Chapter 55 – Shadow

In the woods of a certain region in the United States.

If an outside observer was present at that time, they would surely be astonished at the sight before their eyes. A large number of humans dressed in priest garments, Angels, Fallen Angels and Devils had assembled around a wide gaping hole in the middle of a cleared-out section of the woods. Several individuals descended into it and emerged from it at infrequent intervals while carrying several sealed boxes.

"We've been out here for hours, and we haven't found anything of note as of yet. How long do we have to keep this up…?"

A Fallen Angel with six wings sprouting from her back grumbled under her breath, prompting a nearby male Devil, who was checking some sort of list, to approach her.

"I understand your frustrations, Kadur-san, but this is necessary work as well." The Devil said. "While more than a hundred years have passed following its devastation, the ruins of Section Thirteen's headquarters may yet hold important information or objects that cannot be allowed to fall into the wrong hands. Perhaps they will even enable us to catch a glimpse of the Khaos Brigade's plans, unlikely as that possibility is. Even so, we can leave no stone unturned."

"It is as Heinrich-san says." An approaching Angel with two sets of wings sprouting from his back said, a grim expression on his face as he surveyed the surroundings. "Even though the land has healed for the most part, if one looks close enough, they can still see the scars brought forth by the century-old devastation. To think that all this was done by the power of a single child, it sends shivers down my spine…"

"Not a normal child by any accounts, Baruch-san." Heinrich said. "One should not underestimate the dreaded power of the Four Horsemen. Of course, as a Reincarnated Devil, these infamous beings were before my time, but I have heard tales of the terror they sowed in the Fallen Angels' and Devils' ranks during the Great War, with even Gods being wary of them. The fact that a manifestation of their power only ended up destroying the nearby town of Peshtigo should be considered fortunate."

"Not for all the poor souls who perished on that fateful day it wasn't." Baruch said with a downcast expression before turning to Heinrich. "On an unrelated note, I never expected to meet the famous Renaissance scholar Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa in a place like this. If I'm not mistaken, you serve as the Bishop of the current Head of House Gremory, yes? In that case, such menial work shouldn't be something to concern yourself with."

"The territory I currently oversee happens to be close by, which is why the Devil Kings requested that I take part in this investigation." Heinrich said. "Furthermore, since there is a possibility we might have to deal with dangerous specimens left behind, my expertise as the Vice Chief Engineer of the Demonic Power Research Institute should come in handy."

"Both Baruch there and I come from research backgrounds, so you'll be in good company here." Kadur said with a grin. "However, joint efforts between the Three Factions… A few months ago, such a notion would be absurd unless an immediate world-ending threat was involved. We were at each other's throats for quite some time after all."

"The Seraphs work in mysterious ways indeed…"

Baruch said, an unreadable expression on his face, while Heinrich let out an almost inaudible sigh as his two coworkers went to give additional commands to their respective subordinates. Judging from the stiff interactions and barely restrained hostility in some cases from those around, it was evident that resentful feelings ran deep and old wounds still festered from all sides.

That's only natural. Heinrich thought. A mere declaration of peace isn't enough to erase millennia of hatred and grudges. It will take a lot of effort to ensure that this fragile alliance solidifies into something more permanent. At the very least though, I have no intention of being the reason the Three Factions union fell apart. I wouldn't be able to look the young lady in the eye ever again if that happened.

The thought of Rias brought a small smile to Heinrich's face. It had been a few years since he had last spoken with the Gremory heiress and the person who ended up becoming her Queen, and he missed them both. From what he had heard, Rias had begun making a name for herself, though she had made a few mistakes here and there as well.

All is part of youth. Heinrich thought. I'm sure Master and his wife are proud of the young lady's accomplishments, though knowing the Mistress, she will continue to be strict with her evaluation so that the young lady won't grow complacent.

Heinrich's train of thought was interrupted as a commotion occurred a short distance away. Frowning, he rushed to its source, a trio of Church agents reporting to Baruch in a hurried manner, their agitation evident.

"What's the matter?" Heinrich asked Baruch. "Has there been a development?"

"My subordinates have uncovered a hidden vault in an unmapped area deep below the ruins, sealed tight with a large number of advanced security system magic formations." Baruch said with an apprehensive look. "Section Thirteen's members seem to have gone to great lengths to conceal that area, using highly sophisticated Angel-style formations that we almost missed, and since it withstood the destruction of the compound…"

"Then whatever is inside is either too valuable, or too dangerous." Heinrich said. "I suggest we place barriers and additional human-warding spells over the area, set up a perimeter around the vault and begin breaching it with the utmost caution. Our superiors should also be informed about this as soon as—"

"Quiet!" Kadur said all of a sudden, interrupting Heinrich. "Do you hear that?"

Everybody fell silent following the Fallen Angel's words, straining their ears to pick up any strange noises.

"Hear what exactly?" Baruch said, looking puzzled. "The forest around us seems quiet."

"That's the problem." Kadur said, her eyes narrowed. "It's way too quiet. When we first got here, the sounds of the forest could be heard loud and clear. Now, there's nothing."

Heinrich and Baruch both frowned upon realizing that Kadur was right. An unnatural and eerie silence surrounded them, along with the feeling that someone was watching them. Although no-one present was a stranger to facing dangerous situations, they couldn't help but feel nervous when confronted with the unknown.

"Patrol team, this is Heinrich." Heinrich said as he conjured a communication magic circle next to his ear. "Have you noticed anything unusual or suspicious?"

No response came from the magic circle, prompting everyone's frowns to deepen.

"Patrol team, can you hear me? Please respond."

"It's no use." Kadur said, conjuring two light spears and assuming a stance. "I've seen this pattern before. Whatever lurks out there probably got them. Everyone, battle positions!"

No sooner had Kadur shouted that than wisps of darkness emerged from the woods, enveloping the area and reducing visibility. Noticing movement to his left, Heinrich launched a shot of demonic power at it, with a pained yelp echoing and a black-furred carcass falling to his feet.

"A jaguar…?"

Heinrich muttered as a large number of howls echoed all around the Three Factions' members and numerous jaguars emerged from the shadows, pouncing on them while snarling. Unlike regular ones, these ones' bodies were larger, had glowing blue patterns on their fur and enveloped by a thin sheet of aura. Several troops were too slow to respond and were devoured by the ravenous beasts in a matter of seconds.

"Form up!" Baruch shouted, a light blade in his hands as he brought down a couple of beasts with expert moves. "Cover each other's blind spots!"

Following Baruch's words, several Exorcists present brought out devices that generated tall, rectangular light shields, forming a shield wall that was reinforced by the Angels behind them. Behind the defensive formation, the rest of the Exorcists brought out light rifles and pistols, shooting a barrage of light rounds that tore through the charging animals with ease. The Angels above also added their light spears to the mix, bringing down jaguar after jaguar.

Next to the Church warriors, the Fallen Angels and Devils had also regrouped under Kadur and Heinrich's guidance in similar formations, eliminating the charging foes. They would also cast spells to illuminate their surroundings and dispel the unnatural dark fog, though it would always rush to devour all generated light orbs.

Is this the Khaos Brigade's handiwork? Heinrich thought as several pillars of flames erupted before him, bringing down a dozen jaguars with ease. It's the most likely scenario, though these creatures don't appear to be Annihilation Maker's constructs. If it isn't them though, then who…?

No sooner had Heinrich finished his thought than hundreds of daggers made of obsidian rained down from the sky. They broke through the defensive magic circles and light shields with ease, burying themselves in the bodies of several alliance warriors.

At the same time, a massive cloud of condensed darkness rushed out of the trees, falling on the Heaven side with the force of a meteor. Strangled cries and terrified screams could be heard for a few seconds, and before anyone could react, the cloud had moved to the Fallen Angel side, enveloping them and repeating the previous scene once again.

"Curses!" Heinrich shouted as he turned to his fellow Devils. "Concentrate your attacks on that mass of darkness! Hurry, before it devours us as well!"

