamics when I say this: you have our sincere gratitude for gracing us with your generosity, even in the face of disagreements between each of us."
There was a long moment of silence, as a black-haired woman, radiant like the sun she represented, stood, hands in the sleeves of her yukata. Faintly glowing golden eyes peered down at each of them neutrally, before inclining her head.
"We of the Shinto accept the thanks of the Abrahamic Three," she said simply, turning her case across the rest of the room before smiling faintly. Even that small uptick of her full lips was not unlike the parting of clouds, allowing the brilliance of the sun through. "And We hope that within Our sacred realm of Takamagahara, that Our preparations and services as host have proven satisfactory for all those here. Days are few and far between when so many not of Our own kin walk these sacred lands, even within a Bounded Space."
There was a brief pause, before her gaze returned to the two leaders of each faction, nodding her head once more. "But that is enough about Us. We are all here today, as you have said, to view history in the making, and to look upon those who have made such an event possible. With that in mind, We see little reason to continue idle chat any longer. Let us watch, delegates from the other factions, and see how much the Abrahamics have changed since days long past."
"Of course." And just like that, Azazel stood, facing Amaterasu, before lowering himself to his knees and assuming a dogeza... much to the surprise of the delegates present.
"Amaterasu-sama," he started, all traces of joviality gone in favor of genuine - or at least what seemed like genuine - regret. "I may be my Father's son, but I recognize my imperfections. I have made many mistakes in my long life. And one of them was not acting when I saw the warning signs from my brother Kokabiel. I knew he was a warmonger. I knew he wanted Lunarunn nee Bael dead. I did not realize that he saw her as such a threat as to take the fight to the human world. I should have."
He lifted his head ever so slightly to shake it from side to side. "And because of my inaction, tens of thousands are dead, humans - your people - and my own brothers and sisters. I had to cut many more loose, for the support they gave to Kokabiel. It is an unprecedented mess, and it could have been resolved far more peacefully if I'd acted on the danger he posed earlier."
A stony silence had descended over the summit at Azazel's words, Amaterasu's own radiance had become the chilly mien of the winter dawn.
She inclined her head. "Your words are noticed by Us, Governor-General of the Grigori. However, what do you plan to do about it?"
A bold question, with an equally bold answer."I would offer my support to the Shinto faction, to give them the aid they need to find Kokabiel and deliver him the justice he deserves. I would offer my personal services, to build a reimagined Kuoh after the swath of destruction my wayward brother left in his wake."
Gabriel watched Azazel, expression thoughtful, before rising to her feet.
"It is Heaven's duty to aid the children of Adam. With Father still indisposed after His final confrontation with the Adversary, it has become our duty to act in His place. Even so, we struggle to fulfill all that we must. It is with that in mind that we offer our own aid, to work with the Grigori and set right the mistakes of our Fallen siblings."
"The Underworld is not without fault either." Sirzechs chipped in. "It is due to the failings of one of our own lords that Lunarunn Noname nee Bael is still alive, and in well enough condition to bring such destruction to Kuoh. We present a portion of our collective offers, already confirmed by the Assembly of the Seventy-Two Pillars, to the Shinto in order to build Kuoh back, stronger and wealthier than ever before, and our aid in hunting the Dark Moon down, to bring to justice."
Once more, silence reigned, with Amaterasu exchanging looks with Tsukiyomi and Susano'o, having a quick, unheard discussion where Yasaka and Nurarihyon pitched in once or twice before she spoke aloud once more.
"In light of negative events in the past between the Shinto and the Abrahamics, We are hesitant to accept your generosity."
Gasps abounded at the snub. A moment passed, then Amaterasu continued. "However, this event is to fix the errors of the past, is it not? In the spirit of the Summit, We shall consider your offer to make amends all the same."
'Then why start off by saying that you're leery of them?' Issei wondered, tilting his head with crossed arms.
"Politics," Ddraig groaned. "Amaterasu is using the Shinto's hosting of the conference to pointedly not air grievances. That way, the Shinto comes off as more magnanimous."
'Doesn't that defeat the point?'
"Whelp, when it comes to politics, appearance is literally everything."
Each of the three Abrahamics nodded toward each other, then to Amaterasu in acknowledgment of her 'generosity'. Then, as Azazel returned to his seat, the summit continued.
One thing that Issei immediately noticed was the ease of which the Angels, Fallen, and Devils bounced off of each other, showing a united front that could not be denied by any in that room.
Yet, even if the amiable air each faction's leaders put up was genuine, it quickly became apparent that their amity didn't necessarily translate to who they represented.
"I apologize for these requests on the behalf of my people," Sirzechs said, smiling earnestly toward Michael and Azazel after several topics had passed. Yet, a sticking point on the redhead's side was accolades for making the summit happen, of all things. "Us Devils, we do have our pride. Yet we also recognize the worthlessness of continuing a conflict that has done nothing but cost countless lives."
"Credit for securing peace between us all is still a rather bold claim to make," Azazel replied, a smirk playing at his lips. "Mikey and I are both older than you, after all. Isn't it the duty of the elders to take credit for the actions of the youngsters?"
"Credit where credit is due, Azazel," the Seraphim replied, crossing his arms and closing his eyes with introspection. "Take no credit for what others do in our favor. To do otherwise is the act of a cheat."
Azazel scoffed with a shake of his head. "There you go again brother, with the talk of virtue. You realize that doesn't exactly hold sway with either of us Hell-bound factions, right?"
"Either way, the 72 Pillars were the first to put forth the ceasefire, were they not?" At the pure and Fallen Angels' admission to the fact, Sirzechs continued. "Then it only makes sense that a true peace would be an extension of that."
"Be that as it may," Gabriel replied softly, "The Vatican would be furious if word were to come out that Devils of all creatures were the ones to control the summit."
Azazel let out a short laugh. "And when did you let the 'fallible, sinful children of Adam' define what the servants of Dad do?"
"It gives us a greater ability to protect said children when we collaborate," the blonde shot back. "As much as I would like to say otherwise, none of us are as powerful - or sizeable - an organization as we once were. It is why we all are here, after all."
"And what if the 'children' need to be protected against themselves?"
"Enough," Ajuka cut in before either Michael or Gabriel could respond to the Governor-General's continued prodding. "Their reasoning is irrelevant. The facts are, the Vatican is an important ally of Heaven. They would be angry if the Devils take all the credit, and even if we do, Sirzechs and I recognize that it would poison the peace this summit means to cement."
"You aren't one to talk too much either, Azazel," Sirzechs commented idly. "After all, weren't you the one to support many of the policies that gave rise to the Nazis back in World War 2?"
"I underestimated how charismatic a certain person could be," he admitted freely, giving a shrug. "I figured that some art school dropout wouldn't be able to tap the pulse of the Germans so effectively, or that Heaven would try placating the party instead of quashing it the instant anti-semetic rhetoric started going around."
"Let us not forget Heaven's tacit support of the Vatican when they abetted a genocide," Ajuka pointed out, casting a pointed glance to the two Angels in question.
"Support that we withdrew when the concentration camps began operating under the Third Reich," Gabriel riposted.
"Support that a supposed subsection of the Vatican continued to give all the same, but was swept under the rug after the fact." The Governor-General's eyes swept through the chamber before landing on a certain Exorcist. "Eh, Ubermensch?"
Michael stared at Azazel evenly. "I will ask you kindly not to bring up the sins of the past. It is those same sins that cost us all so dearly in the first place. Vasco Strada is not the same man he was in the past; time has a way of showing us our previous mistakes and misguided beliefs."
Sirzechs took the opportunity to step back in. "I agree with Michael; we each have our faults, but we are here to move beyond that, are we not?"
