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When Autumn Darkness Falls

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Prologue – A Candle to Light

“...our souls may be consumed by shadows, but that doesn't mean we have to behave as monsters.”
― Emm Cole, The Short Life of Sparrows.

-x-x-x-

The first time Freed Selzen met Asia Argento, he was filled with a deep sense of disquiet, and that spurned him to lash out. Not physically, oh no. He had no illusions as to what would happen to him if he damaged the Church’s precious Holy Maiden. Excommunication would be the least of his worries if he caused harm to such a precious asset .

The hypocrisy of it all made him want to vomit. At least he was honest with himself. Ever since he’d broken out of the Sigurd Institute alongside the prick and his oh-so-perfect sister, he’d known. He was a monster in the shape of a man, an existence who found meaning in the bloodstains of the slaughtered.

The Church might try and pretty it up, to make it seem like he was just zealous, make it seem like the violence he’d visited upon the Strays was a product of righteous fury, but they knew. They knew that he was nothing more than a beast, and yet they were content to teach him to fight, to kill , so long as he served their purposes.

Oh, he wasn’t so blind as to assume all of them were like that; he’d noticed the concerned glances and sad eyes every so often, but that just pissed him off more. If they really felt bad for using him like they did, for housing and honing the claws of a monster, then they’d have long since put him down.

But they were hypocrites too, or they were too soft. He didn’t care for their reasons; he just hated that passivity. He’d been pondering the possibilities of turning his weapons and talents on the incumbent generation of Exorcists when he’d run into Asia Argento—quite literally—for the first time.

Those eyes. Those damned innocent eyes. Why did they affect him so?! No matter the vitriol he spewed at her, no matter how he gave vent to the monstrous bile inside him, she did not lash out at him, she did not break .

That little girl had a core of steel, and Freed was, for the first time, caught between wanting to smash it and wanting to learn . That uncertainty, that confusion about what path he should take; that had never happened to him before.

It was only natural, then, that the silver-haired young man found himself seeking out the diminutive blonde. At first, he knew not what he sought, beyond the faint feeling that Asia saw who he was, all of his darkness, wrath, and hate–and yet she still accepted him. As he continued to visit with her, all too aware of the three sets of eyes boring into his back whenever he did so, he found himself baffled.

Freed Selzen, so sure that his only path in life was one carved through the corpses of anyone and everyone, found himself doubting, wondering, hoping . If she , the closest thing to an incarnation of purity that he’d ever known, could look at all his flaws and say what she did, then maybe, just maybe, there was a chance.

“Even though you have so much hate inside you, you can still be a good person. What matters isn’t your desires, but what you do with them.” She smiled. “I believe in you, Freed. You just need to believe in yourself.”

Asia Argento may have been sheltered, and more than a bit naive, but she was far from stupid or delusional. The fact that, even after hearing the dark desires within him, she still believed he capable of good, that he was worth saving ...well. For a young man who had only ever received validation for his competence at killing, her willingness to reach her hand out to him meant more than she could have possibly known.

-x-x-x-

As time passed, however, an unpleasant fact was made clear to him. As much as Freed craved her presence, the soothing balm just being around her provided for the pain that his formerly accepted nature caused him, he knew that he could not stay around her. Even if he had believed himself worthy of her kindness, even if he didn’t see the hypocrisy of the Church in even starker contrast now that he had encountered Asia’s light, he still would have left.

Whatever answers he sought did not lie on the path of an Exorcist. He didn’t know where they did, but he was determined to find out. Perhaps it was an acknowledgement that he could not grow the way he believed he needed to while shackled to an organization, perhaps it was mere wanderlust. Hell, it might have been both. Whatever the case, his resignation from the Exorcists came as an utter surprise to his so-called superiors...save for three.

His instructor, Griselda Quarta. An Exorcist a few years senior to him, Dulio Gesualdo. And finally, and most significantly, the mountain of a man who had come to see him off, little Asia seeming even smaller and more fragile beside the titan at her side. Cardinal Vasco Strada, the wielder of Durandal whose compatibility rivaled even Roland, the Paladin for whom the mighty blade was forged .

Frankly, Freed doubted the man even needed the Peerless Sword nine times in ten; he looked to be carved of stone, and fought like it too. Freed had personally witnessed Strada shatter a middling-strength Holy Sword by catching it between his pectoral muscles and flexing .

The man who’d been known as the Violence of Heaven during his prime approached, laying a meaty hand on Freed’s shoulder. The soon-to-be former Exorcist felt his knees try to buckle, but somehow, he remained standing.

As though in contrast to the man’s massive size, Strada’s voice was calm, gentle even, as he addressed the silver-haired youth.“Freed Selzen. I hope you know that, even if the rest of the Church calls you traitor, heretic, Stray , that I am proud of you. Not everyone can take the same path to finding themselves, and that you are making this choice, to overcome your flaws and find the man you have the potential to be speaks volumes for your character.”

The bald man closed his eyes as he continued speaking, the slight furrowing of his brow the only indication of any disquiet. “I won’t presume to tell you where your journey should take you, but…” Eyes the color of flint pinned Freed in place more than the man’s ham-sized hands ever could. “Something of significance might be found in China, if you maintain an open mind.”

Strada gave a gusty sigh. “More than that, I’m afraid that I cannot say. Even this much may put me on his bad side, but if I can shepherd one lost lamb onto the path?” He gave a sad smile. “Then it will have been worth it.”

Freed looked up—waaaaay up—to meet the Cardinal’s eyes, then nodded wordlessly. He’d already turned over his standard issue armaments, a Light blade and Light gun, so now all he had to his name were the cassock on his back, a weathered Bible, and a small, worn cross attached to a silver chain. These last two were gifts from Asia, dear thoughtful Asia.

Even though Freed was not a man of God, he would treasure the young nun’s gifts all the same. The little book and cross had belonged to her , had helped her , had been by her side through thick and thin. It would be as though she was with him, always. He knew that would need that comfort, that reminder of her ideals and hopes, if he was to find a path through this world devoid of hate and malice.

As Freed Selzen turned and walked away from the Vatican for the last time, he could feel Asia’s emerald eyes watching him go like a physical weight upon him. He spoke no words to her, for he had already spoken his farewell to her when they’d last been alone. Adding to that would only serve to multiply their pain. He could only hope that she understood, that his departure would not cause her undue pain.

-x-x-x-x-x-

On a grassy hill, a young man ‘s red eyes flickered open. ‘I wonder how little Asia is doing? It’s been a year since then...’

Freed sighed, then rose to his feet with the easy grace of a practiced warrior. He peered down the hill towards the plains of rice paddies that stretched before him m. He still didn’t know what or who he was supposed to be seeking here in China, but he didn’t think that Strada would send him on a wild goose chase.

He stretched, then grabbed his jacket from where he’d been laying his head. His old cassock had long since gone threadbare, and he’d replaced it with practical, modern clothing. He tossed the black leather article on over a dark blue shirt, then brushed the dirt from his jeans. Stifling a yawn with the back of a hand, the thin-faced youth walked down the hill and toward the road that led towards the nearby town.

It’d be a lie to say that he wasn’t feeling more than a bit impatient, searching for an unknown something or someone in this massive country. That said, there wasn’t much for him to do but wander like he was. Rural China was admittedly beautiful, but sightseeing was a far cry from the purpose he sought, that unknown piece to fill the gnawing empty spot in the jigsaw puzzle that was his existence.

Freed let out a sigh. ‘No sense getting worked up. Either I’ll find what the old man wanted me to or I won’t, and that’s that.’

A prickling at the back of his neck caused him to pause mid-stride and look over his shoulder at a nearby cluster of foliage.

Though he could neither see nor hear anything out of the ordinary, he knew he was being watched. For all that the Church’s dogma and doctrine had gone in one ear and out the other, the more practical lessons had been beaten into him until he could, among other things, sense even the most miniscule amount of hostile intent directed at him.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that whoever seemed to have it out for him was doing nothing to cloak their bloodlust. ‘Either they’re a complete idiot,’ Freed mused, ‘Or they’re strong enough that they don’t care if I know they’re coming.’

Chains rattled in the dark .

His tensed muscles relaxing as he exhaled, Freed stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets. His left hand closed around the spine of the Bible that Asia had given him. Freed gazed into the woods, and cleared his throat pointedly. A moment passed, the hairs on the back of the young man’s neck stiff at attention, then she emerged into the clearing.

Freed’s eyes scanned the thin, pale woman–no, girl who now stood before him, clad in fine black silk. Dark crimson eyes stared disdainfully down her thin nose at him. The first thing that came to mind when looking at her was serpent . There was an aura of regality to her, but it was overshadowed by her malice and the cloying not-scent of damp snakeskin.

But above all that, Freed could feel that she was inexperienced and fragile. Her power, though blanketing the hill in an attempt to intimidate him, was cracked and stretched thin. Looking more closely at the girl, he saw a small pearl at her throat that glinted dimly with unearthly light. Her blue-grey hair was done up in a bun, and antlers of black coral curved up from the sides of her brow like an organic tiara.

Metal bars groaned as malice scraped against malice.

Freed’s jaw clenched tightly as he regarded the young yaoguai, for what could she be but one of China’s numerous “strange ghosts?” His fingernails bit into the leather cover of Asia’s Bible as he regarded the spirit with narrowed eyes.

He opened his mouth to speak, but the young spirit bared her teeth in a fanged grin far too vicious to have any friendliness in it. “Bai! Kai! Kill him.

The next instant, Freed leapt back, as a cluster of  roots exploded from the ground, questing for him. ‘So that’s how it’s gonna be.’

Metal shrieked as claws tore their way out.

As Freed’s feet hit the ground, he’d already torn Asia’s Bible from his jacket pocket and snapped it open to a particular passage, his other hand darting up to his throat to clasp the cross she’d given him.

Freed did not have faith in God, not like the other Exorcists did. What he did have faith in was Asia and her endless kindness, her ideals that led her to reach out to even one such as him. And apparently that belief, that hope that people could be better , was enough to satisfy God’s System and allow him to wield Scriptures. Or at least, that’s what Strada believed.

So it was that Freed’s lips formed the words of a God he did not worship, knowing that he would receive an answer in spite of his heresy.

“No weapon forged against you will prevail.”

A blade of wind whistled past his head as he juked to the left, then flicked a kick into the cluster of roots that was rapidly forming into a man. White energy crackled across his body like static as God’s System powered the Scripture.

“And you will refute every tongue that accuses you.”

A sharpened stake of spirit-fortified cypress hurtled towards Freed’s gut. The former Exorcist brought his left leg up with a snap, trapping the branch between his knee and elbow. From beneath the hand curled around Asia’s cross, a faint emerald glow pulsed. It was faint, so faint that none of the combatants even registered it.

“This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord.”