The Devils obeyed without hesitation, launching blasts of demonic power and elemental attacks at the dark cloud. While there was a big chance his allies could be caught in their attacks, Heinrich couldn't just sit around and wait for this phenomenon to come for him and his subordinates next.

However, despite the Devils' frantic attacks, the dark cloud didn't show any signs of receding, with the blasts being dispersed and consumed by it. Rising high enough to tower over the assembled Devils, it expanded in a flash and enveloped them as well.

Before Heinrich could give any further commands, a chorus of screams echoed all around him, prompting him to grimace. Forming several magic circles, he attempted to illuminate his surroundings with a wave of light, but his spell was devoured by the shadows the moment he cast it.

Sensing movement from his left, Heinrich turned towards that direction in haste, a magic circle in his hand. Several magic circles formed on the ground, releasing torrents of lightning towards the approaching individual, with a large number of crystal spires also erupting from the ground around him.

Heinrich's efforts were rewarded by the sound of an inhuman hiss, one that most likely belonged to their mysterious assailant. His sense of triumph was short-lived though as the darkness-cloaked figure tore through Heinrich's spells and rushed at him, grabbing him from his throat and lifting him up. Being that close to them, Heinrich was able to make out some of their details while struggling to free himself.

"You…are…!"

That was the only thing Heinrich was able to croak out before the darkness enveloped him completely. Having dealt with the alliance forces outside, the darkness-cloaked figure jumped into the wide hole leading into the ruins of Section Thirteen, swiftly dispatching the personnel inside before they could even realize what had happened.

Once several minutes had passed, the dark cloud shot out of the pit and rose towards the night sky. As it hovered above, it released copious amounts of darkness that enveloped the forest and spread towards the nearby town, forming a dome-shaped barrier.

Upon ensuring that the town had been engulfed and that any source of light and sound had vanished, the mysterious creature vanished as silently as it had arrived, leaving almost no trace of the battle that had taken place there.


[That's far enough, Khaos Brigade!]

Takeshi let out a wide grin at that scene. He and the rest of the Occult Research Club had assembled in the Ryuugamine residence's movie theater inside the first basement floor, watching an actor identical to him confronting a squadron of masked henchmen led by an six-armed man wearing full-body mechanical armor with a spider motif.

[The infamous Dragon Augment-01.] The armored man said with evident disdain. [You may have meddled in our affairs and put a stop to our plans, but today marks your end!]

[That's not my name.] The actor playing Takeshi said. [I'm Legion. Call me Kamen Rider Legion!]

[Deserters do not get such privileges.] The actor playing the villain said. [You will rue the day you decided to oppose the Khaos Brigade! Get him!]

The masked henchmen charged at the actor who had proclaimed himself as Kamen Rider Legion. Smirking, he evaded their charge as a belt identical to Cataclysm Zone appeared on his waist. Making a pose, he shouted.

[Transform!]

[Malice Rise! Abyss Rage Awakening!]

Following his shout and the announcement from the belt, a lavish transformation scene ensued and an armor similar to Dead Shore Advent enveloped the actor's body.

[Now, all of you will be eradicated without fail!]

Brandishing a Mayhem Striker-shaped prop, the actor began fighting the henchmen in a flashy manner.

"Magic sure is handy." Takeshi remarked, his eyes glued to the screen. "You wouldn't get a super realistic result like this with mere special effects. Also, the guy playing me is really good. He's got my mannerisms and movements down to a T."

"Mother made sure to assemble the most experienced crew available when producing this program." Rias said. "I wasn't sure about her newest venture, but this tokusatsu show has become very popular in the Underworld in a short amount of time. Goes to show why she's renowned for having an eye for profitable businesses."

"That's only natural." Takeshi said, proud as a peacock. "Even the Underworld can't resist the allure of tokusatsu, and when you throw me into the mix, you have the recipe for a massive success!"

"…Don't get carried away, Senpai." Koneko, who was sitting on Takeshi's lap as usual, said while pinching his cheek. "Still, there's no denying that Kamen Rider Legion was an unexpected hit. Viewership numbers are off the charts."

"Takeshi Gremory, a young Devil with a promising future, is captured by the sinister terrorist organization Khaos Brigade and experimented upon by having the souls of several Evil Dragons implanted into him." Leon said, quoting the show's synopsis. "Escaping with the help of a disgruntled scientist and equipped with the Cataclysm Driver, he makes it his life's goal to bring down the Khaos Brigade and protect the Underworld from their nefarious schemes as Kamen Rider Legion. It's a simple, yet effective Showa-style premise."

"Thanks to that, Takeshi-kun's popularity among the younger generation is growing even further." Yuuto said. "It's also a good way to present you as a more heroic figure to the rest of the world. However, was it really wise using the Khaos Brigade's name for the main antagonists of the show?"

"What are they going to do, sue us?" Takeshi smirked. "I'd really love to see them try dragging us to court over copyright issues."

"…Amusing." Dia chuckled. "…Doing something decent…with that name."

"Both the character's name and the backstory were your suggestions, right?" Xenovia said, turning to Takeshi. "Why choose the name Legion?"

"Took it from the Bible actually." Takeshi said. "I remembered something about Legion referring to a group of demons possessing individuals. Since I also host several foreign souls in my body, I thought it was fitting."

"Oh, I see." Xenovia said. "That makes sense."

[How utterly stupid.] Nidhogg said with evident disdain. [We are meant to inspire terror, and you're trying to turn us and our armors into heroes. The nerve.]

[Even worse, you've made Nidhogg's armor the primary form?] Grendel growled. [That's quite the heavy insult, whelp. When it comes to slaughtering others, I'm your go-to-Dragon!]

[At least the female characters' costumes are a treat for the eyes.] Orochi said. [Those who made it got one thing right.]

[Regardless…it is…a foolish endeavor…] Ladon said. [Not only…is it degrading…for us…but also…useless…for improving…your reputation…]

Cope and seethe, everyone. Takeshi said. It's a done deal now, so quit whining about it.

"Ah, here comes my scene!" Irina said, jumping up and down with a wide grin on her face while pointing at the screen, where an actress wearing golden armor that resembled her appeared. "Angel Commander Irina to the rescue! Eliminating all bad guys in a flash in the name of Michael-sama! Amen!"

"Someone's getting too excited." Xenovia said with a smirk. "Still, it's good seeing my partner moving up in the world. Your role is that of a Heaven warrior leading a special operations unit fighting against the Khaos Brigade, occasionally joining forces with Legion even though there's still mistrust between you two, right?"

"Yes, that's how the setting is." Irina nodded. "From uneasy allies, to trusted comrades, and perhaps something more down the line. Ah, but that doesn't mean it's going to be the same way with us, Takeshi-kun!"

"Relax, Irina-san." Takeshi grinned. "I can still separate life from fiction just fine."

"Well, when it comes to my role at least, there's no need to worry about such distinctions." Akeno said, her arms around Takeshi's left hand as she leaned her head on his shoulder. "The Fallen Angel Akeno, daughter of the deceased scientist that helped Takeshi Gremory escape, fights alongside him and supports him in his war against the Khaos Brigade. A bona-fide power couple, ufufu~."

"I don't get why I was cast as a villain though." Rias pouted, a disgruntled expression on her face as she watched an actor portraying her in a provocative bodysuit fighting against Legion and his allies. "Not to mention, Baroness Ruin isn't a cute name at all."

"Power-wise and appearance-wise, you fit the role of the femme fatale perfectly." Azazel said. "Besides, from what I hear, your character will end up joining the heroes' side down the line, so it's all good. The rest of you guys might also join the cast as well. There's going to be a character named Dark Knight Geist, who will be based on Kiba, for sure, and there are talks about creating characters based on Toujou Koneko and Gasper Vladi too."

"Maybe Gasper could play the role of a monster." Takeshi suggested while glancing at the young Vampire, who was seated in his cardboard box as usual. "Vampire-in-a-box is a concept that's never been tried before in tokusatsu history."