Azazel lifted a brow, but chose not to say anything as his secretary stepped in.
"Then you have a solution for credit?" Shemhazai, who had been silent by Azazel's side until now, pressed.
That was his cue. Act as the guardsman and peace-keeper. Issei stood, armored gauntlet on full display, to the whispers of the delegations around him. He knew not to pay attention to them. He was the Red Dragon Emperor. The Sekiryuutei. The wielder of the Boosted Gear, and the Guardian of Kuoh, the very location this Bounded Space was part of.
"Gods and goddesses of the Shinto, kami of the land and Youkai of my homeland. I wish to offer my own insight in answer to Shemhazai-dono's question.," he started, his smoothly Boosted voice reaching the rest of the room much the same as Sirzechs had used magic to project his own.
A moment passed, then Susano'o spoke. "We of the Shinto recognize Hyoudou Issei, the Sekiryuutei, and his stake in this summit. Sekiryuutei-dono, you may speak."
At the brief nod he got from the God of Storms in response to his interjection, Issei continued. "The Devils get the honor of facilitating the meeting. The Fallen get the honor of acting as the intermediaries. The Angels get the honor of penning the agreement."
"Ah, Issei-san," Sirzechs smiled. "I was wondering when you would speak up."
"Sorry." The brunet in question smiled thinly. "You all were working off each other quite well, I figured it wouldn't be right to interrupt until now."
'Though the fact that the big guy that was with Irina-chan and Dulio-san was a former Nazi is... er... I'm not really sure how to take that.'
Asia seemed to have a rather strained expression as well, upon hearing that one of the Archbishops she'd so fondly looked up to had such former ties.
"But of course. Please, take your seat. It seems your presence is already a benefit to the conference, Red Dragon Emperor." Azazel grinned at Issei, who nodded back, schooling his expression once more.
"I would hope so! I remember talking about this, but I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't, pervy old crow." Issei grinned as he heard snorts and laughs around him, heart swelling with the feedback.
"Not like you're one to talk," the Governor-General chuckled. "Were you not already tied to Kuoh, I'd have taken you on as my second protege. Only, instead of teaching you to fight like I did the White Dragon Emperor, I'd teach you about the actually good stuff!"
Issei could imagine the antics and good times. It was a tempting idea, for sure.
"Get real!" He set his hands on his hips, puffed out his chest, and boldly declared: "If I'm gonna be a Harem King, no way in Heaven or Hell am I gonna accept being someone's sloppy seconds!"
"Damn straight," Ddraig echoed his agreement aloud. "No way would I accept being second fiddle to that weak-flamed blowhard Albion!"
A few of the gods present laughed, including the Allfather that Issei had encountered the day prior. The whispers, on the other hand, were fewer in number, as many were stunned into silence by his claim. Many of those whispers were derisive in nature.
'Mh... whatever. I know whose opinions matter to me.'
Azazel was right though. He was already spoken for.
"Ouch. You're making this old crow shed a tear for what could have been. You really want to make an old crow cry, Issei-san, Ddraig? Congratulations, you just did." Azazel held a hand to his chest in fake grief, holding one hand up to the side for the dramatic flair. "So yes, you proved your point. Sniff." He literally said 'sniff', instead of even effecting a fake one, before immediately snapping back to his usual sardonic demeanor. "Now sit down, will ya?"
Issei snickered, sitting in the seat before looking between the supernatural entities, brow drawing together slightly as he caught their reactions.
The brunet felt a shiver run down his spine as the impact of his interruption, and what it meant for him, started to sink in.
Sure, the Boosted Gear would make 'normality' a dream, but there was always the chance he could be left well enough alone, minus those few that caught wind of who he really was.
But now? Making a stand in front of gods the world over?
'Yeah... My 'normal' life really is over, isn't it?'
"You're being noticed, as any good dragon - and especially any wielder of mine - should." Ddraig huffed, a faint undercurrent of satisfaction and something decidedly less positive lacing his tone. "Take pride, whelp."
Heart pounding in his chest, Issei took a breath and continued. "So... about that idea I suggested?"
"By giving us the honor of being the ones to put forth the deal, it would alleviate many of the problems the Vatican has already leveled toward the summit," Gabriel mused, nodding her head slowly. "Additionally, it answers the letter of the Pillars' desire to be seen as 'leading' the conference, and ensures that we all contribute our fair share to the peace agreement. I see no issue with this compromise. What do the rest of you think?"
"I agree," Michael answered.
"I believe that will fulfill our needs," Sirzechs concurred.
"My stance is the same as Lord Lucifer's," Ajuka added.
"You won't hear any complaints from me," Azazel offered, Shemhazai nodding beside him.
"Cool, then that's settled." With the Red Dragon Emperor to serve as a 'seventh vote' and a neutral party, the conference continued.
Yet that was only the beginning. Everything was put up to discussion, no stone left unturned when discussing relations between the Three Abrahamics. Once particular sore points were alleviated, however, the conference began to go much smoother.
One could see the years upon years of careful diplomacy at work, and Issei as an outsider had to admit that the discussions were practically a work of art unto themselves. There were very few discussion points that he disagreed with, and indeed those were such points where his word against them would hardly matter.
Naturally, the angels worked as the moral force within the talks, Gabriel and Michael acting as a counterbalance to their Fallen brethren and the much more transactional Devils, though that was not to say they were without teeth - indeed, Gabriel was more than willing to point out the faults of the other parties, though she made sure to be fair with her points - as well as accept blame where it was due. Michael, on the other hand, acted as the voice of reason and spoke of the ways they could make amends for past misdeeds toward each other.
For one who spoke of underestimating charisma, Azazel himself had it in spades, the Governor-General using clever witticisms and humor to poke holes in inflating egos, all the while with an easy grin on his face. Shemhazai rarely spoke, but when he did, it was always with a salient point, and even the Devils and Angels paid heed to his comments.
Then there were the Devils. They spoke of pride, of deals, and of payment. Sirzechs made for a shrewd negotiator, exacting every detail he could within deals, and ensuring that the Devils were never the worse off for an agreement made. Ajuka was much the same as Shemhazai - his contributions were few, but their weight - especially in the realm of cold, hard fact - could not be understated.
What was peculiar for Issei, however, was the absence of the Leviathan and Asmodeus Satans. Had the two stepped away from the Summit to prevent the Fallen and Angels from feeling outnumbered? Were they otherwise preoccupied?
As the others talked over another sticking point from centuries past, Issei's eyes drifted to the side. Though the conference room was large, he could see a magical circle slowly rotating midair in the distance, the discussions being broadcast, probably live, to the other factions. Idly, he wondered if the members of the Abrahamic Three aside from Sirzechs had a microphone attached, or if there was some magic at play in that regard as well. Certainly, the Bounded Space itself was a powerful one. If the sky outside wasn't the wrong color, and the area devoid of human life, Issei wouldn't be able to tell that the Bounded Space wasn't a natural realm.
He took the bottle of water before him and drank it, exhaling quietly as his eyes returned to the members of the summit. Certainly, he'd content himself with ogling Gabriel if he could- or perhaps Aphrodite several rows to the side and back, but some things were far larger than his own... fascination. A lasting peace between the Abrahamic Three was one of them, so he was on his best behavior.
That didn't mean his thoughts didn't wander, however, though the others were quick to bring him back into the discussion when it started to show. They had little room to chastise it for him either - as the mediator, his duty was just to ensure the talks went smoothly - and indeed, they were remarkably thorough for a trio of factions who had been at war for ages.
Issei felt someone take his hand and squeeze it gently. He turned his head, and saw that it had been Asia. She gave him a smile, but he could see how tense it was.
She was nervous, and understandably so.
He squeezed her hand gently in turn, giving his girlfriend a small nod.