A near-invisible hand made of wind snatched at his face, but the slight melodic hum that preceded it gave Freed enough warning to shift backwards, turning away an attack that would’ve taken an eye to leave him with nothing but a small scratch on his nose. White energy pulsed across his body at a manic tempo, so swift that the tiny green sparks of another person’s faith weaving themselves into the Scripture went unnoticed.

“And this is their vindication from me, declares the Lord.”

Even as his lips formed the penultimate verse of the Scripture, Freed was already snapping Asia’s Bible shut and sliding it into his pocket, his other hand snaking out to grasp at the wind. White-tinged fingers wrapped around a transparent throat, brought the wind yaoguai around and shoved him into the man made of cypress.

Pure hate bubbled forth, undaunted by the hollow invocation of the Book.

With a tone of finality, Freed spoke the words that would fully enforce the Scripture. “Invictus Scripture–Isaiah 54:17.” The man brought his hands up, then dashed forward, chunks of grass and dirt thrown upwards by the force of his movement. Freed folded the wind spirit in half on his fist, sending it and the tree spirit it lay on flying backwards with the force of his blow.

It screamed with joy, surging through its vessel and demanding release.

Blood pounded in his head as his lips twisted into a macabre grin. His hands curled and uncurled as a malicious cackle escaped him. He stalked over to where the two spirits had landed, and snatched one up. He slammed the man made of wood against a tree by his foot, Freed’s malicious grin widening further at the sharp crack that came of the collision.

It revelled in the suffering, but it was not sated.

He let the tree yaoguai fall to the ground unmoving as he spun towards the other one. Both hands lashed out, one capturing the wind-formed man’s throat for the second time while the other glowed ever-brighter with God’s light. Freed’s breathing became swift and shallow as he slammed his fist into the spirit’s transparent face once, twice, thrice. Blood burned in his veins as he viciously pummeled the man, utterly ignoring the scratches and cuts he received as the spirit scrabbled at his arms and hands frantically.

It would never be sated.

After the thirtieth punch, the wind spirit slipped into unconsciousness and Freed let him fall to the floor as he turned towards the young yaoguai who had ordered his death without a second thought. Well, it was clear that she was having second thoughts now, some small part of Freed that yet retained its rationality mused as he advanced on the shaking girl.

Not until the world itself bled and suffered at its pleasure.

The coral-horned spirit slashed her hand at Freed with a panicked shriek, a shaky jet of water snapping out and slapping against his chest, but to no avail. The reinforcement of the Invictus Scripture was easily able to nullify such a unfocused, desperate attack.

Such were the twisted desires that Freed attempted to bury deep inside himself.

Freed’s fingers curled into claws as he loomed over the little spirit, the weight of malice pouring from him and choking the area. He reared a fist back, white energy flaring as he shifted all of the Scripture’s reinforcement into that same fist. The yaoguai’s eyes widened in terror as his fist flew for her face.

Emerald light glinted against the tide of darkness.

Freed froze, the blazing energy blowing away from his fist and disappearing into the wind. In the eyes of that little spirit he saw reflected his face, contorted into a monstrous rictus. But that was not the only thing that had frozen him. For a moment, he thought he saw her standing beside him, her small fingers curled around his arm.

It screamed as it was hurled back into the depths of Freed’s psyche, ravening and hateful.

Freed staggered back, pressing a hand to his mouth as tears filled his eyes. “Why?” he whispered to noone, to anyone . “Why can’t I break free of this?!” Freed collapsed to his knees, insensate. ‘I almost killed a child . She can’t be older than ten, older than Asia . I thought I had control! What the fuck is wrong with me?!’

So focused on self-flagellation was Freed that he missed the way the terror adorning the girl’s face shifted almost instantly to rage. So too did he miss the dart of water that shot towards his neck, infinitely more focused than her last strike and perfectly angled to carve a thumb-sized hole through Freed’s carotid artery.

A light breeze blew across the hill as an aged man dressed in all grey materialized in front of the attack, dissipating it with ease.

No, “materialized” was wrong; he’d been on the hill the whole time. It was simply that nobody had registered his presence, any more than they would have registered a single blade of grass from the whole. The man was simply that at one with nature, that he blended in with it completely.

“Enough, little Heilong,” the man said, peering down at her over the tops of a pair of amber-tinted spectacles. “Your grudge is not with this boy, as you well know. What was done to your ‘mother’ has nothing to do with him; indeed, he couldn’t have been more than half your age when it happened.”

The spirit of the Heilong river rubbed at her eyes with the back of her sleeve. “H-he’s one of them. Part of the Church . I won’t ever forgive them!” The girl glared up at the man in grey, small hands balled into fists at her side. Neither the spirit nor the old man noticed, but upon hearing her words Freed had clenched his fists so hard that his nails bit into his flesh.

The old man closed his eyes and exhaled audibly through his nose, then replied, “I cannot make you let go of your grudge, nor is it my place to do so.” His hand came up to his face and adjusted his glasses, then his eyes snapped open, onyx orbs that stared directly into her soul. “However,” he continued, voice quiet but as hard as steel, “this boy is under my protection. Attack him again, and Lord Yinglong will hear of this. Am I understood?”

Heilong quailed under his gaze, and nodded wordlessly. The old man’s gaze softened, and he approached the river yaoguai and went to one knee, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Remember, little Heilong. You are not alone. You have Bai and Kai, and if you find it needful, I am also here for you. We will support you, if you let us.”

She sniffed, then nodded, scrubbing at her eyes with her sleeve again. “Thank you, Master Li,” Heilong replied quietly.

Li ruffled her hair, then stood. “Run along, now. Bai and Kai look as though they could use some rest and recovery, and I am sure you could as well. I have a promise to keep.”

Heilong blinked, then spun and ran to her downed bodyguards. Surprisingly, other than being unconscious, they seemed relatively unharmed. The unmistakable feel of Master Li’s Qi flowing through them quickly told her the reason why. With a flick of her wrist, two thin sheets of water scooped her bodyguards up. With a bow to the old master, Heilong departed for her riverbank, Master Li’s words echoing in her mind.

Meanwhile, the old man turned to regard Freed. “Boy. You’re coming with me. I owed that uppity brat Vasco a favor, and he used it on you.” Upon seeing that Freed was still lost inside himself, Li grabbed the back of the youth’s collar and slung him over his shoulder. “I hope he didn’t waste that favor, for your sake.”

There was a rush of wind, and then they'd left the hill far behind.

Had he been in a more stable state, Freed might have had the wherewithal to struggle with the old man. As it was, he simply hung there limply, resigned to whatever fate was in store for a monster like him.

-x-x-x-

Elsewhere, a brown-haired boy cajoled his mother into buying him a particular video game. Neither of them could have known the repercussions of this seemingly innocuous act.

AN: Well, this is certainly a thing. My third foray into the world of DxD fanfiction, and hopefully the one that will stick and succeed. Much like the now-defunct “Fuis Ton Destin” was in some ways a spiritual successor to parts of “Not Playing With A Full Deck” and in other ways completely different, so too will “When Autumn Darkness Falls” appropriate various things (primarily worldbuilding and characterizations) from “Fuis Ton Destin” and completely discard others. I have numerous goals in writing this story, but one of the focuses of this story is going to be Freed wrestling with his numerous inner demons. That said, this is still DxD, and I would be remiss if I failed to include goofy, over-the-top shenanigans, or neglected explore the vast potential of a world full of mythological wonders and horrors alike.

And yes, fanservice, though I will do my level best to keep it both in-character and tasteful (what the devil that means for fanservice I have only the barest of ideas).

Anyways, I hope you all enjoy, and as always, I have to offer my sincere thanks to Magery and Teninshigen for their advice and criticisms.

Chapter Text

Chapter 1 – Ira Tenax (Tenacious Rage)

After a few moments, the rush of air and blur of passing landscape halted as abruptly as it had begun. The small part of Freed’s mind that was still paying attention to his surroundings noted the lack of discomfort that usually accompanied passengers of high-speed movement techniques (it had taken weeks for him to clean the vomit out of his cassock last time).

The rest of him, though...it was as though his mind was wrapped in a cocoon of mist, every sense and thought coming slow and dulled. This made the unexpected shock of him hitting the ground stand out all the more starkly as the old man who’d been carrying him—Li, was it?—tossed him onto a patch of springy grass. As Freed blinked and looked around, he noticed a small house. Not quite a shack, yet not quite a full sized home, the wood and stone structure seemed well-cared for and welcoming nonetheless.

“Enter my home and be welcome, young man,” Li told him, striding over to a sliding door and opening it with a brush of his fingers. “I will make tea, and we will talk.”

Lacking any other options, the troubled youth followed the man into his home. After seating Freed at a low, square table, Li disappeared into an adjacent room, presumably a kitchen, based on the sounds of earthenware and the faint scent of tea coming from within.

The room Freed found himself waiting in was comfortable, if simple. A few painted scrolls hung in a couple of places on the walls, each depicting some spectacle or fight. The floors and walls were made of deep brown wood, the lacquer coating gleaming with a polished sheen. Aside from where they’d come in and where his host had disappeared to on the opposite side of the room, there were two other shut doors to his right and left.

Freed didn’t know what it stemmed from, but there was a certain reserved warmth to the place.

A few minutes passed, during which time Freed had the opportunity to examine the gameboard that sat on the table. It was square, with smaller squares on it that reminded him of a chess board, though a few things rendered it distinct. On opposite ends of the board, the central four spaces of the first two rows of squares were painted, one side red, the other blue. Furthermore, these four squares were each bisected by diagonal lines.

There was one other thing that separated the board from a traditional chess board; namely, the fact that the row directly between the two sides of the board was painted blue, the brushwork evocative of a river.

Freed was pulled abruptly from his examinations by the clink of earthenware beside him; his host having returned to the room while the youth had been distracted. Li placed a clay cup in front of Freed and another on the opposite side of the table from him, then proceeded to pour a cup of steaming, fragrant tea for both of them. Once the older man had settled into his own seat across from Freed, he spoke, waving a hand at the board between them. “I don’t suppose you are familiar with xiangqi , are you?”

When Freed’s only reply was to shake his head silently, Li sighed and took a sip of tea. Setting his cup down with a clack , the elder man addressed the younger. “I would ask what weighs on your mind, if I didn’t already have a fair idea. You believe that the fact that you almost gave in to your wrath means that you have no hope of controlling it. Or am I mistaken, Freed Selzen?”

The young man looked up from where he’d been intently regarding his tea. “So what if I do? And for that matter, who are you? Why do you know my name?”

The grey-clad man removed his amber-lensed spectacles, eyes the color of coal piercing Freed where he sat. “In order, then. So what if you do? I ask because you are mistaken, but I will return to that later. Who am I? My name is Li Shuwen, and I am...I suppose you Westerners would call me a ‘sage’, but the precise term is xian , a transcendent. As to why I know you? Vasco Strada and I are well acquainted, and he asked me to consider taking you as a disciple.”