"I-Impossible, totally impossible!" Gasper shrieked as he sank into his box. "The thought of being viewed by hundreds of thousands of people…I don't think I could handle thissssss!"

"In any case, the Gremory family really hit the jackpot with this series." Azazel said. "From what I've heard, they are making a hefty profit from the streaming rights and the various merchandise. Replicas of Cataclysm Zone, rechristened Cataclysm Driver for the show's purposes, and its auxiliary Sacred Gears are flying off the shelves, to say nothing of the various figures based on the characters."

"They're very well-made, so it's only natural." Takeshi said. "Agents of the Gremory family delivered samples to me, and I was surprised by their craftsmanship. First-rate quality right there."

"Maybe we of the Grigori should look into this as well." Azazel muttered. "A way to acquire additional research funds would be most welcome…"

"Don't forget, there's also the upcoming manga adaption to look forward to, drawn by yours truly."

Pandora said with a wide smile, her arms wrapped around Takeshi's other arm as she nuzzled against him with a blissful expression on her face.

"You, haven't you been way too attached to Takeshi after the sports festival?" Rias said with a small frown. "At this point, you've almost become an extension of him."

"Newcomer's privilege~." Pandora winked at Rias, making a peace sign. "I have plenty of lost time to make up for, so I'll have Takeshi spoil me rotten for a while longer, President. Deep down, I'm quite a greedy girl after all."

"So it would seem." Rias said while smiling. "I understand where you're coming from, but don't overdo it, Pandora. Hogging Takeshi all the time isn't fair for the rest of us, you know?"

"Yes~!"

Pandora said in a cheerful manner, but made no attempt to distance herself from Takeshi, drawing even closer to him instead.

"…I don't think she heard a word President said."

Koneko remarked, though a faint smile could be on her face. Following the major change in Pandora and Takeshi's relationship status after the sports festival's conclusion several days ago, it was evident to everyone that the young Knight had become more jovial and upbeat, her previous subdued and pessimistic attitude nowhere to be seen. She had also become more open and daring when it came to her feelings for Takeshi, seizing any and all chances she could for intimate moments with him.

While somewhat exasperated by her aggressive advances, Koneko, Rias and Akeno were willing to give Pandora some leeway for the time being. Being able to express her innermost feelings and dream of the future without fearing the curse that used to loom over her had put her in a state of perpetual euphoria, which would probably abate soon enough though.

After a few minutes, the episode came to an end once Legion destroyed the enemy combatant he was facing with an aura-clad kick. As the members of the Occult Research Club stood up and climbed the stairs leading to the first floor while chatting, Takeshi turned to Leon.

"So, as a fellow tokusatsu connoisseur, what's the verdict after seeing this episode? Think it measures up to our human world's series?"

"It's getting there, but you have a long way to go before you can rival the classics." Leon said. "Regardless, this must feel like a dream come true, right? I know I'd be ecstatic if I were in your shoes."

"Trust me, words alone aren't enough to express my excitement." Takeshi grinned. "If you want, we could arrange it so that a character based on you appears on the show. Either that, or you could always ask Heaven and the Church to produce a similar show. Maybe an Ultraman one would be more in line with your character and background."

"While that sounds like a wonderful idea, right now, my…family matters are my most pressing concern."

Leon's expression darkened as he said so, with Takeshi frowning as well.

"Yeah, finding out you've got a long-lost older brother who's inherited the power of the infamous Horsemen and is out to kill your father and destroy everything you hold dear would put a damper on anyone's mood." Takeshi said. "It's one thing after another these days… And the Church and Heaven had no idea about Adam's existence or the project that spawned him until now?"

"That's what they claim, but I'm not so sure." Leon said with a harsh look on his face. "Even if Heaven was unaware, I refuse to believe that at least some members of the Magisterium back then weren't in the know. Since the techniques used during the Theotokos Project were refined versions of the ones employed by Section Thirteen to give birth to Adam, someone among the current higher-ups must have had access to their salvaged data. As such, they should have been aware of the tragedy that occurred back then."

"Hm, that makes sense, although I don't see the point in launching an investigation right now." Takeshi said. "I mean, damage's already done and the perpetrators are long dead. Unless you think the Church has created more nasty surprises from Section Thirteen's data, stuff that'll come back to bite us down the line?"

"I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case." Leon said. "That's why we need to find out how deep this rabbit hole goes sooner rather than later. I've asked a friend to dig around in an unofficial manner, see if she can discover something the official investigation might overlook. Man, I sure miss the days when I thought the Sigurd Project was the most morally reprehensible thing the Church had done…"

"Sigurd Project?" Takeshi raised an eyebrow. "Like the hero from Germanic legends? What's the story behind that?"

"For a long time now, the Church was in possession of Gram, the strongest Demonic Sword in existence." Leon began explaining. "However, much like most Holy and Demonic Swords, it's extremely picky about who gets to wield it, and its life-draining curse also complicates things further."

"A troublesome blade, huh?"

"Indeed." Leon said. "That's why the Church started a project a while back to create enhanced humans based on Sigurd's DNA in the hopes that one of them would be able to wield it. If the reports are correct, you must have faced one of the results from that project, a Stray Exorcist named Freed Sellzen."

"That psycho priest had the DNA of a hero?" Takeshi snorted. "Guess he must have been one of your failures then. So, did the Church end up creating Sigurd's successor?"

"More or less, though he deserted the Church a couple of years back, taking Gram and several other Demonic Swords with him." Leon said. "For things to end up like this, I can only assume he wasn't exactly treated in the most humane manner possible."

"You know, you'd think us Devils would be the ones with Shocker-like tendencies, and it turns out the Church are the ones who excel in human experimentation." Takeshi smirked. "It's kind of funny honestly."

"Forgive me if I can't find it within myself to laugh at the sheer irony of that." Leon said. "We're supposed to set an example for everyone else to follow, yet we keep piling up more and more crimes in the name of protecting ourselves and Heaven. There's a lot of cleaning up to be done, and I'll see to that no matter what…"

"Keep in mind though that the Church and Heaven had a lot of threats to face, both from us and the Devils, as well as the various Pantheons hostile to them." Azazel said from the side. "When you are in a state of perpetual risk, one can't help but cross some lines in the name of self-preservation and the greater good. It's true that they took things way too far in some cases though."

"Regardless of the reason, these inhumane practices must end once and for all." Lon said. "On a somewhat related note, I heard that the Three Factions had dispatched personnel to investigate the remains of Section Thirteen in the States. Did you have any news from that front, Sensei?"

"Their last report stated that they had scoured the first floors without finding anything of significance." Azazel said. "I doubt there's anything of value left, but better safe than sorry. Their next report is due soon, but I'm expecting more of the same."

"Alright, enough about these depressing matters." Takeshi said, clapping his hands. "After that major crisis we had to overcome only a few days ago, I just want to sit around and relax without a care in the world for the foreseeable future. In fact, how about a little game, Leon?"

"What sort of game are we talking about?"

Instead of answering, Takeshi grinned as he grabbed a nearby remote, turning on the sound system. A few seconds later, Techno Syndrome started blaring from the speakers at full volume, prompting the members of the Occult Research Club to groan.

"Another Mortal Kombat showdown?" Leon grimaced. "That's all we've been playing these past few days. Aren't you tired of it?"

"Why would I when I've been kicking your ass in it non-stop all week?" Takeshi said with a sly smirk. "We used to be evenly matched in the old days, but it looks like your skill has deteriorated since then. For shame."

"I'll admit I haven't been at the top of my game, but it makes no sense that I've been losing every match so far." Leon grumbled. "If I didn't know you any better, I'd swear you were cheating."

"Perish the thought." Takeshi said as he sat down. "It's simply a skill issue, nothing more. So, ready to try and avenge yourself, or will you run away like a coward?"

"You're on, Takeshi." Leon smiled as he took the seat next to Takeshi, grabbing his controller. "The usual wager?"