Asia wasn't alone, and neither was he. They could do this.
All it'd take was enough grit to stick the conference through to its conclusion.
The Underworld, Day Two
Ruval ran a finger down the vellum, reading each word of the message carefully as it was, set out on the table by his Queen, Pierre.
He grimaced. It was an official summons from the 72 Pillars, regarding particular secrets with talks of a Sanction against the Phenex Marquese as an aside.
On one hand, the fact that it was a secondary concern boded well for Ruval. Apparently Zeoticus - and through him, the Baels - wanted to keep it quiet, to minimize the public response of the overall declaration against the House. On the other hand, it suggested that the Sanction was all but a foregone conclusion.
Or that the 'secrets' in question were dangerous enough that even his status as an outcast in the Pillars was secondary. Either way, it wasn't good.
That wasn't to say the bad news was unexpected, but regardless of the reason it would make his issues with Aesle Marchosias all the more difficult to handle.
"Milord, what is your command?" his butler asked, bowing slightly as the young Lord continued to stare down at the paper.
Several long seconds passed, as Ruval mused, before he leaned back and met Pierre's gaze.
"Let them in. They have every right to know what's happening."
Pierre bowed once more, and stepped outside, before stepping back in, holding the door for the youngest brother in the family, as well as his sister and his Queen.
"Riser. Ravel, Yubelluna." Ruval had a feeling it was both of them. "Do any of you wish to take a seat? I can have Pierre deliver snacks."
Ravel's eyes narrowed faintly, but Riser replied, voice surprisingly quiet for the normally bombastic Phenex. "I would like something strong, please."
The eyes of the violet-haired Devil met Riser's, before she responded. "A spot of tea, for me."
"Tea for me as well," the youngest Phenex zeroed in on the vellum upon Ruval's desk. "Is that the summons for the sanction, then?"
Ruval sighed, giving a brief nod. "So it is. Did Mother and Father inform you two what was going on?"
"They did tell us," Ravel started, but shook her head all the same. "But I deduced that we'd end up sanctioned even before your last big fight with them."
The Lord quirked a brow. "You did?"
"It's obvious, if you know how to read the signs." Ravel harrumphed and crossed her arms behind her back. "Brother Riser's not a politician, but even he pieced together what was going on after your last fight with Mom and Dad."
"Brother Riser resents that remark," the Phenex in question grumbled, shooting his sister a dirty look before Yubelluna put a hand on his shoulder.
"Oh hush, you know it's true; that's why you're aiming to use your Rating Games to kick off your career as a musician-"
"Musician?" Ruval eyed his youngest brother with a raised brow. "I never took you for a music person."
"It's not something he wants to show off just yet, but I've caught him practicing his singi-." Ravel's eyes shone, even as Riser lunged across to cover her mouth with his hand.
"Enough! Riser wasn't ready to reveal that yet!" the furiously blushing Devil in question hissed.
"Is that why you've been talking in third-person more often recently?" Ruval realized, a growing grin on his face. "Are you practicing a stage persona before you actually get started?'
Riser glared daggers at a sweetly beaming Ravel as he removed his hand from her mouth, before looking down almost sheepishly. "...Rexen got me lessons with Lady Beleth," he admitted, expression falling once more. "But it also makes me worried. About this Sanction. How is Riser supposed to live up to his name and rise to stardom, if the Phenex name is dragged through the mud and barred from participating in most of what the Underworld offers?"
"The Underworld isn't the only place you can kick off a career as a musician," the older Phenex offered.
"Perhaps not, but then what of my time in the Ratings Games? Is that then just a waste?" Riser ran a hand through his hair, expression contorted as he pointedly did not look at Ruval. "I can't just let all our time - mine and my Peerage's - proving ourselves worth noticing result in nothing!"
Ruval looked on, a small frown tugging at his lips. "...I see," he finally said. "And you, Ravel? What would prompt you to speak of your concerns?"
The blonde in question seemed conflicted for a long moment, but finally let out a long, slow breath, a clipboard appearing in her hand, with a number of papers attached to it.
Ravel set one piece of paper on the desk- a financial report, Ruval quickly realized. "Amaze-All," his sister said simply. She put down another report. "Goggles." Another paper. "Macrofirm."
Yet she wasn't done, setting another report to the side, then placing another one on top of that one, then another. "Keyhold Marlin. Beling. Northrup Lunning." Then she did it again, with two more papers. "Caigall. Brayer."
Finally, the youngest daughter set one final paper in front of all three, the clipboard disappearing in a brief, bright puff of flame. "Birdcall." The blonde finished with a finger tapping that particular report. "This one doesn't have quarterly earnings the same as the others, but what it does have is a direct finger to the pulse of the human populace and a not insignificant number of Devils. All of the tech companies have exploded onto the business space over the past fifteen years, and more importantly, with finances and influence to spare. The other organizations here have also been doing quite well for themselves."
She started gesticulating, going on quickly. Not that Ruval planned on stopping her now. "I've done some data collection over the shadow stockholders entering each business dating back fifteen years- especially those with falsified records, and in particular those who defied any offer the Pillars put forth to buy out stocks. Even a lot of the under-the-table dealings. The ones that didn't shy away from purchasing many of those kinds of stocks when those same Pillars sold, despite the steep price marks, are even more poignant. These same shareholders also have stocks in numerous smaller enterprises, but not one has cost them financially. Not one fell through. An anomaly in its own right, yes, but not the point."
Ravel waved her hand over all the reports. "Altogether, the summarized earnings of those stockholders amounts to hundreds of billions in the US dollar total, and dozens of such yearly. Easily enough to support a small country by human standards, one undergoing major developmental undertakings.
"Additionally, the big companies in question specialize in technology, military, agriculture, and media respectively. All of which are necessary to not only lay the groundwork for a logistics structure, but create the dragnet necessary to fill the ranks of an army with competent soldiers. Soldiers that the Phoenix Initiative would need to maintain its expanded borders."
"Impressive. How long did it take to-" Ruval started, but Ravel held up a hand.
"I'm not done." The blonde crossed her arms. "Not only is each brand I named a top-class business, but they are in those four sectors especially, which means the potential for massive savings by scraping from the actual product. Yet, peculiarly, though we have seen an influx in manpower, it's only about 40 percent of what conservative estimates would predict. Plus, out of the companies in question, there is one type of business from which the aforementioned shadow stockholders are markedly absent. One necessary for the continued formation of a skilled armed force."
Her eyes shifted over to the youngest of her brothers. "Remind me, Riser, what industry are the Phenex's main holdings in?"
"Pharmaceuticals." Riser blinked slowly, as though coming to a dawning realization.
"Pharmaceuticals," Ravel confirmed, nodding once as she faced her oldest brother once again. "I would almost expect you to have taken ownership of these shares, simply because you have so much vested interest in all these areas, but I haven't seen any spending in our own budget reports that might indicate you are expanding our portfolio in that regard. Yet, this is everything you would need to make the Phoenix Initiative work. So then, how would you have gotten your hands on what you need, if these shadow stocks belong to someone else, unaffiliated with the Underworld?"
Ravel uncrossed her arms. "Then Lunarunn reappeared in Kuoh alive, and apparently quite well if she could take on Kokabiel."
She stood back up. "Once I put the reports together, it clicked. Now that I see it, it all makes sense. Your insistence on furthering this Phoenix Initiative despite political pushback. Your disinterest in the social scene. Your alienation with our parents. The money coming in from 'anonymous sources'. The materials necessary to actually facilitate the defense and technological advancement side of the Initiative despite the lack of support from the other Pillars. Even your lack of concern for the fact that another Pillar went extinct, and worse, that our family is facing sanctions!"