Freed squinted at the man. “I get the feeling that you just told me something that’s a lot more important than you made it sound, but I don’t know enough to understand.”

Li let out a barking laugh. “Sharp one, aren’t you?” He then sobered. “Aye. Xian are a rare thing, even those who, like myself, are still learning the path. Should you prove capable of being my disciple, you will learn why.”

Seeing Freed’s face twist into a doubtful grimace, Li laughed again. “Ah, you youngsters! I remember when I was so impatient and focused on immediate gratification.” The aged man extended an arm out to one side and made a fist. “Let me treat you to a taste of what you can expect, then.”

In the next instant, everything went silent. The noises of nature, of buzzing insects and wind whispering over grass, the things that oft went unnoticed: they were all absent. All was still for a breath, and then Li’s arm ignited . The limb was not truly aflame; no, it would be more accurate to say that the man’s arm had girded itself in pure white, incandescently burning power . Space itself seemed to twist and writhe at the end of his fist, reality churning aside slightly to accommodate the force that had made itself manifest.

In the face of this ineffable energy, this brilliant sheath of essence, one would assume that Freed felt fear. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As formidable as Li’s energy was, it was in no way oppressive. There was not a hint of malice nor bloodlust in it.

That said, neither was there the gentle warmth that accompanied the use of Scriptures, and the youth appreciated that; the feeling of the Abrahamic God’s love that bled through from His system had always made the pale boy chafe. He’d never felt that he deserved that kindness, that affection.

This energy, though...it was neither malevolent nor benevolent, neither oppressive nor comforting. It simply was .

“To become a xian is to grasp the very fabric of your existence,” Li said serenely. “What I will teach you is not simply the means to use your inner power, your Qi , but a way of life. In adopting this existence, you teach yourself these things naturally.” The old man let out a breath, the glow of life unfettered dissipating like dust in the wind.

Freed, still a bit off-balance from the display, blurted a question. “What makes you think I’m capable of learning this? What makes you think I can be trusted with this?”

Li gave a small smile. “Upstart brat he may be, but Vasco Strada knows how to read people. If he believes that you can and should learn...well, that was all I needed to hear to pique my interest. His endorsement aside, I’ve been observing you for a few months. Beyond a single relapse, which you managed to contain before any permanent damage was dealt, you’ve shown yourself to genuinely desire something better .” The older man took another sip of tea. “I believe you more than capable of learning the ways of the xian .”

He set his tea down with a clack , before rising to his feet and beckoning Freed to follow him. As they left the house and walked around the side of the small building, Li spoke again. “I will not promise you that I can dispel these unwanted, unpleasant desires. I can promise you that I will impart in you every lesson, provide you with every tool that you might need to find your path in this world.”

He glanced at the younger man out of the corner of his eye. “Your training will not be easy, but I doubt that such a thing will deter you in the slightest. Shall we begin?”

Freed nodded, a dark flame of resolve burning in his eyes. Though it went unnoticed by the young man, Li saw clearly the green light that glinted for a brief moment on Freed’s cross. He was untroubled by it; there was no malice in the faint energy that clung to his disciple’s keepsake. No, the only things that the cross contained were affection and hope.

‘You’ve got a good friend, whether you know it or not.’

After a minute more of walking, master and disciple entered a still clearing. A large rock sat at one end, a tranquil pool of water beside it. A few butterflies meandered lazily through the nearby trees.

Li stopped in the center of the clearing, hands folded behind his back, and turned to Freed. “Come then, disciple. Show me what you’re capable of.”

The former Exorcist exhaled, then took a simple fighting stance. Freed stared at Li, trying to take the grim-faced man’s measure and failing utterly. A butterfly passed before his eyes, and as though that was the signal to attack, Freed darted forward...

-x-x-x-x-x-x-

And so the days went. Master and disciple would wake at dawn and spar in the clearing. Li restricted himself to fighting as though he was only a half-step better than Freed, and with fist and heel honed Freed’s fighting from the basic self-defense taught by the Church into something approaching a proper style.

After about an hour of this, they would return to the house to break their fast over a few games of xianqi , a Chinese board game similar to chess. Just as he restricted himself during their spars, so too did Li restrict his plays here; after all, there could be no learning if his disciple was defeated without knowing where he succeeded and where he failed.

After about an hour of these games, Li had Freed study various texts. From Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang’s texts on strategy and tactics, to studies of the mind by Freud and Jung, to ancient scrolls penned by disciples of Siddhartha Gautama before he became the Buddha and everything in between, Freed devoured every bit of knowledge placed before him.

By the time the young disciple’s studies concluded each morning, it was time for lunch, and this meal he and Li both prepared together. Freed learned to cook quickly, if only so his meal was at a higher standard than “edible”.

After their food digested, the two would return to the clearing. This time, however, Li would have Freed go through the forms of a particular style that the master chose for his disciple.

‘Your particular body type is both a blessing and a curse from the perspective of a normal martial artist, but for xian martial arts, there are few better than yours. You’re ambidextrous, and your arms and legs are strong and sturdy, but still quite flexible. This means I’ll be able to teach you the Postures of the Four Icons, a formidable combination indeed. Now, let us start with the Posture of Qinglong , the Azure Dragon of the East…’

After two and a half hours of forms, master and disciple would meditate until dusk. Freed took to this activity the least well of all, having precious little desire to spend an extended period of time in his own head, but he still put his best effort forward. Progress was slow going, but around the fourth month of this routine, Freed had a breakthrough.

-x-x-x-

He was floating in a void, infinite nothingness stretching all around him. At first, he thought it was a dream, that he’d dozed off like he’d done a few times before. But the longer he looked about himself, the less like a dream it felt.

In the space between moments, Freed went from floating in a formless void to standing on a platform of nothingness, a path that he could not perceive but somehow knew was there stretching before him. Faced with the choice between standing around and pushing forward, Freed made the only choice he could: he proceeded.

He could’ve been walking for a few moments, or it could’ve been hours; in this void beyond space and time, he could not tell. But eventually, Freed came to a different part of the void, one where he could actually see something beyond infinite blackness.

Unfortunately, what he could see was significantly worse than a formless expanse. A brazier sat in the center of the not-space, burning with a flame far too crimson to occur in nature. Beyond the fire, a shadowy figure moved, the sickening sound of metal splitting flesh and the fetid stench of death making it clear to Freed just what sort of thing was occuring in this place he’d found himself.

As he entered, he clutched his cross, a comforting warmth washing over him as her smile flashed through his mind. Muttering under his breath as her Bible appeared in his free hand inexplicably, Freed shakily invoked a Scripture.

“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”

White light bloomed around Freed, starting as a small bubble around the cross at his throat and expanding outward. The shadowy figure beyond the fire stopped moving, the vile noises ceasing as it turned towards Freed.

“I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.”

The white bubble deformed and twisted itself as it melded itself with the edges of Freed’s form. The obscured being stalked around the side of the brazier, its face still in shadow but its body revealed; it was wearing the same sort of cassock most Exorcists wore, that Freed had worn.

“Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.”

The alabaster mantle crackled with energy as it settled on Freed’s shoulders, girding him in an aura that shined through all darkness. The other figure stepped into the light, revealing a face Freed had been expecting, but had hoped would not be the one the other man wore: his own.

“Asylum Scripture-Psalm 23:4.” As Freed finished the Scripture, his doppelgänger’s left hand came up from his side, hurling something to him with an unhinged, bloody grin. On instinct, Freed’s hands came up to catch the object, her Bible vanishing into the ether like it had never been. It was a burlap sack, with a dark stain spreading on the bottom.

“Go on, shithead!” Not-Freed cackled, “Open it up! It ain’t every day I give out gifts, ya know!”

Against his better judgement, Freed obliged, peering into the sack.

Seconds later, it hit the ground with a wet thump, having fallen from his now nerveless fingers. As it tipped over on its side, a length of straw-blonde, bloodstained hair poked out of the mouth of the bag.

Freed couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t see anything, not a damn thing except her face, her eyes, rendered dead and lifeless by a being that wore his face. Freed sank to his knees, letting out a keening howl as he clawed at his scalp, drawing shallow wounds in his flesh and staining his hair red.

Not-Freed let out another mad cackle. “There it is! That’s the face I was looking for, you boring fuckboy! If you won’t let me out to play, I’ll feast on your pain, you shitty do-gooder!”

“No…” Freed mumbled. “No, no, no, NO!” He shot to his feet and threw himself on his reflection. “I refuse! I reject you, you vile thing! I won’t be a monster; I won’t have you be a part of me!”

The doppelgänger laughed and slammed his head into Freed’s. “You reject me, huh?! That’s fine by me; I’ll tear you apart from the inside and wear your corpse like a suit!” A dark glow manifested itself around Not-Freed, an inversion of the qi Master Li had shown to him. It was full of malice and bloodlust, of hate and pain, of everything about himself Freed believed to be evil.

Freed reeled back from the blow, skull throbbing in spite of the Scripture shielding him. It wasn’t surprising, though. Asylum wasn’t nearly as good as Vindictus for protection against brute force; that wasn’t what it was for , after all. No, the Scripture he had called forth was an aegis against attacks of a subtler sort.

Even as he shook the fog from his head, Freed was already sinking into the stance that Li had drilled into his mind and body. It was loose but not limp, arms and legs ready to intercept strikes but not tense. As his reflection dashed at him, the black qi wreathing him thrashing and writhing impatiently, the young disciple stepped in to meet the charge.

Fingers tipped with claws of ethereal hate flashed towards his throat, and rent nothing but air as Freed swayed to one side, his palm first rising to force the doppelgänger’s chin up, then retracting for the barest instant before closing into a fist and snapping out to hammer his reflection’s throat.

Undoubtedly, his attacks had struck true, but just as certainly, the vile aura girding his foe had mitigated enough of the strikes as to render them irrelevant. Freed’s eyes narrowed even as Not-Freed’s vicious grin widened.

That same grin was wiped from his face when a finger of brilliant white erupted from the void and tore a hole the size of a dinner plate through his torso. Upon exiting his body and making contact with Freed’s, it dissipated, becoming a fine mist that enveloped him. The youth felt his consciousness fading, but before his vision went dark, he heard his doppelgänger let out a howl of rage, heedless of the gaping wound in his chest. “Shitty old man! Jus’ wait until I get outta here; I’ll flavor my rice with your heart!”

After that, Freed knew no more.

-x-x-x-

Hundreds of miles away, in a Japanese town, a young boy set down a game controller. It’d been hard, but he’d finally done it! Issei Hyoudou had completed the first game in the Ryu Ga Gatoku series. Every side mission: completed. Every easter egg: uncovered.

Issei sat back and let out a breath. “Kiryu’s so cool,” he muttered reverently. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be ‘Like A Dragon’, just like him.”

