Chapter 54 – Unity

"So much chaos…"

Leon muttered, surveying the state of the battlefield below him as he flew with all the speed he could muster. Monstrosities that seemed to have sprung from the worst nightmares one's mind could conjure were rampaging in a manner akin to feral beasts, bearing down on the members of the Pantheon Alliance with no regard for their well-being.

If he hadn't witnessed their transformation with his own eyes, Leon would find it hard to believe that these creatures used to be Khaos Brigade members, twisted beyond recognition by the vilest of magics. The identity of the one who had reduced them to such a state was also a cause for grave concern, hence his current agitated state and why he had left his comrades behind under Bruno's command to deal with the monsters while he headed for the enemy's stronghold.

"…Too fast. Slow down."

Dia, who was following behind Leon, complained with a slight pout on her face.

"Sorry, but this is a matter of grave importance." Leon said. "Are you certain about what you sensed, Ddraig?"

[Absolutely certain.] Ddraig responded. [Neither that wicked aura nor this atrocious handiwork can be mistaken for anything else. Aži Dahāka has awakened at last. And whenever he makes an appearance, disaster is sure to follow. Having to rely on his power of all things, your friend is in deep trouble one way or another.]

"Trouble seems to be the default state of affairs whenever Takeshi is concerned…" Leon said with an exasperated sigh. "At least I can't complain of boredom whenever I'm around him and Vali."

After a short while, the two Heaven warriors arrived at the citadel, only to come across another scene of utter pandemonium. All buildings within had been wrecked, with large amounts of chimera flies, which had vaguely humanoid bodies, two sets of wings protruding from their backs, fanged mouths and four arms with six clawed fingers each, pouring out of the destroyed fortress and rushing out into the open field en masse.

At that moment, an earsplitting roar echoed, with more parts of the fortress collapsing as a massive shadow emerged from it.

"What in Heaven's name…?"

Leon's expression was a mix of shock and disgust at the sight of the dreadful monster that had appeared just now. It resembled an oversized fly with an armored exoskeleton, but also had eight spider legs and four clawed hands growing from its body, a scorpion-like tail, multiple dragonfly-like wings protruding from its back and a pair of horns growing from its head. Copious amounts of miasma poured out of its body as it spread its wings, releasing a wave of corrupted aura that made both Angels nauseous.

"…Distorted." Dia shuddered. "…Shouldn't exist."

"No arguments there." Leon said, summoning Boosted Gear and preparing to activate his Balance Breaker. "With the amount of aura this thing is exuding, I might need to use the Juggernaut Drive to bring it down…"

"…Wait." Dia said. "…Over there."

Following Dia's gaze, Leon saw that the majority of the Gremory group, Irina and Rossweisse had barricaded themselves as well as they could in the remains of one of the largest shrines, facing a swarm of chimera flies charging at them by firing their respective long-range attacks at their ranks.

Meanwhile, near the ruins of the central fortress, Pandora and Takeshi were standing side by side, taking down all chimera flies in their way while trying to distance themselves from the giant monstrosity hovering near them.

"Rias-san and the others seem to be handling things on their own more or less." Leon said. "We should help Takeshi and Pandora-san."

"…Right."

Dia nodded, following after Leon. Once the two of them got close enough to the two Devils, they launched a volley of light spears and blades at the surrounding chimera flies, tearing through their ranks and scattering them.

As he landed behind Takeshi, Leon pulled the Five of Spades from the card holder in his belt and swiped it in the buckle.

[Tremor!]

Two thick gauntlets enveloped his arms, with Leon delivering a series of jabs at the nearby enemies. Each of his blows generated a powerful shockwave that pulverized the chimera flies with ease. Behind him, Takeshi, who had Berserk Devastator equipped, slashed at his opponents with the flame-enveloped blades on his gauntlets, tearing them apart.

Next to the two boys, Dia released a storm of holy flames and wind, vaporizing the chimera flies caught up in it. Pandora added her own attacks to the mix, launching a barrage of ice arrows from her longbow before transforming its limbs into whips, tearing apart anyone who approached the two girls.

In a matter of seconds, the area had been cleared of enemies, with Takeshi turning to Leon.

"Is this Chalice Rouzer-based equipment?" Takeshi said, a glint in his eyes as he stared at Leon's belt. "If the Church's handing out such interesting toys to its members, maybe I should consider a career change."

"Little late for that, I'm afraid." Leon said, gesturing at the monster hovering a short distance away from them. "More importantly, what on Earth is that thing?"

"That would be Shalba Beelzebub." Takeshi said. "He managed to become an even bigger pain in our ass, both figuratively and literally."

"Hoh, Shalba, you say? That sounds like an intriguing story."

All four youths tensed as Vali suddenly emerged from a nearby shadow, Milena standing next to him.

"Vali Lucifer…" Pandora said with narrowed eyes. "Are you here for another fight?"

"I'm here to fight, yes, but not against you this time." Vali said, his gaze focused on the mutated Shalba. "How did Shalba turn into this beast?"

"If you want the specifics, I'm afraid I can't help you much there." Takeshi said. "I had that bastard on the ropes, and then he pulled out some sort of artifact and jabbed it in his chest. Next thing I knew, he had turned himself into some sort of Biohazard reject and the fortress was coming apart around me."

"Worse yet, he's the one responsible for all these chimera flies appearing." Pandora said, pointing at Shalba's carapace, where several egg sacks could be seen. "Somehow, he's giving birth to them, and there seems to be no sign of him stopping any time soon."

Right on cue, several egg sacks burst, with more chimera flies falling out of them and landing on the ground below, the mandibles on their mouths clicking in a menacing manner.

"Looks like we have one more reason to take down Shalba posthaste." Leon said. "Bad enough that the allied forces have to deal with the mutated terrorists rampaging out there, but adding a constant stream of these chimeras to the mix will only serve to increase the death toll for our side."

"I'm sorry, did you say mutated?" Takeshi frowned. "What happened to them?"

"From what Ddraig told me, Aži Dahāka was the one responsible for their condition." Leon said. "You have awakened his Sacred Gear, yes?"

"I have, though it's the first time I'm hearing that little tidbit." Takeshi said, turning his attention to his belt. "Mind telling me just what the Hell did you do to the enemy's troops, Aži Dahāka?"

The large gem on Cataclysm Zone's buckle briefly shone violet as Aži Dahāka spoke.

[Oh, a bit of this, a bit of that~.]

[After such a long time, I was eager to see what would happen if I tweaked the defensive formulas meant to shield them from their soul severance ritual's effects after I disabled the magic formation.]

[Results were acceptable. Chimerification experiment offers useful data for future endeavors.]

[Such a repulsive way of thinking as usual.] Albion's voice echoed from Vali's wings. [Then again, resuming your demented experiments the moment you woke up is very much in line with you, Aži Dahāka.]

[I have to agree with Albion here.] Ddraig spoke next. [There is a reason why you are unanimously considered to be the worst Evil Dragon in history. You definitely were a huge bother for me and Albion, always going after us in order to dissect our bodies and analyze our abilties.]

[You say all these harsh words, but deep down, I know you guys missed me~.]

[And now that I have awoken once again, I will resume my quest to unlock this world's secrets, including your own, regardless of how many corpses I have to pile up on the way there.]

[Further altercation, pointless. Unique specimen awaiting neutralization and analysis.]

"As much as I hate agreeing with Aži Dahāka, right now, our priority is Shalba." Takeshi said, glaring at the oversized fly above. "He's docile for now, apart from birthing his spawn, but I don't think he'll remain in that state for long."

"Agreed." Leon said. "He must be eliminated before he starts rampaging as well and throws the battlefield into even further chaos."

"Well, I have already taken down one Beelzebub descendant, and I'm eager to add one more to my list of kills for the day." Vali said with a grin. "While I'm more of a solo player, I think this situation calls for a team-up."

"While I very much agree with that, I'm surprised you're the one suggesting this." Leon said with a hint of suspicion in his voice. "I figured you'd be all 'I can handle this on my own, so you should stay out of my way'. Moreover, isn't that your comrade over there? Are you saying you have no problem fighting against a fellow Khaos Brigade member?"

"Please." Vali scoffed at Leon's words. "Shalba and his ilk are no comrades of mine. We've been at each other's throats ever since I joined the Khaos Brigade, so if anything, today has been a great opportunity to settle this vendetta. Plus, I'm certain he's too far gone at this point."

Seeing that a small group of humanoid chimera flies approaching them, Vali pointed at them, unleashing a stream of azure flames that incinerated them in a matter of seconds before speaking again.

"As for my offer of cooperation, make no mistake, I'm perfectly capable of handling this beast on my own." Vali said. "Knowing you two though, there's no way you would sit this one out regardless of what I said. Since I'd rather not waste my time on pointless arguments, I will allow you two to fight by my side."

"Your arrogant way of speaking hasn't changed one bit, Vali." Takeshi laughed while hitting his fists together. "However, you're not wrong. Still to think that our first joint endeavor in a while would be a giant monster battle, I can't help but find this both hilarious and exciting. Alright, let's do this! It'll be just like old times!"

"I'm fairly certain that we never had to face actual monsters back then though?"

"Fine then. It'll be just like new times. Sheesh, way to be a stick-in-the-mud, Leon…"

Takeshi grumbled. At that moment, the monstrous Shalba turned his compound eyes towards the six youths, his aura swelling up in response. Letting out an outraged howl, he formed several energy spheres around his four arms, unleashing a barrage of dense energy blasts towards them.

"I won't let you!"

Leon said, raising the Shield of Evalach and conjuring several holy barriers. Pulling out his wand, Vali also added a variety of defensive magic circles to the mix, constructing a solid defensive formation that blocked the incoming shots.

"Have you recognized us, the ones you despise so much, despite your current state, Shalba?" Vali said, a fearless smirk on his face. "That's good. That way, you can perish while being fully aware at whose hands you did so."

"…Incoming."

Dia remarked, pointing at the area below Shalba. His progeny had gathered there, their bloodlust evident as they rushed towards the six youths.

"We will open a path for you boys." Milena said as she cut open her wrists, with the blood flowing out of them forming several orbs that came to hover around her. "Don't mind the small fries and head straight for Shalba!"

"…Good luck."

"I believe you will be victorious for sure!"

After Dia and Pandora said so, Milena launched a volley of blood projectiles, taking down several chimera flies at once. Turning into mist and reappearing in the midst of the enemy lines, she turned her blood into a long scythe, wielding it together with her broadsword and slicing apart any chimera fly foolish enough to approach her.

Stabbing her broadsword in the ground next, Milena let out a wave of frozen wind that encased all chimera files around in ice, which she proceeded to shatter with her kicks.