She laid her hands on the desk, and met Ruval Phenex's gaze, eyes blazing with conviction, even as her voice dropped to nearly a whisper. "You weren't just 'inspired' by her 'dying wish'. You've worked with Lunarunn nee Bael from the start, haven't you?"
Blue eyes met blue, one fiery and one neutral, before the door behind them knocked and Pierre stepped in.
Neither Phenex looked away from the other, but Riser blinked wildly as he turned to see who else had cut in right after Ravel's accusation.
Ruval's butler coughed politely. "Pardon me, is this a bad time to return with refreshments?"
Ruval tilted his head slightly to the side, though his eyes remained locked with his sister's, as though scrutinizing her.
Finally, he broke his gaze and turned toward his Queen.
"I would beg to differ. I think this is the exact proper time to sit back down, discuss over a spot of tea." His blues shifted to his brother and sister and said brother's Queen. "Wouldn't you say?"
Ravel stiffened, pupils dilating at the utter emotionlessness of her eldest brother, but instead of lashing out or fleeing, she gathered herself up further, lifting her chin before giving a slight nod.
"Yes," she said, Riser looking at her askance before bowing his own head, brow furrowed. "I think I agree."
Kuoh-Takamagahara Abrahamic Summit, Day Three
Issei wasn't a young man who had many friends. Certainly, he knew himself to be gregarious in public, at least when the situation didn't call for him to be the stoic badass everyone seemed to expect the Red Dragon Emperor to be, but there were few people he would truly call a 'friend'. Asia being the one above all, though Isaiah had somehow found his way onto that list too... the handsome bastard.
Irina wasn't someone he expected to meet again, though now that he had, whenever his gaze turned to her his mind wandered back to their last day together as kids- and how she'd kissed him when she thought he was asleep.
How he had managed to not freak out as a kid still eluded him to this day.
He supposed she was a... friend, too. Had she stuck around, perhaps they'd have been something more than that? He certainly remembered the times they played fondly, even if those times had long since passed.
Then again, maybe it was the fact that she'd grown up to become such a beauty- Issei stopped himself in his tracks.
Friendless for three years, before he met Asia. Maybe that was why he hooked up with Motohama and Matsuda, fed into each other's bad habits. Maybe that was why he had been so receptive to that old man that taught them the truth of the world- the glory of sweet, sweet oppai!
He didn't blame her though. She was just a kid at the time. So was he. He didn't exactly hate who he was either. Still, it had been a rough few years all the same, a time he'd prefer to not think too much about.
But seeing someone from so long ago, who'd grown so... well? Well, perhaps he felt a bit introspective.
"Ise-san, is there something on my face?"
He blinked when he realized that he'd been staring at Irina's eyes for longer than he'd realized, letting out a huff and shaking his head, smiling wryly at being caught off-guard like that.
Issei glanced to the side, to where some Youkai were milling about near some trees. In the distance, he could also catch some Devils doing the same. Clearly, they weren't the only ones who wanted some fresh air. Or to enjoy the sakura-filled surroundings, comfortably seated in the scene of petals.
"Not really. Just thinking about how long it's been. Something like... twelve years now, or something?"
"Twelve, yeah." Irina turned her own gaze away from Issei, frowning slightly. "It's still kind of amazing to think that we're seeing each other again like this."
"No kidding. I had no clue your dad was an Exorcist." Issei glanced to the side, scratching his cheek with a finger. "...So, you decided to follow in his footsteps."
Irina beamed. "Of course! With the life God gave me, it's only fair to give it back through service to Him!"
Issei hummed, tilting his head from side to side before shrugging. "Sure. That seems pretty reasonable to me. Not my thing, but... when in Rome, I suppose."
"Vatican City, actually," Asia supplied helpfully.
"Asia, it's-" he turned to see her beaming at him, and just sighed with a shake of his head. "Honestly, what did I do to deserve you?"
"Y'know, I sometimes wonder that too. Being the huge pervert you are certainly didn't help," someone else commented, causing Issei to stiffen with an 'urk!' and the two Exorcists to freeze in place.
"P-pervert?" The brunette squeaked out.
"Oh yeah. Total sleazebag." Isaiah swooped in with a winning smile, slinging an arm across Issei's shoulder as he beamed at the quickly paling Irina. "Believe me, you do not want to know the amount of Yen he's poured into porn mags, hentai, h-games, and even erotica imported from overseas."
At that point, Irina's entire body seemed to petrify.
"D-dude, seriously!?" Issei yelped, throwing off the blond's arm with a betrayed look. "Don't just drop that sort of stuff! That's for me to share-"
He spun around to the others at the table, pointing at them all with a finger. "-Four hundred, thirty-seven thousand, eight hundred and sixty over the past three years, by the way-"
Then Issei immediately rounded back on Isaiah. "-and for them to find out! You don't just call a guy out like that, so not cool!"
"He... he doesn't even deny it..." a slowly crumbling statue of the brown-haired exorcist whimpered.
Asia smiled at Issei, though it was a little shaky. "Ise-kun... really, must you spend that much money? It's... ah. It's a little excessive..."
"I know how you feel, Miss Irina," Gasper soothed, laying a hand on the girl's arm with a sympathetic expression from across the table. "It's super scary stuff."
"Such blasphemy," Xenovia muttered, scowling as she looked to the side. "Utterly disgusting."
"Yeah, I get that a lot." Issei turned to the blue-haired girl, a brow lifted even as he stared her way. "But seriously, what's disgusting about being a connoisseur of beauty?"
"W-well, it probably has something to do about how men and women are only supposed to... y'know, do it, in wedlock," Asia explained, though it was with a faint flush on her own cheeks.
The way her fingers were poking together and the way she wouldn't look at Issei, it was apparent exactly what she was thinking at that moment in time.
The crumbling statue that was Irina started leaking twin rivers of tears from her frozen mien.
He tilted his head. "...Sure? Like, I get the idea of taking responsibility, but as long as there's actual, y'know, love, then I don't see the point?"
"I will admit, I am only a bit less in the dark as Issei-san," Isaiah admitted, giving a shrug. "I was raised Christian, but I was never taught the importance of marriage in that sense."
"Then I presume you're a heretic?" Xenovia demanded.
"Only heretical if I ever bought in," the blond replied easily, waving a hand. "I was a bit too busy being tortured by the guys who quoted the Bible to really give their words any credit."
That caused the more ardent exorcist to pause, before turning around to meet Isaiah's gaze.
Her normally accusatory gaze had become angry, but it clearly wasn't toward the exorcist. "...Those people. If what you say is true, then those people were not Christians at all."
Isaiah hummed. "Really? Because from what I've heard, they were employed by the Vatican."
That caused all three Christian girls to freeze in their tracks - and Xenovia to start leaking some holy aura. Now she was angry, that much was readily apparent, and Irina had snapped out of her silent despair in favor of shock.
Issei watched, though it was with a sense of growing concern as he watched the atmosphere turn from at least cordial to frigid.
"Be silent," the blue-haired Exorcist growled, lip curling upward in a snarl. "You know not what you speak of."
"The Holy Sword Project," he replied easily. "Which fueled the creation of Holy Containers- use enough of them, and you can give even an untalented person a strong Holy affinity." Isaiah didn't sneer, but it seemed like a close thing to Issei as the swordsman's gaze swept over to the brunette next to Xenovia. "And you... you were one of the people to benefit from it, weren't you?"
Xenovia grit her teeth, clearly trying not to lash out - whether that was in defense of her Church, or her friend, Issei wasn't sure, but he was already rising from his seat.
He didn't have to get involved though, thankfully. Someone was already on their feet.
Irina glanced over at her Exorcist friend with a concerned look in her eyes, even as Gasper did the same to Isaiah, holding an arm between the Exorcists and the swordsman.