The brown-haired kid was so focused on his daydreams of aloof badassery that he didn’t even notice the slight heat that bloomed in his left arm as something ancient shifted to the sound of his words.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2: Lost In Cold Dreams

As though clawing its way up from the depths of Hell itself, consciousness returned slowly and unsteadily to Freed. The first thing he noticed as he was waking was the warm, cinnamon-like scent of incense. As the aroma tickled his nostrils, it seemed to energise his body and mind, rapidly dragging him back to full awareness.

As he sat up and blinked rapidly to clear the fog from his vision, Freed noticed that he was no longer in the clearing where he and Master Li trained, but in the small guest room that Li had provided for him. Against the wall opposite the small cot on which he laid sat a small table bearing the bud-shaped incense burner that was the source of the scent.

As though on cue, the door to his room swung open to admit his teacher. Were it not for the slight furrow to Master Li’s brow or the faint hints of tension in his shoulders, the younger man might have thought him unconcerned.

“Disciple,” the man addressed Freed, snapping him from his thoughts, “what vision did your meditations give rise to, that your Qi became like that of a rabid animal?”

The teen felt his blood run cold, and he hunched into himself, curling his arms around his midsection. It was only the fact that Li’s question was asked with genuine concern, not malice, that gave him the will to reply.

“I saw myself,” Freed whispered hoarsely. “But it was a ‘me’ that had given in; every profane desire, every murderous impulse, every conceivable sin: all of it committed with glee and vigor. And I was powerless against that thing that wore my face; if you hadn’t intervened, I don’t know what would have happened.” Freed looked up and locked eyes with his teacher. “Do you know what that was? I...I can guess , sure, but…”

Li exhaled and crossed his arms, leaning up against the wall. “The meditation and forms I am having you do are supposed to, in combination with being in a place so rife with the Qi of the world, allow you to connect with your own Qi more easily. That you received this sort of vision…” The xian rubbed his chin. “I can only imagine that it means that, on some level, you believe that those desires are insurmountable; that no matter what you do, you will never be able to shake them off.”

Freed didn’t know what look had formed on his face upon hearing this, but whatever it had been Master Li hadn’t liked it, judging by the way he strode over to the youth and pulled him to his feet none too gently. “Now you listen to me, Disciple. To reach the part of your journey that requires me no longer, you must craft of your body, mind, and spirit a hollow but unbreakable vessel.”

Li clasped Freed’s shoulder firmly but comfortingly. “With your heart in disarray like this, such a thing would be an exercise in futility.” Before the younger man could interject, Li continued, “Thus, you must break that mistaken belief over your knee like kindling: you are in command of your path in this world, not these base desires.”

“You realize that you are asking me to change an intrinsic, ingrained part of my psyche, right?” Freed asked, skepticism heavy in his voice.

Li smiled. It was not a cruel smile, but neither was it kind. No, this smile was one of grim determination. “Disciple, I am not asking you to do anything. I am telling you what we must accomplish if you are to set foot on the path to becoming a xian .” The older man released Freed’s shoulder and stepped away from him. “If you wish to find another path, I will not begrudge you, but I cannot, will not allow your to forge yourself into a flawed vessel.” For a moment, Li’s face sagged, his features seeming to age a hundred years in an instant. “Down that path lies only ruin.”

The moment passed as swiftly as it had come, Li’s eyes regaining their fire and then some. “As I said, you are free to go. But know this: there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that you can achieve this. It will not be easy or simple, but it can be done. It is simply up to you to take the first step...or to decline.” At this, the xian extended his arm, leaving his open hand outstretched to Freed, as clear an invitation as one could give.

Though the younger man was rife with doubt and fear, somewhere inside himself Freed knew that this was what he was meant to do. So, even as his heart and mind whirled with uncertainty and distress, there was not a single hint of hesitation as he grasped his teachers hand, reaffirming their compact. How could there have been? After all, Master Li was one of two people in the world who had seen the contents of the deepest depths of his psyche...and still he believed in him. How could he not repay that?

Freed knew that the coming weeks and months would be a series of trials that would make his previous training look like warm-up stretches by comparison, but that did not deter him. He would break through the darkness within and reach the stars or die trying.

-x-x-x-x-x-

Freed felt like he was going to die.

Not physically, oh no. His body was in better condition than it had ever been. His soul , on the other hand, felt like it had been put through the metaphysical equivalent of a marathon of marathons, each one longer and more intense than the last. As the youth lay sprawled haphazardly on his cot, he thought back to what Master Li had told him.

“Normal people would see a psychiatrist about issues like these. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, you are not a normal person, xian -in-training or not. As such, I have devised an unconventional method for your to confront your demons in a more…‘hands-on’ manner, so to speak.”

“Unconventional” was understating it by a country mile, as far as Freed was concerned. Through the inhalation of a particular incense during meditation, he was able to artificially induce whatever connection with his deeper psyche that he’d achieved in that first meditation session.

That was where the “hands-on” part came in. Every time he went into this trance, he fought his doppelgänger, metaphorically and literally confronting his demons by force. After about three months of this practice, he was finally managing to draw even against his worse half, and felt like he was on the cusp of something.

This, coupled with the agony that had been building in his spirit, was likely a symptom of the war for his life energy, his Qi , that was going on within him. More specifically, a symptom of him growing close to the point where he could actually wrest his Qi from the grasp of his darker desires.

Or at least, that was what Master Li had hypothesized when he’d described the experiences to him. As heartening as that was to hear, Freed was having a hard time appreciating that good news considering the deep seated pain that was wracking his soul.

Which is why it came as a welcome surprise when his teacher informed him that they’d be forgoing training for the day in lieu of traveling to a nearby yaoguai settlement. When questioned as to why they were going, Li had simply replied “Errands.” Since the older man was largely self-sufficient, and had what few things he could not grow or gather himself delivered, Freed was unsure just what kinds of errands they’d be running, or why it was necessary that he accompany his master.

‘No point in overthinking it, I guess. I’ll find out when we get there.’

After he dragged himself upright and made himself presentable, master and disciple departed, winding their way through a nearby forest on a barely beaten path that Freed would have been hard-pressed to notice had Li not pointed it out to him.

After about an hour of hiking, the duo reached a stream. As he stepped over it, Freed felt a chill, the sense of eyes on him, and stiffened. Li paused and turned to him, and a look of understanding passed over his face. “That stream is fed by the Heilong River. The very same river whose spirit tried to take your life the day we met. It seems that she hasn’t forgotten you, at the very least.”

Freed winced, memories of the excess of bloodthirst he’d indulged in during that fight washing over him and adding to the churning in his soul. “I hope she can find it in her heart to forgive me,” he remarked quietly, “though I scarcely deserve—”

The self-deprecating comment was cut off by Master Li poking him in the forehead with a frown. “None of that, now,” the older man lectured. “You feel guilt for giving in to your base desires, and that is understandable. But wallowing in it solves nothing. You must always keep moving forward, even if only a little at a time. Stagnation is no better than death, Disciple.”

Li’s face softened slightly. “It will not be easy, by any means. Even I had to come to terms with my mistakes and failings, once upon a time. They were not the same sort as yours, but they were a burden to bear nonetheless...until I conquered them and made them my own, of course.” He turned away. “But that is a story for another day.”

Freed nodded soberly, and the duo continued on once more.

After another hour and a half of hiking, they reached the settlement (more of a village, really). Li then told him to mingle with the residents while he “handled some private business”. Before he could so much as open his mouth to protest, his master had vanished with the wind. Bereft of his guide in a completely unfamiliar place populated by a number of young yaoguai who seemed entirely too curious about him for his own comfort, Freed had little choice but to go along with Master Li’s instructions.

At least he was probably not in any danger from the village denizens, he reasoned, if his teacher had felt comfortable simply leaving him behind. And he wasn’t, at least not physically.

However, Freed would soon find his ears to be in grave danger of being talked off by overly curious, highly energetic children.

-x-x-x-

“...And with one strike, the Stray died. After that, he explained that, while skill or strength might allow you to triumph in battle, strength applied skillfully is far more than the sum of its parts. He then proceeded to fight all eighty of us at once.” Freed smiled ruefully. “Naturally, he beat us all into the ground without breaking a sweat.”

The yaoguai children sat, enthralled by his recollection of the first time Vasco Strada had taught him and his former peers. All of the man’s lessons had been like that: simple, practical, and all the more effective for it. Freed supposed that was why they made good stories; these kids weren’t so focused because of his storytelling skills, that was for damn sure.

As he finished regaling his young audience with this latest in a series of tales about his former instructor’s exploits, he felt a familiar gaze on his back. He turned and rose, meeting eyes with his master. Li beckoned to him, so he quickly said his farewells to the kids and joined his teacher.

“Today, you will be assisting me with something quite different from your normal lessons, disciple,” Li said without preamble, leading Freed down a dirt path. In short order, the two had arrived at a house, larger than the others in the village by a fair margin.

“The village head is pregnant, and she and her husband have asked that I assist their nurses and midwives with ensuring a healthy, uncomplicated birth.” His teacher glanced over at him, then continued. “I do not expect you to assist, merely to observe. This too is a part of qigong , for what purer example of Qi could one find than that of a newborn, yet unshaped by the world and its people?”

Freed raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t births usually private? Or is that just a human custom?”

Li chuckled. “No, they tend to be private in the culture of most other species as well. I managed to convince them that you wouldn’t be underfoot, and that witnessing such a thing would be beneficial to your training.” Li smiled, but it seemed almost... sad . “The training of a new xian is incredibly rare, and they know well that it must be done with great care, lest...well, it must be done with great care.”

As they approached the large house, Freed gazed at his teacher, gears turning in his head. He was beginning to suspect that he wasn’t Master Li’s first student, and that something had gone very wrong in that disciple’s training. (It wouldn’t be until much later that he’d learn the truth of the matter.)

They were met at the entrance by a bald, slender man with sunken eyes and a sharp chin. He bowed to Li, then nodded to Freed, introducing himself as Zhang Yong. He moved with sharp, deliberate steps, leading them to a back room from which primal, near-animalistic cries could be heard. By way of explanation, Zhang Yong said, “My wife, Wang Xiu.”

Upon entering the room, Freed realized just why the noises sounded so much like roaring; it was because they were roars. If the fuzzy, black and white striped ears poking from Wang Xiu’s alabaster hair weren’t enough of a clue, the way her chiseled arms shifted to great striped paws and back as she grabbed at the sheets certainly gave away what type of spirit she was.

As soon as they entered the room, Freed was struck by an almost physical wave of odor. The metallic tang of blood was mixed with a sickly-sweet scent, vaguely reminiscent of rot. It was absolutely wretched, and he gagged a couple of times before an attendant came over and handed him a cloth mask, which he put on.

Several more attendants were bustling about, bringing various things to her and just generally trying to alleviate her pain. Freed, having been diligently studying Chinese, managed to pick up on bits of their conversation.

“The Mistress’s blood keeps purging the anesthetic! Not even the empowered tincture is doing anything!”

“Then we just have to keep applying it until Master Li gets here!”