Meanwhile, Dia transformed into particles of light to evade the chimera flies' slashes, materializing above them. Spreading her wings wide, she launched a barrage of unstable spherical light projectiles, causing large explosions that consumed several enemies at once. Four large light broadswords also appeared around her, bisecting the nearest chimera flies with ease.

"Get lost!"

Pandora shouted, slamming her mace on the ground and causing several spires to erupt from it, impaling dozens of chimera flies at once. Breaking the spires into a multitude of stone bullets, Pandora pelted the incoming chimera flies with them, shredding their bodies to pieces. She then vanished with a burst of speed, appearing in the midst of another group and sending them flying with a few well-placed hits.

Upon seeing that the enemies' numbers were dwindling, Takeshi, Leon and Vali nodded at each other, spreading their wings and taking flight. Leaving behind the three girls, they landed in the middle of the ruined fortress, glaring at the monstrous Shalba hovering almost right above them. However, at that moment—

"What the Hell do you think you're doing, Vali?"

Takeshi glared at the silver-haired youth, who had placed himself between the former and Leon.

"Isn't it obvious?" Vali said. "The position of center belongs to the leader, in other words, me."

"Who died and made you leader, eh?" Takeshi said, his eye twitching as he shoved Vali to the side. "Besides, there's one only person fit to stand in the middle of this trio, and that's me!"

"What an unfunny joke." Vali said, attempting to wedge himself between Leon and Takeshi once again. "The most exalted existence must occupy the most conspicuous position. I won't budge on this matter, Takeshi."

"Oh, I agree with that notion, but not on who the most exalted one is." Takeshi growled as he and Vali locked their hands together, each attempting to push the other out. "I'm not giving up my rightful position!"

"Would you two give it a rest already!?" Leon shouted while trying to separate Vali and Takeshi. "This isn't the time or place! Since it's come down to this, then I, as red, will take the center position!"

"Ah, how sneaky!" Takeshi said, pointing his finger at Leon. "Trying to take advantage of this situation to place yourself as leader by invoking the Sentai rule? That won't fly here!"

"What Takeshi said." Vali nodded. "Not only isn't the 'red means leader' rule absolute, but also, this isn't a Sentai team yet, so your argument is invalid, Leon. More importantly, you two should step aside already!"

"Not in a million years!" Takeshi shouted. "The center position is mine!"

"Why can't you people see reason here!?" Leon cried out in exasperation. "Just let me stand in the middle now, and we can take turns next time!"

"No! The first time in a long while is too important!"

As the three youths bickered, Shalba seemed confused on how to react. Eventually, his tail extended, shooting a volley of oversized stingers at them. Distracted by their argument, Leon, Vali and Takeshi almost failed to avoid them in time, rolling on the ground in a haphazard manner as debris fell all around them.

[Fight already, you idiots!]

From further back, Dia, Pandora and Milena shouted together in evident exasperation at the trio's antics. Standing up and dusting themselves, the three youths focused on Shalba once again.

"An ill-mannered fellow as always." Vali said. "If you are in such a hurry to join your sister and ancestors on the other side, I'll oblige you."

"We got a bit distracted there and forgot about this stage's last boss." Takeshi said, doing his best to contain his grin that he had ended up in the center position. "You two, we're clearing this game with no continues!"

"That's what we would have been doing from the start if you two weren't so obstinate…" Leon sighed, drawing Fragarach. "Well, it's the first time in history the two Dragon Emperors and the Evil Dragon User have teamed up against a common foe, so let's make this extremely showy!"

As Shalba gathered large amounts of demonic power around his four arms, Leon, Vali and Takeshi shouted together.

"Trans…form!"

"Transform."

"Transform!"

Massive amounts of aura erupted from the trio's bodies as their respective Sacred Gears shone.

[Welsh Dragon Balance Breaker!]

[Vanishing Dragon Balance Breaker!]

[Atrocity Rise! Crime Force Awakening!]

The three youths' respective Scale Mails materialized around their bodies, with the ensuing aura outburst deflecting Shalba's shots and causing them to explode behind them.

"Hear our roar!" Leon shouted while spreading his arms. "The sacred sword of justice that strikes down all evil, Leon Ainsworth!"

"The brilliant flame of pride that dances on the battlefield, Vali Lucifer."

"The everlasting darkness that returns all creation to zero, Ryuugamine Takeshi!"

"A perfect roll call like old times!" Leon said with evident glee. "It's going to get wild!"

The three Dragon users pointed at Shalba while shouting together.

[Just try and stop us!]

Spreading their wings, the three youths took flight and charged at Shalba.

"…What the Hell are these guys doing?"

Pandora murmured, a confused expression on her face as she smashed another chimera fly heading for her.

"The first blow is mine!"

Takeshi declared, releasing a condensed flame blast at one of Shalba's eyes. He let out an annoyed growl, but was unaffected. His fanged mouth opened, with a tongue dripping with poison extending from it and aiming for Takeshi.

"I don't think so!"

Appearing in front of Takeshi, Leon batted the tongue aside with his shield and attempted to sever it with Fragarach, but it proved to be too durable.

Flying above his two comrades, Vali unleashed a rain of numerous fireballs at Shalba's wings. However, their rapid beat generated a powerful wind blast that dispersed the incoming flames and sent the three Dragon users skidding backwards.

Letting out another howl, Shalba jabbed at the three youths with his eight spider legs covered in dense demonic power. Enveloping his gauntlets in flames and draconic aura, Takeshi batted the incoming appendages aside with some difficulty.

Next to him, Leon did the same by increasing the concentration of wind around Fragarach, while Vali weaved through them, spreading his eight flame-enveloped Devil wings to strike Shalba. The monstrous fly chimera forced him back with an ear-splitting howl that caused him to wince.

"I see." Vali said as he fixed his stance. "The transformation that resulted from Shalba's mysterious power-up is the real deal. Excellent. It wouldn't do to have a subpar opponent for our first team-up in a while."

"Heads up, he's on the move!"

Takeshi shouted as Shalba extended his clawed arms, releasing a barrage of demonic power blasts. At the same time, the egg sacks on his carapace shone and swelled as he launched them as well, with copious amounts of corrosive fluids spilling out of them whenever they struck something.

"Can't you divide that bastard's power, Vali!?"

"It's not that simple." Vali responded to Takeshi while the three youths dodged Shalba's attacks. "If the opponent's strength is too great, Divine Dividing won't be able to expel the excess power fast enough, and I will end up damaging myself. Dividing some of his attacks is the best I can do for now."

"In that case, there's no choice but to do this the hard way!"

[Boost! Boost! Boost!]

Raising his power and enveloping himself in holy wind, Leon shot forward like a shooting star, tearing one of Shalba's arms off along with two of his legs. Conjuring several fang-shaped light swords around his legs, he kicked them at Shalba, with several explosions rocking his carapace.

Aiming at Takeshi and Vali next, Leon released two green-colored shots at them.

[Transfer!]

The two youths' power increased as a result of Boosted Gear's ability. Taking advantage of that and the brief opening provided by Leon, Takeshi froze the joints of two more hands with his ice breath and tore through them with a flame-enveloped kick.

Releasing an ice wave at the monstrosity's underside next, Takeshi proceeded to deliver a flurry of flame-enveloped fists at it, breaking parts of his carapace and damaging the soft layer underneath.

Shalba's attempt to use his tail to strike down the two youths was thwarted by Vali, who bound it with numerous light threads and immobilized it. Crossing his palms together and opening his mouth wide, he released three streams of azure flames that converged into an oversized one, vaporizing the tail and causing Shalba to screech.

Pulling out his wand next, Vali created a massive Evil Light sword from its tip, using it to tear through Shalba's left side as he flew next to him at high speeds, while Leon used his wind-enveloped Fragarach to do the same on his right side. Meanwhile, Takeshi pressed the sides of his buckle twice.

[Charge! Atrocity Overflow!]

Coating his gauntlets in both fire and ice, Takeshi began spinning around as a voice echoed from Cataclysm Zone.

[Violent Impact!]

The tornado of mixed elements tore through Shalba's underside and two of his legs that tried to strike him, with the Devil King descendant letting out a furious roar. Releasing a barrage of demonic power blasts from his body, he flew further up with speed unbefitting of his massive frame. His eyes shone as two oversized demonic power spheres appeared in front of them, converging into an enormous beam that aimed for the three youths below.

"Hit the deck!"

Takeshi shouted, with the trio scurrying out of the way in a hurry. The beam narrowly missed them and struck the remains of the fortress below.

A massive explosion ensued, eradicating almost the entire citadel and leaving a gaping hole behind. Much to his relief, Takeshi saw that the others had long since left the area and had taken refuge in a rock formation further back.

"Heavens above…" Leon muttered while shuddering. "A direct hit from one of these would vaporize us in an instant."

"Incoming!"

Vali shouted as several giant snakes suddenly erupted from Shalba's wounds, their bodies stretching as they headed for the three Dragon users. Opening their mouths wide, they unleashed their respective flame breaths and incinerated most of the incoming serpents, though several were too agile and managed to slip past the stream of flames.

[Half Dimension!]

Vali's wings shone as the half of the incoming serpents were caught in his halving field and squashed with little effort. Forming two azure flame broadswords, he sliced apart those who aimed for him, while Leon unleashed a light spiral from his leg that shredded about a third of them.

The few remaining ones received a barrage of ice lances courtesy of Takeshi, their bodies freezing and breaking apart. Directing his gaze back to Shalba, he let out a groan.

"You've got to be kidding me…"

Takeshi said upon witnessing the Devil King descendant's state. He had not only recovered from its wounds and regrown his severed appendages, but was undergoing further mutations. His body became longer, butterfly and bat wings grew from his back, organic-like blasters and several smaller arms with jagged blade-liked constructs on their ends appeared on his carapace, additional eyes emerged on his head and his four arms bulked up, with large demonic power blades forming on their ends.

"Oh, come on now!"

Leon shouted as Shalba dashed at them, his new blasters launching a continuous barrage of demonic power waves at them, his numerous blades releasing crescent-shaped wind blades and poisonous mist being released from his wings. A large number of webs surrounded by demonic power also flew towards them from his spider-like legs.

"Geez, that's why you don't do giant monster battles when you're not a giant yourself!"

Takeshi said as he focused on his Sacred Gear.

[Revolve On. Hazard.]

Equipping Eight Branch Ethereal Surge and summoning his chariot, Takeshi jumped on it, his tails wrapping around Leon and Vali and pulling them on it as it dashed. Leon touched Takeshi's shoulder upon landing as he activated Boosted Gear's ability.

[Boost! Boost! Transfer!]

Aided by the power increase, Takeshi raised the chariot's speed even further, dodging the barrage of incoming attacks. At the same time, he formed several storm clouds above, calling down black thunder and poison rain upon Shalba.