"Isaiah... I think you're going too far," the dhampir said softly, but firmly. "Even if what you're saying is true, I don't think Irina did anything wrong. Not that I know about, anyway."
The blond's jaw tightened briefly, and his hands clenched into fists, but he released both alongside his breath as he looked to the side. "...Sorry. Gasper's right."
Irina turned to face Isaiah again. "...How did you know that?"
Isaiah smiled, though it wasn't a happy one, though he didn't look back. "You know how Exorcists are able to sniff out the Id of a Devil? I can do the same, just mirrored."
"Sense holy energy?" Issei prompted, glad that he wouldn't have to step in to break up another brewing fight. He knew that Isaiah had come from the Underworld, was apparently the servant - not Peerage member, there was a difference - to that Diodora guy, but this was all news to him.
Though... hadn't those visions from before hinted that this was true about him? How did he not piece it together before?
"Yeah." Isaiah nodded, glancing at Irina. His expression had softened, but it was still not a happy look. "And I know the feel of my dead friends' holy energy well enough to sense some of them in you."
Issei glanced over at his childhood friend, who looked stricken, and was about to reach out for her before the Exorcist next to her spat out her next word.
Irina turned to her friend. "Xenovia, he knows about-"
"Irina, he's lying," Xenovia hissed, face set in a snarl. "The House of God would never allow such heresy to exist, much less support it!"
Gasper looked to Isaiah, who was now gritting his teeth, lips pulled back..
"...Then what's this about your superior being a former Nazi?" Issei couldn't help but add.
"Keyword being former. Father Strada joined the Vatican as repentance for his actions."
"That's not what I heard according to Azazel-"
"And Azazel is a liar, a fraud, and a rapist!" Xenovia bolted to her feet. "You would trust the word of a creature who would defy his Father and betray Him so?!"
"Even if he is that last bit, at least he doesn't lie outright about what he is," Isaiah bit out. "A piece of shit? Probably. A manwhore? Definitely. But aren't you told to just 'have faith' in the face of any scandals surrounding your bishops? To keep trusting them, even when the evidence mounts of them being even worse than what you've called the Governor-General?"
Now even Asia grimaced, prompting Issei to do the same.
Damn it, and I just wanted some time to sit down away from the talks-
"Okay, settle down-" he started, but was spoken over by Isaiah.
"Maybe Issei calling you a fanatic isn't so far off after all."
"Isaiah, please don't-" Asia tried.
"Better a fanatic than faithless," Xenovia sneered. "I came at Irina's behest to 'see the good' in you all, but all I see is gleeful, intentional blasphemy and apostasy."
"Xenovia, that's enough!" Irina's voice rose, but so too did the swordsman's.
"You know, considering that I was saved from that hellhole and certain death by a Devil, maybe the Demons were in the right all along betraying your God!"
"Isaiah-san!" Asia stood, aghast at the implications. "You're taking this too far!"
"You said it yourself, you've been taken in by a Devil- that makes you no more trustworthy than the lowest of blackguards!" Xenovia's voice was stone as her hand went to her side, only to pause as a sword shrouded in an aura pulsing both white and black rose to her face.
Her eyes widened, as did Irina's and Asia's.
'Sword of Betrayer?' the thought struck Issei. How'd he know the name?
Regardless of how he knew, one fact remained: it was strong. Dangerously strong. Strong enough that the Youkai, and some members from the other factions' delegations had paused what they were doing to turn and watch, whispering. Was this his Balance Breaker?
"Draw your weapon," Isaiah breathed, pupils dilated and expression murderous. "Go on. Give me a reason."
"Isaiah, that's enough!" Gasper snapped, the shadows around them flickering as his eyes shone red. "Xenovia, you too! Walk away, now!"
"Gasper's right," Issei added, arm shooting out to grab the Sword of Betrayer in the gauntlet of the Boosted gear, lowering both even as he glared at the blue-haired Exorcist. "Isaiah went too far in attacking your faith, but you completely spat in his face. He may be a handsome bastard, but from what I know of him, he's anything but a liar."
Isaiah's eyes shifted to Issei's, posture slackening ever so slightly as he processed what the brunet just said.
"Xenovia..." Irina glanced between her and the still-apoplectic swordsman, then to Issei, before swallowing and giving him a nod. "We don't know the full story. But Mother Griselda and Father Vasco might. Let's confer with them, so that we might know the truth."
"They'll claim ignorance," Isaiah said, slowly, but much of the threat in his voice had subsided. He didn't let go of his weapon, but he didn't try to fight Issei's grasp on the blade either. "Whether or not they actually knew what was going on, they won't admit to anything."
His other hand went to his pocket, causing everyone there to tense up except Gasper, yet he only pulled out his smartphone.
"You want proof? I have dozens of eyewitness testimonies, every single one of them as human as you Exorcists." The blond tossed it onto the table, the thump of the cellular device somehow deafening. His gaze didn't stray from Xenovia once. "I'll even let you choose which of them to reach out to."
Something about that stood out to Issei. Isaiah wasn't a Devil, he knew that, so why would Isaiah imply that he wasn't entirely human himself? Did it have something to do with what Valerie did to him? Moreover, why would he train himself to sniff out holy energy? Did he have such a vendetta against the Church despite escaping with his life and the lives of his friends?
Wait, that wasn't the right question to ask.
"As if I can trust your 'contacts', blasphemer." Xenovia sniffed and turned away. "God shall show me the way, as He always has. I'm done here Irina, there is no reason for me to have come to visit your Godless 'friends'."
With that, she turned and walked off, head held high as she passed a group of Youkai, not paying them so much as a single glance as she passed by and re-entered the building. Irina swallowed and looked between the remaining young adults, before bowing her head.
"Please forgive her," she pleaded quietly. "Xenovia has always been... hardheaded, but she has her heart in the right place."
"You would defend her for being so willfully ignorant?" Isaiah asked, nonplussed even as he dismissed his sword, Issei's hand returning to his side.
The brunette turned back to where her Exorcist companion walked off, and the way that the figures around her gave way, though not without visibly whispering to each other. "It's just... it's everything she's ever known. Xenovia's whole life, she's been surrounded by Exorcists, the Church, and God."
"So she's having culture shock?" Asia guessed, visibly relaxing now that the tension between Xenovia and Isaiah had defused for the time being, at least.
"That... wouldn't be a bad way to say it." Irina shook her head, before looking at Isaiah again. "I know that the Holy Sword Project exists. You said it yourself, I was one of its recipients. But..."
"But you don't want to face the fact that it cost so many people their lives to even have marginal success," the swordsman finished bluntly.
"I-" The Exorcist lifted a hand to her breast, looking at the ground as her words got stuck in her throat. She coughed slightly, then continued, words halting. "It's hard to... to believe. Though... that sword you drew..."
Irina trailed off briefly before shaking her head. "I was told that each subject eventually found a family to call their own. That they all left... happy that they were able to help. A-are you sure that the Holy Sword Project you were talking about and the one I benefited from are... the same, Isaiah-san?"
Isaiah raised a brow and gestured to his phone. "Are you seriously asking me that? If you really want to know, the proof's right there."
Gasper shook his head. "There's been enough fighting already, Isaiah. Please, just take a few deep breaths."
The swordsman met the dhampir's eyes, then nodded, doing just that.
The Red Dragon Emperor nodded at Irina. "I know I'm an outsider, but I trust Isaiah-san's word."
Irina's gaze shifted to Issei, then she nodded slightly, crestfallen as the hand on her chest tightened into a fist. "...What were their names, Isaiah-san?"
The swordsman in question tilted his head, the anger from before fading. "Their names?"