"Loser has to treat the other during our next outing, and at the rate you're going, you'll be paying for all my meals for the rest of your life." Takeshi said, turning to the others. "Want to get in on this, everyone?"

"…I'm betting on Senpai."

"…Leon."

Koneko and Dia said almost at the same time, with the others following suit apart from Azazel. Once the two boys began playing, the rest of the club members started cheering for both of them with wide grins on their faces, enjoying the intense confrontation.


The next day…

"Ah, this is true bliss~."

Takeshi let out a content sigh, his head on Pandora's thighs as she fed him from the bento next to her. The two of them were currently on the roof of Kuoh Academy, taking advantage of the recess for some alone time as a couple. While entry here was forbidden to regular students, the two of them had paid no heed to that as usual.

"It's a shame that I wasn't the one who made the bento." Pandora said as she brought another bite to Takeshi's mouth. "I'm a little envious of President and Akeno-san, who get to cook all these delicious meals for you. One of these days, when I have some time, I'll have Shiori-san start teaching me how to cook. Once I'm confident enough, I'll make you a delicious homemade meal with recipes from my home country."

"I'll be looking forward to that then." Takeshi said as he brought the chopsticks he was holding to Pandora's mouth, feeding her in turn. "Don't overwork yourself though. Not only are you busy with drawing the upcoming manga adaptation and promotional art for the new series, but I also hear you've been talking with Grayfia-san for some reason. I hope she hasn't been scolding you or anything."

"Not at all." Pandora said. "Like I told you before, once you go independent in the future, I want to stay by your side and support you in any way I can, both as your servant and as your girlfriend. Grayfia-san has centuries of experience as a Devil King's Queen, while also being married to said Devil King, so I figured she's the ideal person to advise me on that matter."

"Looks like I'm going to have some very reliable backup when I become a King in the near future." Takeshi smiled, stroking Pandora's cheek. "If doing this makes you happy from the bottom of your heart, that's even better. I would hate to think that you're pushing yourself because you feel like you owe me or something."

"I do owe you everything actually." Pandora smiled back as she leaned forward and kissed Takeshi. "Without you, I wouldn't be standing here today. Rest assured though that I'm doing all this because I want to, not because I feel obligated to. Besides, the way you're going, you're set to become a big star in the near future, so you'll need a manager of sorts now that you've entered the entertainment industry."

"A reliable bodyguard might be of higher priority right now." Takeshi said. "According to the Underworld's media, my show is close to catching up with Leviathan-sama's Miracle Levia-tan in terms of viewership numbers. I know she's a Devil King and all, but when one considers how childish she can be, I fear she might take drastic measures to…remove the competition if you know what I mean."

"You should be alright…I think." Pandora said with some hesitation. "On second thought, maybe you should speak with Sirzechs-sama about that just to be on the safe side? Apart from him and Grayfia-san, I don't think any of our friends and acquaintances can restrain Leviathan-sama."

"Well, I don't think it'll actually come down to a fight, so it's alright." Takeshi said. "More importantly, did the results from the check-up Sensei performed on you come out yet?"

"According to his findings, any and all traces of the hypnotic suggestions planted into my brain by the Titan Worshippers are gone for good." Pandora said. "Another thing I'm grateful to you for. No more strings are attached to me, and my life is truly my own now."

"To be fair, that was Aži Dahāka's handiwork, not mine." Takeshi said. "Without his knowledge and direction, I wouldn't have been able to pull all these feats back there. It's annoying that I'm technically in his debt, but it is what it is."

"Speaking of Aži Dahāka, has he troubled you lately?" Pandora asked, her concern evident. "I know his Sacred Gear places a heavy burden on your mind and floods it with his memories, but have there been any other issues?"

"Our three-headed scaly friend is keeping a disturbingly low profile for now." Takeshi said. "Probably using these parallel minds of his to come up with the most efficient way to torment me in the name of discovering something new. Guy's truly insane for daring to use a forbidden technique to fragment his mind for greater efficiency."

"Ordinary Magicians can replicate this trait?"

"From what Azazel-sensei said, yes, it's possible, but strongly advised against." Takeshi said. "Best-case scenario, you'll lose your sense of identity and develop something akin to multiple personality disorder. Worst-case scenario, the mind collapses from the strain."

"But Aži Dahāka doesn't seem to have that issue though?"

"That's because of his physiology as an Evil Dragon and his warped mentality." Takeshi said, letting out a sigh. "Sometimes, I wish I was born with a more mundane Sacred Gear instead of one with a bunch of nightmarish monsters stuck in it…"

"I often dreamed about being a normal girl myself in the past." Pandora said, looking at the clear sky above. "However, it's because of who we are that both of us are standing here right now. Like you always told me, we might have been dealt a bad hand, but it's up to us to make the most of what we can out of it."

"Yes, I know that very well." Takeshi said as he stood up and stretched. "They may be a literal and figurative pain, but still, the Evil Dragons within my Sacred Gear are the main reason I managed to overcome several dangerous situations so far and protect those important to me. It's just…I can't help but want to vent a bit sometimes."

"If you didn't, it'd be worried about you." Pandora said as she put the empty bento boxes away. "Keeping things bottled up inside eats you alive. That's why unwinding is important…though the parts of the nearby forest I destroyed in the past when I vented my frustrations might disagree with that…"

"And here I thought you were among the most composed in our group." Takeshi smirked. "Recess is almost over, so we should head back to class. No need to flaunt our disregard for the school's rules to an excessive degree."

"Yes."

Pandora said, wrapping her arms around Takeshi's arm as the two of them left the roof and made their way back to class. On their way there, the couple was subjected to several envious gazes from the surrounding male students and excited whispers from the female students. As usual, Pandora didn't even register them, lost in her own world with a blissful smile on her face, while Takeshi ignored them for the most part.

"Othrys-san and Ryuugamine-kun have been even closer than usual after the school festival…"

"Think she's going to be the one…?"

"My money's still on Rias-senpai…"

"Toujou-san was the first one, wasn't she? That's the rumor going around at least. I reckon she's got the most chances…"

"Maybe, but I wouldn't count Himejima-senpai out…"

"Perhaps there'll be an upset, and the winner is going to be a new face? Maybe one of the Occult Research Club's new members like Xenovia-san…?"

"Oh my gosh, that would be such a plot twist…!"

Some of the hushed conversations between the female students flowed into Takeshi's ears, causing him to grimace a bit. Apparently, a while back, several female students had started betting on which one of the four girls Takeshi was currently dating would be the one to end up with him.

Before he knew it, this 'initiative' had grown to include almost the entire female student body, with some of them forming camps based on which pairing they supported. Several heated debates had ensued between them, which had thankfully not escalated into violence.

While he found the whole thing silly and somewhat annoying, Takeshi was at least grateful that no-one had paired him with Yuuto or Leon yet. The fact that the former had been seen spending a lot of time with Tsubaki as of late and the latter had a sort-of-girlfriend in Dia had helped matters in that regard.

The Great Shipping Wars of Kuoh Academy. Takeshi thought while chuckling. Wouldn't be surprised if someone calls it that in the future. I swear, the students here must be seriously starved for entertainment. Too bad none of them is going to get it right though, since I'm ending up with everyone down the line.

As he and Pandora entered Class 2-A, Takeshi saw that Yuuto, Xenovia, Irina, Leon, Dia, Asia, Aika, Issei, Matsuda and Motohama had gathered around a desk and were chatting about something.

"Oh, the two lovebirds have returned at last." Aika said with a sly grin upon noticing their entrance. "Did some naughty stuff in some remote corner of the school, I bet."

"Takeshi and I are upstanding students, and therefore, we wouldn't dare engage in such acts on school grounds, Kiryuu-san." Pandora said, placing a finger near her mouth. "When we're at home though…that's a different case altogether."

"Well, look at you being all confident and outspoken with your feelings." Aika chuckled, nudging her with her elbow. "Two weeks ago, you were still insistent on playing the part of fake girlfriend and refused to get closer to Ryuugamine. What changed?"