If the mutated Devil was affected by these attacks in any manner, he didn't show it as he continued attacking, with Takeshi straining his concentration to the limit in order to evade his blasts and the occasional appendage aiming for them.

"Mix your light constructs with mine, Leon!"

Vali shouted as he formed several large Evil Light spears around him. Leon nodded as he formed his own light spears, with both youths launching them at the same time.

The Lucifer descendant's constructs absorbed Leon's own due to the holy-consuming properties of Evil Light, becoming even larger and more robust. Tearing through Shalba's attacks, they exploded on his side, destroying several of his appendages and some of his wings.

"Watch out!"

Vali shouted as numerous web threads suddenly appeared all around the chariot, threatening to entangle it. In response, Leon took out the Three of Spades from his card holder and swiped it in his buckle.

[Blade!]

Seven small curved blades appeared around the chariot, flying ahead and tearing through the surrounding webs. Swinging his tails and shaping a large globule of venom into a katana in his hands, Takeshi also sliced apart any incoming webs, with Vali aiding in that with his flame broadswords.

As Shalba swung two of his oversized demonic power blades at the chariot, taking advantage of the slight speed reduction, Leon activated his Sacred Gear's ability again.

[Boost! Boost! Transfer!]

[Blade! Maximum Drive!]

The seven blades arranged themselves in a buzzsaw-like shape, emitting large amounts of holy power as they spun at high speeds. Leon threw the buzzsaw, which tore through the incoming blades along with Shalba's two hands before burying itself in its side, opening a gaping wound and causing Shalba to howl in agony.

"Chance!"

Takeshi shouted as he placed his fingers over Cataclysm Zone's smaller gems.

[Add!]

Following that announcement, waves of aura surged out of Cataclysm Zone and wrapped themselves around Takeshi's limbs, solidifying into Berserk Devastator and Mayhem Striker. Then, Takeshi pressed the sides of his buckle twice.

[Triple Charge! Calamity Overflow!]

Takeshi's tails extended to their full length as large amounts of black wind, flames, thunder, ashes, venom and miasma mixed together around them, forming seven tornadoes of great destructive power around them.

[Trinity Impact!]

The seven tornadoes slammed on Shalba's earlier wound, which was still in the process of closing, and gouged almost the entirety of his right side. Shalba screeched, with Takeshi shooting his draconic aura-enveloped arm stinger at him as well. The weapon buried itself in the wound and emerged from the other side of his body, with Leon and Vali unleashing condensed waves of light and azure flames respectively at Shalba.

[How's that, you oversized fly!?] Orochi cheered. [Let's see how you like my poison when it's coursing directly into your insides!]

Despite the grave damage he had received, which should have been fatal, Shalba kept hovering in the air. Forming a dense barrier of demonic power around him, which deflected the trio's ensuing attacks, Shalba regrew the damaged tissue in a matter of seconds, restoring him to his previous condition.

Aiming his tail at the chariot dashing above and launching a barrage of stingers, Shalba opened his mouth wide, releasing a large number of webs towards the distance. Entangling a large number of mutated Khaos Brigade members, his own progeny, soldiers of the Three Factions and several Annihilation Maker constructs, he brought them to his mouth and devoured them almost instantaneously, causing his aura to swell.

"Hacks!" Takeshi shouted. "I call hacks! How the Hell is it fair that this bastard can recover his energy by eating his own allies!?"

[I'll say!] Orochi hissed in outrage. [Who does he think he is, withstanding my poison like that!? The nerve!]

"I'm afraid our troubles don't end there." Vali said. "Shalba seems to be mutating even further."

Focusing on their opponent, Leon and Takeshi saw that Vali was correct. A long horn grew in the middle of Shalba's forehead, feathered wings grew from his back and an extra pair of large arms extended from his sides. Forming several magic circles underneath his spider-like limbs, Shalba used them to jump upwards, almost slamming on the chariot.

Takeshi steered the chariot around him, but Shalba whipped around in another surprising show of speed and agility, chasing after the three youths.

Massive demonic power blasts and streams of lightning erupted from Shalba's eyes and horn respectively, further destroying the surroundings. Bringing three of his arms down, he tried to slice apart the chariot, but Takeshi managed to weave through the incoming blades and bolts in time.

"This is bad!" Leon said with an urgent tone. "We can't keep dodging like this forever, and even between the three of us, we don't possess enough destructive power to deliver a decisive blow! Perhaps we should try to steer Shalba towards the nearest God and let them deal with him!"

"Never!" Vali shouted. "I would rather risk using Juggernaut Drive than basically admit that this monstrosity is too much for us to handle!"

"Don't be a fool, Vali!" Leon shouted back. "Remember what happened back at the conference!? Even if we can retain our sanity long enough, and that's a big if with the Two Heavenly Dragons present, there's still no guarantee we'll be able to take him down within the time limit! Chances are, we'd be making the situation even worse!"

"There has to be a weak point we can exploit!" Takeshi yelled, knocking away several incoming bolts with his tails and dodging Shalba's own tail strike. "And I have just the way to discover it…assuming the pain doesn't kill me first…"

Dismissing Mayhem Striker, Takeshi pressed one of Cataclysm Zone's smaller gems.

[Add!]

Violet-colored aura tendrils emerged from Takeshi's belt, slamming on his forehead and arms to form Daeva Scope. Even though Berserk Devastator was supposed to nullify his sense of pain, Takeshi barely stifled a scream as he felt like someone was squeezing his head with a vice.

[Well, well, look who's come back crawling to me for help~.]

[Your earlier display of disrespect warrants the death penalty, whelp, but studying this unique creature takes priority for now.]

[Primary mutation, result of boundary breakdown occurring in subject and expression of recessive ancestral traits. Spontaneous subsequent mutations, result of damage adaptation and consumption of foreign biomass. Evolutionary potential, limitless? Fascinating. Origin of trigger factor, must be obtained and analyzed before conclusions are drawn.]

I'm not interested…in your analysis, Aži Dahāka. Takeshi thought, struggling to focus his enhanced vision on Shalba. What I need right now…is to figure out that monster's weaknesses and how to kill it!

Focusing on the monster's main body and looking past the storm of chaotic aura surrounding it, Takeshi scanned it from top to bottom. After a few seconds, he located what appeared to be a core-like structure close to Shalba's midsection.

"Got it!" Takeshi said, steering the chariot to evade Shalba's extending blade-bearing limbs. "I can see that thing's core! If we destroy that, we should be able to take it down!"

"It's not going to be that simple." Vali said, having cast a spell on himself and Leon in order for them to see what Takeshi was seeing. "The core seems to be movable, meaning Shalba can send it to a different area of its body the moment our attacks penetrate his outer shell and approach it."

"Not to mention, the core seems pretty robust." Leon said, conjuring several defensive magic circles from his shield to block a volley of incoming stingers and swinging Fragarach to slice through several web threads trying to capture them. "We either need a sufficiently powerful attack to destroy it in one go, or we need to move way faster than we already do and attack before Shalba can respond."

"I don't know about the first part, but maybe I can do something about the second."

Takeshi said, pointing his pistols at his friends and conjuring a magic circle beneath his feet.

"…Clock Up."

After Takeshi fired his spell, time seemed to slow down to a crawl around the three youths, with Shalba's attacks moving at a snail's pace and all manners of sound having vanished.

"Heh, that's an interesting spell." Vali remarked as he looked around. "You sped us up in a manner similar to ZECT Riders through magic?"

"Yeah, but the spell isn't going to last for long, and the burden on our bodies is going to be considerable." Takeshi said as he focused on his Sacred Gear. "That's why, let's make these few seconds count!"

[Revolve On. Malice.]

Takeshi's armor and the chariot vanished, with Dead Shore Advent's armor materializing around his body. Berserk Devastator also vanished, since Takeshi was unsure if he could withstand a finisher empowered by both Daeva Scope and another auxiliary Sacred Gear in his current state. He then pressed the buckle's sides once as Leon and Vali gathered large amounts of aura around their right legs.

[Dual Charge! Calamity Overflow!]

Several magic circles appeared around Takeshi's leg, condensing and shaping the miasma on it into three razor-sharp talons enveloped by spinning ash rings.

Next to him, large amounts of holy and draconic aura mixed around Leon's leg, with large amounts of azure flames and Evil Light doing the same in Vali's leg.

Having readied their attacks, the three Dragon users shot forward, aiming their flying side kicks at Shalba's underside.

[Twin Blast Fever!]

[Ascension Storm Impact!]

"Purgatory Extermination – Blaze Utopia!"

Following these announcements, the trio smashed their kicks on Shalba's exoskeleton with all the force they could muster. Although it held strong for a bit, it eventually shattered under the pressure.

[Pierce through!]

Shouting thus, the three youths tore through the layers of flesh underneath and reached the core, an organic crystal-like construct, delivering powerful blows that shook Shalba's entire body.

"See…Albion!?" Vali said through gritted teeth. "Leon and Takeshi's Dragons…they're being cooperative…when it comes to announcing the finishing moves!"

[Is this the time to be saying that? Just focus on taking down your enemy!]

Albion said with an exasperated tone. At that moment, the time acceleration effect ended, with Shalba letting out an ear-splitting screech upon realizing he had been wounded, thrashing like crazy. Takeshi, Vali and Leon's kicks had caused small cracks to appear in the core, but hadn't managed to destroy it yet.

Shalba roared once again as an energy pulse erupted from his core, sending the three youths flying backwards. While being flung outside, Leon and Vali threw light and flame spears respectively to damage parts of the muscle network around the core that helped it move, while Takeshi fired several spells at it to further restrict its movements.

"Now, everyone!" Leon shouted as the three youths fixed their stances midair. "Ultra-style attack!"

Leon put his arms up in a cross sign, with Vali putting his arms up in an inverted cross sign and Takeshi making an L shape with his hands.

[Judgement Ray!]

"Phosphor Burst!"

[Execium Shot!]

Beams of condensed holy and draconic aura, silver light enveloped by azure flames and demonic power mixed with corrupted draconic aura erupted from the three Dragon users' hands. Blowing away Shalba's frenzied beam barrage and tearing through three of his oversized arms, they struck his core, causing more cracks to appear on it.

"We're getting there, you two!" Leon said as he channeled more power into his blast. "His body is destabilizing!"

True enough, Shalba's monstrous form seemed to be deteriorating at a rapid pace. Most of his injuries were no longer regenerating, several of his appendages rotted off and fell from his body, and any attempts to mutate further ended in the formation of amorphous blobs of flesh that dissolved as fast as they appeared.

However, Shalba was far from finished, his tail and oversized tongue lashing out at the three youths and forcing them to dodge in haste, interrupting their attacks. He then spewed out large amounts of corrosive liquid, with Leon, Takeshi and Vali putting up several defensive magic circles to block the incoming torrent.

"Oh, for crying out loud!" Takeshi shouted. "How durable is this son of a bitch!?"