"Mh." The exorcist nodded once more, locking eyes with Isaiah. "So I know whose souls to pray for. Even if your recollection of it isn't... necessarily true, I think they deserve that. After all, it's because of them that I can serve God and His children as well as I can."
Isaiah's gaze hardened, but after another look - this time locking eyes with Gasper for a brief moment - they finally softened, and he gave a nod back to the brunette, opening his mouth to answer-
The world turned gray, a chill wave of... something washing over them all.
Asia and Irina stumbled briefly before catching themselves, while Issei, Isaiah, and Gasper all froze in place as they fought off the alien sensation that slammed into them with the wave of monochrome.
The sakura petals had stopped falling.
The ones already in the air withered away.
Issei's eyes widened, the plate of Balance Breaker forming over him instinctively as he whipped his head in the direction the pulse had originated from, even as Isaiah did the exact same, Sword of Betrayer back in hand.
In that direction, laid a colorless mist, though he knew it was only from the monochrome that covered the world, slowly billowing outward.
"No..." the Issei whispered, eyes wide as memories flickered through his mind. He recognized the mist, just like how he recognized the way the world around them had lost color. "Is that...?"
"Dimension Lost." Isaiah finished, a chill washing over the brunet's spine. How did he know that? How did Isaiah know?
"Issei-san?" "Ise-kun?" "Isaiah?" the other three said, looking between the two Balance-Breaker equipped individuals and each other.
"Gasper, it's here." the blond warned.
"Asia, Irina, you two need to run. Get back to Kuoh proper," Issei said at the same time, before looking at Isaiah. "Wait, you want Gasper to come along?"
"Gasper can handle himself," Isaiah confirmed, giving a nod to the Dhampir in question. "He's gone through the same thing we have."
The dhampir in question gulped, but nodded, red eyes firm.
"Fine. But we need to hurry!" Issei wasted no time in spreading his wings and blasting forward toward the mist-surrounded Kuoh replica, Isaiah and Gasper in hot pursuit.
"Wait, Issei-san, I can fight too!" Irina made to do the same, but she was grabbed onto by Asia, who was wide-eyed and shaking.
"Don't go," she pleaded. "You aren't strong enough for what they'll be facing."
Irina paused, then turned back to the former nun. "What do you mean?"
"I recognize this too. The... the colorless surroundings." the blonde gulped. "If you try fighting that... you'll die before you could even blink."
"Then what about Issei-san?!" the exorcist protested. "What about Father Dulio, Father Vasco, and Mother Griselda? What about Xenovia?! She'll be rushing headlong into there too!"
Asia stilled, then shook her head. "I... I'll have to have faith that Ise-kun and the others can keep everyone safe... and that the person behind all this is feeling merciful."
"Smart choice, girl."
They both turned around to the source of that voice, the red-and-blue-haired man watching the two before his gaze shifted to where the mist was heaviest.
"Guess I got here too late to keep 'em from rushing headlong in." He grumbled, hands behind his back. "I didn't realize they'd be so quick on their feet. Eh, they can probably handle themselves."
Asia blinked, not recognizing this individual, but Irina on the other hand...
She stood in front of Asia in a combat stance, pulling up her sleeve and resting her hand atop a ribbon.
Irina's eyes narrowed. "What are you doing here Mephisto?"
Underworld, Day Three
As Ruval stood amidst the Pillars, illuminated by the Underworld sky from the Assembly Hall's glass ceiling, he couldn't help but note the attendance of this particular meeting. He had seen Rias Gremory's brilliant scarlet locks over next to her mother and father, and even the likes of Zephyrdor Glasya-Labolas, Nelen Oriax, Seekvaira Agares, and Sairaorg Bael.
He'd also caught Diehauser Belial's gaze and shared a brief nod, if nothing more.
Everyone was here. Even the heirs. Everyone except for one house: the Valac family.
That alone was a peculiar matter, but what was even more concerning was that it wasn't just Pillar heads here. There were the elders too. He saw the similarly red hair of the Gremory elder next to her son and daughter-in-law, twiddling her thumbs with a bored look on her face. He also took note of the grizzled Astaroth elder, hands on some paper with eyes closed, as though waiting to transcribe the Assembly to pore through at a later date.
The elders included one whose very presence filled the room.
Ruval Phenex specifically did not meet Zekram's gaze. He had little reason to firsthand, nor did he want to give the old Devil the opportunity to take offense.
He already had enough on his plate. He did not need to incite the first Great King at this point.
Whatever was going on, to include both elders and heirs in the normally Pillar-led Assembly meant that whatever was going on... it was going to be a big discussion.
That being said, he was also thankful that he was the only Phenex in the chamber, in part because he knew that he'd be facing sanctions. It would be easier to fight back that way.
Him having to bar his parents from doing so on his authority as a Lord, however... that had left a sour taste in his mouth at the time.
Zekram raised his hand, and the whole Assembly went quiet.
"Welcome, everyone." He lowered his hand, violet gaze sweeping across the forum. "I understand that we are all busy, and I acknowledge each and every one of your efforts to preserve and extend the greatness of our Underworld. However, as I understand it, we face a crisis unlike any we have faced since the Civil War."
The Great King waited for the murmurs to settle before he continued. "Enemies at our doorstep. Conflict within our own borders. Even as our best and brightest make peace with our oldest foes. The very existence of the Great Houses, one by one, stands threatened. You may notice that one of our own is missing."
Ruval's eyes widened as realization struck. Many others shared his reaction, and Zekram nodded gravely.
"Yes. I can see you all have connected the dots too. House Valac was recently beset by an unknown assailant, its inhabitants either missing... or killed." He bowed his head. "It is not the same bloodbath as what befell the Dantalion family, but the fact of the matter is still the same."
Zekram's head rose, lifting a hand. "We are under attack. Our way of life is under attack. Our brothers, our sisters, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, all at risk by these... savages, who would undo millennia of growth and cultivation!"
He clenched his hand into a fist. "We know not our enemy. We know not their purpose. But we have reason to suspect. After all, it was discovered not long ago that Lord Phenex's claim of slaying the Dark Moon was false."
Ruval turned his head and immediately interjected, ignoring the faces that had all turned to him at the implication. "My apologies, Lord Zekram. It was a difficult battle, between my former feelings toward my once-fiancee and the strength she undoubtedly inherited from her bloodline, I was in no place to cremate her body when she finally fell."
"Then what did you do with her supposed remains?" Lord Forneus asked, the anglerfish-looking Devil side-eyeing the Lord with visible suspicion.
"The Exorcist who aided me in the fight against the Dark Moon asked that he bury her body. It appears that the two had once been friends as well." His expression tightened. "It appears that I may have been misled as to his true intentions."
"And the name of that Exorcist?" Lord Beleth pressed.
"Masaomi Yaegeki. From what I gleaned from him, he was from the Nineveh Division of the Vatican's Exorcist Corps." Ruval raised a hand to his chin, stroking his finely-trimmed goatee in thought. "Upon learning that the Dark Moon was alive, I did some digging into the Vatican using my contacts in their medical supply chain. Apparently the higher-ups in the Vatican had caught word of Mr. Yaegeki aiding a Devil and was subsequently court-martialled."
More muttering, much of it angry. Ruval wasn't sure how much of it was directed at him, however.
Lord Astaroth spoke up. "Was there any word about the Dark Moon herself appearing in the Vatican's records?"
Ruval shook his head. "They did not specify which Devil. Apparently, all Devils are the same in the light of their Holy Law. Still, it is in a close-enough time frame that I could infer they were talking about Lunarunn Noname."
He didn't need to fake the sneer in his voice, one that was mimicked by his fellow Lords.