At that, Li motioned for him to stand up against the wall. Once he’d obeyed, Li strode forward, the attendants parting in his wake as he took over the situation as though he’d been born to it.

What followed was a long, meticulous, and messy task, but Freed kept his eyes on the process all throughout. After about two hours, Li moved from his position at Wang Xiu’s side, keeping one faintly glowing hand on her stomach as he infused Qi into mother and child. Even as he did so, something clearly changed, as the light of the Wang Xiu’s own Qi flared into being, involuntarily clashing with Li’s.

Li immediately flared his own to compensate, but in the brief instant where the two energies were warring, his patient threw her head back and roared . Her arms both spasmed and shifted, one lashing out and powdering a ceramic lamp, the other slamming into Li’s unoccupied arm, ripping his forearm off and sending it flying over to land in Freed’s hands. Freed resisted the instinct to drop it, and instead let one of the midwives take it from him, a faint latticework of magic appearing over the limb as they laid hands on it.

His teacher’s only response to his injury was to tense the muscles in his stump, temporarily closing the wound and staunching the gush of blood.

After that incident, the birth continued without complications, in spite of the fact that Li was drastically injured. Freed paid careful attention both to the actual process of the birth and to the way Li was simultaneously using Qi to deaden both his own pain and Wang Xiu’s pain, as well as to ensure that both her and the infant’s bodies were working at optimal health.

Five hours after Li was mauled and seven after they’d arrived, a head of white hair finally emerged from his patient. Well, it was white underneath all the goo and blood, anyways. After cleaning up the baby, the nurses handed him (for the child was indeed a boy) to his mother.

The nurse that was holding Li’s arm brought it to him, pressing the two sides of the wound together while the xian produced a thin, tan needle from somewhere on his person. The gleaming light of Li’s soul took form and attached itself to the needle, and with swift, precise movements, the older man stitched his arm back on. The soul-thread flashed bright, then vanished, leaving behind scarcely a trace of the grievous injury that had been there only moments before. The attendants filed out of the room, already moving on to alert Zhang Yong of his son’s birth and prepare the infant’s room.

Master and disciple looked at mother and child with quiet reverence, soaking in the sight of a mother meeting her child for the first time. Wang Xiu turned to them, her smile outshining the very stars, and spoke the first words she’d said in their presence. “His name will be Li Qiang, a child of strength and reason both.” She met Li’s eyes. “Thank you, Master Li. My child and I are both alive and well, and it’s because of your assistance.”

Li shook his head, a small smile on his face. “It was my pleasure to be able to assist. The dawn of a new life into this world is a truly ineffable thing...especially one resulting from such an unusual relationship as yours, if I may be blunt.”

Wang Xiu’s smile turned slightly sad. “We knew that a child would be a matter of literal miracles when we joined hands, but the heart wants what the heart wants.” Her smile then returned full force and then some. “But I would choose the hand of a xian, offered in grace, over a miracle any day of the year.” Then, for the first time since they’d arrived, Wang Xiu turned her eyes upon Freed, slit-pupiled amber gleaming in the evening gloom. “As for your young apprentice...he is raw, not fully shaped, but he retained his composure well.” She bared pointed teeth in an expression that seemed to be half grin, half challenge. “As expected of the Divine Spear, you chose well.”

Freed, more than a bit nervous, refrained from speaking and simply bowed his head at the compliment, prompting a laugh from the woman. This, in turn, startled little Li Qiang, who began to fuss. Master Li took that as his cue to bid Wang Xiu goodbye, and beckoned for his disciple to follow.

Almost immediately after leaving the room, they were confronted by a tearful Zhang Yong, who asked almost pleadingly. “Is it really true? My wife is alive, and my son is healthy?” Li grasped the man by the shoulders and nodded. “Congratulations, Zhang Yong. You are a father, and yet a husband as well.”

The gaunt man broke down into sobs of joy, slumping against the xian as he wept. After several awkward, damp minutes, the man collected himself enough that he was able to stand on his own again. He promptly clasped Li’s hand and informed him, “I cannot thank you enough for what you have done for us this day. Until the end of time, you may call on our household for any favor you might need, and if it is within our means to provide it, we shall. If it is not, we will attain those means.”

Li clapped his hand on the man’s shoulder and nodded silently. Freed had spent enough time around his teacher to know that if Li ever did claim that favor, it would be for something simple and easy for them to acquire. Li Shuwen was simply not the type of man to do good and expect, or even desire , to be lauded for his deeds. At times, it made Freed feel even more inadequate, but the young man would push that to the side.

After Zhang Yong disappeared into the room to visit his wife and son, master and disciple left the house. Once they’d gotten a ways away from the house, Freed voiced a curiosity. “Master, why were they so sure that the birth would be a dangerous one?” As he spoke, Li stopped walking, allowing his disciple to catch up to him. “I can understand taking precautions, but the way Wang Xiu was talking...It sounded like she expected their child to die.” He gestured to the still-drying tear stains on Li’s shirt. “And her husband certainly seemed to think it was a miracle, based on how he reacted.”

After a moment of silence, the older man replied. “Zhang Yong is one of Baigujing’s kin, a skeletal yaoguai of the grave. For a spirit born of death to procreate with one born of life is an incredibly difficult thing, especially one of Bai Hu’s descendants like Wang Xiu.” Li beckoned for Freed to follow, and as the two proceeded, Li continued to explain the fundamental differences between the Qi of a spirit of life and that of a spirit of death.

By this time, the sun had nearly set, and the wind was whispering through the trees. The two walked in silence for a time, Freed trailing behind Li as darkness fell and the path they’d taken was obscured by the night.

After they’d traveled for about an hour, his teacher broke the silence. “So, my disciple. What did you glean from our outing today?”

Freed was silent for a time, then settled on, “Childbirth is horrifying, but seeing Wang Xiu meet her son for the first time made it all worth it.”

Li chuckled. “Indeed.” He then eyed his disciple, silently prompting him to offer further impressions.

The younger man considered, then added, “ Qi is an incredibly useful tool, but it doesn’t make you invincible.” He jerked a thumb at his teacher’s arm. “That said, I still have to wonder: I know you could’ve shielded yourself from her flailing. Why didn’t you?”

The xian nodded approvingly at both Freed’s statement and at his question. “You ask an understandable question, and a good one at that.” Li reached up to push a branch out of his path as the duo entered deeper forest. “You are correct; I could have shielded my arm. However, I needed every bit of my Qi focused on the baby and Wang Xiu. Had I split my attention, even for a moment, I could very well have lost one or both of them. That, coupled with the fact that it is a trivial task for a xian to reattach limbs, made my decision for me.”

Freed nodded, then sank into his thoughts for the remainder of the hike back. It took them a bit longer to return home than it did for them to get to the village, largely because they had to go slower for Freed’s sake.

It was only as Freed laid down to sleep that night that he realized that he’d felt not even the slightest twinge of a murderous urge or sadistic desire that entire day. The significance of this became quite clear when the young man sank into his meditative trance the next morning, only to find a very different scene within his mindscape…

-x-x-x-x-x-

In the town of Kuoh, the winds of change that had begun to stir around one boy started to pick up. A poorly chosen shortcut would lead to a chance encounter, and a glimpse of what he sought. A mentor and a friend would both be found in the most unlikely of places, and the wheel of fate would suffer a flat tire.

But most of all, the boy would find within himself the heart of a dragon, though he would scarcely know what to do with such a thing. Such is the fate of a dragon: to greedily seek and hoard that which it desires without consideration as to why they should have it.

Take care, Issei Hyoudou, that your desire to become Like A Dragon does not consume your ability to be human–or rather, to be humane .


 AN: Well. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I can do nothing but apologize for the incredible lack of updates; hopefully, I will manage to overcome my ever-present writer’s block and become more consistent. I hope you all enjoyed the chapter.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3: Imagine Dragons

The town of Kuoh was usually a quiet one, with little crime and a general sense of contentment amongst its residents. That said, little crime didn’t mean none , as one Issei Hyoudou discovered on his way home from Kuoh Municipal Junior High one warm August evening after staying late at the judo club with his friend Matsuda.

As he passed through the downtown area, the brunet heard the sounds of a scuffle from a nearby alleyway. Most people in Kuoh would simply put their head down and walk by, rationalizing that it wasn’t their problem with one excuse or another.

Issei Hyoudou was not most people.

He didn’t show so much as a second of hesitation as he ran into the alley, school bag discarded by the wayside. At the end of the backstreet, he could see three people: a beefy blond man looming over a much smaller, balding man in a suit, who was backed up against a dumpster looked quite frightened, and a thin, bespectacled man standing off to one side, hand pinching the bridge of his nose. Both of the younger men were wearing casual clothing, with one commonality between them: both of them wore a patch on their sleeves, inscribed with a character that Issei couldn’t make out from his position.

None of them seemed to notice Issei as he approached, so he slowed to a walk and began to creep forward, picking up a thick piece of wood that had been discarded on the ground.

As he did so, he caught the tail end of what the larger man was saying...or rather, what he was slurring. “...yer cash, old man. I ain’t—” Here the very inebriated man let out a ghastly sound that was somewhere between a belch, a hiccough, a sneeze and a gag. After the foreigner's digestive track finished its insurrection against its owner, he continued with his train of thought. “I ain’t gonna ask again. Ya don’ wanna make me mad, do ya?”

As Issei got within about two meters of the man, he had to suppress a gag of his own. Whatever the would-be mugger had drunk, it stank. The sake-born miasma was so powerful and so bad that Issei damn near lost consciousness then and there. However, he proved stronger than the reek, and continued to sneak toward the mugging.

The thin man then spoke, voice weary and very clearly too sober for the present moment. “Hanataro, can we just knock this mundie out and take his shit? I’m fuckin’ tired, and the husband’ll have my ass if I’m late again, and not in the fun way.” He ran a hand through his dark hair, then sighed. “Last time I sneak you some of the good shit, I swear on Ooeyama.”

The other man turned to look at him, causing Issei to freeze in place. Thankfully, it seemed like he hadn’t been noticed as Hanataro started talking. “Yer always such a buzzkill, Tobimaru. Jus’ lemme have my fun, huh?”

The now named Tobimaru’s dark eyes seemed to flash red in the gloom. “Motherfucker, I will leave you here to sleep off the boss’ drink in this shitty alley. Don’t test me.” In a movement so swift and fluid that Issei could scarcely tell when it had began and ended, Tobimaru threw a jab into Hanataro’s shoulder. Despite the size difference, Issei could tell that the hit had packed some serious force.

“Fiiiine,” the bigger man said, pouting in a way Issei never wanted to see again. Hanataro lurched towards the cowering businessman, and Issei knew that it was now or never. He raised the length of wood and took a step, lunging forward…

Only for his neck to meet the black-clad arm of the smaller man, sending him and the wood tumbling to the ground. Tobimaru let out a dissatisfied noise. “Fantastic. Now we’ve got some punk kid who thinks he’s a fuckin’ hero on our hands, too.” He snapped a kick into Issei’s midsection, the force of the blow lifting the boy a few inches off the ground and sending a bolt of lightning though his ribs with a loud crack.