"Let's just say I saw things from a new perspective and leave it at that." Pandora said. "What are you guys talking about?"

"Plans for the upcoming school trip to Kyoto." Xenovia said. "Since the rooms at the hotel we're staying can accommodate either three or four people, we need to make groups of three or four."

"That sounds simple enough." Takeshi said. "From the boys' side, it's going to be me, Yuuto and Leon, and I assume Hyoudou and his buddies will stay together, right?"

"You got that right." Issei said, and then sighed. "It's not like anyone else would pair with us…"

"Isn't that the truth." Matsuda said with a grin. "At least we get to spend our precious school trip in the company of some of the loveliest girls in Kuoh Academy. Oh, and Kiryuu, I guess."

"Shove it, Baldy." Aika said, giving Matsuda the side-eye before turning to the others. "When it comes to us girls, I was thinking that Dia-san, Irina-san and Xenovia-san could make one group, while Pandora, Asia-chan and I will make the second group. How does that sound?"

"No problems here!"

"These arrangements sound fine."

"…Agreed."

"Sounds good."

Irina, Xenovia, Dia and Pandora said, while Asia nodded with a smile on her face.

"It's my first time being on a school trip, so I can't help but feel excited." Asia said. "I'm not sure what I should prepare though…"

"If you need some help, don't hesitate to ask me." Issei said, thumping his chest. "For Asia's sake, I'm willing to do anything!"

"Oh, oh, that's very dependable of you, my friend, and also very sly." Motohama said, fixing his glasses. "Looks like winning the three-legged race with Asia-chan has made you somewhat bolder."

"It's settled then." Aika said. "Our four groups will move together and enjoy the wondrous Kyoto to the fullest!"

"We should probably make a schedule and decide the places we want to visit beforehand." Leon said. "With only three days and four nights available, we can't afford to waste precious time by wandering around aimlessly."

"Something like that happened to President when she went to Kyoto as a second-year student last year." Yuuto said. "She wasted too much time and didn't manage to see everything she wanted to. We had best not repeat her mistake."

"Kinkaku-ji and Ginkaku-ji are a must-see." Xenovia said with an animated expression. "Ever since I read about them, I've been looking forward to see the Golden and Silver Pavilions."

"…Nijou Castle." Dia said. "…Seemed majestic."

"It's Kyomizu-dera and Fushimi Inari Taisha for me!" Irina said, looking excited. "Going to Kyoto and not visiting them would be a crime!"

"I'm interested in Tenryuu-ji for…personal reasons." Leon said, glancing at his left hand. "I've been rather curious about the history behind it."

"As for me, I'd like to see Ryōan-ji and Higashiyama alongside all the others." Takeshi said. "Looks like we'll need to make a very detailed schedule if we want to see as many of these sights as we can."

"We'll discuss this in depth later." Aika said as she stood up. "There's still plenty of time left until the school trip, and class is about to start."

Everyone nodded as they went back to their seats.


Later…

"Kyoto, huh? This sure brings back some fond memories."

Rias said with a smile, half-lost in her memories while reminiscing about her school trip. Following the classes' end, the members of the Occult Research Club had gathered in their club room for their usual activities. After a while, the discussion had turned to the upcoming school trip once again.

"Ufufu, I remember someone being very excited about it, to the point where you didn't sleep a wink and dragged me to the train station two hours before the appointed departure time." Akeno smiled while pouring tea for Rias. "You also nearly drove our group crazy by spouting random facts about Kyoto every five seconds. It was both endearing and annoying at the same time."

"I couldn't help it." Rias said with a slight pout. "It was the beloved Kyoto I was looking forward to for so many years, you know? There were so many things I wanted to see and do, but I wasn't able to in the end due to mismanagement of our time. I shouldn't have spent so much of it at souvenir shops. The worst blunder of my life so far…"

"You can teleport to Kyoto any time you want though, no?" Takeshi pointed out. "Couldn't you just visit again at a later date? Hell, you could have gone there prior to the school trip."

"No, no, you don't understand, Takeshi." Rias said, wagging her finger at him. "Savoring the experience of a school trip, which only happens once in our time as students, is an irreplaceable feeling. I wouldn't spoil it by doing something as boorish as using magic for traversal. Since it was the Kyoto I longed for, I wished to do things properly."

"I see." Takeshi nodded. "In that case, how about this? During our respective graduation trips, we'll include Kyoto in our destinations. That way, you can visit it at least two more times down the line."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea!" Rias said, leaning forward with a glint in her eyes. "It's a promise, Takeshi. You'd better not go back on your word later, or else I'll be furious!"

"Yes, yes." Takeshi said. "On an unrelated note, has anyone seen Azazel-sensei? He vanished into thin air after classes finished."

"He received an emergency summons from Grigori, so he returned to the Underworld in haste." Leon said. "Something about the ongoing investigation in America. I also received a message from Heaven regarding it alongside the progress report on Excalibur's potential reforging."

"Reforging?" Xenovia raised an eyebrow. "The Church is trying to recreate the original sword? I thought it was considered a difficult process, and that the higher-ups thought it better to have multiple Holy Swords with a single ability to spread across several warriors, both for ease of use and for having a greater number of Holy Sword wielders available."

"The emergence of the Khaos Brigade, the improved relations between the denominations and Pantheons, and the discovery of the lost Excalibur Ruler's whereabouts have caused the higher-ups to revise their policies." Leon said. "Borrowing techniques from several factions has made reforging possible, and recreating the original Excalibur will provide us with yet another powerful weapon against the terrorists. Of course, we'll have to reclaim Ruler from Arthur Pendragon at some point in order to reform the original blade in its full glory."

"So that's why the Church asked me to send Mimic back two days ago." Irina said. "I thought it was for maintenance, but to think that such a project was underway… The possible return of the legendary blade sounds like big news. Is the Church going to fuse all six available fragments at once, leader?"

"From what I've heard, our alchemists will start by fusing the fragments in pairs." Leon said. "They'll mix Mimic with Transparency, Rapidly with Nightmare, and Destruction with Blessing. Should the fusions prove stable, they'll probably combine all three hybrid swords into a single one, and add Ruler on the final product once we have it in our possession."

"…Wielder?" Dia asked. "…Decided yet?"

"The higher-ups are still deliberating over that, but the most likely wielder of the completed product will be Irina-san." Leon said. "Not only is she Michael-sama's Ace, but she has plenty of experience as an Excalibur fragment wielder, which makes her an ideal candidate."

"…Eh?" Irina muttered, her mouth half-open in surprise. "M-Me!? Wielding one of the most venerated blades in Church history!? Isn't that a bit too much for someone like me, leader? I'm sure there are far more suitable candidates like you or Cristaldi-sensei."

"Teacher has retired from the front lines for quite some time, and Fragarach is more than enough for me." Leon said. "You've been working hard for years and already have several accomplishments under your belt. I think you'll do just fine, Irina-san."

"What Leon says." Xenovia said with a smile. "You were always fascinated with the legends of King Arthur and Excalibur, and now, you get to be the first wielder of the original blade in centuries. As your friend, I'm proud of your accomplishments."

"I'm sure you'll do great, Irina-san." Asia said with a smile. "Heaven has recognized your efforts, and this is a reward for that."

"…Congratulations." Dia smiled. "…Deserve it."

"I'm looking forward to sparring with you once you receive the completed blade and get accustomed to it." Yuuto said. "It'll definitely be a much greater challenge compared to Jacob Torres and his fused Excalibur."

"I understand. Since everyone's cheering me on…I'll make sure to prove myself worthy of wielding Excalibur! This is my duty as an Angel!"

Irina said in her usual energetic manner, though Takeshi noticed that her attitude was somewhat forced. Then, Rias clapped her hands together to get everyone's attention.

"We've gone a bit off topic." Rias said. "While the school trip is important, don't forget that the school festival is coming up after it. As the Occult Research Club, we need to decide on a theme and start preparing. Thankfully, even with the second years away, between the first and third years, we'll have enough people available for the preliminary work."