"It is good to see that you have done your due diligence following your error fifteen years ago, Lord Phenex," Zekram inclined his head toward Lord Phenex and smiled. "It is merely a pity that your diligence had not extended toward the funeral rites your betrothed should have received."
"I wish I'd known that she would somehow be nursed back to health beforehand," he agreed. "Though I hear that Lazarus Syndrome is a rare occurrence in humans. Perhaps her heart began beating again after I confirmed it had stopped."
"Perhaps," Zekram acknowledged, expression neutral. "Nonetheless, your error then now gives us cause to suspect that you may have let her go, on account of your acknowledged feelings toward her. That probable cause is part of why we are here today."
"I understand," Ruval said with a bow of his head. "Either way such inquiry goes, rest assured that should we meet face to face on the battlefield in the future, I will do everything in my power to ensure that justice is delivered as it should have been all those years ago. This I swear, on my Id and my Pillar."
The declaration seemed to go over well, getting nods from the other Devils present, though Rias, Sona, Venelana, and Zekram himself instead stared at the Phenex neutrally.
"I would hope so," the gray-haired Devil running the Assembly replied. "Still, that leaves the matter of our lands being attacked. You specified that you had been dealing with banditry for a while now, have you not?"
"Yes, Lord Zekram. Their tactics are remarkably similar to the guerilla warfare used by the human's Viet Cong or our Malebranche Rebellion, their ability to go to ground after an assault nothing short of infuriating."
"And you have had no luck in locating them?" Zeoticus queried.
"I enlisted the aid of Heiress Gremory's Rook in tracking them down through Senjutsu. Despite the attack on my own Peerage active in the area, I ensured Koneko Toujou's safety when I encountered the leader of the bandits in question."
"And for that, you have House Gremory's gratitude," Venelana bowed her head, before adding in: "Though were it not for you asking this of my daughter and her Rook, you would not have needed to make the choice between honoring a deal and protecting your own."
Ruval shook his head. "I made clear the risk they would be under. I instead commend both your daughter's generosity and her Rook's courage to provide aid even in the face of such danger. Their actions should make their Pillar proud."
Rias looked away with a slight flush, though Zeoticus scowled, and Venelana just nodded with a slight smile of acknowledgement that failed to reach her eyes. Those instead shimmered with... amusement?
"You say that as though you were unable to do both," Lord Gamigin pointed out. "Considering that you fought Diehauser Belial to a standstill in your last Rating Game, are you implying that this leader of lowly bandits is as powerful as our finest?"
"In terms of raw power? No. Their magic was muted. Limited, even, much like Heir Bael's." Ruval tilted his head at Sairaorg to prove his point. "But their skill with their sword?" The Phenex lord's head shook from side to side again. "I have not seen such skill, nor such danger from the blade, since my own master's passing at the hands of Falbium Asmodeus."
"Eospa Marchosias," Zekram said, crossing his arms. "Yet mastery beyond mastery of weaponry is a bloodline only the Marchosias family."
"The leader of the bandits introduced themselves as Aesle, the Last Marchosias."
That caused the Assembly to erupt in shouts, ranging from alarm to the impossibility of such a claim to accusations of lies on the part of Lord Phenex.
Only he and Zekram were silent, staring each other down coolly.
The elder of the two raised his hand with a flare of his power, and the Assembly fell silent once more.
"Eospa Marchosias was the last of his line. The entire bloodline was wiped out in the Civil War,"
'Yet it didn't stop you from trying to use them to yoke Luna, you-' Ruval cut off his train of thought. It wouldn't do well to get distracted now.
"It is not out of the realm of possibility that he impregnated one of the Old Satans during his service to them," Ruval replied, raising a hand to the side, palm-up. "I did occasionally receive letters from him discussing his opinion of the war, what life was like on the other side, and the rapport he'd picked up with one of their leaders. It is possible that he was understating the strength of that rapport to prevent them from becoming a target."
He let that comment hang, forcing someone else to ask the question; in this case, Lord Glasya-Labolas. "Who was the leader you speak of?"
Ruval closed his eyes and scratched his cheek. "It has been a while since I last read them, but I believe that he was speaking about Katerea Leviathan?"
Silence. The blond looked around. "Can anyone confirm if she had an extended period of absence from the battlefield at some point in time?"
There was a period of silence, then...
"Katerea Leviathan was injured in battle against our oldest daughter," Lord Sitri admitted. "She did not appear again. As spiteful as Katerea can be, it would take something significant to pull her away, and from what Serafall told us, she was not badly injured enough to force retirement. We wondered what might have happened." He met Ruval's gaze. "Perhaps now we know."
"This is still conjecture," Lord Asmoday pointed out. "There is nothing but Lord Ruval's word and circumstantial evidence to suggest that we may be dealing with the last pure Marchosias. Even if the bandit's supposed skill with the sword is as Lord Phenex claims, it could just as well be some upstart who got their hands on a King Piece."
More murmurs, with one of the younger Devils speaking out.
"A King Piece, Lord Asmoday?" Rias spoke out. "I was under the impression that Evil Pieces consisted of every chess piece except the King, as we Devils operate as such."
"The King Pieces were an abandoned experiment into increasing the power of Devils," Lord Bael replied. "These days, they are no longer produced legally, and considered contraband of the highest order."
"And why is that?" Seekvaira asked.
Ruval answered that, having learned of it from his parents during his ascension to his Lordship. "They increase a Devil's power tenfold... by increasing their Id by double that. You all understand how Id and our power are connected, correct?"
"The Power of Creation?" Sona guessed, to which Ruval gave a brief nod.
"The Power of Will, but close enough. The Power of Creation is a side-effect of that, a holdover from the Demons' original affiliation. Instead, our magic is powered by our instinct. Our desires. We are already a species steeped in sin, each of us have taken on some sort of Sin as a part of us. For the Gremories, it is usually Avaritia. For the Baels, they typically fall under the banner of Superbia. For the Sitris, Luxuria is the general adoption."
The Devils in question nodded.
"And what about you, Lord Phenex?" Sairaorg asked, crossing his arms.
"For a while, it was Acedia." Ruval sighed. "These days, it is difficult for me to determine. I am not the Devil I once was, after all. But that is beside the point. Already, our Id can be difficult to control. As King Pieces were used to empower Devils by enhancing Id..."
"Did the Dark Moon go mad because the Naberius heir ended up inserting a King Piece in her after killing her parents, perhaps?" Diehauser offered an opportunity that Ruval was eager to take.
"I am not sure. But it is certainly possible, plausible even; the power she displayed during our battle was far and away beyond what I had previously known her capable of," The Phenex Lord admitted. "But if that is the truth, then it's a good showing of why the King Pieces have been banned for ages; for most that take them, it drives them mad. Even for those that don't, it changes them, and usually not for the better. They become more impulsive. More prone to succumbing to their Id, the same way our Demonic forefathers once were."
"Which brings me to my next point." Zekram rose and folded his hands behind his back. "I wish to discuss reopening research into King Pieces. With the latest developments by Lord Beelzebub and R&D in Lilith City, I believe we are reaching a point where we can safely reintroduce them into the Peerage System."
More raised voices, prompting the Great King to shut them all up quickly with a quickly-raised hand. "I do not make this judgment lightly. I believe that with the advent of these new developments, both in our lands and out, this would be the best time to begin a beta phase. Those who possess a Peerage can apply for this beta, and upon acceptance be granted a King Piece - so long as they are willing to come in weekly for testing on their state of Id."
"And what would that mean for the Rating Games!" Lord Gamigin demanded. "How in the world do you expect us to just accept that some of these individuals will suddenly be able to compete with the Ten Rating Kings, just because they took some cheap power-up that others couldn't?!"