"Just one more step…" Vali said through gritted teeth. "Any of you have any Sentai-style finishers or something like that in reserve!?"

"If it's a Sentai-style finisher you want, I've got you covered!"

Leon said, pulling out the Joker card from his card holder and swiping it in the buckle.

[Joker!]

Following that announcement, all Saint Arsenal cards flew out of the card holder and joined together along with the Joker card, forming a complex blaster-like armament. Grabbing its rear end, Leon aimed it at Shalba and activated his Scale Mail's ability once again.

[Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost! Boost!]

The blaster shone as it absorbed Leon's energy. At the same time, Vali and Takeshi placed their hands on its sides, channeling their own energy into it.

"Vali and I will assist with stabilization and targeting!" Takeshi said as several magic circles appeared around the blaster's muzzle. "We've got one chance, so let's make it count, you two!"

"This is the final blow." Vali said. "Let's send off that bastard with a bang!"

"You got it!" Leon exclaimed. "This time, he's going down for sure!"

[Joker! Maximum Drive!]

An enormous aura torrent erupted from the blaster's muzzle following that announcement, heading straight for Shalba. The monstrous Devil King descendant opened his mouth wide as his eyes shone, shooting a massive demonic power beam that clashed with the trio's blast in midair.

"Guh!"

Takeshi winced as a massive shockwave erupted and the sky lit up as a result of the beam clash. Pouring out every last bit of their power into Leon's armament, the three youths started pushing Shalba's attack back.

[Blow him away!]

The trio screamed together, with their final push dispersing Shalba's attack and heading straight for the chimera. Tearing through his head, the blast engulfed its core, vaporizing it and causing a chain of explosions within his body.

[Got you!]

Leon, Vali and Takeshi declared, making a thumbs-down gesture as a massive explosion engulfed Shalba's body, sending chunks of burned flesh flying throughout the artificial field.

"Hm?"

Noticing something, Vali flew towards the gaping hole created by Shalba's earlier attack.

"Hey, where are you going, Vali!?"

Takeshi called out to his friend as he chased after him, with Leon following close behind.

Landing near the edge of the crater, they saw Vali standing next to a charred body with numerous cracks on it. Despite the grave damage he had sustained, the person lying there was still alive, letting out shallow breaths.

"That's…Shalba?" Takeshi frowned. "If nothing else, he's really stubborn, clinging on to life even in this state."

"What a pitiful sight, Shalba Beelzebub." Vali said with evident derision. "In order to cover for your shortcomings, you went and borrowed power not only from Ophis, but also an unknown source. Even then, despite all these enhancements, you were still defeated by those you regarded as being beneath you. A boring conclusion fit for a boring individual like yourself."

Shalba's eyes cracked open in response to Vali's words, the smoldering hatred within his gaze evident for all to see.

"…Vali…damned…dirty blood…curse…you…"

"Rage as much as you wish, but the reality of your situation won't change." Vali said, conjuring a light spear in his hand. "Go ahead and perish in the knowledge that you have been an utter failure of a Devil King descendant."

"Wait—!"

Before Leon could stop him, Vali buried his spear in Shalba's chest. The Beelzebub descendant let out a strangled gasp, with his body turning into ashes and dispersing in the wind shortly afterwards. The broken remains of the artifact he had used also fell on the ground, turning into dust and scattering.

"That's two for two." Vali said with a pleased smile before turning to Leon. "Oh, don't you give me the stink eye, Leon. He was beyond any treatment and on his way out. I merely expedited the process. If anything, that was a mercy kill."

"More importantly, it's over now, right?" Takeshi said. "Because, to be honest…I can barely stand right now."

"Ditto…" Leon sighed. "I'm spent, and the Saint Rouser is disabled for a whole day after using the Joker card. Not to mention that I'm not sure I could even lift a feather as I am…"

"It should be over." Vali said. "The Khaos Brigade's plan has failed, and it won't be long before the allied forces clear out the monstrosities within this battlefield."

"Well, in that case…"

As if obeying some unspoken signal, all three youths collapsed on the ground following Takeshi's words, their Scale Mails dispersing as they heaved, with Takeshi letting out a grunt due to the stabs of phantom pain plaguing his body.

"For our first co-op play in a while…things turned out alright in the end, no…?"

"True, but next time…maybe we should try something a little less intense…like a game of basketball, or an MMORPG…"

"Amen…to that…"

Vali, Takeshi and Leon grinned at each other after saying so, extending their fists and bumping them together.

"There they are!"

Rushing towards the three youths while waving at them were the members of the Gremory Peerage, Irina, Dia, Rossweisse and Milena. Koneko, Rias, Akeno and Pandora slammed on Takeshi, throwing him down, while Dia rushed to embrace Leon.

Vali, who was moving to the side in order not to get caught up in the jovial atmosphere, was suddenly embraced from behind by Milena, whose face nested near his throat.

"Such a rich aroma…"

Muttering so, Milena opened her mouth, the fangs inside glinting. Before she could bite into Vali's throat though, he put his fingers to her forehead, firing a low-intensity flame that scorched her and caused her to yelp.

"Owwww!" Milena shouted as she pulled back by reflex, rubbing her aching forehead. "What do you think you're doing, Vali!?"

"That's my line." Vali said. "Don't try to take advantage of the situation in order to snack on me."

"Meanie!" Milena pouted. "I worked hard today as well, so I deserve a reward!"

"I'll consider it once we get back."

Meanwhile, Dia had buried her face in Leon's chest, tightening her embrace.

"…Thank goodness." Dia muttered. "…Worried about you, Leon."

"Sorry about that, Dia." Leon showed a gentle smile as he rubbed her head. "Today's battle was a little tougher than usual, but we pulled it off in the end."

"While I enjoy this display of affection…you girls are going to choke me to death here…!" Takeshi wheezed out, tapping his hand on the ground in a frantic manner. "Please move…!"

"Oops, I guess we got too excited here, what with everybody's tension being so high. Sorry, Takeshi."

Rias said as she and the other three girls released Takeshi, with Koneko helping him up.

"Good to see that everyone's in good health more or less." Takeshi said. "Judging from your roughed-up state, you had it hard as well, didn't you? Also, about Pandora, she—"

"Pandora gave us the abridged version about what happened to her." Rias said, her fury evident. "To treat my precious servant in such a horrid manner, these blasted Titan Worshippers should consider themselves lucky that I didn't get my hands on them. The fact that their wretched souls will probably end up in Tartarus does offer some small comfort though."

"Once again, I'm really sorry about the trouble I caused to everyone." Pandora said, bowing her head. "Because of my weakness, I—"

"Hey, none of that self-deprecating attitude, princess." Takeshi said, cutting off Pandora. "What happened today wasn't your fault in the slightest. Don't beat yourself up for things beyond your control."

"W-What Senpai said!" Gasper added from the side. "The bad ones are these T-Titan Worshippers. All that matters is that you're safe and b-back with us!"

"Indeed, and we'll make sure that no-one from their side ever dares to try and use you as their tool again." Rias said. "If they approach you again in any manner, we'll send them to meet their compatriots in the afterlife."

"President, everyone…" Pandora showed a small smile, bowing once again. "Thank you…for everything."

"…No problem." Koneko said. "If you still feel remorseful though, maybe you could hand over that rare first edition of Inuyasha's first volume you dug up a while back as recompense…"

"In your dreams! Don't try to take advantage of the situation to rob me blind, you greedy cat!"

Pandora yelled, with everybody laughing in response to that.

"Question." Yuuto said, raising his hand. "Back when I was fighting Cleon and was on the verge of losing, a surge of power that restored my strength along with foreign information that forced itself into my brain came out of nowhere and helped me turn things around. Did you have something to do with that, Takeshi-kun?"

"Sure did…or rather, Aži Dahāka did." Takeshi said. "Annoying downsides aside, his power and knowledge are the real deal. He aided me in dismantling the magic formation that would sever and absorb everyone's souls, and then helped redistribute part of the power in it into each and every one of you. The added knowledge part was probably his idea, which I guess is something I should be grateful for."

"Incredible…" Rossweisse muttered. "Accomplishing all that in such a short amount of time would have been difficult even for a master Magician. Aži Dahāka's reputation is well deserved."

"I knew you were the one responsible for this unexpected assist." Akeno smiled. "You really are the best, Takeshi. Looks like we owe you our lives once again."

"Is your body alright though?" Irina asked with a worried expression. "These Evil Dragons, all of their Sacred Gears have some very nasty aftereffects on you, don't they?"

"Well, my brain feels like someone has ripped it apart and put it back together in a haphazard manner, and Aži Dahāka was trying to overwrite my personality with his while his Sacred Gear was active." Takeshi said in a nonchalant manner. "Other than that, and the fact that my body hurts all over, I'm all good!"

Takeshi gave Irina a thumbs-up while smiling, prompting the latter to sigh.

"That's the sort of hare-brained attitude I would expect from Xenovia…" Irina sighed. "Has she been a bad influence on you, or have you always been this way, Takeshi-kun?"

"Hey, what's up with the slander towards me, Irina?" Xenovia glared at her friend. "When and where have I exhibited a hare-brained attitude?"

"You want me to bring out the list? Be warned, it's a very long one."

Before the two girls could start bickering, someone spoke from the side.

"Yo, Vali! Looks like you're done with your business here!"

The one who had spoken was Bikou, a wide grin on his face as he approached Vali. The rest of the team followed behind him, causing everyone to tense at their sight.

"Relax, there won't be any more fights today." Vali said. "However, there is one last big event left before the conclusion. Take a look up there."

Following Vali's line of sight, Takeshi, Leon and the others noticed that a small rift had appeared on the sky above. All of a sudden, the rift expanded into a massive crack, and what emerged from it was—

"Holy hell…"

Takeshi murmured in evident amazement, his body shivering at the majestic sight before his eyes. A massive western Dragon, whose length exceeded a hundred meters, was flying above them. Bright red scales glistening in the light covered its body, two sets of wings extended from its back and a sharp horn protruded from its snout.

"This…" Leon muttered. "Could it be…?"

"The title of Red Dragon refers to two legendary Dragons." Vali said, transfixed by the creature swimming in the sky. "The first is the Dragon of Wales, the Red Dragon Emperor Ddraig that Leon possesses. The White Dragon Emperor Albion also comes from the same legend. The other one is the mighty Red Dragon recorded in the Book of Revelation, the current ruler of the Dimensional Gap."

A wide smile appeared on Vali's face as he extended his arm towards the Red Dragon.

"The Apocalypse Dragon. The True Dragon. The Dragon of Dragons. The Dragon of the Beginning. The True Red Dragon God Emperor. The being whose dreams gave birth to the primordial deities of numerous Pantheons, who then went on to shape their individual realms in the universe born through Ophis' venture outside of the Dimensional Gap eons ago. That is Great Red, the undisputed strongest existence in all the realms alongside Ophis, and my ultimate target."