"Last year, you guys did a haunted mansion, right?" Takeshi said. "I remember everyone clamoring about how realistic it was, and it became a hot topic among students."

"…That was because we used real ghosts and Youkai."

Koneko said, prompting Takeshi to sigh.

"…Of course you did." Takeshi said. "And the school was alright with that?"

"We didn't exactly ask for permission beforehand." Akeno said. "Since these Youkai weren't the malevolent or dangerous type and they were in need of a job, it was a win-win for all sides involved."

"Sona, who was the Vice President of the Student Council at the time, was furious with us for days afterwards though." Rias said. "She kept scolding us while saying that using the real thing had gone beyond just breaking the rules. At some point, her face had become even redder than my hair."

Both Rias and Akeno laughed at that, with Pandora shaking her head in exasperation.

"Student President was right to get angry with you two." Pandora said. "It was a somewhat irresponsible act when you couldn't fully guarantee everyone's safety. So, I guess we won't be doing a haunted house again this year?"

"That's right." Rias nodded. "Doing the same thing twice in a row is dull and uninspired, so let's try something fresh."

"How about a tokusatsu-themed cafe?" Takeshi suggested. "Customers will flock in droves to see that, especially if we use magic to assist us with the special effects."

"I second that! Tokusatsu for the win!"

"Even better if we can make it a Sentai-themed one specifically!"

Leon and Irina added from the side with evident fervor, their voices almost overlapping with one another.

"Hm, that's not a bad idea." Rias said while writing it down. "It's certainly a unique one that I doubt other classes will come up with. Any other suggestions?"

"…A circus show featuring a Vampire-in-a-box?" Koneko said while glancing at Gasper. "Feels like it's going to be a hit, especially among female students."

"Koneko-chan is a meanie!" Gasper complained. "You always p-pick on me like that!"

"…If you don't like it, graduate from that box already."

"N-No way! That box is my sole haven in this cruel world!"

"Suit yourself, Gasper-kun." Takeshi said. "Just don't complain when we ship you off by accident."

"Ah, now Senpai is making f-fun of me as well!"

Gasper pouted as he started hitting Takeshi's back with his fists, prompting everyone to laugh.

"Getting back on topic, maybe we could—"

A glow from a magic circle that materialized on Rias' desk interrupted Akeno's words, with a scroll emerging from it. Picking it up and reading it, she frowned a bit before turning to the others.

"An order for emergency dispatch came from the Archduke's office." Rias said. "Looks like a couple of Stray Devils have been sighted in the region, and we've been tasked with hunting them down."

"Nice!" Takeshi said, bumping his fists together. "Club meetings are good and all, but some action is always welcome!"

"Leon-san, could you and the other Angels hold down the fort until we're back?" Rias asked. "No need for all of us to head out for a simple Stray Devil hunt."

"Leave it to us." Leon said. "If you need help though, we'll be there in a flash."

"Thank you." Rias said. "Let's go, everyone!"

[Yes!]

The Gremory Peerage members shouted together as they stepped into the club room's magic circle. After Akeno completed the necessary adjustments, the young Devils vanished with a flash of light. A moment later, they found themselves in the ruins of a zoo, the last rays of the setting sun casting long shadows that added to the eeriness of the place.

"This is the place the Archduke's agents tracked the two Strays down to." Rias said. "Everyone, keep your guard up and proceed with caution."

"Do we have any information on our targets?" Xenovia said as she drew her blades, her eyes darting around for signs of anything out of the ordinary. "Any special abilities or weapons we should watch out for?"

"The Archduke's report stated that the two Stray Devils were servants employed by the House of Berith, working for a member of the branch family for several years." Rias said as the group moved through the zoo. "Their intent was to steal several valuable treasures and disappear before anyone could notice."

"I'm guessing that didn't go so well?"

"Unfortunately for them, no." Rias responded to Yuuto's question. "They were caught in the act by Peerage members belonging to House Berith's heir. In the ensuing scuffle, they wounded one of the servants before escaping to the human world."

"If they're not Peerage members, we don't have to worry about enhancements provided by the Evil Pieces." Akeno said. "Still, if they were able to hold their own against Reincarnated Devils, they must possess some skill. We can't underestimate them."

"Right." Rias nodded, turning to Koneko. "Any luck locating them?"

"…Found them." Koneko said after a couple of seconds. "They're running towards the west exit."

"Good work, Koneko." Rias said. "Everyone, split up and—"

"That's a waste of time." Takeshi cut off Rias as Cataclysm Zone's middle gem let out a violet glow. "This is more efficient!"

Daeva Scope materialized in Takeshi's hands and forehead, with the young Devil wincing due to the stabs of pain in his head. Pointing one of his pistols to the sky, Takeshi fired several spells at once. In response, a large number of metal beams and large chunks of concrete flew out of the buildings, raining down on the fleeing Devils and herding them towards the Gremory group.

"That was a bit faster indeed, but you shouldn't push yourself just for the sake of two fugitives." Rias said with an exasperated expression. "Look, your eye is bleeding."

After wiping the blood from Takeshi's eye with her finger, Rias turned to their opponents, a pair of male and female Devils that glared at the Gremory group.

"Greetings, miscreants." Rias said. "My name is Rias Gremory, and by order of the Archduke, I have come here to apprehend you. I must ask that you come quietly and without much fuss. If you resist, we cannot guarantee your lives."

"Shit!" The male Devil cursed. "How did these bastards find us so fast!?"

"No other choice." The female Devil said. "Let's use 'that'. It's our only chance here."

The male Devil nodded as the pair's shadows wiggled, with two large dark blobs flying out of them and wrapping themselves around their bodies. In the blink of an eye, the blobs had morphed into full-body suits with pulsating energy lines on them.

"OK, that's new."

Rias remarked as the female Devil spread four wings from her back and took flight. A cannon appeared on her left hand, with her using it to launch a concentrated blast of demonic power at the Gremory group below. They dodged in haste, with Takeshi taking to the sky and chasing after her.

At the same time, the male Devil's arms became thicker and larger as he charged at the scattered members of Rias' Peerage. Gasper activated his Sacred Gear in an attempt to freeze him, but a large number of spikes were launched from his suit towards the Dhampir, forcing Gasper to focus on them.

Those suits of theirs, they are Annihilation Maker constructs from what I can see. Takeshi thought as several defensive magic circles appeared around him, blocking the female Devil's shots and blows from her wings. Better act fast before Rias figures it out and orders us to bring them back alive for questioning. She really reminds me of that feisty princess I used to—no, focus! That's not my memory!

Pointing his pistol at his opponent while doing his best to ignore the influx of foreign memories, Takeshi fired another spell. Several energy needles flew out of the muzzle, striking the suit-shaped construct at various points.

The next moment, the construct fell apart, much to the female Devil's shock. Before she could react, an energy beam launched from Takeshi's pistol consumed her body, leaving no trace of it behind.

Turning his attention below, Takeshi saw that the other battle was also reaching its conclusion.

"Too slow!"

Xenovia shouted as she evaded the male Devil's blows and swung her blades at him. Forming a broadsword of his own, he tried to counter her slash, but Almace cut through it with ease, severing his left hand.

The male Devil screamed in pain as he fell to his knees, with Xenovia wasting no time in decapitating him with a swing from Durandal. As both his suit and his body turned to dust, Xenovia deposited her swords away, a pleased expression on her face.

"Hunt over." Xenovia said as she made a victory sign. "Seems like Takeshi and I are today's MVPs, yes?"

"Indeed we are, Xenovia." Takeshi said as he made a V-sign of his own while landing, doing his best to keep himself from scowling. "Anyone else wondering what the Hell these suits that jumped out of their shadows were?"

"They looked a little like Annihilation Maker constructs." Akeno said. "Is it possible that these Strays were connected to the Khaos Brigade?"