"Naturally, they would need to resign from the Rating Games. It would not do for some competitors to have an undue advantage over the others." Zekram looked around. "That being said, House Bael would be more than willing to offer them payroll as Defenders of the Realm, as well as for any medical bills that arise due to unforeseen complications."
So that was Zekram's game, was it? It wasn't even a bad idea, given the context of the discussion. Still, it was a fairly obvious power grab, with the same effect of 'pardoning' anyone who may already have had a King Piece. Another double-whammy.
Ruval's mind went to the pink-haired Rating King that he'd shared a bed with once. It hadn't worked out, but at the same time they knew a bit more about each other than before, including a couple dirty secrets.
It took the Phenex Lord effort to not grimace at his decision to reciprocate back then. Roygun Belphegor might not even be punished for her secret, but if she was ambitious enough to sell him out regarding his knowledge of Luna...
"How sure can you be that they will remain the same people?" Ruval pointed out. "You wouldn't be able to predict who ends up succumbing to that enhanced Id, nor would you be able to accurately determine the overall increase to their capability. Tenfold power and twentyfold Id are just the averages, after all."
"Part of the application for the beta would be a battery of tests to ensure that one, the recipient is stable enough to withstand the impact it would have on their Id, and two, that said recipient is powerful enough for the King Piece to have a meaningful impact on their ability to contribute to, as I specified, defending the realm."
Layers upon layers. Even so, there was no way he could argue against that sort of explanation, so instead he just bowed his head in acquiescence.
Zekram Bael gestured to the other Pillar heads. "We may deny it all we wish, but it appears old enemies are stirring once more. We, their successors, must be ready to defend our way of life by any means necessary. If we do not, there is no telling what we might become. I wish to remain as we are; ours is a machine that has run for millennia, and if I have my way, it would do so for countless more. For that, I ask that my son put forth a vote."
Lord Bael stared at Zekram, before turning back to the rest of the Pillars with a nod. "I stand with my father. His wisdom has given us the wealth and prosperity we bear now. In that regard, in my status as Conductor of the Assembly, I put forth the vote: Shall we, the Seventy-Two Pillars of the Ars Goetia, affirm the necessity of King Pieces in our future, and begin a process of integrating them into those who would defend us from those who would force their views upon us?"
It wasn't as clear-cut a vote as Ruval half-expected it to be. Alongside himself, several other families - the Sitris, the Belials, the Agares, and the Asmodeus families in particular voted nay on the proposal, citing concerns with what the unintended consequences of such a motion might be. Several more abstained, including the Gremory family.
But the clear majority voted to affirm the process anyway.
Many were dissatisfied, especially among the younger Devils. Sairaorg in particular was put-out by the result, judging by the way he stormed out.
"The Assembly has decided. Of the twenty-seven Pillars present, eight voted against, and fourteen in favor of the King Piece Beta Program. Five abstained. Thus, the King Piece Program has been approved, headed by Zekram Bael," Lord Bael declared. "May his wisdom show us the way forward."
"Thank you, son." Zekram smiled. "Now, let's move on to our next topic of the day-"
He was cut off by the sound of shattering glass, everyone looking up to see several Devils concealed in cloth rushing in, one of whom had just hurled something downward like a black meteor, the others leveling firearms at the Pillars, fire and light spitting from the barrels.
Golden eyes from above gleamed as that 'something' fell to the floor and blood sprayed through the air from the Devils hit, much of it dissolving into motes of light.
'What?!' Ruval bolted to his feet, wings wide, and blasted to the side. Why was Aesle here? How hadn't the teleportation failsafes triggered? Where were the guards?
Too many questions, too little time to process them.
Those golden eyes became covered by heavy shades as Ruval moved, not toward the Marchosias but toward the Gremory family instead, all of whom were visibly caught off-guard by the intrusion, and paid dearly for it.
Zeoticus's half-formed barrier shattered, his arm reaching out to unleash one more spell toward the leader of the assault, even as he fell to the ground with the red of his blood mixing with the red of his hair.
Aesle sliced the bolt of emerald light - as well as the few other spells that raced toward the Marchosias from the other nobles - in twain with contemptuous ease, the Devil's simple sword gleaming with ominous intent from the zenith of its singular upward swing.
Even if he himself fell, the Gremory Lord's mother had escaped the worst of the assault, albeit with blood leaking through her fingers as she staggered back and grasped at her shoulder. Venelana had already taken Rias and dove to the ground, and so Ruval couldn't see the extent of their own wounds.
From the corner of his eye, even as Lord Phenex put his immense power into a barrier as strong and wide as he could, to protect as many as he could, he could see other Devils throwing up their own hastily-created defenses. Diehauser had already formed a barrier to cover as many Devils as he could, though his face was taut with a grimace as the bullets exploded into clouds of unicorn dust.
Zekram was doing much the same, old experience coming to the fore as the Power of Destruction formed a wall to disintegrate anything that attempted to pass through to him or his closest family members.
Ruval was halfway between the Sitris and the Gremories when his own barrier was hit. It held, but only momentarily.
Mere moments after the whole ambush started, the device hit the ground, a wave of something anathema to the Phenex's existence slammed into his defense, and in the blast of light and noise that broke through, Ruval knew no more.
Masaomi stared up at the building in the distance, a feeling of apprehension washing over him from his position in one of the city's many alleys.
He'd known the mission for a while now, but to actually be here, on the cusp of executing it... it was daunting.
"Getting cold feet, Masaomi?"
The former exorcist's eyes shifted to the gray-haired axeman, who was staring up at that same building with arms behind his head. As opposed to Masaomi's nervousness, Gil almost seemed excited. His eyes certainly shone with anticipation.
The black-haired man shook his head. "No. More... uneasy. It's one thing to talk about performing such a feat, but to actually follow through..."
"For me, it's about damn time," Gil admitted freely. "I've wanted to do something like this for ages now."
Masaomi looked at the others in their cell, noting the young teen staring ahead much the same as he and Gil. Instead of excitement or unease, there was merely concentration.
"We're dealing with some real heavy hitters," the priest commented. "Do we have what it takes to overcome them?"
"They have Sacred Gears. But then again, so do we. As well as a dude with one of the strongest natural Holy affinities to grace the Vatican since Vasco Strada."
Masaomi's eyes widened, and he leaned in with a hiss. "Wait, how do you know that? That's supposed to be sealed by the Archbishops!"
The young man closed his eyes and sighed.
"Well, you were a top benchmark for the rest of us."
The rest of us...?
It clicked, the exorcist's eyes widening faintly. "The Holy Sword Project."
He'd heard about it from Luna, but this young man was one of them?
...What did they do, that a young man's hair would gray so prematurely?
"Got it in one. I'm one of the survivors. Apparently I'm a Hero Descendant too." Gil chuckled wryly, opening one eye to smirk Masaomi's way. "Funny how that works out, eh?"
"Don't worry about it. I'm not in this whole Dawn Legion shtick for revenge." Gil pushed off the alley wall, crossing his arms as he stared at the mighty spires in the distance. "But some closure, for the others...? It'd be nice to finally pay Isaiah back for all the help he gave us when we couldn't fend for ourselves."
Isaiah... Hadn't Asia mentioned something about an 'Isaiah' being an exchange student that showed up shortly before Luna accidentally blew up the town?
Surely the two weren't the same, right?
Then again, considering the Sacred Gear Issei held...
Masaomi shook his head and stepped forward, dispelling his tangent in favor of nodding once. "And closure you'll get. One way or another."
The ashen-haired Hero Descendant grinned toothily, gaze locked firmly on the building ahead of them. "Damn skippy."
The very same building as the center of Vatican City, guarded by Angel and Exorcist alike.
Oh yeah, now we're in business. Time for the gravy train to start rolling.
Tempura Wizard, out.