"Target?" Takeshi asked. "You want to fight that monster, who can probably crush us with his glare alone? Are you insane?"

"More importantly, why is Great Red here?" Leon asked. "Don't tell me he's looking for a fight as well?"

"Like Ophis assumed, the various auras gathered in this battlefield caught his attention and attracted him to this artificial dimension." Vali said. "We are within the Dimensional Gap where he resides after all. Ophis' main goal today was to confirm his continued presence. As for me…my strength is far from enough, but one day, I will reach his level and surpass him in order to become the True White Dragon God Emperor. As the White Dragon, having a Red one standing above me is intolerable."

Vali made a fist as he kept staring at Great Red, the flame of ambition burning bright in his eyes.

"Great Red. It, has been a while."

Almost everyone jumped in surprise as a young black-haired girl appeared in their midst out of nowhere.

"Who is this girl…?" Rias asked, her eyes narrowed. "I didn't sense her arrival at all…"

[Well, I'll be.] Ddraig's voice echoed. [First, it's Great Red, and now Ophis itself has made an appearance as well?]

[What's next, the deceased Deus Trinity will revive himself from the dead?] Albion said. [Honestly, today has been one surprise after another.]

"…Ophis." Takeshi tensed, a bitter smile appearing on his face. "The last boss has made her appearance, eh?"

Making a finger gun gesture, Ophis pointed it at Great Red with a faint smile on her face.

"I, shall definitely reclaim silence."

At that moment, the sound of wings flapping was heard. Descending from above was Sirzechs, Grayfia, Azazel, Michael, Serafall, Gabriel, Tannin and Bova. At the same time, Alkaid, Megrez, Adam and Vortigern landed across them. Vali and his team moved to their side, while Ophis remained still as she kept her focus on the Dragon above.

"Are you kids alright?" Azazel asked, a concerned expression on his face as he glanced at Ophis. "Any serious injuries?"

"We're fine, more or less." Rias said. "We've bound Diodora and his Peerage in that rock formation in the distance, so if someone could secure them…"

"Leave that to me."

Grayfia said as she vanished with a burst of speed. Meanwhile, Tannin was gazing at the gigantic Dragon, who was about to enter another rift and leave this space.

"Great Red, huh? How nostalgic."

"You've encountered this Dragon before, Master?"

"Tried to challenge him a couple of times." Tannin responded to Takeshi's question. "He didn't pay any heed to me though."

Once Great Red vanished, Ophis turned her focus to Leon, causing him to flinch. After appraising him for a few seconds, she turned to Takeshi, the same unreadable expression as before on her face.

[What are you looking at, pipsqueak?] Grendel said. [Are you picking a fight? If so, come at me then! Shall we test just how infinite you truly are!?]

[Ever the bloodthirsty simpleton.] Nidhogg said. [What good would challenging her as a disembodied spirit do? Although, to be honest, I would like to witness Ophis' strength with my own eyes. If only such power was mine…]

[That's a lovely appearance she's got this time around, cute and provocative at the same time.] Orochi said. [I wonder how the Infinite Dragon would taste, what sort of expressions she would make, the feeling of being inside her, fufufu…]

[Steadfast…in your hedonistic ways…even when…Ophis is concerned…] Ladon murmured. [Respect…for that…Orochi…]

[So many fascinating research subjects are showing up before me today~.]

[The Dream and Infinite, I will claim your secrets and have you both capitulate to me one day.]

[Proper preparations must be made for dissection. Much to discover indeed.]

Oi, oi, what are you morons saying!? Takeshi shouted in his thoughts. Are you trying to provoke her or something!? That Infinite Dragon who can erase us with a thought!?

Fortunately for Takeshi, Ophis didn't seem to pay any heed to the Evil Dragons' words, turning her gaze away from him.

"The Heavenly Dragons, the Dragon Kings and the Evil Dragons." Ophis said. "This, could be interesting. I, shall take my leave now."

"Wait, Ophis!"

Tannin called out to Ophis, but the Infinite Dragon didn't respond as the air around her vibrated. The next moment, she had vanished without a trace.

"Since Ophis-sama has no further business here, our business is also concluded." Alkaid said, opening a rift in space with his cane. "Everyone, until next time."

"Looking forward to see whether you'll give you-know-who the whole story about what happened back then, o great leader of Heaven." Adam said with a sinister smile while glancing at Leon. "Should be one Hell of an awkward discussion, that's for sure!"

Megrez and Vortigern said nothing as they entered the rift in space. Adam followed after them, with Alkaid being the last to step inside. Before leaving though, he turned his head around, his gaze focusing on Takeshi.

The young Devil felt a chill go down his spine, sensing the hostility in that look even though he couldn't see the man's eyes. Despite that, he held his ground and glared back, with Alkaid turning around and entering the rift, vanishing from the area.

"In that case, we'll go back as well." Vali said as Arthur opened a rift in space with Caliburn. "Takeshi, Leon, we had a great time together today. I'm anxious to see how much stronger you'll both grow in the future. Before I can aim for Great Red, I must surpass you after all."

"Bring it on, Vali." Takeshi said with a smirk. "I'll take you on at any time, any place, and I will win."

"Before all that, we'll bring you back to this side for sure." Leon said with a determined expression. "Being a terrorist doesn't suit you."

Vali didn't respond, with his smile becoming wider.

"I'm eager to see how much you have improved as well, Kiba Yuuto." Arthur said. "Let's have another bout in the near future."

"You got it." Yuuto said, a fierce grin on his face. "Rest assured that it won't go the same way it did last time."

"That's what I like to hear." Arthur smiled, turning to Irina and Xenovia. "Of course, my challenge extends to you ladies over there. As fellow Holy Swords wielders, we should decide who the strongest among us is."

"I welcome a strong warrior any time. Be warned that I will hold nothing back when the time comes though."

"Fighting against the descendant of the first wielder of Excalibur should be exciting!"

Xenovia and Irina responded with matching confident attitudes.

"I see that your skills have grown yet again, Shirone." Kuroka said. "Big sis here is very pleased, nya. If you were to come with me, I could—"

"…Not a chance." Koneko cut her off. "I've already given you my answer."

"Yes, yes, you have a home, a family and a man you love." Kuroka said, appraising Takeshi while licking her lips. "Now that I look at you closely, you aren't half-bad, Evil Dragon User. Good-looking, strong, fierce and just the right touch of dangerous, nya. Since Vali isn't willing, maybe you would like to give me a strong child?"

[Say yes, partner!] Orochi said in an excited manner. [When a seductive Nekomata like her who's at least a nine offers to bear your children, the only right answer is how many!]

Before Takeshi could say anything, Koneko stepped in front of him, her arms spread in a protective manner.

"…Back off." Koneko glared at Kuroka. "Big sister should keep her paws off Senpai."

"Arara, is Shirone jealous?" Kuroka let out a sly smile. "How cute, nya~. I'll back off for today, but my offer still stands, Evil Dragon User."

"Can we go already?" Medb said with an annoyed expression. "I need to soak in a hot tub for at least a couple of hours in order to wash off the sweat and relax my body. Vali, why don't you carry me there so we can soak in together~?"

"Not happening." Vali rejected her offer without missing a beat. "Farewell."

The members of Vali's team entered the rift and disappeared into it as it closed behind them.

"What a free-spirited bunch…" Rias remarked with a sigh before turning to Sirzechs. "I know Vali helped Takeshi and Leon-san against Shalba, but shouldn't you have tried to capture them, brother?"

"I doubt it would have been that easy, and we are all exhausted from today's events." Sirzechs said. "Vali Lucifer and his team are the least of our problems right now."

"Michael-sama, about what that Adam guy said before leaving…"

"Later." Michael said, not meeting Leon's gaze. "There are certain…disturbing information that have come to light, but this isn't the time or place to discuss about them."

"All in all, I'd say today's operation was a success on all fronts." Azazel said. "The Old Devil King Faction and the Titan Worshippers have both received a serious blow, having lost a large number of troops and several leading figures. A great number of Annihilation Maker constructs have also been destroyed, which should impede Khaos Brigade operations for a while in the best-case scenario. Well, although I hope that's the case, I—"

"Found you, you bastard!"

A shout from above cut off Azazel's words, with the divine aura and thunder-clad Susanoo descending from the sky like a lightning bolt. The Ame-no-Ohabari in his hands shone as he aimed his blade at the stunned Takeshi. Before it could reach him though, a lightning bolt-shaped staff blocked his slash, letting out an electrical discharge that forced the Storm God back.

"Settle down, you blasted savage!" Zeus, the one who had blocked the blow, said as he stepped in front of Takeshi. "What's the matter with you!? Did you have too much to drink again!?"

"Out of my way, you perverted old fart!" Susanoo shouted, sparks flying from his eyes. "That Hell spawn over there holds the soul of my ancient enemy inside him, the monster who defiled Takamagahara! I must destroy him at once!"

[Oh, oh, if it isn't little brother Susanoo, my first killer!] Orochi's mocking voice came from Cataclysm Zone. [The years haven't been kind to you, have they? How's the rest of the family doing? Is the lovely Kushinadahime bored of you yet? Feel free to send her my way, so I can give her the…appreciation she deserves.]

"Don't address me with such familiarity, you foul beast!" Susanoo bellowed as he charged at Takeshi, only to be stopped by Zeus once again. "The fact that you and I share a common origin fills me with shame and disgust!"

"Common origin?" Takeshi frowned. "What's he talking about, Orochi?"

[As you know, when Izanagi did his whole purification ritual thing after escaping from Yomi, several deities were born, the buffoon across you being among them.] Orochi said. [One little tidbit the accounts of that time failed to mention is that I was also born during that process from several of Izanami's pubic hair and Izanagi's leftover aura. I didn't become a deity, but I still turned out pretty amazing all things considered!]

"I must ask that you restrain yourself, Susanoo-dono." Sirzechs said as he stepped forward. "While I understand your resentment towards Orochi, Takeshi here has nothing to do with that apart from having the misfortune to bear the Sacred Gear imprisoning him. Moreover, he's a precious member of my sister's family, so if you wish to get to him, you will have to go through me first."

Sirzechs' aura flared up after he said so, a serious expression on his face as he glared at the God.

"Suits me just fine." Susanoo growled, still trying to push Zeus out of the way. "The likes of you will—"

"Now, now, all of us shouldn't say or do things we will regret later." Odin, who emerged from a teleportation magic circle alongside Ra, said so. "From what I understand, this kid is the reason all of us are still standing here, and turning him into ashes is a poor way to express gratitude even for us Gods. Don't you think so as well, Susanoo?"