"Even if they were, I doubt they would have any information worth our time." Yuuto reasoned. "Most likely, they were throwaway pawns. I'm more concerned about the fact that the Khaos Brigade seems to be testing ways to increase the strength of their combatants. Enhancement suits created by Annihilation Maker will only spell more trouble for us down the line."

"I'll make sure to include that in my report." Rias said. "Better to have an inkling of what we might have to contend against in the future than find out the hard way by going in blind. Excellent work, everyone. Let's head back to the club and get ready for tonight's contracts."

[Yes, President!]

All members present shouted together as they gathered around Rias, with the teleportation magic circle she conjured bringing them back to the Occult Research Club.


At night…

"This feels good…"

Takeshi let out a content sigh while soaking in the large indoor bath inside the first basement floor. Due to the successful Stray Devil hunt and today's earnings from his contracts, he was in a very good mood, whistling as he scrubbed himself.

"At the rate I'm going, it won't be long until I surpass Yuuto as our third biggest earner." Takeshi chuckled. "Plus, there's the added bonus I get from the Peerage's contracts, so everything's working out great thus far. Though with the Khaos Brigade still being out there scheming, I need to step up my game…"

While musing about his future plans, the bathroom's door opened with an almost inaudible creak. The one who stepped inside was Pandora, a single white towel covering her body. Although her face was beet red, she still headed towards the bath with a determined expression on her face.

"How surprising." Takeshi said without turning around, causing Pandora to freeze on her tracks. "The girl who not so long ago said would never forgive me if I peeked on her while bathing is now coming here half-naked. Still, I can't say I hate this new bold side of yours, Pandora."

"…How did you figure out it was me?"

"I could sense your nervousness from the moment you stepped inside." Takeshi smirked as he turned around. "You're adorable when you're like this, Pandora."

"G-Geez, don't make fun of me!" Pandora pouted as she took off her towel, revealing her luscious bare body, and stepped into the water in haste, facing away from Takeshi. "It took a lot of courage to come here like this, you know…"

"And now that you're here…what exactly are your intentions, I wonder?" Takeshi said as he moved closer to Pandora, a sly smile on his face. "If you don't speak up, I might get the wrong idea."

"Dummy…" Pandora muttered as she turned to Takeshi, a bashful look on her face. "You should be able to tell with a glance…"

Cupping her cheek, Takeshi leaned forward and captured Pandora's lips in an intense kiss, tracing her lips' outline with the tip of his tongue. Moaning into the kiss, Pandora hooked her leg around Takeshi's waist and pulled him closer to her while caressing his chest and back.

Pulling back, Takeshi began planting kisses on her outstretched leg while fondling her supple breasts and teasing her nipples. The young Knight's moans became louder as she threw her head back, her fingers digging into Takeshi's back while she shivered.

Aroused by her responses as he continued his ministrations, Takeshi's right hand moved towards her entrance. Pandora gasped and closed her legs in reflex, with Takeshi pushing her on the bath's edge and pinning her wrists down.

Starting into her eyes for a few seconds and glancing at her hands, Takeshi let out a sigh and kissed her once before pulling back, sitting next to her.

"What's…what's the matter?" Pandora said in a hesitant manner. "Why did you stop? Are you not feeling well? Did…did I do something wrong…?"

"Two reasons." Takeshi said, lifting two fingers. "One, your hands were shaking, and it wasn't from excitement or pleasure. Trust me, I can tell the difference."

Pandora looked at her hands, realizing that they were indeed trembling.

"You're wrong." Pandora said in haste. "This isn't—"

"Pandora, it's alright." Takeshi cut her off by placing his finger on her lips. "Not feeling ready yet is nothing to be ashamed of. There's no need to rush. I mean, we only became a couple recently, so this is natural."

"You and President slept together the moment you confessed to her though."

"Rias is Rias, and you are you." Takeshi said. "Do you think I'm so shallow that I would think less of you or stop caring for you because we didn't have sex at the first opportune moment?"

"No…of course not." Pandora said. "That wouldn't be like you."

"Then don't worry about it." Takeshi said. "Take as much time as you need, and I'll be here when you feel ready to take the next step."

"Thank you…for being so considerate of me." Pandora smiled at Takeshi. "It's true that I pushed myself a little too much. Also, what was reason number two?"

"Reason number two is that Akeno would kill me if she found out I slept with you before her, or at the very least castrate me." Takeshi said matter-of-factly. "We have to keep things fair, and cutting in line is a big no-no."

"True, Akeno-san can be a force to be reckoned with when she's angry." Pandora said while shuddering. "I didn't consider that. Chances are, I might have found myself in one of her 'fun' rooms if we had gone all the way."

"It would have been an unpleasant experience for everyone involved, that's for sure." Takeshi said as he kissed Pandora's brow. "Go to sleep, Pandora. I'll join you and Koneko-chan later. Apart from…relieving myself, there's a couple of things I want to check out."

"Do you…do you perhaps want some help with that?" Pandora said with a blush as she directed her gaze towards Takeshi's nether region. "I am responsible for your condition, so…"

"Thanks, but I'd rather not risk losing my reasoning and attacking you despite saying all that." Takeshi said. "Go, and I'll see you in a bit."

"Alright." Pandora said as she kissed Takeshi. "Don't take too long."

Getting out of the bath, Pandora wrapped the discarded towel around her body and left, with Takeshi's eyes trained on her retreating back.

[You damn pussy.] Orochi hissed. [The Hell were you thinking, turning down such a fine girl just because she was a bit scared? Once you got things going and she drowned in pleasure, all would have been dandy.]

That's not my style, Orochi. Takeshi thought. If both me and my partner aren't fully prepared and willing, there's no point to it. Now shut up and let me concentrate.

Orochi snorted in disdain, but said nothing else. Once Takeshi was done with his business, dried himself and put on his clothes, he headed for the elevator and pressed the button for the third basement floor. Upon arriving there, he went past several shelves and headed for a specific one. Pulling a book from it, he turned to the wall on his far right, a part of which rippled somewhat.

Conjuring a magic circle in his hand, he sent it towards the rippling area. Under the light of the magic circle, that section of the wall transformed, revealing a wide door. Opening it and shivering from the cold draft that came from it, Takeshi descended the long spiral staircase as several magic circles flared to life around him and scanned his body.

Eventually, Takeshi arrived at the bottom and found himself in a large underground room that looked like a mix between a Magician's workshop and a mad scientist's laboratory. A large number of holding tanks filled with liquid that had several creatures in various stages of growth were lined on the walls, several workbenches with an assortment of books, test tubes and parchments with magic circles drawn on them were scattered all over the room, and human-sized golems were arranging equipment and preserved corpses.

This secret room had not been included in the house's plan, with Takeshi having constructed it shortly after the sports festival. By pulling knowledge from Aži Dahāka, he had installed a time dilation function similar to the one employed by Ajuka Beelzebub's barriers within the room, with time flowing about sixty times faster. Two large clocks placed on the wall showed the time inside and outside the barrier respectively, allowing him to keep track of it.

"You! What is this place!? Why did you bring me here!?"

The one who had shouted at Takeshi while being restrained on a surgical table was the female Devil the Gremory group had defeated earlier. His flashy blast that had seemingly vaporized her was instead a dud meant to conceal the teleportation spells that had transported her to his hidden laboratory.

"I'm the one asking the questions here." Takeshi said as he gestured at a nearby golem, which hurried to bring one of the workbenches closer to him. "Answer them, and I may see fit to answer yours. That exosuit-like creature you and your comrades used, who gave it to you? Were they part of the Khaos Brigade? And before you even think about lying, know that several spells are embedded into this table that will give you a very…unpleasant time should you do so."

"I don't know about a Khaos Brigade or any of that crap!" The Stray shouted while struggling to escape from her bindings. "Some human found us while we were on the run and gave us these things, saying they would increase our power and help us escape from anyone chasing us! We knew pursuit squads would be after us after our failed heist, so we had no choice but to accept!"

"It's just as we thought then." Takeshi said as he materialized Cataclysm Zone and Daeva Scope, grimacing as he did so. "Since you were kind enough to tell me the truth, I'll do the same. I brought you here to help me with my experiment."