“That’s at least four broken, I’d say, maybe six,” the man commented, as though discussing the weather. “Teach you not to mess around with Shuten’s boys, you damn crazy brat.”

Issei would have replied with a scathing retort befitting his keen wit (or at least that’s what he told himself), but he was too busy trying not to pass out from the pain to do more than let out a gurgling cough.

Tobimaru turned away from him, seeming to lose interest, then yelled, “Hurry it up, you meatheaded fuck! Stop tryin’ to bully the old coot and just take the money!”

“I’d suggest you reconsider that course of action,” a new voice interjected, causing both Hanataro and Tobimaru to turn away from their respective victims and toward the entrance of the alley. 

From where he lay, Issei could see a man standing there, left hand resting on a smooth wooden cane. He was old, with long silver hair pulled back in a topknot. His clothes were traditional, a black haori jacket worn over a nondescript yukata of dark crimson. Even more distinctive than his clothing, however, was the black eyepatch covering his left eye. 

Once Issei stopped staring at the old man, he noticed that Tobimaru had taken a step back, face paling.

“The Parade’s in town? Now of all times?!” the thin man spat, then turned and sprinted towards the end of the alley, heedless of the newcomer’s slow approach. Upon reaching the wall at the end, Tobimaru leapt, one foot pushing off the wall and catapulting him high into the air. Then, a pair of massive black wings erupted from his back and gave a furious flap.

‘What.’ Issei goggled at the impossible sight of a man taking flight on the wings of a bird, gasping...and then immediately regretting it because his ribs were fucking broken! Shit!

“I’m not dumb enough to throw down with you, Lord Nura!” Tobimaru shouted, his wings beating and carrying him higher into the sky.

“You say that like you have a choice, you ignorant brat,” Nura replied calmly, then vanished in between steps. He reappeared behind Tobimaru with the woosh of displaced air, his cane snaking out to jab the bird-man in the back. There was a loud crack, like a gunshot, and Tobimaru slammed into the ground a few meters away from where Issei lay, landing with enough force to crater the cement.

In the next instant, ‘Nura’ was back on the ground, walking sedately towards Hanataro. The old man stopped a few feet in front of the hulking drunkard, who was attempting to make himself look very small. “Are you going to fight back as well, or will you come quietly?” Nura’s tone was just as calm as it had been each time he’d spoken before, but even Issei could hear the chained violence in his voice, ready to be unleashed at the drop of a hat if need be.

Apparently, Hanataro was not drunk enough to miss it, either, and simply nodded meekly. That was about the time Issei’s consciousness decided to give up the ghost, and he passed out.

-x-x-x-x-x-

The first thing Issei noticed when he regained consciousness was the exquisite softness of the blankets on top of him. The second thing he noticed was the absence of shooting pain in his abdomen. Oh, it was still sore, make no mistake, but it was the soreness of a bruise rather than the searing agony it had been.

The third and final thing that Issei noticed was that he was in a completely unfamiliar room, incredibly comfortable futon or not. As he sat up, rubbing his still-sore ribs with a wince, he looked around the room. It was on the large side for a bedroom, something that was made starkly noticeable by how sparsely it was decorated. Other than the futon he was currently occupying, the only things in the room were a small chest of drawers, a floor-length mirror, and his school bag. A window to his left let in the last dregs of sunset, while a sliding shoji door stood closed to his right.

‘Wha...Oh, right. The alleyway. Man, that Tobimaru asshole must’ve kicked me in the head if I’m remembering all kinds of crazy shit like that. But...where am I?’

As he mused to himself, the door slid open, and the same old man that he’d seen in the alleyway walked in and took a seat beside his futon, cross-legged. He set his wooden cane down on his left side, folded his hands in his lap, and remarked, “So, you’re finally awake.”

Issei blinked, and then bowed his head to the man. “Thank you for rescuing me, sir!”

The man let out a quiet chuckle. “Polite boy, aren’t you? You were raised well, I see.”

Issei raised his head and nodded fervently. “Yessir. My parents are very kind, and I love them very much.”

“Enough with all that ‘sir’ business. Just call me ‘Nura’ – or ‘Gramps’, if you must,” Nura said with a sigh.

“O-okay, si- I mean, Mr. Nura,” Issei replied uneasily.

“Feh, good enough,” Nura said, then asked, “How’re your ribs feeling? Those were some nasty breaks you had.”

Issei’s brow furrowed in thought as he gingerly touched his ribs. “They feel a bit sore, but not nearly as bad as they did… Wait, did you say they were broken?”

Nura chuckled again at Issei’s incredulous question. “Aye, that they were. Thankfully, between my people and that thing living in your left arm, we were able to heal you up for the most part.”

Issei blinked slowly, then looked down at the indicated limb. A semi-transparent circle of light blinked at him from the back of his hand. 

[About time you noticed!] an unearthly voice boomed from nowhere, causing him to jump with a manly shout (it was not a high-pitched shriek, no matter what anyone else said).

“Wh-wh-what the HEEEEELLLLLLL !?” Issei screamed, staring at his arm like it belonged to someone else entirely, which wasn’t an entirely inaccurate thought.

All the while, Nura just continued to chuckle.

-x-x-x-

Meanwhile, off in the mountains of China, a priest with no faith and a pacifist with oceans of blood on his hands sparred with fist, foot, and the fire of the soul. With each passing day, the young disciple’s strength grew, and the master’s pride in his student with it.

For the youth’s strength of arm was the least important of his improvements; no, the true growth was to his strength of mind and heart, and that was far more important to this teacher.

He couldn’t let what had happened back then happen again. He wouldn’t survive it.

The world might not survive it.


 AN: This took a bit longer than I’d have liked, and ended up being a bit shorter than anticipated, but I feel like ending it where I did makes sense for how the plot is going to flow from here. Anyways, I hope you all enjoy!

Chapter Text

Chapter 4: Dragons Awake!

After Issei had finished yelling, the booming voice spoke again.  

[You’ve got quite the pair of lungs on you, hatchling. Now that you’ve stopped your shrieking...hmm. Where was I?]

“I believe you were going to introduce yourself,” Nura offered as the disembodied voice trailed off, the lopsided smile from his earlier chuckling still on his face.

[Right!] the voice boomed, all of its exuberance back and then some. [Listen well, hatchling, because I won’t be repeating myself!]

The air in the room grew heavy and hot, and Issei found himself growing lightheaded as a rush of unfamiliar energy coursed through his body. With a flash of light, a bracer of brilliant crimson metal appeared on his left arm, a single glowing orb of green crystal on the back of his hand where the circle of light had been. On either side of his hand, a horn-like tine of yellow metal curved back along the bracer.

[I am He Who Comes Before, the Locus of Growth, the Calamity of Unchecked Abundance. I am the Red Emperor Dragon of Domination, Y Ddraig Goch, and you are to be the next bearer of my mantle, should you prove worthy .]

Issei stared at the bracer, open-mouthed. “I...you... what?! ” he babbled, his brain struggling to comprehend all the wild shit it was being bombarded with.

“Maybe it’d be better to take it one thing at a time, hmm? It seems we’re dropping too much on the boy at once,” Nura commented with more than a little amusement.

[If you insist,] Ddraig replied with a huff. [I’m starting to remember why I don’t usually speak to my bearer until they’re past the Twice Critical stage.]

Nura snorted, then laid a hand on Issei’s shoulder, shaking him from his stunned stupor. “Take a breath, boy, and think— really think—about what’s happened.”

Issei did as he was bidden, taking a moment to calm down as much as he could. Once he had his thoughts in something approaching a cohesive order, he began to speak slowly, half thinking aloud and half pleading for answers. “That man, Tobimaru...he grew black wings . You, Mr. Nura...you teleported? And now I’m the heir to a dragon ?” 

Issei looked down at his hands, one clenched into a trembling, white-knuckled fist, the other with its fingers splayed to better display the arcane bracer that had appeared from the nether to engulf his lower arm. His shoulders shook. “I don’t know what’s going on .” He looked up at Nura with wide, pleading eyes, a silent, terrified message in them begging him to make the world make sense again.

Nura’s amused demeanor had long since faded like the morning dew, and he spoke. “This isn’t going to be easy for you, boy, but you’ve just been hurled into a much wider world than you know.” His posture straightened, his face turned stern, and a glint of steel appeared in his singular eye. Just like that, Issei was no longer looking at a kindly old man. No, what he was looking at now was a warrior-no, a general ; someone who could and would fight himself, but held absolute authority over his people.

Issei didn’t know how he was certain of these things, only that he was certain of them. As he stared, Nura spoke, his now more formal voice no louder but somehow containing all the sheer power of an approaching storm. “Each tale you thought a myth, each hymn you thought a farce, each urban legend you thought a rumor? Every single one of them is all. Too. Real .

“I am Nurihyon, oft known as Nurarihyon, and I am the commander of the Hyakki Yagyo , the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. Once, we only existed to revel, to add humans and Yokai alike to our endless dance, but with the changing of the years, so too did our methods.” He frowned seriously in emphasis. “No longer do we condone wanton revelry without regard to mankind, nor do we permit the abuse of mortals by the hands of other Yokai, affiliated or vagabond.”

His posture relaxed, and Issei did as well, letting out a breath he didn’t even remember sucking in. “In other words,” Nura continued far more casually, “We’re scattered all across Japan, each group making sure that the locals are toeing the line, and smacking down anyone who gets too big for their britches. A couple cities have some prominent Yokai that keep an eye on things, like Kyoto, Tokyo, Himeji, and Fukuchiyama, and we left the care of Kuoh, Shimabara, and Honno-ji to a few trusted outsiders, but for the most part the Parade keep the peace.”

Issei was quiet for a moment, then his brain fixed on a familiar name. “Wait, Kuoh? You mean, this city, my hometown? That Kuoh?!”

Nura nodded. “In fact, I was on my way to meet with the youngsters who’re going to be taking over the oversight when I ran into you, my boy. Lucky I did; I‘d rather not think about what might have happened had you awoken that while your life was in peril.” The old man gave the bracer on his arm a nod.

Issei stared at it once more. “Speaking of…” he muttered quietly, trailing off. Thankfully, the question he was either unsure how or was too afraid to ask was answered by that same booming, disembodied voice.

[This little bracer on your arm is called a Sacred Gear. YHWH, the God of Abraham, meddled in a fight between me and my eternal foe, Albion , and stuck us both in one.] 

Issei could practically taste the venom that was dripping from Ddraig’s voice at the mention of this foe.

Nura let out a barking laugh. “That’s not what I heard; I heard that the two of you landed smack dab in the middle of one of the biggest battles of the Great War and made a huge mess. Such a huge mess, in fact, that YHWH, Helel, and the original Four Great Satans all called a ceasefire to deal with you both.”