"If you still insist on rampaging, I will make sure that Amaterasu hears of your misdeeds." Ra said, glaring at the Storm God. "She told me before she is still furious with you over the devastation you caused during your recent drunken rampage in Osaka. If you wish to give her one more reason to punish you, be my guest."

Susanoo seemed to ponder all that, and then let out a dissatisfied grunt as he pulled back.

"Bah!" Susanoo spat out. "Gods representing order are defending the Evil Dragon User? What is the world coming to? I will not pursue this matter further for now, but don't think this is over."

Susanoo glared at Takeshi before vanishing with a burst of lightning.

"A refreshing amount of mistrust and hatred." Takeshi said. "And here I was, worrying that people were starting to accept me. I—"

Takeshi stopped talking as a wave of nausea came over him, with his knees buckling. Before he could collapse, Rias and Pandora rushed to support him.

"What's the matter, Takeshi?" Rias asked with evident worry. "Are you alright?"

"Not…not really…" Takeshi wheezed out, feeling like everything was spinning. "The aftereffects of the battle…I think I'm starting to feel them…"

"Rias, take him to the Gremory castle to rest, and get some rest yourselves as well." Sirzechs said. "Leave the rest to us."

"Yes, Lucifer-sama."

Rias said as Sirzechs conjured a teleportation magic circle, engulfing the members of the Gremory group with its light and sending them away.


[…I see. Both the experiment and your operation ended in failure.]

"Yes. The end result might have been unfavorable for our side, but it was not a complete loss. We were able to derive several useful findings over the course of this venture."

Alkaid said. He, Megrez, Adam and Vortigern were currently somewhere in the Caucasus Mountains, conversing with an unknown individual through a long-range, heavily encrypted communication magic circle. Their silhouette wasn't visible and their voice had been processed, preventing the members of the Khaos Brigade's Inner Circle from even ascertaining the speaker's gender.

[Despite the boost he received from the Infinite Dragon's snake, Shalba was ultimately unable to adapt to Scarmiglione's power much like his uncle in the past, resulting in an uncontrollable transformation.] The individual said. [As expected, a strong body and an iron will, they are both required to successfully wield a Malebranche's power, with compatibility also playing an important factor.]

"I am confident that my close allies will meet these requirements." Alkaid said. "I trust that you will be able to perform the necessary adjustments on the weapons to prepare them for our use?"

[With the added data provided by the most recent synchronization attempt, most certainly.] The individual said. [However, there are other hurdles to overcome. First, there is the Malebranche's will to consider. Fortunately for you, they seem to be sufficiently intrigued by the current generation's Longinus possessors and are eager to test themselves against them. That is what their second-in-command, Barbariccia, stated. Keep in mind though that they are unruly and prone to disregard your orders if it suits their fancy.]

"I am aware of that." Alkaid said. "What is the other issue?"

[The seals placed on the Malebranche are rather complex.] The individual responded. [The authorization of a member of House Lucifuge is needed to start the awakening process, and a pure-blooded member of House Lucifer is also required to lift the added seals placed on Malacoda. It appears Lucifer-sama was determined to keep the Malebranche locked away forever lest they be used against him.]

"They cannot be unsealed without these requirements being met?"

[They can, but even with all the progress we have made over the centuries, it will take at least a few decades more before we can remove the seals on our own.]

"I understand." Alkaid said. "Since I doubt Grayfia Lucifuge would assist us, it is fortunate that we have been searching for the whereabouts of the other remaining descendant of House Lucifuge and Rizevim Livan Lucifer for a while now. I expect we will have good news from that front soon."

[That is good to hear. Well then, until next time.]

The magic circle vanished afterwards. Once he was certain it was gone, Alkaid turned to Megrez, but he shook his head.

"No luck this time either." Megrez said. "Nebiros' encryption spells are formidable. Pinpointing their location seems to be beyond us for now."

"Could have at least had the decency to show their stinking faces when talking to us." Adam scowled. "We can't even be sure we were speaking with their boss instead of some flunky."

"It matters little whether Zaorama was the one speaking to us or not, or whether we can discover their hideout." Alkaid said. "As long as Nebiros can deliver the weapons and continue providing support for the Khaos Brigade like they have done so far, we should be content."

"Are you certain we can trust them?" Vortigern asked. "What if they double-cross us down the line?"

"Zaorama is a man dedicated to his work above all else, and those under him follow the same principle." Alkaid said. "Unless betraying us will help them advance their research in some way, Nebiros will remain our ally."

"Those Malebranche of theirs, do we really need them?" Adam said. "Not sure I like the thought of fighting together with a bunch of murderous Devil toys that could decide to slit our throats at a moment's notice."

"We are up against the current world order, so we need every advantage, however small, in order to prevail when the time comes, my boy." Alkaid said, turning to Megrez. "Is the damage report from the earlier battle ready?"

"The Old Devil King Faction is in total disarray with the loss of its leaders, and the Titan Worshippers are crippled." Megrez said. "As things stand, neither faction will be able to participate in large-scale operations for the foreseeable future. If Katerea or Vali assumed leadership, we might be able to reorganize the Old Devil King Faction, but…"

"Miss bitchy body snatcher is still undergoing adjustments, and that rascal Vali doesn't care about such things." Adam grinned. "Speaking of Vali, the hell was he doing out there even though he hadn't received orders to mobilize? Think he's working against us, old man Megrez?"

"Why are you asking me?"

"I mean, aren't you the expert when it comes to betrayal?" Adam said, his grin becoming wider. "After all, you—"

"Enough." Megrez said, a slight edge in his voice. "Regarding your question, Vali Lucifer is a free spirit that loves battle, and it's a known fact that he and the other Devil King descendants despised one another. It wouldn't be far-fetched to assume he took advantage of the situation to have his fun and ensure Shalba would perish in the process. His desire to fight Great Red also seems genuine."

"I sense a 'but' coming here."

"No matter how much of a battle maniac he is, I find it hard to believe that he would abandon his close friends and Azazel, the man who raised him, in order to align himself with us." Megrez said. "Ophis also seems to be rather fond of him, or as fond as that emotionally stunted creature can be towards anyone, and that could be dangerous down the line. All in all, I think we should keep a closer eye on his movements."

"Easier said than done considering how damn slippery he and his pals are." Adam said, crossing his arms behind his head. "Well, if he tries anything funny or sticks his nose into our private club's business, I'll chop that pretty head of his off in a flash."

"Cao Cao also forwarded a report to us." Vortigern said. "Leonardo, Annihilation Maker's wielder, won't be able to provide us with more monsters for the time being. The recent consecutive battles have exhausted his stock, and the Hero Faction needs the remaining ones for their upcoming venture in Vanaheim and their experiments."

"Ugh, another annoying prick to deal with." Adam grimaced. "Where did you find all these dysfunctional losers, old man Alkaid? It's because of guys like them that we lose battle after battle and look like total jokes."

"Like I have told you before, losing skirmishes here and there is of no consequence, Adam." Alkaid said. "The loss of those we assembled as sacrificial pieces is also the same. Let the Pantheon Alliance win as many battles as they wish. We only need to win once in order to attain our goal."

"Such a cold-blooded attitude fit for a killer like yourself. It makes even someone like me shiver."

The four individuals present felt a chill go down their spines, with a sickening aura of chaos and pure evil washing over them. Out of nowhere, a jet-black humanoid being with a muscular body, glowing fire-like eyes, horns protruding from his head and dark blue glyphs glowing on his body materialized, his gaze focused on Alkaid.

"Angra Mainyu." Alkaid inclined his head. "I trust everything went as planned?"

"Infiltrating Father's vault was not an easy task, but I accomplished it nonetheless thanks to Gilgamesh's aid." Angra Mainyu said as he conjured a magic circle, taking out a small ornate vase and tossing it at Alkaid. "I hope this trinket of yours was worth the effort, Alkaid. Being chased by an angry God of Time is not an experience I wish to repeat any time soon, especially when that God is Zurvan. On an unrelated note, I sensed the pulse of a nostalgic aura a while back. My masterpiece has awakened after a long time, no?"

"Oh, your masterpiece did awaken alright." Adam said with an annoyed expression. "Too bad he screwed us over big time in the process. Might have actually killed a couple of bigshots if he hadn't butted in and made a mess of things."

"Be grateful that you weren't his targets, and that he wasn't at full strength." Angra Mainyu said. "Out of all my creations, he takes after me the most, and I can be very…imaginative when I deal with my enemies."

"Speaking of that Evil Dragon, perhaps we should keep a closer eye on his host." Megrez said. "Awakening Aži Dahāka is a feat unheard of. If he grows even stronger, he could become another significant obstacle for us down the line."

"Yes, that Devil brat and his friends are becoming quite an inconvenience as of late." Alkaid said, several magic circles spinning around his hand as he focused on the vase before him. "Even so, despite the minor setbacks we have suffered, we are still making steady progress towards our ultimate goal."

At that moment, the vase hovering before Alkaid shattered, with a glowing orb emerging from the remains and landing on his outstretched palm. Once the light died out, an ornate golden medallion with jagged edges that had the image of several coiled serpents engraved on it could be seen there.

"Is it…?"

"Indeed, this is the genuine article." Alkaid said to Megrez, sounding pleased. "The sixth of the Seven Seals is in our hands, and thus, the method to unlock the path leading to our ultimate trump card is almost within our reach. Since the Dream will not aid us and the Infinite is fickle, we shall call upon the End to cleanse this world once and for all…"

Alkaid remarked in an ominous tone as dark mist surrounded the five individuals, who vanished from the area without making a sound.


"Serious case of déjà vu here, and not of the good kind…"

Takeshi muttered as he observed the snowcapped mountain rising before him with a wary expression. The last thing he remembered was him being half-carried to a luxurious room in the Gremory castle and placed on a king size bed. He assumed he fell asleep immediately afterwards due to intense exhaustion, and before he knew it, he found himself standing at the foot of the enormous mountain before him.

"This should be the space within Daeva Scope…which means this is probably Mount Damavand, one of the places strongly associated with Aži Dahāka's legend." Takeshi said, turning his gaze towards the peak. "I know you're in here somewhere, you crazy Evil Dragon! Show yourself already!"

[Do not presume to give me orders, whelp.]

[If you want to see me, come here then~.]

[Beginning transfer.]

Suddenly, Takeshi felt himself being lifted off the ground and pulled towards the mountainside by an invisible force. Bringing his arms up in reflex, he braced himself for impact, but felt nothing as he sank into the rock without any resistance.

After a few seconds, he found himself inside a massive cavern, which had numerous glowing crystals protruding from its walls. A large number of runes and glyphs meant to suppress and imprison shone all over the cavern's interior with an eerie light. In the middle of the cavern's floor, a wide and deep pit could be seen, surrounded by talon-shaped pillars that formed a makeshift cage around it.