"Experiment?" The female Devil frowned. "What are you talking about?"

"I've been working on human criminals, but the results so far haven't been promising." Takeshi continued, paying no heed to the Stray. "I was looking forward to encountering a Stray Devil, and lo and behold, I came across you and your partner. Too bad Xenovia vaporized him before I could retrieve him as well, but what to do. You'll have to be enough."

"Enough for what!?" The female Devil roared. "Speak plainly, you damn lowlife! What are you going to do to me!?"

"These past few months, we've been tangling with the Khaos Brigade and the various monstrosities Annihilation Maker's user created." Takeshi said. "Plenty of good men and women have laid down their lives to stop these terrorists while they throw disposable troops after disposable troops at us. Don't you think that's unfair?"

"What are you saying?"

"I'm saying that we need to even the odds, and have monsters of our own ready to counter theirs instead of wasting precious lives." Takeshi continued. "While I enjoy heroes, I've always had a greater fondness for the various evil organizations and monsters in tokusatsu, wondering how great it would be if could realize their full power to aid us in protecting the world. Making good use of Aži Dahāka's knowledge, what was once a fantasy will soon become reality."

Takeshi turned his gaze to the workbench next to him. An assortment of bizarre objects like animal figures made out of stained glass, oddly-shaped fruits surrounded by eerie aura, half-finished USB driver-like devices, stamps with animal images on their bottom, canisters filled with a strange gas, test tubes filled with a greenish liquid and others could be seen there.

"This one shows the most potential thus far." Takeshi said as he picked a belt with a black gem on the middle and a green medal with the image of a stag beetle engraved on it. "Gathering the desires and greed of humans by modifying the magic circles on the leaflets we hand out was no easy task, but I'm sure they payoff will be worth it."

Takeshi placed the belt on the Stray, with it locking around her waist.

"Oi, what the blazes is this!?" The female Devil cried out as she writhed. "Take it off this instant! Do you hear me!? There'll be Hell to pay if you don't!"

"You're in no position to threaten me or give me orders." Takeshi said with a cold expression. "Criminal scum like you don't deserve to live when so many brave people died defending the world. That's why, I'll give your life some meaning by turning you into a stepping stone."

After saying so, Takeshi placed the stag beetle medal on the gem's belt. The female Devil screamed in pain as a green glow enveloped her body, which began to distort and change, growing in size as her clothes were torn apart. Paying no heed to her agony, Takeshi took nine more green medals that had the images of various insects engraved on them and placed them on the belt, with them being absorbed by it.

The female Devil's screams became more monstrous as her body kept mutating. Once a couple of minutes had passed and the process was complete, the Stray transformed into a humanoid creature with a stag beetle-like head, whose green-colored armor contained elements from various insects such as a grasshopper and a praying mantis. Although the process appeared to be a success, the creature laid there unmoving.

"The ten insect-type Core Medals have completed the host body's consumption and transformation, but there doesn't seem to be enough power to fully bring the creature to life and awaken its consciousness…" Takeshi muttered. "This is closer to a state of suspended animation. I guess the gathered greed and desires aren't enough as of yet. Still, this is an important first step…"

Takeshi kept muttering to himself as he scanned his creation and kept notes. Meanwhile, inside Cataclysm Zone, Aži Dahāka was observing the proceedings with a rapt expression on his draconian features.

[Look at him go~. He's a natural at this!]

[Human minds are so malleable. A few subtle alterations in his memories, and morality and ethics go out the window for the sake of his perceived greater good.]

[Tokusatsu-based monsters, an intriguing concept. Human imagination cannot be underestimated.]

[Hey, since you're working on his mind, do you mind turning him into less of a prude, Boss Zahhāk?] Orochi asked. [Maybe I can get him to agree to that massive orgy with every female in his school this way.]

[Pointless. All necessary data regarding fornication and its effects have been gathered in the past.]

[We've had our fill of that sort of fun in many ways~.]

[Right now, seeing what sort of monstrosities he will create and the sort of depraved acts he will perform in the pursuit of more power to play the hero of justice takes precedence.]

[You seem confident that he or his friends won't notice the discrepancies.] Nidhogg's voice echoed next. [If that happens, that's the end of your experiment.]

[The way you're saying that, it sounds like you believe he, a mere child, will overcome my influence. Preposterous.]

[I'm very good at my job, you know~.]

[Potential failure, only lead to useful conclusions and future successes. End result, too soon to tell.]

[Either way…this will be…fun to watch…]

[You said it, Ladon!] Grendel laughed. [Fingers crossed that he and his friends end up butting heads and shedding each other's blood because of this!]

[All of you had best not interfere with this experiment.]

[Interrupting an Evil Dragon's work, that warrants a super cruel punishment~.]

[Limited interference with the rest of you, possible. Several ways to torment you, very much available.]

[What do you take us for?] Nidhogg scoffed at Aži Dahāka's words. [The whelp may have overcome our influence, but that doesn't mean we're obligated to help him in matters outside of battle. If he's too weak to keep his happy life from crumbling around him, that's his problem.]

The Evil Dragons fell silent after that as Aži Dahāka continued observing his host, matching sinister smirks on his three heads.


This concludes Chapter 55. First, in response to your reviews.

To Appolyon: You may have a point with Aži Dahāka's power, so I'll just say it has been limited to a large degree and leave it at that. As for Ophis, I agree with your assessment about her power after she was affected by Samael's curse. Maybe I didn't make myself clear enough in the previous AN section. The quote about the Heavenly Dragons does say they could destroy the world several times over, but I'm not sure if that meant making the planet explode or scouring all life from its surface. Fafnir though shouldn't have that kind of power, unless Outrage boosts him that much.

Thanks for pointing out the mistake with Yuuto's fight. As for Soul Reaver, it's indeed formidable, but it's also debilitating, and if there's a great disparity of power between Yuuto and the opponent, its effects won't activate. Furthermore, mere cuts from it won't trigger the ability. It needs to pierce the opponent's body to work.

Almace is strong, but it cannot negate all supernatural phenomena. Individuals with sufficient power can still overcome its nullification abilities. As for Calliope, my intent was to show that she was mostly reliant on her foresight ability to counter Xenovia and stay ahead, and that the moment it was gone, Xenovia got the upper hand even though her Rook enhancements were suppressed. Probably didn't word that very well. As for the Cross Crisis attack, it was too big and too fast for Calliope to react in time.

The turtles were only bred for defense and had almost zero offensive capabilities, hence why they didn't attack Koneko. As for the wave burning the Scylla's hide, I rewrote that part since it was a bit strange in hindsight.

Once again, thanks for pointing out the mistake in Takeshi's fight. I changed it so he uses normal energy blades there to avoid complications.

Regarding Pandora's curse, it's more of a curse of misfortune that tended to bring her predecessors to a tragic end, with her losing control of her powers being a side effect of that. Again, I probably didn't do a very good job explaining it way back in the earlier chapters when Pandora first showed up.

As for the Inner Circle's goals becoming a bit clearer, I was referring more to the identity of mysterious objects they were searching for that were teased way back in the end of Volume 2.

To SirzechsTard: The two of them fought a very long battle, warping in and out of the Gap in various areas of the universe and bringing widespread devastation. As far as DxD's deities are aware, there are no more surviving Pantheons and worlds that sustain life out there. However, that common view which Tannin espouses is a conjecture that could be mistaken.

To Guest: Takeshi should have got a promotion long ago, but the Great King Faction is still playing the 'potential ticking time bomb' card to hold him back. That won't continue for much longer though. As for dismissing Ajuka, the ruling class can be petty, stupid and short-sighted even in matters that have a significant impact in their countries, and Devils are no different on that regard.

Like I mentioned before, an original arc begins with this chapter. As for long it'll be, I can't estimate that as of yet.

Well, that's all for now. As always, please read, review, favorite, follow but most of all, enjoy!

See you all next time!