A growl came from nowhere. [And I’d have put that pale, snakey bastard in his place once and for all if it hadn’t been for those meddlers!] The remark had little heat and more than a little bitterness, as though Ddraig was making the argument for the sake of it, rather than out of any conviction.

[REGARDLESS!] the dragon boomed, bouncing back from his stupor with even more vigor than before. [The long and short of it is this, hatchling. My soul got trapped in a magical Macguffin a couple millennia ago. That latched onto your soul when you were born, and is named the ‘Boosted Gear’. You just awakened it, and so only have access to its underwhelming, weaker form: the Twice Critical.]

Issei made to speak up, but Ddraig talked over him. [Normally, I don’t talk to my bearers until they’ve unlocked the base form of the Boosted Gear, but you piqued my interest, hatchling. Do you remember the words you spoke, about three years ago?]

Without even thinking, Issei spoke the words he’d said, all those years ago. “When I grow up, I’m gonna be ‘Like A Dragon’, just like Kiryu.”

[Yes, those. Now, if you’d said that you wanted to be a dragon, I wouldn’t have cared much; plenty of my past wielders have traded their human bodies for the majestic scales and vicious claws of a dragon...and not one of them could handle the power that went with such a transformation. Without exception, they all went mad and had to be put down.] If Issei wasn’t mistaken, he could hear a tone of sadness in the dragon’s voice, underneath the disappointment. But before he could dwell on this thought, Ddraig pressed on.

[But you… you said something that might seem similar, but was actually very different. Tell me, Issei Hyoudou!] The Red Emperor Dragon demanded. [What does it mean to be ‘Like A Dragon’? When you think of a dragon, what is the image that comes to you? Just what do you think a dragon is ?!]

Issei flinched at each question as Ddraig’s voice became louder and more fiercely demanding. “I…” He hesitated.

[ANSWER ME, HATCHLING!] Ddraig roared, the eerie not-sensation of phantom fangs at his neck spurring Issei into answering.

“A d-dragon follows their own s-sense of justice, no matter what!” he sputtered. “A dragon doesn’t care about what laws or other people say, they do what they know is right, and damn the consequences!”

A low rumble came from the bracer, sounding like something between a growl and a purr. [Hmph. You’re closer than I expected a human to be, but further than any egg-fresh hatchling would ever be. For now, though... acceptable . Once you’ve reached the answer, you’ll know it.]

With that, the bracer began to fade gradually from reality. The last thing to vanish was the verdant jewel, which for a split second stared directly into Issei’s eyes with an impassive, slit-pupiled gaze. 

Issei shuddered, then almost leapt out of his skin when Nura gave a pointed cough, rising to his feet and gathering his cane in one motion. “It’d probably be for the best if we talked more later; your parents are probably worried sick about you.”

Issei blinked, then glanced at the window. In all the commotion and talking, the sun had long since set. He leapt out of the futon with a yelp, and scrambled over to grab his bag. 

Nura’s voice called out even as the old yokai’s right hand closed on his arm. “Calm yourself, my boy. I’ll take you; it’ll be much faster, and I’m sure I can spin a tale for your parents better than you.” Issei opened his mouth to protest, and Nura added, “Unless you wish to tell them? I won’t tell you what do either way; just know that this is not a decision to make lightly.”

Issei closed his mouth, and looked down thoughtfully.

“Why don’t you sleep on it?” Nura offered gently. “If you do choose to tell them, I’d be happy to back up your words with proof.” His hand released Issei’s arm, then disappeared into his other sleeve before emerging with a small slip of paper marked with hyo , the kanji meaning “messenger”.

“Just hold this and think about meeting with me and I will be there,” Nura assured him, proffering the talisman. After Issei took it gingerly and slipped it carefully into his pocket, Nura held out an arm. “Take my arm and hold on tight, my boy. Reduced Earth is a precise technique and I can’t have you slipping off mid-step.” 

Issei did as he was instructed, and in the next instant, the world around them turned to a blur. It couldn’t have taken more than a moment or two, and then the two were on Issei’s lawn. Once the youth had regained his balance from the abrupt change in locale, he looked at Nura quizzically. “How’d you know where my house is?”

Nura chuckled. “Every living thing has a distinct and unique chakra, and we all leave behind bits of our chakra as we go about our lives. For any Yokai with more than a passing interest in the Demon Arts, it’d be a simple matter to discern the places where you spend most of your time based on the residue left behind.”

Issei swallowed, shoulders stiff. “Then...what’s stopping that Tobimaru guy and his friend from tracking me down and killing me? Killing my parents?!”

As the young man’s voice began to rise in hysteria, Nura clapped him on the shoulder. The old Yokai’s face curled into an expression that was technically a smile, in that his lips curved upwards and his teeth were bared. Aside from that, however, the expression had as much in common with the standard example of a smile as a garter snake did with Jörmungandr .

“What is to stop them, you ask?” Nura replied quietly, that same cataclysmic intensity back in his voice. “That would be me , Issei Hyoudou.”

Before Issei could reply to that , his front door burst open, and in the next moment, he was being crushed between two wailing people, a tearful woman and a bespectacled and equally tearful man. The man had a strong, angular jaw and wore his short, spiky hair swept back. The woman was slender, and her hair was done up in a short ponytail.

“Ise, we were so worried!” “Don’t you ever scare us like that again, young man!” His parents were collectively sobbing enough that Issei was mildly concerned that all of them would drown in the deluge before they even got inside.

After numerous whispered apologies and assurances, Nura cleared his throat. Both parents turned towards him, the motion putting them between him and their son. Nura smiled, which did little to set them at ease.

“I apologise for startling you,” Nura said with a slight bow, leaning slightly on his cane. “My name is Nura, and I was the one who found your son. Some punk brats had ganged up on him when he tried to stop a mugging, but I managed to send them scurrying.” He offered a sheepish smile. “I apologise for our late return; I brought him back to where I’m staying and had him looked over by a doctor; he’s fine other than some minor bruises on his ribs.”

Issei’s father was the first to reply, stepping forward and bowing to Nura. “Gorou Hyoudou. Thank you for bringing our troublesome son back to us.” Even as Issei was opening his mouth to protest the description, his mother stepped forward and bowed as well. “I’m Miki Hyoudou. Truly, thank you. I don’t know what I’d have done if Ise had been badly hurt.”

Nura waved his hand. “Please, think nothing of it. How could I not help him? Even if his actions were reckless, his heart was in the right place.”

Gorou and Miki practically glowed with pride at the praise, even as they turned and reprimanded Issei for being so reckless. “Next time, because I know there’ll be a next time, call the police. They’re trained for this.”

After that, they invited Nura in for tea, which he politely declined, citing work responsibilities. The Hyoudous accepted the excuse readily enough, and Issei decided to turn in early after eating a small meal.

Unfortunately, sleep evaded him for most of the night, his mind awhirl with all he’d learned. It wasn’t every day that one had their entire worldview upended in the span of a couple hours, after all. Eventually, though, he managed to drift off, visions of emerald flames and crimson scales dancing behind his eyes.

-x-x-x-

When Issei woke the next morning, he immediately noticed something was off. Upon consulting his alarm clock, he realized what it was: it wasn’t morning at all! He’d slept until three in the afternoon, missing most of school!

He jumped out of bed, only to trip on his sheet and tumble to the floor. Issei let out a groan as his ribs twinged. This was not a good start to the day, he reflected after extricating himself from his sheets.

Now that he had a moment to reflect, his parents had likely called him out from school and let him sleep, given the events that had occurred the day before, not that they knew a fraction of the story…

Issei looked over to his coat-rack, standing proudly in a corner between a stylized wall-scroll of Kiryu Kazuma and a poster of one Hitomi Tanaka. For once, Issei stopped to admire neither , and instead fished around in the pocket of his coat. He stared at the paper talisman for a few long moments, before he closed his fist around it tightly and left his room, resolved.

Upon descending the stairs to the first floor, he saw that he wasn’t the only one to have taken a day off; his father was seated in the living room, while he could hear his mother bustling around the kitchen. As though on cue, Issei’s stomach gave a roar that would’ve made Ddraig green with envy, and Issei himself turned as red as the bracer that the dragon’s soul was housed in.

After having a hearty meal with his parents, Issei exhaled and took the plunge. “Mom? Dad? There’s something I need to tell you about last night…”

-x-x-x-x-x-

“No, Disciple. The Fifth Posture is not something that is taught , passed from master to student. It is something that you discern on your own, when the time is right.” 

“...”

“All I can give to you are these words, passed to me by my own master. ‘All things lead to the embrace of the world, and in the central quintessence of the realms slumbers Huánglóng . Without receiving all the world, how can you expect all the world to receive you ?’”

“..?”

“Indeed. Your training will soon come to a close, and you will soon embark on your path through this world.

“I have high hopes for you, Disc—

“No.

“I have high hopes for you, Freed Selzen . You are a stronger and better man than you know.”

“...

Thank you, teacher.”


AN: Well, would you look at that! I actually managed to update in a timely manner! It must be a miracle! XV

But seriously, I hope you all enjoy.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5: Ask The Dragon

As his parents stared at him expectantly, Issei wracked his brain for a place to start. After all, this wasn’t exactly a simple topic to broach. Thankfully, before his parents could do more than exchange a concerned glance at his unusually sombre attitude, there was a knock at the door. 

Gorou frowned. “Now who could that be?”

Issei coughed. “That’d be Mr. Nura. I called him to help me...to help me explain .” He rose from his chair and let Nura in, nodding his silent thanks to the ancient Yokai for coming.

Once pleasantries had been exchanged and Nura had settled into a chair at the table, Miki cleared her throat. “Ise, what did you want to explain that Mr. Nura needed to be here for? I’m sure he’s a busy man.”

Nura waved his hand dismissively. “No, no. My subordinates are used to running the day-to-day operations, and this is more important.” He glanced at Issei. “Would you prefer if I begin?” 

The brunet, visibly relieved, nodded rapidly. 

Nura chuckled. “Very well.” He turned his eyes to Issei’s parents, and his face became serious. “Know this: everything I am about to tell and show to you is the utter truth as I am aware of it. What you are about to learn will change your world irrevocably, and will undoubtedly and unfortunately cause you great worry.” The old Yokai closed his eyes solemnly. “But the fact that your son has called me here today means that he cannot bear to conceal this new, unavoidable facet of his life from you both, and that speaks volumes of his love for you both.”

By this time, Issei had buried his face in his hands, blushing furiously. His parents had sappy smiles on their faces, but those soon faded, replaced by furrowed brows and concerned gazes.

“What, exactly, are you talking about, Mr. Nura?” Gorou questioned.

Nura rose from his seat. “Instead of merely telling you, I will show you, as well. That way, there can be no doubt as to my truthfulness.” He raised a cupped hand, palm up, allowing the sleeve of his kimono to slide down a bit.