Pulled towards the pit, Takeshi phased through the pillars and descended, reaching the bottom after a short while. Despite his Devil-enhanced senses, he couldn't see through the deep darkness surrounding him. He tried conjuring a light through his demonic power, but found himself unable to do so.

[Oh, where are my manners? Here.]

Crimson flames erupted on various areas of the floor and the walls, dispelling the darkness. Wincing due to the sudden illumination, Takeshi focused on the massive shadow standing a few meters across him, its six eyes trained on him.

"By the Devil Kings…"

Takeshi murmured, half-transfixed, half-repulsed by the sight before him. A massive three-headed Dragon whose body was covered in violet-colored scales regarded him with an inquisitive look. Several horns protruded from each head, three pairs of wings grew from his back, a large tail flicked behind him, and a pattern resembling a fanged mouth with blazing eyes and a lidless one above it could be seen on his chest. A vile aura surrounded the creature's body, further adding to his menacing presence.

"…Why do you have a deformed face stuck on your chest?"

Takeshi asked, prompting Aži Dahāka to laugh.

[That's not how people usually react when they first meet me!]

[You are either very brave, or very stupid indeed, whelp.]

[Side effect from an alchemy experiment conducted long ago. No demerits on overall condition, thus no need to make additional adjustments.]

"Right, you're the resident mad scientist…" Takeshi thought while looking. "This is your first prison, isn't it? The place the hero Thraetaona tossed you in after defeating you."

[That is correct, whelp. Thraetaona imprisoned me within Mount Damavand, intending to keep me locked there until the world's end.]

[His calculations were a little off though~. Or rather, he underestimated my prowess.]

[Eroded the seal to the point where my soul could escape. Discarded my physical form and reconstructed my body afterwards.]

"Doesn't seem that trick will work this time around." Takeshi said. "Deus Trinity went to great lengths to ensure you seven would remain locked in here."

[It is true that this binding is far more formidable and complex than anything I have ever encountered before.]

[But that just ups the thrill! Always loved a good challenge!]

[Early analysis indicates patterns and designs not found in this world thus far. Intriguing. Could lead to more unique discoveries down the line.]

"Seems like you're confident you can escape." Takeshi said. "Despite what you're saying though, I have a feeling you'll be stuck in here for a long time, so we should get along as much as we can."

[I have no need to get along with the likes of you, whelp. While the current situation is far from desirable, I will take full advantage of it in any way I can regardless of the cost to you.]

[Living through someone else and witnessing their perspective should be an interesting experience!]

[Prime opportunity for unique data collection. Eager to begin experimentation on host and surroundings.]

"Figures…" Takeshi sighed as he glared at the Evil Dragon. "All of you guys just can't help but be difficult. Don't expect me to capitulate to your demands though. There won't be any experiments on me, or anyone else for that matter."

Instead of answering, Aži Dahāka let out a sinister laugh that echoed throughout the cavern. The next moment, Takeshi was sent flying, crashing on the pit's wall and feeling as if a mountain was pressing on him. He struggled to move, but couldn't overcome the invisible force restraining him.

[Consent or cooperation from host's side, not required.]

[Sorry, but I'm not letting anyone or anything get in the way of my fun and my goals~.]

[Do not delude yourself into thinking that I am the same as the other Evil Dragons you have encountered thus far.]

"…Really…?" Takeshi said through gritted teeth. "Could've fooled me…considering your temper's bad as theirs…"

Aži Dahāka said nothing, increasing the pressure as the walls around Takeshi bubbled and morphed into an assortment of deadly instruments aimed at him. However, at that moment, numerous energy chains erupted from the walls and pierced Aži Dahāka's body, dragging him back and slamming him on the floor.

The Evil Dragon roared in outrage, but was unable to escape from his bindings. Meanwhile, the force restraining Takeshi vanished, allowing him to jump off the wall and land on the ground.

"Looks like your leash is even tighter than you thought." Takeshi said. "Didn't see that coming, did you? Bet that must have hurt quite a bit."

[It did, but testing the limits of this Sacred Gear and the degree of freedom I have in it is worth being inconvenienced a bit.]

[Understanding something, the first step to conquering it.]

[Not to mention, knowledge is power, and I do love power~.]

"Whatever." Takeshi said. "I think I've had enough of you for one day, so I'll be taking my leave now."

[Don't be a stranger~.]

[May our time together be a fruitful one. For me at least.]

[Display how low one can fall.]

Takeshi rose off the floor, flying towards the pit's exit while the Evil Dragon's laughter echoed beneath him.


"Oh, big brother Takeshi is waking up at last, Mother!"

"Millicas-sama, don't raise your voice that much. Takeshi-sama is still recovering."

"Yes, I'm sorry."

Takeshi opened his eyes solely, looking around. He was lying on the same luxurious bed he recalled being placed on before losing consciousness. Next to him stood Grayfia and an excited Millicas, with the former filling a glass with water from a nearby jug.

"Would you like a drink?"

"…Yes, thank you. My throat is parched."

Takeshi downed the glass in one go. Meanwhile, Grayfia began fiddling with some sort of device next to the bed. After a few seconds, she turned it on, with a holographic image of Sirzechs in a casual attire appearing from it.

[Hello, Takeshi-kun. Looks like you're awake. Rias and the others will be happy to hear that since they were worried about you.]

"How long have I been out?"

[About three days.] Sirzechs said. [Awakening Daeva Scope and pushing yourself as far as you did against Shalba did a number on your body and mind. According to Azazel, there shouldn't be any permanent damage left, but if you feel anything strange, don't hesitate to inform us. We have entered uncharted territory with this Sacred Gear after all.]

"Apart from the killer headaches and Aži Dahāka's attempts to overwrite my personality and memories with his, I haven't noticed anything else." Takeshi said, and then frowned. "Actually, now that I think about it, I can't seem to recall how I cast the spells I used during the battle. I remember using them, but when it comes to the specifics like formula construction and application, I'm drawing a blank."

[Looks like Aži Dahāka is unwilling to let his host retain knowledge of his techniques.] Sirzechs said. [Is there anything else?]

"I…don't think so, Sirzechs-sama."

[Very well, but if you recall anything, however small, please inform me or Azazel immediately.] Sirzechs said, and then smiled. [Also, you have my gratitude for your hard work back there. Thanks to you, we were able to avoid the worst-case scenario, which would have terrible ramifications throughout the world.]

"All in a day's work, Sirzechs-sama." Takeshi smiled. "I don't suppose that means I'm eligible for a promotion now?"

[If it was solely up to me, I would have made you a Middle-class Devil in a heartbeat.] Sirzechs said. [At this point though, there would be considerable backlash from the Great King Faction on account of the potential danger you represent.]

"Bummer."

[On the bright side, Zeus, Odin and Ra were impressed by your performance, and word of your meritorious deeds is slowly spreading throughout the Pantheons.] Sirzechs said. [All that, coupled with the initiative my mother has planned, means that a promotion shouldn't be far off, especially if you keep piling up accomplishments like that. No matter how much they might be against it, the Great King Faction will be unable to hold you back any longer.]

"That's good to hear." Takeshi said. "What happened to Diodora and his servants? I remember Rias mentioned something about capturing him."

[Diodora has been imprisoned and is awaiting trial.] Sirzechs said. [Betrayal and murder of a fellow heir are serious crimes that warrant at least life imprisonment, if not execution. As for his servants, we have treated them and delivered them to the Church. Your friend Leon has entrusted them to individuals he believes will be able to help them heal to the best of their ability.]

"What about the rest of the Astaroth family and Beelzebub-sama?" Takeshi asked. "Will they face repercussions due to Diodora's betrayal?"

[The Astaroth clan has lost quite a bit of prestige and influence as a result of Diodora's actions.] Sirzechs said. [The current head was forced to step down, and a new one will be appointed soon. Several nobles also asked Ajuka to take responsibility as well by resigning from his Devil King position, but fortunately, that motion didn't pass. Not only was it ridiculous, but the Underworld cannot afford to lose Ajuka at this stage. His technological prowess and expertise are unmatched.]

"Sounds like you had your fair share of trouble." Takeshi said. "About Ophis, from what I understood, Great Red is her target, yes? Why is that?"

[From what Azazel and Tannin told me, she wishes to reclaim the Dimensional Gap, which used to be her residence in the distant past.] Sirzechs said. [Unfortunately, we cannot allow that to happen.]

"Let me guess, there would be severe consequences in doing so?"

[Right.] Sirzechs nodded. [Great Red's continued presence is what keeps the Gap stable, and his removal or demise could have catastrophic effects. If it was the Ophis of old, it might have been alright to let her return there. However, having the current Ophis, who has been influenced by this world during her aimless wandering, become the Dimensional Gap's ruler is not advisable.]

"In that case, what we have to do hasn't changed." Takeshi said with a determined expression. "One way or another, we have to find a way to defeat or seal the Infinite Dragon, the strongest being in all the realms. Well, good thing I enjoy a good challenge."

[Speaking of challenges, there have been concerns about the Youth Rating Game Tournament in light of the Khaos Brigade's assault on your game.] Sirzechs said. [Because of the risk posed by the terrorists, there have been suggestions that we should cancel the tournament altogether, but there is a match both the Underworld and people from other factions is eager to see.]

"Which is?"

[The match between Rias and Sairaorg of course.] Sirzechs said. [The match between Sona and Seekvaira is also something people are looking forward to. In other words, the clash of power versus power and tactics versus tactics.]

"…Are you perhaps implying that we're muscle-brained idiots, Sirzechs-sama?"

[Perish the thought.] Sirzechs said with a smile. [Your team does favor power, but I wouldn't call you idiots. In any case, nothing is decided yet, so the young Devils will have to wait a bit longer until our deliberations on the subject are complete.]

"I hope the final decision is that the matches will happen." Takeshi said, clenching his fist. "Sairaorg-san and I promised to fight each other with everything we've got, and I want to honor that promise. That game is—"

Takeshi abruptly stopped talking as the word game tugged at his memory. After making a few quick mental calculations, his eyes opened wide in horror.

[What's the matter, Takeshi-kun?] Sirzechs said with evident worry. [Is everything—]

"Cap, crap, crap!" Takeshi cried out, jumping off the bed. "Today's the day of Kuoh Academy's sports festival! Is that where you are, Sirzechs-sama!?"

[Well, yes, since I wanted to see Rias shining—]

"What event is taking place now!? Hurry up and tell me!"

[The three-legged race is about to finish, and—]

"Good, there's still time!" Takeshi said, summoning Cataclysm Zone in haste. "Sorry, but I'm off, Sirzechs-sama, Grayfia-san, Millicas-sama! Come, Daeva Scope!"

The two pistols and the third eye materialized following Takeshi's call, with the young Devil wincing due to the burning sensation in his brain and the influx of foreign thoughts and memories into it.

Doing his best to center himself and ignore the pain, Takeshi conjured several complex magic circles below him, creating a teleportation array that would allow him to slip past the estate's defenses and move through the Dimensional Gap.

One flash of light later, Takeshi found himself inside the forest near the old school building. Making sure no-one was around, Takeshi cast a couple more spells, changing his current outfit into his gym clothes and suppressing his malicious aura to a degree. After dismissing Daeva Scope, he started running towards the school grounds as fast as he could.

As he got closer, he could hear the cheers and shouts coming from the students, teachers and parents that were present. At that moment, he saw Rias and Koneko running towards him, matching smiles on their faces.

"Over here, Takeshi! It will be faster through the tents!"

"…You arrived just in time, Senpai."

Nodding at the two girls, Takeshi dashed past them, following their directions. After a few seconds, he arrived at the area where the students assembled for the cavalry battle were waiting, running towards the trio of Yuuto, Xenovia and Pandora.

"There he is." Yuuto said with a wide smile upon catching sight of Takeshi. "Looks like you owe me three thousand yen, Saji-kun."

"Blast it!" Genshirou cursed, though he was also smirking. "Should have known a stubborn guy like Ryuugamine would have dragged himself out of bed by force if need be to come here."

Coming to a stop in front of his teammates, Takeshi grinned.

"I…have arrived!" Takeshi announced, striking a pose. "Kept you waiting, huh?"

"Good to see you are your usual energetic self." Xenovia smiled, patting his back. "You had us worried for a bit there, Takeshi."

"It'll take a lot more than that to keep me down." Takeshi said. "So, what did I miss?"

"Our class won the three-legged race just now, with Hyoudou and Asia taking first place." Xenovia said. "Leon and Dia came second, but it was a very close second place. If Leon hadn't stumbled near the finish, they might have come first."

"Shame for them, but the fact that our class won is what matters most." Takeshi said, taking a bandana from the student handing them out. "Let's keep this momentum up and take down everyone in our path!"

[Yes!]

Takeshi's teammates shouted together. As they were about to take their positions, Pandora approached Takeshi and whispered to his ear.

"…Once the game is over, can we talk alone?"

"…Sure."

Takeshi whispered back at her before climbing on Yuuto's shoulders, with Pandora and Xenovia supporting the two. Some distance away, Takeshi could see Genshirou riding on Tsubasa's shoulders, with Tomoe and Momo supporting them. After a short while, the announcer's voice echoed through the megaphones.

[The cavalry battle will soon begin. Players, get ready!]

All students participating tensed as they waited for the signal to begin.

[Go!]

Following that announcement, the cavalry battle started, with Takeshi's team securing two headbands from the get-go due to their impeccable coordination and Takeshi's superior speed.

"Way to go, Takeshi! Keep it up!"

"Don't let anyone stand in your way!"

Hiroto and Shiori, who were in the stands, cheered for their son with matching excited expressions.

"Do your best, Takeshi, Pandora, Xenovia, Yuuto!"

"You'll get first place for sure!"

"G-Go, Takeshi-senpai, Pandora-senpai, Yuuto-senpai, Xenovia-senpai!"

"…Don't lose, everyone!"

Rias, Akeno, Gasper and Koneko shouted encouraging words to their fellow club members.

"Show us your cool side, you four!"

"…Fight on!"

"May the Lord's blessings guide you to victory! Amen!"

"You can do it!"

Next to the four Devils, the quartet of Leon, Dia, Irina and Asia also cheered for their friends.

"I'm not letting you guys off the hook if you lose!"

Azazel also added from the side, a wide smirk on his face. Some distance back, Sirzechs was also observing the game while smiling, with the stoic Baraqiel next to him.

"Everyone's cheering for us, so let's give it all we've got, you guys! Plus Ultra!"

[You got it!]

Yuuto, Xenovia and Pandora responded with fervor to Takeshi's words. Evading a group charging at them from the side with nimble movements, they approached close enough for Takeshi to snatch the rider's bandana before she realized what had happened.

Two groups came at Takeshi's group from both sides, having marked them as the most dangerous and aiming to capture them in a pincer attack. Once again however, they underestimated the speed and dexterity of the Occult Research Club's members, losing their bandanas as well.

After a couple of minutes, the only groups left on the field were Takeshi's and Genshirou's. The two youths glared at each other, matching challenging smirks on their faces as their groups began circling each other, looking for an opening.

Once they got close enough, the two riders began an intense melee that had all onlookers cheering for both sides.

"You may have beaten me in the Rating Game, but there's no way in Hell I'm letting you walk away with this win today!"

"Tough luck, Saji-kun! Today, I'm invincible!"

Takeshi declared as he batted away Genshirou's outstretched hand, delivering a lightning-fast jab. His opponent barely dodged it in time, but showed an opening that Takeshi wasted no time in capitalizing. Unable to react in time, Genshirou lost his bandana, with Takeshi waving it around in a triumphant manner.

[The cavalry battle is over! The winner is Class 2-A's Ryuugamine Takeshi and his team!]

Cheers erupted throughout the school grounds, with Takeshi jumping off Yuuto's back and embracing his three teammates as they jumped around in joy and laughed. The rest of the Occult Research Club members also joined in, with Takeshi's parents rushing to offer words of praise for everyone.

Once they were done, Takeshi noticed that Pandora had left the group and was heading into the school building. Glancing at Rias, who nodded at him with a smile, Takeshi chased after her. Tracing her aura, he arrived at the entrance leading to the roof and stepped into it.

"…Beautiful."

Takeshi couldn't help but mutter that, a mesmerized expression on his face as he stood stock-still while observing the dreamlike scene before him. With the sun's rays illuminating her flushed skin, the gentle smile that seemed to come from the bottom of heart and her eyes sparkling as she observed the sports festival below, Pandora had never looked as radiant as she did now.

After staring at her for a few seconds, Takeshi eventually snapped out of it and addressed her.

"Enjoying the view, princess?"

"Yes, very much." Pandora said. "Everything looks so beautiful, so exciting, so alive. For the first time in years, I can immerse myself in the moment and enjoy something without worrying about what the future will bring or whether my curse will ruin everything around me. Not to mention, I'm sure I can paint a beautiful picture after this."

Pandora turned around and focused on Takeshi.

"It's all thanks to you, Takeshi." Pandora said. "You believed in me even though it seemed like I had betrayed you. You risked your life and your sanity to save me from the Titan Worshippers' clutches. You even went the extra mile by changing the curse that had been plaguing me for so long into a blessing fueled by the Spirits that is meant to protect me. No matter what the world might say, to me, you are the greatest hero there is, and the most important person in my life."

Pandora took a few steps forward, getting closer to Takeshi.

"That's why, from now on, it's my turn." Pandora said with a resolute expression. "I will stand by your side and protect you. One day in the near future, when you become a High-class Devil, I want you to take me with you as well so I can keep supporting you with everything I've got."

"Having you by my side would be my pleasure, but I won't be satisfied with you being just my servant." Takeshi said as he further closed the distance between them, placing his hand on Pandora's shoulder. "I'm a self-centered and greedy person, not exactly the image of an archetypical hero. I fought my hardest to save you because I care about you, and those feelings go beyond that of mere friendship. To put it bluntly, I like you very much, Pandora. I want you to be by my side as my girlfriend for as long as both shall live."

Pandora said nothing at first, stunned by this confession. Then, tears formed in her eyes as her smile became wider.

"Takeshi, I…I never thought I would ever get the chance to hear words like these…" Pandora said. "All this time, I was doing my best to hold myself back and suppress these feelings…fearing they would only cause you more pain. For them to be reciprocated like this… However, are you sure you're alright with someone like me…?"

"That's what I should be asking." Takeshi said, wiping her tears away. "I'm the man who bears a dreadful curse that could consume everything and everyone around me. Knowing that, you still want to get even closer to me?"

Instead of responding, Pandora grabbed Takeshi's collar and pulled him in for a deep kiss. Though surprised by her boldness at first, he returned it with equal fervor, placing his arms around Pandora's waist and drawing her closer. Although Pandora's inexperience made her somewhat clumsy, she more than made up for it with her passion and intensity.

Their kiss went on for several seconds until they broke apart, a playful smile on Pandora's face as she touched her lips.

"Did that answer your question, Takeshi?"

"Sure did, though I was surprised by your approach." Takeshi said, stroking her hair. "When did a nice girl like you become so aggressive?"

"Well…I may or may not have approached Akeno-san for advice." Pandora admitted. "I wanted to make a lasting impression, and I thought she was the ideal person to help me with that."

"Well thought." Takeshi grinned, giving Pandora a small kiss. "This will definitely become another precious memory. As much as I want to bask in this moment, we should head back. We need to cheer the others on and participate in the remaining activities. Later on, we can perhaps…explore our new relationship a bit more."

"I'll hold you to that…my beloved." Pandora giggled as she separated from Takeshi and headed for the door. "Coming?"

"Actually, I need to go to the bathroom first. I'll meet you and the others in a bit."

"Alright."

Pandora nodded as she left the roof, with Takeshi staring at her retreating back with a smile. Once he was sure she was gone, he snapped his fingers. The next moment, several glyphs and runes shone on his body before shattering and vanishing.

"That's better. Using reinforcement magic in a school event might be cheating, but as long as you win in the end, the means don't matter."

After remarking so, Takeshi left the roof as well, shivering a bit due to a sudden gust of cold wind blowing.


This concludes Chapter 54. First, in response to your questions.

To RyukiPendragon: Sure, you can publish a Spanish version of it.

To SirzechsTard: Ophis and Great Red's power levels are rather nebulous, but I would consider them beyond planetary based on some passages from the novels. I recall Ddraig saying once that he could destroy the world, and Ophis in her weakened state claimed she was twice as strong as both Ddraig and Albion together in their primes. Moreover, AxA apparently has enough power to destroy the planet, and that weapons platform contains only part of Great Red's power. Their monstrous strength plus a prolonged conflict is what led to the near destruction of the universe.

Regarding the cosmology, I'll do my best to expand upon it. I consider the various realms alternate dimensions of varying sizes anchored on the Earth and kept separate through the upper layers of the Dimensional Gap. The concept is kind of similar to the Phases from Toaru or the various layers of the Duat from Rick Riordan's Kane Chronicles.

With this chapter, this arc (or rather volume. I think it's more fitting to call them volumes from now on) has come to an end at last. Takeshi, Leon and Vali joined forces to destroy the mutated Shalba, the Inner Circle's goals are becoming a bit clearer, Takeshi and Pandora are finally a couple, and there are hints of more trouble ahead.

Well, that's all for now. The next chapter will be the start of an original volume before we move on to the one involving the Norse Gods. As always, please read, review, favorite, follow, but most of all, enjoy!

See you all next time!