Then, there was light . A miniature star spun from strands of an ancient soul hovered above Nura’s hand. The Hyoudous gaped at it, even Issei. After all, even if he had accepted that the supernatural was real, it was still very new to him.

As they looked on, the scintillating orb flashed from form to form, first becoming a ball of flame, then a sphere of water. As it continued to flicker between elements, Nura spoke once more. “I will tell you what I told your son. Every mythology, every religion, every spirit, god, goddess and demon: they’re all real.”

With a twist of his wrist, the orb dissipated back into chakra and youki, fading to nothing without fanfare. “And to that end, I must fully introduce myself to you both as well. My full name is Nurihyon, and I am the leader of the Hyakki Yagyo , an organization devoted to keeping unaffiliated members of the Japanese Moonlit World safe and out of trouble.”

“Oh, is that all?” Gorou replied, his voice unnaturally even. Issei looked up from his hands just in time to see his father slump over the kitchen table in a dead faint. 

Miki, for her part, showed what side of the family Issei’s willpower came from. Even though she was pale-faced and shaking slightly, Issei’s mother rose and fetched an ice pack from their kitchen. 

Gorou regained consciousness with a shriek, pawing at the back of his shirt until the ice pack fell out.

Even as her husband was doing a remarkable impression of an epileptic weasel, Miki looked at Nura and carefully asked, “You said your name was Nurihyon? Like the Yokai?”

Nura nodded. “The very same.”

Gorou squinted at Nura. “I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

The older man grimaced, massaging the bridge of his nose. “It’s that damn illustration in the Bakemonozukushie* again, isn’t it? One artist saw me when I had too much of Shuten’s brew and shapeshifted badly, and the next thing I know I’m immortalized as a bean-headed goblin.”

Unfortunately, Nura’s attempt to lighten the mood went over about as well as a lead balloon being dropped out of a window. As the awkward silence stretched Issei’s mother mustered another question. “As...as utterly world-changing as this is, I have to ask...why? What does any of this have to do with Ise? Why would my baby boy have anything to do with all this supernatural business?”

“That, Mrs. Hyoudou, would be because—”

[Because of me,] Ddraig spoke abruptly, causing everyone except Nura to start in surprise. With a flash, the Boosted Gear appeared on Issei’s arm, still in its embryonic Twice Critical stage. 

“W-wha-?” “W-who?!” 

[I am the Welsh Dragon that ravaged the land of Britannia, Y Ddraig Goch. The hatchling was born with me sleeping within his soul, which blesses him with power beyond reckoning...but so long as there are those with power, so too will there be those who would seek to take it, those who would seek to ingratiate themselves with those who have it, and those who would seek to cast down those who have what they cannot possess.] Ddraig sighed, if a noise that sounded like a cross between a deep exhalation and an avalanche could be counted as a sigh. 

[Those born into this world with great power will inevitably change it, for better or for worse. And since we dragons are Power incarnated into sentient form… The hatchling has a long, arduous road ahead of him if he is to even survive in this world, let alone thrive.]

The dread that Issei’s parents were feeling was palpable, with Miki covering her mouth with both hands and Gorou rising from his seat to agitatedly pace back and forth. 

Nura cleared his throat. “While Ddraig’s explanation could have used more tact than...well, none , he is correct. Not only does your son possess an exceptionally powerful Sacred Gear but that Gear has the soul of one of the Heavenly Dragons in it. Power calls to power, and young Issei needs to be taught how to wield his own power before he is dragged into the parts of the Moonlit World that he is not ready for.” 

Nura steepled his hands in front of his face and leaned forward. “I can offer precious little with regard to the power he has inherited from Ddraig, but I would certainly be willing to teach him how to fight and survive.”

Gorou spun towards Nura and jabbed a shaky finger at him. “How do we know that you aren’t going to try to take advantage of Ise? We barely know you, and you show up and dump all of this on us; how do we know that we can trust you with our son?”

“Dad!’ Issei yelped, making to stand up, but the old Yokai put a hand on his arm and shook his head.

“No, young Issei. Your father makes a perfectly reasonable point, and the fact of the matter is that you can’t know if you can trust me. I am a perfect stranger to your household, and while myth does not depict me as monstrously as it does Shuten Doji or Tamamo-no-Mae, it certainly did not paint me as any sort of saint or guardian spirit.”

Nura folded his arms over his chest and looked Gorou and then Miki directly in their eyes. “However, I will swear to you this, Gorou Hyoudou, Miki Hyoudou: whether you allow me and mine to train your son or not, I will extend the full assistance and protection of the Hyakki Yagyo to both him and the two of you. If you do permit me to take him under my tutelage, I will not require anything of him that he does not acquiesce to himself, nor will I pressure him to join my organization.”

Nura then reached into his sleeve and produced a small, sealed scroll covered in runes utterly foriegn to the Hyoudous. “But words are cheap. If you wish, I will draw up a contract in this scroll, which is bound by a powerful Geas enchantment. The Tuatha de Danann themselves make these scrolls, so I could no more violate such a Geas than I could cut the sun out of the sky.”

“The who of the what now?” Issei asked, curiosity getting the better of him in spite of the tense atmosphere.

“The Tuatha de Danann , the gods of the Celtic and Gaelic pantheon of Ireland,” Nura explained. “They’re incredibly skilled with the Elder Runes, especially when it comes to curses and compulsions. To be sure, the Norse are overall more skilled with the Runes, but nothing bites quite as hard as a malediction from the Tuatha .”

Issei nodded, not fully understanding but fascinated all the same. The young man started when Miki cleared her throat. “That solution still requires that we trust that this Geas contract does what you say it does . We don’t mean to be unkind or pushy, Nurihyon, but…” She narrowed her eyes, moisture building in the corners. “Issei is all we have.” Her voice was hoarse with a deep undertone of grief that made Issei stare at his parents with shocked concern.

Nura nodded, a sad smile on his face. “I know how you feel all too well, Mr. and Ms. Hyoudou. I had a son, once upon a time as well…

“But, I fear, no longer.”

Gorou inhaled sharply at the sad tone their guest had taken, but before he or Miki could speak.

“It never gets easier, you know?” the old Yokai asked rhetorically. “Even now, three centuries later, I can still hear his laughter in the spring wind.” Nura looked so very old, speaking about his lost son. “The pain never goes away; it just stops being the entirety of your world.

“However!” His head snapped up to regard them with fire in his sole eye. “That is why I want to train your son. Even beyond his good heart, his strong will, and his great potential, the reason I want to train him is because you are good, kind people who should not have to bury your only son!” The fire in Nura’s eye had grown, becoming a desperate, manic blaze with a sheer intensity that stole the breath from Gorou and Miki’s lungs. Contrasting the inferno that was his gaze were the tears that slowly trickled down one side of his face.

Miki rubbed at her own eyes, wiping them clean of the tears that had built up there, while Gorou  looked away to one side and exhaled sharply, shoving his hands in his pockets almost sheepishly.

Issei, eyes shadowed by his bangs, put a firm hand on Nura’s shoulder. When the old Yokai turned to regard him, Nura met the eyes of a man, not a boy. Filled with the fires of determination and resolve, Issei stood up and faced his parents.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve had a dream.” When Gorou opened his mouth to interject, Issei cut him off. “Not that dream; my dream to become ‘Like A Dragon’. To become a person who does what he knows is right, no matter who or what stands in the way of his justice.” Issei looked down. “It’s a selfish dream, I know. But…”

Issei looked back up, the fire in his redoubled in intensity. He pressed a palm to his chest, his other hand balled into a fist and gripping the hem of his shirt. “But I still want to be that kind of man! And I won’t back down from that dream; I can’t back down from it.”

The young dragon breathed out. “I know I’m young and inexperienced, but…” He looked at Gorou and Miki with fragile eyes and asked with a fragile whisper, “Won’t you support me?”

Issei’s parents looked at one another for a long moment, then Gorou spoke. “He gets this from you, you know? His stubbornness, his drive...that’s all you.”

Miki smiled sadly. “But his idealism and hope is your doing, you airheaded dreamer.”

They both looked at Nura as one. “You take care of our Ise, you hear?” Miki demanded. “I don’t care if we’re completely powerless; if our son d-d-d—”

Gorou put his hand on her shoulder as she failed to finish the statement. “We may just be mundane humans, Nurihyon. But don’t you ever underestimate the will of a parent.”

Nura let out a sad chuckle. “You don’t need to tell me that.” He rose from his seat, leaning on his cane a bit more than he usually would. He bowed his head. “Thank you for trusting me with your son, despite all your misgivings. I won’t let you down.”

‘I can’t let them down.’

-x-x-x-x-x-

Much later, after Nura had given Issei’s parents a way to contact him and discussed schedules for future meetings, Issei found himself back in his room. He felt incredibly drained, but also more free, As he leaned back in his chair, he suddenly remembered:

He hadn’t logged into the Kuoh local IRC since the night before last!

Issei pulled himself to his desk and frantically tapped away at his keyboard, bringing up the messaging program and sending out brief messages of apology to Motohama and Matsuda; he could be brief since he’d see them at school.

He also noticed that another friend of his was online (as they almost always were), and judging by the number of messages that they’d sent him, were more than a bit worried. He quickly typed up a reply.

-DragonOfKuoh: Hey, D. Sorry about being out of contact for so long; some wild shit went down last night and I’m still processing it.

-Bloo-DSundae: Are you alright? What happened?

Issei ran a hand through his hair. He hadn’t thought this out. Of course D would ask for details; the shut-in was as big a worrier as he was a FromSoft fanboy, and that was saying something.

-DoK: ...

-DoK: You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, D-man. I barely believe it and I was there.

-D: You’d be surprised what I’m willing to believe, Dok. Try me.

-DoK: ...

He didn’t know what to do. He really didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to lie to one of his closest friends, but he also didn’t want that friend to think he’d gone crazy.

At the same time, though…

Issei shook his head. No. He could trust D to not cut off contact with him, even if he didn’t believe him.

So it was that Issei detailed the events of both the night prior and that morning, leaving nothing out. A pressure behind his eyes and a flash of red scales told him that Ddraig had some reservations about revealing his possession of the Boosted Gear, but Issei stood strong. D was a good guy, even if he was a total spaz at times.

Once he finished telling his story, a fair amount of time passed without a response, the only indication D was still there being the speech bubble that kept appearing and disappearing at the bottom of the chat.

Finally, after about five minutes, D apparently settled on a message.

D: I’m going to add someone to the chat; hold on a sec.

There was nothing further from D for a while, and then a message flashed across the bottom of the chatroom.

QueenCrimson has joined the chat.

*llustrated Index of Supernatural Creatures


AN: Well, I wanted to have this out last week, but things kinda got in the way and I only just finished it. Big thanks to Teninshigen for staying up so late to beta. Enjoy!